19 March 2007

Voices in my Head and the Spontaneous Grin: A Motorcyling Phenomenon

Friday, 16 March 2007 marked the Chief’s 59th birthday—59, count ‘em! And he wanted to celebrate it by riding his motorcycle, along with some biker buddies and … me! A year ago I wouldn’t have been included because I didn’t ride my own and neither the Chief nor I want me riding pillion on his bike. But this year, I was ready, so this weekend, in celebration of the Chief’s 59th, I joined him and the guys for my first two group rides.

I observed and learned many things during this weekend’s rides: how hand signals are used to communicate with the group as well as with other motorists, how turns are negotiated in a group, how car drivers respond to a group of bikers differently from the way they respond to a single biker, how the group takes care of its own, and I’m sure there are a few other things I’m leaving out. But what I remember most of all from this weekend’s mini-adventures are the number of times my face broke into a spontaneous grin for no good reason other than that I was having a spectacular time!

Now I’m a pretty happy person in general. (See the post on Joy! from 27 April 2006.) That doesn’t mean I’m always happy, just that the general tenor of my life is joyful. **it still happens—I just respond to it from a different place than unhappy people do. Anyway, since I’m this happy fool most of the time, I’m very big on smiling. But like everyone else, when I’m focusing on a task, the smiles can be few and far between. I feel that this happens the first few miles of every motorcycle ride—I’m rehearsing in my head the exhortations of my coaches from the MSF class: Head and eyes up! Slow-look-press-roll! Don’t brake in the curve! Turn yer head! This is a good thing—it reminds me to keep my wits about me and not to sink into bad habits. And until now, though I’ve taken a longish afternoon ride or two, those voices in my head were most often the defining quality of the ride.

But this weekend! The voices weren’t exactly gone, but they seem to have translated themselves into actions, into good riding habits and appropriate responses to situations. It seemed that I not only knew what to do cognitively, but also, and more importantly, my body did it, as if spontaneously (though really through repetition and practice). Out on the open road, or in downtown traffic, or spring-break-beach-road traffic, or humming into a parking lot—I consistently did OK. (I won’t go so far as to say “great”—not yet anyway.) At some points, I even surprised myself by doing the right thing before I consciously thought about it! Now that’s motor memory at work. And having felt and noticed that, I was able to relax into the ride. Not to get complacent, but to really ENJOY the riding itself. Wow, what a feeling!

And that’s when I noticed something else spontaneous: the spontaneous grin. Here’s the thing: I’d be tooling along with the group, four or five of us, leaning into a curve, or zooming over a bridge, or moving into the left lane, or checking for the others in my rear-view mirror, or kicking it into fifth gear, and suddenly, out of nowhere, I felt a grin appearing on my face. Sometimes it was accompanied by the thought “I love this!” but more often it was just the wordless spontaneous joy of loving the ride. Loving not any particular thing about, but everything about it, the whole collective experience of it.

And what a revelation! I can remember thinking during MSF class that I could probably master all these actions in the class, but on the road, I’d never be able to remember it all—the shifting, the braking or not-braking, the looking and leaning—it just seemed like too much. And in my first few rides on the road, that assessment of my abilities seemed to be confirmed by shaky starts, slow starts, stalls, too-wide curves, wobbly stops, and all manner of boneheaded moves. Jeez, I thought, I’ll never get this. So to suddenly understand that, against all odds and my own self-deprecation, indeed I HAVE gotten it—well, that was grounds for another grin. I just can’t help myself!

I set out to try a new thing, to challenge myself at the age of 54, and to occasionally join the Chief in an activity that he loves, and what I found was a newfound source of freedom, fun, and joy joy joy joy. Will wonders never cease!

17 March 2007

My FIRST Group Ride

The Chief and I just got home from his birthday celebration and my FIRST group motorcycle ride, complete with downtown traffic, gravel parking lots, 20mph winds, knuckleheaded pedestrians, and more. And I did it! And not only did I survive, but I had one rockin' great time.

OK, now the truth--the "group" was just four of us. Today was the Chief’s 59th—count ‘em, 59—birthday, and he wanted to celebrate with a little riding. A couple of his buddies rode down from Dothan, Alabama. He met them in Destin (about an hour to our east), then they rode back by our house and I joined them. Together, we all rode over to the Florida/Alabama state line on Perdido Key to visit a little place called the Flora-Bama. Maybe you’ve heard of it?

The Flora-Bama started out as not much more than a little hole-in-the-wall lounge and package store on the beach near the state line, and grew to a much larger hole- in-the-wall with decks and bars on two stories, live music, the famous annual interstate mullet toss contest, and frequent parties. Over the years, high-rise beach condo buildings have hemmed it in, and hurricanes large and small have threatened it. The most recent was Hurricane Ivan in September 2004, which destroyed much of the original package storefront. But in spite of all that, the “Bama” lives on, remaining a beacon to thirsty and lonely travelers of all kinds.

So my first group ride turned out to be a little 50-mile jaunt across Escambia Bay, through Pensacola, and out to Perdido Key and the Bama. The winds were brisk—20 mph plus for most of the day—but the sun was shining by the time we headed out.

Highlights of the ride:

Crossing the I-10 bridge over Escambia Bay in such wind!

The I-10 off-ramp at Scenic Highway—seemed scarier than it actually was. I just watched my speed, kept my head and eyes up and focused on where I wanted to go, and I did fine.

All the traffic and traffic lights, with attendant stops and starts, in Pensacola—also seemed scarier than it was, though it did demand keeping my wits about me.

Crossing the bridge over Bayou Chico—kind of fun!

Crossing the bridge over the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway to Perdido Key—more fun!

Perdido Key Drive—I had been a little concerned there might be sand on the road. After all, it’s a beach road, surrounded by sand. But my fears were unconfirmed—happily.

Flora-Bama parking lot. I hadn’t been to the Bama in a while, but I remembered the parking lot as an oyster-shell-and-gravel affair—scary on a bike. But the Chief said to just pull straight in and follow him to a safe parking space. As it turns out, they have bike parking right out front and the surface, though not exactly paved, is nicely stabilized and was no problem at all.

Dodge-bird. While we were crossing Gulf Beach Highway on the way home, a mourning dove landed in the road just in front of the Chief, then flew up, startled, when it noticed him. He had to duck his head so the startled bird would miss him as it flew up and out of the way. Whew--shades of Wild Hogs and the crow in Woody’s face!

Coming home in the dark. I had never ridden in the dark, and my real concern was not me riding in the dark, but car drivers (guess I have to get used to calling them “cagers”) seeing my little headlight and recognizing it as an actual vehicle with a live human at the helm.

We got most of the way home just as the sun was setting. We stopped at the Oval Office, local bar-and-grill, for a supper of their delicious burgers and fries, which we don’t treat ourselves to very often.

Things fell apart in a minor way as we were leaving the Oval Office. Earl’s bike wouldn’t start, but a friend at the bar gave him a jump start. While that was going on, I was backing out and lost my footing in the gravel of the parking lot and dropped my bike. Doh! No injuries other than the one to my pride, but I learned a deeper respect for sloping, gravelly parking lots!

Finally we got underway, and it was full dark as we made the 3-mile trip home. Note to myself: remember to take your clear glasses with you on rides, so you don’t have to ride home in the dark wearing your sunglasses, you loon!

Overall, what a fun, fun day, riding and partying with my sweetheart, riding my own bike.

09 March 2007

My Motorcycle

In late November 2006, I bought my first motorcycle. A 1994 Suzuki 800 Intruder with only 13,000 miles on her. Here we are together for the first time.

Move or Die: The Digital Body

After reading Younger Next Year, especially all its information on the blossoming science of aging and the body’s responses not only to what we eat but also to whatever else we do, or maybe even more important, what we don’t do, it seemed to me that the body is, very much more than any of us (well at least anybody I know of) has previously understood or even guessed, a kind of digital machine.

Think about the basis of the digital device: the binary system, sets of 1’s and 0’s, creating a system of virtual switches—either on or off. The computer only works because of these switches—many many many of them, I admit, but many many many instances of the same simple operation: one or zero, on or off, there or not there.

Likewise, the body. Here are the relevant passages from Younger Next Year for Women: “In the absence of signals to grow, the body and brain decay and we ‘age’” (36). That is, grow or decay, move or die, one or zero, on or…off”; “You have to talk to your body in code and follow certain immutable rules…. Nature’s rules, and you can’t get around them” (34-35).

So, once again, grow or decay, move or die, on or off.

Certainly the conscious life is one of great complexity. We know there’s more to life than just thinking and moving. There are also feelings—desire, aversion, sorrow, and joy, just to define with very broad brush strokes the spectrum of human sensation. And many of us believe (though many of us do not) in a soul or spirit or some kind of essence that exists within and yet independent of the body. Even those who do not believe in a human essence often think of the mind as independent of the body in some ways.

But if the essence or mind is independent, so is the body independent of essence. The body has, so to speak, a mind of its own, or at least, an agenda of its own, its own agency. This should come as no surprise, but the strength of the body’s agency is news to many. The body has certain demands, and we ignore them at our peril. And the science of aging is finding that the body’s most pressing demand is this requirement to move, to do. Because the body is singleminded in this demand (funny how hard it is to describe the body’s agency without using mental metaphors): it wants to do something. And if we do not satisfy it with movement, then it turns its singlemindedness 180 degrees around and sets about decaying. Can’t you just imagine the body curling its fists, stamping its foot, and gritting its teeth: “All right, if we won’t move, then we’ll just damn well die!” Petulant, this body.

Petulant, or singleminded, or machine-like in its will to move: we may not much care for this view of the body. But there it is, and we can’t change it. We can give in to the petulant demands and feed the machine with movement or turn it off—quite literally.