Saturday, November 30, 2013

From the Archives - My First Thanksgiving as a College Kid


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the statistics of the journey:

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

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Bike vs. Car - How I Broke My Femur


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

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

The rest of the story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I’m letting it go

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

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

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

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

Let’s blame the victim!

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

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

The problem of risk assessment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are motorists careless?

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

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

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

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

So what?

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

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

Other chapters

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

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

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Exploiting Our Children's Brains


Some big news recently:  Snapchat (which is like Instagram but with a “this-message-will-explode-in-ten-seconds” kind of ephemerality to it) refused a $3 billion buyout from Facebook.  This, despite Snapchat never having made any money.  The reason, of course, is that this novel technology is worth far, far more than $3 billion simply because teens love it.  As we all now know, the world revolves around teens.  (They’ve known this for generations, of course, but we grownups—always a bit slow on the uptake—have only just realized it.)

I don’t have $3 billion to throw around and yet I’d like to personally benefit from the teens, and I’ll bet you would, too.  What do I envy most about the younger generation?  Frankly, it’s their sponge-like ability to memorize stuff.  In this post I substantiate this “sponge” claim, examine what realms of vicarious memory I stand to get the most out of, and provide some ideas as to how to exploit children’s agile young minds.

Are children’s brains overrated?

I’m no expert on child development or the human brain, but—this being just a blog—I don’t have to be.  I would characterize a child’s brain as a miracle of raw processing and storage power, but without a lick of sense.  It’s widely known that a very small child transplanted to a foreign land can easily learn the new language while keeping intact his native tongue.  This is impressive considering that young adults can spend four years majoring in a foreign language in college without attaining nearly the same fluency.  And yet, even my own kids—whom I refuse to believe are below average in intellect—will laugh at even my coarsest efforts at physical comedy.

Not all kids’ brains work the same, of course.  At the risk of over-generalizing, I’ll say that you could divide kids into two rough categories:  1) those who apply their razor-sharp intellects to the task of how to become cool, and 2) those (like my pre-teen daughter) who do pointless eggheaded things like memorizing a bazillion digits of Pi.  I’m glad my kid is the second kind, because for one thing, I don’t want her to get any dates, and for another, in being un-cool she can better relate to her father, who has never been cool and never will.  (As Anthony Bourdain has pointed out, “the essence of cool is not giving a [damn],” and parents bloody well better give a damn, and even if you used to be cool, like he was, “there is nothing cool about ‘used to be cool.’”)

So the best I can do is try to turn my daughters’ willingness to memorize vast troves of information into something I can tap into.  The problem is, kids don’t tend to memorize the kinds of information an adult might want quick access to.  They tend to memorize information that is useless.

Useless crap I memorized as a kid

One bit of information I wish my young self had committed to memory:  did I not bother trying to be cool because I realized that cool was probably an innate thing that I simply didn’t and couldn’t have, or did I not even register, until it was far, far too late, that there was even a such thing as cool?

No matter.  I applied my mind to memorizing all kinds of things, often without conscious effort.  For example, at age ten, my memory acquired all the lyrics to all the songs in Pink Floyd’s double-album “The Wall.”  Not only all the lyrics, but all the background noises and utterances (to the extent I could make them out).  All the tunes, the helicopter noises, the background TV snippets … probably terabytes worth of artifacts from that album.  Oh, and tons of other music as well, including music I didn’t even like.  To this day I’ll get songs from Styx’s “Kilroy Was Here” album stuck in my head.  It’s a curse, especially considering that there’s no room left in my brain to store new information.

That wasn’t all, of course.  Back in ’77, when I heard my brother Geoff listing off all the cast members of “Star Wars,” I naturally committed them to memory myself, no questions asked.  I’m not just talking about Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford.  I’m talking about Anthony Daniels (who played C3P0) and Kenny Baker (who played R2D2).  Never mind that these weren’t actors who went on to have actual careers, where it might have been useful to recognize their names.  (Kenny Baker went on to play a character called “Bruce Foreskin” in the direct-to-video “Boobs in the Wood,” and no, I did not make that up, and no, I have not watched it.)  Carrie Fisher probably doesn’t remember much about her roles in the “Star Wars” movies, having been an adult when she acted in them, but I remember a ridiculous number of her lines (“Get this big walking carpet out of my way,” “Fine … if money is what you want, then money is what you’ll get,” “You came over in that thing?  You’re braver than I thought,” etc.).

I didn’t learn a bazillion digits of Pi because, though I didn’t know what cool was, I knew what a dork was and felt I’d already presented several of the risk factors.  Peers were more judgmental back then, I think.  In contrast, my daughters boldly pursue whatever they like.  (Paradoxically, this probably makes them cooler than I was.  It’s complicated.)

Can kids be ordered to memorize things?

It’s tempting to say that kids cannot be ordered to memorize things.  For example, I have been trying to teach my kids a set of “family best practices,” like saying “thank you” after a meal, but they almost never comply.  I think this is an authority issue.  After dining at friends’ houses, my daughters do remember to say thank you (unless their hosts are lying to me).

Teachers do seem to have enough authority to command kids to memorize stuff.  I still have bits of dialogue rattling around in my head from junior high French class, when I was made to memorize my side of several rote conversations.  These snippets pop up almost whenever I choose what to eat—“Je voudrai avoir un bifteck frites … et une salade, bien entendu!”—and whenever I’m running late—“Zut!  Il est déjà cinq heures!”—with this last utterance continuing to cause me much confusion, every time, because “cinq heures” is 5:00 a.m., and surely these French kids weren’t waiting for a bus at 5 a.m., so why did our textbook say that?  Perhaps the most egregiously useless thing a teacher made me memorize was the entire list of prepositions in the English language, in alphabetical order.  That list survived in my memory for at least a decade; probably I removed it through sheer will.

(Not that I memorized everything I was assigned.  I refused to learn the many parts and functions of the female reproductive system in Health class.  My reasoning was that I don’t even possess any of these organs, though truth be told I was only a little better at learning off the male parts.  I did, however, remember the single most important lesson from Health class, which we kids summarized as “Remember the rule:  protect your tool,” along with like a dozen cruder variations.)

Likewise, my kids are given all kinds of things to memorize for school, and they dutifully comply.  They haven’t yet learned to instantly forget everything five minutes after the test.  For example, my younger daughter was commanded to memorize a really, really awful rap song about the parts of speech, and as she practiced it, my older daughter chimed in, still remembering the song from when she had to memorize it three years before.  (This is why I didn’t let my kids see my own, child-inappropriate “parts of speech” rap:  for fear that they’d instantly memorize it, start singing it on the playground, and get us in trouble.)

A few nights ago my older daughter announced that she had most of the Periodic Table of the Elements memorized; this came on the heels of her little sister memorizing, for school, a poem about an exploding turkey.  Of course my younger daughter had gotten a really late start on her homework and had to memorize three stanzas of the poem in like five minutes, and though she was totally panicked (in fact, perhaps because she was totally panicked) she pulled it off.  This pair of memorization episodes is what got me thinking that I really need to capitalize on this childish parlor trick.  If kids can memorize this much stuff with no greater a carrot than decent grades or their own whims, then I—the holder of dessert and video privileges—should be able to get in on this action.

What should we make our kids memorize?

Oddly enough, even though I curse myself daily for my inability to shunt things into memory like I used to, it wasn’t easy to come up with something for my kids to memorize for my benefit.  The most obvious things adults struggle to remember are passwords, but for obvious reasons I don’t want to entrust my kids with those.  I could assign my kids memorization tasks like remembering the birthdays of my dozen nieces and nephews, but I’ve decided not to, for a couple reasons.  First, since there is a tangible consequence of a failure of memory here (these are kids, after all), I don’t want to take the risk.  Second, it really does seem that the most amazing feats of memory involve pieces of information that are linked:  a poem, a song, or a list. 

I thought about assigning one of my kids to memorize the table of civil twilight start and end times for this area, because those tell me how early in the morning or how late in the evening I can go for bike rides on any given day.  It would be so handy to be able to yell across the house, “Hey Alexa, what time is civil twilight tomorrow morning?  And when are you going to practice your piano?”  The problem is, the civil twilight table comprises 730 data points.  Sure, I could have Alexa memorize the start and end times for the first day of each month, and the average “drift” for that month, to be able calculate this information for any given date, but it’s a non-linear thing and would end up being more of a math problem than a memorization stunt.  Besides, I have a handy printed chart for this, just like I have my nieces’ and nephews’ birthdays in my computer calendar.

I finally got my inspiration after joining a work-related conference call.  This was a high-attendance bi-weekly training thing where a roll call is required, so operators field each incoming call, asking for each attendee’s name, with spelling.  As often happens, the operator had difficulty with my name, even though I spelled it out:  “Dana—that’s Delta Alpha November Alpha.”  She said, “What?  Bana?”  I think this is because I have a girl’s name.  Perhaps she thought it was more plausible that there was a word she didn’t know, belta, and a name she hadn’t heard before, Bana, than that a man could possibly go by “Dana.”  It seems like I go through this issue almost every time I join this conference call.  Maybe the operators are screwing with me.

Anyway, my own struggles notwithstanding, the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet (aka NATO phonetic alphabet), is a very handy thing to know for spelling things out over the phone.  For one thing, it’s faster than thinking up words on the fly.  For another, it’s less ambiguous (e.g., if I said “D as in dog,” the operator might think I said “B as in bog”).  And most of all, the NATO phonetic alphabet gives your speech an air of military authority—it sounds official.  What seems cooler to you:  “A as in apple, L as in lion, B as in boy, E as in elephant, R as in rabbit, T as in tennis,” or “Alpha—Lima—Bravo—Echo—Romeo—Tango”?

Naturally, you’ve already spotted the flaws with this scheme:  it’s not such a lot to memorize, and I’ve apparently already memorized it anyway.  It’s not like I’m going to pause my phone conversation to yell across the house, “Hey Lindsay, what’s the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet word for Y as in, uh, yellow?”  So this memorization task falls short of my dream of using my kids as portable voice-activated almanacs.  On the other hand, having any influence at all over what my kids memorize is a nice win as a parent, particularly as they reach their tween and teen years.  Getting them to memorize something slightly useful, for their own edification, is enough for me.

Getting them to do it

I mentioned above how teachers, in commanding children, seem to have more authority than I do.  I also alluded earlier to powers of persuasion I myself might have due to my control over dessert and videos.  Gosh, that was sloppy blogging.  In fact I would never bribe my kids with dessert or videos because that would set a dangerous precedent.  Any intelligent kid would realize, Hey, I could do this cool thing I’m already inclined to do, but since this thing would also please my parent, I should hold out for some kind of reward!  (Believe me, my kids have tried this, but I always refuse, telling them “I will not negotiate with terrorists.”)

So instead, I talked to my wife, in my younger daughter Lindsay’s presence, about how cool the NATO phonetic alphabet is, and then I threw Lindsay a bone by mentioning the game Battleship, which (like many children) she unaccountably enjoys (despite its being completely pointless).  When I was a kid, the play console was very spare and we called out simple letter and number coordinates (e.g., “G-4!”).  Now the console looks all badass, with pictures of military technology like targeting systems, and simulated rivets, etc., and the x-axis is labeled with Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, etc. instead of A, B, and C.  So the kids call out “Bravo-7!” instead of just “B-7!”  I told Lindsay this was probably to help prevent confusion, such as B not being confused for D.  (This probably has less to do with it than the modern hardcore military aura the game tries to create.)  Then I asked her how many of the letter names she could remember.

By afternoon, she and Alexa were talking about this phonetic alphabet, and though I never made good on my plan to print out the list and leave it lying around, I didn’t need to.  At dinner the next night I asked Lindsay how much of the phonetic alphabet she could recite.  I figured that after Oscar, which is where Battleship leaves off, she’d fizzle out, but she didn’t.  She needed hints on about ten of the letters, but she eventually got them.  Then Alexa rattled off the entire list like an old pro.  Mission accomplished!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Лучше Девушка - My Russian Picture Book


It’s probably about time for a Russian-themed blog post, since (according to Pageview stats) 11% of my albertnet audience is Ukrainian and another 4% is Russian.

This post is about a children’s picture book that I wrote in Russian for a high school class.  The book itself is presented here, with my shockingly bad illustrations, along with a handy English translation that gave me some trouble (more on this later).

Beyond the story itself, I describe here how my brother wrote computer software to enable me to actually type out the story in Russian.  (This was a pretty big deal back in 1986.)  Meanwhile, the simple tale is greatly enriched by the story of my civil-war-torn Russian class, so I’ll give some background on that, with further observations sprinkled among the storybook pages.

The translation

It’s been a very long time since I studied Russian, and in the interim I’ve stuffed my head with French and Latin and also killed off a tremendous number of brain cells riding my bike too hard.  Thus, when my mom—having decided I can finally be trusted with a precious family heirloom—returned to me the picture book (which she had been archiving), I was unable to read it.  I had written the book using the simplest prose imaginable, but now I found myself stymied.

I made a little stab at translation using Google Translate, but gave up quickly.  For one thing, you have to enter each word using the Cyrillic alphabet of Russian, and the mouse-based methodology for this is clunky:

Second, when writing this book my spelling was less than perfect, and it’s difficult to Google-translate misspelled words.  Consider сотворил above:  in my book I’d spelled it сотровил.  And then there’s the grammar to consider.

And so, oddly enough, I had to find somebody to translate my own book into my native tongue.  I wasn’t about to post a craigslist ad, because a) how could I validate the ability of some random would-be translator? and b) my budget for this project is based on my income from this blog—that is, it’s nonexistent.  Fortunately, my daughter has made a new friend in school who is fluent in Russian (she speaks it at home).  This friend not only translated my book, but read it aloud to us in Russian, which was a pleasure to hear.

The font and typesetting

The teacher, when assigning us the children’s book, said we had to bind all the pages up nicely, with a cover and everything, and I refused.  “This isn’t an arts and crafts class,” I said snottily.  (Like so many teens, I was a jerk.)  “But I will type it,” I declared.  I didn’t know exactly how I’d do this, and of course the teacher assumed I was just BS-ing her.

I asked my brother Bryan if he could create a Russian character set for me on the computer, and software that could typeset my story.  He didn’t ask, “What’s in it for me?!” but immediately accepted the challenge just because it sounded cool.  He didn’t have his own computer—not so many people did back then—but we had access to our dad’s Hewlett Packard 85 computer (described here).  The only problem was, its built-in thermal printer used a spool of paper that was only about four inches wide.  So Bryan borrowed his friend Thaine’s HP-86, and wrote a program on it using the HP version of the BASIC programming language. 

The program drew the characters using the graphics capability of the computer.  Bryan had me design the characters myself on 8½-by-11 graph paper.  They were huge—one graph-paper box per pixel—and he shrunk them down with the software (this was long before scanners and I have no recollection of how he got from paper-based drawings to computer pixels).  His program gave me rudimentary word processing capabilities and mapped the Cyrillic characters to their nearest QWERTY keyboard equivalent.  The font was lovely; in fact, his characters were far prettier than those of the existing English-language font sets available for a dot-matrix printer.  Compare:

When I’d written the story, typed it, printed it, and added my pictures, it did seem like a shame to just staple it.  Before I even had time to think about how I might bind it, Thaine’s girlfriend Erika offered to make a cover for me.  She used black silk for the back cover, and a brilliant red floral pattern in silk for the front cover.  My teacher, expecting a stapled stack of papers, was pleasantly surprised.  Then, when she opened the book, she was astonished.  “It’s typed!” she cried.

“Well of course it’s typed,” I replied casually.  “I told you I was going to type it.”

The backstory – my Russian class

Before I get to the picture book itself, it should be useful and amusing for you to read about my Russian class and how the personalities involved shaped my story.  During my junior year, I decided to take Russian simply because I’d been studying French since 7th grade and was kind of burned-out on it.  Most of the other kids in my class chose Russian because it had the reputation for being the easiest foreign-language class on offer—an “easy C.”  This was because there was only one teacher, Илена Нетровна, who was the nicest old lady on the planet.  (I haven’t changed any names in this post, because throughout I’ve used our classroom Russian names.  Нетровна isn’t my teacher’s last name, but her patronymic—literally, “daughter of Peter.”)  During a test, you could wave Илена Нетровна over and flat-out ask for the answer and she’d give it to you.  She didn’t have the heart to leave a student behind, so we learned at a tectonic pace.  (Russian is easy to begin with, because it is such a logical and consistent language, and much easier to pronounce than, say, French.)

My class was like the band of misfits you’d find in a teen coming-of-age movie.  There was Тимофей, a leather-jacket-clad punk rocker whose bleached hair was arranged in corn-rows and set in epoxy; his female counterpart Маша, whose hair was also bleached but merely swooped straight up (I had the hots for her); Матвей, a pal of mine I feared had a drinking problem (but then, I was a goody two-shoes type; in England he’d probably have been thought a “hale fellow well met”); and Адам, a very small dude (dare I say Fun-Size?) with an outsized knack for troublemaking.  There were others who were much better students, the best being Катя, who was really nerdy but kind of attractive, and who was cursed with a nickname so cruel I won’t repeat it here (hint:  it combined her reputation as a nerd with an accusation of meretriciousness).

(An interesting aside:  the CIA came to our class to try to recruit us into an intensive language program, promising us exciting cold-war spy jobs where we’d eavesdrop on Soviet radio communications.  Nobody bit.) 

The first year passed with the whole class in lockstep, meaning that very little of the language was actually covered.  Perhaps for this reason, or perhaps because Илена Нетровна (phonetically “Elena Petrovna”) got tired of being disrespectfully called “Yilyenna” (which probably cannot even be rendered in Russian), we got a new teacher the next year, who was just out of college and commanded more of the guys’ attention.   (We were teenagers, so it didn’t take much.)  She decided that one half of the class was ready for harder work, so she split the class into Russian 2 and Russian 3, dividing her attention between the two groups.  The so-called Russian 2 students immediately renamed themselves “The Dumb Group,” and renamed Russian 3 “The Smart Group,” and (notwithstanding that I was technically in Russian 3) dubbed me the “Leader of the Dumb Group.”  I felt like Max in Where the Wild Things Are.

Why me?  Well, in that school district, at least at that time, being smart really was uncool and good grades could be the kiss of death socially.  So I tried to hide my good test scores, not just by covering them up, but by playing dumb.  Well, one day we got back a big test, and Катя bragged to a friend that she got like a 97%.  Somebody—it might have been the teacher, or somebody else who happened to see my paper—told Катя that I’d gotten a 100%, after which (the cat already being out of the bag) I ribbed her a bit about being beaten by a dumbass.  Maybe I ribbed her a bit too much—she got really flustered and I thought she was going to actually start crying.  I felt bad, but from that day forward I was like a hero to the Dumb Group:  a guy who could hold his own against the nerds while still being a troublemaker at heart.

Was I really a troublemaker?  I guess I was, though I can’t remember exactly how I misbehaved.  I must have, though, because one day the teacher (the new, young one) dragged me out of class into an empty classroom and chewed my head off.  She was really ticked, her face flushed, and then I noticed her undergoing another physiological effect that seemed inappropriate to the situation (a response usually associated with either cold weather or a specific stimulation unrelated to anger).  It was one of the most remarkable situations of my life to that point, and though I must have cleaned up my act somewhat, I can’t say I was totally inclined to turn over a new leaf.  I did work a lot harder, though, when we tried to read a chapter of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time (a brilliant novel) in the original Russian.  That effort seriously humbled me, and I guess I needed that.

Okay!  Onward!  As you read my picture book, you’ll surely pick up on my anti-elitist theme; it’s about as subtle as being struck across the face repeatedly with a frozen sea bass.  Obviously I was quite the little hypocrite; after all, what could be more showy and pompous than being the only kid in the class to type his story?

Лучше Девушка

Here is the first page of the story, exactly as it appears in the book:

That “139” in the corner must be an artifact of some glitch in my brother’s software.  I should have whited it out.  My name in the upper right, Юрий, pronounced “Yuri,” was my chosen Russian name (there being no real equivalent for Dana).  Since there’s a lot of wasted space with my full-page format, hereafter I’ve cropped the pictures a bit, resized the text for easier reading, and added the English translations.

I think “music classroom” is pretty klunky (though it’s a literal translation of what I wrote).  If my daughter’s friend had lived in Russia, perhaps she’d know a better term for this.

I guessed wrong on the Russian spelling of Scrabble.  It’s actually СкрЭбл.  (In my defense, we didn’t have the Internet back then.)  I probably made all kinds of mistakes in this book.  It’s kind of amazing my daughter’s friend could read it at all.

This page presented a particular challenge for the translator.  She said “soccer,” because that’s what футбол (or футболе in the accusative case) translates to.  And yet, Олег is quite obviously holding a football.  Needless to say the game of American football isn’t played in Russia.  Where is this story supposed to take place?  I never even considered this.  Looking back, I did a pretty half-assed job on this picture book, notwithstanding the great work others did on it.

Look at those shoes.  The sad thing is, I can’t draw any better today.

This bit about the Talented And Best club was a dig at an actual society (whether it was regional, national, or an assortment of individual clubs, I have no idea) called TAG, for Talented And Gifted.  To be a member was the ultimate stigma socially.  Right around the time I wrote this story, I got into some pretty hot water over TAG.  I had a really plum word processing job at the Boulder Community Hospital, typing lab procedure manuals into the computer and formatting them neatly.  (Before this, these manuals had been typed on a typewriter or handwritten, so it was impossible to update them.)  There was only one personal computer in the whole place, in the big boss’s office, which was fine when I started because the lab was between bosses so the office was empty.

Then they hired this blowhard who sat in there all day talking on the phone, never conducting hospital business, always working on something like getting his car fixed.  It was unpleasant to work with him breathing down my neck, and I wasn’t sure how much longer I could go on.  One day he got into an argument with his teenage kid, right there in the office while I was trying to work.  The argument was about TAG.  I’d most likely have kept my mouth shut, but then my boss dragged me into it.  “Say, Dana, you seem bright.  Have you been offered membership in TAG?”

I replied, “Yeah, I was invited.”  He asked if I accepted, and I said I had not.  He asked why, and—who knows, maybe this was intentional career suicide—I just couldn’t restrain myself from saying, “I think TAG is just a club for kids who don’t have any real friends.”  His kid broke in, “See, Dad?  See?  It’s just like I was sayin’!”  Needless to say I didn’t last long in that job after that.  I guess I really did belong in the Dumb Group.