Friday, February 28, 2014

From the Archives - A Very Odd Letter


I came across this old letter recently that I’d written to a friend, sort of. While it does cohere, the document as a whole is a complete non sequitur. It had nothing to do with my life or my friend’s life, and its tone is completely unrelated to our friendship.

I’m not sure what inspired this. My only theory now is that I had a stray impulse to let my friend know how cool I thought it was that he was a full-time professional bike racer and a part-time college student—but of course it would be lame to actually praise him. So instead, I roundly criticized him. I think I was reading stuff at the time about how you cannot state something without also implying its opposite. For example, when you see a stop sign, you think “stop,” but you also think about “go.” Perhaps I figured that by groundlessly bagging on my friend I would cause him to reflect favorably on his actual life.

Or maybe I just wrote the incongruous letter for no reason at all. I share it here because I think it’s kind of funny (which of course implies that it may actually be dull and unfunny; you can decide for yourself).

By the way, my friend’s name is not “John.” I changed the name for this version just to make sure nobody attaches any biographical meaning to anybody. Oh, and one more thing: I never got a response to this letter, in any form.

A very odd letter – September 30, 1991

Dear John:

Word has gotten around that you’re neglecting your college education and have wasted the last three weeks of class time. You are supposed to be working on your projects. But you do nothing. Can I help?

I guess it’s not accurate to say you do nothing. I mean, nobody is completely inert. Probably you write on the desk, or scratch your initials in with a razor blade, or maybe you stick the blade of a pocketknife between the Formica and the wood and pry it up, to split off big pieces of the desk, like picking at a scab. I can picture you idly peeling off the ironed-on letters on the sleeve of your t‑shirt, or staring at the clock to will it to speed up. Or maybe you envision yourself running your hands up the legs of the teacher, up beneath her dress. (This fantasy may require you to scrunch down under your desk.) But what is the value of all this? You’re only cheating yourself through this lackadaisical behavior.

This is your life! This is your big moment, the springtime of your life, the time to blossom into the fine young man we all know you can be. If you would just apply yourself, it would make all the difference in the world. Spread your wings and fly! You can do it! I mean, come on, you’re John Doe! You just have to tell yourself, “John, I can make a difference in this life!” It’s time to take off and soar into your future!

Oh, John. I just don’t know what the world is going to do with you. You can’t just sit back and wait for your life to come along and create itself for you. You’ve got to make those miracles happen. All that’s missing is you. You must want to succeed, deep down inside, like we all want you to. Surely you have some kind of ambition, if you would just search for it.

Remember, you are not alone in this! You’ve got your friends, we’re all pulling for you. Sure, we aren’t the greatest friends you’ve ever had, what with Tommy in prison now (for a crime he didn’t commit—remember that!), and sure, Jake hasn’t spoken to you since he laid you out cold at that party, but I think even he has high hopes for you. Maybe you think I shouldn’t be the one to give you advice since I dropped out of college myself, but you know school just isn’t right for me, at least not right now. I think I belong here in the Price Pfister factory. Working the electronic scale really isn’t as simple as a lot of people tend to think. I’ve still got my pride.

Just keep in mind that you were always our role model. At least, until you decided to just throw away all your talent. I can’t express what a letdown it’s been to me and the rest of us when your grades started slipping. High Valley Community College may not be your only chance for success, but you’ve got to take it seriously since it’s the best shot you have! The rest of us would give almost anything to have the opportunity that you do.

This one friend of mine got into Adams State College, and after he graduated he got a really good sales position selling office products to small businesses. He took me for a ride in his new car and told me to open the glove compartment, and when I did this pen rolled out and when I picked it up I saw that it had his name on it in gold. I was pretty impressed, and then he opened this little door above the gear shift and I thought it was an ashtray but it turned out to be this neat drink holder you can either put a Coke can or a coffee cup in and it doesn’t spill or anything. His car is a Nissan Sentra, and he’ll have it paid off before President Bush’s second term ends, before things could get bad with the economy.

So I guess you can see where I was going with that. You can be great! Please tell me how to help!

All my best,


Monday, February 24, 2014

10 Reasons to Cut Barbie Some Slack


Mattel, facing flagging sales of its Barbie dolls, manufactured some controversy recently by doing a tie-in with the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.  Though some of the coverage of this (highly lucrative) controversy was quite good, mostly I came across lightly researched, predictable puff pieces.  (An example of the indifferent reporting:  few stories bothered to point out that Barbie wasn’t actually on the cover, but only appeared with a “cover wrap” in about a thousand issues.)  The low quality of existing coverage has emboldened me to tackle the topic despite my routine unwillingness to do a lot of research myself.

Originally I thought the controversy would be about swimsuit models suffering from lowered self-esteem after being compared to Barbie dolls, but I didn’t actually find any evidence of this.  And when I watched a video that accompanied a story about the supposed controversy, I stopped worrying about the models.  The video didn’t even mention Barbie; it was just a few models having a routine interview interrupted by the big news that they’d made the cover of Sports Illustrated.  They jumped up and down and shrieked; one curled up on the floor, overwhelmed; and one—mid-hug—cried, “Oh my God!” and then (fearing a wardrobe malfunction),  “Oh, my hair extensions!”  Worthy of Shakespeare, that.

So I’m focusing instead on the original charge that Barbie dolls present an impossible ideal of womanhood that damages the self-esteem of girls.  As long as I’ve been a parent I have instinctively rejected this, and now upon reflection I am more convinced.  Here are ten reasons to cut Barbie some slack.

Reason #1:  Avoid the obvious hypocrisy

I have always puzzled over why feminists and other concerned parties seem to single out Barbie, when the rest of mainstream pop-culture is just as bad and probably worse.  It’s not as though Barbie were the only representation of the ideal female as tall, skinny, and beautiful.   At least Barbie doesn’t have fake boobs!  And at least she’s inert until animated by our daughters, unlike the hussies you see on TV and in the movies.

I suppose it’s because Barbies appeal to very young girls that people are concerned.  But I’m not convinced that preoccupation with body image begins in little kids.  My ten-year-old does enjoy coordinating her Barbies’ outfits and her own (which tend still to be pink and purple) but she spends very little time in front of the mirror and would be perfectly happy going to school with bed-head.  It’s her twelve-year-old sister, far beyond the age of Barbies (and who, significantly, never played with them to begin with) who has taken to stalling the family’s egress from the house with last-minute hair brushing.

Attire, physique, and grooming are aspects of a Barbie-like image that girls and women can strive for.  But what about beauty stereotypes women have less control over, like hair color?  Should we ban blond Barbies in particular?  After all, only 2% of people worldwide are naturally blond.  Couldn’t we argue that those mothers who dye their hair are equally culpable in creating an unrealistic standard?  And what about mothers who do manage to have an exquisite physique that their daughters cannot achieve?  Is their loss of self-esteem their mothers’ fault?

Reason #2:  Avoid the gender double-standard

At least I can’t harm my daughters’ self-esteem with my 8% body fat.  After all, they don’t look to their father as a role model of womanhood.  But what if I had a son?  Looking at how much flack Barbie has caught over the years, it’s worth wondering how Ken has managed to escape scot-free.  I’d argue that Ken is even more unrealistic than Barbie, because real-life men so often let themselves go after their teenage and young adult years.

When I went to my wife’s twentieth high school reunion awhile back, I encountered a lot of fit and trim women who were paired with seriously overweight men.  It was like a parody of some kind.  Sure, no woman had the wasp-like figure of a hypothetical real-life Barbie, but they were closer to Barbie than the men were to Ken.  Perhaps you feel assured that the self-esteem of these men has made it through this transformation unscathed.  Well, how do you know?  Another person’s self-esteem is always a matter of conjecture.

And how come nobody ever worried aloud that playing with GI Joes would make our sons want to become soldiers, or that they’d feel wimpy because they’re not tall and muscular?  Why haven’t concerned adults campaigned for bald, tubby GI Joes or portly, bespectacled General Kyles?

Reason #3:  Avoid the model vs. athlete double-standard

Could it be that looking out for little girls, without a corresponding concern for little boys, is just sexist?  As if the little girls must be defended against societal ills while the boys can take care of themselves?  Think about what little boys are messing around with instead of Barbies:  baseball cards (historically) and video games (nowadays). 

There isn’t enough disk drive space available on the Internet to cover the many ills of modern video games, but let’s consider a small subset of them, that being sports games featuring real players.  Nobody seems to mind when little boys (or girls) idolize pro athletes, who to a disgusting extent have manipulated their bodies artificially to gain advantage.  This is worse than Barbies, because we have actual living humans embodying impossible physiques.

Obviously football players on steroids jump first to mind, but in some sports athletes go the other direction and become so thin they’d make Barbie look stout.  You think Chris Froome got this skinny without a little help from his friends?  Thank God nobody has the poor taste to put out a Chris Froome doll. 

Reason #4:  Recognize that our daughters are not stupid

It’s common to take it for granted that our children’s play is shaping who they’ll become some day.  But this isn’t a simple connect-the-dots matter.  The nexus of imagination and child development is complicated.  Isn’t the whole point of make-believe to entertain notions that are totally different from reality?  Lots of kids’ books start with the parents being killed (James and the Giant Peach, the Lemony Snicket books, and the Harry Potter books come to mind) but most adults have the good sense not to worry about these books filling our children with untoward fantasies.

To some degree, everybody acknowledges our daughters’ discernment, even in the case of Barbies.  Nobody bats an eye at how our kids gloss over the more glaring instances of these dolls’ unrealistic traits, such as what’s beneath the clothes.  If we really believe our daughters’ standards are shaped by Barbies, we should worry that these little girls will one day want to have their own nipples surgically removed, and/or marry men completely lacking in genitalia.  Why do we expect kids to completely ignore these anatomical fictions, while being nonetheless brainwashed about general body type?

Today I asked my daughter Lindsay, the one who loves Barbies, “Do you want to look like Barbie when you grow up?”  She emphatically replied, “No!”  I asked why not.  In a tone of near exasperation at my cluelessness, she said, “Because she’s too skinny, and her arms are too wimpy!”  I asked Lindsay if she would prefer more realistic Barbie dolls, and she casually replied, “No.”  I asked if, when she grows up, she would want a husband who looks like Ken.  “No way!” she said, impassioned.  And why not?  “His abs are too big!  He looks too much like a boxer!  And he has a painted-on face and molded plastic hair.”

Reason #5:  Barbie gives us insight into our kids

As I see it, Barbie doesn’t shape so much as reflect our daughters’ play.  I remember when I was a kid watching my friend’s little sister playing Barbies, and her play consisted mainly of one Barbie lecturing another about safety.  Thus it didn’t surprise me to observe, over the years, how worried and overprotective her mom proved to be. 

The brilliant writer Jo Ann Beard describes, in her memoir The Boys of My Youth, growing up in a blue collar Illinois town out near the sticks, where “things are measured in shitloads, and every third guy you meet is named Junior.”  Her account of playing Barbies with her cousin reveals much about the kind of adults she had encountered in her young life: 
                “Let’s say it’s really hot out and they don’t know Ken is coming over and they’re just sitting around naked for a while,” I suggest.
                “Because they can’t decide what to wear,” Wendell clarifies.  “All their clothes are in the dryer.”
                Black-haired, ponytailed Barbie stands on tiptoe at the cardboard sink.  “I’m making us some pink squirrels,” she announces.  “But we better not get drunk, because Ken might come over.”
                Both Barbies do get drunk, and Ken does come over.  He arrives in an ill-fitting suit, and the heat in the Barbie house is so overwhelming that he has to remove it almost immediately.
                “Hey baby,” Ken says to no one in particular.  The Barbies sit motionless and naked in their cardboard kitchen, waiting for orders.  This is where Dirty Barbie gets murky—we aren’t sure what’s supposed to happen next.  Whatever happens, it’s Ken’s fault, that’s all we know.

The contrast between this and my daughter Lindsay’s play is a great relief.  Much of the time, Lindsay is creating worlds for Barbie and Ken, like this hotel that threw our bathroom into disarray for a few days:

You see the bowl of water on the second shelf down?  That’s a soothing footbath for Barbie.  The stacked cylinders next to it make her chair.

Here’s Barbie’s music room, made out of sofa cushions.  The wooden cylinder in the foreground is the handle of a parasol Lindsay set up to get the lighting just right:

Reason #6:  Outfits

Barbie comes in many ethnicities, but only one basic physique, and it’s easy to trot this out as proof that she’s held up as some ideal body type.  But there’s a more basic reason:  it’s essential that the outfits be completely interchangeable among every Barbie ever made.  After all, mixing and matching outfits is one of the common forms that Barbie play takes.

This interchangeability seems innocent to me.  A more cynical and venal doll company might deliberately introduce incompatibilities, just to sell more clothes.

When I was a kid, my brothers and I liked to play with the album cover of our dad’s “Papas & Mamas Exchanging Faces” record.  This was a complex multi-page album cover, split horizontally, so you could superimpose the top half of any singer’s face on the bottom half of any other singer’s face.  What made it so fun was Mama Cass’s corpulent visage juxtaposed with the more traditionally good-looking countenances of the others.  This now strikes me as less innocent than the Barbies’ interchangeable outfits.

Reason #7:  Social politics can be dodgy with kids

When teaching my daughters to be thoughtful, considerate people, I try not to introduce too many abstract concepts, like political correctness.  When I see Lindsay playing Barbies, my instinct is not to run over and ruin her fun with a lengthy dissertation about Barbie and gender politics.  And Barbie’s figure is only the beginning.  I’m sure many a parent in our community has sat his or her daughter down and said, “It’s time to talk about Barbie, beauty, and race.”  My wife and I have not done this.  (This isn’t because of any fully formed ideology, mind you; we’ve just never gotten around to sorting out our position here).

It so happened that when Lindsay picked out her very first Barbie at Ross Dress for Less, she chose an African-American one.  The cashier was also African-American, and she looked suspiciously at my wife Erin and said, “Why did you pick a black one?”  Erin, feeling a bit awkward, said, “I didn’t choose it; I just told my daughter to pick out whatever doll she liked.”  So the cashier redirected her question to Lindsay, who casually replied, “Well, it’s because she’s beautiful, and I like her dress.”  The cashier seemed pleasantly surprised.  And she didn’t have to wonder if Lindsay was being sincere or just being the good liberal and sucking up to her mom.

Reason #8:  Barbie is the victim of an unfair assumption

We tacitly assume that little girls self-identify with their dolls, but I’m not sure they do.  I asked my older daughter why she never played much with Barbies.  She replied, “I don’t know.  They just didn’t interest me.  I didn’t like dressing them up, and their feet were weird.  I preferred stuffies.”  (That’s her word for stuffed animals.) 

Of course it had never occurred to us to worry that Alexa would want to become a bear or a tiger or a dog some day.  We never feared that she’d develop low self-esteem due to lack of fur and fangs.  It’s easy enough to see that when a kid plays with a stuffed animal she’s not pretending that she is the stuffed animal; the stuffie is a third party.  (Just as it didn’t affect my self-esteem when my brothers cut the hands and feet off my Smurf and painted the stubs red, to teach me not to play with dolls.)  Likewise, the Barbie doll is not necessarily a representation of self for the girl at play.  Sometimes a toy is just a toy.

Would you like proof?  Consider this odd Barbie behavior:

I couldn’t figure out what Barbie was doing there.  Later, I found Lindsay playing with the Barbie at a nearby desk, and asked what Barbie had been doing in the light fixture.  Lindsay explained, “She was looking down to watch me solve the bear puzzle, so she could learn how to do it.  Now she’s doing it herself.” 

Got that?  Barbie is not Lindsay’s avatar.  She is just a playmate.

Reason #9:  Barbies are well-crafted

Barbies are well-crafted and durable.  (I took this for granted until my daughter received a cheap knockoff Barbie for her birthday; the poorly made doll tended to fall apart mid-play.  It was heartbreaking to see how carefully Lindsay moved its arms and legs and how shocked and dismayed she became every time a limb came off in her hand.)

Take another look at the violinist Barbie above.  She’s wearing a handmade dress we bought second-hand; an old lady in our community made a tremendous number of them over the years, in an endless variety of styles, and sold them to the used toy store.  Lindsay has Barbies and Kens that are older than I am.  She checks their manufacture date (embossed discreetly on the torso) like a rare book connoisseur inspecting a title page.  I like this.  In a society where so many grownups buy a new smartphone every year or two, it’s nice to see a product that lasts long enough to be venerated.

Reason #10:  Barbie is a known entity

It’s often put forth that Barbie is a throwback to the unenlightened ‘50s and that it’s time to move in a more progressive direction.  But how many modern toys actually do this?  We’ve seen all manner of alternative female doll, but they tend to be tarted up, brazen, rebellious, and ironic:  all the things we hope our sweet little girls don’t go too far into during their upcoming teen years.  Why should the toys we buy them lead this charge? 

I won’t even get into the vast array of consumer goods that replace toys entirely, like all these electronic media devices that rush our children headlong into adult-oriented time-wasting activities.  We’ve had over fifty years to dissect and disparage the ‘50s, but it’s not clear to me that many people are keeping an eye on the societal value of the modern digital life, with its social media, continuous connectedness, and ever-increasing screen time.  Maybe instead of worrying about Barbie’s bad influence on kids, we should pay more attention to our own.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Fiction - Rough Drafts From Maynard Steele

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


What follows is a work of fiction.  No person, place, thing, body, corporation, or institution described, mentioned, alluded to, subtly insinuated, or imagined herein has any relation to anything in the real world—past, present, or future.

Side note:  several of my readers have asked if I have a photo of my friend Maynard Steele.  I was able to find a stock photo (which I think is a still from one of his movies).  Here it is.  (If you don’t see a photo below, it’s because Maynard asked me to remove it.  He’s kind of weird that way.)

Drafts from Maynard

My friend Maynard Steele got a letter last week from his kid’s school, the Midvale Public Middle School for the Non-Gifted.  The letter advised that, owing to school policies and the laws of the state, any child absent for more than ten days during the school year will have to present a doctor’s note for any subsequent absences, and that Maynard’s son Bruce had already missed ten days.  Thus (the letter went on), Maynard was on the hook for a doctor’s note next time his son got sick.

Maynard was livid, and immediately sat down and wrote a reply to the principal, Mr. Smith.  Maynard wasn’t sure he’d hit the right notes with the letter, though, and tried another.  He couldn’t decide whether to fight the ridiculous rule or subvert it somehow, so he tried a lot of different angles.  Then he sent the whole batch of drafts to me, requesting my opinion.  I don’t care to get involved with his affairs, but I figured I could post the drafts here and have you vote on them using the Comments section below.

Draft #1

Dear Mr. Smith,

I have received your letter about the ten absences and the requirement of a doctor’s note.  If the rule pertained to ten consecutive days of illness, I could understand.  I mean, that’s a very sick kid.  But ten absences total?  So, if my kid has a minor cold, just bad enough to keep him home from school, I now have to take him to the doctor?  And waste that doctor’s valuable time, and waste my money, and rack up bogus charges for my insurance company?  No thanks.  I’ll just send my kid to school sick, and if he coughs all over his classmates and causes an epidemic, I’ll take solace in this being your fault, not mine.  (I’ll bet this policy is why my kid gets sick so much, come to think of it.)

Maynard Steele

Draft #2

Dear Mr. Smith,

I have received your letter about ten absences and a doctor’s note, and regret that I cannot comply with your policy because doing so would insult my intelligence.  Frankly, the letter itself has already insulted my intelligence, and—seeing as to how it’s a rather humble intelligence to begin with—it can’t take much more in the way of insults.  Please accept my apologies in advance for sending my child to school sick going forward.  Also, please accept my child’s apology for, on those days, misbehaving badly enough to be sent to your office and for coughing all over you.  He’s never himself when he’s sick, especially when forced to attend school anyway.

Maynard Steele

Draft #3

Dear Mr. Smith,

I cannot adhere to your ten-absences = doctor’s note policy on the grounds that it is completely fucking retarded.


P.S.  With the sentence above I meant no offense to any child who is actually mentally retarded.  It is an unfortunate fact that our language is full of unfair expressions that get trotted out when people are riled up.  Anyway, let’s keep this letter between you and me for that reason alone.

Draft #4

Dear Mr. Smith,

I have received your letter, about my son’s ten non-consecutive absences and the need for a doctor’s note going forward.  I hope you can appreciate that I am a man of principle, and take my parenting very seriously.  Therefore, it is impossible for me to adhere to your absence policy.

Among the things I strive to teach my son is the importance of “natural consequences,” by which I mean that an undesirable behavior should not lead to a seemingly random punishment.  For example, if Bruce hits his sister, that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t get dessert, because dessert has nothing to do with violent behavior.  (A more natural consequence would be not getting to play violent video games anymore.)  For me or my wife to have to drag Bruce to the doctor for a minor cold, simply because he’s been sick a few times during the last five months, is not a natural consequence of anything, as professional medical attention has nothing to do with the number of days for which your school is compensated by the state.  Meanwhile, no child should be punished for getting sick.

For us to adhere to your policy would be rewarding it, which is completely inappropriate.  The natural consequence of your decreeing this pointless procedure is for me to defy it openly.  As such, you will never see a doctor’s note from me, regardless of how much more school Bruce may miss.  It is only out of a desire not to model passive-aggressive behavior that I’m notifying you of my non-compliance in advance.

Maynard Steele
cc.  Bruce Steele

Draft #5

Dear Mr. Smith,

This letter attests to the fact of Bruce Steele’s illness.  I saw him in my medical clinic today and that kid is really fucking sick.  In fact, he may suffer relapses here and there for the rest of the school year and this letter attests in advance to the authenticity of those absences as well.

Bruce’s Doctor

Draft #6

Dear Mr. Smith,

I have not seen Bruce Steele in my clinic, because I live in another state.  He may or not be legitimately ill, but I understand you need a doctor’s note for some reason.  I went to school with Bruce’s father, Maynard, so am happy to do him this favor.  Please note my official seal below and file this letter with the state according to whatever bureaucratic process they require.

Michael Rogers, MD

Draft #7

Dear Mr. Smith,

I have received your letter about needing a doctor’s note if my son misses any more school due to illness.  However, I also have on file a letter from last year about a school-wide lice infestation, and the necessity of keeping my child home if I find any lice in his scalp.

As you know, an infestation is not the same thing as an illness.  Head lice is not treated by any branch of the medical industry.  Therefore, I can easily sidestep your patently stupid policy by reporting Bruce’s next illness as lice infestation.  That makes a lot more sense than dragging my kid to a pestilence-filled doctor’s office when we all know there’s no cure for the common cold.

I am writing because I wouldn’t want my son to be ostracized by his peers or your staff for having head lice, especially if he doesn’t.  Thus, I request that you keep his so-called lice on the down-low.  You can think of this discretion as a personal favor to me, or as a way to make sure I don’t spread any rumors about you and Ms. Bangles, the PE teacher.  (Bruce has told me how awkward it is when you openly ogle Ms. Bangles.)

Maynard Steele

Draft #8

Dear Mr. Smith,

With your recent letter you have gotten between a mother bear and her cub.  Obviously, your policy of requiring a poor kid with the flu to be driven across town to a doctor’s office and be prodded with ice-cold instruments, all in the service of your paperwork with the state, is a violation of every student’s constitutional rights.  As a full-time homemaker whose kids are outgrowing her, I have nothing better to do than mount a public and highly visible campaign against your school and its draconian rules.  Meanwhile, I expect you do have better things to do than suffer a protracted, embarrassing, and distracting war with me over this.  If so, you can avoid all that unpleasantness by simply looking the other way the next time little Bruce is out sick.

If you think I’m bluffing, just try me.  I think you’ll find me a formidable opponent.

Wanda Steele

Friday, February 7, 2014

Bicycling in the Rain, or How To Be an Idiot


With rain finally upon us (relieving for now a terrible drought here in the Bay Area), it’s time to talk about this ridiculous practice of riding a bicycle in the rain for fun and fitness.  I don’t mean getting caught in the rain, which can happen to any cyclist, or commuting in the rain, which is a noble activity that can involve fenders and such.  I’m talking about making a conscious decision to ride in the rain, which I did last Sunday, to my great misery.

This post should appeal to those with a yen for schadenfreude (look, two words—almost in a row— borrowed from another language!).  You can also read here about the strange notion of the "Reverse Murphy," and about why a cyclist who braves bad weather should never, ever begin to believe he's tough or something.  At the end I even have a surprising get-warm-quick recipe.

The idiocy of riding in crummy weather

For an amateur cyclist to train in bad weather is an affectation, like when a Master's racer dopes.  I mean, if you’re doing this sport as a hobby, and you’re not trying to make a living at it, there’s no point making yourself more miserable than necessary just to be better prepared for racing in crummy weather (which you should also avoid). I doubt you get better at tolerating cold with practice anyway. And, you’ll get a better workout on an indoor trainer, if you can handle the tedium. (Click here for motivational and logistical trips on training indoors.)

Besides, there’s the bike to think about.  Brake pads will usually last years if you only ride in dry weather, but in one or two wet rides (especially if your terrain is hilly, like mine) you can burn halfway through a pair.  Then there’s the time spent cleaning up your drivetrain; if you have that much time to kill, you should be training more, or—better yet—doing something truly worthwhile.  And if you go mountain biking in the rain, you severely damage the trail and basically sand away your drivetrain with all that grit.

So why did I ride?

Last Saturday night, I gave my bike a tune-up.  I filed the shellac off my new brake pads, cleaned everything up, and got my chain and cogs clean enough to eat off of.  I mixed up a couple bottles of energy drink for a Mount Diablo assault the next morning.  All this, even though I was certain it was going to rain.

Why was I certain?  After all, Accuweather said there was only a 25% chance of rain.  Well, it was simple Murphy’s Law:  whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.  And since I’d done such a nice job tuning up my bike, it had to rain.

Okay, so why didn’t I bail in advance, like the smartest of us four guys who had planned to ride together?  It’s because of this terrible drought we’ve been having.  It’s only rained once since last spring, and just barely.  All the liberals around here have been self-flagellating about it for two months.  So I figured I’d pull a Reverse-Murphy.  That is, I would cause it to rain—much as you’d do with a rain dance or cloud seeding—by tuning up my bike.  If I backed out of the ride, the drought would continue.

Being stupid in the rain

I woke up at 5:45 a.m. and went out on my porch.  No rain yet, but the wind in the trees was making a very specific sound, a slightly clattery whir that always means rain is imminent.  At about 6:30 I checked my e-mail; Todd had written, “My rain dance didn’t work (again), so Northside here I come.”  I figured he’d only looked out the window, and hadn’t noticed the special pre-rain breeze.

Fifteen minutes later I checked my e-mail again.  “Whoops,” Todd wrote.  “My rain dance worked after all.  Back to bed.”  Classic last-minute flakage but it wasn’t inappropriate … he’d signed on for this ride at the last minute anyway.  What I was looking for was an e-mail from Craig, who lives on the other side of the hills, an hour away from the coffee shop where we met.  Had he written, “It’s raining and frigid so I’m turning around,” I’d have probably bailed.  But no e-mail from Craig, meaning he was evidently well underway and toughing it out.  To stand him up and make him spend another miserable solo hour getting home while the rest of us slept … I couldn’t do that to a pal. 

I almost left on time, but when I got outside and found myself pummeled by some very big, very cold raindrops, I suddenly felt the urge to, uh, take care of post-digestive matters one more time.  You know about OCD; have you heard of its cousin, OCB?  Obsessive-Compulsive Bowels?  By the time I’d stripped off all my layers, done my business, and suited back up, I was running good and late.

I held out some hope that I’d roll up to the coffee shop and Craig wouldn’t be there.  I’d had this same hope on a similar winter morning in the early ‘90s when meeting up with my friend Trevor; when I saw him there, shivering in the rain, I thought, “Damn you to hell!”  He was, as he freely admitted, no happier to see me.

Of course Craig did show.  We steamed up Spruce Street, a nice uphill, and weren’t too cold then, but by the time we finished descending the east side of Wildcat Canyon Road to Orinda, we were completely drenched and miserable.  It was about 40 degrees out.  (I know, to most of the U.S. that’s downright balmy, but we Californians are a bunch of pansies.  Our routinely great weather makes us soft.) 

My shins felt like they’d been encased in ice.  I told Craig I’d escort him home but Mount Diablo was out of the question.  (A ten-mile descent in such weather would be the end of me.)  He suggested we ride out on the flats to Danville and then he could drive me home.  Drive me home?!  What would come next?  Aromatherapy and a subscription to “O, The Oprah Magazine”?  No way.

Riding home—the second hour of my ride—I just got colder and colder.  My feet felt like they were big blocks of ice.  The fingers of my fleece gloves became grotesquely distended with the wet, and when I wiped my nose I could taste all the salt the gloves had absorbed from sweat over the years, now carried away by the water.  Same with my helmet pads, though the water dripping from them also had a chemical taste.  My hands barely worked; shifting to a bigger cog was easy (swinging the palm of my hand like a hammer) but I could hardly click the smaller lever.  Most of all, I was too cold to even pedal hard, perhaps because my very spirit was waterlogged , soggy, and saggy.

I am not a hard man

When I was a teenager, I had this Coors Classic poster on my wall.  The cyclist pictured had thighs that literally gleamed.  Look, here it is now:

I’m going to admit something now.  In those years, riding in the mountains west of Boulder meant getting caught in thunderstorms not infrequently, and when I did, my legs—being wet—would gleam, and I would pretend I was the guy in the poster.  Laugh all you want, but haven’t you also fallen prey to mild narcissism at some point in your life?  It helped me brave some storms, anyway.  I wasn’t yet wise enough to be humble.

Well, I am now.   Slogging home through that incessant rain, I was too miserable, and feeling too sorry for myself, to feel like a badass.  I just felt stupid and lame.  I think it’s funny when some cycling fan bags on Cadel Evans for seeming a bit whiny during post-race interviews.  Did you see Evans in the Giro d’Italia last year?  (If not, click here or here for a blow-by-blow recap.)  Throughout the Giro it was raining most of the time, and snowing the rest of the time, and those poor guys had to not only brave the weather, but endure all the normal stress and strain of racing all-out.  I’d be bawling like a little girl after just one day of that, to say nothing of doing it for three weeks.  So I cut Evans plenty of slack.

And yet, even pro bike racers are nothing compared to 19th century sailors.   I’ve been reading Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana Jr., about his voyage around Cape Horn back in the early 1830s, in a ~100-foot merchant brig, and man, those guys knew how to suffer.  After all, they never had a choice.  Whenever the wind changed, which was pretty much a constant thing, they had to take in one sail or another, doing all kinds of complicated stuff with the rigging in all kinds of weather, day and night. 

For example, on one particularly stormy winter night near Cape Horn, the wind 
came on to blow worse and worse, with hail and snow beating like so many furies upon the ship, it being as dark and thick as night could make it.  The mainsail was blowing and slatting with a noise like thunder....  The yard over which we lay was cased with ice ... the sail itself about as pliable as though it had been made of sheets of sheathing copper.  It blew a perfect hurricane, with alternate blasts of snow, hail, and rain.  We had to fist the sail with bare hands.  No one could trust himself to mittens, for if he slipped, he was a gone man....  Frequently we were obliged to leave off altogether and take to beating our hands upon the sail, to keep them from freezing.
As cold as I was on my stupid little ride, I knew I’d be home in an hour or so, and the furnace would be going, and I’d have a hot shower and plenty to eat.  These guys?  They didn’t have a hot shower for over two years.  They’d go days or even weeks without dry clothes.  To eat they got nothing but salt beef, hard bread, and (on Sundays) a bit of duff (basically a steamed flour/water pudding).

At least last year’s luckless Giro riders didn’t have to worry about scurvy:  
The scurvy had begun to show itself on board.  One man had it so badly as to be disabled and off duty, and the English lad, Ben, was in a dreadful state, and was daily growing worse.  His legs swelled and pained him so that he could not walk; his flesh lost its elasticity, so that if it was pressed in, it would not return to its shape; and his gums swelled until he could not open his mouth.  His breath, too, became very offensive; he lost all strength and spirit; could eat nothing; grew worse every day; and, in fact, unless something was done for him, would be a dead man in a week, at the rate at which he was sinking.  [After encountering another ship, and being given a whole bunch of onions], we carried them forward, stowed them away in the forecastle, refusing to have them cooked, and ate them raw, with our beef and bread.... It was like a scent of blood to a hound.  We ate them at every meal, by the dozen; and filled our pockets with them, to eat in our watch on deck.
Imagine sharing a tiny forecastle with a bunch of unwashed sailors, and getting diseased breath so awful that the constant eating of raw onions is actually an improvement.  What a place to return to after slaving away with frozen rigging on an iced-over deck for four hours at a time.  Needless to say, absolutely nothing involving a white collar middle-aged man in Lycra doing a winter bicycle ride in California could possibly compare.

How to warm up

I got home, dragged my bike up the steps to the porch, and stood there a moment wondering how I was going to manage to dig past the gels, the tool kit, and the bags of drink mix in my jersey pocket to fish out my house key.  Fortunately my wife heard me from inside and opened the door.  A blast of warm air hit me.  It took me a few minutes to remove my shoes and I rolled my bike, which was dripping black filth, down to the garage.  I couldn’t shower right away for fear of chilblains on my lily white feet.  You can see my feet weren’t doing very well:

I huddled over a heater vent for at least twenty minutes before my teeth stopped chattering.  I don’t remember what I ate but it wasn’t hot cocoa; I wasn’t in the mood.  I guess I’d have felt like a girl scout or something.  Once, after getting stuck in the rain and snow on a Diablo ride, I came home and ate some rollmops, just to embrace my northern European heritage.  (What?  You haven’t heard of  rollmops?  It’s raw herring wrapped around a dill pickle.)  But on this morning I was too dejected by the futility of it all to play games with food and we didn’t have any herring anyway.

What I didn’t consider until much later, when my brain had thawed out, was that to warm up properly I should have done what the sailors in Dana’s book did: 
Throughout the night it stormed violently—rain, hail, and snow, and the sleet beating upon the vessel—the wind continuing ahead, and the sea running high.  At day-break (about three, A.M.) the deck was covered with snow.  The captain sent up the steward with a glass of grog to each of the watch; and all the time that we were off the Cape, grog was given to the morning watch, and to all hands whenever we reefed topsails.
What is grog?  It’s basically watered-down rum, named after Admiral Vernon of the Royal Navy, who was nicknamed Old Grog after the grogram fabric of his coat.  (The word “groggy” stems from “grog.”) 

So, when I had some friends over a few nights later, I found a few (widely divergent) grog recipes, did some improvising, and made up some good grog—so good, in fact, I had to make a second batch.  Here’s the grog recipe I worked out (this makes one generous serving):

1½ to 2 oz. dark rum
½ ounce lime juice
1 tsp sugar
1 small dollop of molasses
4 oz. water

In a pot on the stove, heat the water to a boil.  Kill the heat.  Stir in the sugar until it dissolves.  (You could use brown sugar instead of sugar and molasses.)  Put in everything else and stir well.  Serve hot.  Do not garnish with an orange slice or a cinnamon stick, because do you think those totally badass sailors ever went in for fricking garnish?

The best part of this (admittedly inauthentic) grog?  Due to the lime juice, you won’t get scurvy!


If we’d stuck to our original plan and ridden up Mount Diablo, we’d have been snowed on.  Look!