My Motorcycle – Ride the (not so) Wild Wind

gs1100

While the rest of the blogging world tackles the A to Z challenge, Almost Iowa has thrown down one of his own. Here, then, is my entry in his My Stuff Challenge… 

Spring has arrived on the Front Range, and with temps in the 70s it’s time to pull the cover off my motorcycle and see if I can still shift gears and chew gum at the same time.

Yeah, that’s right, I’m another old guy with a crotch-rocket. Don’t look now, but it appears the Hell’s Angels were the victims of a hostile takeover by the AARP. These days Bike Week in Sturgis more closely resembles an episode of the Golden Girls than it does Sons of Anarchy. You know it’s bad when the biggest drug problem at the event is trafficking in unprescribed Flomax.

Chalk it up to brilliant marketing. They tell us the cure for a spreading paunch and receding hairline is sixteen-hundred cubic centimeters of thundering metal between our legs. And judging by the number of sixty-somethings walking around in ass-less chaps and American flag dew-rags, we believe them. Once stricken by what is referred to as ‘Peter Fonda syndrome,’ former bankers and insurance salesmen are transformed into geriatric rebels without a cause, straddling twenty-thousand dollar cruisers, their silver locks fluttering in the wind. If you buy into the Harley-Davidson mystique, an overpriced motorcycle (along with thousands of dollars worth of logo-splashed accessories) is nothing short of the modern-day fountain of youth, making it so that even dentally-challenged guys with moobs and hairy backs can get laid. A couple of dagger tattoos, a leather vest, and you’re ready to roll. Don’t get too excited, though – it turns out having your taint in such close proximity to all that pulsating horsepower still may not be enough to raise the dead so don’t forget to pack the Viagra.

Now, I’m not simply jumping on the bandwagon here…I’ve actually done this before. I owned a Honda 350 back in the days before designer saddle-bags and fairings with 6-speaker sound systems, but it may as well have been a Moped compared to these modern-day behemoths. Bikers used to travel in packs for the protection that came with having a few buddies around who knew how to swing a crow bar when things got dicey, but now it’s more for road service…if one of them drops their bike, it will take five grown men and a gorilla to get it upright again.

And, no, I don’t own a Harley…I figure the extra money I’m saving will come in handy when my next of kin are picking out a casket for me, after I lose control of my “steed” on a mountain road because of my reduced eye-to-hand coordination and go sailing off a switchback into oblivion.

At the moment I ride an old-school Suzuki…very old school, as in circa 1984. As a point of reference, they were assembling this bike while listening to Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ and Wham’s ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ (at least the Japanese versions of those tunes). It still has plenty of pep but admittedly lacks a little in the ‘cool’ department. Still, if I’m ever in the market for a new bike, I plan to avoid anything that looks like the space shuttle or, say, a praying mantis. I’m simply having a mid-life crisis, okay, not auditioning for a role in the next Batman movie.

No, it should be tastefully low-key…just a few flames painted on the gas tank. On second thought, maybe a pair of muscle-laden women – draped only in bandoleers and chains – throwing lightning bolts from their freakishly large breasts, standing on either side of a giant human skull that has a bloody snake emerging from either eye socket. But that’s all.

The thing is, it’s really not about the bike. Hell, Marlon Brando could have been riding a Big Wheel in The Wild One – it didn’t matter. He was a bad-ass, even with that “Captain and Tennille” sailor hat. But your grandpa gliding along on his chrome-bedecked hog replete with pavement lights, a luggage trailer and Garth Brooks blaring from the stereo, not so much.

Of course, there’s an easy fix for the problem – just get the manufacturers to stop including electric starters as standard equipment. There’s no way grandpa will be able to kick-start that GoldWing after his hip-replacement surgery.

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The Case for Autonomous Cars – a Rant

merge

Image credit: whyyourmemeiswrong.com

To the morons my fellow motorists in the left lane:

How is it you haven’t noticed those signs for the last three miles, warning you that your lane is about to end? Benefit of the doubt – maybe some of you are visiting from another country and don’t understand the language. But all the license plates on the cars trying to squeeze past me herald from the good ol’ US of A. Surely not every one of these lane crashers is a stranger in a strange land. So that means there’s a good chance the rest of you are illiterate. Why else would you keep racing along right up to the construction barrels before standing on the brakes and forcing your way into the line here in the right lane?

If not illiterate, then you must be, like Forrest Gump, just plain stupid. Somehow, you are still unable to grasp the physics behind a traffic jam. Controlled merging while our cars are still moving, say, about a mile back, allows for everyone to keep rolling along in a continuous flow. But when you (and an endless stream of your butt-wipe friends) insist on driving down to the last inch of pavement, even as the giant flashing arrows and orange Department of Transportation signs implore you to get the hell over, you diddle us all. Don’t expect to be welcomed into the fold, and most certainly don’t offer a friendly wave as you wedge in front of me – I’m calling you every name in the book behind my tinted windows.

Congratulations, though. You’re now seven cars ahead of where you would have been had you made that controlled merge I mentioned. The irony (something else you seem unable to grasp, so I’ll explain it to you) is that a little cooperation would have allowed us to sail through this lane closure and, even seven cars back, you would have made far better time. Instead, since your inability to act in a judicious fashion has brought the entire freeway to a screeching halt, we’ll just sit here and bask in the glow of the brotherly love this moment has produced.

Is there a solution? Well, we could, as a society, just stop repairing our infrastructure – that would alleviate the problem, at least temporarily. Or perhaps the DOT could go all Mad Max and begin installing spike strips in the last half-mile or so of the lane that’s about to close. Hey, just throwing out ideas, here.

No, I suppose the best we can hope for, barring some government-sponsored electroshock ‘re-education’ program, is that your next car will be a ‘self-driver,’ one that comprehends the subtleties of playing nicely and sharing the road, one that will take the decision out of your hands while offering a friendly reminder as you try to make that last-second merge, “I’m sorry Dave (or Tom or Brian or Jennifer), I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

And maybe, just maybe, it could slap you upside the head with the sun visor, for all of us over here in the right lane.

A Room of My Own

garageI’ve never been much for ‘man-caves.’ Maybe that’s because I never had one – with a couple of kids and a string of relatively modest homes, there really wasn’t a lot of extra space for a room I could fill with big-screen TVs, blow-up Hooters dolls, Corona-laden mini-fridges and display cases crowded with the many trophies and medals documenting my glorious high school band career. There have been a couple of ‘offices’ where I commandeered an extra bedroom, plopping down a desk to give me a place where I could do a little writing, though I stopped short of peeing in all the corners to mark it off as mine. I guess the closest I’ve come to having my very own testosterone lair would be, sadly, the garage.

For the record, can I just say that the garage is not a suitable man-cave. It’s not like I have furniture and appliances out there, allowing me to retreat to its welcoming confines when the world starts to close in or my fragile guy-ego gets bruised. It’s too small for that – just squeezing two cars in requires not only a shoe-horn but the deft maneuvering of a cruise ship captain coming into port. It’s like an oversized, 3-D Tetris game – bikes dangle from the rafters, yard tools and the lawn mower claim one corner, the trash bins nestle precisely under a set of shelves, extension ladders stand along one wall (and can only be accessed when the door is closed), assorted bricks and pavers (gifted to us by the previous owners and held on to because “they might come in handy one day,” in the words of my hoarder mother) lead a nomadic existence as they get moved from place to place to make way for more incoming flotsam, and the vehicles – when they can be pulled in – fit just so.

Another set of shelves curve around the back corner of the garage and stick out so far that I have to nudge them with the bumper of my car in order to get the door closed behind me. Shelves that are full of boxes that are full of things long ago forgotten but dragged along like the Bones of Joseph because, you know, those MC Hammer parachute pants just might come back into fashion some day. My dad’s ashes even sat out there for several years, his penance – and my passive-aggressive response – for having the bad form to leave his postmortem affairs in the hands of the sons he had little to do with during his premortem stay on this earth. We don’t need no stinking therapy!

And now that I’m back to the renovation project, I’m trashing my would-be sanctuary. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I don’t have a proper workshop in this house so when the power tools come out, everyone parks in the street until the dust and the epithets clear.

I have a friend back in Indiana who claims that every time he leaves his garage door open for more than a few minutes, complete strangers begin to gather in the driveway, wanting to know how much he’s asking for various items. My garage doesn’t elicit that sort of response – instead, passers-by tend to recoil in horror and hurry their children along. It serves as the staging area for all the debris generated by my home improvement projects – flooring, carpet, padding, trim, doors, toilets, all have graced its cold concrete floor.

In fact, one can follow the chronology of those projects through careful analysis of the various layers of dust and dirt that have accumulated on any stationary object. Digging down, you’ll first encounter the light-colored deposits from the most recent epoch when the atmosphere was dense with clouds of noxious spray-paint, then move into a thicker beige layer that marks a lengthy period when sanding and cutting of lumber dominated, finally reaching the oldest sediments of all, a dark band of grime and grit laid down in the earliest days of demolition. So I’m not messy, I’m simply preserving the historical record for future generations.

And for all the ‘necessary’ crap stored out there, the garage is still where things go to die (no pun intended, dad) – those items that have truly reached the end of their life-cycle but that I just don’t have the heart to toss on the scrap heap. For instance, styrofoam. I can’t find anyone nearby who recycles those huge white blocks of the stuff in which most everything comes packed. Yet I won’t throw any of it away because, well, what would Captain Planet do? A landfill is no place for styrofoam, which has roughly the same shelf-life as an uneaten McDonalds hamburger. So it appears I’m hanging on to it (in a growing collection of overstuffed garbage bags wedged into every spare corner) until someone around here does start to recycle it. Or maybe I can fashion it into furniture for the man-cave.foam table

Two birds with one stone, right?

The Cherished Blogfest 2015: Vee-dubs and Me

microbus
For the subject of this post, one need look no further than my profile picture. As a recovering vintage Volkswagen addict, these relics of the Third Reich hold a special place in my heart. Exactly why, I cannot say.

Most likely, this all goes back to my first sexual encounter, which took place in the back of a yellow squareback sedan. Parked in one of the scenic turnouts along Trail Ridge Road high in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, it was a magical convergence of nature, libido and machine. The moonlight reflecting off the snow-capped peaks, the lights of Estes Park twinkling below and the bold yet unassuming lines of the minimalist interior combined to leave an indelible imprint on me. If memory serves, a woman was also present, but that seems almost inconsequential now.

I was particularly enamored of the microbus, having owned a total of four and – like Gollum caressing his ‘precious’ – I cherished them all. Despite many and varied mechanical quirks, they fell into a category that VW owners refer to, with great optimism, as “daily drivers.” Typically the term is held to a pretty loose interpretation. So long as the vehicle can be started (pushing is allowed), attain a speed that keeps you from being run over by traffic coming up from behind (a stiff tailwind is the vintage Volkswagen driver’s best friend, thanks to an engine that produces roughly the same torque as a ceiling fan), and then brought to a stop, the basic criteria have been met. Should things like the heat, windshield wipers and turn signals work, well, that’s just icing on the cake.

My first was a two-tone camper – the quintessential “hippie van” – hand painted by its previous owner. To the man’s credit, he did use an exterior latex and a short-napped roller. One of my early attempts to tune up the engine resulted in a minor fuel leak. The ensuing fireball was quickly extinguished and my eyebrows grew back in only a few months, but the vehicle was known from that time forward as “The Hindenburg.”

Defined as anything Before Radiators, these vintage models are not for the timid. Handling and maneuverability are on par with your basic soap-box derby entry, and often times the road is visible beneath your feet due to a tendency of the floors to rot away like vampire flesh caught in a shaft of sunlight. Every trip requires a stockpile of spare parts, along with the ability to install them at a moment’s notice. It’s been said that, to fully appreciate the air-cooled driving experience, one must develop a Zen-like acceptance of breakdowns as part of the journey. That and a knack for reaching your “happy place” while your flesh is being seared by red hot engine parts. Peace, love and pass the metric tools, dude.

Thanks to an intervention where friends forced me to watch Little Miss Sunshine for three days straight, all that remains of my addiction is an old oil stain on the garage floor. But even so, we still loves our precious.

On Sharing the Road with the Robots

Robby at the WheelNot to be a whiner, but the techno-gods have really dropped the ball when it comes to transportation advances. Their promises of flying cars and jet-packs turned out to be so much smoke up our sphincters. Happily, though, it looks like the next best thing may be on the horizon. Most of the major car companies – and Google – are working on some form of “self-driving” or “robot” vehicle. Not one that merely parallel parks, but actually takes you from point A to point B while you conquer the latest level of Candy Crush and check stock quotes on your iphone. And no doubt eat bonbons – the preferred activity of the leisurely decadent.

Hell, they can already start (and stop) our cars from the satellites. I guess this is simply the next logical step. Even so, the prospect of “driverless” driving requires a lot of trust in those techno-gods – the latest versions of the vehicles don’t even have steering wheels or gas and brake pedals. Instead, they’re equipped with a bevy of gizmos including lasers, sonar, radar and cameras to help them sort out what may be on the route ahead of them. That’s all well and good, but I’m just not convinced that heaps of technology can replace the vast and nuanced road skills we as a species have been honing for more than a century now.

For instance, will my new autonomous car roll through stop signs if no one else is around?

Will it lay on the horn and deliver, in its best HAL 9000 voice, a string of withering epithets when someone pulls out directly in front of it and then plods along, oblivious, at a good 10 miles an hour under the speed limit, or cuts it off as they swerve out of the left lane at 80 mph once they suddenly realize their exit is upon them despite those giant green signs overhead which have been announcing that fact for the last three miles?dash halDoes it understand the concept of “keeping up with traffic,” or will it insist on driving the speed limit on the freeway and thus become a road hazard to be passed as if it were dragging a boat anchor?

When it pulls up to the gas pump, will my car remember which side the hole is on, or will there be any number of those awkward moments when it realizes it’s guessed wrong again and now has to swing around to come in from the other direction? And will it lunge for the first open spot in an effort to beat the five other cars circling the pumps like vultures or politely wait its turn?

Will it pay the ticket after it’s hung out to dry while waiting to make a left turn when the guy coming the other way decides to run the light, leaving it stranded in the middle of the intersection and a sitting duck for the traffic cameras?

Will it tell the wrench-jockeys at RubeLube to take a flying kiss at the moon’s ass when they recommend $290 worth of maintenance work when all it went in for was a $25 oil change?

Will it be able to find the slowest lane in every freeway backup, with an uncanny knack for changing into whichever lane is about to grind to a complete halt?

Can it sense when that really irritating guy is tailgaiting it, the one who keeps nosing out over the yellow line at every opportunity in an attempt to pass on that winding road, and if so will it slow down in the curvy spots and then speed up in the wide open stretches just to piss him off?

Will it accept driving tips from passengers, for instance suggestions to slow down as indicated by their frantic pushing on an imaginary brake pedal?

Will it let me listen to “indie rock” or insist on changing the station to “talk radio?”

How long before Skynet goes fully operational?

As you can see, there are still a lot of details to work out. Good thing, because I really don’t plan to relinquish my grip on the steering wheel any time soon – unless I get that jet-pack for Christmas.

Of Cue Tips and Crotch-Rockets

biker butt
My friends back in Michigan may not believe it, but springtime isn’t far away. Here in Colorado we’ve already flirted with 70 degrees a few times, which means I may have to pull the cover off the motorcycle before too long.

Wow, there’s a shock…an old guy with a motorcycle. Don’t look now, but it appears the Hell’s Angels have been muscled out by the AARP. These days Bike Week in Sturgis more closely resembles an episode of the Golden Girls than it does Sons of Anarchy. You know it’s bad when the biggest drug problem at the event is trafficking in unprescribed Flomax.

Chalk it up to brilliant marketing. They tell us the cure for a spreading paunch and receding hairline is sixteen-hundred cubic centimeters of thundering metal between our legs. And judging by the number of sixty-somethings walking around in ass-less chaps and American flag dew-rags, we believe them. Once stricken by Peter Fonda syndrome, former bankers and insurance salesmen are transformed into geriatric rebels without a cause, straddling twenty-thousand dollar cruisers, their silver locks fluttering in the wind. If you buy into the Harley-Davidson mystique, a motorcycle (along with thousands of dollars worth of logo-splashed accessories) is nothing short of the fountain of youth, making it so that even old fat guys with moobs and hairy backs can get laid. A couple of knife tattoos, a leather vest, and you’re ready to roll. Don’t get too excited, though – it turns out having your taint in such close proximity to all that pulsating horsepower still isn’t enough to raise the dead, so don’t forget to pack the Viagra.

Now, I’m not simply jumping on the bandwagon here…I’ve actually done this before. I owned a Honda 350 back in an age before designer saddle-bags and fairings with 6-speaker sound systems, but it may as well have been a Big Wheel compared to these modern-day behemoths. Bikers used to travel in packs for the protection that came with having a few buddies around who knew how to swing a crow bar, but now it’s more for road service…if one of them drops their bike, it will take 5 grown men and a gorilla to get it upright again.

And, no, I don’t own a Harley…I figure the extra money I’m saving will come in handy when my next of kin are picking out a casket for me, after I lose control of my “steed” on a mountain road because of my reduced hand-to-eye coordination and go flying off a switchback into oblivion.

At the moment I’m driving an old-school Suzuki…very old school. But if I’m ever in the market for a new bike, I plan to avoid anything that looks like the space shuttle or, say, a praying mantis. I’m just having a mid-life crisis, okay, not auditioning for a role in the next Batman movie. No, it should be tastefully low-key…just a few flames painted on the gas tank. Or maybe a pair of women – draped only in bandoleers and chains – throwing lightning bolts from their breasts as they stand on either side of a giant human skull that has bloody snakes emerging from the eye sockets, but that’s it.

The thing is, it’s really not about the bike. Hell, Marlon Brando could have been riding a tricycle in The Wild One – it didn’t matter. He was a bad-ass, even wearing that “Captain and Tennille” sailor hat. Your grandpa riding his chrome-laden hog with luggage racks and pavement lights, not so much.

Thankfully, there’s an easy way to fix the problem – stop making electric starters standard equipment. There’s no way grandpa will be able to kick-start that crotch-rocket after his hip-replacement surgery.

The People’s Car – a Memoir

old bus
The automakers are trying to entice me by stuffing their products full of the latest technology – things like on-board wifi, touch screen displays and silky-voiced “assistants.” Sadly, it’s all in vain. For reasons beyond my control, I still find myself gazing fondly on old-school Beetles, those bulbous symbol of the sixties, though they’ve been gone for more than a decade now. Volkswagen pulled the plug on the best-selling car ever when it closed the last remaining factory in Mexico back in 2003. I still haven’t decided if it was the end of an era, or just the end of an error.

You see, I’m a recovering vintage vee-dub addict. If you don’t count my toy car collection, I have been clean now for several years. That means no VW association newsletters, no parts catalogs, no fall color tour auto rallies. Conversely, it’s also meant no pools of oil collecting on the garage floor, no bloody knuckles and no spontaneous cursing jags.

As near as I can figure, this all goes back to my first sexual encounter, which took place in the backseat of a yellow Volkswagen squareback sedan. Parked in one of the scenic turnouts along Trail Ridge Road high in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, it was a magical convergence of nature, libido and machine. The moonlight reflecting off the snow-capped peaks, the lights of Estes Park twinkling below and the bold yet unassuming lines of the minimalist interior combined to leave an indelible imprint on my psyche. The scenario may have also included a woman, but that seems almost inconsequential now.

My particular obsession focused on the vans, having owned a total of four, although my short-lived “playboy” phase included a Beetle convertible and a Karmann Ghia convertible. That last one was never officially road-worthy (I suppose none of them were, really) seeing as how, at the time of purchase, many of its internal organs were sitting in a jumbled pile where the back seat should have been. But this is standard practice when it comes to bartering in these relics of the Third Reich. That the vehicle can’t move under its own power is rarely a hindrance to closing the deal. “Project cars,” like the cryogenically frozen, exist in a kind of limbo, waiting for the day when someone will find the means necessary to resurrect them. Until that time they simply go from one owner to the next, leprous members of the automotive undead kept hidden under a blue tarp at the back of the garage or out in the barn, along with an ever-growing collection of uninstalled parts. Some even come with their own tow bar.

Just a short step above that is what the die-hards refer to, with great optimism, as the “daily driver.” Typically the term is held to a pretty loose interpretation. So long as the car can be started (pushing is allowed), attain a speed that keeps you from being run over by traffic coming up from behind (a stiff tailwind is the vintage Volkswagen driver’s best friend), and then brought to a stop, the basic criteria have been met. Should things like the heat, windshield wipers and turn signals work, well, that’s just icing on the cake.

My initiation came behind the wheel of a two-tone microbus – the quintessential “hippie” van – hand painted by its previous owner. To the man’s credit, he did use an exterior latex and a short-napped roller. One of my early attempts to tune up the engine resulted in a minor fuel leak. The ensuing fireball was quickly extinguished and my eyebrows grew back in only a few months, but the vehicle was known from that time forward as “The Hindenburg.”

The interior was designed to accommodate the outdoorsman but could just as easily provide haven for the recently evicted, a trait that endeared the Westfalia campers to countless under-achievers like myself in the post-Haight Ashbury era. Along with a fold-out bed there was a galley area neatly fitted with a stove, sink and small refrigerator, as well as several cubbyholes for stashing gear (or drugs, of course), all shoe-horned into a space no bigger than a phone booth. Add an engine in back that produced roughly the same horsepower as a ceiling fan, and the package was complete.

These vintage models – defined as anything Before Radiators – are not for the timid. Handling and maneuverability are on par with your basic soap-box derby entry, and often times the road is visible beneath your feet due to a tendency of the floors to rot away like vampire flesh caught in a shaft of sunlight. Every trip requires a stockpile of spare parts, along with the ability to install them at a moment’s notice. And, yes, it pays to keep things such as chewing gum, panty hose and a bag of marbles on hand for when you have to pull a “MacGyver,” like the day you look in the rearview mirror and see sundry pieces of smoldering metal strewn across the road as you’re coasting to a stop somewhere between Barstow and Needles. It’s been said that, to fully appreciate the air-cooled driving experience, one must develop a Zen-like acceptance of breakdowns as part of the journey. That and a knack for reaching your “happy place” while being seared by red hot engine parts. Peace, love and pass the metric tools, dude.

Thanks to an intervention where friends forced me to watch Little Miss Sunshine for 3 days straight, all that remains of my addiction is that old oil stain on the garage floor. I can now say with certainty that I am happy to be driving a vehicle that doesn’t require scraping the inside of the windshield during the winter months. But sanity, like sobriety, can be a tenuous thing. If my eyes start to glaze over the next time I pass an old Beetle broken down on the side of the road, just punch me as hard as you can while shouting “Slug Bug” at the top of your lungs. That usually does the trick.