Monday, June 30, 2014

Lie, Memory


This post is about the failings of memory, and the frailty of humans when they spin fictions they confuse for fact.  I’ll recount here a seriously inaccurate anecdote that I almost published as true history in a recent blog post, “What Are Fathers For?”  My idea here is to examine the precise way my memory failed me there—why did it lie?  And, to the extent that the defects in our recollection are not arbitrary, what greater truths might lie beneath them?

Speak, Memory

Memory is a tricky thing, even for (perhaps especially for) those who consider themselves to be gifted in recalling their personal history.  The title of this post is a play on Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak, Memory, which was—oddly enough—his second stab at autobiography.  He’d originally written, in English, about his Russian years, in a book called Conclusive Evidence.  Years later, in the process of translating this autobiography into Russian (by which time he was back in touch with family members who could help him fact-check) he discovered (and fixed) a number of errors.  In fact, he found enough errors that he decided to greatly revise the original English version, which he then re-published as Speak, Memory.

Nabokov was very scrupulous about not allowing approximations or embellishments to adorn his own memories ; he declares, “what I still have not been able to rework through want of specific documentation, I have now preferred to delete for the sake of over-all truth.”  But of course it is impossible that every image, every pristine detail, of his autobiography could be documented or verified.  If it could have, he wouldn’t have needed to rework Conclusive Evidence.  It is clear to me that Nabokov had the purest intent in accurately representing his life story, but then don’t we all?

What’s more, when we tell our own stories, there’s a pitfall perhaps greater than the limitations of memory:  we also have our imaginations, which embellish and sometimes flat-out fictionalize things, often unconsciously.  Perhaps the only autobiography with a really accurate title is Lemony Snicket:  The Unauthorized Autobiography

A better story

As I’ve explored before, in “Unintentional Fiction in Bike Race Stories,” sometimes (intentionally or not) we embellish a supposedly true story simply to improve it.  My retelling, in that post, of Bernard Hinault’s victory in Liege-Bastogne-Liege creates a gripping battle of wills between Hinault and his team director that, alas, didn’t really happen.  Similarly, my “Team Time Trial” story for dailypeloton has Cal Poly, my UCSB college bike team’s arch nemesis, starting their race right after us, which is a great way of building suspense—but turns out to have been completely wrong.  Cal Poly actually started their race right before us (as a photo revealed years after my article ran).  I initially remembered the start order correctly, but when I fact-checked my story, all four of my teammates remembered it in the same incorrect way, which improved the story—so I was all too happy to second-guess my own memory and adjust my article accordingly.

But a better story is not the only reason our imaginations compromise the integrity of our memories.  For one thing, true stories sometimes get better when misremembered details are corrected.  And then there’s the troubling non-useful fiction of mistaking somebody else’s memory for your own. 

There’s a scene in my short story “Before the Fall” where a kid, Mick, based closely on my brother Max, pretends to get hit by a car—and not just any car, but my mom’s car with her driving, in front of scores of witnesses.  That really happened, and though I labeled it fiction (so I could freely embellish the context of the incident), it sticks very close to the memory Max and I share about it.  The funny thing is, our other brothers, Geoff and Bryan, also remember it, almost exactly how we do, and can tell the story in the same great detail—and yet neither of them was actually there.  That’s the only glitch in their account:  they erroneously speak of it as a first-hand experience.  They’ve heard, and told, the story so many times they think it’s their own. 

Since the fake-car-accident story isn’t at all improved by the false notion that Geoff and Bryan were witness to it, we can’t chalk this up to artistic embellishment.  This type of mnemonic inaccuracy happens, I think, for three reasons:
  1. Memory doesn’t like gaps and our brains often want to fill them in, rather than admit  we’ve forgotten something important.  So we may “remember” things we didn’t experience.
  2. The act of going through a story in your mind is so similar to remembering something, the two acts can merge.  In other words, memory tells a story just like a person does and these narratives aren’t terribly different … so we may conflate them.
  3. When a story illustrates a truth you hold dear, it can start to become your story—so when that story is somebody’s memory, it can become your memory.  So it was with the fake-car-accident:  more so than most of the people who actually witnessed it, Geoff and Bryan understand Max’s modus operandi and motivation in staging it, and—having witnessed his countless dress rehearsals with our neighbor’s parked car that summer—can picture the whole thing perfectly, perhaps with greater clarity than the actual eyewitnesses.  So it was hard for them to believe they only heard about it, and they naturally came to believe they saw it with their own eyes.
My recent fable

Three Saturdays ago I’d finished writing my “What Are Fathers For?” essay and was getting ready to post it.  All that was left was to fact-check an anecdote concerning my brother Bryan.  I almost didn’t bother since he’s a hard guy to reach and I was pretty sure I had everything right anyway.  There were just a couple of details in my account I wanted to confirm.  Here’s what I’d written: 
        Bryan, though not a great student, was unusually resourceful.  Once, during a road trip with our mom, when he was 15, we took a family vacation trip, driving to California and camping along the way.  That year we took two cars, and my brothers and I fought over who got to ride in Dad’s car, because he drove faster.  So one day I was in the car with Bryan and my mom, and we broke down in the middle of the desert somewhere in Utah or Nevada.  Our dad was at least a hundred miles ahead and oblivious to our plight.  Nobody else came along to help either; I’m pretty sure we were on Highway 50, the so-called Loneliest Road in America.
        The problem was, the car, a terribly underpowered 1978 Volkswagen Dasher diesel, kept overheating.  Bryan somehow sussed out that the engine fan, which is supposed to automatically turn on when needed, wasn’t.  So he selected a dashboard switch—the one for the rear window defogger, which he figured wouldn’t be needed for awhile—and hardwired it to the fan, so my mom could turn the fan on manually.  After that, the car ran like a top for the whole rest of the trip.  How did Bryan figure this out?  Where had he learned about cars and electronics?  Beats me.  He sure didn’t learn it from our dad (who could have easily done all this himself, but didn’t have time to teach anyone such things).

I recalled the story over the phone to Bryan to make sure I had it right.  I thought he might correct a minor detail—e.g., “Dude, we were on I-70, not 50”—but to my surprise he started laughing.  What was so funny?  Had it actually been Max in the car with Bryan, while I was up ahead with Geoff, and I only heard about the amazing repair? 

No, far worse than that.  “Dude,” Bryan said, “there’s one very important flaw in your story.  I didn’t fix the car.  Dad did.  He came back and rescued us.  There’s no way I was smart enough to do that and besides, Dad had all the tools in his car!” 

I was astonished.  I protested, “But Dad was way off ahead!  I distinctly remember being broken down on the side of the road in complete despair with no way to reach him!”  Bryan replied, “Yeah, that’s right, but he finally came back and saved the day.”

Not only was I embarrassed, and deeply disappointed in my faculties of memory, but I now had a problem on my hands:  that anecdote was to have played an important part in my blog post.  It was supposed to illustrate how a little benign neglect on a father’s part can teach a kid to be resourceful and solve his own problems.  The story doesn’t work at all when the kids are helpless and useless and just stand there on the side of the road wringing their hands.  (This is the problem with fact-checking too late into a composition.)

I needed a backup anecdote, to replace the false one.  My initial candidate was the story of how, on a different camping trip up in Canada with just my mom and Bryan, I managed to lock our keys in the car.  I was in a panic until Bryan coolly said, “Let me see your Swiss army knife.”  In a jiffy he unscrewed the clear plastic cowling over the car’s turn signal and produced a spare key that had been cleverly stashed there.  The only problem with this story, which this time matched Bryan’s recollection perfectly, is that it was our dad who had cleverly stashed this key.  Didn’t I have a great story illustrating my brother’s ingenuity?  Did all roads really lead to Dad?

The paragraph I finally cobbled together to put in my blog post was probably more useful (though less entertaining, as fact tends to be) than the original car repair story.  But long after I finished writing, I had this question lingering in my mind:  how had I remembered that so wrong?  Should I now distrust my memory, and in doing so reshape my entire impression of my father?  Am I just as ungrateful as I accused my daughter of being in that blog post?

A theory of embellished memory

It’s not as bad as it looks.  First of all, Bryan really was pretty good with electronics and cars.  It’s a fact that he built a keypad ignition for his ’67 Dodge Coronet and that it actually worked, at least a few times (before bursting into flames).  And I remember him rebuilding the carburetor for that car.  So his own humility notwithstanding, it’s not such a stretch to think he could have wired the engine fan to the defroster switch in our mom’s car.

Meanwhile, it’s kind of remarkable that our dad did come back for us, because his tendency to get way, way ahead of us was totally nonsensical to begin with.  (After all, it wasn’t a race to California; we were all camping together each night.)  So at what point did Dad realize we had a problem?  Did he just have some Spidey-sense, or what?  (Interestingly, my mom doesn’t remember anything about him coming back to save us.  When I asked her about it, she couldn’t remember who fixed the car that day.)

This instance of defective memory could easily be lumped in with the team time trial start order or Hinault’s battle of wills with his director:  obviously it’s a better story if the teenager comes up with the ingenious repair.  But I don’t think that’s what skewed my memory, for one reason:  long before this was a story, it was just a memory.  I don’t think many of us are tempted to embellish private recollections just to make them more exciting; that’s what daydreaming and fantasy are for.  I think I tweaked this memory simply to make it happier.  Manipulating memory in this way is, arguably, a softer kind of deception that probably happens all the time.  It’s a close relative to looking at the bright side of things.

No, there’s nothing particularly unhappy about my brother not being a teen prodigy of the automotive realm.  But there’s something unhappy about having to wait around in anguish, stranded in the desert, wondering if our dad will ever come back.  By having Bryan fix the car himself, I not only glorified him, but—more importantly—found a way to let my dad off the hook.  After all, many cultures have much harsher methods than mere neglect for turning their boys into men.  This was a simple case of necessity being the mother of invention!  It was time for Bryan to be pushed out of the nest so he could fly!  Some have greatness thrust upon them!  (Et cetera.)  So the feeling of fear and helplessness we’d had, standing there in the road, gets truncated in memory, and upstaged by the happy story of a big brother making good.

Abetting this pain-avoidance technique is a phenomenon that Malcolm Gladwell refers to (in The Tipping Point) as the “fundamental attribution error”—the tendency to ascribe behavior to fundamental character traits rather than to situation and circumstance.  Because I was irked at my dad (even before the car problem) for always racing off ahead—and, moreover, for not being around enough in general—I was less inclined to remember him as the one who saved the day.  I remembered his absence, not his return, because, well, so often he was absent.

A final thought:  perhaps my skewed memory is partly because, as I mentioned in that same post, my dad’s giant intellect could be an obstacle to our relationship, because he was so often too busy off doing great things to pay much attention to me.  For him to do something really ingenious doesn’t inspire remembrance, because there’s a whiff of despair in it—just another example of my fear that he was too good for me.  How much more tempting it is to elevate my brother in memory, because this was the same guy who wasn’t above occasionally collaborating with me, his kid brother, as he did with my Russian picture book.  “Imagine!” my memory says.  “This genius kid, who figured out how to rewire a car’s controls at age 15, wasn’t above spending countless hours building me a Cyrillic character set on the computer, all so I could type in Russian for a school assignment!”

Memory, then, can be seen not just as our personal history, but as the history of how we feel about the people in our lives.  Even a flawed recollection might represent, if not the Truth about our people, at least a truth about how we perceive them. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Biased Blow-By-Blow, Tour de Suisse 2014, Stage 9


This is my tradition:  giving a live blow-by-blow report of a bike race, mainly to my instant-messaging correspondent, but also (shortly afterward) to my albertnet readers.  Since nobody is paying me, I don’t have to bite my tongue when I  see something untoward, like an obvious doper, or something really toward, like a podium girl.  Read on to learn about the final stage of the 2014 Tour de Suisse, which (spoiler alert) ends up being a lot more exciting than the Giro d’Italia.

Biased Blow-By-Blow – Tour de Suisse Stage 9

Well, I got up at 6, ready to report on the second half of the final stage of the race, but every Internet video feed I fired up was giving me goofy Euro types sitting around talking about motorcycle racing.  So I read the fine print on which said the coverage doesn’t start until 6:30.  I just tried again, at about 6:20, figuring I could at least make fun of the motorcycle commentators’ clothing, only to find the footage has started “early!”  But wait, this is the footage from yesterday, 2.6 KM from the summit at Verbier.  Johan Chaves (Orica Greenedge) has just attacked.  I know what will happen but you don’t so I’ll fill you in.  The way Greenedge has been winning this year you’d almost call them “Greededge.”  Did I just type that?  That is just horrible.  That’s something that a really bad commentator would say and don’t worry, I’ll never do it again.

Chaves is joined by some other bloke briefly but has now crushed him.  He looks really good.  Bauke Mollema (Belkin) is chasing hard.  He was like 6th in last year’s Tour de France and I consider him a favorite for the Tour de Suisse overall.  He had crummy time trials but he’s a great climber.

I’m sneezing so hard, it’s amazing this cat is staying on my lap.

Race leader Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) is climbing like a climber, which he isn’t, being a time trial specialist.  I hate it when time trialists hang with pocket climbers, and when pocket climbers win flat or flattish TTs.  So as long as Martin gets shelled in today’s mountain stage, I’ll still respect him.  If he hangs on for the win, of course I’ll have to label him Not Normal (i.e., start doubting his cleanliness—I mean, even more than is customary given that he’s a cyclist).

Yesterday I actually missed this coverage, joining too late, but did get to watch the podium presentations.  Stage winner Chaves had never won a ProTour race before, and was just gleeful.  Big grin on his face over the line and again at the podium.  None of this grim Nadia Comaneci stoic stuff for him, no looking constipated like Cadel Evans, and he didn’t do anything totally lame like Alberto Contador’s standard “pistolero” salute, which he always holds for several seconds just to make sure all the photographers get it.  Nope, this was just pure glee, even down to petting the two St. Bernards they brought onto the stage.

You can’t see his glee in this photo, of course, because the feed is so blurry his face looks like those creepy blank ones on the school kids in “Pink Floyd The Wall.”  But look at that giant hunk of Le Gruyère cheese he gets as part of his spoils!  It’s freaking awesome!

Okay, today’s coverage has finally started.  The riders have about 45 KM to go.  There’s a breakaway of three just ahead of the yellow jersey group.  It’s a pretty small group.  Ah, and looking at the little status banner at the top of the screen, I see that there’s another group 24 seconds ahead of them.  Of course, these aren’t very big gaps.  I won’t bother saying who’s in these breakaways, other than Sep Vanmarcke (Belkin), who has the most badass-sounding name in all of cycling, and Andy Schleck, who in years past could have been considered a favorite but who, in his modern “all-losing-all-the-time” incarnation only serves to make the breakaway look bad.  Schleck lost over two minutes yesterday and now is almost 7 minutes behind in the GC.  On the plus side, he’s off the drugs and high on life!

The break has consolidated into one group and has 1:22 now.  Martin has lost all his teammates.  They’ve crossed the penultimate summit and are bombing the descent.  Remaining is the final HC climb up to Saas-Fee.  To clarify, Saas-Fee is a little town with a ski resort, not what you pay for Software As A Service.  On paper the climb looks pretty brutal, piling up well over 3,000 vertical feet in about ten miles.

The gap is up to almost two minutes.  If it keeps going up I’m afraid I’ll have to start noting more of the names here.  Most notably, Rui Costa (Lampre Merida) is in the break; he is the current world champion and sits in third overall in this race, only 1:14 behind Martin.  Costa, a Portuguese rider, won this race last year and the year before.  Bauke Mollema is in there too; he sits 5th in the GC, another 36 seconds back.  Ah, and the 4th rider on GC, Mathias Frank (IAM Cycling) is also in the break, 1:14 behind Martin.  He has extra motivation here because he’s Swiss, so if he won he’d get not only the adoration of the home crowd, but the “Bester Schweizer” (“Best Swiss rider”) award.  Here he is getting that award yesterday:

Why the horns on the podium girl?  I have no idea.  Lots of spectators have little red horns, too.  I haven’t had time to research it.  But I did look up “Bruno’s Best” after yesterday’s podium ceremony.  Check it out:

That BMC guy was the Most Combative rider yesterday, and won a nice wooden bowl containing a bottle of Bruno’s Best salad dressing.  He doesn’t look that happy about it, and I can’t blame him.  If his solo attempt had stuck, he’d have won the cheese!  Have you tried Le Gruyère cheese?  It’s delicious, and no, they don’t sponsor me in any way.

The riders are still descending, and there haven’t been any crashes, so I’m going to follow up this “strange prize” theme with a tale of my online real-time race correspondent, Peter, winning a schvarkenslull back in 1991.  What’s a schvarkenslull, you ask?  Well, I don’t know if that’s an actual word—Pete says it’s just what he and his US teammates called it—but it refers to the pig’s dick he won in a race in Germany for finishing dead last.  Here’s our chat on that lofty topic:

Pete:  “I was in a pissed-off mood.  I was dead last, but it wasn’t like I was the first guy who got dropped, either ... it was a really hard day, and like 40 people dropped out.  I was like the last guy legitimately racing.  So after the race these German guys come up, chuckling, ‘You’re wanted on the podium.’  I can’t remember if I went to the podium or not.  I was so chapped because these douchebags are acting like this is the funniest thing ever.  So I got some money, a non-trivial amount, something like 50 Deutsche Marks, about $50. And the schvarkenslull.”

I first saw the pig’s dick in 1994 when I visited Pete in Colorado.  It’s this very long, slightly curved dick skeleton, completely encased in a block of amber and mounted to a nice wooden plaque.  He had it on prominent display in his apartment.  Really bizarre.

Pete:  “So the question is, which is worth more, the schvarkenslull or the deutche marks?”
Dana:  “But you don’t have it anymore?”
Pete:  “I gave it to [national team coach Chris] Carmichael, sometime around 1994.”
Dana:  “Didn’t somebody ask for it at the time, when you were first awarded it, but you refused to give it up?”
Pete:  “Yeah, I guess that’s right.”
Dana:  “Who was it?”
Pete:  “The only guy who could have legitimately asked me for it was Carmichael.”
Dana:  “So you refused to give it to him in 1991, but relented and gave it to him later, sometime after 1994?”
Pete:  “I don’t remember, it was a long time ago!”
Dana:  “Dude, you’re supposed to remember everything about those days.  You’re supposed to spend every moment of your autumn years reliving all the glory days, when your life was exciting and everything seemed to matter!”
Pete:  “Look, giving away the pig’s dick wasn’t exactly part of the glory days.  Now you’re pushing my buttons, bitch!”

Well, after a mix of boring flat stuff and ads, the race is finally getting exciting again.  They’re all on the final climb.  Mollema’s Belkin teammate, Stef Clement, goes out the back of the breakaway.  No, wait, I guess that’s the main group.  Maybe he helped earlier?  I don’t know.

The gap is 2:01 (down from its peak so far, 2:20) with 19K to go, all of it uphill.  Schleck has been dropped from the group and is fighting to stay in the yellow jersey group, and the sport in general.  Cadel Evans is in this group, though I know better (from the Giro d’Italia) than to expect a lot out of him, as much as I’d like to see him win the stage.  (He’s in 10th overall, 2:30 down, and would have to have an amazing day to do anything in the GC.)

Dang, more ads!  The Brasil tourism board, Hyundai, and Samsung are all doing World Cup-themed ads.  I’m really glad I’m not trying to watch that.  No offense to soccer fans, but (as I’ve opined before), pro soccer is completely whacked.

Martin is really suffering, his mouth contorted to the point that he looks a bit like a goldfish.  The riders are really flying and Jenny paid $23.41 for her Beats by Dre headphones.  (Sorry, pop-up ad.)  The gap is actually down to 1:49 now.  The break, which had like 16 riders at one point, is down to about half that.  A lot of pretty tall guys, though it must be said this video feed is kind of warped.

There’s a Giant-Shimano guy on the front of the Martin group, doing a whole lot of work.  Now Martin takes up the chase himself.  This group is a bit bigger than it had been earlier.

Gap is down to 1:42.  I suspect that Frank, Mollema, and Costa are going to strike out again.  They have not only Martin to worry about, but one another.  We’ve got a real race here!

Oliver Zaugg (Tinkoff-Saxo), up in the break, gets some food from his team car.  I guess at some point they’re no longer allowed to do that.  I wonder if everybody is properly fueled?  (I mean properly, not inappropriately.)

Sander Armee (Lotto Belisol) detonates from the breakaway.  He’s going backward.  He’s a really tall guy, or is that my distorted feed?  Nope, just looked it up:  he’s 6’3” and not ideally suited for such a huge climb.

Costa has no teammates in the break.  The only team with more than one rider is IAM Cycling, with Johann Tschopp and Marcel Wyss, working for Frank.  I can’t shake the idea that their team is sponsored by a dog food company.  That would be Iams.  One time a guy cornered me at a cocktail party and blathered for like 20 minutes about his awesome career as a radio sports commentator, and when he finally (out of politeness) asked me what I did, I said I sold Iams pet food (“out of my garage for right now, but...”).

Okay, the last volley of ads is finally over.  It’s under 10K to go and the lead is back up to 2:01.  The other riders in this break are Andre Candoso (Garmin-Sharp), Jeremy Roy (, and Steve Morabito (BMC).

A Movistar rider has attacked the yellow jersey group.  He gets hauled back. 

Wyss has just been hammering on the front of the break for a good while now.  I reckon he’ll blow before too long.

Okay, suddenly the gap is down to 1:36.  Either the yellow jersey group really picked it up, or the split was wrong earlier.

Laurens Ten Dam (Belkin) has just attacked the yellow jersey group, and they let him go.  I wonder if he has the legs to bridge up to the break and help Mollema?  Ten Dam is a great climber.  I raced against him once, in La Marmotte, a brutal road race in France with three HC climbs.  He deprived me of victory (along with the next 187 riders behind him, who also deprived me of victory, and the 7,000 behind them, who did not).

It’s under 5K to go, gap now up to 1:44.  Martin is grinding away on the front of his chase group.  In the break, the IAM boys are right on the front, with Wyss continuing to do most of the work.  The last bit of this climb looks (in the profile picture) to be the steepest.  They’re on this little flat section just heading toward it.

Wow, Wyss finally detonates!  Not surprisingly, Tschopp totally attacks.  Only Mollema and Costa can stay with him!  Tschopp goes to the other side of the road to try to shake Costa.  The problem is, he’s actually shaken his team leader, Frank, which really isn’t useful.  Mollema is just barely staying in contact.  Morabito has blown and is dropped.  Zaugg is the only  other rider staying close.  Now Costa himself is drilling it on the front.  He’s been sheltered the whole race and is looking really good.  That is, looking strong.  I’m not actually attracted to him or anything.

Wow, Costa is soloing!  He suddenly has this massive gap!  I don’t know how he can manage this, he’s just brutally strong.  Frank has made it back up to Mollema (maybe Tschopp went back for him?) and has now dropped Mollema.

It has occurred to me that the Tour de Suisse GC is a race between two reigning world champions:  Costa (road) and Martin (time trial).

It’s under 2K to go so Martin, still over 90 seconds back, will miss the podium.  Still, two stage wins and eight days in yellow ain’t bad.

Mollema has come back and turns the tables on Frank!  It’s a real battle between these two, but Costa is fricking gone, way the hell off the front.  He’s only got 1.3K to go.  Mollema and Frank can still see him, but he’s way up the road.   

They’re under the 1K banner.  Mollema is absolutely drilling it, with Frank dying on his wheel, but the gap is still pretty big.  Frank needs to stay in contact with Mollema to hold on to second overall but both these guys are assured of podium spots.

My feed freezes just in time to miss Costa’s victory.  And Mollema has dropped Frank, but not by enough to pass him in the GC.

Morabito crosses for 4th or 5th.

Wow, on the super-slo-mo I see why Frank got dropped:  within 100 meters of the line he dropped his fricking chain!  What is it with these team mechanics?

Wyss crosses the line.  What an awesome job he did today.  Too bad Frank didn’t manage to win the GC today, but I’ll bet he’s pretty pleased with Wyss’s efforts anyway.  Frank, sitting down at the side of the road, blows a kiss to the crowd.  Yeah, he only got second overall, but he’s probably really stoked about that Bester Schweizer award!

Martin has finished, and must be disappointed (though not particularly surprised) to lose the GC victory.  To top it off, the Velominati guys will be bagging on him on their silly little blog for breaking one of their stupid Rules.

Costa has his world champion jersey totally unzipped, which is pretty lame because a) it can’t be that hot on this Alpine summit, b) he has no chest to speak of, being a cyclist, and c) he has no chest hair.  I just figured out why he did this:  he’s wearing CrampSys clothing, which I happen to know fits like a damn tourniquet.  I won’t burn your retinas with an image of Costa’s chest, but here’s his victory salute from the replay:

He’s doing the chest-pointing victory salute, which either means “I won this race, me me me!” or “I won this because of my sponsor, Lampre!”  (Lampre “specializes in pre-coated steel production,” so I’m not sure how they helped Costa’s riding, other than paying for it.)

So just to recap, the stage was Costa, Mollema, Frank and the final GC is Costa, Frank, Mollema.

Costa comes up for the final podium celebration.  Here’s his glass trophy—I hope he doesn’t drop it.  Now his podium kisses.

I have to say, I cannot go on record approving of the podium girl tradition.  But insofar as it does go on, and there’s nothing I can do about it, and any act of rebellion I might make by refusing to watch would be pointless and ineffectual, I go ahead and watch, and frankly, I don’t mind making the most of it.  Say I’m eating soup at a restaurant, enjoying it, and somebody points out it’s made with veal stock.  I’m not a proponent of veal production either, but I’m not going to spit out the soup, which after all has already been made.  Can’t I be ideologically opposed to something without being aesthetically repelled?  So I’m just going to say it:  these Tour de Suisse podium girls are really easy on the eyes.

There, I said it, and I guess I better shut up now.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

What Are Fathers For?


On Father’s Day I can pretty much loaf.  I’ve already put the card to my own dad in the mail, so my duties should be over.  So why am I making work for myself by doing a Father’s Day blog post?  Well, even though that’s a rhetorical question, I’m going to answer it:  it’s because I’d expected the Critérium du Dauphiné to be too boring to bother blow-by-blow blogging (or even watching) and I’ve got to blog about something.  On top of that, some parenting questions have been festering in my brain, so I’m going to lance it (yes, lance my brain) via this blog.  Enjoy.

(Yes, I know I blogged about Father’s Day once before.  But I find I have more to say on the topic.)

Do fathers actually serve any purpose?

I guess before I answer the question “What are fathers for?” I should address the possibility that, other than providing sperm, they really serve no purpose at all.  Alas, this ends up being true for a number of deadbeat dads.  (And of deadbeat fish, who don’t even get involved with the mom other than swimming over her eggs and literally dropping off their genetic input.)

In most cases, fathers at least provide food and shelter.  Beyond this … well, a lot depends on the father.  One dad I know, of my father’s generation, made this blanket statement early on, to the mother of his children:  “Look, the children are your domain.”  As society has evolved, I think this position has become less tenable.

Before I describe the various roles that I try to play as a dad, I should point out that a father’s purpose is to some degree a matter of perspective.  To newborn babies, fathers fall into a large category (comprising about 7 billion people) of “not Mom,” meaning they’re not just useless, but in fact barely exist.  I particularly remember how little use my younger daughter Lindsay had for me as a baby.  She wouldn’t even let me hold her.  Only gradually did I go from a peripheral non-entity to being ... “the help.”  That is, she’d cry for a toy or something and then, once I fetched it, go back to ignoring me.  (Had my older daughter been like this?  I just don’t remember.  Either she hadn’t, or I was too stunned by the rigors of first-time parenting to notice.)

Here’s an early cuddle Lindsay indulged me in.

It wasn’t until Lindsay was almost a toddler that she realized, “Hey, this guy makes pretty funny faces, and isn’t so bad at snuggling!”  But I didn’t feel fully respected until she began coming to me for information about the world:  questions like “Who’s smarter, a dog or a cat?”  The fact that my answers were (and are) complete malarkey has only increased her enthusiasm in picking my brain.

(Example:  she asked once, “Why is it called a manhole, not a person-hole?”  To which I replied, “If you opened that cover and climbed down the ladder, you’d enter an underground environment populated exclusively by males.  Sometimes a man just needs to get away, and that’s where he goes.  A whole lot of chest-bumping goes on down there.”)

Of course the role my kids try to assign me continually evolves.  My older daughter Alexa, though only twelve, has already adopted the classic teen delusion of omniscience, and with it the wish that her father would stop dispensing advice and become a silent hybrid of personal assistant, tutor, chauffeur, and ATM.

What purpose should a father serve?

There is a disconcertingly large amount of anecdotal evidence that the best thing a father can do is get out of the way.  Look at some of the most enchanting and endearing figures in literature:  David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Sara Crewe (of A Little Princess), James (of Giant Peach fame), the Baudelaire orphans (of the Lemony Snicket series), Tom (of the Captain Najork books), Huck Finn, Heidi, Harry Potter, Anne of Green Gables, and (perhaps most indelibly) Rudyard Kipling’s character, Kim.  All of these characters are fatherless, and their independence, fortitude, and resourcefulness are key to their appeal.

On the flip side, I cannot think of a single book that celebrates the devotion of a father for his kid.  The closest thing I can think of is the movie “Finding Nemo,” where the dad is an overprotective hand-wringing (well, fin-wringing) dork, and the fun only begins when Nemo is separated from him.  Perhaps it’s no coincidence that my favorite character in that film, Bruce the shark, never knew his father (as Bruce’s friend Anchor tries desperately to explain ).

Does this mean I leave it to my kids to make their way in this world without my help?  Of course not!  I’m fully aware of the difference between fiction and real life, and between a father and an author.  My natural impulse is to give my kids every advantage.  When Alexa was in a piano competition recently, and I was in the audience watching her rivals as they took turns playing dizzily complicated music with exquisite precision, I wondered if I shouldn’t yell and wave something to try to distract them, like basketball fans do during a free-throw.

Character vs. privilege

I knew a guy, my age, who grew up with plenty of privileges.  His dad paid for everything all the way through college:  tuition, books, rent, food, even clothes.  The kid did well, earning high grades at an expensive private college, being awarded Phi Beta Kappa, etc.  Upon graduating, he had absolutely no idea what to do with himself.  He had thrived in the structured environment of college, but was lost without it.  Naturally, he decided on grad school.  There was just the matter of his application essay:  he couldn’t figure out what to write.  I happened to be there when his writer’s block came to a head, and his dad—roaring his terrible roar and gnashing his terrible teeth—wrote the essay for his kid, who proceeded to get into grad school, last less than a year, and drop out.  His dad had also yanked his financial support, so the kid collapsed completely and went to work for Arby’s.  True story.

My dad was quite different.  He expected my brothers and me to get good grades, but otherwise didn’t involve himself in our schoolwork (even when we fell short).  He was too busy to help with homework, and if we’d asked for help with a grad school application he’d probably have laughed.  (That was our problem, after all.)  But he did buy one of the first home computers, long before the IBM PC or Apple 2C became popular, and gave us permission to use it.  He didn’t exhort us to do so, or even do much to encourage us, much less help us, with programming projects.  I only dabbled in programming that computer, but my brother Bryan got way into it.  He was a pioneer among computer nerds (decades before they became kind of cool), spending every spare moment in the junior high computer lab thrashing away at a primitive teletype.

You might expect that our dad became Bryan’s one-man fan club, since all this was right up my dad’s alley, but I’m not sure he knew anything about it.  He didn’t pay a whole lot of attention, even when Bryan made his own laser for a college physics class.  And though Bryan lived with my dad for some of his college years, he had to cover his own tuition.  But none of that mattered; Bryan was motivated by his own interest, not any need to please his parents, and now makes a good living as a programmer despite being (gasp!) a Type-B personality.  Sure, our dad could have been a more engaged parent, but he did model some good behaviors, being an industrious scientific type who read a lot and used good grammar, and we didn’t have any delusions about him—or life—giving us a free ride.

Role model?

Myself, I’m torn about how much to involve myself in my kids’ activities.  On the one hand, I want to give my kids everything I can:  private music lessons, constant reminders to practice, cool bicycles to ride and a dad to ride with, help with homework and reminders to do it, and raw silk to use as toilet paper.  But I also like to lecture them about how hard I had it as a kid—mainly to stop their whining, but also to inspire them to solve their own problems (and ultimately, perhaps solve some of mine, or some of society’s).  I don’t want to give my kids too much, because I’m fully aware of how obnoxious pampered kids are, like the evil rich-kid nemesis in “The Karate Kid.”

Then there’s the sticky matter of whether or not I should strive to be a role model.  In some ways, this is easy.  I recognize, for example, that I’m supposed to model responsible drinking.  This is very easy, and in fact enjoyable:  several times a week I drink exactly one beer, and occasionally I get wild and split a second beer with my wife (half a bottle being her version of good modeling).  But as a more general role model, who am I to hold myself up as the kind of person my daughters ought to become?  Shouldn’t they do better than I have?  I’m not trying to raise a Mini-Me.

The helpfulness quagmire

I am a very modern father.  I do a great deal of housework, which my kids witness.  In a perfect world, they’d respect me for not being the kind of sexist primitive male who treats household chores like a game of chicken that his wife always loses.  But in reality, I don’t think kids respect anybody’s willingness to do housekeeping.  To them, it probably just shows that their parents don’t have anything better to do.

When I was a kid, my dad wasn’t around that much because he was this genius guy, an honest-to-God rocket scientist who worked long hours.  To the extent I thought about this at all, I assumed that the fate of the free world was in his hands and it would be silly to expect him to mow the lawn or do dishes.  He also wasn’t the type to throw a ball for us or play a board game; he was rather aloof and mysterious.  I was kind of in awe of him. 

(Did I have the same awe for my mom, who did the majority of the housework while also holding down a full-time job?  Not exactly, but I did feel profound admiration for her one morning, well before dawn, when I was sneaking out of the house:  just after quietly closing the front door, while I was climbing on my bike, I was stunned to see the door fly open and my mom storm out in her pajamas, a frying pan in one hand and an iron skillet in the other, yelling, “Who’s out there!?”)

I fear my kids have a somewhat low opinion of me simply because I’m too available, too helpful, too quotidian to occupy any pedestal.  The other day I was lecturing Alexa about taking on more of the housework.  She pointed out that she occasionally does the dishes.  (Emphasis on occasionally, in the sense of Halley’s Comet occasionally swinging by.)  I said, “Well, what about when I suggested you clean out the cat box?  You looked at me like I was crazy.”  She protested that that’s a totally gross chore.  “So?” I retorted.  “Am I somehow impervious to grossness?  Do I have some kind of special super powers that make me invulnerable?”  She stammered, “No, it’s just that you … well, you’re a dad.”  So that’s what “dad” means to her:  not above cleaning the cat box.  To recap:  that chore is below her; it’s not below me; therefore, she is above me.  Role model, indeed!

Is laissez-faire the answer?

Like so many of their generation, my parents took a laissez-faire approach to child-rearing, and were generally unaware of what my brothers and I were up to.  The upside of this was that I had complete freedom, as a teen, to ride my bike all day, sometimes 100 miles or more, with nobody fretting about me back home.  I could stay out as late as I wanted; at 14, I once came home from a friend’s house sometime after midnight, and was surprised to find my dad sitting in the dining room having a snack.  He’d just come home from work, and didn’t seem to think there was anything unusual about me rolling in at that hour.  We had a nice chat.

The downside of laissez-faire was that I couldn’t just bring all my problems to my parents.  If, say, my bike got a flat tire, I was on my own.  My dad was not the sort of person to a) waste his money hiring some banana-fingered mechanic to fix a flat tire when it’s so easy to do yourself, or b) take the time to actually fix the flat or show me how.  So I had to try to get my brothers to do it, when they obviously had no incentive.  (Quite the opposite:  as connoisseurs of schadenfreude, they enjoyed my miserable pedestrian purgatory.)  Necessity being the mother of invention, I had to learn how to fix bikes.  My brothers did give me some help there, and I took to buying old non-functional beater bikes—the cadavers of the bicycle world—which I practiced on.  These totally expendable machines became my commuter bikes, and my wrenching skills led to a series of fairly lucrative bike shop jobs.

So should I take the laissez-faire route, like my own father?  Well, no.  For one thing, I seem to have the worrying gene that somehow escaped my parents.  I want  to be involved, to make sure my kids have the best possible experience under my roof and beyond.  Second, since my wife worries far more than I do, a laissez-faire approach on my part would clash with her hands-on, all-worrying-all-the-time parenting style.  Such a clash would lead to all kinds of good-cop/bad-cop scenarios (which children naturally exploit, ultimately to their own detriment). 

Meanwhile, my kids do a lot of cool stuff, like learning the piano, which I’m pleased to be able to foster (not just through paying for the lessons but through hassling my girls, daily, to practice).  When push comes to shove, playing the piano is a better capability than fixing bikes.  By fostering these activities I can guide my kids, so they don’t end up rotting their brains out (like I did with TV for a number of years when I wasn’t off being resourceful and inventive).


The other day Alexa biked home from school and casually mentioned that her chainring had fallen off. “Huh?  You mean your chain fell off the chainring?”  No, the chainring had fallen off.  This could not be.  I asked for details.  She replied, “You know, the chainring-thingy?  The round thing?  In back?”  I said, “You mean your cog.”  She replied, “Yeah, that’s what I said!  The cog-type-thing.”  She explained how it had come off the hub and was spinning uselessly, and she somehow managed to get it back on long enough to finish riding home.  At this point I should have applauded this ad hoc repair and acknowledged her resourcefulness, but I’m not that big a person.  Besides, I was concerned about a) her bike being broken, b) her own lack of concern about it, and c) my growing tendency to make itemized lists in the a, b, c format.

As it happened, I had a window of opportunity that evening to fix the bike, so I did—the alternative being to drive Alexa to school the next day.  (I guess I don’t have the heart to make her walk, schlepping all her books and her violin.)  Her bike is a three-speed, and they’re mothers to work with.  What’s worse, beyond the low-tech cog that had popped its circlip, a fancy little plastic pulley had broken into three pieces and had to be epoxied back together.  Alexa didn’t participate in the repair, nor did she seem aware that I was doing it.  (An unspoken rule when I was a kid is that if somebody fixed something for you, you had to stand around watching and handing up tools, to show your appreciation.)  Worst of all, when I went to tell her it was done, she barely looked up from her comic book, and didn’t even thank me.

(Before I completely throw my daughter under the bus, I should point out a few things.  First, she seldom reads comic books, and was merely unwinding after two weeks of working like a slave on her schoolwork, with added residual stress from that piano competition.  Second, she has taken on the ubiquitous tween/teen tendency to mumble, so it’s possible she thanked me and I didn’t hear it, though I endlessly remind her that if she doesn’t hear “you’re welcome,” the “thank you” didn’t happen.)

So I confronted Alexa about her lack of gratitude (building on a lecture I had given her and Lindsay a week or so before about what “sense of entitlement” means and how insufferable ingrates are).  Alexa assured me that she appreciated my help with the bike, but her manner struck me as rote and perfunctory.  I told her to prove her gratitude by writing a sonnet on the topic.  (This is my version of making her kiss the signet ring.) 

Not unexpectedly, she tried to barter for something shorter.  “No haiku,” I said.  “A rhesus monkey could write a haiku.”  She proposed a limerick.  “Okay, but it has to be good,” I replied, “meaning you have to rhyme on at least two syllables.  And if you don’t finish it today, you’re back up to a sonnet.”  She didn’t finish that evening, but did produce a creditable sonnet the following day (though, alas, she’s asked me not to post it here).  Her sonnet goes far in reassuring me, with lines like “Expecting service is a foolish act” and “You didn’t have to, that’s a certain fact.”  The tone is so earnest I almost feel sheepish about the whole thing, though she insists this was not her goal.  In this poem she strikes a nice balance between appeasing me and asserting her independence, deliberately breaking with the sonnet form by tacking an extra foot to each line of the final rhyming couplet, flamboyantly rhyming on three syllables. 

I can live with that.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

From the Archives - Going Broke at College


It’s hard to imagine saving for retirement when I have two kids to put through college. The way tuition costs are rising, it seems impossible now for anybody to earn a degree without becoming mired in debt. Gone, it seems, are the days when a kid could scrape by, work summers, and come out of college without a lot of loans to pay off. But some twenty years ago, I myself managed to get my degree without ever getting financial aid or a scholarship. My parents helped, to the tune of $400 a month, but for the most part I was on my own. Looking back, the amounts of money involved in my college education seem now like a joke, but it didn’t feel that way at the time.

So how broke was I? I have a distinct memory of going to an ATM and depositing the last cash I had in my wallet, something like $10, into my checking account to keep a check from bouncing. I had thought that was the worst of it, until I came across this old essay from my archives that shows a low point I must have subconsciously repressed.

Going Broke at College - February 27, 1989

I was leafing through the UCSB school paper, the Daily Nexus, the other day, and spotted an ad offering “FREE MONEY FOR SCHOOL.” Ha! Free money! Seeing this, I recalled how back in high school I’d once pulled a flyer off my mom’s car windshield that said, “Earn X‑tra income! $600‑$1200 per month. Small time commitment!” Short of dealing drugs or selling off body parts, I couldn’t think of how this “X‑tra income” could be possible. I called up the number and said, “Yes, I think I’d like to earn $600‑$1200 X‑tra per month. What do I do?” The operator asked for my name and address. I envisioned a massive mailing list of people labeled not as “homeowners” or “environmentalists,” but “suckers.” It would be the worst possible mailing list you could possibly be on—nothing but the most offensive junk mail on earth. So I refused to surrender my identity: “Well, wait. Before I give you my name, I’d like to know just what line of work this is.” The operator retorted, “I can’t tell you until you give me your name and address. Then I’ll tell you.” I imagined that as soon as she had my address, she would say, “Ha ha, you fool!” and hang up on me, and then sign me up to receive flyers about how to make a fortune breeding penguins in my garage. I asked her, “Is this opportunity to earn an X‑tra $1200 a month drug related?” This really got her riled up. “Now look here, we are a multi-million dollar corporation and are completely legitimate. Just give me your name and address!” Puzzled, I asked, “If you’re such a great company, then why do you recruit your employees by blanketing parking lots with flyers?” She hung up.

I assumed that the ad in the Daily Nexus was a similarly stupid scam, but when I investigated it, it turned out to be a pretty compelling idea: this company helps students get scholarships or financial aid, much of which actually goes unclaimed every year. I’ve been promising myself for months that I would investigate this, so I sent away for this company’s brochure. These guys have a computer program which processes student questionnaires to determine which private sector scholarships a student should apply for. Then, the student applies for these and gets thousands of dollars towards his education. Naturally, there is a fee involved, which is refundable if the student doesn’t end up receiving any aid. I decided I couldn’t really lose, except that I had to have the application in by February 28—and I didn’t have enough in my checking account to cover the $45 fee. But I had two checks to deposit, which I figured would clear quickly. So I went ahead and mailed the check, and then immediately set out to deposit the necessary funds in my account. This meant a trek to the neighboring town of Goleta, which had the closest Wells Fargo Automated Teller Machine.

I always take my road bike to Goleta, because it’s really a dismal ride. Maybe there’s a way to get to El Camino Real without a lot of highways and frontage roads, but I haven’t figured it out. So I’m just duking it out with all these cars, so I want to go as fast as possible … you know, get in, take care of business, and get out before the depression sets in. On this day, I even used my race wheels, since I needed to make sure they were working well for the upcoming weekend’s races. I hate riding on my race wheels, though, because I’m worried about getting a flat. When you ride on $50 Vittoria CX tubular tires, see, you don’t bring a pump or tool kit along; you bring a pocketknife. If you get a flat, you just commit suicide.

At the ATM, I checked my balance before depositing money. I wasn’t worried; I had kept close track of my financial situation, and knew I had a full six dollars in my checking account. (Sadly, the savings account died of malnutrition last month.) The machine casually told me that my balance was at ‑$75.00 (that’s negative seventy five dollars)! My first reaction was denial. No, the machine didn’t just tell me that. No, I have six whole dollars! I canceled the transaction, withdrew my card, put it back in, punched up the balance again, and got the same horrid figure. The second phase of response towards a loss of this kind is anger. Just before I might have ripped the control console out of the wall, the third reaction — severe depression — hit me. How could this have happened?

I immediately deposited two checks--all the money I had in the world—totaling $140, which brought my balance up to a whopping $63.81, according to the ATM. My records, which I still believed were correct, showed that I had $146.40, so now my checkbook has two balances: the actual balance and the theoretical balance. Of course I had to trust the bank’s total, but at least I had enough to cover the $45 check I’d just written.

Unfortunately, the financial aid service ended being a bit of a scam. I got back this massive document listing hundreds of “really good leads,” all of which were based on my dad being a war veteran. I suppose I’d indicated somewhere that he’d been in the Navy, but of course that was an ROTC thing he did for college, and he never actually fought in a war. To get the aid they were talking about, I think he had to have seen combat and had some body part blown off. So there was no way I’d be getting any of that money. But could I get the refund of my $45 fee, since this was obviously a bust? Nope … not unless I sent them proof that I ran down every one of the hundreds of useless leads they’d sent me. (That fine print is a bitch!) So, as broke as I’d been, I was now $45 broker. And it suddenly dawned on me that all my rushing around was a joke, too … surely that February 28 deadline was purely fictitious.

Suddenly it all seemed so futile. College wasn’t working. Back in high school I was smart enough to spot a scam, but now I’d become the kind of chump who throws away $45 when it’s almost three fourths of his entire net worth.

But this story has a happy ending. That thick stack of useless financial aid leads wasn’t all that had arrived in the mail. I also got a check for … well, actually, not a check. A statement. A BA/RC statement, to be precise. Nobody knows what BA/RC stands for, but it should be BA/RF. It’s the quarterly tuition bill from the university: $510.49 in tuition and fees. More money I didn’t have.

I’m sorry, did I say this story has a happy ending? My mistake. What I meant to say is that it has a sad ending: I’m flat broke.