Sunday, January 29, 2012

From the Archives - fiction - A Dinner Appointment


During college, I had an English class assignment to analyze one of Hemingway’s literary techniques.  I went (I thought) one better and, in addition to the paper, wrote a short story imitating (and thus illustrating) the technique.  The teaching assistant didn’t like this idea at all, and not only refused to read the story part but gave me like a B-minus on the paper.  Since I had a pretty good handle on my quality control by that point, I concluded that he was punishing me for my cheeky idea.  (But don't you worry ... he got his!) The episode left a bad taste in my mouth, which is perhaps why in memory I chalked the story itself up as a failure.  Coming across it again a couple decades later, I think it’s not bad at all. 

In case you’re interested, this story illustrates the technique of “omission.”  Here’s how I described it in my paper:  “Omission in Hemingway’s writing is his technique of centering the prose around ideas and descriptions that have been omitted.  Hemingway believed that in writing he could omit anything, as long as he knew he had omitted it, and that this would improve the writing by making the reader feel what had not been stated.  Lofty emotional description was replaced by simple and  objective physical descriptions designed to alert the reader that something  important had intentionally been left out.  In this way, and through an  understanding of the characters and situations involved, the reader would sense the emotions that are not directly described.”

A Dinner Appointment – March 2, 1992  

It wasn’t a good wine.  Carlo Rossi burgundy, in a large glass jug with a screw-top.  The wine left a scum along the side of the jug.  He  held his little finger through the small round handle and balanced the jug on the crook of his arm while he took a long, hard drink:  just like in the westerns.

When he got to her place she was almost ready to go.  He straightened the collar of his shirt and tugged at the pleat in his slacks.  He looked at her baggy jeans and faded sweatshirt and sighed.  This was their “anniver­sary” dinner.  After standing awhile he walked over to her bed and sat down.

“So where are we going?” she asked.

“Well, where would you like to go?”

“I don’t know.  I don’t have a preference.  I want you to decide.”

“Did you have any ideas?”

“No.  Surprise me.  Where are we going?”

“I thought we’d just walk up to Zach’s.  Is that cool with you?”

“Well did you call?  What’s the wait?  Won’t that take kind of long?”

“What, are we in a hurry?”

She was looking for her shoes.

He looked at the nail on his thumb where he had missed with a hammer.  That was months ago, and the little purple spot had gradually moved its way down the nail until it was just a half-circle at the very edge.  This was the worst part, when the edge of the nail seems to rot and flake away.  He looked  up.  She was ready.  She was just standing there waiting.

He stood and hugged her.  Her face was turned to  the side.  He began to stroke her hair. 

“My hair’s still wet,” she said.

He looked at her back in the full-length mirror.  Her eyes were pointed down at the floor.  He looked at his own face.  He looked away. 

“All right, let’s go,” she said, breaking away from him. 

They walked down the driveway towards the sidewalk.  Tree branches hung over them.  He didn’t know what kind of trees they were.  He knew very little about trees.  They weren’t interesting.  Her hand was stuffed in the pocket of her baggy jeans.  They made their way to College Avenue and he began to turn right, down the sidewalk. 

“This way,” she said, beginning to cross the street.  The evening traffic crawled by in both directions.  He  took her hand now, as they crossed the intersection.  It was easy enough taking it out of her pocket. 

“Hey, look out!” she said, pulling him back.  He had just walked out in front of a car he hadn’t seen. 

“Aw, he’ll stop.”  He continued across the street, pulling her along.  It was a big white Lincoln Continental and he glared at the driver.  When they got to the other side of the street he released her hand.  They both put their hands in their pockets.

The line at the restaurant streamed out the open door onto the sidewalk.  He took his place in line.  “Well aren’t you going to see how long the wait is?” she demanded.  He  looked at his watch.  It was only seven thirty.  He wandered in and a man with a clipboard greeted him. 

“How long is the wait?” he asked.  He looked at his watch again.  It was  seven thirty-one. 

“Twenty minutes.”

He looked at her, started to say something, and stopped.  He looked back  at the man with the clipboard.  “Twenty minutes is fine.”

They moved up to the counter.  “What should we get?” he asked.

“You decide.”

He ordered and they walked into the narrow passage  around the corner from the counter, where two tall stools were set up next to a  little shelf where people could put their drinks. 

She fiddled with the magnetic clasp on her purse.  She popped it open and closed, open and  closed.  She stared at it while she popped it.  He’d seen this before:  someone staring closely at something uninteresting.  Once it was a friend on mescaline who really was interested.  The other time it was some girl.  He sighed.  The wall was covered with framed artwork promising a great dining  experience.

Now she had moved on to her shoe.  She picked at the welt between the sole and the upper, popping her fingernail over the seam.  He leaned towards her and tried to peer in at her eyes.  She let go of her shoe and began popping her purse again.  He reached to her face and pushed up the edges of her mouth up with his finger and thumb.  She turned away.

“That’s some serious fidgeting you’re doing there.”

She turned her face toward him.  “What?”

“I said, that’s some real nice fidgeting you’ve got going there.”

She looked down again, frowning.  She was looking at her purse again, and she popped the clasp.  “Yeah, this magnet purse thingy is really good for fidgeting.”

“I like what you’ve done with the shoe, too.”  She  didn’t say anything.

A waitress had been standing only a few feet off.  She approached timidly  and said, “Um, excuse me, but um . . . I need your chair.  Sorry!”

He gave her the stool and watched her walk into the back and use it to get to a high shelf.  Now he was standing, looking down on the shoe and the purse with its magnetic clasp.  He leaned against the wall.  He looked at the floor.  It hadn’t been swept.  He looked at his nice  charcoal slacks.  He turned and walked down the narrow hallway toward the restrooms.   There was a long box on the floor.   He used it as a bench.  She looked up from her purse and gave him a glance.  He thought about a  magazine article he’d read once about a movie’s special effects:  when using  a real cobra, they’d put a piece of Plexiglas between the actor and the snake so nobody could get hurt.

“What are you doing over there?” she asked.

“Why don’t you come over,” he said.  She came over and sat down.  It was cramped on the box but they  weren’t touching.  She had one foot up on the box and was looking at her shoe again.  “I need to get new shoes,” she said finally.  “Or wash these.”

“You know, this is a lot like a French comedy,” he said.  “Nothing really happens, we just sit here and fidget and look away from each other, and the Americans say, ‘God, how boring’ but the French find it sophisticated.  Or maybe the movie is supposed to be a romance but it just isn’t happening.  They just sit there.”

She looked at him.  “So what do the characters say?” 

“Oh, I guess that would be the irony of it.  You know, that whole play-within-a-play thing.  The guy would be sitting here talking about how it’s just like a movie, and of course everybody sitting in the theater watching it would know it is a movie, and that would be terribly ironic so they’d all  laugh.”

“Yeah, but what would the characters be saying?  What would he say?”

“I already told you.  The guy would be giving a running commentary about this movie it looked like they were in, and the girl, I suppose, would just sit there and fidget.  Unless it became a romance.”

She turned away.  She twisted so far around that he thought she would  slip off the box.  He saw that her shoulders were shaking.  She was crying.   He tried to put his arm around her.  He took her hand.  It was limp.

“It’s okay.  Look, you don’t have to say anything.  Just relax and if you want to talk, I’m right here.  Or you can wait.”

The hostess was looking at them from the end of the hallway.  “Um, your table is ready.”

“Do you want to get it to go?”  She didn’t say anything. “Does it make any difference?”  She just shook her head.  They  followed the hostess to their table.

“Man, these tables are packed in here.  We could just push them together and make a double date with the guys at the next table.”  She didn’t laugh, although she had stopped crying.  It was so loud, the neighboring couple was oblivious.  From two feet away he could have loudly speculated about their sex lives.  His mind wandered.  He remembered a first date he’d had here a couple years ago, with a different girl who hadn’t been here before; after they ordered he said, “The food isn’t very good.  It’s actually pretty lame.”  When she incredulously  asked, “Then why are we here?!” he laughed and said he was joking.  She didn’t laugh and things got increasingly awkward from there.

 “Were you going to say something?” she asked, sniffing.


“You looked like you were about to say something.”

“Well, I was just thinking that the last time I came here on a date I got tooled.   I think I won’t come here anymore.”

“So what are you trying to say?” 

“I dunno, I just have this feeling it’s about to happen again.”

She clenched her teeth.  “What is it with you?!  Why can’t you just say  it?  Why can’t you just say, ‘Something’s wrong.  Tell me what it is.’  Why  can’t you just say that?”

“I already did.”

“No you didn’t.  You never said that.”

“I did.  I asked if something was wrong.  I said are you sure?  You kept denying anything was wrong.”

“You ’re not supposed to ask if.  You should have asked what the problem is.”

“All right, then I’m saying it now.  What’s the problem?”

“The problem is last Sunday, at the barbecue.  You totally ignored me.  You said hi to your friends but you didn’t even say hi to me.  It was like I didn’t even  exist.”

“So you’re mad because on Sunday I didn’t say hi to you.”

“No, I mean all of Sunday.  You were being really reckless, and sloppy.   When we ate.  You kept spilling things.  You really embarrassed me.”

“I embarrassed you.  In front of my friends.”

“And then  all week you never even asked me what was wrong.”

“Look.  Monday you wouldn’t come to the phone.  Tuesday you couldn’t come  over.   Wednesday ... I had to study.  Earlier today I kept asking if something was wrong, and you  kept denying it.”

“Yeah, but you just kept pretending nothing had happened.  You ignore me all week and just pretend nothing’s wrong.”  With a gesture she knocked the menus, in their chrome ringed holder, onto the floor.  The holder landed on the foot of the girl at the next table.

“I was supposed to do that.”

“What?” she said, putting the menus back.

“I was supposed to knock those off the table.”

“What do you mean?”

“That’s how it is in the script, isn’t it?”  He shook  his head.  “So that’s the whole problem?  I didn’t say hi and then when I tried to ask what was wrong—”

“You’re supposed to be able to sense it.   Then tell me you know something’s wrong, and then demand to know what it is.” 

“So that’s it, huh.  I just said it wrong.”  He shook his head again.  “And all this time I thought you were pregnant.”

dana albert blog

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Five Tips for Bunch Sprints


This post provides some pointers, along with a recent case study, on how to win a cycling bunch sprint.  If you’re not a cyclist, this essay may not be for you—though you might try reading it as an allegory.  Sport is good for that.

If you’re talented sprinter, perhaps this post isn’t for you either—though really, there’s always somebody faster than you  so you might find this useful anyway.  Primarily, this post is for slow-twitch types like me, who need to do everything right if they’re to have a chance.

If you’re looking for credentials, no, I was never a top sprinter, but back in college I helped my teammates pick up a fair bit of glory, and I had a few good criteriums myself.  Here's the UCSB team on a prime lap at the collegiate national championship criterium, executing a perfect leadout:  Dave has just swung off, leaving Trevor free to go for the line, while I create a gap behind them.
Here’s how this post came about.  The last time I did a bunch sprint was the last Saturday of this past November, which was the last group ride I did.   The next day, I crashed hard and broke my femur.  Now, I can barely pedal my bike on my trainer because my leg is so stiff and weak.  The thought of one day sprinting like that again is a huge source of motivation for me.  And maybe by writing about it I can add to my gumption reserves for the long road of physical therapy still ahead.)

Tip #1 – It helps to be underestimated

Being underestimated should be pretty easy for most of us.  When you’re not the man (or woman) to beat, it’s of course easier to seize the element of surprise, which can be really helpful in a sprint.  Your opponents are surprised that you, a lousy sprinter, would even try.  But it doesn’t end there:  they’re likely to ignore you all the way up until the finish line.  Most of the time they’re right to do this, because you fade and lose out—but it’s the odd exception you’re shooting for.

What do you do when it’s the same guys you ride with or race against year after year?  Well, even if they have a good measure of your general ability, whenever you find yourself in particularly good form you can surprise them with it.  For me, my sprinting is the best during the dead of winter.  That’s when I do a lot of riding on the stationary trainer, which seems to be good for my power.  Plus, since all I do on the road is climbing workouts, my sprint gets slower the fitter I get.

The desire to be underestimated is surely behind the age-old tendency of cyclists to begin a ride by talking about how lousy they feel, how totally out of shape they are, and how little they’ve been riding.  When I hear such talk, I automatically translate it as “I’m going to attempt to crush you today and I hope I catch you off guard.”

So, on my last ride with the club, I made sure to mention here and there that I’d been sick all month and had only ridden outdoors three times.  I didn’t emphasize the workouts I’d done on the indoor trainer.  I wanted to be completely written off when it came time for the Walking Man sprint.

(What, you haven’t heard of the famous Walking Man sprint?  Well, let me describe it.  I’ve been riding in the East Bay for over twenty years, and on every group ride I’ve done—whether with the Cal cycling team, the Berkeley Bike Club, or with the East Bay Velo Club, which I’m on now—there’s been a sprint at a certain pedestrian crossing near Moraga.  The pedestrian crossing sign gives the sprint its name.  For a rider’s-eye-view video, click here and start watching about 10 minutes in.)

Of course not everybody seeks to be underestimated.  Some riders engage in trash-talk, which we naturally assume is designed to psych out their competition.  But this isn’t necessarily the motive; myself, I may talk smack simply to make losing more fun.  Ages ago, I was visiting my hometown of Boulder and did a ride with a friend and a bunch of his riding buddies.  I’d raced against one of these guys at the collegiate national championships a year or two before, and in the spirit of inter-school rivalry I told him beforehand, “I’m going to show you the meaning of suffering.”  As it turned out, he completely tooled me on the ride.  When I saw him that evening he jeered, “I thought you were going to show me the meaning of suffering.”  I replied, “Well yeah, I was gonna show you what it looks like, but you weren’t around to see it.”

Tip #2 – Always give it a try

Obviously you can’t win a bunch sprint if you don’t try, but I’m often surprised at how few people in my group really give it a go.  (They’re not unique; throughout my cycling days I’ve observed a great number of riders who never contested a sprint.)  I always try to win Walking Man, and though I’m never surprised when I lose, I’m perplexed that I seem to get beaten by the same guys every time, when I know there are other guys who could be beating me, too.

One reason a lot of dudes don’t try to win bunch sprints is that they don’t fancy themselves sprinters, and so don’t bother.  I can understand this specialization at the pro level, but really—on a club ride?  In this context, thinking you need some special talent to even make an effort strikes me as a copout.  (Dostoevsky would say this is the kind of self-deception that denies you your humanity, making you into a piano key or an organ stop.)

Even at the pro level, many riders manage to excel in multiple disciplines.  Consider Laurent Jalabert, the French champion who twice won the coveted Tour de France green jersey, given to the fastest sprinter.  After a bad crash in a bunch sprint and some nagging from his wife, he changed his ambitions and became a great all-around rider and even a strong climber, twice winning the polka-dot jersey of best climber in the Tour.  His ability to span two specialties, at the highest level in the sport, ought to inspire us club-racer-types to define our abilities less narrowly.

Still not interested in making your mark in the sprints?  Okay, consider this joke.  A giant new bull arrives at a feed lot.  The reigning bull, though he acknowledges the superiority of the newcomer, decides he’s not going to just hand over his entire harem of cows.  So he makes a big show of clawing the ground and snorting and looking fierce.  The giant new bull observes this and says, “Give me half your cows.”  He gets his way.  Then the interloper looks at the second-largest bull who also snorts and claws the ground.  The newcomer gets three-quarters of these cows.  Meanwhile, the second-smallest bull sees the very smallest bull—a pathetic runty little thing—clawing the earth and snorting, and laughs.  “Do you really think you’re going to hang on to a single one of your cows?” he asks.  The smallest bull says, “No, I just want to make sure he knows I’m a bull!”

A final thought for the slow-twitch types:  the more you lose at bunch sprints, the more likely your riding pals are to underestimate you next time around.  (See tip #1 above.)

Tip #3 – Have a plan

In this post I won’t go into the tactics of a group sprint, as I’ve already described that in detail elsewhere (click here; hit Control-F and search on “Our team’s strategy was simple”).  Tactics always play a huge role in a bunch sprint, and my favorite thing about bike racing is how complicated it is—that is, how much opportunity exists for those who are cunning, rather than merely strong.  As a little kid I hated swim team because I was slow and there was nothing I could do about it.  Michael Phelps is a phenomenal swimmer, but I don’t think anybody has called him a master tactician (though he has been called the king of bongs).

The approach to the Walking Man sprint is long, and every time I ride it with the club, I create a detailed script, in my head, of how the sprint is going to play out.  This script incorporates who is on the ride, who seems frisky, etc.  How accurate such a script ends up being has to do with your level of experience (along with luck, the number of riders involved, and countless other factors).  Will the script end up being wrong?  Probably.  But so what?  If things unfold completely differently from how you expected, well, fine—after all, how else are you going to learn?

My script for that last Walking Man was this:  I won’t lead it out; somebody else will, and it won’t be Lucas or Rob.  (These two are the fastest sprinters on our club.  I’d beaten Lucas once or twice when all the planets lined up, but I’d never beaten Rob.)   I’ll stick to the lead-out guy’s wheel like glue and when Lucas or Rob gets impatient and jumps, I’ll get his wheel if it’s available, which it may well be because the other one of them may let me in, to enjoy the superior draft he’ll get being two guys back.  Of course he’ll naturally assume he can come right by me when he’s ready.  I’ll hope that he waits too long, and that the first guy will falter.  Not much of a chance but it just might work.

It may seem silly to work up such a script, knowing that it probably won’t pan out.  So why do it?  Well, it helps you take initiative.  If you don’t have a script, it’s awfully easy to end up watching the action unfold ahead of you until it’s too late to take a part in it.  Sure, you can simply wait and watch and take advantage of opportunities that present themselves, but how quickly can you react if you haven’t sized up your competitors ahead of time and tried to figure out what the group dynamic will be?

Tip #4 – Be flexible

If you’ve ever watched the seeming chaos of a bunch sprint in a big professional race, you might well ask if any plan could ever be expected to work.  (One seasoned veteran of cycling, Steve Tilford, questions whether lead-outs actually work at all.)  In the small ponds of my experience, though, teamwork and other tactical ploys work very well.  Still, a bunch sprint—even just on a smallish group ride—has a lot of moving parts, so whatever your plan is, it’s important to be able to improvise. 

For Mark Cavendish, certainly the best sprinter in the world right now, the seeming effectiveness of his lead-out man, Mark Renshaw, has seemed almost too much of a good thing over the last couple of years.  Some questioned how much of Cavendish’s success was really owed to Renshaw, who routinely brought his man right to the front within easy striking distance of the finish line.  That said, several times last year everything broke down but Cavendish figured out another wheel, another ploy, another scramble to the finish line and won anyway—thus showcasing the full scope of his amazing talent and ability. 

Coming right back down to Earth, my last Walking Man sprint certainly didn’t start out how I’d hoped.  At about 300 meters from the finish, when I’d intended to be tucked in behind some guy going all-out, instead I found myself on the front, not going very fast.  I slowed down so somebody would come by, but nobody did—instead the whole group slowed down too.  It seemed as though the others were waiting for me to drag them toward the line.  If this was their tactic, it was a good one—I almost took the bait, because my acceleration is terrible and I prefer a high-speed run-up.  But I knew if I led out the sprint I was sure to lose.

So I waited, as our group crawled along.  Finally some dude I’d never seen before decided to take up the effort.  He looked kind of old, but he was in a Morgan-Stanley kit and they’re a good team, so I got in behind him.  He brought our speed up nice and high, and the next thing I knew Rob came flying by me.

Was Rob’s jump hard enough to leave a gap behind him?  Yes—either that, or Lucas, the next closest rider, was looking to get my wheel and overhaul me (which he’d particularly relish since I’d trash-talked him a bit earlier in the ride).  Rob’s sprint was as good as ever and in no time we were within striking distance of the finish line (i.e., the crosswalk).  I started to come around Rob, pleasantly surprised that Lucas had yet to come by me, and as I came up on Rob, I could tell he was judging my speed to see how hard he had to go.  He probably assumed the victory was in the bag and he wasn’t going to strain himself if he didn’t have to.  He must have judged that I was already flat-out, but I had one last dig left and I dug.  I pulled level with him and only then did he realize he could lose.  As I pulled slightly ahead he dug a bit himself, but I somehow managed to hold him off.  I took the sprint, beating Rob for the first time in my life!

Tip #5 – Maintain your perspective

It’s pretty fun to win a sprint, even just against the guys.  For me, it was a great feeling for the very reason that I almost always lose.  But it would have been a mistake to assume that Rob even cared—I mean, how many times has he won this little sprint?  As for the other guys, aside from Lucas they probably didn’t even see how the sprint ended.  Once they’d known they weren’t in contention, they probably sat up and picked back up the conversations they’d put on hold a kilometer before.

Of course it’s tempting to mention my little victory to them, but frankly, it’s better that the guys don’t know.  After all, I’m counting on them to underestimate me next time.
dana albert blog

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Ask Mr. Beer

NOTE:  This post is rated PG-13 for references to alcoholic beverages.  Also, this post originally appeared with a slightly different title.  I have changed the title and some of the text at the request of a reader who holds a certain copyright.

Dear Mr. Beer,

What beer should I drink to impress my date?

Bill P, Columbus, OH

Dear Bill,

Don’t kid yourself.  There’s little chance your choice of beer would seem impressive.  Your date might think beer is for philistines, or might associate your choice—however tasteful it might be—with her ex-boyfriend who was mean to her dog.  If you really want to impress your date, fix her bike or write a sonnet for her.

Dear Mr. Beer,

My friends fancy themselves beer experts and I want to show that I’m also very knowledgeable.  Is it okay to describe expensive beer the way you’d describe a fine wine?  Is there a vocabulary available for this?

Chip M, Boston, MA

Dear Chip,

There’s no need to bloviate like wine aficionados do.  If you want to impress your friends, here’s a simple way:  next time they serve you a beer with a twist-off bottle cap, act amazed, like you’ve never seen one before.

Dear Mr. Beer,

Say I’m at a party digging through a cooler for a tasty brew.  Is there any way to tell ahead of time how bitter a beer will be?  Thanks!

Louise S, Tucson, AZ

Dear Louise,

Sometimes you can go by the brand.  If a beer sounds dangerous, like “Ruination IPA,” “Knuckle Dragger,” or “The Rassler,” it’s probably at least strong if not bitter.  If it has “hop” in the name, well, it’s probably hoppy (i.e., bitter), e.g., “Hopasaurus Rex” or “Hoptober.”  An IPA will tend to be bitter, especially if there’s a numeric modifier, e.g., “Double IPA,” “Quadruple IPA.”

Getting even more quasi-scientific, some beer companies are providing a numeric bitterness rating, right on the bottle.  The units are IBUs--International Bitterness Units.  For example, New Belgium's Ranger IPA, which is pretty hoppy, is 70 on the IBU scale.  Their more mainstream beer, Fat Tire, is only 18.5.  These numbers not only help you select a beer you like, but they're good for bragging rights.  (For a website ranking the bitterest beers click here. ) 

(For what it’s worth—i.e., very little—there’s also a scale for measuring a beer’s color, and this is expressed in EBCs; e.g., 4 for a pale lager, 138 for an imperial stout.  I fail to see the point.  If you’re drinking the beer from a bottle, who cares what color it is, and if you’re drinking it from a glass, well, just look at it!)

Dear Mr. Beer,

I’d swear Heineken here in the States tastes different than the Heineken I had in Holland.  Is it?

Helen N, Oakville, CA

Dear Helen,

Well, it could be different.  They do bottle batches specially for the American market.  You may recall it coming in a brown bottle there, whereas it’s obviously a green bottle here.  Also, you cannot get Heineken in a can in the Netherlands.  It’s only available in bottles there, because they refill, rather than recycle, their bottles.

Could special bottling, or bottles vs. cans, affect the taste?  Maybe.  I first had Heineken in a can on an airplane, where everything tastes awful by association.  Meanwhile, a Dutch woman I know had Heineken in a can over here and thought it was the greatest thing in the world.

Dear Mr. Beer,

Have you had McEwan’s Scottish ale, and if so is it any good?  Also—unrelated question—how do you decide what questions to answer?

Lawrence H, Greensboro, NC

Dear Larry,

(You don’t mind if I call you Larry, do you?)  McEwan’s is excellent.  When I try to describe it, I’m oddly inspired to do so in French:  présente des arômes de pâte à pain, de fleurs et une finale passablement fruitée avec des notes de cerises.  Définitivement une bière de degustation.  Loosely translated:  it has a good and yummy taste, well worth drinking.

As for deciding what questions to answer, that’s a trade secret.  I will allow that efficiency plays a role.

Dear Mr. Beer,

Let’s get down to brass tacks.  Once and for all, what’s better:  beer or wine?

Jonathan R, Washington, DC

Dear Jonathan,

It’s not hard to guess how I’m expected to answer, and I feel like I may be walking into a trap.  Look, that’s really almost a religious question, and cannot be definitively answered by me or anybody else.  But if you're looking for ways to argue that beer is better, here are a few:  a) a great and impressive beer, like a Chimay Première from Belgium, is only like $12 for a 750ml bottle … way cheaper than a fancy wine; b) beer gets you around the debate about cork vs. synthetic corks vs. bottle caps; c) beer is better for hydration.   But before you decide to trot these out, consider that you are far better off keeping them to yourself as a way to feel smug.

Dear Mr. Beer,

Is it considered unseemly to eschew cheap beer?  Or to put it another way, is there a polite way to turn down a beer when you realize you’re being offered Coors or Budweiser?

Harris L,  Danbury, CT

Dear Harris,

Listen, I didn't get to be Mr. Beer by being a snob.  I love all beer, even cheap beer, even bad beer.  I can't see why you’d want to turn down any of it.  Not only would you probably come off as rude, but you might miss out on something passably tasty.  (Yes, cheap beer can be enjoyable, though it is an acquired taste.)

Meanwhile, consider that you might not be as discerning as you think.  (How would you do in a blind taste test?)  Plenty of wealthy, educated, hip types—you know, like the trust fund kids who become journalists because they can, and drive old beater Toyotas to maintain their cred—are going around these days drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon, just to show allegiance to their working class brethren.  True, most of them are drinking this beer ironically, but some of them aren’t in the joke and yet still seem to enjoy their PBR, and anyway the alcohol still works its magic.  I’ve always liked Newcastle, and when some cosmopolitan type informed me that it’s considered rotgut in England, that didn’t make my beer taste any different.

In fact, one of my favorite beer memories involves very, very cheap beer.  I was in college, and I was flat broke.  (“Broke” as in I’d just deposited the last of my cash into my bank account so my rent check would clear.)  A friend and I were going to a barbecue and needed to bring our own meat and our own beer.  My friend was almost as broke as I was and for funds we had to dig around under sofa cushions and all through his car.  We ended up with a little less than five bucks, which at Safeway we parlayed into a pack of house-brand turkey franks, a pack of house-brand buns, and a 6-pack of Meister Bräu.  Not the greatest food and drink, but good enough, and the people and side dishes at the barbecue were all excellent.

Dear Mr. Beer,

Can you recommend some food/beer pairings?  Maybe some rules of thumb (like how “red wine goes well with meat,” but for beer)?

Leyla A, Seattle, WA

Dear Leyla,

Beer/food pairings aren’t unheard of; there’s even a such thing as a beer sommelier.  That said, for me beer is best on an empty stomach.  I don't like any other flavors competing with it (though it’s pleasant to counter the spiciness of Mexican food with a watery beer like Corona).  Now, you might say, “Aha, but what about the nuts and pretzels bars give out for free during happy hour?”  That's to get you to drink, of course.  It doesn’t make it a pairing per se.  When’s the last time you were drinking beer at home and somebody said, “Gosh, I sure wish I had some nuts”? 

Now, it is the case that when eating pizza you might have a sudden craving for beer, but that’s just to improve your hedonistic experience.  Take it a step further:  you’re eating pizza and suddenly you say, “I wish we had some beers right now.  And geishas!  We should get geishas!”  Am I right?

Dear Mr. Beer,

In one of your previous columns you mentioned a happy beer memory.  I love this concept of beer memories.  What is your all-time favorite beer memory?

Thomas W, Austin, TX

Dear Thomas,

I’ve had all kinds of glorious beer in all kinds of wonderful settings, but really the most memorable was the very first time I had beer.  I was just a bit shy of my eighteenth birthday, and I was such a non-troublesome, well-behaved teenager that I felt, on principle, I should at least one time drink a bunch of beer before I was of legal age.  This was in Colorado back when the legal drinking age, for three-two beer, was only eighteen—so I was running out of time.  I got my brother to buy my friends and me some six-packs of generic beer.  They were dingy white cans with “BEER” printed in a plain black font.  My brother, who was an even bigger goody-two-shoes than I, decided to join us in drinking them.

Of course I’d had sips of beer before, but never enough to really taste it.  I didn’t expect to like generic beer—and I didn’t—but that wasn’t the point.  We all sat around the dining room table, methodically working our way through can after can of the beer.  Three-two is weak to begin with and this was generic to boot, so it was a whole lot like drinking water.  After six of these I still didn’t feel a thing.  At this point my brother’s friend walked in.  He was even more straight-laced than we were, and surveyed the proceedings with a plainly judgmental eye.  I can’t blame him; it wasn’t a very sophisticated thing we were doing, and besides, we’d neglected to invite him.  He turned his attention to my brother and said grimly, “Are you drinking that for the taste?”  My brother looked at him a moment, looked down at the generic beer in his hand, looked back up and said:  “No.”  In that moment I felt very proud of my brother.  I can’t exactly say why.

(Note that I’m not advocating drinking to excess.  Ads for good booze always say, “Those who appreciate quality enjoy it responsibly.”  That’s a good start, but why should people who can’t appreciate quality be let off the hook?  They should behave responsibly, too!  I’ll confess that as a teen I had the worst intentions with this little stunt, but it came out okay in the end.  It’s probably impossible for a large fellow to get drunk on generic three-two beer, because he’d probably feel so bloated by the sheer volume of liquid he’d give up, just like I did.)

Dear Mr. Beer,

I really want to use my knowledge of beer as an affirmation of my self-worth.  Is there any way you can help?

Todd M, Sausalito, CA

Dear Todd,

Sure, you can take this little quiz.  Match the beer quotation with the person who uttered it.
  1. Abraham Lincoln
  2. Henry Lawson
  3. Homer Simpson
  4. Flann O’Brien
  5. Jack Handy
  6. Steven Wright
  7. Tina Fey
  8. Dave Barry
  9. H.L. Mencken
  10. Benjamin Franklin

 b. “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”
 c.  “Sometimes when I reflect back on all the beer I drink I feel ashamed. Then I look into the glass and think about the workers in the brewery and all of their hopes and dreams. If I didn’t drink this beer, they might be out of work and their dreams would be shattered. Then I say to myself, ‘It is better that I drink this beer and let their dreams come true, than be selfish and worry about my liver.’”
 d.  “I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts, and beer.”
 e.  “Beer makes you feel the way you ought to feel without beer.”
 f.  “In a study, scientists report that drinking beer can be good for the liver. I’m sorry, did I say ‘scientists’? I meant Irish people.”
 g.  “I like beer. On occasion, I will even drink beer to celebrate a major event such as the fall of Communism or the fact that the refrigerator is still working.”
 h.  “24 beers in a case.  24 hours in a day.  Coincidence?”
 i.  “Marriage is based on the theory that when a man discovers a particular brand of beer exactly to his taste he should at once throw up his job and go to work in a brewery.”
 j.  “Beer … the cause of, and solution to, most of life’s problems.”

Answers:  1.  d;  2.  e;  3.  j;  4. a;  5. c; 6. h; 7. f; 8. g; 9. i; 10. b  Note:  Ben Franklin is widely credited with quotation 10, but it turns out he never actually said it.  But in the words of another who liked beer, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

dana albert blog

Sunday, January 8, 2012

2011 - The Year in Review

NOTE:  This post is rated R for mild strong language.


After a long year of blogging I find myself facing the “year in review” post. If you don’t love the “year in review” format, you should:  this is how, if you’ve been ignoring world news for the last year, you can quickly come up to speed on the highlights.

You might well ask, “Who is this random blogger to be deciding what news events were most important?”  Well, I did spend last year basing my blog posts on the most important current events throughout the world.  If this statement makes you chuckle, read on because you may enjoy my rhetorical game of trying to make this outlandish statement seem reasonable.


The big news of January was of course the senseless shooting of nineteen people in Tucson.  I’m not going to make light of this or try to be funny because that would obviously be tasteless.  (Don’t worry, the rest of this post won’t be such a downer.)

During this month I wrote about a very strange dream I had about being shot.  Do you suppose guns show up in Americans’ dreams more than those of other cultures, where guns aren’t so readily available?  In other  words, what is the impact on our collective subconscious of knowing people around us could be armed?  (I actually did have a gun pulled on me once, by a complete stranger.)

We Americans take the ubiquity of guns for granted, so it amazes me that other developed countries are virtually gun-free.  In the “New Yorker” this week, America’s self-proclaimed “top cop” said, “The firearm problem in England is almost laughable in the sense of how small it is.  The gangs [there], I would describe as, basically, wannabes.”  In the same issue, a reporter interviews a Japanese policeman who deals with the “yakuza,” the Japanese organized crime syndicate:  “When I asked if he’d ever fired his gun, he said that he hadn’t even used his nightstick.”


Needless to say, the biggest news of February was the unveiling of “The Daily,” a British newspaper from Rupert Murdoch that is only available in the US and only for the iPad.  It goes without saying that when historians take the long view of 21st-century society, they will divide it into two epochs:  pre-Daily-for-iPad, and post.  About the only recent innovation that comes close to ushering in such sweeping societal change is the Segway.

What was Murdoch thinking?  How many Americans both a) want a British newspaper, and b) have an iPad?  I’m not trying to say the iPad isn’t popular, but compared to a regular computer?  (When I look at pageview stats for this blog, I see that less than 1% were from iPads.)  Perhaps Murdoch was just distracted by all the illegal wiretapping he and his staff were embroiled in.

Meanwhile, traditional printed newspapers offer so much:  the ability to line a birdcage; the ability to wrap fish; the ability to protect fragile plates and glasses when you’re packing up to move; even a way to keep your head somewhat dry when it’s raining and you’ve forgotten your umbrella.  Murdoch’s overblown excitement about electronic publishing ties in nicely with my February post “Death of a Bookstore” in which I describe why I want to hate the Kindle and why I think bookstores won’t go extinct.


I was really torn as to what was the biggest news for March:  the tsunami in Japan, or the big iPhone flap.  So I decided to let Google decide:  I typed “tsunami” into the search field and the first related search it gave me was “tsunami sushi sf.”  So I guess in the big scheme of things what happens in Japan, stays in Japan.

Which brings us to the other big news which is of course the iPhone glitch that caused the clocks on these phones to be turned back an hour instead of forward to adjust for Daylight Saving Time.  This meant users’ phone clocks were actually two hours off, and one user nearly missed yoga class.

If only people paid more attention to my blog!  In March I was all over Daylight Saving Time; embedded in my post is the simple solution to the problem, adopted by Russia, which is to abolish DST altogether.  (Russia’s abandonment of DST made the news in March, too, but unless you subscribe to the Moscow Times you won’t be able to read this article about it.  For a charming video on this decision, click here).


The big news in April was the speech given by British prime minister David Cameron in which he suggested that immigrants should learn English.  The Guardian story on this topic is an odd read, because it was published before the actual speech, and is written in the future tense:  “The prime minister will open his speech by saying,” and “Cameron will say,” and “The prime minister will stride into sensitive political territory when he accuses  …” and so forth.

My mention just now of the future tense, and my use of “read” as a noun, might have made some readers squirm.  Yes, such usage does beg the question, “Is it reasonable to require anybody to learn English as a second language, given how tricky a language English is?”  Also begging this question is my April post, “The Trouble with English.”  Actually, my post doesn’t beg the question, it simply poses the question.  Rhetorically.  And then answers it.  The phrase “begging the question” is exactly the sort of idiomatic expression that makes this language so difficult, though of course idioms are only the beginning of the problem.  Perhaps if Cameron had read my post, he’d have been more sensitive.  (No, of course that’s not true.)


In May I posted a rant against imbeciles who, in the name of journalism, cheat at sport and write about it.  The May issue of “Outside” magazine had a particularly annoying article by Andrew Tillin, an arrogant shitweasel who jacked himself up on testosterone so he could rider faster in meaningless 45+ races and think grand thoughts like “Take that, you motherfuckers.  There’s more.”  Except there isn’t, because despite cheating he still ended up in only 17th place because he doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing.  Then he actually makes money by writing a book about it.

Of course, I couldn’t just berate Tillin and his ilk without providing an alternative to their so-called journalism, so I did my own experiment where I donated two units of red blood cells to a blood bank, thus giving myself an athletic impediment roughly equivalent to the advantage gained by blood-boosting or using EPO.  I studied my performance decline closely and (unlike the doping journalists) provided a detailed, objective report with lots of charts and graphs, free, to my albertnet readers.

What I couldn’t have guessed when I posted that was how timely my post would be.  Later that month, Tyler Hamilton went on “60 Minutes” and admitted that he’d doped throughout his career, and claiming he saw Lance Armstrong use drugs as well.  This bombshell spawned all kinds of articles including this one.  The most remarkable development, though, is how mainstream this news topic has become.  Armstrong’s doping allegations were featured twice this month in “The Onion,” a mainstream online magazine not known for covering cycling.  Check out this feature and this one.


The big world news in June, of course, was of the deployment of troops in Yemen by the son of its injured and evacuated president, Ahmed Ali Saleh.  I won’t bore you with the details since you know them already, but I couldn’t help but to notice what a great Father’s Day gesture this was.  I mean, to deploy troops in the streets of the capital on Dad’s behalf… it’s really amazing.

I did my best to honor my own father with a Father’s Day post, but fondly recalling how he’d bawl out the cat or deny the family TV privileges just doesn’t hold a candle to stepping up and commanding a military.  I’d like to do more for my dad but I can’t.  It’s just how I was raised.


Of course July will be remembered for Australian Cadel Evans’ magnificent victory in the Tour de France, and more specifically, for the astonishing turn of events that transpired at the final victory ceremony, where Australian pop star Tina Arena sang the Australian national anthem.  As famously reported in Velo News, Evans remarked, “I was a bit surprised that Tina Arena came out to sing the anthem, that was very nice of her. … to stand on the Champs-Élysées with an Australian singing the national anthem … it’s not a dream that comes true for many Australians.”  Such humility in a true champion … I mean, Tina Arena? Are you kidding me?

As an American, though, I couldn’t help but wince when I read that news.  Of course I have no problem with my countrymen failing to win the Tour; it’s just that the national anthem of the U.S., which has been sung ten times at the Tour de France, is so fricking lousy.  When, earlier in the month, I posted an extended harangue against our anthem, I neglected to compare it to other anthems, such as Australia’s.  The Australian anthem is actually quite good; its clunkiest lyric, “Our home is girt by sea,” is far less embarrassing than the great number of bombastic and silly lines that disgrace the U.S. anthem like so much graffiti.


Needless to say, the big news this month was that Scotland finally took steps to combat its obesity problem.  (You’d think, with all the movies and TV shows the U.S. exports over there, that the Scots would have gotten the hint a lot earlier.  Is our world leadership waning?)  Suffice to say, the world rejoiced at the announcement that leading retailers in Scotland had pledged to take measures against obesity, such as displaying fruits and vegetables more prominently.

In an amazing coincidence (or did I get an advance tip?), during this same month I wrote not one but two posts about the food of Scotland:  this one and this one.  Oddly, I didn’t gain weight in Scotland, though I enjoyed all kinds of hearty fare, such as haggis (a mixture of the minced heart, lungs, and liver of a sheep or calf mixed with suet, onions, oatmeal, and seasonings and boiled in the stomach of the slaughtered animal) and the famous Full Scottish Breakfast, consisting of a tattie scone (greasy), hash-brown cartridge (greasy and salty), bacon (‘nuff said), a large sausage lozenge called Lorne sausage (greasy, salty, generally alarming), and blood pudding (a chewy, mulchy little disk of congealed, salty pig’s blood).  That breakfast aside, I really liked the Scottish food, and I hope the retailers don’t change it too much.


In September, albertnet focused on cycling:  the US Pro Challenge, an epic ride I did in Colorado, and my food-heavy account of the Everest Challenge bike race.  I will now confess that I’d hoped one of these stories would win me the Ig Nobel prize for literature.  Alas, I didn’t even get a nomination.

Of course, I was up against some pretty stiff competition, as you’ll know if you followed the news on this subject.  The winner in the chemistry category had invented a wasabi-based fire alarm; another award was given for research on whether people make better decisions when they have a strong urge to urinate.  In the literature category the winning entry was the “Theory of Structured Procrastination.” I guess I can’t compete with that.  I was frankly stunned when this article won the prize, though, because I really didn’t think its author would ever finish writing it.


This month brought me more disappointment:  I posted two fiction pieces to albertnet, and neither of them won the Man Booker Prize.  (I realize the prize is only for writers from the British Commonwealth and Ireland, but I’m still disappointed.)  The second of my stories, “Before the Fall,” was hailed as a “heart-wrenching but also darkly funny tour de force” by … nobody!  So I lost out to the novel The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes.

Of course you’ll recall the scandal this prize caused this month, when the head judge described the novel as “readable.”  Whether this infuriated elite readers because it’s not sufficient grounds for awarding the prize, or whether it infuriated them because great literature isn’t supposed to be readable, is unclear to me.  In a Guardian article about the award, the winner brushed off the scandal, remarking, “Most great books are readable.”  I guess some obvious exceptions would be Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow.  (No, I haven’t read either of those.  How could I?  They’re unreadable!)

Barnes himself couldn’t help but praise his own prize-winning book, though in an oddly humble way:  “Those of you who have seen my book … will probably agree it is a beautiful object. And if the physical book, as we’ve come to call it, is to resist the challenge of the eBook, it has to look like something worth buying, worth keeping.”  So now I have four reasons to go buy The Sense of an Ending:  1) it won the Man Booker prize; 2) it is said to be readable; 3) it is a beautiful object; and 4) as I’ve said before, I want printed books to survive.


My most popular (or shall I say least un-popular) post for this month was “The British Faucet Conundrum.” So far it’s had  123 hits; one person #1’D it (whatever that means); one person flagged it as “Funny”; and it elicited two reader comments, only one of which was from a member of my family.  I’m happy to see it getting read, but at the same time I’m disappointed in the poor response (34 hits, no responses) to another post from November, “Spotting Bad Restaurants,” which I think is a very useful guide.  I provide a number of simple ways to recognize a bad place before it’s too late to leave.  If nothing else this could save you a number of rushed trips to the bathroom later.

Perhaps my restaurant post could have been researched better.  (Of course it could have, my research budget for this blog being ZERO.)  I missed a major criterion of a good restaurant, that being “Is it kid-friendly?”  If the big restaurant news for this month had hit sooner, my post would have been more complete.  I’m referring, of course, to the major revelation that a restaurant in London had started charging moms a “baby tax.”  As you know, they didn’t get away with it, and published an apology on their website stating “this is an isolated incident” and “we will be in contact with Natasha Young and Anna Sheridan with a personal apology for their mistreatment by our staff.”  Um ... unless the two moms dined together, wouldn’t that be two isolated incidents? 

Semantics aside, I have to believe the “baby tax” problem was related to the poor performance of individual restaurant staffers, not the policy of the restaurant’s home office.  Staffing problems are widely acknowledged among restaurants in the UK; one place I went to even admitted to it, right on the menu:


Okay, I’ll come right out and admit it:  I didn’t follow the news at all in December.  I was laid up at home all month with a broken femur, as I blogged about here, here, and here.  Pretty much the only major world news I read about was Lewis’s comeback.  What, you didn’t follow the story about Craig Lewis, the American pro cyclist who broke his femur during the Giro d’Italia back in May?  I suppose you were too engrossed in the doping allegations against Lance Armstrong to be following the athletes who are actually still racing.  Anyway, Lewis crashed in the Giro and broke his femur, and struggled to get back to racing, and eventually needed a bone graft because his leg wasn’t healing right.  I’ll be keeping a close eye on him next month to see how he does.  You should, too.


Well, so much for 2011.  I hope your 2012, and mine, are (even) better.  I’m so glad you made it to the end of this post.  Dare I hope this post ascended to the pinnacle of literary achievement, Readability?
dana albert blog