Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 - The Year in Review


It is of course only in retrospect that we can decide what were the most important news stories of the year.  Isn’t it therefore somewhat uncanny how, if we look back now, we can see that albertnet covered all the most newsworthy happenings, even though I only blog four times a month?  How is it that my posts line up so perfectly with everybody’s “biggest news of 2014” lists?  Man.

Of course it’s not enough just to digest the news—we also need to learn some lesson from it, and take some action in our own lives.  Exactly what this lesson and these actions should be aren’t always easy to determine, so I’ve distilled them into handy slogans for you, one per month.  So, read on to distill all of 2014 into twelve easy steps to improving yourself and the world.

Note:  this will probably be my last-ever “year in review” post because this is a royal pain in the ass and I’ve finally had it.  Dang.  At least my youngest daughter supplied this groovy poster:

January:  Just lie

I know, “just lie” seems like an improbable slogan for how to be better in 2015.  But if you just take a moment to recall the big news from January—I’m talking of course about the Great Velveeta Shortage that was predicted (by Kraft) but that never actually came to pass.  In case you don’t remember this one, Kraft warned consumers that demand for Velveeta could exceed supply during the NFL playoffs.  And just in case consumers suspected this was just an attempt to drum up sales (e.g., “while supplies last!”), a Kraft spokeswoman explicitly said, “This is not a marketing/advertising campaign.”

No, albertnet didn’t report directly on the make-believe Velveeta shortage, preferring to tackle the larger issue of lying in general.  With my post Santa Denial, & How Lance Armstrong Taught Me to Lie, I described how my own ability to lie improved over the years as I watched one of dishonesty’s master craftsmen, Lance Armstrong, steadfastly deny his doping.  Kraft should really hire Lance as a consultant before their next big hoax.

Wait, you might be thinking.  Should I really take away the lesson “just lie” from these stories?  Well, yes, if you’re trying to sell food that isn’t really food, or victory that isn’t really victory.  Just make sure you come clean later, like Lance did, to teach everybody to be more skeptical.  Velveeta shortage, indeed!

February:   Learn from your mistakes!

In February, I posted a decidedly didactic essay, in which I urged my fellow cyclists not to ride in the rain and cold.  I decried the notion that riding in the rain makes you a badass, by contrasting the petty suffering  of cyclists to that of 19th-century sailors who manned the deck in all kinds of rain and snow, beating their hands against the frozen sails to ward off frostbite.

I was alluding, of course, to another badass sailor, that being Jorge Salvador Alvarenga, the fisherman from El Salvador who spent over a year adrift in the ocean catching birds and drinking turtle blood.   Alvarenga has since vowed to stay away from the ocean, which makes all kinds of sense.  You, too, should learn a lesson.  Not to stay away from the sea, necessarily, but to learn from your mistakes, or—better yet—learn things the easy way.  (Hint:  you can do this by continuing to read about my hard-learned lessons via this blog.)

March:  Bitcoin – The Emperor’s New Money!

In March, I took a moment to explain bitcoin to the masses, which essentially meant explaining why it’s such an absurd, doomed financial instrument.  Not surprisingly, my perspective was immediately validated when, days later, it was reported that the bankrupt bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox found 200,000 bitcoins, which had previously gone missing, in an old wallet.  (“Old wallet” in this context means an old digital wallet that was thought to be empty.)  What does it mean to find an electronic representation of a made-up currency lying around in an electronic representation of a wallet?  It means you’re living in a fantasy world.

Incidentally, the value of those 200,000 bitcoins was reported as being worth $116 million at the time.  Well, that was back in March.  Those same 200,000 bitcoins are now worth only $63.6 million.  (And if you’re reading this long after December 31, 2014, I predict you’ll find it’s dropped even more.)

April:  Don’t fluff that aptitude test!

Normally, when I use the phrase “sample intelligence test” or “genius quiz,” I’m referring not to an actual written exam but to an opportunity life presents to test our mental mettle.  (And if I’m honest, I usually use these phrases to mock one of my children—for example, when one of them is struggling to operate a can opener and I say, “Don’t think of it as a can opener, but as a sample intelligence test”—just to keep the pressure on and take her down a notch.)

As you will recall, not one but two pressing news stories involved such life tests, and how a person dramatically failed.  First, of course, was the airline passenger who mistook the cockpit for the lavatory, terrifying the pilots and getting himself arrested.  And then there was the homeless guy who broke into a motel room to spend the night, not noticing that it was actually a museum exhibit:  the room where Martin Luther King was assassinated. 

Earlier that very month, I blogged about one of those rare non-life-initiated, written aptitude tests, which began with a questionnaire about my race that sent my mind reeling, and a Scantron form with unnumbered boxes snaking in every direction across the page, putting me almost into a panic even before I read the first question.  What does this have to do, exactly, with the airline passenger and the homeless guy?  I’ll let you figure that out.  Think of it as a little genius quiz.

May:  The umpire strikes back!

Microsoft Word’s imbecilic grammar checker has flagged “umpire” above and suggests I “correct” it to “empire.”  I guess they assume their software is a tool for merely regurgitating other people’s content.  Sweet.

I didn’t mean “empire.”  I meant “umpire,” dammit.  I’m talking about umpires striking back after being attacked.  I’m sure I don’t need to remind you of the big news in May, about the unruly baseball fan in South Korea climbing a fence and putting the umpire in a headlock.  Well, they sure showed him … dude got a lifetime ban from that stadium and narrowly avoided a $48 fine!

I got my own comeuppance in May after attacking a group of self-appointed arbiters of cycling culture, the so-called Velominati.  Of all my 283 posts to date, none has received so many negative comments.  The Velominati also trashed me in their own pages.  (Do I mind?  Actually, no.  In keeping with the old adage “there’s no such thing as bad publicity,” my blog has enjoyed increased traffic ever since that fracas.  And, I hasten to add, I stand by all my criticism of those silly Velominati rules.)

June:  Dads are people too!

June brought the earth-shattering news of a study finding men are actually more sensitive than women.  (I’m not, of course; I’m often called a “heartless, unfeeling iceberg,” though mostly by myself.) 

As if in response to the aforementioned article, a day later I posted an essay, What Are Fathers For?, that showcases the sensitivity of the modern man—not just to things like Father’s Day cards, but to touchy issues, like whether fathers serve any real purpose, and to what extent our helpfulness and solicitousness actually cause us to lose our children’s respect.  Colud it be, I wondered, that we should just get out of the way?  I guess I could handle that, and just hang out at the Hotsy-Totsy Club with my degenerate friends.

[Okay, we’re halfway home.  Yeah, I know this post is long, but chances are good that, like me, you neglected the 24-hour news cycle all year, so you’re really getting off easy.  (I hope you know I’m missing out on watching “Dr. Who” with my teenager right now.)]

July:   Spelling counts!

Once again, my blog and the greater news media converged this month.  Almost the same day I blogged about how nobody in Hawaii seems able to spell, back on the mainland a baseball team committed a serious spelling error itself, dishonoring its star player 15,000 times in one fell swoop.  I’m referring, of course, to the Colorado Rockies celebrating their shortstop, Troy Tulowitzki, and specifically his league-topping batting average, by making a whole slew of commemorative t-shirts with “Tulowizki” printed on them.  (In case you missed it, they spelled his name wrong.)

There’s nothing very funny about that, which makes it even worse than some of the Hawaiian spellings.  Our favorites were “Bubba’s Buger” and the salubrious “Acai Bowel” (both of which were items on menus). 

August:  Talk to the hand (not the handheld)

In August I decided to review a taqueria in Hawaii, but didn’t have a laptop on me.  No problem, since I had a smartphone … right?  Well, I never got very good at typing on the touch-screen (maybe my fingers are too stubby), so I used the voice recognition feature.  This yielded some amusing errors and a couple of new turns of phrase I rather liked (e.g., “when it folded in 2007 it was a great opera”).  Of course, this is all harmless fun when you’re just talking about burritos.  When the same technology is applied to a ton and a half of steel that can do 80 mph, that’s another matter, and here my blog prefigured the really big news in August, which was the scathing report J.D. Power gave of the current state of the art in automotive voice recognition.  For example, you might clearly ask your car to turn on the AC, only to have it search for nearby pizza places.

September:  Rats are people, too!

It’s funny how we think of rodents.  Mice are cute and all, but rats—with their big fat hairless tails—are almost universally reviled.  Birds, meanwhile, poop on us and get away scot-free.  (Who hasn’t been pooped on by a bird?  And who has been pooped on by a rat?)  In fact, many of us—such as my own daughter—make a special effort to feed birds in our own backyards.  I’m not aware of any castigation of birders, until their actions breed rats, as was famously described here in the sordid tale of a crazy bird lady attracting rats to a community garden.

Of course my finger was right on the pulse of this growing societal ill, as I demonstrated with my September post  I Don’t Smell a Rat which chronicled the shockingly bold rat who took up residence in my backyard, shamelessly stuffing himself on the expensive seeds we’d earmarked for local birds.  This rat caused family strife by seeming to ignore my cat, who in turn seemed to ignore the rat.  What was I to do, other than berate the cat?  Poison seemed too harsh (for either of the little mammals).  So I did nothing, which worked out fine because opportunity ushered in Misha’s finest hour—her apotheosis from old, lazy layabout to fierce, fearless, brilliant slayer of vermin!  Yeah, that’s right, she got medieval on that rat’s heinie, despite it being just about the hugest rat I’ve ever seen!  Go Misha!

October:  Subject sweets to serious science studies!

For decades I’ve subscribed to the “glycogen window” idea, that being that simple carbs consumed right after intense exercise will greatly enhance recovery.  I only ever had empirical evidence of this principle, until my daughter stepped up and tested it, rigorously, for her school science project.  If you somehow missed this post, click here and see if you don’t find her methodology, execution, and conclusion to be utterly compelling.

Ah, if only the professionals were so thorough!  This same month, a study by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) rebuffed the long-held and universally accepted premise (far more mainstream than the glycogen window theory) that consuming carbs is beneficial during endurance exercise.  That’s right, they denied the benefit of taking in calories during hours-long efforts.  Critics proposed that the EFSA’s finding was due to evidence not being presented properly or some such nonsense.  The more accurate conclusion, obviously, is that all the funding for that study should rightfully go to my daughter.  Sheesh.

November:   If you can understand it, it ain’t “Andrei Rublev”

I’ve long believed that the acid test for intellectual cred is being able to watch, and understand, the Russian movie “Andrei Rublev,” and until last month, I didn’t think I could actually do it.  After all, I’d tried before, but crashed and burned.  What a triumph, then, to actually prevail, and glean enough to blog about it (here).  It’s a good thing this viewing triumph bolstered my confidence, because as all educated people know, the biggest news worldwide in November somehow never got translated into English.  

If you’re one of those who missed out, don’t worry … it’s not your fault.  I’m referring of course to the business with the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius, “Russia piece of evidence awakening spirituality,” which was covered only in Indonesian.  I wouldn’t have bothered painstakingly translating the article, except that it mentioned that the works of Andrei Rublev adorn the walls of this cathedral.  I guess once you’ve made it through the movie, your intellect is forever improved, to the point that an article in English hardly seems challenging enough to bother with.

December:  Just say “no” to shopping

I will confess that my blog lagged behind world news a bit in December.  I was so busy celebrating the lack of public interest in Black Friday, and the suggestion that Americans are actually finding better things to do than shop, that I missed the bigger story about retailers wanting to open on Thanksgiving Day itself, just to extend the consumer frenzy even further.  Fortunately, there’s a backlash to this development.  In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need a backlash, and wouldn’t need consumers to pledge not to shop on this holiday, but of course a perfect world wouldn’t give bloggers like me as much to make fun of.

In closing

At a loss for new year’s resolutions?  Well, you could do worse than to turn my 12 month-by-month slogans into action next year.  And if that seems like too much work, resolve to get all your news from albertnet next year.  That’ll save you a lot of effort, since world news and this blog are pretty much saying the same thing anyway…

Happy new year!

Monday, December 22, 2014

From the Archives - The Fall of the House of Albert

NOTE: This post is rated PG-13 for mild strong language.


wrote recently that boredom is a problem for the brain to solve. The essay below was the fruit of a period of protracted boredom I suffered about fifteen years ago, during my college Christmas vacation. I’d gone to visit family and friends in my hometown, and after everybody else left to go back to school, I was alone for awhile—with no PC, not enough books, and nothing to do. Of course I didn’t have a cell phone yet, but more to the point there was nobody to call. I didn’t even have the family cat, Mulla, for company; he’d fallen down dead on Christmas Eve, right in front of the tree.

To occupy myself, I wrote what follows, by hand, with an actual pen and paper. (It’s nominally a letter to my brother Geoff, but of course it’s actually an essay; this was long before the blogosphere existed.) I’ve edited the essay just a bit here, mainly to give the albertnet reader some essential background information.

Fall of the House of Albert - January 9, 1991

Let me describe this day, this ninth day of the new year, a Wednesday, to you. Outside, stale grey. Not unusual. The temperature, a frustrating thirty- eight degrees. When I phone up the weather service I have to sit through the “Time & Temperature Advertising can work for your business! Call...” plug before getting the statistic. It’s frustrating because it’s too cold to ride comfortably, but not cold enough to give me a good excuse not to ride. Tell you the truth, my legs haven’t yet recovered from whatever I did to them: trying to pretend I could dance, I guess, but also some kind of overuse, or maybe it’s actually atrophy.

Truth is, I haven’t been all that motivated, to train or anything else. Remember the David Letterman cat poster, designed to present that cutesy animal theme coupled with a sobering dose of reality? A cat lying there with the caption, “Since they neutered me, I haven’t felt like doing much of anything. Life has lost all meaning; I wish I were dead.” Well, I haven’t been neutered and have no suicidal tendencies (not even an album) but I can relate to wanting to lie down all the time for lack of anything better to do. Today I’ve alternated between reading and sleeping.

I only have two books with me (and no library card, and no money for anything new). I’ve been reading Thurber, which is fine, but his essays are like snacks—great a few at a time, but nothing to binge on. I’ve also got a Nabokov book, but my brain is still too sore from finals to concentrate that hard. Actually, my brain’s probably just gone flabby. You know, da break, it a makes ya dumb, see. I jes set heah tinkin’, but none a dem brain waves an’ shit is movin’ up deah, ya know?

Plus, there’s nobody around. Friends and family have scattered. My dad is always either at work or at his lady friend’s house. I am the sole occupant of this house—which, when it was my childhood home, used to bustle with six loud people. Now it’s as silent and depressing as this grey day, this stale winter. It’s a stark physical embodiment of sheer nihilism. It’s an existential nothingness which can inspire nothing but a sudden split from big extra-credit words into the almost nostalgic “BLAH! JUST BLAH! ALL OVER THE PLACE SPACED-OUT BLAH! BLAH!” (Why “nostalgic”? About a decade ago our friend’s mom totally lost it over my her son’s chronic mental and physical disorganization and berated him with these words, right in front of us. Her strange outburst was immortalized—her words thrown on our pile of go-to utterances alongside quotes from “Breaking Away” and “Mad Max.”)

To catalog the blank slate (and empty chalk tray) of my environment, I will describe the dining room table I’m sitting at. A few pairs of scissors, I don’t know why. Piles of newspapers. There used to be a plastic basket for these in the corner, but after last trash pickup, it disappeared. And really, I can’t compel myself to care. This table is big enough for eight; that leaves plenty of room for shoving crap down to clear eating space for a maximum of two people. So the newspapers stay, along with a lot of other shit that is depressingly stationary, like this crappy stapler, mauve in color (who chose this and why?) with which, in an idle moment of fidgeting, I inadvertently punched a staple right through my thumb.

Nothing moves here. When I first arrived here for Christmas break, the house was strangely unoccupied. It turned out my brothers, to punish me for getting a ride from the airport from a friend instead of letting them pick me up, had vacated the place. I walked from room to room looking in vain for somebody; it felt like a ghost town. Now that feeling has returned, magnified by my newly acute perception.

Cat-food lids, two, and pennies, three; an undoubtedly dead Radio Shack D-Cell; a Realistic Weatheradio. All worthless, or worse. Cat-food lids: no more Mulla. Pennies: get these trinkets the hell out of here, they’re hardly reminiscent enough of money even to remind me how broke I am. The Weatheradio: useless in this drearily monotonous cold-and-grey. A foil-wrapped blob of some fruitcake or something everyone—I mean, my dad and I—are too lazy to eat or throw out. My dad even told me the other night, “Oh, here is some cake you could eat.” I could have said, “Dad, hello, where have you been? That’s weeks old, and nobody knows what it is or where it came from!”

But why shatter the tranquility? My dad’s mind is elsewhere, totally oblivious to this house and how it seems frozen in stone. A piece of coat-hanger has been on the floor, mere inches from the trash can, since I can remember. I could throw it away, but why? What difference does it make if it’s on the floor or in the can? Pop wouldn’t notice. I’d still see it in there a week from now. I could gather up these newspapers and put them in the corner, but they’d still hang around, like an odor. Besides, if I cleared off the table, think of the horror of that wide, empty expanse of wood, removing what little sign there is that this house is occupied at all. A huge cleaning operation of the entire abode would turn it into a magnified doll-house, except for all the weird crap I dare not move, because it could be involved in a supposedly active project. I’m talking about the Subaru manual, the drill, the Dremel tool, and other assorted tools on the funky white table adjacent to the dining table.

Wait, there’s something else on the funky table, unrelated to any project: an envelope labeled “Cartoons: Seen by J & boys 1990.” Who else is supposed to see it? Is some stranger going to wander in here and say to me, “Excuse me, but I see from the envelope label that I haven’t seen these cartoons yet. Mind if I peruse them awhile?” I really wonder about the label. Why give the year? Does Pop expect a natural disaster to bury this place in thirty feet of stone and ash, and he wants archaeologists digging it up centuries later to be spared the trouble of carbon-dating it all? (They might find the foil-wrapped mystery-cake, miraculously preserved and mere inches from the remains of my body, and create a touching tale of how I was about to take it to my grandma when suddenly buried alive.)

Maybe Pop wrote down the year because he realistically expects the envelope to sit there for years to come. The Albert Museum is taking form before our eyes! I have a vision of affixing a neat label to everything here: “Mauve stapler, 1990.” “D-Cell, 1989.” “Weatheradio, circa 1991.” The pennies lie about their chronological relation to the House of Albert. The newspapers, on the other hand, fix a moment of this house’s life—or indeed, its death—in history.

[In retrospect, it only appeared the house was dying. This was a transition period, when my dad’s attentions were elsewhere, and he was basically living at his lady friend’s house, so my childhood home—“2380” we always called it (and still do)—had become a mere staging area. This changed mightily and the house became a home again, to my brother Bryan’s family, a new generation of Alberts who surely still think of it as their childhood home.]

The really weird thing about all this stillness is that it isn’t entirely unnoticed by Dad. Almost, but not quite. The things I’ve described thus far will doubtless remain for eternity. Yet anything I leave around disrupts Pop’s sense of order. It’s as though any stapler or D-Cell or drill that has been stationary long enough has rightfully earned its place. Or maybe it becomes invisible; it eludes my dad’s perception in the same manner as the rotation of the earth. Continuity creates the illusion of motionlessness.

So powerful is Pop’s perception of foreign objects in his domain that he will even request, on occasion, that these objects be removed. The other day, or maybe several centuries ago, he asked me to remove my Christmas presents from the far corner of the living room where they were tucked away in the intersection of fireplace and piano.

Never mind that in the big scheme of things, those presents are the most transient objects in the whole house. Imagine a time-lapse movie of this house—you know, like the ones National Geographic makes by filming a glacier for ten years and then playing back the footage at high speed so that the whole decade can be watched in 30 seconds and we can see a glacier in motion. My time-lapse movie would focus on this living room. It would capture the top of the harpsichord, which is covered with heaps of catalogs and junk mail, the highlights being a 1990 DAK Industries catalog and a birthday card from dad’s sweetheart, J—.

Let’s say the filming spans a period from Dec. 1, 1990, to Jan 31, 1991, and is then condensed into twenty seconds of viewed footage. People in this movie appear for such a short time they are subliminal. Other objects, such as the DAK catalog, appear throughout the video and can be carefully examined. Exactly four seconds into the movie, the birthday card from J— magically appears near the center of the screen. Nothing changes for another four seconds; then, my Christmas presents suddenly appear in the lower left-hand corner. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that I defied Dad’s concern for clutter and didn’t move the presents until I left for California. That means the presents would remain in the picture for seven seconds, and then vanish again. In the remaining five seconds, the DAK catalog and the birthday card remain, undisturbed.

The movie isn’t very interesting until we consider the sequel, in which we extend the time-lapse photography to encompass the span between Dec. 1, 1990, to Jan. 31, 2001, and is still condensed into twenty seconds. Now, the finished movie is somewhat different. The birthday card appears, for all practical purposes, instantly. It remains throughout the movie, along with the DAK catalog and all the other junk. For all the careful watching he can muster, the viewer is totally unable to spot the Christmas presents left by me in the lower left-hand corner. Only with the state-of- the-art video freeze-frame technology (which is really quite advanced in the year 2001!) can he finally spot the presents without going back to the original footage.

I will ask you to bear with me in one final version of this time-lapse-movie allegory. Let us assume we have a much bigger budget and have cameras positioned all over the house. Let us also add sound. Imagine that a team of skilled technicians is perusing all the footage from a video span beginning the night after my last brother left, Jan. 4, and ending Jan. 18, the day after I’m gone. This movie won’t be quite as condensed, making almost five minutes of viewed footage. You’ve seen, no doubt, time-laps films of something as simple as a night’s sleep, and have almost certainly felt awed at how much goes on during something as simple as sleep. That’s why you’ll be amazed at how little goes on in this movie.

The scene seems to linger on either my bed or the living room sofa. Certain cameras never see anything. The technicians are continually frustrated when not a single one of their cameras picks up any movement at all. The home viewer wants action, damn it, and out of two weeks of raw footage, they can’t even fill up five minutes with anything but sleeping and an occasional meal. The financial backers are threatening to pull out, and perhaps the worst of it is this actor, the star in fact, who keeps complaining, “There’s nothing here for me to do. I can’t get into this role at all ... you could get by with a clumsy actor, an extra. You could practically make do with a mannequin.”

Which I guess is my point. What am I doing here, anyway?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Riding Rollers - Frequently Asked Questions

NOTE:  This post is rated PG-13 for mature themes and mild strong language.


Decades ago, when there was no such thing as a mountain bike and the stationary trainer was in its infancy, any racer who could afford it bought a set of rollers.  I wasn’t so lucky, and though as a teen I did win a turbo-trainer in a (rigged) raffle at the Coors Classic Christmas party, I didn’t own a set of rollers until college.  I somehow managed to lose those (maybe my roommate snagged them?) and didn’t buy another set until somewhat recently. 

I’m back riding rollers now, and this post is both a tribute and a useful how-to guide that will tell you (almost) everything you ever wanted to know, or didn’t even know you wanted to know, about riding rollers.  (I say “almost” because I don’t explain herein how to ride rollers.  Just get on and do it, and if you fall off, well, brush yourself off, acknowledge that it is sweet and fitting to hate yourself, and get back on.)

Did I miss something?  E-mail me

Riding Rollers – Frequently Asked Questions

Q.  Why should I ride indoors at all?  After all, the Velominati “Rules” website says, “If you are out riding in bad weather, it means you are a badass.  Period.”

A.  First of all, the authority of the Velominati has been thoroughly dismissed in these pages.  I’ve also written at length about the absurdity of choosing to ride in the rain.  Unless you live in such a cold or rainy place you have to capitulate, training indoors makes a lot of sense.

Q.  Why ride rollers instead of a trainer?

A.  You can always tell when a guy has been riding a trainer a lot because he’s pedaling squares.  Rollers, on the other hand, smooth out your form and enhance your grace on the bike.  But that’s only part of why you should ride them.

Frankly, you should ride rollers simply because it’s tricky—because as you get older you need to convince yourself you’ve still got it.  Plus, if you’re the parent of a teenager—a member of the narcissistic “selfie” generation—you must show him or her that there are still cool things you can do that he or she can’t. 

(My teenage daughter, reading this over my shoulder, takes umbrage at the suggestion she’s narcissistic.  She certainly isn’t, and has never taken a selfie, but since I’m running out of things I’m better at than she, it’s important that she sees me riding rollers and is suitably impressed.)

Besides, anything that improves your balance mitigates the risk that when you’re really old you’ll fall and break your hip, which is so often the beginning  of the end for the elderly. 

Q.  I’m a teenager, and I think learning to ride rollers looks like a lot of hassle.  And I don’t need to worry about balance because I will never get old and I will never die. 

A.  Wow, my blog attracted a teenager!  That’s amazing!  Wait, where are you going?  Come back, I won’t bite! 

Okay, look.  It’s time to admit that you’ll never have a massive presence on Vine, and nobody is going to “like” that Instagram photo of your cheesecake as much as the identical cheesecake photo sent around by a popular or attractive kid.  But imagine posting a YouTube video of yourself eating half a grapefruit, properly, with a spoon, while riding rollers no-handed (the acid test of m4d sk1llz in this albeit remote realm).  If your video were to end with you tilting your head back to drink the juice and thus crashing, that video might get a lot of hits!  Man, it’s a shame there was no Internet or YouTube when I was thirteen…

Q.  Say I buy a pair of rollers and like them.  Should I get rid of my fluid trainer?

A.  No, keep it around because sometimes you just want to zone out, mosh on the pedals stupidly, and not have to keep up that finesse.  I’m keeping my trainer even though the damn thing has developed this horrible knocking sound I’m too lazy to troubleshoot, which is embarrassing because years ago I positioned myself as an authority on choosing a trainer, and now this thing’s dying even though it’s not that old.  At least, it doesn’t seem that old.  Though actually, I came across this video involving the box that trainer came in, and I guess it’s not that new.

That little girl in the video?  She (the aforementioned non-narcissistic teenager) is over 5-foot-3 now and rode up Mount Diablo with me not long ago.

Q.  My wife has a policy about physical objects that take up space in the home or garage:  to justify its existence, she says on object “has to either be making me happy, or making me money.”  By this standard, how can I justify owning both a trainer and rollers?

A.  If we’re permitted to define happiness as “absence of unhappiness,” remind your wife how crucial exercise is to your physical and mental health.  Given your hopeless starch addiction, If you didn’t have all the tools necessary to facilitate your exercise, you’d end up looking like Henry VIII.  Would your wife really enjoy being crushed under all that weight?  Besides, without exercise you’d also be as grumpy as Henry VIII, and we all know how that panned out.  (This is an especially powerful argument in my household, as my wife has failed to produce a male heir.)

(By the way, I have made money via riding rollers.  When I was a UC Santa Barbara student, the cycling team set up a roller demonstration in the student plaza to raise money for our trip to nationals.  We put out a hat to collect donations, and offered to try really advanced tricks—stuff that had “never before been attempted,” like riding rollers no-handed or at 50 mph—if somebody would drop in a $10 or $20 bill.  Plus, when one of our more hunky roller-demo riders, the affectionately nicknamed Brad Longshlong, got his photo on the front page of the school paper, that was arguably better publicity than the team got when we won a national title.)

Q.  My rollers don’t have a magnetic resistance thingy.  I can pedal along at over 25 mph without actually getting much of a workout.  Is there any way to add resistance without spending any money?

A.  The best rollers, which would be Al Kreitlers with the Headwind Fan, give you all the resistance you could want.  But even if you have more basic rollers, there are a couple things you can do.

First off, when riding rollers, use your old “rain bike” with its non-compact crank (i.e., higher gearing) and its old-school, less aerodynamic wheels.  You can also put cards in the spokes to hamper the aerodynamics.  I haven’t done any scientific tests to see if this actually helps, but as everybody knows, cards in the spokes is just plain fun.  [Update:  new Q/A answered at the end of this post describing the results of this experiment.]

If you’re really serious about a good workout, your best bet is to set up your brakes so they’re always on.  You could do this with a toe-strap crudely wrapped around the brake lever, but the better way is to open the brake quick-release cam and then tighten the brake, using the barrel-adjuster, so it’s almost rubbing.  Then, during the ride, you can adjust the braking by turning down the QR cam to the desired resistance.

Q.  But won’t having my brakes on the whole time cause my rims to get super-hot, thus damaging my brake pads?

A.  As it turns out, the amount of drag necessary to give you a good workout doesn’t actually generate very much heat.  What really makes rims hot is braking on a descent, which involves much greater forces, such as gravity.  Consider this hypothetical scenario:  you and your brother Bryan are descending by bike to a party being held in a remote house along a mountain road.  The driveway is unmarked, so your other brother has promised to put out a sign or some balloons so you can find it… but he forgets, so you miss the turnoff, and then the mountain road turns to dirt, and you puncture several times until you’re out of spare tubes and patches, and you have to ride double on Bryan’s bike with your own bike over your shoulder.  Bryan is braking pretty hard to keep from stacking, which makes his hands so tired he has to stop periodically to rest them.  As you awkwardly climb off his bike, you actually burn yourself on his bike’s rim.  See?  All that weight, concentrated on one bike, gets those brakes hotter than your wrath toward the third brother … and yet, descending solo, your rims never get that hot, unless they’re carbon rims and you’re an under-skilled and overweight stockbroker riding Levi’s Granfondo.

Q.  The floor of my man-cave isn’t perfectly level.  How can I level my rollers?

A.  Palace a coin under each foot on one side.  Use British pound coins; they’re thicker.  If this isn’t enough to level your rollers, you need to re-pour the foundation of your man-cave, or set the rollers up in your wife’s secret underground lair (in which case you should put a tarp down to protect the hardwood floor).

Q.  Say I’m a teenager and don’t have my own rollers so I’m at my friend’s place riding his, and his foster parents’ four-year-old is fishing for attention by running across the room and diving into a bean bag chair, and I’m ignoring her because I don’t want to encourage her attention-junkie ways, and/or I’m just a dick, and finally she gets so frustrated at the lack of attention she comes up and grabs my handlebars and pulls me off the rollers.  What should I do?

A.  Do nothing.  In particular, don’t yell at her because then she’ll start crying and run and get her mom, who is one weird lady.

Q.  What if my cat, mesmerized by the spinning wheels and also not very bright, tries to jump right through my wheel?

A.  This could never happen.  No cat is that stupid.  The person who warned you about that “possibility” is a broken-down alcoholic and it’s really sad.

Q.  What if the power goes out while I’m riding rollers, and there’s not enough natural light to see by?

A.  If you’re in the basement of your apartment building and not near a wall, all you can do is crash.  If you’re near the wall and the power is going out for just a few seconds at a time (for example, if it’s 6 a.m. and the biggest winter storm in ten years is wreaking havoc), brace an elbow on the wall until the lights come back on.  If they go out for good, but you’ve already taken your NoDoz and you’re halfway through your workout and thus too amped-up and sweaty to go back to bed and don’t care to shower in the dark, just set up some candles on either side of the front roller, to use like airport landing lights.  You may find this mood lighting takes your relationship with your rollers to a whole new level. Next time I think I’ll scatter little rose petals around as well.

Q.  But wait, if the power is out, the fan won’t work!  What about the ravages of sweat on my equipment?  And won’t I overheat?

A.  Open some windows.  This works great if you can get some cross-ventilation, especially if it’s cold out and the wind is really blowing.

Q.  But what if the rain comes blowing in the window and gets all over my expensive wireless LAN equipment?

A.  Spec your man-cave out with a Meraki MR72 Ruggedized Access Point.  That bad boy is built to withstand harsh environmental conditions:  not just rain, but extreme temperature ranges from -40°F to 140°F.  (Trust me:  if it’s -40° or 140° out, you’re really better off riding indoors.)


A couple of readers wrote in with more questions, and even did me the service of providing the answers. Plus, I now have the results of my cards-in-the-spokes experiment.

Q. Should I watch bike videos/races while riding my rollers?

A. Probably not. Even a very skilled rider (like my East Bay Velo Club pal Ryan, who wrote in with this question) may occasionally get too wrapped up in what’s onscreen, and veer off the side. This isn’t the same as a high-speed crash, but the bike can leave you behind and careen forward, possibly even into the TV. Meanwhile, as Ryan points out, “It is very difficult to watch a descent without leaning when you see the cyclists on TV lean in the turns.”

Q. What’s with these crazy-looking rollers that have a smaller diameter than mine? I’m oddly impressed and intimidated by them but I don’t know why.

A. You’re right to feel intimidated. As detailed here, smaller-diameter rollers provide greater resistance. Kreitler explains why: “For a given wheel speed, smaller drums rotate at higher RPM’s than larger drums, producing more friction in the sealed cartridge bearings. Smaller drums also create more tire friction because the roller has a smaller contact patch and indents the tire more.” If you don’t have the money to spring for a set of Kreitler rollers with 2.25-inch drums, perhaps letting some air out of your tires (so they indent more, increasing friction) would help. (Thanks to my cycling pal Phil for bringing this up.)

Q. So how did the cards in the spokes work out?

A. Really well, actually! Probably in part because my high-power fan (see photo above) points up at the front wheel, the wind drag of those cards makes pedaling a lot harder. In fact, depending on what cadence you prefer, how high your gearing is, how hard you like to go, and how strong you are, the cards in the spokes might offer all the resistance you need (thus obviating the need for messing with the barrel-adjusters on your brakes).

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Black Friday That Wasn’t


I hate shopping.  Whenever I exchange my money for products or services, I feel a stab of defeat.  The value I place on my belongings grows in proportion to their age—that is, to how well I’ve managed to amortize their original cost.  Of course we all seek to get the best value for our dollar, but I have a bigger goal, which is to never spend anything and forever make do with what I already have.  I’m a retailer’s worst nightmare.

I also dislike crowds, holiday lotion snipers, displays of retail abandon, and above all Christmas music.  And yet, I ventured out to Best Buy on Black Friday to buy my mom a new computer.  Not my cup of tea, but I had a rare opportunity:  my brother Bryan and I were both visiting our mom in Oregon (which doesn’t happen that often); Bryan knows more about computers than I do; and getting a Black Friday discount on a big-ticket item like a computer is worth some suffering.

Plus, I must confess, I saw a silver lining to the horridness of the outing:  I could blog about how bad it was.  You know, kind of a Heart of Darkness thing.  That’s something I like about being a blogger:  when something bad happens to me, at least it stimulates my creative juices and I can often get an interesting post out of it, and when something really bad happens to me, I might get several interesting posts out of it.

As it turns out, and as you knew already, Black Friday was a bust this year.  In this post I examine what the failure of Black Friday means to America; describe my non-horrid (but still somewhat remarkable) trip to Best Buy; and lay out my novel strategy for increasing the success of Black Friday.

 Who cares about Black Friday?

When you think about it, it’s kind of weird that, our own shopping aside, the success or failure of Black Friday is a guaranteed source of “news.”  Every year, the sales numbers for this made-up retail event are as widely reported as the outcome of football games.  And yet outside of our own shopping, why should we care what other people did on their day off?

The answer, of course, is that Black Friday is widely (though not universally) regarded  as a measure of consumer confidence, which is a yardstick by which we measure the health of our economy, and in turn the state of the nation.

I’m not at all sure any of this makes sense.  Why should we measure the health of our nation by how recklessly we spend our money, on this one arbitrarily declared day, on stupid gifts that probably won’t delight our family and friends nearly as much as we hope?  If that set of four Harvest Pumpkin soup tureens were actually a worthwhile product, you’ve have bought it for yourself.  Holiday shopping is all about retailers playing us for suckers and I can’t see how their success validates the health of the nation.

Why put any stock in consumer confidence to begin with?  How many Americans actually understand their own finances, much less the intricacies of the overall global economy?  Besides, there’s evidence to show that being confident doesn’t necessarily lead to good outcomes.  American students lead the world in confidence, even while their academic performance is sub-par.

Some suggest that the poor Black Friday numbers could actually be good thing, like this Nasdaq writer who theorizes that, because the economy has improved, people are no longer desperate enough to tolerate massive crowds just to save money.  Prosperity aside, I’d be more optimistic about our nation if journalists like this guy used better grammar:  “More than 6 million less people than expected actually went out and shopped” makes me cringe.  (Just in case you missed it, it should have read “More than 6 million fewer people…” or, even better, “Over 6 million fewer people,” though I would also gladly accept “over 6 million lesser people” though that does alter the meaning somewhat.)

Cyber Monday, meanwhile, was bigger than ever.  This reassured a lot of people that the nation is still healthy.  I’d like to think this means Americans are getting more introverted.  But actually it’s probably got more to do with laziness and just wanting everything shipped to us.

Oddly, what I would consider the greatest factor leading to Black Friday’s dismal performance is something almost nobody reported on:  Adult Thursday.  Maybe you haven’t heard of this one; it made its debut this year.  On Adult Thursday (yes, Thanksgiving Day itself), adult websites offer steep discounts and (probably more importantly) a suspension of tracking cookies, so lustful men can save a few bucks while enjoying greater anonymity.

Is Adult Thursday a good thing?  Well, I’m torn.  On the plus side, it shows the same American ingenuity that produced the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue (“Hey, men love sports, but also babes—let’s give ‘em both!”).  Not since feasting on Thanksgiving was paired with watching football have we seen this kind of clever alignment; by indulging licentiousness as well, we’ve hit the trifecta!  On the negative side, I’m repulsed by the notion of would-be shoppers being too glutted on dopamine to leave the house on Friday.

(No, Adult Thursday isn’t a real thing … at least not until this post goes viral and causes life to imitate art.)

My trip to Best Buy

My wife thought I was crazy to brave Best Buy on Black Friday, until she grasped that I was sacrificing my own emotional health for my writing.  (Like me, she has had too charmed a life to be a great writer; happiness is like a consolation prize.)  But as it turned out, the dreadful hordes never showed up.  The place was less crowded than our local Target on any given day.  I found a parking spot right away.

I also got plenty of attention from the Best Buy customer service associates.  Too much, actually, since their input is practically worthless.  I’ve read articles lamenting how online giants like Amazon are eating the lunch of brick-and-mortar chains like Best Buy, but I have no sympathy.  I can get gobs of info on products by shopping online, but almost no info in the store despite the best efforts of earnest but hapless salespeople.

“I’m looking for a very basic PC for my mom,” I told the guy.  “She doesn’t want a touch-screen and doesn’t need a lot of CPU or memory.  But she is brand-conscious and will want something that looks good.”  So the guy lead me to an Acer computer.  An Acer?  Wasn’t he listening to me?  I told him, “Look, Acer is a terrible knockoff brand that neither gets nor deserves any respect, and this chintzy, shiny PC you’re showing me looks like something that was extruded from an industrial robot’s rectum.”

No, of course I didn’t really say that.  I just said, “I’m not really into Acers.”  Even this seemed to hurt the guy’s feelings and he only mumbled from this point forward, which was fine, since he knew nothing that wasn’t printed on the little placards stuck to the shelves (i.e., almost nothing at all). 

Meanwhile, I didn’t see any “SALE!” tags anywhere.  This amazed me.  I thought the whole point of Black Friday was creating a feeding frenzy, via steep discounts, that enabled a merchant to make big-time money through volume, not margin.  I really did say to the salesman, “I’m a little surprised not to see more discounts.  I thought this would be a giant discount extravaganza.”  He said, “Oh, lots of things are on sale … it’s just that the original prices aren’t shown.”  Well, no wonder Best Buy is hurting!  They don’t know the first rule of merchandizing, which is to draw maximum attention to how much the shopper will save.  (Needless to say, Best Buy also hasn’t grasped the second rule of merchandising, which is that you should artificially inflate the price of everything just so you can “discount” it without actually lowering margins.)

Now, as I see it, every salesman’s job is to remove my self-doubt and convince me that the product I’m looking at really is a good one, suits my needs, and is a good value.  The perfect pitch for the PC I ended up buying would go something like this:  “Well, it’s a great piece of luck that your mom doesn’t need a touch screen, because check out this little HP number over here.  It’s a real thoroughbred, with an industry-leading Intel i5 processor, gobs of RAM, an HD+ display, and BeatsAudio—and yet for some reason they spec’d it without a touch-screen.”  Here he would lower his voice a little and lean in to give me the inside scoop:  “It’s crazy.  I even talked to the distributor and said, ‘How can they not put a touch-screen on such a sweet machine?’  He said, ‘I know, it’s killing us, it’s why we had to price these bad boys at only $500.’  So yeah, they’re practically losing money on this model to begin with.  But you know how people are, they gotta have their touch-screens, and so this model still wasn’t moving, which is why we’re having to discount it another $100 today.  For somebody who wants top performance but doesn’t demand a touch-screen, well, this is a marriage in heaven!”  BOOM—I’d be sold.  But instead the guy said nothing.  He just stood there, hopefully, like a wallflower at a prom.  It was almost embarrassing.

Bryan and I were discussing the merits of this laptop when an older couple happened to decide on the same one, and asked the salesman to fetch one for them from the warehouse.  “Hey, you know what?” I said to him.  “Make that two of them.”  The couple, who looked like the kind of rural Oregonians whose kids call them “Ma” and “Pa,” looked at us in surprise.  I said, “You guys look like you know what you’re doing, so if this PC is good enough for you, well, it’s good enough for me.”  The woman demurred, saying, “Well, my husband chose it, and he doesn’t know that much,” but I think they were both pretty chuffed.  See?  Wherever I go, I try to spread joy.

There was no line at the point of sale.  I asked the cashier how sales were, and he said, “Been here since midnight.”  I thought that was a pretty safe response—upbeat, but noncommittal.  But it was pretty clear their Black Friday wasn’t going gangbusters.

How to reinvigorate Black Friday

Odd though it might seem, I may just be the perfect person to provide a strategy for making future Black Fridays more successful.  After all, it’s people like me who, by staying home, ruin everything.  I have a proposal that would probably make a big difference.

My strategy is based on sexism.  If you think sexism is a bad basis for anything, I hope you’re highly outspoken about the ridiculous tradition of men watching football on Thanksgiving while the women cook.  Myself, I’m not bothered by it because convincing people to buy a lot of crap they don’t need isn’t exactly a noble enterprise to begin with.

So, where men’s purchases are concerned, I think brick-and-mortar stores need to get away from providing product information, period.  There’s just no way a low-paid clerk is going to compete with the vast troves of information provided by e-commerce sites, available to shoppers via their smartphones.  Men do like to look at products in person, and heft them, but that’s about all the extra info they need.  So don’t waste money on clerks who can’t help with products that basically sell themselves.  (Oddly, Best Buy actually hampered this process, by locking down the configuration of their display computers so shoppers like my brother and me couldn’t glean info about the PC from the PC itself.)

Purveyors of hi-tech stuff should take the money they save through these workforce reductions and put it toward free manicures on Black Friday.  That way, women will actually encourage their men to take them shopping at places like Best Buy, and the men will have as long as they want to play with the computers and such.  And when it’s time for the man to spend more than he and his significant other had agreed on, at least she’ll be in a good mood.   (And yes, he will be buying stuff for himself, as opposed to buying gifts like he’s supposed to.  This behavior is established fact.)

The real Black Friday players should be clothing stores; they have the edge over e-commerce websites to begin with, since nobody buys clothing without petting it first and trying it on.  These stores should run a one-day promotion where every men’s garment purchased automatically adds value—say, 20% of the purchase amount—to a gift card that only his significant other can use, and only on a later visit.

Why would this be successful?  Well, women normally like to shop for clothes without their men around.  That way they avoid his scrutiny—“What?!  Eighty bucks for a t-shirt?!”—and don’t feel rushed.  Men, meanwhile, seldom shop for clothes at all, not just because clothes are boring but because of the male’s deep-seated fear that he’ll get disoriented and end up browsing in the women’s section by mistake.  The gift card would incentivize women to take their men clothing shopping for a change.  The man will be more confident with his selection if she likes it, and once he’s bored he’ll readily buy pretty much whatever she tells him to, just to get the whole thing over with.  Imagine a Black Friday where foot traffic is not only increased, in these Cyber-Monday-proof environments, but where purchases are consummated boldly and swiftly, with zero need for extra salespeople.

I’m not just guessing about all this!  My own track record proves this approach would work.  I’ve only been clothing shopping twice this year, and both times it was at my wife’s urging.  Both times, I bought stuff on the sole basis of her liking it.  Both times, I feel I greatly overpaid.  In terms of the health of our economy, all this is good news.  After all, a defeat for the likes of me is a big win for the Retail Industrial Complex!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Fiction - Runner-Up: A Divorce Tale


There ought to be a new literary genre (actually, it should be a classic, ages-old genre) called “divorce fiction.” After all, Barnes & Noble has an entire section called “Teen Paranormal Romance,” even though teen paranormal romance doesn’t often happen in real life (unless you agree with the guy who quipped, “I thought all teen romance was paranormal”). The divorce rate being what it is, we could use more tragicomic fiction in our lives, to help the many divorce victims cope.

And so, for that reason alone, here is a 100% fictional story I generated entirely out of my own imagination, with any resemblance of any character to any actual person—living, dead, or undead—being entirely coincidental. (“What? There might be zombies?” You’ll just have to see for yourself.)

Runner-Up – A Divorce Tale

See the poor kid painting. He is entirely focused. His home life is hard; his parents’ marriage is falling apart. Is painting a refuge? Is art the only way he can assert a satisfying level of control? Does he long to disappear into the strange undersea world he creates on the canvas?

No, not really. First off, it’s not canvas. It’s cheap construction paper. This is junior high art class. And he doesn’t fancy himself an artist; this work satisfies simply because no matter how bad he screws up, it’s still art. Who is to say he made a mistake? He could literally puke on the “canvas,” and it would still be art. In fact, puking on the painting would probably improve it. Or so he thinks ... his attitude isn’t very good.

And now he’s putting on the finishing touches. Not because the painting seems done, exactly, but because he doesn’t know what else to do, and hopes he’s done enough. But now Ms. Tincture approaches, and gasps. “Oh, Greg, I know just what you need to do to that painting—but I just can’t tell you what it is, that would be cheating! Oh, gosh, I hope you do the right thing!” He freezes, of course, and cannot add a single paint stroke from that moment on, terrified at forever ruining the first artwork he’s ever done that seemed to have any potential. So he screws around with Frank Frymouth for the rest of the hour, the two lads flirting awkwardly with Lisa Westgoober and her friend Wendy Wollrat, a girl who, by virtue of her massive chest, has earned Frank’s devout lust and admiration.

The next day, Greg strolls into the classroom quite casually. He has forgotten all about the state of his painting and its sudden, unexpected artistic potential. Ms. Tincture rushes out to greet him. “Oh, Greg, I’m so sorry, I tried to stop myself but I just couldn’t! I knew exactly what your painting needed and just couldn’t keep from adding the finishing touches! I’m so sorry!” He looks up towards the front of the classroom to see his painting on proud display, with a few subtle charcoal bands added which, frankly, improve the painting dramatically. Greg now knows he can’t get a bad grade on this painting, since the teacher is complicit in it.

The kid, you see, lacks the self esteem to be offended by anything. He lacks the idealism and artistic vision that might have made him take offense to Ms. Tincture’s intervention in his private work. He doesn’t ultimately feel the painting was ever his to begin with. And now, he is probably just glad to be rid of the awful responsibility of figuring out the final touches necessary to turn a class assignment into Art.

And so it feels slightly unreal to Greg when his painting wins a few awards, including a Hallmark nomination. His painting becomes a top-five finalist, and if he wins, he will receive a cash award of $100, which would mean a lot to him—it would enable him to be a big shot among his friends by taking them the U2 concert at Red Rocks in June. And, more importantly, the painting would be reproduced on Hallmark cards, albeit the small ones you buy in packages of fifty to send as holiday greetings.

There is a big awards ceremony in Denver. His mom drives him, and his dad meets them there. His parents seem just as proud as can be. But then, their divorce is on the horizon and they’re already preparing for the upcoming custody battle, so Greg has this unsettling feeling that the real competition isn’t among five paintings, but between Mom and Dad as they attempt to show him (almost for the first time) their loyalty and devotion.

Greg and his parents discover, as soon as they enter the hall, that he has lost the competition. The placement of the blue ribbon announces this ... nobody bothers to break the bad news gently. Greg is just another runner‑up. Of course he is. And of course this means no $100, no U2 concert, no cards to send to relatives for the next twenty years to show that that yes, a Halbrecht had actually made good, that you can brag all you want in your holiday newsletter that little Nathan is only six years old but is learning differential equations from his father, you can write all you want about your National Merit Scholar, you can send photos of your vacation in Greece, but it won’t change the fact that the Halbrecht newsletters this year are enclosed in Hallmark cards that bear a glorious illustration from their very own son. All this vanishes, just like any other mirage. He has lost. How typical.

Still, he was a finalist, and his painting is on display, behind a protective glass, with the other four finalists’. The judges comments are listed below, and the one that really stands out, in regard to Gregs’s painting, is this: “Poor quality paper.” Greg laughs. Not a loud, boisterous laugh, but a little pained chuckle reflecting the disappointment but also the real humor behind it: of course he used cheap paper—this was a school assignment, begun with the intent of satisfying the requirements of the course and getting a halfway decent grade. If he’d had the slightest idea it would be declared “Art” and entered in a contest, maybe he would have used something nicer. On second thought, he wouldn’t have, because he wouldn’t have believed it.

His painting begins to take on a new life as a doomed airliner, its pilot and copilot somehow incapacitated. Greg is cast in the role of the hapless passenger who is forced to try to land the plane (talked down by his teacher, the oddly calm air traffic controller). Of course the plane crashes and burns! Greg looks at the other entries with a strange kind of awe: these were done by actual artists somewhere ... student artists, yes, but good ones, who are confident enough to use high-quality materials.

Greg doesn’t kid himself: these other paintings really do outclass his; he wonders if the judges have given him the nomination as some sort of consolation prize. Still, he gleans a flicker of satisfaction from wondering if the judges felt his ocean-floor corn-on-the-cob had lent a certain reckless integrity to his painting.

See the poor kid leaving the hall and entering the auditorium, where his disappointment balloons dramatically: here he sees hundreds of thousands of other contest winners sitting there. Of course it’s not actually hundreds of thousands, or even thousands, but that’s the phrase that pops lugubriously into his head. “Among these hundreds of thousands of people I feel completely faceless,” declares the narrator silently. He sits right between his parents, of course, to serve as a necessary buffer zone ... a human DMZ.

He cannot look over at either parent without fear of alienating the other, so he can only imagine how they are experiencing this moment. Surely they are either bored, or distracted by their simmering rage at each other. Greg stares straight ahead, watching all the other winners, feeling less and less the nearly-triumphant artist, and more like a chance member of some vast horde. There are so many awards issued—“Man, they’re just giving them away!” he thinks. There are these certificates of some kind, Certificates of Excellence perhaps, and everybody gets one of those. Others, Greg included, get a Gold Key as well, but again, the numbers are huge. He is called up with the others to stand in a long line, to walk across the stage and collect the certificate and the little key. Seeing the table covered with the tall stacks of keys, each in a little plastic box, Greg feels something approaching actual shame. The ceremony ends without any special mention of the Hallmark nominees.

Now, of course, we come to the awful climax of the whole affair: who gets to take the kid home? Well, his mother drove him down, so it makes sense for his dad to drive him home. That’s Greg’s dad’s assertion, and it seems logical to the boy. But his mother isn’t buying it. He almost intervenes, but the spectacle of his parents fighting over him is just so novel. He doesn’t kid himself that he’s the point of the argument; power is the point, and he is merely the trophy. He finds himself paralyzed with morbid curiosity: how far will they go?

Just look at this poor guy. His stomach is starting to hurt. He finds himself buckling in the parking lot under this huge burden, wishing he’d screwed up the painting and could have avoided this whole ordeal. Finally, Mom says, “Well, Greg, if you come with me we have your Pink Floyd in the car.” He is unable to respond, afraid of insinuating that a rock album, of all things, could swing the balance in his mother’s favor. Finally his dad asks, “What is Pink Floyd?” Greg says nothing. He can barely stand up. His mother finally says—with a lightly superior air of teen-culture fluency—“It’s his favorite rock band.” To which his dad replies, “Humph. It sounds like the name of a pig.”

Greg drives back with his mom, brooding the whole way about how seemingly petty decisions like these, once compiled, can form the foundation of a profound estrangement. Will his father ever feel the same way about him again? And what was that way, to begin with?

* * *

William Faulkner wrote, “Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.” And so, eight years later, with another ceremony looming, Greg’s memory of the Hallmark Affair begins in his gut—at first, as simple feeling, a pain that he gradually perceives as born of unspecific emotion, which then leads into a series of images, and eventually words. This all happens because Greg is trying to decide whether or not to attend his college graduation.

The vague process of knowing remembering believing is responsible for how much strain graduation puts on him. He considers some minor obstacles, like the thesis he still needs to finish, and the two final exams still to go. (If he crashes and burns bad enough on them, they just might make him a fraud, retroactively.) But that’s just an excuse and he knows it. The real problem is that—amazingly enough—his parents are still no better at being civil in each other’s presence than they were on that cold, grey day in Denver, fighting over (him) in the parking lot. He doesn’t want them at his graduation together, but if neither of them watches, why even wear the stupid hat and walk across the stage?

He could tell himself his father wouldn’t come anyway. After all, when Greg graduated from high school, his dad couldn’t be bothered to drive two miles across town to honor him. But this is different—this is college, after all. So Greg decides to take a gamble: he’ll invite his old man, but with very short notice. Exorbitant airfare just might carry the day.

See the young man sweat. He’s no good on the phone to begin with, and since his mom had gotten custody, relations with his dad have been chillier than ever. Stumbling over his greeting, his voice reedy, almost shaky, his barebones reserves of composure hemorrhaging alarmingly, he cuts right to the chase and gives his father the news, and the date. Less than two weeks away.

There is a long silence. What will his father say? He wasn’t even aware that Greg would be graduating. Greg pretends for a moment that his father is overcome with pride, but then has to stifle a bitter laugh. Finally his father says—and this is the first thing out of his mouth— “Are your mother and her husband coming?”

Greg, who is no fool, has seen this coming. “She’s coming, but only because Bruce has a running race in the area anyway.” Another long silence, and then his father, in the same grim tone, asks, “Is she taking you out for dinner afterwards?”

Greg doesn’t answer. He just stands there, staring into space. So it all hinges on dinner? Eventually he becomes aware that his father is talking again, something about a $3 million proposal, something about a deadline, something about plane tickets, and it sounds like his dad is declining. Which is a relief, but also a disappointment.

Look at poor Greg. He’s all bent over, his stomach roiling. Technically, he’s standing there in his little apartment, but he’s not there, not really. In his head he’s back in that parking lot in Denver, still clutching his stomach, still getting punished by a cold wind while his seething parents bicker senselessly over who’s driving him home.

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