Life is an Adventure

The meaning of life in four simple words.

Recently I had one of those incidents of reflexive karma in which you go to help someone, only to have it come around and help you. It began when I wandered into my college’s bookstore co-op last spring. This is one of my favourite pastimes between classes, usually right before or after picking up a coffee. A book on display jumped out at me.

My son is a pretty good procrastinator and his birthday was coming up, so the book caught my eye. Not suffering particularly from this ailment myself, I bought the book then and there.

Then the Covid lockdown hit and so I ended up having the book longer than expected. Naturally, I started reading it, and I have to say, it’s an excellent book! It presents this complex and deep affliction in clear language and clever illustrations, using Buddhist metaphors and practical exercises to help readers stop procrastinating and start living life to the fullest. One such exercise is to make a Personal Vision Statement.

The authors claim that goal-setting does not work very well in motivating people and avoiding procrastination. That’s because the goal-posts are always moving. What happens when you achieve your goal? There may be a moment of elation, but then . . . what now? Another goal is set, and on it goes. You live in a perpetual state of striving, with very little celebration—not enough to keep you motivated. A better method is to find meaning or purpose to your life. This will fuel your efforts every day, not just at the milestones.

But coming up with a Personal Vision Statement is not easy! Try capturing your idea of The Meaning of Life in a few sentences. The book of course helps with this exercise and suggests a series of drafts. You can find the worksheets here but you’re better off just buying the book. Suffice to say that a good vision statement encapsulates your values. The authors also suggest you think a bit about what your legacy might be and to include what they call Ego 2.0 activities—contributions to others or society, since that’s where we find deeper meaning than in strictly self-serving acts.

Here is my first draft. It’s pretty lame: “Live each day as if it’s my last, but confident that I still have years ahead to experience my dreams. Those dreams are realized in small acts today, just as a marathon is run in thousands of sequential steps. Direct my efforts to giving to others, but don’t forget to give to myself. Enjoy all that the moment offers.”

Like I said, pretty lame. Kind of reads like Desiderata on valium with a dollop of schmaltz on top. There were a few more drafts—something added about listening to the opinion of others but trusting mine—and then, almost as an afterthought, “Keep in mind that life is an adventure not a destination.”

Live each day as if it’s my last, but confident that I still have years ahead to experience my dreams. Those dreams are realized in small acts today, just as a marathon is run in thousands of sequential steps. Direct my efforts to giving to others, but don’t forget to give to myself. Enjoy all that the moment offers.

I wrote all this in my journal, and when I recently finished that journal, I flipped back through the pages before putting it away for posterity. This is one of the things I like about journaling: you can see in those pages all you have been thinking and feeling in recent months. And when I came to the section where I was writing those drafts, it came to me—the perfect vision statement: simply, life is an adventure.

The authors say that a personal vision statement need not be long and complex, in fact can be one sentence, but you might be wondering how I could possibly capture the meaning of life in four words. Let me explain.

The first motorcycle tour I took was in 2017. I’d just gotten my full license the year before and, naturally, had to ride The Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia. I scheduled myself 10 days. I packed up my tent and camping gear, an assortment of tools and spare parts, an old car GPS, and lots of peanut butter and pasta. I had a general plan with reservations at a few campgrounds, but between those fixed points was a lot of room for flexibility. The idea was to explore.

Those were the fullest 10 days of my adult life. I remember sometime around Day 6, I texted my wife that I’d be heading home the next day to be there in two days. She said, “Don’t you have another four days planned?” It’s not that she wanted me to stay away longer, she was just genuinely confused; I’d said my trip would be ten days. Now I was confused too. I’d completely lost track of time and was two days ahead of myself.

“Wow, I’ve got an extra two days!” I texted back. Then I thought back to the beginning of the trip, a mere six days earlier. It seemed like weeks ago. My days were so full and yet I was so present in each moment, they were the longest days of my life.

It’s not that it had all been easy and good. On Day 2 the bike wouldn’t start after one of my rest stops, and there was an ugly hour of anxiety trying to figure it out. Later I discovered that the ferry I had planned to take to Deer Island, NB, was permanently closed, leaving me to find another way to get there in the fading light or change my accommodation plans. There was driving rain, and stifling heat, dehydration headaches, a bee up the sleeve, phone charging issues, navigation problems, and an unexpected oil change. Oh yeah and I dropped the bike. Twice.

But there was also crossing the Penboscot Narrows Bridge, take-out fish & chips on the ferry to Deer Island, going down into the Springhill coal mine, off-roading in the Cape Breton interior, the switchbacks of The Cabot Trail, swimming in the North Atlantic Ocean at Port Shoreham Provincial Park, and Peggy’s Cove at dawn. There were the people I met along the way, from the guy who helped me when the bike wouldn’t start, the Quebecois cyclist on his own adventure through Maine, my ex-colleague Guy at Seascape Kayak Tours, Yannick my off-road buddy in Baddeck, and Walter, who wandered over to my campsite and offered me a cold beer after a wicked hot day of riding, not to forget the staff at Adrianne’s Cycle Service in Moncton.

Seal Island Bridge. Cape Breton Island, NS

But there is one moment in particular that stands out for me when I think back on that trip. It was at the end of Day 7, just when I was starting to get comfortable and confident with this adventure touring thing. I’d left Baddeck in the morning and ridden over the Seal Island Bridge into Sydney to buy a new phone cord at the Best Buy there. Then I picked up Old Highway 4 that took me along the shoreline and out to Port Hawkesbury and over the causeway, where I turned left onto the 344, the beginning of the spectacular Marine Drive that hugs the Atlantic shoreline.

He was singing Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” and it occurred to me that I was—having the time of my life.

Sometime in the afternoon, I saw a sign for a provincial park and decided to stop for lunch. It was a sandy beach, and I went for a swim to cool off in the heat. When I returned to the bike, I asked a woman in the parking lot if she knew of a campground nearby. She directed me not only to “the most beautiful campground in Nova Scotia” but also to “the best fish & chips” at a local microbrewery not much further down the highway. So I followed her advice and set up at Boyston Provincial Park, then rode into Guysborough to The Rare Bird pub. I sat out on the terrace that looked out onto the wharf, and as I waited for my dinner to arrive, I enjoyed the amber ale and the sound of a local musician singing and playing a guitar. He was singing Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” and it occurred to me that I was—having the time of my life.

I was in my element, living in the moment and exploring, seeing things I’d never seen before, meeting new people, enjoying my bike, trusting myself, and discovering what life presents me literally around each corner, whether good or bad. I have only experienced this feeling of freedom once before, when I backpacked through Europe for a month in my 20s. Similarly, I was exploring the world, and life was an adventure. If only life could always be like this, I thought.

And it is.

Adventurero Heroico: a review of The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Guevara

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We’ve all seen it, the iconic photo of Che Guevara, silkscreened on the T-shirt of a slouching teenager as a sign of a budding ideology or subtle form of protest against The World as he or she has come to inherit it. It was snapped in 1960 by Alberto Korda while Guevara listened to Castro’s oration at the funeral service of 136 people killed in an act of naval sabotage. Even converted to duotone, the implacable and determined expression is remarkable, the eyes gazing off toward a distant point of revenge and justice.

I’d heard that Ernesto (Che) Guevara was radicalized while riding a motorcycle around South America, visiting up close, in a way that only a motorcycle can do, the poverty, hardship, and exploitation of its proletariat. His eight-month journey on a Norton 500 (affectionately named La Ponderosa II—The Powerful One) with Alberto Granado, a doctor and specialist in leprosy, is captured in The Motorcycle Diaries: A Journey Around South America, now turned into a major motion picture starring Gael García Bernal.

Guevara’s radicalization cannot be found in any specific moment but occurs over the trajectory of his journey. What is evident at outset is that he comes from a privileged life. At first, the two seem more interested in drinking and carousing than visiting leper colonies or talking to the working poor about their plight. In a typical scene, they get into trouble after drinking copious amounts of wine:

Chilean wine is very good and I was downing it at an amazing rate, so by the time we went on to the village dance I felt ready for anything. It was a very cosy evening and we kept filling our bellies and minds with wine. One of the mechanics from the garage, a particularly nice guy, asked me to dance with his wife because he’d been mixing his drinks and was the worse for wear. His wife was pretty randy and obviously in the mood, and I, full of Chilean wine, took her by the hand to lead her outside. She followed me docilely but then realized her husband was watching and changed her mind. I was in no state to listen to reason and we had a bit of a barney in the middle of the dance floor, resulting in me pulling her towards one of the doors with everybody watching. She tried to kick me and as I was pulling her she lost her balance and went crashing to the floor. As we were running towards the village, pursued by a swam of enraged dancers, Alberto lamented all the wine her husband might have bought us.

There are, however, moments when an innate sensitivity and political empathy toward the poor come through in the writing. Soon after that escapade, they meet and are invited to stay with a married couple, Chilean workers who are Communists, and Ernesto hears the man’s tragic story:

In the light of the candle, drinking maté and eating a piece of bread and cheese, the man’s shrunken features struck a mysterious, tragic note. In simple but expressive language he told us about his three months in prison, his starving wife who followed him with exemplary loyalty, his children left in the care of a kindly neighbour, his fruitless pilgrimage in search of work and his comrades who had mysteriously disappeared and were said to be somewhere at the bottom of the sea.

The experience leaves a deep impression on the young man. That night he gives a blanket to the couple and he and Alberto wrap themselves in their remaining blanket: “It was one of the coldest nights I’ve ever spent but also one which made me feel a little closer to this strange, for me anyway, human species.” Writing later about the couple, Ernesto makes clear his own budding political ideology:

It’s really upsetting to think they use repressive measures against people like these. Leaving aside the question of whether or not ‘Communist vermin’ are dangerous for a society’s health, what had burgeoned in him was nothing more than the natural desire for a better life, a protest against persistent hunger transformed into a love for this strange doctrine, whose real meaning he could never grasp but, translated into ‘bread for the poor,’ was something he understood and, more importantly, that filled him with hope.

Guevara is a good writer. I read the book in translation (trans. Ann Wright) but the strength of Guevara’s voice rings through. He is articulate, possessing a broad vocabulary, funny, and perceptive. His powers of observation—essential for any writer of travelogue—extend to the landscape as well as the people he meets. At times, the sentences are lyrical and poetic, such as in this passage, where is personifies the Chuquicamata mountain that has been industrialized into a copper mine:

The mountains, devoid of a single blade of grass in the nitrate soil, defenceless against the attack of wind and water, display their grey backbone, prematurely aged in the battle with the elements, their wrinkles belying their real geological age. And how many of the mountains surrounding their famous brother hide similar riches deep in their bowels, awaiting the arid arms of the mechanical shovels to devour their entrails, spiced with the inevitable human lives—the lives of the poor unsung heroes of this battle, who die miserable deaths in one of the thousand traps nature sets to defend its treasures, when all they want is to earn their daily bread.

Guevara’s critique of the exploitative power of Capitalism is expressed in the language of war and personal suffering, both of Nature and humans, in a telling indication of the major themes that would later occupy his political life. He sees Capitalism as a plague on Nature and human society, a force that devours if left unchecked.

His critical eye does not stop with economics. In another passage, he shows distain toward the Church that dominates Latin American society:

In a moment of boredom we went to the church to watch a local ceremony. The poor priest was trying to produce the three-hour sermon but by then—about ninety minutes into it—he had run out of platitudes. He gazed at his congregation with imploring eyes while he waved a shaking hand at some spot in the church. ‘Look, look, the Lord hath come, the Lord is with us, His spirit is guiding us.’ After a moment’s pause, the priest set off on his load of nonsense again and, just when he seemed about to dry up again, in a moment of high drama, he launched into a similar phrase. The fifth or sixth time poor Christ was announced, we got a fit of giggles and left in a hurry.

Always there is a tone of understatement, a dry irony that runs the risk of appearing sanctimonious, but I would rather have a strong, personal voice in a travelogue than a weak, objective one. He does not hold anything back, even when describing the hygiene habits of the Native Chileans:

The somewhat primitive idea the indians have of modesty and hygiene means that, regardless of sex or age, they do their business by the side of the road, the women wiping themselves with their skirts, the men not at all, and carry on as before. The petticoats of indian women with children are veritable warehouses of excrement, since they wipe the kids with them whenever they have a bowel movement.

As shocking as this is, the most surprising aspect of The Motorcycle Diaries is that they don’t travel by motorcycle for much of it. The bike dies a dramatic death on page 44 of my edition, and they spend the rest of the journey bumming rides from truckers, travelling by foot, raft, and boat when necessary. In this way, the book is like George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, which documents Orwell’s self-induced months of hunger and poverty while squatting in Paris and tramping across England. And perhaps like Orwell, there might have been a desire in Guevara to purge himself of the privileged lifestyle in which he was raised, or at least open his eyes to another strata of society of which he had had only a passing familiarity and a superficial understanding.

They do visit leper colonies and are regarded there as heroes, more for their humane treatment than their medical treatment of the lepers. Where others fear and shun these people, Alberto and Ernesto mingle amongst them for several days, drinking and playing music together, and when they leave they shake the lepers’ hands, a gesture that in itself is more healing than any medicine the doctors can offer.

This is the picture of Ernesto that we get by the end of their adventure—a caring and principled young man ready to take the hippocratic oath, not the Guerrillero Heroico of the later portrait, the fighter who was ready to kill to incite revolution. For that, he would have to meet and travel with another man, not the affable Alberto but the militant Fidel.

The Motorcycle Diaries is a fun and easy read at just over 150 pages. There’s a lot of local history woven into the storyline, including a political history of the Incas, and anyone who’s interested in the history of South America would get something from this book. Readers who are interested in the biography of Che Guevara or the germination of South American and Cuban Communism would also enjoy it. But the star of the book is South America itself, the land and its people. Readers will get a strong sense of the majesty of the mountains, the rugged terrain, the Latin American architecture, the friendly and welcoming people. My edition provides a map with the route of their journey, and chapters are titled after the places they visit. My ultimate ride is down into South America and this book has only piqued my interest all the more for that adventure.

Review of Total Control: High Performance Street Riding Techniques, by Lee Parks

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Can you improve your riding from reading a book? No, but if you practice and apply some of the information presented in Parks’ book, you will. This book is less about road safety than riding technique, so if you’re looking to avoid a collision, see my review of David Hough’s Proficient Motorcycling, which deals with this subject. In fact, Hough cites Parks’ book, and the two have collaborated in the past. Where Hough leaves off, Parks picks up and takes you a step further.

Looking at the cover image, you’d think this book is for sport bike riders. It is, and it isn’t. Most of the techniques presented are definitely meant for the track but can be applied to any type of riding to improve safety and proficiency. It’s not all about safety. If you want to stay safe, stay at home. Sometimes you just want to get around a corner faster, or ride with more advanced riders. There are photos here showing guys dragging a knee on a Gold Wing or a V-Strom, getting air on a GS. It doesn’t matter what your ride is or what type of riding you do, Total Control will have something for you.

The book is nicely organized into sections on Chassis Dynamics, Mental Dynamics, Body Dynamics, Machine Setup, and Rider Setup, with chapters within those sections. I’d say the heart of the book is the section on Body Dynamics, which contains chapters on vision, line selection, throttle control, shifting, braking, body positioning, low-speed turns, and riding two up. Now before you say, “Yeah, we learnt all that in my training course,” let me say we are talking here about advanced techniques, so very subtle and technical aspects of those skills.

We all know about target fixation, but do you know it’s related to us being predators? We know about straightening a curve, but what about premature initiation? (No, this is not a sexual gaff.) How to handle a double apex curve? In the chapter on shifting, I learnt how to preload the shifter, and in my next ride I was shifting quicker and smoother. Another technique I found interesting is trail braking, a technique in which at a point in the corner you are braking and accelerating at the same time! The idea is essentially that since braking makes the bike nose-dive and accelerating lifts the front end, you can use these opposing forces to cancel each other out and stabilize the bike through the corner: “The technique has us simultaneously rolling off the throttle while applying the brakes going into a corner. Once in the corner we start to slowly roll on the throttle as we slowly trail off the brakes,” hence the term “trail braking.” Now before you scoff and dismiss, Parks says that “virtually every MotoGP and World Superbike racer—as well as every motor cop—now uses this technique: so try it before judging it.” And Parks would know. He was 2nd overall in the 1994 AMA Superbike Championship (125GP class) and won the 2001 WERA National Endurance Series Championship. He’s an accomplished rider and knows of what he speaks.

Another interesting bit of information I found in this book is the suggestion to try cornering with one hand. You’d think he was being foolhardy, but in fact he claims that often our two arms are fighting each other through a corner, and allowing one hand (presumably the throttle hand) to take full control actually improves steering. But be careful! Parks says the first time most people try this they oversteer. The book is filled with other such tidbits of useful information. I won’t give all the goods away.

Chapters at the back deal with riding gear and fitness. I’m excited to try a 6-10 minute high-intensity training program designed specifically for bikers by strength trainer Timothy Parravano. It involves only 4 exercises and the only equipment needed is a chin-up bar. In just 6 minutes, you get core strengthening and an anaerobic cardio workout.

The book is extremely technical but is well illustrated with diagrams and graphs. Still, I found some material more theoretical than my needs. For example, there’s an entire chapter on how suspension works from an engineering standpoint. Do I need to know this? I’m really only interested in setting up my suspension for the best ride possible, which comes in a separate chapter. And the chapter on aerodynamics? I’m not going to be tucking behind a tiny windscreen on any of my rides. This is where the book’s leaning toward sport bike racing shows. If you’re like me, you can skim those sections.

The book is now in its second edition and has become a classic. Anyone interested in improving their skills should pick it up. I liked the pep talk by Parks in the epilogue as he waxes philosophic, drawing on his interest in Buddhism. (Illustrative Buddhist aphorisms and parables are smattered throughout the book.) “In a special sense, the reason you are reading this is because your riding is a little bit “sick.” When you are sick, the doctor prescribes medicine. The problem is we get addicted to the medicine. But medicine is not food for a motorcyclist. Brilliant riding is food. The purpose of medicine is so that you don’t need the medicine. The purpose of a teacher is so that you don’t need a teacher. The purpose of method is so you ultimately don’t need a method. In Japan, if you have spent too much time with a particular master you are said to “stink” of Zen. You can think of Total Control as the medicine you need to overcome your sickness.”

Most people may not have the humility to think of their riding as “sick,” but if you’re like me—always interested in improving whatever you do—this book is for you.

All Roads Lead to Pirsig: a review of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

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There’s a strange phenomenon that happens when you let on in conversation that you ride. Soon after you casually drop a reference to “the bike,” the conversation starts to steer toward Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It’s like how all roads lead to Rome; all conversations eventually lead to Pirsig.

First published in 1974, Zen has become a classic, selling over 5 million copies. It possesses that rare quality of being both popular and academic. It’s the one book everyone has heard of that contains the word “motorcycle” in its title, so naturally, once it’s known that you ride, you will have to give your opinion of it. Ironically, the book isn’t about motorcycling at all. It’s about technology and mental illness and the Cartesian Duality and the Romantic and Classical traditions of Western thought and fatherhood and a host of other things but not motorcycling. The riding is really just a trope, the frame narrative to contain the philosophical musings in the Eastern tradition Pirsig calls “Chautauquas.” It’s these Chautauquas that are the real journey in the book, a deepening exploration of the Metaphysics of Quality. They occur during a 17-day road trip from Minnesota to Northern California with Robert Pirsig’s 12-year-old son, Chris, riding pillion.

Much of the book is highly abstract, and when I want to torture my wife, I read a passage from the book’s middle section:

“Quality . . . you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is , they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist.”

“Stop, stop!” she screams, and I do, before Public Security shows up at my door.

I had been warned inadvertently about the middle section. I happened to overhear a conversation involving a colleague who had decided to teach the book for the first time. He was lamenting that middle section, wondering how he was going to keep 18-year-olds, whose attention span is limited to 500 words of celebrity gossip, to keep wading through that philosophical muck. So when I got to it, I started to skim the abstract stuff, which isn’t really necessary to understand the discoveries at the end. It helps to have some context, but you don’t have to touch every stone on the Yellow Brick Road to get to the Emerald City. And in the end, when Pirsig finally comes to the much anticipated answers to his questions, he does so in a paragraph that doesn’t require all the contextual trappings for us to understand. This is a major flaw in the book. Despite it being a classic, it very much needs some serious editing. No wonder it was rejected by 121 publishers before being picked up, more than any other best-selling book, according to the Guiness Book of Records.

Fortunately, there are some passages that bring us back to the concrete world, literally: “We bump along the beat-up concrete between the cattails and stretches of meadow and then more cattails and marsh grass. Here and there is a stretch of open water and if you look closely you can see wild ducks at the edge of the cattails. And turtles. . . . There’s a red-winged blackbird.” And at other times, Pirsig provides another level of abstraction with insights about the concrete world and our experience of it. Here he describes, better than anyone I’ve read, why we ride:

“You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.

On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it’s right there, so blurred you can’t focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness.”

This is Pirsig at his best, when he gets outside his mind and provides description of physical detail and insights glimpsed during the ride. I found myself invested more in the frame narrative and the lives of these “characters,” and became annoyed each time I was dragged away from this narrative to the philosophical musings.

At the heart of this book is the relationship between Pirsig and his son Chris, a relationship strained by some violent rupture in its past, and one gets the sense that the bike trip is in part an attempt to heal this wound. Pirsig’s relationship with his son is very different from mine with my son, and  I longed for Pirsig to find a way to speak more openly to his son about his feelings and fears. He never does, and this is another disappointment in the book. The most touching moment of writing comes in the afterword, if you have the Harper edition.

With so much going against it, what, you must be asking, makes this book so popular? Well, it was one of the first popular books to examine our relationship with technology. I remember a roommate in first year undergrad talking about it excitedly, mentioning the contrast between Pirsig and John and Sylvia Sutherland, the couple they ride with through the first 9 days of the trip. Pirsig is able to repair his bike when things go wrong; John and Sylvia cannot, but rather fear and avoid maintenance on the bike, a relationship that extends to technology in general. In an era dominated by technology, Zen is an opportunity to reflect on our own feelings about the world as we’ve made it. Pirsig’s position is clear: we must embrace technology or risk becoming enslaved by it, victims of third-rate motorcycle mechanics and their inflated costs. There’s a moral obligation, according to Pirsig, to learn how to fix your bike.

And while I’m not a philosopher, I think Zen was one of the first philosophical treatises to bring Eastern thought into the stream of the Western dialectic. Pirsig’s goal is ambitious: nothing less than to bridge the Cartesian subject/object divide that underlies Western thought. It was probably also ahead of its time in casting a spotlight on mental illness, a subject that only now, over 40 years later, we as a society are starting to acknowledge and discuss more openly.

Yes, the bike is you, and you must work on yourself like the bike. I’m a strong believer that everyone has to do some serious personal work at some time in his or her life; otherwise your shit catches up to you, like the skunk stripe of mud that gets flicked up your back. It can be a divorce, a series of failed relationships, or a deep depression. I spent the bulk of my 20’s reading Carl Jung and Robert Bly, journaling, and doing dream analysis. Pirsig has opened a conversation about mental illness as much as presented an inquiry into values. He folds Buddhist spirituality into social critique, and I believe it’s this combination of personal and social inquiry that has given the book its wide appeal through the decades. Despite my misgivings, I believe it’s an important read. Just skim the middle sections.

Riding pillion with Peart and Bishop: reviews of Neil Peart’s Ghost Rider and Ted Bishop’s Riding With Rilke

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The riding season is coming to a close here in Montreal and I’m already thinking of what I’ll read in the off-season. When you can’t ride for five months of the year, you need to have a few motorcycle-related books ready to carry you through those dark winter months. Last winter, two such books for me were Neil Peart’s Ghost Rider (2002, ecw press) and Ted Bishop’s Riding With Rilke (2005, Penguin).

I first came across Peart’s Ghost Rider while visiting the excellent Bookshelf Cafe in Guelph, Ontario, many years ago when the book was first published. It was on the display shelves just inside the door and I remember picking it up and never getting much deeper into the store. As a drummer, I knew of Peart. In fact, he was the hero of pretty much every snare drummer of the marching band I was in through my teens. He apparently even started drumming in a drum corps not far from Burlington, my home town, so it was almost like we were best buddies. We would air-drum to Moving Pictures at the back of the tour bus, pretending we actually knew how to do Swiss Army triplets on double bass drums or half the other stuff he does. But then that’s the advantage of air-drumming: no one can hear your mistakes.

I’d heard of the tragic loss of Peart’s daughter and wife, and of his decision to hit the road in search of a reason to continue living. All this was long before I started to ride, but the dream of riding and touring one day was alive and well, so the book grabbed me and held me there for some time. Eventually I began to imagine the staff thinking “Either sh*t or get off the pot!”

It is a compelling story. His daughter is killed in a single car accident en route to Toronto for first-year university; eight months later his wife is diagnosed with terminal cancer, an illness which he more accurately describes as “a broken heart.” Soon after, he finds himself alone and slipping deeper into isolationism and self-medication. The only way out, he decides, is literally to flee, not knowing exactly to where or why. Like the survival strategy at the heart of Peter Behrens’s The Law of Dreams, a book also about tragedy and loss, Peart intuitively decides “to keep moving.” All this is provided in the opening chapter and sets up the “travels on the healing road” westward on his BMW R1100GS.

We follow Peart across Canada, up into Inuvik, across to Alaska, then down into The United States to Las Vegas (which he hates) and around the southwest. But the travels are really just the subtext to the real “journey” (to use the most over-used word today) for him on the road of grief and recovery. Peart provides a strikingly candid view into his emotional life at its core. He is extremely self-aware and offers us insights into how he was able to inch his way out of the dark pit into which he’d fallen: his fears, his strategies, his discoveries, his small advances and set-backs (he describes the process as one step forward, one step back  . . . minus an inch).

The motorcycle is the key element in his recovery. It provides a distraction from the thoughts and feelings that plague him; riding is so consuming, it’s difficult to think of anything else but operating the vehicle while you’re on it. And he puts on the miles. (Section headings include dates, places, and mileage.) The bike also reawakens his senses which have been numbed by grief and intoxicants. One of the first signs of recovery occurs while riding twisties through the B.C. interior on Highway 99, “one of the great motorcycle roads in the world”:

The sky remained bright, the air cool and delicious, and the sinuous road coming toward me was so challenging and rewarding that I was tempted into the adrenaline zone. Turn by turn my pace increased until I was riding with a complete focus spiced by the ever-present danger and occasional thrill of fear, racing against physics and my own sense of caution in a sublime rhythm of shifting, braking, leaning deep into the tight corners, then accelerating out again and again. I felt a charge of excitement I hadn’t known for many months and found myself whooping out loud with the sheer existential thrill.

Another important element in his healing process is journalling. In one late-night entry, for example, he stumbles upon a subtle but important discovery—forgiveness—the need to forgive life for doing this to him, forgive others for being alive, even to forgive himself for remaining alive. And when he’s not journalling, he writes letters—yes, long-hand—to friends and confidantes, setting his thoughts and feelings onto paper where he can see them. Sections of the book are these letters printed verbatim.

Peart provides commentary on the people he meets and the places he visits. He prefers the peace of rural roads to the hustle and bustle of urban centres, not surprising for a man who is comfortable with solitude. He finds healing properties in nature, especially birding. Peart clearly considers himself a cultured man and does not suffer the uncultured easily. At times, he seems downright judgmental and misanthropic. This was perhaps the most surprising aspect of the book for me. But I guess he applies the same honesty in describing his thoughts of others as he does about himself. When he describes a friend of his as possessing “a blistering contempt for most of humanity,” I cannot help thinking he’s describing a part of himself as well. The next sentence begins, “We agreed on many things . . .”

I’ve fortunately never suffered such loss, but I found his examination of grief and grieving fascinating. I do feel that some of that material could have been condensed. The book is over 450 pages in length with, like I said, entire letters reproduced for long stretches of the book. I feel the book needed more editing, or better editing, with Peart forced to distill for us the musings in those letters down to the essential discoveries. No doubt this was a structural decision made by Peart and his editors, but I feel he took the easy way out. There’s also an awful lot in this book that simply isn’t that interesting. Do I really need or want to know what he eats at each meal, his wine choices, the birds he spots, the flora and fauna along the way? His encounter with a short-eared owl is an example of a meaningful reference to nature because it’s linked to the main theme of the book (i.e. the owl shrieks a cryptic message at him) but other references seem gratuitous.

Yet ironically, the end comes upon us rather suddenly and the book overall feels truncated. We learn in the final chapter of finding new love that is the final step in his recovery, if there ever can be a final step, and it comes in a matter of a few sentences literally a few pages from the end. Overall, I get the sense that this book was rushed to press by a deadline. It’s a good book, but it could have been a great book with more time and effort in that crucial revision and editing stage. Now I’m sounding like a teacher leaving feedback on a student paper, so I’ll move on.

Like Peart’s Ghost Rider, Ted Bishop’s Riding With Rilke (finalist for the Governor General’s Award for nonfiction, among other nominations and awards) opens with a tragedy: Bishop’s life-threatening crash. He’s riding his partner’s classic BMW and is encountering some high-speed wobble each time he creeps up to 130 km/hr.. Then he tries to pass a semi, only to find out halfway past it’s a double-semi, a van rounds the corner in front of him and . . . well, it doesn’t end well. Like Peart’s opening, this serves as a frame narrative for the musings that follow. And also like Ghost Rider, Bishop weaves two threads through his text, or two passions: motorcycles and literature.

Bishop is an English professor at The University of Alberta with a specialization in early modernism. Much of the book describes a ride down to the University of Texas in Austin to do research on Joyce, or is it Virginia Woolf? I’m not quite sure. The narrative jumps around quite a bit between different Special Collections rooms in several libraries and his office at U of A to conferences, but it doesn’t really matter since the academic work is just the pretext to the musings on literature and adventures on the road. Along the way we get anecdotes about D. H. Lawrence in Taos, Camus wanting to buy a motorcycle, the Woolfs declining to publish Ulysses, Ezra Pound as Bishop passes through Hailey, Idaho, Pound’s home town, and some lowbrow culture too, including Evil Kneivel’s attempt to jump the canyon. (Remember that one? It’s still an embarrassment to the locals there.)

I had come across Bishop’s writing earlier in Ian Brown’s What I Meant To Say. His essay “Just a Touch” is my favourite of that collection, so I was excited when I received this book as a gift from a writer friend. My expectations were happily fulfilled. Where Peart’s prose is often a bit wooden, Bishop’s is graceful, imaginative, and often funny. Here he provides one of the best descriptions of riding I’ve seen:

When I first put on a full-face helmet, I have a moment of claustrophobia. I can hear only my own breathing and I feel like one of those old-time deep-sea divers. . . . . When you hit the starter, your breath merges with the sound of the bike, and once you’re on the highway, the sound moves behind you, becoming a dull roar that merges with the wind noise, finally disappearing from consciousness altogether.

Even if you ride without a helmet, you ride in a cocoon of white noise. You get smells from the roadside, and you feel the coolness in the dips and the heat off a rock face, but you don’t get sound. On a bike, you feel both exposed and insulated. Try putting in earplugs: the world changes, you feel like a spacewalker. What I like best about motorcycle touring is that even if you have companions you can’t talk to them until the rest stop, when you’ll compare highlights of the ride. You may be right beside them, but you’re alone. It is an inward experience. Like reading.

In another section, Bishop’s sense of humour mixes with a cutting derision toward literary pretension, producing a description of an open-mic event in Taos that would make Peart giggle in sympathy:

Next up was Ron, the leather-jacketed poet from this afternoon. When his name was called he left the room and then came slouching in from the street wearing shades and sucking on a cigarette and carrying a little cassette recorder playing Thelonious Monk. This might have been cool, except that the efficient MC, thinking his poet had gone home, had already started making announcements about next week’s reading. So Ron had to stop, turn off the recorder, and go back outside. His friends cried, “No he’s here, he’s here!” The MC stopped, and Ron slouched in again with the same Thelonious Monk riff playing. He shouldered  his way through the group of three in the inner doorway, snapped off the cassette, whipped off his glasses (briefly snagging one ear), and looked up from his crumpled exercise book. “Why do I love you!?” he shouted.

Who cares!? I wanted to shout back, but I was a well-bred Canadian and this was not my town. Knowing this could only get worse, I slid out into the night. I understood now what Lawrence had feared in Taos.

What I especially enjoyed about Bishop’s writing is his ability to render scenes like this so vividly. I’ve been at poetry readings like this—heck, I might have participated in some—and they are as painful as he describes here. He had me squirming. His attention to descriptive detail (the slouching, the snagged sunglasses) and use of dialogue (the shouts of Ron’s friends)—fictional techniques—allow us to stand next to him, so to speak, at that poetry reading. No wonder he teaches a course on creative nonfiction and has received numerous awards and accolades for his travel writing.

In addition to the places he visits, Bishop also takes us into his world of academia. We sit in on his meetings with the department Chair, overhear the casual conversations at academic conferences, and look over his shoulder in the British Library’s Manuscript Room as he discovers he’s holding Virginia Woolf’s suicide note. We even lie beside him in the ditch as the emergency responders cut off his boots and jacket, and next to him in the hospital bed as he takes his first drink. (Okay, we’ll drop this line of thought now.) This is what good travel writing does: take us to places from the comfort of our reading chair.

And always at the centre of Bishop’s writing is an affable man with a sense of humour, important qualities in a travelling companion. We get the sense that Bishop would be a great guy to share a beer with and chat about literature, or bikes, or both, which is what Riding With Rilke is. In fact, I’d like to share a beer with either author, although with Peart it would more likely be a wee dram.

I enjoyed both books. When I went to Amazon to search for more like them, I discovered a whole genre I hadn’t known existed: motorcycle journalism. From Hunter S. Thompson to Che Guevara, Persig, and Ewan McGregor (one of these things is not like the other) there are now many good books about the personal experience of touring by bike as the adventure riding industry continues to grow. With my 6a licence now finally in my wallet, I only have one more winter to wait before I can hit the road myself and hopefully add my voice to the motorcycle travelogue market.

Review: Proficient Motorcyling by David L. Hough

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I’m out of bookmarks. Now when I start a book, I have to go scrounging from my bookcase for one that remains in a book half-finished. When I started reading Proficient Motorcycling by David L. Hough, the one I happened to grab was a promotional one for Douglas Burnet Smith’s collection of poems titled The Killed. I almost swapped it for another, but didn’t. As disturbing as it was to keep using this one, I was reminded each time I came back to the book why I’m reading it. I’d counter that thought with The Bee Gees song in my head: “Staying alive, staying alive . . . Ha ha ha ha . . . staying alive, staying alive.” It’s a bit macabre to think about it, but that’s exactly what David Hough wants us to do.

Hough was one of the first, if not the first, to break the ice on the subject of motorcycle fatalities. As he says in the introduction, there’s a taboo on talking about the risks: “You won’t hear much about motorcycle fatalities from your local motorcycle dealerships or in mainstream motorcycle magazines. Discussing fatalities has long been a motorcycling taboo. If a rider survives the crash, the experience might provide some bragging rights. But talking about the fatalities tends to take all the fun out of the sport for riders, and for those in the industry it has a chilling effect on sales.” So in the 1970’s, Hough started writing about the risks in an obscure little magazine called Road Rider and then Motorcycle Consumer News. Proficient Motorcycling is the culmination of those articles in one book that has become the top-selling motorcycle book of the decade.

Chapter 1 looks directly at those fatalities, using the Hurt Report, a study of over 9,000 fatalities in the Greater Los Angeles area by Dr. Hugh Hurt. Hough (the other Hough) acknowledges that a regional study will be slanted, but there has been no other major study of this kind, a fact that points to the taboo and a dearth of reliable data on the subject. Hough walks us through the data, looking at types of accidents and when they occur in a rider’s career. For example, we would expect there to be a lot of accidents in the first six months of riding, but one statistic I found interesting is that there’s a spike in the 25-36 month period. We don’t know why, but perhaps over-confidence is to blame. After 36 months, the fatalities drop off dramatically and stay low. So the lesson is to be careful for at least three years and especially during the third year.

Hough also looks at types of accidents (angle collisions, left-turners, driver error, animal strikes, etc.) and their percentages, as well as percentages of impact areas on a helmet. If you’re considering an open-face helmet, note that almost 1/5 of all impacts are on the chin-bar. We learn of other factors such as engine size, age, alcohol, and training. Not surprisingly, you are three times more likely to have an accident if taught by a friend or family member than by a professional at a school. The chapter concludes with a risk assessment questionnaire which gives you a good idea of “how far you’re hanging it out,” as Hough puts it.

Chapter 2 examines the physics of motorcycling—all the forces interacting as you weave through the twisties. There were terms here I’d never heard before, like rake and trail, and others like gyroscopic and inertial stability, centre of gravity, and centrifugal force that I was familiar with but not in as much detail as applied to motorcycling as Hough explains. Fortunately, Hough is by profession a graphic designer, so there are a lot of illustrations and photographs to help the reader through some of this abstract material. The chapter also covers cornering, braking, ergonomics, and includes exercises to practice your cornering and emergency braking. In fact, each chapter includes practical homework to help you apply in your everyday riding the concepts presented in theory. The idea is to be prepared with muscle memory when there is no time to think.

Other chapters cover cornering in more detail, urban traffic survival, booby traps like surface hazards and dealing with deer and dogs among other animals, and a chapter on special situations, like riding in the rain or at night, in extreme heat or cold, and in gusting wind. Of course some of this I’d read about in preparing for my theory test, but Hough goes into much more detail than the SAAQ booklet, and Proficient Motorcycling contains many tips and techniques for dealing with these hazards. Hough draws on his extensive experience to provide concrete examples, and provides case scenarios to show how all this applies in real-life situations.

The final chapter covers riding in groups, which has its own set of risks, although I was happy to read that my particular club is doing everything right. For example, we do a pre-ride talk, take regular breaks, ride in formation, use hand signals, and keep less experienced riders near the front. In this chapter, Hough also examines the added issues of riding two-up, and how to load your bike properly for a longer trip. The chapter ends with a section on the merits and addiction of the side-car, something not seen much in North America, and the book concludes with a final section on additional resources and a glossary.

I couldn’t help thinking as I read this book that it should be mandatory reading for all bikers. Yeah, the SAAQ booklet and online sources are a fine start, but when it’s your life at stake, why wouldn’t you want to study a book like this? It can’t replace real-world experience, but it can prepare you better for that experience and the inevitable incidents that will occur. One reason I waited over thirty years to ride is because of the risk. But managing risk is a part of life, not just riding, and a book like this is invaluable in doing that. It’s no wonder there are so many accidents and fatalities when the status quo for years has been to hop on a bike ill-prepared for the risk that riding entails. Proficient Motorcycling will most certainly lower that risk significantly and should be on every rider’s summer reading list.