Saturday, March 30, 2013

Simplex Retrofriction

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


I just installed Simplex Retrofriction shifters on Full Slab, my commuter bike.  It’s been way, way too long since I’ve had them.

Other websites, like this one and this one, provide technical information about these legendary shifters, but they don’t tell the whole story.  To capture the full mystique, you need a little history.  Personal history.  This post unravels the mysterious flow of this schematic:

(Maybe you stumbled on this post because you’re a fan of the Simplex tea kettle from England.  Well, I am too!  Even though these are different companies, you should read this post anyway because if that kettle were a shifter it would be Simplex Retrofriction.)

If you couldn’t care less about bike shifters, read on, because you should care, and maybe this will help.  Meanwhile, anyone with a love of bike lore and nostalgia for cycling in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and a fascination with this improbably wonderful French bike component, will find here many nuggets of gratuitous trivia.  Zut alors!—it’s lore galore!

Simplex sucks

Simplex sucks, for the most part.  The Retrofriction shifters are the exception that proves the rule (and proof that even a  blind squirrel finds an acorn once in awhile).  As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, my brothers’ first bikes had Simplex shifters and derailleurs, and they were made of fricking plastic!  They didn’t shift for beans, of course—the chain was just dragged across the cogs like a clattering crab trying to get traction on a polished tile floor.  These components were also hideous to behold.

Working at a bike shop in the late ‘80s I came across a plastic Simplex derailleur on a ‘70s-vintage bike that was in for an overhaul.  I didn’t try very hard to make the derailleur work; I simply replaced it.  I told the customer, “I noticed that your derailleur was Simplex, so I replaced it.”  She said, “Simplex?  What’s that?”  I said, “It’s a brand.  It’s French.”  She said, “Is that bad?”  I replied, “Oh, yes.”

The French aren’t known for great bike parts, or great engineering in general.  At one shop I worked at, one of the mechanics liked to sneak up behind another guy and suddenly whisper in his ear, “French … nuclear-powered … submarines.”  The guy hearing this would, according to an unwritten script, scream in terror.  (The exception is rims.  The French are really good, perhaps eerily good, at rims.)

My first Simplex product was a front derailleur on an ancient Schwinn commuting bike I bought at a police auction.  Oddly, this derailleur was operated by a handle, not a shifter and cable.

It didn’t say “Simplex” on it, by the way.  Schwinn was in the business of fooling patriotic Americans into buying foreign stuff by putting their own label, “Schwinn approved,” on whatever parts they provisioned for their bikes.  (I had another Schwinn with a Huret derailleur; also French, also terrible.)  Needless to say, that front derailleur shifted terribly, and also tended to get caught on my pant leg.  In fact, that’s how it met its death—it got snagged so hard it was torn from the bicycle, after which I shifted the front chainwheels by hand.

My historical components of choice

Prior to owning my first pair of Simplex Retrofrictions, my bike component choices were determined mostly by economics.  My first ten speed, bought by the ‘rents, had cheap Suntour , as did my second.  By 1983 I was ready for some real racing components and, like almost everybody, coveted Campagnolo but, on my paperboy’s salary, could only afford Suntour Pro Superbe.  In 1985 I finally got my dream bike, an English-made Mercian with full Campy Super Record.  I was perfectly content with the Campy shifters, which I’d also had on my previous bike, because they were affordable and looked cool.  Over the years I somehow acquired several pairs, the oldest of which were made in Vicenza instead of Milan and had raised, rather than engraved, lettering.  My friends and I made keychains out of our extra Campy shifters.  We should have had girls throwing themselves at us for this reason alone, but oddly did not.

The only non-Campy component on my Mercian was the brakeset.  For some reason, Modolo was really popular at the time, despite being ridiculous, and I got swept up in its popularity.  (One of the features of these brakes was that each brake caliper was stamped with its own unique serial number; this should be a case study for business majors in the difference between a feature and a benefit.)  When, in 1985, Shimano came out with its totally revamped Dura-Ace line, on a lark I bought a new Dura-Ace brakeset and liked it.

A year later, my brother sold me his Team Miyata frame and begged me to build it up and ride it.  This was when the dollar was really strong against the yen, so for $400 I bought a full Dura-Ace gruppo from Colorado Cyclist.  (Back then, Colorado Cyclist was a garage-sized outfit in Estes Park; they’d recognize my voice when I called them.)  So now I had two bikes, one with Shimano, the other Campy.  Living the dream, really.  This was a bit unusual:  bike people are often fiercely loyal to one manufacturer over the other, so this was like being a member of two different religions.

I became disillusioned with Campagnolo when they came out with their disgraceful first-generation indexed shift levers, which were called Synchro.  We called them Stink-ro.  The click-action was awful—it felt like you were breaking glass inside the lever—and the whole system was a miserable failure.  I might not have cared except for a traumatic experience involving them.  I was at the big bike industry trade show in Anaheim with the Coors Classic director, Michael Aisner, a diehard Campy fan, and delighted in showing him, in the giant, gorgeous Campagnolo booth, how bad Stink-ro stucked.  On a stationary trainer, pedaling a slick-looking bike with a gleaming white disc wheel, I could make the derailleur mis-shift at will.  (With indexed shifting, of course, it should be impossible to miss a shift.)  Mike told me “wait right there!” and disappeared. 

I instinctively started trying to make the Stink-ro shift properly, and was still fighting with it when Aisner reappeared with a small, swarthy fellow in a beautiful chocolate-chip-ice-cream colored suit.  They watched for a minute as I continued to mash away with the gears.  Finally I dismounted and walked over to them.  Aisner turned to the gentleman and said, “This here is a big fan of yours.”  Turning to me, he said, “Dana, meet Valentino Campagnolo!”  It was indeed the company’s president, who was also the playboy son of the company’s founder, Tulio Campagnolo.  I shook his hand and mumbled something bland and hoped he didn’t speak English.  After he left, Aisner said, “If you had any balls at all, you’d have told the man to his face that his stuff is shit!”

What you can’t have failed to notice through all this history is that (except for the police auction bike) I never considered buying Simplex.  But why would I have, given the horrible plastic crap on my brothers’ first bikes?  What happened instead is that the Simplex Retrofriction shifters found me.

Another bike I didn’t need

Though I was perfectly happy having just two pro-quality racing bikes, a third one came sniffing around.  It was just a frameset, actually, and my friend Dave Towle (whom you might have heard announcing bike races) was trying to sell it.  It was a Panasonic team issue Raleigh that he bought from a friend on the team.  I sure didn’t need that Raleigh, but it was so damn cool I couldn’t resist.  It looked like these bikes:

Besides how cool those bikes look, what do you notice about them?  That’s right:  both have Simplex Retrofriction shifters!  Now, this is actually kind of remarkable.  You’ve got a Dutch pro team riding English Raleighs, and the team’s component sponsor  is the Italian company Campagnolo, but their guys are using French shifters made by Simplex.  I don’t know if all those Raleighs had Simplex shifters, but those two clearly do, and so did mine:  though it was otherwise a bare frame, the shifters were already mounted on there, so Dave threw them in.  I built up the rest of the bike with a mishmash of parts, just to have it on the road, and that’s how I became introduced to the Retrofrictions.

Instantly I realized they were the greatest friction shifters ever made.  They have a spring in them that works against the spring in the derailleur, so they don’t require so much friction to keep the chain from slipping out of gear.  This has two benefits.  One, the action is glass-smooth.  Two, the shifter doesn’t work its way loose, a chronic problem with friction shifters that you often don’t discover until your bike jumps out of gear.  Remember in “Star Wars” how Darth Vader, in the final dogfight sequence, keeps fiddling with these knobs on his Tie-fighter’s joystick?  Racers used to do the same thing with the D-rings on their Campy shifters toward the end of a race, just to make sure they didn’t have any unpleasant surprises.

Simplex was the first company to make a spring-loaded shifter, but not the only one:  Suntour had their “Power” shifters in the early ‘80s:

I had these on my second road bike.  The problem with the Suntour Power shifters was that in addition to the spring they had a ratchet, which was pointless and noisy.  Plus, they were cheap and pretty ugly, whereas the Simplex Retrofriction are beautifully made.  I can’t figure out how a company as generally lame as Simplex managed to produce such an excellent product.  I’d be no less astonished if Burger King introduced a grass-fed Kobe beef burger with prosciutto and imported Gruyere on an artisanal semolina bun.

My second pair of Retrofrictions

Alas, it was too good to last.  My best friend, Peter, won a Rossin frameset in the Red Zinger Mini Classic and—being on a paperboy’s salary himself—built it up with Suntour Pro Superbe.  I can’t remember if he begged me to sell him my Retrofrictions, or I just took pity in him for his terrible Superbe shifters, but suffice to say I felt honor-bound to help him out.  In retrospect, I’m surprised I felt that magnanimous, given that if it hadn’t been for him, I’d have won the Mini Zinger and that Rossin!  Then again, this was his flagship racing bike, and I barely rode the Raleigh.  (By the time I got it, that bike had been all ridden out.  I’d describe its road feel as “cadaverous.”)   So Pete got the Retrofrictions, and by the time I bought the Rossin off him five years later, he’d worn them out. 

(The Retrofriction springs have a lifespan.  I have it on good authority that you can replace them, but am warned that “the spring is a tight fit around the central shaft and its removal and replacement will test your ingenuity and patience!”)  I didn’t need the shifters anyway; I was firmly committed to indexed shifting by that point.  (I was the first guy around to have the new Dura-Ace 8-speed drivetrain, because the shop my brother worked for was gradually going under and his paychecks tended to bounce, so he paid himself in components, which he ordered via the shop’s line of credit and then sold to me.)

Not needing any more shifters didn’t stop me from getting another pair of Simplex Retrofrictions when I got the chance.  While working at a bike shop in Berkeley I stumbled across a pair in a box in the office.  They weren’t for sale; oddly enough, these shifters never seemed to be available in any shop or mail-order outfit.  After the demise of the Peugeot pro team, I don’t think any team officially used them (though at least a couple of teams used Mavic-branded Retrofrictions).  These shifters I found in the shop, provenance unknown, were just sitting in the box doing nothing.  I couldn’t believe my eyes.  I held them out to the shop owner and said, “Do you know what these are?!”  He said oh yes, he was well aware of what he had there.  I looked him right in the eye and said, “I’m taking these.”  I had no plan for them, other than to own them.  My boss didn’t object;  perhaps he knew, as I did, that you can’t stand in the way of destiny.

I didn’t have a bike to put them on and considered acquiring one just for that purpose.  (It’s a testament to the glory of these shifters that I can’t even remember which friend of mine had expressed the same idea.  I think it was John Pelster, my old UCSB and current EBVC teammate.)  Alas, I had no money, and as a starving student could no longer afford to buy another bike just because I felt like it.  But I ended up using those shifters before I expected to.

Simplex saved me!

That year—it was 1990—my Team Miyata vas the victim of a car rack accident (follow that link and look closely at the first photo and you’ll see the broken-off fork tip and caved-in top tube).   So I bought a new frame from a buddy; he’d been given it years before from his team, and hadn’t ever built it up.  It was a Guerciotti, with old-school Campy dropouts, and I think the derailleur hanger was longer than what had been on the Miyata.  What’s worse, my rear derailleur was slightly bent, which—combined with the longer derailleur hanger on the Guerciotti—meant my indexed shifting wouldn’t work right.  I had just moved to the Bay Area, had  run out of money, and was trying to earn a spot on the UC Berkeley cycling “A” team, all with a bike that wouldn’t shift right, and I was so overwhelmed and frustrated I almost quit the sport.  I mean, if a seasoned mechanic, who’s down to just a single racing bike, can’t even get it working right, what hope does he have in life?  But the Retrofrictions saved me!  I slapped those babies on the Guerc and everything was fine.  After five years of racing with indexed shifters, it was actually fun going back to friction.  I ended up using those shifters for the next eight years, until a freak bike tune-up accident ruined the right lever.

Here’s the sad tale.  I don’t know if this is a French thing or what, but the little socket where the gear cable’s head sits is a bit small on these shifters.  In other words, the cable head has a snugger fit to begin with, and—unknowingly compounding this—I had, somewhere along the line, installed a Campy cable.  Campy cables had a slightly oversized head, and it must have worked its way into the shifter over time.  So when the cable wore out, I absolutely could not get that cable head out of the shifter.  I finally clipped the cable off at the head and tried to drill it out, but I aimed poorly and did terrible cosmetic damage to the shifter without accomplishing anything.  I was so bummed out at the loss of the shifter, and the inability to replace it (this was before eBay), that to cheer myself up I bought a whole new gruppo, 9-speed Dura-Ace with STI shift levers (i.e., shifters built into the brake levers).  See?  There is some benefit to finishing college and becoming a working stiff!

Back on Retrofriction

Recently a friend, who is restoring an old Campy-equipped road bike, asked if I had any Campy shifters I could sell him.  Well, I couldn’t lie:  I had a pair on Full Slab, my beloved commuter bike

Actually, my friend offered to trade a crankset for the shifters, which is a pretty sweet deal.  The only problem, of course, is that I use Full Slab regularly and would need something to replace the Campy shifters with.

I knew my ruined Retrofriction shifters would be waiting for me, buried in The Box where I’ve been accumulating cast-off parts for decades.  It’s always a little scary cobbling together something from The Box, and I wasn’t looking forward to reliving the torment of the Retrofriction shifter I so stupidly ruined.  Sure enough, I found it right away.  I also found Pete’s (i.e., Dave’s) old Retrofrictions, and wondered if I could possibly move the (good) guts from my badly-drilled shifter to the handle of Pete’s worn-out one, and thereby cobble together a perfect shifter.

But I’m an adult now, with a career and a wife and two kids, and my hands have gone soft from decades of office work, and when it comes right down to it I’m just not a good enough mechanic to tear into anything that’s both a) French-engineered, and b) bound up with a spring.  So I charged up my drill and had another go at the old cable head.  This time I started from the flip side of the shifter, and though I missed the original hole completely, I ultimately (re-)created a good hole to feed a cable through.  Note that in the process I came up with a valid use for a phone book, of which I’d been previously convinced there was none.  The yellow pages provided an expendable surface to catch the drill after it finally burst through the back of the shifter.

The result?  Life is good!  Full Slab has never been so smartly attired.  The left shifter is perfect.  The right shifter ends up being pretty worn out after eight years and some 50,000 miles, but it still works.  Best of all, just riding that bike to the train station and reaching for one of those levers is a trip down memory lane, a sped-up review of everything you just read here along with about a hundred more things I couldn’t manage to fit in to this story.  Ah, the splendid nexus between bikes and memory!

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Friday, March 22, 2013

From the Archives - Temp-to-Perm: A Study in Shame


Ages ago, right out of college, I got a job through an employment agency. It was a temp-to-perm job: if I worked out, I’d get hired outright, but if at any point the firm decided I was no good, they could place a quick call to the agency and I’d be out of there within minutes. (I did get past the temp-to-perm purgatory, eventually.)

During my first few weeks of this, somebody at the firm decided they needed to have an internal corporate newsletter, and solicited articles for it. To my surprise, my boss asked me to submit something. What follows is that submission. (Oddly enough, I ended up being the only person to provide an article, so the newsletter itself was never produced.) 

Temp-to-Perm: A Study in Shame – March, 1993 

To quote Dostoevsky, “I am a sick man, I am an angry man. I am an unattractive man. I think there is something wrong with my liver.” Why? Because I’m a temp. I’d be a fool to deny it—it’s right there on the invoice. Don’t think I can’t envision the expression that Michelle in Accounting has when she pays it, week after week. I know what she’s thinking: how much chargeable time does the kid need to accrue for us just to break even on him?

Oh, you can afford to ask this, you blessed permanent employees. You don’t have to fill out a time card every week; you don’t have drop it off at the employment agency so they can take a third of it away. Most of you doubtless have direct deposit: an income so automatic it just becomes a fact of life. I, meanwhile, wince every time I fill out my time card and read, “Job with this client completed and ready for another assignment?”

Sure, I can check the “No” box this time, with a shaky hand, but what about next week? What if I screw up? I’d get sent home, and next time I went to the agency to get my check, I’d check “Yes” on “ready for another assignment?” and renew the bleak process of waiting by the phone for the agency to call.

Well, for all of you who are annoyed at the hassle of paying so much money for a stranger in the office, I ask for your patience in letting me describe the woes, on my end, of the temporary-to-permanent ordeal.

Last January I spent a pleasant but anxiety-ridden vacation at Lake Tahoe after graduating from college in December. Hiking alone through a vast expanse of snow, I was finally able to gather my thoughts after the brain-numbing frenzy of final exams, and I made the following life-altering realizations: I was deeply in debt, I was unemployed, I was homeless, the cabin in Tahoe cost $200 a week, and I’d already maxed out two of my credit cards. So I hightailed it back to civilization, found an apartment, and started looking for a way to pay the rent.

It took about ten minutes to ascertain that no decent positions were available through the classified ads. But before losing all hope and putting my head in the oven, I asked my roommate for help. He said, “Ya can’t work without but ya go to a agency. Trust me.” He’s unemployed, but by choice, so I decided to take his advice.

I’ve worked with employment agencies before. They seem to be experts at placing young office workers in companies that do not, and should not, trust them to do anything important. Years ago at another temp-to-perm job, I finished typing a document and was summoned into the vice president’s office. 
ooooo“You’re still working on the rest of this, right?” he asked. 
ooooo“No, it’s all there,” I told him.
ooooo“You mean . . . you can type?”
ooooo“Of course I can, didn’t the agency tell you?”
ooooo“Well yes, but . . . you really can!” 

He called me into his office again when he discovered I hadn’t made any mistakes. He was completely amazed.

Another time I temped as a receptionist at the Office of the President of the University of California. I sat at a giant marble desk facing the bank of elevators and smiled at the people walking through to the office. That was all I was supposed to do, since the office manager didn’t want to confuse me with names or phone extensions. When calls came through I would say, “I don’t know if he’s in or not. I don’t actually work here.” It was never clear to me why they hired me in the first place, and the gig didn’t last long.

This is why I was determined, this time, to use a top agency, and only to find permanent work with a company that would buy me from the agency and accept me as one of its own. So I hit the yellow pages. The problem is, how do you find a job through the yellow pages? How does one agency stand out above another? If I were looking for a big safe to store valuables in, I would be overwhelmed with information: the ad for Pioneer Safe and Vault, for example, tells me they have jewelry safes, modular vaults, vault doors, floor safes, home safes, fire safes, fire files, and drop safes. (What’s a drop safe, anyway? Something out of a cartoon?) Employment agencies, dealing only in humans, have much vaguer terms of distinction. My future was in their hands, yet I felt like flipping a coin to decide which ones to use.

The ad for Pathways Personnel Agency told me they’re “Minority Owned.” Is this supposed to help me, with my blond hair and blue eyes? Another ad read, “Finding the RIGHT Jobs with the RIGHT firms!” Could I even work for a company that would respond to such drivel? Yet another read, “JOAN SPRINGER . . . THE ‘ORIGINAL’ COUNSELOR OF THE YEAR . . . VOTED 1976.” Whatever. Leaving nothing to chance, I decided to go with four different agencies, including one called ProServ, because they once got Mark Gorski, an obscure athlete, $100,000 in endorsements for winning a medal in the ‘84 Olympics when nobody was there. They must have some kind of clout, I figured. (This turned out to be a false connection: there are two different ProServ agencies, which are entirely unrelated. I found this out after the fact.)

Then I began the loathsome paperwork period. The truly sinister thing about interviewing at employment agencies is dealing with their office personnel. I could not prevent my seething. They’re so damned polite! Sure, I thought: you can afford to be easygoing, you have a job! While I went through reams of paperwork, they could calmly, blithely go about their various office routines. Routines! What I wouldn’t have given for routines right then! I just had forms, pages and pages of forms, which I feared would be left to molder away in a manila folder somewhere while I sat at home by the phone, begging it to ring.

Chip, the ProServ clerk, gave me complete battery of clerical tests. For some reason, he started with a ten-key-by-touch test. I’d never taken a ten-key test before in my life. It consisted of a long list of numbers which looked like this,
only it went on for several pages. Three minutes later, my eyes tearing up from trying to focus without losing their place, I had finished the ten-key test. I never did find out how I did.

After that came the typing test. No problem there. What Chip likely didn’t know was that I’d been to three other agencies that same day, and they all used the same typing test copy. I’d already typed, three times over, those four paragraphs of clumsy, didactic prose advising temps on how to have good phone manners. I knew where all the tough words were, like “contemptuous” and “sniveling.” For me, the typing test was like a choreographed dance I’d practiced since I was six. When Chip came to collect my results, he could not hide his covetousness: “Eighty-seven words per minute with no errors! Holy cow!” I almost spoke my mind: “You know what this means, Chip. I’ll work in an office with a better elevator than yours.”

And it’s true. The elevators at 100 Pine Street are far bigger than ProServ’s. We have the biggest elevators I’ve ever seen. Elevators bigger than my bedroom. And they’re gut-crunchingly fast. Now I scorn the ProServ office staff, with their endless employment applications, their vast library of résumés, the paper trail following their endless scavenger hunt for skilled people.

But is my fate any better? After all, I’m still beneath them, as registered ProServ property. But what is to be done? For now, I wait. I wait for the hand-to-mouth, paycheck-to-paycheck game to end. I wait for that coveted spot on your employee roster. What else can I do? I feel like a commodity, a slave being purchased on the installment plan.

So next time you gnash your teeth over my inflated hourly rate, remember: blame not the temp. His lot is to be pitied.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Craigslist Meets the Real World


I tried to sell a dining room table and chairs on craigslist.  I went through the annoying process of having my merchandise vetted by the kind of highly particular and discerning consumer who somehow manages to forget that he or she is paying bottom dollar.  I decided to give it another try, with a fresh ad.  This time I provided a better description of the set, and also fully disclosed the imperfect condition of the upholstery while (I hope) eliminating or at least lowering the chances of another non-productive, highly annoying e-mail exchange.  I found the end result somewhat abrasive, but so be it.  Somebody needs to burst the bubble of overoptimistic craigslist shoppers.

Because I think there are valuable lessons within this ad text, whether or not you want the dining set, I am posting this to albertnet for posterity.  I shall update this blog with the result of my second craigslist ad, if any.  (You can view the ad itself here if you’re quick about it.)

My craigslist ad

Beautiful Glass Dining Table With “Real World” Chairs

Okay, this is not the first time I’ve posted an ad for this dining room table with chairs.  I think I wasn’t clear the first time.

The table is beautiful.  And no, it’s not scratched.  This is tempered glass, half an inch thick.  You kind of have to use tempered glass for a table, or you’re one mishap away from a grisly scene like Sam Peckinpah would film.  I suppose you could scratch this table with a diamond, but we haven’t.  It is in perfect condition.  And around the edge of the glass is a nice bevel that I have enjoyed gazing upon over the years, along with my kids who by age six were using phrases like “refractive index” all because of the IQ-increasing visual effect of that beveled edge.

The workmanship on the chairs is excellent and they are free from nicks and scratches.  Is the cream-colored fabric pristine?  Honestly, it is not.  I neglected to mention this in my original ad because I actually had not noticed.  Why not?  Because the armchair I always sat in, at the head of the table, is pristine.  The rest of the chairs have always either had somebody sitting in them or were pushed in.  So really, stains on the seat are not that noticeable.

“Aha!”  you might be thinking.  “It’s a glass table!  So you’d see the stains right through it!”  False.  This was our family dining table.  Every family uses their dining table as a clearing house for books, papers, crafts, and as a general storage area for anything that needs to be handy.  If you don’t agree with this statement, you are lying to yourself.

Moreover, what do you expect for $250?  A gorgeous perfect-condition tempered glass table with six chairs all in perfect condition?  Should it come with a couple of guest passes for spa treatments at Indian Springs as well?  What about an unconditional lifetime guarantee?

I am imagining the future owners of this dining set to be a young couple, perhaps in a starter home, who are either planning to have kids or already have a baby, maybe a toddler, who will graduate from a highchair soon.  That would explain the price point.  (If you live alone or are part of a couple not intending to have children, perhaps you should just wait until you have enough money for a decent dining set that IS spotless.)  So, assuming you do intend this as a family dining table, trust me:  immaculate upholstery is the last thing you should worry about.

Why?  Because children + dining chair upholstery = lost cause.  You can go right out and buy the cleanest, nicest set you can find and your children will very quickly make it as dirty as these chairs.  Don’t kid yourself that your kids will be special.  A friend of mine bought a really beautiful dining set, and within months his toddler had tagged every single chair, writing her approximation of her name in indelible black paint on them.  “Where did she get the paint?” you ask?  That’s right … blame the victim.  Look, the source of the paint is not the point.  Where soiling furniture is concerned, children are very resourceful.  So get over it, like all parents do.  (Did my friend bawl out his daughter?  No, he just shrugged.  He is familiar with the work of the Nobel-prize winning child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, the first to discover that “children are gonna do what they’re gonna do.”  Yes, I’m paraphrasing here.  Actually, I’m only assuming Bettelheim said that, due to his Nobel prize.)

Do not even ask if I’ll sell the table without the chairs.  Someone already asked me that.  First of all, it’s an absurd notion:  what am I going to do with six chairs, five of which are stained?  Who would want them?  I guess I could lower the price by fifty bucks and put the chairs on the curb for the garbage pickup, but I’m trying to raise my kids not to be grossly wasteful like that.  Besides, where are you going to find six pristine dining chairs for fifty bucks that are going to match this table?  Moreover, I found that question insulting.  These chairs have been good enough for me for twelve years—but they’re not good enough for the person with the $250 dining set budget?

Yes, I have a right to feel insulted!  I paid $1200 for that dining set!  And I took a big risk to get that price.  The place I bought it from said it was half-price because a) they wouldn’t deliver it, b) they wouldn’t assemble it, c) there was a 50/50 chance there was no hardware with it, and d) if there ended up being no hardware and/or anything else was wrong, that was my problem because they wouldn’t let me return it.  It took some serious cojones to take that gamble and you can bet I wasn’t worrying myself over silly notions like whether cream-colored upholstery was a good idea with a baby on the way.  (In the event, the table ended up having two sets of hardware.  But you don’t need to worry about that because you’ll be getting it fully assembled!)

So go ahead, scrutinize these photos, be as critical as you want, but don’t forget that your limited budget doesn’t realistically entitle you to expect a table and chair of this high quality that has the useless short-term idiosyncrasy of unblemished upholstery.  Oh, maybe you’ll find something out there, like a waxy, silly-putty-colored table made of recycled milk jugs with chairs that either have a vomit-colored fabric that hides any stain but looks awful to begin with, or cream-colored fabric treated with some miracle coating that will look great but that, ten years from now, they’ll discover is totally toxic and has damaged your children in ways you can’t even bear to contemplate.  If the cost to you of denying the inevitability of stained fabric is that high, maybe you’re better off with a cut-rate illusion-of-quality dining set.

But just remember:  I had this table for twelve years and the fabric never bothered me.  My memories will always be of the times when the table had been cleared of papers and projects and I could gaze upon its glass-topped beauty with pleasure—the kind of aesthetic experience that causes a little sigh of pure bliss.  Around this table I have entertained people who are either heads of state or deserve to be.  I have carved magnificent turkeys at this table and it did them justice.  My kids have snacked while reading library books (normally forbidden at table due to the spill risk) by holding the book with their knees under the glass—just try that with a table made of reconstituted chicken guano or whatever that horrible cheap furniture is made of.

albertnet exclusive - not published on craigslist

One more note:  just in case you’re worried about the “human” factor, fear not:  we have steam-cleaned these chairs (after I took the photos, by the way, though as I’ve said the aesthetic aspect of chair seats is irrelevant).  So you won’t be getting our cooties or anything.  And no, there are no blood stains, no red wine stains (which I’ll concede would be really squalid), no cigarette burns, and nothing that’s going to soil anybody’s pants.  It’s good, honest dirt and it’s not going anywhere.

So do yourself a favor:  step up to a level of luxury that, at this price point, is only possible in America and through my own sentimental largesse.  In the process you’ll be sheltering your children, present or future, from any unfair castigation for soiling these chairs, because that inevitable process has already been taken care of for you.

If, on the other hand, you’re a totally unrealistic person with an all-consuming fetish for blemish-free textiles, please do not respond at all.  I don’t want to be talked down on price or presented with any insane notions like splitting up the set.  Just go about your endless search for the perfect $250 dining set that looks like it was never even used.  Good luck with that.


A friend responded to my ad, “I see, it’s like the Nigerian Prince scam, which is purposefully unbelievable so that it filters out everyone but the extremely gullible. In this case, though, you’re filtering out those somewhat interested individuals who would just waste your time. Clever.”  Indeed, this was my intent with the ad, but my filter wasn’t selective enough.  I had three people e-mail me saying they wanted the table, but not one of them actually came through.  I made the mistake of giving the first respondent plenty of time to come pick it up, which I think poisoned the well for the other two.  I finally sold the set to a friend.  I think maybe I’m done with Craigslist.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Importance of Goals - Debunked!


I’m often reminded how important it is to make goals.  Specific, Measurable, Attainable, etc.  But I don’t buy this.  I’m not trying to say long-term goals are bad, or worthless … just that they may be overrated.  So:  maybe you haven’t achieved your goals in the past?  Or can’t think of any now?  I say don’t worry about it. 

The case for goal-setting

I googled “importance of goals” and here are some highlights of the sites I found.  (I’ve selected these from the first page of hits.)

From LIVESTRONG:  “The effects of setting goals can empower a person to believe in the outcome and maintain a positive attitude while in the process of achieving that goal. A seemingly large feat can be broken down into specific manageable steps.”

A site called Personal Excellence starts with a quote from Bill Copeland.   (Have you heard of him?  I haven’t.)  He says:  “The trouble with not having a goal is that you can spend your life running up and down the field and never score.”  This site goes on to describe the “six reasons why setting goals is so important:”
  • Gives clarity on your end vision
  • Drives you forward
  • Gives you laser focus
  • Makes you accountable
  • Be the best you can be
  • Live your best life
The final site I checked out wields its advice like a bludgeon:  “If you don’t have a goal today, you’re just like a lost sheep and you are dangling in nowhere.  You wake up everyday without purposes or reasons.  You live your life meaningless and you will waste your life…  However, with a clear goal in your mind, it will direct you in the right direction.  This is why successful people are able to achieve what they want lightning fast.”

Some semantic housekeeping

The “running up and down the field and never score” platitude is clever, but really doesn’t apply here.  Scoring in a game isn’t a goal per se, it’s the fundamental point of the activity.  We need to differentiate between an immediate result that we seek vs. a lofty, distant vision of where we’d like to end up.  Scoring in a football game means being in the moment, which is very different from vowing to make it into the NFL one day.

For the same reason, achieving what you want “lightning fast” cannot possibly refer to the kind of goal that makes a life worthwhile.  In the context of this post, and the wider context of goal-setting advice, I’m talking about long-term goals requiring organization, stepping stones, feedback, and such.

Many behaviors described as goals are what I prefer to think of as “practices.”  For example, I mentioned in a recent post that I seek to blog four times a month.  But that’s not really a goal; it’s a practice—that is, an ongoing activity carried out with specific, immediate results in mind.  (A true blogging goal would be more like “become rich and famous” or “have my best posts published as a book.”)

Problems with goal-setting

Here’s  a quick list of the issues I have with goal-setting: 
  • Too much focus can keep you from highly productive dabbling.  How can we discover what activities we really love without experimenting?
  • If life balance is a key to happiness—which I happen to believe it is—couldn’t laser-like focus on a specific long-term goal be a bit problematic?  You might ask this of the child of a workaholic, who wishes his parent would exchange that laser for a lamp or some nice area lighting.
  • Our ability to set meaningful goals can be limited by our imagination, which is in turn limited by our life experience.  What if we set the wrong goals?
  • Goal setting doesn’t necessarily “give clarity on end vision.”  Often the extent of what we can achieve isn’t clear until we’ve done it. 
  • The people in our lives are important to our happiness – but who those people are, and what we mean to them, isn’t really under our control.  Close friendships, harmony with our siblings and parents, and starting a family of one’s own aren’t the stuff of stated goals and specific step-by-step planning.  (The philosopher Martin Buber has much to say about treating people as opportunities.)
  • Many goals cannot be met by one person acting alone, and yet for most of us, who aren’t managers or quarterbacks or platoon leaders, it’s all but impossible to charter a course for others that is aligned with our own goals.  It’s just as likely we’ll (help to) achieve great things by attaching ourselves, or being attached, to some larger goal we didn’t think up.
  • Not having a specific goal is often equated with laziness or inactivity, which I think is inaccurate.  A solid work ethic can thrive with or without a specific expectation of what the hard work may eventually lead to.  This approach may provide particularly fertile ground for taking advantage of unexpected opportunities.
  • The proponents of goal-setting seem to assume that all goals are achieved.  What happens when a long-term goal is not achieved (perhaps due to its having been unrealistic in the first place)?  According to a study by two “leading researchers in the field of subjective well-being” cited in an AARP survey, “happiness may [hit] bottom in midlife because people come to terms with failed dreams.”
A couple other voices

For decades I’ve assumed that I’m alone in eschewing goal-setting.  And yet, I don’t often see real-life examples of its benefits.  So before embarking on this exploration, I chatted about it with a couple of persons close to me.

First, I asked my sixth-grade daughter if she has set any goals lately.  (I know, she’s a little young to be looked to as a guru on such matters, but I do consider her a powerful individual.)  She described how, on the first day of school, her teacher had each student draw two lines across a post-it to divide it into quarters, and then had them write down a goal in each, to be achieved (or at least attempted) by the end of the school year.  He assigned four categories:  school, extra-curricular, family, and planet.  Alexa wrote “straight As,” “first stand in violin,” “fight less with my sister,” and “recycle more,” respectively.

I challenged her on the first goal.  “Is that really a goal?” I asked.  She conceded that getting good grades was more like an expectation.  “Right,” I said.  “I expect you to get straight As just like I expect water to come out when I turn on the faucet.”  (No, I’m not like a Tiger Mother; as I’ve described in another post I’m the kind of touchy-feely, modern, sensitive parent who only wants his kids to do their best.  It’s just that my daughter has already demonstrated that if she does her best, she gets As, which means if she doesn’t continue to get As, she’s probably not doing her best.)

“Now, is fighting less with your sister really a goal?” I went on.  (This is more of a practice, in my book.)  “Not really a goal … maybe more like just behaving better,” she replied.  I asked if she recycled every recyclable item she could already, and she rolled her eyes.  “Yeah, but what else was I going to put?” she asked.

I moved on to the “first stand in violin” goal.  After she explained what this meant (I still don’t understand it completely), I said, “That sounds like a good, solid, challenging goal for this year.”  She said, “Well, it actually doesn’t have that much to do with my playing.”  She described how her friend, a first violinist whom she’s assigned to sit next to, is vying for first stand, and if this friend makes it, my daughter will simply ride her coattails (according to the standard seating practice of the orchestra).  Other than hoping her friend succeeds, and continuing to practice her own playing, she contends, she doesn’t have much influence on her fate.  So this goal , too, doesn’t quite fit the classic goal-setting model.

It didn’t seem Alexa had taken this assignment all that seriously—but who am I to judge her?  I asked if she thought the goal-setting exercise was valuable.  She replied, “Well, it took up some time that we’d otherwise have spent doing math, so, yeah…”

My wife hasn’t historically talked much about whether she sets goals, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t.  So I asked her if she puts much importance on goal-setting.  After a pause, she replied, “I’m aware that many people have done it to good effect.”

My first goal-setting failure

In first grade, we did a big unit on careers.  Various parents came in to talk about theirs.  (Oddly, the only one I remember well was a long-haul truck driver.)  Then we kids had to decide what we were going to be when we grew up, and draw a picture of ourselves on the job.  The year before, my brother Max had chosen “ambulance driver,” mainly (I believed then, and continue to believe) because he thought he could draw a pretty cool picture of an ambulance.  My parents were pleased at his choice and made a nice fuss over him.

When it was my turn, I thought about the project for about thirty seconds before deciding I could probably draw a TV set, and that it would be fun to draw a TV showroom with not only a few TVs in it, but also a big picture window, out of which you could see the street and a cyclist riding by.  I thought it would be a nice challenge to draw this well enough for the window not just to look like another TV.  So I chose the career goal of TV salesman.

I guess it hadn’t occurred to me that anybody would take this goal seriously.  My teacher kind of snorted and didn’t say much, while lavishing praise on the students who chose lofty, important careers like firefighter and doctor.  When my parents saw the picture and essay, they were disgusted at my lack of ambition, and it showed.  (In my family, you weren’t even allowed to watch TV.  My dad hid the cord and removed the knobs from the TV set to keep us from watching it, so when we found a replacement cord and used needle-nosed pliers to operate the set, we’d get these huge electric shocks.)

I tried to explain myself, but couldn’t articulate my position.  It was as though, at age six, I’d signed a contract and my future was set in stone.  So all that this goal achieved was to make me feel bad about myself, and make my parents feel bad about me (and perhaps feel bad about themselves).  All this, just because I followed my natural inclination, which was to work hard on the present activity and let the future take care of itself.  As it turns out, I’ve never really abandoned this approach, and yet I don’t actually sell TVs for a living today.  And I think it’s worth pointing out that the field I work in now didn’t even exist in 1975 when TV-Gate went down.

My college goal vacuum

In college I chose English as a major.  This isn’t the same thing as setting a goal, really:  you have to declare something, after all.  But a college major and a career goal can be interrelated.  Choosing English is different than going for something practical like Engineering, which naturally (or, at least, supposedly) equips you for a specific career.  With my choice I was making a statement:  that I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I didn’t care what prospects my major may or may not present me with.

This bothered some people.  It bothered my dad, for example.  And it led to people bothering me.  “English?” they’d say.  “What are you going to do with that?”  I got so sick of hearing that.  You know who didn’t ask me that?  The companies that ultimately hired me. 

I did get to ask this kind of question, though, in the late ‘90s when I was interviewing a candidate for a job where I worked.  Perusing his résumé, I said, “Double major in Philosophy and Political Science, huh?  What makes you think that will serve you in an engineering job?”  (I was half-joking, but also seeing how well he did under pressure.)  He replied, “Well, it’ll make me a more interesting colleague.”  Right answer!  We’ve been working together for over fifteen years now.

What if I’d created a long-term career goal and then, with laser focus, selected a major that would help get me there?  Would that have given me “clarity on the end vision”?  Probably not, given the way industries have changed since my college days.  But I might have decided English wasn’t a “safe” major, and done something else—and that would be a shame, because I enjoyed my liberal arts education and am glad I got it. 

Extracurricular goal vacuum

In college, I rode for the cycling team.  I had never had any long-term goals in bike racing; I just rode and raced as much as my schedule would allow, got what coaching I could, and suffered a lot. I certainly never expected to be recognized for my overall efforts in the sport.  I was taken by surprise, therefore, when I won the UC Santa Barbara Club Sports Top Scholar Athlete award.  I didn’t even know there was such an award.  Had I known about it, and had I set a goal of winning it, would I have behaved any differently?  No:  getting good grades and racing my bike were standard practices for me, not a means to any end.

The next year, our team won the gold medal in the National Championship Team Time Trial event.  I guess I could retroactively pretend that this had been an achievement years in the making.  But really, it wasn’t.  Sure, when we headed to Nationals we were aiming to win, but TTT victory wasn’t a goal we’d written on a piece of paper at the beginning of the season and worked out a strategy to fulfill.  Nationals wasn’t really different than any other TTT that we’d ever ridden.  It’s a race, and the whole team goes all-out the whole time, just like every other team.

What’s more, winning that championship wasn’t a goal I could have achieved by any standard methodology.  It was built, in fact, on failure:  I’d wanted to attend UC Berkeley as a freshman, but they didn’t take me.  (I later transferred there.)  If I’d made it to Berkeley as a freshman, I wouldn’t have been on that winning UCSB team.  Another happenstance that led to that victory was that a new student transferred to UCSB that year, seemingly from out of nowhere, and ended up being one of our strongest guys.  Sure, we helped him learn the ropes, and when we realized how good a TTT team we were, we practiced more at it, but our victory was really more an opportunity we exploited than a perfectly executed plan based on the collective long-term goal of the five of us.  (In fact, we didn’t even select the fifth rider until the week before the race.)

I think it’s important to note that it took me five years of losing bike races before I got any decent results.  If anything, setting big goals year by year would have been a demoralizing endeavor.  Had I set a goal to win a race, I probably would have set my horizon at two or three years tops, and then been let down when I failed.  The success I ultimately had has a lot to do with my approach, which was to do the best I could, keep at it, and hope for the best, year after year.  It’s easier to be patient, I think, when you’re not officially failing in your goals.

Career goals

More than seventeen years ago I interviewed extensively for the job I still have.  I’d started out interviewing for one position, and failed to get it, but was asked if I’d consider a totally different position that the company thought would better suit me.  That was just fine, since I hadn’t had a specific goal in the first place, other than to work for this particular company.  So when it came time for the man who would be my boss to ask the classic interview question—“Where do you see yourself in five years?”—I was in a bit of a bind.

Probably no employer wants to hear that you have no goals and just hope to drift rudderless through your career.  And yet, what could I tell this guy?  Since they’d changed up the very position I was applying for, I couldn’t exactly pretend that everything was unfolding according to my master plan.  So I just answered as honestly as I could:  “Five years out, I see myself still working here, working really hard, doing stuff that’s far cooler than anything I can currently imagine.”  To my great relief, my future boss replied, “I like that answer.  I’ve always hated this question—I don’t believe that most people have any idea where there career is going, especially in this industry.”  (If you’re curious what I do for a living, click here.)

Family goals

If the phrase “family goals” causes you to snort or snicker, good.  Given how complicated family life is, it would be kind of amazing if everybody could agree on any goal, much less cooperate to fulfill it.  I’m not saying families are lame or anything; on the contrary, my greatest satisfaction comes from mine.  It’s just that having this rich family life doesn’t represent the achievement of any goal I could ever have set.

Sure, I always hoped to get married, and hoped to have kids, but there’s no step-by-step plan for such major life scenarios.  (Okay, some cultures still have arranged marriages, but not ours; meanwhile, successful pregnancy either happens or it doesn’t.)  When I first met the woman who eventually became my wife, I didn’t think, “I will make you mine!”  I didn’t run home and write on a piece of paper, “I will get this woman to become my wife and bear me children!”  And when she and I were dating, I didn’t solicit feedback on my progress.  What would that even sound like?  “So … are you starting to think I’m marriage material?  And do you think you’re fertile?”

Just to recap…

Again, I’m not telling you not to set big goals and strive to achieve them.  Maybe I’d have a better and/or more important life if I did this myself.  What I am saying is that if, like me, you’ve gone through life ignoring all the conventional goal-setting wisdom, and this has bothered you, perhaps you can stop worrying.  My philosophy has been something like “Okay, life, I’ll throw everything I’ve got at you, and in return … well, surprise me.”  That’s worked out okay so far.