Sunday, December 26, 2010

Riders in the Storm: Chapter Three

The Story of a Lost Love. Part Two

A great calm came over the sky. The rain ended more abruptly than it began and a careful gaze at the clouds would reveal traces of desperate moonlight.  Some bar goers took the break from rain as a chance to get settled for the night. They shuffled off to damp motel rooms and homely RVs. Those who remained at their tables stretched out into much needed space and the stormy revel of the roadhouse turned tranquil. The serenity of the weather would not last long. This was the eye of the storm and it would soon pass. 

In the corner, the riders listened on as the rider with the green helmet described the most important ride of his life. 

“I rode beyond my knowledge and skill. The fear of crashing and dying didn’t count for much in light of everything else that I could lose. So I pushed harder than anyone on the road could understand. I passed a motorcycle cop with a speed gun, but he didn’t follow. He knew I would be across state lines by the time he caught up with me. I wouldn’t have stopped for him anyway.”

He was suspended in his panic. All of the anxiety of his life was in his throttle hand, until the man himself ceased to exist and the only remainder was the bike on its harrowing trajectory. There were no cars, no cops, no roads. Just one person in one place and the brutish necessity of finding her before she disappeared. He could scarcely recognize it when it came upon him, but as he tread the exit for the airport he realized that he had been riding with hope. The sun was only just starting to set, but across the horizon he could already see the moon creeping beyond the clouds.

He made a parking space where there was none and shuffled through a moderate crowd to the departure terminal. He searched frantically from person to person, unsure if her hair was the same, if she still wore the clothing that he knew to be her style. He saw only a river of meaningless faces. 

Then a voice called his name. 

For a moment he was afraid to turn to face her, as though she were Eurydice and he Orpheus. As though turning back would forever banish them apart. But he turned and their eyes met and he breathed deep and exhaled every bad thing that had ever happened to him in his life. They embraced and he felt the surprise and joy in her body. There was little time, but together they walked outside where they could settle their lives in the nakedness between heaven and earth.

He told her that he knew that she was headed into something new and that he was happy she chose to make those moves. But he wanted to have a place again in her life. He wanted to reclaim the connection, to be a team again. He said that his bike had finally led him down the right road and that he didn’t want to ride another mile unless he could travel it once again in love. 

She saw in him everything she had ever wanted. She remembered all that he hoped for and knew the weight of the promises they made to each other long ago. Tears were falling before she opened her mouth to speak. 

As the riders listened to this final unfolding, the first of a million rain drops fell upon the roof of the tavern. Lit candles flickered as people came in from outside, seeking shelter yet again. While the commotion returned, the rider with the green helmet was transfixed upon the past, as though he were still there and simply relaying that which he could see plainly. 

“What did she say?” asked one of the riders. The rider with the green helmet cleared his throat and took a breath deeper than a fathom. 

“She looked down for a long while and arose with a face of sorrow. Then she told me that this moment was a testament to the world’s cruelty.”

She told him that her movement to a new place untold miles away was a reflection of her internal transition. She had developed new concerns and new dreams. She was prepared to face greater difficulty than she had previously known and the defining mark of this transformation was her finally letting go of the hope of their reunion.

She said that she had sailed through her whole life with him as an anchor, deep beneath the surface but always steadying and secure. He was one of the many anchors she had put down over the course of her life and she had felt no need to remove them. But like all people who have aged closer to dusk than to dawn, she was eventually confronted by the weight of her past. She saw the contingency of the responsibilities she had claimed. She saw the futility of her fantasies and the bitterness beneath promises that she had made. She had allowed life to confine her and one day she decided to shed it and grow a new skin. So, with great anguish and difficulty, she sloughed him off as well. She still loved him. She would always love him. But she could no longer allow herself to think that the way things might have been was a way that they still could be. 

It was in that moment that he understood the emptiness at the heart of all promises. The man who commits a crime reforms himself and becomes something different, so that he no longer deserves the sentence he is serving. The woman who promises forever can also become someone different. Her promise could have had the weight of the world when  she spoke it but now it is a vestige of a self long past. As the ground fell away beneath him, he understood that promises were the weapon of the insecure. 

“I had been holding her in place, reducing her to the past, unable to see that she was just like me, a person who needed to change, to grow into something else. My desire for her was a desire to recover so many things that I have lost over the years. I had to realize that it was too late. It was the hardest thing that I had ever done.” 

The rider with the green helmet left his beloved and the thought of her at the airport. He walked out to his bike and donned his gear. He rode away quickly, so that he would be forced to look at the road ahead and unable to look back. 

“It began to rain as I left the airport. A cold drizzle that brought the oil to the surface of the road and put a chill in my bones that has been there ever since. I must have ridden for weeks after that. I didn’t want to stop until I had found something else, something to ground me, to keep me in place. That thing ended up being the bike itself.”

The riders sat quietly at the end of this tale, as had become their habit. The rider with the green helmet wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and looked down into his drink as though it were a drowning pool for his grief. Then he took a drink, for that is exactly what it was.

Outside, there was no thunder. But the clouds rained on.


Thursday, December 23, 2010

Redux: A Christmas Tale

Rudolph the reindeer was grazing late at night in the North Pole Green house. Christmas was less than a month away and the elves had switched his feed to a hybrid high protein and carb wheatgrass. He had to put on as much weight as he could, since he would need all the energy reserves he could get to make it through C-Day. Outside, the almost-dawn of the northern night cast soft glow on the horizon, backlighting the elf village, the toy factory and the Red House. Every roof was covered with a thick layer of snow. Rudolph looked up for a moment and sighed. “Same shit, different year,” he said. Reluctantly, he leaned back down to the grassy floor and continued to feed. Then he heard the rustling of the insulating flaps that hang above the green house door.
“There you are,” said a slurred voice from behind him. “You weren’t with the others, so I thought I find my main-deer and see how he’s doing!”
“I’m cool, Santa,” said Rudolph through a mouthful of grass. “I’ll be over at the stable in a little bit.” But the Man in Red wasn’t listening. Instead, he was looking out at the horizon while fumbling with the cap of a flask he had pulled from his inside pocket. St. Nick was a bit tipsy. And when he drank, he got all… happy.
“Isn’t it wonderful, Rudy?” asked Santa with eyes that glimmered with nostalgia and inebriation. “Soon we will be crossing the world, racing against time on a an eternal quest to bring joy to little boys and girls.” He took another sip of his flask. Rudolph’s animal olfactory picked up the scent of Schnapps from across the room. “Just think,” Santa continued, “on Christmas morning millions of nice children will look under their trees and find exactly the gifts they’ve been wanting all season. And all because of us.”
“They won’t find any Nintendo Wiis,” Rudolph mumbled between bites of wheatgrass. The comment briefly stifled the Yule tide of glee that was a drunken Santa Clause.
“Yes, you’re right. The Backorder from Nintendo probably won’t get here in time. But there are many other presents that have made it here and with any luck the Elves in the Tech Division will be able to fully reverse engineer the new ipods. Christmas will still be magical for all the world’s children.” Santa was still looking through the greenhouse’s wall of glass, so he did not notice Rudolph’s ears perk up. Nor did he see the annoyed grimace on the head reindeer’s fuzzy face.
“Why do you always say that,” asked Rudolph.
“Say what?”
“Say that we deliver to all the world’s children when you know we don’t?”
“Well … they, um… those other children, they…”
“They what?”
“Well, they don’t … believe in me. I can’t deliver presents to kids who don’t believe in me.” Rudolph, hearing this, became more upset.
“Don’t give me that. I’ve been through the Naughty/Nice List archive. We’ve delivered to George Carlin’s kids. We brought Elian Gonzales a damn Monopoly Board game. As if the irony wasn’t enough. Those kids don’t believe in you. But they get presents. Penn and Teller had to put “Do not enter” signs on their chimneys just to get you to stop stealing their cookies and disrupting the belief systems of their families. So come off it. The whole time I’ve been doing C-Day with you, we haven’t once delivered anywhere in Africa that wasn’t South Africa. We’ve never seen India. We’ve never seen China. And we order half our presents from those places. Just come out and say it, Santa: you don’t think those kids matter.”
Santa was flustered. “That’s not true, Rudy. You know me, I love all children. We just don’t have the resources to deliver to everybody. The world population has gotten a lot bigger than it used to be. A lot of elves have been leaving because of the melting going on here at the Pole. We have to make some tough decisions.”
“So you just decide to deliver presents to the children of the most wealthy nations in the world? Yeah, that does seem like a hard choice.”
“Now that’s not fair, Rudy. Europe is where I got my start. I have to stay faithful to my roots. I can’t desert the places that got me started. The best I can do is try to deliver to more and more places. You know I’ve been trying to get Mrs. Clause to put on a Magic Suit and deliver on C-Day as well. That way we can cover more ground.”
“Whatever Santa,” said the now pissed off reindeer. “Everybody knows Mrs. Clause just got tired of being your housewife and servant. We all know she’s been reading up on feminism. You’re just trying to give her something to do so she doesn’t leave ...” Rudolph trailed off as he saw sadness creep into Santa’s reddish face. After a pause he said, “Santa, I’m… I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to …”
“No,” said the defeated Joy-bringer. “It’s okay. I guess it’s no secret that Mrs. Clause and I are having problems. And I haven’t really had to face up to it for anyone. All the elves and the other reindeer just look the other way. I’m the king of this world, after all. What made you want to call me out?”
Rudolph breathed a long sigh. He wondered if he should reveal the secret of his insight to this, the man who he resented the most here on the top of the world. Fuck it, he thought.
“You remember the times before I ran C-Day? When I was just a no-name reindeer with a funny nose. Those were hard days for me. All the reindeer in the stable called me ‘tampon face.’ When I was sleeping, they would tie my horns to a stable post and I would miss breakfast trying to get myself untangled. They hated me because I was different. For no other reason than a funny colored, bio-luminescant nose. It sucked. But then C-day came and it was too foggy for them to see. So you put me in the reigns. Everything changed for me that day. Overnight, I was loved and venerated. My difference was celebrated and it was everything that I ever wanted. Until I realized I never actually got it.”
“But the reindeer shouted out with glee!” Santa interjected.
“I know what the damn song says. But it’s all lies. They suddenly ‘loved’ me because of your favor. That was a show that they put on and you and the elves were convinced by it. Even I was for a time. But eventually I came to see that they resented me. They were jealous. Suddenly the quality in me that spawned ill will was the most valuable. Enough to put me at the head of the sleigh. They hated it. But they know that the North Pole is a place of joy. They saw what went down between you and Jack Frost. So they praised me in public and simply ignored me in the stables. You can barely hear praise that faint. You cared about me because I could light the darkness and they cared about me because your kingdom demands nothing less. That’s why I don’t eat with them to this day. None of them can look me in the eyes.”
A long silence followed, as Santa considered Rudolph’s story. Having poured out his heart, the reindeer held his head downward and closed his eyes. Almost everything had been revealed.
“Rudolph. I’m sorry. I’m just so sorry. I had no idea. Maybe I should talk to the reindeer, maybe I can…”
“No, don’t,” Rudolph interrupted. There is no need. I think it just might be time for me to move on. Maybe leave in the next elf migration.”
“No, I need you here, C-Day…”
“It’s not about what you need anymore. I… I’m done.”
Santa turned back to the horizon and looked long into the sky. Finally, he said, “I guess there’s nothing I can do to stop you. I just hope you know that I’ll always care about you.”
“Yeah, I know,” said Rudolph as he walked toward the greenhouse door.
At the threshold, he paused. Slowly, he turned back toward the Man in Red. “Hey, Santa. Why do all those people in the Netherlands think that you bring presents with the help of 8 black men?”
“Yeah,” said Santa. “I knew somebody would ask me about that sooner or later.”


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Skill, Nature, Community

Once I was at a jazz show where a performer broke out two woodwinds of some sort and began to play them at once. It was at the end of the show in a packed theater and everyone on the scene, performers and audience, were getting pretty crunk. The flutist guy was taking it to the bridge, so to speak, and the crowd was completely with him so he decided to bring just a bit more funk. He walked up to the edge of the stage and began to rock the house with his fluty jazz stylings. But he pushed his skills too far and he faltered a bit. You could see it in his body, in the concentration on his face. He ran out of breath and a couple notes fell flat. When this happened, people in the crowd stood up and began to encourage him. They screamed at him like, go on! Take it home! You got it, Brotha! And get it he did. He pulled it together and finished out the show like a champ. Applause for days. 

I think the crowd’s reaction to the musician's stumble and recovery reveals something important about the nature of admiration and skill. 

The stumble was an inadvertent disclosure of a biographical fact. The the musician was putting out mad effort to make the instruments sing. He told the audience with a few bad notes that he wasn’t a savant or some kind of prodigy. He was a musician who became good by rehearsing a lot and pushing himself. The crowd knew this and appreciated him all the more for it. His narrative deepened their respect. 

I feel the same way about motorcycle racers. I will always be a big fan of Cal Crutchlow because he regards himself as having much less natural talent than most of his rivals. He feels that he has had to make up for the absence of native endowments with hard work, which is a narrative that I can get behind. 

The split between natural talent and effort, I think, also discloses the blurred distinction between art and science in development of skills.

I think that the substance of natural moto skills is “feel.” Some people can get on the bike and just know more about what’s going on. Maybe they can’t put it into words, but they can use this knowledge to go faster around the racetrack and that is all that really matters. Keith Code once said that most of the fast racers he spoke with could never really explain what it was that they were doing to get such good lap times. I think this is a hallmark of a kind of raw aesthetic skill that I have seen in many artists. I have especially seen it in dancers, which is fitting because the proper riding of a bike is more like a dance than anything else. Mladin and Bayliss, as the mythology goes, are natural dancers.

I don’t mean to speak of art and science or natural talent and work as clear divisions. I seriously doubt a sustained look into the minutia of skill development will support such categorical descriptions. We should think of them not as mutually exclusive foundations, but instead as tendencies or inclinations that can have priority, that can wax and wane over a developmental path along with many other elements that merit consideration. 

So, even though Mladin and Bayliss are naturally talented dancers of the bike,  it is still the case that they put in incredible amounts of work. (Potential doesn’t mean much without the work to actualize it.) And there may be times in their lives where it is more science than art, albeit fewer times than Crutchlow might experience if the legends are true. Definitely fewer times than me. 

My own path in moto land has been mostly science. I mean that my skills have come slowly and only at the end of academic investigation. The snail pace of my skill development is almost legendary. I never had a natural sense of feel. I always began with a formulation, an idea or a piece of advice, and I had to reach out with my understanding to get a grip. So if Keith Code were to ask me what I was doing, I would have an answer for almost everything, though pointed questions would send me right back to the drawing board. Essentially, I have used science or methodical investigation to beat the feel into my body. 

It seems to me that a progression like this can make a rider without a lot of natural talent into a safe rider. Often, riders who are just starting out will make hard maneuvers on the basis of balls alone. Because they come out of it okay, they don’t reflect on their technique or understand the forces at work on the bike. Having conflated audacity with skill, they eventually ask too much of a corner or a traffic situation and down they go. What’s worse is that they won’t fully understand why they fell, so the bike will seem indeterminately threatening and it will be extremely difficult to get their confidence back. This is why it is easy to find perfectly good bikes for sale with stupidly low miles on them. 

There is another element at play in the development or refinement of skill, one that has been implicit in our discussion so far.

The jazz musician performed with other performers for an audience. This was the context whereby his skills came to mean anything at all. His artistry was created and sustained by his relationship to these elements. So it goes with a good rider, naturally talented or not. Stunters learn tricks from stunters. They create new tricks by challenging each other. Out on the road, a fellow rider might point out a bad riding habit. A club that rides together knows the etiquette of group riding. A rider’s community determines and develops the skill sets that he employs. Which is why there is nothing to be learned from riding with fast assholes except perhaps how to unexpectedly get a bone fracture.

I am always yapping with the Orange and Green Ninjas about technique. They approach things differently and use different descriptions, so I benefit from the variation. After all, a community that speaks with one voice is deaf to itself and others. 

Ethicists have spent serious time trying to figure how rewards should be distributed to those who achieve much with their natural talents versus those who achieve the same with greater effort. In the public sphere, we don’t spend too much time on such deliberation; we just wear the jersey of the guy that scores a lot. But perhaps we should reshape our admiration gauge to give credit to those who do the best that they can with what they have. Maybe in that world, we would love Jacob Smrz as much as we do Valentino Rossi, with the award going to Nicky Hayden for his lastest campaign on the Ducati. Seriously.

Monday, December 20, 2010


A homeless man smiles at me showing no teeth
A young man laying dead in the cold streets
He was a victim, beaten bad by the police
And every day another funeral, there's more grief
And every day I like to pray when I see the sun
And if there ever was a lost tribe we the one
In every hood, there's a project with us in it
The old man in the dust goin' nuts - finished
Years before they used to say he used to own a business
Caught him on taxes
Guess you're black, you got to know your limits
And everybody try to be happy some way
I think of dinners in the winters on a Sunday
And everybody's poor but we always pulled through it
'Cause of Marvin's influence
We always played his music
My pops said he was a troubled man
Courtesy of Uncle Sam
Then I hit the streets and start hustlin'
But I can see my grandmoms when she dressed for church
A stylish hat, white dress with a matching purse
And I could hear her singing loud 
With the choir marching in, with the face of joy
Proud 'cause her heart's with Him
And she could live everlasting in pure peace
No longer worried I speak to him before I sleep
And I stood by the door when she came at me
She said You got to endure 
and learn to be Happy

-Killah Priest

Monday, December 13, 2010


A friend of mine once wrote that life is the only real cause of death. Life is granted, we come into existence and slowly life takes away from itself until there is nothing left but the memories of others and records in the ether.

On December 12, 2010, Carrie May Russell died of life in a hospital in Alabama. She was the last of her mother's many children to enter the grave. Her absence is felt by her child, her grandchildren, her great grandchildren and many others who had the fortune of knowing her.

Carrie May took care of many. She cooked food, drank gin, gambled and dipped snuff. She did not suffer bullshit. She walked many miles across the Old South, the South that my own child will never understand, much less know. She saw Martin Luther King give sermons and she turned her gun on enemies and friends.

She was my grandmother.

She would sit on the porch as I played on the farmland. She told me when to tend to the pigs or feed the chickens or till the soil with the tractor. She called me out for being a mama's boy. I ate her cornbread and watched her make stew over a cauldron. She watched me when my mother went off to work and spanked me for my misbehavior. She was my grandmother.

If there is a heaven, she will tell Jesus that maybe he should watch his mouth because the dead don't bury the dead. She had to bury many in life and now her family will bury her. The earth will swallow her body and everyone dressed in black will forever feel the ripples of the wake.

We tell the departed to rest in peace. But Carrie May will rest however she damn well pleases.

Here is an interview from a couple years back. Her last recorded words.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Surfer, Distance, Home

In the pantheon of Marvel Comics characters is a dude called the Silver Surfer. He is an immeasurably powerful cosmic entity that cruises through outer space on a surf board. From his earliest appearance in comic books, he was a reflective soul; he struggled to understand the hopes and cruelties of human beings, as well as the other sentience in his fictional universe. Though he could travel anywhere in the bounded infinity of time and space, his most important explorations were internal. Such a dedication to wandering self-reflection makes me think that, were he a mere man, the Silver Surfer would ride a bike. Sometimes the road feels so hostile and alienating that I wonder if my ride is any different from drifting without gravity or understanding in some silent void. It is not a feeling that happens often, but there are moments when I feel so far from home that I don’t know if I will ever get back. There is nothing I can do in that abyss but hold the throttle steady and hope that I can return. Still, sometimes I wonder what has changed more at the end of a long journey- the traveller or home itself. I doubt that even the Surfer can call it.