Saturday, April 30, 2016

Ask Mr. Laundry

Dear Mr. Laundry,

I’m rather farsighted and without a microscope I can’t read the washing instructions on most of my clothing tags.  I can make out the symbols, though.  Problem is, I don’t understand them.  Can you translate?

Walter Darnell, St. Louis, MO

Dear Wally,

Here’s a nice summary of the washing symbols, but be careful:  these are the American ones and may not match the overseas symbols used in your clothing:

(Click above to zoom in.)

Fortunately, lots of clothing gives you the various versions of symbols you might encounter based on what country you’re in:

See?  Some countries use black bleach, apparently.  Others have really weird looking irons.  Some keep their bleach in beakers.  The circle with the P in it?  P for Permitted, I assume.  A for Allowed, perhaps?  Or A-OK?

Dear Mr. Laundry,

Help!  My wife is a very careless laundress.  Wait, let me restate that.  She’s not a laundress.  Not by profession.  What I mean is, she is very careless about the laundry.  She’s always putting, like, cashmere sweaters through the washer and dryer, or washing my Lycra on hot and drying it on high.  Is there anything to be done?

[Name and location withheld by request]

Dear Withheld,

All I can recommend is getting as involved in the laundry as you can.  Develop a system for hiding those non-machine-washable garments.  I wouldn’t nag your wife too much about it because this just won’t do any good and you need to pick your battles … marriage counselors and divorce lawyers are a lot more expensive than clothes, after all.  (If your wife has a sense of humor, and has seen the film “Raise the Red Lantern,” you might yell—upon discovering another ruined garment—“Cover the lanterns!”)

Also, look for the silver lining.  My sister-in-law inherited a nice wool sweater from a guy who shrunk it in the dryer.  Then she shrunk it in the dryer and so it went to her daughter, and so on down to her toddler.  As for me, my wife put my nice merino wool sweater through the wash and made it all ratty, which greatly increased its utility because I no longer had to “keep it nice.”  In fact, it became my favorite sweater for this very reason.  When’s the last time you got to work on your bike while wearing merino wool?

Dear Mr. Laundry,

I’m terrible about leaving things in my pockets when I put things through the wash.  I’ve ruined three cell phones this way!  Is there any cell phone you know of that can survive a trip through the wash?

Sarah Kitteredge, Providence, RI

Dear Sarah,

The Motorola FONE (aka Motofone) F3 is the only one I know of.  My nephew put this through the wash twice, and the first time it survived completely intact.

If you’re looking for a smartphone that will handle this, I think you’re dreaming.  That said, my Motorola Droid Turbo fell into the ocean recently and was almost swept out to sea, but miraculously survived.  But a full wash cycle?  I wouldn’t try it!

Dear Mr. Laundry,

Is it true that other developed countries are less profligate than the US when it comes to drying everything in the dryer?

Robin Baxter, Portland, OR

Dear Robin,

In much of Europe, line drying is very popular.  In England, even in London, I’ve seen permanent clotheslines in backyards (or “gardens” as they’d call them).  And check out this rig in an apartment in Glasgow:

My brother had an apartment in The Netherlands with no dryer … he line dried everything, including cloth diapers.

In the U.S., of course, you’re more likely to run into a homeowners’ association ban on clotheslines, even though these bylaws are currently illegal in 19 states!  Fortunately, you’re protected by a 1979 Oregon Law that says any restrictions on “solar radiation as a source for heating, cooling or electrical energy” are “void and unenforceable.”

Dear Mr. Laundry,

You have a Ph.D. in Laundry Science from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.  Why don’t you call yourself “Dr. Laundry”?  Just curious.

Bob Snelling, Phoenix, AZ

Dear Bob,

I am aware that The Clorox Company has an online Q&A called “Dr. Laundry” and I don’t want to get into legal trouble like Mr. Beer did, that poor bastard.  He tried to use “Dr. Beer” and was sternly warned to “cease and desist.”  Those close to him say he never recovered from the ordeal.

Dear Mr. Laundry,

What’s the funniest laundry instruction tag you’ve seen?

Alex Hayle, New York City, NY

Dear Alex,

Are we talking intentionally funny, or unintentionally?  Here’s a winner in both categories:

That’s from a pair of bike shorts.  The manufacturer is clearly having a little fun with “Avoid crashes.”  But it’s unintentionally funny, I think, that the size is given as both XXL and M; that there are two sets of washing instructions that contradict each other; and that we get this cryptic instruction, “Iron low, right side only.”  What could possibly be the point of that restriction?  And who in the history of mankind has ironed a pair of bike shorts?

I also like this tag, from a pair of bike gloves:

“Don’t allow to lay on itself or with other items when wet”?  How do you keep something from laying [sic] on itself, anyway?  Or even from lying on itself?  What could possibly be the consequence of this happening?  And what shape could you reshape the glove into that it wouldn’t be lying on itself?  And can you really reshape a glove to begin with? 

Dear Mr. Laundry,

Let’s get down to brass tacks:  when laundering is taken into consideration, are cloth diapers actually better for the environment than disposable?

Juanita Perez, El Paso, TX

Dear Juanita,

This article suggests that cloth diapers are actually highly problematic because they’re made of cotton, and as she puts it, “the data on cotton is damning.”  I don’t put a lot of stock in this article because the author works for a think tank that represents the interests of the waste management industry; because she thinks “data” is singular; because I’m not going to stop wearing cotton in favor of disposable clothing (which would be the natural extension of this article’s conclusion); because this article presents a pretty good rebuttal; and because babies are quicker to be potty-trained when they’re clad in cloth diapers, which isn’t even considered in the article.

I’m not saying everybody should necessarily switch to cloth diapers.  After all, cloth diapers are a huge hassle.  In fact, babies are a huge hassle.  (On the flip side, vasectomies are arguably a pretty serious hassle, too.)

Dear Mr. Laundry,

What pre-washing, stain-removing product is better:  Spray ‘n Wash, or Shout?

Charles Simon, Boston, MA

Dear Chuck,

They seem to work about the same, as far as I can tell.  So the difference has more to do with what song you get in your head upon using them.  If you watched TV during the ‘80s, you’ll likely get the “Spray ‘n Wash gets out what America gets into” jingle lodged in your brain, which can be annoying.  On the other hand, if you listened to the radio during the ‘80s, you’ll probably fall prey to the Tears for Fears song “Shout.”  This song is terribly catchy, and includes the line “in violent times you shouldn’t have to sell your soul,” which makes no sense.  It implies that you should only have to sell your soul during peacetime.  WTF??

Dear Mr. Laundry,

Do you have any answer to the widely acknowledged mystery of why so many socks get lost in the dryer?

Tom Mahoney, Littleton, CO

Dear Tom,

I researched this phenomenon for years, tirelessly, and got nowhere, and then I stumbled across this blog post, “Conundrum of the Lost Sock,” and realized all my work had been in vain because everything that could ever be said on this topic has already been said.  Glad I could provide the link to you, anyway.

Dear Mr. Laundry,

What’s the most absurd washing instruction you’ve ever seen?

Wanda Bobat, Boseman, MT

Dear Wanda,

Definitely this one right here:

That’s a tough one to read (whose idea was it to print the washing instructions on a black tag, for crying out loud?) so here it is in plain text: 
“WARNING!  This garment has received a special dyeing treatment in order to achieve its unique appearance. Colour may vary from piece to piece.  Please wash this garment separately, inside out and avoid exposure to sunlight which might alter the fabric’s appearance… Avoid making contact with light coloured surfaces.  Be careful with light coloured clothes—body heat may cause bleeding.”
I don’t even know where to start here.  I guess I’ll go sequentially.  First, “WARNING!”  I mean, is this a washing instruction, or a safety advisory?  And then, “Colour may vary from piece to piece.”  I mean, isn’t that true of everything?  And why do we need a label telling us this?  Can’t we tell, just by looking, that this pair of jeans is a different color than that one?  If this “warning” is targeted toward blind people, why isn’t it in braille?  Then we get to “avoid exposure to sunlight.”  Is this a pair of jeans, or a vampire’s cape?  Who doesn’t wear jeans outdoors?  Are these jeans exclusively for nightclubbing?  And in what way could sunlight “alter the fabric’s appearance” other than fading it?  Has society gotten so far off-track that faded blue jeans are no longer acceptable?  And then we get to the startling conclusion:  “Body heat may cause bleeding.”  So I guess even nightclubs are off-limits unless you’re determined to just sit there on a bar stool, as still as possible, perhaps shivering in a dark-colored t-shirt?  Give me a break.

Dear Mr. Laundry,

What would happen—hypothetically speaking—if you didn’t separate your darks from your lights in the laundry?

Lisa Stone, San Francisco, CA

Dear Lisa,

Believe it or not, I’ve been doing just that—for decades!  My recklessness has produced almost no negative consequences.  My whites are plenty white.  Nothing has bled, not even the jeans that are vulnerable to body heat.  The single exception is a pair of unripe-plum-colored yoga pants my wife ran through that turned everything pink.  They were pure garbage, those pants.

Have you ever noticed how laundromat dryers will tell you to dry all cotton garments on high—and yet you’ll never encounter a single tag that says “tumble dry high”?  In decades of careful laundering I think I’ve only encountered one garment that even said “tumble dry medium.”  I think it’s a giant liability shift on the part of the Clothing Industrial Complex.  They create these stupid rules for laundering so that if anything ever goes wrong with a garment they can blame the consumer.  Look at this tag:  the manufacturer blames the clothing’s “pilling effect” on zippers, Velcro, and even embroidered saddles.

Dear Mr. Laundry,

Will you do my laundry?

Greg Crow, St. George, UT

Dear Greg,


Mr. Laundry is a syndicated columnist whose advice column, “Ask Mr. Laundry,” appears in over 400 blogs worldwide.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Disc Brakes for Road Bikes?


There has been a debate raging over whether or not to allow hydraulic disc brakes in professional road racing. (Yes, bike race fans can get all heated up over just about anything.) I never much cared about this issue, and neither should you, really. That said, current events—first the decision to allow these brakes, then a gnarly injury, and then a decision to ban them again—are making it hard to stay on the fence. You don’t want to be the cycling equivalent of an undecided voter, do you? Read on for new ways to argue about this, whether it’s because a) you care, or b) you like to provoke people.

What’s good about disc brakes

First of all, let’s not pretend there’s any clear need to replace the caliper brakes on road bikes. I weigh more than 90% of the riders in the World Tour peloton, and I can descend a 20-percent grade with one finger on each lever of my caliper brakes. But that doesn’t mean disc brakes don’t have advantages.

First of all, they let you ride wheels that aren’t very true. Now, this isn’t a huge deal, because we all like our wheels true anyway, and no rider worth his salt keeps his brakes super-tight. To my mind, having super-tight brakes is like wearing a belt and suspenders at the same time, perhaps over an elastic waistband. You can safely run your caliper brakes really loose. This is actually better because your grip is stronger when your fingers are less outstretched. Imagine a tennis ball the size of a softball: could you squeeze it as hard? Nope.

(When I was racing, my bike tended to flunk the pre-race tech inspection if I didn’t temporarily set my brakes tighter via the barrel adjusters. Once I got my inspection sticker I’d loosen them back up. And how many races did I crash in because I couldn’t brake hard enough? ZERO.)

Still, there are instances where it would be handy not to have to worry about a wobbly wheel rim rubbing on the brakes. Say you crash in a race, and you’re the so-called protected rider on Team Sky, but your teammates are nowhere to be found, and you’ve knocked your wheel out a fair bit: you’d be glad if there were no brake pads for the rim to hit. You can go pretty damn fast on a wobbly wheel if the brakes aren’t rubbing.

Then, there’s the practical matter of having to keep your wheels clean. I love having disc brakes on my mountain bike because I can have thick smear of mud all over my rim and it affects my braking not a whit. But does this benefit carry over to the road bike? Generally not. I will say that I once blew through two entire sets of brake pads in one rainy month. So disc brakes would be nice for wet climates—at least for us consumers. But racers? These guys have professional mechanics. They don’t have to worry about picking little metal flecks out of their pads and/or replacing them all the time.

Maintenance aside, do caliper brakes perform well enough in the rain? In a protracted e-mail debate among my bike club, one rider—whose road racing chops are well established—wrote, “There have only been a few times I wish I had road disc brakes. In the rain and while descending Trinity Rd, I honestly couldn’t grab enough brake. Trinity in the rain would be an absolute nightmare.” (Actually, I did once descend Trinity Grade in the rain, and though I don’t remember braking problems, that’s probably because I got so cold that day I probably did permanent damage to my brain.) Disc brakes do have the advantage in this realm … they’re really not affected by rain or mud.

Now, there’s one more significant benefit conferred by disc brakes: your rims won’t overheat. Overheating is a problem with carbon fiber rims, and is sufficiently prevalent that carbon rims are banned in Levi’s Granfondo, a local cyclosportif. (Here is one rider’s horror story.) Even if you’re a skilled enough rider to avoid this pitfall (i.e., you don’t need to brake that much), you do have to pay a lot of attention to what brake pads you use on carbon rims. I would guess that a fair number of World Tour mechanics are drunks, and that riders have crashed due to having the wrong pads installed. Is this a conspiracy theory? No, I’m suggesting haplessness, not evil intent. Is this a stretch? Yeah, I guess it is. But I’m just trying to give disc brakes a fair shake here.

What’s bad about disc brakes

Check out this photo:

This was Exhibit A in a debate among pro riders about the dangers of disc brakes, which have the reputation of being like blades in a crash situation. According to Cycling Weekly, the above photo was tweeted by a rider with the caption, “why we probs don’t need disc brakes.” The problem with this tweet, beyond the use of the silly non-word “probs,” is that the injury was caused by a good old fashioned chainring, not a disc brake.

The idea of discs being like blades resurfaced recently when pro racer Francisco Ventoso crashed in the Paris-Roubaix classic and cut his shin open very badly. “It was so bad you could see the tibia,” his directeur sportif said. Ventoso wrote an angry open letter calling for a ban on disc brakes, and shortly thereafter the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) did ban them, having decided there’s something to this “discs are blades” notion.

(Is the track record of disc brakes in road racing poor enough to warrant this ban? I don’t know, and I honestly can’t be bothered to research the matter. But disc brakes have been used in mountain biking for many years without causing enough injury to make the news. Mountain bikes have a long history of accepting innovations sooner than road bikes, often for no good reason. Consider the threadless fork steerer: this appeared on mountain bikes during the 1980s, but wasn’t widely adopted for road bikes until around 2000. This design is unequivocally superior to its predecessor in every way … why the delay?)

Another problem with disc brakes is that the rotors can get dangerously hot, as pointed out by no less a cycling authority than Eddy Merckx. (Can you burn yourself on a rim heated by caliper brakes? Yes, but probably not as easily.) On the plus side, getting cut by a red-hot brake disc, rather than a chainring, might have a silver lining: all that heat might just cauterize the wound. (Yes, I’m being facetious, to stave off boredom.)

Some contend that disc brakes are too powerful and cause riders to slow or stop too abruptly. This is nonsense. I have top-end Dura-Ace caliper brakes on my road bike, and their power is no easier to modulate than the lower-end Deore hydraulic disc brakes on my mountain bike. The big difference is that I ride the brakes a lot more on the mountain bike, and thanks to the hydraulics my hands don’t get as tired as they used to. That’s a real benefit, and I’d never go back to cantilevers (or “cantaloupe-squeezers” as we used to call them)—but I’m not yearning for disc brakes on my road bike. Road conditions are seldom so demanding as rocky, sometimes muddy single-track trails.

Do pro racers need better brakes?

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that disc brakes really do stop better, and really do solve real-world problems like braking in the rain and safely achieving minimum rim weight. Does that mean racers need them, or even ought to have them?

I’ve been following this sport for decades and it’s never seemed like a lot of crashes had to do with poor braking. Meanwhile, the bikes—and moreover the riders—are getting lighter all the time, which I think actually lessens the need for powerful brakes. (The physics is a bit complicated, but empirically speaking, heavy riders descend faster.)

My pet theory about the increase in crashes is that race radios are turning riders into mere drones, and directeur sportifs are always yelling at them to go to the front, so they’re all fighting to get up there without (apparently) deciding for themselves if it’s safe to do so. Also, I think doping helps racers get fast much more quickly—look at Chris Froome’s overnight transformation from a middling Continental rider to Tour de France champion—and their growth in skill can’t keep pace. (So far there’s no drug for improving bike handling.)

Meanwhile, there’s reason to believe that better brakes might lead to less careful riding. I’m thinking here of Malcolm Gladwell’s article “Blowup” in The New Yorker in which he describes an early trial of antilock brake systems (A.B.S.) in cars. A fleet of taxis in Munich was outfitted with A.B.S. and compared to a control group with regular brakes. Oddly, A.B.S. didn’t reduce the number of accidents, because many A.B.S.-equipped drivers became more reckless and took bigger risks. Gladwell explains, “As economists would say, [the cab drivers] ‘consumed’ the risk reduction, they didn’t save it.”

This effect could be more pronounced in bike races, because the racers have even more incentive than a taxi driver to “consume” risk reduction. After all, a few seconds on a descent could be the difference between winning and losing, whereas a cab driver shaving a few seconds here and there isn’t likely to make very much more money in a day.

Then there’s the matter of the riders’ opinion. Frankly, I have a reflexive aversion to riders being coddled by the UCI. Remember, in the early Tour de France, riders had to make all their own roadside repairs, which was pretty badass if you ask me. Reading Francisco Ventoso’s whiny letter, I didn’t come to admire the guy:
“All of this happens because the international riders’ association—the CPA—national riders’ associations, international and national feds, teams and, above all of them, OURSELVES, PROFESSIONAL RIDERS, are not doing anything.”
What is “all of this”? He hurt his leg on a disc. He contends that another rider was injured by a disc as well, but this hasn’t been corroborated. Disc brake injuries aren’t exactly an epidemic. So why is Ventoso sounding like a 1900s-era slaughterhouse worker who has seen half a dozen colleagues fall into the hopper and become sausage? Whatever happened to being stoic and shrugging it off? Whatever happened to riders using whatever equipment they were given and keeping their mouths shut? (Granted, most of them are, but the few exceptions rankle.)

Whom are bicycles for, anyway?

The worldwide bicycle industry is worth roughly $50 billion. It does not exist to serve pro bike racers. To some degree, these racers have jobs because they serve the bicycle industry. The pro peloton is like a giant laboratory for bicycle technology innovations, along with a way to market these innovative products (because after all, everybody wants what the pros ride). This isn’t a sport where the riders tell the industry what they need; it’s a sport where the industry figures out what it can probably sell, and uses the riders to help do it.

Electronic shifting is a perfect example. As a concept, it’s kind of nifty, but utterly needless—a solution looking for a problem. Actually, that’s not quite right. There is a problem: consumers need an excuse to replace their existing (perfectly good) stuff with new (perfectly good) stuff. This is what makes the economy go. The bicycle industry (like most industries) is constantly asking the question, “How can we improve this product sufficiently that people will buy it right away?”

From that perspective, it totally matters what ought to appeal to everyday cyclists. I would appreciate a braking system that allows me to use whatever fancy carbon rims I want, without needing to keep them clean or true. I don’t personally seek the pros’ seal of approval on what I buy—but so many riders do. And that, more than anything, is why electronic shifting is used in the pro peloton.

Speaking of which, Ventoso totally undermines his own argument when he (needlessly) writes about electronic shifting in his anti-disc manifesto:
“We could also talk about the revolution that has brought the electronic shifting. When it was first shown and used, we all were surprised and made early judgments: it’s not necessary, it might not work well, carrying batteries seems wrong, having to connect your bike to AC is bonkers… And now, we can’t imagine our bikes without it.”
Look at this whiner! If he’d had some safety-related excuse to get out of using electronic shifting systems, he’d have made it. And yet look what happened: the electronic shifting technology evolved, and/or he got used to it, and he now loves it and promotes it like a good little marketing foot soldier. With regard to disc brakes, I think he’d be a far more responsible professional if he provided feedback to the industry—“Uh, guys, these brakes are great but it’d be nice if they didn’t slice us up”—rather than trying to put the kibosh on the whole innovation.

Where do we go from here?

My final thought on this anti-disc issue is that there’s a widespread assumption being made that they’re intrinsically hazardous in a crash situation. Well, they don’t have to be. The current rotors are totally flat disks, so the edges are somewhat sharp compared to most bicycle parts (notable exceptions being chainring teeth, which are much sharper, and bladed spokes, which are copious and have a tendency to be part of a spinning wheel). A manufacturer could pretty easily curl the edge of the rotor around so that its profile, instead of resembling a lowercase L, would resemble a 9 (or more accurately the Hebrew letter ףּ). Perhaps this would be harder to do when the rotor isn’t perfectly round (frankly, I don’t know why so many of them have a wavy edge). In that instance, why not just run a nice bit of silicone rubber trim along that edge? Make it out of the same heat-resistant stuff “rubber” spatulas are made of. Secure it by making it wrap around the edge of the rotor on both sides, with some nice adhesive within.

(Yes, I realize neither of these proposed rotors would clear the brake pistons during wheel changes. The brake mechanism would need to be modified, too: put a quick-release mechanism in there that would move the pistons out of the way during wheel changes. This modification would be child’s play for the bicycle industry.)

Perhaps the inevitable resolution of this issue is best summed up by a stirring proclamation from René Takens, President of the Confederation of the European Bicycle Industry (CONEBI): “We will not allow technical innovation to be halted in its tracks by racers’ complaints. We will stand up to that handful of whiny little bitches in the peloton, and we will prevail.”

(No, of course he didn’t really say that. But maybe he should.)

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Friday, April 15, 2016

From the Archives - Unemployment Poetry

NOTE:  This post is rated R for pervasive mild strong language and disturbing themes.


Since I started this blog seven years ago, I’ve posted 346 times (generally four posts per month).  It’s not easy to write that often, so I sometimes don’t.  That’s what these “from the archives” posts are for.

Lately I’ve been doing a hybrid version of this:  I post an old poem, then provide all-new footnotes and commentary on it.  (Pretend you found this in your Norton Anthology of American Teen Poetry.)  Today I go back to a poem written under extreme duress:  I’d just turned 18, moved away from home, and then hit the doldrums after entering my third month of unemployment.

Unemployment poetry – August, 1987


I sit here letting time roll slowly by
My [word redacted] has become a bore.                        2
I cannot find a job, although I try;
And while I sit here, I’m becoming poor.

I buy the paper each and every day
And scan the ads for work I’d like to do.                       6
But each employer seems to always say
My years of working are, fuck you, too few.

Unless somebody takes a chance on me,
And signs me up with hope that I will learn,              10
A dumbshit’s all I’ll ever get to be;
Experience I’ll never get to earn.

     This vicious circle simply has to end
     fuck hopes and dreams                                                14

Footnotes & commentary


The title should not be construed as anything aimed at the reader.  I assumed when writing this poem that nobody would ever read it.  I knew back then (though I’ve evidently since forgotten) that nobody wants to read amateur poetry.  I’d read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and surely took note of the Vogon captain’s threat that he’ll not only fling the heroes into space to die, but that “if you’re very lucky, I might read you some of my poetry first.”

Frankly, I’m posting this poem here largely for archival purposes:  until now, it has existed only in the original hardcopy, on paper that’s gradually disintegrating.  If you’re reading this on April 15, 2006, or in the days (or perhaps even weeks) following that date, you’re in a race against my mom and might very well be the first living human to lay eyes on this poem.  (Dead humans, down in hell, may see it constantly; it may be posted in every corridor down there.)  If you think you may be the lucky first reader, feel free to e-mail me and see!

So why “I DON’T CARE ABOUT YOU”?  Well, it was a dark time, and I was an angry youth, and had soured on soft rock around then.  I distinctly remember turning against Simon and Garfunkel (more on this later), and railing at the Peter Gabriel song “Don’t Give Up,” mainly due to guest singer Kate Bush’s contribution to the song, which (in my angry youth mode) I might have described as “menstrual.”  So I turned to punk rock, notably Fear, which I had on cassette.  This album had a very memorable song titled “I don’t care about you.”  (Sample lines:  “I seen an old man have a heart attack in Manhattan/ Well he died while we sat there lookin’ at him/ Ain’t he cute?”)  When I finished this poem (as you can see it was only very lightly edited) I realized it needed a title, and “I DON’T CARE ABOUT YOU” seemed as good as any.

(A final note:  my favorite song on the Fear album in those days, due to my depression and frustration, was called “Getting the Brush,” which I’ve explored at length in an exegesis in these pages … click here.)

Line 1:  letting time roll slowly by

This may well be an unconscious tribute to the Simon and Garfunkel song “The Boxer,” which was probably on my mind, as it includes the lyrics “When I left my home and my family….”  My line “letting time roll slowly by” possibly alludes to “Now the years are rolling by me/ They are rockin’ evenly” (which you’ll find in the concert version of this song).

Line 2:  [word redacted]

The first version of this line read, “Relaxing has become a total bore.”  This line wasn’t exactly honest.  I mean, relaxing was a bore, but I later revised this bit to be more specific, and edgier, and more to the point.  That was all well and good for a poem that just moldered away in a 3-ring binder, but not for the Internet.  It’s a happy coincidence that “word redacted” fits nicely into a line of iambic pentameter.

Line 4:  I’m becoming poor

This is probably my least favorite phrase of the whole poem (and/or any poem ever written by anybody).  It seems somehow incorrect to say a person “becomes” poor.  I’m not at all sure poverty works like that.  Many people are born into poverty; some transcend it; some lose everything; but “becoming poor” … it just sounds wrong.  Besides, a middle class kid who knows he’ll one day go to college may be penniless, but doesn’t actually have to face the prospect of real poverty.  This is a sad example of the amateur poet picking words because they meet the rhythm and rhyme requirements of the sonnet.  Pretty lazy on my part.

Line 6:  scan the ads

Over time, fewer and fewer people will remember that, before the Internet, when you were looking for work you actually had to buy a newspaper and look through the classified ads.  These printed ads were billed per word per day, so they tended to be very brief and thus often cryptic; e.g., “Admin asst type 70 wpm WordStar filing phones $1200/mo neg/ xlnt benefits 3 yrs exp req’d.”  The name of the prospective employer was often not given.  You’d just dial a phone number, tell whoever answered “I’m, um, calling about the help wanted ad?” and hope for the best.  I wonder how many times I was rebuffed by some receptionist who didn’t even know her company was hiring.  (Probably never:  I’m just rewriting history to let myself off the hook for interviewing poorly.)

Line 8:  years of working are, fuck you, too few

I was living in San Luis Obispo, a college town, and there were probably plenty of people trying to get the lucrative office jobs I sought.  Likely there were even college graduates going after those jobs.  I just didn’t know how the world worked.  I also kept holding out hope that Spirit Cycle Works, the bike shop where my brother worked, at would eventually hire me, but I was deluding myself.  It was plain to see that Spirit was slowly dying.

In revising this poem, I was totally right to replace the word “alas.”  That might have conveyed how a prospective employer might have tried to let me down easy, except that almost nobody uses the word “alas.” I sure didn’t hear it from the manager at Sizzler Steakhouse where, in desperation, I applied as a dishwasher—and was denied!  The guy said, “You didn’t get the job.  But check back with me on Thursday because, this guy I hired?  I don’t think he’s going to work out.”  I think “fuck you” is a very accurate, concise summary of that message.  And the internal rhyme of “fuck you, too few” is probably the strongest thing about this poem.

Line 10:  signs me up

This revision makes no sense.  The phrase “hires me” is better all around.  Why did I change it?  Who knows.  I think I just wasn’t trying very hard—at this poem, or at getting a job.  At the time I was scared shitless about my future and a kind of paralysis had set in.  To be honest, I wasn’t rejected that many times … I just wasn’t applying to enough places.

Line 11:  dumbshit

Changing “bum” to “dumbshit” was a fine edit.  After all, nobody uses “bum” to mean “chronically unemployed person” anymore (nor back in 1987).  A bum was somebody who spent too much time on the couch or borrowed money without paying it back.  And of course “dumbshit” perfectly matched the overall mood of the poem.

That said, the idea presented here—that getting a job will keep you from becoming a dumbshit—is problematic.  As it turned out, the first job I ended up getting—working in a factory canning underwear—would not have prevented me from declining into dumbshit-hood.

Canning underwear?  It’s true.  I worked at a factory that made Hot Chillys thermal underwear, which was packaged in cans.  I still have one of them:

Full disclosure:  I only worked the canning machine for about a day.  The company made better use of me in the shipping department, which took more brains because the underwear wasn’t being made nearly fast enough to keep up with orders, so we had to ship partially-filled orders to every customer and keep track of how much product each customer was owed.  That was a pretty good job.  In fact, when Spirit Cycleworks let my brother go, I got him a job at the factory working right alongside me.

Line 13:  vicious circle simply has to end

This line makes no sense.  My situation was a bit like a Catch-22, in that I had to have work experience to get a job but couldn’t get that experience without a job—but that’s in no way a vicious circle.  There was absolutely nothing cyclical going on, nor anything vicious.  I certainly wasn’t going to get a job as a poet with clunky lines like that.

Line 14:  fuck hopes and dreams

This was a bold, decisive way to get out of the corner that line 13 had painted me into.  You can tell “fuck hopes and dreams” was added later, as it’s in the same blue ink as the revisions.  I must have gotten to the end of line 13 and just given up on the poem, and then came back to it later and hastily finished it off without worrying about meter, rhyme, or even conveying anything meaningful. 

This line, “fuck hopes and dreams,” is actually a cinematic reference, but to a movie whose title I cannot remember.  It was a really awful movie.  My brother and I rented a lot of movies in those days, most of them awful.  This line came toward the end of the movie when the main character, totally stymied by everything in his life, melodramatically picked up a gun, put it to his head, and uttered this line.  I can’t even remember if he pulled the trigger because at this point in the movie my brother and I started laughing so hard we couldn’t see straight.  My god that was a stupid movie.

When researching this commentary I looked up “fuck hopes and dreams” on the Internet Movie Database but couldn’t find anything.  Probably it was such a forgettable movie that nobody bothered to mine it for memorable quotes.  My search did turn up a movie called “Young People F---ing,” which earned a Critics’ Metascore of 39 out of 100, which is remarkably low (but not the worst I’ve seen).

So, it’s been a long time since I wrote my unemployment poem, but I’m pretty sure the last line was a way to tell myself, “You’re being silly and melodramatic, lugubrious even, like that awful movie, and it’s time to stop writing indulgent, woe-is-me poetry and go get a damn job.”  Which I did.  After the underwear cannery gig ended, I held down two jobs concurrently—one at a bike shop and one at a radio station, as an evening receptionist—which not only paid the bills, but helped me save up some money for college.  Looking back, I’m glad I had that unemployment experience, and the depression that went with it, just to get it out of my system—hopefully once and for all.

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Thursday, April 7, 2016

More Cycling Commentary - Is This Poster Sexist?


In my last post, I analyzed the scandal following the Milan-San Remo road race, and determined that a) the winner, Arnaud Démare, is a douchebag, and b) there are better things to debate than whether or not yet another pro cyclist cheated.  In this post, I take on a far more worthy question:  is the following poster sexist?

The poster, advertising the Euskal Emakumeen bicycle race in Spain, was withdrawn from distribution by the race organizers after a women’s advocacy group, the Basque Women’s Institute (aka Anderebide de Iurreta), filed a complaint, calling the poster “sexist.”  (Click here or here for more on this story.)

Well, is it sexist?

Is the poster sexist?  Good question, and one worth posing, far more so than my last polemic.  There is one right answer to the question “Did Démare cheat in the 2016 Milan-San Remo?” and Démare, at least, is certain of the answer.  But sexism is a huge grey area.

I have to admit, when I first saw the article about the retracted poster, I thought, “They shouldn’t have retracted it, because I enjoy looking at it.”  This was a basic brain stem reaction.  But then, isn’t giving too much authority to the brain stem a big part of how sexism manages to persist in civilized society?

I looked some more at the poster.  It’s certainly very strange, with the closeup of the braided hair in the background.  But can the poster really be called sexist?  I asked my teenage daughter if she thinks so.  “It’s really weird,” she said.  “But I don’t know about sexist.”

Would the poster be particularly sexist if the rider shown, rider Katarzyna Niewiadoma, weren’t last year’s winner, but had been chosen simply because she’s attractive?  Or is it sexist because she’s blowing a kiss?  Does it matter if she was asked to blow a kiss so they could put that on the poster, vs. the race organizers finding a random photo of her blowing a kiss to the camera and deciding to use it?  After all, racers blow kisses to the crowd all the time during victory salutes.

Is it even a kiss?

But wait, is she even blowing a kiss to begin with?  I’ve done a bit of research and learned that she may actually be making “duck lips.”  I’m not on any social media platform, so I’m kind of new to this expression, but I’ve learned that making duck lips, a mainstay of social media selfies, is kind of like blowing a kiss and kind of like pouting.  The question is, do duck lips automatically connote something sexual or flirtatious?

To delve into this question I consulted a Christian website called “Secret Keeper Girl” which is dedicated to raising morally upright girls.  The columnist, Charmaine, took the position that duck lips are okay so long as the intention behind them is pure:  “If ‘duck face’ is just a fun, silly thing [your daughter] likes to do, then by all means, LET HER PLAY!”  On the other hand, Charmaine notes, “Many of the models and celebs who pose like this do have trashy sensual intentions.”

So what was Niewiadoma’s intention in making duck lips for the camera?  Well, she’s not a model and I would argue that even the more famous bike racers aren’t really celebs.  I think we should give Niewiadoma the benefit of the doubt as regards her motives, because five out of seven commenters on the “Secret Keeper Girl” article opined that duck lips are harmless—and remember that these are the kinds of earnest parents that consult websites to make sure they’re doing right by Jesus.  And one comment in particular puts Niewiadoma’s expression in a whole new light:  “20 years ago I use to smile that way. The message was this: I am in control, superior, above competition, it is impossible to compete with me.”  Could that be what’s going on here?

Am I sexist?

If you read my Biased Blow-By-Blow race reports, you’ll know that I generally have no problem quickly making up my mind about people; I don’t hesitate to call a spade a spade, or even a “filthy doping spade.”  So why am I being so careful and hesitant with this allegation of a poster being sexist?

Well, I freely acknowledge that when it comes to sexism, not just anybody can appoint himself or herself an arbitrator.  And I’m feeling particularly vulnerable to assaults on my authority since, not long ago, I discredited a bike racer in these pages by calling him a “douchebag.”  Do I undermine my own credibility by having so recently used a derogatory label that’s arguably associated with the female sex?

On this score I will defend my word choice on the grounds that “douchebag” is used, in common parlance, far more widely to describe a jerk, loser, dickhead, etc. than an actual douchebag, which I’ve never seen in my life and which, as far as I am aware, nobody I know has ever used.

(It’s kind of like the word “hysterical,” which got Johnnie Cochran in trouble during the O.J. Simpson trial when he used this adjective to describe Marcia Clark, the prosecutor.  “Hysterical” was made out to be the epitome of sexist slur, based on its etymology—it derives from the Greek “hysteros” (ὕστερος), meaning “womb.”  But who, among the dim-witted scores of gawkers glued to their TVs throughout the O.J. trial, actually know any Greek?  I never bought it.  Men and women alike are capable of hysterical behavior.)

In my entire life, I have only once used the word “douche” to mean an actual douche.  This was back in the ‘80s, when there was this TV ad running where a teenaged girl asked her mom, “Mom, can a douche help you feel more confident?” Her mom gave her some really supportive feedback on the brand of douche being advertised, and it was clear the two had excellent rapport, far better than I had with my own mom at the time, and they were increasing it through this dialogue.  Frankly, I was a bit envious.  Why should daughters enjoy this special bond with their mothers, when sons and fathers don’t have anything analogous?

So one day, while watching TV with my mom, I turned to her and asked, “Mom, can a douche help you feel more confident?”  She got really embarrassed, and didn’t know what to say, and the whole thing felt really awkward.  Once again, I failed to achieve the close relationship I could have had with my mom if I were female.  So don’t be getting up in my face about “douche” being sexist.  I wish I had grounds to use the term “douchebag” beyond its ubiquitous meaning of “despicable person” and/or “typical pro cyclist.”

The braid conundrum

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Niewiadoma making duck lips in the poster isn’t itself sexist.  But what of this strange ponytail image?  I’m  told that males on social media often make duck lips, but I’ve never seen a male bike racer with braided hair.  Even the long hair that Phil Anderson sported in the late ‘80s was always flowing free.  What exactly is the point of showcasing this braided hair?

I’m not sure the sexiness has anything to do with it.  When a woman’s sex appeal is being exploited—think of a hot model in a bikini sprawled out on the hood of a muscle car—she almost never has her hair in a braid.  And beyond sex appeal, within other realms where an ideal of feminine beauty is held up—like all those female Disney characters—you almost never see braided hair.  (Not even on Rapunzel, who would have had an obvious practical reason to put her hair in a braid.)

My further rumination on this poster’s braid imagery takes me further into the territory of self-doubt.  Is it fair for me, as a male, to try to judge this poster when I cannot truly have the response to the poster that a female would?  Where accusations of sexism are concerned, men are almost never the victims, so it’s easy enough for us to brush it off and say things like “Lighten up, it’s just a head of hair.”  I was on the brink of asking my daughter about the braid in the poster, and about how she, as a female, feels about braided hair, when I realized I didn’t have to.  I already had her answer, in writing!  Check out this paragraph from her recent mountain bike race report: 
All of the other girls [on the starting line] looked like badasses.  They were all muscular and serious, their hair pulled back in tight braids that made me self-consciously pull at my untidy hair in a futile attempt to make it less gross.  Their bikes were pre-muddied, their legs and arms scarred from crashes, and their gear perfectly color coordinated.  They seemed to me to be the heroines of some dystopian action film, their eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses as they smirked at each other and tossed their perfectly braided hair dramatically.
Based on that evidence, it could be that the Euskal Emakumeen poster was designed to show that women, even pretty ones, aren’t just ornaments—that they’re actually totally badass.  Perhaps this close-up of Niewiadoma’s braid is well within the reasonable use of imagery for a bike race poster.  But before I can conclude that, I think we should consider what a bike race poster is supposed to do in the first place.

What are such posters for?

At the most basic level, a bike race poster does what all print media do:  it promotes the product.  And let’s face it, there are very few societal rules regarding product advertisements, the core ethos seeming to be “whatever works.”  Consider this ad, for Reebok shoes:

This ad really makes no sense at all.  Reebok shoes have nothing to do with the Tour de France; nothing to do with Mario Cipollini; and nothing to do with cycling.  (Reebok did sponsor an American bike racing team during the late ‘80s, and intended to introduce a line of cycling shoes, but never actually did.)  This is a blatant example of sex in advertising … but who would attack it?  We just shrug.  Hey, sex sells, right?

Should bike race promotional posters be held to a different standard?  Well, perhaps … after all, a bike race is held on public roads that go through towns, and thus has a relationship with the community that a shoe company does not.  And since I may never get another chance, I’ll take this opportunity to complain about a different bike race poster:

The above poster features your humble blogger.  Why they decided to use this picture of me, I don’t really know … but it certainly is me.  I remember the photo (from the previous year’s Red Zinger Mini Classic) on which this poster art was based.  My issue is, nobody asked for my permission to use this image of me, and I wasn’t paid any royalties.  Nor was the intent of my facial expression considered.  (Oddly enough, I seem to have been way ahead of my time:  in that picture I appear to be making “sparrow face,” which is reputedly the modern successor to duck lips.)

Getting back to the purpose of bike race posters, I suppose if we assume the point of the Euskal Emakumeen poster is to generate interest in the race, so as to attract spectators, the poster arguably is sexist, because it seems to be saying, “You should watch this race because women bike racers can be pretty, perhaps even flirty, and some of them have badass hairdos.”  When I think of why I watch bike racing, it’s not because the men look good (they certainly don’t) or because they have cool hair (ditto), but because I like to watch people suffer, in a way I can relate to, and I like the speed and aggression and the tactical subtleties of the sport.  A good poster should try to capture that, rather than showing a photo of a racer just standing there, making duck lips, and having a certain hairdo.

Should this poster have been yanked?

And yet, even if the Euskal Emakumeen bike race poster was borderline sexist, whether or not to publicly complain about it is a separate question.  What if the poster did generate more interest in the race, and spectators flocked to it (albeit not necessarily for the right reasons), and they discovered that women’s racing is really exciting?  What if the race promoters had yanked the original poster but didn’t have the budget to create and print new posters, and attendance at the race suffered?  Is the Basque Women’s Institute doing anything to promote women’s bike racing, or are they content to site on the sidelines until it’s time to attack somebody?  And is the benefit of this attack worth the backlash it has caused—an almost uniformly negative reaction to their protest?  And above all, couldn’t the Basque Women’s Institute find a more worthwhile target for their attack on sexism?

In case you haven’t already guessed where I’m going with this, I’ll give you a little hint:

Look at all those sponsors, and the name of the community of Catalunya where the race takes place, juxtaposed with superfly “race ambassadors” clearly not chosen for their long-term association with the sport of bike racing.  The racer being celebrated, Nairo Quintana, looks to be enjoying himself a little too much and probably got in trouble with his wife over this.  I myself confess that, upon seeing this photo, I suddenly became peripherally interested in the Volta a Catalunya, but only in skimming the photos for each stage … and only certain of those photos.  I’m sorry, I can’t help it!

Suffice to say, this spectacle of beautiful women kissing sweaty bike racers in front of a crowd is not bringing out the best in male sports fans.  From the standpoint of cultural sensitivity and responsible promotion of sport, the podium girl tradition is about as sophisticated as that of bikini-clad babes strutting around the ring before a “professional” wrestling match in the U.S.  Meanwhile, there’s a double standard here:  women who win bike races are never attended to by hunky Chippendale types as a way to titillate sports fans.

But where is the Basque Women’s Institute on this podium girl issue?  I did a quick Google search, on a hunch that their activism doesn’t extend here:

In terms of bang for the buck, the Basque Women’s Institute arguably did get a lot of reaction from their protest, with the race pulling the poster and issuing a new one.  But if this organization is really looking to promote social change, perhaps they should have repurposed the poster, allowing its widespread distribution but slapping on a sticker that said, “If you find this poster sexist, or even if you don’t, come to our panel discussion on women’s representation in sport, held at such-and-such venue on such-and-such date.”  They could have arranged this meeting to take place right after the race, near the winner’s podium, where they could have drummed up extra attention via hot-n-hunky podium dudes!

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