Monday, February 28, 2022

Plumbing Upgrade Frequently Asked Questions

Introduction

Home improvement is a vast, scary subject. This post focuses on a single aspect: plumbing … not that such a finite project isn’t hugely complicated. If you are contemplating upgrading your plumbing, or if you just like to laugh at another person’s expense, read on.


Why would I replace my plumbing?

Depending on the age of your home, there could be many reasons to upgrade your plumbing. For one thing, if your pipes are so old they’re made of lead, you are being poisoned and your pipes should be replaced immediately. (Not that I’d expect you to take my advice, because you’re probably already crazier than the Mad Hatter.) If you have that janky plastic plumbing they were doing in the ‘80s, you’re probably tired of it leaking and/or giving you cancer. And if you have galvanized steel pipes, you must be getting sick of how little flow there is due to the plumbing equivalent of arteriosclerosis, and of all the bits of metal that are sloughing off, getting carried along the flow, and clogging up your faucets until they only drool.

What would be the single hardest thing about upgrading my plumbing?

If you live in the Bay Area, there’s a great chance your home has just one bathroom, in which case it’s pretty obvious what the hardest part is: not having a bathroom for some time, possibly weeks. If you’re literally anal retentive, or one of those granola types who’s convinced bathing is bad for your skin, maybe this isn’t too big a deal. For the rest of us, it’s logistically very tough.

What? You have more than one bathroom? Clearly you broke the first three rules of buying real estate: location, location, and location. Why would you buy a home somewhere with such cheap land that your home is big enough to support a second bathroom? Don’t you care about your family?

Should I hire a general contractor?

There are many good reasons to hire a general contractor. First, this person probably knows all the potential gotchas of the project and can plan accordingly. Meanwhile, he or she can easily bring in all the various tradesmen who will be required, and keep everything running smoothly and within budget. All you have to do is make some basic choices, and of course pay the bill.

On the other hand, it’s almost impossible to find a contractor these days who will give you the time of day. Waiting around for them could stall out your project before it’s even begun. And, you could always get a bad one, who cashes your deposit and then skips town. There’s also the matter of their cost, which can be quite high. (This is especially important to consider if you’re a cheap bastard.) Finally, if you do the work without a contractor, you’ll encounter myriad problems and will learn so much. (This is particularly valuable if you’re a blogger.)

I’ve decided to go it alone, sans contractor. What gotchas should I look out for?

Well, you’re going to need more than a good plumber. Lots of a house’s plumbing is behind the walls, so the plumbers will need to cut into them, thus you’ll have to suddenly scramble and line up a drywall crew, and then painters. You’ll probably need to rip out a bunch of bathroom tile as well, which—more than likely—will expose dry rot, meaning you’ll need to get a carpenter in there pronto to replace a bunch of timbers. All these crews will need to be coordinated, and arranging their schedules efficiently may well drag out your project. And last but not least, it’s practically a given that during this convoluted project you’ll discover that your home is built on an Indian burial ground, so you’ll need to arrange some kind of dance to drive out the ghosts—and you’ll also need to ensure that your plumbers, drywallers, painters, carpenters, and tilers are blessed by the Tribal Council. And nobody is more backlogged than those guys.

How should I select my plumber, tiler, etc.? Are references important?

In a perfect world—well, in a perfect world your pipes would have been made of copper to begin with and the whole project would be unnecessary. But in a merely reasonable, fair world you’d be able to follow a logical process in selecting your tradesmen, such as reading reviews, comparing bids, checking references, etc. But in the real world, these people are in such high demand you’ll end up going with the one outfit that actually returned your call. So the question you have to ask yourself as you embark on this home repair journey is: do I feel lucky today? Well do ya, punk?

When the crew of plumbers arrived and checked out the existing plumbing in my beloved home, they actually started laughing. Is this acceptable?

Yeah, I know that must feel pretty insulting, but can you acknowledge that at least they have a point? If you live in an old home like mine (built in 1929), most of the construction is good but maybe the builders just didn’t know any better than to run your pipes outside the walls of the house. And if you live in something built after 1950, well, those builders didn’t have a soul and were just trying to cut costs wherever possible, which is why the plumbing material isn’t even sturdy enough to build a good child’s toy. The good news is, the mockery from the plumbing crew validates your decision to spend a godawful amount of money on this long-overdue upgrade.

I completely failed to anticipate that I’d need drywallers, and suddenly had all these huge sections of missing walls and ceiling in my house. I scrambled to get recommendations from friends and neighbors for a good crew, but all these companies were booked solid through 2026. The plumber said, in so many words, “Don’t worry, I know a guy” and brought in a crew of people I’d never even met, much less vetted, who gave me a verbal quote seemingly pulled out of thin air. I’m almost certain I’m being ripped off. Should I panic? Try to talk them down on price? Put the project on hold? Or what?

Go with that crew, and just pay them whatever they ask for. Try to get them to write something down, just so the price doesn’t go up every time you turn around. If you’re feeling upset about this, don’t. Instead, look at the big picture: if you can afford to own a home, and have this work done, and pay the crew, then life has been pretty kind to you overall. Or you could consider this a luxury tax, or some kind of divine punishment for not planning ahead. And besides, it’s entirely possible the crew has quoted you a fair price and you’ll get a great return on investment.

You used the term “tradesman” a bit ago. Isn’t that completely sexist? How do you live with yourself?

I thought about saying “tradespeople,” but that just sounds ridiculous, and besides, my spell-checker flagged it as wrong. And then I started thinking about how female movie stars often prefer to be called actors rather than actresses. It seems like a case could be made to consider “tradesman” a gender-neutral term. After all, my daughters (they of the woke generation) consider “guys” gender-neutral, and even call each other “dude.”

My home indeed has just one bathroom. How will I relieve myself? How will I bathe?

Well, you could always rent a Port-A-John, aka San-O-Let, aka Honey Bucket, for the duration of the project. I even suggested this to my wife, but she didn’t seem interested. So I figured if she can do without, why can’t I (especially since I get to pee standing up)?

Thankfully, we’re lucky enough to live just a few minutes (on foot) from a public park with a decent restroom. (See? Location, location, location!) We also found a cat-sitting gig at a neighbor’s house that included showering privileges. Obviously our project has lasted far longer than anybody could be on vacation, so before and after that magical interlude, I was just doing whore’s baths.

Is there a less vulgar term for whore’s bath?

I guess you could call it a sponge bath, but let’s be real here: you are about to be in the middle of a very tumultuous, endlessly metastasizing, and grotesquely expensive project. You’ll be using a lot worse language than that.

I am working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Can I still do a project of this size, or do I really need to wait until Im back in the office?

Just bite the bullet and apologize to your colleagues, partners, and customers in advance. And during your videoconferences, try to say as little as possible. Even if your conferencing technology boasts noise cancelation, that will only go so far. I thought it was working great recently, because I could hear fine, but I was also rocking the sweet Bose noise-canceling headphones. It did not occur to me that those were only helping me. When I played back the recording later I was horrified at all the background noise that erupted every time I went off mute.

This complication could be a blessing in disguise, though: assuming you’re smart about muting as much as you possibly can, your colleagues and underlings will finally be able to get a word in edgewise. This is a great excuse to learn to delegate.

Honey Bucket? Seriously?

I kid you not. That’s actually one company’s name for these.


When I mentioned this project to a friend, he warned me about “scope creep.” What is that?

This term, borrowed from project management jargon, refers to the tendency of projects to expand, with new and expensive features getting added as you go, so the original estimate is out the window. Some of this is due to unforeseen factors like dry rot or a non-GFI electric outlet having been senselessly installed like an eighth on an inch from the floor and embedded in a tile. But it can also result from the realization that your toilet is so incredibly low you’re practically squatting above a hole in the floor, like the thing was designed for toddlers, so wouldn’t this be a great opportunity—with all these plumbers around—to buy a new, amazingly tall toilet that you can actually lower yourself onto with ease, rather than doing what’s essentially a controlled fall onto the toilet seat? But by the time you learned that this amazing toilet is like $600, and the crew only knocks off a few bucks on the basis of already being in your home and redoing all the plumbing to your old toilet anyway, your heart is set on the idea of a tall toilet and it’s too late to go back.

Scope creep is basically endless. Suddenly the tile around the tub & shower area needs to extend across another wall (which is called wainscoting) and then up past the sink (a backsplash). And since they’re removing the mirror, suddenly that needs to become a second medicine cabinet. And you didn’t expect the “trim” (i.e., tub & sink fixtures) to cost $1200. And then you remembered that the tub stopper mechanism doesn’t work, which is amazingly expensive to fix (as in, four figures, unless my wife was joking, but I just can’t tell anymore), and should have been done before the cut-out in the ceiling below the bathroom was drywalled up. So, there’s probably no point in trying to budget for a project like this. Just expect to blow through all available funds before you’re done. Or, you could put your foot down and declare discretionary scope creep (i.e., that not caused by dry rot, illegal electrical, or Indian burial grounds) strictly off-limits.

What is dry rot, exactly?

Dry Rot is a 1956 British comedy film directed by Maurice Elvey, starring Ronald Shiner, Brian Rix, Peggy Mount, and Sid James, concerning three dodgy bookies trying to rig a horse race.

That can’t be right. Earlier you described it as a house problem requiring a carpenter.

Oh, right, that dry rot. It’s when wood rots due to (I guess) getting wet when it’s supposed to be dry.

So shouldn’t it be called wet rot?

I’ve just learned that true dry rot involves fungi and mycelium and spores and whatnot. So it might be possible that it doesn’t require moisture … it’s all pretty complicated. Suffice to say, dry rot, in the homeowner vernacular, is simply when something is rotten and needs to be fixed via large expenditures of cash.

Other than having hot and cold running water in your home—which would seem like a bare necessity, not anything to spend your life savings on—is there any significant benefit to going through all of this?

Why, yes, at least from my perspective. Before this project began I was feeling pretty ambivalent about a lot of things. Somewhere along the line it felt like everything was just too much, and part of me was feeling pretty good about the inevitable extinction of the human race. But now, with this project possibly concluding in the somewhat near future, I suddenly care so much more about everything. I can’t stand the idea of all this amazing copper piping, and fresh paint, and beautiful tile and wainscoting and fixtures, being burned up in the next fire or consumed in a nuclear blast. That would just be such a waste, after I’ve suffered through—and funded—this ginormous project. So now I’m more passionate than ever that climate change has to be addressed, and Putin must be stopped. You might say I have a new lease on life.

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Tuesday, February 22, 2022

From the Archives - Bits & Bobs Volume III

Introduction

This is the third post in the “From the Archives – Bits & Bobs” series. Volume I is here and Volume II is here. In the spirit of (among others) John McPhee with his “Tabula Rasa” series, that being bits of writing that never got published before, I’m posting excerpts from old letters here. These are little stories or updates that I always felt deserved a wider audience than just the friend or brother who originally received them. I’ve provided, for each snippet below, the locale I was writing from. Enjoy please enjoy.


September 23, 1990 – Oakland

I almost died. Here’s how. So, I’m flying down Claremont at 50 (my record is 51.5) and I hit a pothole or something. There’s this incredibly loud noise and for a split second, I’m completely blinded. I still can’t figure this out; I really couldn’t see a damn thing for a second or so. (My current theory is that both retinas detached from my eyeballs because of the impact, and then they reattached. Or maybe it was like a cartoon of some kind where my eyeballs spun around in their sockets, I don’t know.) Anyhow, when I can see again, I’m in the left lane and there are cars coming towards me. Not all that close or anything, but they’re coming up pretty quick. Both my wheels are basically caved in, and my back one is a potato chip. It feels like somebody has removed my rear wheel and replaced it with a jackhammer. I actually don’t even have a chance to be scared; my mind is totally tied up trying to respond. All in a split second, I’m aware of several things: 1) My rear tire, and maybe my front, are absolutely guaranteed to explode at any moment; 2) The chances of crashing are so good that all I can really do is cut my speed and try to get back into my lane so that at least all I hit is the ground, instead of the unforgiving windshield of a ‘73 Plymouth Reliant; and 3) If I use my back brake, the rear wheel will definitely slide out from under me as soon as the tire blows, if not sooner. So, I slam on the front brake, which grabs on the caved in section of the rim and lurches the bike around even more, but somehow I get my speed down to about thirty and get back into my lane just before my rear tire blows up, then the front. From here on out it’s easy; I mean, hell, people bring bikes down from thirty after dual blowouts all the time, no problem. God, what a rush. Both wheels are completely totaled. The bent sections of rim look like beer cans that some party animal type has flattened against his forehead or squeezed in his hand to show just how incredibly tough he really is. I feel lucky to be alive, or at least lucky I’m not dead. But at the same time, I feel cursed that this happened at all. Half of me says I should go out for pizza to celebrate still being alive, while the other half says I should save my money for the new rims I have to buy now.

December 2, 1990 – Oakland

L— came over to borrow some money. We talked for a while, and he was all bent out of shape because his girlfriend back in Dallas dissed him for some new guy she met. He’d been waiting for her to move out here for months, and now she’s history, and he’s not going to try to compete with her new beau across all that distance. We both gripe for a while before hitting the ATM. Then we stop into Avanti, a coffee shop and pizza place across from my apartment. No sooner do we sit down than this funky looking guy at the next table starts looking at us and summons the waitress. He’s wearing a camo shirt with a leather jacket over it, and a straw hat. Kind of weird, but not entirely out of place in Oakland. The waitress looks a bit confused talking to him, and then comes over and says, “That guy over there wants to buy you guys drinks.” I say that’s fine and she brings over a couple of beers. I look at the guy and he nods and says, “Merry Christmas.” There are a few bottles on his table and I figure he’s doing some forgetting or something. Then he motions for L— to come over, and hands him five bucks. L— takes it, thanks the guy, and sits back down. “Kinda peculiar,” he says. Then the guys starts talking to us.

      “I’m a jolly good fellow, right?” he says.

      “Uh, yeah, that’s right. Uh, Merry Christmas.”

      “Yeah, Merry Christmas, but can I tell you something?”

      “Uh, yeah, sure.”

      “Okay, I’m gonna tell you something. How old are you?” (That always happens: dudes “tell” you something that turns out to be a question.)

      “Twenty eight,” says L—.

      “Twenty one,” says I.

      “You guys students over at the university?”

      “Uh, he is,” L— says, nodding towards me.

      The guy takes off his hat. “Okay, I’ll tell ya something. I’m old. Look at this hair. Look at how short it is. It’s getting grey. I am forty-four years old.” (There’s not a grey hair on his head.) He continues, “I’m an old fool, that’s what I am, but in 1983 I was a student at Berkeley. I was gonna be a lawyer. I was gonna graduate, but do you know what?”

I’m giving him my full attention, because I’m afraid he’s about to go berserk. I’m thinking about that psycho at Henry’s a couple of months back, who opened fire on the bar crowd with automatic weapons. But this guy doesn’t appear to be armed. Or even violent. Just drunk. I’m looking right into his eyes, though, like he’s about to give me the secret to life. Which, it turns out, he’s entirely convinced he’s actually about to do.

      “Do you know what happened to me?” he asks. “I was gonna graduate. But I didn’t graduate. Do you know why? Huh? Do you know why?”

L— and I shake our heads.

      “It’s on accounta I got sidetracked. Sidetracked by a woman!” He pauses. “So I’m gonna tell you somethin’, and I’m only gonna say it once, so you better pay attention.” (Whenever a drunk man says he’s only going to say something once, don’t believe him.) “I’m telling you that what you got, all you got, is your dreams, and they’re right up here” (he taps the side of his head). “And then a woman is gonna come along, and she’ll sidetrack you in your dreams. And then you’re finished. You’re through, and that’s it, so don’t you ever, ever, ever let a woman sidetrack you from your chosen path. It don’t matter if she’s tall, if she’s shaped real fine, if she lies next to you and is there with you in the morning, all that don’t matter because your dream is gone, like my dream is gone, and you’re nothing.”

He hammers this point into the ground for a long time. L— is picking up a magazine, and I’m starting to worry that he’ll tell the dude off or something. But then the guy, as if a light bulb went off over his head, tries a new approach:

      “Hey, what did you guys order? You ordered a pizza? Hey it’s on me. Merry Christmas. I’ll cover it.”

      “Oh, no, you don’t have to do that.”

      “Hey do I look that bad? Huh?” He takes off his hat and inspects it.

      “No, no, not at all,” we insist.

      “Then it’s on me. But hey, I’m not gonna lecture you or anything, but listen to me for a second. You read the Bible? I got one but I don’t got my reading glasses. But I can tell you somethin’. It says right in that book, and this is true, now, that man is king. You got that? We’re all gents, all three of us here. We’re men. Do you know what that means? It means we’re king. We are right up here” (he points to the band on his straw hat), “we’re right here, on top, ‘cause we’re king, and the woman, she is below that. She’s queen, see? Queen, and that means she’s below king. Says so in the Bible. God, see, he made man himself, he put us right here, and then the woman—I say it was the woman, not the man—the woman who was tempted by Satan, and just like she did with Adam, she’ll do to you, she’ll ruin you.”

He goes off for a while longer, and meanwhile the cook has screwed up on our cheese pizza and we get some really wild thing with artichoke hearts and chicken which turns out to be really good. This whole time L— is trying to explain to our drunk friend that we have to talk amongst ourselves because we work at a bike shop and it’s our job to decide what bikes to order, because we have to place the order tomorrow and if we don’t have our decision the boss is gonna kick our asses. None of it is true (we’re just rank-and-file mechanics), but I think L— wouldn’t mind if it were. Of course the ruse isn’t working, the guy’s just promising to buy a bike from us, saying repeatedly “You just made a sale!” and before long he’s going on again, repeating his story over and over.

       “See this hair?” he says. “It’s short, now, and getting grey, but it used to be long, but that don’t matter now ‘cause Delilah is a crafty bitch, and I know you’ve read in the Bible, how she’ll strip you of your strength,” and goes off some more. He keeps saying he’ll cover our bill and then going on and on. I figure, he’s so eccentric, I’ll just have to assume he’s a prophet of some kind, or else he wouldn’t be here, and pretty soon I figure it’s God himself sitting over there, warning us about throwing our lives away. Soon the guy is standing over our table and kind of weaving back and forth, and L— is covering up our pizza because he’s just positive the guy’s about to throw up all over us, as the guy keeps coughing and gagging, yet hardly missing a syllable of his lecture.

       “The most important thing, you see, is your dream. It really is. And you need to always have your brothers. Fraternity! The fellowship between men, that’s what we need, forget the woman, even if she lies beside you, brotherhood is what we need!” Finally he restates his thesis for the hundredth time “Don’t you ever, ever let a woman sidetrack you from your dreams,” and then he’s gone, staggering off into the night.

It’s been about forty five minutes, and finally we can kick back and laugh. L— says, “All I kept thinking about was that guy in Henry’s!” We talk about our chance dinner guest for a while, and then L— says, “You know what though? A lot of the things he said make sense, and a few things I really needed to hear right about now.”

I tell L— that get his point, and in a very strange way I almost kind of do. I’m not saying you should always listen to what a drunk stranger tells you, of course. L— and I both agree that somebody shut him down hard. I think some more about what the guy said, especially since it probably really was God over there. But for all its length, the lecture just doesn’t seem that enlightening. Myself, I’d still like to find a girlfriend … being sidetracked might be kind of nice.

The guy comes back in about fifteen minutes later, but we’re not about to start the ball rolling again. We pay our bill (the guy never quite got around to covering it) and split.

May 25, 1992 – Oakland

So what did I sit down to write to you about? Well, there’s always band-aids. At the bike shop we use Curad. I consider this one of the small but nagging travesties that plague my employment there. I would say about one in three Curad band-aids is defective. The little sanitary cotton pad is skewed, and sometimes has missed the center of the adhesive portion by more than half its own size so you get only a little triangle of pad, and the rest would stick to the wound if you actually used the bandage. I really can’t believe the bandaging public tolerates this blatant quality control problem. Perhaps you feel I’m overreacting, but you should consider the details of my bandaging needs. I will often cut, rip, or gash my fingers on some chainring or cable strand, and need to dress the wound, and then every time I finish a repair or want to wash up before lunch, I need to redress. (The wound, not myself. We have aprons for that.) Even when I’m at home, I have to put on new band-aids every time I do the dishes, take out my contact lenses, or want to cook something. This is really bothersome since I have to pay for these band-aids or I should say Band-Aids, since I’m talking about the actual Johnson & Johnson product now. (You think I’d use Curad at home?) Anyway, I’m tempted to just wait for the wet Band-Aid to dry out, but I wasn’t sure so I called Johnson & Johnson on their toll free number and asked them. “You know how the box says they’re waterproof?” I ask. “Oh, yes, they certainly are,” says the lady earnestly, in her charming southern accent. “Well, does that mean I don’t need to change them once they’re wet?” I ask. “Oh, no, you should always replace them. It’s the only way to prevent bacteria from infecting the wound.” I reply, “That puzzles me. If I have to replace my wet Band-Aids, what’s the benefit of their being waterproof?” The gal pauses for a moment. “Well,” she replies, “if you’re swimming you won’t lose them in the pool, anyway. Oh, and they won’t slip down your drain!”

October 27, 1993 – San Francisco

Well, November is off to a slow start. This morning, I literally couldn’t get out of the house: the doorknob was stripped. I turned and turned it, but the door wouldn’t open—the knob just spun on the shaft. I took these two little set screws out, and popped the doorknob off, but this was fruitless: the mechanism was still in place, unreachable. I tried a credit card on the bolt/latch thingy, but that would only work from the other side of the door. Finally, I went to my toolbox and found a Reach toothbrush, which has a square-cross-section handle that I hoped would fit in the female end of the latch mechanism, in place of the doorknob shaft. (It’s remarkable I even had this Reach, because normally I use Oral-B). Well, it worked like a charm, and after finally exiting the house I brought the toothbrush with me so I’d be able to get back in.

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Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Race Report - 2022 Fort Ord CCCX XC MTB

Introduction

Last year I started a new tradition—the Non-Race Non-Report of the Bike Race That Didn’t Happen—and was looking forward to continuing it. But a number of complications arose: the COVID vaccine enabled groups to gather again, so the Albany High School Cougars mountain bike racing team (for which I’m an assistant coach) started back up; the Fort Ord CCCX Cross Country Mountain Bike Race returned to the calendar; I somehow built up enough fitness to decide to have another go; and, crucially, I realized the Non-Race Non-Report format was already too tired a concept to spawn a sequel. And so, here I am again to report on my agonizing attempt at glory in an actual race.

Note: if you care about the race itself, and my tactics, and how they played out, and all that other chess-game-on-wheels stuff, you’re in the wrong place. (Perhaps you got here because I stuffed my report with juicy SEO-friendly search terms like iPhone, Tesla, Marvel, Netflix, Disney, Coca-Cola, bacon, bitcoin, cryptocurrency, Minecraft, Halo, and PUBG, in which case I apologize.) In keeping with a long race report tradition, I focus herein mainly on the food.


Executive summary

  • I gave up beer for five weeks to lose weight for this race (and it worked, I dropped 7-8 pounds), which gave me the gumption to train and race extra hard so my great sacrifice wouldn’t be in vain
  • My pre-race dinner was so extra
  • I rode super hard through the Start/Finish section every lap but I’m not sure my student-athletes were even watching and thus may still view me as a concierge, not an actual athlete they can take seriously
  • I suffered in a novel way, which is kind of remarkable after forty years of this
  • I got poison oak again
  • I buried myself far more successfully than last time, trading short-term agony for the blissful avoidance of at least a year of self-loathing
  • I ate well post-race
  • For only the second time in five tries at CCCX, I made the podium

Executive limerick

CCCX is a course for the fearless,
Racers who shrug off the crash or the near-miss.
Alas, I’m so old that I’m utterly timid,
Braking, then having to sprint at my limit …
Doing okay only ‘cause I’ve been beerless.

Short report

Race stats: 19.9 miles (vs. 22.4 last time); 1,987 feet of vertical gain (vs. 2,362 last time); 13.6 mph average speed (vs. 13.3 last time); 156 bpm average heart rate (vs. 153 last time); 174 bpm max heart rate (vs. 164 last time); 0:07:40 at redline (vs. 0:00:27 last time). Conclusion: I was 2% faster than two years ago, and averaged a 2% harder effort, with a 6% higher peak effort, despite being two years older. This reverses a three-year trend of slowing down every year. Before this race I had almost given up on myself, so to achieve this (albeit modest) redemption has me chuffed to bits. (Note: if you’re thinking of attributing my higher average speed to the flatter course, you have a point … but I actually do better on the hillier courses. As mentioned in my limerick, fast, technical courses like this one favor the bold and skilled, whereas hillier courses give me a chance to take back ground.)

Pre-race dinner: The bar at Los Laureles Lodge in Carmel Valley

As you’ll surely recall from my 2020 report, last time I did CCCX I carbo-loaded the night before with a delicious pasta with cream and steak tips, so you can imagine my excitement to see a similar item, creamy steak fettuccine, on the Los Laureles menu. But the price was $37! There’s no way I can do that. To be honest, I know my way around homemade pasta, not to mention a real cream sauce, so for $37 I’d have to be blown away. I couldn’t take the risk, being The World’s Cheapest Man. So I went for the $18 loaded burger (swiss, griddled onions, bacon, avocado, etc.), which was roughly the size of a cantaloupe. I had to unhinge my jaw to take a bite of that bad boy. I felt like my friendly neighborhood squirrel must feel when he eats the face off our Jack-O-Lanterns. It was a good burger, too … it was cooked rare (pretty red inside) and was really greasy, so the grease was just oozing out all over my fries (more on those in a minute). This wasn’t that gross kind of grease you’d get at an inferior restaurant, where the fry king has to occasionally skim off the skin that forms on top and/or fish out the cigarette butts. This was, like, high-end organic fair-trade grease, that had an innocence about it, almost like broth. The bun was just coming completely apart because how could it stand up to the sheer mass, and juiciness, of that burger?

Now, about those fries. They were freaking good, like they had some kind of special second-starch coating so they fried up crispier than just a strip of potato. (I know I’m not describing this very well, but what am I, a restaurant critic?) They were just great—and the portion was crazily, grotesquely, irresponsibly huge. There is only one person in existence with a high enough caloric need to justify such a huge portion, and it’s a lucky thing that person happened to be me.

Was there bread, a salad, an appetizer, a drink, or dessert? Hell no. What would be the point?

Breakfast: in the team tent at the race. I had a firm banana and an onion bagel. It’s funny: I’ve been more careful about my diet lately, so when I saw the bagel this voice in my head scolded, “Bagels have like five times the calories of a slice of bread—nobody should eat them!” How strange. Then this other voice said, “You know damn well you can’t get a real bagel outside of NYC.” That wasn’t as unexpected, because I recognized it as being my own voice. I really have no idea whose voice the first one was (and in fact a bagel has only three times the calories of a slice of bread). But the bagels weren’t from a grocery store—a team parent had taken some trouble to find fresh ones, and they looked good. So I told both voices to piss off, and slathered that bagel with cream cheese and wolfed it, chased by black coffee. And I’d do it again. Take that, diet plan! I’m back!

During race: four bottles, each two-thirds full, of fruit punch flavor Gatorade, mixed strong. The bottle I drank on the first lap was just for the sweetness, which improves performance irrespective of calories (as explained here). The second and third bottles were to fuel me, obviously. The fourth was just because it tasted good and I wanted whatever psychological comfort it could provide, and because our recently revived team had some fresh blood in the feed zone who could use the bottle hand-up practice. Speaking of blood, the drink was dribbling all down my chin, and one of our kids commented after the race that I looked like a vampire. “That’s because I fill my bottles with the blood of my rivals!” I declared. He then accused my rivals of doping, and thus me as well, by extension. These modern kids … so cynical!

Glycogen window treat: in the team tent. There were various sugary treats available to aid in my recovery, but some part of me was just too elitist to partake … I really miss the oatmeal cookies that I had in 2020, baked by the (then) team co-manager, E—. Her son L— graduated and they moved away, so she’s no longer co-manager. But L— has returned as a coach and was at the race … so why weren’t there cookies? He probably stole them, in which case all I can say is: well played! I’d have stolen them myself. Anyway, there was chocolate milk which I got excited about for a moment, but it was lactose-free and though I have no problem with lactose-free, I also have no problem with lactose so I figured I better leave most of it for whatever Cougar(s) can’t handle lactose. Besides, what did I need to recover for? My work is done for another year!

Lunch (post-race): in the team tent. Our team’s co-manager of 2020, F—, isn’t around anymore either, which, from a barbecue standpoint, is kind of like the Edmonton Oilers losing Wayne Gretzky. But some new parent was doing a yeoman’s job grilling up sausages and burgers. I had a sausage that was delicious but the entire time I was eating it (about ten seconds) I was keenly wishing there was sweet pickle relish for it. I’ve never in my life been as preoccupied with the absence of a condiment. Don’t get me wrong, I was very glad for the sausage, but that relish became an obsession. Maybe I’ll bring relish to the next race, even though I’ll only be coaching.

Dinner (post-race): back home. My wife made some innovative three-bean chili with pumpkin in it, I’m guessing for the high iron content. (Yes, I know it’s only the pumpkin seeds that are high in iron, but who actually eats those? Perhaps the proximity of the pumpkin flesh to the seeds works like a homeopathic remedy.) She also made, from scratch, macaroni & cheese. I washed it all down with a long overdue beer.

Post-race Beck’st

Here is the “Hardware Beck’st” I sent to my pals just before dinner. (I know I said a second ago that I washed dinner down with the beer. I didn’t. That’s just an expression, a nice idea. I drank the beer first … it’s best that way.)


(If you don’t know what a Beck’st is, get thee to a brewery! Or better yet, click here.)

Full report

I’m of the school that says your race number is always an omen. This year I got 101: how cool! It represented how I was about to get totally schooled in the race, and also how terrifying bike racing is (cf. Orwell’s “Room 101”).

I had a strange problem during my warm-up on the stationary trainer: I was listening to my workout megamix and my Bluetooth earbuds somehow got out of phase. The music in my left ear was a fraction of a second out of sync with the music in my right. The effect was extremely jarring for complicated cognitive reasons, and in fact made me almost nauseous. Meanwhile, pondering inconsistent Bluetooth latency isn’t conducive to a focused warm-up. Fortunately, being absurdly well-organized, I’d brought backup headphones and was able to proceed.

Due to some problem out on the course, they kept us sitting on the start line for at least twenty minutes. We passed the time with bike tech-talk, so you can be glad you weren’t there. I had a slow leak in my tubeless rear tire, and hadn’t gotten around to reinflating it, so instead of confidently saying, “I’m running 23 psi in the rear for the sandy conditions,” I could only describe the tire’s firmness as “al dente.” One of my student-athletes, meanwhile, was running his tires “pillow-soft.” By the time the ref rang the bell to start the race, I was no longer warmed up. Alas.

The course starts on a slight uphill, and is a wide, straight road for about a quarter mile before you turn onto the single track, so there’s no excuse for not hitting that dirt near the front (except of course being slow). I started the single track in second place. Before long my teammate M—, a fellow Albany High coach, passed me and took the lead, which was fine with me. I wasn’t feeling so hot. My legs were oddly okay, but my throat was burning and I could taste blood. My breathing was way harder than it should have been for my (albeit elevated) heart rate, and I was feeling stressed, frustrated, anxious, and agitated. In short (I suddenly realized), I had COVID! Exercise-induced COVID! Is that a thing? But I kept at it, and decided that having a burning, raspy, blood-flavored throat could become part of my new normal, like everything else. So I relaxed a bit mentally (but not physically!) and just settled into the burn.

Just a couple minutes later, on a descent, the guy ahead of me suddenly slammed on his brakes. I was like “What are you doing!?” and he said, “We missed a turn!” Dang it! By the time we got back on course, I had no idea how many guys were ahead of me.

Oh my god, I am so sorry … this is so freakin’ boring. Suffice to say, I somehow found the motivation to hammer much harder than last time for the entire race. At least some of the credit goes to my younger daughter, who—though she’d never shown much interest in my cycling before—surprised me, when I left for Fort Ord, by wishing me luck and saying, “Dig deep!” (It’s not that she’s not into sports, being a wrestler who describes herself as “secure in my masculinity.”) So I did dig deep, and it worked. By the end, I was totally satisfied with my race despite having no real idea how I’d placed. I’d given it everything I had, hadn’t miscalculated my pacing, and was perfectly empty by the end. And, as I mentioned before—and will probably mention again, until everyone is sick of hearing about it—I managed to snag a spot on the podium … which distinction I’m not sure I’ll ever achieve again.


All the guys on our podium (this being the Category 2, 45-54 group) are high school coaches. The guy on the second step is my Albany teammate, who breaks my legs twice a week. Look at the dude who got fourth … why are his legs so filthy? Did he find some puddle on the course and try to cool off?

Epilogue

No, of course I didn’t really have COVID. And no, exercise-induced COVID isn’t a thing. I confess I just worked that in to seem more timely, and to help this post perform better in search. Say, that reminds me: iPhone Samsung Galaxy Android Tesla Silicon Valley Oscars Billie Eilish Leonardo Dicaprio Emma Watson Ethereum Fortnite.

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Email me here. For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Monday, February 7, 2022

Never Discuss Politics

Introduction

The frank discussion of politics among a governed people is absolutely crucial to preserving democracy.

Bullshit. I didn’t mean a word of that … I think it’s a grand sentiment but essentially untrue. In this post I explain why nobody should discuss politics with friends, family, or other lay people.


Why do people talk about politics?

I’d guess most people who talk about politics are doing so for one of two reasons. The first reason is a simple one: to showcase their deep knowledge to others, so as to gain admiration and respect. These are, I believe, the people who advance positions their audience shares—that is, they pontificate to those who already agree with them. Sure, you might say they’re looking for a real dialogue so they can learn more and have a deeper understanding, but I doubt it. Public policy just isn’t that interesting.

A second group comprises highly opinionated people who seem to want to rile others up, and be contrarian, and dramatic, and surprising. I suppose the goal in this case is also to increase one’s influence or stature (though more through bullying than persuasion). Perhaps some of these instigators simply find this kind of discord stimulating. I can only guess.

Recently I’m getting to understand why the outcomes of polarized political dialogue are so overwhelmingly bad. Simply put, when people challenge others about politics, they tend to break all the rules of effective communication. I took a Rhetoric class in college and we studied the three main tools for advancing an argument: logos (logic); ethos (authority); and pathos (feeling). As I shall explain, discussions of politics often fall down on all three legs.

The logos (logic) problem

In courses I’ve taken on management and leadership, the most interesting thing I’ve learned is how brain chemistry affects human behavior as we react to conflict. Managers are discouraged from criticizing employees, especially in a brusque fashion. The reason, we’re advised, is that humans evolved to constantly be on the lookout for threats, and “several domains of social experience draw upon the same brain networks to maximize reward and minimize threat as the brain networks use for primary survival needs” (as explained here). Thus, we have a limbic system (i.e., lizard brain) response to being challenged, a fight-or-flight reaction, which interferes with our ability to reason: when we’re challenged like this, the “resources available for overall executive functions in the prefrontal cortex decrease.” Studies have shown that criticizing an employee lowers his or her productivity for a significant period, and that’s one reason companies want to discourage it.

Talking about politics is similar in the sense of challenging someone in a negative way. By asserting something you know a person doesn’t agree with, especially if you’re emphatic about it, you’re essentially attacking him. You can’t expect a person to react calmly and rationally to that. It is pointless to put someone on the spot and expect him to suddenly reconsider his long-held opinions or values.

My political positions are decades old, built upon a fairly basic and predictable foundation, and I am not up for debating them. If my beliefs change at all it is due to the gradual influence of a collection of professional journalistic sources that I trust, not any individual person trying to ram ideas down my throat. I am perfectly capable of evaluating a good article in terms of its rational merit—when nobody is up in my face. That’s a lot different, though, from easily engaging when somebody is sputtering doctrine. Then I would rather just roll over and disengage. This isn’t because I’m lame. It’s because I’m human and my brain chemistry is subject to the same limbic override as everyone else’s.

The ethos (authority) problem

Okay, so where challenging political discussions are concerned, rational thought is vanquished. But the problem gets worse. Much of the time, the person who wants to discuss politics has very strong opinions. These can eventually become part of a person’s self-identity, to where pursuing a political credo can become kind of a hobby. The person may seek out openly biased blogs, radio shows, or podcasts or whatever, having decided that mainstream news is “fake” in the sense of slyly pretending to be non-partisan. The problem with these non-mainstream media is that they target, select, and nurture those loyal readers, viewers, and/or listeners whose natural skepticism can be made to decrease over time until it all but vanishes. The student pundits, having decided they’ve found the only trustworthy authorities, practically decide in advance to believe whatever they’re told by these sources.

This in turn changes their media consumption experience such that they’re not looking to actually tease apart complexity and appreciate nuance … they’re just looking for the punch lines, the basic talking points, the gist. This further undermines the role logic could have played in conveying their messages—that is, because these people weren’t themselves convinced through reason, reason doesn’t form the foundation of their arguments. Thus, when they set out to challenge those who don’t share their beliefs, they subconsciously encounter an obstacle: they themselves accepted their doctrine based on the (presumed) authority of their favored pundit, but the person they’re talking to won’t acknowledge this authority. A liberal blathering to a conservative won’t get anywhere saying, “According to this thing I heard on NPR,” any more than a conservative blathering to a liberal could gain traction by quoting Fox News. And yet, ethos is the basis of the arguer’s position, so they can’t just abandon it. So they cite sources very vaguely, talking about “top scientists” or “the guys who really get it,” or simply “the experts.” Of course, citing an unnamed authority is rhetorically useless.

The pathos problem

So when logos is obliterated and ethos falls down, what does the political crusader do? Well, for one thing, he or she gets frustrated, and thus his or her temper heats up. Meanwhile, stirred up humans have the tendency to use volume, emphasis, and repetition to get their points across, particularly when this is the literary or oratorical style their highly opinionated sources are constantly modeling. This style of persuasion can occasionally be powerful, like in the hands of a master orator (think MLK). But this only works when the audience already agrees with the speaker. Pathos (and its cousin, the one-sided argument) is useful when you’re trying to whip a crowd into a lather, to galvanize them into action, but it’s not very helpful when you’re trying to change somebody’s mind about something.

Meanwhile, most people simply aren’t master orators, and their pathos is a blunt, ineffective tool. Too much of the time such talk comes across as harsh, unwelcome braying. The listener feels attacked and may wonder where this aggression is even coming from. This of course compounds the lizard brain response: the unwelcome pathos obliterates our ability to rationally weigh our opponent’s words.

The result

What does this scenario feel like for me? It’s a sense of horror at the conversational morass I’ve suddenly stepped in, and dread at how long I might be stuck there. And this scenario isn’t limited to traditional party politics. Due to the bizarre politicalization of the COVID-19 pandemic, most discussion of vaccination, masking, and other realms of public health policy becomes as annoying and unwelcome as an election year partisan diatribe.

You might reasonably wonder why I’m blogging about this instead of just telling certain people to bug off when they try to involve me in a political discussion. After all, most of my readers will never have the opportunity to talk to me about politics (or anything else). The reason is, I want everybody possible to understand how this kind of talk can damage their relationships with friends and/or family.

How? Well, I’ve already mentioned how frustrating and pointless it is to argue about this crap with someone whose prefrontal cortex has been temporarily crippled (i.e., anyone who doesn’t agree with you). Either this person takes the bait and gets into an acrimonious debate with you, or they sort of go limp, and make little noises like “hmmm,” and “oh,” or whatever, hoping they can minimize the duration of the dialogue and somehow guide the conversation back to safe ground. Out of tact, they sort of humor the antagonist. This might be the saddest scenario of all, because having to humor someone is the opposite of enjoying and preserving closeness.

What makes our friends our friends, and what determines whether we’re close to this or that family member? It’s rapport. This is why close friends and family have great conversations: they get each other and there is a huge reservoir of goodwill built up. Trust tends to grow as well, which is what makes our friends and family so valuable when we do reach out for help or advice.

This foundation of goodwill can see a relationship through difficult times, which is a godsend, because sometimes it’s appropriate to challenge those close to us. For example, if I were to worry that a good friend of mine were drinking too much, I might take it as my responsibility to try to intervene somehow. Of course I would have to proceed carefully, knowing that this would be a very delicate matter. It might take all the built-up trust and rapport we have for the friendship to withstand such an intervention, but I would have reason to hope that friend would respect my intentions (perhaps upon reflection, when the grip of his amygdala had relaxed). But why burn up rapport frivolously, just wasting it, by throwing a political harangue in someone’s face? If you have fifty topics you could bring up to your friend or family member—most of which celebrate what the two of you have in common—why on earth would you choose politics, a topic that is either boring or divisive?

Why even indulge strong opinions?

This brings me to my final point, which is that I cannot see why anyone should be immersing him/herself in highly opinionated political news to begin with. What is the point? What actions would any of us ever take based on all this information? I suppose there’s some attraction in the idea that once you’re versed in these ideas you can share them with others, and thus bring those people out of darkness … but as I’ve tried to make clear, I think the chances of this playing out successfully are pretty remote.

There’s this widespread idea that to be good citizens we need to be well informed. Well, perhaps that’s true, but there’s probably a such thing as being too informed, and there’s certainly a such thing as being too polarized, and too stirred up, and too influenced—or harassed—by those with an axe to grind. I saw this bumper sticker that said, “IF YOU’RE NOT ANGRY, YOU’RE NOT PAYING ATTENTION!” I hate that. It’s ungrateful. It’s suggesting that the person lucky enough to live in a rich country and own a car and have the right to free speech is a bad citizen if he doesn’t go around in a constant state of anger. I think if the bumper sticker has to exist, it should say, “IF YOU ARE ANGRY, YOU’RE NOT PAYING ATTENTION!” That is, if you’re angry in some general way, you’re not grateful for how good we really have it. Think of the asshole responsible for this graffiti:


Too much news

How much news is enough? Well, I think we should be sufficiently aware of the goings on in the world to be able to react when necessary. This means using less water during a drought, not traveling during a blizzard, and having enough information to participate in democracy every two years. It means satisfying our curiosity about things. I don’t think news should be a hobby, and it shouldn’t be a way to become a mouthpiece. If somebody wants the news, I let him get it himself. I don’t rebroadcast anything unless I’m recommending an article to somebody because I think he’ll appreciate and enjoy it.

I really believe that too much news, and the wrong kind of news (i.e., that which is infused with opinion and especially that which is soaked in vitriol) is bad for one’s health. When we are made aware of a terrible situation (e.g., the end of democracy, the world being doomed, the bad guys winning), and we have no means to change the situation, we feel helpless and hopeless. This is no way to live.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People differentiates between our “circle of influence” vs. our “circle of concern.”  Below is their schematic. The idea is that we should spend most of our mental energy on what we can influence; for example, the rapport we have with others. We should avoid spending too much energy on the circle of concern, because that’s where we’re largely helpless.


It’s possible to expand one’s circle of influence slightly, but that’s a lot of work. I mean, honestly, if you hate this or that politician, what can you really do about it, beyond the one vote you can cast against him? And when you wield that one vote, couldn’t you have decided on it without spending umpteen hours fanning the flames of your discontent? And what good is complaining about this stuff to family and friends? What do we expect them to do about it? Drop everything and join a campaign? (This isn’t a bad idea, of course, but if your friend were to decide to commit to this, it surely wouldn’t be because of anything you said.) So why immerse ourselves in this crap? There’s no good reason. Ignore the highly opinionated columnists, radio hosts, and podcasters. Don’t let them have their way with you.

I don’t read much news, and to the extent that my favorite magazine has become more political in the last couple of decades, I spend less time with it—not because I disagree with its writers’ views, but because I just don’t care. There is a world of better reading out there: novels, short stories, memoirs, general interest nonfiction, humor writing, all kinds of good stuff. It does not make me an irresponsible citizen to read all that instead of the news. It makes me a happier, more interesting person, and it mitigates the stress in my life. And when I talk to somebody, I want more of the same: curiosity, fascination, wonder, humor. I don’t want discord, and I don’t want to have to humor anybody.

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Email me here. For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.