Friday, September 19, 2008

Just Perfect

I must have done something very, very bad in my previous life, because I have been reincarnated in this segment of my current one as a nonmotorcyclist. When my son celebrated his ninth birthday last week, I realized, A decade. That is how long it's been since I last rode a bike. How is this possible? (The locution we use when we look in the mirror and finally see we have a face commensurate with our years: Why, we rule the world. Um, don't we? What, you mean we're no longer the youthquake? We're the invisible middle-aged? Not possible!)

Yet it happened. This long lacuna in my life in which I behaved as if Live to Ride, Ride to Live was a slogan for other people. Nutcases, to be precise. But I was happy when I was a nutcase. I am just beginning to recall how happy. Others foresaw this for me: I think it's time you started to ride again, Melissa. Read your own book, in case you forgot.

The yearning I am beginning to feel--not to read my own book, I mean really; but to turn around and finally face the imposing presence I have sensed following me through the years, breathing quietly, patiently--may be a form of Seven Year Itch. (A little delayed; that's me for you.) Biologists tell us this type of wanderlust occurs naturally at the point when human offspring become self-reliant. Well, not in the world we currently live in, but cavemen children were apparently a different story.

I yearn again for the tribe. For that is what we were, with our own customs, language, greeting (left-hand wave as we pass each other, with personal variations: the full hand up, or two fingers down; but the left hand at any rate, because the right is on the throttle, the pumping heart of this spectacular beast you have become). And the tribe is fractured into subgroups. Mine was, of course, the Super-Elect, Italophiles. (We voted for ourselves.) The kind who thought it fun to spend the whole night cursing at the spirits of bad-natured, black clad grandmas who cackled as they made short circuits in the electrics.

There was never a question of what you were going to do with your weekends: "Wanna ride to Danbury?" "You going to the IMOC rally?" "Yeah, we'll have dinner at that diner with all the pies before we have to hit the highway," after a day eschewing the straight-and-not-narrow for the twisty byways; and I have noticed an almost tenderhearted relationship between the biker and the authentic diner.

There was never a question of what you were going to do with your money, either: as a friend of mine put it, "Motorcycles are to buy. Not to sell." Projects in various stages of revivification filled the garage; the car could live outside. The most precious of the polished stones went inside; I mean inside, in the house. I have personally seen a Laverda and several Moto Guzzis that had displaced hall rugs. This is only appropriate for a machine that quickly becomes something else: the most intimate of partners, the one you entrust with your life.

One talks, therefore, to one's motorcycle. It is a relationship of dialog--I know you, inside and out--and is made false if it is based on mere economic exchange. After all, what sort of friend can you buy with your Visa?

There are, I suspect, many, many brandnew Ducatis--a bike I think of as dollar signs on wheels--currently centerstage in people's living rooms, but very few are engaged in this deep, existential conversation (not composed of wifty philosophy, mind you, but the central practicalities that are what underlie the theory). That's because the opening line is usually something like, "Here, let me rebuild those carbs for you!" and no one's saying that to these over-engineered babies. The paid mechanic is.

But then life held out to me its sleeping powder that caused the long night of nonriding: first it was the puppy. I'd go out for a Sunday ride with my buddies, and an hour in I was talking to her behind my helmet--thank goodness no one could hear, because it was death-defyingly embarrassing--and wishing I could turn around and use my horsepower for one thing only, go fast, back to her.

The puppy was, predictably to everyone but (surprise) me, the precursor to the baby: a year before he was born, the white motorcycle, already sadly bereft of her rider, who felt unending guilt, was sold to a Brit. He intended to ship her across the sea where she could join the lovely accented tribe over there, which had a particularly exciting approach to threading the city-traffic needle. There, too, she might have all the tires and spark plugs she wished but could no longer obtain here (there were only 250 of her type on these shores)--I felt like a penniless mother selflessly sending her child off to live with a wealthy family that could give it all the things she could not. And when I closed the garage door on the newly empty space, I closed the door on a part of myself.

It slept. And now it awakens. But in the intervening years, everything has changed. The bikes are bigger, faster, made up of different designating numbers. I am the Rip Van Winkle of the motorcycle world. It scares me, not knowing anything. It scares me, the whole prospect. Everything from my aging physical apparatus (O reading glasses: I surrender at last) to the change in the world, its million more cars and trucks, to a new tendency toward an almost stultifying awareness of my own motivations, as if I am now two people intead of one, standing beside herself and questioning everything.

I read recently that the middle-aged are vastly overrepresented in the accident statistics. Another thing to stand there and think about while the moment flees.

Well, I have a solution of sorts to at least one of the misgivings. The numbers on the vintage bikes have not changed, have they. While I slept, their names at least stayed the same. And their years have kept pace with mine. We might make a team, after all. With, I think, a sidecar for the kid and the dog.


Cheryl said...

Wow Melissa, "just perfect" timing. Yesterday I came home to find this blog in my email (care of your friend Paul from the Dog Owners Group of Prospect Park). The timing was just perfect after the day I had. A day of looking hard at this tradeoff ~ kids and family ~ time and freedom.

I'm coming at it from the other side. I got about a hundred miles in yesterday, on my 85 BMW R80. What a sweet machine, smooth, reliable, moves like a part of me (ok sometimes a retarded part, I'm still getting the hang of the slow stuff). My main destination was a meeting of fellow energy healers, where I did a lot of work on my grief and regret over not having children. Along the way I rode some twisty back roads and some highway, some miles in glorious late summer sun, some in pouring down rain, some miles alone, some with my new boyfriend (a hot BMW mechanic, if you'll indulge a moment of gloating). All the time so aware of this tradeoff - if I'd gotten the life I'd counted on, if I had my family, babies and pets, I wouldn't have been out there. And it was a joy to be out there!

But reading your blog, I'd take a ten year timeout to be in your situation. You beat the system, you got around the tradeoff, you've got it all. Nice!

Welcome back to the road, sounds like it won't be long til I see you out there....

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Well, Cheryl, I guess it's about time for us both to do another reading of Frost's "The Road Not Taken." Since they haven't figured out how to clone us yet, we have to make choices, and choices always entail regrets. But you got quite a deal--a boyfriend who is a mechanic! A two-fer-one!

Yeah, I think changes are afoot. I don't know how, I don't know when (should I be a songwriter??), but something fun is gonna happen. Let me know if you see another Beemer same class as yours for sale.

Ride safe. said...

Welcome back. I gave a copy of "The Perfect Vehicle" to my daughter and sister as well as two male friends and all enjoyed the book. When my kids were small I took a break from long bike trips, but kept commuting and riding on weekends. When my son was 9 we began a series of bike trips, which we both enjoyed. My daughters have also been on trips on the bike with me.

I think that the disturbing incidence of accidents for returning riders is at least somewhat due to the high performance and weight of modern bikes, as well as the rider thinking that he or she can just jump back into an activity that requires constant practice to keep your skills up. Take an MSF experienced rider's class, use good sense, and you'll be fine.

I'm not a fan of sidecars, preferring to have a passenger on the back. However, I've met several people who have purchased a rig specifically so they could take their dog on trips.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Peter, I'm glad to hear your views--that does sound right. During the decade I was a narcotized nonrider, bikes just bloomed into hugeness, it seems (like everything else in America: steroids for all!). Who really needs, or can handle, all that weight and horsepower? I can't pick up my local newspaper, it seems, without reading, "Local motorcyclist killed: failed to negotiate curve." Then bikes get demonized as unsafe, not their riders. I wouldn't dream of going back without taking that MSF course. (I did it last 12 years ago: priceless.) But I never did feel entirely comfortable with a passenger; I could take the responsibility for something happening to me, but to someone else . . . And when that someone else is your child: yikes. You'll have to tell me how you dealt with that.

Peter said...

I've been riding with a passenger since I got my first motorcycle when I was 21, so by now I'm used to having someone on the back. I'm probably more cautious than usual when carrying a passenger, but mainly because I'm conscious of the extra weight. Passenger or solo, I still get butterflies the night before a long trip, but they disappear as soon as I'm out of the driveway. There was a lot of opposition from my parents when I told them about my planned trip with Andrew, but my wife was fine with it, possibly because she and I made several cross-country trips two-up. Having said all that, there's quite a difference between a day trip of a hundred miles or so and a three-week trip of several thousand miles. When I look back on the pictures from our first trip, Andrew looks very young.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

I was really struck by what you said, Peter, about being nervous the night before a trip--but as soon as it becomes concrete, real, fear evaporates.

I just had a conversation about this today: the anticipation of something not working out, say, having some writing rejected, is so awful, you're in a panic. But when it does happen, the hurt lasts about 24 hours, then it's gone. The anxiety can go on for much longer than that! And I guess that's sorta what's happened with me and motorcycles: I've now had 10 years to let the worries build. But the other day I was wheeling around a friend's V65 (a bike I once owned for a couple months) and I knew I could so easily just ride it away. That is, if the ignition wasn't f----d up, ha-ha!

Anonymous said...

Melissa – tomorrow afternoon, I’m off for the weekend. My 26-year old bike is exactly half my age and never fails me. I’ve had bikes, starting with Triumphs, since I was a teenager, ridden coast-to-coast a half-dozen times, commute nine months of the year and cannot imagine life without a bike. When my daughter was born (a mere four years ago), it limited the number of Saturdays I could be gone all day doing 300 miles of twisty roads, but bikes were nearly essential and my wife thought so too.

She sends me away three times a summer. I head to a state park and pitch a tent and ride around southwest Wisconsin with a couple books in the tankbag.

As I ponder a semi-modern motorcycle (if one can call a 2002 V11 Sport modern), and having recently reread A Perfect Vehicle, all I can say is ‘get another f**king bike, Melissa.’ There isn’t a substitute, nor a reason to look for one.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

OK. I get it. The consensus? "Shut the h--l up and buy one already!" Now, to lay my hands on some money . . .

Anonymous said...

Ah, yes….money. The reason I’m riding a 26 year old bike (wonderful though it is). After my weekend camping, the Slimey Crud run is Sunday (on my way home)….6-800 bikes, many beautiful old Brits, Guzzis Duc, etc., and my display of corrosion.

Bert (not really anonymous, just don’t know how to do this) in Madison

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

So, Bert! (Not some heckler from the audience, but a real person, riding a real bike "with personality.")
I have to say I was lying in bed last night and asking myself, So what--apart from the money--is standing between you and a new ride?
The answer came, and amazed me, because of course it's the elephant in the room: I'm a single mother with a child and a dog to take care of; no babysitter; so much work to do I stay up late at night to do it & am chronically sleepless; and though I miss my child so much when he's on visitations it literally hurts physically, I am desperate for the 2 weekends a month when I can work, which is what I do. All the time.
I'm not weeping here, mind you: this is my life, and I love it. But I can't imagine how I'd find a way to take even an afternoon ride somewhere. Sad but true.
Can I live vicariously through you?

Anonymous said...

Why not? Sure……….I do commute daily, and while people can’t understand the fun in a three-mile ride to work, it does leave me with a smile when I get here. I’m not a single parent, but I have a little girl who’ll be four in December, a four year old German Shepherd and a 90-year old house full of major carpentry projects, so I don’t get enough proper time on the bike. But I do get the occasional weekend alone with the bike.

Saturday was near perfect. Colors are changing, but no wet leaves on the roads. Southwest Wisconsin is sort of like riding around the Catskills (or, more accurately, the foothills closer to Oneonta). It’s the part of the state left untouched by glaciers. Sunny and high-60s and about a 300 mile ride.

People around here live vicariously through Pete Egan. I run into him fairly often and he’s always on a new (or now old) bike. Saw him yesterday and he’s just sold the 1961 Velocette he’s had for only about six months and he has his ’78 XLCR cafĂ© racer (lotta pose, not much race) for sale. He’s buying a new Triumph Scrambler and looking for an old airplane. But Pete only has dogs, no kids…..and he’s 60. Like the John Sayles line “better than any f***in’ T-bird” in Return of the Secaucus Seven, I can’t really envy Pete’s life, since he’s eight years older than me and has no kids, but he surely gets some sweet machines.

You’ll get another in time. I have an old friend outside Beacon, so I know the roads around you must be a constant reminder.


Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Oh, there's always someone else to envy! You're right, the roads around here are biker heaven. Last weekend I think I saw more BMWs alone than cars. They swarm around Woodstock. (Having lived in places all around the Catskills, from Delhi to the Hudson, I have a mental map of ten thousand excruciatingly gorgeous places I'm going to hit as soon as I'm on two wheels. And thanks for the vote of confidence in that regard.) My son is very anxious that he might have to wait till he's 16. "But if I get a dirt bike, can I ride sooner than that?" A whole other can of worms for a mom to open. Kind of like the dilemma where you know exactly what you smoked out behind the barn with your friends when you were a teen, but by golly you're afraid your child is going to do the exact same thing.

Charles said...

WAIT A MINUTE! You have a WebLOG? and I just FOUND it?

Searching for a copy of your book, for a freind of mine's 17 yr old daughter who wants to ride, I find a weblog

then I read about all this, why aren't you and brilliant son riding?

I have a crappy vintage BMW sidecar outfit, my 2 yr old Tarzan LOVES to ride in. Sure, it is a royal PITA to handle, sidecars are not normal bikes. But the smile on his face? The GLOW? Totally worth it.


Hello, knock knock.. Dirtbikes! ride WITH him! MSF class offers a 'dirt' version, for adults and smaller adults (kids)

Just a thought.

Either way, the FAMOUS Melissa Holbrook Pierson without a bike, it's just not right, it's like the Lone Ranger without Silver, it's like Dale Evans without Roy, It's like (actually trying to come up with a humorous Sarah Palin stupidity thing, but cannot)

I understand the single mom, kid, dog, million things to do, etc. Well, actually, I DON'T understand the mom thing, as I am a guy, but I Do get the million things...

Last year I was standing on the banks of the Ganges with a pal of mine. He told me "we Hindu believe you are given a fixed number of breaths in your life. You can take them quickly or slowly, but when you take them all, you are done"

And I realized, gotta do what you enjoy.

Then he pushed me in the river, cause that's what friends DO.

Figure out how. Make the time. Take the time. Schedule it in. The feeling you have when on a bike? Makes everything else line up and your brain clears itself.

No matter what you do, please get a bike, or come out here and borrow ours.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Oh, Charles. Did you have to go pushing *me* into the river? I accept as TRUTH all you say.

And my son is a step ahead of you already: he asked if he had to wait until he's sixteen for a license. I said no, you could ride a dirt bike.

Guess what's on his Christmas list?

And if you give me your address, I'll be right over to steal your rig.

Thank you. I mean it.

Charles said...

San Jose, California. but please wait till mid december to come steal it for a while. + Ya'll are both welcome to the guest room whenever you need a trip to the left coast. I've only read your bike book, and it did inspire me.

I want this to be a bike my son: grows up with, learns to wrench and ride, and eventually, when he's leaving home, I toss him the keys.

(This is him mechanically checking out mom's bike before she left for a rally in august)

SO ... Your blog motivated me.

I called a vintage wrench pal of ours, pulled the sidecar off, and am delivering the bike Saturday for a full rebuild, convert from 750 to 1000, redo all the wiring, machine a few of those mad brackets i've been meaning to make, and generally restorate to perfection.

It should be ready mid december, THEN you can come out for it, for a while... :D or a ride, camping, etc.

As far as dirtbikes, which I have been doing lately, as roadracing is too $$ and time consuming, well dirtbikes are crazy silly fun.

Maybe think Yamaha TTR 125 for super kiddo, and maybe a 250 for you? Small, easy to ride, manage, maintaining is minimal, fun is very high.

Motorcycles are the salve for the soul.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Wow, Charles--you DO know how to get motivated. A whole new old bike! Sure, we'll be booking tickets to CA in late December, so watch out.

Maybe you recall that in the book, I mentioned some friends in Tallahassee telling us they envied us our long road trip; they said, "Go, see it now, because it won't be there much longer." They were referring to what might be called "authentic" America, what still remained before the final corporate bulldozing of the homegrown, the regional, the organic. They said this to us in 1985.

Is it all gone now? I don't know. I suspect not *all*. But I want to go see first-hand, and let my son have his own experience of it too. And the best way to truly see the world, apart from walking through it, is to go by motorcycle. Vision, and all the senses, are intensified by riding. Don't know why. Science should have a look.