Thursday, April 30, 2015

“Kit” Revisited - Not OK with “Kit” Commentary!


In my last post I tried really hard to lead my readers away from using “kit” to refer to bike clothing.  My strategy wasn’t to definitively prove that Americans who use this word are dorks, but rather to introduce an alternative that was so clearly superior, further debate would be needless.

Well, the debate continues.  And if that’s not bad enough, one of my readers—an American living in New Zealand—got his knickers in a twist over a couple of gross inaccuracies in my essay, which were particularly jarring due to my  “smug confidence.”  (I suppose I should point out that I use the chiefly British expression “knickers in a twist” not because I’m trying to sound un-American but because it’s slightly less vulgar, to my ear, than “panties in a wad.”  And please note that I say “un-American” instead of “Euro” because “Euro” is one of the words that got me in trouble last time.)

In this post I shall first apologize, and then go on the offensive because another of my pals persists in trying to advance a nonsensical “living language” argument that really needs to die.

An apology

My first error, as pointed out by the Kiwi correspondent, involved this assertion:
Absolutely everybody who wears a jersey calls it a jersey.  This is a very useful word because it differentiates between a basic t-shirt and that funny Lycra thing with the zipper in front and the pockets in back.
I should not have said “absolutely everybody.”  I should have said “everybody in the United States.”  Obviously, in other countries people would have other words for this garment.  In the Ukraine, they’d call it “Джерсі,” which would phonetically sound like “dzhercee” (the “zh” is my approximation of the sound the “s” makes in “pleasure” and if you have trouble with it, just imagine Chekov, from the original “Star Trek,” saying “jersey”).  I don’t know what they’d call a bike jersey in China, and that’s a shame, because that’s my blog’s third biggest audience (after the US and the Ukraine).  Of course, those who don’t speak English probably don’t spend a lot of time on albertnet.

So why does it matter that I said “absolutely everybody”?  Well, I may have confused some non-American English speakers.  I’ve been advised that while “Antipodean club cyclists would understand [my] usage from exposure to American media,” “non-cyclist Australasians might NOT recognise [my] usage of ‘jersey.’”

Dang it.  I was totally unaware of any of this, and moreover I had to look up “Australasian” (which I’d have guessed means “Australian/Asian fusion cuisine,” as in “throw a couple ginger-infused shrimp tempuras on the barbee!”) and “antipodean.”  The first two dictionaries I checked defined “antipodean” as “being as different as possible” or “on opposite sides of the earth,” which obviously don’t work here.  The third dictionary (the really thick one) had the definition that fit the context; this meaning was flagged “chiefly British.”

Now, it’s really tempting to defend myself here.  How come my Kiwi critic gets to use confusing British terms, wacky spelling (i.e., “recognise”) and single quotation marks, but I have to be aware of every connotation of “jersey” among English speakers worldwide?  How come when I read an original (i.e., non-Americanized) version of a Harry Potter book to my kids, I’m tickled by “jumper” for sweater and “trainers” for sneakers, but my confusing use of “jersey” is grounds for criticism?  Don’t worry, I’m not naive about the truth behind this apparent paradox.  As everybody knows, Brits are charming, but Americans like me are merely annoying.  I get that.  I also accept that for me to be so narrow-minded and insular with my America-centric perspective, while posing as an authority on how best to use the English language, is nothing short of sickening.

Perhaps even worse, as my New Zealand friend points out, I “seemed to equate ‘British’ and ‘European’ in a way that would make many Brits and not-a-few Europeans uncomfortable.”  I have nothing to say in my defense.  I’ve never bothered to interview Brits or continental Europeans about how they feel about one another, and though I believe I accurately represented the way in which many Americans, such as the ones who use “kit” to mean bike clothing, lump all members of the EU together when trying to emulate their cycling heroes, I did so without acknowledging, or perhaps even recognizing, how lame this is. 

But before I actually issue the formal apology, I have to figure out whom exactly I’m apologizing to.  The confusion I have caused among my overseas audience (2.5% of whom hail from the UK) is perhaps offset by the delicious satisfaction they must have derived from decrying my ignorance.  On the whole, was their discomfort greater than the pleasure they got from issuing scathing, probably profane, judgments about me and my ilk?

Well, just in case it was, I hereby apologize to all Europeans and Brits.  I’m sorry I’m a stupid, narrow-minded American, and that my blog is spreading my corrosive ignorance across the world.

It’s very tempting to apologize to Americans as well, but that’s a complicated matter.  After all, both my geopolitical ignorance and my smug confidence are core American values.  If I act apologetic about embracing freedom and patriotism, well, maybe the terrorists win.  So let me say this:  I hereby apologize to American expatriates worldwide, and any other progressive American who thinks we should be knowledgeable about other cultures, be humble about our beliefs, and use air-quotes around “beliefs” to indicate how tentative we are in believing in anything.

I suppose I could go fix my previous post, to be more inclusive of every meaning of jersey and more discerning about British vs. Euro, but that would make this post rather confusing.  And really, repentance isn’t the point; acknowledging my ignorance is.  So, knowing my original essay will be read by more people in the future, I want to make a special apology to any non-American or expatriate-American English speaker who reads it on his or her birthday.  I truly hope I don’t ruin anybody’s birthday.

(Note that I cannot bring myself to apologize separately for being smugly confident.  I believe I am incapable of blogging timidly.  Blogging, as far as I’m concerned, is an intrinsically audacious act.)

Back on the offensive

Okay, enough of that.  It’s time to beat back a burning bush some more.  I’m talking about the ongoing attempt of another correspondent to justify “kit.”  His first shot is the rhetorical equivalent of an air ball:  “Living language Exhibit A.”  In case you’re reading this essay after that link has gone stale, it’s to a website called Cool Hunting (headline:  Three Fresh Cycling Kits for Spring) selling a wide variety of awful things:  ugly brown leather cycling gloves that look like Isotoners with the fingers cut off; a coffee cup holder for your handlebars; a hand-painted bike bell; underwear for cycling; a suit described as “Movement-Minded Suiting” that could make anybody look like a d-bag; and a whole bunch of particularly ugly Rapha clothing.  (I know “ugly Rapha” is redundant, but I thought “particularly Rapha clothing” might confuse somebody.)  In other words, it’s a purveyor of awful, overpriced, over-precious, totally needless crap for pretentious dickwads with too much money.  That Cool Hunting uses the term “kit” does not, in my opinion, validate the word whatsoever.  I’m astonished anybody would say so.  If this website hadn’t been trotted out by a defender of “kit,” I’d have cited it myself to explain exactly why “kit” is a term any old-school, non-hipster, self-respecting bicyclist might wish to avoid.

The person who trotted out the Cool Hunting justification for kit was quickly rebuked (by others, not me, I might add).  So he  replied, “Call it Bay Area slang, if it that'll make it go down easier. An idiomatic usage in a micro-dialect, if you like. But what you cannot deny is that there ARE people using the word ‘kit’ to mean a cycling jersey and cycling shorts. Living language at its best.”

Okay, first of all, I can’t see how impugning the Bay Area would make anything go down easier.  I do like the idea of micro-dialect just fine, and have embraced it for decades.  (For example, my brothers and I have long used the term “tranja”—pronounced “tron-ya” and taken from a 1960s “Star Trek” episode—to indicate any flavored beverage, and my daughter has now adopted the term.)  But the mere fact of people in any community using a word does not justify promotion of that word, and is not necessarily “living language at its best.”

Consider this:  so far, I have never heard any member of my bike club use the word “bidon,” despite all of us knowing what it means (a water bottle, in Velominati/cool-hunting/poseur/d-bag parlance).  We rightfully avoid “bidon,” despite knowing what it means,  because, evidently, we just don’t like it.  Word choice is a matter of taste, and those who respect language have far higher standards than “what others will be able to grasp.”

I think it’s crucial to understand the difference between evolution and mere change.  Evolution implies progress:  in nature, to evolve generally means becoming better suited for survival.  But when we say language “evolves,” we’re not talking about natural selection.  Sloppiness is just as likely to transform a language.  For example, the word “biweekly” used to mean something specific.  It either meant “every two weeks” or “twice a week,” but not both.  But because people began using it both ways, dictionaries eventually accepted the second meaning as legit, and now the word “biweekly” is utterly useless—it is impossible to tell from context what is meant.  From a usability perspective, this word has been pushed toward extinction.

Even when changes to a language don’t dilute meaning, choosing words carefully is worthwhile.  Often, when two words are equally precise and do an equal job of getting a point across, one is still better than the other.  If we say, “Pass me a facial tissue please,” that sounds stilted and odd, and begs the question, “Why didn’t you say ‘Kleenex’?”  And if my daughter asked her mother for a “snot rag,” she would be rightly reprimanded. 

Clarity is sometimes overrated.  To simply grasp a word’s meaning is nothing special; even a beast can do that.  My daughter did a science experiment with our cat.  It has been well established that our cat knows her name and will actually respond to a call of “Misha!” (particularly if it is issued from the kitchen).  The other day Alexa and I were on the sofa, with the cat on Alexa’s lap.  “Hey Mom,” Alexa said, “Call out ‘feces’ in the same voice you’d call out ‘Misha.’”  My wife called out from the kitchen, “Feeee-ces!”  This summoned the cat just as effectively as “Meeee-sha!” ever did.  So we brought the cat back to the sofa and tried again, but this time with “Eggplant.”  Despite being uttered in the same singsong way, it produced no reaction from the cat.  My wife called “Feeee-ces!” again, and immediately the cat trotted back in there, tail held high.  Following this breakthrough, my daughter started calling the cat “Feces” all the time.  I put my foot down.  “We named her ‘Misha’ because we like that name,” I told her.  “I do not like the word ‘feces.’  You are forbidden to use it in reference to the cat.”  Now, is that bad parenting, on the grounds that the cat does understand the particular meaning of “feces” within our household’s micro-dialect?  I truly hope nobody thinks so.

I am not a fan of “kit,” but I’m not interested in continuing to debate its aesthetic merit, nor the question of whether its (supposed) utility is enough to offset its Velominatic air.  But what I’m trying to do here is squash the idea that the elasticity of language can be trotted out as justification to blithely adopt any new usage that manages to convey meaning.

You still think all linguistic change is for the good?  Well, think about all the corporate jargon so many of us are subjected to on a daily basis.  If you were to hear the following on a conference call, you might only find it a slight exaggeration:  
At the end of the day, the value proposition needs to by synced up with our bottom line, so if we’re going to step up our game, tee this thing up, and swing for the fences, the reality is that—candidly—we’ve got to get Product’s skin in the game, and really incent those folks to add value up the whole stack, because when you peel back the layers of the onion, you can see that business synergies are table stakes in this business, and shareholder value demands that we either reinvent ourselves with some disruptive technologies or we’re going to be in the position of having to ventilate this workforce.  I mean, this is the world we live in.  It is what it is.
If you’re not gagging right now, you’re on the wrong web page.  Maybe you should head over to Cool Hunting.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

OK Calling Bike Clothes “Kit”?


Some people really care about words.  My favorite people are the type who will argue passionately and at length about a subtle shade of meaning.  I was reminded of this when, in a group e-mail to my cycling club, I employed some questionable vernacular, causing  a massive e-mail debate, comprising over thirty messages in all.

In this post I’ll capture some of the snarkier highlights of the debate; get at the heart of why “kit” is such a divisive term; and provide the perfect alternative so all cyclists can enjoy nomenclature that’s as frictionless as their bicycles’ bearings.

The mêlée

It must be said that a widespread dialogue was already underway, on a topic you shall read about soon enough, when my friend Trevor commented on my use of “kit.”  (As you may recall, our verbal sparring has appeared in these pages before.)  He wrote, “Calling it ‘kit’ is the pot calling the kettle black.  That’s British hipster lingo, and if they say things like ‘Campag’ and ‘mech’ and then say ‘bidon’ you should choose wisely from such a low body of terms.  ‘Kit’ is unwise.”

To appreciate Trevor’s point requires a bit of background.  About a year ago, in these pages, I excoriated the Velominati, a bunch of self-styled cycling experts, for their blatant cultural affectation.  One of the things I pointed out was that saying “bidon” instead of bottle strikes me, like so many of their behaviors, as pretentious and twee.  My outspokenness in this vein puts me in a vulnerable position should I ever abuse such lingo myself.

With this in mind, I immediately fell on my sword, replying-all, “Nice catch on ‘kit,’ Trevor.  I certainly wobbled over my own line there.”  But even though I agreed with him, several members of the club stepped forward to defend “kit.”  Here are some salient comments.  (I won’t bother identifying the correspondents other than to give each of them his/her own text color so you can tell them apart.)

è Here in Kiwiland ‘kit’ is not a hipster term. No one would call riding clothing (or sporting uniform of any kind) anything but ‘kit’. Even to my still somewhat Yankee ears ‘kit’ sounds absolutely common.
è Newb.
è Curmudgeon.
è As to “kit” and “curmudgeon,” might I suggest a dictionary?
è I was being economical! And I do have a dictionary. Also, “curmudgeon” was a polite form for what I really wanted to call you.
è Sounds like something you need to discuss with your therapist.
è Hold on a sec, I’m still trying to find “newb” in the dictionary…
è Newbie or noob is old prep school talk for the “new boy.” As far as I can tell from my OED, “new boy” likely goes back to Chaucer.
è I like and use the term kit. What other one-word term is there that works better? (No, MB, “costume” doesn’t count!)
è The convenience of “kit” is illusory. Just what is it? It isn’t just jersey and shorts. It’s everything and not everybody has the same stuff. My recollection from listening to British sports announcers is that they use the word correctly, as in “that’s a nice bit of kit.” It’s used specifically, not generally. If you’re going to buy a cycling kit, what are you buying? If you bring your racing kit with you, what’s in it? Glasses, helmet, sunblock,…? It goes beyond what you wear.
è I took a break from cycling from about 1999 to 2008. Before 1999 I had never heard the word “kit” when referring to cycling clothing. It was always a “jersey” and “shorts”. When I returned in 2008, the whole outfit was a ‘kit”. “Kit” still sounds dumb to me, but I use the word because I think I am supposed to.
è Do people (or hipsters) prefer ‘strip’?
è Okay, I’ll bite.  “Strip” is short for what? Strip joint, strip mall? And don’t think I haven’t noticed the single quotation marks. By using them, you’ve made both our points, I think.
è I did not mean to offend anyone. The word “kit” is not dumb. I’m the dummy.  Since the shorts and jersey, indeed the whole cycling get-up, are now one (dashing!) matching ensemble, a word is needed.
è I think you’re missing much of the point of this list if you fail to offend at least one recipient.  I think kit sounds dumb, too.

A question of motive

To me, the fundamental question of whether or not it’s okay to say “kit” centers around motive.  Are we trying to sound Euro, or not?  The difficulty is that we cannot know each person’s motive in using this word, and frankly, I doubt many of us bother to question our own motives in adopting one word or another.  Meanwhile, when we use a word, we participate in all its connotations whether we like it or not.  We are not, usually, at liberty to explain our motives.

The first respondent I quoted above is a American expatriate residing in New Zealand.  I have no doubt that “kit” is a totally innocuous word there (as are his single quotation marks, per Trevor’s comment).  The reason “kit” perks the American ear is that it’s one of those British words that has only recently crossed the Atlantic, and isn’t in widespread use beyond our cycling vernacular.  For such a term to become ubiquitous even within such a vernacular takes time, and may not happen if the term isn’t particularly useful.

Here’s an example of how that works.  Consider the word “jersey.”   Absolutely everybody who wears a jersey calls it a jersey.  This is a very useful word because it differentiates between a basic t-shirt and that funny Lycra thing with the zipper in front and the pockets in back.  I cannot think of a single effective synonym for “jersey.”  Use of this word is so entrenched (having been in wide use when I started cycling, in 1981), most people don’t even know its etymology—that it’s named after Jersey, the largest of the islands in the English Channel.

Consider the correspondent above who said, “I use the word [kit] because I think I am supposed to,” even though she personally finds it dumb.  She wants to fit in, and the question is, who has the authority—and the right—to make this word, or any word, into a cultural signifier that tells whether someone is “in” or “out”?  Positioning yourself as an authority and throwing around a word like “kit” is, to me, a distasteful act.  (A cyclist doing so might be said to “velominate,” if I may coin a term.)  Of course, it’s dangerous to reproach anyone on these grounds because we can’t know who is promoting a term versus merely (and sometimes reluctantly) adopting it.

Sometimes will I use an uncommon word instead of a familiar one if doing so increases exactitude.  Consider “twee,” which I used above.  My American Heritage Dictionary flags this word as “Chiefly British.”  Uncommon as it may be in American English, I doubt anybody uses it just to seem more British or more Euro.  “Twee” is free of trans-Atlantic cultural baggage, because modern usage has morphed it and thus reduced its air of British-ness.  In the original parlance, “twee” meant “overly precious or nice” (it stems from an alteration of “tweet,” a baby-talk alteration of “sweet”).  But when modern Americans use “twee,”  we keep the sense of precious but drop the sense of sweet; quite often, we use “twee” to flag instances of hipster affectation.  (Check out if you don’t believe me.)  The more this word evolves on the American tongue, the further behind it leaves its “chiefly British” air.

In the absence of such evolution, and in a case where a word’s usage is restricted to a subset of a subset of society (e.g., the more cutting-edge members of the cycling crowd), we must ask ourselves:  can a somewhat useful but chiefly British term be used innocently by an American  without opening the door to accusations of affectation?  Or to put it more simply, is it twee to say “kit”?

How efficient is “kit”?

The key to solving this riddle, I think, is to weight the utility of “kit” against the inescapable fact of being a cultural vanguard by using it in the U.S.  If the utility is bulletproof, the word is bound to gain wider adoption and will, over time, cease to be a cultural signifier.

So how useful is “kit”?  There’s no question that it’s convenient, being a single syllable and such a short word.  But where language is concerned, let’s not confuse convenience with efficiency.  Yes, “kit” is easy to write and easy to type, but having written a blog post called “Down with Convenience!” I can’t bring myself to care about ease alone.  After all, saving labor is also the justification for going out in public dressed in the sweatpants you wore to bed, which practice I totally disapprove of (unless you’re a gorgeous UC SantaBarbara coed who makes all attire look great).

The point of language is to express yourself with precision, and educated people can be precise without being verbose.  That’s the whole point of having a large vocabulary.  It is more efficient to use the word “twee,” for example, than to use a paragraph worth of words to explain exactly why it bothers you when college grads get written up in the local style magazine for their online storefront selling locally-made macramé caddies for their college roommate’s deluxe line of handmade, gluten-free moleskin notebooks.

So does “kit” do a significantly better job than “jersey and shorts,” “bike clothing,” or “overdue Voler order”?  Not necessarily.  As Trevor points out, there isn’t a single, unified meaning of “kit,” since we all have different stuff; thus, it’s not nearly as useful a word as “jersey.”  On the other hand, as another correspondent rightly pointed out, “kit” does uniquely connote “one (dashing) matching ensemble,” in a way “bike clothing” does not.  Indeed, I never heard (or used) the word “kit” until it became common for bike clubs to order all their clothing—including socks, arm warmers, vests, and even gloves—from a single manufacturer so it can be customized with colors and logos that create a uniform.  If I throw on a pair of plain black shorts from company X and a plain blue jersey from company Y, that’s not really a kit.

So, perhaps “kit” is useful … but is it useful enough that we should use it, even at the risk of sounding like poseurs?  My answer is, we don’t need to determine this at all:  we can slip between the horns of the dilemma and trot out a totally new word, devoid of wannebe-Euro overtones, that is as precise—or more precise—than kit.

A perfect word?

During the e-mail debate, correspondents did trot out alternatives to “kit.”  (Speaking of precise words, maybe “debate” isn’t the perfect word for that protracted correspondence.  At  a post-ride refreshment stop, one of my teammates described it as an “e-mail shit-storm,” for which I chided him, because my thirteen-year-old daughter, herself a budding cyclist, was present.  Another teammate said, “Right, you shouldn’t call it that.  It was more of a shit-tornado.”  Did my daughter say, “Thanks for the visual on that”?  No, I beat her to the punch.)

“Strip” was proposed, along with “livery” and “clobber.”  The benefit of these is that, being virtually unknown in U.S. cycling parlance, they won’t send any untoward cultural signals.  But the use of “strip” as a noun doesn’t even appear in my six-inch-thick Webster’s unabridged dictionary.  The guy who suggested “strip” is the New Zealander, whose Collins English dictionary (likely published for the New Zealand market) defines strip as “the clothes worn by the members of a team, esp a football team.”  The downside of “strip” is that, being unknown here, it’s useless except as a private joke. 

Similarly, I’ve often promoted my brother’s favorite term, “ABCs,” an acronym for “Angry Biker Clothes,” but to understand this, you have to know the term “angry biker,” meaning any uptight, aggro racer-type, but of course this term isn’t widely known outside the Albert family.

But wait!  There was one term thrown about in the e-mail thread that I really like, notwithstanding the fact that it was both introduced and rejected in a single parenthetical aside:  “(No, MB, costume doesn’t count! )”

What’s wrong with “costume”?  The more I contemplate it, the more I like it.  At face value, bicycling clothing fits within the basic definition of costume (“a style of dress characteristic of a particular country, period, or people”).  It’s true that other definitions bleed over (e.g., “an outfit or disguise worn on Mardi Gras, Halloween, or a masquerade”), and it’s also true that “costume” makes us think of superheroes.  This isn’t necessarily inaccurate, though; after all, if you took the typical Lycra cycling getup and added a cape, you wouldn’t be far from Superman or Batman (other than the lack of boots).

If you think about it, the sense of an outfit worn to a masquerade fits perfectly, because the vast majority of us cyclists really are just pretending.  Our participation in the sport, though perfectly valid and worthwhile, is really just our best facsimile of the professional peloton.  Club racers invariably have this aching desire to look just like the pros, even if we fully grasp the vast distance between them and us.

You may argue that, in light of these ideas, using “costume” would be a form of self-mockery.  I would agree—but then, sometimes self-mockery is a good thing.  Consider the song “Yankee Doodle.”  This song, as we all know (and as neatly described by Wikipedia), “was sung by British military officers to mock the disheveled, disorganized colonial ‘Yankees,’” until “the Americans embraced the song and made it their own, turning it back on those who had used it to mock them.”

Likewise, by using a term that mocks our own pretentiousness, we bicyclists beat others to the punch.  Who are these “others”?  I can think of plenty:  the non-bike people who think we look silly and/or act overly self-important; the casual bike people who laugh at our aspirations toward Euro-cool; the bike club curmudgeons who rescue us when we start to velominate. 

Brits and Kiwis, along with Americans who are lazy and/or blasé, can keep on saying “kit,” but I’m going with “costume” from now on.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Adventures in E-Commerce - The Kettle Conundrum


“Can he really be that bitter?”  A reader of my holiday newsletter, years ago, asked this.  He was set straight by his wife, who correctly construed my newsletter as tongue-in-cheek.  That said, I really can be that bitter, especially after spending half my Sunday shopping online in pursuit of a single basic item.

In terms of making well-informed decisions, consumers have never had it better ... or worse.  We are drowning in (albeit highly useful) information.  Read on for a one-way trip into the retail Heart of Darkness.

No plastic!

My tea kettle died.  (Long, painful story I’ll touch on later.)  My wife suggested we try an electric version this time, remembering the one we’d used when house-swapping with a Glaswegian family.  I have now looked at several hundred electric kettles online.  Every single damn one of them is unsuitable for one reason or another.  Most of them fall down because of:  plastic.

My wife concedes that using Botox is unwise, but it’s amazing how much more passionately she decries the evils of plastic housewares.  If I wash anything plastic in the dishwasher, I hear about it, except when it comes to my bike water bottles.  (I’m guessing that my wife isn’t that concerned with my health, which is my own damn problem, but she’s determined not to expose our children to possible toxins.)  We’re gradually switching to glass storage containers, which don’t stack.  This is inconvenient, but to be honest, I’m wary of plastic myself, especially where boiling water is involved.

I’ve been unimpressed with the electric kettles out there.  Most of them look ugly and bloated, and have these stupid plastic water level indicators like you find on a steam iron.  (Why settle for the heft/swish test when you can have a cool product feature like this?)  Other kettles don’t have the level indicator, but have plastic lids or mesh screens in front of the spout.  Others don’t appear to use plastic, but what if there’s hidden plastic inside?  This is the problem with shopping online.  Fortunately, when shopping on Amazon you can look at the Q&A section, which is often incredibly thorough.

For example, the owner of one kettle assured shoppers that there’s only a little bit of plastic inside the kettle, and it’s up high where the water doesn’t reach.  She even included a link to a YouTube video of the product, where a helpful pair of baristas give an incredibly long demo.  That kettle looked pretty good, until another helpful commenter reminded us that steam will condense on the plastic and drip down into the water.  Reading that was the equivalent of being chased by the boogieman, rushing into your house, managing to slam the door and deadbolt it in the nick of time, sighing with relief, and then turning around to discover that this same boogieman is unaccountably seated on your living room sofa, waiting for you.

The search became even more fraught when we realized some electric kettles are insulated—they have the two layers of stainless steel with the vacuum between them—and once we knew about this, it became really hard to accept the idea of a non-insulated version.  The problem is, all the insulated ones are hideous and/or gigantic and/or contain plastic.

So I went to various non-shopping web pages to research insulated electric kettles, and found dozens of people geeking out over this topic without actually turning up anything useful.  My favorite entry was one guy chiding another for not solving the problem through simple ingenuity:  using a standard non-insulated kettle and pouring the water into a double-wall steel thermos.  This person suggested that to do otherwise was to damage your “greene” cred.  The next question/answer pair established that a) he meant to type “greenie,” and b) I really need to find a better way to spend my time.

I finally did find a really nice, possibly non-plastic insulated electric kettle—the (albeit pricey) Vektra—but it’s only made for the English market.  I guess there aren’t enough Americans drinking tea to warrant a 120-volt version, or maybe the Brits are still sore over the Boston Tea Party.

Perhaps the most exasperating user comment concerned an electric kettle that didn’t have any plastic, but which somehow caused its owner to get headaches.  “I returned it, and now I boil water in a saucepan, and my headaches have gone away,” the paranoid blithering idiot concluded.  I made the mistake of mentioning this to my wife, who (while agreeing this guy was probably a nutjob) suddenly decided she wanted a kettle made somewhere besides China.

Of course I was tempted to argue, since just about everything these days is made in China, but as it happened one of the kettles I’d looked at—a Chinese-made Breville which was made of glass except for the lid—carried a one-star review complaining of a disclaimer printed on the inside flap of the box:  “This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects or reproductive harm.”  Curses!  How could I feel good about using this product, knowing I’m ignoring a possibly important warning?  Moreover, this heightened my cynicism about the rampant dangers of cheap, mass-produced goods.

(It also reminded me of the sunglasses I bought in Hawaii last summer.  A bible verse accompanying the packaging stirred my curiosity, and when I Googled the product name and the verse, I got all these hits about a lawsuit against the company for failing to disclose carcinogens to Californians.  I tried to return the sunglasses, but was denied.  Now, whenever I wear them, I take flak from my family and from the little voice in my head.  We call these sunglasses the “cancer goggles” and lately I’ve abandoned them in favor of some Ray-Bans I found on a riverbank.)

The search for a non-Chinese kettle

Consider Le Creuset, the venerable French brand.  They make a nice kettle, but is it French, like their Dutch ovens?  Amazon, you will find, is very coy about where things are made.  That said, when paying top dollar, many consumers expect a first-world pedigree, and “Where is this made?” was the first topic in the Q&A for the Creuset kettle.  The responses?  1) “China.”  2) “China ... says right on the box.”  3) “I don’t know.”  4) “France.  I love this kettle!”

Why do people answer “I don’t know?”  Do they not grasp that answering the question is optional, and that “I don’t know” serves nobody?  I see this a lot and it does little to burnish my faith in the human race.  Neither does the response “France” when it’s a) wrong, and b) the fourth response.  Did this responder not see the first three answers, two of which were pretty definitive?  And for that matter, why does anybody answer a question that has already been answered?  It’s not like country of origin is something we can put to a vote.  Someone asked, someone answered ... move on.

I searched Amazon for “tea kettle made in USA.”  I got almost the same search as for “tea kettle.”  Some of the products listed under “made in USA” only seem to be American made; many don’t even pretend (such as Breville).  What ‘s the point of this search?  A Google search was basically useless as well.  I did find some very specific patriot-run websites like, (a retail venture posing as a blog),, etc.  They turned up a lot of products that might have once been made in USA, but no longer are.  It’s kind of sad, the thought that patriots are paying a little extra or giving up a feature or two to buy American, little knowing they’re still getting Chinese products.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t turn up a couple bona-fide American kettles.  One was a funny-looking copper job by Jacob Brumwell ($399.99 from manufacturer; $499.99 at  What do you get for your money?  Well, for one thing, the website points out that “Copper is sky-high on the commodities market today.”  I looked it up.  True story:  it’s up to almost $3/pound.  This kettle, which looks like it would only make a few cups, putatively weighs three pounds.  That’s almost $9 right there, in materials alone!  The website also points out, “Buy American and save jobs.”  Fair enough, but how many Americans are employed making $400 kettles?  And how good are these jobs?  A few decades ago I worked for awhile at an American factory, and it was staffed entirely by Filipinos with green cards who were making minimum wage with zero opportunity for career growth.  I’m sure they were better off in the U.S. than in their homeland, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t being exploited.

The other American kettle I found carried this caveat (from  “The parts are German, assembly occurs in the U.S.”  I think I can handle that.  And the price was quite a bit better:  $9.86.  You might assume I was thrilled to see this, but for that price I was skeptical.  It’s made of glass, which just seems weird for a stovetop kettle, even if the glass is German.  Sub-$10 just says “shoddy.”  And I’ve had enough of shoddy kettles.

(Which brings me to how my family came to need a new kettle.  Our beautiful English-made Simplex copper kettle, the platonic ideal of tea kettle, was ruined when one of the kids failed to put the lid on properly so it didn’t whistle, and all the water boiled away.  The replacement, miraculously, came in the form of another Simplex copper kettle my wife found at a garage sale right next door.  Our neighbor sold it for practically nothing, out of sheer bitterness.  “It’s not like the old ones,” he warned.  “It’s a piece of shit.”  It really did seem chintzy compared to our old one.  For one thing, the knob on top was plastic instead of wood.  I could live with that, though once you’ve enjoyed the platonic ideal of anything, it’s hard to come down.  The big problem was that the lid didn’t fit right.  We went into this second kettle knowing that sometimes, randomly, steam would escape around the lid so it wouldn’t whistle.  Eventually somebody failed to notice a whistle failure, and the kettle boiled dry, following which it would randomly drop bits of metal in the water, probably detached lead solder so we’re going to go crazy.  I can see why my neighbor was so bitter:  this is a $200 kettle.  Both Simplexes are in the garage now, haunting me like ghosts.)

So, the $9.86 American-made kettle, made by Medelco, has a four-star average Amazon rating, across 2,773 reviews.  That’s a lot of positive press.  On the other hand, one of the one-star reviews complained that the kettle “randomly shattered in my hands.”  That’s a bit more solid than “gave me headaches,” but I still take 1-star reviews with a grain of salt.

Which brings me to the Q&A for this little number.  The first question was, “I love the font on the kettle in the photo—a nice helvetica—but i hate the writing on the kettle that i received—comic sans? can I trade it in?”  For the record, the text printed on the kettle, “Whistling Kettle,” is as ugly as it is pointless.  Still, this seemed nit-picky for a $9.86 product.  There were eight responses to this question.  The first:  “that was a photo from a beta release of the kettle. it turns out that helvetica will disrupt heat distribution and cause the water to heat unevenly. comic sans works much better for this purpose.”  I burst out laughing, and realized how generally irked I’d become through my hours-long kettle research.  The snotty response gave me a nice release.

So did some others.  “We should get together and have a Medelco Kettle smashing rally to punish this insolence!! I'm with you on this. I've had a deep-seated hatred for Comic Sans ever since our local county used it on my grandfather's death certificate.”  And, “I was about to buy this kettle until I found out the font was not the one pictured. Ugh. The sheer nerve of tea kettle companies these days. Disgusting.”

After that mirthful interlude I got back to business.  This damn Medelco appears to have a plastic top.  I looked at more Q&A to confirm this.  But first I happened upon questions about the kettle’s true country of origin.  Two buyers contacted the company and were told the glass is made in Germany, the lid in China—of phenolic plastic no less, which the second correspondent helpfully pointed out is “corrosive to the eyes, the skin, and the respiratory tract... and can be very harmful to the central nervous system and heart; causing dysrhythmia, seizures, and even coma... and if that isn't enough, it can also negatively affect the kidneys and liver.”  (You know what?  The first four ailments were enough.)   A third guy disagreed:  “I spoke with the owner and met her dogs. The freakin' thing is completely assembled here in the US. The plastics are made in the USA and the glass is from Germany.”  Met her dogs?  Is that the gold standard for establishing one’s authority, or is this guy just another joker? 

Un-American, but still somehow okay

Finally, I found my kettle.  It has absolutely no plastic, and is practically made in the USA.  Practically?  Well, here’s the deal.  It’s made by All-Clad, which is an American company that makes extremely pricey stuff.  The Amazon product description of this kettle includes this little tidbit:  “Today, All-Clad cookware is still handcrafted in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, with American-made steel—the same way it was four decades ago.”  Even a savvy consumer could be forgiven for concluding that this kettle is made in USA, which it isn’t.  The Q&A tally responses to “where is this made?” are as follows: 
  • 3 ambiguous responses  (“I do not know,” “Nothing indicating ‘made in ...’ & I can’t recall CoO listed on original box,” and “Where ever  All-Clad is made!! ??”)
  • 4 incorrect “USA” responses (“Made is [sic] the US,” “definitely made in the U.S.A.,” etc.)
  • 10 “China” responses (the most useful being “I called All Clad and they said the tea kettle is made in China ... [but] in an All Clad factory, not sub-contracted out”).
Well, at least the product description is (essentially) honest.  After all, a kettle isn’t (technically) cookware.  You don’t cook tea, per se.  I mean, it’s not like water is raw.

Meanwhile, the All-Clad folks recognize that stainless steel is a horrible conductor of heat, and thus use an aluminum core in the base of their kettle.  I have to respect their design work, which was almost certainly done by an educated American citizen with straight teeth and bright prospects.

My wife happened by, saw the photo of the All-Clad, and was immediately smitten.  I told her the inconvenient truth of its being Chinese, but she didn’t balk.  I think she’d given up on the not-made-in-China dream, just as she’d abandoned all hope of an insulated electric kettle or an electric kettle that wasn’t part plastic.  Myself, I was so exhausted by silly Internet research, I’d have settled for a stolen, Klingon-made kettle with phenolic plastic bits and an asbestos liner.  I suggested to my wife that she head over to Sur La Table (or “Sur La Yuppie,” as I call it) and buy  the All-Clad. 

(Is it ironic that, instead of wasting the time and energy of a salesperson at a brick-and-mortar store, only to purchase the product online just to save a few bucks, I instead wasted the computer server cycles and Internet bandwidth of an online retailer before purchasing the product in a brick-and-mortar store, even though this cost a few bucks more?  Perhaps it is.)

My wife, accustomed to my tirades about wasting money, said, “I can’t believe you’re sending me to Sur La Table.”  I clarified:  “Yes, but only for this kettle!  I don’t need any backup grapefruit spoons.”  We really do have a set of needlessly exquisite grapefruit spoons from Sur La Yuppie.  When my wife brought them home, I said, “Where have these been all my life?!”

So, you may be wondering, how is the Chinese-made, all-metal, non-electric, non-insulated, local-tax-base-supporting All-Clad kettle?  Well, it seems fine.  It whistles.  It looks good.  It’s nice and hefty (which has doubtless earned it a few one- or two-star reviews because someone’s grandma struggles with the weight).  It does boil water (though it takes 50% longer to do so than our old Simplex copper kettle).  I’ve had several cups of tea and no headaches.  If the Iron-Clad gets discolored, or the handle gets too hot, or it gets liver spots on the inside, or any of the other pitfalls occur that I’ve been warned against by helpful Amazon reviewers, I’m going to look the other way.  I don’t intend to do any more kettle shopping unless this one randomly shatters in my hand.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

From the Archives - Flooding


I came across this little story—a true one—very recently. I’d completely forgotten it. This takes place just a few weeks after my wife and I had finished an 8-month bike tour and were living in a tiny apartment in Russian Hill.

Flooding – January 13, 1995

Lots of flooding out here. The other day, at what seemed like a wee hour of the morning, the phone rang. I picked it up, totally groggy: “Hullo?”

“Hi! It’s me, Mom.” Huh? This didn’t sound like my mom, and my mother-in-law didn’t refer to herself as “Mom” when talking to me, and it didn’t sound like her either. But I figured I better play it safe. I’d hate to tell my actual mother-in-law that she had the wrong number (i.e., that I didn’t recognize her voice).

“Oh, hi! Nice to hear from you,” I replied.

“Were you sleeping?” she (whoever she was) asked.

“Oh, no, uh, not really.” Although I still didn’t recognize the voice, I felt that by continuing to throw out stock phrases, I could hold my own long enough to figure out who was on the phone—and whose voice I was supposed to have recognized.

“Well, I knew there was a lot of flooding going on out there, and just wanted to make sure you two were okay.” (Voice notwithstanding, this is exactly the kind of worried check-up call my mother-in-law would make.)

“Yes, we’re both fine. No flooding at our end.”  This wasn’t completely true, but I hate to make people worry.

“Oh, I’m so relieved. That was the main thing. Oh, and I wanted to tell you that S— got the things you sent him. Thing is, now he wants to go buy all the most expensive mountain biking equipment!” she exclaimed. Now I was even more confused. The mountain biking link was a little too close to be a coincidence. And now, my yet-groggy mind racing, I came up with a link for the name S—: this could be my wife’s ex-boyfriend from high school, with whose mother she is still very close: close enough, in fact, that she gave us a gift of eight table settings of fine porcelain plates, bowls, cups, saucers, etc. Could she have said “This is S—’s mom”? Or had I even heard the name correctly? And could I have actually sent anything to S—? Perhaps a thank-you card, since we’d stayed with him toward the end of the bike tour. Could I have enclosed anything with the card? I was just too groggy to remember.

“Well, you know I always like to encourage bicycling, even if it does tend to get expensive,” I said. This seemed like a safe statement.

“Yes, well, not for you, of course, since you work full-time at a bike shop!” she said.

Now I was really confused. Surely this couldn’t be a coincidence ... up until recently, I actually had been working full-time at a bike shop. So I decided to go out on a limb: “Well actually, I’m only working weekends at the shop now—I’m working downtown now.” This was true.

“Gosh, really? Downtown?”

“Yeah, downtown.” I didn’t feel like getting more specific, since I was probably talking to a stranger.

“Well . . . I guess that’s more money, anyway.”


“Well, how’s my daughter?” she asked. Well, she was somebody’s mother-in-law, anyway.

“Oh, just fine,” I said. “She’s still sleeping. Should I get her up?” I felt I was now mere seconds away from a wonderful practical joke. I could tell my wife her mom was on the phone, and moments later—after they’d shared a very awkward and bewildering exchange—my little charade would be over. Unless, of course, this woman were to end up thinking her son-in-law was completely sane, but her own daughter was crazy.

“Oh, no, don’t wake her, I know she loves her sleep,” the woman said. “But she should get up before too long, ‘cause she has to be to work by 9:00, right? Well, anyway, you’re both safe, and that’s what’s important.”

Okay, that was the kicker. My actual mother-in-law would know full well that her daughter hadn’t yet found a job. It was clearly time to clear things up, but it seemed I’d taken the conversation too far to stop now.

I’d been through this before. When I was a teenager, I got a phone call from my old friend Steve—at least, that’s who he claimed to be. It seemed impossible that this guy could know another male Dana, so I played along while trying to remember who Steve was. This went on for several phone calls, over the course of which I realized there was no way I knew him. He and the real Dana had been friends in Michigan (where I’d never lived), and he said we should go out drinking sometime (which I was too young to do). But I didn’t know how to explain myself, so far into our rekindled friendship. Things finally unraveled when he called up and my mom answered. “No, I’m his mother!” she said before hanging up on him. “Who was that?” I asked her. “I don’t know,” she replied, “but he said, ‘Who are you, his woman?’”

And so now here I was again, sure this was a wrong number but unable to find a way out. So I told this would-be mother-in-law, “Yes, we’re both perfectly safe. Thanks for calling.”

“Okay, bye,” she said, and then there was awkward silence. Was her son-in-law supposed to say “Love ya, Mom,” or maybe “Love ya, Jane”? Was she waiting for this? Was I getting some poor son-in-law in trouble?

“Bye,” I said, and hung up the phone. I wondered how her daughter and son-in-law were actually doing. Probably had to evacuate their home. Could be dead. Oh well, at least the nice lady wouldn’t worry.

An hour later the phone rang again, and I asked my wife to answer it. She picked up and, after a pause, said, “No, nobody here by that name.”