Sunday, February 28, 2021

From the Archives - It IS About the Bike


Seven or eight years ago, the iconic American bicycle frame company Serotta went out of business, and there was some journalistic buzz about its legacy. A friend suggested I write a tribute based on my own love of these bikes. The problem is, I’d owned only one Serotta, and very briefly at that. I’d bought it used, and it had been a broken frame repaired by a guy who was just learning how to braze steel framesets. His novice status was emphasized when his repair failed on literally my first or second ride. So my time with the Serotta wasn’t exactly a love affair … not even a fling, really.

Could I have written about Serottas from some other perspective? Like, the reputation the brand had among my racer friends and me? Well, we did affectionately call them “Scrotums” but that wouldn’t really do for a retrospective piece. So I wrote the sprawling story that follows, which is far from the concise, zippy, fawning paean that was called for. I knew my essay was a doomed effort, almost an f-you to the editor, who didn’t even bother to formally reject it. He just ignored it, perhaps rightly so. (In the event, this eulogy would have been a misstep anyway, as Serotta is back in business.)

Not knowing what else to do with my story, I sent it to the Daily Peloton who ran it in two installments. Oddly enough, their new(-ish?) editor assumed—based on my name—that I was female. That was a bit embarrassing … look:

(I describe the lifelong indignity of having a girl’s name here.)

Anyway, since Daily Peloton’s servers crashed a few years ago and all my articles there were lost, I’m gradually reposting them on albertnet. Read on for my not-really-about-a-Serotta article.

It Is About the Bike – January 2015

It was the bicycle equivalent of sensible shoes: a Miyata 310, the second bike I ever owned. I first saw it in a catalog, upstaged by the Team Miyata and Pro Miyata that were obviously out of my league. The 912, Miyata’s entry-level race bike, was almost within my reach, which gave me pangs. But I was resigned right off to the 310, which I only dared hope I’d get for my 12th birthday. I still remember the catalog description: “Offers the looks and the handling ease of the 912, with a price to fit most budgets.” It cost $265, in 1981. Since my choices were effectively limited to the one bike my mom would pay for, it was really she who chose it. And it was just the beginning.

When I outgrew that bike I sold it, ponied up my life savings, borrowed $250 more from my dad, and bought my first real racing bike. This was my friend Nico’s Mercian. It was practically new. He’d just gotten picked up by a team that gave its riders bikes. Imagine! Mere teenagers getting free bikes! Never mind that these were used bikes (also Mercians) that the senior team had ridden the year before and handed down to the juniors; the cachet of a free bike surely overcame that. Of course, Nico’s old Mercian being the only pro-quality road bike I had the chance to get cheap, I didn’t exactly choose it, either ... no more than I had that Miyata.

The Mercian—my Mercian—was a beautiful bike, possibly the most beautiful I’ve ever owned. (That’s saying a lot: I’ve had over 20 road bikes.) The color was officially called “champagne pearl,” but it was more like—what? Ginger ale? Not exactly. It was the color of a young gazelle, but sparkly. The lettering was pure white, whiter than snow, whiter than the cleavage of a Shakespeare heroine. I loved that bike. Here’s the best photo I have of it. See the guy with the Shaversport jersey and no number? That’s Nico, in the Red Zinger Mini Classic race leader jersey, on the Mercian before I owned it. I’m two guys to his right (#62) on the blue Miyata 310 with the clamped-on water bottle cage.

I’d had the Mercian for only a couple of months when, one night out with Nico, enjoying the warm and the dark and the freedom of riding bikes, we swung into a parking lot that ended up being a lot smaller than expected. I rammed that poor bike right into a curb. I flipped over the bars and landed on grass and was unfortunately totally unhurt. I say “unfortunately” because when I saw that I’d bent my frame—so that the paint on the top tube cracked, and the downtube crinkled—I wished I was dead.

Did my brothers comfort me? Of course not. There were three of them: the twins, Geoff and Bryan (three years older than I) and Max (a year and a half older). They taunted me about my wrecked bike: “Those MUR-shans”—my brothers mispronounced it just to piss me off—“are made with pins, which puts a strain on the tubes and weakens them. The right way to hold the tubes in place is with a jig, but at the MUR-shan factory they use pins because they’re lazy. Any other frame would have handled that crash just fine.” I got so sick of hearing this explanation ... they wouldn’t shut up about it.

Looking back, I can see why my brothers gave me a hard time: it’s because I had a cooler bike than they did. Never mind that I paid for it myself. I’d earned the money through one odd job after another: working for Eco-Cycle (the curbside recycling pickup program); cleaning Laundromats; standing in front of a grocery store handing out flyers for Fiske Planetarium; blanketing the neighborhoods with flyers for Save Home Heat, a solar energy company; installing pipe insulation; timing sailboat races at the Boulder Reservoir; and helping my friend’s mom deliver newspapers. This mattered nothing to my brothers. I had the cool handmade English racing bike that they didn’t, and this was an act of insubordination.

(Would my brothers agree, today, with that last paragraph? Who cares! This is my story ... if they don’t like it they can write their own.)

Finally, to shut them up, I wrote a letter to Frank Berto, the head gearhead at Bicycling magazine. (Among bike nerds, he was something of a celebrity.) I described my size and weight, the speed of the crash, the fact that I hit the curb head-on, and so forth, and asked if the pins caused the frame failure. My brothers swiped the letter and played keep-away with it, reading snatches as they went. Of course they preferred paraphrasing what I’d written: “As I hit the curb, my slight but highly-muscled build holding the bike in a perfectly perpendicularly fashion, a grimace spreading over my face,” etc. It wasn’t enough to mock my bike. They had to mock my prose as well, by resorting to the cheap trick of pointing out absurd descriptions and grammatical errors that didn’t actually exist in my letter.

Well, they could laugh all they wanted because I knew that letter would eventually ensure my vindication. Perhaps they fantasized that I’d get some cheap form letter apologizing that due to the high volume of letters received, not all could be published, etc.

Instead, I got a letter back from Frank Berto himself! I can’t remember exactly how he put it, but his letter conveyed that of course my brothers were full of shit, and that pins are perfectly fine, and that any bike with a light tubeset like that would have bent just like mine did. As an extra bonus, the secretary at “Bicycling” added a little note saying, “Our editor was very impressed that someone your age could write so well. He said, ‘Sign that boy up!’”

Well, I really rubbed my brothers’ noses in it, which felt great. But antagonizing my brothers may have been a poor strategy long-term, as I’ll get to in a bit. The immediate problem was: I had no bike to ride. Dave Whittingham, the manager of The Spoke—the bike shop that imported Mercians into the U.S.—told me Mercian might be able to fix my frame for a couple hundred bucks. Thus began an interminable cycle of my asking him about it every time I went into the shop, which was a lot, and him responding with a hangdog look and an apology. I still can’t figure out why he kept stringing me along with false hope.

Short term, I borrowed another frame from Nico. This was a rose-colored Cinelli. I can’t remember where he got it or why he had it. Looking back, it was probably the coolest, most iconic frameset I ever possessed. It was very old school—and in fact, just plain old. The head tube logo wasn’t the winged “c” they use now, but an elaborate coat-of-arms deal. The lettering was ornate and blocky and vaguely Roman, like something engraved on the tympanum of a coliseum.

The frame was heavy: probably made of primitive Columbus straight-gauge tubing, from the days before butted tubes. This frame may have even dated from the early days when Cino Cinelli himself was in charge and his company produced only 350 frames a year. I had worshipped these bikes for years … in fact, two or three years before, I’d worn a Cinelli cycling cap 24x7. Check it out:

Alas, all the old-world class and pedigree in the world couldn’t make that Cinelli ride as well as my old Mercian. I hate to say it, but the Cinelli was sluggish.

After a few months Nico wanted his frame back and there was still no progress on the fool’s errand of getting the Mercian repaired. It was time to buy a new frame. So my brother Geoff, who had earned a fortune washing dishes at the Flagstaff House restaurant, said he’d loan me the money for a frame if and only if I bought another Miyata. What was I to do, having sassed him with the Frank Berto letter, thus putting myself at his mercy? Tune in next week for the tragicomic denouement of this tale.

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Monday, February 22, 2021

Ask a Sea Kayaker

Dear Sea Kayaker,

I am torn between the Pelican Mustang 100X kayak and the Old Town Vapor 12XT. Both have great reviews. What would you suggest for all-day use, and the right combination of quickness and stability?

Jack F, Ventura, CA

Dear Jack,

I really don’t know anything about kayaks—I don’t even own one. I only became a sea kayaker by accident, when I let my teenage daughter handle the paddling and she went the wrong way, heading out to open ocean instead of into the Elkhorn Slough. By the time I realized what was happening, the current was carrying us well away from land and I decided to go with it and head for Hawaii. So I can’t tell you much except this three-person rental clearly isn’t designed for tall people. I have to put my legs out straight or I whack my knees with the paddle. If you’re tall, make sure you account for this when you buy your kayak.

Dear Sea Kayaker,

Is celestial navigation still a thing, or have GPS and computerized systems rendered this ancient skill completely obsolete?

Megan G, Boston, MA

Dear Megan,

There are surely some old codgers who still navigate by the stars, but more as a hobby than anything. If I thought I had any ability to steer this boat amidst these large (and ever-growing) waves, I would probably at least try to determine north based on the Big Dipper. But I can’t steer this boat anyway. Whatever I do here in the back, my daughter does the opposite, and there’s no use trying to explain myself. She doesn’t even know the difference between port and starboard. Navigation is pretty much out the window.

I suppose teaching my wife and daughter celestial navigation would be a way to pass the time tonight, and forestall panic … if I actually knew anything about it. But I never listened to my own father’s lectures on the subject, nor did my wife. In fact, one such lesson ended badly. We were camping with my dad in Utah back in the ‘90s, and about three hours into his astronomy lecture, when our eyes were too bleary to even try peering into the telescope eyepiece anymore, my wife heard a scary noise and turned on a flashlight. “Thanks a lot,” my dad chided, “you just ruined astronomy.” (She’d spoiled our night vision, you see.) I’ve never let her live it down. Maybe tonight I’ll give a really short lesson on constellations: “There’s the Devil’s Skateboard over there, you see, and if you follow that line of stars up—there, you see that cluster there? That’s Dracula’s Harelip.”

Dear Sea Kayaker,

If you have a mobile phone, why haven’t you called for help? Are you, like, dense?

Jill M, San Francisco, CA

Dear Jill,

I didn’t want my phone to get wet, so I put it in the zippered pocket of my jacket. Unfortunately, when I started overheating (in my fruitless effort to row back into the harbor, before I gave up) I unzipped the jacket and didn’t notice that both pockets started dragging in the water. Turns out the jacket isn’t the slightest bit waterproof and my phone is totally wet. I’m waiting for it to dry out before I phone for help. I kind of doubt it’ll be usable before I’m out of cell range … oh well.

Dear Sea Kayaker,

Sailing to Hawaii? Really? Can an amateur sailor possibly achieve that?

Ben F, San Diego, CA

Dear Ben,

My wife’s friend and her boyfriend made it all the way from California to Hawaii in a little sailboat and then, after living there for a few months, sailed back. Everything came out pretty well except that they broke up right after their return. But my wife and have been married for over 25 years and toured cross-country on bicycles, so I think we’ve got this. (And our daughter is totally stoked to be having this adventure.)

Dear Sea Kayaker,

I’m pretty worried about you, and surprised you don’t seem to be completely freaking out. Are there any benefits to being adrift at sea?

Lisa H, Charleston, SC

Dear Lisa,

To be honest, given this endless COVID pandemic, this is a great way to escape the stir-crazy self-exile of home while avoiding the giant hordes that have lately descended upon every recreation area in California. We rented this kayak in hopes of seeing some otters and pelicans, but the place was completely choked with other boaters. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tripadvisor rated Elkhorn Slough one of the best places for people-watching on the west coast. So yeah, the ultimate release from my claustrophobia, not to mention from my misanthropy, is a nice silver lining.

Dear Sea Kayaker,

What music do you have in your head as you drift ever further from land?

Robert M, Avila Beach, CA

Dear Robert,

I’ve had David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” in my head for like an hour. I guess it started with that line about “floating in a most peculiar way.” It’s starting to drive me crazy, actually.

Dear Sea Kayaker,

Wait a second here. If you can’t use your phone right now, how are you fielding these questions from your Internet readers? There’s something fishy going on here (no pun intended).

Bruce S, Coos Bay, OR

Dear Bruce,

If you look closely at the address field of your browser, or in network settings if you’re using an app, you’ll notice that instead of “www” it’ll say “wwh,” which is for “World Wide Head.” Connected devices are no longer necessary, as our brains can now pluck TCP packets right out of the air. Don’t feel bad for never noticing this before. The tech giants have rolled this out very quietly, hoping that by the time the naysayers start complaining, the technology will be ubiquitous.

Unfortunately, the Coast Guard isn’t very likely to read my column. They’re pretty distracted with pirates, illegal immigrants, hurricanes, and so forth.

Dear Sea Kayaker,

What about your wife’s phone? Or your daughter’s? Surely one of them managed to keep her phone dry. Forgive me for observing that you’re apparently not very resourceful…

Jill M, San Francisco, CA

Dear Jill,

You again?! Sheesh. Give me a little credit here, the idea did occur to me. My wife’s phone is in the car and my daughter’s is at home. They’re not big cell phone users.

By the way, please don’t write me again. I’m getting creeped out, like you’re a stalker or something. (Though maybe it’s just the sharks circling my little boat ... I guess I’m a bit on edge.)

Dear Sea Kayaker,

Every time I rent a kayak, my butt gets soaking wet and my feet, too. Rowing is really fun, but I can’t stand being soggy for the rest of the day. Do you have any tips for me?

Amanda R, El Cerrito, CA

Dear Amanda,

I’m guessing you’re a teenager. Remember when your parents told you to wear the nice waterproof hiking boots they bought you, that you never wear? Instead of the cute ones you insisted on? And you know those ugly blue one-size-fits-all waterproof pants the kayak rental place offered you, that you declared you wouldn’t be caught dead in? Well, next time, don’t be so stubborn, and make use of these items! My own daughter is surely regretting her choices (though she’d be the last to admit this).

Dear Sea Kayaker,

My best friend abruptly stopped taking my calls and un-friended me on social media. We’ve been friends for literally decades and I didn’t want to throw that away, so I just kept trying to reach her. Finally her boyfriend answered her phone and said she doesn’t want anything to do with me anymore. I am honoring her wishes, but she (and her boyfriend) are still using my Netflix login. Would it be inappropriate to change the password? That seems passive-aggressive, but then if we’re not even friends anymore, should they really be watching movies when I’m paying for the subscription?

Shari M, Fremont, CA

Dear Shari,

I really think ocean kayaking is for you. Don’t bother taking any classes or anything. Just head out to sea, and leave your phone at home.

A Sea Kayaker is a syndicated journalist whose advice column, “Ask a Sea Kayaker,” appears in over 0 blogs worldwide.

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Sunday, February 14, 2021

Non-Race Non-Report - 2021 Fort Ord CCCX XC MTB


It occurred to me that some of my readers might be the types who unconsciously mouth the words they’re reading, as though they were reading aloud, and that others might be the type who turn their entire heads instead of just moving their eyes to track along the lines of text. Either of these types of people might get mocked while reading my blog, and I don’t want that. Meanwhile, still other people (I’m told) simply prefer a video. Thus,  I’m providing the vlog format here, and for everyone else the text follows below.


It’s become a tradition for me, at this time of year, to head to Fort Ord in the Monterey area and do a mountain bike race. Normally, I’m a high school cycling coach and this is an opportunity for my riders to watch me suffer. But this year the NorCal League and our team are shut down due to the pandemic, so we didn’t get to go. And this means I don’t get to blog about my wretched, ill-fated race … another tradition stymied.

For a moment, I considered embracing the fake-news zeitgeist and writing a purportedly true but actually totally fabricated race report. After all, as we already knew but formally learned by watching The Social Dilemma, false information is much more interesting than the truth. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Then I considered doing a short story, but in my experience, people seem to prefer their fiction be labeled fact.

What follows is a completely honest report of the race I didn’t do (inspired, perhaps, by a story I dimly recall from the early ‘90s called “We Didn’t,” by Stuart Dybek). In accordance with the high standard set by my bike team for race/ride reports, I focus on the food, and provide the report in various versions, starting concisely before waxing verbose.

Executive summary

  • We didn’t have our annual team dinner in the windowless back room of the Monterey Brewhouse (slogan: “We’re actually in Salinas”)
  • The GPS didn’t direct me to a lonely stretch of a desolate road in the middle of nowhere only to announce, “You have arrived”
  • No student laughed so hard a French fry came out his nose
  • The portions weren’t so small I had to beg for the shrapnel from my daughter’s plate; after all, she’s off at college now and the meal never happened
  • At the team tent that wasn’t erected in the morning, nobody forgot to bring the coffee, thus the lack of coffee was actual
  • During the non-race non-warm-up, I didn’t fail to secure a student’s bike properly to the trainer, thus he couldn’t literally crash at zero mph
  • All the training I didn’t do never had a chance to not pay off
  • The race did not knock the stuffing out of anybody because there was no race and no stuffing
  • I did not make an endless speech afterward, during which the parents clapped politely and the teenagers suffered silently
  • When I didn’t return home because I hadn’t gone anywhere, I did not pour a beer and toast my own robust good health, nor did I drown my sorrows over the loss of my cycling fitness, though that loss (and my beer) are very real

Short report

Race stats: 0.00 miles (vs. 22.4 last year); 0 feet of vertical gain (vs. 2,362 last year); 0:00 race time (vs. 1:41:07 last year); 0.00 mph average speed (vs. 13.3 mph last year). 

Conclusion: I have no reason to believe I will ever again have the fitness necessary to race a bicycle. As far as I can tell, life will not go on—not in any recognizable way. You might say wait, that’s not true, this COVID pandemic shall pass. To which I respond, perhaps. Only perhaps. Consider these words from the writer Vladimir Nabokov: “At best, the ‘future’ is the idea of a hypothetical present based on our experience of succession, on our faith in logic and habit. Actually, of course, our hopes can no more bring [the future] into existence than our regrets change the past.”

Non-Pre-race Dinner (the night before I didn’t race):

  • Lamb steaks that were deliciously rare because they caught fire under the broiler and had to be pulled out prematurely
  • Mashed potatoes with salted butter and extra salt
  • Sautéed zucchini
  • German-style purple cabbage
  • Rocky road ice cream with hot fudge because what do I need to be fit and trim for?

Breakfast (on the morning I would have raced)

  • Two eggs, scrambled, burnt because I was too impatient to gradually wait for the pan to warm up and instead put a big flame under it so it was too hot—I could tell it was too hot because the butter smoked, and I knew I should hold back the eggs, take the pan off the heat, let it cool, wipe out the burned butter, and start over—but damn it fuck it all I just didn’t care and poured in the eggs in the pan anyway
  • Two slices white bread that I thought would be wheat because the package said “Whole Grain Oat Nut” which was a lie but I was caught off-guard because the bread aisle was disorienting because my glasses were fogged up by my mask and I wasn’t at my normal store, where they require a reservation, a temperature test, a long line, a letter from your doctor, and support a maximum occupancy of like five, and I’m only slightly exaggerating
  • An apple that just wasn’t very good because see above

During the non-race: nothing but half a bottle of water because my legs just kind of petered out halfway up South Park because I’m just so tired from the work week since my colleagues, newbies at teleworking, take all the time they would be commuting and pour it into working more, which in a perfect world would help everybody finish early, but instead everyone just launches more projects, generates more deliverables, and creates an overall culture that brings to mind that study NASA did of spiders given too much caffeine.

Unnecessary glycogen window treat: more ice cream because it’s so rare to have it around the house and even with one daughter no longer around, I better get the ice cream while I can; also a macaron that my daughter made, from a recipe that was incredibly complicated and took like a day but then a) the cookie was amazing, and b) what else is she gonna do with her time?

Full report

To my discredit, I was not very successful in looking around at the start and deciding who the fastest guy was likely to be, because there was no start line and no racers, not even myself. As soon as the race did not start, I didn’t get right on the wheel of the fastest guy, but if I had, he would have passed everybody during the slight uphill asphalt run-up to the dirt. I would have hit the single-track in second position, and then died on the guy’s wheel for a few minutes, and then the single-minded, sport-obsessed, totally unbalanced evil tech titan quasi-retired uber-fit bike bastards would have started passing me. It would have been a long race, four or five laps, and my strategy would have been to pace myself and wait for the guys ahead to start detonating so I could pass them.

If I were in racing form this year, that would make uphills a blast, obviously. I could be at the CCCX race and see a horrible 12% grade looming ahead, and I’d think, “Yeah! Bring it!” I’d look at the guys around me with something like pity. But of course I’m not in racing form; why would I be? I’m taking this shelter-in-place opportunity to develop the physique better suited to my current lifestyle: more like the shape of a Coke botte, or a bowling pin, or those inflatable clown bop bags or a Weeble that may wobble but it won’t fall down. That would stabilize me in my desk chair. Maybe if I can add some flesh to my face, I won’t look so gaunt, and thus so old, and after all nothing below my waist shows on a videoconference so why not develop a big soft woman-y butt? Perhaps an extra fifteen or twenty pounds would give me an air of gravitas.

Anyway, notwithstanding my new COVID physique, the non-race wasn’t too bad. I mean, how bad could it have been? I did find that on the climbs I wasn’t doing that I could, or perhaps couldn’t, put the hurt on any of the people who weren’t there. I’d heard these climbs described as “really long” but they seemed really short, as in actually literally nonexistent. It was a fun race, if only in my mind. But that’s actually overstating things. The race did not exist even in a reverie … this is the first time I’ve thought of it even hypothetically.

It’s been rainy in the Bay Area so there would have been several very deep puddles on the course that we’d have bombed through, sending water gushing up everywhere like one of those amusement park water rides. Oddly, only my trailing foot would get splashed. By the end of the race I would have had a drenched left foot and a bone-dry right foot.

On the last lap of my race, had there been one, I might well saw have seen this guy I’d remembered from the previous years’ races whom I’d have been chasing for the whole race (though most of the time he’d have been too far ahead to even see). His jersey would have said something pompous like “Woodside Beasts,” or some other rival high school team, meaning he’d be a coach too. I’d have started to close in on him on the final climb, right toward the end of the race. It would’ve looked like I wasn’t gaining fast enough and that he’d hold me off, except that I’d have been able to tell he was just dying.

I’d have dug deep, deeper, and deepest, and literally 50 feet from the end of the climb I’d have finally passed him. Damn, what a sucker-punch that would have been! He’d still be pissed off about it! The tricky part would have been holding him off on the fast, technical descent to the finish line. I’m not that great a downhiller because my wife would kill me if I crashed, but I’d have gone for broke, and presently on a narrow single-track section I’d have come up on a young high school girl who wouldn’t have been going that fast. I’d have realized that if I got stuck behind her, the Beast would catch up and surely pass me in the twisty bits near the finish line. On the other hand, there would be no place to pass except the thick bramble alongside the trail. Bramble is a notoriously tricky surface to ride on, because the ground can be really bumpy, even rock-infested, beneath the brush, and you won’t know until you’re on it. You could run over a rock, a beer bottle, a human skull, an empty bottle of hand sanitizer, maybe even a landmine because what the hell, this is all speculation anyway. I’d have taken the gamble, and though it would’ve been indeed bumpy—my bike would have heaved like a bucking bronco—I’d have made it past the girl, returned to the single-track, and never saw the Beast again.

After the finish line, feeling truly shattered, I would have been filled with the sublime feeling of having truly given it everything, so it wouldn’t have mattered how I’d placed—which would be good, because I would really have no idea about that. It’s better that way, I think, to decide how it went without worrying about the more or less meaningless matter of how I compared to those who happened to show up and race my category. Had they actually shown up. And had I.

But instead of being at peace no matter the result, I feel only a gap, a void, a lack, a profound sense of nothingness, the absence of any feeling about the race because there was no race, there was no course, there was no pit zone, there were no team tents or trailers, there was no podium and there was nobody there at all at Fort Ord, in the gentle dunes that would have been the course. Well, to be really accurate, surely there were hawks, and rodents, and earthworms, and it’s possible one or more of these creatures perceived something different this year, no groaning of cars and trucks and racers, no whirring and clunking of chains, no ticking of freewheels, no static-sound of tires on dirt, no cheering, no PA system, no nothing. This year, there was only—to quote the poet Peter Kane Dufault—“one huge hush the whole day.”

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Sunday, February 7, 2021

Super Bowl FAQ - A Guide for Foreigners


I have had mixed reactions to my vlogs. One reader indicated that I disparage the vlog format so much that he feels too self-conscious to view a vlog, even mine. Another said that he liked my last post, but didn’t want to watch the vlog version because he would find that embarrassing—as in, he would be embarrassed for me if he watched it. Look, here’s the thing. A friend of mine who’s a successful blogger recommended that I always provide a vlog option, and I trust his advice, hence the vlog below. If you think he’s right, well then, click Play and enjoy. Otherwise, please don’t be embarrassed. Just scroll down for the text. (Or hit Play, close your eyes, and pretend it’s a podcast.)


I am no expert about American football. That might make me seem like a poor authority to consult about the Super Bowl. But most Americans are far too steeped in football lore to be of much help to a foreigner. Ask almost any football fan what a “down” is, and you’ll get an answer like, “You know, a down. Like, third down and six, that kind of thing.”

Since albertnet is a truly global blog, with 11% of my pageviews from Russia and 7% from Hong Kong, I thought I’d help the rest of the world understand the whole Super Bowl phenomenon. (I know, I should have posted this well ahead of the game … I just got busy. At least this will help you process what just happened.)

Super Bowl XLIV Frequently Asked Questions

Is this year’s game really Super Bowl XLIV?

Ooh, you caught me. I didn’t know so I just guessed. I was kind of hoping nobody would try to convert the roman numerals. The Super Bowl started in, like, the ‘60s? So we’re at, like, number 55? I don’t actually know. Sorry.

Is Super Bowl one word or two?

It’s two, but most football fans probably aren’t very particular on the spelling (of this term or any other). Just don’t call it the Super Bowel. They might think you’re a wise guy or something.

Has football significantly contributed to the study of linguistics?

Somewhat. It has given us a couple of new heteronyms: offense and defense. In normal usage, these are pronounced “uh-FENCE” and “de-FENCE.” In football, it’s “OFF-ence” and “DEE-fence.” More on heteronyms here.

Does the whole country watch the Super Bowl, or just the states with teams in the game?

The whole country watches, because regional differences aside, the game is just plain American so we’re all emotionally invested in it. I supposed it’s kind of like how France follows the Tour de France even though a Frenchman hasn’t won it since 1985.

What’s the best thing about the Super Bowl?

This is a tough question. Most of the anecdotal evidence I’ve accrued points to the tasty snacks fans get at Super Bowl parties, but lots of people do also love the commercials. I think everyone agrees the game itself doesn’t rank very high because, oddly enough, it’s usually a blowout.

Can everyday fans watch the Super Bowl in person?

Heavens no, you have to be practically royalty to afford a ticket, and that’s during a normal year. This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, you have to a) be a healthcare worker or b) have naked pictures of God. The promoters have greatly reduced the number of fans they’ll allow in the stadium.

Will this game be a COVID superspreader event?

Oh, very likely when you consider all the Super Bowl parties obstinate fans will insist on hosting across the country. But nobody will know for sure for a couple more weeks.

Is the Super Bowl halftime show totally amazing?

The halftime shows are designed to be amazing spectacles, but just like big-budget superhero movies they’re almost never any good. About the most this show ever accomplishes is some overwrought scandal, such as when Janet Jackson’s boob popped out of her outfit, or when M.I.A. flipped off the audience and was subsequently sued for $16.6 million for “tarnishing the [National Football] League’s goodwill and reputation.” I guess that’s pretty amazing.

Regarding this M.I.A. lawsuit: did the NFL have a valid point?

The NFL doesn’t exactly have a squeaky-clean track record. For one thing, they have come under fire for tolerating domestic violence by their players, as described here. They also have a long history of turning a blind eye to rampant concussions, and as detailed here took great pains to block research on the topic. Their fans, being remarkably tolerant of all this, should be able to handle getting flipped off, and as far as I’m concerned the NFL has tarnished its own goodwill and reputation. M.I.A., in her defense, rightly mocked the NFL for claiming to be wholesome.

Is the football itself really made out of pigskin?

Not anymore, but in the early days it was made from a pig’s bladder.  Details here.

Who is playing in the Super Bowl this year?

I recently learned that it’s the Kansas City Chiefs and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

What is a buccaneer?

Buccaneers were basically French pirates, except that they were licensed by the British government, who, according to Wikipedia, “legalized their operations in return for a share of their profits.” In some cases the Royal Navy actually assisted them. Wikipedia goes on to say, “Among the leaders of the buccaneers were two Frenchmen, Jean-David Nau, better known as François l’Ollonais, and Daniel Montbars, who destroyed so many Spanish ships and killed so many Spaniards that he was called ‘the Exterminator.’”

Is that a fitting image for a sports team?

Perhaps not, but then, there has been controversy about the name “Chiefs” as well.

When’s the last time your local team made it to the Super Bowl, and were you excited?

Honestly, I can’t recall.

Dude, your San Franciso 49ers were in the Super Bowl just last year! Pull your head out!

Wait, seriously? I must have known that. But really, this kind of thing barely registers with me. Not all Americans are rabid fans. Where popular ball sports are involved, I always root for the opposing team, ever since the San Francisco Giants won the 2012 World Series and fans ran amok, even setting a city bus on fire. Especially given the pandemic this year, I’m relieved that neither the 49ers nor the Raiders are in the Super Bowl.

You are aware that the Raiders are no longer in Oakland … right?

Wait, what? Oh, yeah … I guess I remember something about them moving to … Vegas, was it?

Originally the readers asking you these questions seemed to be from Europe, but those last few were apparently from testy locals. What’s up with that?

I’ll take questions from anybody, or nobody.

How many Americans typically watch the Super Bowl?

According to Statista, around 100 million Americans watch the big game on TV. Last year it was 99.9 million, and viewership peaked at 114.4 million in 2015. Here’s a graph.

How can you be so uninterested in a championship game that’s this popular?

To be honest, I’m a little bit disturbed by any sporting event that relies heavily upon tribal impulses for its excitement. (This is not limited to football or to America; consider soccer hooliganism in England, which according to this study is “thought to reflect expressions of strong emotional ties to a [soccer] team, which may help to reinforce a supporter’s sense of identity.”) I air my misgivings not as an outsider, but as somebody who has not only tasted but deeply quaffed the thrilling feeling of team identification.

In 1986, for some reason my brother Bryan and I, both still living in our hometown of Boulder, Colorado, decided to watch our home team, the Denver Broncos, in the AFC Championship Game against the Cleveland Browns. As described here, “Broncos quarterback John Elway, in a span of 5 minutes and 2 seconds, led his team 98 yards in 15 plays to tie the game with 37 seconds left in regulation. Denver won the game in overtime by making a 33-yard field goal.” Bryan and I were elated. We jumped to our feet and did dual high-fives in the air (no small feat for two non-gymnastic cyclists). Then, as the aerial camera pulled back to show the frankly ugly Cleveland Municipal Stadium on a dull winter day, the announcer said something dramatic like, “With this devastating loss, the fans in Cleveland will head home to bleak, meaningless lives, with nothing left to live for.” I shook my head and in a very self-satisfied way reflected on the abysmal, low state of the Clevelanders, and was relieved at knowing myself to be so obviously superior to them.

Then I thought, wait a second! I don’t even like football! I’ve never even been to Cleveland! It was a real wake-up call, and I thought about it again five years later when I read St. Augustine’s Confessions (in the original Latin, if you must know), particularly this passage concerning a young man who, dragged against his will to the gladiatorial games, is determined not to be caught up in them:

A great roar from the entire crowd struck him with such vehemence that he was overcome by curiosity. Supposing himself strong enough to despise whatever he saw and to conquer it, he opened his eyes... As soon as he saw the blood, he at once drank in savagery and did not turn away. His eyes were riveted. He imbibed madness. Without any awareness of what was happening to him, he found delight in the murderous contest and was inebriated by bloodthirsty pleasure. He was not now the person who had come in, but just one of the crowd which he had joined, and a true member of the group which had brought him… He looked, he yelled, he was on fire, he took the madness home with him so that it urged him to return … taking others with him.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not actually afraid of becoming the kind of rabid fan who gets so worked up he celebrates “his” team’s victory by torching a city bus. But any temptation to submit to this hardwired tribal instinct gives me pause.

Is it true that there is a spike in domestic violence every year during the Super Bowl?

I am relieved to be able to say, after some light research, that this is an urban myth. As reported here, a “2006 study published in the Handbook of Sports and Media that examined over 1.3 million domestic violence police reports from every day of the year in 15 NFL cities found only a very small rise in domestic violence dispatches on (or just after) Super Bowl Sunday, but nearly a quintupling of domestic violence police dispatch reports around major holidays such as Christmas.”

What’s the deal with cheerleaders?

Unlike European sports, American sports feature skimpily clad women dancing around to celebrate their team. I suppose this simply provides a welcome spectacle for anybody who has lost interest in the game.

Do bloggers ever feature cheerleaders, for similar reasons?

Look, here are some now!

Is it true concussions are a serious problem among high school cheerleaders?

Yes, as detailed here.

Boy, you really are a buzzkill, aren’t you?

Why, yes. Yes I am.

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