Nov 29, 2012

Book Review: The Carin' Sharin' Chronicles

The Carin' Sharin' Chronicles

by Dave Gurman, 2008

All Rights Reserved © 2012 Thomas W. Day

All of this book's essays were written for the British motorcycle magazine, The Rider's Digest, between the years 2000 and 2002. Dave Gurman is the current editor of that now-exclusively-on-line "magazine" and is a regular contributor to its virtual pages. The poofy title is from Dave's post-bike-courier career (social worker) and an Alexei Sayle comedy routine, which is obscure and British and typical of a lot of this book. If the title led you to believe this is the story of a touchy-feely biker in a hard-assed world, you'll be surprised and disappointed or both. Dave is, however, a nice guy and a few of these stories expose the savage underbelly of a chronically decent person trying to make his way on a less-than-civilized planet.

The language barrier is an obstacle. English is not as shared a language as I expected. For one, they have an allergy to the letter "z." I've had some Brit and Aussie friends and have been exposed to many of the odd words they use to describe ordinary objects and activities, but Gurman is more British than my past experience. In a single sentence, he can use so many unfamiliar words that I am forced to spend more time on Google figuring out what he's said as I do reading the pages of the book. "Totting-up,"  "despatch," "gonadotrophin" (it's probably what you think it is), "Cinquecento," "Vitara," "breaker," and a host of other words I either don't know or don't know used in his context baffled me in "Fatal Attraction," but I still laughed throughout that story. Even Dave's use of the word "football" is confusing. What does David Beckham have to do with football? I thought he was an underwear model or a men's perfume salesman. Come to think of it, I don't understand half of the dialog in a Monty Python skit, but they have always made me laugh.

Carin' Sharin' is a collection of essays, stories, opinion pieces, and what are, essentially, rants from a fellow old guy. A "geezer," in fact. You might expect me to be particularly favorably disposed toward such a man and his words and . . . you'd be right. Dave is a humorous, clever, insightful, sympathetic author and those characteristics shine through in every page of Carin' Sharin'. He might be a too liberal for many modern US pseudo-conservative tastes. If a moderate view of economics, sociology, and humanity is going to upset your tightly-held beliefs, you will be bothered by more than a few of Dave's insights.

Simon Kewer's excellent cartoons might be even more upsetting, since they are rarely politically correct and can even be seen as sexist (gasp!) in the same way Monty Python's routines often disrupted the delicate American sensibilities.

With all that behind us, it's important to remember this is a motorcyclist's book about, mostly, motorcycling. For example, in "You Can Take the M Road . . . ", Dave wraps up the reason motorcyclists search out twists and turns and he describes what kind of people travel by freeway. "The Romans thought they were real clever bastards, what with their baths and straight roads that go on forever; but what good are either of them to a biker? The Welsh have got it better sussed. The looked at the mountains and said, sod knocking that lot down, let's follow the rivers and chip a bit off the edge." In our bums' rush to make the country safe for what will turn out to be the dumbest, most suicidal distribution system in human history, long-haul trucking, we are in the process of paving and straightening every interesting road in the county and doing our bit to leave behind ruins as idiotic as those Roman roads. I will never again ride down a boring highway without thinking of those "real clever bastards" who leveled an interesting countryside in the interests of NAFTA and general stupidity. Dave offers some of the best advice for taking the long, interesting route as opposed to the "time-saving" quick and boring path. "Where do you keep the time you've saved? And when do you get to use it?" Now I feel better about rarely being able to make it to Duluth in less than 250 miles.

A documentary of a few years back provided me with the unpleasant realization that there were people in England's national government who cared more deeply about democracy than in the shambles that remains of Washington D.C. It is equally disquieting to discover that a British motorcycle magazine (Rider's Digest, where all of these essays were originally published) is the place to go to a motorcyclist who is concerned with the future of motorcycling, unimpressed with but sometimes entertained by the hooligan character catered to in modern motorcycle marketing, aware of and inspired by the risk attached to an activity like motorcycling, capable of grasping the value to society provided by risk-takers and adventurers, and philosophical enough to look at motorcyclists as a diverse, entertaining, slightly-insane, sometimes brilliant speck of a broader, more conservative, barely-conscious, mass-marketed culture. Dave may have had the best insight into the reaction we should have had in the US after September 11, 2001, as he put his two cents in with "Terrorvision."

One of Dave's cultural references, Alexei Sayles, summed up a good bit of the message from the Carin' Sharin' Chronicles, "I don't want to be sold a lifestyle. I want to devise my own." Dave wrote, "A biker is someone who rides through choice. Not because it's the most comfortable way to transport a body, but because it can be the most magical way to carry a soul." Dave Gurman has definitely made a good shot at creating an individual lifestyle and he has described it beautifully in this collection of essays; and the boy has soul.

Nov 27, 2012

Déjà vu, All over Again

I wrote that last rant for Minnesota Motorcycle Monthly a while back. It sat on the shelf until I decided to pull it off and put it on my blog. I liked it, but my editor did not. Today, looking back at what I wrote, I'm even more convinced that I should have taken better care of myself.

A few weeks ago, I did . . . something to myself. I didn't notice it at the time, probably because I was having fun or too pissed off to notice little stuff like a bit of chest pain. Afterwards, I had a little chest pain, front and back, that felt a lot like my usual winter edition of bronchitis and an odd irritation on the right side of my neck during almost any level of exertion. I'm pretty much a preventative maintenance guy, when it comes to machines, my house, my occupation, or my relationships but when it comes to taking care of myself I tend to ignore the big, little, and medium-sized stuff. I am, after all, a guy and I have a perfect right to expect infinite durability and longevity (right up to whatever my expiration date might be).

After the usual Thanksgiving gorging and an afternoon hauling firewood from the storage stack to the house stack, that irritating ache in my neck was more insistent than I'd noticed in the past. Maybe the fact that I was working my way through a book on paying attention, The Thinking Life by P.M. Forni, allowed me to pay a little more attention to myself. For whatever triggered a moment of intelligence, I should be grateful.

I called the nurse hotline provided by my health insurance company. The nurse listened a bit and suggested, "Call 911 and get yourself to an emergency room."

Not wanting to make a complete overhaul of my lifestyle, I thanked her for her concern and decided to visit my regular clinic the next day. I got through night fine and wandered into the clinic about 9:30AM. The doctor on staff dialed 911 and put me in an EMT truck to an emergency room. Three days later, I'm sporting a jiffy new cardiac stent propping open my right coronary artery and I'm only a little worse for the wear.

One of the docs in the OR offered me a deal. "If you get away with out having anything wrong, you win. If you don't, I get to smack you." He won, but decided against smacking me. After all, I'm old and at least a little senile.

The moral I have taken away from this weekend is "The longer you can ignore stuff the less hassle it will be." Since it's too late for me to start taking care of myself, I'm going to concentrate on enjoying the shit out of however many days  have left and "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." The lesson I received from my father and father-in-law's last decade of life was "I need a faster motorcycle." Nothing I've learned in the last few days contradicts that value system.

Nov 25, 2012

If I Knew I Was Gonna Live This Long

All Rights Reserved © 2010 Thomas W. Day
One of my favorite R&R guys, Al Kooper, wrote an autobiography titled Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards. For most of my life, I thought he'd planned to call the book "If I Knew I Was Gonna Live This Long, I'd Have Taken Better Care of Myself." Turned out, I was wrong. Mr. Kooper personally made that clear to me. He firmly claims he never said that. It turns out that an even bigger hero of mine, Will Rogers, made that statement. Even better.
Earlier this year, I had an article published in a music magazine and a friend used that as an excuse to reconnect. He was a little surprised that I was still doing stuff in music because the last time we talked I told him I was "retired." To me, being retired means I don't do stuff I don't like to do and I don't work 80-hour weeks. He has always been smart enough to avoid doing work he doesn't like and he still likes putting in long days. I did too, when I was 50. At sixty-something . . . not so much.
For some people, sixty feels a lot like fifty or even forty. I keep hearing "sixty is the new forty." For most of us, sixty is definitely sixty . . . and old. Exercise and diet help, but some of the most careful, conditioned people I have known have come apart and, even, died in what really was middle-age. Some of the least-cared-for folks I've ever known seemed to get a second wind at sixty and took off for a decade or two of high activity. Luck, as always, seems to have a hand in how we age. I've had more than my share of luck. Since I never expected to live past 30, living twice that long is freakin' amazing.
For those of us who have the "jock tendency," our past life catches up about this time. Every bone I've broken, every tendon I've ripped, and every muscle I've carelessly abused has its say when I get out of bed in the morning. My back--that poorly designed collection of soft tissue, hard tissue, harder tissue, and fluid--is so screwed up that I suspect I'm growing Stegosaurus plates just above my hips. I'm not flexible enough to inspect any part of my back, so if the plates are there I'm just going to ignore them until I discover I can't lie flat on my back. Some nights, getting into a comfortable sleeping position seems to take all night. My doc calls all this "the payback for years of use and abuse." Screw him.
So, while we discussed my ancient history, my recently-reconnected friend asked "Would you do it all over again, knowing you'd wear out this soon?" I don't know if I'd call myself "worn out," but I'm definitely worn down.
I was never a good jock, just an energetic one. I played football, basketball, baseball, racquetball, tennis, wrestled, bicycled, and did some martial arts. I rode a whole bunch of off-road motorcycles, from flat track to motocross to observed trials (chronologically). Pretty much every one of those activities cost me an injury or ten. I loved flailing away at all of those sports, especially basketball and cross-country motorcycle racing. I've always been short, slow, unable to jump over a brand new dime, and beginning in my mid-40's I spent a good portion of my time hopelessly trying to avoid being fat. But I've also been fairly strong with good endurance, I have a high threshold of pain, and a pretty good grasp of strategy. So, I suck; but not badly enough that I don't get to play.
That's all that matters. Getting to play.
So, would I do all the crazy crap I did, knowing that I'd be paying this aching price today? Yeah, I would still do most everything again. Don't get me wrong, if I could avoid repeating the really stupid stuff, I'd do it. But if the only way to avoid injury is not to play, I'd play. If the only way to avoid being a creaky old man was to be a careful young man, damn the torpedoes and let's jump into the fire mixing metaphors all the way.
I had some fun out there. I can remember the feel of the wind and dirt in my face from a thousand reasonably well-executed corners and jumps. I remember passes and getting passed and those moments still give me pleasure. I can close my eyes and feel the bike vibrating beneath me and all the motorcycles around me shaking the gate (or the stretched tire tube), waiting for it to drop (or snap) and the start of a race. I hope I will always wish I'd have played more, not less. I wish I'd have invested more money in a competitive bike and practiced more, been faster, taken more chances, started earlier. More memories would be better now than the minor advantage of a little less pain.
In fact, I am still planning a few adventures that could easily add to my pain locker's contents. If I can figure out how to get around the disadvantage of only speaking English, I want to ride the Pan American Highway. Compensating for the English-only disadvantage, I'd like to explore North Africa's Roman ruins. New Zealand, Australia, and Europe are on the list, too. I want to go back to Alaska and, this time, make it to Deadhorse. I still have a few Rocky Mountain ghost towns left to visit. If you have advice or suggestions on hitting any of those targets, I'm all eyes and ears. As every geezer knows, the only resource that is absolutely limited is time. Do it now, or risk never doing it. Life is shorter and sweeter than you think.

Nov 23, 2012

Book Review: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values

[One more book review that attracted little-to-no interest from my MMM editors.]

by Robert Pirsig, 1974

All Rights Reserved © 2012 Thomas W. Day

In 2014, Zen (or ZAMM) will celebrate its 40th year in publication. It is one of the best read books in history. Google returns 2 million hits for a search on the book's title. There are dozens of guidebooks for readers: study guides for high school and college students, anniversary editions with introductions and explanations, primers for the less-than-literate, me-too copies, and lots of philosophical analysis. For a book so often despised by academics, ZAMM has inspired an incredible amount of examination and deconstruction.

I have owned a copy of this book since the first year it was published (1974). I have reviewed more than 100 books, several hundred music CDs, and written hundreds of thousands words since I first stumbled upon Zen and, before now, I have never found the confidence or arrogance to write about one of the books that shaped my life. Recently, I found a digital copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and was amazed to realize that a popular book published in my lifetime has gone into the public domain. I am probably on my 20th copy of the paperback version of this book, having loaned and lost each of the previous copies I've owned. At the minimum, I've read ZAMM twenty times. For almost forty years, every time I have backpacked into the wilderness or travelled by motorcycle for more than a couple days I have brought a copy of ZAMM for those quiet moments that are the reason I venture into unfamiliar and isolated places. Of the few good things I know, Robert Pirsig and Colin Fletcher (The Complete Walker and many other wonderful foot traveling stories) and John Muir (Keep Your Volkswagen Alive; A Manual of Step-By-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot) are responsible for at least 50% of my life's accumulated knowledge.

When someone I respect a lot told me he'd tried and failed to read ZAMM to the end, multiple times, I restarted the self-evaluation experience that always accompanies my exposure to Robert Pirsig's insights; just to see what might make this book difficult to read. When I discovered that all but one novel, Catch 22, from the collection one of the greatest authors of the 20th Century, Joseph Heller, had been purged from my local library system, I felt compelled to write about ZAMM to slow Pirsig's disappearance into the flotsam and jetsam of our trivialized and drug-and-attention-disordered Facebook and Twitter'd world.

When my father discovered my teenage interest in mechanical and electrical concepts, he told me, "Anything you can do for yourself, someone else can do better." When I was a young man, in his "Chautauqua" Pirsig told me, "A motorcycle functions entirely in accordance with the laws of reason, and a study of the art of motorcycle maintenance is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself." Pirsig's description of the mechanics who botched his bike repair illustrated a world I wanted to avoid, "At 5 P.M. or whenever their eight hours were in, you knew they would cut it off and not have another thought about their work. They were already trying not to have any thoughts about their work on the job. . . They were involved in it (technology and their work) but not in such a way as to care." I knew that the only person who would care about the things I wanted fixed or built was me. Pirsig convinced me that I could learn to do the work.

I grew up in a very religious family and community where "rationality" was avoided whenever possible. I was the family black sheep, green monkey, or whatever label you use to identify and whack the prominent nail. I desperately sought rationality and ZAMM is packed with it from the first to the last page. The confluence of technology, logic, and reason, and the possibility of a career nestled between those concepts was revolutionary. It still is.

Surrounding the practical aspects of ZAMM, Pirsig pursues the concept of "quality." All of us are involved in this search, but many of us are distracted by the sparkly lights advertising uses to convince us that quality is something we can purchase. ZAMM flies against the whole "lifestyle" theory of product marketing. One reason the counter-culture so readily accepted ZAMM is that Pirsig validates the philosophy of questioning authority. From a traditionalist's perspective, Persig's dissection of romantic and rhetoric philosophies was a cold-blooded evaluation of the gaping holes in emotionalism and formal argument. More than a few academics, who live and thrive on emotionalism and rhetoric, fought back from the ramparts of their gloomy institutions while five million of us took refuge in the streets armed with a new way to look for Quality in our lives.

From a hopeful writer's perspective, ZAMM is inspirational. Rejected by a record 121 publishers and selling 5 million copies worldwide, ZAMM is a beacon of hope for authors of all stripes, even though few of us can hope to approach Pirsig's brilliant combination of formal and contemporary style and content. From a life-long student's perspective, Pirsig taught me that in a world full of irrational people, insane cultural garbage, and what seems like universal foolishness, there can be small outposts of rationality and calm. You just have to find them; or make them for yourself. Maybe this is just another version of Dylan Thomas' "Rage, rage against the dying of the light," but ZAMM makes the effort seems more like an attempt to build something than just a rant about death. Pirsig told me, "Trials never end, of course. Unhappiness and misfortune are bound to occur as long as people live, but there is a feeling now, that was not here before, and is not just on the surface of things, but penetrates all the way through: We’ve won it. It’s going to get better now. You can sort of tell these things." I needed to read the book through to that point, multiple times in my life. I did it again, this spring, and I believe it is going to get better now. As it always does.

Nov 19, 2012

Loud Pipes and Perfect Pitch

In a world full of cruelty and misery, this has to be pretty close to the cruelest, most miserable sound on earth: the unearthly blend of potato-potato and the screech of bagpipes.

It does, however, remind me of my favorite musician joke. Do you know the definition of "perfect pitich?" It's when you throw a banjo into a dumpster and it skewers a bagpipe.

Nov 11, 2012

Motorcycles for Everyone, Especially Me

The dirt bike was my favorite "bike." My favorite line was regarding the cruiser, "In all honesty, this is probably going to be the most painful day." What have I been telling you people?

Nov 3, 2012

We're All Dead

The election is close and, according to the douchebags who tell us what we think, the only people left in the country who haven't made up their simple little minds are "swing voters." In this election cycle, those voters are "young white women without college degrees who have an annual household income of less than $50,000." (Most of them make way less than $50,000.) In otherwords, those braindead, tailgating bimbos who scare the crap out of everyone on the highway with their general, all-purpose incompetence are going to decide who will drive the remains of the United States of America over a cliff. Stephen Cobert tried to interview one of these decision makers and even he was frustrated by her vapidness. We are so screwed.

The only upside possible here would be if the candidates had to grovel so completely to this demographic that they had to promise Washington DC jobs for all of them. The IQ of the rest of the country would jump an easy 10 points, even in the Southeast, and Washington can't get any dumber.