Monday, December 31, 2018

From the Archives - Brutal Bicycle Training Contest - Part II


If you read my last post, you were left hanging, your interest (ideally) kindled about who ended up winning the 2005 Albert training competition. (If you didn’t read my last post go do that first.) This post provides the electrifying conclusion of the protracted, wrenching, ego-drenched battle between brothers. By way of review, the brothers in question are Bryan (at left in the photo below) and Geoff (at right).

Where we left off, I led the competition—after 362 days—by a mere 3.5 points over Geoff. To emphasize how close this was, that’s just 0.12% of my total score to that point. Geoff and I were absolutely neck-and-neck, and both already fried from three brutal weeks on the bike.

Thursday, Dec 29

GEOFF (before riding, and remember, he’s 9 hours ahead of Dana and Bryan): As I look over the [training competition] spreadsheet for inspiration, less than half an hour before I suit up for my final effort of the year, I feel a sense of doom, not unlike that feeling I had when Dad was going to spank the whole lot of us, and I was sent around to friends’ houses to round everyone up. I know I’m going to have to do great things here in the next few hours, and this causes my bowels to constrict with fear. I wonder what will happen... By the time you read this I’ll probably have posted my score. I hope it’s a big one.

GEOFF (42.0 points, indoor – 2 hrs 25 min): In an attempt to demoralize and crush the opposition, I have produced this score. I felt pretty good and decided to shoot for two hours above the [heart rate target] zone. After 1:45 above the zone, I just fell apart. I got off, caffeinated, drank apple juice, emptied my bladder and soaked my head, which got me through another turbulent five minutes, but then it just ended. My legs would go around in circles no longer. I threw in the towel and started cleaning up and warming down.

But then I decided to try again, as this is the end of the year, and climbed back onto the torture rack, made my best effort to turn the pedals around some more, but no, it just would not happen. I was knackered. Had the stuffing completely knocked out of me.

So there it is, 42 points. Dana, if you can top this effort, why, you deserve the win. Who knows though, maybe I’ll feel inspired on Saturday, and will get back on the bike. I doubt it though....

DANA: You bastard! I have no time to ride today and no energy anyway. But I’ve been checking the FTP site all day, waiting to see what you did, and fantasizing about a sub-30 score, the natural result of the fatigue that I hoped would finally catch up to you. But no, instead you get medieval on my heinie, you just shock-and-awe me, with this grotesquely monstrous score. You are a bad, bad man. D’oh. I’m already terribly dreading tomorrow’s hammerfest. It’ll be doubly painful given the obvious futility of my attempt...


[Here’s a photo from 2006, of the three of us studying our ride data together. We were data slaves long before Strava even existed.]

Friday, Dec 30

BRYAN [catching up from Thursday]: Man, Geoff! What in tarnation are you? The Terminator? Look at these scores! Look at the slope of that graph! Every stinkin’ ride is over 30 points! And getting back on after throwing in the towel, that’s heroic! But I happen to know that Dana’s out there right now, putting the hammer down, even as I sit here waiting for the next round of nausea and the next mad dash to the toolit to puke my guts out. I’m thinking Saturday’s calling your name...

DANA (40.4 points, indoor – 2 hrs 5 min): NO GIFTS.

BRYAN: Good grief, the mother of all mother scores! Look at that score-per-hour number! Only two hours, and an hour and a half of it above the zone! Well, this is certainly going to be a battle. NICE RIDE, DUDE!

DANA: Thanks! I only wish it didn’t totally wreck me. At the dinner table afterward, I was almost too tired to chew. In fact, I became too tired to eat before I was really full. I just couldn’t stay vertical another minute, and collapsed to the floor on my back. Even typing this note is a serious chore.

GEOFF: Well shoot, you certainly are an ornery little cuss, aren’t you? Man, 40 points. Now of course I have no choice, I have to ride again. I only hope I can do something great. Man, nice effort! An ‘A’ for effort! Of course you’re going to dig deep tomorrow and I just know that you’re going to pull ahead again, and that on New Year’s Eve I’m going to have to make myself suffer again, and that it will be in vain. Oh well, I’ve never been so close to the victory before. I guess that’s worth something.

DANA: If you had any first-hand knowledge of how badly I suffered for these points, you wouldn’t be worried at all...


Saturday, Dec 31

GEOFF (39.7 points, indoor – 2 hrs 12 min): Well there it is, my final effort. I somehow outdid myself. At the time, it felt as if I had given it all I had. Yet I didn’t fall off the bike. Nor did I have to crawl around afterwards, I was still able to walk. Shoot, my lips didn’t even turn blue. Now I’m feeling like such a wimp. Why oh why didn’t I stay on just another ten minutes? I could have shattered through the magical 40 Point Barrier.

Oh well, I guess I should be proud of myself. It was a near death experience, after all. At one point my eyes filled up with tears and overflowed for almost no reason. At another point my pulse sailed up above 160, where it stayed for what felt like an hour, though in reality it was only a few minutes. I was sure that I’d died and been relieved of my suffering, and decided that I’d stay on the bike for the rest of the year [i.e., until midnight]. Then of course my pulse plummeted again, and it was back to reality.

So there it is, almost 40 points. Will it be enough? Will age and treachery overcome youth and skill? Or will Dana pull it off yet again? We’ll soon know. The ball’s back in your court. Punish me, young man!

DANA (pre-ride): MAN! I’m so impressed, I can’t even bring myself to call you a bastard. That’s amazing! Look at that score-per-hour, right on the heels of your 42-point MegaTour! I’d also like to point out that you took the world record for score-per-month of all time, besting my 400.2 mark from 2003! You also got the second-biggest week of all time (second to your own record, of course). Now, I’m going to swing my leg over the bike today, but I can’t imagine I’ll have the strength to even begin to convince myself that victory is possible. You’ll know soon . . . perhaps very soon, if things go badly enough for me! Nice ride, dude!

BRYAN: What an incredible finish! I’d say that you really wanted this one. An incredible week, an incredible month, shoot, an incredible year! Nice work. We’re all very proud of you over here!

DANA (10.6 points, indoor – 1 hr): Today’s ride was horrible, but at least it was brief. That is, it took me just an hour (actually 59:45, which was as close to an hour as I could get) to ascertain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there was no way I could score enough points to win. I’ve attached the final graph, because it tells a poignant tale. About 35 minutes into the workout, my spirits faltered and my pulse dropped to about 145. This angered me, and I hammered as hard as I could and finally crossed the [target] zone threshold. At this point I had all the grace of a fish flopping on the floor of a boat, being murdered with an ice pick. After about 90 seconds of this I was actually crying. I blew up, and my heart fell to just over 130.

I was getting ready to climb off the bike when I had my Tom Simpson moment. Remember, just before he died on Mount Ventoux, when his famous last words were “Put me back on my bike!”? That’s what I’m talking about. Reflecting on the absurdly short duration of my ride, and motivated by an equally absurd refusal to accept defeat, I decided to try to recover and go a bit longer.

And so, 48 minutes in I decided to try one more time to burst over the zone threshold, and (I foolishly hoped) somehow pin myself there [i.e., above my heart rate target zone—that is, redlined]. And as the graph shows, I actually did get it up there for awhile. When I finally detonated for good, which of course was inevitable, I decided to just keep hammering as much as I could despite the extreme, piercing, shattering pain. At this point I was uttering strange animal noises, somewhere between groans and screams but really more like yelps (given my lack of breath). And then something really strange happened: after maybe 30 seconds of this my heart rate began to soar. It got into the upper 160s and stayed there awhile, for about 45 seconds, and then suddenly I not only couldn’t pedal anymore, but couldn’t hold myself up on the bike. I crumpled into the handlebars and it was all over. Good thing I was on the [indoor] trainer or I’d have stacked!

So, not a great score, but it did get me above the 100-points-in-a-week barrier, for a personal best. It also got me above the prestigious 300-points-in-a-month barrier. It also brought my margin of loss down to less than a percent, which I have to be happy about. Best of all, it’s finally over.

BRYAN: Well shoot, Dana, my condolences. It was a valiant effort, I must say, as your last ride’s data attest. I believe you’re the better man for it, however, and I fear what you will do in the coming year. Did you realize that you shattered your previous total scores, as well as your best week? Very impressive...

GEOFF: Well Dana, your description of your final ride has filled my head with all sorts of thoughts. First of all, there’s respect and admiration for your grit and determination and your ability to torture yourself. My hat’s off to you! Then of course there’s the enormous sense of relief that you didn’t actually die trying. Erin would have killed me! There’s also the recognition of having been right there with you, having experienced exactly the same emotions. There’s a common bond here which I’m sure many people will never know. Oddly enough, I seem to be missing the thrill of victory. Maybe it just needs to sink in.

[FINAL SCORE: Geoff 2,941; Dana 2,914; Bryan 1,567.]

Final commentary

BRYAN: Gentlemen, nicely done. I am impressed and awed at your biking prowess. It’s a privilege to be crushed into oblivion by you.

DANA: I tried. That’s all I can say. Of course that’s not true—I can always say more. For example, nice job Geoff! I’m actually not that bummed about losing this year, because I lost to such a gritty opponent.

GEOFF: Well, I can scarcely believe that I actually won. I honestly thought it was impossible to beat Dana on the bike. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who made this victory possible, including the artists whose music made it possible to dig a bit deeper, my parents for providing me a genetic gift for determination, my equipment suppliers whose gear stood up to the task, the promoters and producers of this great sporting event, and of course my unwavering fellow competitors, whose dedication and guts are an inspiration to us all. So, what am I doing after the celebration? I’m goin’ to Di’neylan’!

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

From the Archives - Brutal Bicycle Training Contest!


For over a decade, every year I held a year-long bike training contest with my brothers Bryan and Geoff, and sometimes a few friends. It started January 1 and ended December 31 and was a points competition. We didn’t race head-to-head, nor did we compare times (like Strava does). Instead, we used the data from our heart rate monitors to score each ride in terms of duration and intensity.

(Here’s what these heart rate monitors looked like … fairly primitive by today’s standards, though they did offer data upload to a PC so we could crunch the numbers. Yes, that 39 on the screen is my heart rate … I was much fitter back then, and this was at rest.)

Intensity was determined by each rider’s average heart rate, and what percentage of his maximum heart rate this average represented. The closer to redline a guy rode, the higher his score was, based on an accelerator applied to his base score; i.e., total score =  [duration]*[avg HR]*[accelerator].

There was also a bonus based on the amount of time spent with the heart rate over the target zone (i.e., more than 85% of the max heart rate). This meant that whatever part of your ride was at absolute redline earned you big bonus points. In a nutshell, you scored high by hammering your ass off for as long and as hard as possible. (Downhills and other periods of low-intensity riding were chucked out by a special software algorithm Bryan coded.) So the real total score = [duration]*[avg HR]*[accelerator] + [bonus].

We tracked one another’s scores closely via a shared spreadsheet we would trade around via FTP. The score per month and running total were displayed graphically. We commented on each other’s rides, cheering and jeering, and often going off into the weeds with stories of family life. Often we’d review and update the spreadsheet several times a day.

(Here’s a photo of Bryan, Geoff, and me taken in 2006, during a training ride for the 2006 La Marmotte cyclosportif.)

The contest of 2005 was particularly close, with the winner not determined until the final day, December 31. This meant we spent our Christmas and New Year’s Eve holidays pedaling like madmen. It’s a wonder our wives put up with it.

This post gathers up our scores and comments, with a pretty graph at the end, so you can read the amazing story of our end-of-year death march. (If you’re not that into bicycling, fear not: there are some great side stories about our kids barfing, which ought to pique anybody’s interest.)

A final note: Geoff lives in The Netherlands, so he’s nine hours ahead. This meant I sometimes knew his most recent score before I rode, but not always. Sometimes we didn’t update our scores right away (either due to time constraints or a backhanded keep-‘em-guessing strategy).

Training contest showdown – December 2005

Saturday, Dec 24

GEOFF (35.8 points – indoor, 1 hr 52 min): Dana, I’ve taken your [virtual] yellow [leader’s] jersey! How ya like me now?!

DANA:  (14.1 points – 1 hr 21 min, 21 miles, 2,913 vertical feet of climbing): Doggone it! I didn’t see a score for you as of this afternoon, and thought maybe you’d taken the day off. So I went out and hammered (as well as I could, anyway), thinking I’d be padding my lead. Instead, I lost it! I just didn’t have it today … too many hard rides already this month!

I’m going to have a hard time putting up the big scores this week because I can no longer ride indoors. We’re having the kitchen painted, and though the painters put up a plastic sheet, it’s been punched full of holes, and the fumes have filled the office [where I ride the trainer]. I considered riding with a gas mask down there but that would get mighty gross. So I rode in the rain today. What a mess. My chamois was like a thick soggy pancake by the end, and my socks weighed a pound apiece. To dry out my shoes, I stuffed inside-out diapers in them (for lack of newspaper). It’s supposed to keep raining, so this next week will be a real test of my gumption! And I’ll be in Sacramento for Christmas so I won’t get any riding done…

BRYAN:  Man, Geoff, nice ride!


Monday, Dec 26

DANA (17.2 points – 1 hr 23 min, 21 mi, 2,976 vertical feet):  D’oh! We didn’t get back from Sac until this afternoon. I’d hoped for a longer ride but simply ran out of daylight. Man, I can see the contest slipping through my fingers! I live in fear of the next Geoff Albert MegaScore. And I didn’t even get the lead back today!


Tuesday, Dec 27

GEOFF (32.6 points – indoor, 2 hr 1 min):  Well that was painful, but I’m pleased. Man. I was practically hyperventilating for the full two hours. It was one of those struggles to keep the pulse up. Thinking about the rest of the week is terrifying. Such pain, such misery. It will not be fun. If I weren’t such a coward I’d just throw in the towel and announce that I won’t be riding any more this year. But I can’t, of course.

BRYAN:  Well, Geoff, shoot, it looks like you’re poised to take away my score-per-month record and there’s nothing I can do about it. On the other hand, you’ve earned it!

DANA:  (7.2 points – 1 hr 34 min, 20.6 mi, 2,920 vertical feet): Nooooooooooo! This was just what I was afraid of. I suffer long and hard to eke out another tiny advantage, and then Geoff comes along and obliterates it. [Here, I did my ride before seeing Geoff’s score, so when I went to post mine, I saw right away that he had hugely outscored me.]

That does it. I’m going to play this like a numbers game. No more strategizing about how much rest to take to feel best on training day. I’m going to have to ride every day, on the off chance that I’ll feel good. If I feel lousy, I fall off the bike and drown my sorrows in my own sweat. If I feel good, I go as long and hard as I can. Trouble is, tomorrow is my last day of vacation and I doubt I’ll feel very good, if today is any indication. Man, I’ve been on the sofa most of the day, between loads of laundry. My legs feel like they’ve been actually injured, like somebody shut them in a car door. Man o man. I felt SO lousy on this ride. I had big ambitions, too. I ate breakfast, mixed up two big bottles of Gatorade, two Clif bars, clothes for any weather . . . I was going to ride for hours and get a shock-and-awe score. I figured I’d finished yesterday’s ride with something still in the tank and would feel good. The horror! I just didn’t have it. I felt slightly less than mediocre going up Spruce, fairly lousy on South Park, and absolutely abysmal on Lomas Cantadas. There were times on that climb when my bike would come almost to a complete stop at the top of the pedal stroke. I went from intending to conquer the world to simply hoping I could limp home. Even my arms were tired.

In other news, just before bed last night Lindsay had sudden, violent bout of projectile vomiting. Her aim was uncanny:  she sprayed down a large pile of silk sweaters, fanned her blast over to our goose down pillows, nailed the down comforter and duvet, coated a bunch of clothing, and created a huge slip hazard on the hardwood floor. Never has such a small person created such a huge amount of laundry in so little time. Plus we had the bedroom windows open due to the paint fumes, so without that comforter I froze the rest of the night. I dreamed that I was riding with soaking wet chamois and tights. D’oh.

BRYAN:  You’ve got to love those little vomiters! Last night at the dinner table (our family has been afflicted to varying degree with illness) Jamey announced that she felt like she was going to barf. So we told her to go to the bathroom. Then we heard her heaves—they sounded like those of a full-grown man! That little angel hit the toilet with every blast, and there were four of them! So we tucked her in with her bucket. Poor little fellow, with her sheet-white face...

Last night Lydia was complaining of some serious stomach problems and today she’s hurling hard. She even threw up out the window of her uncle’s car, spattering all down the side of the car! This was in heavy traffic, no less.

GEOFF:  Good grief! I’m counting myself very lucky that I haven’t had to clean up vomit in a while! The last time was when Max didn’t make it to the tiled bathroom in time, stopping mid-stride to empty his system on the brand new carpeting upstairs. I couldn’t help but grin as I was scraping it out with a spatula, just like Mom used to do. I don’t know how I got the vomit patrol task, but I did.

DANA:  Speaking of Max, I chatted with him the other day, international long-distance, and bragged that I ate roll-mops [raw herring wrapped around a dill pickle spear] as my recovery food after a cold, wet ride. I was bragging, of course, but he unknowingly deflated my wimpy American swagger instantly by asking, “Was it yummy?”  It hadn’t occurred to me that a food that gives one (wussy American) man culinary bragging rights can be another (cool European) man’s (well, boy’s) delicacy...

BRYAN (20.6 points – indoor, 1 hr 3 min):  I’ll take it. It won’t help much, but it was a good ride, all things considered. It sure hurt to ride the trainer. I had forgotten how much suffering and drudgery it is. In fact, I wondered for a few minutes why I’m even doing this…

DANA:  Not bad! Your score-per-hour is stellar, as always. Did John work out with you?

BRYAN:  Nope, just solo. I think he was feeling a bit ill and went to bed early. It was a late-night ride. Now I’m feeling sick too! My belly’s all queasy and I feel like I should be puking, but I’m not—yet. Fine by me, but I sure didn’t feel like mounting up last night. I was hoping to ride every day through 12/31, but it’s not going to happen.

GEOFF:  You know, I’m feeling a bit ill myself. My head’s heavy and hurts, like one of those colds coming on. Of course it sure doesn't help that I only got five hours of sleep last night…


Wednesday, Dec 28

DANA (30.4 points – 3 hours, 47 miles, 5,975 vertical feet):  Boy, this one hurt. I psyched myself up as much as possible first, reading a Tour de France book beforehand while waiting for my NoDoz to kick in. I achieved some good time-above-zone early on, by suffering hugely, and then about halfway through I started to fall apart. Man. I felt every pedal stroke today. Each one was so hard, I was able to count them. There were 14,387. Oh, such horrible suffering. Every climb the Berkeley hills can throw at a guy—South Park, Fish Ranch, Claremont, South Pinehurst, Pinehurst, El Toyonal, and Lomas Cantadas. I’m glad I took the lead, but of course it’s another of those ahead-by-a-hair deals that will certainly be crushed out like a cigarette tomorrow.

I was absolutely destroyed at the end of this ride. Erin saw me come in the door and gasped at my blue lips. (It wasn’t that cold out; I think it was the problem I had after the 2003 La Marmotte, when my body was having trouble reoxygenating.)  Boys, you know you’re hurting when you have to sit down in the shower.

BRYAN:  Remember how I was feeling sick, like I should be booting, but I wasn’t? Well, I guess it just took a little while to come on, but boy did it! It’s like a hydrant! Wet cleanup in aisle 3!

DANA:  Dude ... what a grind!


To be continued…

For the thrilling conclusion to this barbaric, ego-fueled struggle, tune in to Part II, coming to albertnet on December 31!

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Monday, December 17, 2018

The albertnet Christmas Guide - Part II


This is Part II of my albertnet Christmas Guide. For Part I, click here. In this post I cover the best Christmas song, the best Christmas poem, and—on the recommendation of my kids—the worst of each as well.

If my use of the word “Christmas” (as opposed to “the holidays”) causes you to raise an eyebrow, please read the “semantic housekeeping” section of my last post.

The best Christmas song

Let’s face it, there’s gobs of Christmas music out there but it’s slim pickings finding anything even listenable, much less good. As described here, I cannot stand how malls immerse us in this godawful noise. But if you look hard enough, there are a couple of really good holiday songs. (Perhaps exactly two.)

I’ll start with the runner-up, that being “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night” by Simon & Garfunkel. For one thing, those guys can actually sing. Where other name-brand musicians try to breathe new life into stupid old songs like “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” by randomly warping their voices, to give the song an unstructured “live” sound, S&G sing this classic song beautifully and in harmony. Meanwhile, they fold in a grim radio announcer reading the evening news, which grows steadily in volume and bleakness. This combination has a bite that no other holiday music would dare attempt. Perhaps the only fault is that the irony is just a bit too thick … it’s fine line between timeless music and a parlor trick.

The winner in this category is “Realness of Space” by Bob Schneider. You may cry foul because this is not obviously a Christmas song. In fact, you might argue that this is obviously not a Christmas song. Well, subtlety is sometimes what makes great art. If you listen to this song a number of times you’ll realize that its underlying structure resembles, more than anything, a Christmas gift list. In the span of just over two minutes, Schneider utters the phrase “I want” no fewer than 21 times. And the real giveaway is when he sings, “I want a gold watch/ I want some Hickory Farms.” Let’s face it, nobody ever even thinks about Hickory Farms except around Christmastime.

To put this theory to the test, I asked my wife if her family ever got a Hickory Farms gift basket. She said, “Yeah, for Christmas some relative would always give us this giant cheese ball. It was kind of weird, just this big old ball of cheese encrusted with nuts. As a little kid I was kind of fascinated.”

My family wasn’t actually lucky enough to get anything from Hickory Farms, other than their Christmas gift catalog. I would leaf through that with a combination of desire and mild disgust. Of course I loved cheeses and peanut brittle, but the giant sausages—which appeared to be at least four inches in diameter—struck me as grotesque, almost obscene. (My mom was known, on burger night, to stretch a pound of ground turkey with oatmeal so it would feed our family of six, including four ravenous boys.)

What makes “Realness of Space” profound is the chorus: “I want the Jacksons from 1973/ I want the Osmonds, and I/ Want you to love me.” When looking to summon something that is gone forever, the very quintessence of the unobtainable, you couldn’t do much better than this (the Jackson 5 having split up that year, and The Osmonds not long after). It’s as though by gathering together these things he cannot have and juxtaposing them with what he really wants—love—he’s tormenting himself as masochistically as Edgar Allen Poe does in “The Raven.” And what could capture the dark, lonely side of Christmas better than that?

(Sure, you may continue to claim that “Realness of Space” has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas, and you know what? That’s totally fine. Go write your own blog.)

The best Christmas poem

Look, I get that nobody reads poetry, and that almost any reader would have no use for this category in a Christmas guide. It’s not like we’re all going to go write poems for our loved ones, or read published poems to them, or anything like that. If you think maybe I’ve gone off the rails, well, you’re probably right. Christmas does that to me, okay? But actually, one of the greatest tributes to Christmas ever created happens to be a poem.

I’m talking about “King John’s Christmas” by A.A. Milne. It concerns a king (or perhaps a man who deludes himself into thinking he is) who gets no respect—men passing him on the street would give him “a supercilious stare,/ Or passed with noses in the air.” King John has no friends, and “The cards upon his shelf/ Which wished him lots of Christmas cheer/ And fortune in the coming year/ Were never from his near or dear/ But only from himself.”

But John won’t give in to despondency, and gamely writes out a letter to Father Christmas: 
I want some crackers,
And I want some candy;
I think a box of chocolates
Would come in handy;
I don't mind oranges,
I do like nuts!
And I SHOULD like a pocket-knife
That really cuts.
And, oh! Father Christmas, if you love me at all,
Bring me a big, red india-rubber ball!
Lying awake during the wee hours of Christmas morning, John thinks he hears Father Christmas up on the roof, and gets so excited about getting anything at all (“He’ll bring one present, anyhow— / The first I’ve had for years”) that he rescinds all his requests, except for the last one. I won’t tell you what happens next … just go read the poem.

The worst Christmas song

It would be almost impossible to discover the very worst of the modern, name-brand covers of insipid traditional Christmas songs, because that would mean deliberately wading into the cesspool that is this genre. I wouldn’t wish that on any critic or blogger. Perhaps somebody working in a mall might inadvertently become an authority on the matter, but I’d hate to draw him or her out on the topic outside of working hours. Haven’t these people suffered enough?

Perhaps the best I can do is present the most disappointing, wince-inducing exhibit in the canon: “2000 Miles” by The Pretenders. I suppose it’s possible the band thought they were making real music, but my suspicion is that this is one of the bigger sellouts of all time—a cynical, shameless ploy to get their music into the malls. I mean, why else would a rock band make a Christmas song?

The song is monotonous, and Chrissie Hynde’s voice sounds a bit whiny, and the lyrics are abysmal. The observation is made that 2,000 miles is “very far.” Yeah, no shit! Then we’re regaled with a Thomas-Kindade-esque sentiment: “Our hearts were singing/ It felt like Christmas time.” Awwwww. It wraps up, “I hear people singing./ It must be Christmas time.” Who doesn’t know already when it’s Christmas time? Are we supposed to be moved by this deduction?

Even Hynde, who wrote the song, admits her lyrics suck. According to Wikipedia, she once declared, “Robbie McIntosh plays beautifully on ‘2000 Miles.’ Anything to avoid listening to my voice and my stupid words.”

But the worst part about this song is how damn catchy it is. If I hear it on the radio, or some chance phrase brings it to mind (which isn’t at all unlikely at this time of year), it gets stuck in my head and just won’t leave. When I think about The Pretenders—a band I normally like—stooping this low, it just depresses me.

And that’s not even the end of it: predictably enough, a number of bands have done covers of this imbecilic song. Wikipedia lists 11 of these, many for (gasp!) Christmas-themed albums.

I can understand why a mall might play inoffensive holiday-themed music in order to instill the kind of retail trance that separates people from their money, but why would rock music fans have an appetite for this kind of pablum?  Ugh.

The worst Christmas poem

Nobody should be bagging on poetry, right? Shouldn’t I be supporting it in all its forms? Of course as a wannabe writer I should be forgiving of anything committed to the printed page in pursuit of art. And so I’m myself surprised at having anything to describe in this unlikely category. And yet I do.

Somehow, in “researching” this post I stumbled upon a poetry website,, that does something—in the name of poetry—so utterly tasteless I cannot begin to fathom its origin. It presents poems (a strange mix of classics and amateur efforts) alongside not just a whole bunch of ads, but below what I guess it calls a video. It’s a little window with the words of the poem printed (like a Karaoke screen) and a computer voice doing an exceptionally poor job of reading the poem. The video, of course, is prefaced with a video ad. (The first poem video I viewed had an ad for fake wood siding for your home. I grabbed a snapshot and thought of pasting it below, but then that would technically be an ad on my blog which of course I would never do.)

Here is an example of this audiovisual monstrosity. Who the hell would want to hear that? It’s tempting to think this website is catering to the blind, but then why would there be all the visual ads? I guess the Poem Hunter creators figure there are people who are so lazy they’d rather hear a robot voice absolutely butcher a poem than do the reading for themselves. I truly hope nobody is so lonely during the holidays that he or she would listen to a Christmas poem on this site, just to get the simulacrum of another human voice.

I read the “About Us” section of the website, and found it decidedly non-erudite: “PoemHunter.Com aims to spread the effects of poems in the social and individual life of people, where a continuous change is undergoing with the Internet. PoemHunter.Com without a pause, continues its activities with the active participation of thousands of members.” My favorite part is the grammatically incorrect pause-inducing comma right after the phrase “without a pause.”

Yeah, I know that lousy website isn’t really Christmas-themed, per se. What can I say? I’m just not that devoted to this topic ... even with the big day only a week away.

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Sunday, December 9, 2018

The albertnet Christmas Guide

After some semantic housekeeping, I’ll provide herein my recommendations on how to get the very most out of your Christmas, or at least have a good laugh at the holiday’s expense.

Some semantic housekeeping

You might bristle at—or, conversely, rejoice in—my use of the word “Christmas” as opposed to “the holidays.” Obviously this is a loaded issue, and I gave it some thought. I decided on “Christmas” because it has become the generic term for the December 25 holiday that most of the people I know make the biggest fuss over. I’m using the term to mean something pretty specific: the day on which most Americans open gifts that are arranged beneath a tree that everybody calls a Christmas tree. I am aware that there are plenty of other holiday traditions but I’m too ignorant to blog intelligently about them.

Please don’t construe this as me prioritizing Christmas over any other cultural or religious tradition. For most of us, Christmas is not primarily a religious holiday. Almost everybody exchanges Christmas gifts but how many actually attend a special Mass? My family never did, growing up. Words like “stocking,” “present,” “candy,” and “get” were on everybody’s tongues but we never uttered “Eucharist,” “Mass, “liturgy,” or “Holy Communion.” Sure, we all pretend this holiday is about more than just giving, getting, and eating, but generally any putatively deeper meaning is just tacked on for good form. (It’s kind of like how everybody had to mourn Mother Theresa’s death simply because they’d so recently made such a fuss over Princess Diana’s.)

So, no—this post isn’t about any so-called War on Christmas or on pretensions of deep meaning. It’s about the typical Christmas holiday as my family and friends have traditionally experienced it: i.e., conspicuous consumption.

The best gift ideas

The real sweet spot for Christmas is when you’re kid and aren’t expected to give anyone anything. You just get, get, get and it’s awesome. Then you gradually have to start thinking of others, maybe you crudely craft some gifts for your parents (like a pottery ashtray even though they don’t smoke), and eventually you buy a few things for a few people, and this escalates over the years. Then, if you’re lucky enough to become a parent, the whole thing shifts completely and you have to give, give, give. It does help when the kids write cute letters to Santa, like this one.

I confess: I really don’t enjoy gift-giving. It’s not that I’m stingy; I’m actually fairly generous with my time and money. (Not that you should ask for any … isn’t this free blog enough?) My problem is the inefficiency of the whole gift-giving affair: how seldom a present actually pleases the recipient. I recently saw a Nordstrom ad on the back cover of a magazine that really annoyed me. “LET’S GO GIFTING!” it says, showing all these impossibly hip, happy, and exhilarated people clutching gift-wrapped packages. One of them is literally wearing heart-shaped glasses.

Look, Nordsters, if you find gifting that thrilling you’re obviously in the thrall of the giant retail machine and it’s having its way with you. Choosing a gift should be a careful, sober thing. If you’re snatching things up impulsively enough to keep your shopping companions from getting bored, you’re moving too fast. Your approach is as naively impossible and inappropriate as heart-shaped glasses. I don’t want to seem like a scrooge or anything, but I would really, really enjoy crushing those glasses under my boot.

I once got caught up in that let’s-go-gifting “spirit.” It was awful. I came into some money (something like $100) right before Christmas in 1983 and my brothers and I went on a spree. I remember my brother Geoff being totally enchanted by a wristwatch because it actually ticked. So what? It’s not like all watches were digital back then. But it was like entrapment: he was enchanted, so we had to pitch in and buy it for him. My brother Max and I somehow ended up buying each other the Police album “Synchronicity” so we ended up having it on both record and tape. It wasn’t until we got home that I realized how stupid that was. It’s not like we couldn’t have made a tape from the record and saved some damn money.

Buying gifts is hard, which I know because when I do receive one, half the time I don’t like it. And when I give one, the odds are even worse. Our poor choices demonstrate how little we really know our loved ones. My dad usually bought me books written by well-meaning environmentalists, spiritual healers, naturalists, etc. who just can’t write well. The book would begin with something like, “In winter, when the green earth lies resting beneath a blanket of snow, this is the time for storytelling.” I’ve tried to read these books and I just can’t. My literary standards are far too high.

Once my dad sent my wife some silver earrings. She opened the box, said, “How nice,” and then immediately turned to my sister-in-law and said, “You want ‘em?” She meant it. They were perfectly nice earrings (and probably expensive) but not her taste.

My picks for my dad weren’t much better. When I was like 12 I bought him a bike mirror. Of course this was a stupid idea. My dad was enough of a nerd for fenders and racks, but not for a mirror. He was clearly at a loss for what to say, so he said nothing. After a couple of weeks he still hadn’t mounted it to his handlebar so I asked him about it. “Oh, I have another use for it,” he said, though I never discovered what this was. He may have used it to line a landfill.

In college I bought my dad a UC Berkeley sweatshirt, which I thought he’d be chuffed to bits about, what with us having the same alma mater and all. But he never wore it. Had I thought about this, I’d have realized I’d never seen him in a sweatshirt at all. They were, I came to understand, beneath his dignity. When I cleaned out his house a year ago I half-expected to find that sweatshirt but I guess he got rid of it … possibly right away.

When gifts really go wrong it’s when the thought (i.e., what counts) doesn’t demonstrate enough love. In the Christmas of 1977, I received the “Star Wars” soundtrack (a two-record album). My brother Max only got a “Star Wars” calendar, which a) didn’t cost as much, and b) was only good for a year. Never mind that we had only one record player in the house, meaning he could hear this album as often as I could. He was hurt, and said so. The first time I played the record, I spied him sadly tracing his finger over a picture in his calendar as he listened—his face a perfect picture of forlornness—to “Lieia’s Theme.” He really did believe that this disparity in generosity meant my parents loved me more. This happened to be true, but that’s not the point. (Max, if you’re reading this: that was a joke, okay?)

So the best gift idea, if you can swing it, is the no-gifting pact. I’ve had this pact with my wife since our kids were born, and if it’s not my favorite thing about Christmas, it’s at least a huge relief. We’d both much rather pick out something really nice for each other’s birthdays, when we aren’t trying to please all our relatives at once. (This year I extended the no-gift pact to my brother Bryan and his family. His kids outnumber ours by 4.5 to 1 so this is just good economics.)

The second-best gift idea is the white elephant. If the whole point is for the choice to be awful, it’s hard to go wrong! And sometimes they really work out. Check out this simply awful “inspirational” wall hanging:

Turns out if you flip it over it makes a nice tray for holding miscellaneous doodads!

The best part is that if I ever throw up on it, or the cat pees in it, or we just decide we suddenly hate it and it has to go, I don’t have to feel bad that a friend or family member wasted any money on it.

The best place for Christmas shopping

If you head to the mall for Christmas shopping, you’re going to be immersed in a lot of the all-together-now, isn’t-this-season-exciting bullshit that the retail industry hopes will loosen your purse strings. You’ll also have to hear a lot of really awful holiday music. You might even have to dodge a lotion sniper. None of this is pleasant.

If you head to a thrift store like Goodwill, you’ll still have to endure the awful music, but you’ll avoid crowds and enjoy a much more subdued, almost moribund atmosphere. Goodwill is a great reminder of the life cycle of a consumer good: from department store to home to garage to here. And when you’ve had holiday cheer practically forced on you from every other direction, the depressed aura of a thrift store is actually kind of refreshing.

My wife and I headed over to Goodwill yesterday for some white elephant shopping. We scored this killer bobblehead for only four bucks:

It was brand-new, in the box, and even came with a battery. It talks, spewing madcap platitudes from the “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” sitcom. And I have just discovered that you would have to pay $38.99 for this bobblehead at Target—except they don’t even have Dennis. Nobody does! The only place I found Dennis was at the marketplace, offered by a third-party seller for—get this—$189! It seems to be a collector’s item! (What is wrong with people? How does this useless tchotchke appeal to anybody?)

Of course when you give white elephant gifts you always run the risk of spotting the object peeking out from a trash bin in the driveway as you leave the white elephant party. But the recipient of my Dennis bobblehead is from India, and after being initially completely nonplussed by it (and how can you explain a bobblehead?), she declared, “I like it. It is my first bobblehead. I don’t know Dennis, but I like him. I will keep this bobblehead.” I can’t remember the last time I felt so good after giving a gift.

The best Christmas treat

The problem with Christmas treats is the sheer glut of them. They all hit you at once—Toblerone, candy canes, all manner of fancy cookies, giant chocolate assortments, etc., and even though I almost never worry about my weight, I start to get disgusted with myself after about the ten thousandth calorie. Moving on to heartier fare, the traditional turkey dinner is all well and good, but it seems so redundant with Thanksgiving barely behind us. So the better Christmas meal, in my book, is a spiral-sliced ham from Harry & David. (No, they didn’t pay me to say this.) I had this at my mom’s house one Christmas, and she sent us home with the leftovers. The way it’s pre-cut, you can just tear off hunks of it at will, no knife required. And the thing is huge. For days you can just be in a post-Christmas fog, barely functioning as a human being, subsisting on shreds of this delicious, super-salty ham. The only problem? I just found out they’re like $90! (I think my mom got ours from the factory outlet.)

Runner-up in this category is homemade eggnog. I understand this is a terribly complicated thing to make, requiring skill and a lot of time, like it has to ferment for a couple weeks or something. Ferment? Yep. Apparently the addition of bottled booze is basically cheating. You don’t really make eggnog—you brew it. I’m finding no evidence of this on the Internet but I trust my source. I can’t put homemade eggnog as the number one best treat, though, because I’ve never actually had it. I only assume it’s amazing because why else would anyone bother? This rarified, perhaps mythical creation has the added advantage of being totally unlike all the mass-made treats that, together with all the perfect gift ideas, create this fusillade of consumption that so overwhelms me every year.

It looks like I’m running out of space, or you’re running out of time, or I’m running out of ideas for next week’s post, or all of the above, so I’m going to cut this off here. Tune in next week for The albertnet Christmas Guide – Part II!

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Ask a Middle-Aged Guy

Dear Middle-Aged Guy,

Why can’t I take a pee without having to endlessly shake?

Tom G, Brooklyn, NY

Dear Timmy G,

Assuming you haven’t always had this problem, it’s likely related to benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). You know: prostate enlargement. Essentially the prostate puts pressure on the urethra, which is like stepping on a garden hose. According to this article, BPH can also cause that dribbling at the end, possibly because your bladder just isn’t quite empty even though you think you’re done.

You didn’t ask, but I’ll tell you anyway, how you might deal with this (without resorting to medical intervention). For one, you can just slow down and not try to “pee-‘n’-flee” like a teenager. Another technique is called “urethral milking” which I refuse to try to describe in these pages. Click here for details.

It may be worth noting that the need to shake your unit might only seem like a middle age thing. Maybe as a youngster you just weren’t paying attention to the fact that you were scattering drops of urine all over the bathroom like a priest with his aspergillum. I know for a fact that at the tender age of 17 I was already having trouble with dribbling. I wrote a poem at that time that included these lines: 
Relax, because you’ve earned your potty break;
Unburden your poor bladder of its pee.                       
And when you’re done you’ll shake and shake and shake;
An effort all in vain, it seems to me.
    For urine flow can never really stop,
    Until your undies drink the final drop.
By the way, I’m aware of one other cause of BPH that doesn’t require medical intervention: it can be a side effect of certain cold or allergy medicines. Try going off them, and then decide if sneezing all the time is preferable to dribbling.

Dear Middle-Aged Guy,

I’m only in my forties, but I’d swear my vision is going. I keep thinking the lights are turned down low, but I try the dimmer switch and it’s already all the way up. Everything just seems so damned dim these days! Am I crazy, or could I be getting cataracts already?

Scott W, Phoenix, AZ

Dear Scott,

According to the National Eye Institute, “people can have an age-related cataract in their 40s and 50s. But during middle age, most cataracts are small and do not affect vision.” It’s also possible you have some other issue, like optic neuritis—but don’t take my word for it. I’m not a freakin’ doctor, I’m just a middle-aged guy! Go get an eye exam. (Even if you’re one of those genetic freaks who have 20/20 vision, you should get an exam every year, to screen for glaucoma and other ocular problems.)

Dear Middle-Aged Guy,

I felt grumpy about all my physical infirmities, but then I read about how until relatively recently, the human lifespan was only like forty years. Now I’m just grateful I’m still going strong at forty-six, like I’m defying evolution or something! I guess this isn’t exactly a question, but I thought you and your readers might like to know.

Howard M, Topeka, KS

Hi Howard,

Not to be a dick or anything, but that whole forty-year lifespan notion is kind of bogus. According to this article, the 40-something  life expectancy figure is distorted by the decrease over time in the infant mortality rate, which used to skew the life expectancy significantly downward. With this factored out, the human lifespan has remained largely constant for the last 2,000 years. The ancient Greeks, for example, routinely made it into their seventies (at least, those who achieved adulthood).

This isn’t to say we haven’t made strides in quality of life as we age. I trust your infirmities are well under control and you’re still getting around just fine. Hang in there, Howie!

Dear Middle-Aged Guy,

Why are Brundlefly-like hairs growing like crazy out of my ears and nose these days? It’s unbelievable! I swear I’m wearing out the motor on my electric trimmer!

Daniel W, Bend, OR

Dear Daniel,

What you have observed is the Law of Conservation of Male Hair. Men’s hair can neither be created nor destroyed—only transferred or transformed. This means all the hair that’s disappearing from your forehead has to go somewhere, so it migrates down your back and into your nostrils and ears. It’s completely normal, though also completely annoying.

By the way, you may have noticed your electric trimmer often conks out. It may seem as though it has a short circuit, but actually, it’s just that the blades are getting jammed. Take apart the little blade thingy, rinse it, and then lube the blades up with a little olive oil. It’s like magic!

Dear Middle-Aged Guy,

What exactly does “middle-aged” mean, anyway?

Janet G, Boise, ID

Dear Janet,

I assume you’re looking for something more helpful than the dictionary definition (“the period between early adulthood and old age, usually considered as the years from about 45 to 65”). Middle age is generally considered the time when life stops improving and we start to complain a lot. According to Wikipedia, “Experiencing a sense of mortality, sadness, or loss is common at this age.” On the flip side, according to most middle-aged men Wikipedia is full of shit.

That said, in middle age we men do become more prone to being maudlin, morose, misanthropic, and/or drunk. The Strokes song “On the Other Side” captures all four traits: “I hate them all, I hate them all/ I hate myself for hating them/ So I drink some more, I love them all/ I drink even more/ I hate them even more than I did before.”

So, Janet, if you have a man in your life, make sure he gets plenty of love and not too much booze. One of the researchers in a famous decades-long Harvard study on happiness concluded that six factors predicted healthy ageing: “physical activity, absence of alcohol abuse and smoking, having mature mechanisms to cope with life’s ups and downs, and enjoying both a healthy weight and a stable marriage.”

A few years ago my young daughter asked me, “Daddy, can a person die of middle age?” All I could offer in response was, “I hope not.”

Dear Middle-Aged Guy,

Everybody keeps telling me I need to exercise as I get older, but half the dudes I know end up maiming themselves—torn rotator cuffs, tendonitis, bone fractures, ACL tears, concussions … is it even worth it?

Spencer T, Los Angeles, CA

Dear Spencer,

There’s no simple answer for this, but I have a few opinions. First of all, if you’ve never been particularly fit, this might not be a great time to take up a new sport … the inevitable newbie mishaps can really injure you now whereas a kid or young adult might walk them off. On the flip side, even if you were a crackerjack soccer or basketball player in your youth, that doesn’t mean your body can still handle all those crazy moves. Stick with non-contact sports. Swimming, yoga, biking (if you already know what you’re doing), and hiking would probably be better than, say, hockey or rugby.

Dear Middle-Aged Guy,

People used to say “forty is the new thirty” and now it’s “fifty is the new forty,” etc. How long will this age deflation continue, and when is it time to cry bullshit?

Buck H, Aurora, CO

Dear Buck,

It doesn’t actually matter how you feel, and it doesn’t even matter how you look. All that matters is how you’re perceived. It’s all well and good that my doctor told me, “You’re not old yet—you’re still young.” Who was he to judge? He’s so old he just retired! What really matters is what the young think of us. And they couldn’t care less whether we’re forty vs. fifty vs. sixty. We’re all just old.

You want proof? I was chatting about the different James Bonds with my teenaged kids. My older daughter likes Daniel Craig pretty well, but complained that he’s too old. Ouch! He’s only a year older than I am! And what’s worse, my daughter declared this after seeing “Casino Royale,” which was made when Craig was only 38! I asked her how old Bond ought to be. She said, “I dunno … like, 22?” Unbelievable.

Dear Middle-Aged Guy,

When I was young, my dad couldn’t stand my music—and I’m talking about good, solid bands like the Clash, Depeche Mode, U2, the Police, the Smiths, Talking Heads, etc. He said it was “just noise,” and blah, blah, blah. I swore I would be more open-minded, and, you know, cooler, when I reached my forties. But now I’m just as disdainful of modern music as my dad was. Is this just an inevitable part of ageing?

Tucker L, Minneapolis, MN

Dear Tucker,

It’s not you—it’s them. The bands. Most of them just totally suck! Look, my dad couldn’t stand any of the rock music I liked as a teen, either … he stopped trying out new music when he hit his 20s, which meant he was stuck with The Mommas & The Papas, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul & Mary. He couldn’t really handle any rippin’ guitars, killer drum solos, or (gasp) profanity. But my problem with modern music is that it’s too weak.

For decades I’ve been listening, on and off, to our local Bay Area alternative station, Live 105. I never loved it but it was okay. But now? They’ve renamed themselves “The New Alt 105” and half the music they play is by these emo weenies who really need to be slapped around. AJR, Twenty One Pilots, Imagine Dragons … even some outfit called Modest Mouse. What kind of name is “Modest Mouse” for a rock band? They’re all shamelessly weak and soft. And when I tour through the radio dial, smacking up against the likes of Maroon 5, I can’t believe how feeble, anodyne, and repetitive most of the music is.

In case you’re wondering if this is just my ossified middle-aged brain talking, my teenagers hate the modern music, too. Their brains are still supple so I trust their judgment … even if they shake their heads at my growing bald spot.

Dear Middle-Aged Guy,

I’m not one of you. I’m a teenager writing in to complain about my dad. He seems to think he’s actually cool, which makes it SO much lamer that he’s totally not. Can you just tell your readers to give it up already? This self-denial is really embarrassing to have to witness!

AA, Albany, CA

Dear AA,

Look, I get it: middle-aged men need to be realistic. But there’s a difference between trying too hard and just throwing in the towel. There is a breed of middle-aged man who is just totally clueless. For example, he may think that anything available from L.L. Bean is automatically a good sartorial choice, even raspberry-sherbet-colored pants. Or he whistles the theme to “Sesame Street” in a public place. He might wear a really nerdy hat—like, it’s the shape of a pith helmet, but is all fabric and miraculously folds up into a little pouch, which actually delights this fellow to the point that he sincerely expects to be admired for it. Or, he’ll decline to update his glasses frames, regardless of any consideration of fashion, to the point that he’s still wearing what Bill Gates gave up on as a relatively young adult.

Look at these two middle-aged men, flirting with the camera, trying to do duck lips (or is it sparrow face?) like a couple of Snapchatting teenagers, little realizing how stupid their glasses (okay, full disclosure: their late father’s glasses) look.

My advice? Cut your dad some slack. Things could be so, so much worse. Let him pretend to have dignity, and when absolutely necessary just coach him a little (for example, stop him if he thinks he’s allowed to use words like “extra” the way teens do).

Dear Middle-Aged Guy,

As the actual end of my life grows ever nearer on the horizon, I find myself frequently lost in reflection. And the thing I ponder the most is: at what point did I realize that it is just much easier to roll over and take it rather than put up a good fight?

“AAA-cell,” Bend, OR

Dear AAA-cell,

First off, I hear you. A sense of futility is, I think, a natural reaction to everything being more difficult than it has ever been before. Certain basic actions—such as trying to fold a fitted sheet, searching in vain for your phone charger, attempting to form a complete sentence without losing track of a key word, or even just sleeping soundly through the night—suddenly seem insurmountable.  Needless to say, the difficult things we’re asked to do—fixing a leaking faucet, writing up career goals for the new year, or mastering  a new enterprise software application—are utterly soul-crushing. (A middle-aged manager of mine fought valiantly against an SAP CRM application, grew increasingly frustrated, and ultimately declared, “Maybe I’ll just resign.” Which he then did.)

All this being said, I challenge your suggestion that there was a specific point at which you gave up. I don’t believe middle age is like a tsunami that suddenly overwhelms us. It’s more like a relentless lapping of waves, all these constant and predictable forces that slap against us again and again. So you probably haven’t actually rolled over, at least not for good. Maybe you’re just temporarily curled up in the fetal position while some big waves crash over you, and then the tide will go out, you’ll cough up a bunch of water, and things will get incrementally easier. At least, that’s what I’m hoping for.

A Middle-Aged Guy is a syndicated journalist whose advice column, “Ask a Middle-Aged Guy,” appears in over 0 blogs worldwide.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2018

From the Archives - My Day in Court!


I recently described in these pages, in another “From the Archives” post, how I was busted by a cop for a bicycle infraction back in 1990. (If you missed it, you can catch up here.) Here’s the rest of the story: how I fought the ticket in court.

My day in Traffic Court — September 21, 1990

I used to be a morning person, back when I had a paper route. Not anymore, man … now 6 a.m. feels really harsh. I struggle to keep my eyes open as my roommate, a do-it-all grad student, chats merrily away. His words reach me through a thick haze. I’d still be blissfully asleep, except a dickhead cop gave me a ticket for a bicycle infraction last month and I have to go to court. The slip he handed me had a court date on it, but he said I’d get something in the mail giving me the option to just pay it. He didn’t know how much the ticket was for, and I still don’t … I never got anything in the mail. I’d probably be fighting this anyway, though. That’s just how I am.

The problem is, I have to go to court out near where I broke the law, which means Walnut Creek. I’m not about to bike all the way out there in street clothes so I have to take Bart, which sucks because I don’t exactly have that system dialed. And since they won’t let me bring my bike on Bart (this being the commute hour), I have to walk all the way from the station to the courthouse. And since I have to be there at 8, my morning is starting ungodly early.

Once I get there, I’ll have to be pleasant and obsequious, so I’ve decided to dress presentably. I put on khakis and this short-sleeve striped button-down Oxford shirt. I’m not saying this is a fashionable or even sharp-looking shirt; I suspect it’s actually a bit nerdy.  I bought it at Eaker’s years ago, which was probably the last time I ever went clothes shopping with my mom. I was in ninth grade, and spied one of my teachers in there. I pretended not to see her, and she returned the favor. I’m not sure but I think I’ve seen people smirk at me when I wear this shirt. (Of course, there’s a hundred other reasons people might smirk at me.) 

Naturally, being polite and deferential will just be a pose. Inwardly, I’m bristling at this ticket and at the law in general. So, to get myself in the proper frame of mind (i.e., defiantly assertive), as I scarf a bowl of corn flakes I listen to “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” by Public Enemy:
I got a letter from the government
The other day
I opened and read it
It said they were suckers
They wanted me for their army or whatever
Picture me givin’ a damn, I said never
Here is a land that never gave a damn
About a brother like me and myself
Because they never did
I wasn’t wit’ it, but just that very minute it
Occurred to me
The suckers had authority
It’s a great song, but doesn’t actually fit my situation very well. The military never asked me to serve, and I have no reason to suspect the government doesn’t care about me. That’s the problem with rap music: as much as I love it, it always reminds me how privileged and square and white I am. In my button-down Oxford shirt.

I get to the courtroom just before they start working their way through the docket. At registration I learn why I never got anything in the mail: the dickhead cop got my address wrong. Oh well! The fine is a whopping $81. At this news, I’m not actually that upset about the address screw-up. It’s totally worth fighting a fine this large, even though I might be here awhile. Could be ten minutes, thirty, or all day … it’s all down to luck.

The judge seems a lot cooler than the cop was. A 16-year-old kid who was busted for speeding, driving without a driver’s license, not having insurance, and driving with a cracked windshield is sentenced to a $500 fine and no license for two years. The judge asks him how he’ll raise the money, and the kid looks over at his mom. “Don’t look at her!” the judge snaps. Everybody laughs.

Next up is a young man busted for “exhibition of speed.” His defense: “Your honor, I was in a Ford Pinto.” The judge is not amused and gives the guy a good tongue-lashing about every car being dangerous when driven aggressively, etc. The guy loses his license, straight-up. Then there’s a college kid who ran a stop sign on his bike. His argument, amazingly enough, is that he doesn’t think a biker should have to obey all the same rules as a motorist. What a dip. The judge holds firm and says, “Now look here. My daughter just got her learner’s permit. You be more careful out there on your bike!”

I’ve worked a bit harder on my own defense. This isn’t the first time I’ve fought a bike ticket. The first time, my brother and I got popped for running a stop sign, but it was turning right onto a street that was closed down and had been barricaded off, for a bike race. My argument was that the cop wrote us up for doing 25 mph during the maneuver. I planned to say, “If the severity of the fine was based on the speed at which we supposedly did this, I have to question the officer’s estimate. Have you even tried to turn right at 25 mph on a bicycle while threading the needle between two barricades?” But in the event, I only got as far as, “My brother and I were riding to the San Luis Obispo criterium, and—” before the judge interrupted me: “Were you riding there to watch, or to compete?” I told him the latter, he reduced my fine to $20 on the spot, and I was done.

So I think as long as you have something to say besides “the law doesn’t apply to me” or “I was in a Ford Pinto,” you have a chance of getting the fine reduced. Today my argument is that the sign telling me to exit Highway 24 (which I’d failed to notice, hence my infraction) was in the wrong place. It’s close to a mile before the exit, which is great if you’re in a car doing 60, but not so much if you’re pedaling up the hill on a bike at under 10 mph. When my turn comes, I take the stand and the judge says, “I like your shirt.” Caught off-guard, I reply, “Um, excuse me, your honor?” He repeats, “I like your shirt.” I shrug and smile. “How about we lower this to $20?” he asks. Done! I’m going to hang on to this shirt. It’s like gold!

Standing in line to pay, I get to talking with a guy who just lost his license for a year for “minor in possession of alcohol.” I’d say most teenagers drink; this guy happened to get caught. He’s not that bent out of shape, though; in fact, he’s pretty mellow about it. “Yeah, I was sitting by the pool at my apartment complex drinking some beers,” he says, “and some neighbor lady called the cops. So they came out and busted me.” I ask how many beers. “A bunch,” he confesses, “but I wasn’t making any noise or anything, just drinking my beers.” Pretty crazy, huh? Dude’s not even driving a car when he gets busted, but the penalty is losing his license.

On my way walking back to Bart, the guy catches up to me and we talk some more. He’d been pulled over several times, and with the exception of the time he’d tried to outrun the police, they’d usually let him go because he was a Marine. “Put up with fifteen minutes of the cop recalling his glory days in the Corps,” he tells me, “and you’re off the hook.” He had some other alcohol‑related busts, though, so he was relegated from the Marines to the Army.

I ask him if he’s worried about the Kuwait situation, and he replies, “No, not really.” I ask if he thinks they might send him over to Desert Storm. “Yeah, I’m going in a week and a half,” he says. “That’s why I don’t really care about losing my license.” He says it like he’s going off to be a counselor at a day camp or something. But I guess that’s how it goes; he’s in the Army and fighting overseas is his job. Of course I ponder the paradox: he’s too young to legally drink beer, and has been deemed too irresponsible to drive a car, but he’s considered plenty ready to go kill people.

Our school paper recently interviewed some student ROTC reserves who are outraged about actually being called up to serve. In light of that flap, this guy’s attitude seems kind of refreshing. I can’t tell if his willingness is out of respect for authority—which would be ironic for someone who’s been in so much trouble—or because his friends are already there (which he did mention).

He gets my address and tells me he’ll write me about what it’s like on the front. I kind of doubt he actually will—I mean, doesn’t he have more important people, like family members, to write to?—but imagine if he did! That would make this $20 seem like a real bargain…

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