Philosophy and Motorcycles

Philosophy and motorcycles are two of my favorite things in life. This blog will be bits of wisdom gleaned from a misspent youth and an adventurous dotage. People who like/love wisdom or motorcycles, classic or modern versions of either, are welcome to visit and comment.

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Location: Wisconsin, United States

I have been married to the same lovely woman for decades. We have one son, two cats, and live in rural Wisconsin, USA. I ride and rebuild motorcycles, and I am semi-retired. Favorite bikes are Yamaha XS650, FJ1200 and Ducati 900SS. My wife is a home care nurse. I am a Myers-Briggs INTP. She is ESFJ. Our son works at the Apple store in downtown SF and is teaching English as a second language in San Francisco, no grandchildren.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Plato and the RC51


April Fool's Day
A friend of mine bought a Honda RC51. It rained hard the day he got it and he gained about 25 pounds on the way home. But it is at his home. Worth it? Of course! No one in the north buys a motorcycle as primary transportation, especially not a sport bike. Drive in rain, no problem.

For my part I swore that when I reached three score years I would slow down. And I did. Now I am vowing to slow a bit more as another birthday approaches. I have my Ducati but don't ride it with the same carefree elan I did when I was a young man in my 50's. In thinking about motorcycles I have realized that cycle riders can be divided into groups by many ways. One way is by the levels of Platonic knowledge.

At the lowest level are those who know that motorcycles exist. They are icons that are what they are and represent other things or ideas. Show bike choppers and other trailer queens are icons. When children are tiny they first learn that things exist. They begin to separate the it from the I. There it is. My family were savers, collectors. My family house, and grandparent's house were filled with "stuff." They had, and have, rooms, drawers, closets full of icons. Each thing has an identity and also represents something. The majority of it is functional but not used. There is an antique typewriter the keys of which come down from the sides. The keys are not in the conventional pattern we know now. It is functional but not used. To me the show bikes are like that, functional but not used or really usable. I could, to prove a point, type on that machine or drive a radical chopper but I am not likely to do so. Most people have items that are icons but few spend the price of a chopper custom or show bike just to have an icon. Icons exist just to exist. There are women like that but that's another topic.

At a second level are those who know how to use a motorcycle and use one. They may not know why it does what it does, or want to, but they can work the controls and drive the machine. They know how it works, not why. They may or may not see their cycles as icons or objects of uncritical devotion. Some ride a little, some a lot. They do not do any maintenance on their machines. They do not understand, at any depth, why the machines does what it does.

We all have things in our lives we use but do not understand. Switch on the light, turn on the computer. Do we really understand how electricity is generated, transmitted, converted to light? We have names for the parts and the processes but we seldom really understand. I know there is a chip in my computer but I cannot say exactly how it works. I cannot fix my computer if anything actually goes wrong. I may be able to replace the part with another plug in part but I cannot "fix" any of it. I am not sure why the electrons flowing through the gizmos become words on a screen. I don't need to know. I don't want to know. In fact, I want not to know.

With motorcycles, at least vintage motorcycles, I do want to know. I wanted to understand the Otto 4 cycle principle. The effects of carb jetting or point timing are not mysteries to me. I know why my cycle works, the third level of knowledge. We know that it is, how it works, why it works, and then we sometimes begin to see how things are interrelated. If I drive my cycle I get more miles per gallon than with my truck. Yes it is cheaper but it also has less impact on the environment, on the road, on the world. It takes less resources to get to work on the cycle. And it has all the other benefits written about at length. Freedom of the road, independence, smell the grass and other in the wind benefits flow to me. I become a part of the voyage rather than passing through the world. It is, for me, a combination of all four levels which make the total experience of motorcycles wonderful.

A classic motorcycle has visual appeal. As an icon it is just good to look at, to appreciate for its nice lines, functional look. It is easy to learn how to drive one. The second level is a breeze. I am slowing down because I am losing my touch with the how of driving at speed. As motorcycles have gotten faster, and I have gotten older, the graph lines crossed and I am out of my league with a modern sport bike at full tilt. It's good to know that and live accordingly. I do not relish the idea of a ton up high side. The elderly break easily and heal slowly. I'm glad my friend got his RC51 and I love the idea of it. The reality of it is not for me. I can fix my vintage motorcycle when it breaks. The RC51 is getting complex to a level I do not want to pursue. I like that it does what it does but I have no desire to know exactly why or to know how to tune it.

The older I get the more I realize the extent to which everything is related. My vintage cycle is more like the RC51 than unlike it. They are each an improvement over a typical truck in some critical ways. Either gets better mileage than a truck and uses less resources in general. Each puts its rider out in the environment. If that means getting soaked on the way home, so be it. Driving a motorcycle makes one a part of the natural environment in a way cars and trucks do not. It also makes one part of the motorcycle community which includes the show bikes and the rat bikes, the sport bikes and the vintage machines. We are in this together. A motorcycle makes me more a part of the world than a cage. To have, love, operate and repair a cycle, and be a member of the motorcycle community is to have a specific identity. I am a motorcyclist. I am other things but being a motorcyclist is important to me. And I look forward to taking that RC51 for a ride. Yeah, yeah, I'll be careful.

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