Friday, July 31, 2020

How to Talk to Your Cat About COVID-19


This post is available as a vlog. Watch on your phone, tablet, or laptop, or plug your device into the TV or (ideally) a Jumbotron.


First it was climate change. Then it was gun violence. Now it’s an honest-to-God pandemic that has wormed its way into our communities and our psyches— leaving us stuttering, babbling, and mumbling, yet again, trying for the right words to explain this terrible thing to our cats.

Whether you consider yourself a “pet owner,” a “human guardian,” or a “cat custodian,” you may feel unsure of how much to say about COVID-19 to your furry, feckless friend. This post gives you guidance all the way through the process.

Remain calm

Though cats often seem to ignore humans entirely, they are actually quite sensitive and perceptive. They can detect our anxiety, and this affects them more than you might realize. For example, if you suddenly shout, “I CAN’T TAKE ANOTHER MINUTE IN THIS COFFIN-LIKE BAY AREA DOLLHOUSE!” you shouldn’t be surprised if little Snowflake runs under the couch to hide.

It’s also important not to let your mood become your kitty’s problem. As annoying as it is to see your darling (but shedding) little friend napping  for six hours straight on your cream-colored sofa, it’s never appropriate to yell, “How can you lounge around like this when the WHOLE WORLD IS MELTING THE FUCK DOWN?!”

Here’s an analogy. Say you’re on an airplane and, after severe turbulence, it pitches nose-down and begins falling to earth. The last thing you’d want in this situation is for your flight attendant to forget your ginger ale. Your cat is the same way. She doesn’t care how anxious you may feel about complete respiratory failure. She wants her dinner. On time. Actually, right now.

Be patient

These are difficult times for all of us, even pets. Well, most pets. Goldfish are probably oblivious, frankly. But your cat surely realizes something is up, and may act out in frustrating ways. She might sharpen her claws on your beautiful cream-colored sofa. Or maybe she is suddenly missing the litter box by six feet or more. Or she’s walking on your face at 4:00 a.m., or shooting heroin. Yes, it may be she has always done these things, but her behavior might also be a cry for help. What are you to do?

First of all, forgive her. That cream-colored sofa probably wasn’t the wisest choice to begin with, and it’s not like your children haven’t spilled tea on it anyway. Drape a colorful tapestry over the back, and your guests will think you were just going for a splash of color. And when Fluffy disrupts your hard-won sleep—waking you up fifteen minutes after you spent three hours tossing and turning and trying not to think—well, you just have to chuckle and grind your teeth some more. It’s not appropriate to berate your pet in these situations. She won’t understand.

Second, try to alleviate her anxiety. Remind her that cats can’t get COVID-19, so far as we know, and that the worst thing that could happen to her is that her entire family could die and nobody would be around to feed her. Point out that eventually somebody would come around and bust the door in, and until then, she can feast on the corpses.

Share with your cat how you deal with your own stress so that he can learn from you how to cope. You might ground yourself by connecting more with family members. Maybe you take advantage of the “new, shitty normal” by wearing pajamas 24x7. Perhaps you split two bottles of wine with your husband, even if he only has a glass or two. Or you might stare at a TV or laptop screen continuously while twirling your hair or chewing your nails and occasionally sharing the latest bad news with anyone in earshot. You may even hurl profanities at the answering machine when a Robocaller leaves a seemingly endless message. All these behaviors are signs of an impending mental breakdown, and they’re perfectly normal. Your cat will watch, and wait, and wonder when it’s mealtime.

Sometimes we count on our cats to help us feel better. Isn’t this what pets are for, after all? After a stressful workday, when your employer is in the throes of a downturn, and your stressed-out boss takes it out on you, it could be that closing the lid on your laptop and taking to the La-Z-Boy armchair with a magazine and your furry friend is the perfect way to unwind—if only Stripe would actually stay put, tuck in his paws, and purr. You know, do his fucking job. But instead he forsakes you and bails from your lap. Don’t be mad! Your cat is social-distancing!

Be honest and forthright

Provide information that is honest and tailored to your cat’s age and developmental level. While cats are quite smart, they probably won’t understand the finer points of lengthy editorials, like “How is this a novel coronavirus? It’s getting so fucking old already!” You need to keep the message simple, but don’t sugarcoat it by pretending COVID-19 isn’t a big deal. Just about any cat, and even some Republicans, naturally recognize that this virus is real and that it could infect any of us.

It’s useful to find out what your cat already knows. It’s okay to ask. You might inquire, “What are you hearing? Did you ever eat a bat? Does my skin feel oddly warm to you? Did it seem like mama had an awfully dry cough last night? Who are you working for?” Granted, you may not get many answers. Your cat may just stare at you. But if she does that thing where she closes her eyes very slowly, seeming to regard you contemptuously through slitted eyelids, she knows something. You can tell.

You can be reassuring and candid at the same time. There really are lots of reasons to be hopeful. For example, when the current trend—denial—gives way to the next one—abject panic—people will finally start wearing masks and staying away from each other. And one day there will be a vaccine, so we can turn our rage away from this invisible virus and turn it on the medical industry bureaucrats who can’t or won’t deliver the vaccine at scale. You know … the devil we know.

Help your cat feel “in control”

Give your cat specific things she can do to feel “in control.” Getting lots of sleep and washing are both great ways to stay healthy, and your cat is already doing them! Praise your cat whenever you see these behaviors. “Oh, you’re such a fooly-foo!” you might tell him. “Who’s a little fur-face? Who’s a little fluffernutter? What a galoo-foo!” All of this will reinforce your cat’s good behavior.

Speaking of behavior, actions speak louder than words. So telling your cat how to stay safe, or even encouraging him verbally when he assiduously scrubs his butthole with his tongue, is well and good, but sometimes it’s even better to just go over and bury your face in his fur and make murmuring sounds. Just don’t let him lick you.

Another way to empower your cat and give her a sense of control is to actually relent and feed her at 3 a.m. when she walks on your face, instead of banishing her to the garage. And when she walks across your desk, knocking your coffee over on your keyboard causing you to forget yourself and cuss up a blue streak during a videoconference with your boss, just let her. In times like these, your family needs to come before your career.

Be sensitive

It’s natural to forget your cat altogether when you’re focused on trying to figure out how you could possibly survive this pandemic when your teenagers wear their masks around their necks and seem congenitally incapable of washing their hands, and when their version of “six feet away” doesn’t preclude actual physical contact. In the context of your darling children suddenly being recast as oblivious, unstoppable killing machines, a pet can seem pretty insignificant. But cats are people too, and need to be reassured during these dangerous times, even if they seem like asocial predators with no ambition other than to kill, eat, and sleep.

In light of this, keep an eye out for “reassurance seeking.” This may look like a cat saying the same thing, such as “meow,” over and over again while staring up at you or threading his way around your feet, practically tripping you, as you carry a giant platter of food. This ceaseless repetition of “meow, meow, meow, meow, meow” ad infinitum might actually annoy you, but remember, little Whiskers could be suffering severe anxiety. If this continues or is pronounced, you might consider asking your cat’s veterinarian about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, otherwise known as CBT (not to be confused with CBD—a mistake many humans make to their own great detriment).

You should also watch for signs of declining mental health. If your cat sleeps more than 18 hours a day, she might be depressed (though this can also be a symptom of being a cat). Or, if she’s listless, refusing to play with her cat toys, a ball of yarn, or even a roll of toilet paper, she might be having some kind of emotional crisis (though it may be a sign that she’s no longer a kitten).

Take care of yourself!

It’s hard to model calm behavior and “be there” for your cat if you let yourself fall apart. Ironically, one way around this is to invert the natural order and look to your cat as a role model. Does she get enough sleep? Check. Does she know when to turn off the news and put away the smartphone? Clearly. Does she practice mindfulness? Probably—it’s not clear what else could be happening inside that tiny skull. And does she do yoga? Well, yeah! Hell, cats practically invented yoga!

But don’t take it too far … remember, you’re not a cat. You may have your own way of coping. You might distract yourself with books or videos. You might stockpile toilet paper. Maybe you gorge yourself on animal flesh while you still can, while the stockyards and meatpacking plants are still operational. Maybe you binge shop online for clothes that probably won’t fit and that you may never have the opportunity to wear. Or you might relax your body and mind with a miracle elixir like Drake’s Denogginizer Double IPA. All of these are perfectly valid ways of coping, so long as you remember to also clean out the litter box from time to time.

More reading on the pandemic
Other reading on cats
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Thursday, July 23, 2020

Beck’st Spotlight - What Beer Goes Best With “Remains of the Day”?


Every once in a while, a Beck’st comes along that is so monumental, it deserves its own blog post. This is one of those times.

What? You haven’t heard of Beck’sting? What rock have you been sheltering-in-place under? Well, click here for my original Beck’sting post, which will tell you all you need to know about this global phenomenon.

A Beck’st isn’t just a photo, but a photo with a caption or other gloss, along with the dialogue a good beer snapshot inevitably elicits. I’ve included those, along with the initials of all involved. Where you see one letter only (e.g., “E—”) that’s somebody’s spouse, kid, or another friend.

A little background

Back in 1994, my wife and I did a cross-country bicycle tour. Along the way, we stayed for a couple of days with my friend DW and his wife down in Ventura. It was a great visit, the highlights being a) getting a gun pulled on us, and b) watching The Remains of the Day in the theater. Having a gun pointed at me was pretty exciting, but the movie bored the crap out of me. I sat there thinking, “When is this gonna end? And how can Anthony Hopkins’ character be so annoying and useless?” Frankly, I’d have bailed early, but I knew DW had really been looking forward to the movie. (Did I say “movie”? I meant “film.”)

So, we left, when it finally ended, and when DW asked how I’d liked it, I decided I had to come clean. I admitted I’d been less than gripped by it. So had E—, my wife. DW’s reply was something like, “Thank God! I was bored out of my skull. I totally would have walked out, but I assumed you and E— were enjoying it!” The Remains of the Day has been a running joke ever since.

Remains of the Beck’st

DA: E— and I decided that it’s not enough to watch The Remains of the Day on demand via streaming platforms, even if that’s how all the cool kids do it. For a movie of this exalted intellectual caliber, we need a physical copy, just in case the Russians take down our Internet. I can’t wait to watch it again tonight. We might even watch it twice tonight!

P.S. Yes, the stemware is to add insult to injury.

JL: I for one appreciate your dedication to the old and trusted, even if the new is more “convenient”! But my main reaction to this photo was the absolute certainty that that beer would taste so much better straight outta the can than in that silly glass! Now if you’ll excuse me, I must go and stream “Sense and Sensibility” on my iPhone via Netflix for the 172nd time.

DA: You’re probably right about the beer tasting better right out of the can, but the inconvenience of pouring it gently into the stemware glass without generating too much foam, and the added nuisance of having to hand-wash the glass later (since the dishwasher would over time damage the Duvel logo) together became irresistible.

DW: I love the graphics of the can. Loads of irony going on here. I am amused by how they are putting the slogan “Mas Intensa” on a session IPA. “More Intense” is not how I would describe a session IPA. Maybe it’s more intense than a Corona? The other irony that just kills me, is that you have a VHS tape of Remains of the Day in your household and, not only that, it clearly states “Be Kind and Please Rewind.” So you must have purposely forgotten to return it to the Blockbuster or other neighborhood movie rental store, paid the fines, or timed it perfectly when you knew the store was going out of business, so you could keep a copy of this great movie to show your kids and rekindle the past. I am impressed. I once read that Lady Gaga frequently watches Remains when she needs to tap into her creative stream. Well done, DA.

DA: You’re so spot-on about the can. It’s pure nonsense, really. There was nothing intense about that IPA (except the price, E— having purchased it at some chichi Spanish delicacy boutique). It’s the weakest IPA I’ve ever had, both in flavor and ABU (at a mere 4.5%, it makes even the watery lagers seem powerful). On top of all that, it’s not even 12 ounces! It’s 11.2, that being the American-market labeling equivalent of a third of a liter. Why didn’t they do a half a liter, which would be just over a pint? Because they hate us. They’re downright un-American!

We did end up watching Remains of the Day, over two nights. It was a special treat for this convenience-averse viewer because we hadn’t used our VCR in so long, the batteries in the remote had corroded, destroying the electrical contacts. I tried to fix it with aluminum foil, and though I was unsuccessful, the process was very engaging and absorbing, almost as much as Remains itself. As for the movie, all I can say is that the wisdom of age has made me ever more receptive to its subtle charms. Repeated viewing affords the cinephile the opportunity to imagine himself as the auteur, making subtle changes to actually enhance the film, or at least bring it into closer alignment with a modern audience. 

For instance, consider the big scene where Lord Darlington, the English gentlemen of the estate (and of course Anthony Hopkins’s boss), has gathered the heads of state of western Europe together with a German delegate and is convincing them to adopt the appeasement strategy as their response to the Nazi regime. Christopher Reeve, the American delegate (and tycoon) gets up and gives a speech about how the people there are all perfect gentlemen but as politicians they are all amateurs and should leave this up to the professionals. A stirring speech, to be sure, which had me thinking to myself, “Amer’ca!” but then of course all the Brits and the craven Frenchmen et al totally disagreed, and in their very proper and gentlemanly way they basically kicked Reeve to the curb (or “kerb” as they’d have spelled it). As a viewer, and as an American—born American—I couldn’t really handle this scene. Of course great cinema is supposed to be unsettling, but still, this was a bit much to take. So I think a slight rewrite of this scene could have improved the movie, particularly for the patriots in the audience. Instead of clearing his throat and sitting back down, Reeve could have said, “You know, we’re just not going to accept that answer.” Darlington, being perplexed since Reeve was the lone American in the giant banquet hall, would say, “Excuse me, but ... what do you mean, we?” To which Reeve would slyly reply, “Me ... and Smith & Wesson!” Then he’d pull out his 44 Magnum [or 1930s equivalent) and escalate the peace process, if you catch my drift.

But of course the whole Nazi appeasement angle was just a side show, the real “action” being the fraught, eternally nascent relationship between Hopkins and Emma Thompson, the besotted housekeeper. There’s that utterly gripping and engrossing scene in Hopkins’ private study where he’s reading a book and takes pains to hide it when she arrives, and—perhaps because she’s besotted not only by Hopkins but by a few proper British 20-ounce pints of Mahou Màs Intensa Session IPA, or the 1930s equivalent (we don’t know what because the drinking occurs off-screen)—she pursues him about it, literally backing him into a corner, relentlessly repeating her inquiry as to the book, and then literally prying it from his fingers to discover that it’s just a banal, prosaic romance novel by some lowbrow hack (perhaps whatever that period’s equivalent would have been to Kazuo Ishiguro). Hopkins is flummoxed and embarrassed and assures Thompson that he only reads it to improve his vocabulary. She doesn’t buy this for a second and a charmed smile flits over her face as she recognizes this softer side of the starchy, staunchly professional head butler. It’s a very moving scene, but frankly I found it a bit too intense, even after repeated viewings. I know I should be stronger than that, and after all I knew what I was signing up for with this film, but still, it’s just so wrenching, like the emotional equivalent of a Hieronymus Bosch painting if rendered in dialogue, and I really think a touch of levity would do so much to bring the viewer back from the edge. So in my version the book would turn out to be pure smut, the 1930s British version of Penthouse Forum, so that we in the audience could have a good laugh. And Hopkins could say, “I only read this to improve my understanding of the coarse vernacular of the lower servants, so that next time the under-butler or a footman uses a phrase like ‘one-eyed trouser snake’ or ‘I came Lake Superior [or whatever large English lake would fit here], I should know to what he is referring.” Thompson could grin lustily and say, “I know better, you dog!” Then she’d stick her tongue in his ear, and Hopkins would finally get out of his comfort zone, gratifyingly arriving in ours.

When I woke up this morning, my first thought was, “I can’t wait until this weekend day is over so it’ll be evening time, and we can watch Remains again.” I even toyed with watching it as a matinee, but of course any sophisticated viewer of a fine film like this knows the viewing properly begins in the gloaming, so that when the movie has been fully savored it’s bedtime. But then I realized this movie was becoming an obsession. These are intense times for me, with COVID-19, my broken collarbone, an impending election, and several more Mahou Màs Intensa Session IPAs still in the fridge. I think I need to give my poor psyche some respite, and shelve Remains for a while. But I know myself too well ... owning that film on VHS is just too strong a temptation. I would be putting that tape back in right after dinner, telling myself I’m only going to watch the first five or ten minutes but knowing full well I’d be in for the full two-hour-plus journey. Cold turkey is the best way. So today, we’re going to take the videocassette out to one of those little “Free Library” community book boxes and leave it for some other lucky person to stumble across.

Will I be rewinding the tape? No! As you probably already know, “Be Kind - Please Rewind” is a ruse perpetrated by the Videocassette Industrial Complex to give video rental outfits an excuse to fine you for not rewinding. All VHS aficionados know that the tape is in a vulnerable state—much like anyone who has just viewed Remains—right after it is played, due to the heat from passing through the player, and can actually be unduly stretched out if rewound right away. This surely accounts for why this copy of Remains, like all of them surely, has been so badly damaged from repeated, same-seating viewings that the audiovisual quality is severely diminished. The picture is as blurry as a pointillist painting and the sound as muddy as your spouse’s stern lecture when you’ve got a pillow over your head. Not that this is such a bad thing, though … I think I’m going to miss the soft-focus warmth of VHS when I digitally stream The Age of Innocence this evening.

Additional reading

For more Beck’sts, click here or here, and if you’re looking for the Becks’ts that commemorate my late father, click here. For my most recent Beck’sting post, click here.

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Thursday, July 16, 2020

From the Archives - Portrait of the Young Cyclist: Part 4


This post continues the tale, from my archives, of how I became a bike racer. In Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, I described how my early infatuation with the sport led to actually participating; the disastrous results of that doomed effort; and, how even learning how to train failed to vault me to glory, with all my friends easily passing me by. In this post I describe my third season and how my minor triumphs were offset by more salt in the wounds (figurative and actual).

Portrait of the Cyclist as a Young Man – Part Four: Insult to Injury (written in February 2003)

As I described in my last post on this topic, after the 1982 Red Zinger Mini Classic I tried my hand at some USCF races and didn’t really get anywhere. The next year I decided it made sense to race the Mini Zinger again, even if my friends N— and J— had moved on to racing USCF all year. (To refresh your memory, they’d finished first and third, respectively, in the ’82 Mini Zinger, and cleaned up in USCF races for the rest of the season.) Frankly, their absence was part of the appeal: they wouldn’t be around to crush me again and rub my nose in it. (To be fair, I was pretty good at rubbing my own nose in it.) Besides, the Mini Zinger races seemed a bit better organized than the USCF ones. An added bonus is that in the less elite field I could learn some tactics. The 1982 races taught me that strength wasn’t enough and I had a lot to learn. It’s hard to do that when you’re off the back, so why would I want to race USCF all year?

Over the winter I borrowed $750 from my dad and bought N—’s “old” bike, a Mercian Colorado with full Campy. (He’d gotten the pro deal on a fancier Mercian, that matched his teammates’ bikes, and didn’t need this one anymore.) The color of my “new” bike was light brown, which they called “champagne pearl.” It was, more precisely, the color of a perfect young fawn. It was the prettiest bike I’ve ever had. I rode it for a few weeks and then (riding at night without a light) crashed it into a curb, ruining the frame. The down tube got rumpled, the head tube steepened, the top tube creased slightly. Even the fork was bent. I was inconsolable.

My brothers were really sympathetic and rallied around me in my despair. Ha. Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha ha ha. Of course that’s not true. In fact they gave me endless crap, insisting that the frame was defective and I was a moron to have bought it in the first place. They contended that because the framebuilder had used pins to hold the tubes in place while brazing the frame, instead of using a jig for this purpose, that he’d introduced horrible strains into the structure that caused it to be inherently weak. (For some reason, we were all steeped in this kind of lore and knew for a fact that Mercians were pinned.)

My brothers teased me so much I finally wrote to Frank Berto, the technical guru at Bicycling magazine. I described the scenario in detail, mentioning my weight and size and the approximate speed of the impact, and how I hit the curb in a “perpendicular fashion” (I remember this phrase because I had to look up the spelling on “perpendicular”). Frank, or somebody on his staff, wrote me back directly, assuring me that the frame was not defective, that the pins are a widely accepted way of building a frame, and that any impact of that kind would bend any frame made of such lightweight tubing. The letter went on to praise my writing ability. “Sign that boy up!” he’d written.

Naturally this didn’t satisfy my brothers, who shifted their mockery to my letter, making up quotes like, “As I hit the curb, in an exactly perpendicularly fashion, my lightly muscled body slightly tense, a grimace on my perspiring face….” I guess they were paying me back for buying that Mercian in the first place. I had broken some unwritten rule by having a better bike than any of them did. In any case, I couldn’t borrow any more money from my dad to buy a new frame, so Geoff gave me a loan on the condition that he choose the make. He chose Miyata.

So in 1983 I had a Pro Miyata, which should have thrilled me except it was clearly inferior to the Mercian and I now owed money on two bikes. Still, I had to live up to such a cool bike, so I trained harder than ever, still riding with N— and J— much of the time. That year I made a couple of new friends, Spencer Crouch and Aaron Pickett-Heaps, and put together a Mini Zinger team with the two of them along with John Lynch, the good racer (and good friend) from my first year.

Here’s a photo of Spencer and me. I can’t recall what race this was. Look how great his jersey is. That thing I’m wearing? Not even a jersey. I think it may have been a pajama top. Also, note how suavely Spencer is posing for the camera. That didn’t occur to me. Perhaps I was still unaware that, as a teenager, I was supposed to look cool. Emotionally I think I was still like ten. I was just happy to be around. What an idiot.

Before the Red Zinger proper, the promoters held qualifying races to determine who’d be in Division 2 (the slower group) and who made Division 1. The first qualifier was the Kittredge Criterium, on the University of Colorado campus in Boulder. I went into the race with high hopes, and for the first time ever, things seemed to fall into place. I got into a four-man breakaway and felt like I was the strongest guy in it. In fact, I started to believe I could actually win the race! Then, with just a few laps remaining, I suddenly didn’t feel so well and totally puked. The barf was bright red and went everywhere, scaring the crap out of my breakaway companions. You can see a smear of it on my lip in this photo. (That’s Spencer behind me.)

John and I had eaten a whole bunch of spaghetti for lunch, at his house, right before the race. The sauce was made with ground beef, which I never got at home, and I totally overate. We lost track of time and had to haul ass over to the race. At least we were warmed up, but it would have been great to have digested our food.

So … surprise, surprise, I did not win the race. You may be tempted to infer causality between the vomit and me losing, but there was none, or little. Granted, barfing was distracting, but I felt better afterward. To be honest, the winner, Allen Copeland if I recall correctly, beat me for no good reason. I think when it came down to it I just didn’t have the nerve to win. For someone stooped in failure, with an upbringing based on the cult of inadequacy, victory would have seemed like overreaching. All the same, I was thrilled with my first podium finish (even though, this being a prelim, they didn’t actually bring out the podium).

After that promising start, things got tough again. The more I rode with Aaron, the stronger he got. Same with Spencer, actually, and in fact he bet me $5 he’d beat me in the Mini Zinger. That seemed pretty cheeky because he’d just taken up the sport. But then, this was all par for the course.

So, on to the Mini Zinger. I don’t actually remember that much, other than the podium continued to elude me. Aaron had become super fast and was trading the race leader’s jersey back and forth with this kid named Kevin Smith. Going into the last stage, Aaron trailed by a few points (points being the basis for the Mini Zinger’s general classification, perhaps so a kid could crash out during a stage and start back up again the next day). This final stage was the National Bureau of Standards criterium, an 8-shaped course on a bit of a hill. Thrillingly, I got into a three-man breakaway with Kevin and Aaron, and we seemed destined to stay off. (Kids tended to give up pretty easily in those days, I’d noticed. Until this day, I’d always noticed this from the perspective of the one giving up.)

It started to rain, first soft and then hard. This didn’t bother us a bit, though it’d have bothered me if I’d known better. I’d punctured right before the race and borrowed a wheel from my brothers’ friend Dave Towle. Little did I he realize, he’d glued a track tire to it. That tire surely got great traction on a track, in a velodrome. In the wet? Not so much. Bombing a 90-degree turn on the descent I totally slid out. Game over, man!

I had the good sense to get out of the road before 50 guys ran me over, but then I foolishly slumped on my back on a wet lawn. Somebody summoned the race medics, who went straight to work assessing my injuries. A small crowd gathered, including my brothers, a course marshal, and (I seem to recall) my poor terrified mother, along with a few random spectators with a yen for schadenfreude. The medics seemed to overreact a bit, either because they’d been bored, or because they mistook my shivering for going into shock. Actually, I was just cold, because I was lying in wet grass and had about 2% body fat.

The medics cut my shorts open, which I came to learn is standard procedure for some reason, and as I lay on my back, with all these people looking down at me, I felt my unit fall out from under its flap of lycra so it was in plain view of everybody. I poked it back under there, and for some reason this seemed to my brothers to be damning evidence of my obviously faked injury. They figured that if I had the presence of mind to cover Raulo, I should have been able to get right back up on my bike and finish the race. I suppose a more heroic racer would have done just that, but frankly I was not that heroic racer. I was a thirteen-year-old kid, and it hurt to crash, and when the adults took control of the situation it didn’t occur to me to shrug anything off and get back in the race. I suppose I could have at least told everybody I was okay, but maybe it didn’t occur to me I was okay, at least not at the time.

I was ambulanced to the hospital, and at some point my dad materialized and sat next to my gurney in the ER, helping to fill out the insurance paperwork. He was remarkably cheerful, and he didn’t even take the opportunity to remind me that he’d warned us of this, that the chickens had come home to roost, that my own stupidity had done me in. [If you don’t recall it from Part 1, my brothers and I took up bike racing despite our father having forbidden it on the grounds that, as he put it, “You boys are too stupid to be bike racers. You’ll get yourselves killed.”]

Dad made light fun of the redundant and poorly conceived questions on the insurance form. The form could have simply given a place for the patient or his guardian to write a brief description of what happened, but instead tried to shoehorn him into shaping a narrative out of multiple-choice or short-answer questions. The one I remember best was something like, “Did you/patient encounter an impact with any object?” My dad asked whether I thought “the ground” was an appropriate response. I did. He wrote it down.

Then a doctor or nurse (heck, maybe it was an orderly) came and scrubbed my road rash with a toothbrush. Somewhere there is a photo of this, which would be very handy now because I remember the road-rash as having been the size of an orange. Perhaps I inflated it in the telling so that it became a grapefruit; in any case in my brothers’ telling it started out a tennis ball and in successive retellings became a plum, then a cherry, then a raisin. Ask them today and they’ll probably say I didn’t have any road rash at all. You should totally ask them … they’d love to tell you this story in their own words, especially the part about how I was obviously unscathed because I’d had the presence of mind to cover my male member when it flopped out in front of the hoards of disgusted spectators. I’d be delighted to learn what new, shocking details they’d add to the story now.

So, on the basis of that crash, I dropped from 4th or 5th overall in the Mini Zinger to 7th. I was pretty disappointed, having really thought the podium would be in reach. At least I did beat Spencer, who as you’ll recall had bet me $5 he’d beat me in the general classification. I spent the rest of the summer trying to get him to pay up. Eventually I had to settle for $2 and a little sunglasses leash. (He had an extra.)

But there’s a silver lining! The day after crashing out of that criterium, as I spent the day in bed convalescing, I decided to have lunch brought to me. One of my prizes for the Mini Zinger was a gift certificate at Quizno’s, good for lunch-for-two. I offered J— a free meal if he’d go fetch it. He borrowed my 3-speed and headed out. Well, he was gone a lot longer than I expected, and when he finally returned, he had road rash of his own; the Cokes were pretty much empty; our sandwiches were soaked. On the ride back, going pretty fast despite balancing our lunch (in its cardboard tray) on the handlebars, he’d run over a squirrel and totally stacked. While he was lying there in the bike path, the wind knocked out of him, some typically pro-animal Boulderite stopped to bawl him out for having maimed the squirrel. Shoot, did I say my cloudy Mini Zinger tale had a silver lining? More like pewter or even lead.

To be continued

Check back in a month or so for the thrilling finale: my brave return to the USCF circuit and how my ongoing mediocrity undermined my closest friendships.

E-mail me here. For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

English: I Think That That Language Is Screwy


This post is available as a vlog. Put it on the big screen and gather the whole family! Or, fire it up on your phone, add earbuds, and pretend it’s a podcast!

Note: this post is not about Vladimir Nabokov or any of his works. It’s kind of inspired by his love of words, though, and there is some Russian language lore in here.


If you’re a super-nerdy word buff like I am, this post should be right up your alley. If not, it’s an opportunity to silently mock me and feel relieved to be a normal person. Either way, read on!

The Poem

English: I Think That That Language Is Screwy

All languages are more or less complex.                            
To learn a second one is to subject                                   2
Yourself to much abuse. It does perplex                           
Me: so much stuff to get correct!

One language highly likely to abuse                      
The learner is our blasted English tongue.                     6
It’s almost like it’s tailored to confuse:
Of tangled threads it’s intricately strung.

Pronunciation rules do exist.
Exceptions, though, seem almost infinite.                   10
(To number them, much less produce a list?     
For such a project, I’m inadequate.)                    

As evidence, allow me to present                         
The heteronym, which proves without a doubt:         14
Our rules simply do not represent
An airtight way to sound our vowels out.

When I write “wind” what way have you to know           
If “moving air” is meant, or “reeling in”?                     18
Does “tear” suggest reaction to a woe,                
Or ripping something up? See? Evil twins!

Our consonants are dodgy, too. You see,
The word “refuse” can mean “debris,” although        22
The “s” can be pronounced just like a “z,”
In which case “turn down” is the sense, you know.

These heteronyms confound inflection, too.
Does “entrance” mean a way to get inside,                26
Or “put into a trance”? It’s up to you
To sort it out. It’s not well codified.
What’s going on? There’s really no excuse         
For ambiguity to so abound.                                        30
Who authorized a system so abstruse
That letters make an arbitrary sound?

    The secret of our tongue, I think is that
    It does reward a grasp that’s intimate.                 34

Footnotes & commentary

Title: That That

No, it’s not a typo. The first “that” is a conjunction and the second is an adjective. Both are arguably necessary. More on this later.

Line 1: all languages

There has been some bickering among linguists and anthropologists about whether all languages are equally complex. As detailed here, there was a movement to assert this, perhaps driven by a desire to “reject any nationalist ideas about superiority of the languages of establishment.” I can’t see how anybody could objectively assess the complexity of this or that language, because we all have a native tongue that will make some languages easier for us to learn and others harder. Also, I don’t actually care.

Line 1: complex

Why is this word blue? And certain others? Hmmmm…

Line 3: abuse

Is “abuse” an overstatement? Perhaps, but I’ve seen and experienced some pretty disparaging behavior around the attempt to speak a foreign language. For example, a teenager I once knew, whose mom was from China, was visibly disgusted with her mom’s English and routinely said, “Learn how to talk—I can’t even understand you.” Myself, I struggled with French. A college instructor once told me, right before my oral final exam, “You should know: your pronunciation is terrible.” This didn’t exactly put me at ease. Then, halfway through the final, he stopped and said, “Before we go on, I just have to say, your accent is awful.” At the end he recapped how poor my performance had been throughout. Nice. It’s also worth noting that when I have  the classic anxiety dream of showing up to a final exam having never attended the class, the class is always French.

Line 4: so much stuff

There are so many possible errors you can commit with written communication. It occurred to me once, when reviewing my score on a college French quiz, that since the instructor is allowed to knock off half a point for any little goof, a poor student could end up with a negative score.

Incidentally, if you rightly recognized this poem as a sonnet (though it’s longer than the standard 14 lines), you may have noticed that this fourth line is missing a foot. That is, it has only four two-syllable feet instead of five. This is deliberate. With all five feet, the line sounded jarringly too long. I encountered  similar problem when I wrote my Ode to South Park. Its fourth line is technically correct (five iambic feet) but it doesn’t sound right. For eight years I’ve been considering fixing that.

Line 6: blasted English tongue

I am so glad I learned this language the easy way (i.e., from imitating my parents as a toddler). Its grammar is so much harder than that of Latin or Russian. I’m tempted to include French in this list of easier languages, but its insistence on arbitrarily assigning gender to an inanimate object, and then requiring articles and adjectives to match this gender, seems unnecessary and possibly malicious.

Line 8: tangled threads

I believe it’s pretty widely accepted that the difficulties inherent in English stem from its long and complicated history, starting with Germanic dialects that evolved over time by contact first with Vikings, then with conquering Normans, Bretons, and Frenchmen. Details here.

Line 10: exceptions … almost infinite

Other languages I’ve studied are so much more consistent than English. Sure, French has irregular verbs, but not all that many of them, and although my mouth cannot make the sounds this language requires, in principle its rules make sense, and the diacritics (accent marks etc.) are helpful. Russian is also very logical (in my experience, and according to a fluent speaker I consulted). As for Latin, my college class learned all the grammar in a single semester and spent the next term translating Cicero et al … that’s how consistent Latin is.

Line 11: number … list

I got sucked in by Heteronym web pages and ended up letting several hours of my life slip away. Existing lists on the Internet are either too short (like this one) or too long (like this one which lists 427 pairs). By “too long” I mean too generous. I don’t want to count theoretical heteronyms, like “luger” (the pistol—proper nouns shouldn’t count) or the word “as” when it’s pronounced “ass” to mean “a Roman coin.” Who’s ever heard of this coin?

Incidentally, my first attempt to list all the heteronyms lead me to the Heteronym Homepage, way back in 1996 when the Internet was pretty new to most people. In case you’re a youngster, I have to tell you that back then, websites weren’t the slick multimedia affairs we see today. They all tended to be like the Heteronym Homepage: some nerd at a university posting a little essay about heteronyms and inviting readers to contribute their own. (This was before blogs were a thing.) As you can see, I’m credited with three contributions (one of which I had to argue for and which the webmaster only begrudgingly posted, with a qualification). This was my first-ever Internet presence.

Line 14: heteronym

If the heteronym is my poster child for English being particularly hard, I suppose I should establish that it’s a mostly English phenomenon. Since there are something like six or seven thousand languages worldwide, demonstrating this would be like proving a negative, but among mainstream languages I believe this is true. More on this in the Appendix, if you’re interested.

Line 14: proves without a doubt

Of course the existence of the heteronym isn’t the only evidence we have that the English language is completely whacked. Consider the word “thought.” Why does this crazy assembly of letters, “o-u-g-h-t,” make an “ott” sound here, whereas in the word “drought” it makes an “out” sound? And how come removing the second “t” from “thought” changes the “o-u-g-h” from “ott” to “oh”?

When I lived in San Francisco, I always puzzled over the pronunciation of the street name “Gough.” It could rhyme with “bough,” “cough,” “dough,” “rough,” or “through.” The arrangement of the letters in English is so often useless. We have to learn so many pronunciations à la carte.

And what’s this business with “h” and how it affects other letters, like “s” and “c”? Why should the “c” in “ch,” which is a “k” or “s” sound, combine with “h” to produce a totally different sound than either of them makes alone? Makes no sense. You know how the Russians indicate the “ch” sound? They have a specific character for it: “ч.” For a “sh” sound they have the character “ш.” They even have a character, “ж,” for the “zh” sound we nonsensically suggest with a simple “s,” like in the word “pleasure.” And their “k” sound is indicated by a letter, “к,” that never makes an “s” sound like our two-timing “c.” (The French “c” also does double-duty, but at least when it makes an “s” sound they indicate this with a cedilla (i.e., “ç”).

Line 18: reeling in

Yes, I acknowledge that “cranking up” (like a wind-up toy) might be a better way to convey this second sense of “wind” then “reeling in.” Call it poetic license: I had to set up the next rhyme (two lines later). I think I deserve some leeway, given how freaking hard this poem was to write. My original goal had been to pack a heteronym into every line, but that proved impossible (for me). If you count up the blue words you’ll see how far short I fell.

I’d also thought it’d be cool to use each sense of each heteronym, but you see I only managed that once.  I even wanted to rhyme two pairs so that one sense of each rhymed with the corresponding sense of the other. For example, I wanted to rhyme the noun “abuse” with noun “excuse” and the verb “abuse” with the verb “excuse.” Oh well. I don’t know why I thought I could do all this … probably I listen to too much Eminem. I have to remind myself: he’s a genius and I am not. (Plus, rhyming is easier for a rapper because he or she can warp pronunciations slightly to achieve the desired effect.)

Line 20: evil twins

This is not a reference to my brothers Bryan and Geoff, who are twins (though they were pretty evil as kids). It’s an allusion to the TV trope of a look-alike evil version of the hero. At least three episodes of the original “Star Trek” featured the evil twin concept; there was a “Magnum, P.I.” evil twin episode;  and if memory serves there were three evil twins in “Charlie’s Angels” once. I can’t think of a better way than “evil twin” to distill the heteronym concept.

Line 22: refuse

This word was a trap! Did you get it wrong the first time you read this stanza? Good, good. One characteristic of a proper sonnet is its strict adherence to iambic pentameter: you have to arrange your words carefully to naturally create the proper rhythm for the reader. As I’ve explained before in these pages, it wouldn’t do to  screw up your naturally iambic vs. trochaic words willy-nilly in a line of verse:

Right: Exquisite and expensive are her tastes
Wrong: Hot dogs are bad for foraging pit bulls
Right: The yuppie Zeitgeist sickens Uncle Ralph
Wrong: His blood pressure is getting acute now

In the first example above of incorrect verse, you’d have to put the stress on the third syllable of “foraging,” which just sounds wrong. And in the second wrong example you’d have to put the stress on the second syllable of “pressure” and the first syllable of “acute,” which is also unnatural.

It turns out this consistent, rhythmic inflection can often help the reader (subconsciously) recognize which sense of a heteronym is intended, if the word has more than one syllable. For example, in line 26, there’s not much context to suggest which meaning of “entrance” is the right one, but you probably got it right (EN-trance, a way to get inside) because the meter led you there.

So getting back to line 22, you probably read it “re-FUSE” the first time, until you got to “debris” and had to go back and revise your interpretation (perhaps subconsciously). If so, you probably noted a small snag in the rhythm of the poem. I employed this little trick to jar you a bit, to prep you for my point about inflection later on (line 25).

Line 26: entrance

Ever since I realized “entrance” was a heteronym, I’m unable to look at an “ENTRANCE” sign and think “EN-trance.” I always see “en-TRANCE,” as though there were a hypnotist on the other side of the door.

Line 31: abstruse

I deliberated about “obtuse” vs. “abstruse” here. Generally, I avoid using a fancy word where a simple word will do. But “obtuse” is just too much of a stretch for the meaning I’m looking for. It’s not just me: look how much one dictionary had to say about using “obtuse” to mean, well, abstruse:

Lunching with a colleague once, I described my entrée as insipid, and he said, “How can pasta be stupid?” I explained that insipid mainly means “lacking in flavor” even if the word is often used to mean “dull” or “generally lacking.” He refused to believe me, so I bet him $5. We stopped at a bookstore on the way back to the office to check a dictionary (this being in the pre-smartphone era). Easiest $5 I ever made. I should have tried to take $5 off my teenager today when she read this poem and asked why I didn’t use “obtuse” here.

Line 33: that

Why is this word in blue? Isn’t blue supposed to mean it’s a heteronym? Well, yes. I haven’t seen “that” listed on any of the heteronym web pages I’ve seen (though for that matter, none of them lists “misuse” either, which certainly belongs on the list). We know that for a pair of words to qualify as a heteronym pair, they have to be spelled the same, pronounced differently, and have a different meaning. For the first test, consider that at least three mainstream dictionaries (the three I’ve checked) show two different pronunciations for “that,” as shown here. 

That upside-down “e” character, ə, makes a sound something like “eh,” as in the words “about, item, edible,” etc. as shown here.

Now, you might say these are just alternative ways to pronounce the word, like we sometimes say “the” to rhyme with “thee” and sometimes to rhyme with “duh.” But I don’t think “thăt” vs. “thət” is arbitrary. When we use “that” as an adjective (to specify “the one singled out, implied, or understood” we pronounce it “thăt” (rhymes with “hat”). But when we use “that” as a conjunction (to introduce a subordinate clause that “is joined to an adjective or a noun as a complement”), we say “thət” (rhymes with “pet”).

To test this (actually, to prove it, as I was already convinced), I wrote two sentences on Post-Its and took them around to my wife and kids to read aloud. The first read, “If you think that I’m going to put with that, you’re crazy.” All three read it as, “If you think thət I’m going to put up with thăt, you’re crazy.” No prompting was necessary: that’s how they naturally pronounced those words.

The next Post-It read, “I think that that that that man said is a lie.” All four read it, “I think thət thăt thət thăt man said is a lie.” By sounding the conjunctions with the “ə” sound, they were able to easily utter (and understand) the sentence, odd though it is. But when challenged to pronounce “that” to rhyme with “hat” in all four instances, they got tripped up. So: we have established a different pronunciation that tracks with the different meaning. Voilà! Heteronym!

(If it seems like I’m making an inordinately thorough case for “that” being a heteronym, it’s because my daughter drew me in to a spirited debate on the topic and got me all excited.)

Line 34: grasp that’s intimate

This really is the glory of English: by being hard to learn, it gives an unfair advantage to native speakers. All languages do this, of course, but to the extent that English is particularly difficult, the advantage is magnified. Moreover, English is a particularly good language to be utterly fluent in if you’re trying to a) be upwardly mobile in the global economy, or b) rest on your laurels. When I mention to people that I was an English major in college, I like to add, “It was a really easy major for me because I grew up speaking English at home.”

Another reason I contrived to end this poem with the word intimate? It rhymes perfectly with “thət” (as used in the previous line).


I have just discovered another heteronym pair: poke (to prod) and poke (pronounced poe-KAY), the Hawaiian dish of marinated raw fish or seafood. This isn’t on any heteronym list I can find. Score!


Is it truly the case that the heteronym is mainly an English thing? Well, I studied French for six years and never came across a pair in that language. According to this article, “French has relatively few heteronyms, and the ones they do have, they often put a gratuitous accent mark on one of the meanings to differentiate them. (For example, meaning ‘where’ and ou meaning ‘or.’ The accent grave makes no pronunciation difference for the letter ‘u’; it's added so that ‘where’ and  ‘or’ are not spelled the same.)” Wikipedia lists 21 French heteronyms, and points out that a heteronym pair is usually the case of a noun being spelled the same as one conjugation of a verb (particularly third person plural), for example “couvent” meaning either “convent” or “they brood” (as in eggs). Since the French don’t really pronounce “ent,” the verb form sounds quite different. But this is certainly more obscure than English heteronyms.

I never encountered heteronyms in Russian and can’t imagine them because every letter in that language so consistently makes a discrete sound. As for Italian, Wikipedia is ambiguous about heteronyms in that tongue. It states, “Italian spelling is largely unambiguous, with a few exceptions” but then lists 35 examples. I plugged half a dozen of these examples into Google Translate to try to hear the difference, and they all sound identical to me (certainly nowhere nearly as different as “tear” (the liquid) and “tear” (the verb). As for German heteronyms, Wikipedia says that language has “few.” Ditto Dutch. No other languages are mentioned, for what it’s worth.

Further reading

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