Monday, April 30, 2012

Dopamine, Parenting, and Social Media


I attended a lecture recently about parenting.  The speaker, a Ph.D. psychologist, talked a lot about biological factors such as neurotransmitters; specifically, about how motivating children can often be a contest between the parents’ goals for the child and the various dopamine sources available to him.  Put more simply, it’s really hard to get a kid to do his homework when he’s engrossed in a movie, video game, or the Internet.  “Just a sec” is the kid’s equivalent of the snooze button.

Another thread of the lecture involved the ways evolving society is making it even harder for kids to focus on activities like schoolwork, given the new distractions facing them, like texting and social media.  In addition to traditional sources of dopamine (e.g., calorie-dense food, booze, drugs) the lecturer mentioned “social commerce,” which she described as the kind of widespread but shallow interactions offered by sites like Facebook and Twitter.  These interactions, she declared, produce more dopamine than the deeper connections with close friends and family.

In this post I examine the intersection of dopamine, social media, and kids.  Whether or not you ultimately agree with my observations and philosophies, perhaps I’ll help you to ponder some good questions.

Dopamine and me

Dopamine isn’t happiness, and doesn’t lead to happiness.  It is the neurotransmitter most associated with pleasure.  From an evolutionary perspective, its job was to motivate the kind of behavior—e.g., eating as much calorie-dense food as possible—that would increase the chances of survival.  (If cavemen ate like supermodels, the human race wouldn’t have made it.)  Dopamine production is stimulated also by sex, novelty, high risk activities, rest, and sleep—anything ancient man needed to survive.  In modern society, dopamine is also produced by winning (and its illusory cousins like scoring in a video game), shopping, passive entertainment like TV, and even TV ads (which provide novelty and, I suppose, the notion of hope).

Personally, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with dopamine.  “Love” because hey, what’s not to love about pleasure?  Hate because I’ve experienced how dopamine can manipulate me.  As a teenager, especially during the year after my parents’ divorce, I got pretty heavily into TV, recording some pretty stupid programs and watching them all afternoon after school.  I felt glutted by cheap spectacle but was too lazy to figure out something better to do.  To this day I’m easily mesmerized by TV, as is my wife; our solution is to eschew it entirely (i.e., we don’t have cable, nor an antenna).  Occasionally we’ll go on a video binge, renting five or six episodes of, say, “30 Rock” and watching them over the course of an evening or two.

I’m similarly wary of caffeine.  As an impressionable youth I remember my dad getting almost panicky during a road trip due to caffeine withdrawal.  He explained, as we took an off-ramp to a convenience store, that if he didn’t have coffee every two hours he got a splitting headache.  I found this really disturbing, and as an adult I still prefer not to be beholden to caffeine (or any substance).  Don’t get me wrong:  I love the way caffeine makes me feel—but I also fear how it can enable us to deprive ourselves of sleep.  Meanwhile, I’m as cheap as they come and refuse to pay for Starbucks, fancy beans, all the equipment, etc.  So I use No-Doz, and only before bike rides.

Beyond these practical matters, I have an ideological problem with dopamine:  it makes me feel cheap—a slave to my most basic desires, like a lab hamster hammering a button to get food pellets.  The craving for something is base; the will power to resist this craving feels, to me, more evolved.  (Yes, I’m aware that though I am not a hamster in an experiment, I may yet resemble the dog trained to resist eating the milk-bone balanced on its snout until the master gives the okay.  Except that I am both the dog and the master.  My discipline is of a sort Don DeLillo has aptly described:  “You are making your own little totalitarian society ... where you are the dictator, absolutely, and also the oppressed people.”)

My neurotransmitter of choice?  Endorphins.  These I must earn, and getting them never feels like a failure of discipline.  So many desserts are advertized as “guilt-free”—note that there’s no need to construct the notion of a guilt-free workout.  But this isn’t just an ego thing.  Endorphins are simply more powerful.  If dopamine tells the brain, “that was nice,” endorphins offer actual exhilaration.

Dopamine and kids

Self-control such as I’ve just described is largely unavailable to kids.  I have often pondered how my own daughters—little angels though they may be—often seem a manifestation of pure appetite.  I’ll give you an example.  My younger daughter, when she was about four years old, got too much chocolate on Easter.  During the drive home from her grandma’s she hurled in the car.  A week or two later, at a birthday party, she asked if she could have a second “muffin.”  (She meant “cupcake,” but having never seen one before she thought it was just the tastiest damn muffin she’d ever had.)  I said to her, “No, that would be too much sugar.  Remember that giant chocolate rabbit you ate on Easter?  Do you really want to throw up like that again?”  She thought about this for a couple seconds and replied, “Yes!  Yes I do!”

Advertisers take full advantage of this unbridled desire, and peddle appalling things like sugary cereals directly to kids, harnessing the youngsters’ amazing whining power.  Advertisers push especially hard on teenagers, taking advantage of the awful combination of spending money and the lack of a fully formed prefrontal cortex (the seat of restraint and good judgment).  There’s another reason my family doesn’t have cable TV:  commercials.  I refuse to go toe-to-toe with the great evil advertising minds.  It’s much easier to remove the temptation than to fight it.

So it is with the ice cream truck.  You may think of this truck as a standard part of childhood, something you may even feel nostalgia for.  Not me.  In my book, the ice cream man is a terrorist.  My brothers and I would be happily playing with friends, and then we’d heard the music of the approaching truck, and the play would be forgotten as our friends would run inside and beg their moms for money—a fusillade of relentless pleading—and then, money in hand, they’d tear out into the street toward that truck as though their lives depended on it.  Then they’d eat their overpriced ice cream in front of my brothers and me as the truck drove on, seeding unrest through every neighborhood in its path.

Am I just bitter, envious to have missed out?  No, that’s not it.  Even as a kid I had found it a disgusting spectacle, from beginning to end.  Fast-forward a couple of decades:  the first time, as a parent, that I heard the ice cream truck coming, I launched a preemptive strike:  “Run to the windows, girls!” I cried.  “It’s the music truck!”  Fascinated, my daughters asked me what it was all about.  “He just drives around, playing music for kids,” I said.  After two or three years of this, my older daughter said, “Hey!  He’s not just playing music, he’s selling ice cream!”  I casually replied, “Yeah, well, that too.”  She fired back, “Can I have some money?”  I said, “Absolutely not, ever.  Don’t even ask.”

Dopamine and social media

It’s all well and good to make fun of kids and their cravings, but adults are pretty good at facilitating their own dopamine production:  faster, sportier cars; premium tequila and countless new microbrews; ever-fancier coffee beans and grinders and home espresso makers; clever ways to introduce dopamine into exercise, like heart rate monitors and Strava; and, to an explosive degree, social media.

To reiterate, social media serves a different role than close friends and family.  Close relationships are probably more closely associated with serotonin; in any event, they aren’t the same thing as social commerce.  When a person from your past comes out of nowhere and “friends” you, showing that he or she hasn’t forgotten about you and wants to get back in touch, that’s got to feel good.  I reckon that each time somebody posts something to your wall, you get a little dopamine hit.  I googled “facebook dopamine” and right away found an essay describing how the dopamine produced by social media is so powerful as to be addictive.  This essay cites a study of how often, and in what contexts, people are stopping what they’re doing to check in on their social media sites.  For example, 34% of those under 35 actually admit to doing this during a date.  (We could almost infer from this that social media offers more dopamine than sex, because after all, who’s going to get lucky after being so unconscionably rude to his date?)

I am not above this quasi-addiction.  It kind of crept up on me.  In general, I’ve had a policy of avoiding social networks like Facebook and Twitter.  As much as anything this stems from a “New Yorker” cartoon I saw way back in 1997:  a man sits at a computer, and his little daughter, in her pajamas holding a teddy bear, taps him on the shoulder; he says, “Honey, please don’t talk to Daddy when he’s in a chat room.”  Such a prescient cartoon, anticipating the bizarre epidemic of people ignoring those around them in favor of a burst of off-the-cuff text from an unseen correspondent.  (The comic comeuppance continues in the “New Yorker” here and here.)

I will acknowledge that I’ve enjoyed Twitter occasionally, following professional cyclists.  There is sometimes a refreshing unguarded quality to athletes’ tweets, particularly when their competition-induced neurotransmitters are still firing away.  (In fact, one team has instituted a one-hour moratorium on all post-race tweets from its riders.)  But I can’t dish it out:  I am certain that nothing in my life warrants a blow-by-blow of my activities, and it would be a bored person indeed who would bother to read them.  Moreover, I think every tweet is a partial lie.  Why?  Because whatever you claim to be doing, you’re actually doing that plus tweeting.  If I were to tweet, “I’m hanging out with my kids,” and you were able to ask my kids what I was doing at that moment, they’d say, “Playing with his phone.”

Where dopamine has gotten hold of me through social media is through this very blog.  When I conceived of albertnet, my goal was simply to write little essays and stories and have some sort of audience, however small or random.  It was never my goal to have a reciprocal communication with anybody, and for the first couple years it was almost impossible to know who, if anybody, was reading my blog.  Occasionally somebody would post a comment, or e-mail me about a post, but that was, and is, exceedingly rare—which is fine.  I’m not trying to “deliver an audience,” but to write whatever I want and if someone reads it, great.  I joked about my readership apprehension and “screw the reader” philosophy in a post a couple years ago:  “Where this blog is concerned, ‘screw the reader’ may end up meaning ‘screw exactly one reader’ (sorry Mom).”

But then, some months ago, a wealth of statistics suddenly became available to me.  Now, I can look at pageviews for the last day, week, month, and all-time.  I can see who is reading what posts at this very moment.  I can see where in the world they hail from, and I can see how they found my post.  (Sometimes the search terms are very funny; one hit on my vasectomy post was a search on the phrase “will vasectomy make my testicles droop.”  Sometimes the search terms are flattering, like the search on “albertnet suffering cold-pressor test,” clearly from a repeat viewer.) 

What I discovered is that this blog is more popular than I had ever thought (though it’s entirely possible pageviews represent Google misfires rather than people actually reading my posts).  Now I find myself tracking the pageviews of every new post.  Whenever that number is higher than I expected, or just higher than it was yesterday, I get a little hit of dopamine.  I must be, because I have come to find this activity oddly compelling, in the way that beating your old score at a video game is compelling.  That is, in that dopamine-glutted way that starts to make me feel like a loser.  I’m strongly considering swearing off pageview viewing altogether, or strictly rationing it.  But I’m not sure I have the will power.

Dopamine + kids + social media

Consider that I, an annoyingly disciplined person, distrustful of dopamine response, and with a fully-formed prefrontal cortex, am all but addicted to Blogger pageview stats—probably the least compelling of all social media.  How, then, can a teenager even stand a chance against it?  Here is a source of dopamine that many, if not most, teenagers have unlimited access to.  It doesn’t cost money, they’re not going to get carded, and in many cases their parents give them carte blanche, assuming access to social media is as innocuous, ubiquitous, and mainstream as running water or electricity.

And yet, sites like Facebook strike me as a social minefield for teenagers in particular.  I’ve heard enough about adults offending one another, embarrassing themselves, wishing they hadn’t friended somebody, wondering how to extract themselves, etc.  And these are the people who have presumably learned how to get along—at least, who should be closer to social poise than they were in junior high.  As the writer Lore Segal has written (in a telegram sent by one of her characters), “'PROTOCOL IS THE ART OF NOT REPEAT NOT LIVING BY NATURAL HUMAN FEELING.”  This protocol is far beyond the grasp of the average teenager.  Isn’t the hormone-ravaged teen existence hard enough without a constantly evolving online social world?  Probably the worst aspect of social media is that it takes those terribly embarrassing teen moments that , a generation ago, would have faded into distant memory, and makes them permanent.

I’m grateful that the sudden rise of social media has taken place before my own kids are really old enough to participate.  This is giving my wife and me a chance to figure out, in advance, a family Internet acceptable use policy.  It probably sounds like I’m joking and I admit that phrase sounds corny, but I’m serious.  It’s very tempting to assume that anything involving technology is good for our kids.  Parents brag about it:  “I can’t figure out how to set up a new printer, but my ten-year-old is a whiz at it!”  People talk of “digital natives” vs. “digital immigrants,” and a parent could be excused for believing that facility with computers and the Internet might make his or her child the next Mark Zuckerberg. But this idea is actually pretty absurd. I recently read a newspaper article about an expensive private school in the Silicon Valley that bans computers and other high-tech gadgets; one of the parents, a Google employee with a computer science degree, reminds us that computers and related technologies are designed to be idiot-proof: “It’s super easy. It’s like learning to use toothpaste. At Google and all these places, we make technology as brain-dead easy to use as possible. ”

In other words, facility with computers doesn’t say much about a young person’s intelligence or career prospects; the ability to consume any technology has little do to with creating it. To put it another way, your kid isn’t going to be the next great food scientist just because he enjoys eating at McDonald’s.  So my strategy as a parent is to restrict my kids' access to computers and other passive entertainment sources in favor of books and other traditional kid stuff. 

Meanwhile, there's the issue of security. After taking great pains to put our kids in a good school and thus surround them with good peers, my wife and I aren’t about to let them roam the great untamable Internet unheeded.  In the context of the Internet, the movie ratings system seems kind of quaint; if you had to rate the Internet as a whole, it would have to be X—but there’s no ticket taker to turn kids away.  What’s to keep kids from unknowingly corresponding with wackos, and/or stumbling on images they come to wish they hadn’t?

Meanwhile, Internet gaming runs from the educational to the merely time-wasting to the hideously violent; why should I let my kids decide what’s appropriate?  (At least they’re both girls.)  I let my older daughter play two kinds of games:  those specifically assigned in school, and those that teach her the Dvorak keyboard layout.  Nothing else is even on the table.  Even if they found suitable games, I’m not about to allow them, because video games are addictive—they create a dopamine-fueled drive for bigger scores, driving a compulsion to play without any legitimate reward.  I am not just speculating.  I was a videot myself as a teenager (though at least then I had to ride my bike across town and compete for gaming machines with other non-virtual youths).

Parents I’ve talked to have responded to this approach by saying, “Won’t depriving your kids just create a pent-up demand, and cause them to rebel and go too far in the opposite direction?” Perhaps—but I’m betting it won’t. In my household videos are severely restricted (if I had to put our policy in words it would go something like “In general you may not watch them, though we’ll make exceptions as we see fit”). Here, my younger daughter cleverly tried to get permission for a video while my wife was on the phone. It was a good strategy ... maybe next time it’ll actually work.

Has this policy created an outsized craving for videos? Not really—my daughters love watching them, but their expectations are realistic and they don’t often hassle my wife and me about it. For example: the other evening my older daughter put in a video. (She’d cleared it with her mom.) I was happy to watch with her and her sister because, as I’ve described before, I do enjoy some good lowbrow entertainment and the movie was “Monsters Vs. Aliens.” Imagine my surprise when, after ten or fifteen minutes, my daughter abruptly turned it off and said, “I have to practice piano.” Equally shocking was that her little sister took this in stride.

What about older kids?  When my daughters are teenagers, will I let them have Facebook or Google Plus accounts?  I’m conflicted on that one.  Part of me wants to say “no,” and the other part of me wants to say “hell, no.”  Will they get these accounts anyway, behind my back?  Possibly.  But at least they won’t have smartphones to stare into—on that point my wife and I are firmly resolved.  Part of this is selfish:  when I’m with my kids, I want them to engage with me, not think of me as mere background static as they pour their attention into a handheld electronic device.  It’s bad enough when their noses are in books and I can’t get their attention; at least reading is something I can share with them, rather than having them look down upon me as a dopey old person on the wrong side of the digital divide.  (The smartphone may be the most sophisticated parental-estrangement device ever created; click here for details.)  And who knows, maybe we’ll get lucky and three years from now the social media revolution will have fizzled, like disco, breakdancing, and the Macarena.

But wait, you might say, the Internet is so cool, and opens up such a wide world of worthwhile stuff, and social media enables your kids to connect with friends even when they can’t get together in person!  What’s wrong with that?  What kind of deprivation-obsessed fascist are you?  What are you gonna do, send your ten-year-old outside by herself to blow bubbles with the little party-favor wand from her sister’s birthday?  No, we don’t keep that junk around.  Check this out:

I’d researched how to make my own bubble mix at home, but it looked complicated and I needed glycerin and where would I find that?  And yet, my daughter somehow figured out how to make the best bubble solution I’ve ever seen, so robust you don’t even need a wand.  It’s amazing how resourceful a kid can be when she doesn’t have anything “better” (i.e., easier) to do.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

From the Archives - BART Opinion "Card"


For the first five years I lived in the Bay Area, I had no car and depended on the excellent Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system. It’s easy to use when you get the hang of it, but when I first started using it, I was clueless. Worse, I was anxious about it, I guess, and really wasn’t very resourceful when it came to studying the map, looking for schedules, etc. I didn’t understand the time-saving benefits of transfers, either, and I wasn’t even thoughtful enough to bring a book. Probably I was just so dazzled by it all, my brain couldn’t do anything right.

Over the last couple of decades, BART has improved quite a bit: its reach has grown (most significantly, it now goes all the way to the San Francisco International Airport), its ticket machines work better and accept credit cards, and its website is very easy to use (which helps the newcomer understand about train transfers and such). But even back in 1990 BART was a much better system than the following letter suggests. What you are about to read started out a handwritten response to a survey, but quickly I ran out of paper and it morphed into something like a short story.

I actually did get a response from BART to this letter/survey/story, but it was absolutely the most rote, boilerplate response possible. If somebody had scrawled in the margin, “There are plenty of schedules at the customer service kiosk, you dope,” that would have been very helpful. Anyway, I forwarded my letter (and the response) to some family members and friends, some of whom couldn’t believe that the remarkable events described my letter really happened. I swear to you that it’s all true—I didn’t make up or embellish anything.

BART opinion card — August 28, 1990

The little blue card says:

Your Opinions Count!

We’d like to know which of BART’s services you especially appreciate and how you think we could make BART better for you.

This is what I like about BART:

Riding BART is nostalgic, reminding me of my past family vacations when your electric trains were more a novelty, like an amusement park ride, than merely a means of transportation. Rockridge station is only two blocks from my apartment so I can walk there. I like that you let me take my bike on BART so I can go out east of the Oakland hills for the only flat bike ride I’m likely to get around here. BART is clean and quiet and allows people to travel without completely polluting the air and becoming freeway zombies who occasionally spring to life from their drowsy half-comas to cuss at other drivers, make frantic obscene gestures, and even cut each other off because they’re so frustrated at being trapped in a little steel box that can’t move because of all the other single-occupancy rolling motels.

This is what I don’t like about BART:

I don’t like how you people don’t give out schedules and maps. The other day I ran into your station, running because I had no idea whether I had thirty seconds or twenty minutes to catch your next train. I arrived at the depot just in time for your train to arrive. As the doors opened for a few brief, precious seconds (this time should be lengthened!), I suddenly realized I had never before commuted on your trains from the Shattuck station (or whatever it’s called—I can’t check to see because you don’t give out schedules or maps) and didn’t know what direction I had to travel in to transfer to the Walnut Creek station. So in my moment of hesitation, not wanting to get on the wrong train, the doors closed and I missed the train. Sometimes I can find schedules posted in your stations, sometimes not.

I decided to ride my bike up to my apartment, drop it off, and try to make the next train from the Rockridge station. I ran the few blocks between my apartment and the station, feeling like an idiot because I was just sure I’d make it with fifteen minutes to spare and have gotten all sweaty for nothing. Did I mention my shorts were falling down, too? All because I didn’t know when the next train left. I got to the station and tried to add some fare to my ticket. Your machine wouldn’t take my bills. You know those incredibly crisp, new twenties the Automatic Teller Machines give out? Well you can’t get singles, just twenties, that are that crisp. So why do your machines seem to demand them? My bills were pretty good, I thought. I’ve fed change machines in video arcades much more weathered bills than that.

Anyway, you can guess what happened: by the time I gave up, resolving to get better bills later, I ran up the escalator and just missed my second train of the day. We’re talking a matter of seconds here. There’s nothing more frustrating than barely missing your train. I once saw this scenario played out by somebody else while I waited safely inside the train. The poor, irate sod just started beating the side of your train, clubbing it with his foot. Can’t your drivers stop the train for people like that? This was the second time in as many weeks that your ticket machines had made me miss my train.

I guess it wouldn’t be so bad if your depots weren’t such a hell on earth. I mean, you’re suspended on this platform that looks like something from the Death Star, sandwiched between two roaring freeways, protected yet trapped by link fences like a caged animal. There’s absolutely nothing to do—maybe you can read the business section of the paper that somebody left behind, or you can look at the cold cement structures or beyond the fence at the fuming cars, or listen to the honking horns and blaspheming drivers. But that’s no way to spend twenty minutes just because you didn’t have a schedule to consult before making your way to the station.

Perhaps you feel as though I’m just nitpicking for the sake of whining, but bear with me, as my BART story is not quite done yet. The same day I missed two of your trains, I was returning from Walnut Creek on the 11:55pm train, and at the station I even asked the attendant which set of tracks the train for Rockridge would arrive on. Well, I waited my fifteen minutes or so (resting after my ridiculous and inevitable sprint to the station) and felt greatly relieved that I would make the last train after all. (I had called your number in the yellow pages asking for schedule information, and your operator sounded like she’d been asleep, or on Valium or something, and gave me very vague information.)

In the station I found a section of the paper that wasn’t too boring, having some comics and whatnot, and this cutesy columnist had asked various people to describe the worst date they’d ever been on. One response was so fitting I even clipped it, and at the risk of copyright infringement, I will share it with you now: “Michelle Garber, 28, legal secretary, Moraga: The date itself wasn’t so bad. We just ended up drinking, and I lost track of time. We parted, and I discovered I had missed the last BART train to the East Bay. I had to spend the night at Carl’s Jr. with the bums drinking coffee all night. I didn’t call my date. I felt too stupid and embarrassed.”

I had just shared this funny article with a well-dressed, young executive-looking woman when the roar of the train shocked us both into that state of stomach-churning paranoia that comes from having only five seconds to get through the doors of the train. Suddenly a calm, perfunctory-sounding announcement came over the loud-speaker: “Attention riders bound for Daly City: the Daly City train will arrive on the Concord platform.” One of your employees came running out of his little kiosk, frantically waving his arms in the universal symbol for “Run! Run!” We watched, spellbound, as seconds later the train slid in on the far tracks, across the huge cement trench of the near tracks—and more importantly, across the dreaded Electric Third Rail. Had I been Indiana Jones, I would’ve swung across on my whip, but alas, I’m a mere college student, so I ran after my hapless co-passengers, risking life and limb to run down the escalator, across the station, and up the other side.

One well-dressed young businessman walked confidently, sure that the train would be held since BART had, after all, screwed up. Perhaps I could have made better time, but I found myself behind the executive woman, who was actually running astonishingly quickly for somebody in high heels. The horror! For the third time in a day, the train roared off blindly, just outrunning three panting and hugely disgruntled would‑be passengers.

Adding to my pathetic fate, one of them—a woman far less sophisticated than the high-heeled executive sprinter—screamed, “Noooooooooo!” almost right in my ear. To my bewilderment, she then threw herself down on the floor and started shaking, even wriggling, as if a pre-teen having a tantrum. I think she was vying for attention from the goony guy she’d run up the escalator with, who looked like one of the guys in my high-school shop class who was out of high‑ school now and working in a factory de-burring plastic parts or something. He had these fingerless gloves that I couldn’t figure out.

Whatever buttons the shrieking woman was pressing were the right ones for him, boy. She had on this all-black Lycra outfit with some kind of vinyl jacket or something, and way too much makeup. The over-confident businessman had arrived now, and seemed more than surprised at the inability or refusal of your people to hold the train for us. I guess maybe he wasn’t the standard businessman; his clothes were stylish but not office-formal. L.A. Gear shoes, actually. Handsome—a good match for Executive Woman. A nice pair of pairs, those two and the shrieking woman/shop guy combo. Where do I fit in, then? Well, somebody has to pay attention to the trains and fill out the little blue card telling you guys our opinions.

We all went down to talk to the guys in the kiosk, and one of them said, “I been working here eighteen years and this kind of crap has happened all along.” The other guy was making a phone call to see what the deal was. He came out and said, “Well, all I accomplished was to have the guy on the other end demand an apology. Say’s I’m not man enough to give him one.” I’m not making any of this up, I swear. I envisioned the five of us spending the rest of the night in a Carl’s Jr. drinking black, stinking coffee.

Fortunately, there was one more train. I was going to propose that we roshambo to see who had to throw himself down on the Electric Third Rail in case of a repeat track screw-up, but the two couples seemed to be hitting it off well and I didn’t want to disturb them. Classy Guy was describing a jazz festival he’d just seen to Executive Woman, who then began talking about the amazing watermelon daiquiris her thirteen-year-old nephew had somehow learned to make. Shrieking Woman and Shop Guy went out for a smoke. Then we all went back up to the platform to try our luck at the next train, and Classy Guy produced the Sunday Chronicle. He read our horoscopes, and we chatted away, while Shop Guy and Shrieking Woman had drifted off and seemed to hit it off in a more, uh, profound way. Two minutes before the train was due, they made for the escalator. “Wait!” cried Executive Woman. “Where are you going?” Shop Guy looked over at her and said, “To a motel.” Confused, she said, “Why?” and then Shrieking Woman gave her a little knowing wink. After they left, Classy Guy said, “What do you mean, why? Where have you been, don’t you know about motels?”

We all had a good laugh, and then Executive Woman and I had more laughs trying to figure out why Shrieking Woman had been flipping around on the floor like a fish out of water after missing the train. Finally the train came, on the right tracks, and on the trip home Classy Guy read the Prince Valiant comic aloud, in his best low deejay voice, while Executive Woman acted out the parts for us in the seat beside him.

As I left the train at Rockridge, Classy Guy said, “Parting is such sweet sorrow,/ That I shall say good night till it be morrow.” How could I match his wit? “Ah, William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Scene II,” I said. Then Executive Woman told me, “I’ll bet this is a ride train you won’t soon forget.” I think she’d mentioned having had wine earlier. “You mean train ride,” I said. I left BART with high hopes for Classy Guy and Executive Woman; after all, they had all the way to Daly City to become Classy Couple.

Obviously, everything had turned out for the best, but that’s not the point. What if, for company during my ordeal, I’d only had Shop Guy, or Shrieking Woman, or yet worse, both? I guess what I mainly don’t like about BART is its unpredictability. So print up a few hundred thousand schedules. Hold a train for a guy down on his luck every now and then. Fix your machines to take less-than-perfect dollar bills. And if your train is going to end up on the wrong side of the tracks late on a Saturday night, for God’s sake give us a phone call so we won’t have to worry!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

10 Fascinating Facts About Inner Tubes

NOTE:  This post is rated R for an instance of mature thematic content.


I tuned up the Albert fleet on Saturday, and in the process came to a shocking realization about bicycle inner tubes.  I tried to explain it to my wife, which led to another shocking realization about inner tubes.  Pausing to reflect, I realized that this seemingly unexciting bike part actually presents a vast store of fascinating lore.  I share that lore herein.

I should perhaps mention that in writing this I assume you care about bikes, bike parts, the dynamics of mixed marriage (which in this context means a bike person married to a non-bike-person), childhood cruelty, and/or gearheaded stuff in general.  If you don’t care about such things, you may want to skip this post.  Not sure?  Take this brief quiz. 

1.  Which of these is/are not a type of bicycle inner tube valve?  (Select all that apply.)
a.      Presta
b.      Presto
c.       Proust
d.      Schrader
e.      Shrader
f.        Schrödinger’s cat

Score:  if you yawned, rolled your eyes, sighed heavily, or muttered grumpily during the quiz, you should probably read something else.  If you answered b, c, e, and f, read on—this is your kind of post.  If you answered something other than b, c, e, and f, and are disappointed not to have achieved a perfect score, you should enlighten yourself—keep reading!

Fascinating fact #1:  you can run out of inner tubes

Obviously this fact isn’t fascinating, or even interesting, in the context of most bicycling enthusiasts.  But for a veteran rider in possession of a garage, it’s almost unbelievable.  A seasoned cyclist builds up an endless supply of inner tubes, and while it’s true they tend to be punctured, the growth in their numbers seems as boundless as the growth in world population.  It’s like the tubes actually mate and produce offspring.  As a renter, I actually had a complaint once from my landlord about my collection of tubes and tires being a fire hazard.

So:  this weekend.  It was my trusty commuter, Full Slab, that had a flat, and though I successfully patched the tube, the valve spontaneously failed when I went to inflate it.  No problem:  I pictured my pile of inner tubes, which in my mind was like a giant nest of black snakes.  But is it turned out this pile was not only depleted but completely gone.  Had my wife thrown my tubes out?  I’m sure she’s been sorely tempted, but she wouldn’t dare.  For the first time, I had to contemplate the idea that I could actually be out of tubes.  What would I do?  Actually buy some?  I haven’t bought a tube for my commuter bike in decades.

Finally, when I thought to look among my endless supply of tires, to see if a tube was hiding in one of them, I did find one—and the tire it was in was in better shape than the one I’d planned to use.  But still, this was a close call.  I was rattled.

Fascinating fact #2:  spice don’t care

As I washed black grime from three bike repairs into the clean white kitchen sink, I described my amazing no-more-tubes hypothesis to my wife.  She replied, perhaps a bit testily, “I thought you had boxes and boxes of those.”  I conceded that I have a couple of Vittoria EVO-55s new-in-the-box, but that I’d never waste one of them on Full Slab.  “I can’t even get the EVO-55s anymore—nobody seems to carry them,” I lamented.  She replied, “This is where I excuse myself from this conversation.”

On the one hand, I shouldn’t be surprised by my wife’s lack of interest.  But wasn’t this the same woman who bike toured across the country with me, and commiserated when I was getting two punctures a day in southern Arizona?  I had no more anticipated her lack of interest than she can believe that I really don’t care about camouflage chic, silhouettes, or a person’s “colors.”  (Come to think of it, she is probably as nonplussed by my stockpile of jeans as she is by all my spare bike tires.)

I suppose there are marriages where both parties are equally interested in cycling, but I’m not sure I’d want to be in one.  (What if a couple straddled the great Campagnolo/Shimano debate?)  In most cases, the minimal overlap in men’s and women’s interests looks something like this:

For details on that (fascinating!) overlap, click here.

Fascinating fact #3:  tubes once spawned a game like Russian Roulette

Imagine four teenage boys sharing an unfinished basement:  that’s a great way to build up an amazing stockpile of inner tubes.  One day my brothers and I decided to get rid of the pinch-flatted tubes that couldn’t possibly be patched.  So we got out the Zéfal Plus “Double Shot” floor pump—a monster with two air chambers designed for maximum inflation speed—and took turns pumping ten strokes into the inner tube while the others plugged their ears.  We  kept going until the tube exploded, which in the confines of the basement made a deafening bang.  Then we tied off the ends of the exploded tube and went at it again.  Of course the tied-off tube exploded even sooner.  We did this again and again.  It was terrifying when one of my brothers would somehow escape the explosion so I was sure to get it.  The pump took both hands to operate so there was no ear-plugging for the hapless pumper.  The tube would get grotesquely, unbelievable huge, and would actually tremble with over-inflation before exploding.  The brutal game went on for at least an hour.  I hope the hearing aid industry makes great strides in the next few decades.

Fascinating fact #4:  valves can fuel sibling rivalry

During high school, in the mid-‘80s, I worked at the High Wheeler (aka Thigh Feeler) bike shop in Boulder with my brothers Geoff and Bryan.  (Our other brother, Max, had worked there prior to us, but we never quite managed to all be on the payroll at once.)  One summer Geoff and I worked the same shift, building new bikes all day long.  We had an ongoing disagreement about the usefulness of valve rings.  I argued that they helped you keep the valve straight, helped you get the pump chuck on there, and enabled you to ride a flat without the tube bunching up around the valve.  He argued that … wait a second, this is my blog, I’m not going to bother giving his silly arguments!  He can comment on this post if he wants his position articulated.

Geoff was forever stealing the rings from my bike’s valves (whenever I went on break), to deprive me of them.  I had to keep spare valve rings on me in case I discovered his treachery too late, like during an after-work ride.  In retaliation I was forever putting rings on his bike’s valves.  There was a lot of cussing.

Every new bike Geoff built went out without valve rings.  Based on the rings’ being metal and shiny and knurled, he couldn’t bear to throw them out so he saved them in a little box on his workbench.  One day I collected like twenty of them and put ten each on his valves, all stacked up.  This had the added benefit of putting his wheels off-balance.  Plus, he couldn’t fight back in like fashion:  my bike only ever had two valve rings to remove.  Geoff responded by hiding his spare valve rings.  I scrounged up a couple more somewhere and this time I used Loc-tite and screwed them down good and tight with a pair of pliers.  Geoff got his revenge by putting reflectors on my bike’s wheels and pedals.  I got back by taking apart his bike’s headset and mounting a big front reflector.  Et cetera, all summer long.

(Full disclosure:  I have stopped using valve rings, though I carry one with my spare tube.)

Fascinating fact #5:  how you inflate your tubes says a lot about you

It’s tempting to divide all cyclists into two groups:  those who use a pump, and those who use a CO2 cartridge.  To me, a pump makes all the sense in the world.  You can use it as many times as you want, it doesn’t tend to malfunction, and it doesn’t generate waste (in the form of an empty CO2 cartridge that ends up in a landfill).  You also run less risk of discovering the hard way that the tire isn’t seated properly on the rim, because a pump fills the tube so gradually.  The cartridge user strikes me as the kind of convenience addict who also favors the Rabbit corkscrew and the plastic squeeze bottle of ketchup.

Zoom in on that photo:  “Our CO2 is obtained from a naturally ocurring [sic] volcanic source.”  I ask you:  is there any other naturally occurring volcanic source than a volcano?  And why bother gathering your CO2 from a volcano when naturally occurring CO2 is all around us?  I’d be far more impressed if Genuine Innovations managed to gather the CO2 emitted by a bike race peloton, where each racer increases his carbon footprint with every breath.

Bike pumps also reflect the ideology of their users.  For decades I used the Zéfal HPX, the greatest frame pump ever made.  Here it is (I’ve added a cat to provide scale).

Should everybody use this pump?  No, function isn’t everything.  There’s a great argument to be made for the classic old plastic Silca, with the Campagnolo steel head.  Aesthetically, that product approached the platonic ideal of bike pump and to this day I sigh to think of its perfection. 

Never mind that those plastic Silcas tended to foomp.  Foomping is where something goes wrong in the pump head and the full pressure of the tube, compressed mightily by a skinny bike tire, bursts back into the pump, blowing the handle and shaft right out the back and across the road.

I haven’t been consistent myself with regard to bike pumps.  After a few decades I got sick and tired of my Zéfal rattling, and as my strength waned with age I started to care more about weight, and switched to an absurd Silca mini-pump that barely works.  On a solo ride, I spend like ten or fifteen agonizing minutes forcing enough air into the tube to limp home.  On group rides, I keep from wasting everybody’s time by borrowing a proper frame pump.  To the extent the owner of the proper frame pump despises me, he is justified.

But that still doesn’t cover the spectrum of inflation options.  You also have foolish children (and childlike adults) who take their bikes to gas stations and use the compressors there.  A car tire requires a huge volume of air, so these compressors are really tricky.  You can explode your bike tire in the blink of an eye.  Bike shop compressors are better behaved, of course, but lots of mechanics I’ve known still used a good old floor pump.  Why?  I don’t know.  Love of precision?  Love of effort?  Fear of compressors?  It is true that even a bike shop compressor will turn on you occasionally, if you haven’t seated the tire right.  Once Bryan had inflated a high-pressure 2-inch-wide Tioga City Slicker and then noticed the bead popping off.  High pressure and high volume is a terrible combination—it’s terribly loud when it blows.  He dropped the compressor hose and gripped the tire with both hands, squeezing it to the rim to keep it from blowing off.  “Help!” he cried.  “Somebody come let the air out!”  We all just plugged our ears and pitied him.  He ran to the back door of the shop and threw the wheel.  The tire exploded—BLAM!—in mid-air.

A final group I shouldn’t leave out are the homeless.  Homeless bicyclists sometimes go dumpster-diving for tubes and tires and then ask the shop to loan them a pump or compressed air hose to inflate it with.  At the Thigh Feeler, we took care when throwing out a tire with a tear in the sidewall.  If the tire could be booted, we’d often take it for ourselves.  If not, we’d use a utility knife to utterly destroy the tire to make sure some homeless guy didn’t pluck it from the dumpster, fail to see the sidewall tear, mount it to his bike wheel, and end up crashing due to a sudden blowout.  Sometimes we’d get chewed out by a homeless guy for this practice.  (Boulder may be the only place I know of where the homeless feel such entitlement.)  One time a homeless guy begged to borrow our compressor hose, ignored the mechanic’s caveats and warnings and advisories, pumped up his tire, looked at us haughtily like we were all idiot yuppy scum, and pedaled off.  Twenty feet away—BLAM!  The tire blew, as did the guy, spewing profanity as he stalked off dragging his crippled bike beside him.

Fascinating fact #6:  self-sealing tubes really do work

In the early ‘90s, I worked at The Square Wheel bike shop in Berkeley.  One day we took delivery of a flashy new product:  the Specialized Airlock self-sealing inner tube These tubes carried an unconditional guarantee from the manufacturer.  I was skeptical, but they really did work.  As a demo, we had a mountain bike wheel in a truing stand with a big knobby tire and the Airlock tube installed.  I would do endless demos, driving a nail right through the tire with a hammer.  Air would start hissing out, and then I’d give the wheel a good spin, and within seconds centripetal (or was it centrifugal?) force would force goo into the hole, and the hissing would stop.  We did these demos constantly and never failed to get gasps from our customers.  After hundreds of such punctures the tube finally gave up the ghost:  it had run out of goo.  The next time the sales rep came around, I handed him the tube and asked for a warranty replacement.  He inspected the countless holes, laughed, and credited us for the tube.

I couldn’t help but notice the number of one-star reviews for this tube (click that last link to see).  As I’ve noted before, I can’t always relate to these one-star reviewers.  Maybe these tubes have gone downhill since the early ‘90s, or maybe these reviewers just don’t have the touch.

Fascinating fact #7:  inner tubes spawned an urban legend

At this same shop a fellow mechanic recommended latex inner tubes for tying up your girlfriend.  He boasted that both he and his girlfriend absolutely loved latex tubes for this.  Amazed, I informally polled the other mechanics and several of them agreed:  “Oh, yeah, latex tubes are the best for that!”

Now, I cannot be sure, but it seemed then and it seems now that this was urban myth.  I can totally understand how anybody handling a latex tube—which is as soft and smooth as kid leather—might wonder if its extraordinary tactile properties aren’t wasted on a product that spends its life inside a bike tire.  There’s also an obvious inclination to equate this bike-oriented latex product with the only other latex product young men are typically familiar with.  On the other hand, those tubes are fricking expensive and bike mechanics are usually so broke they won’t even fork out for latex tubes for their bikes.  Moreover, was this kind of kinky stuff really that common?  The only way for me to suss out the truth would have been to interview the girlfriends, but I wasn’t about to open that Pandora’s box.

Fascinating fact #8:  any valve core can be replaced

The first successful non-replaceable-valve-core replacement, which is the only one on record, was achieved in July of 1999.  Since this is as amazing as the first heart transplant, I am proud to say that I was the one who pulled it off.  (Full disclosure:  I’m merely the only person I know of who has done this.  Surely others have not only done it, but would say “We used to do this all the time, and what’s more, we didn’t even have…” and so on.  But for the purposes of this essay let’s agree this is impressive and you’re impressed, okay?)

I conceived of the idea as my wife and I drove to Moab, Utah for a mountain biking vacation.  Right before the trip, I’d snapped the end off of the presta valve on my mountain bike, and the extra tube I’d hastily pulled from my pile had a huge pinch flat and probably couldn’t be patched.  I grimly contemplated how badly a bike shop in Moab would gouge me for a new tube.  I couldn’t face that prospect.  So I pondered the possibility of fixing the valve.  I figured I could push the broken-off valve end into the tube, then cut a small hole across from the valve.  I’d then extract the valve guts from the donor tube and insert them into the valve stub through the hole I’d made.  Then I’d patch the access hole and be good to go.  I mentally rehearsed the operation over and over, looking for any reason why it wouldn’t work.  I had been quietly ruminating on this for a good while as we drove along, and finally my wife asked me what I was thinking about.

“You first,” I said, feeling trapped somehow by her question.  She’d never understand … would she?  She replied, “I was just thinking that once we have a house, we can get a piano, and a kitten, and have a baby!”  Great.  Now I was really stuck.  She continued, “Now it’s your turn … what were you thinking about?”  I had nowhere to go.  “I was pondering the world’s first inner tube valve-core replacement,” I confessed.

You may be interested to know that the valve replacement was a resounding success.  To this day, that tube is performing flawlessly in my mountain bike.  If you spin the wheel slowly, you can hear the quiet ticking of the old valve core as it rolls around inside the tube.  (If you do not find this interesting, you may yet be interested to know that my wife and I do have a house, a piano, a grown-up kitten, and not one but two children.)

Fascinating fact #9:  how you fix flats says a lot about your life

For this next bit I’m indebted to my teammate Marty.  As he expounded on a ride a few years back, puncture repair and phase of life are closely related.  As a teenager, you carry a patch kit on rides and patch the tube right there on the side of the road.  As a pre-adult, you carry a spare tube, and patch the original tube when you get home (so the number of tubes you own is always n+1 where n is the number of wheels you own).  By college you’ve got a few extra tubes and don’t always get around to patching the old one right away.  Once you’re working and making money, bike wheels start to accumulate, and when you run out of non-punctured tubes you just swap out the wheel.  By your forties, you have multiple bikes and can’t be bothered with swapping out a wheel, so when one bike has a flat you just ride the other one.  Eventually, in your fifties, all your bike tires go flat through disuse and you can’t be bothered even to pump them up.

My own experience matches this pretty well.  As a teenager, I was too cheap even for a proper patch kit.  There was only one patch kit on the market back then, because it was (and remains) the finest of its kind ever conceived.  I’m talking of course about the Rema Tip Top Two-wheel repair kit:

What you see there are the remnants of my last kit (I used up the last of the cold vulcanizing fluid patching Full Slab’s inner tube) along with a couple of vastly inferior patches from a modern, cheap, lame patch kit.  It disgusts me even to look at them.  Anyway, the only change in the Rema Tip Top since the 1970s is that they no longer provide a tiny little rubber tube whose function nobody could ever figure out to begin with.  It didn’t attach the tube of vulcanizing fluid, and was too small in diameter for the fluid to even flow through.  My personal theory is that it was included merely as a conversation piece.

But as I was saying, I was too cheap even for this exalted product.  I carried around a little bottle of super-glue and some squares of rubber cut from old inner tubes.  This worked pretty well until one day in the winter of ’85 when a friend and I were riding the Morgul-Bismark.  I punctured, and couldn’t repair the tube because it was too cold for the glue to work.  It was about 20 degrees out.  My pal, as it turned out, didn’t even have a patch kit.  I can’t remember how we eventually got my bike back running; probably I had to shove the patched tube down my shorts or something.

In the intervening years I’ve gone through dozens of new tubes, as the punctured ones piled up.  I have gobs of patches, but the vulcanizing fluid always dries out.  A couple years ago when my wife asked what I wanted for my birthday, I described in great detail the cans of Rema Tip Top cold vulcanizing fluid, with the brush built into the lid, that we’d use at the Thigh Feeler.  With one of those babies, I could patch every single one of my tubes and have plenty of fluid left over.  But my wife must not have been paying attention—she must have heard “blah blah blah fluid blah blah patch tubes blah blah blah” because what she went out and bought me was not a big can of cold vulcanizing fluid, but just a little tube of it.  At least she got the right brand.

By the way, if you’re annoyed at my constant use of the term “cold vulcanizing fluid,” I confess that it’s one of my pet phrases, my use of which I realize almost begs to be mocked.  In fact, my wife has mocked me for it, and for “Syncromesh,” “double-clutch,” and “constant-velocity joint.”  So, yeah … pile on.

Suffice to say, being out of this fluid is exactly how a veteran cyclist builds up his seemingly inexhaustible stockpile of inner tubes.

Fascinating fact #10:  the mythical “third valve type” does exist

Look:  it’s neither Presta nor Schrader! 

This is on a kids’ bike I got from my brother Geoff, who now lives in the Netherlands.  You pump it up with a Presta pump chuck, but there’s no little valve top to unscrew.  I have no idea if this valve type has a name. 

If I had a son, he’d probably be really proud to have these special valves on his bike.  My daughters, who each had their turn with this hand-me-down bike, were less than impressed.  I guess they take after their mom.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Ode to South Park


This post does not concern the TV cartoon “South Park.”  If you were looking for something about that show, you won’t find it here, but wait!  Don’t leave just yet.  I really like that show (though I’ve only seen one episode, the one with the babysitter and the cat and Cartman pretending he’s protecting Salma Hayek), so your sensibilities and mine might be compatible.

The following sonnet is an ode not to a TV show but to one of my favorite roads for bike riding, in Berkeley’s Tilden Park.  Obviously my ode will have special resonance for those who have ridden this road, but should also strike a chord with anybody who has a favorite climb, or anybody who seeks out a challenging course precisely because he knows it will kick his ass.


Ode to South Park

Of course I like this road—what’s not to like?
It’s quiet here and  green, and lush, and there’soooooooooo2
A grade of 10.5 percent:  to bike
Up here’s like running flights of stairs.

When young and strong, obsessed with going fast,
 I feared this road and thus avoided it. Ooooooooooooiooo6
Then age, though slowing, helped me to amass
The muster to be humble and submit.

Until last fall I liked this climb the best,
With pals or not, it was a battleground. Oooooooooooooo10
And then cruel fate decided to divest
Me of my strength.  Can I rebound?

This South Park climb will force the turning worm:
I slowly beat myself back into form. Oooooooooooooooo14

Footnotes & Commentary

Line 1:  like this road

The perspective here is of the poet in real-time as he pedals up the road.  I had the oxygen-starved inspiration for this sonnet while riding South Park the other day.

Line 2:  quiet

South Park Drive is particularly quiet from November through March when it’s closed to cars due to the mating season for newts, which has them crossing the road en masse.  One year, at the end of October, the newts got started a little early and I saw just how important the road closure is.  It was depressing:  I saw like two dozen of them, smashed completely flat.  As it happened, I had bad legs that day and the dead newts were such a blow to my morale, I almost turned around and went home.  South Park is that kind of climb:  the kind that has you searching for excuses not to go on.

Line 2:  green, and lush

I’m not botanist, but I can tell you the trees and plants along South Park Drive are the kind that are green and lush year-round.  It’s never dead and grey and brown like you get in places with real winters.  Sometimes fog gives the landscape a bleak, blasted look, but even that’s pleasurable; I always associate such conditions with the play “King Lear,” where the dethroned king is blind and groping and miserable on some vast wind-swept tundra.

Once, we had snow on South Park.  It’s close to 1,700 feet above sea level and very likely the only place in Berkeley that ever gets snow.

Line 3:  10.5 percent

A grade of 10.5 percent is pretty serious.  The steepest 0.9 miles of the road are particularly steep, climbing about 600 feet per mile for a grade of 11.4%:

Line 3:  to bike

You might think I used the word “bike” instead of “cycle” or “bicycle” simply to fit the meter of the poem.  No, I would never do that.  The word “bike” is a challenge to relative newcomers to the sport who, ever obsessed with image, insist on “cycling” over “biking.”  As I’ve documented elsewhere, crusty old veterans like me prefer “biking,” to show how little we care for semantic flourishes.

Line 5:  young and strong

As I have gloomily pondered before, I am no longer young and strong.  This is a bit different from saying I’m no longer young or strong.  Forty-somethings can still be strong, but it’s more of a battle.  When you’re young, the strength is something fresh and new and renewable.  Most importantly, you’re still growing it—your best fitness is still ahead of you.  As you age, strength becomes something you cling to:  the residue of your youth.  This strength is still a satisfaction, of course, but there’s also something slightly pathetic about it.  (Not, however, as pathetic as just letting it go.)

Line 5:  going fast

In cycling—er, biking—parlance, “fast” and “strong” aren’t quite the same thing.  Fast is more impressive.  First you get “in shape,” and then you get “fit,” and then you get “strong,” and then, if you train just right, you get “fast.”  The twenty-something racer takes little satisfaction in the century-ride goal of just finishing.  He must finish fast.  If he can’t do this—and only on a good day could a fit racer-type make it up a grade like South Park with anything that feels like speed—he can be surprisingly cowardly.  At least, I could, when I was young and strong.

Line 7:  amass

I believe it is possible to age without acquiring wisdom.  I don’t think you can chase wisdom.  I hope that my life experience, and all the great stuff I read, will gradually cause wisdom to accumulate.  So it is with muster in the next line of the poem.

Line 8:  the muster to be humble and submit

This is really what it takes to routinely attack a climb like South Park.  When I first started riding South Park with any regularity at all, I’d only do it when I was rested and fresh.  But as I got more disciplined about my training, those days grew scarce.  Something finally shifted in my attitude:  I realized it was okay for a climb to kick my ass.  I couldn’t keep pretending I could lick any road in my midst.  I learned to blow myself out completely without feeling a sense of loss.  I made South Park my go-to climb, that I would do almost every time I rode.  This didn’t make me any faster, but it made me tougher.  Gradually, this humility shaded into something more complex, involving the pride of hardened character.

Line 9:  until last fall

Both senses of “fall” are intended here:  autumn and crash.

Line 10:  with pals or not, a battleground

Riding with pals is a great way to stay motivated and ride jolly hard.  When I ride alone, which is most of the time, I’m often tempted to slack off.  The beauty of a steep climb is that you can’t choose to loaf:  like it or not, you’re trapped in the struggle of Man vs. Nature.  Often, the battle against nature turns into a battle against yourself:  naturally, “can I make it?” becomes “how fast can I make it?”

On a brutal climb, Man vs. Man becomes a fearsome endeavor.  At high speeds, savvy and tactical know-how can shelter you from your physical shortcomings.  On a climb, there’s nowhere to hide.  When I think back to the epic showdowns I’ve had with pals, the best ones always involve climbs.  So it was with South Park.  Here’s a excerpt from my training diary, dated March 27, 2008: 
We started off pretty mellow, but three minutes in Kromer unexpectedly threw down.  Suddenly he had a huge gap.  I started chasing him down.  Man, it was absurd how gradually I was gaining on him.  He’s a big, strong guy , a rolleur, a sprinter, and a fair bit older than I:  surely he couldn’t dispatch me this swiftly!  I finally caught on and, pretending I wasn’t redlined, nonchalantly asked him what his power was.  He said 460 watts.  I took his wheel.  On this steep pitch we were only going 8 mph so it’s not like I was getting a sweet draft or anything, but I stayed close so as not to give psychological comfort to the enemy.  Towards the top there’s a very short downhill section before the final wall.  I’ve found in the past that dudes instinctively let up a bit on that downhill.  This comes naturally, I think, when you’re suffering so badly.  Approaching this section, while still climbing, Kromer seemed to speed up even more, and the weak part of my brain took this as a sign that I was about to get dropped.  Meanwhile, the strong part of my brain, or at least the stubborn part, wondered if perhaps this meant he was cagily trying to finish me off before the really steep part at the very end.  I figured that no matter how bad I felt, I would attack on the little downhill and see what I could do.  Kind of like the dying general whose last words were a request to his men to turn him back around to face the enemy, so he wouldn’t die in shame.  I punched it over the top before the little downhill, and Kromer fell back:  no doubt to rest for a second or two on my wheel before slingshotting around and trouncing me.  Up until the moment I crested the climb, I was sure he had me, but amazingly my little ruse worked.  I crushed out the climb in 7:15, my best time of the year!  My agony, of course, was absolute.
Here’s a graph of that effort.  You can see here  the kind of elevated heart rate, and power output, involved.  (Why the disparity between Kromer’s 460-watt output and mine?  Two reasons.  One, he’s heavier.  Two, what you see below are “dog watts,” measured by a bike computer calculation involving barometric pressure, altitude gain, gravity, and my mass, and not factoring in wind resistance, rolling resistance, etc.)

You may wonder if my training diary also contains tales of battles lost.  Of course not:  why would it?  Being crushed by my pals isn’t news.  It isn’t salient.  The exceptions to the status quo, when all the planets align and I snatch a bit of glory, are what I bother to note.

Line 11:  cruel fate

Like line 9, this refers to a crash I had in November, sustaining a broken femur.  For months, the prospect of merely riding a bike again, much less climbing South Park, seemed sadly absurd.  In the poem I almost didn’t use “cruel fate,” because I’m not a particularly fatalistic person and am tormented by the idea that my crash could have been avoided.  But “cruel fate” is a nice Shakespearean reference, and in a vague, metaphorical sense I suppose we can acknowledge the role of fate in our lives.

Line 12:  can I rebound?

That is the question.  The doctors who treated me were wary about assuring me I’d be as good as new one day.  Over the last few weeks I’ve been able to ride my bike again, but with greatly reduced ambitions.  A tough ride for me now is Wildcat Canyon Road, a climb I’ve never thought difficult (and which in fact I used to call Pussycat).  Well, the other day I didn’t have time to ride all of Wildcat, but thought it would demoralize me to only ride part of it (I demoralize easily these days).  So I decided just to try South Park, which is closer to home.  I doubted I was quite ready, but remembered my long history with this road:  how I’d gone from only riding it when I was fresh to riding it no matter what.  This gave me the confidence, bordering I suppose on foolishness, for the attempt.  I barely made it to the end.  On the final steep pitch, I really wondered if my pedals would actually slow to a stop.  Would I clip out in time?  Would I fall over?  At the top I had to stop and rest (something I almost never do).  I didn’t have the energy to turn around and coast back down the hill.  Had there been a bench, I’d have sat down, or stretched out, on it.  My stopwatch time for the climb—more than a minute slower than my slowest trip up South Park of all last year—will give me something to improve on.

Line 13:  the turning worm

It is impossible to ride my bike and feel a pure gladness at my gradual progress, because I cannot help but compare my current self to my six-month-ago self.  These days I feel small and vulnerable and spineless.  The phrase “turning worm” is a reference to Shakespeare’s “Henry VI, Part 3”:

To whom do lions cast their gentle looks?
Not to the beast that would usurp their den.
The smallest worm will turn being trodden on
And doves will peck in safeguard of their brood.

In my small, wormlike, dovelike way I’m turning against the injury encroaching on my body.  South Park Drive is a perfect surface against which to beat myself back into shape.  It is the opponent that may yet be my salvation.