Thursday, January 31, 2019

From the Archives - Typing Tutor Corporate Intrigue!


Sometimes technical support really lets me down. And then, when I want to gripe about it, who wants to listen? This post, from my archives, recalls an email exchange with tech support that bled over into my personal life, when I forwarded the thread, with my commentary, to my brothers and my dad. I somehow really ruffled my dad’s feathers, and his peeved response to my email provoked a whole new level of my scorn.

(The original version of this post didn’t disclose that it was my dad I was responding to. I called him “P—” because he probably wouldn’t like being quoted here, and I couldn’t just get his permission because he was dead. I took some solace in knowing that his being dead would somewhat mitigate the consequences of anybody figuring out who he is. Er, was. But it’s been a few years now, and honestly I think my original discretion was perhaps unnecessary. Don’t worry, he won’t be rolling in his grave because he was cremated.)

Typing Tutor Corporate Intrigue – April, 2002

From: Albert, Dana P.
Sent: Monday, April 22, 2002 4:28 PM
Subject: Question about Typing Tutor


I just bought Typing Tutor 9. I see from your website that version 12 is available, but I can’t find it for sale anywhere. I’m hoping v9 is good enough.

My question concerns your Conceptual Effects Typing Method (CETM) training scheme and the Dvorak keyboard layout. I bought your product, over competing ones, because I wanted to try the CETM method, and I’m learning the Dvorak layout, and your software purports to support both. The problem is, the Dvorak layout seems only to be supported by your standard tutorial mode, not the CETM mode. In other words, your software introduces the keys sequentially according to the QWERTY home row, even when I’m using the Dvorak configuration. Is there a way around this, perhaps a patch I could apply to the program? Do more recent versions of the software support this?


Sent: Wednesday, April 24, 2002 2:46 PM
To: ‘Albert, Dana P.’
Subject: RE: Question about Typing Tutor

Actually, the latest edition does not support the Dvorak keyboard at all. Support for it has declined with the rise in carpel tunnel injuries from over use of the keyboard.

M— B—
S.S. Interactive

From: Albert, Dana P.
Sent: Wednesday, April 24, 2002 5:16 PM
To: ‘support@ssi.—.com’
Subject: RE: Question about Typing Tutor


Are you saying that use of the Dvorak keyboard has been associated with carpal tunnel injuries? This seems counter-intuitive based on the purpose of the Dvorak layout. Is there any documentation to this effect? If there are risks associated with this layout I want to know about them!


Sent: Monday, April 29, 2002 3:19 PM
To: ‘Albert, Dana P.’
Subject: RE: Question about Typing Tutor

No formal scientific studies have been done. Some say that it relieves symptoms but on the other hand, if the speed increases dramatically, you are back in the repetative [sic] motion issue.

M— B—
S.S. Interactive

From: Albert, Dana P.
Sent: Monday, April 29, 2002 4:34 PM
To: Geoff Albert; Bryan Albert; Dad
Subject: FW: Question about Typing Tutor


Remember that Typing Tutor problem I was talking about, where the lessons weren’t tailored to the Dvorak keyboard as promised? I emailed tech support, and they basically blew me off. I’m not going to pursue the matter with the hapless support rep, M— B—, because to challenge her out-of-thin-air BS explanations, employing my relentless rhetorical style, would be cruel. But check out her emails (attached). Unbelievable. Just to blow off a little steam I’ll share my objections with you.

If no study has been done, on what basis did they drop Dvorak support? And I have to take issue with the idea that increased comfort doesn’t relieve repetitive stress disorder because the increased speed results in more typing. This is only true if there is an infinite amount of typing to do. But if I’m faster, isn’t it the case that I finish earlier and can spend more time at the water cooler resting my hands? (Never mind that my employer took away our water coolers, in addition to our coffeemakers, and are putting in a vending machine. Those are mere technicalities.)

The more I think about it, the more M—’s logic befuddles me. If speed is bad, because it increases the likelihood of repetitive stress disorder, why is SS Interactive producing software that helps you increase typing speed? If they really care about repetitive stress disorder, why not either get out of the business entirely, or teach a more ergonomic typing technique (e.g., Dvorak)? And while I’m at it, wouldn’t “repetitive stress disorder” be a great name for a rock band? (“Coming to the Palladium: Repetitive Stress Disorder, with special guest Hard Floor Tool!”)


From: Dad
Sent: Monday, April 29, 2002 9:56 PM
To: Albert, Dana P.
Cc: Geoff; Bryan
Subject: fellows: Re: FW: Question about Typing Tutor


The lady you are dealing with is merely covering for her managers. They have almost certainly decided, as one learns to do in management school, to eliminate any products whose monetary return is not dramatic. Ms B— might quickly lose her job if she backed down on the validity of the things she has said. Surely her email transactions are monitored sometimes or all the time. It is not worth costing her her livelihood to prove that you are right. It’s the managers who should be punished, but you have no safe means to do that, and it would not get you the desired software. Why continue?


From: Albert, Dana P.
Sent: Tuesday, April 30, 2002 5:03 PM
To: Bryan; Geoff
Subject: FW: fellows: Re: FW: Question about Typing Tutor

[Dad omitted from this response]


“Why continue?” Why indeed! Naturally I will not rest until I have entrapped Ms B—, pawn that she is, in my remorseless game of corporate intrigue. Yes, I have set a trap—my e-mail messages are the bait, and she is my prey. I’m sure her evil employers have a zero-tolerance policy concerning failure to further the corporation’s diabolical deceptions. It is intuitively obvious that entire rooms full of lowly auditors pore over e-mail after e-mail looking for signs of dissent. Sure, I’d like to punish those managers, ensconced in their comfortable boardrooms, plotting their schemes to catch disloyal tech support people in the act of being bullied, by the likes of me, into betraying the evil business school secrets. But if I can’t catch the big fish, I’ll settle for ending the humble career of a mere clerk. Such is my insatiable lust for winning arguments, even if I’m arguing with unlearned, weary cogs of corporate America. If I can have the satisfaction of taking food right out of the mouths of Ms B—’s children, that’s enough for me. Here is my fantasy, which I run through in my head, night after night, in salacious detail: 

         Ms B— reads my retort, which lays bare the flaws in her statements about Dvorak and Typing Tutor 9. Realizing she is outsmarted, and can no longer continue her deception, she replies, “You’re right! I can’t deny it! It has nothing to do with carpal tunnel! It’s you—you’re not a preferred customer! You had it right all along! Please, please forget about Typing Tutor, forget this whole correspondence!” She clicks “Send” and then madly begins deleting the e-mail chain, message by message, from her PC, her face bright red. A colleague, a mere two feet away in a three-foot-wide cubicle identical to hers, sees her distress, guesses it’s corporate sabotage, and sends a quick message to her manager. In less than an hour the auditors have put together the incriminating trail of digital evidence, and Ms B— has been summoned and is standing in front of her boss, knees shaking.
         “Ms B—, was I not perfectly clear, in our staff meeting last October, what tech support personnel were to tell customers about our stance on Dvorak?”
         “You were,” she sobs.
         “This company cannot afford to support Dvorak users, and yet we cannot risk being sued for choosing not to support them. That is why you were to use carpal tunnel syndrome as an excuse for our product direction. Why have you betrayed our secret to a customer? Don’t try to deny doing it, I have the e-mail right here.”
         “I don’t know . . . I guess he bullied me into admitting it!”
         “Yes, it seems a very clever troublemaker with a big chip on his shoulder has it in for you. But damn it, you didn’t need to cave. I have your employment agreement right here. You have acknowledged, by your signature, that failure to align all of your customer-facing statements with our official corporate positions is grounds for immediate termination. Give me one good reason not to fire you.”
         “I’m the sole breadwinner for my family! My husband was arrested by the FBI for forwarding an article about PGP to a friend, so I’m raising the children all by myself!”
         “I’m afraid that’s not SSI’s problem. You have five minutes to clear out your desk. A security guard will escort you from the building. You’ll never work tech support again in this state, I can guarantee you that.” As the door closes behind her, she hears the beginning of a long peal of evil laughter.

Since when is Dad an expert on what “they” teach in “management school”? And where did he get his information about how closely companies monitor e-mail? Did this guy grow up in the Soviet Union or something?

And what’s this about “It’s the managers who should be punished, but you have no safe means to do that.” What does that even mean? Since when do managers get punished? And how would one do that safely?

Above all, how did Dad not grasp that my retort was hypothetical, and that I never intended to “continue”?


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Thursday, January 24, 2019

Stage Play - They Haven’t Met You


While driving down my least favorite Bay Area highway, where it always seems to be rush hour, I noticed this billboard:

The following stage play is a work of fiction and any resemblance of its characters to any actual human—living, dead, nascent, or undead—is purely coincidental. Only the billboard is real.

A Play in Two Acts

Dramatis Personae:

HIM, one of THEM
HER, one of THEM

Act One


A cocktail party in a ranch-style house in Sunnyvale, California. The open floor plan has the kitchen bleeding into the dining room and family room, where sliding glass doors open onto a large patio next to a pool.

[Enter YOU. YOU wander over to the kitchen nook and select a bottle of beer, then drift among the guests until you fall into conversation with HIM.]

HIM: Ah, Dogfish Head. Excellent choice.

YOU: Yeah, it’s one of my favorites. Pretty cool of our hosts to style us out with it … this stuff ain’t cheap.

HIM: Well, Brad and Lisa do seem to enjoy the finer things, and I happen to know business is good at Brad’s firm … I was talking to him about it earlier.

YOU: …

[HE extends hand. YOU and HE shake.]

HIM: My name’s Nelson.

YOU: I’m Nick.

HIM: Where do you work, Nick?

YOU: San Francisco.

HIM: No, I mean, what do you do?

YOU: I’m a … vegetarian.

HIM: No, I mean, for work.

YOU: Oh, that. Well, you know … I just kind of do what I’m told and go where I’m supposed to … I’m pretty much running out the clock until retirement, to be honest.

HIM: You know, one in three people won’t retire.

YOU: I guess I’m one of the two.

HIM: Come again?

YOU: If one in three won’t retire, I’ll be one of the two who will.

HIM: How can you say that?

YOU: Well … I mean, things are going good, I’m building up some savings…

HIM: That’s crazy talk. Like I said before, one in three people won’t retire.

YOU: …

HIM: I’m not trying to be a dick or anything, but as a society we spend more time clicking “like” than planning for retirement.

YOU: I’m not really into social media, to be honest.

HIM: We spend more time looking at billboards than planning for retirement.

[YOU drain your beer and cast your gaze around the room.]

YOU: I kind of doubt that, actually.

HIM: What, you actually plan for retirement?

YOU: Well, yeah. I’m working with a financial planning outfit. They’re helping me put together a program. I’ve got a pretty healthy 401(k), and there’s my wife’s IRA, and we’re pretty well diversified. I use an online retirement calculator and I think I’m on track to retire pretty comfortably in another 10 or 15 years. It’s not exactly rocket science.

HIM: Look, I happen to know a fair bit about this, and like I said earlier, 1 in 3 people won’t retire.  So, these things you’re saying: I’m just not following you.

YOU: Oh, hey, I just spotted a friend of mine out by the pool. I’m gonna go say hi. I’ll catch you later.

Act Two


A large conference room. THEY are gathered around a table with legal pads, laptops, and mugs of coffee.

THE HEAD GUY: Okay, next item on the agenda: Nelson, you apparently want to challenge one of the things we say? Is this for real?

HIM: Yeah, hey, it’s this retirement thing. You know how we’ve been saying that one in three people won’t retire? We’re definitely getting the word around. We’re being quoted saying this. We’re even mentioned by some billboards.

THE HEAD GUY: And your point is …?

HIM: Well, I know this sounds crazy, but I met this guy at a party, and  … I’m starting to think maybe we’re all wrong here. Maybe this thing we’re saying, about the one in three not retiring … I think we may be mistaken.

THE OTHER GUY: What, you meet some guy at a party, and now you’re second-guessing us? Like, all of us? That’s such BS, man! Nobody questions us—least of all, one of us! Who was this guy?

HIM: Well, he seemed like a pretty typical guy, middle-aged, likes good beer, wears khakis, hangs out at parties. But I got to talking to him, and apparently this guy has his retirement plan all worked out. He’s talking to some firm, has a 401(k), uses some kind of online calculator … he’s really got all his ducks in a row, which completely flies in the face of what we’ve been saying.

HER: Well, now hold on, Nelson. If we’ve been saying one in three won’t retire, that means—

HIM [cutting HER off]: That’s exactly my point! We’ve only been saying all that because we haven’t met this guy! And now I’ve met him, and he’s turned this one-in-three thing on its head! We gotta reconsider this. We gotta challenge everything we think we know.

[SHE stares at HIM for a few seconds.]

HER: As I was starting to say, Nelson: if one in three won’t retire, that means two in three will, and the statistical likelihood is pretty good that any joe we happen to encounter will be one of the two in three who will retire. So there’s really nothing remarkable at all about your friend’s having his act together.

[HE pounds fist on table.]

HIM: Damn it, Rebecca, you can blather on all you want about statistics, but that’s just because you haven’t met this guy. He’s amazing! He makes us all look like a bunch of chumps!

THE HEAD GUY: Look, here’s the thing, Nelson. Maybe you’ve met this guy, maybe you’re blown away, maybe you’re right to suddenly doubt us. But who are you? You’re not us. You’re just one of us. Nobody says, “He says…” Everyone says, “They say.” Which means us. It doesn’t mean you, and it doesn’t mean Rebecca, and it doesn’t mean me. We’re a team. And we still haven’t met this guy. So until we do, you know what we’re gonna keep saying? That’s right: “One in three people won’t retire.”

[HEAD GUY stares HIM down for a spell.]

HEAD GUY: Any questions? [Pauses.] Okay, moving right along, next agenda item: “New Things We Should Be Saying.” Ideas, anyone?

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Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Object Permanence


This post is not about the stage of child development in which objects that are not perceivable are still understood to exist. Rather, I’m examining the peculiar phenomenon of physical objects that last far longer than anybody could expect them to. I’ve selected half a dozen surprisingly enduring items to display and discuss.

Fork, ca. 1900

This fork is ancient, obviously. Sure, you could find older stuff in a museum, but this object saw regular use until only 15 years ago. It belonged to my wife’s grandma, and her parents before her. I once watched her use it while making her famous (and delicious) fried chicken, which had only one ingredient—chicken—which she cooked over very low heat in only its own fat. The only other kitchen tool she used for this dish was a skillet. Her kitchen was exceedingly spare, lacking not only a dishwasher but even a dish drying rack. She used this fork pretty much until she died. From there it transitioned from tool to family heirloom.

Paperweight, ca. 1960

This paperweight has been around since I can remember; as a little kid I would peer into it during brief snatches of time before my brothers would forcefully take it away. All four of us sons were forbidden to touch it. It was one of my dad’s treasures. He never told us where he got it or why. When I moved away it vanished for 30-some years until I inherited it following my dad’s death.

It’s weird inheriting property. Whenever I pick up and inspect this paperweight, I still half-expect that one of my brothers, as a proxy for my dad, will come out of nowhere to seize it and admonish me again. This paperweight still seems like it’s my dad’s property, as if—looking down from some spirit world—he might still have a problem with my touching it. I never got his blessing to take possession; it’s merely one of the spoils of having outlived him.

The little cat drawing in the background is only a year or two old. I included it because my younger daughter (featured in the framed picture, ca. 2004, to the right) has already expressed astonishment that I kept it. She tossed off the picture very hastily and it was on its way to the recycling bin when I intercepted it to use as a desktop tchotchke. I’m going to see how long I can hang onto it.

Thimble, ca. 1965

This thimble must have been my mom’s, and since it appears to be sterling silver, she probably acquired it before taking on the expense of children. Though not as old as the fork and the paperweight, it has the added distinction of having been in my possession for quite a while—since about 1990 when my brother Geoff gave it to me. I’d loaned him a sew-up tire patch kit, and he returned the kit with the thimble added. The (partial) history of this thimble is given in a letter I wrote to Geoff on April 14, 1996:
[The need to mend a shoe with needle and thread] called for the Velox sew-up patch kit I use from time to time. Every time I need it I hope, almost desperately, that I still have it around somewhere. It’s one I bought from Square Wheel (the price tag is still on it, $7.95) more than five years ago to give to you so that you could repair a bunch of my tires. Inside the patch kit tin is this really groovy thimble, with engravings of birds and ivy and stuff all over it. Accompanying the thimble is your Post-it note: “Dana, I found this v. cool thimble in the basement-kine [of our childhood home]. Please don’t lose it. Hugs & kisses, GA.” I always get a kick out of that. The patch kit itself is great; the thick, curved needle is industrial-grade, and punched through the thick rubber of my shoe just splendidly, without puncturing my finger thanks to the thimble. But the note is more impressive yet, due to its staying power. I mean, it had to be more than five years ago you wrote it. The Post-it is written in faded fountain pen and is on the verge of falling into four pieces, as it’s been folded and refolded so many times. But it’s still around. Amazing for a product with the intended lifespan of perhaps just a few days or weeks.
I still have the patch kit somewhere in the garage—it pops up occasionally before going missing again—but the last time I used it, the curved needle and Post-it were gone. The thimble now lives in my desk as one of my treasures. And as often happens, a chance photo of the note still survives ... not nearly as cool as the curling-up, faded note itself, but better than nothing.

(Does it bother me that this thimble could still technically be my mom’s property? Nope. I think to her it was always just a thimble, and it wasn’t off-limits to us. Mom didn’t really do treasures so much; perhaps we kids were enough.)

Stapler, ca. 1955

Zoom in and look closely at the engraving on the base of this stapler: “MADE IN SWEDEN.” That’s how you know it’s old. Now look even closer: there’s a bit of tape just to the right of that which is almost all gone but still clearly says “LEY” and most likely says “ELEY.” That’s my dad’s handwriting and I’m 99% sure the tape, when intact, had my dad’s address, ending in “BERKELEY”—i.e., this is a stapler my dad had in college, at least 60 years ago.

Not only is this stapler likely older than the thimble, but it’s been in my possession, in continual use, since 1984. My dad didn’t give it to me—I took it. Every time I look at it I have a queer feeling, just this side of guilt. I know he didn’t intend for me to have it, but I didn’t care at the time. I pilfered this stapler out of spite, probably relating to my parents’ divorce for which I held my dad primarily responsible. I felt he wouldn’t miss the stapler because he never used it. (He was never home.)

It’s an odd concept, “stealing” a household object from a parent. I simply took the stapler with me from my family home to the condo I moved into with my mom after the divorce. Since then this stapler has traveled with me to San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco, and Albany. It did cross my mind, during college, how neat it was that this stapler, having been used by a Berkeley student in the 1950s, found its way back there to be used by another student in the 1990s. That satisfaction was of course tinged with the not-quite-guilt feeling I described earlier. I wish I’d had the rapport with my dad to show it to him and say, “Hey, Pop, if you ever wondered where your kickass Swedish stapler went, it’s right here. I stole it off you back in ‘84. And no, you can’t have it back.”

Mug , ca. 1994

I was given this mug in 1995 when I landed a new job (at a company whose logo you can’t see in this photo as it’s around the other side of the mug). Obviously this is the youngest object featured in this collection, but it’s also one of the most fragile. That chip on the rim is recent. I don’t know what’s more amazing: that this mug is still unbroken, or that I’m still at the same job. I would not have predicted either scenario back in ‘95. When my kids begrudgingly do the dishes, they’re very slapdash and clumsy and I fear for this mug’s life. I’m tempted to say, “Be careful! You’re gonna get me fired!”

Hairbrush, ca. 1977

Okay, so this hairbrush isn’t exactly an antique, but it carries the distinction of being the only hairbrush I’ve ever had. (Before my mom bought me this brush, my hair was so fine and limp it didn’t need brushing.) I have used this hairbrush after virtually every shower I’ve taken in the last 40-plus years. It’s been with me through a dozen households, and untold vacations and business trips. The opportunities for its loss have been countless.

Now that I’m a homeowner and don’t see any need to ever move again, it’s tempting to think I’ll have this hairbrush for the rest of my life. But the greatest risk of its loss comes from my kids. It’s almost comical how many hairbrushes they’ve gone through. A day doesn’t go by without them hunting around frantically for a missing hairbrush on their way out the door. It’s also surprising how many brushes they’ve broken; one brush lasted just a few days. And despite my telling these girls repeatedly that this is my hairbrush, they borrow it a lot. I’ll find it in the shower, or their bedroom, or the living room. My younger daughter even brought it to a slumber party once—that was a close call.

Once my kids reach escape velocity, this hairbrush’s status as a lifelong possession will be virtually assured. After all, I won’t be using it that much as my hair steadily retreats toward the back of my head. Eventually there won’t be enough hair left to brush, and sometime after that I’ll die.

This is the recently alarming thing I’ve come to ponder about my possessions: surely some of these will outlast me, such as the boots I bought awhile back that have an unconditional lifetime guarantee. I don’t have a problem with my house carrying on without me—after all, it was built long before I was born, and houses and land aren’t our possessions, not really—but to think of quotidian objects outlasting me … it’s a little scary. When we buy something, we expect it to serve us for a time, and then wear out or become obsolete. Not the other way around.

Only a few years back, during my Everest Challenge days, I’d go through several pairs of road bike tires a year. I’d order a bunch at the beginning of the season and have to re-order halfway through the summer. Since then I’ve been disheartened at how long a single pair of tires will last. It’s becoming progressively easier to imagine that, one day, without realizing it, I’ll mount my last pair, not because I’ll quit cycling but because cycling, and everything else, will quit me.

If all goes well, by the end I’ll have used up most of my possessions. My survivors will get my wristwatch, the dandelion paperweight, the silver thimble, and the blue plastic hairbrush (and hopefully not too many papers with Post-it notes reading, “FILE LATER”). My daughters will of course have those fancy wooden brushes with the fabric-backed bristles that make the brush go “whoosh” across your head, so the hairbrush will have to go to someone’s cat. And that’ll be that.

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Monday, January 7, 2019

Fiction - The Things They Carried Biking


This post is inspired by, and is a tribute to, the short story “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien.

My intention is not to make light of the sober subject matter of that excellent story, by the way. I hasten also to point out that what follows is a work of pure fiction, and although I am the head coach of a high school mountain bike team, all of the characters in this story are utterly fictitious and any resemblance of any of them to any other human, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

The Things They Carried Biking

Head coach Eddie Cogburn carried the team roster, quasi-laminated with clear tape, in his pack. The team was small enough this season that he never had to worry about forgetting a rider’s name, and he even had the parents’ names down, but he needed the roster in case he had to make the dreaded phone call to a parent from the trail about a kid having had a serious crash. This hadn’t yet happened in his three years of coaching, but it always could. (“Inherent risk” was a term commonly used in the coach training.) Of course, he’d make this uncomfortable call only if he had cell coverage, which he had most but not all of the time. Like the other coaches, he carried a 6-ounce Motorola Talkabout walkie-talkie, with a range of theoretically 20 miles but only via line-of-sight, so it wasn’t totally reliable.

Coach Cogburn also carried a first aid kit, assembled from supplies he’d ordered online. The kit included Band-Aids, of course, and a couple dozen 4x4 gauze bandages, non-sterile, sealed up in a Ziploc. He could have bought sterile 4x4s but he didn’t kid himself you could achieve an operating room level of cleanliness out on the trail. His kit also had about ten feet of Surgilast GL-720 tubular dressing to hold 4x4s in place, and a pair of Surviveware 7.5” EMT trauma shears to cut whatever needed cutting: the Surgilast, a rider’s clothing, or strips of the brightly colored 3400CP Coflex bandages that Coach Cogburn couldn’t quite remember the purpose of. He also carried two 12-micron aluminized polyethylene mylar emergency blankets which weighed 2 ounces apiece; an 8-ounce bottle of Tecnu for poison oak exposure; Advil tablets (for coaches only); Benadryl tablets (for anyone who had a severe allergic reaction, as from a bee sting); and four pairs of disposable surgical gloves. The first aid kit, fully stocked, weighed 13 ounces and traveled in his pack which, with assorted other gear but without the bladder (which he’d ditched, preferring to drink from bottles), weighed 6 pounds 8 ounces.

The riders all carried water unless they forgot, which wasn’t entirely uncommon. Some riders carried Camelbaks which weighed 2 pounds empty and 8½ pounds with a full bladder, far more than a regular bottle which only weighed 3 ounces empty and 24 ounces full. Sophomore Jason Short swore by the Camelbak because he hated having to wipe mud off a bottle’s nipple before drinking. Junior Varsity rider Julie Mack had used a Camelbak until hers catastrophically clogged at the Conference Championships in 2016. Tucker Smith, also JV, used a Camelbak because—though he admitted this to no one—it satisfied his oral fixation. On the lonely backstretches of races he sometimes held the mouthpiece in his lips even when he wasn’t drinking.

The things they carried were determined either by necessity or by perceived necessity, though a lot of things they didn’t carry could also be considered a necessity. Sophomore rider Ryan Black didn’t carry a single thing, not even the first inkling of responsibility for his own comfort or the smooth operation of his bicycle. He didn’t have pockets to carry anything in either, favoring a loose cotton t-shirt over the standard-issue three-pocket Lycra jerseys. Jason Short carried a 27.5” inner tube (7½ ounces), a Park self-sticking patch kit, a Lezyne multi-tool (6 ounces), and even a Fox suspension shock pump (7 ounces), though the need to tune up his fork mid-ride was rare. Tucker Smith, who once famously bonked halfway through the second lap at China Camp, carried at least four Clif Shot Energy Gels at all times, which weighed about an ounce apiece. JV rider Joe Martin, who was rangy and lean and got cold easily, carried a pair of DeFeet wool arm warmers which weighed 3 ounces but came out of his pockets toward the end of virtually every ride. Varsity rider Kylie Norton, who also feared catching a chill, carried a 1-ounce polypropylene skull cap to line her helmet but she was not wearing it when she ran right over a giant, fresh, gooey cow pie while descending Conlon Trail in Wildcat Canyon Regional Park in mid-January. By necessity, all the riders carried cycling helmets—on their heads at all times or they were off the team. The helmets weighed anywhere from 9½ ounces for a Bontrager Velocis MIPS road helmet to 12 ounces for a basic Giro Fixture all-purpose hardhat.

Most of the riders carried cycling-specific sunglasses which weighed about an ounce, though many of these had lenses that were too dark for the shadier trails, especially in the early part of the season when the light was low. Kylie Norton wasn’t wearing sunglasses when she hit the cow pie and had a massive load of very fresh cow feces inexplicably thrown up right in her face, seemingly defying the laws of physics. It must not have been the direction of the tire that determined the trajectory, but the sheer impact of hitting the cow pie at high speed. When Head Coach Eddie Cogburn saw the devastating effect of the cow pie his first impulse was to grab his walkie-talkie and call in an air strike. But of course there was no enemy, no battle lines, no planes or choppers. It was just a cow pie, but what an incredibly oversized, and gooey, cow pie it was.

What they carried varied by ride and time of year. In the early winter when the rides hit right up against sunset, Team Captain Sidney Mason, a second year JV rider, carried a 2-ounce pair of North Face TKA 100 Microfleece gloves, too warm for the painful warm-up schlep up Thousand Oaks but a godsend when descending it again on the way home. Sometimes she accidentally brought her father’s almost identical but Size XL TKA 100 Microfleece gloves instead, but wore them anyway which was like having tentacles for fingers.

In addition to their water bottles, their clothing, and their tools the riders carried bike lights, front and rear, without which they weren’t allowed to ride. Coach Cogburn always carried extra lights, the cheap Malker LED blinky ones he bought in packs of four and which weighed an ounce apiece. Some rider always forgot his lights and Coach Cogburn decided it was better to let the kid do the ride than to teach him a lesson by sending him home. Cogburn also carried a spare walkie-talkie in his pack, for assistant coaches who dropped in once in a while. Cogburn’s pack was a Deuter Race EXP Air with a metal frame that kept the fabric off his back for greater ventilation and comfort. It was an excellent product but Coach Cogburn hadn’t selected it himself; he’d inherited it from his late father, and in using it he carried around a strange feeling of guilt about enjoying this surely expensive and almost brand new product that his father, being suddenly dead, had barely gotten to use.

Almost all of the riders carried smartphones. They weren’t technically allowed to use them during the rides, but what coach wouldn’t allow a kid to snap a photo of a breathtaking view? So the riders carried their phones but used them sparingly.

Several riders accumulated ride data on their phones, to post on Strava later. This data told them all kinds of useful things, but not how to ride, or why.

They carried their house keys, of course, and either padded fingerless cycling gloves, full-finger thermal gloves, or both. They carried the emotional baggage of being teenagers. They carried spare tubes, most of them, even those who wouldn’t know how to fix a flat. Freshman rider Lydia Lee carried a 6-ounce 26-inch inner tube because Coach Cogburn had given it to her, advising that she was the only rider still on 26-inch wheels, and she carried with her also the mild embarrassment of not being able to envision exactly how this weird rubber thing related to the bicycle.

Team Captain Sidney Mason carried a Lezyne Alloy Drive high volume pump, which weighed 4½ ounces with its mounting bracket and which she had never used. It was identical to the one she had lost during the CCCX Fort Ord race her sophomore year, which she and her dad went out on the course looking for, not realizing the course was already being torn down, so they got hopelessly lost in a mess of unlabeled single-track trails. By the time they got back to the pit zone (alas, without the pump), their team’s tents had been taken down, everything had been loaded in the trailer, and the rest of the team had left.

For Christmas, a few weeks before Kylie Norton rode over the cow pie, Joe Martin received a sheepskin saddle cover from his grandmother, and because he never even considered putting it on his bicycle, he carried the nagging guilt of knowing it must have cost a lot, being made of real 100% Australian Merino Sheepskin, as his grandmother proudly pointed out in her high-pitched, cracking voice.

Head Coach Cogburn carried a Light & Motion Urban 550 headlight which weighed 4 ounces and which in full power mode put out enough light to ride single-track at a moderate speed after dark, though they never did this. He carried the responsibility for his riders’ safety, and a small but nagging insecurity about whether, in this first year as head coach, he was doing a reasonable job and upholding the high standard set by those before him. He carried the vague sense that at least some riders saw him as merely a chaperone, unaware of his past success as a bike racer and coach. This apprehension on Coach Cogburn’s part wasn’t totally unfounded, as JV rider Morgan Gleeson carried with her a pronounced skepticism about Cogburn’s expertise, since he wasn’t on Strava and never used the term “efforts” (he’d surely said “effort” at some point, but never in the plural form that indicated training savvy). Earlier in the day on which Kylie Norton hit the fresh cow pie at high speed, Morgan Gleeson had also been burdened with the pressing fear that, on the steep section of Meadows just before the turnoff to Inspiration Point, she might actually hurl due to the entire chorizo pizza she’d unwisely eaten at lunch.

The riders carried food, when they remembered. Usually this was Clif bars or gels or Shot Blox, but Joe Martin carried chocolate Pop-Tarts toaster pastries which weighed 2 ounces apiece and came in a two pack, and were, he claimed, nutritionally similar to an energy bar. Tucker Smith favored Corn Nuts in 1½-ounce packages even though they weren’t particularly high-carb. For the most part the riders carried themselves with responsibility, with the restraint and adherence to trail etiquette that had been drilled into them a hundred times. But sometimes they got a little out of hand, let the adrenaline get the better of them, and failed to slow down enough for this or that hiker. Sometimes they slowed down plenty but nothing was good enough for the hiker. When this happened it was usually with old folks who sometimes yelled out angrily even if the riders slowed to less than a jogging pace and politely announced their presence. Sometimes the mere fact of their being on a bike, or their being young and healthy, seemed to incite a hiker. Most of the riders carried the inescapable knowledge that there are unhappy people in this world and being out in nature isn’t always enough to pacify them.

Team Captain Sidney Mason carried her keychain-sized YMCA membership card, even though she would never ride her $5,000 mountain bike to the Y or anywhere else where it could be stolen. She carried her Kryptonite key on the same keychain, which was similarly pointless. She carried also the weight of her outstanding college applications and the constant dread that she wouldn’t get in anywhere good and she’d end up at one of her safety schools. This was similar, though not identical, to the fear that her teammate Buck Hill carried, that—now that he’d made Varsity—he might never get to mount the podium again. This wasn’t terribly different, in terms of burden, to the burning crush that Joe Martin had on Kylie Norton but kept utterly secret from all his teammates, particularly Kylie, and which more than anything fed his seemingly hopeless desire to distinguish himself on the bike.

Assistant Coach Tim Roberts carried the usual spare tube, patch kit, and multi-tool, along with a first aid kit that Head Coach Eddie Cogburn had pressed on him and which he didn’t feel he could reasonably decline. He also carried a shock pump, because he’d paid for it, and he carried the nagging feeling that so much of this gear was pointless for him to be schlepping, with three other coaches on every ride. Moreover, he bristled under the burden of knowing his loaded pack was just slowing him down, all so these spry, sprightly, seemingly unbreakable kids could, if they so chose, ask to have their suspension forks dialed in mid-ride, while Tim was gasping for breath on every climb with nobody jumping to his aid.

Head Coach Eddie Cogburn always carried two extra-large water bottles, which weighed 28 ounces each when full. When Kylie Norton hit the cow pie, brought her bike to a shuddering stop, and stood there straddling it shrieking almost hysterically for several minutes as her teammates surrounded her, Coach Cogburn couldn’t decide right away if the unpleasant cold of her getting sprayed full in the face with his water bottle outweighed the disgust and disgrace of the poor girl having oozing, seemingly molten cow feces all over her face. Finally he decided to risk the cold and hosed off Kylie’s face while she clawed at it with her gloved hands, almost starting to gag. Ryan Black shook his head and said, over and over again, “I think this is a bad omen.” Joe Martin, who carried his secret crush on Kylie like a closely guarded treasure, said, “What are you talking about, omen?” and Ryan Black said, “You know, an omen, like a bad portent.” John Martin said that was the stupidest thing he’d ever heard and inwardly vowed to crush Ryan Black utterly, no matter what it took, next time they climbed Seaview.

Coach Cogburn carried a variety of odds and ends. He had a couple of “boots,” sections cut from the sidewalls of old tires, to place between the inner tube and a large gash in a tire. He carried a valve core wrench, which had come in handy three times during the previous season alone. He carried quick-links for 10- and 11-speed chains. These items weighed essentially nothing. Coach Cogburn also carried a size large wind jacket at all times which weighed 7ounces, and a 4-ounce size medium wind vest that he could squeeze into but which would also fit any of the riders in a pinch because they tended to under-dress and forgot to carry extra clothing.

The riders carried on a constant repartee designed to pass the time and to seem like they weren’t actually suffering from the pace. They even joked about what had happened to Kylie. They didn’t really think this was funny but it was part of the bluster they needed to show, to hide their lump-in-throat fear, their cold knowledge that that could have been me. “Nothing like a good, fresh cow pie,” Buck Hill said. “You know, the crispy, crusty outer shell around the gooey liquid center.” Coach Roberts could have added, “Yeah, like Freshen-up gum,” but he didn’t want to join in coarsely joking about the tragedy, and besides, he know none of these kids had ever heard of Freshen-up and they’d just look at him with that classic nonplussed expression Roberts’ kids were always wearing.

Head Coach Eddie Cogburn carried with him the burden of knowing he could have prevented Kylie Norton’s calamity had he pointed out the cow pie. He’d been leading the descent, with Kylie (a crackerjack bike handler) not far behind. He couldn’t believe the size of the cow pie and though he saw it just in time, he only barely missed it and didn’t have a chance to drop a hand and wave it back and forth in the universal signal for “Look out, obstacle.” He’d been distracted, as it happened, by thoughts of his first aid kit. There he was, leading the whole group down the steep descent of Conlon, a time when he should have had his full attention focused on the trail ahead, but was puzzling over the purpose of the spool of Coflex bandage he was carrying. Why did it come in different colors? Was this just decorative, or did the color indicate functional differences, one spool to the next? And what was the Coflex for, anyway? The Surgilast stretch sock was used to hold the 4x4s in place, that was clear enough; but what was this stretchy Coflex supposed to do? Is it like an Ace bandage? Is to stabilize a splint—the 36” SAM splint that Coach Cogburn hadn’t yet procured? It was at the moment he contemplated this oversight that he heard Kylie Norton scream, and as he slammed on the brakes and pulled over to a stop he was surprised not to hear the telltale static-like sound of a rider hitting the dirt. It was just a scream that turned into a series of shrieks, then the yelling of other riders as they gathered around her.

From here on out, Coach Cogburn decided, he was going to keep his head in the game, concentrate on what was required of him in the moment, and stop worrying about what was or wasn’t in his pack; where his pack came from; whether he deserved to be using it; whether his riders respected him; and whether he was up to snuff as a coach. He’d be methodical and unemotional from now on. He’d buy that SAM splint, read up on Coflex, maybe email the Wilderness First Aid instructor about it , even watch a few instructional YouTube videos, and then he’d move on. He’d stop carrying on an internal dialogue during these rides. He’d keep his eyes far ahead on the trail and next time he came upon a grotesquely oversized, fresh and glistening cow pie, he’d bloody well point it out.

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