Sunday, June 30, 2019

Epic NorCal Road Ride - Day 2


Introduction

This post is a sequel.  For best results, start here with Part One, or you’ll be a bit lost, though no more than with all those stupid Marvel movies. If you’re the kind of big shot who doesn’t have time for more than one albertnet post, stick with this one. It packs in way more drama and suffering to indulge your thirst for epicaricacy.

(What is epicaricacy? It’s the only synonym I could find for schadenfreude, a word I worry about overusing in these bike ride tales.)

Executive summary

This was way harder than Day One. I haven’t suffered this badly in five years. After being thoroughly worn out by the Day One ride, we knew Day Two would be brutal, but—you know what? We didn’t know anything. We only thought we knew. Holy shit. We went out there and rendered ourselves … but we did manage to complete the full route. As I write this two days later, my throat is still sore. I  need a nap.

Short version

Pete charted a tough 90-mile Napa-centric route, which featured a nifty optional shortcut we could take to shave around 40 miles if we couldn’t cut the mustard. (Of course, taking this shorter option would lead to a lifetime of self-loathing, so it was never really an option.) On paper, Day Two looked a bit easier than Day One, because it was a shorter, but a) it packs in almost as much climbing, and b) we were already good and knackered before the first pedal stroke.

We went to the same bagel joint as on Day One, and the same sad-looking guy was sitting at the same table there, immersed in his phone just as before, almost as though he’d never left. This time we got bagel sandwiches with egg, ham, cheese, etc. and they weren’t very good. Coffee.

During the ride we ate the usual energy bars; willfully ran out of water on principle (see full report for details); got baked like anchovies in the 95-degree heat; met salvation at a general store in Pope Valley (Cokes, a gallon of water, Hostess fruit pies, ice cream bar); got poached by the smoke from a nearby fire on the second big climb; then suffered a terrible drubbing on the final climb. Even the long final descent was agonizing because everything hurt … my legs, my butt, my back, my neck, my hands, my psyche. Back in Albany we rebuilt our broken bodies with Little Star pizza (deep-dish with pepperoni, mushroom, and onion and thin-crust with mushroom, onion, and black olive) and recovery beers (Stella Artois and, for the potassium, Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin IPA).

Here are the map and elevation profile of Day Two:



Full report

I didn’t sleep very well the night before because my body, limbs, even fingers were still buzzing from the Day One ride. The light pollution in a cheap motel is inescapable, and it was a really warm evening so we had the overloud HVAC fan going the whole time. At least the pillows were like cinder blocks so I could arrange them like a fort around my head to block the light … a good hobby for an insomniac.

In the morning I grimly inspected my knackered rear tire and the bulge in its herniated sidewall. Follow the line of the spoke up and you’ll see the lump (from the boot) and the slash. Pretty sketchy.


If I were looking for an excuse to bag the ride entirely I suppose this could have been it, and Pete could have begged off because of his badly dented rim. But we’d planned this ride for months and weren’t about to weasel out. The show must go on.

Here is the obligatory “before” shot. Using our reflection seemed like a good way to conserve arm strength vs. lifting the camera for a selfie.


We cruised through Sonoma, this time to the southeast. Pretty as a postcard.



My butt was really sore from the day before. I mean, it hurt constantly. Meanwhile, my trashed rear tire was going lub-lub-lub-lub. I took a twisted kind of solace from knowing that soon enough my legs would hurt even worse, and then I wouldn’t notice my butt or my tire so much.

Soon enough, we hit the first big climb, the infamous Cavedale Road.



Man, that is a tough climb. It’s got pitches of 16%, and gains over 1,900 feet in about five miles of battered road.


Check out the fire damage. Local legend has it that a fire was once started by a cyclist who totally detonated up there. They say his legs were on fire, and I believe it … I could feel the burn myself.

You can tell how badly I was hurting by how far ahead Pete is in this next photo. He tries to hang back with me, but his gearing isn’t as humiliatingly low as mine so sometimes he can’t help but roll away.


Something must be wrong with my right eyebrow: sweat was just pouring into my right eye, but not my left. Weird.

Eventually we reached the summit and took in this most pleasant sight:


Cavedale Road eventually gave way to Trinity Road, which I’ve ridden a few times. This was mostly a descent until we hit a little f-you climb, not very steep but into the wind. It was already getting hot. My legs were already complaining. But we got past that and enjoyed the swift and steep descent of the Oakville Grade. We couldn’t fully enjoy it, though, because of Pete’s rim and my tire. We kept our speed down. (-ish.)

Our planned route, programmed into Pete’s fancy Wahoo GPS device, had us continuing on east, but I requested a small detour to visit the Oakville Grocery. I was pretty low on water and also looking to some lowbrow refined-sugar snacks to buoy my spirits. I now know that Google Maps calls Oakville Grocery a “gourmet destination with buzzy deli.” I could direct you to a recent review granting five stars on the basis of “adorable country style atmosphere” and “tons of unique Napa offerings for yourself or gift giving.” Be advised that “they offer several taste samples of local items” but that  you should “be prepared to buy everything you try.”

Of course I didn’t have this backstory yet, but I rolled my eyes at this little lawn area around the side with a postcard-perfect backdrop, seemingly designed for visitors’ Instagram photo-ops. There were a couple of young women in dresses mugging for their smartphone cameras and a big wind was blowing their dresses everywhere. Even though I know this same wind would probably be in my face for much of the afternoon, in that moment I was glad for it. You could say I wasn’t in a very gracious mood.

We went inside, and the place was mobbed. Everything in there was just so nice, all the foods artisanal and all the patrons in that blissed-out state you can only get in a truly special place like the wine country. You know what? I didn’t want organic natural sodas and ten kinds of mustard, or a made-to-order sandwich or other “picnic-friendly fare.” I wanted a damn Hostess fruit pie and some tap water without having to stand in line behind a bunch of gussied-up wine tourists who are rightfully offended by the smell of my sweat. “Pretty busy in here,” Pete said. “Yeah, let’s bail,” I replied. So we headed off into the great unknown without any water.

We rode into an increasingly hot wind, taking on some rollers but mainly a false flat rising about five hundred feet in 23 miles. Our average speed went down, down, down. At least the scenery was nice.


We rolled along the southeast rim of Lake Hennessey. I didn’t know the name at the time, of course. I didn’t know anything except I was out of water, the wind felt like a hair dryer, my legs hurt, my ass hurt, my hands hurt, and my back hurt. Of course, I was in good company and chatting with Pete kept my morale up, even though I was sorely tempted to just suck his wheel for the rest of the ride.


We started climbing. Standing up felt a little better than sitting down, but only for about ten seconds at a time. You know how sometimes you’ll be sitting on the sofa, and it’ll dawn on you that you’re not as comfortable as you could be, and then you’ll realize you’re sitting on, like, a hairbrush, and when you remove it you’re suddenly much more comfortable? Well, imagine if somebody then stuffed the hairbrush back under you. I hope that kind of conveys the highly temporary benefit of shifting my position on the bike.

We started descending. I discovered that if I put a pedal all the way forward, splayed my toes, and angled the toe of the shoe upward, wind would flow through the underside vents and give my foot a delicious moment of coolness. After enjoying this phenomenon for half a minute, I realized my rear tire was going flat.

I stopped and pumped it up and remounted. Pete said something more diplomatic than “aren’t you just pissing into the wind?” and I ignored him. I was in denial. Five miles further into the sauna my tire was flat again and I fixed it properly. Part of the sidewall now had two all-the-way-through gashes, requiring two boots, and once I got rolling again the squirming of the tire was almost comical (I say “almost” because there was nothing funny about it).

I mused idly, as we dragged ourselves through the burning wind, about how long a person could go without water while exercising in 90-plus degree heat. I mean, my body was still doing its thing, right? Maybe I could go on forever like this. I really had no idea how long it would be until the next town. I hadn’t so much as glanced at our route. I had a sense we were somewhere northeast of Saint Helena, but I had no idea what towns, if any, existed out here, nor when we’d start to head southwest again.

Salvation appeared in the form of Pope Valley and its little market.


Pope’s was a pretty humble place. Check out these mounted animal heads … probably all roadkill.


A card on the fridge door said, “Please pay for your drink before opening this door.” (Makes sense.) They had the snacks I wanted and no line. After I paid, the cashier said, “Don’t forget your Coke!” How could I?

Pete and I sat on the ground outside in the shade of the awning and basked in the bounty we’d acquired.


Once or twice a year I try a sip of someone’s Coke and think, “Yuck—too sweet.” Needless to say this one was like a miracle elixir and I couldn’t quaff it fast enough.

A group of Chicano laborers in jeans and long-sleeve shirts were hanging around at the other end of the porch, enjoying their day off by kicking back with some Budweisers. One of the crew strummed a guitar and sang softly in Spanish. I give this place five stars.

I saved the Hostess pie for later but inhaled the ice cream bar. We topped up our bottles and I guzzled the rest of our gallon jug of water. So, 128 ounces minus the 80 in our bottles makes 48 ounces, plus the 12-ounce Coke, so I left Pope Valley with almost four pints of fluid in my belly. I almost expected to hear it echoing against the inner wall of my distended belly—“baLOOMP, baLOOMP, baLOOMP!”—as I stood on the pedals for the next climb.

“Look out there,” Pete said, pointing to a column of smoke in the distance. I tried to delude myself that it was steam off a hot spring, but no, it was too dark. Seemingly within a minute of seeing it, we smelled it. I guess the fire season has already started. As we made our way up the day’s second major climb, Ink Grade, the smell grew stronger.



Not shown: the fire truck that raced down the hill past us. I guess every firefighter in the vicinity was being dispatched.

I missed snapping a photo of the first “Col de la Croix de Ink Grade” sign, but here’s the 2K-to-go sign:


At first blush, there’s a grammatical error here: the French would contract “de” and “Ink” to “d’Ink.” But that’s not the whole problem. The English name for this climb is Ink Grade, but if the rest of the sign is in French, why would “Ink Grade” remain in English? It should say “Col de la Croix de Col d’Encre.” But even that would be stupidly redundant. Surely this signage is a play on “Col de la Croix de Fer,” the famous Hors Categorie climb in the French Alps, and I guess these locals didn’t wonder what “Croix de fer” means. There’s an actual iron cross atop that pass; what is “Climb of the Cross of Ink Grade” supposed to mean? I know this isn’t very charitable toward this lighthearted signage, but it’s what I was thinking as I ground my weary way up, inhaling a lot of smoke.

Sure enough, the air began to take on that orange color we saw so often last year when wildfires ravaged California and Oregon.


You know what? The Col d’Encre wasn’t actually that hard. Maybe I was still flying off of that ice cream and Coke. Before too long we were descending again, into fresher air no less.


We had another long, steep, would-be fast descent that taunted us because between Pete’s dented rim and my time-bomb tire, we had to really watch our speed. Meanwhile, even coasting hurt—who knew simple jobs like sitting, braking, and holding up your body on the bike could so overtax the human body? I was just blown. Still, it was a gorgeous descent and it’s a pity I couldn’t be bothered to stop periodically for photos.

Speaking of which, the ensuing final climb rendered me incapable of doing anything but surviving, and barely that, so I have no more action shots for you. It wasn’t too bad at first—like a 4% grade—but then suddenly it’s like Mother Nature tipped up the game board and it was a 9-10% grade the rest of the way. It was dead quiet at least, so I could listen for cars and weave back and forth like a paperboy on a steep driveway. Needless to say Pete couldn’t ride slowly enough, in his 34x25 gear, to hang back with me, and floated off into the sunset while I fought my seemingly losing battle against the climb.

Soon enough this little voice in my head asked, “Can I even do this? Am I actually going to grind to a halt?” Doubt, of course, can deal your faltering body its final blow. Fortunately, I was well steeled for this: by years of flogging myself on lunatic ventures like this, but also by recently reading my own pep talk. I’d written this for a friend back in 2012, posted it to albertnet, and came across it again because it’s having kind of a renaissance, racking up an oddly high number of new pageviews (563 in the last month). Rereading it had given me a good refresher in something I haven’t had to think much about lately. The gist is, resignation is totally underrated. The trick is to pretend you have no choice and to take one unthinking pedal stroke at a time, riding like a robot. Sometimes the brain just needs to be shut off, so that the question “Can I make it?” is off the table. You keep pedaling as if attached to a machine that’s permanently switched to “on.” And if my pedals ever actually do grind to a halt, well, that’d be a first.

Eventually, inevitably, we reached the summit. The final 13 miles were almost all downhill except for one last little climb, a quarter-mile at 10%, that was like a little kid throwing rocks at your car as you speed away—like, don’t make me laugh. We found our way back to the car and celebrated with the requisite “after” photo.


It’s funny … we don’t look shattered. Well, a good bike racer knows how to keep a poker face.

You might say we sweated a bit during the ride:


Back in Albany, where the weather was blessedly cooler, we got take-out pizza from Little Star and almost caused a revolt. My kids strongly prefer Zachary’s, nearby alternative. (For a thorough comparison in these pages, click here.) This meant two things: 1) my kids complained for almost the entire meal, and 2) Pete and I got way more pizza for ourselves: ¾ of a large pizza each. I’d say we earned it.

Ride stats

Here are the stats based on my old-fashioned bike computer, with the stats from Pete’s Strava file in parentheses. (Which is more accurate? Beats me … how about you just always go with the more impressive number?) 
  • 89.95 miles (88.1)
  • 6:48:47 ride time
  • 13.2 mph average speed (ouch!)
  • 8,117 feet cumulative elevation gain (8,825)
  • 30.1 miles total climbing
  • 32.2 miles total descending

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For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Epic NorCal Road Ride - Day 1


Introduction

Every couple of years, my friend Peter and I get together for an epic road ride, usually in the Boulder, Colorado area. We’ll never live up to the best ride we did, which was 200 miles long and so far back I can’t remember the year, but we try to get as close as possible. Our last would-be epic ride, in 2016, kicked our asses so bad we had to cut it short and relegate it to “quasi-epic” status.

This year we’re both turning fifty so we decided we needed to redeem ourselves. Pete contrived a pair of brutal routes, this time on my turf. So we hit Sonoma County last Friday, and Napa on Saturday. They both hit back—hard. If you’ve always disliked me, read on for your first dose of Schadenfreude: Epic NorCal Ride - Day One.


Executive summary

The route packed a big surprise that damaged our bikes. The mileage, the climbing, and our own foolish refusal to act our age caused us much suffering. In other words, the ride was a rousing success.

Short version

Pete and I trained hard for this ride, for upwards of, well, four weeks. Up until mid-May, my longest ride of the year was 31 miles. Pete didn’t do much better. That didn’t stop him from downloading a challenging 106-mile route from Strava that was based on the Levi’s Granfondo route from 2012. I’d done that ride all the way back in 2009 (click here for my report) and had fond memories (get it—fond?). Without any support, and too few miles in our legs, we would have our work cut out for us.

With that in mind, we hit upon the ingenious strategy of carbo-loading the night before on nothing but greasy happy-hour snacks at a Santa Rosa brewery. We had giant onion rings, small but tasty “Asian chicken bites,” a Reuben slider, hella fries with mayonnaise, and deep-fried calamari. Our rationale for this unorthodox preparation was fiscal efficiency. I mean, the very same onion rings that normally go for $9 were only $3 during happy hour. Who could resist? Then we found an ice cream joint where I had the “homemade Oreo” flavor and I learned, to my surprise, that this place actually makes their own Oreos to put in the ice cream. They charged me $1 extra for a cone, but I didn’t care because a) it was one of those highly groovy waffle cones, and b) the creamista stuffed the whole damn cone with ice cream. Good times!

Our pre-ride breakfast was bagels and coffee at a local place. Being a notorious cheap bastard, I suggested we get one bagel with cream cheese and one without, because they always give you too much cream cheese so you can transfer half of it to the plain bagel and save a buck or two. Well, they must have heard us scheming, or maybe they’re just stingy, but the donor bagel was the most under-cheesed I’ve ever encountered. Curses!

During the Day One ride we enjoyed spectacular scenery, tough climbs, a breathtaking coastal descent, and Hostess fruit pies at a little grocery. I chased my pie with a Klondike ice cream bar. The ride got tougher from there because the road we’d chosen was closed due to, well, having utterly gone missing due to all the rains here. So what started as a road ride became a mountain bike ride.

That night we put on the dog at LoCoco’s Cucina Rustica: lots of French (i.e., white) bread with this garlicky tapenade; a Caesar salad with anchovies; deep-fried calamari; tortellini in a heavy cream sauce; and a Lagunitas IPA to dissolve all the fat. As much food as that was, I could have eaten a second meal just like it. Great restaurant, by the way, though we almost had to kill this loud douchebag hanging out near the bar where we were sitting. He must have been drunk and/or thought he was funny.

Full report

Peter is a medical doctor, which is great news for me. It means I can look a waiter right in the eye and say, “My doctor has advised me to eat more saturated fats … is the cream sauce good and rich?” It also means Pete goes into these rides even more tired than I do, giving me a leg up which I desperately need. (He was a pro racer and has always been way stronger than I, in fitness, stamina, and character.) I think he’d worked some overnights in the ICU before this trip because almost as soon as we got to our motel, he demanded we turn the lights out. It was like 9 freakin’ p.m.! I figured we could at least talk for a bit, so I told him this great joke: 
Jean Paul Sartre goes into a little Parisian coffee shop and tells the waiter, “Bring me a coffee with sugar but no cream.” The waiter heads to the kitchen, only to return a couple minutes later to announce, “I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Sartre, we’re all out of cream. Can I bring you a coffee with no milk?”
This didn’t elicit so much as a chuckle, which didn’t surprise me too much because when I tried this joke on my wife and daughter I got nothing but blank stares. I told Pete, “Perhaps this joke requires some basic knowledge of existential philosophy,” but still he didn’t utter a sound. I realized then that this albeit brief joke had actually put him to sleep.

Here we are at the start of Day One.


Pretty mediocre motel, but I’ve stayed in much worse … at least it was non-smoking. As for local amenities, you couldn’t do much better than this junk-built obelisk just a few blocks away:


Look closely—it’s made (well, adorned) largely of (with) bike parts. How fitting!


The first climb of the day wasn’t very hard, and the weather was still cool, especially with all these trees breathing on us.


The only problem was that my saddle—which had been creaking and clicking increasingly over the past few months—started making more and more racket until it sounded like a Geiger counter with the volume turned up. I dismounted to investigate and dislodged a little curl of metal that had been part of either the saddle rail or the post. Well aware of the dangers of stripping something, I tightened the main bolt as much as I dared, and then—hallelujah!—the saddle shut right up.

As if Murphy wouldn’t tolerate his law being broken, on the first descent Pete hit a cattle guard wrong and put a giant dent and flat spot in his front rim. It was so bad we had to lower one of his brake pads so it wouldn’t hit his tire. That kind of put a damper on the descents, with his braking super grabby, but of course at our age we can’t be bombing the downhills anyway.

Here we’re stopped for a bit of a rest under the redwoods.


We cruised past the Cazadero Music Camp and stopped at Raymond’s Bakery for water. The front door was open, but the bakery wasn’t. The gal there seemed inordinately apologetic and happily filled our bottles for us, and even served us bread and butter on the house. NOOICE!


As we made our way up the first major climb, the lush tree cover eventually dwindled until we reached a more sparse but very scenic vista.


It was a steep, scabby road with very little traffic, just perfect for tiring our legs.


We descended for a while, and I guess we tackled the second big climb of the day, but oddly enough I don’t remember a single thing about it. (Perhaps my brain still hasn’t recovered from being simmered in its own juices on Day Two—but I see I’m getting ahead of myself.)

After some descending we reached the coast. I told Pete this was Lake Tahoe but I’m pretty sure he didn’t believe me.


I spent some time admiring this well rusted barbed wire. This is because I once wrote a research paper for history class on the topic of barbed wire. (Or was I just stalling?)


The ride just kept getting more beautiful.


Highway One gives some famously breathtaking views of the coast.


I decided to take a selfie just to prove that I was actually on this ride, and that Pete wasn’t just accompanied by a professional photographer, the paparazzi, or a drone.


The best parts of the descent down the coast, of course, aren’t recorded because I had both hands on the bars. The temperature was perfect, the road (mostly) smooth, the curves nice and sweeping, and there was even this hawk flying along above and ahead of me, dipping and soaring and doing all kinds of unnecessary maneuvers, just for the sheer fun of it, and I realized suddenly that I was having my Spalding Grey “perfect moment.”

As if things couldn’t get any better, we stopped at the Jenner C Store for some refined sugars. (There’s a point in any veteran cyclist’s epic ride when energy bars just don’t cut it anymore.) The Hostess fruit pie is the all-time junk food champion, packing almost 500 calories into its wallet-sized shell. Just for good measure I combed through the store’s freezer for their most highly caloric ice cream bar, which ends up being a Klondike bar at 300 calories.


It was only when we turned inland that things started to get tricky. First off, the road was closed. Worse, as we continued on beyond the barrier, we came to a section that Caltrans (or somebody) had apparently toyed with the idea of rebuilding. They’d dumped there a bed of very small rocks that, with the aid of a steamroller, might have created a usable surface. It was just barely rideable, and the occasional clanking of a stone against my rim gave me the willies. I kept a light touch on the handlebars and tried to float my bike along. Fortunately, the stones gradually dissipated and we found more and more smooth places to aim our bikes.


Finally the pavement ended altogether which was a real treat … it felt like carpet compared to the busted-up road.


We came across a giant fallen trunk and Pete tried to jump it. He almost made it but his bike got snagged.


Okay, I confess, I made that up. The photo above was staged (but not Photoshopped). Things got a bit easier from there, for a bit.


The only really hard part now was that we had our third major climb to tackle. It wouldn’t have been so bad except for the traction, particularly in sections where water was still flowing over the trail. I couldn’t climb out of the saddle and there were pitches of more than 10%. We were relieved when we reached the second road closure gate, indicating we’d have actual asphalt again. Here’s the view back toward where we’d ridden.


By this point, 80 miles in, this ride was already the longest of the year for both of us. We were good and fried after close to 9,000 feet of climbing and almost seven hours in (and out of) the saddle. We looked forward to an uneventful and relaxing mostly-downhill cruise back to Santa Rosa.

Ha! Of course that didn’t happen. We were coasting down this smooth and (thankfully) straight road when—BLAM!—my rear tire blew out. Motherfrockle! I checked it out, and discovered that my sidewall, which had looked oddly dried-out and a bit hairy before the ride, now looked totally chowdered. I guess it was all the stones it had been grazing against during the off-road-action segment of our tour. Sure enough, a sidewall gash had broken all the way through, so I had to put a boot in there. (For a full dissertation on tire boots, click here.)

Now I had this big lump in my tire, probably worse than a boot usually causes because the whole tire casing was totally knackered and closer to a wonton wrapper than a sidewall. My bike rode like a mule with a gimpy leg, the tire lump giving me the highly unpleasant feedback of lub-lub-lub-lub. This made our final 20 miles or so a bit unnerving. But it was a great route along an endless walking/biking path near a river. We even saw some cute downy ducklings following along behind their momma duck (or maybe just the sitter).

We finally made it back to the motel, and following strict orders from my doctor I indulged in a recovery beer. Here is the official Beck’st:


After a long ride like this, it’s tempting to look down at your legs and think you got a suntan.


Of course this is an illusion; the “suntan” washes right off in the shower. It’s really just road grime clinging to the sunscreen.

Considering the difficulty of what we’d just done, we felt pretty good. But then, Day One isn’t about utterly destroying ourselves; it’s about totally depleting ourselves so that Day Two can properly finish us off. I won’t kid you, I was good and fried … but well knew the real beating was still to come. Watch albertnet for my Day Two report, coming soon!

Ride stats

Here are the stats based on my old-fashioned bike computer, with the stats from Pete’s Strava file in parenthesis. (Which is more accurate? Beats me … why not go with the more impressive number on a stat-by-stat basis?)
  • 106.9 miles (104.3)
  • 6:18:40 ride time
  • 14.7 mph average speed (14.5)
  • 8,239 feet cumulative elevation gain (8,947)
  • 29.6 miles total climbing
  • 34.3 miles total descending

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For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

A Father’s Day Poem


Introduction

This is a poem I wrote for my father, but it could apply to many a father—which is more than I can say for all those stupid Father’s Day cards featuring clich├ęs like the hammock, the necktie, the golf clubs, or the fishing gear. Those tropes seem outdated and twee. If the greeting card industrial complex is trying to guess accurately about fathers’ behaviors they should show a dad in a dingy t-shirt in a La-Z-Boy armchair watching sports on TV.

My dad was the rare kind who didn’t watch any sports. But he also didn’t lie in a hammock, wear a necktie, play golf, or fish. The only card I ever found that would have been totally appropriate is this one, which I could never bring myself to actually send:


So I’d pick some generic nature-themed card, but that only solved half the problem, the other half being what to write inside. After all, beyond “Happy Father’s Day,” what more is there to say? In my case, I couldn’t say “You were always there for me” or “Best Dad ever!” without seeming a bit disingenuous. So that’s how this poem came to be: it nicely solved the blank card problem. (In my case perhaps I had the sneaky ulterior motive of rubbing my dad’s nose in my choice of English as a major, when he was a passionate STEM proponent well ahead of all the Johnny-come-lately STEM-pushers who are terrorizing the current crop of teenagers.)

I guess you’re free to steal this poem for your own card. But if you do, and your dad doesn’t know you to be a competent poet, he’ll surely see right through your plagiarism. And if you are a competent poet, well, write your own ode!

The Poem

To Dad - June 19, 2016

A father, residing in Boulder
Was young once, and then he got older.                2
He looks quite distinguished
And though he’s no linguist                                     4
He knows the right way to say “solder.”

This father, though lacking a daughter,                6
Was odd once, and maybe got odder.
He’s quite good with language—                            8
Can easily manage
To get the right rhyme out of “solder.”                10

Footnotes & Commentary

Title

I know, “To Dad” seems really generic but you have to remember “Dad” in this context is a proper noun so this is actually very personal and special. We fathers know this viscerally. Particularly when my kids were younger, when I was in a crowd of people and would hear a young girl yell, “Dad!” I would look around in a panic for a second before realizing some unrelated kid needed her dad.

Line 1 – a father

Given all the stuff I just said about “Dad” being personal, now I go off and start the poem with “A father”? Like, just any father? Of course I knew this would be jarring, but good poetry is supposed to be. If I wanted treacle, I’d go buy a Hallmark card. And no harm done: I knew by the time my dad got to the end of the line he’d realize this was a limerick, and I was just following the convention (e.g., “There once was a man from Nantucket”).

Line 2 – was young once … got older

This is an allusion to the Simon & Garfunkel song “The Boxer”—the extended version they performed at their concert in Central Park:

Now the years are rolling by me,
They are rockin’ evenly.
I am older than I once was
But younger than I’ll be.
That’s not unusual.

Would my dad catch this reference? Nope. He didn’t listen to much music. He had some records but they were all even older than Simon & Garfunkel. He never played the radio unless it was the classical station, as background music. Missed allusion aside, I figured my dad would enjoy knowing that somebody remembered the fact of his once being young. (My own kids won’t shut up about how old I am.)

Line 3 – looks quite distinguished

I kind of had to say something nice after reminding my dad how old he was (even though he prided himself on his agedness, his favorite self-referential term being “geezer”). Besides, he was distinguished and he knew it, so this was a compliment that wouldn’t come off as disingenuous.


Pretty respectable looking chap, eh? I must admit that I feel a bit odd forming your opinion based on such an old photo of him … I guess I’m sensitive to the rampant, unbridled deception taking place all over Instagram and other self-celebration platforms with people posting ideally unrepresentative photos. So here’s another shot of my dad, taken mere months before I wrote this poem.


If you look closely there’s a hard set to his mouth, and a strain shows around his eyes, and the eyes themselves are looking a bit blank and distant. That’s because when this photo was snapped, my dad already knew that he had cancer and likely wouldn’t be long for this world. Still, I think he was a very handsome guy well into old age (or as he’d put it “geezerdom”).

Line 4 – no linguist

This was perhaps a bit harsh, because even though my dad was a scientist and engineer through-and-through, he prided himself on having perfect grammar. Still, there’s no shame in not being a linguist. In fact, if I had become a professional linguist, my dad probably would have been a bit disappointed, even if I rose through the ranks and had a team of linguists working under me.

Line 5 – the right way to say solder

This line is a trap! Instinctively, the reader—or at least an astute reader like my dad—would be expecting the last word of the line to rhyme with “Boulder” and “older” in keeping with the limerick form, and then this word would look like it would rhyme, but of course it doesn’t. My dad would know the proper pronunciation, being the kind of guy who loved soldering things. He would have been really honored had I also learned how to solder. (If I could have found a Father’s Day card with a soldering iron on it, I’d have bought it in a heartbeat.)


So at this point in reading the poem my dad had to be perplexed. Surely, he’d muse, his own son couldn’t think “solder” rhymes with “older”—could he? Dad would mull this over for a bit. My level of intelligence wasn’t something he was totally confident about. He knew full well I wasn’t as smart as he was (his IQ having been measured at 180, with this result unwisely disclosed to him). A long-standing and still unresolved family argument concerns whether, back in 1983, my dad did or did not say to me at the dinner table, “You’re not very bright, are you.” (For the record, I don’t believe he actually said this to me, but the fact that we could imagine it does say something.)

It’s not like my dad considered me a dumbass—after all, I did manage to get a degree from his own alma mater—but to somebody as smart as he, everyone must have seemed a little dense. So I imagine he wondered for a moment if I’d just had the pronunciation wrong, before thinking, “Wait—he’s specifically talking about the right way to pronounce this word, so of course he knows.”

My dad’s relief would quickly pass, though, because until he fully appreciated the joke, he would be a bit prickled by my audacity in deliberately spurning the rhyme scheme of the limerick form by using a non-rhyming word here. This might strike you as an unfair accusation of extreme pedanticism, but I assure you this is a realistic consideration. For my dad, using “real” as an adverb was tantamount to cussing. He once challenged me about using the phrase “that’s me” on this blog because “that’s I” is, strictly speaking, the correct grammar. Also, he was once scandalized because, when emailing a large group where all the recipients were blind-copied, for the main “To” address I used “nobody@nowhere.com” which obviously isn’t legit. My dad took me to task for this, and when I replied that this was a victimless crime, he drew my attention to the mail servers on the Internet that would waste valuable computing cycles searching in vain for that address. O, the humanity!

So yeah, that line ending in “solder” was me having a bit of illicit fun, being a literary bad boy, if you will.

Line 6 – lacking a daughter

This phrase is clearly the weakest part of the poem. You could quite reasonably accuse me of using the word “daughter” just because it rhymes with “odder” on the next line. In that sense, I’ve stooped to the level of that abysmal Hall & Oates song, “Your kiss is on my list.” (Have you ever thought about that? This guy makes a list: “Get up, shower, make coffee, empty the cat box, kiss Marcia, drop off dry cleaning…”)

The better line would be: “This dad, though not liable to dodder.” This would work very nicely with the ageing theme I’d already developed, and there’s a nice alliteration with the Ds in “dad” and “dodder.” But of course it wouldn’t be very nice, even though I’m technically saying he doesn’t dodder. We English majors love to ponder how you can’t say something without also implying its opposite, and this is a great example. (If you’re looking for another, consider how you’d feel if the big boss started his or her next staff meeting by saying, “Okay, I want to be clear here: nobody is talking about layoffs!”)

Meanwhile, I think it’s pretty much impossible to use the word “dodder” without summoning the phrase “doddering old fool.” So even if my dad was reassured that I’m clearly stating he doesn’t dodder, that phrase would be lurking nearby, casting a shadow over his poem-reading experience. I just couldn’t do that to the guy … I mean, the card and poem are supposed to be a tribute, right?

It also happens to be that “lacking a daughter” was totally apropos, and in my dad’s case the most powerful phrase in the whole poem. Family legend has it that he always wanted a daughter. My mom refutes this, but I think she’s just trying to keep me from feeling like the very first thing I did upon being born was to disappoint my father. I like to joke that my parents were hoping so hard for a girl, they chose a girl’s name, and when I ended up a boy, they saddled me with it anyway.

Line 7 – odd  … odder

Was this line mean-spirited? I’d say it was pushing the edge of the envelope. I owed that to myself after decades of pathetically obsequious letters to my father, trying to win his approval. I figured if I was being nice enough now to write him a poem, I could playfully tweak him a bit at the same time, to shore up my own self respect. (And you thought this was a simple limerick!)

All this being said, “odd” and “odder” wouldn’t have particularly irked my dad because he had to know he was odd. He didn’t exactly strive to fit in, and sometimes wore his eccentricity on his sleeve. For example, he ditched the hubcaps on his (already odd) Scion XB and painted the rims bright blue. During his last years he wore, almost exclusively, this pair of bright cranberry-relish colored trousers that he liked to boast were significantly discounted at L.L. Bean due to their unpopular color.

Did Dad get odder over time? Absolutely. He eschewed the normal methods of running a household; for example, he would board up his windows during winter with custom-cut forms of silver-surfaced Styrofoam, to improve insulation, and he took to storing his underwear and undershirts in a filing cabinet instead of a standard dresser. (What benefit he saw in that is beyond me.)

Would having a daughter have kept my dad from becoming odder? Possibly. My brothers and I didn’t tend to challenge our dad, because he didn’t seem comfortable with that kind of thing. Where males were concerned he was pretty competitive, in a way he wasn’t with females. A daughter would have had an easier rapport with him and could probably have said, “Lose the berry-colored pants, dude! You look like a doddering old fool!”

Line 8 – quite good with language

Even if my dad wouldn’t mind being called odd, I knew I was close to the line so a bit of praise couldn’t hurt. Besides, it’s true: he was very good with language. When I hear the rampant errors committed by modern engineer-types (e.g., “between you and I”), I tend to cringe; after all, my dad proved that respect for language and for STEM aren’t mutually exclusive.

Line 10 – get the right rhyme

This line deliberately conflates the reader with the poet, as though my dad himself could have written this poem. I think with the right motivation and some effort, he could have. As evidence, I draw your attention to a couplet he casually tossed off at the dinner table one night when protesting my mom’s choice of side vegetable:

It takes more than a muscled lout
To make me eat a Brussels sprout.

It occurs to me (only now, alas) that it would have been fun to challenge my dad to try his hand at a limerick or a sonnet. So you know what? I’m going to do some poetry with my mom and my brothers the next time I see them.

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