Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Memento Mori

There was an article in the paper today about a motorcyclist who got the silver medal in a right-of-way contest with a dump truck. I think most motorcyclists, like myself, generally read articles like that in a detached, disinterested manner. We carefully parse the words to tease out the threads of our own bad behaviors.

In this case, the text was mercifully brief, leaving as the only certainty in my mind that the last two words heard inside that helmet were “…Oh” combined with something like “****!!”

Incidents like this are, virtually without exception, wetware errors—a malfunction somewhere directly above the chinstrap. Motorcycles rarely fail mechanically in this era. These events are the landfighter equivalent of aviation’s “controlled descent into terrain”—not a euphemism as is often suggested, but a clinically precise term of art laced with black humor, describing that all-too-common flight situation where everything is just ducky right up to the instant of maximum entropy, when order becomes chaos and structure becomes wreckage.

The typical article—and in a major newspaper there will be several such notices in a given week—contains words and phrases like “excessive speed” “street racing” “failed to negotiate” “failure to yield” “right-of-way” “turned left in front of” “drinking” “drugs” “alcohol” “lost control” and then generally the word “struck” combined with: (1) “other vehicle” (2) “curb” (3) “telephone pole” or (4) “tree.” The bike, if described, and its erstwhile owner, both tend to be late model—no pun intended.

The Motorcycle Task Analysis, published over thirty years ago, suggested that to operate an automobile safely, you needed to successfully execute about eight hundred different, discrete tasks. Flying an airplane requires about three thousand. Operating a motorcycle safely requires about twenty-four hundred different tasks—more akin to flying an airplane than it is to driving a car. Experience (and the 1980 Hurt Report) taught us the big “six-six” rule: the first six months/six hundred miles of riding for each new motorcycle is the most critical (meaning an experienced rider resets their risk meter each time they get on a new bike).

Yet the vast majority of riders never make it to that point. They ride infrequently, casually, off-handedly, only when the sun shines and the air is warm. They never get out of their own personal danger zone, and it almost inevitably catches up with them. If they’re lucky, they garner nothing more than a scary story to tell as a warning to any other potential motorcyclists. If they’re unlucky, they become that story for others to tell.

We are looking for something important when we read about these personal-scale tragedies. The rider’s identity was withheld from the newspaper, allowing time for some family to have its worst fear confirmed, an absence explained, an indelible name forever given to an unassailable void. In that namelessness you hear the shrieks of anguish, the rage, the helplessness, the regrets echoing.

We read seeking reassurance that we would have done differently, done better with the hand that was dealt. We want to know there was an obvious, glaring problem that we would have avoided, that our skill, our experience, our perceptions would have pulled our bacon out of the fire. Maybe kept us out of the kitchen in the first place. Maybe we could have stayed out of the game, not gotten stuck in that particular dead end. These mementos mori strewn randomly across our paths keep us honest with ourselves.

Irritating Social Encounters (Part the Second)

I walked into class one evening with my helmet under my arm, minding my own business and trying to focus my tiny little brain on the matter at hand. Since class hadn't started yet, someone commented on the helmet and started to make some reasonably cogent motorcycle-related small-talk, apparently based on some reasonably interesting experiences in another country where motorcycles are much more the norm than automobiles.

At that, Miss Abercrombie N. Fitch perked up from her cheetos-fueled slumber and decided she had something to contribute to the conversation, a conversation that up to that juncture had been successfully maintaining its momentum without her intervention.

"Ooh..." she sneered. "Somebody must be having a MID-LIFE CRISIS."

I shot her my best withering glance. "Dear..." (I paused to let that word hang in the air for the maximum irritation factor) "My motorcycle is older than you are. I have been riding it, year round, since before you were born." (Both true, by the way. And as far as I could tell, my motorcycle was smarter and better mannered than she, to boot. But I didn't say that at the time.)

"...And who are you to suggest this is my MID-LIFE, you little punk!?"

Well. That put an end to that line of commentary.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Irritating Social Encounters (Part the First)

Recently, one warm Friday evening I rode straight from work to a casual social event, an outdoorsy kind of gathering held on a charming deck under the shade of towering trees. I parked Beast in an out-of-the way corner, hung my helmet and gloves on the mirror, and walked in wearing my Joe Rockets over typical business casual stuff: khakis, blue shirt, loose tie—the typical corporate uniform.

With my usual social aplomb, I snuck into the nearest corner to scope out the situation and tried my best to be invisible. After all, if you've been a motorcyclist for any time at all, you understand how that act conveys invisibility upon you unbidden, so it's hard to fathom why you aren't able to invoke it at will.

In any case, there I am doing my best Ficus impersonation, when—much to my dismay—I see Ms. Snarky McChardonnay making a beeline for my little sanctuary with a leering, eye-rolling expression that was equal parts condescension, patronization and double-vision.

She walks right up to me. "What's THEEE-ISS? she squeals in an oaky voice (with undertones of vanilla, apples and pears) as she tugs on the sleeve of my 'Joe Rocket'. "Did jew rod yerr 'HARR-LEEE' here?"

Now right there, she lost me. Since when did 'Harley' become a synonym for 'motorcycle' anyway? I stared at her blankly, watching her teeter from side to side ever so slowly for at least fifteen seconds.

"This, " I said, zipping up my jacket and walking away, "is my S.U.V."

Katrina say...

"When the levee breaks, Mama you got to move..."

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Blowing bubbles

I attended a wedding reception this weekend, and was absolutely charmed and delighted by my youngest niece, a little bundle of boundless energy who was endlessly entranced and engaged by chasing bubbles the various guests were blowing for her amusement; her guileless laughter and squeals of joy echoed through the crowd like the songs of angels.

It made me think about the troubled world we live in, and I said to myself:

"What if we could bring all the leaders of the world's countries, and religions, and political factions and other groups together in one place for just a few hours? And what if they all got together and just spent some time blowing bubbles with each other, and laughing and chasing bubbles on the breeze? Then maybe they'd forget the petty squabbles and grudges and grievances that divide us, and relax and think about how we're really the same underneath it all."

"Then, while they're preoccupied, we could lock them all up in a big cage, and toss it into a really deep part of the ocean, maybe like one of those places where the superheated, mineral-rich water comes spewing out of a mid-oceanic rift zone where the continental plates are drifting apart, where three-foot long pink and white tube worms without eyes live, anchored to the rock, in perpetual darkness just inches from scalding black water rocketing from nightmarish chimneys grown from the living water, the dominant species in a hydrogen sulfide fueled ecosystem?"

Well, like the man said:

"...You may call me a dreamer; but I'm not the only one..."

"The Art and the Science of the Motorcycle"

If you have ninety minutes to spare and want to learn more about the social relevance and significance of motorcycles that you would have ever thought possible, have a listen to the lecture presented by Charles M. Falco at Princeton University on May 8th, 2002 entitled "The Art and Science of the Motorcycle."

Falco is the Chair of Condensed Matter Physics and Professor of Optical Sciences at the University of Arizona, Tuscon, but more importantly, he is co-curator of "The Art of The Motorcycle," the record-breaking exhibition of motorcycles as works of art that opened at the Guggenheim in NYC several years ago and has since been on the road, drawing huge crowds wherever it goes and spawning a best-selling companion book as well.

It's kind of refreshing to hear someone who is intelligent, thoughful, articulate and erudite while still being passionate on the subject. I'm sorry I missed the exhibition but the lecture is probably better in some ways--Falco is fun to watch and listen to. Besides, I own the book.

Maryland Knows

Driving up I-270 yesterday, I noticed that Maryland has posted lots of small signs at the bottom of the big signs, saying "Motorcycles OK."

Well, right back at 'cha, Maryland. We think you're OK too.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Customer Service, 2005

"If you wait by the river long enough, eventually you will see the bodies of all your enemies float by."

Sun Tzu, The Art of War
I hate it when people quote "The Art of War." But this seemed appropriate somehow.


MacArthur Boulevard is like Route 50 turned on its side.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

While Beast is away

Beast is at the spa right now. For the time being, I have the use of a brand-spanking new F650gs in lurid “Metro Messenger” yellow. This is the third time I’ve ridden the F650, though in each case it has been for regrettably short times and distances. The first was the “Captain America” loaner that carried me through the tornado, as I mentioned previously. The second was rented from Dubbelju Motorcycle Rentals in San Francisco last November for a short, one day jaunt into Napa and Sonoma.

The F650 is to the Beast as a Jack Russell terrier is to a greyhound. I think. I’m not really that knowledgeable about dogs, especially different breeds, but if I had to guess, that is the analogy I would make. Okay, maybe not the greyhound part, but the F650 does make me think of a Jack Russell. It seems smart, playful, eager to please, and is lots of fun in a fairly small package. It certainly seemed to make short work of Trinity Road and I could barely resist the urge to take it cross-country just for the heck of it. But then, time was short and I didn’t want to upset Sparky, who was stuck on some kinda Harley that didn’t look quite off-road friendly, like some Harleys do.
In any case. The F650gs is mine for a day or two, and I’ll try it out on some well-known favorites of mine…just to calibrate it, you know. It won’t be heartbreaking to return it, I’m sure…no worse than returning that (sniff) cute little (sniff) Jack Russell puppy (sniff) to the pound…(sniff).

“It followed me home…can I KEEP IT??”

Discrimination and Prejudice

I had an interesting discussion the other day about ‘discrimination’ and ‘prejudice,’ and how we have destroyed the usefulness of the words by stripping them of meaning, recasting them with a thin veneer of explosive impressions. I strive to discriminate everyday, in every waking moment.

Discrimination is one of the abilities that make us most human. It is the ability to tell things apart, to see what is the same and what is not—“to perceive the distinguishing features of; recognize as distinct.” If you cannot discriminate, you have no business walking around unaccompanied, because you will certainly run afoul of something sooner or later, whether it is traffic, a hole in the sidewalk or a pack of wolves cruising the boulevard in a ragtop Cadillac. Discrimination is the exquisite gift to see the world, to savor creation, to drink in everything around you; without discrimination, isn’t everything just a big gray blur?

On the other hand (OTOH, for those of you not comfortable with complete phrases) prejudice is the exact, diametric, polar opposite of discrimination. It is anti-discrimination. It means “to judge before the facts are available.” How different could ‘prejudice’ be from ‘discrimination’? Prejudice shuts off discrimination, operates in a vacuum, a void where facts are not in evidence. Prejudice is a crime against yourself—it denies your very perceptions, your ability to see the world around you. It is the last refuge of the weak-minded, the feebleminded, the lazy-minded.

We need to accept the burden that comes with discrimination. It is incumbent on each of us to use the faculties we possess to see what is really there—not what we have always been told to expect. Not what our parents expected to see. Not what our teachers and preachers told us to expect to see. Not what our politicians tell us to expect to see. We are surrounded—every single waking minute of every single day—by countless Emperors who are wearing no clothes, clamoring for our attention and admiration, who are being praised lavishly by those around them.

Stop. Look. Listen. Discriminate.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Malcolm Gladwell on S.U.V.s

" Detroit is a town of engineers, and engineers like to believe that there is some connection between the success of a vehicle and its technical merits. But the S.U.V. boom…made no sense to them. Consumers said they liked four-wheel drive. But the overwhelming majority of consumers don't need four-wheel drive…As Keith Bradsher writes in "High and Mighty" what consumers said was "If the vehicle is up high, it's easier to see if something is hiding underneath or lurking behind it."

A top engineer says, "Sport-utility owners tend to be more like 'I wonder how people view me,' …internal market research concluded S.U.V.s tend to be bought by people who are insecure, vain, self-centered, and self-absorbed…nervous about their marriages, and who lack confidence in their driving skills. Ford's designers took their cues from "fashionably dressed women wearing hiking boots or even work boots while walking through expensive malls." "The only time those S.U.V.s are going to be off-road is when they miss the driveway at 3 a.m."

The truth, underneath all the rationalizations…S.U.V. buyers thought of big, heavy vehicles as safe. To the engineers, that didn't make any sense: if consumers wanted something that was big and heavy and comforting, they ought to buy minivans, since minivans do much better in accidents than S.U.V.s. (In a thirty-five-m.p.h. crash test, for instance, the driver of a Cadillac Escalade has a sixteen-per-cent chance of a life-threatening head injury, a twenty-per-cent chance of a life-threatening chest injury, and a thirty-five-per-cent chance of a leg injury. The numbers in a Ford Windstar minivan are, respectively, two per cent, four per cent, and one per cent.)

But this desire for safety wasn't a rational calculation. It was a feeling. French-born cultural anthropologist G. Clotaire Rapaille concluded from countless, intensive sessions that when S.U.V. buyers thought about safety they were thinking about something that reached into their deepest unconscious. "The No. 1 feeling is that everything surrounding you should be round and soft, and should give," Rapaille told me. "There should be air bags everywhere. Then there's this notion that you need to be up high. That's a contradiction, because the people who buy these S.U.V.s know at the cortex level that if you are high there is more chance of a rollover. But at the reptilian level they think that if I am bigger and taller I'm safer. You feel secure because you are higher and dominate and look down. That you can look down is psychologically a very powerful notion.

And what was the key element of safety when you were a child? It was that your mother fed you, and there was warm liquid. That's why cupholders are absolutely crucial for safety. If there is a car that has no cupholder, it is not safe. If I can put my coffee there, if I can have my food, if everything is round, if it's soft, and if I'm high, then I feel safe. It's amazing that intelligent, educated women will look at a car and the first thing they will look at is how many cupholders it has." During the design of Chrysler's PT Cruiser, one of the things Rapaille learned was that car buyers felt unsafe when they thought that an outsider could easily see inside their vehicles. So Chrysler made the back window of the PT Cruiser smaller. Of course, making windows smaller makes driving more dangerous, not less so. But that's the puzzle of what has happened to the automobile world: feeling safe has become more important than actually being safe."

Excerpted from the New Yorker Magazine

The Beast takes care of me

About three-and-a-half months after I got the Beast, I went out to campus for an evening class. It was late January, and the weather forecast was sketchy with a front rolling in after midnight that promised a decent quantity of some form of precipitation. However, around nine-o’clock, I noted a growing murmur of voices in the hallways outside class, and shortly after we were told we could go home early—the storm had arrived and conditions were rapidly deteriorating.
When I stepped outside, I could see the campus was wet. When I started walking to where the Beast was parked, I realized that everything was already covered with 1/8” of ice. Oh shit.
The Beast was glazed from stem to stern; little tiny icicles formed a beard on the fairing and hardcases. I stood there in the freezing drizzle for some time, pondering my options. For many reasons that I will not go into here, I realized my only choice was to ride Beast home.
I wrestled into my foul weather gear and fired it up, then sat astride it for a good ten minutes while it warmed up fully (yeah—warming up really takes only about 30 seconds from stone cold), watching the ice melt off the engine, pipes, headlight lens and instruments. I got off and walked over to the roadway to compare it to the parking lot, and concluded it was almost as bad despite the steady stream of departing cars.
By the time I finally summoned up the nerve to put the poor bike into gear, I was the sole remaining outbound vehicle on campus. “What a dipshit,” I thought to myself. But I was counting on my anti-lock brakes to pull my sorry (whatever) out of the fire this time—an almost unprecedented technological leap of faith, given that I’d had no instance to test their performance prior to putting my life in their pads.
I put Beast into gear, and gingerly (, I mean REALLY GINGERLY) let out the clutch. Now, the nice thing about riding motorcycles is that they really know what they are doing, even if you don’t. They are remarkably self-stabilizing, self-organizing vehicles once they get past the awkward transition from still to moving. If you just leave them alone, get the hell out of their way, they know what they’re doing and a little trust will work wonders for you.
So I let Beast do the heavy lifting.
I relaxed a much as I could, consciously focusing on muscles to avoid tensing up. I took a different route home than I normally would, eschewing the superslab (c’mon, I’m not THAT stupid) and sticking to the slow lanes. I even rode with my four-ways on when I was feeling particularly target-like.
When you are riding a motorcycle on ice, you do without certain niceties, like banking into turns, wheelies, stoppies, hanging off and dragging knees et cetera. But you’d be surprised (…I sure as hell was) that it’s not too bad. No points for style or anything.
Every time I needed to slow down, I’d gently apply the brakes and listen for the distinctive ABS chatter—it kicked in less than half the time I braked. I imagine those were critical times, no doubt, but I’d like to think that my keen riding skill helped as well. It only took me about fifteen minutes longer to get home than usual, and when I dismounted I was tired but amazingly relaxed—the kind of relaxed you might feel after a good workout.
Thanks, Beast. Well done. And a shout out and a high-five to all those Teutonic whiz kids in the lab in Bavaria! Now I can check that off my lifetime to-do list and catch the damn shuttle bus home the next time it happens.

The Butterfly Effect, writ large

I have been thinking about the "Butterfly Effect" recently. You know, not the cheesy movie but the general concept from chaos theory, positing that a butterfly flaps it's wings in Peru, the groundhog doesn't see his shadow, we have six more weeks of winter and that causes a hurricane to form off of Africa--all because of the minute perturbations in the atmosphere caused by that Peruvian butterfly. I had my own "Butterfly Effect" experience, and it wasn't a subtle perturbation.
I was riding downtown on a one-way, quasi-residential, quasi-business street, doing about twenty-five miles an hour and cruising up towards a fairly major intersection with a rapidly yellowing green light.
About three or four car-lengths short of the intersection , I noticed this absolutely beautiful Eastern Tiger Swallowtail floating on the breeze like the notes of a song--then following the airstream directly up and under my visor. The wind plastered it across my face, with thorax along my nose and one wing completely blocking each eye. This crazed kamikaze butterfly was trying to kill us both in some ferocious lepidopteran rage.
I proceeded through the intersection, relying completely on my mental recollection of what I had just seen, while delicately removing the poor butterfly from my face with my clutch-hand and grinding it to bits on my leg(Just kidding--it actually flew away once I got it out of my helmet).
But my good friends in Disaster Relief at the American Red Cross will be happy to know that based on the results of this weekend's ride, there should be a significantly fewer number of hurricanes forming off the coast of Africa--if you know what I mean.
You don't have to thank me.

Great Choice of Metaphors, Guys

Our leaders have seized on the lessons of the American Revolution to help explain their policies regarding the nascent democracy in Iraq and the role of the insurgency. The American Revolution is a most apt analogy, probably the best one they could have chosen—the insurgents won and the most powerful nation on the face of the Earth departed.

The least we can do

"The mockingbird took a single step into the air and dropped. His wings were still folded against his sides as though he were singing from a limb and not falling, accelerating thirty-two feet per second, through empty air. Just a breath before he would have been dashed to the ground, he unfurled his wings with exact, deliberate care, revealing the broad bars of white, spread his elegant, white-banded tail, and so floated onto the grass. I had just rounded a corner when his insouciant step caught my eye; there was no one else in sight. The fact of his free fall was like the old philosophical conundrum about the tree that falls in the forest. The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there."

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The Word of the Day is

From the French, débâcle, from débâcler, to unbar, from Old French desbacler : des-, de- + bacler, to bar (from Vulgar Latin *baccul re, from Latin baculum, rod. )
1: A sudden, disastrous collapse, downfall, or defeat; a rout. 2: A total, often ludicrous failure.

Yay me! A Personal best!

Wow! I just managed to put $10.00 of gasoline in my motorcycle! That's a personal best! Yay me!

Monday, August 22, 2005

Riding Season is Here! (December 4, 2004)

Riding season is finally here!

Woke up this morning to heavy frost on the grass, temperature in the upper twenties. Skipped breakfast—not even a cup of coffee—just a quick look in the mirror to make sure I’m still here. Suited up, polypro and cycling shorts underneath, then layer upon layer until the sweat starts seeping. Almost full tank of gas, but empty wallet demands a swing past the ATM.
Finally roll onto the superslab just before nine o’clock. Traffic is light, but the frost is still present. The air is cold and for the most part bearable except for the little bit of sweat that is chilling me. Within the first few mile it dries off and I start to warm up a bit. The traffic allows me a steady pace just a bit faster than the cars, moving through them like a fish swimming upstream; I feel solitude amongst the cars. They are inanimate objects, just another feature of the landscape.
I put twenty miles behind me, roll off the exit. It’s good to be off the slab, onto two lane roads. Fewer and fewer country roads every day, more and more faceless townhome communities with names that mock the landscape they despoil. Cedars and pasture fall to driveways and shopping centers. Best to enjoy it while I can. I pass one of the last outposts of the old county, a country store selling beer, bait and anything else you might need in a pinch as well as weighing and checking your game. But it’s too soon to stop for anything, though I want to give them my business and help them resist the onslaught a little while longer. I make it a point to stop there whenever I can, tread the well-worn front steps—but not this morning. As much as I could use a hot cup of coffee, I haven’t hit the rhythm yet, haven’t worked out the kinks, haven't figured out the fine details of the ride. I’m still in the warmup segment.
Back onto the highway again. This time it’s Route 50, the great American transcontinental highway from Ocean City to San Diego. But I’m only interested in a much smaller segment today; San Diego will have to wait. It’s a beautiful morning to pull onto this road. Built on a more humane scale than the superhighway I just left, yet still a good road for speed and setting up a rhythm. I drop a gear and pass the pickup truck I’ve been bottled up behind, then find a good pace and settle in for the ride. Note the incongruous field of emus, grazing in the cold December morning.
This section of Route 50 becomes two lanes, very straight in the X-axis with flanking farm fields and pastures, but undulating, a series of gentle ups-and-downs that encourage a steady throttle hand but also conceal some wicked surprises. Best not to let things get out of hand. I back down a bit, and roll through the little villages strung like beads from out of time.
At this point I have been encapsulated in my little insulated cocoon for about an hour. I am aware of the cold, a constant background sensation, though not particularly unpleasant. I roll a gentle right onto a modest two lane pike, a relic of colonial times, and settle in. This is what I came for.

There is absolutely no reason

There is absolutely no reason to want to be in the office today; the best I can hope for is unpleasant. I don’t want to think about the worst. So I choose the long way in, adding a half an hour to my usual fifteen-minute commute.
My fifteen minute blast would practically guarantee me the opportunity to kiss triple digits were I so inclined; even on a slow morning I will add a healthy bonus to the posted limit. But this morning I don’t want that particular experience. I take the long way, the slow way, the bended way. Before I hit the clotted sludge of drone cages, I have the chance to paste a shit-eating grin on my soul that even the worst of today won’t be able to erase.
Long straightaway. Roll on; roll off; drop into neutral. Hands off the bars, sit up straight and relax. Glide for half a mile, dropping into a long sweeping right-hander, then sharply downhill into a tightening lefthander. Still no hands. Rear brake only, finally concede a left hand onto the bar to force it deep into the turn.
Rocking at the light, second in line. Left arrow, fast undulating uphill—grateful to be behind someone who understands and is also enjoying the ride. They peel right and take the first exit, accelerating into their turn; I roll on straight ahead, target the wallowing bloated black behemoth of an SUV plodding across the lane between me and my exit. In front is better than behind. I blow past them in the blink of an eye.
The fun begins: tight decreasing radius downhill right-hander onto the parkway. I remember about hanging, shift my weight into the turn, accelerate. Look over my shoulder at the oncoming vehicle; locking eyes with the driver. In front is better than behind. Right wrist, straighten out the turn, shift across the saddle the other way, and uncoil the right-hander into a long left-hand sweeper. The car disappears in my rear views. I the only one enjoying the trip to the office today?

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Top of my hit parade

The ride I’ve been favoring most recently is about twenty-five miles of unthinking response. It seems to have the densest concentration of three-dimensionality of any stretch of road I’m familiar with, including about a half-mile of consecutive zero-gee rises and turns piled upon turns through rolling green fields and dark cool forests. It’s a seamless stream of pushing the bars from one extreme to the other, digging deep into the corners, hanging, leaning, perching up far forward over the tank, accelerating and braking all at once. I come out physically tired, grinning, and not sure where I’ve been. I wish this verdant semi-rural playground were a little closer to home, but I’ll just have to live with it.
And no, I'm not going to tell where it is.

Pirsig on Riding:

“You see things...on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame. On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it’s right there, so blurred you can’t focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience is never removed from your immediate consciousness…Plans are deliberately indefinite, more to travel than to arrive anywhere…we want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with the emphasis on “good” rather than “time” and when you make that shift in emphasis the whole approach changes. Twisting hilly roads are long in terms of seconds but are much more enjoyable on a cycle where you bank into turns and don’t get swung from side to side in any compartment…Roads with little traffic are more enjoyable…roads where groves and meadows and orchards and lawns come almost to the shoulder, where kids wave to you when you ride by, where people look from their porches to see who it is, where when you stop to ask directions or information the answer tends to be longer than you want rather than short…”

Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

H-D: The "Hello Kitty" of the motorcycle world?

Apparently you can buy virtually any product in an officially licensed "Harley-Davidson" version. There is of course the entire line of riding gear, from boots to helmet. There are sunglasses and eyeglass frames. Underwear for men and women. Barware. Glassware. Trinkets. Tchochkes. Bangles and baubles. Christmas tree ornaments. Beer and cologne. Jewelry. Pickup trucks and stickers to put on pickup trucks that aren't H-D licensed. Do-rags for the rider and do-rags for the rider's pet, to go along with (I kid you not) the entire line of H-D licensed pet toys and pet garments. Blankets, day-minders (what free spirit needs a dayminder? what happened to "...born to be wild?") cellphone cases and baseball caps, (and here I quote) "Clothing, posters, boots, clocks, jewelry, jackets, collectibles, furniture, pool cues, bar stools, engines, helmets, tires, calendars, frames, wheels, books, art, blankets, pillows, calendars, zippo lighters, clocks, stock, wall mirrors, posters, jewelry, billiards, helmets, bbq grills, juke boxes, gloves, chaps, safety eyewear, frames, dog collars, wallpaper borders...Lamps, decorations, furniture, knives, models, mugs, movies, neck ties, belt buckles, signs, telephones, tires, saddlebags, truck grills, refrigerators, poker tables, pool tables, lights, diecast models...Kids clothing, ladies boots, bar stools, pool cues, leather jackets, clothing, watches, toys, t-shirts, collectibles, belts." Who knows, probably a Visa card and life insurance as well.
Of course, H-D was notorious for their failed attempt to trademark (...again, I kid you not...) the sound of the 45-degree V-twin with single crankpin, and as far as I know, the smell of napalm in the morning.
There is an awful lot on this list that isn't, um, motorcycles--but as the shirt says, "Maybe if they had more Engineers, they wouldn't need so many Lawyers..." It calls to mind "Hello Kitty," the brand that isn't anything but--a brand.
Hey, c'mon guys...all in good fun...c'mon...ow...

Daytona Beach motorcycling as metaphor

I recently had the opportunity to spend some time in Daytona Beach, Florida, which would appear to be the dark neutron heart of the motorcycle universe. There are about eleventy-bazillion motorcycles there, and that’s not during Bike Week or Biketoberfest or BikesGiving or Bikemas or the Bikth of July or Bikennukah or any of the other motorcycle-related events the city is known for.
Being a motorcyclist in Florida doesn't seem to require much; the bar is set pretty low and everyone who has a mind to ride seems to clear the threshold without difficulty. The climate is mild, dipping in the dead of winter down to what most of us expect to ride in from about October to mid-May. The sun always shines except for the twenty minutes a day it is raining. The rain--which is a given--is brief, intense and warm, and gone promptly. Three hundred and fifty nine days of the year are suitable for riding; the other week is best spent either in a shelter or going to the Home Depot to buy blue tarps. The roads are flat and straight. Helmets are optional, and when you see a rider with a helmet, it is usually strapped to some part of the bike’s frame—handy just in case the rider decides to have a use for it. It will typically be decorated with highly opinionated stickers, and may in fact be borrowed from a Halloween (…excuse me, Bikeoween) costume. The rare riders who wear riding gear—helmet, gloves, boots, protective jacket or even full leathers or riding suits—stick out like sore thumbs. The oppressive heat and humidity during much of the year makes full gear somewhat onerous; the standard kit is sunglasses, shorts, sneakers and cigarette; everything else is optional. Even the heavily tattooed--and they are legion--ride with their precious acreage of pain-won art exposed to the sky, the rain, the pavement, without a second thought. I actually saw one rider in Speedo, flip-flops, shades and cigarette, tooling down A1A without a worry in the world. Yikes.
What this brings to mind is that being a motorcyclist in Florida is a lot like being “patriotic” in the United States right now. There is nothing expected from you, no shared sacrifice, to price to pay, no burden to carry, no threshold to cross, no effort to be expended. All you need to do is shut up, don’t question anything, slap a magnetic ribbon sticker on your SUV (wow, there’s a commitment for you—a magnetic sticker) saying you support our troops, and get your pre-digested, preapproved news from the Foxpaganda News Network. We need to get back to the point where talkng honestly and openly about what we are doing is not considered treasonous or treacherous. Dissent is the backbone of patriotism.
By the way, for those of you who might be unclear on the concept, it’s not “supporting the troops” when you drive an SUV--it’s supporting the terrorists. "Supporting the Troops" would mean getting their asses out of the shithole we've abandoned them in and getting them back to their families right away.
War is Peace.
Freedom is Slavery.
Ignorance is Strength.
And if you don’t believe this,

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Who knew?

Apparently dogs can get brain freeze from eating ice cream too fast. Who knew?

Encounters with the Boorish: Food for Thought (warning: LONG)

Some time ago, I posted the following comment on two online motorcycle lists. A synopsis of replies follows.

I'm sure you've all encountered this, but it's really starting to piss me off more and more every time I encounter it, and I'm running out of patience: I identify myself socially as a motorcyclist or rider, or someone pegs me as a motorcyclist / rider (helmet=dead giveaway) and immediately I get to hear everyone's horror stories about their stupid accident/their cousin's accident/the horrible MC accident they saw once. This even happens with other riders.
#1--I've got over 150K urban miles/22 years riding. I UNDERSTAND the risk.
#2--Have these folks NEVER SEEN A CAR ACCIDENT?!?!
#3--What makes them think I want to hear their stupid horror stories?
How do you resolve this colossal failure of common manners, decency and politeness? How do y'all deal with these morons?
1. Tell gruesome car accident stories?
2. "OHMIGAWD! Yesterday I saw this motorcyclist--he must have been going AT LEAST 55!!--and there was this exit ramp off the highway---and he exited!!--and there was a red light at the bottom!--and HE STOPPED for it!!--then he turned right!!--and I NEVER SAW HIM AGAIN!!"
3. Stony silence.
I just don't get it, and one of these days I'm gonna go off. Then they'll REALLY have a story to tell.

—Just tell them it's safer than riding a horse. It is. Per capita.
—My favorite being a careful fellow I knew who got himself killed in a Volvo. Usually I just smile and say I know I'm crazy, and I know I'm probably going to die doing this, but at least I'll be having a good time when I go. Which is the truth. Why do they rag on us? Because they wish they had the guts and lack of sense to ride, that's why.
—Generally I tell 'em I had an uncle one time who went home, went to bed, and croaked in his sleep, and by golly, damned if I still don't go to sleep at night, guess I'm just blessed with that risk takin' gene ;o) Cheers
—Just yah yah them, ignore them....or try to educate them without being too lofty. I say.... calm down, it goes with the territory of LIFE.... when you have a life...doing something interesting and fun. At one time, my response was something like: Yeah, it is dangerous, but I'd rather my tombstone said 'he lived active and well'. Now... I just don't bother with these folks anymore.... unless they seem open to an honest reply.
—Nice rant. Loved it. I think I'll go for response #1. There are many gruesome car accident stories to choose from. I am reminded of the pics of a motorcyclist with his head splattered all over the road. What does that pic prove? F*ck all. That's what. You can get your head splattered in a number of different ways but somehow it's only pics of motorcyclists that get shown. Your list of three items just sums it up beautifully. In fact, next time someone bends my ear with a horror story or advises me of the risk, I think I'll just let fly with your three points one after the other. Bang, bang, bang. Cop that.
—You get my vote for rant of the day. Someone said you should just agree and walk away. Sounds good to me and it gets you away from the gas can before anymore hits the campfire. Good luck
—Everyone wants to be your savior. The answer is humor. Mean, twisted humor, but if it's funny to me, it's funny, dammit. ;-)
—Try being a pilot. This is a hazard you are going to have to encounter for the rest of your life. The doctors who tell you of their ER trauma stories, the women who wouldn't be caught dead on a motorcycle and the stories of how little girls burned their legs while riding in shorts on some boy's enduro dirtbike. Just be polite, stop them from telling their story, then explain that you have no interest in their opinions, dammit (you have to add the "dammit" in there to show that you mean bidness). As with the other examples, you'll just have to learn to live with it. Lighten up, Clarence.
—I always answer, 'Yes, people often tell me that bikes are dangerous, but you know, when I was in hospital there was a guy who couldn't walk for six months after lifting his dog's kennel and ruptured a disc very badly. There was another who slipped in his toilet and broke his neck; a guitarist who had his strap break, the guitar swung full circle and broke his jaw in two places; a guy who'd been riding a bicycle when a pedestrian suddenly stopped in front of him- he fell, badly breaking his shoulder so he had to walk around with it at ear-level for four months; a kid who broke his elbow playing baseball; a woman who broke her ankle stepping off a pavement. ‘So it's pretty dangerous keeping a dog, going to the toilet, playing the guitar, riding a bicycle, playing baseball and walking... I feel safer riding a bike’. This is what I say, but I like talking :-)
—I just nod and go "uh-huh" until they're done.
—Two little stories that confirm that you are not alone:
Story #1: My father never knew I was an avid MC person. I was wild child of the family, and he had a couple of members of his family hurt and killed on a MC. His brother, my namesake, rides, unfortunately not BMW, but we can't have everything. My older brother was going to sell me his Jap 500 for almost no money, but my father nixed the deal. From that point on I never let him know I rode, figured it was best. After he died, my mom visited me, and I finally let her know--even she thinks I did the right thing.
Story #2: A couple of weeks ago I scraped up my arm pretty bad doing some yard work (I know I should have been out riding). The next week at work my boss saw my arm and said "Were you in an accident on your bike?" I told her what happened, and said "With all the crap that I wear, if I am in an accident there are really only two outcomes: I walk away, or major injuries and a hospital visit." Since it is well known I ride, every little bump and bruise is attributed to the MC. Anyway, it is not just you, brush it off, go on your merry way, and remember we go from point ‘a’ to point ‘b’ and have a grand ole time doing it, while they are stuck in a cage. Peace all
—Maybe you need to get out to the country more often.
—I'm gonna give you a 9.3 for that one. *clapping* Here's a tip: Move to a place like California where motorcycles are more normal. Most of the crap you just described will go away. Really.
—Dude, some days most things I see piss me off. Chill, have a cold brewsky, and go for a ride damnit! Oh, and just tell these people you heard it before, spare me, thanks.
—Just say, "Yea, I've heard that riding bikes is a great way to clean up the human gene pool."
—You spoke my mind perfectly. The last time I had an experience like this, I wanted to post similarly, but found that I couldn't be both civil and candid about the situation, so I dropped it. I see now that I was both right and wrong: you can't be civil about it, but it does need to be said. :) Thank you, Dennis, for that post. Thank you also to the others who reminded us that getting p*ssed off about it only increases the risk of a stroke. Humans aren't logical. There's even a commercial that warns people to "buckle up, it's a jungle out there," and features a cop pulling over a motorcyclist going 100mph. ?!? WTF ?!? 45,000 people a year die in their cars, and they fret about 2 cases of West Nile Virus ... the list of irrational fears is long, but we can't go too far into it…
—I've found that smiling politely, throwing in an "is that so?" now and then and then either changing the subject or walking off works every time...I control my emotions, not them.
—I'm sure all of us agree…It's a waste of time talking to those people.
—Indeed. Occasionally, I'll remind them that the ultimate cause of death is life itself.
—Most folks, though, are just wanting to be friendly and share their "motorcycle experience/story" which most of the time is social, cool and neighborly. But when their tale/question seems skewed toward bad-mouthing bikes, painting them with blood and gore, branding riders as fools/idiots/kamikaze, I parry with question that makes them re-analyze what they're saying/spreading. Either way, it's generally pretty cool and part with a neighborly "Take it easy." Except for the soccer-mom-type who insists on telling you what a death trap you ride, how she'll never let any of HER kids ride a motorcycle and refuses to listen, giving you the "talk to the hand" gesture if you try to say anything. In that case, you bid your time, then pull alongside her vehicle, smile, and give all her kids a big wave (they always wave back smiling saying "Look mommy! A motorcycle!"), and then one more wave to her, maybe with "Drive safe!"
—I point out that my only REAL "accident" has been in a car, caused by a drunk, and I was lucky to be alive and I'll live until it's my turn to die. Usually ends the "conversation".
—Lean in to it dude! When someone tells me a horrible MC accident story I just tell a more gruesome one! If they ask me why I still ride I just tell them that I would rather die doing something I love then alone in some nursing home pissing myself and drooling all over the place.
—I tell them, my mother died of brain cancer by the age of 51; she laid in bed for the previous year and a half. They shut up real quick, with nothing to say cept Sorry...and yes, she really did die that way, She loved the outdoors, one of her last joys was me taking her for a ride. She couldn't ride for long as she was so weak. RIP Mom
—My story is that I've been hurt worse riding a bicycle than ever on a motorcycle.
—I rode by bike to breakfast and was sitting next to a group of older guys (my age) when a fellow came in and sat down with them, saying facetiously to his friends, "I suppose that motorcycle outside belongs to one of you?" One of the other guys at his table replied, "My life is worth too much for me to ride one of those things". I leaned over to them and added, "That's exactly why I ride that bike. My life means too much for me not to ride." Thanks!
—I usually say the following: All of life is risk management. Each of us chooses the risks that we are willing to deal with. For instance you ...(smoke, drink, hang glide, sky dive, overeat, tame lions) [insert the appropriate risky behavior]. I, on the other hand, am comfortable managing whatever risks may be involved in motorcycle riding. ---
—It may not the location at all, but rather the recipient. I've been riding a year and have yet to hear one of these tales. People look at me and either think that they'd be wasting their time or that I wouldn't listen anyhow. (And both are applicable ;) So, people like you and that is a cross you'll have to bear.
—Let it be expected, anticipated, and have some really fun answers ready for all those inevitable questions and make a game of it instead of letting it get to you. Once I started that (I have lists of answers for the above questions), I came to look forward to someone asking that dumb question and seeing if I could get a reaction out of them they weren't expecting.
—Actually, my favorite answer when someone drones on about how dangerous motorcycles are, I mention that more folks die from impacted bowels than from motorcycle head injuries and if we were REALLY serious about public health, we should mandate enemas instead of helmets. Shuts them RIGHT up.
—I went in to renew my license at DMV. The clerk said to me in an off-hand manner, "Oh, I see you still have a MC endorsement, You'll want that taken off, of course." My reply was, "Well, I may be 72 years old but I still ride around 10-15K miles a year so I think I might still need it." Apparently being old to him means you shouldn't be riding these machines. Cheers,
—"Well, some people confuse breathing with actually living." Works for me.
—I tell them about a friend who was horrible injured because he was driving a car and got rear-ended at a traffic light. If he'd been on his bike he could have moved forward between the lanes of traffic and saved himself. But he was in a car and got hurt because of it. 'Bout this time they sometimes conclude that different vehicles have different advantages and disadvantages...
—Well, let's look at this a minute. What is the underlying motivation of these motorcycle gloom-meisters? Why are they compelled to treat us to these gory stories? Coupla possibilities:
(1)They want to, in some way, connect with you. And they don't know how, so they do it in a ham-handed, stumbling, kind of way.
(2) Fear. Maybe they have their own secret desires to ride that they can't face and the gore stories are more to convince THEMSELVES than us that no one belongs on a bike. Because if it's all not true, that motorcycling is indeed a safe and enjoyable activity--then that means that they've missed out on a lot of fun over a lot of years. And what else might they have missed out on? Folks can find that chasm pretty frightening to face.
(3) The green-eyed monster, jealousy. Those who are envious often try to tear down that which they cannot attain. Or show superiority where there is none.
And in the case of #2, these people should be pitied for their narrow, small lives. Perhaps they will achieve enlightenment someday. So, how to handle it? My vote is to treat them as you would a developmentally impaired person: with kindness and patience that allows room for them to grow.
—When people hit me with the "MCs are dangerous" blather I just smile and mention the first couple slots on my worst ways to die list. "Actually, I'm much more worried about"
1. Burning in a car accident
2. Drowning
3. Freezing
That usually shuts down the over-protectiveness pretty quickly. Don't think I've ever gotten to item ten.
—That happens to me, too. I let them finish the story, look them in the eye, put on my most sincere expression, nod, and say (with as straight a face as possible) “thank you for sharing…” In my experience, that ends the conversation.

RLYMI says: I have been told that response #2 is very effective.

Moses knew (unconfirmed)

Allegedly, somewhere in a book called "The Bible" there is a passage that reveals "The roar of Moses' Triumph is heard in the hills." —though I cannot cite chapter and verse. This, I believe, may somehow connect to the whole 'wandering for forty years' thing.


"Had I gone looking for some particular place rather than any place, I'd never have found this spring under the sycamores. Since leaving home, I felt for the first time at rest. Sitting full in the moment, I practiced on the god-awful difficulty of just paying attention. It's a contention of Heat Moon's—believing as he does any traveler who misses the journey, misses about all he's going to get—that a man becomes his attentions. His observations and curiosity, they make and remake him."

"Etymology: curious, related to cure, once meant 'carefully observant.' Maybe a tonic of curiosity would counter my numbing sense that life inevitably creeps toward the absurd. Absurd, by the way derives from a Latin word meaning 'deaf, dulled.' Maybe the road could provide a therapy through observation of the ordinary and the obvious, a means whereby the outer eye opens an inner one...Whitman calls it the "profound lesson of reception."

William Least Heat Moon, Blue Highways

Friday, August 19, 2005

Stamping out mediocrity at the source

A couple of years ago, I somehow discovered that the Irish Philatelic Service had issued a commemorative series of stamps honoring...Irish Rock stars. So I ordered a set, thinking if nothing else, this kind of magnanimous and open-minded gesture should not go unrewarded. So, barely a week of two later they arrived in a very pretty Irish Post envelope, carefully packed in a glassine envelope (...where else do you get to use the word 'glassine' except in the context of ilicit drug purchases?) and surrounded by enough chipboard to preserve the Mona Lisa.

Ireland has thus honored U2 (all four of them on one stamp), Phil Lynott (c'mon, you remember him...late bassist of Thin Lizzy...oh come on now...dark-skinned Dublin lad, great big 'Fro...), Van Morrison (technically from Belfast, so not quite Irish, if you know what I mean), and Rory Gallagher, the world's greatest dead unknown Irish blues guitarist and possibly one of the world's greatest rock guitarists ever from anywhere.

I congratulate Eire for their decision to acknowledge these artists while some of them are still around to enjoy it and to recognize that popular does not mean bad. Their selection was rather eclectic (it's not like there weren't a bunch of other candidates for the honor...) and it's amazing to me that in the United States we were only offered the choice of "Fat Elvis" or "Skinny Elvis," a decision of monumental bathos and mind-numbing irrelevance. The USPS and Congress should get together and loosen the restrictions on who and what we put on stamps—we should be able to have one square inch of fun per item mailed, minimum.

My only regret regarding my purchase of these stamps is that I seem to have made a friend for life in the Irish Philatelic Office, and I regularly receive their offerings catalog. Its arrival has become a bittersweet event, because they haven't seemed to come up with anything since that's quite so...unique. Probably the poor sod who came up with the idea has been "downsized" for his efforts. Well guys: You can take me off your mailing list now.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

What's in a name?

So far, the Beast has resisted finding its name for almost two years. At one point, it seemed like "Vinifer" ('wine-bearer') was a likely candidate, as the hardcases were always getting loaded down with bottles of wine from nearby wineries (Q: How do you get $100 worth of wine on a motorcycle? A: Buy better wine. Q: How do you avoid the horror of forgetting a corkscrew? A: Drink champagne.) but after being dry for months, that seems irrelevant, and frankly, it was a kinda dumb name to begin with.

My old bike, on the other hand, seemed to suggest its own name early on in our history.

As T.S. Elliot suggested in his trifling afterthought of a book that became a monstrosity of a Broadway show about 'Cats' or something, cats have several names—the names we give them, the names they use among themselves, and their secret name. Motorcycles are the same way. In fact, motorcycles are just like cats except for the places where they are different.

My old bike is a fairly rare and obscure 1983 BMW R80ST, of which fewer than 2,000 were sold in the United States. It was red, then faded to pink, then became rattlecan black. It is rough around the edges, has had many modifications done to it, shows its age, but it is a fine example of why people like old BMWs. It is the two-wheeled equivalent to a little black dress: classic, hard to improve upon and appropriate for any occasion. It's name is "Campaigner," and we have logged upwards of 100,000 miles together.

So, I'm open to suggestions for a name for the Beast. Something other than Vinifer. Or Boanerges. Or anything Biblical. Or from Tolkien. Anglo-Saxon is preferable to Latin. Winner of the "Name the Beast" contest gets, um, a ride or something. I reserve the right to reject anything I think is dumb.

Hunter S. Thompson knew...

No self-respecting blog concerning motorcycling can long avoid the 800-pound gorilla sitting with his feet in the punch bowl--the single finest piece of writing about motorcycles and motorcycling, Hunter S. Thompson's
"Song of The Sausage Creature"

The whole piece deserves reading, so I will only quote this:

"We are motorcycle people; we walk tall and we laugh at whatever's funny. We shit on the chests of the Weird...But when we ride very fast motorcycles, we ride with immaculate sanity. We might abuse a substance here and there, but only when it's right. The final measure of any rider's skill is the inverse ratio of his preferred Traveling Speed to the number of bad scars on his body. It is that simple: If you ride fast and crash, you are a bad rider. If you go slow and crash, you are a bad rider. And if you are a bad rider, you should not ride motorcycles."

That sums it up pretty well, doesn't it?

Going barefoot

I've taken recently to walking around Greater Tyvek at night barefoot. It's been a long time since I did much barefoot walking, and it's certainly one of life's great and underrated pleasures--it goes without saying it's a different experience than walking shod. My legs, my feet, my toes all find their own order, settling into their proper place in the grand scheme of things. The first night I went out it had been scorchingly hot during the day, and the pavement seemed to hold every iota of heat; my feet were literally burned by the time I came home. The next night it had rained, the pavement was wet; every square inch of burned foot still stung, but the coolness of the wet street was oddly sensual. Now the weather seems to be moderated a bit, the street is neither scorchingly hot nor wet, and I'm looking forward to going out tonight once Tyvek goes to sleep.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Kid's toys

Shortly after I got the Beast, I realized it fit like a hand into some deeply buried, long-forgotten psychic glove stuck back in a crevice of my tiny brain. At one point, I stood and looked at it for the longest time, from all different angles, and like the Grinch, I puzzed and puzzed 'til my puzzler was sore.

Then I realized exactly what it was.

The Beast was the very incarnation of ten-thousand doodled rocket-sleds inspired by countless saturday-morning cartoons. In my imagination, in second or third grade, they had very powerful rocket engines that ran on mystery juice, or turbo-motors that allowed them to fly in air and dive underwater. But my imaginary rocket sleds did not have much carrying capacity or wind protection, not to mention anti-dive front suspension or six-pot triple disk linked anti-lock brakes or electronic engine management, did they?

Actually, when I'm in the saddle, I have to laugh because what The Beast reminds me of is...Ultraman. Same color scheme (the photo doesn't show it, but it's silver with red accents) and on the top of the gas tank, slightly off-centered, is the filler cap, a silver circle right where that weird little light was in Ultraman's chest, surrounded by bands of red and silver. The odd, asymmetrical vents in the fairing also suggest some kind of crooked mask, but the Ultraman analogy more or less ends there.

Sadly, the Beast generally won't let me leave long, multicolored slashes of flame across the sky, as I had hoped to do by this point in my life (not to mention the lack of death-rays). But when I look into the faces of the drivers around me, I think I'm lucky to be a lot closer to the way I felt back in second grade than most.

Time for a checkup

In a week or so the Beast goes into the shop for new shoes and a checkup. It's been a little over a year (fourteen months, to be precise) and the last time I took it in was a real blast. I rode to the shop on a miserable sultry evening in mid-June after work. By the time I was all wrapped up with paperwork and noodling around the shop looking at toys I couldn't afford, the sky had agglomerated into a single, ponderous slate-gray mass from horizon to horizon. I headed home on a 'Captain America'-style red, white and blue F650 loaner, foregoing raingear as I usually do in summer—getting rained on didn't concern me.

What I hadn't counted on was the tornado.

About ten miles down the parkway from the shop, all hell broke loose—blinding rain, lashing winds and best of all, hail. No, not the size of golfballs, but you know those little rubber-coated steel balls inside your computer mouse? About that size, but not coated in rubber and not as soft as steel.

Initially, cars pulled off the road because the rain was so heavy they couldn't see—now they were literally driving into the woods along the parkway for shelter from the hail. And there I am, grinning like an idiot, riding someone else's nimble, leggy enduro through the maze of fallen branches, beached cars, water-filled ditches and potholes—all on a surface coated with half-inch ice marbles.

I still have a mental map of exactly where the armored pieces are in my jacket, and where they ain't. My knuckles were stung time and again by hailstones even through my gloves, and I was completely soaked to the skin with intensely cold rain. I finally gave up when the hail became so ferocious I was afraid my visor would shatter; the noise in my helmet was deafening. Still, by the time I took shelter beneath an overpass, I pretty much had the road to myself; all the cars had given up and packed it into ditch or woods.

Ahh...good times, all the better since the Beast was safe inside at the time. I don't suppose I'd be so lucky to have that happen two years running...

In the dead of night

Last night I was awakened by the yips of the neighborhood fox, patrolling the yard next door. This is what a fox sounds like in the middle of the night:





Just a series of tiny little intense bursts of sound without consonants or vowels, eerie explosions of bright yellow that send chills down your spine--not quite animal, not human...the first time I heard him this summer it took me a moment to realize it wasn't somebody's little dog running loose...and by then I had psyched myself out so badly I didn't want to know what it was.

Still, it's pretty cool to realize we have foxes roaming the wilds of Greater Tyvek.

Size Matters?

The 'arms race' continues unabated. I find myself somewhat guilty as well, having upsized my ride two years ago by three-eights or so, depending on how you want to measure things (dollars/displacement/power/fun--take your pick). For over a hundred thousand miles, my old boxer was more than sufficient, but when the time came I moved up into a category of bike that barely existed when I bought the last one.

New bikes now cost what my parent’s house cost—and don’t come with basements or yards. And this seems perfectly normal in the context of our lifestyle of consumption. But here’s something that gave me pause:

Go to Monterey, Virginia, if you haven’t already done so. If you ride, you owe it to yourself. It’s near the Virginia-West Virginia border, west of Staunton (that’s STAN-ton to you foreigners and carpetbaggers) and is surrounded by what one of my riding buddies referred to as the best “technical riding” in the region. (translation—you better be paying attention or you'll be needing help getting out of the ditch).

On Monterey's main drag there is a nice little arts & crafts gallery filled with very nice works made by some very talented and creative local and regional artists. But in the back, almost as an afterthought, there is a personal motorcycle museum featuring the proprietor’s lovingly tended collection, bookended with ‘his-n-hers’ Ducatis (if I remember correctly). And there, tucked in the corner and proudly bearing antique plates, is a mint-condition, mid-‘60s vintage Honda Hawk 305, red and chrome. It looks like a toy, hardly the match for a scooter nowadays.

However, I realized that this was the model of bike that Robert Pirsig rode from the upper midwest across the Rockies to California and then along the pacific coast and at least part of the way back—with his young son Chris AND camping gear AND tools AND supplies for fixing the bike.

From this journey he got the beautiful, perplexing and elegiac “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” which though thirty-some years old, still bears reading from time to time. (For what it’s worth, Pirsig’s neurotic and fussy travelling companions rode a BMW) It’s a lesson that, as is the case with so many things, what you do matters a whole lot more than how you do it. I can’t look at big touring bikes in quite the same light anymore.

T.E.Lawrence knew...

“All men dream but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that is was vanity. But the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.” --T.E. Lawrence

Lawrence also said:

“A skittish motor-bike with a touch of blood in it is better than all the riding animals on earth, because of its logical extension of our faculties, and the hint, the provocation, to excess conferred by its honeyed untired smoothness,” and “Because Boa loves me, he gives me five more miles of speed than a stranger would get from him.”

Lawrence named his SS100 Brough Superior “Boanerges,” meaning “Sons of Thunder,” a biblical reference to Saints John and James the Greater. I believe Lawrence was riding his beloved 'Boa' when he was killed in 1935.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Loud pipes...

Anyone who really believes "Loud Pipes Save Lives" should immediately sell their motorcycle and get a job as a church organist before they get killed. If your survival strategy is counting on a cage to hear you coming, might as well pucker up and kiss it goodbye. Loud pipes piss people off, waste your hearing (...huh...WHAADJA SAY?) and that's about it.

Unless you mean they save somebody else's life, and if that's the case, uh, I'd like that explained to me.

What It's About

Three times in the last three months things have happened to me while riding that evoked an instantaneous, unthinking response so quick and concise I never experienced an adrenaline rush from them. It almost makes me wonder if there’s something wrong with me.

The first was the man reading a newspaper in an oncoming 325i who pulled an abrupt left turn in front of me when the traffic light turned green. He must have been waiting until he finished his article before deciding to go; nothing else would quite explain his odd timing, waiting until I had claimed the bulk of the intersection as mine before he suddenly leapt across the lane. Oddly, there were two other bikes behind me, so perhaps our combined aspect simply befuddled him into incomprehension and he decided to abdicate our presence.

The other two occurrences were cars changing lanes into me from adjacent lanes; in both instances I simply powered around them and out of harm’s way without incident.

The first event I did not anticipate, in the sense of expecting it to happen (he didn’t do the usual trick of simply jumping the turn as soon as the light changed, but hesitated as though to lure me on) yet it did not come as a surprise; I responded to it appropriately and never got that tingling metallic taste in the back of my mouth.

The other two events I responded to as a fish in a school or a bird in a flock reacts when their companions move, and it was over before I knew it. None of the three cases provoked any kind of emotional response in me, no road rage, no interpersonal feeling or indignation or anger. I was in my medium, responding to just another variable in the environment, overlooking the careless human aspect of the transaction.

I was detached, dispassionate, disinterested—observing events from a safe remove, yet intimately integrated in the moment. As trite as it sounds, there was no division between me and the bike. Reaction, response, reflex all melded into a seamless whole. It seemed like all the important work was ably handled by my reptilian brain long before it got to the thinking parts.

The Beast...smaller than actual size