Monday, December 15, 2008

Well duhhhh!

Excuse me. It's a six-pound splitting maul, not an eight-pound splitting maul. What was I thinking? After all, it's (½M*V2). And you sure can't do that with an eight-pound maul, can you?

Holiday Spirits

Yesterday, in a fit of industry, Mary and I bottled two of the last three batches of this year's cider. One was a full-batch blend, and the other was a half-batch of Arkansas Black varietal. Both hold great promise, and I find the idea of varietal ciders increasingly appealing after years of pressing grab-bag blends. We did not fine either batch, accepting a certain amount of haze in exchange for the fuller flavor the extra tannins provide.

They are nestled all snug in their bottles, waiting to make a grand entrance with the new year, if all goes well. I'm looking forward to their debuts.

To top things off, in the evening we set to work on a full batch of welsh ginger beer, a modified version of this summer's hit, "Rat Shandy."

White and brown sugar, a little extra lemon peel and juice; peel, raisins and fresh ginger all chewed up to bits in the food processor (so the raisins don't end up looking like those hideous bloated, swollen ticks--which they tend to do when left whole) and powdered ginger added for good measure.

At one point, the dry ingredients looked like a good basis for a baked holiday confection; some flour and shortening (instead of boiling water) might have taken it in a spectacularly different direction. But this morning I pitched the yeast and so it's on the way to being a fantastic and potent libation for a certain celebration we will be having in about six weeks.

Yum. Can't wait. Slainte!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

A good day

I decided to get out early this morning and get some chores done while it was still cold. Remembering back to how I used to do it in the old days, I layered up plenty and left it to my bare hands to keep things in equilibrium.

By the time I stepped outside, it had warmed up to 22° and the early morning sun was driving the frost off the grass. I tinkered a bit with the chainsaw, checking the tension on the blade and topping off the tanks, and got down to business by bucking a pile of miscellaneous logs we had stacked near the house.

This year I have been experimenting with bucking felled trees into four-foot sections and letting those season in place. When I need stove wood, two quick cuts give me three perfect lengths of ready-to-burn wood. It seems to work pretty well as far as I can tell--at least today it did.

Once that little pile was bucked, split and stacked, I started on the mass of fungus-encrusted oak my brother and I hauled up from alongside the lane last weekend. Some bucking, a whole lot of splitting, and then some more bucking. All in all, by late afternoon I had bucked, split, moved and stacked about 3/10 cord of mostly hardwood--about 38 cubic feet or so.

The split wood fascinates me. The texture of freshly split oak often looks like white meat of a chicken, and today, it smelled richly of wintergreen. Often split oak smells unbelievable fruity, like ripe peaches or oranges--so strongly you want to taste it just to see how that can be. Other times it smells, well, oaky--the rich smell associated with chardonnay. It's the smell of chardonnay without the grapes.

A bunch of what I split today was well-aged cedar. It's beautiful in its own way. When you cut it, it send showers of bright pink confetti all over the place; the color can be so vivid as to defy belief. The interplay of colors on the split face of a chunk of cedar is fantastic, and what it so often calls to mind above all else is the unnaturally fluorescent shade of port-wine cheese. Again, the resemblance is so uncanny one is tempted to taste it just to see...

It seems to make perfect sense to me to describe these pieces of wood in terms of foods; it is a reasonable simile. This wood, in a short while, will be taken into the house. It will warm us and sustain us, cheer us and bring us together, give us energy and help us through the bright days and the cold dark nights. We will consume it as surely as we consume our meals, though not internally. But as food is to sustaining our bodies and spirits, so these pieces of cord wood are to sustaining and nourishing our hearth and home.

For all my troubles, I am very stiff and sore. My back hurts. By shoulders and elbows ache from hefting the 8-lb splitting maul again and again, crashing it down on log after log, reaching, lifting, twisting, throwing, bending, stacking the countless sticks of firewood.

Maybe I'll find a glass of nice, oaky chardonnay. I think it's time to go sit by the fire.

Friday, December 12, 2008


We had some pretty raw weather yesterday. Harsh, cold and blustery, it rained hard most of the day, a lot of it fairly sideways, and it never got more than a few degrees above freezing. The roof leaked like a sieve as it usually does when tested like that, but all in all, the woodstove did a valiant job in keeping the house cozy in the evening.

We basked in the warmth of each other's company, did our various tasks, and enjoyed a glass or two of red wine. All night long, the rain came and went in waves, washing over the house and tapping away at the skylights.

Then this morning, I saw snow on the mountains!

Now, our mountains are very, very old. Nowhere do we have anything that even approaches having a 'treeline' as you might find out west or up north; all our gentle mountains have wooded summits. And our snow, when we get it, tends to be very feeble. So saying we have 'snow on the mountains' may create a false impression of alpinity.

But when there is snow on our mountains, it is very special. Their background, normally a dull canvas of grey-brown, becomes a luminous light grey; their countless sloping ridgelines stand out against this background, the brush-like fur of trees standing in silhouette. They become sketches of themselves, limned out in tiny little cross-hatched lines, delicate but defined. Subtle, sublime, brooding in their grand repose.

There is hardly another time when they are so beautiful.

"...He moves in darkness as it seems to me..."

I didn't spend any significant time outside the suburbs until I was a young teenager. When I was exposed to real fields for the first time (unlike, say, the fields in a battlefield park) I wasn't quite sure what to make of them.

When you grow up in quasi-urban areas, a fence pretty much serves one purpose: to divide this from that. Fences represent boundaries of possession and ownership, of rightfulness and trespass. You are on your side; they are on their side, and never the twain shall mingle, much less meet.

But fences also serve the function of constraining things, and as a suburban kid it took me a long time to realize that out in the country, fences and boundaries were not synonymous. There were boundaries that were not marked by fences; there were fences that did not represent boundaries, only constraints. And sure enough, there were fences that also happened to be boundaries.

I can still remember the first frisson of delight in crossing a fence into a boundless field, realizing at that instant I was not the thing to be constrained. The world became a much larger, grander place in that moment.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

An attenuated world

The other morning around sunrise I walked out of the house into a bitingly cold, still world. It was silent but for my boots creaking on the paving stones, and it was a few moments before my eyes adjusted to seeing the world around me.

I say that my eyes adjusted, but the truth is, my mind had a very hard time parsing what I was looking at. I stood in a world of attenuated color, one so unsaturated that contrast failed and distinctions among objects were dramatically diminished.

The sun was up, and it was not cloudy. It was not the crisp and harsh glazing of ice. It was not foggy—I could see clearly to the far horizon, and every detail stood out from foreground to the distance.

As far as I could see, everything—every last surface and object—was coated with frost. Trees and earth, walls and roofs, grass and stone, everything touched with the same even-handed and egalitarian coating that was just enough to seem like a wash applied to the world. All was evenly muted, reduced to gray scale, toned down a few points.

As I left through the cathedral of the lowlands, the effect was spectacular and eerie. The world around me was luminous and ghostly, light where it is usually dark, yet grey where it is usually bold. The world was filtered for just these few moments. The rising sun promptly reset the palette with a gentle brush, driving off the ephemeral frost in instants, and drawing the underlying color to the fore once again.

If that instant before the sun shone had a sound, it would be one long note, played on a cello.

Wheat, chaff

It just occurred to me that it's been at least two weeks—maybe more—since I've encountered any other motorcyclists on the road.

Now, to be charitable, I just may not be taking a representative sample. I hit the road around 7:45, get to work around 8:15, and do the reverse around 4:30 or 5:00. Half my trip is on a four-lane divided highway that traverses a small town on its way towards the exurbs and a major city. The other half is also a four-lane divided highway, one that is the main crossover route between two interstates. You'd think those would be pretty likely places to look.

After all, these are the main east-west, north-south inbound-outbound arteries serving a big chunk of the countryside around these parts. But if I recall correctly, the last fellow traveller I spotted was bundled up and hunkered down, riding his R1200 Adventure like nobody's business and he was late to Tierra Del Fuego to meet a buddy for lunch.

But that was two fridays ago, at least. And the two locals parked outside the neighborhood cafe on that brief spring-like interregnum don't count. Those silly looking tarted-up hogs hadn't had time to warm their oil before it was time to stretch, take a pee and get sumpin' t'eat.

I like it this way. Cold makes the impurities separate out; the chaff goes away. I have the road to myself.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


My son is a motorcycle mechanic, which when you own two motorcycles, is almost as good as having a heart surgeon in the family (unless of course you have heart problems, in which case it's probably not that useful.)

I had the distinct pleasure of assisting him to a very slight degree while he performed annual services on both Beast and the rockster, which still doesn't have a name. I tend to refer to it in my mind as "El Otro" and for now that's a good enough handle. It's better than "Rustor," the name the weird logo on the tank seems to suggest.

In any case, I mostly stood around in the cold, trying to stay out of the way and occasionally passing tools when they were requested. Eventually I worked my way up to performing routine minor tasks, though always under his watchful eye. We talked about matters great and small, as we always seem to do when around bikes, and we both recalled instances from the past where our roles were somewhat altered; me recalling perhaps our first mutual motorcycle wrenching encounter, which is documented in photos of him holding a 10/12 box wrench and peering thoughtfully between the spokes of Campaigner's rear wheel—which is taller than he.

He recalls hearing me swear for the first time (and at great length, apparently) and I assure him he must be mistaken. This afternoon that began in bracing cold with a biting and omnipresent wind fades away in a gently graying twilight, calm, mild and tempered with the low sun shining through a bank of thickening clouds.

I guess it is every parent's greatest wish to watch their child accomplish something society values, they enjoy and they are good at. It was endearing and fascinating at the same time to watch Phil work with grace, confidence and competence, recalling the child peering through the spokes. He excels at something I can barely comprehend and have never more than dabbled in with mixed results for my efforts.

The finished product supports my impression. I was eager to test Beast out on Monday, but had to wait another day to see the difference. When you ignore routine service and maintenance over a long time, you tend to not notice the cumulative decline. But Beast fired up with a vengeance despite the bitter cold, ran ferociously and handled like a champ; I had clearly forgotten over the years how aggressive a ride it is. Beast's original tautness and response were back, and it felt...polished again.

Nice job. Well done.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Isolation, Solitude, Solace

I spend most of my waking hours alone. My job is a solitary one, both in the essential nature of the work, in my approach to it, and mostly because I am a "sole practitioner" in a small organization. In places where I have worked before, the nature of the job was more collaborative, with many people working in parallel. I am accustomed to having a strong and talented group to work with, sharing each other's strengths and covering for each other's weaknesses.

But now I find myself working alone, literally behind a locked door, in a windowless and timeless underground space flooded floor-to-ceiling and corner-to-corner with incessant white noise and shadowless white light.

I no longer have the collaborative cohort I grew to depend on, and though I have many interactions with people throughout the day, for the most part the interactions are transitory and shallow. In the end I remain a solitary worker behind both a barrier of physical substance and a more substantial gulf of communication and the absence of understanding.

I transit this place of isolation on Beast. When I come and go, again, I am alone in that uniquely peculiar aloneness of the motorcyclist—without the insular shell of a car and all its womb-like connotations. I travel alone, but clamped to the outside of my vehicle and exposed to the world in all its varied harshnesses.

But when I ride, it is different; I am not isolated—I am simply alone.

This is solitude, the quiet of being in one's own space and time, absent the droning harshness that fills your ears even when no voices are speaking to you. I ride, and there is white noise, but of a different timbre. It is the wind around me, and I am holding a conversation with it—sometimes we argue, sometimes we agree. But so far, I have always had the last word and have always won any arguments.

From time to time, I listen to music while I ride. Music cheers me, fires me up, helps the miles pass more freely and I fancy at times it makes me a better, more focused, more artful rider. Other times, I cherish a quiet ride and wear earplugs to attenuate the roaring wind. The solitude of the helmet is an interesting world to inhabit; it is pleasant if you are good company and the mood is sunny and bright; yet I know myself to be pretty poor company when my thoughts are bleak and dark. These moody thoughts stew inside the helmet, making the ride is less enjoyable and the riding poorer for the distraction.

Fortunately, more often than not I find solace in that quiet place, where I flow through time and space with the dulcet voice of the wind for background music. A resting, a restoration, a calming that both prepares me for the day to come and offers relief from the day past.

Isolation, solitude, solace. Not the same things at all.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

"Winter, slumbering in the open air, wears on his smiling face a dream of spring...I couldn't imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter."

It occurred to me today this winter I will accumulate more time and miles riding over longer distances at higher speeds in colder weather than I have ever done in my twenty-five plus years of riding. That'll be fifty miles a day, five or so days a week, almost all of it at (...or above...) highway speeds.

My commute is just about twenty-five highway miles, with a brief transit of a small town in the middle; that translates into about 35 minutes on the road. This morning, the temperature at home was 20° f., making the wind chill while riding about -7° f. Thirty-five uninterrupted minutes of that kind of exposure is just about plenty; knowing there's a warm place at the end helps quite a bit. Generally speaking, as long as you can block the wind, it's okay; but you feel the gaps you missed—like around the visor—where wind cuts through like jets of icy fire into your skin.

I think it's safe to say this ride wouldn't be practical or possible without assistance. My Gerbing electric jacket, umbilicalized into Beast's innards, does the heavy lifting; Beast's heated grips do their part. There's simply no amount of insulation that can keep you warm under those conditions—you must have something providing a source of supplemental heat or you'll find yourself making poor decisions from hypothermia-induced stupidity in no time.

It's amazing what a difference heated clothing makes; so much energy goes from the bike into keeping me happy that I can actually notice a drop in my gas mileage from the heavy electrical draw. But it's worth it, as I am still able to use the 45 mpg bike instead of the 12-mpg truck.

So twenty degrees is the benchmark so far this season; I can't quite remember what it was in the winter of 2006-2007 (as far as riding season; I do recall it got below zero for a morning or two...I'll even concede that riding is out of the question at that point, at least for this old man.)

But as long as the roads stay clear and dry, Beast and I will make a go of it, I think.

A Few Odd Things I’ve Done that I’m Proud Of And Tend To Forget:

· In fifth grade, I stood on the playground at realized that ‘color’ was a property of surfaces, and had something to do with how photons interacted with electrons.

· At Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, I taught a woman how to split wood with a maul. Her male housemates had laughed at her when she tried to split wood with an ax and couldn’t. Rather than teach her the right way, they mocked her and belittled her. Once she learned to use the right tool, she became a ferocious wood splitter and put her shamed housemates in their places.

· Also at Goddard, I stood up to a rather menacing fabulist and freeloader who was imposing on our hospitality and got him to leave.

· I took (and failed) the MSF Instructor course. Upon arrival Sunday evening in a distant city, I learned one of the requirements to graduate was to teach a novice class the next weekend—and find the students for it. In an unfamiliar town. Where I knew no one. With no time or resources. So Wednesday at lunch I went to a library, borrowed a sheet of paper and typed up a press release announcing the course. I then dropped it off to the local newspaper and got back just in time for class. The instructor later took me aside and told me their answering machine had been full with calls for the weekend class and they had never had such a response before.

· My branch of a small company won the competition for most profitable office among eight. The winning manager received a not-insignificant portion of the month’s profits. I accepted half and split the rest among my staff of five.

· I played a practical joke on a dear friend by neatly pasting the label from a can of crushed pineapple onto a can of collard greens. I knew he always punched holes in his cans of pineapple to drink the juice before opening the top. The result was predictable, and exactly what I hoped for.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

By the way...

In case you were wondering, "A Few Words About Motorcycle Couriers" was not my kidney stone.

That is all.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

A few words about motorcycle couriers:

In another lifetime, I worked as a bicycle courier in D.C. year-round for four and a half years. I worked when it was over 100 degrees and when it was below zero. I successfully trained about a hundred bicycle couriers during that time.

Then I was fortunate to have the opportunity to manage a courier service for another dozen years, training a fairly large cadre of motorcycle couriers. I have very fond memories of the people I worked with and the time I spent in the business, and have stayed in touch with many friends from back in the day. I am proud to see the lives they have created in the “real world,” and to remember the time we worked together.

So when I needed to write about a folk culture, this seemed like a natural choice. It is adapted from an interview, and dedicated to all my old riding buddies.


For about two decades beginning in the 1960s, a fixture of the urban Washington, D.C., working scene was the motorcycle courier. Riding his own motorcycle or a company-owned bike, the motorcycle courier spent his day being radio-dispatched on a continuous series of pickups and deliveries in and around the Washington metro area.

As with their antecedents, the Pony Express, the historical duration of their profession was short, and the unique confluence of demographic, economic and sociological trends that brought the profession into being guarantees it will never return. Like the Pony Express, changing technology destroyed the economic niche that created and sustained the motorcycle courier.

“Couriers is a better word than messengers,” according to John C. Steinberger, president of Speed Service Inc. “Anyone can deliver a message, these people perform a service.” He founded Speed Service Couriers, Inc., in 1957 with a motorcycle, an operations center and a two-way radio…though he had drawn up the idea in the early 1950s. In those days, before the advent of portable tape rigs and movable wirephoto machines, dispatches were in the hands of the press courier. The seconds counted when the courier was on his way back with film…As still and motion picture cameras ranged farther and farther into the field, and with expanded deadlines and news shows, needs changed.

The first practical application of the Speed Service System came with the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961. A heavy snowfall stopped traffic; even motorcycles had a rough time moving about. There were a dozen [inaugural] balls to cover. Steinberger…solved the problem by having more men on the street, riding anything that could move.” (Mastrangelo).

The economics and demographics of the early-to-mid nineteen seventies caused an unprecedented expansion of the motorcycle courier industry. The gas crisises had driven consumer demand for motorcycles as an affordable, energy-efficient alternative to automobiles, and the number of registered motorcycles doubled between 1968 and 1973. This in turn led to the creation of a large pool of riders with some experience, primarily young men between the ages of 15 and 25. Motorcycle couriers were, for all intents and purposes, exclusively men, reflecting the composition of the motorcycle riding population of the time. The ready availability of this labor pool, along with the uncertain unemployment picture at the time, assisted the growth of the industry.

A final local factor in the local growth of the industry was the dramatic expansion of the federal government in the late sixties and seventies, catalyzing the change of the Washington metropolitan area from sleepy southern backwater to world-class city. This fueled demand for services by drawing hundreds of law firms, corporate government relations offices and lobbying firms to the area.

Unfortunately, this singular intersection of trends created just a brief heyday for the industry, which in later years would dwindle into insignificance, a victim of other societal changes. Foreshadowing this eventual decline, in 1975 alone motorcycle sales dropped by 25% from their 1974 level; the populations in the primary motorcycle purchasing groups were anticipated to continue to diminish in number steadily until at least 1985. At the same time, a steady stream of environmental regulations concerning exhaust and noise emissions were serving to increase the complexity, and hence the purchase price, of motorcycles to the point that discouraged new entrants to the endeavor (Business Week). This demographic shift has continued unabated to today.

In 1980, nearly a quarter of riders were under 18; by 1998 less than 4% were. During the same period, the total number of motorcycle registrations declined by about 30% from its all time peak, all but eliminating the pool of riders that made up the business in the 1970s and virtually guaranteeing that such an industry will never be reconstituted (Glamser). Meanwhile, the price of an entry-level motorcycle has typically more than tripled (in unadjusted dollars) discouraging investment by young, unemployed individuals looking to make a living. Thus, we can look back on a brief “golden era” from about 1973 to about 1985, when scores of young men made their living as full-time motorcycle couriers, logging hundreds of miles a week riding in and around the metropolitan area, rain or shine, year round.

Being a courier—of any kind—is generally not a career destination, but a way post to something better. When Metro Messenger placed an advertisement for motorcycle couriers in the Washington Post, Oscar—a classic candidate for the position—responded.

After a cursory interview to ascertain whether he actually knew how to ride a motorcycle, his ‘road test’ began. Metropolitan Messenger and Delivery Service (“Metro”) was unique in Washington in that it operated its own fleet of motorcycles, several dozen bright yellow BMWs of mixed vintages, with large radio boxes on their rear fenders and jury-rigged saddlebags made from “borrowed” UPSP mailbags. (Mailbags were inexpensive—unless you were the Postal Service—and readily available; the only drawback was their tendency to occasionally smoulder and catch fire from the heat of the motorcycle’s exhaust system. More than one load of deliveries met its end in such a fashion, with an oblivious rider blasting down the highway trailing a long plume of white smoke.)

One of the two owners of Metro, Reuben Moore, assigned Oscar to a motorcycle, a pre-1970 R60/2, and the two of them proceeded from Metro’s garage/office off “Blues Alley” in Georgetown for Oscar’s “road test,” a baptism-by-fire with Reuben riding his own motorcycle in the lead.

“They met in the Army…Jerry [Blum] was the people person, and Reuben was the one with the ideas, the smart one of the two of them…I became personal friends with Jerry; he helped me buy my first BMW…Jerry would go out of his way to help you if you needed help. The two of them made a good team, and Metro was a great business. It should have gone on…but unfortunately their business model was wrong.”

“Reuben Moore had me follow him…the opposite of what I would do. His primary concern was taking care of his motorcycles…he told me to follow him, and he would put his finger up in the air every time he wanted me to shift gears…if he put two fingers up, I needed to be in second gear…and so on…he was showing me how to shift the motorcycle. I was hired [at $3.00 an hour] but I was damn well gonna shift that bike the way he wanted me to.”

He tells of Reuben coming upon the scene of an accident involving one of Metro’s motorcycles while out on one of his regular jogs around the city. First, he picked up the bike to inspect its condition. Second, he walked over to the rider who was lying on the ground with a broken leg—still waiting for the ambulance to arrive–and told him he was fired. Then he went on jogging. In another apocryphal story, a rider quit and filed for unemployment; under his reason for quitting, he stated, “…his boss was crazy.” Reuben went to the unemployment office in person to contest the claim, and the examiner found in favor of the employee.

When asked about the people he worked for as a motorcycle courier—the clients—Oscar said, “The clients were all the same…except for CREEP. CREEP I’ll never forget. There will always be only one CREEP. 1701 Pennsylvania Avenue, sixth floor…they had a little office with the name on the door at first, but they removed the name…” [CREEP was the ‘Committee to Re-Elect the President,’ Richard Nixon’s re-election committee, and quite notorious in 1973 and 1974.] They (clients) haven’t changed in all the years that I’ve been in business…the receptionists still look the same, act the same… it’s all the same.”

He described an insular community comprising young, white, college-educated men who were “transitional…between things,” working 50-hour weeks, year round, rain or shine. “When it rained, I was wet…when it was cold, I was cold.” There was an egalitarian meritocracy functioning within the group. “The bad ones didn’t last very long; they either wrecked or they quit. The ones who were there, who had been there a long time—they were equals.” Annual turnover could run as high as 1,000%. Typically, long-term employees made up half the workforce; the other half turned over rapidly and repeatedly. This created a group that was reluctant to acknowledge newcomers until they had ‘paid their dues,’ which is to say, had stuck with it long enough to move into the inner circle. It took about 90 days to be recognized, at which point you were ‘fully vested.’ In a dangerous and demanding work environment, riders learned to be cautious about making emotional investments too quickly.

Following the brusque initiation at the hands of Reuben Moore, riders (as they refer to themselves) simply either succeeded or failed. Failure could mean any of a number of things—having an accident and being fired for carelessness, having an accident and being incapacitated, quitting because of the stressfulness of the job, quitting for not making enough money, simply deciding one was not cut out for the courier life, or any number of variations. Success meant one thing—showing up day after day and making a living at it.

The social order within the community bestowed status and a degree of prestige on ‘good’ riders. Despite the image of couriers in the media, speed, recklessness and wild abandon do not make a good courier.

“I wouldn’t think of couriers as risk-takers…it’s a misconception.” A good courier is “…efficient, shows up every day, steady and dependable, doesn’t hurt himself… a good courier, like in any job, is very efficient; he maximizes his motion, so he’s not necessarily racing down the street, but he knows the best route to take…he knows how to get on and off his bike, he knows where to park, knows how to get in and out of the buildings—he knows where he’s going. He knows exactly how to ask for the items he’s picking up…so it’s more efficiency, which translates into speed, which translates into production, which translates into money. Speed is certainly part of it, but there’s a lot of things that go into speed more than just racing through traffic.”

The garage was a special, sacred, safe place for the riders. There was a magical moment at the end of the day when a rider received the order “R-T-B” (“Return to Base”). Though a rider could be fired on the spot if their motorcycle was seen parked in front of a liquor store, however innocently (Reuben would jog countless miles throughout the city daily, always keeping an eye out for his motorcycles, and the list of Reuben-mandated fireable offenses was long and inscrutable) the last stop of the day was frequently to grab a six-pack before heading to the garage.

The garage was the gathering place for riders at the end of the day. Besides being the place where the motorcycles were signed back in and serviced, and paperwork was completed, it was a site for ‘male bonding.’ There was much bragging, lying, story-telling, cautionary tale reciting, and general camaraderie taking place. After a riders’ initial introduction to the business with Reuben (and later, as the business grew, with other senior riders), the garage was the where the real educational process took place. Newcomers would listen quietly on the periphery, absorbing as much information as they could. Old-timers would hold court, telling ‘war stories’ from that afternoon or years ago. Questions would be timidly asked, answers provided. Everyone would share information communally; of particular interest was information concerning riders who had been injured (regardless of what company they worked for—all riders shared a common kinship) or hazards to be aware of. Hazards could be man-made or natural; maybe just a security guard with a bad attitude. This daily storytelling ritual and exchange was key to building the culture of the motorcycle courier.

Timothy Tangherlini, writing in his book "Talking Trauma: Paramedics and Their Stories," says “Storytelling pervades our everyday lives and structures how we view the world. We learn the beliefs of our culture through stories, respond to certain situations by telling stories, entertain each other with stories, and voice our fears, hopes, frustrations, and joys…Even at work, storytelling can play an important role in how we perceive our jobs and our relationships with coworkers and in how we carry out our tasks. In many cases, the stories employees tell play a major role in the functioning of the organization. Workers rely on stories of coworkers' experiences, coupled with their own narratives about work, as a guide to day-to-day life.”

This was certainly true for the culture of the motorcycle courier. There was little competitive attitude between riders, except comparing daily production totals, which were eagerly awaited each evening; the competition was with the outside world as a whole: the city, the weather, the clients, the traffic. Alcohol was ubiquitous; marijuana was common, particularly in the office areas (where outsiders were less likely to wander in) and the general atmosphere was of relaxation and commiseration. In many ways, the role of the garage as safe haven helped accentuate the insularity of the rider community. It was a single sanctuary in a hostile world that had little appreciation for the work they performed.

Riders would frequently socialize together on weekends, taking ‘busman’s holidays’ on their personal motorcycles despite the 50 hours a week they spent riding for work. Oscar says: “ I remember going out on winter days and riding with these guys…and freezing. I remember lots of parties…I remember lots of marijuana; it was everywhere. There was lots of alcohol, but I don’t remember people using any of that stuff while they were working. I only remember it as an after work thing, or a weekend thing. It was a young group…it was, after all, ’73, early ’74, the behavior was fairly typical of what you would find. It wasn’t courier behavior, it was 1973-1974 behavior of people in their twenties.”

The day-to-day working world of the motorcycle courier is far removed from the few popular culture images we have been given. A typical day is a steady stream of overlapping pickups and deliveries beginning between 8:00 AM and 8:30. The rider begins by picking up item after item in series. The dispatcher, generally an experienced rider who was promoted (often a living testimonial to the Peter Principle) takes responsibility for keeping track of what each rider has done, is currently doing, and will be doing in the future, typically having to think hours ahead and anticipate what may come. During the late 70’s Metro had two dispatchers operating on two different radio channels; one was responsible for deliveries across the general Washington area, the other solely for deliveries between downtown and Capitol Hill. A third person served as a dispatcher’s dispatcher, routing jobs to one channel or the other.

With their bright yellow classic motorcycles, bike-mounted two-way radios with long buggy-whip antennas, colorful helmets and later, brightly colored yellow reflective safety vests, motorcyclists who rode for Metro were clearly delineated from the average courier in the city. Frequently, they would be mistaken for police of one kind or another by tourists, and it was not uncommon for the sudden appearance of a Metro motorcycle in certain kinds of neighborhoods to produce a panicked cessation of all visible activity.

But the delineation cut two ways. Besides the garage, the motorcycle represented the rider’s entire real workplace. Tangherlini similarly described the association of paramedics to their ambulance: “Many medics refer to the front seat of the ambulance as their “living room,” and see the vehicle itself as a safe haven from the dangers lurking outside.” The rider was safe and in his element while he was in the saddle, and woe to anyone who impinged on this tiny mobile universe. While there were few opportunities to ‘personalize’ an individual machines, a rider was generally assigned to a specific bike. It became his ‘trusty steed,’ and each rider grew to know his bike's idiosyncrasies and foibles intimately. The rider’s radio however, more than the motorcycle itself, was his talisman, the secret of his power. It was the link that kept him connected to his community of fellow riders and, while a constant tormentor, provided a modicum of emotional security. The rider could hear the transmissions to and from all the other riders, and could create an ever-changing awareness of who was where, a shifting constellation of the community of his fellow riders. This mental image became the virtual workspace the rider functioned in, that was every bit as real and as important to his working life as the tightly constrained workplace that was his motorcycle.

On occasions, a general radio failure could prompt a flurry of panicked phone calls from riders, far out of proportion to any real inconvenience. It was a true breach of faith if the radio was inadvertently shut off before the last woebegone straggler limped in at the end of the day, and more than once an irate rider stormed into the dispatch room wanting to know why he had been abandoned. [It was not an unreasonable question; riders counted on that lifeline if they got lost , had an accident or a mechanical problem.] In keeping with the quasi-police trappings of the job, riders were assigned a “unit number” which was used, sometimes along with, often instead of, their name when communicating over the radio. Radio communications were conducted using a modified “10-code” based on the standard Public Safety Officers series of 10-codes. As with paramedics, the use of codes on the radio represented a boundary between those in the profession and those outside it.

There were some very pragmatic reasons to use the 10-code system. It conserved airtime, which is critical when 30 riders are competing for the attention of one dispatcher; it was easily understood under poor transmission and reception situations; it was nearly symbolic, so it was understood almost intuitively. But is also provided intangible benefits when used in place of, or to augment, plain English. While plain English could be understood by anyone, radio codes helped create a mystique around the daily tasks, which in turn helped define and establish the place and worth of the individual. When arriving at a pickup location, the rider would listen for a break in radio traffic, give his unit number and say “10-7,” meaning he was where he had been sent and was awaiting further instruction. These terse exchanges continued all day long, until the rider was “10-30” (“all clear”) and would hear the eagerly-awaited “RTB.”

Oscar says: “I spent half my day on Capitol Hill; the other half in the K Street corridor…most of the afternoon was spent picking up two or three things for every one you dropped…a lot of times, you’d have fifteen or twenty things in your bags at five o’clock, then you’d start dropping…you’d get off when your bag was empty.” He presented an interesting dichotomy. On one hand, he described being a motorcycle courier as something “you would do for money,” and “get out of it as quickly as you can…the world is filled with jobs like that. What happens to a lot of people is before they know it, they’ve done it for five years or ten years; that’s the big risk.” He said he was looking for another job the entire time he was working at Metro.

On the other hand, he said it was probably the best job he ever had, and clearly he was nostalgic when recalling that period of his life. “It’s a young man’s job; I couldn’t do it now. It’s physical labor, and when you’re young, you can do it and you can still party all night.”
“I loved it. I loved it. It was hard work, but I loved it. I liked the people; I hung around with them after work, on weekends, and it was the kind of job where you didn’t take your worries home with you. It was a special kind of job, because you were doing something you knew not many people could do. You delivered that last package, and you were done…it was Miller time.” A common refrain from motorcycle couriers was “I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this…”

The young men who worked as motorcycle couriers during the “Golden Age” were self-aware enough to recognize they were intelligent, highly skilled, talented, resourceful people doing a job that was dangerous, poorly compensated, had no future, no prestige and no social standing. However, the cohesive nature of the informal relationships within the group apparently provided more than enough job satisfaction to overcome the low-status, inherently unfulfilling work. The homogeneous nature of this group combined with the clearly defined sense of institutionalized traditions created by two charismatic founders created a strong and lasting social bond that invested the work—and the workplace—with significance and meaning.

Thousands of men passed through Metro Messenger over the years (as did many women in later years, though predominantly as bicycle messengers) and went on to successful “real world” careers. It is likely many will look back on their time at Metro as the best job they ever had. What made this the “Golden Age” was the strong and insular network this group created. Metro Messenger was sui generis, and was an avatar of the strong personalities of its founders. The strong sense of camaraderie created within this organization, the sense of place, and the sense of tradition (though the timeline would hardly suggest that traditions could have had time to form) provided a balance to the seemingly overwhelming negatives of the professional equation.

We will never see such a time and place again.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

A Wetback in my own space

Epiphany time.

I work in information technology, doing customer support mostly, and have done a variation of that for the last five years or so. I am a server monkey and a mouse jockey, and as an english major, I try my best to translate technology into plain English so everyone can just get their jobs done and go home. These technology things, after all, are just tools, the means to an end—not the end in themselves.

I am not overly enamored of technology; I like to think of myself as 'technology agnostic,' but I have a grudging respect for what computers et al can enable. For example, I truly believe the internet is mankind's greatest creation—a massive collaborative "hive mind" in the best possible sense. I can only peer "...through a glass, darkly..." at what phenomenal possibilities lay before us. I am confortable with technology in my life, but don't think of myself as cutting edge.

But that's not the epiphany. This is the epiphany: I am a wetback in my own space.

This dawned on me when I ran into one of the users I support, incidentally a non-native english speaker. Apropos of nothing, they launched into a generic (e.g., not directed at any particular incident or problem) tirade against computers specifically and technology in general. Taken aback by the abruptness of this outburst and lacking any meaningful context in which to frame it, I began to respond, but using discretion and good sense, I held my tongue. And for some reason, the encounter made me recall long-forgotten classes from middle school, where I gained a feeble and cursory knowledge of this person's native language.

This made me realize a foreign language is a good analogy, if it is not a direct comparison, for the place of technology in our lives. Technology has slowly seeped into our lives, arriving subtly and incrementally without our awareness, involvement or consent; it echoes the presence of "the other"—those who are not like us, who we suddenly realize are everywhere. We are struck by technology like we are struck by the proliferation of signs we cannot read lining the shopping centers where we grew up shopping with our parents. I saw a great quote recently about technology and generational change, the gist of which went something like "...We only hold passports to this brave new world; our children are its citizens."

Like many threatened and insecure Americans, technophobes resist and resent the intrusion of this new and foreign idiom onto their turf. They will not concede to learn the simplest phrases, the "hellos" and good-byes," the most basic phrases that enable human discourse; they are proud of their ignorance and refuse to become conversant. They insist, they demand, overtly or otherwise, that the 'other' must concede to them and conform to their ways—never the other way around.

Technology happens to be my language in this situation—yes, my second language only, of which I speak a certain dialect and with a pronounced accent—and I am marked by it. The resentment towards technology that so many harbor is almost palpable and it washes over me: I am tainted by association. Interactions are transactional in nature; conversations are bookended with a cold evaluation of what technological obligation I have yet unfulfilled with the speaker.

I must respectfully tug my forelock and shuffle. Whether this relates to our common environment or is tied to some personal interest is irrelevant; I am the annoying little man who mows the lawn, edges the walk, blows the leaves away with the whining blower early of a Saturday morning, sheds the drywall dust from his paint-spattered coveralls in line at the 7-11.

The language I speak divides me from those around me.

Writer's block

Uh, yeah, there's this one thing I've been trying to get written and posted, for like three years in one form or another apparently, and it seems like it's more of a kidney stone than a post, because I CAN'T SEEM TO GET IT OUT OF ME and I keep not getting it written because the ESSENCE of it keeps eluding me, or transmogrifying, or I keep stepping back and looking at it differently, and then I think it's the MOST FASCINATING THING EVAR and then it occurs to me that really it's dumb as dirt, and then I notice certain aspects of my writing that suddenly I'm all self-conscious about, and oh yeah THE DOG ATE MY HOMEWORK. Hey! Look over there ! A bright shiny thing!

That is all.

Au Claire De Lune

Last night was a school night, which makes for a very long day—a day capped off with a nearly fifty-mile ride commencing around 10:00 PM.

I walked out of class across campus and found Beast waiting right where I left her, poised gracefully on three points, calm and composed. The night air had already chilled from the twilight cool to the earnest cold of night, exactly what you would expect for early October. In a long-familiar ritual, I secured the items I wouldn't need for the ride, and geared up in what I would.

I rolled westward, and for the first time saw the moon before me. It glowed with the warmth of sunlight that has passed through earth's air, not the icy moonlight that so often rains down to make the coldest nights of the year. It appeared to be a perfect half-moon, smiling on the diagonal at the occult sun, teased in its passage by a lone planet dancing just above its crown. Its poignant beauty was enhanced by the faintest wisps of high clouds catching and amplifying the dusky light.

It stood before me as I rode westward towards the mountains, and I recalled a piece I had written many years before about such a westward ride in the night, never expecting I would actually make that cold and persistent ride. And as the miles rolled beneath me (snug within my heated cocoon, chilling air flowing around and through me) I noticed the moon was constant, always before me no matter how the road twisted and turned.

As I turned off the great highway southward on the lesser roadway, it rode directly before me, and I saw something I had never noticed before; the sparkling lights of a aircraft transecting the half-disk perfectly, looking like lunar fireworks and calling to mind Welles' 'War of The Worlds' and its reports of explosions on Mars...

At each hill I ascended on my westward path, the warm half-moon shone bright at the crest, as though to illuminate my road. As I crested each hill, it lit up the valley before, and rolled on westward to await me at the next peak. How it anticipated where I was going, I cannot fathom.

In the final stretch towards home, on the gentle ridge preceeding the gravel path down the hill and into the darkling woods, I paused and turned off Beast. I sat in the cold silence and looked back over my shoulder, for now that I had made my way home, the moon and I parted company. It was free now to go with its fellow traveler the planet, and cross the low broad mountains it faintly illuminated. I could make the last few miles without its help, and as I rolled around the penultimate bend, I caught a glimpse of it settling for the night into the deep cover of the pines, and the oaks, and beyond.

The chill of the night's ride stayed with me for hours, despite the warming jacket and a glass of hearty red wine once I had shucked my layers of gear. The great thick muscles are dull, massive, and slow to respond; I delude myself that I am mostly warm, and will recover quickly. But where there is no heat, no warming comes no matter how many blankets are piled on, and next time I will not count on the light of the moon to keep me warm.

Yet there is something to be said for a night's ride in such beatific company, that cannot be translated into simple warmth or comfort.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Traditions and Transitions

The time had arrived.

A few more years passed behind us, once again we stood on the threshold of a grand transition. This time it was greater in practical import yet lesser in the grand scheme of things—another semester of school beginning, but now it would be five time zones across the great ocean, an uncrossable and seemingly irrevocable barrier marking the separation: no spur of the moment visits would be possible in response to whimsy or need, real or imagined. This was indeed a big step.

Yet practice makes perfect. Rituals and traditions help dull the edge of parting, make the enormous seem normal, and provide comfort to those who need it when they need it most. The transition, so few years ago, of turning one’s back on your child and walking away into divergent unknowns—even when it is an act both symbolic and literal—sets the tone. All that follows becomes easier.

So what choice did we have but to take our quadrennial two-wheeled romp through the countryside?

The route was meticulously planned to encompass all the high points in one grand sweep; our favorite roads and vistas, diner food & hot coffee in ceramic mugs for breakfast and trophy pie somewhere down the road to bring home for those who couldn’t join us. All in all, we would take almost six hours to ride two-hundred miles, all within a forty-mile radius of home. We began by striking out sharply southwest, crossing the first set of mountains and heading towards the second—retracing our classic route of years gone by.

The morning held great promise. It was pleasantly chilly under a pale blue sky scribbled from horizon to horizon with a hash of smeared chalky contrails; I felt compelled to find a rag and wipe the sky clean to begin our day. The unveiling of the mountains showed them brightly illuminated in the low-slanted light, pinned flat against their background; the foreground of fields and woods before glowed brightly with the reflective sheen of dew, while ten thousand cobwebs held ten thousand galaxies among the tall grass.

The ride was sweet and smooth. I will not detail the roads here and now; I have already written at length of most of them, and much of their appeal is their timeless yet constantly renewing nature. We stopped when and where we wanted, chatted of things great and small, peeled off extra layers as the day gently warmed and admired the world in microcosm as it rolled past beneath our black-booted feet. Suffice it to say, we made it from Washington to Paris to St. Louis and home—with warm strawbarb pie and apple dumplings—in time for a stylishly late lunch. Tired, dried out, saddle-sore, a little “road-simple” and glad to be home again.

We also made a date to do it again for the next big transition, assuming that it lends itself to celebrating with a long ride to nowhere in particular and back home again. Here's to traditions and transitions.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Personal commentary on 'Coda'

Ha! Just kidding.

Also, the Led Zeppelin album that nobody remembers.


A rider of long acquaintance, whose skill and confidence with a motorcycle I greatly admired, had a ritual he undertook each spring around the time the warm weather arrived.

He would don his riding gear, gas up his R75, and early of a Saturday morning, ride to the nearby intersection of two major parkways. Each road was four divided lanes; their intersection was a meticulously maintained and landscaped cloverleaf. There he would spend the better part of an hour riding the cloverleaf from loop to loop, never actually getting on or off a road, but simply honing his skills, rubbing the rust and dust off, and blowing away the cobwebs.

He would enter and exit again and again until he was satisfied with the results, moving in an endless progression of turns. His object was gentle, fluid transitions, all throttle and clutch—no brakes.

Far too few riders take their riding so seriously. It’s like a musician playing scales: it’s something you need to do if you ever expect to become really proficient.

I was reminded of this rider’s ritual recently, albeit under different circumstances. I broke a long-standing personal rule about ride routes by including a brief out-and-back segment, a straight line doubling back and covering the same stretch of road twice. It’s not like I’ve even seen all the good roads a first time, much less that I can afford to see something twice in the same few minutes. But this was a special case.

My attention was captured by the sign thoughtfully placed by the highway department warning tractor-trailers against taking this road. Steep, narrow turns, something like that, it said. What more could you ask for?

The road begins gently enough, rolling slowly upwards through pastureland bordered by dark forests. But shortly, the dark forests are at the verge of the road and the road itself is lost around the next turn. It ascends steeply through a modest gap, then begins a precipitous and serpentine course carved between abrupt roadside banks of clay and gravel on one hand and dark deep ravines on the other. Light and shadow strobes across the road as you go, and then suddenly you are released again into farms and fields, though these face a different valley than where we just were.

Stop. Turn around. Rewind the road, regain the starting point, put the steep on the left and the drop on the right, climb where we descended and descend where we climbed, regain our original course a few minutes behind schedule and a few miles richer. It’s a four mile-long refresher course in lean, roll-on and roll-off, in diving hard into corners and heeling the bike over when you need to in order to follow the road.

It is a nice easy way, in just a few miles, to knock the rust off, to whet the edges a bit, to restore the fine point at the tip and focus on the fundamentals. It is a joyous rider's étude, a scale to be played from low note to high and back again on the road to proficiency.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Cribbing from myself

(On the Blue Ridge Parkway, June) The parking area is clotted with Harleys and their clones, and their road-benumbed riders. I recognize what they are feeling from their voices and their gaits and the looks in their eyes. A day like this will eat you up, suck the marrow from you, and wring you out like a sponge.

The term I used to use for this phenomenon was “road-simple.” Yet I do envy them [travelling as I was, in a passenger van], and see "the mark of the dragon" [The familiar squiggly decal from 'The Dragon's Tail'—U.S. 129 through Deal's Gap, N.C.] on many.

((sigh)) We never want what we have, and we never have what we want. And where are the goddam Beemers? [When I found out, boy did I feel silly!]

[From the following day] The bikers stick in my mind for some reason. They are representative of a certain type I have watched for a long time. They appear worn, tired, testy, stiff and sore, and not very happy until they are off their bikes and socializing. My prejudice will out, and I make no pretense of objectivity.

Riding, though by no mean exercise, is physically demanding. So is sitting in the sun for hours. So is immersion in constant loud noise. To combine it all on a machine designed for its looks, or in imitation of looks, is folly. No wonder they look and act they way they do. The sport bikers have it right.

Design is life, reality can’t be held at bay for too long, and physics is a cruel mistress.

The Line

I ranted earlier about the reason people give for riding, especially the unfounded assumptions made by non-riders on my behalf. Intangible and frankly irrelevant reasons like freedom, rebelliousness, living outside the law and other incoherent and inarticulate assumptions of the vast endoquadricyclic public.

Here’s the real skinny. It’s all about the line.

A long time ago I described the difference between how traffic looks from on a bike versus the view from in a car. A motorcycle is two points, and therefore geometrically is one-dimensional—a line. A car is four points, and therefore is geometrically two-dimensional—a plane. For discussion’s sake, we can ignore the third dimension, since for all intents and purposes neither cars nor motorcycles operate in the third dimension. And we will also ignore time, although in this discussion it’s a much more relevant dimension than height.

Riding is a balancing act. At rest, motorcycles are elegant, poised sculptural things, but ungainly and clumsy left to their own devices—what rider hasn’t heard the sound of their securely parked bike tipping over once they had turned their back and walked away from it? But once a bike starts rolling, the magic begins.

Pilots know the magic moment for an aircraft; it is the rotation speed, the point when a taxiing plane can rotate nose-up around the axis of its wheels and transition from rolling to flying. The speed is specific to each type of plane and combination of conditions; for commercial airliners it is around 160 mph; for Beast, magic begins at 18 mph.

As we begin our travels, Beast demands I lead, guiding her in an ungainly dance that actually requires I steer—point the front wheel towards where I want her to go. She hesitates, tentative as she slowly finds her way in the equivalent of faltering baby steps. But around 18 mph, she knows her way; she takes over. The rotation of the wheels provides enough gyroscopic stability to keep the bike on an even keel; steering becomes countersteering—turning the front wheel opposite the direction you want to go—and leaning determine the course of bike and rider.
Bike and rider move in four dimensions, in one continuous fall.

As with the airplane in flight, forces are delicately balanced. Thrust and drag; lift and gravity; inertia and centripetal force. The only distinction between airplanes and motorcycles is that lift is generally not a significant factor for bikes—though aerodynamic effects must certainly be taken into account at higher speeds. Air resistance increases with the cube of velocity; and modern motorcycles are more than capable of easily entering the realm where those effects are considerable.

Beast and I have traveled many miles without my input to the handlebars; I simply sit back, detached and hands-free, watching as we move down the road at speed; together we set a course through common consent. A tensing muscle here, a slight shift of weight there; on occasion a turn or lane change signalled with a hand gesture that also serves to deflect our path.

A gentle turn is simply the act of falling over at high speed. As Beast begins to lay over and deflect her course, I compensate by increasing the throttle. The added speed increases the inertial forces towards the outside of the turn, and we stay in perfect balance on the line.

In fact, this is what the line—and the ride—is about: making a precision path in four-dimensions using in essence just the throttle. The line is the solution to a endless rolling equation, a graph drawn across the landscape of all the points between A and B where everything is in perfect balance, drawn with two tires and an 1100cc engine.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Everything which is complex is unusable

French polymath Paul Valéry (1871-1945) once said poems are “…never finished, only abandoned.”

Recently I remembered a project I abandoned decades ago and forgot completely about.

My father died at the age of sixty-four, when I was twenty-one. [As a footnote, I quietly celebrated the exact moment when the days I have had with my son surpassed those I had with my father, and have marked on the caledar the same milestone with my daughter.]

In a muddle after his passing, I struggled to find a way to reconstruct him and hold on to his essence. So I contacted as many of his peers as I could locate—his remaining brother and sister, childhood friends, former co-workers, neighbors and associates, and simply asked each to provide whatever scraps of remembrance or ephemera they could. I would then try to assemble these bits and pieces unedited and unexpurgated into a coherent whole that shined some light on my father.

I was dismayed by the results.

Not like comparing apples and oranges, but more like comparing apples and aardvarks, like comparing the sound of a wild goose’s wing on a moonless night with the smell of a bag of damp gym socks. Childhood clippings from his hometown paper; an article he had written for a trade publication; a letter about him which seemed strangely generic; scraps of old personnel files. Such disparate data points; I could no more recreate a notion of my father from them than I could stitch a cozy comforter from slices of pizza.

I pored over them time and again, unable to find a starting point from which to build the portrait I so badly wanted to create. I still have all the responses somewhere, dogeared and yellowing, stuffed in a folder in a box on a shelf in a room. I don’t even recall what they look like or who all bothered to respond, and I still feel pangs of guilt in recalling that I promised everyone who responded I would send them a copy of the finished product. I supposed I haven't actually broken that promise—yet.

But recently I realized in hindsight (having read Zinnser on “writing well” ) that what I really needed to do was sit down and interview each and every one of those people. I would have been able in that moment to extract exactly what it was I wanted from them, to precisely plumb their remembrances and tease out the threads that meant the most to me. Instead, I asked them to read my mind and heart, and answer a question I wasn’t even capable of asking at the time.

I am not a good enough writer to yet create a coherent narrative from those bits and pieces; I doubt I will ever be, and the urgency and sorrow that propelled me in that effort has diminished and dwindled over the decades. The loss has subsided and life has, in its richness, helped me to fill in that gaping hole. It makes me sad to realize how little remains of my father, how much has evaporated and been lost to time, how little of him I can still recall.

But then Valéry also said: "Everything simple is false. Everything which is complex is unusable.”

Postscript: The irony is that if I want this project to come to fruition, I will need to bootstrap it by creating a remembrance of my father to bring order to creating a remembrance of my circular.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Rain, a Tuesday morning in July

Tuesday morning we arose to a thick gray sky dull with greasy foreboding. Before long, faint curtains of rain fell on the hills to the east. We were treated to a rare, but not unknown, morning thunderstorm—usually one or two a year—that rattled the walls and flogged the ground with vengeful rain.

The rain and humidity stayed with us. By evening, violent lightning and thunder began without prelude or warning, like no lightning and thunder I'd ever heard before. It was the sound of pure explosions without grumbling or introduction. I went outside to observe it firsthand, and it was like dry lightning—violent, sudden, unnatural in its abruptness.

The storm clung to us like a drunken guest with no means to get home. Throughout the night it ranted and roared, pounding the house with fists of rain, then drifting off to sleep again. I don't know how many times it cycled like this, but by morning we were worn out by the compulsive worrying of the dogs.

Wednesday broke with the lingering clouds still with us, sleeping it off. There were hints of blue sky, but soon enough it was raining again. The view from work was singularly English, reminding me of the view north over Soughy Rigg from the Great Whin Sill.

Later that evening, the ride home was spectacular, with eruptions lightning compensating the darkness of widespread power outages. At times, literally the whole sky lit up like a singular dome of light; other times, it was licked by filaments of light that raced across from horizon to horizon.

Thursday dawned cool, clear and breezy—a day even rarer than a morning thunderstorm. The Blue Ridge is visible for the first time in many days.

Vending machine

He slid to a stop by the vending machine. Panting, he realized this might be all the food they would have for miles, maybe days. He pounded frantically on the glass panel flat-palmed with the universal gesture of the short-changed and the gypped.

He grabbed the molded plastic chair from below the wallphone. He swung it against the blank face of the machine with an impotent fury unrealized before that instant. The windowed face of the machine magically transformed into a white wall of ice chunks, then collapsed inwards with a sigh of resignation and loss.

“C’Mere! Help me” he shouted. She came over, breathless. “Here—take as much as you can…we’ll want it all.” He shoved glass crumbs aside with exaggerated delicacy, liberating the motley packets from their pigtail prisons and tossed them to her waiting hands. Chips, pretzel, candy bars, gum, lifesavers—all of them. All his. And hers. Things he would usually never eat in a million years. This was just his lucky day.

They grabbed as much as they could make room for—what with everything else they were already hoarding—then crammed their pockets with what was left; she stuffed some kind of gooey bar in her mouth for good measure and threw the wadded-up wrapper into the machine's empty belly. She bolted for the stairs, smacking the panic bar on the door and bursting through it shoulder-wise in one sweet move like a linebacker, then disappeared up the stairwell.

Looking back over his shoulder, he started to run, then faltered and sighed. He stumbled to a stop and shuffled awkwardly back to the ruined machine. Pack sliding off his shoulder, he fumbled with his greasy wallet. He looked through it studiously, thumbing through the mess of tattered papers it had become—a delicate, dainty action all the more ludicrous under the circumstances. Grabbing all the bills between thumb and middle finger, he tossed the wad, all of it, onto the galaxy of glittering stars in the dark and hollow heart of the machine. Five dollars, five hundred—what difference did it make? He wouldn't be needing them.

“Sorry. For your trouble...” he said to the silence. Then he bolted to the stairs, slamming into the door just before it closed again. He could still hear her footsteps, racing up the stairs ahead of him.

TOTD: Science v. organized religion

Science embraces the unanswerable; organized religion simply makes answers up.

That is all.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Point Of View

My literal worldview has recently taken an interesting turn.

I live a few miles east of a very distinctive mountain, an outlier of the Blue Ridge. Not quite a monadnock, more a malformation of the main ridgeline. It sits below and to the east of the Blue Ridge’s spine, and has a unique silhouette—our very own Gibraltar.

Decades ago, I hiked to the summit of this mountain with a friend, a hike certainly more significant in the journey than the destination; its summit is completely wooded and without a view to speak of. Most of what I remember from actually being on the mountain revolves around gathering acorns in a Euell Gibbons-esque fit of stalking the wild whatever. Later, I wrote about the relationship of the broad protective flanks of the mountain with the tiny village nestled beneath it—one of my first little essays.

When we flew west a year or two ago, I could look out and watch the mountain slowly sliding past the left wingtip, squashed by altitude into a mere crumple in October's multicolored carpet.

Now I see this mountain in the morning to my right as I leave, the horizontal sun just beginning to light its flanks; I can gaze across the piedmont at it from where I work. My whole world is encompassed in that glance.

Coming home, I notice it oddly misplaced to my left along the main highway—a highway I always thought of as straight. How in the world did it get over there? Now I realize how extreme the cumulative effect of countless minor bends in the road are, and can instantly reconcile the map in my head with the map on the printed page.

When I turn down our lane, I look directly at the mountain, often with the mottled sunset splashed across the sky behind it. With this magnificent reference point in mind, I can now understand and organize, in three dimensions, the landscape in which I live. I can trace the roads, the rivers, the long low rolling hills, and piece it all together.

The map geek in me finds that very satisfying.

The smells I uniquely associate with our home in the woods:



Virginia pine needles warming in the sun.

Tansy, as it grows and when it is dried.

Mimosa blossoms.

Various types of incense:

Balsam fir.Irish peat.Jasmine.

Chainsaw, running and still.

House funk.

My spiced coffee.

Whatever that liquid hand soap is that we started using because regular soap is so hard to rinse off.

Fresh butter.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Meat Rockets

Since we left Lithuguyistan some two-and-a-half years ago for the hinterlands, my balance of attention while riding has shifted dramatically.

In the urban and suburban mix, most of your attention is devoted to teasing out the human hazard threads from the fabric of the riding environment. Oncoming cars and sudden careless left turns across your path, cars exiting parking lots and driveways unexpectedly, road hazards left behind by slovenly workcrews, construction debris and common litter, oblivious pedestrians with iPods and lattes blithely appearing out of nowhere, red-light runners and overt hostility are all part of the game, tossing and tumbling in various proportions as the miles pass by.

But out here, there are so few intersections to speak of—those benchmarks of hazard for motorcyclists—the human hazard is drastically diminished. Certainly the same foolish and thoughtless behaviors exist here; but there are so many fewer people exhibiting those behaviors that the level of risk they represent is dialed down dramatically.

The slack is taken up by a different kind of risk, one that certainly existed in the suburbs, but has much greater import out here—the wildlife, otherwise known as Meat Rockets.

These silent, stealthy menaces wait along the roadside, suicide bombers on an anti-human jihad, ready to hurl themselves into traffic with eighty pounds of venison strapped to their ribcage in a valiant effort to take us out. The term "Meat Rocket" was coined of necessity; by the time a sharp-eyed spotted calls out to the driver "Hey! Look out for those deer on the roadside up ahead..." it's probably too late. But a crisp "MEAT ROCKET!" alerts the driver to all they need to know.

And it's an apt term, if you've ever seen the crazed and inscrutiable boltings of a buck, a doe, a fawn, or even a lowly squirrel. As fighter pilots described the spiral corkscrew of smoke from a SAM locking in on their doomed airplane, so could you try to describe the path of an incoming Meat Rocket, hell-bent on your destruction. Whether the Meat Rocket finds it's target, forces you into evasive manuvers or simply distracts you and leads to a crash, the final score is usually the same: Meat Rocket 1, Rider 0. Frequently, the final score is a tie, with both sides losing badly.

These furry roadside IEDs—Insane Executioner Deer—exist by the thousands. For each one that is killed, ten more are waiting to take its place. Needless to say, there is never a good outcome from an encounter, particularly if you are on two wheels when targeted. [I have heard apocryphal tales of late model BMWs rending deer in twain; the massive A-arm casting of the paralever front suspension both withstands the impact by transmitting it directly from the front fork assembly into the stressed-member engine/frame assembly, while at the same time neatly cleaving the incoming Meat Missile. Most other traditional fork tube suspensions are too flimsy to endure such a violent impact and fail with devastating consequences for rider, bike and meat missile.]

Certainly squirrels, birds, rats and pigeons are common enough hazards in the urban or suburban motorcycling environment; they represent the small-arms fire of this interspecies battle. Deer are even common enough in our modern world that most riders will grow accustomed to looking for them, particularly at those seasons of the year when the jihadi blood runs hottest. What I still have a hard time getting used to is cows.

Cows are the ICBMs (Immensely Collossal Beef Missiles) of the human/animal intifada.

Several times this summer I have encountered a lone loose cow on the two-lane country road in the few miles between my house and the main road. There's absolutely nothing like first thing in the morning leaving for work, heading down the road with a song in my heart, leaning into the fourth ess-turn of nine, rolling on the throttle, coming around a perfectly-banked right-hand sweeper...and there, standing full-across both lanes, stands 1200 pounds of black-and-white bovine inertia without a care in the world.

Now, I understand that some of these ICBMs are designed to go off on contact; others are proximity-fused, and you'd best keep your distance. Do you cut the red wire or the green wire? You do neither; it's a tense little standoff. These ICBMs cannot be defused, reasoned with, cajoled or otherwise induced to do your bidding. I stare, and snort. Pawing the ground impatiently, I blip the throttle. No reaction. I honk once. No reaction. Eventually, I shut off the engine and wait patiently, and in the end, this seems to produce the best results. With quiet grace and dignity, and a modicum of mutual respect, we go our own ways unmolested and unharmed.

I stop at the end of the next driveway and walk up to the house in all my riding regalia, letting the neighbors know once again that Bossie got out, and hope everyone else heading out is paying attention this morning.

There is a certain cognitive dissonance when an ex-city dweller finds themselves delayed by a cow who is not particularly concerned with someone else's schedule. It's refreshing in a peculiar way, and in truth, it is comical (when the outcome is good) and a pleasant counterpoint to a commute built on sitting still in interstate highway traffic.


Kris Kristofferson was right

So I had 'the conversation' again today.

I was working alongside two folks with whom I have recently become acquainted, when one asked me if I rode "that motorcycle" everyday. I answered in the affirmative, bracing myself for the inevitable.

"SOOOO dangerous..." they began, and segued into a detailed, blow-by-blow recital of their personal experience with the bleeding edge. The tale included the road involved (check), the vehicle they were driving (car, check), the behavior of the moron motorcyclist (check), the inevitable result (check) and ended with the phrase "...into the guardrail" (check).

I found myself starting to make the usual arguments, in this case pointing out that most motorcyclists were morons and this particular individual most certainly fell into that category. But I also pointed out the behavior the story's hero was partaking in happened to be--in all honesty--the best part of riding. He was attacking a swoopy, sweeping road, one which I've written about before.(Oddly, in the context of a similar incident. Hmm.)

"It's the freedom" one of them sagely opined, the other soberly nodding in silent affirmation, as though that little phrase was the be-all and end-all of the matter, the alpha and the omega.

Well, I was dumbstruck by that comment. Of all the words, phrases, metaphors, similes, cliches and bad puns I've used to describe riding, I honestly don't think I've ever thought of riding in terms of freedom, per se. It's a lot of other things to me, but freedom—in this context, anyway—implies the absence of something, and riding has never been about absence. It's always been about the presence of something, the active embrace of an experience that involves me fully on a different level than other endeavors do.

The exchange made me realize there is a gulf between riders and non-riders that is uncrossable. There is so little common ground between the two camps, and we have been our own worst enemies by letting the least articulate of our brethren set the terms of the dialogue. Those of us who believe riding is something to be affirmatively embraced as an end in itself--as opposed to simply serving as an avenue of escape from some nebulous, oppressive reality--need to speak up more clearly, more forcefully, more articulately.

At this juncture, the discussion (if we can even call it that) is a narcissistic, self-indulgent, self-obsessed diatribe all about loud pipes and totalitarian edicts, about not wearing helmets, about

Otherwise, the non-riders of the world will never get past the poorly-crafted illusion that is presented on our behalf, and we will continue to exist only as another unpleasant and outdated hollister-sturgis-easy-rider misunderstanding.

Kris Kristofferson was right: "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose." Well folks, that sure as hell isn't why I ride.