The Three-letter Word That I Will Never Forget

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Years ago, after an unexpected surgery, I became manic. At the peak of mania I experienced life like a child living it for the first time.  Back then, I frequently felt goosebumps, chills and wonder despite the fact that I was confined in a high-security psych ward.

Eventually, court-ordered medication “cured” me by thrusting me into an emotionally flat state I referred to as “the verge of tears.” Under the drug’s influence, my world lost its former vibrancy. Adrift and dispirited, I longed to feel goosebumps, chills and wonder once more.

Desperate to escape my passionless prison, I sought passage back to those manic pleasures. I read books, watched videos and browsed the internet to find a pathway. Was it the touch of God? A spiritual awakening? What contemplative sages had sought for millennia? Months passed without an answer and I eventually accepted my numb life—until my heart began to fail.

Without warning, I found myself in an ambulance with sirens wailing and lights flashing rushing toward an emergency room. Upon arrival, the medical staff whisked me away as if I were at death’s door. Tests revealed that my heart rate was a mere thirty beats per minute—when it beat at all. In no time, a doctor delivered the diagnosis: the atrium of my heart had ceased functioning.

With defibrillator pads affixed to my chest and side and a plethora of electrodes tethered to the lifesaving equipment surrounding me, I gravely awaited the root cause. When the answer came, I was not surprised: the medication I had grown to hate was killing me. A cardiologist abruptly discontinued it and admitted me to a telemetry ward where nurses monitored me for three days while my body detoxified.

Once freed of the medication, my mind soared once more and I relived the feelings I had so obsessively sought. I told no one for fear of being committed again or forced to endure yet another poison. When I finally stabilized, I described my temporary ecstasy to my wife as “a state of grace.”

No longer numbed by drugs, I subsequently felt the feelings regularly. As I basked in their glory, I wondered: could meditation take me increasingly heavenward? Or would I, like countless addicts, wind up chasing an unsustainable high? Reluctantly, I eschewed temptation.

Over time, I noticed what triggered them: seeing a beautiful photograph; reading a moving story; watching an inspiring movie; riding a motorcycle through snow-capped mountains; standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon; witnessing the splendor of the Taj Mahal.

Recently, I read an article in which people described similar feelings: being unaware of day-to-day worries; a deepening of the senses; a feeling of oneness with life; goosebumps; chills; tears of joy… The word that they universally used to describe their experiences jumped from the page and I knew that my search was over. I could not believe that three simple letters could embody what I felt: awe.

Are Indian Drivers Crazy?

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Recently, my family and I had the opportunity to experience many modes of transportation on the crowded streets of northern India. Our two-week journey took us through six cities and five states. As our travels began in Delhi, one question immediately came to mind: are Indian drivers crazy?

Nothing can prepare you for the sensory overload of driving in India. In addition to drivers’ wanton disregard for such universally accepted standards as stop lights, lane lines, and direction of travel, you never know what you will encounter. Sleeping cattle, trees in the middle of traffic lanes, herds of water buffalo or sheep, human, horse, or oxen powered carts, monkeys, elephants, goats, dogs, pedestrians, and inanimate objects are commonplace. Adding to the mayhem, a cacophony of horns blares non-stop.

“You need three things to drive in India,” a driver, Hari, informed us, “a good horn, good brakes, and good luck!” Another driver, Vickie, cheerfully shouted “India, India,” each time he narrowly avoided disaster, sometimes adding “I love my India,” after an especially close call.

I longed for the calm, order, and safety of roads back home in Arizona where pedestrians cross the street only at stop lights that display a white hand when it is safe to do so and large, orange numbers count down how much time is left to cross; where Animal Control picks up strays, and fences hundreds of miles long prevent wildlife from entering freeways on which one can easily exceed eighty miles per hour (130 kmh); where car horns are seldom heard.

Nevertheless, after observing Indian drivers for days, a different picture began to emerge.  When one driver, Ashok, wished to overtake lumbering trucks that sported “HONK PLEASE,” or “USE DIPPER AT NIGHT” on their tail ends, I noticed that he would honk or flash his high-beams. If the road ahead was clear, the truck driver either flashed his right turn signal or waved a hand out of his window indicating that it was safe to pass.

More and more I noticed that honking, waving, and high-beam flashing were not signs of anger, but communication. They were a courtesy extended not only to other drivers but to animals and pedestrians as well.

As I adjusted to Indian driving, I grew to deeply appreciate the communication, compassion, and skill of drivers. Never once did I witness anyone angry or uncooperative. Vehicles missing each other by mere inches highlighted not carelessness, but a keen awareness of the vehicle’s dimensions and how it fit into the limited road space available. More importantly, in almost two weeks of congested driving, I never once saw an accident or a dead or injured animal.

I learned that when people respect life and each other, when they share space instead of trying to own it, and when they are engaged and focused instead of distracted, there is little need for rules.

Then, I considered the differing reality of my homeland. A plethora of enforced rules has made drivers complacent, bored. They plod along like cattle, distracted by technology and entertainment when they should be dedicated to driving responsibly. If an animal or person steps into the road anywhere but at a stop light, they will almost certainly be gravely injured or killed. Instead of being used to communicate, horns seem reserved for expressing outrage.

In the U.S., I’ve witnessed as many as six accidents an hour while driving on a perfectly sunny day on a straight, eight-lane freeway with moderate traffic. We’ve become lazy, irresponsible, uncaring, and selfish drivers. If we offend someone (by taking a bit of their space), instead of honking at us, they may harass us for miles or threaten our lives with a handgun.

Rules can never replace common sense. Increased regulation robs us of skill. A lack of compassion and commitment kills countless thousands of people and animals every year.  We could all learn something from Indian drivers who somehow make unimaginable situations work seamlessly.

I am thankful that we made the decision to skip the tour bus in favor of cars and rickshaws and experience Indian driving intimately. The drivers who shuttled us everywhere showed infinite patience for my ceaseless questions about India and Indian driving while they skillfully avoided disaster from moment to moment.

Despite my shock over situations we routinely encountered, I felt safer in a tiny rickshaw crammed with six passengers and having no safety equipment whatsoever than I ever felt surrounded by airbags and restrained by a seatbelt in the U.S.

Kudos to Indian drivers who, as it turns out, are not crazy after all. In my opinion, they rank among the best drivers in the world.

 

Image courtesy of Hugo Cardosa, Flikr Commons

Why I Ride

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“Motorcycles are dangerous. I know of someone who died from head injuries/lost his leg/is a vegetable.”

Yes, motorcycles are dangerous. I figured that out in the 90s when I moved to Phoenix, Arizona and experienced frightening incidents with traffic routinely. Certain that my days were numbered if I continued, I reluctantly donated the motorcycle to my older brother and retired from riding. For the next twenty years, I didn’t give motorcycles much thought.

That all changed when a homeless man stole an acquaintance’s 49cc Honda Metropolitan scooter. Although he never got the scooter running, he damaged it extensively with a claw hammer and screwdriver while trying. Why would a homeless man even have those tools?

In the process, he made such a racket that neighbors eventually peered through window blinds to investigate the commotion. Shortly thereafter, the police arrived, and reminiscent of a Charlie Chapman film, gave chase to the homeless man.

Sometime later, the police returned the scooter to its dismayed owner, who relied on the diminutive machine to commute to college. With no insurance, tools or the knowledge necessary to repair it, he found other transportation. For the next few months, the broken scooter gathered dust. I am a sucker for potential, however, and that broken scooter soon caught my eye.

I bought it for a song and fixed it like new, spending much more money and time than I could justify. During its return from brokenness, I fell in love with that quirky and admittedly cute machine.  When I finally tightened the last screw, fired up the engine, and twisted the throttle, the feel of the wind in my face and the purr of piston and valves between my legs reawakened a dormant passion.

Before I’d even sold that scooter, I convinced my wife to allow me to buy another for my sixtieth birthday: a 2011 Yamaha Zuma with a top speed a shade under 60mph—with a decent tailwind. “It’s all the motorcycle I’ll ever need,” I promised.

That Zuma transported me to heaven as I drove it hundreds of miles over the next few months. I had not been so happy in years. However, its limitations soon became apparent.  After an ambitious hours-long ride to the top of South Mountain and back, I needed a nap to recover.  It was one of the harshest motorcycles I’d ever ridden. The suspension was bone-jarring stiff and to make matters worse, the small size and limited power restricted me to pothole ridden surface streets. The more I rode, the more painful it seemed. It wasn’t long before I reminisced about more capable steeds:  motorcycles that formerly carried me thousands of miles through fifteen states.

Nonetheless, I feigned contentment, that is, until I encountered a website proclaiming “Tour the PCH on a Motorcycle!” The Pacific Coast Highway: a two lane strip of asphalt hugging the western U.S.  coastline from Seattle to San Diego. As adrenaline coursed through my veins, the scooter quickly lost its appeal.  I longed to ride farther, and longer, to see the world again as I once did: as a free spirit awash in the natural elements.

Shortly thereafter, I found myself at RideNow Powersports in Chandler, swinging my right leg over one motorcycle after another. Eventually, I spotted a perfectly outfitted model: A Suzuki V-Strom 650 Adventure bike.  A-d-v-e-n-t-u-r-e.  Now, that’s what I’m talking about. I salivated as I the word reverberated through my mind. After noticing that it was the previous model year and on sale for 40% less than the current model, I was sold. Much to my wife’s chagrin, I drove the V-Strom home the next day. “Motorcycles are dangerous,” she reminded me.

I think about that all the time. Have I lost my marbles? I’m 60 years old, not twenty. What the hell am I doing riding a motorcycle? Loving it, that’s what. Once you’ve spent time on a motorcycle, it becomes a part of you—a rung on your DNA ladder.  And when you put on your leather jacket, sporty helmet, and gloves that fit like a second skin, you are twenty again. I rode and rode. As I did, I had plenty of time to think and here is what I realized…

We are lulled into a false sense of security by fractions of an inch of glass or steel separating us from catastrophe as we drive our automobiles. Oblivious to the dangers surrounding us, we distractedly text, converse on cell phones, joke with friends, tend to our children, or sing along with the radio.

We fly on jet airplanes at tens of thousands of feet at insane speeds approaching that of sound. Any number of events could end our lives in the blink of an eye. Can a jet even land safely anywhere but a major airport?

When I ride, I acknowledge danger constantly. One wrong move, one animal crossing my path or debris falling from a truck could be the end of me. I am connected with my mortality, my fragility, my vulnerability. It doesn’t make me fear, it makes me feel alive. What I am experiencing is real and involves all of my senses. Riding is completely immersive requiring both hands and feet to brake, shift, apply the clutch, throttle or turn signal while keeping a close watch in both mirrors and ahead for potential trouble.

On the other hand, I hear everything from the sound of transmission gears and rev of the engine to the muted or aggressive exhaust note in response to my bidding. I accelerate or brake more swiftly than all but the most exotic automobiles. The wind in my face communicates my speed without need of a speedometer. I feel the temperature drop when I pass green fields and the heat of the engine when the wind shifts. My panoramic view is unhampered by steel beams or tinted glass and the only music I hear is that which I hum in my head. Despite the fact that only gravity holds me on this machine, I feel more grounded than ever.

Roads that I’ve traveled uneventfully for years suddenly come alive. Every crack, pothole, change in texture, and whether the road widens or narrows becomes a life-threatening concern. Animals scampering in the brush along the road side—jeopardizing my existence should they leap unexpectedly in front of me—never escape my watchful eye. A bird swooping across my path could render me unconscious or at the very least, knock the wind out of me, and a single well-placed bug splat on my visor could rob me of vision.

I notice much that I previously missed:  the vastness of the desert southwest, the raw beauty of Arizona sunsets, the intimacy of a winding mountain road on which I lean so sharply that my foot pegs nearly scrape, the sheer delight of flawless new asphalt, the luxury of having roads to myself while everyone else eats dinner, sits glued to video games, or vegetates to a television series.

Riding makes me appreciate our world like nothing else, and when the ride is through, I can hardly wait for my next adventure. One thing that I especially enjoy is the fact that more often than not, fellow motorcyclists will wave at me in acknowledgement of our shared passion. I wish that more people could share such a connection.

Already, I am planning my first road trip: 1700 miles from Phoenix, Arizona to Fort Collins, Colorado and back. I’ll witness some amazing scenery from a viewpoint that can’t be beat. Until then, wish me safe journeys and please, be watchful for, and considerate of motorcyclists. If you encounter one of us, feel free to open your window, extend your hand into the wind to share a bit of our world, and then wave.