Monday, January 28, 2013

Sweetness & Light on South Park Drive


Backstory

What is “Sweetness and Light?”  It’s one of the mottos of my bike club, the East Bay Velo Club, for one thing.  But where did we get it?  I’ve asked this question over the years, and nobody actually knows for sure.    According to Marty, John Leslie came up with it, but he thought it was Marty, though Todd has also been linked to it.


In the photo above, I’m wearing my arm warmers on the wrong arms.  The intention, Marty tells me (now, when it’s too late because the photo has already gone to the printers), was to have “sweetness” and “light” printed on the inner forearms so we can read it while riding and be reminded.

In literature, the phrase “sweetness and light” first appears in a tale by Jonathan Swift.  Aesop (in this tale he’s a book, but also a character—it’s weird) is weighing in on a debate between a bee and a spider, and compares ancient writers to bees who “fill their hives with honey and wax, thus furnishing mankind with the two noblest of things, which are sweetness and light.”  Another old (dead, white, male) literary figure, Matthew Arnold, used the phrase (as Wikipedia has summed it up) to “designate the positive effects of a (predominantly classical) humanistic culture in arts and letters.”

Obviously a cycling team isn’t that interested in arts and letters.  Our club’s use of this phrase goes back to around 2000, when a bunch of former UC Berkeley cyclists returned from years of cycling exile and started beating each other up on the road again, physically and verbally.  “Sweetness and Light” was an admonition to back off a bit when things started to get ugly.  When the guys founded EBVC (a reincarnation of the last cycling team they’d formed just after college), “Sweetness and Light” appeared on our socks and water bottles.

I learned all this while fact-checking this blog post.  The original usage of this phrase is not widely understood among the team now, and certainly not written into the by-laws (of which there are none). The phrase has always given me a sense of mystery ... I cannot think of it without also being aware of its  flip side:  something darker, heavier, and more bitter lurking beneath the surface.  In this post I examine this notion through the lens of a chance showdown on the road, on one of my favorite climbs, South Park Drive in the Berkeley hills.  Specifically I’ll try to shine light on the matter of how, as we roll into our autumn years, we might embrace the Sweetness and Light ethos without giving up the intense drive and combative spirit that made us bike racers in the first place.

“I was just riding along”

The preamble “I was just riding along” actually derives from the bike shop, where customers bringing in a bike (usually one that looked like it had been dropped from an airplane or run over by a tank) would begin their warranty request by saying, “I was just riding along, minding my own business, not a care in the world, when suddenly, out of the blue” (etc.), “there was just this big noise, wa-ka-PANG!” etc.  Well, that’s how my tale begins:  I was riding alone, not looking for trouble, and had just ridden around the closed gate at the base of South Park (the road is closed at this time of year for the newt crossing), when an angry biker appeared behind me.  He wasn’t actually angry, per se; as a very handy online cycling dictionary puts it, an angry biker is “a biker who has a fancy bike, fancy clothes, and usually a stern expression, who really needs to lighten up.  In other words, just about everybody on the road.”

I guess I’m kind of smurfy in that I think it’s nice for cyclists to greet each other on the road, and that if they’re going the same direction, they should exchange a few pleasantries before one of them inevitably outpaces the other.  At a minimum, a nod or a simple “hi” is customary—or ought to be.  Actually, the “angrier” (i.e., more expert) a cyclist is, the more likely he’ll be too self-important for this.  (Novices, I’ve noticed, are more likely to flash a huge smile; on a recent ride, as I headed up a hill, a woman coming down toward me, riding a basic bike and wearing a huge puffy neon windbreaker, actually yelled, “Yay!”)  So, this guy looked like a serious angry biker, but nevertheless  I looked back and said, “How’s it going?”  He didn’t respond.  Perhaps he wanted it made clear that this wasn’t some muffin ride or social outing.

Dropped

The guy rolled up alongside me.  Again I greeted him:  friendly, you know.  I nodded, an uplift of the chin, because he was he was wearing headphones.  Finally, he acknowledged me, minimally (half a grunt), and then he picked up the pace.  What was he listening to?  Heavy metal?  He continued to accelerate.  Maybe he just didn’t like me and wanted to be alone—but would it hurt him to give a quick “hi” before being on his way?  Did he have to appear so grim?

My instinct said this was an act of naked aggression.  Of course I wanted to match his pace, on general principle, even before I noticed his physique, which was….  How can I put this?  He was … chubby.  Not chubby for an average joe; in any random lineup he’d be one of the fitter-looking guys.  But he was chubby for a cyclist, particularly a cyclists who thinks he can just blow a skinny guy like me away on a really hard climb.

Skinny is relative, of course.  I’m a bit heavier than usual right now; I can finally wear my jeans without a belt.  Kate Moss wouldn’t angrily call me a bitch or anything.  But still, anyone encountering me in a weight room (if I ever went to such a place) would snicker at me.  Of course, appearances aren’t everything.  This guy could well be faster than I uphill.  But given that I have to go around looking like a scarecrow all the time, couldn’t he humor me and let me keep up, and maybe wait until the downhill to drop me?

I normally keep a little in reserve for such situations, so I can dig deep and, for example, manage not to be disgraced by an antisocial chubby guy on a climb that ought to favor me.  But I’m not stupid.  This guy was just going way faster than I could go.  If I matched his pace, it would only be a matter of time before I blew sky high—not a pretty site.  It was a pity; I was rocking my brand new EBVC uniform, with its resplendent blue and orange, and felt like I was showing my club in a poor light.  But that’s life.

Accounting

On a positive note, this experience would increase my stores of self-loathing, which would fuel my training in the coming months.  “Self-loathing” isn’t exactly right, since I don’t actually loathe myself, but let’s just say defeat is motivational.  Sweet-Self-Loathing-Lite, you might say.

Meanwhile, I had a small hope that if I couldn’t keep up that pace, perhaps he couldn’t either.  Some guys count on bluster:  if they demoralize an opponent, and he just caves in, the supreme effort doesn’t have to be kept up.  I’d seen it too many times before to fall for it now.  So I figured I’d just go down swinging and make this guy earn it.

For the next three minutes I suffered mightily, and in vain.  I was in my lowest gear, though machismo suggested I should shift up, just to improve my morale.  But it’s January and I couldn’t do it.  But I had a pretty decent cadence, and maybe that’s the better thing, since I’m getting older and all.  And besides … after a point the guy’s gap was no longer increasing.  Plus, he was looking worse and worse on the bike.  His upper body bounced with the effort.  His cadence slowed.  He should have downshifted, but maybe was too proud, or was in denial.  It was starting to look like he’d written a check he couldn’t cash.

To put it another way, the guy was having trouble “controlling the narrative.”  I’ve borrowed his phrase from Lance Armstrong.  When Oprah asked him why he was such a bully, rolling over anybody in his path, Lance replied, “I felt I needed to control the narrative.”  On a much smaller scale, this is what people often try to do during competition.  But sport doesn’t really work like life; the athletic narrative is more like that junior high creative writing project where you write a story for five minutes, then pass it to the student on your right who takes it over for the next five minutes, and so on.  There will always be some kid who takes the story to outer space, and then another who turns everything that came before into a dream sequence, etc.  It can be a pretty frustrating project, and so it is when we try to script an athletic showdown.  The trick to these sporting narratives is to be the last one holding the script.

Gradually I closed the gap to the guy.  He was riding like a man possessed.  No he wasn’t.  Don’t worry, I think we’re done with that hackneyed expression.  He was riding a Wilier.  Something about these spontaneous road duels brings out my most ornery side, and suddenly a Wilier seemed like the lamest bike money could buy.  “Ooh, I’m just like Jan Ullrich on my Wilier!”  There is no bike this guy could have been on that I wouldn’t have scorned, unless he was on a cheap mountain bike or something.  But he wasn’t.  He was also wearing some fancy-pants club kit, not as cool looking as mine, of course, and I made sure not to note what club it was, because surely they didn’t deserve to have their good name tarnished by Punky Chubster.

Remember those reserves I mentioned?  Well, now I had a good business case.  Extra adrenaline was swiftly allocated, along with some sweet endorphins.  Suddenly I was flush.  I latched onto the guy’s wheel—there was a slight headwind—and began to plot his defeat.  This was no time for irrational exuberance.  I was going to behave responsibly, budget my resources, and not make the mistake he had in underestimating a rival.  Maybe the guy was toying with me, or maybe he had a Plan B.  There was still a lot of climbing left to go and the grade had further steepened.  I wished I could downshift and spin the legs … I looked down and—what?  I wasn’t in my lowest gear after all!  I’d been torquing along the steepest part of this climb in my 24, at that higher cadence!  Wow, we were really going fast.  I wished I had my bike computer but the thing had crapped out the week before and I was flying without instruments.

I sat on Wilier’s wheel; he bobbed more and more, and eventually wasn’t riding in too straight a line.  He got out of the saddle, thrashed around a bit, then sat back down.  I could hear his panting as he tried desperately to wring more speed out of himself and his machine.  The thing is, as wise as it might have been to sit on the guy, I was sick of him.  I got impatient and decided to storm the citadel. 

I came up on his right side, and then changed my mind, remembering a previous showdown that hadn’t gone my way.  Some guy—a rather thick, I would almost say chubby guy—had started to come by on my right, then faded back (giving me false hope) only to show up out of nowhere on my left.  I’d found this temporarily disorienting, and then the guy had finished me off, handing me a humiliating defeat.  Well, I was the cleverer for it now.  I let the Chubster catch a glimpse of me in his right periphery, then drifted back and passed him on the left.  I hope this produced the right effect.  But I didn’t attack … I very gradually accelerated, as if silently offering him my wheel.  “Really, take my wheel.  I want you to.  I want you to have it … really.”

Of course I didn’t want him on my wheel for long—just long enough to ride him off it.  Then I hoped to crush him utterly.  Substantial penalty for returned checks.  I was really digging in, completely slaving on the bike, but you know what?  It didn’t actually hurt that bad.  The strain was serious and my breathing was like a turbine, but the pain was being masked very well.  This wouldn’t last, of course; it was a temporary effect.  No payments for 30 days! 

I could hear him back there huffing and puffing, but needless to say I wouldn’t look back.  He didn’t deserve that satisfaction.  Who did he think he was, scorching the bottom half of this climb like that, making a bold move on a scrawny guy like me?  Now the pain hit me full on, but I could handle it.  I’ve suffered like this for years.  I was probably suffering on a bike while this guy was still into wind-surfing or lacrosse or whatever.  I’ve paid too many dues to let my form go to crap just because I’m dying, and I knew this road too well to miscalculate like he had.  By the time I got to the final stretch of the road—which is particularly steep—I knew I had it in the bag.  I couldn’t hear him anymore, and didn’t sense him either.  Only as I approached the gate at the top did I finally  look back.  Wet Wilier wasn’t even in site.  He must have given it everything and then detonated.  I’d foreclosed on him.

Epilogue

I came to a near-stop as I swung around the gate.  The guy had been with me at the halfway point; how far back could he be?  I put on my jacket.  My breathing slowed all the way down.  I really hoped the guy would appear, so I could make some friendly chitchat, just to show how little our clash had meant to me.  Something like, “Great day, but it’s colder than it looks, huh?”  You know.  Sweetness and light.


Friday, January 18, 2013

From the Archives - Nash Bridges Towed My Car!


Introduction

I’ve blogged before, here and here about my dearly departed 1984 Volvo 240 GL wagon. In fact, my first (non-intro) albertnet post was on the subject of having that old car wrecked. The car I have now (a newer Volvo) is nicer and quieter, and I don’t really miss the troubles I used to have. That said, a comment my brother Bryan left about my second Volvo post gives a nice perspective:
In a way, it’s a shame that you have moved from the uncertain and exciting cowboy world of the old car to the mundane but consistent world of the reliable new car. You were so good at living that cutting edge life, where your thoughts on a road trip are consumed with whether you’ll even make it to your destination, not whether you’ll make it in time to beat the rush hour. Or contemplating what you’ll do if the latest broken thing acts up, or if your “ultimate set of tools” has everything you need to perform a roadside repair. No one really wants the kind of trial an old car can present in his life, but he sure feels good when he comes out the other end, scathed but alive.
He’s so right about that. But old cars are only the beginning. So much can go wrong in life. Here’s a tale from my archives of when I tangled with a TV crew and lost big.

(Here’s a photo so you’ll appreciate how cool a car you’re reading about.)



Nash Bridges Towed My Car - March 14, 1999

For your amusement, the sordid tale of the latest trouble I’ve had with my car.

The weekend before last, my wife and I were planning to drive to Sacramento to visit her mom and stepfather, and our car wouldn’t start. We’d used it the weekend before and it ran fine, so this was a big surprise. I called my brother Bryan, and he recommended checking the battery posts, and the cables that clamp to them, for corrosion. This had made the difference several times with his old Darts and Coronets.

He has plenty of experience in fixing cars; I don’t. I tried to disconnect the positive cable while the negative was still connected, so I kept making contact between the wrench and the car body. Huge sparks would fly out and I would curse, both as a reflex and in wonderment—like, this was real electricity I was dealing with! It had to be draining my battery to keep sparking like that, and it made me really jumpy. I found plenty of corrosion, but scraping it off didn’t help. The car still wouldn’t start.

I need a good car manual and don’t have one, and I’m remarkably poor at troubleshooting car problems. I understand the principles of the four-stroke internal combustion engine (I’d learned it in my high school physics class), but everything else is a fog to me. I was at a loss to troubleshoot further. (Robert Pirsig, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, writes, “Traditional scientific method has always been at the very best, 20-20 hindsight. It’s good for seeing where you’ve been. It’s good for testing the truth of what you think you know, but it can’t tell you where you ought to go.” This is certainly how I felt.)

Since we couldn’t the in-laws, they came out to our place. My mother-in-law was eager to visit Erin, and her husband was eager to fix the car. It was parked about five blocks from my apartment. By the time we hauled my stepdad’s toolbox up there, it was after dark. By the time we hauled the battery down to my apartment to plug it in to his charger, I had stopped caring about the car altogether. We were both tired, and a bit cranky, and couldn’t agree on what was meant by the position of the needle on the charger gauge.

The next morning, I called Bryan again. We discussed the gauge on the charger, and we had an interesting side discussion of Ohm’s law. I wasn’t at all sure the battery had taken, or was holding, a charge. As it turned out: neither. So my stepdad and I tried to start it using jumper cables, and failed. I found an auto supply place that offered to test the battery for me for free. We took it in and they said it was shot, which was just their luck since it meant they could sell me a new battery, which they did.

I installed the new battery and the car still did not start. At this point I decided I could do any of the number of things about the problem. The top contenders were as follows:
  • I could do nothing, try to stop thinking about the car, and hope that it would just go away; 
  • I could have the car towed to my mechanic; 
  • I could attempt to roll-start the car; 
  • I could leave the car for the time being, and consult further with somebody knowledgeable about cars. 
Option one, ignoring the car, is always tempting whenever I have any kind of car trouble, be it parking, breakdowns, driving in the Bay Area, or pigeon damage. But, this option always loses out because Erin and I have spent too much on this car to give up now. We feel the need to amortize all the money we’ve shelled out recently to fix it (new clutch, new clutch cable, tune-up, replacement of overdrive, something expensive involving the rear suspension). I try not to think about the prospect that the car’s useful life is over and things might only get worse from here. [Note: as it turned out, the car lasted us close to ten more years!]

Option two, towing it to the mechanic, was a real front-runner, but my mechanic is closed on Sundays so this decision would need to be deferred, and thus didn’t satisfy as an immediate course of action.

Option three—roll-starting it—was very attractive indeed. First of all, roll-starting a car is something I’ve always found thrilling. (I remember a cycling teammate whose VW bus never started without roll-starting. Whoever rode shotgun was in charge of pushing the vehicle until the engine caught; this process became as natural as fastening the seat-belt.) Another benefit of roll-starting the car was that it would cost no money. Furthermore, I could picture myself pushing the car, jumping in, closing the door, getting it running, and then just driving off into the sunset, never to be seen or heard from again.

Unfortunately, this third option had a major drawback: available runway. It wasn’t that I didn’t have it; on the contrary, I had too much of it. I was parked on Lombard Street. If I pointed the car west on Lombard, toward Van Ness, I would be rolling down a very steep hill—steep enough that if the engine failed to start, I wouldn’t have the power-assist on the brakes and might have trouble stopping the car. (It was probably not a huge risk, but I have a recurring nightmare that I’m trying to stop a car but no matter how hard I push on the brake pedal, it isn’t enough. Both feet, still not enough. Usually the car is rolling very slowly towards the edge of a long drop-off.) Not being able to stop would have grave consequences because I would spill out onto Van Ness, which is one of the main thoroughfares of the city.


Of course, rolling westward on Lombard was only one of four options. But, if I rolled the car to Hyde and turned right, I would be pointed uphill and would probably have the car roll backward over me, crushing me to death. If instead I went straight and rolled the car past Hyde and down the other side of Lombard, I would be on another steep grade, which also happens to be the famous Twistiest Street in the World, [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lombard_Street_(San_Francisco) ] featured on countless postcards. If the car failed to start, negotiating the tight curves with no power steering and no power brakes would be almost impossible, and if I missed a turn I could destroy an old Victorian house, or at a minimum destroy some very expensive decorative foliage. (I happen to know the foliage is expensive because during the renovation of this landmark, the city paid guards to watch over the as-yet-unplanted plants, around the clock. One of the guards told me he caught somebody trying to steal a whole truckload at about two in the morning.)


The fourth and final runway was northbound Hyde street. This section of Hyde is one of the steepest hills in the city (and, by extension, in the entire world). If the car failed to start and I couldn’t stop it, I would build up huge amounts of speed. The street terminates in a pier down on Fisherman’s Wharf, and I would probably run over a bunch of tourists. Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad, but unless I hit some really fat ones, they probably wouldn’t stop the car. Likely the only object large enough to stop me would be the Balaclutha, an antique sailing ship docked at the pier. It would be a shame to ram the ship, but the alternative would be to land in the Pacific Ocean, and I know from helping write wharf safety manuals that the fines for littering petroleum products in the ocean that close to land would be enormous. (Curiously, it’s perfectly legal to dump anything at all into the ocean as long as you’re far enough from land—but I digress.)



So, I had to settle for option 4, which was to consult a knowledgeable car person. I called Bryan, and he said, “Dude, you’re bummed.” This was perfectly true, but not very helpful. I decided to call my mechanic on Monday and get the car fixed the following weekend. The good news was that the car was parked in one of those rare parking spots that has no street cleaning, has no special times during which it becomes a tow-away zone, and was a spot for which we had the correct permit. And, it was only five blocks from our apartment. In short, it was a parking spot that could have been a centerfold in “San Francisco Street Parking” magazine. I could leave the car there as long as I wanted to . . . maybe for good.

Erin volunteered to make the call to Fernando, our mechanic. I think the reason she volunteered was to prevent me from bursting a blood vessel. (According to a personality test I took in high school, I should have died of a heart attack years ago because of my high-strung, hard-driving disposition.) I was openly fuming at this point, yelling about taking the car out and shooting it, or rolling it down Hyde street by itself and then going into hiding. I couldn’t relax and enjoy life, knowing that car was an unresolved problem looming over us from up on the hill. Erin informed me that Fernando suspected a bad fuse. I resolved to investigate the fuses on the following Saturday.

Well, that Friday, as we walked home after a night out on the town, Erin remembered that we needed to visit the car to stick on the new registration sticker. I agreed, of course, although I confess I was irritated at the number of car-related administrative hassles we’d had to deal with recently—sending in registration forms, applying to renew our parking permit, renewing our insurance, and making Erin a new key after she’d lost her old one, to say nothing of my hapless repair attempts. It seemed like a lot of work just to have a car available for weekend trips—especially since the car was now incapable of doing anything useful. If it had been parked closer to home we could have used it as a storage locker, but in justifying the expense and headache, even that would have been a stretch. By the time Erin and I reached the parking spot, I was already grumbling profanely about the car’s very existence. Imagine my reaction, then, when the car was gone!

It’s our own fault, of course. We should have monitored the ongoing legality of our parking spot, in case a TV crew needed to clear that section of road to film “Nash Bridges.” Nash Bridges is a TV show starring the arguably washed-up and unarguably age-stricken Don Johnson. I’ve never seen the show, but I’ve watched them film it. It was probably a year ago; the scene I saw was filmed on Vallejo near Columbus, and consisted of Don Johnson driving by in his mustard-yellow convertible. The footage, when edited, must have lasted about five seconds, assuming it didn’t get cut altogether.


I watched for half an hour as they filmed the scene over and over again, never getting it quite right. Between takes, which was most of the time, Don Johnson looked incredibly bored, and tired, and his skin looked brittle, like if he smiled his face would crack. Perhaps creating the illusion of youth was why the simple scene took so many takes. As I watched the filming that day and pondered grand themes such as the loss of youth and the largely unacknowledged tedium of stardom, what did not occur to me was that when a TV crew needs room to set up in the street, they don’t have time to wait around. They bring the cops in and tow all those cars away. Unjust as it may seem, I am quite certain that there is a law on the books prohibiting people from unknowingly obstructing television crews. I’m sure I could write tactful letters, stage peaceful protests, circulate petitions, and even go to court to fight for my rights, and that it would all be for nothing.

My first step in reclaiming my car was to go to the police station and fill out some paperwork proving I own the car. It was here that I began circulating among hardened criminals for the first time. (Actually, I didn’t, but what a marvelous sentence, rooted in a thousand crime stories.) I did pass through the strangest medical detector I’ve ever seen. Actually, the instrument itself wasn’t unusual, but the aura surrounding it certainly was. Unlike an airport, this was a place where it seemed likely somebody might try to bring in a gun or a knife. There was a big sign posted saying something very ominous; I can’t remember the exact wording but it was something like “We take this metal detector very seriously. You must remove all traces of metal from your person, and have your bag wide open for immediate search.”

I looked at the very bored-looking guard and opened my bag up wide. She gave a dismissive snort, ignored the bag, and said, “Well, walk through!” I began emptying my pockets but she implored me not to bother. I walked through, setting off the alarm, and she didn’t bat an eye. Then, a woman behind me walked right through the detector, carrying a huge purse. She, too, set off the alarm, but just kept walking. No reaction from the guard.

I shrugged and continued on, looking for a cop. I found one, behind glass (bulletproof, I assume), and talked to him over a phone like the ones inmates use during visits from their friends and family. The cop had me process some paperwork and sent me off to another window to pay the towing and storage fees ($275). I paid, and was given some more paperwork to fill out. Then they sent me away, down Seventh Street, under the highway, to the police impound lot.

You’re not allowed behind the fence—you give the guy your paperwork, he drives the car out. I dabbled with the idea of playing dumb and blaming the cops for somehow ruining my car. With an internal sigh, I dismissed the idea. Then I told the guy, as casually as possible, that I needed him to let me back there to replace a fuse. He did, and—following Fernando’s instructions—I tried replacing fuses 3 and 6, which correspond to the fuel pump. Then I tried replacing the fuse near the battery, on a cable somewhere. I never found this fuse. Then I tried putting a jumper between fuses 3 and 6, in case there was a bad connection out of one of the fuse holders.

Connecting the jumper caused an interesting crackly hissing noise from the back of the car, which somebody knowledgeable about cars might deduce was the fuel pump finally kicking in. I believe, to this day, that the noise was actually some horrible short-circuit or something, that continued to drain my battery. (I had become very protective of the new battery.) The car still would not start. Having, I felt, nothing left to lose, I removed the jumper and tried starting the car again with no special intervention. Einstein once said, “Repeating an experiment over and over, while expecting varying results, is insanity.” He was right.

Eventually the impound lot guy, after watching my amateur repair efforts with apparent fascination—perhaps morbid fascination—silently walked away, came back with a fork-lift type vehicle, dragged my car closer to his little hut, disappeared into the hut, came back out with a jump-start box, and tried unsuccessfully to jump-start the car . He was a nice enough guy, although strangely uncommunicative. He probably considers English his first language, but throughout our protracted transaction he communicated through a simple system of grunting and non-verbal gestures such as staring off into space.

I made several trips next door to the sheriff station, which is also the main prison building in San Francisco, to call Fernando for troubleshooting advice and, eventually, to call the guy my mechanic uses for towing worthless shells of spent vehicles such as mine. I spent a lot of time in the waiting room with people waiting to visit their imprisoned loved ones. At all times there was a toddler or young child bawling. I couldn’t blame them, what with felons in the family. To pass the time I read a supposedly charming book about a college professor fixing up an old house in Tuscany. Given my surroundings, the book seemed totally unreal, a fairy tale.

Meanwhile, I had the strangest feeling of—simultaneously—alienation from, and yet kinship with, the other people waiting. After all, I wasn’t visiting a convict, but I was paying the price for my own lawlessness, and felt like a prisoner. If I gave up the fight and went home, abandoning my car, I would end up paying ongoing storage fees or eventually losing the car. And there was no end in sight. The tow-truck guy had originally promised to come get the car, but changed his mind twenty minutes later and drove to Sacramento instead. I was without a plan.

Finally, I went back to the impound lot and managed to get permission from the lot manager to try to roll-start the car right there in the lot. This permission was hard to get because the manager was barely more communicative than the first guy I dealt with. But, after a long pause as he considered my request and finally (I guess) decided to grant it, the manager communicated something non-verbally to the first guy, who set about dragging a bunch of cars around with his fork-lift to create a runway for me. Everything was now set, except there was still one tow-truck in the way. I thought I might be able to steer around it, but with no power steering and no power brakes I was loathe to try. It seemed pointless, though, to communicate my misgivings to the impound crew, because they’d obviously done what they thought was necessary. I also didn’t want to break the spell by asking for too much, like the Fisherman’s Wife. For about five minutes the situation was a deadlock, with each impound guy staring blankly off at some imagined vista, arms folded, a cold winter wind howling through the lot.

Finally I mustered some reckless courage, released the parking brake (which doesn’t really work anyway), took the car out of gear, cranked the wheel hard over, and began my maneuver. Running next to the car, holding the steering wheel with one hand and the door frame with the other, I missed the tow truck by about a foot, which the impound guys must have gauged perfectly. To my surprise, the car seemed much lighter than I’d expected. In no time I had a good bit of speed up. In fact, a totally inexplicable amount of speed. I couldn’t believe how fast the car was rolling through the lot. Finally I looked back to see four guys, grinning from ear to ear, pushing my car with all their might. Why is it that whenever a car needs to be rolled, guys materialize out of nowhere? Is there a female equivalent to this phenomenon? Ah, yes—the public restroom. But again I digress.

“Jump in!” someone yelled, and I did, just in time to slam my door before it would have smashed into a pillar I passed by. I put in the clutch, put the car in gear, then released the clutch, giving her plenty of gas. The result was a silent, but quite violent, lurch as the car instantly came to a dead stop. I half expected the guys to slam into the back of the car. It was like being clotheslined. I was heartbroken. I put the clutch back in, and the car instantly began picking up speed again. The guys were still pushing! I tried popping the clutch again. Again, that bunjee-jumping sensation. We tried once more. No dice. It was all over.

I ended up negotiating with one of the car pushers, who was the driver of the tow truck that had obstructed my path, to tow me out to Fernando’s for $70. Not cheap, but a fair bit better than what I’d paid to have the car impounded. Problem was, I didn’t have $70; I told the tow-truck driver he needed to stop at an ATM if he wanted his fee in cash. He was about as communicative as the impound guys and ignored me completely. We got to Fernando’s, and Fernando loaned me the money to pay the towing guy, and in the process achieving legendary status.

Fernando discovered that when I installed the new battery I neglected to attach a certain cable to the positive post. (It was because this cable was unattached that I hadn’t been able to find the fuse Fernando was talking about.) For future reference, you should note that an ‘84 Volvo 245 GL has three cables coming off the positive post, and only one cable (the normal one) off the negative post. I can guarantee you, flat-out, that the car will not start if one or more of these tables is disconnected. (I had encountered this cable when I installed the battery, but I knew it didn’t go to the negative post and at the time it made more sense to leave it dangling than to connect it to the positive post. As I said, I’m terrible with cars.)

Fernando shook his head and said, “Dana!” His tone meant, “You bonehead! How did you get to be such a complete idiot?! I pity you!” He also fixed a broken wire that I wish I could say was the cause of the problem, and then he charged my battery while I found a taqueria. (I hadn’t eaten all day.) I paid him back the loan with three twenties I’d forgotten I had all along, in my wallet (duh), and a ten I found in my pocket. He didn’t charge me for the repair—certainly the black comedy of my utter humiliation was more than adequate compensation for his minimal work, at least this time.

Now I’m parked on Lombard again, but down near Polk. It doesn’t look like a scenic enough intersection to film Nash Bridges on, and anyway it’s close enough to home to check daily. (That said, it’s been a week already and I just haven’t gotten around to checking it.)

Saturday, January 12, 2013

One-Size-Fits-All New Year's Resolution


NOTE:  This post is rated R for a couple instances of mild strong language.

Introduction

A couple years ago I blogged about new year’s resolutions and the difficulty I had in coming up with them.  That problem perhaps isn’t as common as the main problem these resolutions present:  that is, the difficulty of sticking with them.  In this post I examine this problem and provide my miraculous solution—a one-size-fits-all resolution that anybody can stick to.

The pitfalls of typical resolutions

One problem with so many resolutions is that they emphasize the negative.  Drink less, quit smoking, be more active, eat better, be less stressed—it’s like a laundry list of what’s wrong with you.  It’s no wonder they’re such a downer, even before we fail to achieve them.  What’s less obvious is the myopia of only trying to change only what we already know is wrong.  If we think of our overall life performance the way we’d look at our investment portfolio, we realize that looking only at known bad behaviors is like only watching the stocks we own, without asking a bigger question, “How much am I losing by not seeking out new investments?”  In other words, what opportunities may be lost when we focus only on our current failings?  Couldn’t failure of imagination be a much bigger problem than failing to curb bad habits?

Another problem with new year’s resolutions is that they’re too goal-oriented.  We’re always told that we should set specific, tangible, measurable goals.  I don’t agree.  I could go on about this, but I’ll save that discussion for its own post.  Suffice to say, the problem with really specific goals is that it’s too easy to fall short, and then we just give up.

Here’s an example.  I was at a San Francisco restaurant with a colleague last week.  While waiting a good while for another colleague to show up, we stared down a large drinking glass full of crispy bread sticks.  I wasn’t inclined to eat any—they’re utterly pointless, with a glycemic index of roughly infinity, and the butter you dip them in goes straight to your arteries.  But I started in, if for no other reason than to use up the butter so as to help my colleague, whom I assumed was struggling to resist the unhealthy snack.  (He’s good at sports but knows he’d be better if he lost ten or fifteen pounds.)  Our wait dragged on and soon I’d eaten enough breadsticks to consume most of the ramekin of butter, and I was feeling a bit disgusted with myself.  Suddenly, my colleague grabbed a breadstick and dug in.  “Oh, man, sorry I ate most of the butter,” I said.  “I thought you didn’t want any.”  He replied, “Oh, no, I didn’t, I was trying to skip it, but then I decided … fuck it.”  That one particularly evocative word, “fuck,” was the telltale sound of his resolve snapping like a breadstick.

When we make specific, measurable new year’s resolutions, our behavior becomes a binary condition of being on or off the wagon (to borrow a conceit from Alcoholics Anonymous).  We measure ourselves against whether we’re adhering to our goal, and the minute we’re not, we become fatalistic and decide all is lost.  You know:  “fuck it”—and the effort is abandoned.  (Of course we shouldn’t take this attitude; in equating a behavior change with the realities of substance addiction we commit the logical fallacy of false analogy.)

The problem of time

Resolve isn’t the only obstacle to keeping new year’s resolutions.  There’s also the problem of time.  So often, the resolution is to do something you haven’t been—which means finding the time for something that’s never been part of your routine.  Or it means changing behaviors that, whatever their failings may be, are at least convenient or efficient.  I looked at lists of top-ten new year’s resolutions and found seven that involve time.  Get fit, learn something new, spend more time with family, volunteer:  all these are the kinds of things we hope to get to, eventually (i.e., will never get to).  Eat healthier, drink less, be less stressed:  these also take time, in their way.  Healthy food like salads and vegetables take time to prepare.  Drinking is a really quick way for millions of people to relax, and takes far less time than yoga or meditation.  Stress, meanwhile, is so often caused by not having enough time to accomplish everything.

When other people are counting on you, their deadlines feel very real.  Your pet self-improvement project, which nobody else is monitoring, is an easy target for postponement.  And yet, people do manage to get fit, to volunteer, to learn things, and to spend time with their families.  What’s their secret?  Well, I think part of the problem is that we do have the time for these things, but not always when we’re in a position to do them.  I feel like exercising, but it’s dark and/or raining and/or cold outside.  I’d like to do something with my family, but they’re already doing something.  I’d like to read my book, but it’s at home.  So we spend countless hours filling in the time—browsing the web, checking Facebook, watching TV, etc.  It’s not moving us in a useful direction, and it’s not particularly satisfying.

The foolproof, universal new year’s resolution

So you want to know the solution to all this?  Are you ready?  Here it is:

This year, I resolve to spend more time doing things I would like to be better at.

This isn’t going to solve all our problems—we might still drink too much, weigh too much, and/or be too sedentary—but it’s a legitimate resolution that, if followed, will give us small bursts of satisfaction throughout the year.  And look at all the pitfalls it avoids: 
  • It’s not negative.  It doesn’t focus on your vices or human failings, so it doesn’t bum you out.
  • It has you checking the “blind spot” of missed opportunities—that is, it doesn’t get you so focused on eschewing bad behaviors that you forget to wonder what cool thing you haven’t thought to do.
  • It doesn’t ensnare you in over-specific goals that, when missed, cause you to give up and abandon the resolution altogether.
  • Rather than becoming a new activity you’ll get to when you can (i.e., never) it’s a lifestyle approach that runs in the background, giving you a way to catch yourself spending your time the wrong way.
  • It’s easier to stick with this resolution because it’s not prescriptive—instead of “I’ve been doing something wrong and that’s got to change,” you can do whatever you want and if it’s something you wish you were better at, you’ll be getting somewhere.

Let’s look at an extreme case to see how this resolution might be best applied.  I’ll choose Jim Anchower,  the fictitious loser featured periodically in “The Onion.”  He never gets anywhere because whenever he’s not working, he’s smoking pot and/or drinking beer.  Imagine him asking himself, “Is smoking pot something I’d like to be better at?”  Probably not.  (I suppose there are ├╝ber-stoners who actually would like to be better at it—“Dude, I’m gonna take a bigger hit than Phelps, and I’m never gonna exhale!” or those who would like to be better at growing weed—but let’s say they’re the exception that proves the rule.)  If Anchower could figure out just one thing he’d like to be better at, I think he’d be in much better shape.

This isn’t to say that this resolution rules out wasting time.  The young, especially, should defend their right to waste time as they see fit—if “waste time” can mean both “accomplishing nothing of importance” and “doing something I’d like to be better at.”  When my brother Max was a young teen, he decided he was going to teach himself how to do a track stand—that is, to be able to balance in one place on a bicycle indefinitely.  It’s not easy to do.  (Of my bike club, fewer than two-thirds of the guys can do a track stand; only eight of us can do a no-handed track stand; and only two—Max and I—can do a downhill track stand.)  Max spent countless hours learning this, wearing out tires and making strange crescent-shaped black marks on the driveway.  Look, decades later he’s still got it:


As he developed his skill, he inspired my brothers and me as well, and taught us the ropes.  Track-standing is a pretty pointless skill, but in the process of learning and refining it we unknowingly knocked off a few classic new year’s resolution favorites:  learning something new, spending more time with family, and getting fit (at least, in terms of balance).


You never know how these random fancies will play out.  Many years ago I read an article in “The New Yorker” about the downhill skier Bode Miller.  His unconventional style and methods, the article explains, paid dividends when the new style of shorter, carving skis came out: 
For athletes steeped in classic technique, [the new skis] took some getting used to.  Miller, though, had never stopped experimenting.  He was used to leaning back on his skis, he had great footwork thanks to tennis and soccer, and his sense of balance improved year after year.  While other skiers sat on exercise bikes, he learned to ride a unicycle.  While they bulked up with weights, he stretched a rope between two trees in his back yard, and practiced tightrope walking.  Two summers ago, Miller spent six weeks logrolling in Wisconsin.  His girlfriend at the time, Lizzie Hoeschler, has been logrolling since childhood and is ranked fourth in the world in the sport.  “It’s very hard to learn as an adult,” she told me.  “It’s just weird to stand on a log that is floating in the water.  But Bode was rolling before too long.”
I don’t get the sense that Miller had a specific goal in mind when learning to logroll, and wasn’t doing it with an eye to improving his skiing.  He was doing it simply because he enjoyed the challenge.

Does this mean than we should all have free reign to spend as much time as we want at any old thing?  Can we, say, play all the video games as we want?  I suppose I should qualify my resolution a bit more:  we should spend time doing things that, ten or twenty years from now, we’ll still be glad we bothered to get good at.  I’m glad I learned how to track-stand as a kid, because I sure wouldn’t make time to learn it now.  As a teen I did spend a fair amount of time playing video games, and I’m less excited now about the time I spent on that.  But I don’t regret it, either, for a couple of reasons.  One, at least I had to ride my bike across town to the arcade and vie for the game machines with other teens; and two, I recognized the point at which gaming had become a habit, as opposed to something I truly wished to be better at.  Over time the awe I had watching the master gamers turned into something more like pity for the countless hours of fanatical devotion they dedicated to it.  So I gave it up.

Creator, vs. consumer, of entertainment

Another way to look at this is whether, in spending your free time, you are a creator of your own entertainment, or just a consumer of ready-made diversions thought up by someone else.  Doing a crossword puzzle is an example of the latter.  I don’t have anything against crosswords; they’re decent mental exercise, and I can see why somebody would like to get better at them—to a point.  But ultimately, there is exactly one solution to the puzzle, so you’re replicating a standard activity.  (I put reading—that is, of good literature—above this, because every reader brings a different experience to the act of reading, and envisions the characters and scenes according to his own imagination.)

Here’s a cool example of creating entertainment even as you consume it.  My nephew John, in his last summer before going to college, decided to get really good at disc golf.  That’s a fine activity by itself, to my mind.  (Though not as intense as my cycling or John’s baseball, it’s pleasant enough recreation.)  But he and his pals decided to take it up a notch and put their own target basket in various hard-to-reach places, and film themselves making amazing shots.  They put together a pretty incredible YouTube video, “Disc Golf Aces and Trick Shots” (click here to watch it!).  Thus they joined creativity to disc golf mastery, spending countless hours on a project as glorious as it was pointless.  Perhaps decades from now they’ll watch that video again and be glad they made time for such frolics when they had the chance.


My resolutions this year

Okay, enough about athletes and teens.  What about some more practical activities, for busy adults?  Like, what is your blogger hoping to spend more time getting better at in 2013?  This year, it’s running (which I still can’t do very well after breaking my leg in late 2011; last year it was relearning how to walk).  I’ll still make time for cycling, having fun, reading great books, and keeping up this blog.  So I’ve got my work cut out for me, and I hope you do too.

Monday, January 7, 2013

2012 - The Year in Review


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

Introduction

There was an awful lot of news in 2012.  In my opinion, far too much—I’m actually kind of relieved I won’t be getting “Newsweek” anymore.  (I canceled because they’ve gone to an online-only format, but would have probably canceled anyway because they started running cigarette ads, which for me is automatic grounds for a lifetime boycott.)

If, like me, you did a halfhearted job of staying on top of all the news last year, you’re in luck:  in this annual post I recap the most important stories, and as a special bonus show how I’d actually already covered them in an easily-digested and (I hope) humorous way in the pages of albertnet.  As usual, I’ve had to stretch here and there to make this work, and there’s a fair chance that you’ll giggle at one or two of my gyrations.

January

Of course the really exciting story for January was the sinking of the huge cruise ship Costa Concordia, and the subsequent arrest of the captain, who abandoned ship early on.  It came out that he’d crashed it in the process of showing off, taking the ship in close to shore as a salute to some pals there.  Not surprisingly, he’d been drinking.  But not only that, he’d been drinking wine, and with a beautiful woman!  Every article I saw emphasized these things.  The Guardian wrote, “The captain who steered his 114,000-tonne vessel into rocks off the Italian coast last Friday was drinking wine at dinner with a ‘beautiful’ woman minutes earlier, a witness has claimed.”  The Daily Beast wrote that a “passenger told an Italian newspaper that Schettino had been drinking with an attractive blonde at 8:35 the night of the accident.”

Wine and fancy women … what could be more unbecoming for a ship captain to indulge in?  I have a strong feeling that he’d have gotten off easier if his drinking had been, instead, a couple cold beers with some guy friends.  Plus, he’d possibly have had more luck modulating his intake.  My “Ask Dr. Beer” post in January, which ran two days after the wreck for maximum timeliness, was designed to suggest all this without, I hoped, alienating the wine-loving readers of albertnet.  I all but openly scolded the Concordia captain:  “Ads for good booze always say, ‘Those who appreciate quality enjoy it responsibly.’  That’s a good start, but why should people who can’t appreciate quality be let off the hook?  They should behave responsibly, too!”

February

The important and exciting news event in February was “The Artist” winning the Oscar for Best Picture, and being the first silent film to win since 1927.  It’s important to acknowledge that “silent film” is really a misnomer, because “The Artist” also won the Oscar for best score.  To demonstrate my uncanny ability to predict the Oscar winner, two weeks in advance, I blogged at length about another “silent film” that should have won Oscars in these two categories.  Surely you already know what movie I’m referring to, and caught the sly reference right away when you saw my pre-Oscar post last year.  What?  You’re lost?  I’m referring, of course, to my two February posts about the movie “Pink Floyd The Wall” (here and here).

Maybe you haven’t seen that movie in a long time (in which case it’s time to find out which of your pals has the best home theater and go rent the DVD), and you don’t immediately recall that it’s a dialog-free movie.  Well, it is.  The main character, Pink (Bob Geldof) does have one line, but this line is the exception that proves the rule.  In fact, he manages to flub it.  What the audience hears—“Take that, fuckers!”—is not what his lips say, which is “Next time, fuckers!”  Maybe this glitch is what cost this fine movie the Oscars it so richly deserved.  (Best Picture that year went to “Ghandi”—yawn—and Best Adaptation Score went to “Victor/Victoria”—like anybody remembers a single note of that movie’s music.)

March

I’m sure I don’t need to remind you of the big news in March, that being the long-awaited explanation of how waves and other ocean features can actually glow at night.  “National Geographic Daily News” broke the story here.  The article states, “The biological light, or bioluminescence, in the waves is the product of marine microbes called phytoplankton—and now scientists think they know how some of these life-forms create their brilliant blue glow.”


I paid tribute to this wonderful finding with my “Earth Hour” post.  Granted, it was a subtle tribute—Ididn’t lean too heavily on the light pollution angle, for fear of diluting my more important message about energy conservation (and the only slightly less important stuff about a three-pound gummy worm, Earth Hour haters, and grizzlies mating with polar bears). 

April

In April the business world was taken by surprise when Facebook paid a billion dollars for Instagram, a tiny company valued at only half that much.  As reported in the New York Times, Zuckerberg declared, “Now, we’ll be able to work even more closely with the Instagram team to also offer the best experiences for sharing beautiful mobile photos with people based on your interests.” 

Do you reckon Zuckerberg was talking about photos of brilliant bioluminescent seascapes?  Yeah, right.  More likely this acquisition was simply the fastest way to drive up sexting traffic.  (Remember Google’s motto, “Don’t be evil?”  Perhaps Facebook’s should be, “Be evil.”)

I’m glad my daughters are too young for Facebook and Instagram.  The rapper Nas describes being shocked by his own daughter’s being caught up in this:  “This morning I got a call, nearly split my wig.  This social network said Nas go and get your kid.  She’s on Twitter, I know she ain’t gon’ post no pic of herself underdressed, no inappropriate shit, right.  Her mother cried when she answered.  Said she don’t know what got inside this child’s mind, she planted a box of condoms on her dresser then she Instagrammed it.”

If you’re thinking I should lighten up about social networks and teens, then I invite you to check out my April blog post “Dopamine, Parenting, and Social Media.” I’m not as well-spoken as Nas, but I gave my best shot at explaining why teenagers really shouldn’t be on Facebook and Twitter.

May

Big news—and welcome news, in my opinion—hit in May when Mayor Bloomberg proposed banning soft drinks in serving sizes greater than 16 ounces (click here for details).  As reported by the Washington Post, a spokesman for the American Beverage Association responded, “The city is not going to address the obesity problem by attacking soda, because soda is not driving the obesity rate.”  This certainly has an NRA-esque whiff of BS about it … he might as well say, “Sugary drinks don’t make people fat—fat makes people fat!”  McDonald’s tweeted, “We trust our customers to make the choices that are best for them.”  Yeah, McDonald’s, that’s been working out really well.

Perhaps it seems hypocritical for me to condemn sources of empty calories, because I devoted an entire blog post in May to describing my desperate quest for sugary substances.  I lamented, “The giant handful of gels I’d hastily grabbed somehow numbered only two.  I had two bottles of energy drink but no mix.  By the time I reached the ranger’s station on Diablo I’d gone through 1 2/3 bottles of the drink and both gels.”  I went on to describe my salvation in the form of free frozen green tea gelato:  “It tasted like lotion, that expensive lotion you get at spas.  Frankly I didn’t care for it whatsoever except it was free, it had 140 calories, and as I said before I had no plan for feeding myself.”  There’s no hypocrisy here though:  like all distance athletes, I represent a special case.  Someday I’m going to write an entire post about why buying soft drinks should require a special license.

June

There was an important Supreme Court ruling in June, but it didn’t get much press; halfway through the year people must have already been tired of serious news.  ABC News came to the rescue with a classic fluff piece about Bon Jovi launching a new line of pasta sauces.  That was the headline, anyway.  In actuality, it wasn’t the singer who launched the product, but his father, whose name isn’t really Bon Jovi.  Both father and son are actually named Bongiovi, which is a great name for a pasta sauce but perhaps not the best for a rock star.  So, to recap:  a rock singer who is not named Bon Jovi didn’t launch a pasta sauce, but his non-famous father did.

Naturally you'll wonder why I didn't include anything about this in my June advice column, “Ask Dr. Pasta.”  Well, it’s because nobody wrote in to ask about it!  What?  You thought I made up all those questions?  You think “Ask Dr. Pasta,” and “Ask Dr. Beer” before it, were fake advice columns?  You think there’s no such person as Chip M of Boston, MA or Lawrence H of Greensboro, NC?  Well ... you’re right.  But if Bon Jovi isn’t really Bon Jovi, can’t I cut some corners too?

July

Needless to say, the biggest story of the year came out in July:  the discovery—or possible discovery—of the Higgs boson.  The importance of this scientific achievement cannot be overstated.  In fact, it cannot be understated, or even stated, unless you’re a rock star of the scientific world.  After reading several accounts of this discovery by very enthusiastic writers with great flair for confusing the reader, I’ve decided this Higgs boson thing should be nicknamed “the Emperor’s new particle.”  (The most helpful reference I found on this is here, though the “American Voices” feature in “The Onion” was also helpful, with a woman on the street declaring, “Yeah, the Higgs boson is getting a lot of attention, but there are a lot of lower-profile bosons that are worth checking out if you get the chance.”)

Perhaps most noteworthy thing I can point out about the Higgs boson was that it was just about the only thing that is universally acknowledged to be “a thing” that I didn’t mention in my July “Deliverance and Cycling Tioga Pass” post, a sprawling epic docucomedventurdrama covering such diverse topics as camping, cycling, logical fallacies, missing receipts, Mono Lake, Vladimir Nabokov, paranoia, RVs, Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder, Tioga Pass, the undistributed middle, and Yosemite National Park.  And yet, to those who actually understand boson particles, this post, upon careful reading, turns out to be a masterpiece of understatement and subtle insinuation.  The story is, in fact, thoroughly flooded with between-the-lines illumination of the true nature of the Higgs boson.  If anybody ever creates the literary equivalent of the CERN particle accelerator, I will finally enjoy the sterling reputation I have so long deserved.

August

The most exciting news in August was the Curiosity rover landing on Mars.  This wouldn’t be such a big deal if the rover were simply a remote-controlled vehicle.  The really cool thing is that it will be able to think for itself when it gets its next software update, as described here


Speaking of thinking for yourself, I hope I don’t need to point out the obvious tie-in between this rover news and my three-part albertnet series on Artificial Intelligence that ran in August and September (click here, here, and here).  Naturally, being more interested in Earth than Mars, I focused my investigation on real-world—as in, our real-world—applications, such as whether you can speak into your iPhone and have it transcribe the text.  As I noted in my post, the iPhone does just well enough to be dangerous:  “I need to make some videos about the iPhone 4S” comes out “I need to make some videos about the iPhone 4 ass.”  I hope the Curiosity rover does better.

September

I know that I could drive lots of traffic to this blog by focusing on a really splashy news item for this month—namely, the release of the iPhone 5—but I’m not going to take the bait.  I also won’t pretend that the “Gangnam Style” Youtube video was actually important news.  (I’m hoping that using the phrases “iPhone 5” and “Gangham Style Youtube” twice each will be enough to get me a lot of pageviews.)  Well-informed people worldwide know that the big news this month was the groundbreaking BYU study finding that exercise can reduce the urgeto eat.

It’s kind of a shame this article beat me to the press (by just one day!) and thus my own article, “Nutrition for Endurance Cycling,” didn’t cause as great a sensation.  Echoing the BYU article, in my nutrition post I lament the lack of appetite I have right after a long bike ride, when eating is important:  “For about half an hour after hard exercise, sugar taken in goes directly into replacing muscle glycogen instead of being absorbed the normal way.  In other words, you’ll recover more quickly if you consume carbs during this ‘glycogen window.’  So, right after my ride, during which I drank a whole gallon of energy drink, guess what I get to do?  Have some juice, maybe some sweetened yogurt, a few Girl Scout cookies."  Yuck.

October

This month brought another toss-up for top news story:  Hurricane Sandy, or Felix Baumgartner parachuting from space?  Two things have swayed me to choose the latter.  First, Hurricane Sandy was downgraded from a full hurricane to a “super-storm,” which has the hackneyed sound of a Wal Mart promotional slogan.  Second, hurricanes are becoming so routine now, they'll eventually cease to make the news at all, along with senseless school shootings.  But parachuting from space?  That’s a totally new one.

Did albertnet cover Baumgartner’s exploit?  Well, not exactly, but it covered a similarly daring and/or foolish challenge that I myself took on.  What’s that?  You don’t remember it?  Well, didn’t I do something difficult involving altitude?  Didn’t I too fall to earth, albeit metaphorically, like a modern day Icarus?  Didn’t I too fuel myself with Red Bull?  (Okay, in my case it was sugar and caffeine from Cytomax and NoDoz, respectively, but we’re still talking about the core components of Red Bull.)  The main difference between my adventure and Baumgartner’s is that his looked really amazing though it came off without a hitch, while mine would have looked pretty boring and yet went horribly.  Oh, yeah:  and my brain, not Baumgartner’s, was a thin porridge by the end.  Check out this post if you don’t believe me.

November

Am I a man?  Well, my kids, when asked this question, usually say something like “Not really—you’re just a big daddy guy.”  It’s safe to say, however, that I’m a male, because I can’t see the forest for the trees, or however that goes.  To wit, I failed to notice an important post-election news story concerning a novel solution to the problem of leftover campaign signs.  A guy up in the Pacific Northwest recycles them, turning them into bicycle accessories:  “Peterson occasionally holds workshops in the art, demonstrating how he reuses the corrugated plastic material that’s used for lots of front yard-type political signs.  He cuts the sheets with a sharp craft knife or scissors into desired shapes and then stitches pieces together with nylon cable ties.  On some items, he uses a more sophisticated technique involving scoring the plastic and folding it.”

This is almost as good as not having election signs in the first place, a desire I expounded upon in detail that month.

December

The big news I was waiting for in December is more notable for almost not being reported at all.  I’m talking of course about the outcome of the Novartis drug recall I blogged about last month.  Several drugs—Excedrin, Gas-X, and my precious NoDoz among them—were recalled by Novartis a year ago because quality control problems in the factory were resulting in broken tablets and, worse, prescription drugs such as Percocet getting mixed up with over-the-counter remedies.

Novartis finally did get its act together, but the media barely covered this.  I searched this evening on “excedrin recall” and got just five Google News hits.  Four of them were unrelated to this topic (e.g., “Female Orgasm:  Serving an Evolutionary Function?”), but one—exactly one—covered the return of Excedrin to the shelves.  This was the Patch.com site for Hazelwood, MO.  Its editor wrote, “When Hazelwood Patch announced the recall, the article quickly became one of our most viewed articles.”  I think it’s worth noting that this article didn’t mention Gas-X or NoDoz.  I guess Hazelwood citizens are an alert, non-gassy people who mainly get a lot of headaches.  A quick look at its home page offers, I think, some insight into why.  The main headlines for today:  “Elderly Woman Robbed at Gunpoint and Carjacked, Assailant Captured in North County”; “Man Breaks In[to] Hazelwood Pet Store”; and, “Ask the Patch Pro:  Seeking Gun Safety Experts.”  Other articles on the homepage include “Gun Brought to Mall” and “Mugs in the News:  The Faces That Made This Week’s Crime Headlines.”  All this really makes me appreciate my relatively peaceful community.  If our local Patch had covered the Novartis recall at all, they’d probably have focused on Gas-X, given the popularity of legumes and vegan fare here.

Conclusion

If you made it to the end of this lengthy post, I think the rest of your 2013 will be gravy!  And if you’re reading this long, long after the year 2012, I hope this recap gave you a good sense of what life was like in that difficult, exciting, tedious year.