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The Shiny Black Cushman Eagle at Red Rutherford’s Skelly Station

A Cushman Eagle similar to the one I received as a Christmas gift.

When I was a child I would pore over Sears and Montgomery Ward mail order catalogs. I turned the pages until the ink smudged and the paper became soft with wear. I also savored magazine ads for Daisy and Red Rider BB guns, Schwinn and Huffy bicycles, Lionel and American Flyer model trains. I lost myself in anticipatory pleasure.

But sometimes when I got one of my wished-for toys and played with it for a while, it seemed less pleasurable than the anticipation beforehand. Once I became accustomed to to the toy, the pleasure diminished. This wasn’t always the case, but it happened often enough to detect a pattern. Things, in and of themselves, don’t make us happy. Desire and happiness are more complicated.

Sometimes, the pleasure we experience is worth the asking price. One day as I walked past Red Rutherford’s Skelly service station after school I spotted a used, shiney, black Cushman Eagle motor scooter with a chrome gearshift, and day after day it became an object of desire. I knew I’d have to mow a lot of lawns to buy it, and it wasn’t lawn mowing season so I was depressed in equal measure with my desire for this lovely machine.

Shortly before Christmas it was gone. I was heartbroken. My fantasies of tearing around town, shifting that two-speed transmission with its characteristic sound of grinding gears were deflated, and it was hard to bear. I went into a funk.

On Christmas morning, however, I was led into the front yard at my grandparent’s house and there sat the Cushman Eagle. It seemed the best Christmas ever. And truth to tell, I got a lot of pleasure from that motor scooter for quite a long time.

A page from a 1957 Sears catalogue.

How my single parent mother, caring for three children on a nurse’s salary in our small town, managed to put the money aside to buy it still mystifies me. But she did, and I was ever grateful.

These memories are called to mind because United Methodist Communications is asking us to Rethink Advent and give the gift of ourselves rather than become engulfed in the material commercialism that so infects Christmas these days. It’s a worthy suggestion. Uncritical indulgence can lead us into financial problems, emotional letdown and buyer’s remorse. These don’t make us happy, they make us feel worse and leave us economically and emotionally bereft.

We do feel happier when we give of ourselves, and the feeling seems to affect us in multiple ways. We feel contentment and inner warmth. And we don’t experience buyer’s remorse.

Our relationship to things is directly connected to our sense of self-worth, our relationships with others and our beliefs about what things can or cannot do for our well-being. Things don’t replace, or even enhance, our relationships if those are not in good repair. They don’t buttress our flagging esteem if we’re depressed, fearful, or emotionally damaged.

To Rethink Advent is a good thing if we think critically about why we’re giving, how giving will enhance wellbeing, how it will affect us emotionally and financially. And perhaps it will help us discover that the best gift we can give is serving others and attending to those we love and those less advantaged.

I suspect the pleasure that comes as a result will rival any that I used to find in those mail order catalogs and last a lot longer.

The Wave and Community

Even as the Christmas season is upon us, we recently enjoyed an unusually fine December day, and I could tell the old blue Kawasaki Vulcan Drifter wanted out of the garage and on the road. (You can tell these things, trust me.)  So I headed out on a familiar route that includes a bit of highway and a bit of backroad. It winds through picturesque horse country near our house.

Other motorcyclists were taking advantage of this great weather, too. It’s customary to wave at approaching riders, but I passed a few who didn’t wave and it got me to wondering. Was it that riders of other marques didn’t want to recognize a different machine? Was it that they’re tired of this small act of hospitality? I wonder if they would stop and offer assistance if I were broken down on the road?

It was disconcerting. This inauspicious act has been one of the many pleasures of a ride. I hasten to say that some riders waved enthusiastically, so it isn’t as if the gesture is dead altogether.

That evening, browsing Motorcycle Cruiser magazine, I happened upon a column that mirrored my experience almost to a tee. Not only that, columnist John A. Kovach had experienced a breakdown and watched other riders pass without offering assistance. Even in motorcycling, community is breaking down.

He muses that we’re caught up in a culture of individualism. His brother-in-law heads a volunteer fire company and reports he can’t replace his 60-year-old volunteers with younger people. Kovach recalls the days when civic clubs provided community connection and a way to serve the common good, but these are now in decline as well.

Individualism has been a trend for many years. It was noted by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone. A recent Pew research study on global attitudes found that U.S. citizens are more likely to believe their fate is within their own control and express greater belief in individual initiative than Europeans.

The process of atomization in U.S. society is ingrained. The forces that drive individualism are many–race and class, the unending barrage of advertising that cultivates our feelings of inadequacy and promotes individual desire, urban planning and development that defined the American Dream as suburban utopias. Many of us live in so-called bedroom communities that don’t offer much neighborly interaction. Work is separated from other parts of our lives. Advertising manipulates our words so that our language is less precise, and it tries to hook into our interiors, our thoughts and feelings. We’ve become skeptical and protective.

As we’ve urbanized, we’ve moved away from small towns, mainstreet businesses and town squares, and the web of relationships they embodied and sustained. Through marketing and advertising, our humanity has been redefined and we are cast as mere consumers. However, as the big box stores give us the lowest price and automated checking, they reduce our interaction to anonymous transactions.  Shoshana Zuboff says consumption requires no skill, just an appetite. Volunteer organizations that once offered community, order and stability are no longer able to do so, and we seem to be losing our sense of the common good.

At the same time, we yearn for connection; we long for something more meaningful than the latest gadget or short-term fad. We want more than an artifice of community, we want meaningful, fulfilling connection. A recent study by the Barna Group reveals that young persons in the United States desire to be a part of something larger than themselves and they are not finding that in churches.

United Methodist Communications just released a study showing that what we enjoy most about the holidays is connecting with others. We enjoy sharing a meal with others (25%), traveling to visit friends and family (14%), worship (5%) and volunteering time (5%). When asked what was most meaningful among these our answers are: the shared meal (54%), worship (14%), and visiting friends and family (10%) .

In this axial age, we seem caught in a conundrum — the rider as rugged individual and the rider in community, and perhaps the analogy extends more broadly. In the paradox, I believe we yearn to belong and to be known. But it’s not an easy path.

In religious language, even if we don’t (or can’t) express it in words, we yearn to know that we belong to God and to each other. But many are also skeptical of religion, so we search. And wonder.

Sometimes a wave is more than a wave. And a meal is more than food.

Reflecting On My Vulcan Drifter and Our New Relationship

As I entered highway 440, the inner beltway around Nashville, I discovered another challenge. Grooved pavement. The bane of motorcycles.

It’s possible to travel on two wheels on grooved pavement if you stay flexible and keep moving forward. It’s best to ride with the quirkiness and not fight it, but it feels dicey. The bike and its momentum will take you through if you don’t over-correct.

And, indeed, we did motor down the road and turned onto I-65 for the last leg of the trip. I avoid this highway on my ride to the office during the week because commuters take it so fast. Sometimes I think it’s the south Nashville speedway.

Finally, at around nine p.m. we pulled into the driveway at home and I was exhilarated, tired and still puzzled.

Why had the bike shut down? Should I have it checked by a mechanic?


Being Present in the Moment with My Vulcan Drifter

As I rounded a curve on a hill during my adventurous ride on a just-purchased used Kawasaki Vulcan Drifter, the bike cut out. This isn’t something you want to experience on an interstate in the dark. I pulled over, coasted to a stop and looked for the problem.


The bike started and I told my wife following me in the car, I’ll go as far as I can, but may pull over again.

And I do, about a mile down the road, just past a bridge and on a slight incline. Trucks buffet you when you’re on the shoulder as they rush by. I’m checking every electrical contact I can find, can’t locate anything wrong. I see gas in the tank when I rock the bike. (There is no fuel gauge.)

I flip switches but nothing makes a difference. I try the starter and nothing happens. I’m flummoxed. Frustrated.

I call the former owner who assures me it’s never happened to him. Maybe that’s true, maybe not. Not that he’s untruthful, but how am I to know sitting here dead in the water as the traffic blows by?


Getting To Know My New Vulcan Drifter at 85 MPH

After I bought an older Vulcan Drifter in Memphis, I had a five hour ride home. I’d never ridden this bike before and I was just a little concerned. I can’t remember when I last rode something other than a BMW.  I doubt I’ve shifted gears on another brand in twenty years, maybe longer. And I don’t ride the Interstate.

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In Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew B. Crawford writes that bikes have personalities. I think the older they are the more unique the personality. They, like us, create patterns of behavior that are familiar and relatively predictable.

I don’t know this bike’s personality and that can mean not knowing how easily or reliably it shifts, brakes, accelerates or runs on the straightaway.

Some say riding is about ninety percent in your head. But the ten percent that’s method is important.

I don’t like riding the Interstate. It’s faster than I’d normally ride. Seventy-five to eighty-five mph is not my preference when I’m exposed to the elements and sitting about six inches above the asphalt.

Trucks whip you around, the wind roars through your helmet. And when I lifted my foot, I felt the pressure of wind and gravity. I was surprised. Because your feet are behind the cylinder heads on a BMW you don’t experience this pressure so it came as a strange sensation.


From Memphis to Nashville on a Kawasaki Vulcan Drifter

For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to own an Indian motorcycle. The Indian is, in my opinion, the ultimate classic design for a motorcycle. It was born in the era that also gave birth to the flowing lines of Art Deco which is reflected in buildings, railroad streamliners, signage and steamships.

But classic Indians cost a premium. The original company stopped manufacturing them several years ago. When new owners opened up again, contemporary versions cost as much as a luxury automobile. Beautiful as they are, they are beyond my pocketbook and my sense of financial stewardship.

It came as a surprise to me that during 2000 to 2006 Kawasaki introduced an Indian replica called the Vulcan Drifter. When one came up for sale in Memphis, I went to see it. It was priced right. In good shape. I bought it.


Pirsig was Right. There is Zen in Motorcycle Maintenance

It’s not only about the ride. The ride is great. But after spending parts of several weeks bringing a thirty-year-old motorcycle back to life, I’ve discovered it’s also about the joy of working with your hands, the smells of the garage and the sound of a motor roaring to life after a long, long sleep. Tactile. Auditory. Visual. Visceral.

The 1977 BMW R100RS sat idle for at least ten years. I started it once or twice in that time, but rubber bushings had deteriorated, water had collected in the transmission, brake pads had become soiled, electrical connections corroded. It was a shell of the beauty it once was. Glamor on the outside and corrosion on the inside.

I methodically cleaned electrical contacts, changed fluids and replaced parts that were bad. It’s been a long, tedious process. Not boring, but life-giving. I call it methodical because method is necessary. Doing electrical or mechanical work piecemeal is likely to lead to ongoing frustration. I need the benefit of a methodology. It leads to a way to manage a problem whose result is apparent but whose cause is unknown.

Why won’t that switch work? Where exactly is the fault? How do I trace it down? Test the voltage from the battery to the first connection and measure it. Then test the next section until the voltage drop is isolated. Method.

When I’m working on the bike, my mind is freed from the concerns of the day and it probes deeply into the mechanics of the machine. It’s not only right there in front of me in metal, it’s in my thoughts and imagination. Sometimes it’s necessary to visualize how each part contributes to the whole. In fact, when troubleshooting it’s required. It’s about connection. Each part is connected to another and they interact. A weak part will shut you down on the side of the road. The machine is only as strong as its weakest part, to cut to a cliche.

Connection leads to coherence.  All the parts working together create movement. Coherence is the life of the machine. As the bike, I also need coherence. I live a life disrupted by events, sometimes it seems moment by moment, day by day. Coherence  escapes me in that setting. But in the garage with wrench in hand, coherence gives me focus and reassurance, and leads me forward.

It’s been liberating in another way. I’ve not worked with a wrench for many years; not gotten oil under my fingernails since I can’t remember when. I’m a general secretary, that’s a ceo, if you’re not familiar with church language. This role isn’t really compatible with mechanical work in the garage for many reasons.

I work with my mouth, not my hands. I put together organizational parts, not physical nuts and bolts. But working with nuts and bolts is a part of who I am and as I grew into new directions, I left that part out. I’m rediscovering just how important it is. It’s necessary for me in order to be a together coherent human being, well-rounded and functional. I need to get my hands dirty.

And finally, there is precision, even in the art of maintaining. It’s true that intuition helps you to imagine the cause of a problem, but solving it comes down to precision. I mean more than using the correct size wrench on a nut. That’s precise also. If you don’t use the correct wrench you’re likely to round off the head of the bolt, but there’s more here than that obvious point. It’s about testing, verifying, measuring and outcome.

Some bolts require specific torque. Points and plugs operate with a precise gap. Carburetors flood when the fuel level is too high. When these (and many other settings) are precise the machine runs optimally. It’s exciting when this happens. Uplifting. Soul satisfying.

In my line of work precision is sometimes hard to come by. Not always, but enough to make it difficult at the end of the day to know what has been accomplished. It’s not ineffectiveness nor muddleheadedness. It’s the difficulty of knowing if you’ve made progress in work that isn’t concrete and specific, that can’t be contained in a physical way and measured. Work whose product may not appear but with the passage of time. Sometimes you only know it’s working after it’s working, when an event has been successful, an individual life has been changed, a group has taken up a cause and acted.

As I wrench around the garage, I think about this. Robert Pirsig was right. There is zen in motorcycle maintenance

An Old BMW “Airhead” Comes to Life

Nothing recently has caused my heart to soar like the sound of a BMW motorcycle roaring to life after ten years of sitting in the garage. It’s a 1977 R100RS. To my mind a classic. I commuted into New York City from New Jersey on it for ten years. I rode it with my son behind me as we traveled the northeast on camping trips. The old bike holds a special piece of my heart. I couldn’t part with it. It sat unused for this past decade, deteriorating. My guilt was heavy with the neglect of an old friend.

We maneuvered through congested traffic on route 4, crossed the George Washington Bridge, traversed the West Side Highway and Riverside Drive. We went down a couple of times. Once under the West Side Highway on a diesel slickened intersection and once when kids playing at an open hydrant managed to direct a water stream into the fairing and carried us unwillingly and uncontrollably down Riverside Drive into oncoming traffic. Once I hunkered down low on the gas tank when, unable to stop, I rode into a shootout on Riverside Drive. Men holding guns on one side of the street hid behind a car pointing guns at men on the other side crouching behind their vehicle. Fortunately, no shots were fired as we drove through their line of sight.

Once, a stupid, dangerous character dropped a baseball bat from the pedestrian walkway of the GWB onto us. The bat, surprisingly, passed through an impossibly narrow space between my leg and the fairing and fell to the pavement doing no harm. When I got to the end of the bridge I saw officers taking reports from a line of drivers. Cars and trucks had also been hit with all manner of rocks and bricks and some had broken windshields.

There were also good rides. I reveled at the sight of sunset on route 4 as we headed west in wintertime and felt the cool air rising from the Hudson River as we passed on the bridge high above.

The bike is geared for the German Autobahn and it was constrained by the slow, lumbering speeds of U.S. highways but when it gets close to its top speed, the fairing actually creates an envelope of protection and the bike settles down noticeably, gripping the surface and providing a remarkable sense of stability. It was the first bike with a full fairing tested in a wind tunnel and it caused traditional BMW riders to question where the company was headed.

The bike will talk to you, if you listen. It’s among the last of the horizontally opposed air-cooled engines that made BMW motorcycles distinctive for several decades. When the tappets click and the dual exhausts hum, you know it’s in good health. When those familiar noises and quirks change, however, it’s time to look into them. And I mean literally look into the bike’s innards.

Nearly everything on these old “airheads,” as they are called, can be repaired or replaced. Hardly a single part is beyond diagnosis, disassembly and repair. I’ve fixed the brakes, replaced the points, plugs, and exhaust pipes, re-set the timing and valve clearances, re-built the carbs, cleaned every electrical contact, taken apart and repaired at least three switches, one relay and the dashboard clock. No LEDs or circuit boards. (Well, it has one but it’s hardly a major feature.)

I’ve not taken the engine, transmission or drive shaft apart. In the past I have done this. But it takes time and a few gear pullers, and I’ve decided that if it’s necessary, I’ll leave this to the real mechanics. Maybe in the winter downtime.

In the meantime, I could be satisfied just starting it up and listening to it purr. Sometimes it’s not just about the ride, it’s also about the memories and something intangible like the freedom to dream of what’s over the horizon, and let yourself go there, perhaps on two wheels.

Motorcycle Commuting

With gas prices increasing, I’m seeing more
motorcycles commuting.

I watched a motorcyclist weave from the inside lane to the outside lane of a four-lane highway in rush hour traffic pulsating between 70 mph and near dead stop. I said a small prayer and remembered the aphorism, “There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots. But there are no old, bold pilots.”

With gas prices increasing, I’ve noticed more motorcyclists commuting. It’s a misconception that motorcycles are more nimble than cars. In fact, all the safety articles I’ve read dispute this idea. But new riders who haven’t gone through safety training may be operating under this misconception.

For 13 years I commuted from a suburb of New Jersey into the upper west side of Manhattan; Fairlawn Ave. to route 4, across the George Washington Bridge, down the Westside Highway to Riverside Drive. Every day was a new experience.

And, yes, it was risky. But I’m not cut out to be a carpool commuter, and I was careful. I used several tactics. I always rehearse what to do if someone moved into my lane, or pulled out in front of me, or did something else unexpected. Continuously anticipating and planning a safe escape is essential.

I also scanned the roadway continuously, making mental note of cars on either side, available shoulder space, cars behind, the pace of traffic ahead and, of course, debris. I learned to watch what tasks drivers were doing besides driving–shaving, putting on make-up, reading, and yes, snorting white powder (really). I had to anticipate who might start a chain reaction of rear-end collisions that would be much more damaging to me than a car with a bumper and several feet of metal between the driver and the back-end of the vehicle ahead.

I developed a sensitivity about what conditions might be risky–riding beside a truck whose driver couldn’t see me, staying in the rearview mirror of both cars and trucks, staying out of middle lanes when lane shifting was going on.

A rider also has to anticipate road surface and the traction of the bike’s tires. A roadway is most slippery just after a rainfall has started when oil mixed with water hasn’t been diluted or washed away, and the center is more oily than the wheel track. Metal gratings and asphalt give less traction than composition surfaces. Wear depressions hold water and are more likely to contribute to hydroplaning, which, on a motorcycle is deadly. Spilled diesel and other liquids are about the same as skating on ice. I had to turn at an intersection where transit busses entered service and they spilled diesel that made the surface slippery to walk on, much less to cross on two wheels.

On a good day the trip would take 45 minutes. I wore a helmet and appropriate protective clothing. I’d change and start the workday. Actually, it was then that the real danger started!