Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Out the other side:

Living fully

"So you're still trying to kill yourself riding one of those murder-cycles, huh?"

Those were the first words out of the mouth of a man I used to work with but hadn't seen in years. We had a chance encounter at a gas station where I was refueling Sophie. I'd let the fuel run down lower than I usually do. This created a need to stop farther North. This guy's hometown.

Like a drop-down menu on a computer, a hundred possible replies scrolled in front of my mind's eye. Should I be defensive? How about offensive? Was there any way to explain to this man with limited capacity to understand? My redneck country raising stopped me. Grandpa always seemed to explain things to me based on horses or pigs. I could understand the horse thing. We rode, roped, and rodeo'd. But pigs? Never had anything to do with them except eating the things.

"Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and annoys the pig."

Here's the other favorite one. "Never wrestle with a pig. You'll just get muddy and the pig likes it."

Armed with my redneck wisdom I chose another answer. I would be philosophical with just a hint of a put-down.

"I may well die on a bike, but in the meantime I will have lived more than most of you!"

My voice expressed what was in my heart. After Russ died I spent a lot of time thinking about riding. I thought about the ever-increasing risks. I thought about my own increased exposure. I'm riding farther to work than I ever have before. For a while it was like being in a dark tunnel. I call it a tunnel because I shortly came out the other side. Riding is too important to me to quit. Life would be too empty without it.

What surprised me is that I even thought about these things at all. I've always had the attitude that no matter what happened I would find the answer at the right time. These times of contemplation are a new development. Is it because I'm finally outgrowing the youthful feeling of being immortal? ( twenty some years late ) Is it because the kids are grown and I know how alone Katie would be if I were gone? ( maybe she wouldn't be lonely, that's a scary thought ) Is it the coincidence of having several friends perish on bikes in a short time? People like Larry Grodsky who you think would be the last ones it would happen to? My friend and understudy Russ? Has Superman finally discovered that the effects of Kryptonite are actually real?

What I do know is that I will ride as long as I possibly can. There may an eventual price to pay. That price tag will still be less than what I've gotten in return. This post is a carthasis. ( look it up ) Take what you will from it. Encouragement, conviction, determination. Or just entertainment. Your choice. Allow me my passage out of the tunnel and we will move on to bigger, better, and fun things.

Commuting by bike IS more dangerous than driving. It is an undisputed fact. We are less visible, more vulnerable, and bad decisions hurt us much more. The situation is made more deadly by the shear numbers of idiots driving. I use the word "idiots" with the full connotation implied. It doesn't take brains to drive a big, fancy, SUV. Just money, it seems. It looks like it doesn't take any skill to commute in a car. Judging by what I see over and over, all you have to do is be good at juggling. If you can't actually "drive" but you can "aim" the car, you're good to go. To top that all off, if you can adopt an attitude that traffic needs to look out for you instead of the other way around, so much the better. It's no wonder that we get bummed out looking at how the odds seem to stack against us even more.

The physical hazards by themselves can be daunting enough. Then we have to be subjected to the mental hazards. These same people who have no driving skills and are afraid to do anything "different" have the audacity to condemn us. Can you imagine?

Some of it is the fault of riders. You notice I didn't say "our own fault". I acknowledge no kinship with some of the riders out there. The only thing we have in common is the fact that we are using two wheeled vehicles. Putting on a helmet does not infuse "smart waves" into a person's head. Some of it is that people are afraid of things that are different than what they know. If a person is brainwashed into a mold then anyone who breaks out makes them feel uncomfortable. Then there's those who are just plain envious. They wish they had the nerve to do what we do. Instead of being happy for us they try to make it look like we are "bad" in some way. I guess it makes them feel better about the fact they have no guts. Lastly, there's those who are like parrots. They repeat what they are told without any thought going into it. Someone said motorcycles are dangerous so that's enough for them.

Whoa! Looking at all that makes it look like a big problem, doesn't it? It's easy to just sort of get stuck there. Going 'round and 'round in some sort of endless spin cycle. I almost got caught up in the whirpool, myself. If it can happen to me than I won't think less of you for being there. Let me share with you how I pulled the plug.

First, the physical hazards. I don't believe in fate. My conviction is that we make our own luck. At the same time none of us are immune to "time and unforeseen occurrence". If I spend a lot of time on a bike, there's a bigger chance I'll die on a bike. It could be a boat, a plane, or anything else. We had an air show this last weekend. A 73 year old man brought a vintage fighter plane to show off. He was a flight instructor and had over 4000 hours in a variety of old planes. When the show was over he took off. Shortly afterwards the plane plunged to the ground, hitting a house. The fireball killed the man. Nobody was home at the house. This man pursued what he loved and died in the process. What do you think about the quality of HIS life? Is it fair that a skilled pilot would crash like that? It's like the old question of why the Grey Whale, the biggest creature around, has a throat opening so small they can only eat very tiny things like shrimp. IT'S JUST THE WAY IT IS! In some sort of strange way it's kind of comforting.

I'm determined to keep my mental and physical skills as sharp as possible. Fortunately, I'm an instructor which provides ample opportunity to visit the honing wheel. I would urge you to seek out any chance you can to refine and test your own skills. Battles will happen. How fierce your opponent appears depends in large measure on what weapons you are able to bring to bear. Idiots on the road are beyond our control. Available weaponry is something we CAN control. I face the hazards with newfound strength and resolve. The death of my friend Russ still haunts me but I chose to use it as a positive. For example, when Katie and I took a ride Sunday we came upon an elderly couple in a Silver Buick. They were doing 40 in a 55 mph stretch.

I'm sure I felt the same urge Russ felt to pass the slower traffic quickly. Thinking of Russ, I waited a little longer to pass. We were on a rural road with several houses on the left. The driver could have been going slowly waiting for a driveway. Or just because old people typically drive in less of a rush. It was a simple thing that didn't hurt me at all to wait until we were at a stretch with no driveways on the left. Patience was my weapon of choice. Thank you, and Godspeed, Russ!

Mental hazards are another thing we can control. Here's my take. What possible value can I get from something a barely skilled commuter in a car could say to me? How could anybody who's afraid to try something "daring" have any right to pass judgement on me for riding? The average commuter in a car tries to drink coffee, smoke a cigarette, and talk on the cell phone. All at the same time!! The same people who really should spit out their gum before they walk down the sidewalk. ( if you get the reference about walking and chewing gum at the same time ) Tell you what. I'm an intelligent person who daily puts my skill and wits to the test. Why don't they at least TRY to ride a bike? Then, just maybe, we'll have some sort of barely common reference point for a discussion.

I know it sounds harsh. Ponder it for a while. What possible reference point can there be that makes what they have to say mean anything at all to us? Any fool can flap their lips and make sounds come out. Doesn't mean it's worth anything. It's all about being Teflon. Don't let it stick.

There's my two answers to the obvious problems. Further musings reveal the fact that riding is just too valuable to give up. More than valuable, really. I'd use the word "precious".

One of these days I'm going to write a book entitled "Everything I Wanted to Know I Learned From Motorcycling". If I crash and die tomorrow it still will not change the richness I've known from riding. It would take too long to share all the good. Happily, I don't have to. Unlike the car commuters, you have the common frame of reference. You KNOW.

I want to leave you with a last thought based on what Grandma would tell me when I didn't want to finish a meal. I'm sure you heard something similar. She would tell me how children were starving in poor countries so I had the moral obligation to finish my food. As a child my reaction was to urge her to send this disgusting stuff to THEM. Now I realize the wisdom in that statement.

Recently we watched a young woman waste away and die from cancer. She was able to get a couple of rides on a bike from someone who was trying to help cheer her. The rides lit some sort of fire inside her. She found the joy we feel. She never got the chance to pursue it. A year or so ago my dear old friend Walter passed away. When I met Walter he was 84. This man was a teenager in the Mid-West during the Dust Bowl days. He told me of being on a tractor and seeing the sky turn black with dust. Younger days saw trips across the USA on an old Harley. Walter still wore the leather cap. I took him on rides with me on the back of a bike as I could. Eventually he got to the point where he couldn't sit on the bike anymore. Walter died in his 90's. You should have seen his face when he got off my bike. You should have seen the sadness when he could no longer even ride as a passenger. There are many more examples of those who would love to ride but can't for some reason.

I really think it's a sin to not enjoy what our hearts move us to do while we are able. So many have been robbed of the ability to even have a choice in the matter. It isn't limited to riding. Bikes just happen to be our heart's passion. I have a passion for riding and teaching others to ride better. To go with them I've been blessed with the physical and mental faculties to pursue that passion. I will not willingly turn my back on the gift I've been given. To do so would just be wrong. I have come out the other side stronger and with even more appreciation for riding.

Miles and smiles,



dan_durham said...


n 1: (psychoanalysis) purging of emotional tensions [syn: katharsis, abreaction]
2: purging the body by the use of a cathartic to stimulate evacuation of the bowels [syn: katharsis, purgation]

I'm assuming you used the word in the #1 context above? :)

dan_durham said...

"they" as in car commuters, really don't understand - as you said they have never tried commuting on a bike. I have had conversations with folks before where they are horrified when I tell them the length of my commute. "Oh my gosh! that is so far, im sorry to hear you have to drive that!" (50 miles one way).

Reality is that the commute is the one thing I look forward to in my day. When I tell them "it's ok, I commute on my motorcycle!" they don't seem to understand the difference.

I guess that is the very concept that "they" will never understand: LIVING the commute rather than just ENDURING the commute.

I arrive at work fresh and alert from the ride in, and leave work excited and alert anticipating the journey home.

Mad said...

I'm in complete agreement with you Irondad and your argument is even stronger when you consider that in the end, whether we ride or drive, we all die.

irondad said...

In my WRITING I used the word in the #1 context. Once in a great while RIDING another driver will provide context #2. ( no pun intended with the #2 )

I'm totally with you on living the commute rather than enduring the commute. The ride is often the highlight.

we all go the same destination ( death ) eventually. It's what we do on the journey that makes the difference, isn't it?


Dr. J. Hawk said...

I've been riding for 5 years now, after a 30 year hiatus. My wife suggested I start riding after I got a job that required a 70 mile, roundtrip, commute. (I asked what spaceship took my wife and left this woman in her place?) But I discovered something other than the joy of riding. Every morning I felt fresher, ready to tackle a new day and take on new challenges. And every evening the ride home let me lose all the annoyances, anger, and arguments that had stuck in my brain over the course of dealing with the neurotics and idiots that are my co-workers and students (not necessarily in that order.) The ride cleans my head and heart so that when I get home to my honey, I'm not dumping the pent up crap on her. The ride has been good for other aspects of my life beyond the simple economics of saving gas. By the way, I've turned the double nickle on RTW day, and I still get to ride to work. What better B-day present could you ask for?

Tiberius said...

I commute 45 miles each way, daily on my HD, with my little dog Shorty. I am 53 years old and have been riding since I was a teenager, and have been commuting on bikes for over twenty years. Shorty has been riding with me for over 11 years,...he is 12 1/2 years old now.
I can't imagine doing this commute in a car. I run from Ventura to Santa Barbara on the California coast. My commute is beautiful. The traffic isn't, unfortunately. When it comes time to split lanes, most drivers give me room. There are those that seem to resent the mobility that bikes have, but luckily they seem to be a relative minority on my commute.
What I don't understand is the fact that on weekends you can wear out your waving hand with how many bikes are on the road. On Monday...where'd they all go? I see a lot of stickers on back windows. (Hey buddy...nice sticker...where's your bike?)
Having come to the age when a lot of my friends are, well to put bluntly, dying, I have an even more dedicated attitude toward riding. If crashing out is my destiny, so be it. You put it well, just like Burt Monro did. You live more in one minute of motorcycle riding than most people ever do that don't ride...or something to that effect.
...sometimes riding to work is the only reason I come to work...

irondad said...

dr. j,
Happy birthday! You describe perfectly one of the best things I've found about commuting on two wheels. Enjoy the new "alien"!

I'm with you, where do they all go on Monday? At least the recreational riders pump money into the industry. Where I used to work I would joke that the only reason I was there was to have somewhere to ride my bike to.

By the way, how does "shorty" travel on the bike?


Jim Kane said...

Glad to read that you elected to continue riding. I've been asked by at least one non-rider if I'd continue riding after an accident, and I answered that it would depend on whether I could safely do so (mentally and physically). It sounds like you made a realistic assessment of the risks vs. rewards, and came to the same conclusion I always have: _worth it_.

One minor technical note: in the Atom feed for your blog, for some reason the titles are all blank. This causes some ugliness on a site that I work on (I don't want to cop any free advertising, so you can email me at jkane at eponym dot com if you're interested in the problem I'm describing). As a fellow commuter I have highly enjoyed reading your blog.

DaveT said...

30 miles a day, round trip. 42mpg on the DL1000 vs 22mpg in the pickup (Ford ranger, 2.4l 4cyl, 5spd). Average fuel cost, $3.15+ OUCH!

I figure that's 15gal vs. 28gal. Or about $40 a month just in gas. The time I save, the sanity I retain, the enjoyment and relaxation are really priceless. I look forward to driving to work, and to coming home.

The funny thing... I drive a pickup and deliver auto parts for a living. LOL I have tried to talk them into letting me use a bike when it's small stuff, but no go. Oh well, insurance issues they tell me.

Irondad, keep up the great writing. And I'm glad you made it through your crisis of faith. Losing a friend is tough. It's worse when it's a close friend who makes you see your own mortality.

dickaal said...

Dan,I recently crashed, totaled my Ultra Classic and broke my collarbone. 3 comments on the crash. 1; I had just taken the advanced rider course a month earlier (oh well) 2.in 20 plus years of riding I never had an accident that wasn't my fault. 3 until this one I had never broken any bones. But my new Road King will be here Aug 1st and I can't wait. When I went to the doctor with the broken collarbone he said "so you are going to just get right back on and ride again aren't you?" "You won't change"
I told him that I had the same problem with my wife, she fell in the bathtub 10 years ago and broke her knee and damaged her back but you know I still can't get her to quite taking showers. I chose to live and not avoid something I really enjoy because it may be dangerous. EVERYTHING is dangerous and NOT LIVING is not an alternative.
Ride on.

Dick said...

Dan,I recently crashed, totaled my Ultra Classic and broke my collarbone. 3 comments on the crash. 1; I had just taken the advanced rider course a month earlier (oh well) 2.in 20 plus years of riding I never had an accident that wasn't my fault. 3 until this one I had never broken any bones. But my new Road King will be here Aug 1st and I can't wait. When I went to the doctor with the broken collarbone he said "so you are going to just get right back on and ride again aren't you?" "You won't change"
I told him that I had the same problem with my wife, she fell in the bathtub 10 years ago and broke her knee and damaged her back but you know I still can't get her to quite taking showers. I chose to live and not avoid something I really enjoy because it may be dangerous. EVERYTHING is dangerous and NOT LIVING is not an alternative.
Ride on.

irondad said...

looks like you win all the way around on the bike! Sounds you like the DL. I thought the auto parts folks always had cute girls doing deliveries? :)

crashes you survive are "bumps on the road of your ultimate journey". Learning experiences, all. Bummer timing on your last crash. Hope you're healed enough to ride the new Road King. Good thing the wife didn't give up on showers!


Steve Williams said...

We mourn the loss of friends and loved ones. The circumstances surrounding deaths resulting from thinks other than old age or illness give us a chance to reflect on what we value. For many safety and the feeling of isulating themselves from death is their prime directive. For others the reflective result is a renewed committment to living fully. Riding, sailing, hiking, climbing, swimming, skiing, canoeing, diving..... all have risks and rewards.

I don't have a choice over death, but I do have a choice over how I will live. Too much safety and fear of death points me to what Thoreau describes:

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.
Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862), "Walden", 1854

In the face of grief over the loss and departure of friends and loved ones I try and accept my fear and make choices to continue living.