Sunday, December 29, 2013

From the Archives - Descent Into Chaos: My 2005 Holiday Newsletter


Every year I write a Holiday Newsletter and send it with my holiday cards.  As newsletters go, mine isn’t very useful; it doesn’t, for example, describe the highlights of the year.  In fact, I usually focus on a single low point of my year, just to counter-balance all the highlights you’ll read about in other people’s newsletters.  Or it’s simply random—the “secret Santa” of holiday newsletters, you might say.

In 2005, I had a hard time thinking clearly enough to write anything.  My kids were four and two and I wasn’t always getting much sleep.  So I decided to embrace randomness as not only the style but the substance of my Holiday Newsletter.  Since this year’s newsletter was inappropriate for a wide audience, I’m posting the 2005 edition from my archives.  Enjoy please enjoy.

Holiday Newsletter - December 17, 2005

I’d hoped to elegantly summarize this past year into a coherent, flowing essay.  But I just don’t think I’m going to get there.  In fact, I think I’ll always remember 2005 as the year I gave up on structure altogether.  I guess this was inevitable, given the whirlwind of family life, especially the inexplicable behavior of children and their sudden tantrums. 

For example, Alexa broke down crying during an argument about whether “Mulamimoto” (the name of her imaginary cat) begins with an “M” or an “R.”  She’d asked me how it was spelled and then refused to accept my answer. 

Pre-verbal Lindsay, meanwhile, will fixate on some food item, cry because it’s not presented quickly enough, stop crying when she gets it, and then start bawling all over again.  Why?  Too hot?  Too cold?  Too much?  Not enough?  When this kind of scenario occupies most of your waking moments, it gets to be too much.  So I finally gave in and accepted that my life had become jumbled and  disordered and there was nothing to be done about it. 

Once I acknowledged the chaos of my life and stopped trying to maintain order, I began to find unpredictability addictive.  I started listening to MP3 music on “shuffle” mode, which has caused some shocking segues.  I’ve decided to bring that randomness to my newsletter and write down whatever ideas come to mind, in no particular order.


A magazine called “Real Simple” appeared in my bathroom.  It’s an easy read.  It really is simple.  There’s a recipe in there called “cupcakes with ice cream frosting” that has only two ingredients.  One is “cupcakes.”  I’m not kidding!  Anyway, there’s a column in “Real Simple” where readers write in with their time-saving tips.  I’m going to send them this one:  stop worrying about cleaning out the car.  The next time you forget the diaper bag, you’ll be glad you can get by with what’s strewn on the floor.  We keep a bag of clothes in the back that we intend to donate to the Salvation Army.  When we’re really behind on laundry, it’s nice to be able to dip back into that bag to dress the kids.


Here’s a nice segue:  “Puff the Magic Dragon” right into Beastie Boys’ “Time to Get Ill.”  (Speaking of music, I got stuck in a mall recently and have decided that “Winter Wonderland” should be classified as a munition.  It must have been developed to demoralize the enemy.)


I had a rough night recently.  At around two in the morning, my wife Erin shook me awake.  There was an incredible racket:  it sounded electronic, and yet human.  A ringing/screaming kind of sound.  Erin handed me a white plastic object and said, “Make it talk.”  Or maybe she said, “Make it stop.”  Or maybe something else entirely.  I took the object in my hand and stared at it.  It was making at least part of the noise.  Then it hit me:  this thing is a phone!  This realization introduced a new problem:  how to make it talk, or make it stop.  Then I remembered:  the talk button.  I found it and pressed it.  Some of the noise subsided.  Now I realized there had been two noises:  a ringing phone, and a crying baby.  But what was Lindsay doing in our bed?  (Only later did I learn that she’d had a nightmare about a “scary monkey” and demanded to sleep with Erin and me.)  Now I was more confused than ever.  I stared at the phone.  Why had it rung?  It dawned on me that somebody must have called, and whoever that was must be on the line and waiting for me to speak.  I put the phone to my ear and said:  “Hello.”

There was a long pause, and then the person on the phone spoke, very quietly, a babbled, murky word, as though spoken across a great distance, and muffled by cotton, or a mouthful of mashed potatoes:  “Brandon.”

I have a colleague named Brandon, but this didn’t sound like him.  It sounded like somebody on his deathbed speaking his last word.  I considered this for a moment before saying, “Brandon?”

Again, the voice gurgled:  “Brandon.”

Totally confused, I decided to go with what I knew to be true.  “This isn’t Brandon,” I said.  “This is Dana.”

A long pause.  Over the screech of Lindsay’s crying, I was finally able to make out that the caller was someone from work trying to solve a problem and looking for Brandon.  He had to settle for me.


Another time-saving tip for “Real Simple”:  forget the Diaper Genie.  Instead, when you change your baby, just drop the soiled diaper anywhere.  Then, whenever you think to do it, kick a few diapers toward the bathroom trash can.  At some point, gather them from the bathroom floor and throw them out all at once.  This way, you won’t have to wash your hands as often.


I guess I shouldn’t admit this, but I haven’t seen Lindsay’s glasses in weeks.  I’m not sure anybody else has even realized they’re missing.  I fear we’re not running a very tight ship here.


Another nice segue:  from Chopin’s Nocturne for Piano in G minor, Op. 15/3, right into “Fell On Black Days” by Soundgarden.


I think there was a distinct moment when I gave up on structure and accepted senselessness.  It was when buying hair gel.  I hadn’t been getting to the barber as often as I should, so I’d been experimenting with increasingly robust hair gels.  I started with Suave “Mega Hold,” which is rated as an “8” on the hold scale.  (The units aren’t specified.)  On my next trip to the store Mega Hold was gone, but in its place was “Maximum Hold,” at 10.  This all made sense until my next trip, when I discovered “Extreme Hold” at 12.  Given how arbitrary the units were, couldn’t they have made 10 have the top rating?  And since when can you get more hold (or more anything) than Maximum?  Isn’t “Extreme” less than “Maximum”?  The precise calibration of hair gel hold had turned out to be total illusion. 

I almost called Suave for clarification until I remembered my argument with Palmolive customer service.  A sticker on their “new” product had said, “Kills twice the bacteria.”  I called customer service and expressed shock that my old Palmolive was leaving bacteria on my dishes, but they assured me it did not—that both the old and new products killed all the bacteria.  How could this be?  If the old Palmolive killed all the bacteria, how could the new Palmolive kill twice as much?  We went around and around until the service representative said, “Sir, it’s just a slogan.  It doesn’t mean anything.”


Despite being frazzled a lot of the time, I think my attitude has actually been pretty good.  Still, I sometimes worry.  Tonight Alexa asked me to play a game with her.  (She doesn’t do board games yet; just made-up role-playing games.)  I assumed she meant our standard game, in which I surgically remove her appendix.  But tonight she announced she wanted to play a new game:  Deathbed.  I told her I didn’t know that game, and she told me we could make it up together.  It went fine.  At the end I told her she had to speak her last words.  Her choice:  “Done.”


A final time-saving tip for “Real Simple”: When it’s time to do big chores, Erin lets me go downstairs to (as she puts it) “play on the computer.” This keeps me out of her hair and gives us something to talk about right before bed.

On that note, I guess I should go. Happy holidays!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Fiction - The Happiest Christmas Story I Know

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


What follows is a work of fiction.  I am not in the story, and neither are you, or anybody you know, or anybody who even exists, etc., so relax.

The Happiest Christmas Story I Know

                “I’ve had this ocean dream a bunch of times over the years, especially when I’m stressed out.  So maybe I’ve been having it lately because of the holidays,” Nick said.  “And this week I had it twice.  It’s hard to sleep afterward.”
                Dr. Waters tapped his lower lip with his pen, as if acting out a cliché:  “the deep thinker.”  He said, “Go ahead and describe the dream to me in detail.”
                “Okay, so I’m snorkeling in Hawaii.  I’m just having a great old time, looking at all these exotic, brightly colored tropical fish.  There are so many of them, so many varieties, it looks like a screen saver or something.  The water is so clear, and the sun is so strong, I can see the coral and starfish and stuff on the ocean floor.  So I keep swimming out, following fish around, and I start to see rarer fish, and larger ones.  Then I see an eel, and that’s kind of startling, because don’t they sometimes sting?

                 “And then I see something really scary:  out of the corner of my eye I see some really big thing slip by.  I wing my head around and it’s swimming off, and it’s like a shark or something, or that unnamed huge vicious thing that eats Nemo’s mother, you know?  A barracuda?  So suddenly I’m hyperventilating through the snorkel because this isn’t Sea World, there’s no Plexiglas here, I’m on this creature’s turf and it could take me out!  And then I suddenly notice something even scarier:  I can’t see the ocean floor anymore, just this giant dark void.  I’d been snorkeling over this low kind of shelf, and there were other snorkelers around and kids and everything, and now there’s nobody but me, and I’m way far out to sea.
                “So naturally my first instinct is to start swimming like crazy back to the shore, you know?  But I can’t figure out where it is!  I have no frame of reference.  I’m like one of those pilots lost in fog who after a while can’t even figure out which way is up and might fly straight into the ground.  I start frantically swimming, just to be taking some kind of action, and then I think, what if I’m swimming farther out to sea?  It’s terrifying.  And that’s where I always wake up.”
                Dr. Waters was quiet for a moment, and then he said, “And you’ve had this dream twice recently, and you think it’s because you’re stressed out about the holidays.”
                “Well, yeah,” Nick said.  He stared at the ceiling for awhile.  “So isn’t this where you’re supposed to tell me what my dream means?”
                “Well, I’m not a strong believer in analyzing dreams.  I’m more interested in hearing what you think is bothering you so much about the holidays.”
                “I don’t know.  I guess it’s because I’m supposed to be, like, especially happy, right now, with all the holiday cheer everywhere, but I’m not.”  Nick suddenly snorted with laughter.
                “What’s funny?” asked Dr. Waters.
                “Oh, I just remember this ‘Peanuts’ cartoon my brother once read me, way back when we were teenagers.  He did the voices.  Charlie Brown is talking to Lucy and saying, ‘I don’t understand it.  It’s Christmas and everybody is happy, and I’m supposed to be happy.  But I’m not.  Why am I not happy?’  And then—the way my brother reads it, with his own contribution—Lucy says, “‘Fuck off, Charlie Brown!  Just fuck off!’”
                Dr. Waters chuckled.  “Yeah, that’s pretty good,” he said.  “But getting back to your stress:  you feel that you should be happy, and it bothers you that you’re not.  So nothing about the holiday season gives you any joy?  Nothing to offset the stress?”
                Nick was silent for awhile.  “No,” he sighed.  “I just hate all of it.  The retail frenzy, the lights strung up everywhere … they just remind me of the obligations I’m not making good on.  I should do my Christmas shopping but I can’t stand the malls.  The stupid decorations and displays, and that horrible music, always the new takes on tired old Christmas songs, ‘Sleigh Ride’ and worse, ‘Jingle Bell Rock,’ and then there’s always some mall-stalking douchebag who suckers you into trying some lotion or unguent or ‘epidermal astringent’ or something.  So I skip the department stores, and I refuse to get caught up in all that Cyber-Monday crap, and then I feel lame for buying anyone anything.”
                “I see.  Now, do you think there’s anything … indulgent, about this pure hatred of the season?”
                “What do you mean ‘indulgent’?”
                “Well, we’ve talked a lot in these sessions about attitude, and the choices you make about how you see the world.  Isn’t there some aspect of the holidays you could warm up to?  I wonder if you’re not deliberately—though perhaps unconsciously—focusing on the negative here, perhaps to achieve some kind of purity in your disdain for it.  Perhaps you’re indulging your impulse to go negative.”
                Nick said nothing for a good while.  He sighed.  Finally Dr. Waters broke the silence.  “Nick, I’d like you to think back, over all the Christmases you’ve had, throughout childhood too, and try to think of the most recent positive memory you have.  Not just a brief moment, like when you got some really cool gift, but something meaningful.  Take your time.”
                More silence.  Ten minutes.  Finally Nick said, “I have a memory, but it’s kind of complicated.  I’d need to give you some back story.”  Dr. Waters nodded his approval, and Nick continued:  “It was my first Christmas after I started college.  I was royally pissed off at my parents.  This was a couple of years after their divorce, long past the period of each one trying to win me over to their side, but they were still bitter.  I was pissed because they were both unwilling to pay for my flight home for the holidays.  Of course each thought the other should pay for it, and they couldn’t go in together because then they’d have to actually cooperate, plus they’d both remarried and why put that burden on my stepparents who don’t even know me, right?  So my initial plan was to stay back, skip the holidays completely, just molder away in the dorms for the whole three weeks.  That’s what I told my parents I was gonna do, but they must have thought I was bluffing, and I guess I was.  I caved in pretty early because I didn’t want the flight to get too expensive.
                “So anyway, I decided since I was paying for the ticket myself, that, you know, fuck my parents, right?  I wouldn’t stay with either of them.  My friend Micky agreed to put me up at his place.  He was a bit older, had been on his own for years, never sees his folks over the holidays.  My hero, right?  He set up a little bed in his basement, random mismatched sheets and weird old blankets … even set out some light reading for me, a stack of magazines like ‘Big Fat & Sassy.’  Pretty funny.
                “So Christmas Eve rolls around and my mom is hell-bent on having her kids eat dinner at her place that night.  It shouldn’t matter because Christmas Eve was never a big deal in our family—we usually just watched TV or something.  But she’s mainly looking to make sure we’re not spending it with our dad.  Which was totally unfair, because she was getting us for Christmas dinner anyway.  Ryan and I agreed to this because the previous year my dad got us, and his second wife served these weird onion balls with the turkey dinner.  I don’t know why, but my brother and I couldn’t face those onion balls again.  We talked about that dinner like it was a POW camp or something.  So the deal was, Mom would get us for Christmas dinner and Dad would get us for Christmas morning.  So when she brings up Christmas Eve dinner we’re thinking she’s being kind of selfish—I mean, two dinners in a  row?—so Ryan gets this great idea of throwing a huge party and having all this food there.  Actually, I think he was going to do the party anyway, or maybe it was his roommates’  party, but he piled on with the food idea.  So I was going to do that.
                “But when I tell my mom, she gets all sore at me, and is practically crying, so I figure what the hell, the party’ll go late and I can hang with my mom first.  So I try to eat light at my mom’s dinner, but it’s just the two of us, and she knows how much I eat and flat-out accuses me of planning to secretly join my brother for dinner later.  So to prove her wrong—well, to pretend to—I eat my fill.  And then when enough time has passed I head over to Ryan’s party.  I get my friend Paul to come along.  His folks weren’t doing anything anyway.
                “Of course to Ryan it was a big deal that we both refuse Mom’s Christmas Eve dinner, on principle, and he’d made me promise not to cave.  So I have to lie to him, too.  And, of course, he wants to make sure I’m telling the truth, so he serves me this gargantuan portion of enchiladas.  I’m so stuffed after that I feel like I’m gonna puke.  And then Paul challenges me to a boat race.”
                “Boat race?” said Dr. Waters, perplexed. 
                Nick chortled.  “You haven’t heard ‘boat race’?  It’s a drinking contest.  You know, who can chug a beer the fastest.”
                “Oh, I see.  Sorry to interrupt.  Please continue.”  Throughout this story Dr. Waters hadn’t been taking any notes.  He’d just stared into space, his head tilted slightly.
                “So anyhow, it is a party, and I am the fastest boat racer around.  I never realized it until college.  It’s a gift, really.  I can just open my throat, and—BAM!—just pour it right down, like my throat’s a clear pipe.  And Ryan had never even seen this!  We’d never even boat-raced before!  So here it is, my moment of glory, and I pound this plastic cup of beer in like two seconds, and then this horrible thing happens:  I totally puke!  Not ‘cause I’m drunk, but just too damn full!  I kind of catch the barf in my hands, and I’m running for the sink but it’s totally crowded and I’m knocking people out of the way and they’re all seeing my hands full of barf and laughing their asses off.  And I know what they’re all thinking—oh, this lightweight can’t hold his booze, it’s only 9:30 and he’s already throwing up!  It was so humiliating.  Paul is laughing harder than anybody.  ‘Way to catch it in your hands!’ he keeps saying.  And the worst part is Ryan looking at me, all confused.  He knows I haven’t been there long enough to get that drunk.  I don’t know what to say.
                “So Paul and I leave.  I’m just too ashamed to stay there.  I’ve got barf all down my pants and can’t stand the idea of having to explain it to every new person I see.  But it’s too early to turn in, so Ryan drives downtown and we park the car and start looking for a bar.
                “The weird thing is that I don’t think either of us had ever set foot in a bar before.  We were only eighteen.”
“Why did you think they’d let you in?”
“This was 1986 and the drinking age was still eighteen.  It occurred to me later that of course you’d have to be twenty-one to go to a bar—eighteen-year-olds could only buy 3.2 beer and only at the grocery store—but at the time I just wasn’t thinking.  I mean, I’d never considered it.  Like I said, we weren’t the kind of guys who went to bars.  Our idea of a good time was buying a case of generic beer and drinking it in the garage.
“It didn’t matter, though.  We go to this total dive bar and don’t even get carded.  The bartender isn’t one of these chatty, friendly types … he doesn’t say a word.  He’s like a pithed teenager running a roller coaster at an amusement park.  And this bar … they haven’t decorated for the holidays at all.  No tree, not a single sprig of holly, no ribbons, no nothing.  They probably don’t have the money to do it right and realize a half-assed job would just make the place even more squalid.  Or maybe they know their clientele, know that it’s just a bunchy of lonely no-hopers who would just as soon pretend it’s not even ‘the holidays.’

“So there aren’t a lot of people in there and the ones we see all look totally depressed.  Each of them is sitting alone, nobody talking to anybody.  Just sitting, staring forward, working their way through their drinks.  I thought we might get a few dirty looks—I mean, these yuppie kids infiltrating their bunker here—by they don’t give a shit.  If they’d looked homeless or crazy that would have actually been less depressing.  They look unwell, one guy’s skin is practically grey.  One dude is wearing one of those cheesy ‘Members Only’ jackets.
“So all I can think about is how, as dingy and awful and depressing as this place is, for these guys it must be better than sitting alone at home on Christmas Eve.  It didn’t occur to me until years later that some of these guys may have had no idea what day it even was, and were just in there every night.  At the time, I definitely had the feeling they were escaping something, and that they had every intention of being so hung over on Christmas morning they wouldn’t even care that they were all alone.
“I think Paul was as uncomfortable as I was there, and anyway he has to drive so he can’t have more than one drink.  Back then we hadn’t learned how to sip a beer, we just instinctively drank them as fast as a glass of water, so we’re done in no time.  I think we both had the idea of staying just long enough that it didn’t look like we were fleeing the place.  So we head out.
“We could have strolled the Pearl Street mall, which is this really nice outdoor deal, all the shops done up with lights and everything, but it’s like five degrees out and I feel like the skin on my face is gonna crack.  So we just hustle back to the car and head back to Paul’s place.  He was still living with his folks.  They weren’t home, I think they were at a holiday party or something. 
“So we sit around his house for awhile.  We’re pretty bored and there’s nothing on TV, so we decide to do something we’d never done during our high school years, but which always seemed like a rite of passage:  we raid his dad’s liquor cabinet.  We got pretty plastered.  There were all kinds of booze, which was funny because Paul’s dad was actually a very temperant guy.  I never even saw him drink.  We figured if we drank from each bottle equally, maybe he wouldn’t notice anything was missing.
“Once we realize Paul is too drunk to drive, I figure I’ll walk over to Micky’s, but it’s at least a mile and I’m not looking forward to braving that cold, so I keep procrastinating.  Just after midnight Paul’s parents show up, and his dad offers to drive me home.  I try as hard as I can to seem sober, and I’m so worried about him smelling booze—his booze!—on my breath, I keep the window down through the whole drive.  I was so drunk I actually believed this would work.  But Paul’s dad never said a thing, he was really nice.
“Micky has gone to bed by the time I get there, but I let myself in.  I’d only brought one pair of jeans to Boulder with me, and have the foresight to throw my barfy jeans in the washing machine.  Then I pass out.  The next morning I bounce out of bed at like seven, feeling completely fine.  No hangover at all!  I throw my wet jeans in the dryer but I can’t get it to work.  I ask Micky to help and he’s like, ‘Dude, my dryer’s broken.’  I’m thinking, crap, what am I supposed to do?  Even if I find a Laundromat open on Christmas, am I supposed to stand around in there in my undies?  Plus, I’m expected at my dad’s place before long.  I figure since he’d traded Christmas dinner for this morning with his kids, he’ll be pretty chapped if I show up late.
“But having escaped a hangover I’m feeling invincible so I just pull on the wet jeans, throw on my coat, and bolt out the door to run the mile or so to my dad’s house.  And it’s the awesomest thing:  the sky is blue, it’s sunny, and there’s at least a foot of fresh snow. 

So I race through the cold bright morning, high-stepping through the snow, which is the dry, powdery kind so it’s flying everywhere, like in an ad for a ski resort.  Not a soul is out there so it’s like I have the whole world to myself.  You know how snow seems to muffle sounds?  Everything is completely silent except the creaking of my shoes on the snow, and my own breathing.  I’m panting pretty hard, not adjusted to the high altitude.  So I’m just hauling ass through all this snow, and about halfway to my dad’s I have to stop and take a breather, and I notice that me jeans have frozen stiff!
“And I’m standing there panting but I’m not even shivering, because I’ve been working so hard, and I’m just feeling euphoric.  I feel such a sense of release after being at that bar the night before.  See, I’d been kind of dreading Christmas morning, because my dad wouldn’t know how to run the show.  Christmas morning in my childhood was perfect:  the same stockings every year, hand-embroidered by Mom, stuffed with all the right stuff—the orange shoved down in the foot, her perfect homemade fudge in crackly waxed paper, the gift-wrapped tube of Crest, the Chapstick—and as we tore through our gifts we’d be smelling the yeasty stollen baking in the oven.  Well, none of that was going to happen this year.  Dad would probably make some weird greyish brown pancakes with like thirty types of flour in them, and flaxseed and wheat germ and all types of healthy stuff, and the stockings won’t be red, they won’t match, they’ll be stuffed with god knows what, and my evil stepmother will be there, and everything will be all wrong.  So that’s why I’d been dreading it. 
“But standing outside now, surrounded by all this dazzling snow, panting, feeling invincible, I’m thinking about how I’m breaking with the past, all these lost traditions, but it’s okay, I’ll always be me.  I’ll make my own life now, with my own rules.  I’d thought that before and it was kind of scary, like maybe I’d just screw everything up, but now I’m strangely heartened by the realization that whatever happens, at least I’m not going to end up like those poor lonely bastards in that dive bar, just trying to get through Christmas Eve.”
Dr. Waters looked at Nick.  Nick looked at Dr. Waters.  Neither said anything for awhile.  Nick’s smile faded and morphed into a frown.
“Well, that’s the story,” he said.  “You told me to tell you a happy holiday memory, and I did.  So … what happens next?”
“You seem to have some expectation.  What would you like to happen?” Dr. Waters asked.
“Well, I assume you asked me to tell you that story for some reason.  So, is it supposed to cheer me up?”
“I don’t believe in magic bullets.  I’m sorry if you thought that memory would automatically fix something.  The point of our work here is to help you gain insight into yourself.  So tell me:  is the point of your story that you felt you didn’t need anybody?”
“I never said that.  I don’t know if the story has a point.  Unless you see one.”
“One interpretation, one that I would support, is that as a college kid you came to the mythical conclusion that you no longer needed anybody.”
“Oh, like I was delusional!  Really!  Tell me more!”
“The happy part of the story seemed to be you reveling in this sense of self-sufficiency.  But I can’t help but think you weren’t self-sufficient at all.  For instance, the night before, in your drunken, naïve state, you felt you could walk a mile to your friend Micky’s house in the middle of the night when it’s five degrees out.  That would have been a really stupid thing to do.  You might have gotten tired, or dizzy, and maybe you’d have decided to rest awhile in a snow bank and then you could have passed out and died of exposure.  Happens all the time.  Instead your friend’s dad showed up and gave you a ride, and it never dawned on you, even after you’d sobered up, that he may have saved your life.”
“Oh, I see, and you think it was also stupid to run through the snow to my dad’s house?”
“No, that’s totally different because you weren’t drunk, and if you did have a problem it was morning and somebody would have found you.”
“Okay, so I was young and drunk and almost made one bad decision.  That erases all the joy of my story?”
“No, that’s only one way in which you were deceiving yourself.  The other is that you were euphoric at solving your own problem, with the wet jeans, and you proceeded from that idea to a larger sense that you didn’t need anybody.  But in that moment you didn’t consider that, even if the old Christmas rituals wouldn’t be observed, you were still on the way to be with your family.  Yes, you had the burden of divorced parents to deal with, but being with those two, and your brother, would be far better than being alone.  Your epiphany seems to have been that, due to your growing independence, you’d never end up alone in a bar on Christmas Eve.  But that’s a delusion.  Really, you’d only escape such a future—if you escaped it at all—because of your family, not because of your own strength as an individual.  That’s what I get from the story.”
“Oh, well, aren’t you clever!  But how can you even say that?  Who are you to say whether my broken-up family was better than nothing?”
“That’s not just my conclusion.  You knew that yourself, at least at one time.”
“What are you even talking about?!”
“You said yourself, your original plan was to stay back at school and blow off the holidays altogether.  But you realized you didn’t really want this, that you’d be lonely spending all that time by yourself.  It was so important to you to go home, you paid for the airfare yourself!”
Nick bit his lip.  He stared at Dr. Waters.  “That wasn’t to be with my family.  That was to be with my friends.”
“Let me ask you.  Paul and Micky … are you in touch with them anymore?”
“Well, thanks a lot, Dr. Waters.  That was the happiest Christmas story I knew, and now you’ve spoiled it.  That really helps me feel better about the holidays.”
“My goal wasn’t to spoil your story.  I was hoping you could figure out what made a past holiday season at least somewhat joyful, and try to replicate that.”
“Okay, but I can’t, right?  Because my joy then was a delusion, as you’ve so helpfully pointed out.  Maybe joy is always a delusion.  Maybe that’s why I hate the holidays so much.”
“Well, that’s one conclusion.  Another conclusion might be that you could have been more grateful that you had somewhere, anywhere, to go to besides a bar.”
“Okay, fine.  I wasn’t grateful.  I took my family for granted.  But how many times to I have to say it:  I was young!  I was just a stupid college kid, okay?”
“So do you think, as an adult, you’ve become more insightful?  You’ve put that naïveté behind?”
Nick snorted.  “You tell me.  You’re the expert.  What do you think?  Am I still delusional?”
“I don’t think I can answer that simply.  But I’m suddenly reminded about the dream you described earlier.  Setting aside what I said earlier about interpreting dreams, that one might shed some light.”
“Go on.”
“Okay.  You saw this barracuda, and you were terrified because you didn’t know which way to flee, right?  And there’s the sudden depth of the ocean.  You could swim all you wanted, but for all you know you’d just be heading further out to sea.”
“Exactly.  That’s what makes it such an awful dream.”
“Well, you—the you in your dream—seems too panicked to think straight.  You don’t seem to have had the simple insight to stop looking down, through the mask, and just pull your head out of the water.  You couldn’t have been that far from shore, right?  You just locate the beach and swim toward it!  Right?”
Nick said nothing.
“Maybe you have this dream again and again because your subconscious is trying to get it right.  But you keep waking up before having that crucial insight, that you’re not as lost as you seem, that you just need to stop fixating on what you think you need, and try to look at things in a new way.  Again, we can only guess at the meaning of dreams, but maybe this is a useful metaphor anyway.”
Nick swung his legs around to the floor and sat on the edge of the couch.  He held his head in his hands and stared at the floor.  After awhile he looked at his watch.  “Dr. Waters, we have five minutes left but I think for now I just need to think.  If it’s okay with you I think I’ll just be on my way.”
Dr. Waters nodded and rose to his feet.  He crossed over to the door and opened it.  “Very well, Nick.  I’ll see you next time.”  As Nick shuffled out the door Dr. Waters patted his shoulder.
“Thanks,” Nick said.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sonnet Class (almost) Crashes & Burns


A couple years ago, I posted a guide, “How to Write a Sonnet,” to albertnet.  I didn’t expect anybody to read it, but it has actually become one of my most popular posts.  When I realized that more people are interested in this obscure activity than I’d thought, I decided to offer a sonnet writing class as a prize for the fundraising auction for my daughter’s school.  I figured if I could get half a dozen people to sign up (and pay the tuition to the PTA) it would be worth giving a class.

Enough people signed up, so I held the class last summer.  Not surprisingly, a few of the registered students flaked, so I had my two daughters attend, to increase the liveliness of our discussions.  I figured if these little kids participated, that might draw out the shyer students.  (I don’t reckon a lot of extroverts go in for sonnet writing.)  This post documents the struggles I had with the class; how I publicly shamed my daughter; and how she had the last laugh.  Much of this tale is told in sonnets, including sonnets from each of my daughters.

The class

I ended up with three adults and one child among the “non-scholarship” students (i.e., besides my daughters).  I transferred most of the contents of my sonnet essay to a flip-chart, which made the lecture really easy to give.  The kid who attended, who must have been forced into it by his mom or dad, didn’t say a word.  He was probably terrified (as I would have been at that age).  But the refreshments were a hit, and everything seemed to go pretty well until the workshop.  We were all supposed to get started writing sonnets.  Nothing lofty, of course; I’d suggested a “Jabberwocky” strategy of writing about any topic or no topic, with lines that didn’t need to make any sense at all.  The idea was to practice iambic pentameter and the ABABCDCDEFEFGG rhyme scheme (click here for details).  Unfortunately, everybody seemed to have writer’s block, at least at first.

As I recall it, the only person who was getting anywhere was my younger daughter, Lindsay.  She is of course well accustomed to asking me for help on her homework, so as she composed a line she would ask me if the meter and rhyme were right.  Before too long she had a pretty good sonnet going:

In case that’s a bit hard to make out, here’s what she wrote:

My fluffy cat is going to bed now
With dreams of tigers chasing mice and dogs.
She wakens with a slightly startled meow
But hopes to dream of tasty polliwogs.
And soon her eyes begin to slightly close.
Sometimes she dreams of Tom and Jerry’s fights.
This time Tom might just win; really, who knows?

I thought this was a great start.  The meter was pretty good, and the rhymes perfect, and the content I found charming.  But it didn’t seem to be inspiring anybody.  Oddest of all, my older daughter, Alexa, hadn’t written a thing.

Why did I find this odd?  Well, Alexa has written at least three sonnets (one is included at the end of my how-to post) and has shown remarkable facility.  She was supposed to by my “ringer,” the little kid who made it look easy.  I wondered if perhaps her very success was holding her back.  Had I screwed up and praised her for her earlier work, so now she was afraid of falling from grace?  I couldn’t think of any other explanation.  I asked why she wasn’t writing anything.  “I don’t feel like it,” she replied.

Desperate measures

I was beginning to get worried.  I’d budgeted an hour for this workshop.  I felt like if nobody actually wrote anything, I might have to consider whether I’d only imagined the good interaction we’d had during the first part of the class.  (In retrospect I realize that people must have been paying attention because they did well on the quiz.)  I knew it wouldn’t matter that much if the class was a success or not, but I was starting to feel embarrassed.

Hmmm, embarrassment.  This gave me an idea.  I figured there was a pretty good chance I could shame Alexa into writing something.  The question was, if I did this, would I go to Hell for it?  Was this a good trade-off—possibly rescuing myself from embarrassment, but at my daughter’s expense?  How sensitive are pre-teens, anyway?  But deep in my heart I knew that having had this idea, I’d follow through with it.  After all, I’m of the character-building school of parenting.

Of course, there’s a right way and a wrong way to embarrass your kids in front of others.  (Well, actually, I’m sure there are countless wrong ways to do it.)  The best way I could think of, under the circumstances, was to embarrass her through verse.  This was a sonnet class, after all.  I hadn’t planned to write anything myself during the workshop, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

My gauntlet-sonnet

Here’s the partial sonnet I wrote, and then read aloud to the class, in order to lay down the gauntlet for Alexa:

I fear my sonnet class has crashed and burned
Because Alexa has refused to write.
My pedagogic efforts she has spurned,
Her fertile thoughts decaying into blight.
Because she’s had success with this before,
She clearly wants to quit while she’s ahead.
Pretending that this sonnet stuff’s a bore
Assuages a peculiar kind of dread.

This got a good laugh, and poor Alexa got pretty red in the face.  Seeing this, I became nervous.  What would she do now?  If she stormed out of the room, the resulting awkwardness would be pretty much intolerable for everybody.  Suddenly my tactic seemed absurdly foolish and I was kicking myself for taking such a risk. 

But Alexa didn’t storm off.  She grabbed a piece of paper and a pencil and started to write.


With Alexa scribbling furiously away, the others perhaps felt inspired because bit by bit students began writing, and reading what they’d written, a few lines at a time.  (Since I didn’t have anybody turn anything in, I’m not able to quote my students’ work.)  Before long, Alexa announced that she was ready to read her sonnet.  Not just the first few lines, but the whole dang thing.  Here’s what she wrote:

I contemplate the bowl of foul greens
Which holds me back from access to dessert.
To dump them on the floor, yet not be seen...
No, not with parents constantly alert.
I simply cannot bring myself to eat
That sickly substance calling itself food.
Just managing to bite it—what a feat!
But to refuse, no, that would not be shrewd.
Dessert!  Dessert!  To me it is required.
The sweetness simply makes my life complete.
Of filthy veggies, oh, I am so tired;
Against dessert, they simply can’t compete.
    Boy, I am glad that we do have a cat
    She’s saved my life, well, many times at that.

One of the great things about parenting is how much joy I get from losing to my kids.  That old saying “He who laughs last, laughs best” certainly applies here, but it’s hard to imagine that Alexa’s triumph and satisfaction exceeded my own at that moment.  In fact, I was so moved, I decided to finish my sonnet and chronicle her triumph.  Fortunately, the workshop was getting livelier and I didn’t have a chance until a day or two later.

The rest of my sonnet

Alexa kind of wrote the second half of my sonnet, in the sense that she inspired the content (which for me is generally the hardest part).  Here’s the whole sonnet:

I fear my sonnet class has crashed and burned
Because Alexa has refused to write.
My pedagogic efforts she has spurned,
Her fertile thoughts decaying into blight.
Because she’s had success with this before,
She clearly wants to quit while she’s ahead.
Pretending that this sonnet stuff’s a bore
Assuages a peculiar kind of dread.
But wait—because I’ve read these lines aloud
(Thus shaming her in front of everyone)
She’s taken up a pen.  She’s far too proud
To be the victim of my wicked fun.
If we could see inside that precious head
We’d see a lightning storm of brilliant thought!
Pen flashing, from behind she darts ahead.
She’s first to read, her sonnet deftly wrought.
     Alexa, in restoring her good name
     Has gone and put the rest of us to shame.

I would like to point out that I did get Alexa’s permission before telling this tale and sharing these sonnets on this blog.  (Lindsay gave me permission too, but asked me to explain that she’s not done with her poem yet.)

If you’re a Bay Area person and would like to take a sonnet-writing class next year, e-mail me and let me know, because I plan to offer this class again at the 2014 school auction.  Who knows, maybe next time I can put Lindsay in the line of fire!

Epilogue - January 11, 2014

Remember the good start my younger daughter, Lindsay, had on her sonnet?  Well, a week or two before Christmas I suggested that she finish that sonnet as a gift to me.  This she did.  Her sister typed it up for her and helped her print it out.  Here it is now!  (Since her sister chose to leave in the misspellings, I have followed suit.)

My fluffy cat is going to bed now
With dreams of tigers chasing mice and dogs
She wakens with a slitely startled myow
But hopes to dream of tasty pollywogs

And soon her eyes begin to slitly clows 
Sometimes she dreams of Tom and Jerry’s fites
This time Tom might just win, really, who nows?
When Jerry leaves he’s covered with cat bites 

When wacend our cat tries to sleep again
In resting her expreshon is quite smug
She uses blankcets to make cumfy dens
I wake our cat and give her a big hug

   Not only is she lazy but shes fat,
   Our cat is cute thers no dening that. 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Movie Review - Lego Dude vs. Dinosaurs Run Amok


This week I thought I’d step aside and let somebody else contribute to albertnet.  In this post, the film critic Maynard Steele reviews my stop-motion animated movie, Lego Dude vs. Dinosaurs Run Amok.  Here is the movie:

Movie Review – Lego Dude vs. Dinosaurs Run Amok

Making movies is one of those vocations that doesn’t require any specific education or credentials.  Many is the actor who, after achieving fame and fortune, tells a fawning magazine, “What I really want to do is direct,” and then proceeds to do just that.  And sometimes a director has no film background whatsoever, such as James Cameron, who was an English major until he dropped out of college to become first a truck driver, then the second highest-grossing film director in the world.

It would seem wise for an industry outsider making his or her first film to start out with something simple.  Top-grossing director Steven Spielberg began his career with Duel, a very basic action movie about a psychotic tanker truck driver terrorizing an innocent motorist.  For Cameron, it was Piranha II – The Spawning, which was about flying piranhas attacking people.  Both directors waited until they had more experience before getting all film-school-y.

At first glance, the debut movie from blogger Dana Albert looks like a safe bet:  a basic action movie about dinosaurs attacking a motorist.  But from the opening frame of the film, we see that Albert is trying to achieve a level of sophistication that a motion picture newbie would be wise to avoid.  His camera fixes its attention not on the action itself, but on the stage set where the stop-motion animation is done.  A weak voice-over from Albert, mumbled and ineloquent, gives us some background on the making of the movie.  This “meta-film” movie-within-a-movie device has stymied far better directors than Albert.  For example, Joe Wright’s recent Anna Karenina featured a stage set where we viewers, as though in the audience at a play, watch the action unfold.  Why not immerse us in Tolstoy’s world, like the novel does?  Such added artifice almost never works, and is particularly weak in Albert’s film.

There’s also the matter of the medium chosen for this film.  When bloviating to the press, Albert has claimed that his decision to use stop-motion animation for Amok was a simple matter of budget:  he couldn’t afford live action special effects or CGI.  But I’d guess there’s more going on here:  I think he secretly hopes reviewers like me will compare him to such icons as Bertolt Brecht, who used absurdly basic props (e.g., a cardboard box labeled “sleigh”) to keep his stage play audience at an intellectual distance from the drama, to ensure that their rational, critical minds weren’t subverted beneath emotions and strong association with his characters.  Only a desire to ape this kind of device could explain Albert’s use of crude plastic dinosaurs and Lego in his film.  It’s a cheeky move, considering the vast intellectual gulf between geniuses like Brecht and mere hacks like Albert.

That said, the action in Amok unfolds crisply and the camera-work—this was shot using a handheld Motorola Droid—is efficient and unfussy.  Albert’s collaborators, other first-timers including his two daughters and his mother, do a great job with characterization.  (Different dinosaurs were manipulated by different hands, and it shows.)  Most of the movie was gratifying to watch.  Seeing the dinosaurs rallying to flip Lego Guy’s car over on him, I found my pulse quickening dramatically; I haven’t had such a satisfying visceral response to cinematic violence since the restaurant assassination scene in The Godfather.  Small details like the way Lego Dude’s arm thrashes wildly as he’s pinned under the car are either a tribute to, or subconscious imitation of, something from a Sam Peckinpah movie.

All of this might have helped me forgive the weak start to the film, except that at the very end, Albert again inserts another blatantly artificial effect:  a giant human hand appears, its finger pointing at—what?  The answer is, who cares?  This kind of abrupt rupture of scene is doubtless meant to recall other, greater works in which the creator shows his hand, dissolving the world of the narrative.  Albert, who wrote his college thesis on Vladimir Nabokov, may well have had Bend Sinister in mind, in which the ill-fated main character is rescued by the author:  “Just a fraction of an instant before another and better bullet hit him, he shouted again:  You, you—and the wall vanished, like a rapidly withdrawn slide, and I stretched myself and got up from among the chaos of written and rewritten pages….”

I can’t help but think how much better Amok might have been with some tighter editing.  Normally there is a post-production process, involving focus groups, that ensures a film doesn’t overly indulge a director’s vain artistic flights-of-fancy—but in this case the producer was the director’s mother, who probably couldn’t bear to oppose her son.  A briefer, leaner Amok might have worked as a straightforward action flick, with the film-school shenanigans held out for the “Director’s Cut” DVD.

At the same time, I have to concede that something would be lost through such a revision.  Clearly Albert had something serious in mind with this movie.  Beyond the crowd-pleasing gore lurks a subtle didactic message that lingers beyond the cheap thrills.  Could we surmise from the film’s shortcomings that this greater meaning is accidental?  No, it’s intentional, and we can tell this, oddly enough, by the film’s MPAA rating.

Your typical action movie is PG-13.  That rating, more than any other, brings in the teenagers, who are the darlings not only of Hollywood but practically every other industry as well.  PG movies strike teens as lame, which is why they’re an endangered species; teens need to know a film will be edgy.  (Before the PG-13 rating, George Lucas fought to have Star Wars rated PG instead of G, for fear it would be thought of as square.)  And yet, Albert campaigned vigorously, and successfully, to have Amok rated G!

Why would he do this?  Is there precedent for a violent movie getting a G rating?  In fact there is:  the 1972 sci-fi flick Silent RunningThough it’s not a hugely violent movie, every single human character is killed.  The main character, Lowell, objecting to the planned destruction of the last flora from earth, housed in spaceship-attached greenhouses, murders the entire crew—bludgeoning one to death with a shovel—and then kills himself.  Only the plants survive (and a few robots).  Why the G rating?  The MPAA must have decided that the environmental message was just too important to withhold from any part of the moviegoing public.  (Environmental ethics aside, I think it was actually the piped-in Joan Baez music that drove Lowell over the edge.)

Albert also has a message to impart, to as wide an audience as possible.  Through his Brechtian machinery, Albert asks the audience to draw back, detach from the bloodlust, and reflect on what he’s seen.  What really happened here?  At first blush, it seems the simplest of plots:  a car crashes into a dinosaur, and several other dinosaurs converge on it and kill the driver.  But how and why does the driver crash his car?

Watch again:  there’s a passenger on the back, lacking not just a seatbelt but a seat, who falls out and lands grotesquely on his back.  This distracts the driver, who—panicking—actually takes his hands off the steering wheel.  This is why he veers right and plows into the stegosaurus.  He’s immediately attacked by a dinosaur to our right, who might just be hungry, but the other dinosaurs—witnesses to this driver’s incompetence—are clearly retaliating when they roll his car up on him.

Are we supposed to identify with the motorist, or the dinosaurs?  For my money, it’s the dinosaurs.  The movie satisfies because so many of us—as pedestrians or bicyclists—have felt so vulnerable when a car has endangered us … but what if we were giants and could slake on our basest thirst for revenge?  In his blog, Albert is fond of mentioning the “lizard brain,” and what better manifestation of it than the actual walnut-sized brain of Thunder Lizard?  The dinosaurs get to carry out the retaliation we only dream of.

And yet, there’s always that pulling back, that emotional detachment Albert builds in to the movie.  He’s telling us yes, enjoy the revenge theme, but then remember your essential humanity; we had a little fun here, but only giant lizards are allowed to kill.  And there’s more to it:  he’s inviting us to watch again, and look more closely.  What else do we notice about the film, upon repeated viewings?  Did you catch what happens to the passenger, whose fall started the violence in motion?  Apparently unhurt, he gets up and flees the mêlée!  The cause of the crash, the flailing of the arm, the flight of the passenger—we don’t see these at first, just as drivers see so little of what’s going on around them.  It all just happens too fast, which is why we should all drive slower and try to pay more attention.  And that, we realize, is the central message of this film.

Why not just say so, then?  Well, Albert has, but words can be so easily ignored.  Surely Albert has chafed at the limitations of mere text, and nobody likes a high-handed lecture or public service announcement.  The brazen fun of Amok—its rapture of violence—transcends the limitations of priggish, didactic works.  Notwithstanding its art and subtext, Lego Dude vs. Dinosaurs Run Amok is an action flick at heart.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

From the Archives - My First Thanksgiving as a College Kid


Here’s something from my archives. It’s twenty-five years old so maybe it’ll remind you of your teenager days, or prove that teenagers have always been this bad, or otherwise gratify you somehow.

My First Thanksgiving as a College Kid - November 28, 1988

I never much liked the phrase “Turkey Day.” I think we’re supposed to be thankful for more than just the dinner. I like to think I can relate to those early pilgrims. As I understand it, they were basically social outcasts who left England in exile, and then were so incompetent they almost starved to death. But instead of denying all this, they made a big point of showing gratitude to the Native Americans who saved them.

At least, that’s the story I was able to glean from the “Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” special and various picture books I read as a child. More recently I read an Art Buchwald article in the “L.A. Times” that made it all seem a lot more complicated. The article described how, after the USA worked the Native Americans over for a while and condemned them to reservations, we had to subtly shift the concept of the holiday to encompass thanks in general, for all kinds of things, not just escaping starvation.

I guess the main thing I’m thankful for is that I must have it pretty good, because it’s easier for me to figure out what other people should be thankful for. For example, there was this hapless guy I saw out on the highway the other day during my bike ride. He was also on a bike ride, though you couldn’t call him a cyclist. I don’t actually know what he thought he was doing out there on southbound 101. What he was doing was trying to fix a flat without any idea how this is done. He was trying to replace the tube without removing his wheel from the bike; I have no idea how he planned to get the tube around the frame. But even if, through some miracle, he achieved that feat, he never would have been able to inflate the sucker because he had a presta valve and a schrader pump. In true holiday spirit, I did the entire repair. It was easy for me to imagine how thankful he felt for my help. It’s a little harder for me to feel thankful about this whole affair since I didn’t really get anything out of it. I guess I can be thankful I’m not that ignorant.

Now, even though I don’t like the phrase “Turkey Day,” I do like turkey and do see fit to do more on this holiday than sit around feeling thankful. Thanksgiving is a celebration of food and family, too. So I went up to San Luis Obispo to share the holiday with my brother Geoff and our fond ex‑ roommate. We went to this fellow’s parents’ house, as they’re the closest thing to family we have on the central coast, besides each other. [After moving away from home, I lived with Geoff in San Luis Obispo until September 1988, when I moved to Isla Vista, further down the coast of California, to attend UCSB.]

The original plan called for me to ride my trusty Team Miyata [racing bike] up to San Luis Obispo on Thursday, recover while basking in the friendly companionship and male bonding of my friends in SLO, and then ride back down on Sunday. Unfortunately, nature and the customs of others conspired against me to stifle the original plan. The first heavy rain of the winter hit Isla Vista hard on Wednesday, drenching me completely during my 15‑mile (each way) commute to work at Bike ‘n’ Hike. That dampened my enthusiasm for a five-hour rainy slog the next day. In addition, our friend’s household begins Thanksgiving dinner early in the afternoon, which would dictate a 4:00 am departure time, which clashed with my better judgment. So instead, our friend came down in his parents’ new Mazda sports sedan, which has so many electric gadgets and gizmos I can envision a science fiction movie about the gizmos embarking on a hostile takeover of the innocent motorists.

An extra benefit of being picked up and driven to SLO is that I didn’t really know the way up there anyway. I’m not the greatest traveler, truth be told. But at least I was smart enough to pack light for this trip. All I brought was my bike, my biking gear, and the clothes on my back, which I figured I’d leave at Geoff’s apartment for the next time I rode up there.

Thanksgiving was fine. A good time was had by all (assuming, of course, that Geoff and I didn’t ruin the evening for anybody by leveling the buffet‑style spread, leaving our hosts precious little in the way of leftovers). After a long weekend of hanging out I was well fueled for my ride back to UCSB.

I’d guessed the day would start out cool and I wasn’t wrong, so I wore my Chillys Thermax tights. I bought these using my employee discount when I worked at the factory in SLO that makes Hot Chillys. Thermax is this new miracle fabric. Through some fancy technology, it insulates perfectly and don’t react with bodily juices to produce an offensive odor. The only drawback of these tights is that the crotch is designed with old men in mind. Old men fall into two categories: those who like the crotch of their clothing to sag around their knees, and those who like to pull their tights up to their armpits. The Hot Chillys accommodate both styles perfectly with a more-than-ample crotch. I pull them up to my armpits, but somehow they almost always end up sagging, too. I have a recurring nightmare in which the crotch gets caught on the nose of my saddle and I totally crash.

With great ceremony and deliberation, I filled my jersey pockets. In the left went two bananas and two Power Bars. In case you haven’t heard of Power Bars, they are a scientifically blended food bar fortified with all the nutrients, vitamins, and mineral replacements necessary to sustain an athlete during intense competition. In lay terms, a Power Bar is a block of highly compressed Tender Vittles cat food, but chocolate-flavored. They aren’t as tasty as a King Size Snickers Bar, but they do the trick out on the road. In the middle pocket, I put my keys and my pocketknife, and in the right pocket went the wallet, map, and Lou Reed tape (which I’d inadvertently brought up to SLO and had to bring back down). At this point, the pockets seemed full, but not stuffed. It’s a good thing they’re such stretchy Lycra because as the temperatures rise, the clothing gets shed, which always creates a storage problem.

The owner of our favorite bike shop did me a favor and mapped out the perfect route to Isla Vista. This route follows Highway 101 most of the way, taking various detours to remain legal. Cyclists are required by law to take a detour through every town they reach. I originally figured this bizarre legislation was conceived by area merchants, who see cyclists as a source of possible revenue. But actually, I reckon it was concocted with insane drivers in mind. In California, a motorist can only see the exit he wants from the far left lane, and has to do the notorious “L.A. Lane Dive”, a maneuver in which he cuts across several lanes and dives into a 15‑mph exit at 80 mph. A cyclist, of course, would be flattened in such a scenario if he weren’t already clinging to the farthest-right edge of the exit himself.

I had to dig through the local paper for the weather forecast. No little summary on the front page, no sir. The front page of the “San Luis Obispo Telegram Tribune” is reserved for important news events, such as the local high school’s basketball game, or a fascinating human interest story like the Jones’ garden growing a two‑foot pumpkin or two girls walking home from school. The weather report read, “Possible clear skies; otherwise, cloudy. Warm temperatures; otherwise, cool. Highs in the low 50’s to mid 70’s, lows in the mid 40’s to low 50’s. Fair weekend forecast; otherwise, poor.” Maybe it wasn’t quite as wishy-washy as this, but it was close.

The ride itself was fairly uneventful. As the weather warmed up, the jersey pockets filled up. Soon the bananas were mashed against the Power Bars and my Hot Chillys top, and then the jacket was forced to make room in the middle pocket for the tights. As the map became curdled (a result of repeated panic navigation checks) it seemed to grow, threatening to shove my sunglasses case out of the right pocket to its death. By the time I reached Buellton, I probably had the equivalent of half my body weight pushing down on my lower back.

Reaching Buellton was a major relief, as I finally knew I wasn’t lost. The Power Bars had hit the spot; I only bought a small Snickers bar and a Coke at my favorite food store. No, the world‑famous Andersen’s pea soup would have to wait yet again. But a harsh realization accompanied my arrival here: I had to go to the bathroom. That would mean finding a bathroom, leaving my bike unattended, removing my sunglasses, my helmet, and the overstuffed jersey, finding a place to put them, and then reassembling the whole mess. I seriously doubted this was possible, remembering the axiom that once you have opened a can of worms, there is no way to put all the worms back into the can. I elected to stick it out and do the last 35 miles on a full bladder. This led to a really fast pace and intense ache that began in the crotch and radiated outward, shoving my stomach into my rib cage and making every pedal stroke really unpleasant during the last few miles.

Here are the statistics of the journey:

Cost: $4.00 (food)
Distance: 100.3 miles (including loop around the La Loma parking lot to break the 100‑mile barrier)
Time: 4:51:58 (not including breaks); 5:05:30 (total elapsed time)
Average Speed: 20.6 mph (personal record)
Score: 10.0, 10.0, 9.5, 9.5, and 7.5 (from the Romanian judge).
Critical acclaim:
—”Two thumbs up!” (Siskel & Ebert).
—”The most important ride of the holiday season!” (Me).

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Bike vs. Car - How I Broke My Femur


I’m coming up on two years since I had a horrific bicycle accident and broke my femur.  Though I told part of the story on this blog, I didn’t describe exactly how it happened.  I was thinking of suing the motorist who caused the accident, and had a vague notion that anything I wrote about how it happened might give me trouble later, especially since I was so angry at the time.  Now that it’s essentially too late to file a lawsuit, I’m (mostly) free to tell the rest of the story.

In this post I tell what happened; explain why I have decided not to pursue a lawsuit; and examine some inappropriate attitudes towards cyclists.

The rest of the story

In late November, 2011, I did an early morning bike ride with my daughter.  Here’s a photo I snapped that morning during a rest stop. 

Afterward we had some hot cocoa at home and then at about 9:30 a.m. I set out again  for a more intense solo effort.  I rode up South Park Drive, down and back up Fish Ranch Rd, down and back up Claremont Ave, and then was ready to head home.  Normally I’d have ridden back down South Park Drive, but it was kind of a misty morning and, that road being closed to cars, it was strewn with a lot of debris (like eucalyptus bark that can get slippery in such conditions).  So instead I figured I’d ride down Grizzly Peak Blvd instead (northbound, toward Spruce St).  Normally I avoid this road because part of it is residential and you get a lot of drivers backing out of driveways.  On this day, I was descending it at a very mellow pace, and I can prove it.  Look at the speed/altitude/time profile of the last part of my ride:

I was doing under 30 mph in the non-residential part, and then slowed down to around 20 when I got to the residential section.  You can see an acceleration at around 1:21:45, which I reckon is after the stop sign after the intersection of Grizzly Peak Blvd with Golf Course Rd and Centennial Dr.  (Yes, I stopped at the stop sign.  My bike computer takes a sample of speed, altitude, heart rate, and other data every twenty seconds.  My stop evidently took place between these data samples.)  The fastest I went between this point and my crash was 23.5 mph, which is below the speed limit.  You can see it’s not a very steep downhill.

A car had been ahead of me and as it slowed down, I came up on it and also slowed down.  It slowed down some more and suddenly veered to the right.  What was this car doing?  The driver hadn’t signaled so this veer took me by surprise.  (I wasn’t that surprised, of course, because motorists often change direction without signaling.)  I decided the driver must have pulled off to the side to let me by, as drivers sometimes do, so I kept going.  Suddenly, the driver swerved to the left, across the road and directly in my path.  The driver was headed for her driveway, on the left side of the road.  I’ve looked at this driveway using Google Maps, and this was about a 135-degree hairpin turn.  That’s why she’d swung right first—to give herself the full road for executing this tricky maneuver.  It’s a pity it didn’t occur to her that there could be somebody behind her who might really benefit from a turn signal.

You could say I had a very brief window in which to make a snap decision:  do I just slam on the brakes, or slam on the brakes and try to steer around the back of the car so as to possibly miss it?  But actually, it’s not really a choice:  as any expert cyclist knows, it’s always better to avoid an impact with a car, even if this means sliding out and crashing on your side.  I’ve heard guys recount a conscious decision to “lay her down” rather than hit a car, though I’m not sure I quite believe anybody has that much nerve.  Suffice to say, when I slammed on the brakes while trying to steer to the right, I didn’t have enough traction to pull it off.  I laid her down and missed the car, in the process avoiding a probable head injury and also sparing the driver from having to get involved.

What’s that, you say?  You say the driver was already involved?  Yeah, no kidding!  Somebody should have told her that!  Because you know what she did?  She completed her parking maneuver, shut off her engine, and—ignoring my blood-curdling screams that her neighbors heard, even a block away—went into her house and stayed there.

This driver was clearly of the George Carlin “keep movin’” school of traffic accidents:  “I do not stop when I have a traffic accident, do you?  No, you can’t!  Hey, who has time?  Not me!  I hit somebody, I run somebody over, I keep moving!  Especially if I’ve injured someone.  I do not get involved in that….  Let’s be logical about it:  if you do stop at the scene of the accident, all you do is add to the confusion!  These people you ran over have enough troubles of their own, without you stopping and making things worse!  Leave these people alone!  They’ve just been in a major traffic accident!”

As the cowardly driver’s neighbors swarmed around me, stopping traffic and calling for help, she stayed in her house.  Perhaps she had a sudden hankering for some Sunday morning Metallica on her teenager-grade stereo system and thus couldn’t hear the sirens of the fire truck and then the ambulance that arrived.  Or maybe she heard them, but was more afraid of getting in trouble than she was curious about my injuries.  Carlin would understand:  “Well of course they’re hurt, look at all the blood!  You just ran over them with a ton and a half of steel!  Of course they’re hurt, leave these people alone!  Haven’t you done enough?  For once in your life, do the decent thing:  don’t get involved.”

I talked to the police officer at the scene, and pointed to the car that cut me off and the driveway it was parked in.  Then I was carted off in the ambulance (you can read the rest of my saga here, here, and here).  The officer subsequently interviewed the driver, and I’ve read the report, but each page is stamped with “Unlawful dissemination of this information is a misdemeanor.”  I don’t want to take any risks, so I won’t tell you what’s in that report.  But I’ll tell you what isn’t.

The officer did not make any notation to the effect that the driver was hard of hearing.  He did not write anything vaguely resembling this:  “Are you sure you used your turn signal?  It’s kind of hard to believe that you did, since you’d have had to put it on twice:  once when you started your maneuver, and again after your veer to the right caused it to automatically turn off.”  He didn’t say anything like the following, either:  “Are you sure you didn’t veer to the right?  Because it’d be awfully difficult—impossible, actually—to execute such a sharp turn otherwise.”  He also didn’t say anything that even approached this:  “Weren’t you at all curious about the screaming, and the sirens, right out in the road in front of your house right after you got home?”  He didn’t say, “When you say you didn’t see a cyclist behind you, is it because you don’t check your rearview mirror before doing a 135-degree turn, or because he was using some kind of cloaking device?”  The officer has written nothing to the effect that he asked her, “Don’t you feel kind of bad?  Not that you could have known that he broke his femur, and that if the broken bone had punctured his femoral artery he could have bled to death right in front of your house….”

Based on the paucity of detail in this report, and thus the evident brevity of his questioning, the police officer might not have been totally averse to the Carlin school of traffic accidents.  Carlin rants, “And I’ll give you a practical reason not to stop—you need a practical reason?  If you do stop, sooner or later the police are gonna show up!  Is that what you want?  Huh?  Waste even more of your time, standing around, filling out forms, answering a lot of foolish questions?  Lying to the authorities?  And by the way, who are you to be taking up the valuable time of the police department?  These men and women are professionals, they’re supposed to be out fighting crime—stop interfering with police!”

Why I’m letting it go

For awhile after this crash I was intending to sue the driver, and I even retained a lawyer.  But I didn’t actively pursue the matter—frankly, with physical therapy and just trying to heal up, I had bigger fish to fry—and when the months dragged on and I hadn’t heard anything from my lawyer, I didn’t pursue the matter.  I have a few reasons for this.

First, there’s the matter of how cyclists are generally viewed by the general public, and the even thornier matter of how I might be viewed when the insurance company’s defense trots out a freelance article I wrote called “Five Seconds on a Mountain Pass – On Being a Velocity Addict.”  That doesn’t look good, especially when cyclists in general are widely believed to be reckless speed demons who deserve what they get.  With this in mind, I considered that the lack of response from my lawyer may have indicated second thoughts on his part.

Then, there’s the matter of my mental and emotional health.  I was so angry, for so long after that crash, that I had trouble sleeping.  It took great force of will to not dwell on the driver’s behavior every night when I lay in bed trying to fall asleep through all that pain.  To open up a new can of worms, that would rekindle that rage, was not a pleasant prospect.

Finally, there’s something my lawyer said:  that in these “he-said, she-said” cases, often the outcome boils down to how the jury feels about the parties involved.  If they like you, he said, of course that’s not a bad thing.  But if they hate the defendant, that’s when you can get a very favorable result.  I’ve let on in this post that this driver was female (simply because I can’t be bothered to play the non-specific-pronoun game); she also had two other traits that are often connoted, unfairly, with being a bad driver.  I wouldn’t want to win big just because a jury let itself be influenced by (possibly subconscious) stereotypes.  And oddly enough, since I know this driver to be a complete coward, I figured putting her on the stand would cause her a lot of pain.  And though part of me would welcome such revenge, the bigger part of me doesn’t like to cause pain, especially when I don’t know the circumstances of that person’s life.

Let’s blame the victim!

There’s a good chance that if you’re reading this blog you’re a cyclist, and thus you understand things about our sport that the general populace doesn’t.  I have a hunch that if you’ve ridden with me, you didn’t read this report and think, “Well, it’s clear that a foolish daredevil like this—author of 'Velocity Addict,' for crissakes—got what he had comin’!”  But in case you really do think this is my fault, and that such accidents are often, generally, or always the cyclist’s fault, or in case you’d like to try to educate a benighted motorist of your acquaintance by forwarding this, I’m going to explore the idea that I could be innocent in this even though I like to ride my bike fast.

There are certainly cases where it would be hard to defend a cyclist, like the case of the guy who took a curve too wide, crashed into a car, and was killed while trying to set a new record descending South Park Drive.  There, the reckless behavior directly led to his death.  But there’s a temptation to connote the willingness to go fast—as in over 40 mph—with an overall risk profile that you label “daredevil” and which puts the blame on the cyclist whenever he gets into an accident.

The problem of risk assessment

When we evaluate risk, there’s an impulse to extrapolate from the specific to the general.  For example, if your brother-in-law is a gambling addict, you’re probably not going to loan him money.  After all, you can guess what will happen to it.  This is a highly reasonable judgment, I think, but mainly because money is fungible.  Loaning money to a gambler is just like gambling yourself.

But would you also naturally assume that a gambling addict is a reckless driver?  Well, possibly.  But what about other people who take risks on a regular basis?  Being a garbage man is a very dangerous profession.  Would you automatically assume that if a garbage man gets in a traffic accident that it’s his fault, because he tolerates a high level of risk in his daily life?  Of course not.

I realize this isn’t a perfect analogy; I’ll concede that a cyclist who gets injured while cycling is a lot different than a garbage man injured in a car crash.  But from the perspective of evaluating risk, it’s simplistic to say a cyclist who enjoys speed is generally to blame when things go wrong.  Suppose the layman thinks it’s crazy to descend Claremont Ave at 40 mph on a bicycle.  If that same person watched me descending Grizzly Peak Blvd on that November morning, and based his assessment of me on that alone, he probably wouldn’t decide I was a daredevil.  (Or to put it another way, most people would consider 40 mph on Claremont Ave to be way more dangerous than 23 mph on Grizzly.)

I do think it’s dangerous for a cyclist, even an expert cyclist, to descend the residential section of northbound Grizzly Peak Blvd.  But I don’t think it’s dangerous for an expert cyclist to hit 40 mph descending Claremont Ave.  Should this attitude get me branded as a daredevil, such that it’s my fault when I get hurt doing something the layman may think is reasonable?

In thirty years of competitive cycling, I’ve had three bad accidents.  Once, I crashed mountain biking and it was totally my fault and I’ll own that.  (In fact, I have, right here.)  Due to that crash I needed stitches.  With my other two bad accidents, a car was involved.  Once, I was riding in a business district when a driver failed to see me and turned right into me.  I was going under 20 mph, in the bike lane, wearing a bright orange jersey in broad daylight.  I suffered a separated shoulder and a cracked elbow.  (The driver accepted responsibility and his insurance company took care of me.)  The other time is what you just read about:  I was doing under 25 mph in a residential area.  Broken femur.  The total tally of my serious injuries from crashes on high-speed descents?  Zero.

I used to work in risk assessment.  When professionals evaluate risk and design safeguards, they do so in terms of two main factors:  severity and likelihood.  When we consider the severity of crashing at 40 mph on a bicycle, with just eighth-inch-thick Lycra and a Styrofoam helmet protecting us, we get a visceral sense that this is really, really bad.  And yeah, it would be.  But it can be less bad than a lower-speed collision with a car.  Meanwhile, setting severity aside for a moment, the likelihood of an expert cyclist crashing at 40 by himself on a mountain road is way, way lower than the likelihood of a bike commuter getting creamed by a car in Anytown, USA.  I don’t have a mountain of statistics at hand to support this but I’ll bet I could assemble one.

So is the “daredevil” road racing cyclist really more to blame, when he does get taken out by a car, than the responsible commuter?  Decide that for yourself, but I’ll guarantee you two things.  One, the racing cyclist who can handle a bike at 40 mph will be better equipped for evasive maneuvers at 20 mph and be much less likely to panic.  And two, the racing cyclist who can handle a bike at 40 will better appreciate risk, and pay a hell of a lot more attention, than most motorists in this country.

Of course, a jury in a bike accident case may not differentiate between a bike racer and a casual bike commuter.  There’s this widespread idea among Americans—that is, among American motorists, because virtually all adult Americans are both—that cycling is inherently dangerous, and that cyclists who get hurt have only themselves to blame.  But my experience tells me that opinion is pretty absurd.  The most dangerous thing about cycling is being around careless motorists! 

Are motorists careless?

When’s the last time you saw a motorist neglect to use his turn signal?  Earlier today?  I thought so.  In my experience, a typical motorist seems to consider it none of your business if he chooses to use his turn signal or not.  If a motorist does deign to use his signal, it’s usually just because he knows he’s supposed to.  In my experience, cyclists almost always signal their turns, because they want the cars to know what they’re doing.  They don’t want to get run over.

Here’s something to consider:  between in-car accelerometers, wireless communications, and GPS, the highway patrol could develop the capability to detect if a car turns without its turn signal being activated.  Imagine if this technology was used to police the turn-signal law.  It would be kind of like those cameras on traffic signals that automatically ticket you for running the red.  You think if it were put to a vote, people would choose this kind of new, high-tech enforcement?  And do you think they’d also warm to the idea of network connected cameras on highways automatically busting you for speeding?  Of course not.  The spotty enforcement of traffic laws is like a big game, and motorists like it that way.  In other words, they consider it their God-given right to flout traffic laws if they feel like taking the (relatively small) risk of getting caught.

According to a recent “New Yorker” article, “Of the ten million [car] accidents that Americans get in every year, nine and a half million are their own damn fault.”  So why are cyclists considered the big risk takers?  Well, probably it’s because cars do such a good job of protecting us most of the time. (That said, car crashes have been the leading cause of accidental death for most of the last thirty years.)  Careless motorists get in an awful lot of minor fender-benders that don’t do much to make driving seem dangerous.  The fact is, being in a car just doesn’t seem that dangerous, and that’s precisely what makes cars so dangerous to the non-armored among us.  Drivers feel so safe, ensconced in these giant vehicles that are loaded with safety features, that they discount the overall risk that driving presents.

If cycling, even among cars, were intrinsically, unavoidably dangerous, we’d see similar accident statistics all over the world.  But we don’t.  Many other places are much safer for cyclists.  For example, in Amsterdam, your chances of being killed on a bicycle are lower than your chances of being murdered in America.  (Click here for details.)

So what?

What is to be done?  Nothing, of course.  There’s no solution, because motorists so hugely outnumber cyclists in this country.  Majority opinion seldom shines brightly on minorities.

Though we can’t snap our fingers and make American drivers more careful, there are a couple of things I’d like to ask motorists to do.  Number one:  when you’re driving in your car, enjoying a little “me” time, your radio tuned to your favorite station, maybe driving down a remote road you know like the back of your hand, try to remember that you’re still in a public space, and try to be aware of who else is on the road, not just right in front of you but behind you.  And two:  when you do screw up and either hit a cyclist or cause him to crash, try to remember that George Carlin was being facetious.  Take responsibility.  Do not leave that poor maimed cyclist lying there in the road.  If you fess up, your insurance rates might go up, but the law will go easy on you, the motorist.  The law always does, where we daredevil cyclists are concerned.

Other chapters

2014 update:  it occurred to me to add links to all the chapters of this tale.  Here you go:

The Femur Report - Part I (posted Dec 11, 2011)
The Femur Report - Part II (posted Dec 19, 2011)
The Femur Report - Part III (posted Dec 28, 2011)
Physical Therapy (posted March 11, 2012)