Thursday, June 30, 2022

From the Archives - Bike Tour Journal Part II


Twenty-eight years ago, my wife and I did a cross-country bike tour. As the journey unfolded, we kept friends and family apprised of our exploits via email. This digital correspondence wouldn’t seem remarkable today—I guess email is even considered old-fashioned now—but back then it was cutting edge. I carried a laptop in my bicycle pannier; it was roughly the size and weight of a big-city phone book (if you even remember those). The power supply alone was several pounds. The modem, which was external and attached via a 9-pin RS232 serial connector, was the size of a pack of cards and connected at 2400 baud, which is roughly 1/42,000th of the speed of my current Internet connection. I couldn’t email very often because most of the time we were camping. Even when we splurged on a motel, many of those fleabag places didn’t even have phone lines. When we stayed with friends or family, I had to time my CompuServe session carefully, as it took our hosts’ phone offline.

Recently I came across some email chronicles that somehow didn’t make it into my bike tour memoirs. (The first of these was written twenty-eight years ago to the day.) I’ve cherry-picked some of the more interesting passages to give you a little travelogue. Enjoy please enjoy.

(The photo below was snapped by Erin’s great-aunt; she wrote on the back of the print, “7-5-94 Erin & Dana waiting at Coop to weigh bikes & gear before going to Iowa.”)

Kansas – June 30, 1994

I had a good birthday: we went to the Barbed Wire museum in La Crosse, Kansas, which I’d really been looking forward to. (I wrote my high school research paper on barbed wire, which turns out to be a fascinating topic.) But when we got there the sign said “Post Rock Museum,” so we were confused. Turns out there are three museums in a row there: the Post Rock one, then a Historical Society museum, and then the Barbed Wire museum. This little old lady in the Post Rock museum was incredibly knowledgeable. “I’ve been here longer than the museum!” she quipped: and it was true, she’d been in La Crosse all her life and had taught in a 1-room schoolhouse there.

She knew all about post rock, which is the limestone they dug up from quarries to use as fence posts. There was a whole piece of quarry resurrected inside the museum (which was an old house). You could see the layers of soil, then rock. The crew would dig down through the limestone, which would be fairly soft since it hadn’t been exposed to the air. They’d drill holes, then tap in these rods just until they were about to split the rock, then stop and put in another one.  Once a whole row of these pins was put in, they’d tap the end pins extra hard, and the whole rock would split along the pins. Then they’d haul up this whole piece of limestone, and within twelve hours it’d be hard as, well, rock.

Then we went to the Barbed Wire museum, which had gobs of fascinating displays, but a very poor so-called guide who watched TV the entire time. That was a disappointment. The Historical Society museum, though, was amazing. Stuff in there from the 1700’s, and another little old lady who knew everything. This museum was built in an old Union Pacific depot that had been moved from a little town called Timkin, named after a ball bearing magnate who owned the land on which the depot was built. The depot, too, goes by the name Timkin. This little old lady worked there back when it was a depot, and she pointed to a bench and said, “I’m gonna have them move that over by the door, which is where it belongs.” They had a whole collection of ancient typewriters, some so old (1726, I believe) that the shift key hadn’t been invented, so it had two entire sets of keys, one set for uppercase and the other for lowercase. This museum had dozens of photo albums from the 1800’s and thereabouts, and old books and diaries, and old dental equipment, and clothes, nothing in any particular order but all of it absolutely fascinating. We hung out there until 4:30 in the afternoon when it closed, then finally hit the road. It was 106 degrees out there, the sun blazing, and we stopped 25 miles into the ride for Dairy Queen: my birthday treat.

By 9:30 p.m., when it was just getting dark, we were 50 miles outside of La Crosse in a little town called Caskill or something: I can’t remember the name and I don’t feel like digging out the map. We found a cop and he gave us permission to camp in the city park. There, Erin set to work on my birthday dinner, but it was not to be. The little fuel line gasket in our camp stove had given out, so the stove was worthless. So we had cold chili and cold canned corn—but good! These little kids wandered up, and it seems in a small town like that kids are allowed, probably even encouraged, to talk to adults. So they chatted with us until about 11:00, at which point a few of the parents who had heard the legend of our bike tour came out and talked for another hour.

The policeman we’d gone to for permission to camp had been driving by every so often to make sure we were okay, and at about midnight he came by and we talked until like 1 a.m. He manages a Rug Doctor franchise by day, and is a part time policeman (two weekends a month) for $5/hour, mainly as a community service to his town. He bought a house in that town for—get this—$6,000. No, I didn’t slip a decimal point there. Heck, Erin and I could’ve bought a house there with cash, on the spot, and lived there the rest of our days, supporting ourselves on a minimum-wage job!

Now we’re in Topeka, staying with Erin’s Great-aunt J— and Great-uncle V—. They’re a 60-something couple, retired (she from the phone company, he from the police force), in a very nice house they designed themselves on a couple of acres. They’ve got a pond and pasture land, a brand-new John Deere tractor, and a horse, and chickens and pigeons and even several hundred pet catfish. Uncle V— walks out to his pond every evening with a giant pail of pellet-style fish food, and yells “Here, fishy-fishy-fishy-fishEEE!” while rapping the side of the pail. Even though the pond is easily 200 feet from his front door, you can see the ripples where the fish are approaching. He strolls down there, and the fish converge. When he feeds them, you can see them all plain as day, their huge (4”) mouths wide open as they thrash about. We were sitting out there one evening after feeding the fish, and V—’s son J— (a policeman himself) said, “Look, dad, a snapping turtle.” To my amazement, V— whipped out a small handgun and fired at it. “Missed him, Dad. Too high,” said J—. “Yup,” said V—. Erin protested, horrified, and V— explained that the turtles eat the fish.

Speaking of eating, they feed us gobs here. At every meal my gut ends up ready to bust open. If I stop short of being stuffed, V— seems to sense it and says, “Nope, you better finish it up. No sense feeding it to Harley” (i.e., Harley Davidson, their Rottweiler). We’ve had pot roast with mashed potatoes and gravy, handmade egg noodles with chicken, bacon and eggs, a picnic, all-you-can-eat-fried-chicken, biscuits-&-gravy, a patty-melt, and ham with scalloped potatoes. J—, Erin’s great-aunt, is so happy: “Just like having our son at home again!” I can’t believe how much they feed me. I eat until I’m sure they’ll be exchanging glances and shaking their heads, making comments about tapeworms, trying to figure out how to get rid of me—but no, they don’t seem to think there’s anything strange or wrong about me eating 10,000 calories at a sitting. Since we had a late dinner tonight (with about twenty relatives visiting, invited over in our honor), our hosts insisted we have a big afternoon snack—so we got onion rings and ice cream at Dairy Queen. And they are absolutely refusing to let us leave before the 4th of July. So we’re here, living high on the hog, until then. I’m loving it, needless to say. Thing is, I’m eating so much I just can’t seem to stay awake between meals. I walk around in a stupor, yawning, my body working overtime to convert all that food to fat. I’ll look like Big Boy by the time we leave.

Kansas itself is really nice. Rolling hills are the rule out here—don’t let anybody tell you it’s flat. (Sure, it might seem flat when you drive along, but with our loaded bikes we feel every little rise.) Although our hosts say everything’s brown and dead right now, it’s greener than Colorado or California ever get. And they’ve got lightning bugs here (fireflies, by another name) that are just amazing to watch. I can’t get over them. Everybody here thinks I’m crazy for thinking they’re anything special.

Cracked rim – July 19, 1994

We have arrived at [my stepfather’s brother’s] place in Northfield, Minnesota. Earlier this evening they fed us a very spartan dinner: this strange casserole made with brown rice and veggies, and just a smattering of cheese on top. It was almost non-caloric. I asked for seconds and our hostess seemed taken aback, like I was some absolute glutton or something. For dessert they served the tiniest, most stingy portion of ice cream I’ve ever seen. When I channeled Oliver Twist and asked for more, she frowned and said she’d already put it away. In desperation I offered to fetch it myself, at which point she relented, but she seemed really put out. I hate to be an ingrate, but man, what’s wrong with these people?

After dinner it was still light enough out for me to check over my bike and troubleshoot a braking problem. One of the most common questions we get from locals along our route is, “Have you had any major mechanical failures?” This is asked with the same sort of enthusiasm you see in bike race spectators who watch from the most dangerous corner, hoping to see a good crash. So far, we haven’t had an exciting tale to tell—we’re on only our second pair of tires, with zero mechanical problems—but that just changed. It turns out my rear rim is imploding. Like a star collapsing on itself, it is trying to achieve a smaller diameter. The rim has huge cracks along the surface that the brake pads contact, and the metal is beginning to overlap there. At any time it could crush flat like an aluminum can.

Thanks to the time zone difference, I was able to reach my former boss at the bike shop in Berkeley and order a new rim. He’s FedExing it, to arrive tomorrow morning. I ordered a model of rim identical to the old one so I can use my old spokes (i.e., tape the new rim to the old one, and swing the spokes & nipples over), to avoid the nightmare of trying to buy the right length spokes from an old geezer in a small town bike shop. I know full well it’s unwise to lace up a new rim on old spokes; last time I did that, the wheel came apart on a fast descent during the Berkeley Hills road race, and someone yelled out, “Get away from him, HE’S GOIN’ DOWN!” But I’m not of the racer or bicycle mechanic mentality anymore. I’m a tourist now—I really ought to be fixing this thing with duct tape. Then I’d have more stories to give people goose bumps with.

Solo Joe Nobody – July 22, 1994

While riding along near Mondovi, Wisconsin we met the most amazing guy. He calls himself Solo Joe Nobody and has written (and self-published) a book, which we bought. His bike is loaded up to 150 pounds, so he’s the closest person I’ve come across to my state of lunacy. (I weighed my bike at a grain/feed lot, on the accurate scales, and it was 180 pounds.)

But this guy is different: his bike is loaded up like a homeless person loads his shopping cart—stuff just tied on, willy-nilly. He’s even got a portable stereo dangling precariously from the handlebars. All his equipment looks at least twenty years old. Hard to tell what kind of bike he’s on—it’s covered with the stickers advertising the bike shops he’s stopped in at. He has them from all over the country. He rides along smoking a pipe; even has a little leather holster for it. He wears mirrored sunglasses … for reasons I shall get to in a minute.

Within a minute of talking to this guy, we knew he was not your typical bicycle tourist. He’s a Vietnam vet and suffers from brain damage. After three years in the Navy, including a combat tour in ‘Nam, but while still on active duty back in the U.S., he was in a heinous car accident—forced off the road by an oncoming car in the wrong lane, he went off an 80-foot cliff. I could see the scar in his throat from the resulting tracheotomy. He was in a coma for two months and in the hospital for another thirteen. Because he was on active duty when it happened, he receives disability money and can eke out a living. The sad part is that he really can’t do anything productive because his left arm—indeed, the entire left side of his body—shakes visibly, all the time. In addition, one leg is now shorter than the other, and together with badly disrupted balance (related to his brain damage), he can’t walk right. He looks like a drunk, which alarms a lot of people. In fact, he’s been picked up many times by cops thinking he’s drunk; when they look in his eyes, they fear worse: for his eyes, since the accident, don’t work right. They roam totally independently of one another, each pointing off in a skew direction. So the cops often think he’s on drugs. His solution for avoiding public scorn and whatnot is to wear mirrored sunglasses, and not walk anywhere. Everywhere he goes is by bicycle. How he balances with all that load, given his balance problems, is beyond me, but he insists it’s easy.

Another strange idiosyncrasy of this fellow is that he swears like a sailor all the time. He apologized profusely, saying he couldn’t help it, “it’s left over from the Navy.” I wonder if it’s from the brain damage; remember Phineas Gage, that 1850s railroad worker who was tamping down explosives with a 4-foot long iron tamping rod, and the explosives exploded (as explosives tend to do), launching the rod through his head, and though he survived he began cussing all the time? Maybe when Solo Joe Nobody says he can’t help cussing, he literally can’t. (This is all my own speculation; I’m only 130 pages into his autobiography.) Anyhow, for whatever reason, he throws more profanities into his speech than anybody I have ever encountered, but is the nicest, most easygoing guy you could imagine. For somebody with his disabilities, or even for somebody bicycling into a headwind for thousands of miles (as he was doing, coming from east to west), we found him an amazingly upbeat and cheerful person. We spent an hour chatting with him.

He tours about half the year, every year, all over the country. He prefers the interstate highways, because they’re the flattest and most direct routes (never mind that he’s not trying to get anywhere in particular). He tours, amazingly enough, with only one chainring on his bike: the big one. I can’t imagine how he gets over the hills, nor why he would want to tour without low gearing. We asked him why he doesn’t prefer scenic routes like we do, and he said, “Aw, fuck, you can see all that shit in a library!” He uses a German-made Ciclomaster bike computer, because its display has enough decimal places to record tens of thousands of miles. Imagine breaking 10K on a single bike computer battery!

At the end of our conversation, Solo Joe said to me, “You know Dana, you and I have something in common. We both love your wife!” That was a good cue for Erin and me to wrap things up, shake Joe’s hand and bid him adieu, and get back out on the road.

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

Sunday, June 26, 2022

I’ll Drink to COVID - the Pandemic Beck'sts


I feel like we’re finally far enough along in our nationwide recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic that we can start reflecting on it instead of just reacting to it. Of course the virus is still raging, and morphing, but hospitals haven’t been overwhelmed in a long time, and most of us are out and about in the world again. Throughout the ordeal, I drank a lot of beer and sent a lot of Beck’sts, but it seemed “too soon,” until now, to blog about it. I think now it’s finally okay to look back and that strange, shut-in, deeply isolated period, through the lens of what beers my friends and I were drinking, in what environments, and how we attempted to safely share that experience.

(What? You haven’t heard of Beck’sting? What rock have you been sheltering-in-place under? Get thee to a brewery! Or, click here.)

Note: as with previous posts about Beck’sts, I’ve grouped these thematically. I’ve included captions and commentary, and the initials of the Beck’ster. Where you see one letter only (e.g., “E—”) that’s generally somebody’s spouse. These are arranged chronologically, oldest at the top, spanning the period from late March through late July, 2020.

Newbie Beck’st

JH: Aaaahhh. [This was a Beck’st snapped during our first Virtual Pub Night (VPN) the previous week.]

MC: Nice one! Let’s do another session very soon!

JH: Agree. I’m free every night forever.

DA: JH, I think that’s your very first Beck’st, innit? And it’s a great one ... interesting beer, we get to see the color, it’s good lighting, and the Clorox wipe for context. A solid debut! As for our next VPN, I’d be up for tonight! I don’t have a lot of variety in the beer department but I just stocked the fridge so quantity-wise I can totally outlast this coronavirus... Should we do Hangouts or does someone have a Zoom?

JH: I’ll set up a Zoom. Otherwise my carefully selected wallpapers will go to waste.

Temperance Beck’st

DA: Since I did Virtual Pub Night (VPN) last night I figured I better go easy on the booze tonight, so E— and I are splitting this watery lager. (As watery lagers go, Stella is hard to beat.) DW, please pardon the unsightly stemware ... these little etched glasses, which we got from somebody’s driveway “FREE” box, are the perfect size for this. It’s weird going for walks because Albany is like a ghost town, and shelter-in-place seems to be awakening people to how overcrowded their homes are with stuff, because every other driveway seems to have a box of unwanted treasures. It’s like a garage sale except nobody wants any money.

JL: I went alcohol-free for eight weeks [to lose weight for cycling] but couldn’t take it anymore about two weeks ago when things started to get “real” with the ‘Rona. But even without any pandemic anxiety, I can’t imagine ever drinking just half a Stella and being satisfied! I admire your fortitude in these uncertain times…

Shelter-in-place Beck’st

DA: It’s tempting to complain about being stuck at home and about work being overly busy, but then I think of Dr. S manning up and caring for the sick and I stop myself. Nevertheless I do turn to beer in these trying times, such as this very good Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA. Would you fellers be up for a Virtual Pub Night (VPN) soon, maybe Friday? PCS, can you make that work?

DW: I’d be down for that sometime. I have a standing “Book Club” @ 4pm on Fridays with my [school] staff via Webex and I think we have another one with some friends going this Saturday. Geesh...sounds like we drink a lot. This pilsner from Terminal Gravity is outstanding. Tiny little brewery in Enterprise, Oregon, which is pretty much far away from everything.

DW (continued): Looking forward to it - now on to my day of public school Distance Learning administration!

Tall, fluty Beck’st

DA: DW, where do you come down on the question of tall, narrow beer glasses? Are such fluty vessels as offensive as stemware? Frankly, l like how full this is from a mere 12-oz bottle. The empty space at the top of a pint glass always irritates me. Anyway, this Racer 5 is really taking the edge off my shelter-in-place.

DA (continued): In other news, JL, I took the liberty of including your full name in my latest blog post. I hope that’s okay. You’re famous now! In other news, how does Saturday night work for a VPN?

JL: Aw yeah, more free press for me! That public relations firm I hired is really earning their keep! Are you charging them pay-per-click or something? I can’t wait to parlay this notoriety into a popular podcast — maybe something like, Homeschooling for Dummies! Or, How to Gain 15 Pounds and Keep it On! Or, Takes One To Know One: A Podcast About Bipedal Hominids! I’ll make a million. Oh, and yeah, I’d be up for a VPN on Saturday.

Cooped-up, stir-crazy Beck’st

DA: After a couple weeks of grey and cold we got some lovely weather today. When’s our next VPN!?

BA: I’m sorry I missed the last VPN! I didn’t open my email in time, you know, what with the virus and all. Let me know about when the next one is and I’ll try to get over to the store to buy some beers. I’ve been out of beer for a week now … I haven’t been in a store since I hear they put face shields up for the clerks, so that we can’t cough on them as easily. I don’t get out much...

DA: PCS, since you’re the one out there saving lives and can’t work from home, why don’t you suggest a few times? I’ll text BA this time since he clearly can’t stay on top of his email. Maybe he’s trying to be cool like our teenage children...

DW: I’m going to bring some serious, that is Orygun, IPA to the next VPN. No more of this Pilsner nonsense. Boneyard RPMs are available in cans now. Just happened. So there’s that.

DA: OMG, Boneyard RPM ... I love that beer! Alas, E— has us on this crazy pandemic lockdown where we can only shop like every two weeks, so my beer variety is almost nil. Not that we can get Boneyard here anyway…

Free Beck’st

DA: So, we haven’t had restaurant food since March 15 when we picked up Alexa from college for the lockdown. E— just isn’t comfortable. So I said what if we get a slightly underdone Zach’s pizza and put it in our oven for a while? She’s fine with that so I ordered it uncut so it wouldn’t slop over on the pizza stone. But when I went to pick it up, they’d screwed up and cut it. So they had to make me a whole new pizza, meaning I had to hang around for over half an hour, risking my life in their (albeit entirely deserted) restaurant. In recompense they offered me a free beer so I picked this giant Racer 5!

DA (continued): So, it turns out E— wants to bake the crap out of this pizza, long past the agreed upon five minutes. With the delay I already incurred, the family will be eating without me at this point, since I have virtual book club, but at least I have plenty of good beer to drown my sorrows in. Family and pizza (especially overcooked pizza) are overrated ... am I right?

PCS: Look at that MASSIVE brew, how many ounces are in that? Damn, no sorrow for you. So, was the pizza good or no??

DA: 22 ounces, baybee! The pizza was delish. I’m not sure it was worth the hassle but I’m sure my kids were stoked and that their stokage was unalloyed. Maybe they’ll look kindly on me one day.

JL: That beer looks epic! We’ve been getting restaurant food delivered about once a week. We usually stick it in the oven for a few minutes once it gets here, but none of us are convinced it’s doing anything... it’s just a matter of how much risk is acceptable and from whence that risk comes!

Dura-Ace Beck’st

DA: Do I look like I’m f***ing around?! (Hint: I am not. Not with this Double IPA, and not with my new Dura-Ace wheels...)

JL: That’s a nice looking Beck’st. I counter it with this not f***ing around Beck’st. Nothing in my photo is in focus because I’m already drunk — with power!

Anger management Beck’st

DA: If the anger is not too pronounced, beer can actually help. So what am I angry about? Two things: 1) the sad fact that this beer, the highlight of my day after ten hours of teleworking, will soon be gone; 2) the lack of Beck’sts I have lately received (or, more to the point, not received); 3) the dearth of VPNs lately; and 4) my evident inability to predict how many items will be included in my lists. You bitches are on the hook for items 2 and 3. I have taken care of item 1. Item 4 is hopeless. Item 5 is pending. So how about a 5pm PDT VPN on Sunday, 5/24!? DO IT DO IT DO IT DO IT. RSVP ASAP.

PCS: Angry white man....BAM!

DW: I could potentially make a Sunday PM VPN. However, I have a Herd Immunity Get-Together at a pub at 4pm with my anti-vaxxer group. Those tend to go on for while… Also, I will only attend the VPN if we can dedicate some portion of the discussion to my wheel dilemma, without bringing up the fact that they are not Dura-Ace.

JL: Yeah, 6 pm PDT works for me. And I am happy to discuss at this VPN all subjects, as long as they are about Dura Ace wheels or wheels that are not Dura-Ace (but secretly wish they were Dura-Ace).

Broken hero Beck’st

DA: I bought this Kick-Ass fieldwork IPA crowler for our VPN that never happened. Since these crowlers have a shelf life, and I’m not allowed to drink until late next week at the earliest (due to my upcoming surgery), I have to give this away to a nearby friend. Alas, ye broken hero, I never got to drink ya...

DW: Alas...what the heck happened? Are you OK? Are you having surgery because of a bike accident? Not sure I can wait for our next VPN.

JL: Yeah, what DW said — what’s up? Upcoming surgery?? This was not discussed during the Dura-Ace wheel VPN.

DA: Dudes, here is what I had originally written about it before I decided to get an x-ray.

I’m resorting to this fallible voice recognition software instead of just typing, since I can’t type right now. That’s because I took a little spill on my bike the other day. I was descending after a bit of rain, but it had rained all night so the oil should have been rinsed off the road, but I came around a curve and my tires slid right out. I got up and got off the road and was putting my chain back on, and another guy came around the curve and stacked exactly as I had, and then a few seconds later a third guy came through, and he hit the tarmac exactly as we did, as though we had all rehearsed this together beforehand. Another guy came riding back up the road who had come through right behind me and almost crashed. He said his tires were sliding all over the place. The road was slicker than snot as they say, really almost like a bunch of soap or oil. So it was just kind of a freak thing, maybe something spilled in the road, I don’t know. I’ve done that descent many hundreds of times and my line was perfect. Anyway, my hand is all scraped up and swollen so I can’t really type, and I think I cracked some ribs because it hurts to breathe, and my shoulder seems pretty wrecked up. But, I was able to ride home, and I don’t think I’ll need to go to the ER or anything, which is good because they’re pretty packed lately, because of all the riots and so forth. Well, I suppose they’re pretty packed, I’m actually just guessing, but I don’t imagine I want to take valuable medical resources away from the agitators and so on.

Update: I went to Urgent Care for an X-ray and my collarbone turns out to be broke as f***. So I have a surgery scheduled on Tuesday. Happy happy joy joy.

DW: Damn, DanaDrive! No way that shoulder is going to grow back together. You’ll finally be riding some titanium with that break! Sorry that happened. What a bummer. The Fieldwork would be pretty handy at the moment.

DA: I donated the beer to JH and he Beck’sted it. Looks delish, eh? <sniff>

JL (a few days later): This is such a bummer of a story. Not the broken bone — the giving away of perfectly good beer! But seriously, the surgery should have happened by now … how did it go? I could VPN tonight I think.

DA: It apparently went well. I am typing with just one thumb which is really tedious so I am going to paste in a big block of recycled text now, which I’d dictated to my phone:

I have the sling that seems like it was made in shop class by a junior High kid, combining his father’s sling with a shoebox. The shoe Box presses against my belly making me feel like the Buddha, if the Buddha were an obsessed consumerist American who loves to carry around a box of treasures, if only his shoe box had a lid. I had a nerve block in my arm, which makes it feel like I fell asleep on it so my hand is all tingly, but instead of whacking the hand to wake it up because that’s annoying, I’m just leaving it because the tingling, as it spreads up my shoulder, will gradually be replaced with pain. I think it is going to be a very boring 6 weeks, followed by some very boring physical therapy, but I guess we were all destined to be bored anyway now that our library DVDs are all spent, and we realize that Netflix and Kanopy and Hoopla and YouTube are still all tools of man, and man is essentially boring. But I’ll take boring over zombie apocalypse, in the final analysis, though the way things are going I guess I wouldn’t be all that surprised if a zombie apocalypse did come to pass. I guess the silver lining there would be that all of their staggering around and flesh eating would be diverting.

I can give you more detail if we ever get the next VPN pinned down. That’s right, I’m off the pain meds and can have booze again! BA, are you back from your road trip yet?

BA: I am indeed back from the road trip and [our late] Dad’s teardrop camper trailer [which BA inherited] is now parked in front of the house. I don’t believe I contracted COVID-19 along the way, only time will tell on that (or not, depending, I guess). I had to figure out why T—’s van (a newer and shorter version of our 15 passenger van) wouldn’t drive the running lights on the trailer, and I managed that. I ended up pulling a relay from the fuse box in the engine room and installing a jumper instead, and lo and behold, it worked. It’s kind of surreal seeing the trailer there, like I expect to see Dad cooking out of the back of it when I look out. I don’t even know what to do with the thing, I don’t even have a vehicle that can tow a trailer.

DA: So BA, I’m glad your road trip went well and the teardrop came through okay. I’m quite impressed that you thought to pull a relay from the fuse box and replace it with a jumper to get the taillights working … that’s an ingenious trick the likes of which English majors don’t generally learn until grad school (though we did mess around a bit with jumpers during my honors post-modernism seminar). So here’s what to do with the trailer: you need to start a celebrity blog/vlog called “Teardrop Life” or something and drive around to scenic places in the US taking glamorous photos and shooting tantalizing video footage. You and J— are getting pretty old, so to stay “current” and “vital” you’ll need to attract a steady stream of groupies to help “fill the frame.” I think you still have the star power to make good money with that. Just be sure to wear your masks around those groupies. Don’t worry, the masks add an air of mystery and emphasize your eyes, one of your strong points. Well, two of them I guess, technically.

Controversial Beck’st

DA: Just because.

PCS: it legit to Beck’st Heineken?

DA: Oh, so since you’re a big fancy doctor, you’re too good for Heineken?

PCS: I just don’t know why you would Beck’st a bottle of water! But please, feel free to send pictures of the next LaCroix you’re having. I know you love those.

DA: Now you look here, Mr. Big Shot, if I happen to like my water to have a golden glow to it, and its green bottle to cast a lovely green shadow, and if I’m secure enough in my masculinity to admit I like flowers, and nice arrangements, I think maybe you should just honor that and remember that some of us have feelings, and we don’t need to be pushed around by the big Associate Professor of Medicine with the American car, the big bully who always took the top spot on the podium. Sometimes our wives try to tease out our sensitive side by refusing to buy the IPAs we like, and so tonight it was either this Heineken or another 11.2 ounce 4.2% ABV Spanish thing. Oh, sure, you can stand in judgment, all high and mighty with your Deschutes Juicy Haze IPAs and your dual suspension mountain bike. Just kick a man when he’s down, would you? All injured and everything? Really? Does that make you feel powerful? I have to go. I think I’m starting to cry.

JL: I’m torn here. Because on the one hand I agree with PCS (as an aside, I decided against “Beck’st’ing” my white wine spritzer with a lime garnish tonight because I thought it was similarly against the rules). But on the other hand, denying a guy his Beck’st — especially when he’s injured and hurting [we assume] — seems cruel. In the end, however, I think this is a fair Beck’st, if only for the cute flower arrangement and the lovely table cloth, both of which (along with the dappled sunlight) evoke the ineffable redolence of a quaint European café — the sort of place where when you ordered, “une biere, s’il vous plait?”, they would bring you this pathetic ersatz ale, while sneering at you with that European contempt and superiority that only sweaty men from the continent, with their crisp white shirts and their glossy black hair, can muster. And even though the beer is lame and the service is perfunctory at best, it is served very cold (as evidenced by the drops of condensation languidly forming rivulets descending the emerald glass) and it is, at that moment, the best thing that you have ever tasted.


Did you notice that the last Beck’st in this chronological sequence made no reference to the pandemic? No inquiry about the next VPN? This was during that honeymoon period, post-vaccine but pre-Delta-variant. Alas, as we all know, that taste of unsheltered freedom was too good to last, so watch these pages for another post about Beck’sting through the pandemic…

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

Saturday, June 18, 2022

More Q&A With a Grammar Lover

Dear Grammar Lover,

A friend put it to me that “fuck” is the most elastic word in the English language, since it can be a noun, adjective, verb, etc. I’m guessing it’s not truly unique in this, but I can’t really prove it. What’s your take?

Tom G, Brooklyn, NY

Dear Tom:

By my count, of the eight parts of speech, “fuck” can be used as five:

  • Noun: I don’t give a fuck
  • Verb: He really fucked it up
  • Interjection: Fuck!
  • Adjective: He doesn’t have a fucking clue
  • Adverb: Are you fucking shitting me?

These last two are of course gerunds, which to me isn’t as wholly satisfying as if “fuck” itself could be used as an adjective or adverb. Thus, I’m tempted to say “well” is more elastic, because (as detailed here), it can also be used as five parts of speech … and it doesn’t need an –ing suffix. However, as one commenter pointed out, “well” isn’t actually one word. It’s a pair of homonyms. “Well” as in “good or satisfactory” is an entirely different word, with a different etymology, from “well” as in “shaft sunk into the ground.” So to my mind, “fuck” wins, at least between these two.

One more thing: bonus points go to “fuck” for being useful not just as an interjection, but as the most powerful interjection of all time.

Dear Grammar Lover,

In a previous column you asserted that it’s not always appropriate to correct somebody’s grammar. What’s the most tasteless, tactless context for a grammar correction you’ve ever encountered?

Wanda L, Las Cruces, NM

Dear Wanda,

When my father was dying of cancer, I suggested he write up his own obituary, just so I wouldn’t miss a life detail he felt was important. He inadvertently wrote his draft from the perspective of someone who was still alive, which is understandable … he may not have fully accepted yet that he would actually die. Accordingly, among my revisions were a number of necessary verb tense changes. I also included an email address so people could send tidings without wasting paper on cards (feeling that this was what my dad would have wanted). One of his friends sent a very terse email pointing out that I’d made a verb tense error in the obituary. The obituary had noted, “He has also done work for NBS/NIST on computer peripherals, power supplies, and the atomic clock” which, as this guy pointed out, should have read “He also did work for NBS/NIST….” The guy was right, of course; my sentence did not properly convey that my father was dead, dead, dead and would never do any more work for NBS/NIST, or anyone else, ever again. (The email itself didn’t say “dead, dead, dead,” but it might as well have.)

Since the email didn’t say anything else beyond pointing out the error, my (admittedly ungrammatical) response was quite brief: “Asperger’s much?” (Just kidding. I did not respond.)

Dear Grammar Lover,

In a previous column you said the silliest example of bad grammar you have come across in music is “exactly whom I’m supposed to be” in the song “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by the Clash. How is this any worse than Eminem repeatedly using the non-word “insaneness” in the song “Brainless?

Sean C, Boston, MA

Dear Sean,

For one thing, using a non-word isn’t the same class of error as using “whom” incorrectly; “insaneness” is more like a playful stylistic stretch in the Ogden Nash vein. And this non-word opened the door for Eminem to rhyme with “brainless” and “pain in the anus,” whereas the Clash’s goof didn’t accomplish anything. Besides, Eminem freely acknowledges the poetic liberty; in a muted aside at the end of the song, some nameless adversary says, “‘Insaneness’ ain’t even a word you stupid fuck,” to which the singer replies, “Neither is ‘ain’t.’” Meanwhile, at least two dictionaries (such as this one, for example) do include “insaneness” as a legit word. And above all, the whole point of the song is that the singer is brainless, so why wouldn’t he use a non-word?

Dear Grammar Lover,

What do you make of “their” as a singular possessive pronoun? I know this has long been used when the speaker doesn’t wish to specify one sex or another, but it’s technically wrong and can cause confusion, such as with singular vs. plural. Doesn’t clarity trump convenience here? Can’t we all agree that “their” as a singular pronoun is just plain wrong?

John S, San Leandro, CA

Dear John,

I try to avoid using “their” to refer to an unnamed or hypothetical person, preferring “his or her” or some other way around the construction. But I haven’t traditionally worried too much about other people doing this, as it doesn’t tend to cause that much confusion, really. For example, “Everyone must bring their workbook” could imply that a bunch of students share a single workbook … but common sense should easily put that vagueness to rest.

Things get a bit more complicated around the more recent trend of using a plural pronoun for an individual who doesn’t wish to identify as one sex or another. For example, a non-binary person may request that people use “they” or “their” to refer to “them.” This plural pronoun begets a plural verb, to achieve subject-verb agreement, which can also add confusion.

I will cautiously assert that spoken grammar evolves more quickly than formal, written grammar, so if we’re looking for what’s officially “correct,” it’s useful to take after the dictionary publishers and see what’s in print in a mainstream magazine written for an educated audience. (I wouldn’t look to “Us” magazine, which is all about celebrities, because they don’t even get their own name right; the magazine should be called “Them.”) So, as I’d done when trying to determine the definitive spelling of “kindergartner,” I looked for non-gendered pronouns in “The New Yorker.” Consider this passage from a recent article:

    Caro Murphy … said that a Disney rep had told them not to talk about their work at the park, so we spoke about LARPs in general terms. “There is this tension between the commercial part of LARP and the community part,” they said.

The word “them” confused me a bit initially because I thought perhaps it referred to Murphy plus one or more colleagues previously mentioned or implied. But the confusion was dispelled when the quote was followed by “they said.” Obviously this was not two or more persons speaking in unison.

Still, this new usage can get a bit confusing when obvious clues like that quotation aren’t provided. This was the case in the previous paragraph of the same article, which coincidentally involved another non-binary interviewee. And more confusion arose later, with Kes, a LARPer whom the writer and her colleague Tim met onboard a Disney theme park spaceship:

     [Tim] told me he thought that Kes might be a cast member. He’d seen her being chummy with Croy in the engineering room.

     I [Googled] the name of the LARPer Disney had just hired. I edged around the crowd. “Caro?” I whispered to Kes.

     “Yes!” Murphy said, grinning.

Some of the confusion here comes from a single person being referred to by three different names in the span of seven words, which has nothing to do with pronouns. But the earlier bit about “her being chummy with Croy” did complicate things. Kes, when in character, may have identified as female, unless the writer just made an assumption. But when out of character, Murphy prefers they/them. The writer, when composing the article, knew that Kes was Murphy and thus could have said “them” instead of “her,” but this would have spoiled the surprise of the secret identity.

I got some good advice once in a writing class, which is that a writer should never make the reader do extra work unless there’s a good reason. So is honoring the preference of a source a good reason? Of course! Interviewees are at the crux of journalism (and in this case in particular, Murphy was taking some risk, having been told by Disney not to talk about their work). Meanwhile, professional courtesy aside, I think acknowledgement of any human’s self-identity is more important than ease of reading comprehension. Yes, this can mean extra work for the reader, especially for those of us with a lifelong habit of thinking about gender as a very cut-and-dried, binary matter, but isn’t this kind of work good for us, as we grapple with the more complicated reality?

Dear Grammar Lover,

How good are the grammar checkers in Microsoft Word and Google Docs?

Linda S, Broomfield, CO

Dear Linda,

Artificial Intelligence is really bad at grammar. If you asked A.I. to diagram a sentence it simply couldn’t. It is powerless to understand context, so its suggestions can seem practically random. Thus, software grammar checkers are pretty much worthless.

To validate this assertion, I ran a Microsoft Word grammar check against a recent blog post, and then ran the same post through the grammar checker in Google Docs. In theory, both programs should flag the same “errors,” right? After all, if you handed an essay to two different human newspaper or magazine editors, the feedback on grammar and spelling would be similar, one to the next. What I found with the software was that a) there was zero overlap in feedback between the two grammar checkers, and b) most of their suggestions were flat-out wrong.

Here are some of the “errors” flagged by Word (click to enlarge):

As you can see, Word was wrong in every single case. I sincerely hope nobody is trying to learn grammar by reviewing this software’s suggestions and rationale.

Google did a bit better, finding one bona fide error (I had “other the internal” instead of “other internal”), and only making four incorrect suggestions. One suggestion was particularly inane: in the sentence “I considered his feat from the perspective of coach,” Google suggested I change “feat” to “feet.” Why does this software think I’d be looking at a rider’s feet? Does it assume coaches, and/or writers, are likely to have a foot fetish? The less facetious question is this: as an educated human, why would I ever outsource my editing to software that makes so many mistakes?

Dear Grammar Lover,

In a previous column you said the silliest instance of bad grammar you’ve found in rock music is “exactly whom I’m supposed to be” in the song “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by the Clash. How is this any worse than “If looks could kill they probably will” in “Games Without Frontiers” by Peter Gabriel?

Simon Taylor, London, UK

Dear Simon,

Indeed, this is a clear example of inconsistent verb tense, but why would you suppose it is unintentional? Not only does “will” create a nice internal rhyme with “kill,” but the sudden shift from the hypothetical subjunctive to the future indicative active creates the most jarring—and best—lyric in the whole song. It’s a similar effect to what the masterful novelist Muriel Spark achieves in her story “The Portobello Road” with the immortal line, “He looked as if he would murder me and he did.” In both cases, death goes from hypothetical to real in a split second. So Peter Gabriel’s verb shift isn’t just intentional; it’s brilliant. I wouldn’t say rules were made to be broken, but in the right hands they can be, and to good effect.

Got a question for the Grammar Lover? Click here.

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

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

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Ask a Grammar Lover

Dear Grammar Lover,

When is it okay to correct someone’s grammar? I feel this should be welcomed, but it seems like so often it’s not.

Emily D, Madison, WI

Dear Emily,

Alas, correcting someone’s grammar is more complicated than pointing out that she’s got food in her teeth, or that his fly is open. For one thing, since grammar is to some degree a matter of education and social class, a person can easily feel a bit offended.

For example, an old boss of mine from my teenage days, whom I also counted as a friend, said to me once, “Between you and I, the money I collect on rent more than covers the mortgage.” I replied, “You mean ‘between you and me.’” He was pretty ticked, because a) I sounded like a pedantic prick, and b) I was evidently more interested in his grammar than his financial flex.

Beyond that, matters of grammar aren’t as obvious as food in the teeth so you can end up getting into arguments. This can escalate the insult when your interlocutor is eventually proven wrong. I was once at a party and the late-crew stragglers were gossiping, and D— mentioned something really stupid that some third party (not present) had said. I didn’t figure there was any risk in pointing out an absent party’s error, and responded, “That’s not even grammatical!” D— said, “What do you mean not grammatical?” I said, “You know, it’s wrong grammatically.” He fired back, “That’s not what ‘grammatical’ means.” I told him it was indeed one sense of “grammatical,” and he said “Wanna bet?” etc. I really tried to talk him out of going toe-to-toe with me, assuring him that when I proved him wrong he’d would be embarrassed. But he was adamant, so I had to get out my dictionary (a very thick Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, second edition, which for obvious reasons I call the “big dick”). His downfall caused much mirth at his expense, and indeed, he was embarrassed … which I’d truly wanted to avoid because I have always had the impression D— never much liked me to begin with.

So, I recommend you choose your battles, by which I mean you only assert your position if someone erroneously calls you out on an error. And you better be right.

A final point: since so much communication these days takes place via text on a smartphone, you should be extra careful. Quite frequently, the phone software will introduce errors, either through poor voice transcription or because it simply decides to “correct” what you typed. For example, it will add an apostrophe to “its” when it doesn’t belong there.

Dear Grammar Lover,

I read a blog post once where a guy lamely justified the outdated practice of putting two spaces after a period, on the grounds that it honored the memory of his typing teacher. This is obviously BS because a) standards do evolve over time, and b) his old typing teacher is surely dead and gone by now. Can you weigh in on the matter, so I can troll the blogger in the comments section below his post?

Lawrence T, Oakland, CA

Dear Larry,

Until fairly recently, I myself used two spaces after a period (and after a colon, and in most cases after a question mark) as I’d been taught in typing class in the early ‘80s. Lots of people continue to use two spaces. There’s plenty of ongoing debate on this; here is an article from 2011 condemning the two-space behavior, and here is another from 2018 asserting that using two spaces does improve readability. I suspect most style guides now specify just one space, though I haven’t bothered to confirm this.

Actually, the best reason to adopt the one-period convention is simply that digital interfaces, such as Blogger, Gmail, and Google Workspace, don’t properly handle a pair of spaces (as older word processing programs did). If a line ends with a period, and there are two spaces, the software should know to replace both spaces with a single line break. But, increasingly, the software doesn’t—it replaces the first space with a line break, and moves the second space to the beginning of the next line. This looks terrible. So anybody who continues to use two spaces will have sloppy-looking output. Give it up, two-spacers … you’ve lost.

Dear Grammar Lover,

Why do people like you think it’s important to follow these arbitrary, pedantic rules when it’s perfectly clear what somebody is trying to say, whether he follows these rules or not?

Ian B, Columbus, OH

Dear Ian,

I suppose that in a perfect world, people might judge one another on, say, the quality of their souls, or the generosity of their behavior, or something similarly noble. In reality, we judge one another in a variety of less lofty ways, and one such measure is perceived level of education. So if you don’t learn the rules, you’re bound to break some of them in ways that suggest you either never went to college or didn’t pay much attention. (Never mind that in this modern STEM-obsessed era, many college graduates are trained instead of educated, and say things like “think different.”) Suffice to say, certain people will judge you for poor grammar, and they’re not necessarily wrong to do so. If you know all the rules, you can choose which ones to break, based on your audience. So it’s not necessary to always follow the rules, but it’s important to know them.

Another reason to know the rules is to avoid phishing attacks. Incorrect grammar is one of the best “tells” when you’re deciding whether an email is legit.

Dear Grammar Lover,

What’s the silliest grammar error you have seen? Extra points for inappropriate context…

Gertrude S, Spokane, WA

Dear Trudy,

In my opinion, the worst errors occur when someone is trying to be completely correct, even at the risk of seeming pedantic—but gets it wrong. If somebody says “who” where “whom” is correct, I always cut him or her some slack because “whom” can sound stuffy. But when somebody uses “whom” where “who” is called for, particularly in an informal context, I kind of cringe. So, in answer to your query, my poster child is the  line “exactly whom I’m supposed to be” from the song “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by the Clash. What rock star says “whom” in this construction? I’ll tell you: a rock star who a) doesn’t grasp that a predicate nominative requires a subject pronoun, and b) doesn’t realize the word “whom” doesn’t belong in a rock song to begin with (as George Thorogood obviously understood when he wrote the song “Who Do You Love?”).

Dear Grammar Lover,

Is it okay to break the rules if you’re consistent about it, and there’s some precedent for the way you break them? I ask because I prefer to put punctuation outside of quotation marks “like this”, because I just like it better. Since the Brits do it this way, do you think maybe I can get away with it?

Alexa A, Isla Vista, CA

Dear Alexa,

If you’re emailing a friend or tagging a wall with a spray can, go crazy. Or, if you become an Oxford Rhodes Scholar. But here in the US, if you’re writing college papers or business documents, you do need to follow the American standard.

My dad decided he could make up some of his own rules, such as punctuating with two periods in a row, which I gather was supposed to be halfway between a period and an ellipsis. I suppose this wouldn’t have irritated me except that he liked to “correct” my grammar, as with this exact quote from an email he wrote to a friend, with me copied: “It would be fun to tease [Dana] about ‘That's me’ as opposed to the grammatically correct ‘That's I’..” I think it’s worth pointing out here that he put his homegrown punctuation outside the quotation marks. It’s a slippery slope, Alexa…

Dear Grammar Lover,

My brainiac friend insists that learned people will sometimes use bad grammar on purpose. Is this really a thing, or just a cop-out along the lines of Pee Wee Herman’s “I meant to do that”?

Sandra R, Phoenix, AZ

Dear Sandy,

I suppose the cop-out theory holds some water; after all, whenever I correct my brother’s grammar he replies, “I know, I was speaking colloquially … you know, coming down to your level.” But educated and well-spoken speakers and writers break the rules all the time, stylistically. Here’s an example, with some subtle commentary baked in by the writer (Kenneth Grahame in The Wind In the Willows):

     The Toad, having finished his breakfast, picked up a stout stick and swung it vigorously, belabouring imaginary animals. “I’ll learn ‘em to steal my house!” he cried. “I’ll learn ‘em! I’ll learn ‘em!”

     “Don’t say ‘learn ‘em,’ Toad,” said the Rat, greatly shocked. “It’s not good English.”

     “What are you always nagging at the Toad for?” inquired the Badger, rather peevishly. “What’s the  matter with his English? It’s the same what I use myself, and if it’s good enough for me, it ought to be good enough for you!”

     “I’m very sorry,” said the Rat humbly. “Only I think it ought to be ‘teach ‘em,’ not ‘learn ‘em.’”

     “But we don’t want to teach ‘em,” replied the Badger. “We want to learn ‘em—learn ‘em, learn ‘em! And what’s more, we’re going to do it, too!”

I suppose you could object to this example on the basis of these characters being animals, and British ones, and this being a very old source (i.e., 1908). But stylistic breaking of the rules is also done by modern Americans, and very learned ones at that. Consider this sentence from Elif Batuman’s recent novel Either/Or: “Imre had graduated and was supposed to be at Caltech, so probably it wasn’t him.”

Could this simply be an accident? I sincerely doubt it, as Batuman has a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Stanford. (If her doctorate were from Berkeley I would declare it impossible for this to be an accident.) (Yes, I’m kind of required, out of loyalty to my alma mater, to make that last wisecrack.) Batuman’s narrator, meanwhile, is a literature major at Harvard so I doubt we’re to assume she’s bad at grammar. I think Batuman’s choice of pronoun here is to demonstrate that her character, though very intelligent, is not pompous or overly punctilious (i.e., she’s cooler than my dad).

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

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