A Lesson in Safety
Posted on January 21, 2014
This essay was published in The Boston Globe.
When you buy a motorcycle, everyone thinks you’re going to die. You become a cautionary tale for friends, family, colleagues—a veritable dead-man riding. After I bought a 1982 Honda Nighthawk, I was no longer a rational, sane citizen of the world. I was a cowboy, a reckless simpleton, destined to hurt myself or worse.
I wanted to rebel against the safe. So only hours after learning how to ride it, I steered it onto the Route 2—a major state highway in Massachusetts—and rode it from Cambridge to Concord a half-hour away. It seemed an appropriate destination, the stomping ground of Henry David Thoreau, author of Civil Disobedience. The act would be my own refusal to obey popular notions, a glorious act of formal disrespect. Had I lived in Thoreau’s time, perhaps he would have smiled and tipped his cap as I drove by.
About a mile into the trip, I pulled into a Shell gas station, and realized I didn’t know how to put gas into the big machine. I didn’t park close enough to the pump, so I had to pull the hose taught and lean in close to the bike. I pressed my calf against the searing muffler, and felt my skin liquefy. I remember thinking that that piece of real estate on my leg would never look the same. The accident was a bad omen. I should have turned back. I didn’t.
Perhaps everyone’s caution was justified. Mind you, I had actually never ridden a motorcycle before I bought one. I began running experiments with people, choosing one of two opposing attitudes prior to disclosing my “insane” acquisition. In the first experiment, I would act cavalier. “Just bought a motorcycle,” I might say with a proud grin, as if I planned to jump it over an aircraft carrier. As expected, the confidence invited cautionary tales. It seems everyone knows someone who has had a major accident on two wheels. “See you at your funeral,” a friend said to me. In the second experiment, I would act meek and deliver the news with a conflicted purse of my lips, as if I were aware that the Grim Reaper would haunt me during every ride, whispering demonic spells in my ear. The reactions were subtler, but everyone still thought I was an idiot. “Be careful” was the most common response. “Make sure you wear a helmet” was a close second. There was sarcasm like, “That [buying a motorcycle/death machine] was a risk-averse decision.” Those in healthcare really gave it to me. Before I could say, “Don’t worry, I will wear a helmet,” they would fire off their most horrific emergency room story involving a motorcyclist going too fast, drinking too much, acting too ignorantly. Both experiments, same results. Whether I was proud or thoughtful, a motorcycle was bad news. It was wildly unsafe. It was Shiva the God of death.
Maybe it wasn’t the motorcycle. Perhaps it was me. I had just turned thirty—could everyone see that this way my last-ditch effort to delay the conscientiousness adults must possess to live a long, healthy prosperous life? Perhaps it was my long-held—dare I say natural—inclination to rebel against common wisdom, the tendency to embrace contrary points of the view, to tell it like it is. Maybe it was because I don’t always wear a seatbelt. Or that I sometimes (consciously) leave the front door to my apartment unlocked, and don’t understand the obsession with locking both the deadbolt and handle given the infinitesimally low probability of a burglary. I also find myself confused when people press the lock button on their car keys two, three, even four times (and twice more when they enter their house, because you never can be too safe). Perhaps it was just a case of country boy vs. city folk? I am, after all, from northern New Hampshire, where we all beat our chests before dinner and shout to sky, “Live free or die!” Wait, no. It’s because I keep my spare change in the same container as thumb tacks. That’s it. All I wanted was a new experience of road travel, an organic taste of the outdoors. Hell, I’ll admit it: I even invited a little danger.
But while on Route 2, I got the distinct feeling that I was in over my head. I was struck by the sheer exposure of riding a motorcycle. It was an “organic” way to travel, alright. There really is nothing between you and painful things. It wasn’t until I arrived in Concord’s city center that I realized how tightly (perhaps desperately) I had been gripping the handle bars. Before I left Cambridge I considered myself a poster child for Thoreau’s free thinking. I was a modern-day transcendentalist, I thought. Surely I would write an essay about the ride, titling it something clever like, Rational Irrationality. In truth, I was shaken by journey, deeply frightened, actually. And I still had to get home. As I walked the streets aimlessly, delaying my return, I probably looked pale, nervous. The trip, I admitted, had been rather unsafe of me.
Safety has its merits. It keeps you out of harm’s way. However, on the way home I realized you can also be too safe, and take no journeys at all. When I got back, I allowed myself to reflect on how much the experience had scared the hell out me. I thought about Thoreau and how he went to the woods to “drive life into a corner, reduce it to its lowest terms.” Sometimes life can drive you into a corner, and reduce you to its lowest terms. Life can scare you. Motorcycles can scare you. But, perhaps it’s better to scare yourself now and again than to be scared of being scared. “Living is so dear,” Thoreau said, “I do not wish to practice resignation.” Like Thoreau, I desperately, profoundly, dangerously, do not wish to live what is not life. “I do not want to find that I had not lived before I come to die.” Unsafety, I found, is worth the risk.
A Lesson in Safety was published in The Boston Globe here.