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.