Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Beyond MF: Asphalt Risin'

October 4th, 2009: Asphalt Risin'

Song of the Day: Fu Manchu, Asphalt Risin' from In Search Of...

Would it seem like life in fast-forward? Would it seem like magic? I put my car into reverse and back out the driveway. I'm disappointed; it all seems so normal, so familiar. Just like getting on a bike, how ironic. I'm sitting in a car for the first time in 35 days. 35 days of auto-self-denial, killed off by a driving trip to Denver. I was hoping that it would feel strange, being in a car again, but it just felt like any other day. Maybe that was the problem; the previous 35 days were the exception, they were the aberration. This was reality.

One thing I enjoyed right away; interior climate control. What a feature! You want to warm up? Red bars! Cool down? Blue bars! I don't really have to plan ahead when I go out in a car. Is it hot out? cold? windy? raining? Don't care so much. Got this miniature self-propelled shelter on wheels here. Very convenient. And I'm hopelessly overdressed, sitting in the car at this moment, wearing a sweatshirt and a jacket. I'll have to peel off those items in a few minutes.

On to the stereo. I look at it. What a delight! I absolutely love music. When the stereo died in this car earlier in the Summer (wouldn't play CDs anymore, just the radio), I immediately sprung for a new car stereo even though I don't drive the car nearly as much as my wife. C_ thought I was a little nuts for that. On the bike there are no tunes to distract and amuse yours truly. Some choose to ride with music anyway; I think it is rather dangerous to do so, but I understand the appeal. I missed cranking the tunes in the car during my exile on bike street. I really do think rock music was made for the auto. In fact I'd go so far as to say that we might not really even have rock music if it wasn't for the auto. Just think about all the rock songs about cars! Little Red Corvette, Thunder Road, Truckin', Little Deuce Coupe, Highway Star, that Gary Neuman song, the list goes on. A comparative list of rock songs for bikes pretty much begins and ends with Bicycle Race by Queen. A solid entry no doubt, but a lonely stalwart in comparison. So sitting now with the car stereo in reach was a joyous reunion after a long forced absence from a best friend. And yet, there sat the stereo, silent. I'm not sure what I was thinking, maybe I felt like it would be too much of a distraction right away. I have to admit I got used to travelling without it. Maybe I wanted to savor the thought of listening to music in the car before actually participating in the activity. The knowledge that I could listen to music was quite enough to satisfy. Maybe I wanted to listen to the music of the engine for a while. To experience the new sounds of driving. I was content without the stereo, for now.

It all came back to me right away, the actual mechanics of driving. So many movements of hands and feet! The mechanics of riding a bicycle are fairly straightforward on city streets, provided one is relatively sober and the roads are dry and there is some available light. Left foot, right foot, steer, brake, shift if you have gears, even that's optional. Cars, particularly manual transmission cars, are a spasmodic dance routine in comparison. Right hand shift. Left foot clutch. Right foot brake. Left hand steer. Left foot off clutch/Right hand off shifter. Right foot gas. Left pinkie turn-signal. Right hand air-vent. Right hand steer. Repeat. Why it's quite difficult, actually, all these coordinated movements. We take it for granted because we do them so frequently. And I'm doing them without having to think about it, I haven't skipped a beat. There's a certain rhythm to it. I imagine drummers make good drivers, at least provided the traffic signals are timed properly, and they're not too distracted tapping out "YYZ" on the steering wheel to be bothered to actually steer the wheel.

I remember once driving in New Zealand, where they drive on the "other" side of the road. I was all messed up then. Of course the shifter was on my left, and the turn-signal on my right. And the car window was on my right shoulder. Thank goodness the pedals retained the same configuration. Could you imagine if the gas and brake and clutch were reversed as well! Not to mention the act of turning that turned every intersection into an Esher drawing, with cars coming out of impossible places and surprising configurations. It's small wonder that I ran into a curb on a bridge and caused a flat tyre some 15 minutes after taking the wheel on those narrow Kiwi roads. That backwards Queens-driving I fear I'll never get used to; but driving American-style was no problem after a prolonged absence.

We spend so much time in our cars, perfecting these movements, that it actually gets a little boring and routine. So we feel the need to spice it up a bit. Time to get a cup of coffee! And call my friend on the cell phone! And update my facebook profile ("I'm driving!")! And read the liner notes from one of my CDs in the passenger seat! All at once!!! Now we're talking; this provides the necessary degree of difficulty to make driving exciting again. And I must point out that it would be well nigh impossible to do all of these things while riding a bike. It's merely stupid to do them in a car, which puts me in the fine company of 98% of the rest of the drivers out there. Oh yes, I'm watching out for cyclists and stuff. Uh-huh. I must admit that I've frequently ridden my bike to work with a cup of coffee in my hand, it's not too difficult. Mostly you have to wait until stops to take a sip though. And I've had more phone conversations than I care to admit from the seat of my cycle. Yeah (pant, pant), I'm on my bike (pant, pant), I know it's stupid (pant, pant), well you (pant), called me (pant), k c'ya bye. Riveting dialogue there. No one said bikers were the most intelligent ones. But we can't claim any moral superiority to drivers here. If bikers could figure out a way to do their makeup and text their bff's while riding, they would.

So I got my cup of coffee, wound my way through town, and headed out towards the interstate. I made a right turn on to the access ramp, and pressed the accelerator as I merged into traffic. 5th gear engaged as the needle arched over the top of the speedometer. 50, 60, 70, 80 mph. There it happened, finally, the moment I was hoping for; just for an instant I felt it. I felt the car accelerate, I felt the force of acceleration literally push me back into my seat. Just a little, but it was a sensation I'd not experienced in several weeks. This power of acceleration! Exhilarating! In the car, going fast, isolated from the environment, one really can lose touch as to how fast one is actually going. Maybe I should have opted for a convertible or a motorcycle. Regardless, once I attained interstate cruising speed it didn't really feel all that fast. Doubtless caused by the separation between me and the road as much as anything else. But there was no denying the force of acceleration as I took the car from 50 to 80. Going fast, ho hum. Getting fast, now that's something! Does it have a hemi? Sweeeet!

And that was it, really. And just the one time too! That was my one and only Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer moment. The next time I did that, accelerated quickly that is, I felt nothing. I mean I felt the force push me back into my seat again, but I had grown accustomed to it once again, the novelty had worn off, it was not exhilarating, I had assimilated.

Then, finally, it was time for the stereo. I turned the volume up to 11 and felt the music fill the space in the car. The music never sounded so good, tearing down the interstate on a sunny Autumn day. I settled back and cruised, and thought about how much farther back I'd be on my bike on this day. I really felt no regret or guilt for driving the car this day, more like an academic curiosity about what it would have taken to ride to Denver again. I appreciated the fact that I could zip down to Denver in 1 hour instead of the 6 or so it took me the other week. I thought also though about what I was giving up, driving in my self-constrained box. It's not a sense of eco-superiority, although I surely gave that up. I think I felt a little melancholy remorse at missing out on the chance of adventure. Everyone drives, it's easy, it's convenient. It's isolated, too, and lonely. I hit some traffic on the interstate on the way home from the game (go Broncos!). The light was fading and I was facing a sea of red brake lights on the road. Everyone else was in their cars, facing straight-ahead, lost in their own little worlds. There was no interaction between us, between them, no awareness of our environment. There was no anger, just bland resignation, just another traffic jam on the freeway in the dusk. It was all rather depressing. Is this what we do now? Sit in our cars and stare ahead at the tail lights in front of us? The whole world at our disposal. I could be in Mexico in less than 24 hours in this thing. But mostly my world has shrunk to the span of the interior of this car, and the space of asphalt between the front of my car and the rear of the car in front of me. I can be bounded by a nutshell, or a car-shell, and call myself a king of infinite space, but those are just words (words, words); I'm still bounded, no matter how much freedom I tell myself I have.

On a bike things are different. Like it or not, you're connected to the environment. You feel the sun and rain on your face. You hear the sound of the wind in the trees, the other cars and bikes. You interact, you say hello to the crossing-guard at the school. You wave to the other cyclists, the joggers, the moms with their strollers. You don't really do that in a car. They all go by too quickly. You don't have time to really see anyone else. Particularly other motorists, but pedestrians as well. And they don't really see you in your car, they mostly just see the car. You're just another automaton on the Autobahn. In a car you affect the scene, but you're not part of the scene. On bike the scene effects you as much as you affect it. There's an interplay you get that doesn't exist in car-travel. It's the play of life, really, and you get to participate. It may seem insignificant, but at a minimum you get used to it, and may start to miss it.

I'll be back on the bike on Monday, I've grown accustomed to it. I'll call my new campaign "MFMF" -- Motor Free Monday Friday. But it's more of a guideline than a rule. You'll see me in the car, driving fast, eating a sandwich and blasting tunes. I am still American, after all!