Saturday, 14 April 2012

Scooters and the Art of Compromise

When I was a teenager, I remember, we ate Sunday dinner at one in the afternoon. On warm spring days, the front door would be open and we could hear the sounds from the highway that ran in front of our house.

It was a time for me of waiting and  feeling - as teenagers stuck with their families often feel - like the rest of the world was passing me by. I was the last child at home, the youngest daughter of the town's high school principal. I couldn't wait to leave that small town, couldn't wait to go to the city, to university, to become myself.

There was one sound I remember most from those spring dinners. It was the roar of a motorcycle as it cruised along the open stretch of highway. It was the sound of freedom, of boys who could leave their house whenever they wanted and ride with the wind in the face where ever they wished to go.

I knew girls who rode on the backs of bikes, who disappeared up the nearby escarpment and left school nine months later. I didn't want to be them. I wanted to ride the bike myself, preferably in a direction away from my hometown. In those moments as the whine of the bike rose and fell outside our house it seemed the perfect answer.

And then time, as it does, passed. The road I followed included all the usual rites of passages: school, first job, marriage, child.  It also had its share of bumps: career change, divorce, deaths. In all those years, even when I could have, I never bought a motorcycle or tried to ride one. I never knew a two-stroke from a four-stroke, couldn't get through the maleness and the mechanics of Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. But I guess I talked about learning to ride often enough that one Christmas my daughter bought me a miniature silver Harley motorcycle with a clock in. I don't know if she realised her gift reminded me that time was running out. Maybe she did. She and my husband kept asking me when I was going to do it, when I was going to try to learn to ride motorcycle. I think as much out of embarrassment as anything else I finally signed up for a course.

So nearly ten years ago I found myself on an asphalt parking lot during a heat wave with a bunch of guys in their twenties out to get their motorcycle licences at a safety course that would convince insurance companies they weren’t reckless idiots. There were others like me there for the three-day session, but I liked the energy and fearlessness of the young guys who were as kind to me as they would be to their mothers. I swaggered a little like them when we walked to the practice bikes.

Only I wasn't one of them. During one of my first rides I panicked. Turned the throttle too far and braked to stop myself. They guys were impressed with my wheelie. Not me. I dropped the bike and scraped my knee. And realised two things: I liked the fact I'd arrived at this point in my life with no broken bones and I didn’t want to go out of my way to change that situation.  Some of the guys fell too. The difference was they laughed it off and got back on the seat faster than you could say Harley Davidson. It's called fearlessness. And I knew I lacked it.

I hoped the instructor would give me an out and tell me I was such a hopeless case that I should stop then and there. Instead, he bandaged my knee and said: "You can ride. You just need to blah, blah, blah." I don't actually remember the rest of his sentence. It was just the casual way he said, "you can ride," that earned him a spot in my heart and made me get back on the bike.

That same instructor - a big guy with one of those huge Harley cruisers - told us that there are two kinds of bikers: those who have dropped their bikes and those who hadn't yet. Now that I was in the first category, I felt luck was on my side and I did make some progress that day.  But fear was still my greatest enemy. We were told to look where we wanted to go in order to make a turn or follow a curve. But I couldn't stop thinking about the throttle, the gears, the brakes and whether I knew what to do with them to follow what now seems like simple advice.

I fell again and this time my knee hurt. I hobbled through the rest of the day and by the time I got home my knee had ballooned to a watery red mess.  "Don't be disappointed," I told my daughter. "But I'm not going back. I can't do it." She accepted my decision with grace and sympathy.

By morning, though, I felt like an ass, an ass making a bad parental example. I wound an elastic bandage around my knee and did go back. I didn't fall that day but I rode too slowly, thought too much and failed the test. I had to wait weeks for my knee to heal - I had broken the sac of fluid around the kneecap that protects it from impact and perhaps stupidity as well - before I could retake the test. Two tests later, I had my intermediate motorcycle licence.

So that meant I had to have a bike. Right? Right! I bought a small Suzuki cruiser. 250 cc. A lady's bike. It was a beautiful blue and had a wonderful name: Marauder. I pictured myself getting out of the city, cruising on the back roads. Only I never really got the hang of it, never really got over my fear that I would fall again. The pavement was just too close and too real. I took the bike out Sunday mornings - early - and messed around at changing gears and leaning into curves. There were moments of sheer pleasure when I had the roads to myself but, as soon as the traffic started up, I wanted nothing more than to head home. It seemed like I'd never be comfortable enough to ride the bike to work or even get it out of the city. I stored my bike that first winter thinking I’d get the hang of it in the spring.

Then over the winter I looked where I wanted to go and turned the corner.  I thought about how I wanted to be healthy enough to travel when I get to retirement age; to dig in the earth, to walk for hours if I feel like it. Conquering the motorcycle just wasn't as important to me as those things were,
wasn't worth the risk. If I had to let something go it would be a girlhood fantasy. After all I had left my town, had moved into the wider world, had had adventures - just not on a motorcycle.

Still, I couldn't quite do it, couldn't quite give up on that dream of sailing down the road with the wind in my face. So I came up with compromise. A middle-aged female compromise. A philosophy of two-wheeled motorised vehicles that suited me.

The next summer I ignored the imaginary jeers from the twenty-something guys I heard in my head and traded my motorcycle for a scooter. No gears. No clutch. No choke. Automatic (such a beautiful word). A Yamaha. 125 cc. A beautiful cherry red with the ridiculous name of Vino which was supposed to, I guess, make me think I was riding a Vespa to my villa in Italy where a glass of Chianta waited for me on the terrace. No marauding to be done.

I picked my scooter up during a Friday rush hour and I rode it home. Rode it home. In rush hour. Through traffic. At the first red light I had a moment of panic. What if I stalled it, what if I didn't gear down in time? But all I had to do was stop and move forward when the light turned green. I just had to ride and I could do that. My instructor had told me so.

In the first two months I put more mileage on the scooter than I ever had on the bike and learned to practice the fearlessness of driving surrounded by cars and trucks.

I can't say I am without regrets. I still see motorcycles and feel a twinge of failure. But mostly I feel okay about it. Life has a way of putting obstacles in our way and the skill is in going around them. In finding the path. In learning that compromise is not always a dirty word.  

Now, when I ride through the city with the gold light of sunrise still on the buildings I feel fortunate to be alive and to have come this far in life with much of my spirit in tack. And, even at fifty k's through city streets the wind whistles, the engine purrs and I lean into the curves and the turns. Watching where I go.

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