Monday, August 27, 2007

Night Into Day

I have just completed my last night shift at work. Without a break I start working Alpha Day Shift tomorrow morning bright and early at 6am. To say I am bummed barely starts to express my feelings. There was an eruption at work and the way to "solve" the problem was by fiat apparently, no discussion no reflection.

Bravo Night Shift said goodbye and took me by surprise. When Tamie Came by the Communications center with a bottle of plonk, a large bottle of plonk and a card I thought it was for her new boyfriend who shares my same first name... but it was actually for me instead. I really was touched and said so over the police radio, which of course I am sure they have come to expect of me after all these years...

I suppose that's the thing about working for a semi-military organization, great pension and health benefits, a tight working environment and orders be orders. The Captain says jump and we all start hopping like jack rabbits. Some of the younger officers say I should go to the Union, but I've seen what happens to people who file grievances and I guess I'm too middle aged to go tilting at windmills! Its a good job and I am going through an undesired patch. But its just a patch.

In the short term I am going from one shift to another with completely different schedules with no break and that will be tough. I am going to be the senior dispatcher though in deference to my desire to avoid promotion I will not be an acting anybody, just "senior." I will be training a new hire and that will be hard work, especially as I will be struggling to stay awake and alert at a time of day I am usually snoring. I will also have to drop two classes I have just signed up for ( full refunds at least!) at the college. That's the worst of it- I just can't attend and I can't get permission to be absent for a couple of hours to attend.

All this upending of my life with four days notice makes me feel I'm the one getting punished and instead I'm helping out by making the re-shuffle go smoothly for the bosses.

The good news is that I will be able to home nights with my wife. The thing is we have created lots of time to be together while i worked nights and there is just so much less stress at night in the office when all our work is focused on street work not administrative. I have a lot of adjusting to do.

Oh, and no word on my Vespa which for all I know is dead and can never be brought back to life. That's how I feel at any rate. Well, its all grungy but at least I'm not being murdered in Darfur, one needs to keep a perspective. Or flooding in Ohio. That sounds grim.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

90 Miles

I have a dream, and it is in its way a modest but exciting dream. It involves Fidel Castro, which may sound surprising, but there are lots of people who spin dreams around the elderly Cuban dictator on this side of the Florida Straits. Their dreams tend to be rather more grandiose than mine. They dream of his death and free access to a capitalist Cuba for North Americans, including Cuban exiles.

Its a Cuban paradox this time but the revolutionary leader who spoke passionately about Cuban freedom in the 19th century until his early death in battle, was the man shown here in marble: Jose Marti.

The paradoxical Marti is venerated by both the Communist Government in Havana and by the freedom loving far right wing capitalists in Miami who "Radio Reloj" From Havana always refers to as the "Miami Mafia" in their propaganda headlines on 950AM, perfectly audible in Cayo Hueso, which is the Spanish speaker's name for Key West.

I mean who doesn't love a revolutionary, right? He strikes quite the posture in the pre-dawn, a man with a mission: freedom!
The Cuban exile community in Florida gained steam after the revolutionary attempt in the 187o's, when their exiled socialist leader Jose Marti landed in Key West to lead the fight from this flowered isle that stood side by side with the struggle for a new Cuba, as mentioned in more or less poetic, incomprehensible Spanish at the Jose Marti monument in Key West's Bayview Park:Key West being a Paradoxical Paradise, Bayview Park is a park that has no view of any Bay; its all blocked by 21st century capitalist development, in all its cement glory. Jose Marti shares his corner with dozens of less fortunate "residentially challenged" local residents who huddle and drink and squabble behind his roccoco home in the corner. It has the flavor of huddled masses yearning to breathe free, but he is silent on that and they are more like chickens than revolutionaries, as they scrabble in the sun for alcohol and oblivion, not redemption and freedom.
I dream of the same thing writ small: freedom. My dream is of me boarding a high speed ferry with my Vespa, similar to the one currently in servce between Italy and Croatia, just four hours across the Adriatic Sea...
...and landing at Mariel three hours later with a weekend of riding Cuban mountain roads ahead...winding roads, leafy forests, empty extended beaches, cold beer and hot pork. Modest stuff I say but enticing, tropical twisties a short hop from my Florida home.

The winds of change are blowing through the Cuban exile community as the older, stronger memories of the exiles are fading and the younger generation settles into a migrant's view of the "home country," a place to be enjoyed on vacation, to be marveled at as the locus of a life spent away from but always tied to it by history. That locus, or focal point is no longer the center of one's daily life, for the younger generation of Cuban exile/emigrant. Unhappily Castro has to die before relations can be normalized because feelings in US political circles run high, and Cuba's exiles vote early and often. So we are stuck with this iron curtain between us and the delights of the other flowered isle.

And then there is the unfortunate violent history of the "Miami Mafia," a long bloody history of terroistic violence against anyone who supported dialogue with the Bearded One. And those of us Anglos, even immigrant Anglos who are puzzled by the need to focus on Cuba while enjoying the American Dream in gorgeous South Florida, we earn the withering scorn of oppressed middle class suburbanites in Spanish accents who would yes, go and take up arms in the Sierra Maestra, but you know they have careers and dental appointments and payments on home and Mercedes Benz, and the next best thing to the revolutionary struggle is to pretend Cuba doesn't exist. Truly a miracle of Latin American magical realism in the style of the Communist Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Strange bedfellows all. The paper reports today that a big voice in the exile community was in Key West yesterday to sing some songs about this political paradox, to sing these songs for the first time ever in public. The new album is called Noventa Millas, and anytime you mention ninety miles in Key West you are talking about the gap, the chasm perhaps between the Keys and Havana. Gloria Estefan sang for free for Key Westers on the waterfront of this multicultural little town. One day she will perhaps do the same in Havana.

I was put in mind of all these thoughts yesterday when a rumor blazed through Key West's Cuban community, and the word was that Castro was dead. Unlike 1959 when he came to power its easy enough to confirm such a rumor today. I for one wouldn't call the Key West Police Department for confirmation, because all the dispatchers will do is Google their favorite news websites. No word there of the Bearded One's passing.
In my uncomplicated world I look forward to varied Vespa rides, that will come with the re-opening of this unnecessarily closed border. Even on my wife's 150cc ET4 if my 250 isn't working!
Two generations is quite long enough, for Cuban exiles to martyr themselves, and limit my weekend rides.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Smoke and Mirrors

The good part about living in the Keys is the bit where you wake up each day remembering you live in small town America. This is the place where you enjoy the benefits of life as rhapsodised in places like North Dakota, places where front doors are never locked, here that attitude is allied with the best possible weather and warm ocean water and a certain savoir faire that is hard to describe but easy to enjoy. For instance I have no idea what my neighborhood crime watch is or does, but there are signs in my suburb proving that it exists:It occurs to me to think about the possibility of worrying about the reasons for the existence of the sign, but then I relax, I live in the keys after all! What you might call a place that offers savoir faire combined with lassitude, that translates into a quality that outsiders call laid-back, a concept that belongers make fun of as they trudge daily through three jobs that between them barely pay for rent and beer. In Kansas one lives in a small town and doesn't lock one's front door, true, but one frowns and suffers anxiety if a person of strange demeanor enters the city limits. In Key West one possibly locks the door to keep chickens and drunks at arms length, but one hardly notices men dressed as women, people speaking foreign languages on the street or coming to the office in shorts and floral shirts. We,as far as I know, have no children on our street, despite the signs of awful warning. Just another of life's little paradoxes in paradise.

Undoubtedly it helps not to have children in paradise, unless you are a millionaire, in which case you have all the help you need. It also helps to be connected. There is, it has to be said, an unusually healthy portion of the inexplicable in Paradise; inexplicable that is, were it not for the fact that there is always a money trail. Take sewers for example. The State government has oversight over Monroe County and has been asking the Keys for the past twenty years to please put a sewer system into the islands and replace all those leaky sewage pits. Well, the good leaders of Monroe County have been temporising for twenty years and the State has now decided that if all the islands aren't sewered by 2010 heads will roll and people will be fined. So now we face the prospect of getting sewers, and I might add saving the coral reef. A recent study showed conclusively that human sewage leaking into the nearshore waters is poisoning the coral. 'Nuff sed.

The city of Key West got done with their tertiary (three stage) sewage system a while ago, and very painful it was too tearing up city streets apparently at random. But now all that waste gets made clean enough to drink before it is ejected back to the ocean. I live with a septic tank, underneath a lid like the one shown above, and the county is mulling over how to put me on a central sewer system, at a cost to me of somewhere around $7,000.

Residents of Stock Island have been through the process and the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) voted to give the job to a private company called Key West Resort Utilities. This despite the fact that the publicly owned and run Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority (FKAA) did an excellent job of sewering the city with no cost overruns. Key West Resort Utilities is run by a man who is close friends with a long time member of the BOCC, and that's why they got the contract, despite building a system that did not meet specifications, that cost more than bid and that repeatedly backed up raw sewerage into people's homes. I'm not kidding- you'd come home from work to find a brown lake in your bathroom.

So, if you were the BOCC you would rather crucify yourself than risk giving another contract to Key West Resort Utilities, right? Especially with people on Rockland and Big Coppitt and Geiger Keys screaming "No!" Right? You or I would ask FKAA to do the central sewer system. Not the BOCC, they are thinking about awarding the contract to their buddies at Key West Resort Utilities.

And thats the flip side of living in Paradise, daily, public corruption masked as incompetence! You'd think the voters would be over it by now! Instead we open the paper and read another disturbing headline. The county is preparing next year's budget at a difficult time, especially as the state has mandated budget cuts in all 68 Florida counties. So this is the time the County Administrator, a public clown, decides to fire the Budget Director. On the face of it the Budget Director has been rude and unprofessional to co-workers, including the County Engineer (think sewers) but the BOCC, the Administrator's bosses have split down predictable lines. The majority of three, known as the Gang of Three for their Maoist devotion to cronyism, support the County Clown and the minority of Two, the sensible Republicans (another paradox in paradise!) wonder why the Budget Director is under threat by the Administrator, the jester of the Gang of Three. Which leads me to wonder what is really going on. Is the Budget Director an abrasive yet competent public official, duly worried by the Administrator's ability to run up a huge public deficit- currently $8 million and counting. Or is the Budget Director just another incompetent bubba wallowing in his job, and now facing getting fired because he has fallen out of favor with the rest of the gang?

So much for living in Paradise, this place sometimes is just ankle deep in shit- literally.

Failing to Yield

The Vespa is in Victor's tender care in Miami, after I made a third trip up to the city towing my still broken Vespa. We tore out the anti pollution canister, and replaced it with a simple piece of tubing. That's a fix that is supposed to solve stuttering and hesitation problems- but I got nothing good out of the surgery. An appendectomy that solved a misdiagnosis of appendicitis! Bummer. Victor called for help and apparently my Vespa, still under warranty will go under the diagnostic computer at the main, Fort Lauderdale store. That's my sad story of woe, and I am bummed as I lose confidence in the Vespa's daily rider reliability. I am scooter cursed I think.

So, my thoughts turn to a return to a full-blown motorcycle, a machine of traditional proportions, scant weather protection and a hodgepodge solution to carry luggage. I am fed to the teeth with all these fruitless trips to Miami, this long distance problem solving sucks, so I took a trip by the new Scoot Boots motorcycle shop in Key West. The idea was to see if this seemed like it might be the kind of place that I could rely on to look after a new and different motorcycle, without having to run up to the mainland every time something breaks...It was good idea, I think.
I am no great fan of motorcycle shops, they are filled with broken, sad motorcycles, and the people who repair them who all too often prefer the machines by far, to their poky, annoying, incompetent riders. Relations between expert and supplicant are generally not of the best.

My introduction to the new store was through a 27-year-old lanky native of Wisconsin, lamenting the heat (In Florida! In summer! What did he expect?) so I knew he wasn't too bright. As though to confirm my initial impression of him he proudly pointed out his Hardly Davidson, a machine with 1960's ape hanger handlebars and scissor suspension front forks, a 1930's technology designed to guarantee a rough ride; I made appreciative noises and retired behind a motorcycle magazine to wait for Kenny, the "oddball brand" specialist to come back from lunch. Mr Wisconsin, in his all knowing Harley Davidson-ness, classified any other motorcycle brand as "oddball," a marketing technique not popular in most stores, but in the world of motorcycling elitism its a surefire way to run a business into the ground. Scoots Boots future is not assured.
While I waited for the mythical, "oddball brand" Kenny to show up I listened to Wisconsin and a customer discuss life. The customer was on a long distance ride from Seattle, on a Harley, and he and Wisconsin fell into an arcane discussion about their idiosyncratic machines.
It appeared that Mr Tourer had broken down in Paradise and Peterson's Harley Davidson of Miami were falling down on the job of sending parts. Mr Tourer was red faced, sweaty and not in a good mood. He and Wisconsin were discussing traveling as the young man had, to his credit, ridden his uncomfortable machine down from his home town up north. Mr Tourer in his middle aged myopia was insisting Wisconsin would do better with a windshield and the young man was adamantly (to a customer!) insisting he didn't want a windshield, nor a helmet for that matter. I turned to Mr Tourer and said something to the effect that he's young, and Mr Tourer looked at me like I was stupid and said "The wind's still just as strong when you're young!" I bowed out of his incomprehension.
Then they turned to discussing the missing parts.Mr Tourer had been waiting two days and he was pissed. Wisconsin assured him Peterson had the parts and it was just the parts clerks screwing everything up, which was little consolation to Mr Tourer. I, silly me, intervened and suggested renting a car- Peterson's is just three hours away and highly visible from the Turnpike. Mr Tourer, red and sweaty turned his blazing piggy eyes on me and hissed coldly: "I am not driving up to Miami in a rental to save their asses!" he nodded at Wisconsin as he muttered the words. I shrugged.
Travel is supposed to broaden the mind, but one has to have a mind to broaden to start with. Lots of people, thousands, perhaps millions, would give an arm for an unexpected vacation in Key West, but all Mr Tourer knew what to do, was sit in the stuffy, weakly air conditioned room, and fume. The traveling thing was not, I think, going so well for him. The notion that not all problems are of the same severity was not a lesson he was prepared to learn or understand. I keep having to remind myself of the same thing as I wonder why my Vespa continues to be broken and I am driving not riding. And I'm not even on vacation.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Dean And My Depression

Its been a hell of a few days off, and when I measure my issues against those of people further south it doesn't as the saying goes, amount to a hill of beans. St Lucia and Martinique are recovering from Dean which was a Category Two at the time and bad enough. Jamaicans are talking on their talk radio as though the passage of the Category Three was no big thing. It seems the south coast got battered a bit but there are mountains there which protect the north coast. We drove the northern edges of the Maroon region of central Jamaica and I wish the people were as beautiful as their countryside.
The cane fields of Jamaica have a fabulous backdrop with those mountains but the people we found exuded an air of desperation and hopelessness. It was a brief impression but a very negative one. I can only wonder how they are doing with all this extra rain and wind.

Music is playing on Cayman Island Radio advising people on Grand Cayman the curfew is still in effect but not on Cayman Brac, so I guess, thanks to streaming I know things could have been worse. The south road in Grand Cayman is a slow winding drive with not a lot to see if you are familiar with flat, rocky tropical islands. We rented and drove when our cruise ship stopped there and the impression I got was of a dusty, small and culturally barren island about as large and as interesting as the Lower Keys lacking not only the ambiance of Key West but also the Highway to the mainland. Mexico is next and the Yucatan gets raked by a Category 5 Dean with winds over 140 knots (170 mph) sustained. Really, God doesn't much like Mexicans, I'm almost sure. Though what they have done to deserve this shit I have no idea. I always like visiting Mexico and on our trip by cruise ship we still managed to enjoy some roadside good eats on our rental car drive all round the island of Cancun.
Its been windy around here the past few days, and my wife insisted early on the windiness was a by-product of Dean's passing, and she was right. She remembered when we were anchored off Panama's Caribbean coast in 2000 and our sailboat was buffeted by strong winds produced by a major hurricane, Lenny, some 500 miles away. Today its like a winter storm front passing all bright and crisp through the Keys bringing 30 miles an hour of breeze and cool temperatures around the mid 80's. Very invigorating.

And just to keep us on our toes tropical wave 92 is buggering about in the Atlantic, 1200 miles from Melbourne Florida and quite likely to become a depression and then a tropical storm and god knows what by the time it may possibly threaten the eastern US coast. What a depression.

I should be depressed- my Vespa still doesn't work properly and I'm facing a third trip up to Miami. This time they will take it and keep it till it runs smoothly at all rpm's and doesn't stall whenever it feels like it. Once they have it running I don't know what I'll do but this Vespa has to go. Reliability is what I crave. We both, my wife and I, as always talk a lot when we have to make a decision, and we are talking more about motorcycles and scooters than I'd care to frankly. I'd rather be riding.

Meanwhile another depression is forming in the Atlantic east of the Bahamas which should put it too far north to whack the Keys by the time it gets to the US east coast, but now the speculation is whether this will become an organized depression (its currently a messy wave), or even a storm and who will it whack. Your choice from Miami to Charleston.
These rumblings lead one to expect a busy hurricane season.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Miami's Secret World of Scooters

"We have a new mechanic" were the fatal words that greeted me at the door of the Vespa shop, a new location, cramped and chic in the frou-frou world of Miami Beach, where the cool people live. I met a really cool person right round the corner in the cavernous, air conditioned shop. Victor is even shorter than me, younger than me and weighs about 100 pounds when wearing body armor. We sized each other up across the saddle of my non functioning GTS as I explained the symptoms. "I ride" I said, " I'm not a Miami Beach dilettante." I fired the first shot figuring I needed him to know I wasn't wanting a line in bullshit.

Victor spared his bullshit for someone else yesterday, he and I nattered for over two hours about Vespas in our lives and while we did he taught me more about the mysterious fuel injected innards of my Modern Vespa than I ever feared to know. My fear is he won't last in Vespa Miami's rarefied bourgeois atmosphere because genuine people never do survive in worlds like that.

Poor Eddie the salesman was hopping around trying to talk me into a "service" ($300) until Victor and I in unison turned on him, like twins: "There will be no service till the scooter's running!" we snapped. Eddie retired hurt. Victor and I bent our heads over the patient.

As Victor poked and I watched, a continuous stream of people passed through the shop's door. There would a respectful, brisk tap followed by a smiling brown face peering round the door. I understood their greetings in Spanish, the Spanglish discussion of scooter parts and the polite introduction I got from Victor in English. I had no idea there is a whole scooter shop subculture in Miami. Real scooters Victor said, for real people.

Victor introduced me to them so I have cheaper options for scooter maintenance. Perhaps too so I can keep in touch after he had the Vespa Miami Boutique part ways. Perhaps he just liked that I mumble Spanish, I'm an immigrant too and best of all I have a history with Vespas.

"I respect people who work," he announced emphatically and proceeded to tell me the story of the guy who just shuffled out of the shop loaded with sound advice from the Master. Stories of immigrant struggle and workers deprivations in the Land of Milk and Honey. I wanted to pull in a few of those self satisfied Gringos who bitch all the time about the shiftless migrants seeking welfare.

He told me stories of meeting wealthy Mexicans rendered prostrate by recalcitrant scooters. They were stories, parables really, about how mechanics makes us all equals, especially in this land that lacks proper social boundaries. "In Mexico, a guy like that, why he'd never even notice me!" Victor marveled as he wrapped up another story about a flat footed Mexican millionaire limping into Victor's life with a broken scoot. I never enjoyed a broken Vespa so much.

We don't yet know exactly whats wrong but Victor showed me how to purge the fuel line when the scooter stalls and I tried it this morning on the way home from work when she died at the Sugarloaf Fire Department. I rode home with a paradoxical smile on my face. I must be bonding with the broken Vespa bitch from hell.

I'm hoping to avoid hauling the scooter back to Miami for a second go round but Eddie is jealous and won't let me talk to Victor. I'm in love with Victor right now, his white bread wife notwithstanding, so I'll have to get his cell phone number to let me whisper sweet nothings in his ear without Eddie knowing.

I miss carefree riding but I do like knowing a little more about this complicated Italian beauty, and the fact that when she stalls I can now whip her back onto the road. Hah!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Broken Vespa

I had spent a crap evening in Key West last night and it didn't end well. My Vespa broke and it brought back the memories of failure with my recently departed Stella scooter which spent more time like this than on its own two wheels: I'd met Robert at the Tropic Cinema to see Werner Herzog's latest, a war epic set in Laos called Rescue Dawn. The music played as we settled into our seats with snacks and sodas, and the music played...and played... and played. Finally Scott, the theater manager appeared and told the restive audience that the projector bulb was refusing to illuminate and the dawn rescue was postponed.

We hung around and waited for Broken English to start at 6:15 and though I had misgivings I gave it 30 minutes. Parker Posey, an actress popular in arts houses, played a self destructive young woman unable to find a man. Again and again. I gave up and retired to the lobby for a cup of coffee and a read. Robert stuck it out, until my wife appeared in the lobby and we went out together for a mediocre meal. I've never had crispy meatloaf before and I can't, in good conscience, recommend it.

After dinner Robert went home while Layne and I set off on our Vespas. We stopped and sat on the seawall for a while enjoying the sea breeze blowing over Smathers Beach. Layne then rode her 150 to work to pick up the car and I struck out directly for home.

The wind was still blowing out of the south and I took Highway One sniffing the salt air as I went. I was cruising mile marker 7 on Boca Chica when the engine stuttered a couple of times, stuttered again and slowed. I hit the kill switch and coasted for the shoulder. It was dark and silent and the Vespa was dead as a dodo. I called my wife and arranged a pick up. I parked the Vespa in a fortuitous turn-out on the Highway One and drove home in a huff.

The little yellow light had lit up on the dashboard and announced an engine problem, so there was nothing for it but to load the Vespa in the trailer and haul her off to the dealer in Miami. Shades of the ill-fated Stella. I thought this picture made the Vespa look as though she was about to be assumed into the white light of a hot Florida afternoon. Which would have saved me a bundle of trouble. At least by now I've learned to tie down a motorcycle properly on a trailer, unlike when I struggled to secure the Stella .

Its a matter of putting a sleeve on the handlebars and snugging the straps down so the Vespa rides on its wheels not on its center stand.

At this point one rides off into the sunrise and head up the Highway to the dealer 144 miles North. Until one reaches the Seven Mile Bridge where traffic is massively held up by a film crew shooting the bridge (dead I hope). I called the shop and they said it might take "a few days" to fix the problem. More than that I'm guessing as undoubtedly another electronic box has probably fused. This happened about four months ago and they got that done in a week. Meanwhile I'm driving my spare machine.

We bought the 97 Geo Metro a few years ago as a "Conch Cruiser," thats what locals call a cheap and cheerful way to get around town. Naturally the $2500 "Conch Cruiser" has served us well, returning over 40mpg and blowing cold air all over us as we go. It takes a hundred bucks to replace all four tires and spare parts are mostly cheap and always abundant, available overnight from Miami. It puts my motorcycling econo-commutes to shame.

I haven't given up though, I still love two wheels, always have and always will. My sweet wife has seen my heartbreak and is gently encouraging me to find a way to keep on riding. The warranty on the Vespa runs out in November and I'm not sure I want to play craps with this machine much longer. In order to have a plan B I've been scouting Motorcycle Trader.

I've found a pretty decent motorcycle that might work for me. I'd love a shaft drive Moto Guzzi but I'm tired of unreliable Italian exotics so I'm aiming at a Japanese cycle, like my recent 650 Suzuki that ran perfectly for 20,000 miles and survived several hurricanes. I only sold it because it really was desperately uncomfortable to ride, with its cruiser seating and feet forward position.

When in Italy I rented and rode for a week on a BMW 650 single. It was a newer Enduro model with chain final drive and I enjoyed it thoroughly. There are used models for sale with a maintenance free belt drive which is one of my criteria. If you eliminate chain drive you have to pick a motorcycle with a belt (like the Vespa!) or a drive shaft (similar to cars). Or an ugly duckling like the BMW 650 CS. BMWs have a reputation for world girdling reliability and that's what I want. I want to know that I can rely on my ride to get me where I'm going. The Vespa is falling short in that department, which forces me to think at length about this and I am pissed. I hate buying and I hate selling and I had set my heart on growing old with my Vespa. I must have tempted fate.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Farming and the Vespa

When, in my youth I wasn't playing the role of a young Catholic gentleman scholar in an English boarding school I was busy playing in the fields and mountains of Umbria. It was a wild dichotomy, from pin striped school uniform to the sandals and shorts of a Fellini-esque dusty summer escapism among the corn stalks and ribald jokes of Italian peasants. As I grew older I learned strange and arcane styles of work that I never did want to put into practice full time, but that now, 40 years on, seem like skills learned on the dark side of another planet. How to plough a field with oxen. Sowing wheat by hand. Milking a cow. Minding a flock of sheep. Biblical stuff. Perhaps those Bible stories made more sense to my precocious Catholic mind because I understood, literally, what was meant by separating sheep from goats, and crushing grapes to make wine, and the flavor of unleavened bread.

It was all stuff that I lived with from day to day. Let's not get ahead of ourselves. I didn't depend on these skills to live or feed anyone. I saw them employed, I learned them in a dilettante-ish sort of way and I shared moments in the field with men who wore leather skin without a second thought for skin cancer. or the wrinkles of old age. My favorite task, myself a confirmed scion of a wealthy family, a dilettante like Paris Hilton on TV, was plowing a field. Ploughing you may not know, is usually accomplished in the Fall, after the harvest is gathered, the wheat sold and the straw piled high in conical haystacks like dunces hats. Harvesting is always celebrated in books and the arts, but that's because it's a collective experience and one of joy- money in the bank!

Ploughing is a solitary past time, in olden days a man worked with his oxen yoked to the ploughshare ( I told you it was Biblical stuff), and in more modern times that same man ignored the blandishments, the siren song of cows and harnessed horsepower to his plowshare in the form of a bright orange Fiat tractor. And with that tractor and even a single bladed plow an incompetent like me could turn soil at a rate far in excess of the most skilled peasant ploughman and his oxen. And that ploughing brought with it satisfaction. I like ploughing because I enjoyed the proximity to the machine, the power of the caterpillar tracks clanking and the sight of the blade neatly slicing through the turf and exposing an endless wedge of rich brown soil। At the end of the day you could see the work done and measure the brownness of the soil against the grayish green of the morning's field. It was good work.

I was put in mind of the olden days of farm work not simply because of my recent historic visit back to Umbria after a 25-year absence, but because, more prosaically I was cleaning my Vespa the other afternoon.

Unlike Autumn in Central Italy, summer in the FloridaKeys is a hot humid and breathless affair. Not here do we smell fresh soil, wet leaves and the cooling breezes of the change of season. I keep the Vespa under my stilt home, out of the burning, disfiguring sun, and I polish my red buzz bomb. I like polishing it because I have found the right tools for the job, and those tools produce a shiny red carcass where the scooter body previously was faded and dull with dust. Like plowing a field where sometimes a corner is left unturned I occasionally leave a wedge of dusty Vespa undone through carelessness, and on the Vintage Red Vespa body, the wedge of dust smears like a dull stain of remorse and I rush to take another pass with the soft cloth and rub All Kleer over the opaque patch. While I wipe out the dust, I'm put in mind of those far off days of my youth, my unhappy days punctuated by ploughing pleasure, and my pleasure filled days today, punctuated by the requirement, from time to time, to be annoyed or alone or frustrated, and it all falls away even now, with a rag, some goop and a shiny Vespa to show for my efforts.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Risk Continuum

It is de rigeur on the web these days to read about the appalling risk we take when we go out on the highways on only two wheels. To read these comments is to be forced to the conclusion that appearing on the highway on as little as two wheels is a death wish. Particularly if one is not wearing ATTGAT . Even more so if one is so foolish as to ride on small wheels like these: ATTGAT sounds ugly, but it simply means all the gear all the time. As with any abbreviation its does not specify what "all" is in either case. Nevertheless this subject is focused upon so intently that it doesn't take long to figure out what it really means. It means risk reduction from the outside. Its advocates mean well but as advocates frequently do, they see only a small picture while they preach so hard. Watch someone die in bed of a lingering disease and decapitation has its good side.

People who ride with all the gear all the time note that they are the objects of derision but such derision leads them to adopt a preachy tione that can be desperately annoying and to a contrarian such as myself leads me to think harder about wearing sandals while riding. I read on one blog the notion that because a motorcyclist is riding not-ATTGAT at 70 mph he just wants to die. As though the author has some divine dispensation from death thanks to a kevlar-lined jacket.
It has been pointed out that one would do well to wear a helmet while driving a car where head injuries are as fatal as those suffered by motorcyclists, but it doesn't look as dangerous inside a car and it definitely would look sillier. So no apostle of ATTGAT suggests a helmet in a car. Except race car drivers who also wear flame proof suits
I wear a modest open faced helmet which is a bad risk factor for my jaw, I wear gloves, and I try to carry a great deal of concentration. I don't ride on ice but I do ride on smaller wheels than the average motorcycle; mine are 12 inches at the front and 13 inches at the back and a lot of people with no knowledge will tell you I am taking my life into my own hands. What a nice place to put one's life!

So why not ATTGAT myself? I could spend a thousand dollars on the gear, but its not the expense. Its hot in South Florida, but they do sell vented gear. People think all the gear looks odd all the time, but I don't care what others think. No the reason I don't ATTGAT comes from somewhere else. Buggered if I know exactly where though. Force of habit perhaps, or the proverbial old dog and new tricks, something like that. Perhaps partly it comes from the discomfort and the complexity of a life bound in kevlar.
One of the amazing things about modern automobiles is their convenience. Not only are they climate controlled and sound deadened, they offer a stable platform to travel in, to make phone calls from and to eat lunch. Having said all that why bother with two wheels? Why bother to sit out in the rain and sun and not be able to take a phone call? Technically i suppose I could take a call with hands-off equipment but the point is that more than ever a motorcycle or scooter offers a respite from all this.
And the ability to just jump on and take off heightens the liberation that a scooter provides. And a death wish I suppose though I don't see it that way.
Speed kills, cell phones render drivers of cages irresponsible, its only a matter of time until you fall and so on.

I have seen the needle pegged at 96 on the turnpike (possibly 87 "real" miles per hour) but I'm usually trundling along between 50 and 70 on my daily rounds. Dangerous? I suppose it could be. Yesterday I was riding in Big Pine and a car stopped in front of me to turn left. It was an older model Cadillac with faint brake lights and it gave me a fright- but I slowed, and swerved round it, in control and focused once again on the road. Had I been tailgating....As it is I have 37 years experience riding in all sorts of conditions and making all kinds of mistakes. Experience counts for more than even I realise. Its by exposing myself to the inexperienced on the web that I learn how much I already do know. I have yet to exhibit a death wish.

I have sailed a great many miles and have answered numerous fears about pirates and storms and getting lost and drowning and on and on. Not many people ever asked about the most joyous moment afloat, or the most beautiful sight or the deepest satisfaction. They make it a point to reassure themselves that by failing to act on their "dreams" they are being sensible.

Of course when one chooses to live in the Florida Keys one opens oneself up to that other charge of recklessness and foolhardiness. When I was a California resident it was earthquakes that kept my interlocutors engaged. Now its hurricanes, and all I can say is that i do my best to be prepared, and isn't it nice that the rest of the time the weather down here is so delightful?

I could be living in Missouri and facing the New Madrid fault, or drowning in monsoon flood waters in Bangladesh or Britain. Instead I live in paradise, they say.

I write these words in hopes that they may inspire me when and if I lose everything to a storm or mobility to a wreck. Its not a challenge to Fate its an acknowledgement that life itself is a risk and there is no way out but Death. I reinforce my belief that the only way to cope is to do one's best. I am luckier than some, their taste for adventure is such that they can only cross the boredom threshold by actually putting their lives at risk. They are the true risk takers, mountaineers, parachutists, record setters of an extreme type. I just ride a scooter for fun, until the end of the road, wherever that may be.

Mr Hitchens and the Woman of Religion

Christopher Hitchens' column in the latest edition of Vanity Fair celebrates the ascension of his latest tome to the heights of the bestseller lists. I dare say this is the first time in my reading life I have bought a book, a hardbound book no less, at the time of its attaining stardom. My usual style is to stumble across a bestseller long after it is forgotten. In this case I bought the book before I took off for Europe in June.

I bought The Great Deluge to read on the trip, and think about the submersion of New Orleans, which vies with Austin in my pantheon of Best Places to Live. Vied. While I was at Voltaire books in Key West I stumbled across a yellow covered book with the Satanist's name splashed across it. I have been familiar with Hitchens since the long lost era when he wrote for the Nation magazine. Eventually he fell out with the Nation owing to a perceived slide to the right. I, however, viewed his slide more as an acknowledgement of his new found curmudgeonliness, which allowed him to slide into apostasy ( support for the invasion of Iraq was his downfall).

One can only empathize with a man, born and raised in Britain who comes to the US and takes on the plain spoken, boring orthodoxy of a multi-cultural melting pot where humor is, at its mildest, risque, and at its best, "enraging." Hitchens values thinking for oneself and thus it is inevitable that he should end up plowing a path all on his lonesome. But not, apparently as lonesome as he must have first thought.

Indeed in the article he notes that at least half the audience in his book tour's varied stops seemed to think they alone were atheists in their communities. And Hitchens' sense of wonderment at his book's success implies the same about himself in America at large. I suppose he might be Satan but he writes like a man possessed not of the desire to talk down to his audience but of a man convinced that erudition is at large in America. Good for him, and in this picture by William Anthony in this month's Vanity Fair, he seems like your average, common-or-garden, rumpled English intellectual, now proudly waving the banner of US citizenship. Not at all satanic.

Upon diving into God Is Not Great I found a text that articulated for me, more precisely, more eruditely and more completely my own reasons for loss of faith.

I work with a two women who fit into this debate almost perfectly. One, the Mother, is a young mother of four married to a man of Christian puritanism that would it seems puts him high in the Boer orthodoxy of 19th century South Africa. He it is who lays down the law in the family and she it is who is subservient. I have endeavored to keep my feelings on the subject quiet, going so far as to remove the cover from my hardback when it has accompanied me to the workplace. I don't know the Mother that well as she only works with me occasionally, on her overtime shifts.

My other female co-worker is my regular companion on Bravo night shift. She grew up in a harsh uncompromising, but surprisingly variable series of religious edicts from her mother. She fled home and sought refuge in a world of disorder and unconventional living. From that she followed her older, and more passive sister, to Key West and fell into the lap of a good, hidebound job. This daughter repudiates religion in all its forms and coercions.

The daughter worships at the altar of modern living, television, and lives a restrained life such as monastic orders would approve, moderation in all things, faithfulness in matters intimate, and a work ethic that would gain the approval of the slacker Benjamin Franklin. Yet the mention of religion and all its ethical codes gets her out of her chair.

One night we stumbled across a magazine carried to work by the Mother, for her edification. It contained the Christian rendition of one of those banal magazine quizzes, which usually ask something ridiculous like how hard do you please men, and in this case qualified "men" as the Son of Man. With predictable results when the daughter got ahold of the quiz.

The Christian mother took it well, as I spluttered and tried to shut the Atheist up. On the other hand the mother says "fuck" more freely at work than I would expect her to be able to do at home. Perhaps working gives her not only money (to take the children to that den of homoeroticism, Disneyland) but also an outlet from the strictures of the Church.

Its odd to me to find confirmation of Hitchen's intellectual stance in my own workplace, the stark confrontation of abused religious victim and abused religious codependant. Even in my own family, my formerly staunchly anti-clerical brother-in-law, now a grandfather, takes his family meekly to Mass each Sunday, finding time to marvel at the preaching power of the parish's new African priest. Such is the shortage of priests that even in the seat of Catholicism, the former Papal States, they import priests from Africa.

When I was a child I believed God was an old white man with a long white beard and he peered at us through pinholes in a cardboard box, and in that box the earth and the sky were suspended. It seems odd to me that people, as educated as me, still hold this fundamental belief, and worse yet spend time and treasure seeking to prove the unprovable. I think its true that no matter how little we believe, those among us that do express a belief in a god, any god, are expressing a fear of death.

I have often imagined my own death, my departure on that journey to a borne from which no traveler returns, as the saying goes. It seems more satisfactory and productive to spend less time imagining and more time enjoying. Is this what they mean by God's Bounty?