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 father...how circular.