Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Rubber Spatulas


As much as I hate Christmas shopping, it’s got to be done.  I discussed this with my wife recently.  “Everybody is getting spatulas this year,” I announced, and began to extrapolate before my wife cut me off.  “I’m not going to talk with you about spatulas,” she said gruffly.

As noted here, my wife needs to draw boundaries by declaring off-limits certain topics or concepts, including Bell’s seasoning, automotive matters (e.g., double-clutching), and especially bike lore. This is entirely reasonable.  Imagine, dear reader, how tiresome it could be to inhabit albertnet for several hours a day.  My wife rightly needs to protect her mental airspace.   And yet, I have so much to say about rubber spatulas! 

Since you have the freedom to close this browser window (a freedom which I encourage, especially if you then close all your browser windows and go outside), I’m going to get into spatulas here.  My thesis?  Spatulas are Love.

Where the rubber meets the bowl

I’m fond only of rubber spatulas.  (The other kind, like you flip pancakes with?  Not interesting to me, other than the basics:  I need to have exactly one of these, a familiar one which I’m used to, and I regard all other shapes and styles as dangerous impostors.)

Now, if you’re feeling all punctilious and want to tell me all about how the things I call rubber spatulas are actually made of plastic, I’ll just stop you right there.  The term “rubber spatula” is an idiom, not a precise descriptor.  We call a Curad adhesive bandage a Band-Aid, and we call bike jerseys “Lycra” even though many (perhaps most) are 100% polyester.  If society can absorb “fat free half-and-half” as a term, I can say “rubber spatula.”  And no, I won’t call it a plastic spatula—that doesn’t mean anything, since so many pancake-flipping spatulas are also plastic.  If you insist on the term “soft plastic spatula,” then I’m going to ask you to say “facial tissue” instead of “Kleenex,” and then I’m going to quibble (e.g., “You’re going to blow your nose into human flesh you’ve harvested from somebody’s face?!”).

Why rubber spatulas?

I am grimly aware than there are many households that don’t own a single rubber spatula.  My college roommates never had them, and at first I worried that the more slovenly among them would use and abuse mine.  Then it dawned on me that these guys had no idea what a rubber spatula was even for.  This came to a head one evening as I was using my spatula to get the last little bit of food out of a can.  “What are you doing?” my otherwise totally reasonable roommate asked.  I was immediately struck by the irony of my having experienced the polar opposite confusion dozens of times, upon seeing him throw an un-scraped can—that’s right, with at least an entire tablespoon of glean-able food left in it—into the recycling.

Here’s the thing.  My blog could go supernova and be turned into a huge series of books and eventually a giant movie franchise, making me a multimillionaire, and I would still scrape every last morsel.  My motivation here is not frugality born of necessity (as it had been during college, when I was perennially broke).  Rather, I use a rubber spatula—on a daily basis, often several times a day—simply because I have been inculcated from birth to do so.

Inculcated from birth

Okay, that previous statement was a bit of an exaggeration—it’s not like when I was still in diapers my mom would seat me on the kitchen counter and give me a demo of proper spatula use.  But she was using a rubber spatula since before I was born, so as soon as I was ready to pay attention, this behavior was on display.  I love the phrase “inculcated from birth” for this reason.  Nothing conveys principles like repeated demonstration.  The fact is, before our kids become surly, rebellious teens, we have years and years to teach them by example.  We walk the walk, and talk the talk, and since our kids literally learn how to walk and talk by imitating us, we parents have a lot of sway during those early years.  It’s up to us to take advantage.

Here’s an example.  My kids—age 13 and 15—do not have cell phones and aren’t on any social media platform.  When I boast of this stuff to other parents, they never say “you’re fricking crazy!” but rather, “How the hell did you swing that?!”  My response?  “They’ve been inculcated from birth that social media is lame and teens don’t need cell phones.”  Because we introduced these concepts so early, and reinforced them the whole way along (mainly by example), it feels normal to my kids not to have Facebook or phones.  No, they’re not happy about it, but it’s their reality and always has been, so they accept it, like religion or the force of gravity.

For my mom, rubber spatulas didn’t start out as a homemaking tool.  She first used them at work, in a hospital laboratory.  She may have even started using them in her microbiology labs in college.  The point was to be very precise in her measurements; after all, the amount of something that sticks to a petri dish or volumetric flask will vary randomly, so it must be entirely gathered up and added to the sample being tested.  (My mom is a great baker and her scientific precision is certainly a huge part of that.)  Seeing her skillfully wielding the spatula, it’s easy to extrapolate and imagine her bringing great skill and focus to her lab work, and seeing that as a kid made me feel proud.  (By contrast, my dad’s work—aerospace engineering—was so far out there, it was hard to imagine what his particular skill would even look like.)

It is probable that using a rubber spatula was the first kitchen skill I ever developed.  I clearly remember being a small child watching my mom slice mushrooms and dreaming of the day I would get to do that, but it’s a big step letting a child wield a sharp knife.  On the flip side, a pretty young kid can be trusted with a rubber spatula.  When my mom would bake, she’d divvy up the batter-coated implements among my brothers and me:   two kids would get a little beater from the electric hand mixer; one kid would get the mixing bowl; and one kid would get to lick the rubber spatula.  (How did the third kid get the mixing bowl clean?  I don’t remember … perhaps he got his own spatula.)  When Mom used the big KitchenAid mixer, meaning there was only the one big beater/wand thingy to lick, one kid would simply get a soup spoon dipped in batter.  Harvesting residual batter was a family ritual, as treasured and important as the cake itself.

So:  do my own kids use rubber spatulas?  You bet they do!  In fact, this tradition has taken on a new twist in our household.  We have a family rule that licking your plate is not allowed, period.  This bothers my kids, who are aware that their cousins have a different rule:  no licking your plate at the table.  Those kids, upon busing their dishes to the kitchen, are allowed to lick them just before tossing them in the sink.  My wife and I can’t allow this, as our kitchen adjoins the dining nook where we often entertain guests.  So our kids—acting purely on their own volition—took to excusing themselves from the table, busing their dishes, and then carefully removing every trace of sauce from their plates using—you guessed it—a rubber spatula.  Alexa, the more voracious of the two, already handles that spatula with surgical precision.  (One day she’ll forget herself and do this in front of our guests, but at least this will only be bizarre and kind of embarrassing, rather than outright appalling.)

What we talk about when we talk about spatulas

I’ve established that my wife is not going to talk to me about rubber spatulas.  But do my kids?  We haven’t discussed them yet—but I could probably introduce the topic at dinner tonight and they’d have plenty to say.  Actually, Lindsay already has—she loves the colors of the four spatulas I just bought.  Alexa would probably give a thoughtful critique, given her strong interest in maximizing the efficacy of this tool.  Better yet, I could phone one of my brothers and expect a spirited dialogue on the topic.  It might go something like this:

            “So I bought four new rubber spatulas today.”
            “Yeah?  Plastic or wooden handle?”
            “Plastic.”  (Here we would both be envisioning the same thing, with Blu-Ray clarity:  a rubber spatula whose wooden handle is slightly warped, as a result of having been accidentally put through the dishwasher.)
            “Same size head on all four spatulas?”  (I know exactly where he’d be going with this … we have little use for the grossly oversized and particularly grossly over-thick spatula heads you sometimes see, but we like the half-deep heads that are nimble enough for slender jars.)
            “No, couldn’t find narrower ones in this brand.  So it’s just a medium head.  But these bad boys are pretty sweet.  Heat-resistant to 450 degrees!”
            “Oh, that’s a great feature.  Remember that white sauce—“
            “Oh my god, like it was yesterday.”  (Decades ago I was making a white sauce—starting with a butter & flour paste, then gradually stirring in milk—and I got distracted, so that the spatula melted partway, and I was bothered by the prospect of wasting all that perfectly good butter—actually, it would have been margarine back then—so I consulted with my brother before proceeding with the sauce, which meant knowingly eating rubber.  Or plastic, whatever.)
            “How’s the feel?”
            “Well, the head has a nice tight fit on the handle, which is so hard to find.”
            “Right, so it’s not going to twist around, like in a peanut butter jar.  I hate it when they twist around.”
            “Yeah, and I’m hoping less water will get in, too.”
            “Right, less mold … awesome.”  (We’re both envisioning that gross black mold that coats the handle where it goes into the head, and replaying stock memory footage of trying to clean the mold out of the inside of the spatula head.)
            “I’ll let you know how they work out.  Man, the handles are really nice—they’re clear plastic, but clear like glass.”
            “You think they’ll get cloudy from the dishwasher?”  (Now we’re both picturing the headlights of the car that get all cloudy from years of gravel and road grime spraying up on them.)
            “I guess if that happens I’ll buy some more and just hand-wash them.”  (The perfect rubber spatula has become a Holy Grail of sorts.  Life has changed a lot since our childhood, when all rubber spatulas were made by Rubbermaid and they were all off-white with a wooden handle.)  “So, remember those old Rubbermaid ones—”
            “Right, the Rubbermaid, with the wooden handle.”
            “Yeah, exactly.  Were the heads off-white, or had they started off white and just got stained over time?”
            “I dunno … probably they started out white.  Remember how they’d get all pink—’
            “Yeah, from spaghetti sauce!  I hated that.  But these new ones, they’re brilliantly colored.  I wasn’t sure I’d like it, and I don’t think I’d want all my spatulas to be this bright, but it’s a nice splash of color among the others.”
            “It’s not at all strange that we both own lots of rubber spatulas—that seems completely normal to us, though many would find it odd.”  This last bit is unspoken, of course.  We’re not even thinking this in so many words … it’s just a shared understanding that doesn’t need to be outwardly acknowledged, which is one of the pleasures of being in a family.

“But wait!” you may say.  “Isn’t imposing your childhood behavior and vernacular on your own household an oppressive act?  Didn’t you start out this essay talking about your wife refusing to talk about spatulas?”  Fair point—when we say “family” we could mean the family we sprang from, or the family we started.  They’re not entirely separate, but neither are they one discrete entity.

I didn’t want to interrupt earlier, but here’s what I mean about mold on the spatula handle:

Incidentally, my mom still prefers wooden handles on her rubber spatulas.  Check out her collection:

Of  course not all family traditions are taken up by the next generation.  I can envision a family comprising several barbecue aficionados—who might wax rhapsodic about this or that sauce, or rub, or wood chip—but whose uber-modern kids have gone vegetarian.  I’d guess most families enjoy a crazy overlapping of traits and loves and behaviors; the Venn diagram might be kaleidoscopic.  That said, I’d be surprised if you could show me a family totally lacking in highly specific idiosyncrasies.

How families talk is part of this.  Their insular patois isn’t consciously created, but something like natural selection.  Some verbal tropes stick; some don’t.  For example, though my older daughter is an enthusiastic bike racer and loves her bike like a jockey loves her horse, she won’t talk about bike stuff with me.  The cassette on her mountain bike, though deeply scalloped for maximum weight savings, is machined from a solid block of steel, other than the 42-tooth (!) large cog, which is aluminum (!) … and yet my daughter couldn’t care less.  (If you think it pains me that nobody in my household will indulge me in gearhead talk, you’re right.)  But other verbal traditions have taken hold, such that if, upon leaving the house, I call out, “I’m going out there—don’t try to stop me,” I can count on at least one daughter saying, “You fool … you’ll be killed!” and then taking me to task if I fail to reply, “I must do this … alone.”

Will my wife engage in this silly script?  Nope.  But she has adopted this one:  “I know how to run an office!”  This comes from a tale I told once, of a temporary employee I had to train decades ago.  I’d shown her the postage machine and how to work it.  You have to pay attention, because every mistake you make costs you that much in postage—there are no re-dos.  I handed the temp a giant stack of stuffed envelopes and said, “Keep an eye out—a bunch of those are going to Canada.”  This really pissed her off, maybe because I was younger than she, and she snapped back, “I know how to run an office!”  Half an hour later, she strode in and smacked the stack of envelopes down on my desk.  I did a quick spot-check and discovered that the Canada-bound ones had the same postage as the domestic ones.  “The Canada ones have to be re-done,” I said, “because it costs more to mail things to Canada.”  She was horrified, and stammered, “I … I did not know that!” 

Somehow, this anecdote looms large enough in our familial consciousness that we routinely employ the retort, “I know how to run an office!”  It’s a very useful statement, being a nice brief shorthand for something complicated:  “I’m going to arrogantly deride your doubt in me, while acknowledging that in a short while I may well get my comeuppance because I’m not actually all that sure of myself, notwithstanding my strident attitude.”  And I think we all enjoy how the great specificity of this utterance relies on our common familiarity with the story behind it.  Perhaps my wife enjoys this one because, unlike so much of what I say, it wouldn’t mean anything to my brothers, nieces, nephews, or parents.


Getting back to spatulas, it’s not actually important whether or not my kids are ever as passionate about them as I am, nor whether they’re ever moved to hold forth verbally about them.  (Just now Alexa happened by, and I said, “Alexa, it’s time we had our father/daughter talk about rubber spatulas,” and without missing a beat she replied, “I’m not ready!”)  But I take pleasure in the following daydream:  one day, when my daughters have grown up and moved away, I’ll go visit one of them, and when I head into the kitchen I’ll find it well stocked with rubber spatulas.  This will fill me with … not pride, exactly, since using a rubber spatula isn’t something to take pride in, per se, any more than I’m proud to be an American (i.e., proud of the geographical happenstance of being born here).  I’ll be filled, rather, with a sense of identification, and the satisfaction of having had this influence on my kids. 

And perhaps, when I see my daughter expertly wield this handy kitchen gadget, I’ll be emboldened to strike up a conversation about it.  Will my daughter brush me off?  Maybe—and that would warm my heart:  she’s just like her mother!  And if she doesn’t, it’ll warm my heart when she says something insightful like, “Dad, my roommate was going off about my rubber spatula being make of plastic, so I had to correct him.  I explained that the head is actually silicone, or to be very precise, siloxane.  So then she starts rolling her eyes like she’s sooo bored, and I’m like, ‘Hey, you brought it up!’”

Either way, it’ll be heartwarming. See?  Spatulas are Love.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Ride Report - Dead Indian Memorial Road with Brother, Nephew, and Daughter


My bike club doesn’t have too many rules. The main one is: don’t talk about bike club. No, this isn’t a lame joke; the point is, don’t bore your spouse with details of the rides, the races (if any), the coffee, or the makeup tips. (Makeup tips? Yep. For example, “After sweating out half a gallon on the indoor trainer, I alternate Dior L’or De Vie with TNS Essential Serum to hydrate my skin, even out the tone, and improve the texture without blocking my pores.”)

That said, most of us do write about bike club. For the more adventurous this means a race report, which traditionally focuses on the food. It’s been a couple years now since I last raced, so I have to make do with ride reports. Here is my report of the assault four of us made on Dead Indian Memorial Road, a 13-mile climb near Ashland, Oregon. The four of us are my brother Bryan, his son John, my daughter Alexa, and your humble online correspondent.

Executive Summary

Our Thanksgiving Day ride was gear-intensive, cold, beautiful, even colder, frigid, fun, and has been described as “a non-stop laugh riot” (Steve Persall, Tampa Bay Times). Peak elevation 5,300 feet. Precipitation: none (whew!).

Short version

Dammit all to hell, I’m writing this in a motel lobby and some employee just came over and turned on the TV. I’m the only one in here … do I really look like I want a TV on? 
  • Ride stats: an additional 2-4 inches of snow expected in the Cascades, and a couple more inches in the Mount St Helens area. Oops, sorry, I was channeling the TV news. Why are they reporting Washington weather? I’m in southern Oregon!
  • Breakfast: waffle, two sausage disks, yogurt, coffee (black)
  • Pre-ride snack: Fritos, of all things (there was a bag in my brother’s van which we drove to the ride start near Ashland)
  • During ride: one Clif Block Shot, mountain berry flavor
  • Glycogen window treat: Mom’s homemade fudge, baby! Man, I’d ride through a pool of liquid nitrogen to get that. Also, pickled herring (two kinds: plain and in sour cream).
  • Dinner: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, cranberry relish, candied yams, French-cut green beans, buckets of gravy, and pumpkin pie with whipped cream. (Duh!)
Long version

If you’re considering adopting a furry friend this holiday season, make like Elvis and put a couple bullet holes through the damn TV! Man, there’s no escaping this thing. (I can’t go to my room because my family is in there enjoying an L-tryptophan doze. )

Wow, 32 inches of snow on Mount Baker this morning and the news lady says she thinks it’ll be a lot more, and she should know because she woke up at 4 a.m. to spend 90 minutes styling her hair. I only care (about Mount Baker, not her hair) because I rode that climb awhile back (click here). Okay, I promise I’ll stop letting the TV news interfere with mine.

I wanted to be able to skip lunch and eat a minimum of during- and post-ride snacks, so that I’d have the hugest possible appetite for Thanksgiving dinner. So I ate one of those motel breakfast bar waffles, that have the uncanny property of never sticking to the waffle iron. I looked up the ingredients of that batter once, and discovered it contains both propane and butane (seriously). I also had two of the crazy salty sausage patties, and as a result I am now growing breasts. I think it’s all the hormones in the meat. At least I found some yogurt without any Splenda in it. That’s getting hard to do.

It took us all morning to suit up, perhaps because we were trading around a lot of clothing and felt overwhelmed by all the options available to us. I’d been watching the weather forecast for a week and it seemed entirely possible there would be rain, which at the higher altitudes would mean snow. (Last year we—i.e., Bryan, Alexa, and I—had to turn around 2/3 of the way up because the road was iced over.) My nephew John is locally famous for never having the right gear on these rides … imagine pedaling 120 miles in high-top sneakers. He’s done that, twice. This time I brought him some leg warmers, some cycling shoes, and some cycling pedals to go with those shoes. Was this an absurd mother hen kind of behavior not grounded in any real need? Well, I asked if he had any leg warmers and he said, “I was gonna ride in sweats.” He even tried to politely decline the cycling shoes and pedals on the grounds that it was too much hassle. Also, he didn’t have any gloves. Bryan had a wide assortment of gloves but not many that matched. John ended up rocking a baseball batting glove on one hand for the ride up, and giant wool socks, worn like mittens, for the descent.

Alexa knew about the weather forecast, but hadn’t packed any leg warmers for the trip. Why not? Because her leg warmers are white. She and her mom are in 100% agreement that females cannot wear white leg warmers. (They were both present when I paid good money for these leg warmers and I wish they’d spoken up then.) So Alexa had to wear the leg warmers I’d brought for John, whose dad surprised me by having a second pair handy. Whew!

Here’s Bryan’s 1984 Team Miyata, which John rides, equipped with my loan of some of the more high-tech pedals on the market (the spring is just a piece of carbon fiber), juxtaposed with the pedals I removed from the bike, which I’m pretty sure are the most high-tech toe-clip-style pedals ever made:

We finally got on the road at 1:30 p.m., which is at the outer limit of when it would be wise to begin this ride. We’re so far north, the sun sets at 4:42 p.m. at this time of year. Plus, the sun just isn’t that strong here, probably because there’s no sales tax revenue to bribe Mother Nature with.

You already saw the “before” photo, above. It was close to 50 degrees out and somewhat sunny when we started. The landscape is spare, sparse, Spartan, spacious, and special. Here’s a photo showcasing the scrub.

The ride starts in this basin where the air is extra cold. Then the grade gets steeper, you start working harder, and you warm up a bit. At mile 6 (guess how I know this?) Alexa was able to roll up her sleeves. Isn’t it great that it’s still possible to write non-metaphorically about rolling up sleeves?

The three men on the ride had old-school (i.e., non-compact) cranksets. That’s why I’m able to use the word “men” in that last sentence. Alexa has a compact crank—not because she’s female, mind you, but because she’s still a kid and that’s what her dad outfitted her with. One day she will rip all our legs off, but on this ride she took advantage of her low gearing and drifted back at times. As she and her teenaged friends like to say, “Don’t judge!”

As the sun sank and we gained altitude the air got progressively colder. I was pretty comfortable in a long-sleeve merino wool long-sleeve base layer I bought for my brother Max last year. He mailed it back to me because—get this—his arms are too muscular to fit in the sleeves. (We should all have such problems, eh?) Look, snow:

The scenery got more impressive all the time, perhaps because my oxygen-starved brain shut down unnecessary applications and became more perceptive to the natural world. The Russian writer Mikhail Lermontov, in A Hero of Our Time, says (through his narrator), “In simple hearts, the sense of the beauty and grandeur of nature is a hundred times stronger and more vivid than it is in us, enthusiastic tellers of tales.” Lermontov’s translator, Vladimir Nabokov, provides this footnote: “This is, of course, a romanticist notion. It is completely untrue.” I love both of these writers and wish they could have been on our ride. Here is some of that grandeur:

Look at the crepuscular rays on the right there. My brother says they might be “prepuscular” rays, though I’m not sure that’s even a word. (He has joined me in the lobby. Whoops, there he goes. Guess he got bored.) I think I’ll go with “sunbeams.”

It got mighty cold. I have to say, it would have been worse except the wind tended to be at our backs. This filled me with something like guilt, or maybe karmic fear. Like, we are only blessed with this tailwind because somebody, somewhere, is riding into a frigid headwind. Or, if we enjoy this tailwind now, we will pay later. That said, I paid into the karmic weather system big time last August: click here for details. Anyway, you can tell it was cold because Alexa has put on her arm warmers.

Here we are at the summit.

Note the wool sock on John’s hand, used as a mitten.  Also, see how Alexa’s got her hood pulled up under her helmet? I’m really glad for that hood. During the climb, as we noted the temperature (36 degrees), I asked Alexa, “You brought a warm hat, right?” She had not. I asked if she had been aware it would be cold. She countered that I didn’t tell her to bring a hat. Now, my wife and I believe in employing the “natural consequences” style of discipline. For example, if your kid drags her feet getting ready in the morning, you don’t nag her—you just allow her to make herself late for school so she’ll have to accept the consequences. But this doesn’t work in all cases. Yeah, I could let her descend Dead Indian in the frigid cold without a warm hat, to teach her a lesson, but it would be such a painful ordeal, it’d be tantamount to corporal punishment. So I was on the brink of deciding to loan her my hat (meaning I would go hatless and suffer terribly, because enduring pain is part of being a parent) when she remembered her hood. Problem solved!

The descent was beautiful, very cold, and impossible to photograph. We could see it was snowing at the higher elevation. Across the country people are mourning Florence Henderson, who played the mom on The Brady Bunch. Am I mourning? That’s a strong word. I never liked that show much, to be honest, and was not personally acquainted with Ms. Henderson. You know what I’m mourning? The fact that this TV news has once again infiltrated my story.

Alexa was in fine spirits as we descended. If you have a surly teenager (a phrase I now realize is redundant), just get her out on a bike ride. She may be quiet and withdrawn at the beginning of a ride, but as all the adrenaline and endorphins work their magic, along with the majesty of nature and the thrilling speed of the descent, she’ll likely become ebullient and downright chatty. I have witnessed this magic hundreds of times (dating from my own teenage years).

Unfortunately, I couldn’t hear most of what Alexa was saying because we now had a headwind and I was wearing this silly plastic jacket (on loan from my brother) that rattled in the wind at like 80 decibels. At one point I thought Alexa said, “I spotted a towhee!” but actually she’d said, “I saw a spotted towhee!” I saw it too and it was a very pretty bird. I had a great-uncle-in-law who loved bird-watching. “Yesterday I saw a double-breasted mattress-smasher!” he once boasted. He could get away with this because he was old. I can get away with it, I hope, because I’m quoting an old guy.

On the lower, shallower slopes Alexa said, “I can’t wait until we get to the van. I’m gonna crank the heat all the way up!” I replied, “Sorry, Alexa … didn’t you hear? The van’s heater is broken.” She looked crestfallen and said, “You’re joking.” I said, “Yes, I am.” And I was. “Why are you like this?” she complained. This is how you stamp down the rapport you’ve built up with your offspring during a bike ride. You stamp it down because you can: because this rapport seems an inexhaustible resource, so long as your kid keeps riding.

We drove back to my mom’s house where preparation of the Thanksgiving meal was nearing completion. Alexa had heard a rumor about fudge. I asked my mom. “Yes, there’s fudge,” she whispered, “but I’m not giving it out until Sunday. But I do have a secret stash, just for the bikers.” Oh, man, it was unbelievable. You know how you go to those fudge places in malls, like Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, and it costs more than cocaine, and kids jump up and down and want to order everything, even the stupid little stuffed animal? That stuff is like old modeling clay compared to my mom’s fudge. This stuff is nirvana. In the exercise-enhanced palates of cyclists, the sense of the beauty and grandeur of fudge is a hundred times stronger and more vivid than in players of board games. Before you decry this as a romanticist notion that is completely untrue, go climb a 5,000-foot mountain in the blistering cold. And then get your own damn fudge, I’m not sharing.

Bryan and I capped the glycogen window snack with a couple of beers, mainly so that I could Beck’st my friends.

Then we munched on the herring that I mentioned already. After our showers we tucked into that Thanksgiving feast, with perfectly stoked appetites. Life is good!

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

From the Archives - Dead Week Poetry


Man, college was a long time ago … 25 years. But I still remember it so well, especially the really hard parts, like final exams. I used to do these mammoth study sessions in the school library, which was always packed during dead week. Fittingly, I’m putting together this blog post in a public library, which is also hopping.

I wrote the following poem during a study break. It wasn’t much of a break because a) I couldn’t leave the library for fear of losing my seat, and b) the poem itself required mental effort. But writing it did treat my brain to a little novelty. Maybe yours, too!

Pausing in the Library on a Busy Evening – December 10, 1991

What’s on the test I think I know.
I have to plan three essays, though;                          2
My work’s completion’s not yet near
Though I began ten hours ago.

Those watching me must think it queer
That all this time I’m sitting here.                             6
My slouch and frown together make
A nervous bundle, wracked with fear.

With UPTime keeping me awake
My hand, while writing, can’t but shake.               10
My thoughts comprise a jumbled heap
Of doubts about the test I’ll take.

I’m not an antisocial geek,
But I’ve good grades I have to keep,                         14
And pages to write before I sleep
And pages to write before I sleep.    

Footnotes & commentary

Title: Pausing … Busy Evening

I doubt there’s an English major in history who wouldn’t immediately recognize my poem as a take-off on Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I really don’t know what inspired me to suddenly stop studying and do this quasi-tribute.

Interestingly, as I look now on the history of Frost’s poem I see that his effort and mine were somewhat similar. I’d been working all day and into the night preparing for my final exams in English and, during a break, suddenly had a poem idea pop into my head. So it was with Frost, who was working all night on a long poem and, taking a break to watch the sun rise, suddenly got the idea for “Stopping by Woods.” He wrote the new poem “about the snowy evening and the little horse as if I’d had a hallucination,” in “just a few minutes without strain.”  I wouldn’t say there was anything hallucinatory about my poem, though after 15 hours straight of studying that’s not so far off. And I wrote my poem very quickly too, and if there was any strain it at all it came from replicating Frost’s cool rhyme scheme (more on this later).

Line 1: I think I know

My professors tended to give us pretty good clues into the kinds of things that would be on the final exam, but not enough to give me a lot of confidence. We read a ton of books for each class—at least half a dozen—and it was a good idea to read book each more than once. The second time through, a million things would become clearer because less of my brain would be taken up trying to keep characters straight, order events in the right sequence, and figure out what the hell was going on in. But there just wasn’t time to read everything twice, so I had to try to guess what books mattered the most to the prof and would end up on the exam.

My test prep was all about focusing my efforts on what seemed likely to pay off. I’d try to predict what would be on the test, and prepare rigorously for that. Often I’d go into a test totally unprepared to write about certain books, taking a calculated risk that the extra time I spent on certain other books would pay dividends. As it turned out, I was only burned once by this method. Perhaps my real skill as a college student wasn’t in literary comprehension, but in risk assessment. Here’s a sample (from my notes) of that process (evidently based upon a hint from the prof that he’d be asking us to compare two novels):

Line 4: ten hours ago

I don’t think this “ten hours” figure is accurate. If you look at the first picture in this post, you can see an arrow with “15 hrs” indicated. (I often tracked how long I spent studying, though I really can’t say why. Probably just out of habit, like my cycling training diary.) Maybe the 15 hours included some studying I did at home. Or maybe I didn’t feel like reworking this line of the poem to accommodate a two-syllable word (i.e., “fifteen”).

Line 5: those watching me

This was lazy writing. I mean, who could possibly be watching me study? The speaker in Frost’s poem had a horse handy to second-guess his behavior, but I did not. I should have pondered the matter of whether I myself thought it queer to study so long. (It strikes me as queer now, that’s for sure … my attention span has surely shrunk.)

Line 7: slouch and frown

This phrase, “slouch and frown,” is really pretty weak. The slouch is okay but I should have focused on how tight my neck was, how hunched my back, and how tense my entire body was. That would have led in to the next line much more nicely.

Line 8: nervous bundle

I liked this phrase “nervous bundle” right away, as it conveys the idea of being “bundle of nerves” and also the idea of my spine and how all the nerves join in this big bundle or something, and how aware you get of all that when you’re so tired and stressed out that even your spine starts complaining (see previous comment).

Line 8: wracked with fear

I wasn’t the only kid scared shitless about his upcoming finals. The student library was a cesspool of stress during dead week. You could just feel the fear hanging in the air. The atmosphere was suffocating, which is perhaps why, whenever I could, I studied in in the very spacious Doe Library. Doe was one of those almost unbelievably beautiful university buildings. Here’s a photo:

Frankly, that gorgeous room, with its thick oak desks and high ceiling, inspired me to study longer and harder, and the relatively small number of students it accommodated had a calming effect. It was definitely in Doe that I wrote this poem—I can remember it vividly, even down to exactly where I was sitting. I’m not sure how I managed to score a seat in Doe during Dead Week.  

I wasn’t always this lucky, of course. Another time during Dead Week I got stuck having to study in the Moffitt Undergraduate Library, which had low ceilings, tiny study carrels, and a lower proportion of liberal arts majors. (Other majors involved more stress, I think.) Here’s an excerpt from my notes from a study session at Moffitt:
I wish I could blow this place up. This is sheer misery. All these fervent, steaming, stressed-out people, their legs popping up and down like a jackhammer, the wads of gum stuck to this study box now bubbling and dribbling down towards the desk (which is swimming in a flood of grease from pimply foreheads and chins). Somebody has thrown a textbook into a 2nd-floor toilet, where it disrupted a long-abandoned, un-flushed load—turning it to cocoa. This I see in a gruesome flashback, instigated by my still unrelieved bowel.
Line 9: with UPTime keeping me awake

UPTime was, and is, a big horse-pill containing caffeine, gingko biloba, ginseng, cayenne pepper, Spirulina Blue Green Algae, Echinacea, and other stuff.

Whether or not UPTime worked better than NoDoz, it had the advantage of being free, for me. UPTime sponsored the UCSB cycling team with loads of free product, and even after I transferred to UC Berkeley I still had a bunch left. Plus, I worked at a bike shop and I got the manufacturer to send us a whole bunch of free product samples, which carried me through all the way to graduation. If anything, UPTime worked too well: I could stay awake for ages and ages but wasn’t exactly comfortable.

Line 10: can’t but shake

Case in point.

Line 11: comprise

My first boss, at my first corporate job after college, was also a Berkeley grad and really dug that we had the same alma mater. On the downside, he was self-assured to a fault, and once upbraided me for using the word “comprise” in the way I used it in this poem (i.e., as a transitive verb). He declared that it could only be used passively, in the phrase “is comprised of.” He was dead wrong, of course, but he also controlled my salary so I instantly capitulated and used “is comprised of” in all my job-related writing. To this day, using “comprise” as a transitive verb gives me a little rush of liberation. (“You cannot reach me now!”)

Line 13: antisocial geek

Another poor line born of laziness. Everybody is an antisocial geek during Dead Week, except maybe at party schools. Did I really think anybody noticed that I had isolated myself from all society in order to study? Certainly not, no more than I really believed anybody was watching me study (cf. line 5). Probably I just wanted a throwaway line that (more or less) rhymed with “keep” and “sleep.”

Speaking of the rhyme scheme, Frost created something pretty clever there. At first blush it’s not so special: the first two lines rhyme, the third doesn’t, and then the fourth line rhymes again (i.e., with the first two). So the rhyme scheme is AABA. So what? Well, check out the fifth line (i.e., the first line of the second stanza). It rhymes with the third line (of the first stanza), which previously hadn’t rhymed with anything. This convention holds for most of the poem, so the first three stanzas go AABA BBCB CCDC. Perhaps because Frost didn’t’ want to leave any line unrhymed, he didn’t follow the convention for the last stanza (i.e., didn’t do DDED) but rather had every line in the final stanza rhyme: DDDD. So it’s a 16-line poem with only 4 different line endings. Cool, huh?

I’m tempted to pat myself on the back for appreciating this nifty rhyme scheme even without having Frost’s poem in front of me when I wrote my poem. (This was before the Internet, after all). But since I mimicked not only Frost’s convention but the actual rhymes (that is, I did AABA BBCB CCDC DDDD as opposed to EEFE FFGF GGHG IIII), it’s possible I wasn’t actually aware of what I was doing.

Line 14: good grades I have to keep

It’s easy to see why a high school student would be obsessed with getting good grades: after all, as explained here, the conventional wisdom is that if you don’t get perfect grades, you’ll never get into a good college, and you’ll never get a good job or a good spouse and you’ll live in miserable, lonely poverty your whole life. But why would a college kid, already enrolled in the school he wanted, be wracked with fear about maintaining good grades?

Perhaps at this point in my education I hadn’t yet ruled out grad school … though I’m pretty sure I never seriously considered that. Maybe I figured potential employers would actually care about my grades. But more than anything, I wanted to graduate summa cum laude (i.e., with highest honors). I’ll concede this was perhaps an arbitrary goal, and maybe I sought it simply to offset the lack of respect I so frequently suffered due to my major (e.g., “English? What are you gonna do with that?”). In any event, I’m not so sure my effort was worth it. When I was interviewing for that all-important first job out of college, only one person commented on my college record. This was an engineer who asked, “So … summa cum laude … is that a fraternity?”

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Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Alternative Payment Methods

NOTE: This post is rated PG-13 for mild strong language and an intimation of ethical turpitude.

The check card
  • Pack of gum: $1.49 
  • Payment by: Visa- or MasterCard-branded check card 
  • Accepted at: any retailer who takes payment cards (i.e., all but the strange lady selling homemade costume jewelry at a street fair) 
  • Cash back: $40 
  • Ability to withdraw cash from checking without having to use another bank’s ATM where you’d pay $4-6 in totally bogus inter-bank payment fees, thus enabling venal, unwarranted cash grabs by both banks (even if you didn’t really need the pack of gum): priceless

The EMV chip card 
  • Pack of gum: $1.49 
  • Payment by: Visa- or MasterCard-branded EMV chip card 
  • Accepted at: supposedly any retailer in America who takes payment cards, except for all the ones who have the chip card reader taped over 
  • Weird new “feature”: upon completion of transaction, a series of low-pitched angry-sounding blats normally indicative of an error, which is a bit jarring because it really did seem like you did something wrong, since for years terminals have told us “Insert card and remove QUICKLY” and now the EMV terminals are telling us “DO NOT REMOVE CARD” and everything just feels weird 
  • Ability to hold up a whole line of shoppers while this insanely slow transaction completes, all for a stupid pack of gum, without getting so much as a dirty look from the cashier, because this is America, a land of freedom, where we can charge as small a purchase as we want, just like we can drive along in the left lane of the freeway at whatever speed we want, just to enjoy the freedom of it (which is fitting because you can’t do that in Europe, which is where this whole EMV chip card thing originated): priceless
Mobile Payment
  • Pack of gum: $1.49 
  • Payment by: modern smartphone with mobile wallet app and Near Field Communication (NFC) capability 
  • Accepted at: at least three retailers including Walgreens, Whole Foods, and … okay, maybe only two retailers 
  • Opportunity to show off to your teenage daughter by having her hold your wallet like a magician’s assistant while you pay with your phone, along with that irresistible high-tech throb the phone makes as it completes your purchase, and the belt-with-suspenders secure feeling you get from the knowledge that your credit card number is being “tokenized” (i.e., turned into a different number that somehow gets resolved in “the cloud” so the cashier doesn’t have the opportunity to steal your card number and go shopping online with it): priceless 
  • Full disclosure: Of course no teen would actually be impressed by this, and the kind of person who actually cares about tokenization is the sort who not only uses shoe trees but would bring them on a business trip
  • Zynga video game in-app purchase: $5.00 
  • Payment by: Bitcoin
  • Accepted at: most online hacking forums globally; certain other questionable venues 
  • Little thrill of being able to pay for something (albeit something that costs nothing to distribute and has no practical value) with pretend money: priceless

Mag-stripe reader accessory for tablet
  • Baby back ribs: $11.00 
  • Payment by: credit card via wireless terminal/dongle attached to tablet PC or smartphone 
  • Accepted at: an increasing number of food trucks, street fair vendors, and pop-up stores 
  • Novelty of being able to sign your name on the little touch-screen using your finger, and better yet, to sign your name in barbecue sauce, creating the visual effect of signing with blood: priceless
Apple Watch
  • Pack of gum: $1.49 
  • Payment by: Apple Watch 
  • Accepted at: at least two retailers including Walgreens and the Food Hole 
  • Ability to show off to the cute cashier by paying with your watch, while also helping to justify to yourself the purchase of this very expensive gadget that will soon seem laughably primitive when the newer model comes out: priceless 
  • Full disclosure: the cashier isn’t a nerdophile and actually couldn’t care less about your hi-tech watch
Sensoria biometric bra
  • Cup of coffee: $2.50 
  • Payment by: Sensoria biometric authentication bra, which (according to this article) measures not just heart rate but “the unique shape of the electrical signals generated by our hearts” and could in principle be paired with an NFC payment terminal 
  • Accepted at: nowhere yet, but just you wait 
  • Having a perfectly valid reason—i.e., the practical working range of NFC being about 4 cm—to flash the cashier some serious cleavage while authorizing your payment: priceless 
  • Full disclosure: this scenario, though technically possible, would only actually occur in the daydreams of a nerdy product developer and/or bored cashier

  • Kid’s soccer shoes: $24.99 
  • Payment by: cash, since the last two times you used your credit card at this discount sporting goods chain, the card number was subsequently compromised so you had to deal with the bank’s fraud department and have your credit card reissued 
  • Peace of mind in knowing that you’ve dodged another instance of fraud, even though (or especially because) the young cashier finished off the transaction by conjuring up a giant bottle of Nyquil from under the counter and saying, “Hey, man, you wanna party with us?”: priceless 
  • Note: All this really happened to me, exactly as described here!
  • Two rap CDs: $22 
  • Payment by: “I’m in the record shop with choices to make/ ‘Illmatic’ on the top shelf, ‘Chronic’ on the left homie/ Wanna cop both but only got a twenty on me/ So fuck it, I stole both, spent the twenty on a dub sack” 
  • Ability of an underprivileged inner city kid to give himself a cultural education by steeping himself in quality music through a self-administered need-based subsidy program and then “giving back” to society by turning the account of his cashless transaction into brilliant rap music: priceless

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