Tuesday, February 28, 2017

A Newbie’s Guide to Poison Oak and Poison Ivy

NOTE:  This post is rated PG-13 for mild strong language and comprehensive grossness.


Maybe you’ve never had a rash from poison oak or poison ivy.  I didn’t either, until recently when Mother Nature caught up to me with a vengeance.  If your avoidance techniques and/or home remedies aren’t cutting it, you might get some benefit from this post.  On the other hand, if you seem immune to this malady, or if your techniques are totally effective, you may yet enjoy reading about my suffering, and feeling smug in your superiority.

What are poison oak and poison ivy?

Poison oak and poison ivy are plants in the Toxicodendron family.  Do not fail to note the word “toxic” hiding in there.  And before you go casting aspersions on oak trees, note that poison oak isn’t actually oak.  Some dumbass called it that and the name stuck.  (If I seem grumpy, it’s because large swaths of my skin are grossly red and itchy and have been for over a week.)

Here are two photos of poison oak.  One is pretty good and should show you what it looks like.  The other photo is pretty blurry, which is more realistic—usually you don’t get a clear view because you’re chasing a dog or a ball or have lost control of your mountain bike, and you only realize it’s poison oak after it’s too late.

Half the time, when people say “poison oak” or “poison ivy” they’re referring to the rash that these diabolical plants can give you.  The technical term for this rash is “urushiol-induced contact dermatitis.”  (Why hasn’t somebody come up with a catchier term for this, along the lines of saying “the clap” for an STD?  You got me.)  Using the plant name to refer to the ailment goes back at least as far as 1963, when the song “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” included the line, “I went hiking with Joe Spivey, he developed poison ivy.” For the purposes of this essay I’m going to refer to urushiol-induced contact dermatitis as “rash” or “hell-rash.”

Is this rash contagious?

For God’s sake, no!  This myth about contagiousness is oddly persistent, probably because the hell-rash is so hideous to behold.  People must lose their normal faculty for healthy skepticism when they look at the disgusting blistering and pus-oozing sores on your skin.  Here’s the full story on how this rash develops: 
  • The oils on the leaves of the actual plant can spread like crazy, so you want to be very careful around the plants (more on this later).  But…
  • Once you have the hell-rash, it will seem to spread across your body gradually, creating the impression that you’re causing this spread, but…
  • The urushiol oil spreads only until you shower, and no matter how much you scratch at the ensuing rash, and no matter how much pus you may cause to smear around (isn’t this disgusting?!), you won’t spread the rash.  It’s not the pus that causes the rash, it’s the oil, which you surely washed off long before you saw the rash (but obviously not soon enough).
  • There is no way to spread the rash from one person to another, but you could spread the oil to another person if you got really friendly right after a hike (i.e., before your shower).
Will this post include some gnarly photos of the hell-rash?

No, I wouldn’t do that to you.  It’s bad enough having to look at this rash.  I’m not even going to describe it to you, though that would be a fun literary exercise.  Suffice to say, the right photo or description would have you PUKING FOR DECADES.  I was actually so worried about the severity of my rash, I even considered going to the doctor, until I showed it to a fellow mountain biker who said, rather casually, “I’ve seen worse.”

How long does the rash take to develop?

The rash can take anywhere from like 12 hours to 10 days (maybe even longer) to develop.  This might have to do with how sensitive you are.  Or maybe it’s just one of those things.

Anecdotally, the rash may be brought on by noting a friend’s terrible rash and thinking, “Sucks to be you!”  That’s what happened to me.  A week after a bike race at a notoriously Toxicodendron-infested course I was on a team ride and saw this other racer’s rash in full bloom, and thanked my lucky stars at my apparent immunity, and then BOOM!two or three days later I woke up with blood all over my legs.  I’d evidently scratched the crap out of my hell-rash, in my sleep.  Several days later I got an even worse rash on my left arm, starting at the wrist.  (Could this have been a separate exposure?  Sure it could!)

How can I avoid getting this rash?

A surefire way to avoid Toxicodendron plants is to stay indoors at all times, and avoid snuggling with a hiker until he or she has showered.  Unfortunately, staying indoors all the time leads to sloth, lack of muscle tone, depression, arthritis (via video gaming), brain-drain (via passive video entertainment), and myopia (from too much reading).  This indoor lifestyle can even lead to rickets.

The fact that in over 47 years I never had a reaction to poison oak/ivy, despite doing a lot of hiking and mountain biking among these plants, may be a simple matter of luck (more on this later).  That said, I have almost always taken steps to minimize my risk, and maybe they are effective—so here goes: 
  • Cover as much of your skin as possible; i.e., long pants and sleeves when hiking, and arm warmers and leg warmers when mountain biking.  (It helps if you live in a cool climate, obviously.) 
  • Watch out for the plant, though this is pretty tricky because a) many plants resemble poison oak; b) it’s practically everywhere; c) even when there are no leaves, the stupid twigs carry the oil; d) the oil gathers in puddles which splash on you when you’re mountain biking; and e) when you’re biking you can’t always avoid crashing into a large clump of this or that Toxicodendron and/or whacking against it like a slalom skier against a gate.
  • As soon as you get home from your outdoor adventure, a) take a cool shower (cool because hot water will open up your pores, allowing the oil to spread), and b) wash all the clothing you wore because the oil can stay on it, spreading to you and/or the person who does your laundry for you, you lucky dog.
  • Use Tecnu, an anti-urushiol skin cleanser.  (Note:  I haven’t tried this yet but several mountain bikers have recommended it.  I’ll update this post later when I have some firsthand intel on this.)
Are some people immune to the Toxicodendron hell-rash?

It seems like some people are indeed immune to this awful rash, but I have always suspected you simply get some number of freebies before your body decides it’s allergic to the urushiol oil.  I’ve done my best to avoid it all my life, which might have extended my grace period.  There have certainly been times when I came in contact with poison oak without suffering any consequences.  One time my wife said, “Dana, look down,” and I discovered I was standing right in a big clump of poison oak, while wearing shorts.  A couple months ago I crashed into it on my bike.  Neither time did I develop a rash.  It’s possible this was due to my cool-shower regimen but probably I just got lucky.

The case I have now hit me about ten days after my race.  It’s worth noting that this was the first time I was unable to shower right after my exposure.

If you still think you’re special and immune to this rash, consider this chilling tale: at summer camp back in the ‘70s, a very stupid kid rubbed poison ivy all over his hands to show off how he was immune.  The rash hit him after just a few days and it was so bad, his hands looked like entrails and he missed the second half of camp.  Everybody had a good time talking about how stupid he was.  Looking back, I don’t think he was especially stupid.  He was just stupid in a way that lead to a very dramatic situation.

Speaking of kids, my kid has this rash.  Does that make me a bad parent?

Look, your kid didn’t ask to be born, okay?

I have come down with the hell-rash … what should I do?!

Okay, first of all, DON’T PANIC.

What stupid advice.  Of course you shouldn’t panic.  Ever.  I don’t even know why I wrote that.

Second, assure your friends and family members, who are recoiling at the sight of you, that the rash is not contagious.  It’s okay to be visibly exasperated at their silliness, but don’t complain in their presence about your discomfort, because they already hate you for the disgusting spectacle you present to them.

Third, try to avoid scratching the hell-rash.  At least, that’s what your spouse will tell you, over and over.  It seems a) intuitively obvious that scratching is a bad idea, and b) almost impossible not to scratch, especially if you tend to sleep ever.

Now, I have to temper this no-scratching advice with the following tidbit, related by a friend who heard it from a former Olympic cyclist:  “Get some 80 grit sandpaper, scratch the shit out of it until it bleeds, and clean up the wounds.  Believe me, I’ve tried everything over the years and it’s going to spread a bit anyway.  Just succumb to it, relish in the scratching because it feels so good, and treat it like a scab.  If you’re not man enough for that, there is a gel available now that is powerful stuff and helps with the itching.”  I haven’t followed up on the gel bit yet, because a) I don’t want to seem unmanly; b) I can’t see how I’d use this gel without making a mess of my clothes; and c) this rash itches so bad I can’t even remember the third thing.

I’ve found that the rash itches more when it dries out.  You can keep it moist by bandaging it, and my favorite product here is Tegaderm, a “transparent film dressing.”  It’s like a big piece of clear tape, but it sticks only to skin and not to the wound.  (It’s great for road rash, too.)  Brace yourself, though:  Tegadarm is really expensive.

If the itching is driving you crazy, Benadryl does seem to help.  I had to take this before bed a couple times, which did help me sleep, but man, the hangover from that drug is a real bitch.  There’s also a spray version of Benadryl.  (My wife tried this a couple decades ago.  I don’t remember whether it worked or not, and would probably have forgotten all about it except for something funny:  she was in such dire need of relief, we didn’t wait to get home before applying it.  We went out behind the grocery store and she was spraying it on her legs when this store manager came bursting out from a back door and yelled, “CAUGHT YOU!”  His initial look of triumph evaporated very quickly when he saw our bewildered expressions.  Apparently he’d been lying in wait for teenagers who’d been tagging the wall with spray cans.)

If things get too bad, you can go to the doctor and get a prescription for a steroid.  This might be necessary in severe cases, particularly if you’re highly sensitive, and/or get it in your damn throat (yes, this can happen), or if you’ve inhaled the smoke caused by some shit-for-brains who decided to burn a big pile of poison oak leaves.

Is there any redeeming value in Toxicodendron plants?

No, there’s nothing good about these plants and I cannot see why somebody hasn’t designed a miracle herbicide to eradicate the entire species from the face of the Earth.  Probably scientists would feed you something about the “interdependent ecosystem” or the “web of life,” which is easy for them to say because they’re not straining to avoid scratching themselves to death.

I guess the only silver lining is that, as with all suffering, the hell-rash can give you an opportunity to commiserate with others.  But that’s a pretty thin lining, and probably fake silver, like the cheap pseudo-chrome they put on plastic car bumpers that eventually gets scraped off and looks bad.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

How to Survive a Phishing Attack


This post describes a super easy way to avoid falling prey to phishing and spear-phishing.  While I’m at it I’ll explain about ransomware and botnets so you can sound impressive during fishing  trips and/or ladies’ luncheons.  I’ll even provide a real-life example of a recent situation requiring me to apply my method.

Couple quick notes:  1) You cannot get a virus by reading this blog or clicking on any link within it, ever; and 2) I actually did my homework on this post, and ran my anti-phishing technique past the Chief Information Security Officer of a giant corporation, who gave it her blessing.

Some terminology

In a previous post, I covered plain old spam, which is simply unsolicited e-mail that doesn’t even pretend to be personal.  For example, the subject line is “Enhance your male member!”  The sender hasn’t targeted you based on knowing anything about your, uh, membership … from the sender’s perspective, every man should enhance his mail member!  (And if a woman receives this message, no harm done—she can just forward it to the man in her life.)  Spam is basically electronic junk mail.

Phishing is an attack on your computer which relies on you clicking on an embedded link or opening an attachment, which either loads a virus directly on your computer or takes you to a bogus website that attempts to lure you into disclosing personal information.  Phishing messages are usually blasted out like spam, though the sender will often pretend to be a company you do business with, such as your bank.  There’s usually a sense of urgency, something like “Account locked – update password!” (i.e., “Tell us your old password, sucker!”).

Spear-phishing is more targeted and requires the sender to find out stuff about you in advance (e.g., thru social media) to make the e-mail look more realistic.  Is it important to differentiate between regular phishing and spear phishing?  Probably not.  I think the latter term was contrived mainly to help security experts sound cool.

Ransomware is a computer virus that encrypts your computer’s entire hard drive, so that only the fraudster can decrypt it, which he or she will only do upon being paid a ransom.  (A criminal with no hacking skills can actually buy “exploit kits” from the fraudsters to carry out his own attacks.)  Ransomware is one of the biggest reasons to be careful with your e-mail.

You know how vampires and zombies can make you one of their own by biting you?  Similarly, computer viruses can take over your computer and use it in a separate attack.  Such an infected computer is called a bot, and when hundreds or thousands of them are herded together to mount a large-scale attack, you’ve got a botnet.  (Think of it as an online zombie apocalypse.)  Note that as more devices—not just computers and phones but thermostats, security cameras, DVRs, etc.—are connected to the Internet, they become targets for botnet attacks as well.  In fact, they’re ideal candidates because they’re often cheaply made, poorly designed, and lack security.  They’re like really dumb zombies.

How to survive phishing attacks

My phishing survival technique employs a single simple rule:  if an e-mail appears to be from any bank (even yours), or any other business with which you have an account (e.g., a utility), automatically assume it is a phishing attempt and just delete the e-mail.  You can apply this rule even before opening the message.  It’s that simple.  The decision tree looks like this:

 There is a very small risk, with such a broad rule, that you’ll miss a legitimate e-mail from your bank, but a) it’s better to be safe, and b) remember, your bank knows how to reach you!  They have your money and are very resourceful about getting their business done.  In general, they prefer to phone you or send postal mail because they hate phishing as much as you do and have no interest in training you to fall prey.

The one blanket exception would be account statements.  If you signed up for electronic statements and receive them on a predictable schedule every month, and these statements provide account information without asking you to do anything, you’re probably fine.

As for these “Oh, no, you need to do something!” messages, keep in mind that if there’s really something wrong with your account—like your card number has been compromised, for example—that’s ultimately the bank’s problem.  They are on the hook for the cost of the fraud, so let them do the heavy lifting.  If they can’t be bothered to pick up the phone or mail you a postcard, they can face the consequences.  (For what it’s worth, my card number has been compromised a number of times, and in no case did I get an e-mail.)

All of this being said, I recently decided to amend my very simple rule.  If you’re interested in my amendment, read on.  If you’re already bored and/or have no problem with the simple rule outlined above, you’re done—goodbye!  Go get on with your life!

Sometimes it’s not quite that simple

What if you made a purchase that falls well outside your normal pattern of behavior?  For example, you just made a purchase for $2500, and the largest purchase you’ve ever made previously with this card was $1000?  Or what if you normally shop at J. Crew and Brooks Brothers, and one day get a ghetto impulse and buy something at J.C. Penney?  If you do something outside of your norm and then immediately receive an e-mail purporting to be from your bank, you might consider evaluating it further.

I got an e-mail recently from slcfraud@aexp.com titled “Your Corporate Card.”  This “From” address and subject line didn’t look obviously wrong.  The capitalization in the subject line, “Your Corporate Card,” was a bit odd, but not obviously wrong (e.g., it wasn’t “Security fraud alerted corporate card!!” or “Account info updating needs!” or some other butchered English).  The return address, slcfraud@aexp.com, struck me as feasible, though these things can be spoofed.  Only because I half-expected Amex to choke on a recent transaction, I decided to open the e-mail:

Note how it’s in plain text with no logos or anything.  That might seem a bit odd, but actually it’s completely okay.  Fancy logos and formatting are methods hackers use to make their e-mails look legit.  Don’t be fooled!  It’s far easier to manipulate graphics and logos and such than to say the right things, in perfect English, in an e-mail. 

This brings us to my analysis of the grammar etc. in the e-mail itself.  There is a stray bracket in the message (toward the end:  “Corporate Payment Services}”).  That’s a bit spotty, and such things should be considered suspicious.  There’s also a dangling participle:  “In order to assist you in a timely manner, please call us at the numbers provided rather than responding to this message.”  (The first clause refers to them—i.e., they would be assisting you—but the second clause refers to you; i.e., here’s what you should do.)  Certainly this is bad grammar, but it’s the kind of error a native speaker would make—even an Amex employee.  It’s not the kind of error made by dastardly foreign hackers who hate America.  Even still, as a general rule I would normally delete this e-mail on the basis of this, or any, grammatical error.  If this makes extra work for your bank, shame on them for filling corporate communications positions with people who can’t write a decent sentence.

All of this aside, there was one fundamental characteristic of this e-mail that caused me to take it seriously:  it didn’t ask me to click on anything, and it suggested I call the toll-free number on the back of my Amex card.  That is exactly the kind of action a bank would legitimately ask you to take, and dialing this number is an inarguably safe thing to do.  (I cannot imagine how a hacker could print a fraudulent toll-free number on the back of my card.  He would need physical access to my wallet, in which case he would presumably have no need to do anything online.)

I did note that the number provided in the e-mail didn’t match the number on my card, but it’s not uncommon for a financial entity to have multiple toll-free numbers.   You should never dial a toll-free number provided in an e-mail.  While that’s not as obviously dangerous as clicking on a link in an e-mail, it could still get you in trouble.  What if you reach a voice-response system that sounds authentic, and asks you to enter your card number?  That would be an easy way for a fraudster to hack your account.  Always go with the phone number printed on your statement or card.

Based on the e-mail above I called Amex, and sure enough, they had locked out my card because my last transaction looked suspicious to them.  During the call they authenticated me based on my caller ID, and accurately described the suspicious transaction.  I told them it was legit, they unfroze my account, and all is well. 

So:  does this mean opening the e-mail was a good idea?  No, not really.  If I had my life to live over, I’d probably have deleted the e-mail and just called Amex.  The slightly more complicated decision tree is this:

How common is all this, anyway?

Is this much ado about nothing?  Actually, I think this stuff is important because phishing is so rampant.  Looking in my junk mail (i.e., messages my ISP determined were fraudulent), I see the following: 
  • 2 messages from Apple on 2/11 saying “Your account is locked”
  • 3 messages from my regular bank between 2/3 and 2/9 saying “Action Required”
  • 1 message from my Visa card issuer on 12/21 saying “Notification ID: 2591912…”
  • 1 message from Apple on 11/07 saying “Apple Inc | Security notice”
  • 1 message from PayPal on 10/27 saying “Your PayPal account ha…”
Along with this, I see messages seeming to be from friends of mine that somehow triggered my ISP’s junk mail filter.  What if my ISP hadn’t filtered these?

Address book phishing

I’m not aware that the phrase “address book phishing” has any widespread meaning, but I’m talking about viruses etc. that replicate by forwarding themselves to everybody in the victim’s e-mail address book.  If your ISP lets these through, it can be tricky spotting them.  Here are a few ways.

Message is unexpected – Often I’ll get an e-mail from somebody I know, but who very seldom e-mails me.  For example, my friend’s wife e-mails me every so often and has done so for years.  Why would she?  Either her PC’s got a virus, or she’s trying to start an affair.  Either way, my reaction is the same:  delete that message!  If she really needs to contact me she’ll surely find another way.

Here’s a true story:  my wife e-mailed my brother several times to ask about some bike thing she wanted to buy me for my birthday.  My brother didn’t respond, either because he suspected phishing, or was just really behind on e-mail.  So the next time my brother called me on the phone, my wife intercepted the call and, before fetching me, said to my brother in a low voice, “Call me!”  He was totally perplexed, and she eventually had to call him herself.

Subject line is missing or suspicious – Of the four bogus messages I received recently purporting to be from friends, three have no subject line at all and the fourth has the subject line “RE: ” with nothing else.  The lack of a subject line is usually a giveaway unless you have really lazy friends.  Other suspicious subject lines would be the sender’s name, your name, or something insanely generic like “Hello.”  (If I e-mail a friend just to say hi, I’ll say something a bit more specific, perhaps involving an inside joke.)

Text of message doesn’t read right – Say you’re fooled into opening such an e-mail and now have text to look at.  The hardest thing for fraudsters to get right is grammar (either because they’re foreigners or because they’re stupid).  If your friends use terrible grammar and spelling, I recommend you find some better friends.  Otherwise, be very careful with messages that don’t read right.

If, for whatever reason, you decide not to open an e-mail that appears to be from a friend, it never hurts to create a new message, address it to the friend, give it a subject like “Suspicious e-mail…” and ask if he or she e-mailed you recently.  You can leave the original message in your Inbox while awaiting a response (unless you’re afraid you’ll open it by accident, like if your software is set up to automatically move from one message to the next).

So, here’s a more complete flowchart of how to handle messages:

Will this approach keep me safe?

Actually, avoiding phishing scams is not enough to keep you safe.  We’re probably all eventually doomed, because data breaches of giant databases have become so common.  For example, an insurance company I do business with was hacked awhile back, and had over 70 million customer profiles compromised, including mine.  So, if you screw up and disclose personal information and/or help a virus to spread, you shouldn’t feel too bad. 

Still, I guess it’s nice to have a methodology for not being a complete sucker, and that’s what I’ve endeavored to provide.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Monday, February 13, 2017

From the Archives - A Valentine Poem


I wrote a Valentine’s Day poem back in 1989, and built a little essay around it.  (The idea of footnotes didn’t occur to me at the time.)  My essay was titled “The Safety Valentine,” because the poem—which I encouraged my readers to pass off as their own—was so non-steamy and understated it couldn’t possibly incite the recipient to, say, slap the poet. 

That essay wasn’t very good so I’ll spare you.  The footnotes here, below the poem, are new.

The Safety Valentine – February 10, 1989

The Poem

   ODE TO A PRETTY MUCH OKAY GIRL                
Can I compare you to a slimy slug?
No way—compared to you, a slug is gross!               2
In fact, you put to shame ‘most any bug;       
The caterpillar isn’t even close.              
On you I think I’d rather fix my gaze          
Than on a snake that’s flattened on the road.          6
I’d rather hold your hand, it’s safe to say,   
Than stroke the skin of any horny toad.        
And lady, I would deign to dine with you,       
If going hungry were my other choice.                      10
I wouldn’t mind conversing with you, too,      
If forced to otherwise give up my voice.       
    So just relax and feel real glad,            
    That I don’t think you’re really all that bad.        14

Footnotes & Commentary

Line 1:  Can I compare

Needless to say, this sonnet is a takeoff on Shakespeare’s Sonnet #18, which begins, “Can I compare thee to a summer’s day?”  This copycat strategy is really for the reader’s benefit, to make the whole sonnet thing seem a bit more familiar and less daunting.  I hope you’re happy.

Line 6:  snake that’s flattened

Putting vivid imagery into poems is hard for me.  In that regard this is one of my better sonnets, I suppose.

Line 7:  hold your hand

It’s kind of silly how my speaker assumes his reader will be the more enthusiastic party.  Who is this guy?  Back when I wrote this, I was not very bold about busting a move.  I was far more concerned about being rejected than about leading somebody on.  (I’m a little better now, but that’s only because I’m happily married and thus fairly unlikely to be rejected, except by my cat.)

Line 8:  any horny toad

That “any” is slightly silly.  It’s not like one toad is grodier than another.  This is a simple case of subjugating content to the requirements of the meter.  “Horny,” on the other hand, is a fine word choice, with the innuendo obviously intentional.

Line 9:  lady

The word “lady” here would fit just fine within the milieu of an actual Elizabethan-era sonnet, but it clearly clashes with the modern, offhand expression “no way” in the second line.  Actually, “lady” is actually a very recent revision—i.e., just now.  The original line back in 1989 was “In fact, on you I’d rather spend my dough,” which was just so lame I revised it in February of 1991 when I actually gave this sonnet to a female friend, pasted into an actual safety Valentine.  My revised version was, “And ——, I’d choose to dine with you,” where obviously instead of the dashes I had the girl’s actual name.  I’ve withheld it here to respect her privacy.

Here’s the full story:  I found myself flying solo for yet another Valentine’s Day, which wasn’t like a big deal or anything to me, but for some reason I decided to do something about it.  So I called my aforementioned friend.  (Can a college-aged guy have a female friend whom he’s not trying to turn into a girlfriend?  Yes, in fact.  I’d started out friends with this girl, then randomly escalated things one night, and that didn’t work out so well—call it lack of chemistry, I guess—so we went back to being friends.)  I asked if she wanted to have a non-date and get some dinner.  She said, “Well, I already ate.”  I asked what.  “A cheese sandwich,” she said.  I argued that that wasn’t very much food, and anyway if she really wasn’t hungry, that was okay too—she could just watch me eat.  So then she admitted her actual misgiving, which was that she and her roommates were  having “girls’ night in,” which consisted of staying home and bagging on all men.  I said that was pretty ridiculous and that surely the first rule of Man-Hating Girls’ Valentine Night must be that if anybody gets a date, she’s automatically off the hook. 

At this my friend relented, and I quickly put together the Safety Valentine, with the poem and everything.  Her roommates shot daggers at me when I picked her up, and in fact I had the sense they always hated me after that.  (In fairness, they probably already hated me before that.)  She liked the poem pretty well, I think, being a fellow English major.

One final detail about this Valentine’s non-date:  after a nice dinner at the Rockridge CafĂ© my friend randomly decided to go into the convenience store across the street and buy a lottery ticket.  She had never done this before.  To our amazement, she won!  I don’t remember the amount—probably around $20—but every bit helps when you’re a starving student.  Besides, it set me up for the perfect punch line to the tale:  “Well, at least one of us got lucky that night!”

Line 12:  give up my voice

This was also a revision from 1991.  (I won’t even tell you the original line—that’s how bad it was.)  This bit about giving up my voice may have been a reference (conscious or not) to something that had happened the previous fall.  A girl I knew, for whom I really did have romantic intentions but who lived in Arizona, came to visit me.  It ended up being a terrible visit, primarily because I was hit with this terrible virus just before she arrived, and completely lost my voice!  That made things extremely awkward, to say the least.  Looking back, the whole thing was probably doomed anyway.  She was supposed to stay all week, through the Thanksgiving weekend, but by Tuesday we were pretty much done with each other.  I decided, on a lark, to drive to Boulder for Thanksgiving, theorizing that if I did this, the girl would be gone from my apartment by the time I returned on Sunday night.  In this I was not mistaken.

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Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Race Report - 2017 Fort Ord CCCX XC MTB


I belong to the East Bay Velo Club, a very generous outfit that hasn’t kicked me out even though my last race was in 2014.  Actually, we’re a very laid back bunch who care mainly about coffee, camaraderie, and chronicles.  The chronicles are mostly of our races (though I usually have to make do with ride reports).  These reports wisely focus on the food, because who really cares about the race?

Anyway, this report ought to appeal to anybody, even (or perhaps especially) anybody who hates cycling.

Executive summary – CCCX Fort Ord Mountain Bike Race – Category 2 Men’s 45+

Weather was great, course was phenomenal, I suffered pretty badly, but not badly enough, and lost the race.  Lunch was tasty but not big enough, and dinner was epic.

Here is my younger daughter with me before the race.

Short version                                                               
  • Race stats:  19.83 miles, 1:34:26 race time, 1:12:40 above heart rate target zone, 0:00:50 at redline, 2,161 vertical feet climbed
  • Dinner (night before):  1½ servings eggplant lasagna (tasty, a bit chewy, hearty enough), a few ounces of salmon (secondhand, insufficiently rare but “pretty yum”), one sip fountain Fanta (cloying, slightly flat), and one beer (make and model unknown) resulting from bartender error
  • Breakfast:  half a muffin and one cup coffee, black, from the Rise ‘n’ Dine continental breakfast at the HoJoMo
  • During race:  2 bottles energy drink (froot flavor), one chocolate Clif gel
  • Glycogen window treat:  none (!)
  • After ride (lunch):  one hamburger, two hot dogs in one bun, one piece styro-chicken-foam, one brownie, half a bottle energy drink (found on the ground)
  • Dinner:  Stella Artois beer; Doo-Boo salad (tofu, corn, all kinda crazy stuff), Gangnam French Fries (topped with bulgogi, cheese, and sauce), Jap-Chae (glass noodles with veggie), Gangnam chicken (fried with special sauce) at Gangnam Chicken in San Mateo
  • Verdict:  PASS(-ish)
I realized at the start line that this was going to be one of those days.  There’s a legend in these parts about men over age 45 who make a killing in tech, and then either retire or go to part-time consulting, and then—due to the same world-beater tendencies that helped them make a killing in tech—need to find some outlet for their competitive impulses and became these totally driven bike racers who train all the damn time, buy the best gear, race every weekend, and make it impossible for people like me to achieve any kind of success in the sport.  Is this legend true?  Well, in the words of one tough old dude, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”  In other words, I find it easier to face defeat if I can scoff at the top 7 riders and say, “Get a fricking life, man.”  (And then the next morning I wake up sore and tired and go back to work because I haven’t made enough money to retire early or make a living consulting part-time.)

To my credit, I was very successful in looking around at the start and deciding who the fastest guy was likely to be.  Once the race started I got right on his wheel, and sure enough he passed everybody during the slight uphill asphalt run-up to the dirt.  I hit the single-track in second position, died on the guy’s wheel for a few minutes, and then the single-minded, sport-obsessed, totally unbalanced evil bike bastards started passing me.  It was a long race, four laps, and my strategy was to pace myself and wait for the guys ahead to start detonating ahead of me.  Some did; most didn’t.  But—and this is critical—I rode well enough to not embarrass my daughter.  At least, she says I didn’t; maybe she’s patronizing me.  (And how did she fare in her race?  Better—but I won’t steal her thunder because she’ll likely write her own race report.  And—as my teammates are fond of telling me—it’ll be better than this one.)

Long version

My daughter Alexa is on the Albany High School mountain bike racing team in the NorCal League, and every January this team does a CCCX non-League race as a warm-up for the season.  As an assistant coach, I was encouraged to race.  The head coach reckons the kids deserve a chance to see us grownups suffer, and that we should be reminded of what we’re putting these kids through.  I (obviously) agree.

During the last pre-race training ride, we took a rest stop, got off our bikes, sat in a circle, and took turns describing our goals for the race and for the season.  I’m not real big on goals, but I declared, “My goal is to not disgrace my daughter on race day.”

Dinner the night before was pretty good, and most of the Albany Cougars and their parents and coaches ate together, which was pretty fun.  Now, about that beer.  On principle, I was not going to have a beer.  I doubted a beer would slow me down, but I felt I needed to show the bike race gods that I was willing to sacrifice pleasure for performance.  Besides, I needed to model temperance for the young impressionable racers.  But the bartender poured somebody a beer, and that somebody handed it off to somebody, and the bartender got confused and thought he hadn’t poured it yet, and poured another.  (Maybe he’d been embezzling libations?)  I ended up with the extra beer.  I can’t abide waste, so I drank it.  It was a bit warm and a bit flat by the time it made its way to me.  I Beck’sted a couple of friends and here are their responses:
“Drinking the night before a major race?? Do you expect to get a new contract?  You are dead to me.”

“The culture surrounding road racing and cyclocross couldn’t be more different.  Not only is beer an acceptable post-race refreshment, but in following Richard Sachs on Instagram and Flickr, I see that a flask of whiskey is not uncommon in the post-race team meetings.”
I got this second reply in the morning while preparing for my race (and my daughter Alexa’s race), and here’s how I responded: 
“A flask!  Great idea!”

Okay, I had some fun here but actually never drink whisky.  That flask contains Coleman fuel (aka white gas, aka solvent) for my bike chain.  This solves two problems:  1) how to transport a small amount of solvent (for chain cleaning) in a leak-proof and vapor-proof container, and 2) what to do with the hip flask.  You see, I got the flask as a gift at a company holiday party during the late ‘90s, and always wanted to put it to use, because it’s so nicely made, and seems like the kind of manly furnishing that would say I’ve really arrived, you know?  And yet, what situation could I possibly find myself in that I’d need to smuggle in an alcoholic beverage?  (Fear not, after this gag photo I applied a skull-and-crossbones label.)

Trying to carry out pre-race logistics for myself and my daughter was nearly impossible.  I couldn’t find anything, and realized that although we had five bottles between us, it would be impossible to coordinate the feed zone stuff because I had to be setting up for my race while hers was still going on.  I won’t bore you with my other struggles other than to say one of them worked out pretty well.  I was warming up on a stationary trainer when suddenly my bike pitched to the side and made this horrible noise.  I hadn’t secured it properly.  Hurriedly messing with the knobs on the trainer, I grazed my finger against a plastic burr and drew blood.  This blood fortuitously dripped on my race number, which a fellow coach declared was totally badass.

Despite the great start recounted above, I fell off the pace a bit, but still had the leaders in sight.  As they passed one of the Albany Cougars (who had started a bit before us), he crashed and blocked their path, giving me the chance to slip by.  Well played!  My rivals probably didn’t except teamwork between the Cougars and the EBVC!

Subsequently I took the wrong line on a descent and got passed back.  I took it pretty easy on the downhills because after a terrible bike wreck a few years back I’m on thin ice with my wife, cycling-wise.  Plus, this was my first mountain bike race in almost 30 years (no, that’s not a typo) and I’m no John Tomac.  (John who?  Exactly!)

I was a bit worried about bonking because I only had one bottle waiting in the feed zone.  So, despite having the wheel of a guy who was slowly gaining on the leaders, I decided to go for a gel.  It was really thick, and there’s just not a great place to eat such a thing on a race course that’s almost all single-track.  So my mouth got cemented shut like the pig’s mouth in Farmer Boy when she ate molasses candy.  I lost the  guy’s wheel and never got it back.  I probably never would have finished ingesting the gel if I hadn’t had the flask of solvent to wash it down with.  (Kidding!)

By halfway through the race there was nobody in sight ahead of me, nor behind.  It’s kind of hard to motivate under such circumstances, especially when you’re me, and when you’re out of contention. So I gamely kept hammering, kind of, but without quite the passion I’ve shown in, say, shame-based events such as the team time trial.  I mean, here you are (if you’re me), out there on some remote trail with nobody around, trying to motivate to dig deep when it all seems so futile.  I knew I could have ridden harder, because at certain specific times in the race I actually did.

Those times, of course, were my trips through the feed zone where most of my Albany High cohorts were gathered.  It’s really kind of amazing how much noise they were able to make.  It sounded like a stadium full of fans at a rock concert or something, just this tunnel of noise.  What a rush!  In accordance with the advice the Cougars coach had given his riders the day before, I tried to look my very best while riding this stretch.  Check this out:  two complete strangers are cheering me on here.

Actually, if you look carefully, one of the guys whose mouth is open seems to be looking behind me.  Could he have been cheering somebody else?  Possibly.  It’s also worth pointing out that the kid whom I’m partially eclipsing in the photo is one of the ones I coach, and yet he looks totally oblivious.  But that still leaves one guy who actually appears to be looking right at me and cheering.  I can’t recall the last time somebody cheered me on.  It’s not like I’m ever on a conference call and somebody yells, “Yeah, go, man, go!”  Or I’m on the subway and I successfully procure a ticket and the guy in the booth yells, “Yeah, way to transact, dude!”  And my kid never whoops it up just because I got her drivetrain clean enough to eat off of.  So, yeah, in this unsung life, I’ll take whatever cheers I can get. 

One more thing about the above photo:  isn’t my bike amazing?!  Sometimes I gaze upon it and I just can’t believe it’s really mine.  Okay, I guess I’m getting maudlin now.  Probably I’ve drunk too much solvent.

Here’s something else cool:  as I sit here writing this, my daughter is across the room pounding on her laptop keys as well, and I can tell from her occasional questions (e.g., “How do you spell chamois?” or “What’s it called when they hand you a bottle?”) that she’s writing her race report even as I write mine.  In that light, who really cares that I got my ass kicked in this race?  Those other 45+ riders, they’re probably totally estranged from their kids.  And their wives are probably reading my blog right now, wishing their husbands had been English majors.

Okay, so now you’re surely wondering (if you’re still there), did anything actually happen in this race?  Why, yes, and I’m glad you asked!  It came to pass that my strategy—letting myself get dropped on my own recognizance, pacing myself dutifully, and hoping somebody up ahead started to wear out—started to pay off.  I was gradually gaining ground on a guy who had passed me earlier, and whom I had nicknamed “Soulless Life Ruiner.”  I wasn’t pulling back much time, but I could imagine the effect on this guy’s psyche to be petering out.  I hope he felt like an old-fashioned flashlight whose bulb goes from white to orange when the battery runs down.  The trouble was, it didn’t look like I’d get him in time.  That’s when I got lapped by this guy in the Pro category.  He was kind of an old dude and wasn’t going that much faster than I.  So I decided to see how long I could keep up with him.  I followed his lines on the sharper, sandier turns, and the sheer pucker-factor of this activity surely drove up my adrenaline levels.

By the time the pro (inevitably) begin to pull away, I was in striking distance of the Soulless Life Ruiner.  Of course, I was also in pretty serious oxygen debt, but a short downhill took care of that.  On the last real climb, I powered up to him and—following the protocol of mountain bike racing as I understand it—called out, “Passing on your left.”  As I did so I was afraid he’d been loafing himself and would say, “Oh yeah?!” and then pick up the pace and pull away again ... but he wasn’t and he didn’t.  Instead, he said, “Bring it!”  So I guess he had soul after all.

Of course once I’d passed him I had to make it stick, so I was deep into the red for the last five minutes of the race.  Knowing my wife and kids and various Cougars and their parents were in the vicinity, ready to note my disgrace if I faltered, I found the energy to finish fast.  (As it turns out, the guy I’d passed finished nowhere near me, and if I’d just gone harder I might have caught another guy, who finished only 5 seconds ahead of me.  So that kind of sucks.  But I do take some solace in knowing that you, gentle reader, couldn’t care less.)

Look how delighted my kids are to see how much pain I’m in post-race.  Alexa is craning her neck to get a better view.  Peer past my sunglass lenses and you’ll see my eyes aren’t even open.  Note also how my jaw is jutted forward like I have an underbite.  Is that some effort to get more air, or am I doing flehmen, that weird smelling thing that cats do?  I have no idea.

So yeah, I suffered.  But it was a blast.  Racing on a great single-track mountain bike course is like riding a roller coaster, except it goes on for an hour and a half and you’re (ideally) in control.  Oh yeah, and your legs and lungs burn, but you deserve that.  If you’re me, anyway.

After my race I hung around the finish line cheering on the rest of the Cougars before heading over to our team tent and scarfing a hamburger, a couple of hot dogs, and this thing that looked like Chinese orange chicken but tasted like a combination of Styrofoam, foam rubber, modified food starch, and sawdust.  Plus it was cold.  Man that was disgusting, but I didn’t want to be rude in case the person who’d brought it (or had shat it out) was looking.

I’d have hung around eating more, but during her race Alexa had hit a bump so hard she lost both her water bottle and her pump.  This is amazing because the pump has (or normally has, or should I say had) a little Velcro strap.  (It’s a good thing she didn’t blow out her tire on that bump, needless to say.)  So we had to go back out on the course to look for the lost pump.  We pedaled along at walking pace scanning the trail, in vain, and then we realized that whoever was responsible for tearing down the course—that is, removing the little arrow signs and tape that indicate where to ride—was already at work.  Without the signage, we got totally lost in the network of single tracks.  Soon we were turned all around like in a bad dream, where we were bike-riding hamsters and our Habitrail was tangled up like a headphone cord.  Even when we gave up looking for the pump, we were just crawling along because we were both so shattered from racing.

By the time we got back to the car, we discovered that a) the whole Albany High team compound had been dismantled and packed away and everybody was leaving, and b) our car’s battery had died, so my wife was sitting there with the engine running, having gotten a jump-start.  So we headed out, afraid to stop at our favorite taqueria in Gilroy lest our battery wasn’t sufficiently charged.

Dinner was at Gangnam Chicken in San Mateo.  Gangnam French Fries—regular fries topped with bulgogi (i.e., beef), cheese, and the Korean equivalent of the sauce you get with hot wings—is a brilliant innovation, kind of an Eastern rendition of poutine.  Everything I ate at this place seemed brilliant.  Of course, if you went and ate there it’s possible you’d be disappointed, because I was just so damn hungry probably anything would have tasted great.  (Except that weird styro-chicken-foam after the race.  What the hell was that about?)

Epilogue – the heart rate charts

My daughter placed much higher than I did.  In case you’re wondering how a kid with my genes could achieve this in only her second season of racing, these heart rate charts tell it all.  Zoom in on these.

Her chart is the second one.  Look how much time she was in the red!  What’s particularly impressive is that her heart rate didn’t drop that much during the descents.  That’s some serious pucker-factor.  With drive and vigor like that, she’ll probably end up becoming one of those tech superstars who retire at 45 and go slay everybody on the bike race circuit!  I just hope she’ll still talk to me then....

Epilogue #2 – my daughter’s poem

A week after the race, my daughter presented me with this unsolicited poem about her experience watching me race:

To watch an off-road bike race feels strange
I’m used to observation from within
To see my dad partake is quite a change
The struggle’s not just mine, the fight to win

It’s not as fun, observing, as I’d thought
Though not competing, I still felt the stress
The race had fried my brain, my nerves were shot
I really wanted you to have success

My suffering was finished, yet, you see
I wanted you to finish feeling proud
Do you all feel this way when watching me?
Bike racing’s tiring, even for the crowd!

    I’m proud of you, you handled it with zeal
   Tough, intense, and strong, with nerves of steel

I suppose that if she felt moved to write that, I couldn’t have completely disgraced her.  So I got that going for me.  Which is good.

Epilogue #3  the unpleasant aftermath

If you're interested in the unpleasant aftermath of my race, click here.

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