Thursday, January 30, 2014

From the Archives - Sitting Out Super Bowl XXIII


About this time of year it dawns on me that the Super Bowl is coming up. Often I’m ignorant of who is even playing; I haven’t been invited to a Super Bowl party since the mid-‘90s. But this year my brother Bryan, who lives near Seattle, offered his condolences for “his” Seahawks beating “my” 49ers in the, uh, NFC conference championship game, I think it was. I didn’t know what to say, because at first I didn’t know what he was talking about.

Anyway, I have to confess I’m glad the 49ers didn’t make it to the Super Bowl, because the last time San Francisco won a championship of that magnitude (the 2012 World Series), there was rioting in the streets and some dumbasses celebrated by torching a city bus. Whatever pride I might feel in a sports team affiliated with my geographical area is completely eclipsed by such shameful acts.

In honor of this week’s big game, I invite you to read this piece from my archives, about being a UC Santa Barbara student caught up in the fanfare of Super Bowl XXIII.

Sitting Out Super Bowl XXIII - January 23, 1989

Guess what I didn’t do yesterday? Believe it or not, I didn’t watch the Super Bowl. Instead I studied for a test and wrote a paper. Perhaps what’s more surprising is that even if duty hadn’t called, I think I could have found something better to do than to watch two football teams throw the old pigskin around amid incredible hype.

“What’s that? You blasphemous pinko commie scumbag! Hey, pal, if you don’t like America, you can just leave!” That’s what at least some of you are probably thinking. Let me qualify my statement by saying that this isn’t a matter of principle. I have nothing explicitly against football or the Super Bowl. If I were bored out of my mind in a stranger’s home with no books around, no homework to do, and no cats to play with, I would probably turn on the TV and watch the game. What’s more, I would probably enjoy watching it to a certain degree.

I’ve been known to occasionally get excited about football; after all, my brother Bryan and I [back when we lived in Colorado] did exchange dual‑in‑the‑air‑high‑fives when the Denver Broncos made “the drive” to win the AFC Championship game a couple years back. (Some of our enthusiasm was about the dual-in-the-air-high-fives themselves, and our finally having an excuse to do them.) But I’ve never watched the San Francisco 49ers play, nor the Cincinnati Bengals. I suppose I could feel an affinity for the 49ers since they’re from California, but they’re not, really. I mean, they aren’t local boys or anything; the NFL draft makes sure that players don’t get to choose where they play. So why should I feel a tribal bond with any team at all?

Moreover, since I almost never watch football to begin with, why should that suddenly change just because this is the biggest game of the year? I know, I know … the pageantry, the spectacle, blah blah blah. I must admit, there’s a certain novelty to everything getting blown completely out of proportion, but that wears off pretty fast.

For a solid week before The Game, the newspaper covered every aspect of this sporting event, which was presented as being glorious even before the fact. The media even gave non-game-related news a game-related spin; for example, an outbreak of racial violence in Miami was reported in terms of how it could affect the Super Bowl. (They even mentioned later that the rioting stopped right at kickoff.) I found out what Joe Montana ate for breakfast the day before leaving for Miami. Dr. Ruth Westheimer predicted that the Bengals would lose because they were forced to stay in different hotels from their wives.

The published schedule for the game took up more than a few pages in the newspaper: the first pre‑game special would start at about 10:00 a.m., and various programs about The Game would run until the first kickoff at 2:30 p.m. Then, the supposedly hour‑long game was scheduled to run clean through the 5:00 news, and would eventually dominate the entire day’s programming.

Notwithstanding the fact that the 49ers’ home is hundreds of miles from Isla Vista, several local businesses took advantage of everybody’s enthusiasm (i.e., the Super Bowl’s ability to create wealth). Dave’s Market issued a special Super Bowl coupon book, and car dealerships had sales commemorating the event. But perhaps more incredible was the hype about the advertising that would run during The Game. I have never seen advertisements for advertisements before. In the L.A. Times, AT&T had a full‑page ad for their halftime commercial. Coca‑Cola had a promotion in stores everywhere: you could get a free pair of 3‑D glasses with the purchase of a six‑pack, for watching the 3‑D Coke commercial during the game. For the cost of one 30‑second spot at halftime, a company could sponsor a three‑week bicycle race!

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the Super Bowl is the crazed following it has around here (that is, among those who ought to be all glum about our local Los Angeles Raiders missing out). An hour before the game even started, people in apartments all across town were leaning out of windows and yelling, “Yeah, 49ers!” Twenty minutes before kickoff, what passes for our downtown was a zoo of people rushing around, getting one more six‑pack of beer, one more bag of pretzels, or visiting one more apartment to share Super Bowl vows, prayers, or bets. But twenty minutes after kickoff, it was a ghost town. You’d swear a plague had hit the streets.

Even after I buried my nose in a book, I knew exactly what it was people were seeing on their TVs. With every cheer I heard from the adjacent apartment, I knew another player had trotted onto the field. Ooh, there’s an extra loud cheer—must be Joe Montana! Great job, Joe, you made it out of the locker room! Then, the din died down during the inevitable ten‑minute commercial break, except for the occasional random “Yeah 49ers!” coming from an apartment window. And then when the game finally got going, whooping and yelling would burst forth from all around my apartment, so often that I often thought the score must be well into the three digits for San Francisco.

A new twist on these old traditions was the screaming and yelling of girls. Yes, actual girls watching football. You can call me a chauvinist, but I simply refuse to believe that any female could actually enjoy watching football. I mean, it’s a very masculine game. The standard football fan is supposed to be fat man wearing a filthy white tank‑top, slouching in his overstuffed armchair with a beer resting on his belly, with all kinds of snack foods and a nagging wife nearby. Having somebody to ignore is part of the pleasure for these men, or at least used to be.

But I guess these women call themselves “liberated.” By being “liberated”, they’re subjecting themselves to a game they loathe, pretending to enjoy it, so that their boyfriends will respect them. “Yeah, my woman loves football! She even knows the rules!” they can brag to their friends. You may wonder, why do I even care? Well, it’s just that the female contingent adds an annoying new aspect to the game: shrieking. My ears were ringing with every big play.

I can well remember when the Denver Broncos were in the Super Bowl for the first time. This was back in the late ‘70s. Our Boulder fans were pretty rabid. My elementary school practically declared a holiday the Friday before. Instead of the normal lessons, we did Broncos-themed activities all day long. For example, we all gathered for a sing-along with songs apparently written specifically for this game. I only remember one chorus: “Ya gotta …. make those miracles happen!” There was also a crossword puzzle; one clue was “What the Cowboys’ offense will be after the Broncos get through with them,” and the answer was “CRUSHED.” That was based on the nickname for the Broncos’ defense: “Orange Crush.” There was a product tie-in with the artificially flavored, artificially colored orange soft drink. I wasn’t a very sophisticated kid, but still, I was pretty disgusted by the opportunism involved and how successful it was, with giant pyramids of extra Orange Crush throughout the grocery stores.

I finally got so sick of all the Broncos mania, I (very stupidly) lashed out at everybody and said, “I hate the Broncos! I hope they lose!” This utterly ruined me socially. I was a pariah from that day forward. Sometimes I think my social life still hasn’t recovered.

But the crazy thing was, during that Super Bowl, the Coloradans were fairly mild-mannered; I didn’t hear a peep from the neighbors. (Perhaps this was because the Broncos got completely slaughtered.) But this past Sunday, among the UC Santa Barbara student community, the yelling was over the top. Was it my sour imagination, or did the cheering seem fake and forced out here? It almost seemed like a competition between people to see who could yell the loudest and most often. An extra creative cheer could win bonus points: “Yeah 49er’s baby whooooh!”

Of course I’ve cheered at bike races and swim meets, but that was to spur on friends whose progress I had been watching for years, and who were actually teammates of mine. They could hear me cheering and would know my voice. As loud as the fans were here, I hardly think the 49ers could hear them all the way in Miami.

One thing that really didn’t amuse me about this Super Bowl was the big news of the player who broke his leg in two places. He refused to leave the field for hospitalization because he wanted to “be there” for his team. Naturally, his stupidity was applauded by the spectators. I guess none of them realize that when that player is condemned to a wheelchair, the game won’t seem that important anymore. Fortunately, the team doctor finally made him go to the hospital. (There’s probably a lawsuit pending on that one now, with the player claiming the doctor damaged his career.)

So. Do you think we can expect that kind of enthusiasm during this year’s bicycle racing season?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

2013 - The Year In Review

NOTE:  This post is rated PG-13 for mature themes.


If you’re familiar with this blog, you know it’s about nothing in particular. That’s not going to change, though today’s topic—a review of the previous year’s big news, month by month—has become a tradition. Read on, and you may discover that this “blog about nothing” has actually had its finger on the pulse of the most pressing issues and themes of our time. At least, that’s what I’m going to bend over backwards trying to prove. To the extent I fail, you can silently mock me. What could be more fun than that?


The big news in January was that, after fourteen years of lying through his teeth, Lance Armstrong finally admitted he’d doped throughout his cycling career. Of course I felt hurt by this, not just because I’d stupidly believed in him and even defended him for years, but because this ├╝ber-athlete had now beaten me at my own game: writing. That is, he’d produced two so-called autobiographies that ended up being works of pure fiction, and far more convincing than anything I’ve written. When Lance spilled his guts to Oprah Winfrey, and she asked him why he’d been such a bully for all those years, he said he’d felt a need to “control the narrative.” How literary of him!

Not long after that interview, I felt duly inspired by The King all over again and I tried to “control the narrative” myself. I blogged about an on-the-road showdown with a rude stranger who thought that, despite being kind of chubby for a cyclist, he could get medieval on my heinie on a brutal climb. A climb, in fact, that’s one of my very favorites. Of course, I wanted my narrative to resemble something mellow and thoughtful, perhaps whimsical—something, in short, befitting my bike club’s byline, “Sweetness & Light,” rather than the Lance-style narrative which is more like “Silence of the Lambs.” So instead of giving my opponent “the look” and then brutally attacking him, I rolled by him gradually, as if silently offering him my wheel: “Really, take my wheel. I want you to. I want you to have it … really.” Yes, I managed to best the guy, but in the process assured myself that, Lance’s example notwithstanding, you can succeed at sport without being a jerk about it. (Full disclosure: I loved watching Lance give Ullrich “the look.” It’s even fun to watch now, in the same way it’s kind of fun watching WWF wrestling.)


No matter how much hard-hitting news is offered up in February, all most people care about is the Academy Awards. (If you disagree, count yourself among the most socially conscious people on Earth. Congratulations!) And perhaps no film got more buzz than the winner of the Oscar for the Best Short Non-Animated Film, “Curfew.” Frankly, I was as caught up in the ensuing Curfew-Mania as everybody.

And yet, I couldn’t help but feel snubbed, because even though I cannot deny a strong bias, I really felt that my own film, “Tire Lever Demo,” should have won that Oscar. I think it’s fair to say that most critics would agree about this, and yet my movie lost. The fact is, not all of us have the financial resources to mount a massive hype-fest to turn the media into a giant Oscar-buzz machine on behalf of our film. It’s unfair voting. It’s who you know. Or is it “it’s whom you know”? Is there an implicit “whom” in “It’s who you know,” i.e., “It’s who [whom] you know”? I don’t know. English is a tough language. Anyway, for the full story on that tire lever demo, click here.


As if my crushing Oscar defeat in February weren’t bad enough, in March I failed to sell my beautiful dining table, with matching chairs, on craigslist. (I almost called it a “dinette set” just now, but the first time I did that—when I bought the set—I felt my hairline recede about a centimeter and my bones become at least 10% less dense.) Not getting any money was bad enough, but it’s particularly annoying to have my top-quality (if somewhat soiled) merchandise vetted by the kind of highly particular and discerning consumer who somehow manages to forget that he or she is paying bottom dollar. It was all I could do to keep from verbally insulting those who interrogated me about the cleanliness of the chairs. In fact, I did end up insulting everybody who read the second version of my ad, which I also published in these pages.

Of course I don’t need to tell you how this all fit in with the big world news of March, which was the sale of a precious little bowl that sold for $2.2 million at an auction despite having been purchased at a garage sale. Will my dining room table and chairs ever be worth that much? Well, yeah, once this blog makes me world-famous and becomes the basis of the blockbuster movie “Curfew II – The Spawning”! Then the family friends who bought my table and chairs for $150 will be laughing in your face, “craig”!


The big national news in April read like the script for a really lousy episode of “Magnum, P.I.” I’m talking about how a former martial arts instructor tried to send poisonous ricin-laced mail to members of our government, including President Obama, in a complicated plot to frame his nemesis, all over a feud involving the Internet, social media, and a counterfeit Mensa credential. So the perp, Everett Dutschke, is going to prison for twenty-five years, following which he’s sure to launch a new type of martial arts that he “perfected in prison,” so he can be annoying all over again.

It was with a sense of relief, then, that I posted in April about the only type of toxic mail most of us have to deal with, which is e-mail spam. Of course there’s not much in common between ricin-laced paper mail and spam, but the stupidity of the average spammer and the stupidity of Mr. Dutschke are closely related. The most salient statement in my April “Open Letter To Spammers” could easily apply to deranged imbeciles like Dutschke: “It’s natural to be lured toward a grudging respect for the really cunning criminal, like the jewel thief who slips into a museum during the dark of night, outwits all the laser-beam motion detectors, and makes off with the big diamond. But your methods are so grossly ineffective, the fitting criminal analogy would be the last guy who siphoned gasoline from my old Volvo, puking his guts out in the process.”


I kicked off May with a post about arguing. The ostensible topic was grammar, but the real point of my essay was how wonderful it is when people engage in lively debate over differing points of view, even if in the big picture they mostly agree. For example, as recounted in this post, a dinner guest gleefully danced on my (rhetorical) grave when he discovered that a word pronunciation I’d denounced—that is, the last syllable of “processes” being pronounced “eez”—was supported by a creditable dictionary. I suffered the agonies of defeat until I found another dictionary that called this pronunciation “a bungled affectation.” The good news is, we both care about language enough to spar about it.

Our behavior was eerily prescient: not long after, no less an intellect than President Obama got into a lively debate with a Code Pink anti-war protester during a press conference. Despite the protester becoming a bit too heated and having to get dragged away by the Secret Service, Obama did subsequently take the opportunity to point out that the woman had brought up important ideas that deserve to be debated. Maybe I’ll invite the President to my next dinner party! Or the Code Red protester!


Okay, it has occurred to me that a mischievous reader or two, inspired by all this talk of debate, might feel like playing the devil’s advocate by pretending not to have heard of the movie “Curfew” that I mentioned earlier. Well, that’s fine, but nobody could pretend not to know of the big news in June, of an NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, blowing the whistle on PRISM, the US government’s Internet spying program.

Perhaps not coincidentally, I blogged in June about social networks and texting, trying to warn teens (and their parents) about the perils of dopamine-fueled social one-upmanship and how all these tweets and texts are like a morphine drip of social approval. Obviously it would have been beside the point to warn teens about safeguarding their privacy, since the current batch seems to be totally unconcerned with it. But I did touch on the odd nexus of freedom and our modern always-on communication style: “If your parents can reach you whenever they want, that’s not really freedom at all. Freedom is having enough trust that your parents don’t need to know where you are.”

Substitute “NSA” or “government” for “parents” and my statement seems truer than ever, does it not?


I spent most of July ignoring all the big, important, unpleasant mainstream news and focusing mainly on the Tour de France. (I provided a blow-by-blow report of several stages, via peer-to-peer instant messaging and a blog post wrap-up after each stage; I wasn’t about to “live tweet” anything because that would just annoy my one Twitter follower, who has chosen to follow me for no reason I can think of since I’ve never sent a single tweet.) It’s too bad I never bothered to consider this great bike race in a larger current-events context that might have given me some insight.

What am I talking about, you ask? Well, in my coverage of Stage 8, I asked the rhetorical question, “Isn’t that sweet, how the French still pretend one of their own could place high in the overall?” Somebody needs to come up with a term for a question that’s not only rhetorical but is also only implied; in this case the question was, “Why do the French cyclists suck so bad, having failed to win their home race for the last 28 years?” Had I kept my eye on breaking world news, I’d have found the answer: it’s simply that the French are more interested in other things, like beauty, as shown by an article titled “Could Snail Slime Be France’s Next Miracle Beauty Cure?”  Louis-Marie Guedon, a Franch snail farmer, “says the mucus secreted by snails are full of collagen, glycolic acid, antibiotics and other compounds that regenerate skin cells and heal cuts,” and “has developed a secret technique to harvest the slime ... turning the innovation into France’s first industrial-scale snail mucus extraction operation with a target to harvest 15 tonnes of it next year.”

It’s hard to fault France for focusing on aesthetics ... after all, somebody has to. Beauty is becoming increasingly rare throughout the developed world, and not just due to obesity. Some of the thinnest people in Europe are getting uglier every year. I’m talking, of course, about professional bike racers. Veteran race announcer Phil Liggett, also in coverage of Stage 8, said of Tour de France winner Christopher Froome, “He’s not the prettiest of bike riders, but he is the most effective.” This is an understatement. Froome is so grotesquely emaciated I wouldn’t be surprised if Kate Moss told him, “Dude, go get half a sandwich or something!”

Let’s face it, society doesn’t need bike racers to be more effective; incrementally increased speeds don’t equal increased excitement. What the peloton needs is to follow the lead of the French and get back to looking better!


Well, there’s no point beating about the bush: August was all about fear of shrinking genitals. Look, guys, it’s pointless to pretend you didn’t go to Hewlett Packard’s website and download their genital-measuring app, “Chubby Checkers.” And don’t insult my intelligence by insisting that you were totally ignorant of how the app suddenly vanished and you had to go back to low-tech methods of assessing your masculinity. I guess I’ll cut you some slack if you didn’t get the full story of how the app was removed when the sixties-era pop singer Chubby Checkers sued HP for using his trademarked name without permission, and how this month a judge ruled that the lawsuit can move forward. But it’s all true.

The size of—and frankly the decline of—my own genitals was also a prominent albertnet theme in August; consider this post, “Blogger Eats Crow Over Compact Crank!”  Here I chronicled the (much deserved) abuse I got from by biking pals when I switched to a lower-geared compact bike crankset. Trevor wrote, “The compact crank is the cycling equivalent of the old man’s walker. Don’t forget the tennis balls or, instead, you might as well dangle your own off the back of your saddle since you’re apparently not using them anymore. Display them like the now useless withered tokens they’ve become.” Paul advised, “Now that shrinking genitals are a reality for you, please consider that it impacts others … of most note, your wife. I consulted with [my girlfriend] before I made the switch [to a compact crank]. After buying her a bunch of expensive jewelry she caved.”

Now that we ageing cyclists don’t have the Chubby Checkers app anymore, maybe it’s time to Kickstart a new genital measurement product, perhaps something built in to a bicycle saddle….


In September I was pleasantly surprised to see that my favorite magazine, “The New Yorker,” had published a letter I’d sent them. Drunk on the idea that I’d actually said something useful, I elaborated at length in a blog post about doping vs. talent. Could this longer piece have been labeled a “bizarre missive”? Could my readers have been “confused by” it? If so, what a nice tie-in to the other big news of September, “Chinese Left Confused By Bizarre Missive on Xi’s Ring.”

It seems there had been a lot of buzz in the social media about whether or not China’s President Xi Jinping wore a wedding ring on state television. The official Chinese news agency responded with a one-line report, “Talk on the Internet about Xi Jinping wearing a wedding ring at the G20 summit is fake information.” Did a member of this news agency also comment on my blog post, calling it “fake information”? They might have. But you know I can censor such things.


Can ignorance be charming? Well, of course! Just look at kids misspelling simple words, or believing in Santa. Is ignorance among adults also charming? Well, not so much, though lack of prescience can at least be refreshing. At least, that was my hope in October when I ran a “from the archives” post from 1989 about entering the computer age. Among the brilliant technologies I mentioned were fax, long distance calling cards, remote-controlled phone answering machines, laser printers, and the computer mouse. I was vaguely aware of the existence of e-mail at that time, but didn’t know enough to write about it.

Well, perhaps in another fourteen years you’ll think it charmingly non-prescient of me to declare that the very pinnacle of the Internet’s global reach thus far was achieved this past October. I’m talking about a crazy confluence of government, social media, and dignified adults behaving like children in the most charming way possible. If you’re having trouble remembering that far back, here is the news story about a Chinese government official who was visiting flood victims the Zhejiang province and accepted a piggyback ride from a local, so as to keep his nice shoes from being spoiled by a puddle. If you think this made a charming “local color” item for the local paper, think again. Someone snapped a photo, posted it to a blog, and the government official was promptly sacked. It’s kind of sad that the great online global village must mean the end of adult piggyback rides, but there you have it. On the plus side, without the Internet I’d never have believed that government officials enjoyed such perks.


In November I did a post celebrating the amazing ability of children to memorize vast amounts of seemingly trivial information, such as (in my kid’s case) the Periodic Table of the Elements and a bazillion digits of Pi, or (in the case of my own childhood) terabytes worth of rock lyrics and “Star Wars” lore. The point of the post was to teach parents how to exploit this amazing faculty, but the implicit rhetorical question (there it is again!) was something like, “Should we be worried about where these kids will end up, since they memorize all this trivia at the expense of their schoolwork?”

Again, a closer eye on the news would have answered this question, at least if “Well, yes and no” can be considered an answer. Consider this November news story about a school dropout in Nepal who taught himself how to imitate the sounds of 251 different kinds of birds. This isn’t the quasi-skill of the weird birder you might have encountered on an Audubon Society outing, who makes sounds that, to his ear and maybe even yours, sound kind of like a bird. No, the guy in Nepal can actually summon hundreds of crows and command them about. He’s kind of like the Kurtz of the bird world. So you see, just because knowledge can seem trivial doesn’t mean it is, which gives me hope for my own children.


The release of my second (non-) blockbuster movie of 2013 should have been news in itself, despite (or because of) the scathing review I magnanimously posted in December. Who could have predicted that a strange movie like “Lego Dude vs. Dinosaurs Run Amok” would produce one of those “life imitates art” moments? And yet that’s exactly what happened this month, when a disgruntled theatre director rammed his car into the French presidential palace as a protest, just as (in my film) a motorist rammed his car into—well, not a gate of a palace, but a dinosaur. I guess another difference is that the French theatre director was merely arrested rather than being attacked by dinosaurs. But still, the similarity is uncanny, is it not? (Don’t answer that.)

Thank you

Thank you for another great year. Or better yet, how about you thank me? That is, if you’re still there. Do you hear any trees falling near you?

But seriously, you’ve been great, really. I know I couldn’t do this blog without you, though I actually probably could, and actually probably do. Anyway, if there’s anybody out there, have a great 2014, a year in which I hope more of the breaking world news is trivial. And if you’re reading this way after the fact, I hope you found this a nostalgic look back at 2013: The Year Of The Social-Media Scandals (e.g., Ricin, Piggyback, Jinping, NSA, and of course Chubby-Checker).

Friday, January 10, 2014

Santa Denial, and How Lance Armstrong Taught Me To Lie


When Robin Williams, a longtime friend of Lance Armstrong, was asked how he took the news that Lance had been doping, and lying about it, all along, Williams replied, “It was like when I found out about Santa Claus.”  This makes sense.  The Lance myth is a lot like the Santa myth:  something that millions of people believed, in part because it’s such a sweet story, they wanted to believe it.

This past Christmas, when I was lying to my younger daughter about Santa, I was surprised how easy it was compared to past years.  Why should this be?  After much soul-searching, I realized that it’s because I paid such close attention this past year to the Lance saga, and how it was that he successfully lied for so long. 

In short, this post explains how Lance taught me to lie.

First, a disclaimer

I want to be very clear that I’m not in favor of lying, unless it’s to my kids about Santa or the Tooth Fairy.  That’s why, until I subconsciously absorbed some important lessons from Lance, I had so much trouble with these lies.  It just felt wrong trampling over my kids’ reasonable skepticism, which as a parent I normally like to instill.  So, even though my lying skills have improved, my moral compass has not strayed, and I’m not lulled into any “grey area” nonsense.  I offer up this essay to you not as a how-to guide, but as an intellectual investigation.  Who knows, perhaps a knowledge of lying technique can help us be more skeptical.  I sure wouldn’t want to be played like a sucker again, after defending Lance for years.

Interestingly, I’ve witnessed a similar evolution of the lying skills and techniques of Lance himself.  In the early days of his lying, he wasn’t so smooth.  In fact, it wasn’t until the accusations went from a trickle to a stream to a full inundation that he mastered his skills at deception.  For example, if you can find the video footage of his press conference regarding the Discovery sponsorship, you’ll see some awkward, inexpert evasion.  Nothing as clumsy as Floyd Landis’s first denial (i.e., when he was first asked point-blank if he doped, he said, “I’m gonna say no…”), but pretty clumsy.

Technique #1:  convince yourself first

It’s pretty clear from the Oprah interview and others that Lance doesn’t actually regret cheating at sport—he just regrets getting caught.  He doesn’t present his doping and his deception as particularly heinous or unique crimes; I think he found a way, very early on, to square all this internally.  He took moral comfort in having convinced himself (and his team) that everybody else was doping too; in having used his massive celebrity to give comfort to cancer survivors (whether or not he made any progress toward funding actual research); and in having generated a vast amount of wealth for the bicycle industry.  In light of all this good he was doing, he must have felt as though depriving some cheating European of those Tours de France was really no big deal. 

So it is with the Santa myth.  To witness the idealistic, innocent, and pure trust my child puts in me, and to take advantage of it with a bald-faced lie every year, requires similar rationalization.  So I remind myself that the truth would only hurt, and that my kid couldn’t be trusted to keep it to herself.  I think of all the kids on the playground whose holiday experience would be damaged by too early a revelation, and all those letters to Santa that wouldn’t be written, and so forth, and thus I rationalize my position.  This was easier this year after I read Lance’s (or was it Tyler Hamilton’s?) description of the vast number of team support people (mechanics, masseuses, coaches, doctors, PR folks, etc.) whose careers depended on his “discretion” (i.e., lies).

Technique #2:  make your lie big and bold

Remember all that mealy-mouthed stuff in “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”?  The writer (i.e., liar) resorts to a sideways trick of turning Santa (the living, breathing man) into something abstract, with statements like “He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist” and by comparing him to fairies.  It’s easy to see why the writer would do this, but it’s amateurish.  When Lindsay asked me straight-out this year, “Daddy, are you and Mommy really Santa?” I knew this was no time for prevaricating.  So I snapped at her:  “Why do you love cancer so much?!”  No, of course I didn’t really say that.  That was Lance’s retort when the journalist Paul Kimmage accused him of doping.  It was big, bold, and (best of all) beside the point.  It’s the logical fallacy my older daughter once referred to as “red lobster.”

So what I really said to Lindsay was, “That’s crazy talk!  Of course we aren’t Santa!”  She looked so relieved.  This was the look of a kid who is all too happy to place her dad’s honesty and integrity above that of some stupid kid on the playground.  Once she had the answer that she wanted all along, her skepticism went right out the window.  Yes, I felt slightly bad about the power I had over her and how I was abusing it, but more than that I thought, “Wow, that was a way better response than I’d have made last year, which would have been the old answer-with-a-question dodge, like ‘What makes you ask that?’”

 Technique #3:  suspend disbelief by throwing a bone

Okay, so you’ve lied to yourself first, and then you’ve told the lie boldly and firmly, and your audience wants to believe you anyway.  That’s a good start.  But what about that niggling doubt that an intelligent person would naturally have?  If left alone, that doubt might start to fester, and end up being to Truth what a grain of sand is to a pearl.  Best to nip doubt in the bud, which can be accomplished easily with a few plausible explanations.

I was as amazed as anybody when Lance went from being a one-day classics racer to a Grand Tour stage racer (by way of cancer).  I’ve seen classics racers evolve into stage racers over time, like Sean Kelly, but even Kelly never won the Tour de France.  So from the very first doping accusations against Lance, I had the beginnings of doubt.  But Lance, in one of his novels, explained that the cancer stripped off the unnecessary upper body muscle he’d had from his swimming days, reconfiguring him as a stage racer.  It didn’t matter that he hadn’t actually lost any weight; I wanted to believe, and that explanation was good enough.  Lance also mentioned his higher cadence as a major asset to his stage racing; it didn’t bother me that I myself get more power out of a lower cadence.  I only cared that his transformation was explained in some way.  (So it is with Chris Froome’s believers, who accept his silly explanation—finally getting over parasitic worms—for suddenly going from mediocre cyclist to the world’s best stage racer.)

The ability of an explanation—whether it’s solid or not—to help suspend disbelief is something Malcolm Gladwell has called “the Photocopier Effect,” after an experiment by a Harvard social scientist, Ellen Langer.  Langer had just a 60% success rate cutting in line to use a photocopier when she merely asked nicely.  But if she gave a reason, like “I’m in a rush,” her success rate went to 94%.  The crazy thing is that when Langer gave a pointless reason, like “because I need to make some copies,” her success rate was still 94%.  The point is, if you throw someone a bone, you’ll get somewhere, whether it’s a good bone or not.

Not that all explanations are created equal.  I never bought Alberto Contador’s “tainted Spanish beef” explanation for his positive clenbuterol test, and I don’t believe Michael Rogers’ “tainted Chinese beef” explanation for the same, and I don’t believe Jonathan Breyne’s “tainted Chinese beef” explanation either.  Tyler Hamilton’s “chimera” (i.e., prenatal evil twin) explanation for his blood doping positive would be laughable if it weren’t so sad. 

So when Lindsay questioned the authenticity of Santa Claus, I threw her the best bone I could.  After denying that my wife and I were actually Santa, I said, “That’s not to say that there aren’t people who impersonate Santa Claus.  Have you ever seen Santa in a mall?  Definitely a fake.”  See?  Now she had an explanation for the fact that somebody had (evidently) questioned Santa’s existence to begin with.  I went on to describe a fake mall Santa who made me cry because when I asked for a “bow and arrow” it sounded like “bone arrow” and I couldn’t make the fake Santa understand what I wanted.  Another red herring, right up there with Lance’s higher pedaling cadence!

Technique #4:  Embroil others in your lie

One reason I believed in Lance for so long was that no disgruntled former teammate ratted him out (until one finally did and all the others followed).  As we now know, Lance didn’t achieve this cooperation by sitting everybody down and formally conspiring in the way that a James Bond villain might.  No, it was all subtle:  if you want to be in the inner circle, you better ride well and show your allegiance, and if you do, you may get a white paper bag, and if you use the substances therein and benefit appropriately, you’re going to the Tour!  But by the way, now you can’t say anything, ever, because you’d have to come clean yourself.  It’s kind of like when my big brother would steal two cookies from the jar, stuff one in my mouth, and say, “You tell, I’ll tell.”  Except the gag order on the Postal team was implicit.

So it was when I brought my older daughter Alexa in on the Santa deception.  I knew she wouldn’t believe in Santa forever, and I dreaded the day when I’d have to come clean and admit I’d been lying all along.  It was just my luck that when that moment finally came, I’d recently read Tyler Hamilton’s book and had learned of the power Lance had through speaking softly and wielding financial repercussions. 

Predictably enough, the first domino to fall was the Tooth Fairy.  (I think that myth is more fragile because teeth are lost one at a time, so you don’t have the momentum of mass belief that the Christmas season entails.)  Of course once your kids know you’re capable of routinely lying to their faces about the Tooth Fairy, they figure out the Santa deception almost instantly.

Alexa was blunt:  “Okay, Dad, I know there’s no Tooth Fairy.”  I was equally blunt in my reply:  “You’re right.  There’s no Tooth Fairy.  And now that you know that, you won’t be surprised when you no longer get any money for losing a tooth.”  That was the extent of it.  Alexa, of course, is no fool:  she instantly grasped that if she later decried Santa as a fake, she could kiss her Christmas stocking—and all that candy—goodbye.

So when Christmas rolled around, Alexa not only kept Mum about Santa, but—of her own volition—took an active role in perpetuating the myth.  Hours before Lindsay confronted me about Santa, Alexa (in Lindsay’s presence) threw me a perfect softball:  “Hey Dad, does Santa give lesser presents to kids in poor communities?”  I casually replied, “Well, yes, a really fancy gift in a poor community could cause a lot of envy and strife.  So Santa naturally scales it down.  Meanwhile, in very affluent communities he has to give fancier gifts because the kids are so jaded.”  For Lindsay to hear this intelligent discussion among older, more worldly people was a perfect ruse.  And when Lindsay later asked if my wife and I pretend to be Santa, Alexa said, with an exquisite facsimile of eye-rolling annoyance, “That’s what she keeps trying to get me to believe.”  I couldn’t ask for a better accomplice.

Should I be thanking Lance?

I suppose I could thank Lance for helping me learn how to lie.  But I’m not sure how much use I’ll have for this skill once Lindsay knows the truth about Santa.

That said, I suppose we could all thank Lance for all the stunning entertainment he’s given us over the years, from the seven Tour de France victories to the botched comeback and on to the thrilling scandal, which brought about a veritable orgy of self-righteous pontificating from so many journalists, bloggers, and Internet haters.  Meanwhile, Oakley and Trek could thank Lance for generating so many sales; after all, these companies get to keep all that money they made.

But before we start thanking the guy, we should remember that, unlike lying about Santa, Lance’s deception was not a victimless crime.  He robbed all the clean cyclists, and the clean would-be cyclists (who left the sport rather than doping), as well as the would-be clean cyclists (those lured into doping by the culture Lance so generously fueled).  Lance should get coal in his stocking.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Race Report - Mount San Bruno 2014


I usually only race once a year (the two-day Everest Challenge stage race) but every so often I do the Mount San Bruno Hill Climb on January 1.  My bike club has a tradition of e-mailing race reports, which are usually (and ideally) short on race details and long on food details.  

What follows is my report to the club:  first the short version (another welcome convention), then the medium version.  As an albertnet exclusive, I offer also offer here the full version with more details and commentary.  Note that I did not win this race and wasn’t  at the finish in time to contest it.  If you’re hoping to find out who won this race and how, you’ll need to look elsewhere … I can’t concern myself with such things.

Short version

I came, I rode, I sucked. Almost a minute and a half slower than last time. Minimal caloric indulgences. No catastrophic mechanical failures.

Medium version

Despite wisely eschewing breakfast, I wasn’t moved to splurge on a big brunch after the race, and drowned my sorrows with Erin’s hastily patched-together hot cocoa (one part Sharffen Berger dry cocoa—the dregs of the can—with some other part Trader Joe’s unsweetened dry cocoa, some parts milk, and not-enough parts sugar, the result of which tasted very sophisticated in that fascist killjoy pissing-contest “if only we could make this stuff whole-grain!” mode that afflicts so many modern chocolate companies who would like to be called “chocolatiers” but I refuse to take the bait). When we got home I made my locally famous non-fair-trade linguine alla vongole, using non-organic boxed pasta and clams from a can, okay?

Placing: If they’d let me race in the Masters 45+ 1/2/3 like I’d wanted, I’d have a top-ten result to post on the bike club website; instead, I was a mere 12th in the M45 4/5. Such is the plight of one-day licensees in 2014.

Self-assessment: “PASS” in the race (only because I managed not to crash), and B+ on the pasta. Erin gets an A on the cocoa because a) it was too good for me, b) the kids liked it enough to fight over it, and c) she made it to begin with while I was pursuing my own selfish race-preparation centers.

Long version

The Mount San Bruno Hill Climb is perhaps unique among bike races in that it can produce a feeling of self-loathing even before it starts.  Because it’s held the morning of January 1, by signing up you’re generally acknowledging that you haven’t been invited to any great New Year’s Eve parties.  You are admitting to yourself and others, “I have no life … I might as well race.”

Not that there aren’t guys who both party and race, as I described in these pages four years ago.  But I’m a family man, and need to lead by example.  Getting completely crushed in a bike race because I’m hung over isn’t something I’d want my children to witness, and for some reason my family likes to come to this race with me.  Sure, I could get crushed and not chalk it up to a hangover, but I confess I’d rather not have my kids see me get crushed at all.  (When Alexa was about three, she watched me lose to a friend of mine in one of those Cyberbike computerized-trainer races.  She burst out crying and said, “Daddy, you always lose!”)

I was in bed by around 10 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, while my kids stayed up past midnight.  For breakfast, they had some complicated meal that delayed our departure and thus shortened my warm-up.  I don’t know what they ate because I steered clear:  they were grumpy from sleep deprivation, and I was grumpy due to road rash, particularly the road rash on my fingers that meant I had to wipe left-handed.  Not to go too far into that, but I was doing a lot of wiping.

For breakfast I had nothing.  San Bruno is a short race.

During the drive Lindsay asked an astute question:  “Daddy, since you’re not even quite forty-five, is it fair that you’ll be racing against guys who are mostly older, even some fifty-five-year-olds?”  I took this as a diplomatic version of, “Isn’t your only hope of glory the pure accident of the arbitrary age cutoffs of the Masters racing environment?”  To punish her for her scalpel-like dissection of my frail ego, I bored her (and her sister, and my wife) with a lament about a new rule that the NCNCA seems prepared to enforce this year:  one-day license holders cannot race in the category they’d earned membership in as annual license-holders, but must race with the newbies in the Cat 5 ranks.  On the face of it, for a crusty old veteran like me to race against these guys would be like taking candy from a baby.  A more nuanced examination would show that I’m actually afraid of these newbies:  some of them are young and strong, and this race is straight uphill, so that baby might just take his candy back and half my arm with it.  I convinced the race promoters to let me race with the Masters 45+ 4/5s.

Parking for San Bruno is in the giant parking lot of a research park.  The spacious front parking lot was completely full so we had to go around back.  Everywhere, thin old dudes were warming up briskly on their trainers.  I found my fellow cyclists’ enthusiasm for this event highly annoying.

Of course I recognize that it’s a bit silly to find a behavior annoying that I freely engage in myself.  After all, I love cycling, and have a deep respect for those who fight off the ageing process (and the belly fat that so often comes with it), and who manage to maintain their discipline in this very difficult sport.  I have two answers to this critique.  First, I refer you to my “self-loathing” comment above—there’s actually no hypocrisy in disliking others on the same basis that I dislike myself.  Second, it isn’t the behavior itself—i.e., showing up to a bike race on January 1—that bothers me.  What bothers me is their intent to beat me, and their probability of succeeding.

Let me make an analogy.  I can’t fault a man for wanting to hit on my wife.  After all, that’s just a sign of good taste, and even shows a strange kind of kinship with me.  (Heck, when I first met her I hit on her myself, so how could I fault them?)  Some men would want to punish this behavior, perhaps on the basis of it being an assault on the institution of marriage, but more probably on pure impulse.  Not I.  I was once late meeting my wife at a restaurant for dinner and found her waiting at the bar, where a guy was eagerly chatting her up, laying on the charm extra thick.  I merely chuckled.  After all, I could afford to, because my wife evidently has a fetish for stick-thin would-be poets who like to eat fast, and this guy didn’t meet those criteria.  But suppose he’d been getting somewhere?  At that point the joke would wear thin.  So it is with those bike-racing loser/winners who show up in droves just to rob me of whatever minor glory I could hope to earn here.

As I set up my trainer, I heard somebody call my name, and it didn’t sound like my teammate Ken Cluff (the only guy I knew who had mentioned doing this race).  Turns out I’d parked right next to my old UC Santa Barbara teammate Mike Baldwin, whom I haven’t seen on a bike since 1991!  Below is a staged photo of our reunion.  There had been an actual hug, but Alexa failed to snap a picture, and rather than combing the Internet later for the inevitable chance photo of it (since every human action is now thus documented), we staged a second photo.

At the start line was the reigning Masters national road champion in his stars-and-stripes jersey.  He was wearing a sunglasses version of the Google Glass.  I’m not going to offer up any perspective on this technology because opinions on this are already starkly polarized, and you don’t need my influence to decide where you stand.  That said, I was unsurprised to see this because, given the profile of your typical Masters cyclist, such an intersection of the tech and sporting worlds was completely inevitable.

Here are Mike, Ken, and I on the start line.  The weather was as fantastic as it looks.

From the very beginning, the pace was blistering.  I tried to hang with the leaders and failed.  This was due to a crucial tactical mistake; there were several good hands I could have played but didn’t.  For example, I could have shifted into a higher gear while maintaining the same cadence.  Or, I could have stayed in the same gear and increased my cadence.  Or, I could have shifted into a higher gear and increased my cadence.  Instead, I either shifted into a lower gear and maintained my cadence, or I stayed in the same gear and decreased my cadence, or I might have even shifted into a lower gear and decreased my cadence.  I can’t actually remember exactly what I did; things got confusing.  I’m tempted to blame my compact crank.

Based on this rookie move, you might think I really do belong in the Cat 5s.  But in adherence with the peculiar logic of modern racing, I’d actually have fared even worse—that is, 16th place—in that so-called beginner category.  In fact, the winner of the Cat 5s was just a tenth of a second off of the time of the Pro/1/2 winner, and would have won any other category.  (Click here for full results.)

Before the race, I had reflected optimistically that, as angry as I’ve been lately (for various uninteresting reasons), I could channel that anger during the race and do really well.  But as I got dropped, I discovered that it’s possible to be bitter without being angry.  In fact, I just felt sad.  I felt  all the hope draining out of my system, perhaps pushed out by lactic acid.

During this crux moment, a cannier racer might have looked on the bright side:  it appeared that only about fifteen riders had pulled away.  Since the Masters 45+ 1/2/3 riders were mixed in with the Masters 45+ 4/5 riders, I could have naturally assumed that not all the riders ahead of me were in my category.  Say it was split 50/50:  I’d have been assured of a top ten result!  Best case scenario, assume ten of them were 1/2/3s:  great, I would be sixth in the 4/5s!  Even if ten of them were 4/5s, I could later say “I’d have been sixth in the 1/2/3s!”  Plus there was the possibility that some of them would blow up and I’d pass them.  But none of this crossed my mind.  All I could think of was that fifteen guys had just made off with my wife.

Ken was way, way ahead of me, but Mike was on my wheel and as he came by to take a pull, I thought, hey, at least I have somebody to work with!  But that didn’t work out either and for most of the race I was out in the wind alone, hating everything and everyone but mostly just the sport of bicycle racing.  To succeed, I really need a triathlon of cycling, speed-eating, and speed-sonnet-writing.

A bunch of riders ride me off their wheels
So now I have to fight the wind alone.
I hope you know how miserable it feels
To ride as though your ass were made of stone.
To think I dropped like forty bucks for this!
I guess my kids are right:  I’m kind of dim.
I almost wish I had to take a piss:
I’d stop, and satisfy this simple whim.
But no, I must continue with this toil
Despite no satisfaction in the cards.
My mediocrity leaps forth to foil
The myth that I can thrive by working hard.
     I’d love to tell myself it’s just bad luck,
     But in the end I know I simply suck.

I wrote that sonnet in 6 minutes 57 seconds, and at Burrito Worlds I ate the Freebird’s monster burrito in 49 seconds, and I once ate a plate of Gondolier pasta in just under 20 seconds.  If I could find a riding/writing/eating triathlon, well, then we’d see who’s boss!  Until then, come out for a training ride with me ... I could really use it.
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