Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Tobacco is a dirty weed:
I like it.
It satisfies no normal need:
I like it.
It makes you thin, it makes you lean,
It takes the hair right off your bean.
It's the worst darn stuff I've ever seen:
I like it.

G.L. Hemminger, 1915

I'm a smoker, which these days is akin to being a leper, circa 1300 AD. I'd say that smokers are the new disadvantaged minority (every society has them) but that would cheapen the very real suffering of all the people who endured bigotry because of their race, religion, ancestry, ethnicity---that is, pretty much everyone at some time or place in history. I'm not a victim of Big Tobacco, either, nor do I want to be treated as such. Smoking is simply a choice I made, one that I continue to make every morning.

Why? Why risk the health consequences and endure social rejection when I could easily join the happy, smoke-free herd? Or why not switch to cigars and at least enjoy the aura of prosperity and sophistication that comes with, say, a Don Juan Capistrano Churchill #3?
Or use a pipe and buy into the image of the tweedy old-fashioned intellectual? 

Simple. I don't want to. I like my cigarettes. I enjoy the pleasure of a smoke and a cup of coffee when I want to relax. If that means I have to get up and walk outside from time to time, that's OK. Everything has a price. Living in a free society means you get to decide what's worth the going rate and what isn't.

There are some side benefits that come with smoking, too. Ironically, some of these exist because of the disdain in which smoking is held. For example, you often get to be alone when you smoke. When party conversation becomes tiresome, or when children's antics are a bit too much (which they can be no matter how much you love them) you've got a handy excuse for a break. When meetings reach the eye-rolling stage, ditto. It's also a great way to get rid of pompous, bigoted jerkoffs (Neal Boortz comes to mind) who insist on lecturing you about the faults in your character, contrasting them with their own moral and intellectual superiority. Just light up and they go away.

Smoking comes with responsibilities, of course, like every other choice. You want to be polite, not litter, and be careful about embers and such. Sometimes you have to come to accommodations with your spouse, as I did. Even when outdoors, with strangers, you should ask if they mind. It's just the right thing to do, even if the drunks and dopers feel free to inflict the consequences of their more popular vices on the rest of us, willy-nilly.* 

It's getting harder to be a smoker; lately there are more and more "Joe Camel" laws and rules to deal with. Campuses and shopping malls proudly proclaim themselves "smoke free" for reasons having nothing to do with health and everything to do with political correctness. It'd be fun and instructive to have a "smoke-in" at some campus, but it won't happen. Smokers typically take this crap with cringing obedience because, like most people, many are cowards, afraid of the bad opinion of others who care nothing for them in any case. Screw that. 

Maybe now that marijuana legalization is popular we smokers can fit in by rolling our own and pretending to get high.

Excuse me now. My coffee's ready and it's time for a break.

* For instance, read a little of this. If you want to be serious, try this.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Goodbye to All That

Part 2

I've only owned two cars  that were purely mine. The second one was purchased on election day. This is about the first, mostly.

In the summer of 1989 there occurred a unique confluence of three forces that led me to buy the car I'd wanted all my life. The first was that the old family car I'd been driving to work, a Mazda 626, was getting old and shabby. It was safe and reliable, but there were too many things that needed fixing. The second was that I had some money, thanks to my one and only big consulting job. It took six months of nights, weekends and whatever time my contract with Georgia Tech allowed, but I had a five-figure fee after taxes. The third was that Mazda introduced the Miata. It was the car I'd doodled in eigth grade when I should have been studying algebra. It was the closest thing to a motorcycle you could drive and not get wet in the rain. It was all the fun and spirit of the MGs, Triumphs, Lotuses and Fiats without the constant roadside repairs.

In August I took a test drive, found to the salesman's surprise that I fit, just barely, and made a deal for October delivery. It saved me the summer feeding-frenzy surcharge and not coincidentally arrived on the twenty year anniversary of my CB750. That seemed fitting. It was just the basic car, white, with power steering and brakes, the standard radio and roll-up windows, but I had to add a limited slip differential. Performance is worth extra. There was room for two and a couple of duffel bags. Exactly right.

I loved it. It was like a well-trained border collie, agile, eager to please, happy without being silly. Quick and responsive rather than fast. I told people that you could drive over a dime and tell if it was heads or tails. I could shift up or down with my fingertips.

It wasn't stock long. The first addition was a seriously loud horn, because Atlanta's idiot drivers can't be bothered with mirrors. Next ,100 watt high beams. Gotta see. Then a variety of strut and frame braces, to help it turn. A trick intake and aftermarket exhaust, for a few extra horsepower. Koni shocks, naturally, then some really nice Panasport 15" wheels.
All of this took time, many years during which I was divorced, remarried, bought another house, had various successes and crises. Like the 750, the Miata was a constant. Finally, after 15 years and 170,000 miles, the engine was just tired.

I'd been planning for that. A new crate motor sat in the garage, along with a supercharger, racing clutch and boxes of other parts accumulated over time. Over a week when we were out of town my friends at Rspeed built me, finally, my perfect car. Just enough power, just enough brakes, just enough of everything. 

Well, except that it was still 15 years old, and as the next eight passed it needed more frequent attention. There was A/C renovation, then a radiator, an alternator, more A/C issues, and then about a month ago there was white smoke from the exhaust. Head gasket, we supposed, but no. Cracked block. No explanation for it.

I could have replaced the engine; the transmission needed replacement as well because after 255,000 miles it was notchy and sometimes balky going into gear. But then there was everything else that would need attention. It could all be fixed---they last forever if you keep
replacing parts, remember--but then it would be a hobby, not a car. A car, you can depend on. A hobby is leisure time amusement.

So I sold it to my friends, who'll rebuild my Miata well. Someone will buy it to drive weekends and enjoy the vintage experience. I didn't buy a new Miata, because while they're faster and more sophisticated they don't have the spirit of the original. I got a Subaru WRX, not the ultra STI but the more restrained (and $10K cheaper) base model. It's vastly different from my Miata, more an obedient, trustworthy pit bull than a border collie. It comes with lots of electronic magic to make the windows go up and down, lock and unlock the doors, change channels, bands and volume on the radio. It has a compass in the rear-view mirror, an electronic one that can be calibrated via an arcane ceremony. I could plug in my iPod and control it remotely, if I had an iPod. Ditto my cell phone, if I had a Bluetooth model rather than the equivalent of a tin can with a very long string.  It has traction control, ABS, all-wheel drive and 17" wheels with sticky tires so you can skate on the edge of the laws of physics. It makes (with the factory exhaust I couldn't help but buy) 280 turbocharged horsepower, 130 more than my blower-boosted Miata.It has lots more room, so I don't have to play Tetris every time there's more than a briefcase to load.  It also weighs a thousand pounds more. Nothing's free.

It doesn't look like the cars I drew in 1958. It looks like the space fighters in my sci-fi magazines. Futuristic. Serious. A car for the 21st century. As I write this there are 750 miles on the odometer. In 250 more it'll be broken in, and we'll see what 280 horsepower and more computer tricks than the Space Shuttle feels like. It's a fine car, honestly. It's just that I can't help wishing that there was room in the 21st century for something simple and lighthearted.

I'm guessing it won't be that kind of century.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Free Speech

If you care at all about the Constitution, and what education was once supposed to be, you
need to read this.  Then get off your butt and do something about it. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Goodbye to All That

Part 1

I've owned two iconic vehicles in my life, both for many years. Both are now gone and it feels...strange. As if part of my identity is missing. Silly, true. Your identity shouldn't be based on products, stuff, labels. You are what you do. As I told my young sons when they absolutely had to have the latest popular widget, "Things don't make people cool. People make things cool." Still, part of who we are is in what we choose to own, what we spend our time and effort on. Others react to that, and their reactions, for better or worse, help shape our vision of ourselves. 

That's preamble. Here's the first story:

My first "big" bike was a Honda CB750, the original superbike, bought new in October 1969. It's hard to describe the sensation of riding it, the power, the sheer competence of the thing. Some people will understand that it felt like channelling Mike Hailwood,* the world champion racer  and as close to being a boyhood hero as I ever had. 

Over the years I modified the bike, of course. Nobody owns a stock motorcycle. First there was a Windjammer fairing; that was its touring incarnation, and it took me from Florida to the North Georgia mountains and the Blue Ridge Parkway for the first time. One of the guys I rode with is still a close friend. Then came the "Gentleman's Express," as Cycle magazine later called the type. Another friend (a gifted mechanic who later became a master machinist) and I built it in my garage. Well, he built it. I handed him tools, lifted things, and sometimes turned a wrench. On went dual-disc brakes, Koni shocks, high-compression pistons, a Yoshimura cam, Kerker pipe, oil cooler, low handlebar from an ATC 90, more neat stuff. It took me about a week to get the carburetors jetted; back then you did it with wide-open top gear backroad runs, pulling the sparkplugs to "read" them for signs of proper combustion. Then you physically changed the jets, in all four carburetors, and did the whole routine again. Lots of burnt fingers were involved.

I raced it a couple of times before deciding it wasn't disposable, as racebikes have to be. Then came the paint, black with gold stripes on the tank and sidecovers, recalling classic Vincents and Nortons. It was perfect. It was "the 750;" no other descriptor was necessary.
It took me to work almost daily. It took me and sometimes, much more carefully, my sons on backroad rides, always reliable and always with some of the original excitement. Much, much later it took my future second wife Linda and me on our first date. Sure, I had other bikes, faster, more modern, more exotic, but the 750 was a constant.

Time passes, though, and things age. It's true, as an acquaintance once said, that machines last forever as long as you keep replacing parts. It's also true that the older they get the more often those parts need replacing, and sometimes you only find that out when they fail on the road. 

I'll skip the details of how I shipped the 750 to a restoration shop in California, at the personal recommendation of the then-editor of Cycle World, whose own early CB750 had been exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum. Let's just say they weren't as careful with mine as they had been with his, and their carelessness ruined the engine. It happened long enough after I got it back that I knew there was no point to a lawsuit even though that engine was the key to the bike's collector value. I bought a later bike somebody had intended to restore but never completed, and a local shop built an engine with a big-bore kit and the best parts of both. They did the job right but somehow it wasn't the same, and I rode the 750 less and less
after that.

Some years later I met, completely by chance, a local custom bike and car builder. While he showed me his highly modified CB550, sort of a younger brother to mine, I mentioned the 750 and that I was thinking of selling it. He looked at the bike, my documentation, the boxes of original parts and spares, and we made a deal. Shortly afterwards he took it to the annual rally at Sturgis, where street racing is part of the ambiance. The 750 blew off a lot of Harleys, he said. I told him I wasn't surprised, and that I was glad it was being used as it should be.

I guess it was a year later that he called---Cafe' Racer TV wanted to film him building a custom for an unnamed customer, and was I OK with him doing the 750? I told him it was his bike and I had no say. He'd told them the bike's story, though, and they wanted me to be there, I suppose to video my reaction.  So I went, was interviewed, showed them a few of my old photos, then they filmed me watching while a bunch of guys dismantled the 750 and started cutting on the frame, reshaping it to their vision.

It's vastly different now, much more racer-ish. The workmanship is outstanding, with little jewel-like details here and there.  Regardless of all the internet controversy the show generated the guys that built it are good people and fine craftsmen. But their vision isn't mine. I rode the reshaped 750 at the Barber track in Birmingham, invited as part of the TV show, and it doesn't work as a performance bike. I realized then that it was never supposed to. It's now art, the embodied idea of a cafe' racer. When it was mine the paint wasn't perfect and a lot of parts were homemade, but it worked, as several guys found out on the mountain backroads. That was a couple of decades ago when I was a pretty good rider, and no longer matters. The 750 isn't about riding any more. It's about being seen. 

I don't regret selling it. The 750 was what it was and now it's something else. Machinery exists to serve human purposes; mine are different today and so is my equipment. The memories are there, though, and whenever I need to I can hear that magic four-cylinder wail punching us out of a third gear righthander, feel a little weave in the bars as the power comes on, sense the outside sole of my boot scraping the pavement, then the powershift to fourth onto a tree-lined straight...

It's enough.

* "Mike the Bike" raced exotic multi-cylinder Hondas and MV Augustas in the European GP series through the 60's. I was in college, a little too old for hero worship. So what? 
The Cycle World poster of him on the 250 GP Honda has hung over my desk since 1970.
I met Hailwood  in 1977 at a race in New Zealand, where he was strolling around the pits like any other spectator. I spoke with him, shook his hand but forgot to ask for an autograph.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Poem for the Election

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   
The darkness drops again; but now I know   
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?