Feb 17, 2008

Failure to Communicate

A few years ago, a friend who had just taken up motorcycles decided that we weren't getting enough out of our trips into the Colorado Rockies. He'd become a motorcyclist, mostly, to be part of a group (of which I was a member) who spent most weekends exploring the area within a day's ride of Denver on bikes. He had discovered yet another intrusive piece of technology that he was convinced we should all buy for the purpose of enhancing communication on our road trips; helmet headsets.

One of the two experienced riders, not me, was into vintage Japanese bikes. Lots of vintage Japanese bikes. At the last count, I think he has 11 unreliable, under-powered, bad-handling junkers that he loves like children. I had an almost-new Yamaha 850 TDM that made my children a bit jealous. Who'd have guessed that kids want attention, too? The third hand in our deck of mountain explorers had a Yamaha 650XS. It didn't take him too long to discover that he couldn't keep up with us on rolling junk.

Regardless of the XS's limitations, the third guy was such a cautious rider that I always took the precaution of planning our rides so that we'd have a designated place to meet at specific times, along the route. I thought this effort was an extraordinary act of friendship, on my part. He was so slow moving that he'd often be stuck in his driveway, still fiddling with his minimal riding gear, when I arrived at the first "check point" to wait. Sometimes, I waited for hours. I caught up on a lot of reading during those trips.

One day, while waiting to pick his bike up, after some minor repair work at a dealership, he discovered helmet communications systems. From that day on, every conversation we had started and ended with "I think we all ought to get these things, then we could talk to each other while we ride." I could ask him where he wanted to eat lunch and end up having to fend off a pitch for why I needed a radio in my helmet. Even the absolutely true and logical argument that I didn't need yet another voice joining the crowd in my head failed to deter him.

I admit that, purely through accidental survival and decent genes, I am a geezer. I'm not all that fond of new stuff for the sake of newness. I hung on to points and electro-mechanical ignitions longer than necessary because I understood them and could fix them. I still won't own a car with electric windows. Being a geezer isn't something that I have actively pursued, but will take responsibility for having made a few choices that resulted in my getting old rather than getting dead. Many of those successful choices had to do with keeping life simple as possible. Electronic gadgets, by definition, do not fall into the "simple life" category.

However, a lot of people have contributed to my being a geezer with a fair collection of grudges. The folks at Nady, for example, made those damn helmet communications systems so inexpensive that I could have afforded one if I were lifeless enough to want one. Which provided my friend with the ammunition to bug me about buying a set, whenever something resembling an opportunity arose. Because of that fact, I will never wish the engineers at Nady anything but uncontrollable feedback and poor fidelity. A grudge that I plan to hold till I die.

Eventually, after a year of nagging, I had to give up my feeble attempts at being a nice guy. When my buddy fired up one too many arguments on the radio-in-the-helmet thing, I admitted that I don't ride a motorcycle to socialize. In fact, I ride a motorcycle to be alone. I rarely take on passengers and I don't want a radio in my helmet because I like it that way.

I didn't quit while I was ahead, either. I told him that these things are glorified walkie-talkies and they have a range of about a mile, in perfect conditions. Since he was only likely to be able to stay within a mile of me when we were in the same parking lot, the radios would be a waste of helmet space. This is a guy who actually believes that posted speed limits are "reasonable and safe speeds," not arbitrary numbers selected to irritate skilled motorists and to control the far more common totally-inept-screwball-behind-a-steering-wheel.

After absorbing my insults, he doubled his efforts on the other member of our trio. Finally, he convinced him to waste his money on a helmet transmitter-receiver. After a couple of rides with his new electronic riding buddy, he discovered how irritating conversation can be when you're doing something fun. After a while, he started leaving the radio on, 24 hours a day, draining the battery while appearing to be cooperative. When our talkative buddy discovered that he was going unheard, he started carrying extra batteries so that his gems of wisdom wouldn't go unappreciated.

Finally, his victim gave up the pretense and bought a new helmet, sans radio. He took to wearing that helmet all the time, claiming it was more comfortable because it did a better job of muffling the "wind noise" (which, technically, was true in at least two ways).

I wish I were that diplomatic. I wouldn't have thought of that excuse in a million years. The closest I came to being subtle was, when we were all together in a bike shop listening to the helmet-yak lecture, I bought a tee-shirt with "Shut Up and Ride" silk-screened on both sides.

When I see bikers coming into a bar, obviously continuing a conversation they'd been having on their helmet walkie-talkies, I know I don't want to be anywhere near them when the road turns twisty and fun. They are just a small step up from cagers with cell phones. When radio-riders ask me if I get lonely out on the road, by myself, with no one to talk to, I remember a lyric written by an old Minnesota folk singer, "You ask why I don't live here? Man, I don't believe you don't leave." No, I don't get lonely when I'm on my motorcycle. I have the bike under me, the road in front of me, and we're all happy as two inanimate objects and one grumpy geezer can be. Thanks for asking. Was that diplomatic enough for you?

March 2002

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