Sunday, December 20, 2009

Saga, part 6, Fire

Building and maintaining a good fire is somewhat of an art. Most of the time for good times, hot dogs and marshmallows any old fire will do, and most people can get one going if not with at least a little bit of struggle.

But it's different if you really need a fire for cooking or warmth, and need it to last. Or like me, you just really enjoy building and maintaining a good fire. The difference is that it will be hotter, and it will more easily and efficiently use all of its fuel.

The most important words are "build," "teepee" and "maintain." If you build it properly to begin with, before you strike the match, you won't be "keeping it going" all night, you'll be maintaining what you built.

That old adage of building it like a teepee is exactly right. You don't want it "kind of like" one, you want it just like one, except you want it fairly solid. Starting at the center with the easiest thing you have to ignite, outward to the most difficult.

If you have something that's very easy to ignite like a little bit of fatlighter*, some store-bought firestarter or a book of matches with a lit cigarette stuck in it, then begin by making a very small bed for it out of something that fluffs or crinkles. Grass, leaves, etc., even something moist will do if you have nothing else, you're just getting some airflow up under it. If you're using paper, then that's what the bed will be, with some short twigs piled on top of it to hold it down a bit.

If dried grass or something is your starter, ball it up tightly - it needs airflow, but not much - and make it the small center of your build.

Also for grass or paper (-like things) you can jamb your first layer of small sticks into the ground a little to hold the balled-up shape.

Then start with your smallest, driest sticks and break a bunch of them just long enough to lean over the small pile and touch each other, and create a layer. Make it fairly thick, remember it needs air but not a whole lot. You can smother it, but it's not real easy to do. Remember to leave a small gap somewhere to reach through and light it when you're finished (and remember to keep the gap going). Then break some more that are just long enough to reach over that and touch. Keep that process going, building with longer and thicker pieces of wood as you go. If you have enough small stuff, fill in between the taller pieces in each layer with more short. Make sure that you keep the structure itself snugly intact as you go. By the time you start adding your big stuff, your split logs or whatever, you should easily be able to lean one against it. Go ahead and build a layer of logs, this is your one chance to make a nice, solid structure out of them too before they're hot.

Now reach in there and light the center. If you built it right, it will catch as quickly as your starter allows and then build up and outward rapidly.

The whole time it's burning, maintain the teepee shape, but fiddle with the coals as much as you can refrain from it. If you do that perfectly all night, this is what will happen:
As the wood burns it will gently and gradually fall toward the center.
Each falling layer will create a slightly taller central bed of coals that will hold up the next layer, maintaining the shape naturally.
The natural piling of the coals will keep the just-right amount of air that it needs (when you poke at it you smother it with the ashes that are underneath).
The very outside layer, and the portions of wood that aren't yet burning, creates an oven effect, keeping the coals hotter. This results in more heat for you, and a more efficient use of the available fuel.
You'll see each piece of wood wind up as a little, glowing wedge between the taller pieces, pointing at the center. If you're going to keep the fire going a long time, they'll just become coals as the bed grows. If not, nudge them gently into the center.

If you do it "just right" you won't be poking at it all night, wondering why it won't stay going. All you'll do is add 3 or 4 logs in a triangle over it from time to time. It will burn as hot and as long as is possible with the fuel available.


Which, with the limited amount of kindling I had, and the extremely dry state of the split logs I'd purchased, turned out to be about an hour and a half.

That's just as well, really. I can tend and watch a fire until the sun comes up, and enjoy it way more than TV, but on this night I wanted to get some sleep and wake up early.

I cooked hot dogs on a stick, black and cracked, and then ate half a bag of marshmallows, roasted obviously. I tended my fire and watched pine logs go up like gunpowder. I burned what I had, and when it was gone I packed up the rest of my food in grocery bags, double-bagged, and laid it all right up against the outside of my tent. The inside was already getting short on space, and I had to prioritize which things I would least want to have wet if it rained. Living as I was, I knew that if it started raining and my stuff got wet, it might stay that way for a while. The food was wrapped up in plastic anyway, and the most easily replaceable stuff. (This is known as foreshadowing.)

I crawled into my sleeping bag and easily fell into a deep, wonderful sleep. I sometimes wake up momentarily when I roll over or something, and each time I did that night I smiled, loving the feeling of the outside air. Feeling pretty good about the direction I was heading. One time I thought I heard rustling.



* "Fatlighter," also known as fatwood or lighter wood, is the resinous core of a pine tree. It ignites very easily, and burns hot enough to light the rest of your fuel on fire. Many store-bought firestarters are made from it, and so is turpentine. You can often scout around and find the stump of a fallen pine tree and harvest some of its core. To recognize it, it is denser than the surrounding wood, has an oily appearance and feels sticky (it will make a mess of you, and it's hard to wash off). It's a deep, brownish red, and has a distinctive, strong and sweet smell... kind of like Pinesol with a few drops of diesel in it. Its density means it doesn't burn very quickly, so you don't need to use much of it (if you have plenty, you can use more, larger pieces if the rest of your wood is wet). A few splinters as your build's center, and maybe a few longer pieces in your first layer should be enough. It burns with a thick, oily, black smoke, so it's probably a good idea to let it all burn away before you cook over your fire.

You can also cut a deep notch into a pine tree, or cut off a limb, and set up some kind of vessel to catch the thick, sticky sap that will bleed out of it. This sap is also highly flammable, so you can dip your kindling into it for easier lighting.
Use this method only in a survival situation. I don't want to start finding big notches cut into all the trees when I go to parks, and it will take a few days to get much of it anyway.

...And now you know why pine forests burn so quickly in forest fires.

Friday, December 18, 2009

What I Learned Today

Do you really "learn something new every day?"

Do you try to learn things, or let it happen as it will?

Those are just musings.
But I did just learn something. I was going to call this post "Note To Self" and not publish it (I've got lots of notes, ideas and outlines saved in my drafts), but I did kinda state at the beginning of this whole thing that I'm going to be learning as I go. My intent is to learn and grow from this, and I think it might be interesting to allow that learning process to be witnessed by my readers, intentionally.

It pertains to this "instant publishing" ability brought to us by lovely digital technology. I just published the next part of my summer story, having done minor previewing/editing and thinking it was good enough. That usually is good enough for my purposes, but I'm not trying to write "good" anymore, I'm trying to write "great." I want to go somewhere with this. After publishing it I took a look at it to make sure my pictures were showing up like I wanted. (They weren't but that's another story.) And of course I read the whole post again, and of course I found a few words and phrases here and there that could still use improvement. So of course to not slack off on my mission I set about making them better.

I changed a couple of things, republished, re-read up to that point (from the beginning, checking flow) and thought, "yeah, that's much better" and read on. And found more. Second verse same as the first, do it all again.

Perhaps it can be seen where I'm going with this.
I was eager to have something UP on the blog, so I kept re-publishing between edits, naively thinking that I wouldn't find more things to fix as I went along. Time flies when you're having fun, so this process probably took over an hour.

What if all my readers came on and read it in the first fifteen minutes?
Or spread out over time? They might have all read different "drafts" when really all it needed was two.
Maybe nobody read the best, finished version.

What if one of them was a publisher or somebody, and was almost impressed?

THIS post isn't edited at all. It's just a note to self, which is:

Don't be an overeager dumbass. (Why does the spellchecker think "dumbass" is spelled wrong?) Make sure it's the best it is going to be BEFORE clicking on "PUBLISH POST."

Saga, part 5, The Search for Camping

I've always been very spontaneous, more so than most people. Over the course of this summer I would take that to a whole new level, increasingly enjoying the nervous excitement of "not knowing what the hell I'm gonna do until I get there." Things usually work out (I'm resourceful), and when they don't it becomes an opportunity for creative problem solving. I grow from it, become smarter, stronger.

I had, prior to leaving home, found what I thought was a "decent" campground not too far from the company's hometown. However, it was in the opposite direction of the one I had traveled in that morning. I decided to forget about that one, for the time being, and look for something closer to where I was. I didn't figure it would be difficult... I was in a mountainous area, and campgrounds usually aren't too far apart. At least it seems that way when I ride randomly through the country on my bike and pass by them periodically. I know you're also usually not too far from a State Park (didn't I mention that already?).

I left the campus and rode into the nearby village. I found an older-style gas station - you know, just stand-up pumps with a lever, rotary digits and no card-swiper - and stopped to fill up and ask if they knew where a campground was. There wound up being more to it than a simple question, answer, get my change and go, and I like that. We should really talk to each other more, I think. The guys in the store didn't know of any that they could recall, but then another customer walked in who thought he did. He gave me some less-than-certain directions and it was confirmed by chants of "oh yeah, I think I remember that place" from the others, so I thanked him and headed out with confidence that I could find it.

It may interest you to know at this point that New York isn't exactly overbearing with its highway/road signage. This is a fact that certainly interested me at numerous points over the course of this past summer.

I followed the directions as best I could. It was easy to go past a turn because I couldn't tell what road it was, then find out by looking back over my shoulder at the sign for the other direction. This can be a fun, if not efficient, way of riding around. When you don't have to be anywhere soon you can go, "oh, that's where that is" and keep riding straight for a while. And the roads were fairly nice, and I started enjoying them a bit longer than I thought I should have without seeing a campground.

When I gave up I backtracked to a more modern gas station I'd passed and stopped with perfect timing. A couple on a bike pulled in and parked next to me, and thinking that another biker will know the location of a campground isn't usually like those "other" assumptions. They turned out to not have any idea about the one I'd been told about, but recommended Green Lakes State Park.

I went into the store, bought a map and borrowed a pen and piece of paper. I had a nice cup of coffee while I plotted a route to the park and wrote it down. I stowed the map and tucked my directions under the left side of my tank bib (so I can pull them out to glance at when I need to).

By now it was pretty close to rush hour, so I paid attention to how long it took me to get there so I'd know what to expect in the morning. The traffic wasn't too bad, but it was as slow as it always is when there's a bunch of it in front of you. It didn't bother me much though, the wonderment of being someplace new does a lot for the mood. Especially, I think, when it's in hilly territory.

I got to the park office a little after 5 and paid for a primitive site for a couple of nights, telling them that I'd like to be able to ride through and pick one. They went ahead and booked me one, but told me if I liked another one better I could call them and they'd just have to make sure it wasn't reserved.

The park did have campers in it on a Monday, including one other guy on a bike with his kid.

After some looking around I found that site 19 was perfect, and when I called they said it wasn't reserved till the weekend. That was fine because I wouldn't need it through the weekend. I took my luggage and sleeping bag off the bike and rode back up to the office for some firewood. I bought one bundle for 5 bucks, bungeed it to my passenger seat, and hauled it back to the site to make camp.

View from the "perfect" campsite:
Photobucket

The first thing I did was remove the wood from the seat so it wouldn't sit there and leave an impression in the vinyl.

Then I found a straight stick to use as a pole and carved the ends sharp with my hatchet, and cut a few small "V" shaped branches to use as stakes. I snapped my two Army ponchos together as my tent. Using theatrical tie-line (a high quality, braided and usually waxed twine, black) I tethered one end to a tree. At the other end, which would be the front*, I put the pole into the grommets and pulled it up and tight with more tie-line to two stakes at about 90 degrees from each other. More stakes for the side and corner grommets of the ponchos, and I had myself a nice, open-ended tent tall enough to sit up comfortably in. For good measure, in case it got breezy or rained, I unfolded an emergency blanket and gaff taped it (also a theatrical product, black) over the front opening of the tent from the inside so it would look nice and neat (and so that if I were to need to fix it in the rain, I wouldn't have to go outside to do it).

*The site was selected mostly for level/flatness and distance between the best tree for my purposes and the fire pit.

My tent:
Photobucket

I scouted around in the woods for sticks to use for the beginning of my fire, and pulled up a couple of armloads of tall weeds to use as bedding. I also found a nearby clearing that had just been mowed, so there was lots of soft grass clippings. I wished I'd done this scouting before I built the tent so I could carry a bunch of it in a poncho, and decided it would have to wait till I came back later with some grocery bags.

I then unpacked my luggage and one of my saddlebags (the other one carries the things that stay with the bike, like my rain gear) into the tent and reattached the luggage to the bike for a trip to the store. Before leaving I went up to the bathroom and chanced upon meeting the other motorcycle camper. In the short conversation that ensued he wound up telling me where I could find restaurants and a grocery store before I even thought to ask.

I donned my gear and got on the bike once again. I found the grocery store with little trouble, but it turned out to be what I thought was a "Fresh Market." Down here in the South that's a chain of organic and health food grocery stores, and while it's good stuff and I think mostly worth it, it was out of my current range of dependable powers of expenditure. Then I got to feel like a complete fool when I frustratedly asked some ladies in the parking lot where a "regular" grocery store was and found out that it was. It was actually called a P&C, but "P&C" wasn't nearly as big on the storefront as "Fresh Market" was. I swear.

So I went in and got, well... I hadn't been camping in a long time. So of course I got hot dogs and marshmallows. I got about a half pound selection of cookies from the bakery, and a couple of fresh bagels and cream cheese for breakfast. I got some rolls and some meat and cheese from the deli to make sandwiches to take for lunch, figuring I'd save time and money but still ride with the fellas (I'm a slow eater). I bought the smallest jar of mustard I could find. (It's kinda tricky trying to buy for literally a couple of days, because you don't have room for leftovers.) And I got a sixpack of, oh... how nice. They had a really decent beer selection, and I discovered that they also had multiple local and regional breweries (though I didn't yet know the full scope). I picked out a local stout, paid and grabbed a couple of their sale/coupon papers to use as kindling (I hadn't found any fatlighter on my brief scout). I packed it all onto the bike and headed back to the park.

I got back to my campsite just after dark, and the first thing I did was empty a couple of bags and make several trips to that field for grass clippings. I laid out a thick layer of them through the center of my tent, and then laid the taller stuff I'd gotten over them. Rolling out my Army sleeping bag and testing it out, I found it was damn near as comfortable as the bed I'd left at home. Then I packed a bunch of my things back into my luggage and tucked it into a corner, and laid the rest of my stuff along the sides of the tent.

I turned off my phone so it couldn't ring and attract attention to itself, walked a couple of campsites down to a powered one, and plugged it in to charge for a while.

Satisfied with my living quarters, I emptied out my water bottle, poured myself what turned out to be an excellent stout, and began the task of building my fire.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Saga part 4, The Stage Build

So I went over and found Mark and introduced myself. He was immediately friendly, and the first thing we did was walk over and take a look at Sugar, exchanging a few words about the ride up. I found out that he's heavily into bicycling, as I would soon learn lots of folks are Up North.

He also went ahead and gave me a couple hundred bucks, just like he'd said he would.

We kept the pleasantries to a minimum at that point, however. There was lots of work to get done. I asked him, "so where can I be most useful right now?" and he brought me over and introduced me to the Light Tech, Dan. I shook his hand and told him, "I've got my C-wrench and I'm ready to work." (Probably 90% of the tool work on lights, which is mostly installing and focusing them, is done with a Crescent wrench. The roof and truss that you see above the stage is built using only one size of wrench, and the particular stage that this company uses goes together with nothing but hammers and humans. The First Rule of Engineering is "don't make it any more complicated than it needs to be.")

He said we wouldn't be needing C-wrenches yet.

The rest of the crew was assembling the rectangular grid of truss which would be the roof, which was about finished at that point, and getting started building and raising the towers that would lift the whole thing. I was going to help Dan run cables through that truss to the lights and the motors.

The cables that run all those lights you see at a concert are usually what's called "Socapex." They're thick, heavy cables that are basically a whole bunch of extension cords in one. We call them "soco" or "mult" for short, and they save us the trouble of running 150 extension cords -one to each light. Each one usually powers six to eight lights (or anything else up there that needs power). They all get run through the truss to a single location, where they then drop down together neatly into "Lighting World." Lighting World is basically where all the power for lights, and everything else onstage that isn't sound, is routed and controlled. The majority of the power use of a concert is used there, and that's a lot of electricity. (It's more than enough to kill someone, which does happen occasionally when someone slips up. All of this is dangerous work, not like "incredibly" dangerous like some things, but enough so that all it takes is a "slip-up" for someone to get killed or permanently injured. Read further, oh interested one, for there is danger in this very tale.)

We got those run and connected and by that time the rest of the crew had the towers erected.

The roof, in brief:
10' lengths of truss are bolted together and to special corner blocks. A corner block has adjustable feet (screwjacks) for leveling the whole structure, and the base of a tower in its center. The outer portion that the rest of the truss bolts to has wheels pointing inward that grip the tower.
The towers are assembled laying down along the truss and then one side is attached to the base by a hinge. Ropes and muscles then heave the tower upward, and the base is bolted together. Once each tower is up and bolted, someone climbs up it to remove the ropes that were used to pull it up, and send one of them over pulleys on top of the tower so that chains can be pulled up and over.
Another length of truss, the same as the front and back, is then lifted on top of the existing rectangle which winds up creating the peak of the roof. Once the roof itself is attached, things called "chain motors" pull the whole thing up the towers.
A chain motor is a device that pulls chain through itself, gripping it tightly. It's useful for lifting very heavy loads such as stage roofs, or all the lighting and scenery truss you see over the stage at an indoor show.*

Once the roof was up, Dan and I were both freed to help build the stage itself.

The particular stage this company uses is really top-notch. It's both versatile and it goes together fairly easily. Mostly. Though it can be a real hassle if you don't get it really straight/square.

It begins with upright steel "ringers," which go on top of screwjacks for leveling. Ringers are stackable pieces that have a circular rings with holes in them. Long bars, called "ledgers" span between the rings, with a slot in their ends to wrap around them and then a pin that drops down through the holes... a few good whacks on those pins with a hammer and you have a good, solid structure. Longer pieces, which we called "diags" span diagonally in numerous places to help add strength to the overall structure. All of this can be built in almost any shape or configuration, for building fancier stages with risers, ramps, etc. These same parts also build the towers on the sides of the stage, called "wings."

The wings get wrapped with waterproofing, and they're where things like Lighting world and Monitor world go (on opposite sides of the stage), as well as where the main speaker stacks are hung. They're also, to me, quite fun to build. Climbing and working is hardly working to me, although obviously work is getting done.

Once the frame of the stage is built, the floor goes on. The top pieces that hold the flooring decks are the same as ledgers, except they have an extra, rectangular bar of steel welded to them. Most are flat, but the ones that go at the front and back of the stage have an extra piece of metal that sticks up to hold the decks in place. The whole thing is decked with sturdy, 4'x8' decks, and then they're all clamped together underneath with standard "C" clamps.

And... you have a completed stage.

We then raised the roof to a comfortable working height, and Dan and his other helper start getting lights hung from it and connected properly.

The rest of us weren't finished though. Since this company does "big shows," we then also build a loading dock for trucks and equipment off the back of the stage. Sometimes it's attached to the stage, sometimes not. Sometimes it's built exactly the same as the stage, only using all the less-desirable (less pretty, older) decks since the audience and most of the performers won't see it, sometimes it's built with standard scaffolding (and the same decks). This time we built a fairly large one out of scaffolding, not attached, long enough to back 4 trucks up to and connected to the stage by 2 long ramps.

During the course of the festival, the artists' equipment will be loaded off the trucks and "staged" on this dock until such a time as it's needed. (To avoid confusion... "stage" vs. "stage": Many kinds of work have a "staging area." This is where equipment, tools, personel, etc. are kept until they're needed.)

When it came lunchtime, I learned that we got a fairly strict 30 minutes. It takes time to warm up my bike and get all my protective gear on. Since I was also obviously interested in getting to know my co-workers, instead of messing with my bike and gear I just shouted, "who can I ride to lunch with today?" I kind of kept that as a theme most of the summer (when there were lots of us around, anyway), going with someone different most of the time.

This company, on normal days (pre and post festival/show) almost never works past 3 pm. Frankly, I enjoyed that a lot. It's nice to have the afternoon to do other things, especially in a situation such as mine. On this day we finished building the dock right at about 3, so we were done for the day after that.

Everyone went their separate ways and I set about finding a campground, with no plan or idea.


* Interested in an addendum? Hanging things overhead is an enormous responsibility. I'm sure if you've been to a concert you've noticed the enormous amount of metal stuff that's hanging over the stage and sometimes the audience. These things are not permanently attached, they are hung for the show. If they were to fall, and on rare occasions they do**, obviously someone or lots of someones can be hurt badly or killed.

The person who's responsible for hanging all that is called the Rigger (or the Head Rigger... often most of the people working under him... pun intended... are riggers too). If the rig comes down, he gets 100% of the blame. This is often, but not always, very technical work. There are lots of calculations involved. Even if one is working a big enough tour that they're carrying their own rigging, the "grid" (the internal roof structure of the venue) is always going to be different. Your rig is always the same, but how it attaches will be different in every venue.

**Don't let this make you afraid of going to concerts. Most of the time when a rig fails, it does so when it first goes up, long before the audience starts showing up. Also, even then people don't always get hurt: Usually when the rig is ready to go up the Rigger, or whoever's at the controls, will shout something along the lines of, "THE RIG'S FLYING!" and everyone will get clear of it until it's safely at "trim height" (simply meaning the height it's going to be). As it's going up all trained eyes (usually us techs have some basic rigging knowledge as well) will be on it, at least one pair watching each motor, and keeping watch for trouble. The person with the motor controls can't possibly watch ALL the motors, and sometimes there are minor problems... one might not be moving, or could be going the wrong way. None of us wants to get hurt or see a catastrophic failure, so we all watch the rig go up and will shout, "STOP" if we see any kind of problem or potential for one.

Usually a prudent Rigger will stop the rig at a comfortable working height and have someone (just one, that way there's no, "I thought HE got that one") go around and double-check every bolt, hook and shackle in the whole rig. Something simple like a shackle turned sidways against its load can cause a small failure, and once one point goes... well... The clanging and screeching of twisting metal ensues... lawyers are contacted... jobs are lost.

Usually lots of the experienced members of a stage crew will have at least some very basic knowledge of rigging, so that more eyes are capable of hopefully recognizing potential problems before they occur. Pretty much everything has to be "perfect" for the show to be its best, but mistakes in rigging don't just ruin the show. This would include things like how a shackle should be loaded properly, or noticing when something's bolted incorrectly.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

At the liquor store

I picked out my poison, went and got a cola out of the cooler, and got in line at the cash register.

While I was standing there, one of the employees went over and rearranged the cooler a bit, pulling bottles and cans forward so it all displayed properly. Then I changed my mind and decided I wanted ginger ale instead of cola.

So I walked back over to the cooler, and pushed back the cola bottle to make room to put mine back. I took a bottle of ginger ale and then reached back, pulled the next bottle forward so as to not mess up their display.

As I walked back over to the line I heard the owner, who was standing at their drive-through window, say, "thank you." I looked over and saw that he was saying it to me. Once he caught my eye he said it again.

It caught me by surprise for a moment to realize he had noticed me do such a little thing. And chosen to say so, us being strangers and all. Then I felt a little, tiny moment of pride. I smiled very big at him and gave him my best, "no problem," paid for my purchases and went on my way.

Pipe Dreams?

So I was looking around, trying to find useful forums in which to "advertise" my blog.
I've started saying something about it in the motorcycle forum that I frequent, and every time I have it's driven at least some traffic to the site. That has inspired me, and shown me how easy it CAN be to start building more readership.

I went to the website of my favorite magazine, because much of what will be my subject material is closely related to theirs. I figured that people interested in that magazine might also be interested in what I have to say.

Unfortunately, I didn't find a "forum" there, so the intent of my original efforts proved futile.

However, I learned something while I was there that kinda got me excited.

They are hiring.

I don't want to say too much yet, or even name the publication. With this blog, I'm trying to EASE my way into saying much of the things I want to say. I want to establish my style, my personality, and my intent gradually, and try as hard as I can to build initial readership while bypassing people's biases. My true intent is to COMMUNICATE things, and really to stop "preaching to the choir." To present information, and possible solutions, that are NOT based on BIAS, but facts, information and education. It's a delicate process, and I'm not even sure it's possible in our current cultural landscape.

To name the magazine at this point, or to even post the words they used in their "hiring" ad that really got me excited and made me feel like I have a chance, could jeopardize that intent. To do so might give a premature impression that I "lean" this way or that, when frankly I don't.

So, well, I don't guess this is a very informative post.

I just wanted to share my excitement at a POSSIBLE "dream job" that I'm going to try really hard to get.

The "what we're looking for" part of their ad is what gives me hope. My resume in no way demonstrates my eligibility for this job.
Number of "credentials" that I have on paper that demonstrate my eligibility: Zero.
Amount of "professional experience" I have that demonstrates same eligibility: Zero.

But the main part of that ad, what seems by ITS writing to be the most important criteria, fits me so perfectly it may as well have been written BY me.

And, it's a job WRITING. Something I do a lot, in some form or other, and something I believe I do extremely well.
So, theoretically I SHOULD be able to "write" something good enough to show them that no one else could possibly do this job as well as I can.

So that is my goal, and I'll begin it this evening (right now, in fact). I am going to attempt, by Monday morning, to write a "cover letter" and "why you should hire ME" that is so good, and relates so perfectly to their mission (I already do), that it would be crazy to consider hiring anyone else.

Wish me luck. If it works, obviously this blog will hear all about it, and probably be changed forever. If it doesn't, it will be back to business as usual, and I'll continue my gradual process.

Thanks for reading.

Peace.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Prize

I got into a big discussion online about the over-inflated cost of medicines, and almost digressed into a diatribe about the overwhelming state of "depression" in our society. In order to keep that discussion reasonably on-topic, I told one of my forum friends that I'd save it for my blog.

So here I am.

But man... where the heck do I start on that one?
(I usually write "when the mood/inspiration strikes," but this time I'm going to write because I said I'm going to. It will be a good exercise on "writing" instead of my normal "letting it flow.")

This is a pretty deep subject, and one that I've put a lot of thought and reading into. I can go on and on about it, for sure, once I get myself going.

Well... According to the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics website 14% of Americans take antidepressants.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), about 9.5% of Americans suffer from "Mood Disorders," which include Major Depressive Disorder, Dysthymic Disorder, and Bipolar Disorder.
According to another study, 12% of those interviewed met the criteria for Clinical Depression, and another 10% suffer from "frequent low mood," signs of which can include: difficulty sleeping, poor appetite, fatigue, difficulty in concentrating, and and ongoing case of "the blues."

Here we have 2 separate studies that show differing percentages: NIMH's 9.5%, and the other's (a study funded by BASF) 12%.
I believe it's very safe to say that there are LOTS of "depressed" people who are not accounted for in either statistic. Many people don't seek help for depression, and some aren't even aware they're depressed.
Heck, I myself am currently pretty "depressed," and I'm not seeking diagnosis, help, OR medication for it.

For the sake of the unmedicated, undiagnosed, and unaware, and this discussion... we're going to add up the "clinical" and the "low mood" to 22%, and then add a conservative 3% for the "unaccounted for," for a total of 25%. I think this is reasonable in my intended context, because "not as happy as one wants to be" concerns this subject just as much as "clinically depressed."
And frankly, I believe that's probably a lot more than 3% of our population.


We're by far the richest nation in the history of the Earth. We're "free."
We spend more money maintaining our lawns than the entire tax revenue of India.
What the heck do WE have to be depressed about?

Well... I believe we are a SOCIETY of depression, in the "pursuit of happiness."

Our Beloved Forefathers really nailed it when they included "the pursuit of happiness" in that famous document.
THAT is our goal in life. Almost every single other thing we do is based on that pursuit. Even when we perform charitable acts for others it is, deep down, because it makes us happy to do so.

At our core we really want just two things out of "life": To be HAPPY as much as possible, and to die with as little pain as possible. Everything else circles around and stems from these two basic desires.
("Happy," here, is sort of a catch-all bottle. It's the "core" of many other things... We need to be loved: feeling loved makes us happy; we need to be healthy: being unhealthy or in pain hinders our ability to be happy; etcetera.)

What I believe is askew is what we believe will make us happy, and there are very powerful reasons for that.
There ARE mechanisms in place that are designed to make us think the things we think will make us happy will make us happy.

These mechanisms are so complex and effective that we persist in our beliefs of what will "make us happy," even though it's not working. That fact is key to the whole problem.

I've heard it said that the definition of insanity is "doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting a different result." But part of the problem is that we've become so blind, so caught up in the bullshit, yes bullshit, that we've lost our ability to even SEE the result.

Our pursuit can be equated to the mentality of a compulsive gambler.
He "knows" that millions (happiness) are just around the corner... he keeps playing because he persists in his belief in the payoff.
But there's a big difference. In the compulsive gambler's world, HIS goal of happiness... "millions"... would be real if he were to win (and of course, he stopped with "good enough").

Here's the difference:
In our infinite quest for the payoff, "happiness," most of us are actually winning most hands we play. Where the problem lies is that when we WIN, we aren't any happier, and instead of switching to a different game we play again... thinking that if we just win BIGGER this time, it will work.
Most Americans get constant payoffs in this game, and yet 25% of us are depressed.

I suggest that it isn't whether we win or lose that's the problem. IT'S THE PRIZE. When we win, the prize doesn't do for us what we thought it would. Our sickness is that we play the same game again, for essentially the same prize, and think the prize is going to do what we expect this time.

We stay depressed, "not happy," because the we can't seem to figure out that what we THINK will make us happy won't. And to top it off, we keep working ourselves harder and harder, stressing ourselves out more and more, trying to get that same prize.

So what is this "prize" of which I speak?

Stuff.

This stuff, that stuff, the same stuff he has, some different stuff, cheap stuff, expensive stuff, somebody else's stuff, some stuff to call my own. It's all the same, essentially. We acquire most of it for the same reasons, and we all get as much of it as we possibly can. "He who dies with the most toys wins."

All our lives are wrapped up in stuff. Our home is stuff, and we put all our other stuff in it. We entertain ourselves almost entirely (most of us entirely) with stuff: the TV being the biggest, but all the rest of our stuff, our boats and jetskis, our golf clubs, our video game system(s), our computer, our fancy pop-up camper, our specialty appliances (like a breadmaker or bagel slicer), our car(s). Even the "good things" like books. It's all stuff.

Obviously most of our "necessities" are stuff, our stove, refrigerator, SOME form of transportation.......

We have even come to define ourselves with stuff. "Which brand I choose" has become the number one way a person in our society tells others "who I am," especially in the younger generations. (Even hippies and punks are paying top dollar these days for "brand name" clothes and accessories... wtf?)
Are you the kind of person who would buy a Mercedes, or a BMW?

Our lives are so completely wrapped up in stuff that's easy to start believing that if we have more and better STUFF, we'll have a better LIFE. We'll be happier.
And we are coerced, seduced, persuaded and otherwise influenced into not only persisting in, but increasing, this belief. Not by "people," but by desire for ever-increasing profits at any cost.

We constantly strive for a BETTER home, a BETTER car, a BETTER toaster.
We're really not as happy as we'd like to be, and we are surrounded by sources that are telling us that if we have better stuff, we'll be happier.
So we work harder. We educate ourselves in the direction of what career will give us the most money (not necessarily something that interests us in any other way). And work even harder.
And, hopefully, we achieve more "success."

Everyone knows that when we get more income, our expenses tend to rise accordingly.
When we get that promotion, we buy a bigger house and a nicer car. We put our kids into "nicer" daycares, maybe we get pregnant again. We get a better toaster, and a bagel slicer.

Or maybe we finally buy our first NEW car, and move into a nicer rental. Bring the old toaster.

But if more than 25% of us are depressed, and "most" of us are "middle class," that means that a lot of people who are doing "pretty good" at that game aren't getting any happier.

The bagel slicer looks neat on the counter, and we can make breakfast 16 seconds quicker, but we don't FEEL any better than when we were still using a knife.
We can now see the HD television from the other side of the pool, but we're no happier than when we were watching an old 21" Magnavox in a double-wide.


I heard a show on NPR where they were talking about "the definition of rich."
A lady had written a letter saying that she was surprised when she totalled up how much money she and her husband "brought home" and found that it was well over $100,000/year. She said she still wonders every week where the daycare payment is going to come from.
An art dealer called in and said that he defined "rich" as when someone could walk into a store like his, find a $10,000 painting, and say "I'll take it" without having to spend a minute thinking about what other things they'd have to sacrifice to get it.

In our society, that really takes a LOT of income. Even millionaires fit the mold of "increased income = increased bills." Payments on yachts, huge homes, a few extra huge vacation homes, etc. can wind up meaning the "rich" guy doesn't have much more "leftover" money than you do.
And it turns out that he isn't any happier either.

All this makes a pretty good case that maybe it isn't stuff that will make us happy after all.

In fact, since STRESS tends to really bum us out, and most of us work stressful JOBS to pay for the stuff... maybe it's precisely the pursuit of that stuff that's making us so miserable.
And frankly, when we're not working we're constantly "entertaining" ourselves with our stuff... watching TV, playing video games, chatting online about what we saw on TV, chatting on Twitter about what we had for dinner, updating our facebook, getting drunk at clubs...
We never just take time to THINK.

So we never re-evaluate our situation.
We never take the time to wonder if, since we're not as happy as we'd like to be, maybe we are doing something wrong.
Maybe, just maybe, what we think should be our "goals" aren't really what's best for us.

Maybe the pretty girl in the commercial is... wrong.


I propose that we do just that. We turn off the stuff, for just a few precious minutes, and do a little thinking. We re-evaluate what we truly NEED in life, to be HAPPY.

Start by spending a few minutes reminiscing on your "happiest moments."
Are they something you saw on your television?

Obviously there are many needs in life that require stuff, and even "life's needs" can be tied to your happiness.
You need clothing. You'd be pretty unhappy if you were cold, wet and naked. But are you any happier wearing Hilfiger than Levis, or vice versa?
I need a home, a roof over my head to protect me from the elements, but do I need a big, fancy house on the island? Me, personally... I live alone, and simple, and frankly I don't enjoy doing much cleaning... a crappy little two-room apartment suits me just fine.

And of course the more direct happiness things: I love to read, and books are stuff. (Though it's not about "having" books. Frankly I prefer to give the good ones away.) I'm very happy when I'm riding my motorcycle. I love to watch movies, so a TV is pretty handy... but I can also watch them on my computer, so do I need both?
But they don't HAVE to be brand new, hardcover, expensive books. And it doesn't HAVE to be a $50,000 custom chopper. Would I be happier riding the chopper? Honestly, deep down, no. It's "the ride" that does it.

Think about, and perhaps list, what you would truly NEED to be as happy as you think would be reasonable. Try and focus on the difference between the "need" and what you think you "want."

Maybe you love to go fishing with your brother, or your son. So a boat and something big enough (big enough) to carry it would be awfully useful. But does it really "need" to be a big, fancy boat, or as far as your happiness is concerned will a little ol' John boat do?
When you look back on those fishing trips is it the boat you're going to be thinking about, or fishing with your brother?

When I list what I need to be happy, most of it is relatively inexpensive. The top things on the list are free.
At least one real friend.
Good conversation.
Learning about things that interest me.

Once you have this list, if you are so bold, you can begin to adjust your work and lifestyle around it.

I believe what we do for work, for our income, is a POWERFUL influence in our lives, who we are and what/how we feel. Most of us spend well over half of our waking hours at, and commuting to, our jobs. What we do, who we are, and how we feel at work, is pretty much what we do/are/feel. If our job pisses us off, we're pretty much pissed off most of our days. If our job stresses us out, we're pretty much just stressed out (stress doesn't exactly just "go away" when you get home to your stuff).
Heck, even if our stuff WAS what makes us happy, we still spend more time getting pissed off and stressed out than we do playing with our stuff.

So here's what you could do:
Say you used to be a carpenter, and you loved it. You like building things, being outdoors, working with your hands. You decided to start a family, and of course you were going to start needing a lot more stuff, so you went to school and learned to be a computer programmer because it wound up having the potential to make you more than a carpenter's wages.
But you hate it. You're indoors all day, in a cubicle under flourescent lights, staring at a screen.
Since most of the hours of your every day suck, your life pretty much sucks, and you're miserable. Like 14% of Americans, you take antidepressants to get through your days.

We tend to be most happy when our interests are stimulated, and I believe that most people have "interests" that are useful to others in some way. In other words, that can be applied in SOME way to a "job." Doing a job all day long every day that bores the hell out of you is just as stressful as one that makes you mad.

If it turns out that you really don't NEED all the stuff, or as much stuff, or the "best" stuff necessarily (are you going to be happier with the new 81" TV this Christmas than you are now with the crappy old 76" one you bought last year?), maybe you could cut back a lot on your expenses and debts, do something that interests you or that you even love, for less money, and live happier.

Maybe you don't really NEED a Cadillac Escalade for carrying groceries and kids. Moms in the '60s did just fine with station wagons.
You could buy used. (A "new" vehicle has proven to be the worst possible "investment" in our society.)

Maybe you don't need a new pair of Nike's to replace the ones that fell apart or went out of "style" in 6 months ("quality" is another fairly deep and loosely related subject... for another blog).
You could get a pair of less-popular, but better quality shoes that will last you 3 years. Or learn about a company like Danner who will sell you a boot for around $250-300 that, with refurbishing every few years, will last the rest of your life. (Another concept of value - spending a little more on something that lasts proportionately WAY longer - that has somehow gone by the wayside in our society.)

Maybe... just maybe... if you didn't work SO hard, ALL the time, doing something that at least doesn't stimulate and interest you, at worst makes you miserable most of the time, to pay for all this stuff that isn't really doing anything for you... you could be happy sometimes.

You can play the game less, and win more.

To be further explored in subsequent ramblings:
The relationship of "cheap goods."
What influencing forces we, as individuals, have to overcome.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

650 V Star Seat Mod

So being of creative mind and shallow wallet, I decided to modify the seat that came on my bike instead of buying a more comfortable one. It worked out great, and since a friend had the tools I needed all it cost me was the price of some glue.

I went from taking a pain-in-my-ass break every 50-70 miles to easily being able to make it "tank to tank" (not having to stop until I need gas) - about 150 miles - and still not be sore.

Here's a shot of what it looked like before I got started. (I had already modified it once, and had forgotten to take pictures. This time I was tweaking and perfecting it. Maybe I can get someone else to hook me up with a matching angle shot of a stock seat for comparison.)
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Note the bulge in front of the seams, and the height of the center of the seat.

My method is fairly simple to do, but it does take a little confidence and a steady hand.

Tools needed:
An electric grinder, with a sanding wheel attached
Screwdriver/pliers for removing staples
A stapler, with 1/4" or 3/8" staples
(A small hammer might not hurt, it's difficult to get the staples into the hard plastic)
Glue
I used 3M Super 77 spray glue, which is a great product. However, currently there is a spot in the "bowl" of my seat where the vinyl comes up a little when it gets warmed up in the sun. 3M also makes a spray glue that is specifically for rubber, foam and vinyl - which I discovered after I did this job unfortunately - that would probably do a better job. If you can find a canned, brush-on glue for rubber and vinyl it would make the recovering part less of a hassle than a spray.

You should use an old, used sanding disk on the grinder. A new one will remove material too quickly and you may cut deeper than you mean to. If you don't have an old one, make it... find something fun to grind a new wheel on for a little while to smooth it down, like maybe your neighbors yard gnome.

You begin obviously enough, removing the seat from the bike, pulling all the staples underneath and carefully peeling the vinyl cover off. There will still be a layer and small chunks of foam rubber glued to the cover. For a nice, smooth final product, and so the glue will stick better, you wanna clean as much of that off as you can.
Underneath the vinyl is a thin plastic ring covering the foam under the seams. I'm of the opinion that this is useless: the fabric backing of the vinyl causes a wicking effect, so the foam rubber will wind up wet anyway; then the plastic makes it harder for it to dry. Just discard it.

Also, if the foam rubber happens to be wet, set it in the sun or something to dry completely before you get started. Anywhere there's a wet spot it won't grind as easily, which could give you uneven results.

To save some time and trouble, I then mounted the seat back onto the bike. This is useful because you will periodically be sitting on the seat to check the fit, plus it holds the seat nice and firmly.
However... do it this way at your own risk. I was completely confident in my ability to control the tool, but you WILL be using a powerful grinding tool very close to your precious motorcycle. If you don't want to do it this way, find some other way to hold the seat firmly when you're doing the work on it... maybe a partner who's fingers aren't as valued as your chrome and paint can hold it for you.

As you can see in this picture, the indention in the foam from the seam of the cover provides a nice line to go by for getting both sides of the seat pretty symmetrical. My intent was to eliminate the bulge right at that point, making it so the seat-bowl would turn inward right at the seam instead of above it. (I figured the seam was the best "bending point" in the cover.)
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I then used a Sharpie (OK, it was generic) to make a reference line right down the center of the cushion.
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Now you'll begin sculpting your seat with the grinder. You may want to practice just a little on some similar foam to get your technique down (depending on the direction your grinder spins, one side of the wheel will be easier to control than the other - I find that it's easier for me if the wheel is pulling the machine away from me rather than pushing it toward me). Don't worry too much at the beginning though, you'll be taking a lot of foam out of the seat, so a little gouge at the beginning will disappear by the time you're through. I removed at least a good 2 inches of foam from most of my seat (the wider portion).

The sculpting method I used was to grind and shape downward into the seat, and then "smooth" it back into the back, rising portion.

Grinding down/shaping:
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Smoothing back:
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I had in my mind a model of a horse saddle, both in design and function.
People tend to think an uncomfortable seat isn't soft enough, but if you think about it "soft" is just a generic way to make a seat "one size fits all." What's better than soft is shaped like your butt. Horse saddles aren't soft at all, but when one has been riding a good saddle for years it becomes shaped like the rider. If a chair was shaped exactly like your butt, it could practically be made of wood and it would still be comfortable.

Part of that mental model was the slight rise down the center of the seat.

All in all, this was a very gradual and patient process. I would grind the left side down a little, using the center line and the right side for reference, make the right side match it, then sit on it. I had the sidestand on a brick to hold the bike mostly upright, so I could balance and put both feet up on the pegs to check the riding position.
I would note where it felt like pressure points were and then repeat the process a little more.

More foam ground away...
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I also kept feeling the rear portion of the cushion for thickness. I was trying to move my riding position down and back, and like I said, "cushion" wasn't so much a priority, but I didn't want to wind up grinding through it. At the end, I was left with about 1" of cushion at the thinnest point (which was at the back... there's still lots of cushion on the bottom).

I ground the back to smooth the whole thing, to the point where it was almost, but not quite, vertical, and went to the seam mark, but not past it. Again, I stopped grinding and sat on it a few times while I was doing this.

I should also mention that a couple of times I also removed the seat from the bike and checked the fitment of the cover.

Here's a shot of where I stopped just short of the seam, you can see where the arrow and one mark from the previous picture are gone:
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And one more good one showing the bottom and back, pretty much finished... nice and smooth! You can see that the front of the hump is still pretty much where it was to begin with:
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At this point I decided that as far as the looks, I thought the hump was a little too much. I ground some more off, and this is my completed sculpture before I put the cover back on:
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And one more, from the same angle as a picture above, showing the difference in the hump:
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And now I'll criticize that last decision:
Frankly, the seat was slightly more comfortable before I ground off a bit more of the hump. The hump wasn't so much something I could feel, but somehow it did help to push my butt back into the seat a little more. Just something to keep in mind as you design your own.

Recovering is rather a tedious pain in the ass (but worth it for the pain in it that's relieved by the whole process).

You need to spray both sides (the vinyl and the foam rubber) with the glue for it to stick best, and Super 77 sticks very quickly. As you probably noticed when you pulled off the cover to begin with, the whole thing doesn't need to be glued, just the top portion... or the part that's encircled by the seam.
Take your time. I strongly recommend gluing it a strip at a time, spraying (or brushing, much easier) about a 2 or 3" stripe and positioning it before spraying another. This way you'll keep from A. having parts stick that you aren't working on yet - making the whole thing harder to work with, and B. getting glue all over your hands - making the whole thing harder to work with.

With a little trial and error I found that I got my best result working from the front back (it's narrower so you start with less glue there), and then from the center out. Since the front was modified the least, you can put that part on almost exactly like it was before (the front is just a puzzle piece, with the rest you just re-cut half the pieces and have to do some figuring-out) and even put a couple of staples in it.
Stretch it good and press it in toward the center, the deepest part of the "bowl," making sure to put plenty of glue there (it's really taut across there, and, well, bowl-shaped) and then work it upward and outward toward the seam. I found that it went up and straight over the back with minimal difficulty, but then getting the sides tight and wrinkle-free took a bit more effort. The more you can manage to glue from the center - outward the easier it will be. There's another indention across the top/back of the cushion from the seam that's there... if you get the front on good, then the middle of the bowl, then that back seam, you're off to a frustration-minimized start.

After that you're ready to start stapling.

I'll warn you now, it can get a little frustrating. The plastic is very hard, and the angles available to work from are inopportune at best, obstacles at worst. A hammer helps once you get them started, but since you're trying to whack on an inverted cushion it can still be a little cumbersome. I suggest gripping the hammer, or finding something else convenient, and using it to push the staples in once they're started.
Pull it nice and taut, and put plenty of staples in it. Wherever you wind up with thick wrinkles, staple around it first, cut a slit in it, and staple it down as layers instead of a wrinkle. You may find that with some attention to detail you can get it on there better than the guy at the factory did it.

Here's a shot of the completed product (with a repeat of the first picture for a close comparison) :
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And a before and after profile shot:
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You can see the difference at the seams and the studs, but the most significant difference is the scooped-out bowl into which my narrow butt comfortably nestles on a long ride.
And see...
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...it looks like it came that way.
Until you put it next to - or sit on - a stock V Star 650. (Especially a new one... yuck.)

Three special notes:

1. With this modification, and another free one that lowered the rear end 3 1/2", the seat height of this bike is now at just 24 1/2". This means that this could be a strongly recommended bike and modification combination for any shorter brothers or sisters out there looking for a comfortable motorcycle. The lowered center of gravity and riding position also make this bike very easy to control.

B. I stopped where I did because it was pretty much (see the next note) where I wanted it to be and because I didn't want the studs to visually go any lower. If your seat has no studs, and you want to, I believe you could go a lot farther with this mod. I've removed a lot of foam rubber from this cushion and the stock cover still fits what I'd call "perfect with a little difficulty (read: elbow grease)." I also left very much a "bowl" shape to it, with the sides of the saddle almost where they were originally. I believe that the following differences from my shape/design can also be accomplished and still have the stock cover "look right":
The sides can be carved away/out more, creating more of a stretched-out "C" than a "bowl," for wider butts than mine (mine's admittedly, umm, lacking in bulbousness). This one can probably be done with a studded seat.
The bottom of my seat still has a lot of foam rubber. If you wanted to go for a more old-school, much flatter look, you could carve the cushion right down to where my studs are and still have more padding than a springer seat. The stock 650 seat has a good 4" of padding (top to bottom) - I removed about 2" - while the back of the bucket (the plastic frame of the seat) has weird shapes that have to be worked around, the bottom is flat, so you could easily take away another inch if you were so inclined.
For either of these, I haven't tested them. I would recommend stopping periodically to make sure the cover still fits the way you want it to, but I see no reason it won't (the seam might start looking a little out of place).

And lastly, but most importantly, that old ragged pair of shoes didn't become your favorite overnight. Over time they've become shaped "just right" for your feet and the way you walk. You're trying to recreate that for your buttocks. Don't be afraid to get it "good enough" this time, put a few hundred miles on the bike, and then repeat the whole process. In fact, go ahead and plan on it. I've done mine twice already, and was already planning this time to do it once more before I call it finished.
I believe that with a stock seat and a few creative hours of your time you can make a seat that's at least as comfortable as any $350 aftermarket replacement. Remember, that $350 seat is still made to fit everyone, not you, and I don't think any modern seats will gradually shape to you like a good saddle.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

On Propaganda I

So I just read on a forum about someone who had their car broken into in a Walmart parking lot.

The police were of course involved, and they called him later and informed him that it probably wasn't caught on tape. It was too dark and far out in the parking lot.

I'll let you know right from the start that the point of this isn't to bash Walmart. I'll do that in another blog if the mood strikes me, but to be honest I'm not even sure how I feel about The Big W. I don't shop there, but that's because I prefer to pay a bit more for quality that lasts than to just acquire a bunch of cheap stuff, not because of any particular "politics" regarding them. (Though I do also try to buy things produced locally, as in at least American, whenever possible, and it's not very possible at that particular store.)
My point is to demonstrate a concept, and let you think about it for yourself.

I'm sure you've noticed there are a lot of cameras on top of a Walmart, pointing out at the parking lot. They're not exactly hidden, they're featured almost as prominently as the "Walmart" sign itself. I've never actually counted them (though I'm sure I will now), but there are at least a dozen, if not even 20 or more on the larger stores. I haven't noticed any in the parking lot, just on the roof pointing into it. I'll get back to that.

While I may not know exactly how many I've seen atop any particular store, I do know I've thought they were more than enough to cover the entire parking lot. At least angle-wise anyway.

I did find myself surprised that this crime wasn't caught by one of those cameras, which gets me wondering...
Why wouldn't such an obviously "expansive" security video system catch something in the area it's designed to be watching?
Is it somehow inadequate? Are the cameras not good enough to capture decent video from the distances involved in a large parking lot?
I think that a company like Walmart could afford to design and build their security systems using decent enough equipment to get the job done.
Obviously they can afford to make a security system "adequate," and isn't it also obvious that it's in their best interest to do so? (I certainly imagine if you steal something inside the store their security system is more than adequate.)
And, if the quality/distance capability of the cameras is an issue, why have them all on top of the building instead of having some of them out on light posts in the parking lot?

I also would like to add that it's well known that we have cameras today that can capture plenty of detail with very limited light. And it's quite well lit in the average Walmart parking lot (or any other, really).

So, why would one install an inadequate security video camera system? I mean, why bother?

Why would one also have one security system that's very overt, but apparently at least a little bit inadequate, and have another security system, perhaps in another location (like inside the store) that's subtle if not invisible?

If you've never thought about why security video monitoring systems tend to be almost, if not entirely, invisible, one simple reason is that it makes one more effective (at the very least as a deterrent). It prevents those with nefarious intent from easily finding locations where they can be off camera.

If security cameras are more effective in general when they're invisible, why have a whole bunch of them that are very obvious?

This brings me back to the fact that in our model parking lot, none of the cameras are out in the lot. They're all on top of the building.
That you're walking toward from the parking lot.
On your way to spend your money in a store that you trust to deal with you honestly. Stores need that trust, and can't really live without it. The more you trust them, the more you'll shop with them instead of their competitor.
As you walk toward the store, your focus is drawn upward toward that big sign (don't be fooled, they're all meticulously designed to do that), and while it's there your subconscious can't help also noticing all those cameras pointing out toward where your precious car is. "Ahhh." Your conscious notices them too, they're very obvious. In fact, you might have even noticed that they're a lot larger than even the cheapest cameras they sell inside, but you forget that quickly as you go over your shopping list in your head.

Your subconscious, however, doesn't really forget much. Or at least not that quickly.
Also, while you consciously "dismiss" lots of things (by very important design), your subconscious absorbs most things (more than you consciously realize... get it?), and what is absorbed must usually be interpreted in some way.

Those of a criminal mindset interpret the image of those cameras as "they're watching me."
But the rest of us will tend to interpret them, since these in particular are pointed toward where we have left our precious belongings, as "they're watching my stuff." We get a slight sense of being "watched over."
Whether you consciously realize it or not, some part of you is saying, "this is a safe place for me to leave my stuff while I go about my business."
"This place has been thoughtful enough to provide that for me."
"*bing* Chalk one up for this place."
This is perfectly natural.

But what if this impression is created falsely? Your subconscious, which plays a major role in your decision making, doesn't know the difference.
What if it's created by an image of a system that's shown itself in this one instance to be inadequate?
What if that system is just for show? The fact that most if not all of the cameras in this particular model are obvious and almost featured as one is entering the establishment could certainly lean sway onto such an impression.
What if most or all of those cameras weren't even on?

Is this a *scary voice* "big conspiracy?"
Not really. It should be fairly obvious that it is in a business' best interest to create as many of these "good feelings" about their business, these little influences on your decision making processes, as possible. All businesses do it, or fail.

The "old fashioned way," the way a business scored my Grandfather's loyalty, was through "good value and honest dealin's." (Which I think is crucial to a society's business sense and economy.)

What I find I'm seeing more and more, and the point I'm trying to get across here, is that many of our impressions these days are being created falsely.
A corporation's responsibility to itself is to profit as much as it possibly can. Often that means that the Bottom Line is more important to it than whether or not some of its methods are philosophically* "wrong."
One of your responsibilities to yourself, as a consumer, should be to ensure that any outside influences that you allow to affect your decisions are truthful ones. It's not in your interest to be deceived.

Ask yourself, "why" would any particular company seek to create at least one favorable impression through a dishonest means, a facade perhaps?
Such a thing, in a "perfect" business society, shouldn't be necessary.
Quality goods and services do tend to sell themselves. And speak for themselves.

A "good" store doesn't need to try to tell you that it's a good store as you're walking in the door.
The number of cool neon signs in the window aren't what make a good bar.
A good comedian doesn't tell you he's funny.

All I'm saying is that when you notice deceptive practice that's designed to give you a false good impression of a place that wants your money, perhaps it's worth looking a little deeper into the rest of their practices before you keep giving it to them.
Maybe they're just trying to boost your impression of their upstanding and moral, family owned since 1874 company.
Or maybe they're trying to score points against you realizing that, for whatever reason(s), you really would rather not be shopping there.



Look, here's a disclaimer!
I'm in no way picking on Walmart here, hence my use of the word "model" after the first few paragraphs.
In all fact it may wind up that this incident was caught on camera after all, or bird poop on a camera lense or something. I don't care, really, it's just what got me thinking.

The point is to provoke thought about deception in advertising/marketing/business identity, and the why of it.
There's a lot of it out there, I believe we're overwhelmed by it, and I plan on exploring a lot of it here as I see it and think about it. "The why," if you read between the lines, will be a major underlying theme.

*
And let's face it, we've created an environment in which the only way in which a "corporation" needs concern itself with right or wrong is philosophically.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Saga, part 3

My short weekend with Chris went the way it always goes when I stop by for a day or two.

We drank a bit. I had good beers, he sampled them and had good Scotch. We watched really terrible B movies. And we talked. A lot.

When I met Chris, he already had tattoos at 17, and had a mohawk over 13 inches long in a town where guys didn't have mohawks. I knew right away that this was a guy who was about as unsure about this "fitting in" thing as I was.

We've done a lot of things together, but it's the talking that I think has made him my best friend.
We talk about everything. When we talk about bullshit it's bullshit that means something to us. When we talk about important things, we truly talk about them, and it gets really great.

You see, Chris and I have a perfect balance of being completely opposite and having a lot in common. I think actually we have pretty much the same psyche and personality, but had completely different backgrounds and experiences.
And he's a heck of a lot smarter than he gives himself credit for.
We tend to stand on opposite sides of the fence on most issues, and that's a good thing.

What's good about it is that when we have conversations, we LISTEN to each other. He's my friend because frankly very few other people make me feel like that. We have deep respect for each other. When I open my mouth to say something, I can actually see in his expression that even though what I'm about to say may be something he currently disagrees strongly with, it's going to be something worth listening to. I can even see that he knows it COULD be something that will change his mind. (I hope he can see the same thing in me when he speaks.)

He's one of only two people in my life I've ever gotten to say, "you know, I really never did think about it like that before... you might be right." He's also one of the few people I've said it to. (The other person only ever said it once, it seems like Chris and I say it fairly often.)

So that was Virginia. The world wasn't changed that day, but it was plotted. And then we slept in.


As I said before, I was really winging it. My initial plan was to arrive in New York Sunday afternoon and set up a camp for the next couple of days and then arrive ready for anything at 8 am Monday. The unexpected duration of Friday's ride, however, got me thinking. From Petersburg, VA to Syracuse, NY was now probably going to take me at least an hour longer than expected, putting it at over 10 hours. I knew that I wouldn't leave early enough to be confident that I could arrive before the office of the place I planned to camp was closed.
So I borrowed $20 from my friend to help out with an unplanned expense, and called my Mom to get her to look online for the cheapest hotel near my destination.

And once again I found some good highway music, probably something like "Blood Sugar Sex Magic," and got back out onto my least favorite highway.
It was a decent ride that day. Same ol' traffic story, yadda yadda... hairy through Richmond; managed to skirt the DC area gridlock-free.

Other things you notice/pay more attention to on motorcycles:
Not far into Pennsylvania I started noticing more deer crossing signs. About halfway through Pennsylvania I started seeing dead deer. I saw a few live ones too, but not close to the highway.
I slowed my roll a little bit and tightened up my thinking cap.

Also at about that same point I was noticing a few more hills here and there.
And the countryside was beautiful!

Once I crossed the line into NY I started seeing even more deer crossing signs and unfortunate deer. It never occured to me at the beginning to start counting, because obviously I didn't realize I'd see so many, but I know I must have seen at the very least a dozen deer carcasses on the highway that day. It's a real wakeup call to a motorcyclist (percentage of animal/car collisions that result in death to occupants of the car: 2%; for motorcycles it's over 80%) .

I was to decide later that the sign posted on the highways entering NY should say:
"Welcome to New York"
"Deer Crossing!!!"
"No Left Turn"
"No U Turn"


I had also decided that I would give my bike a name at some point on this trip. I had expected it to come from some experience or something that I would have while in NY. But it sort of came to me on that Sunday during one of my breaks, while I was just sitting there gazing at it. With sort of a description/monologue:

People tend to give their bikes female names, which I think stems from the tradition of doing the same with boats. While I can see the correlation for cars, I see my bike more like a "mount" than like a "vessel." More like a buddy than a lover. It's more like a horse than a boat.
Horses don't have to be male or female necessarily, it's just whichever one you pick.
But I think my bike is different from even that. It transcends gender.
It is neither male nor female.
It is bike.
And its name is Sugar.

(It's the glorified wheelbarrow pictured in my profile, a brilliant and beautiful pearl white.)

Not long after entering NY the view ahead and rolling terrain under my rubber made me realize something that hadn't occured to me in all my haste to get ready and come up here, even when looking at the map (it was just a road map after all). I was heading into mountainous territory!
I'm glad I somehow allowed that to be a surprise to me, it was a very good one. Mountains and motorcycles go together like, well, Bonnie and Clyde. And so far I'd had very little chance to enjoy them since getting a bike.

The scenery got nicer and nicer as I went, and eventually my cheeks began to cramp.

I arrived in Baldwinsville, NY and had trouble finding the hotel from the directions my Mom had given me on the phone. It turned out it wasn't the directions, it was the road. It was a small highway that goes all the way through town and then crosses the main highway again, and in the process it makes 3 turns. By the second turn my directions were definitely "off," but it turned out that I needed the SECOND exit for the same highway. And there I thought I was in the Twilight Zone.

I got to the hotel at about 9, this time unpacking the whole bike for just a night because I didn't want to leave "everything I have" out in a parking lot. I went and got some fast food to go (I'm not proud of it) and then read from "Catcher In The Rye" for about an hour before going to bed at about 11 - pretty early for me, but I wanted to be bright-eyed in the morning.

I had made up my mind to do a lot of reading this summer. I love to do it, but I've fallen out of the habit. I wound up reading 8 books while I was in NY... camping a whole lot made it kinda easy. I'll mention them all in a separate blog sometime.

I easily awoke early Monday morning without snoozing (extremely rare). I had a few cups of coffee and a free continental breakfast of starches, sugar and orange juice, and got everything packed and bungeed back onto the bike.

I then reversed my directions back to the highway where I picked up where I left off on those to the address of the company I'd be working for. This took me a few miles to another exit, a few turns outside of town and a couple more miles to a warehouse/office pretty much around the corner from the hotel.
That was the Monday morning on which I learned the real difference between navigating with meticulously written directions, and doing so with a map.

View First NY map in a larger map

I did the "good first impression" thing and showed up plenty early. I'd been told 8am, I got there at about 7:35. I rolled into the gravel lot just in time to see a big fella getting into a tractor-trailer and rolling out of it.
Then I waited.
And I waited a little more.

I've never worked anywhere where at least one person, usually the boss, didn't show up early. At about 7:50 I started thinking, "well, there's not going to be anyone here to notice that I showed up impressively early, so much for first impressions." At 8 I figured something must be amiss, as I knew this was a busy week for the company... it didn't make much sense that EVERYone would be late but the FNG (the "fuckin' new guy," as I would be called until a nickname I was given later stuck on). The only phone number I had was for the office, but I already knew that number forwarded to Mark's phone when no one was there, so I dialed it at precisely 8:00.

It turns out, as we did most of the time at that company, everyone was meeting AT the jobsite, Onondaga Community College. (Incidentally, another rider I know from the aforementioned internet forum works at said college, and I was looking forward to meeting him too.)

This was a perfectly normal misunderstanding, and Mark told me it was fine that I'd now obviously be late. (Heck, I'd never discussed the location of anything with him, I went by the address I was originally given by my friend, Mike. Kinda funny now that I think about it, that Mark never even asked if I knew where he was located... I just "showed up" as if by magic.)

It was too bad I hadn't known to follow the tractor-trailer, that's exactly where it was heading. So then I had my first experience with Mark's strange and unusual way of giving directions. He told me (I'm not quoting) to turn right onto the road, then after about 3 miles I turned left onto NY-173. He said to stay on that until I came to *a couple of other landmarks* and a park with soccer fields on my left; stop at the park and call him again.
I stopped at the park, shut off the bike, took off my helmet and gloves, and called him again to get the rest of the directions. It's a good thing he split it up, because I probably never could have remembered it all. I was to stay on 173 until I saw Onondaga Community College on my right. And turn into it. (Once I was in there it would be obvious enough where a stage was being erected.)

That was a nice little morning ride. NY-173, though pretty much just a normal country road, was much more enjoyable than what I'm used to in Eastern Georgia. The villages (we don't have "villages" in GA either) have more space and nice, sweeping curves between them. The scenery is lovely and dense with vegetation, and even most of the villages themselves could be called "scenery." Nature's Show always seems fresh and new when you travel a long distance, the trees and everything are different from what you're used to seeing all the time. Your whole world can change shape and color and it's easy to rediscover the awe of it all, if you'd forgotten it or begun to take it for granted.
I was wide awake, in mind and body, by the time I arrived at the gig that morning.

I found the parking lot where they all were and rolled into a parking spot. I took a minute to remove all my gear - helmet, gloves, jacket and assless chaps* (all the gear, all the time baby), then went over to where the work was happening with a big, friendly, "good morning gentlemen!" I walked over to the guy with the deepest voice (Mark has a deep voice) who had the demeanor of one who's in charge and said, "Hi, I'm Michael. Are you Mark?"

Greg's reply was (and I am quoting this time), "that's not me, the guy you wanna impress is over there." Not particularly cordial, but not really unfriendly, and he hardly glanced up from his work as he said it.
I'm sure at least a few of these guys already knew a little bit about me and that I was coming, but I realized a few minutes later that they had also put out an open labor call in the local paper for that morning. At that point I could have just been any ol' flunky strolling up looking for a few days of work.

This turned out to be a really great group of guys to work with, and they did get friendly pretty quick upon realizing I was "that guy." As usually goes with these situations everything gets even friendlier once they realize that you're really there to work, and that you know your shit, as I would soon set about demonstrating.

I did have a very slight disadvantage with this particular crew, though. I had told Mark that "I want to work," and that I was very capable of being involved in the whole process, but it was also known that my primary focus is as a "tech." A Sound Guy. And this was the build crew (and light tech, because his stuff has to go up WITH the stage, sound comes later because it goes ON the stage). The general feeling amongst the "work" crew about the techs is that they don't tend to be really useful to them. Sound guys in particular don't seem to feel like they have to always be involved in the "heavy lifting."**

And really, we don't. For lots of reasons... the most basic of which is that one of the reasons you learn a highly technical and creative skill like Sound Engineering is so that you can work with your mind instead of your muscles (which works out great for a guy like me who's mind is stronger than my muscles). Another is the fact that the techs are likely to be there a LOT longer than anyone else, and the LAST thing they'll do is the one that will require them to be at their absolute best that day. It really goes against how a "workday" works, having to do your best work when you're most tired. Imagine working for 16 hours straight, and THEN the main act takes the stage. That's what you've gotta be able to handle if you want to be even a decent sound or light tech. (There will be more on this later.)

BUT... most soundguys WILL help with the heavy stuff when it's necessary for them to, and they're also usually the guy who knows exactly how everything goes in the truck.

So, that's about what these guys were expecting from me, a fact that I was already intuitively aware of. This actually could have given me an unfair ADvantage in that lowered expectations might have made it a little easier to impress them. I assure you, however, that I need no such advantage. I actually enjoy doing the "other than sound" work involved in putting together a show, including building the stage. Hey, some of it is hard work, but I also get to climb around on stuff!


* Heh heh... "assless chaps."
I had my first bike about a month before it suddenly occurred to me that I should be wearing more protective gear than just a helmet. I then set about getting my body covered, quickly. I didn't really put a whole lot of thought into what was "best," I just hastily got some things to cover my precious skin. I had the chaps about a week before I thought of the idea that, really, it was probably my butt that was most likely to really get hurt (though I then got into a wreck a few months later and hurt my knee and ankle, and bruised my hip, all of which were covered by the chaps), and at some point I should get some full leather pants instead of just the chaps. I still haven't gotten around to doing that.

** I've found that often those that do the "thinking" work and those that do the "heavy" work don't have a lot of respect for each other, even if they're on the same team. Since I've had the opportunity to work on both sides I've learned that it's mostly because of simple ignorance: they don't see "everything" the other side does - it's because they each don't realize the value of the other, not because one is more valuable than the other.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Fast Food Culture Zombies

I posted a link to my blog in a motorcycle forum that I go to, and in the conversation that ensued someone wound up referring to me as "a Ken Kesey type."

I replied with a little description of myself, a bit of the darker side that influences my philosophy. It ties into a lot that I plan on exploring and discussing here on my blog, so I thought I'd copy it here for posterity:


"Counterculture, subversive, free-thinking, revolutionary. Nihilistic not in that I believe in "nothing," but that I believe everything we're doing is wrong, wrong, wrong.

Angry and well-spoken.

It's been time for a MAJOR change since before I was born. And I'm sick to my heart of living in the world we've destroyed, and having to walk around smiling at the millions who have happily allowed it to happen while they drive along oblivious in their SUVs, eating garbage that's killing them, buying cheap crap they don't need that's killing faceless strangers all over the world. I'm sick of trying to have "normal" conversations with people while everything is getting worse, faster.

I'm sick of living in horror with the absolute certainty that the entire world is going to scorch in my lifetime, surrounded by a population of morons who are living the status quo as if nothing is wrong. No, willfully, ignorantly, violently INSISTING that nothing is wrong.

Tired of banging my head against a wall trying to get the fast-food culture zombies around me to WAKE UP.
Tired of the fact that I live in a country of miserable, angry, boring people who have adopted as their entire way of life the mantra of "who dies with the most toys wins."

Thanks for listening.
Peace."

It's better when I say it all out loud. It's a good, angry-ish monologue, I think... I could see it fitting into one of my favorite movies, "Waking Life." I think I may wind up recording it as a short performance piece.

Have a good day, y'all.

Saga, part two

I can actually remember my first music selection that morning, Social Distortion's "Live at The Roxy."
Of course, even though it was way back in June this is no feat of incredible memory. Several of my longer trips, if I started with music, have begun with that album. It's a great one to get the blood flowing and head bobbling.

When I'm on shorter trips and/or on better highways (for the non-motorcycle initiated, that means 2-lane and as curvy as possible) I forgo the music, as riding a bike is one of the few activities that's just as much fun without it. But on long and boring stretches of superslab, especially those designed by laser pointer such as I-95, it really helps to keep you awake.
Falling asleep while driving a motorcycle is not recommended. It can lead to a seriously ruined road trip. Consider yourself warned.

I only mention this small, recollected detail because I don't know how many of those little ones will be here in this story. I've procrastinated writing it for longer than I'd like, so some little parts may be forgotten, omitted, made up, or even hallucinated. You know, just so you know.

Actually now that I think about it, some parts of this may be recollected from dreams.
I dream very vividly, and often of very normal activities. Like a ride, or going to my girlfriend's for dinner, watching TV (ok, that wouldn't be "normal," since I don't watch TV), a conversation, or playing my bass and singing in front of thousands of people who love me. You know, perfectly normal, everyday things.
Or, I also often wonder if all of this, this whole world and everyone in it, isn't some weird, fucked up dream I'm having. It certainly would explain a lot.

If that's the case, whoever you are out there, not reading my imaginary blog, in another bed in another universe, I hope your dream is as - shall we say - interesting as mine.

But I digress.

There is nothing special to report about the trip up that day. It's all I-95, no close calls that I remember, with 2 turns off the highway to my destination, the tattoo shop where my friend, Chris, works.

I did start to notice a few things this time. On previous long trips I'd been less aware of things like sore muscles and whatnot so much because I was still newer to motorcycling. My excitement, and very slight nervousness, pretty much drowned out other more mundane details. Like my personal comfort.
I'm sure you've noticed that a lot of the time those of us on bikes are driving a little bit faster than those of you in cages (motorcyclist slang for "car"). This would lead one to a reasonable assumption that trips take us less time. And that assumption, though perfectly reasonable, would be incorrect. We usually need to make more stops than you'd expect.

Like, though we do get much better gas mileage, we have way smaller tanks. I get about 50 mpg on my bike, I switch over to my reserve at about 150 miles, and the farthest I've gone between fill-ups is 170 miles.

Also, part of the whole "thing" of motorcycling is that we like to take the less-pounded path, the scenic routes. Even on a long trip with sort of a deadline, such as my trip(s) up I-95, we'll usually try and break it up with at least one jaunt onto some side highway or curvy road. (This is one of the many great things about modern technology... I can click and drag and plan routes on Google maps for hours.) On many of the more scenic roads around our beautiful country, this often also means breaks to soak it all in. Parks are great for this.

Have you ever noticed that you're never very far from a State or National Park? If you haven't, I'm glad I could help out.

Comfort is another factor. Even on a well set up bike, that fits you and has the most comfortable seat, fatigue and soreness - particularly in the glutes, or in skinny-butted cats like me the ischial tuberosity - will set in periodically. We can't exactly shift around in our seats as much as one can in a car. Many of us on cruiser type bikes have extra pegs so that we can shift the position of our legs, but at those times when one's ass really needs a different position for at least a few minutes, it means getting off the road for a break.

This is the area in which I began discovering more about my bike on that particular day.
The V Star 650 is a beautiful and awesome machine, but one of its known shortcomings is the seat that comes on it.

As per usual, I left my appartment at a reasonable time, but later than I'd planned to. I tucked the directions I'd written and wrapped in plastic under my tank bib and crossed my fingers that I'd make good enough time to take the detour I had planned. Long story short (as if), I kinda didn't.

I planned on the leg of my journey from Savannah, GA to Colonial Heights, VA to taking about eight hours (Google says 7, which is my average in a car), closer to nine if I took the detour.
Apparently my plan didn't plan for enough unplanned breaks. Without the detour it wound up taking a little over nine hours. If I remember right, I must have made at least three extra stops for no better reason than a quite literal pain in my ass. So with three planned gas stops and "a couple of" anticipated breaks, I stopped at least 7 or 8 times in a 450 mile trip. It adds up quick (as you learn to an extremely fine detail in my chosen field of work, especially in a theater... I know I can walk about 150' to a bathroom, use it, and be back to my sound booth in two minutes**).

I have to mention that up until then this had been the link motif in my motorcycle life. Each time I'd gone on a long-ish trip I'd planned out really good routes on back roads and country highways. Each time I'd actually done them they had wound up for one reason or another (usually weather worries) being quick trips up and down major highways. I've travelled up and down I-95 many times in my 20 years of driving, and after about... one time it loses most of its entertainment value.

I may as well also admit that one of my unplanned breaks was to remove the poncho covering my gear when the sun came out, for no other reason than to placate my ego. I decided I'd look a lot cooler riding with all my stuff strapped to the bike than with a great big camoflage balloon billowing behind me.

And there's nothing wrong with placating the ego a little, right?
We all like to feel cool in some way, or frankly in as many ways as we can.
Riding a bike, in so many ways, "feels cool." It's super fun, and obviously that's cool.

But there's another way of looking at it.
Since a lot of that ego cool stuff is wrapped up in what image we feel we project of ourselves into the outside world, we also seek - or at least need - ways of escaping occasionally from our responsibility to our egos. We need to give that energy a break.
There are lots of ways of doing that, some more healthy to us than others. Many of them involve some sort of risk (perhaps risk itself helps suppress the ego).
I feel that riding a motorcycle is one of those ways, especially when you can do it for hours at a time. It's fun, and it's stimulating. You have complete control of the experience*, and it requires absolute, constant, 100% of your attention. It becomes very easy to forget your "self," your ego, your image, and you're living as in-the-moment as a person can.

Oh, well that and...
Frankly when you're travelling and living minimally you've gotta be smart. The more you let your poncho flap and whip in the wind, the sooner you're going to have to replace your poncho.
(Is there a need to point out that can be used as a metaphor?)


* Yes, you also have complete control of the experience when driving a car, but it's different. Controlling a car requires a little less attention (and gets far less than it requires from most people) and it's much easier to get, or just be, completely distracted from the experience of it. A motorcycle is more responsive than a car, and requires that much more of your attention be absorbed into it. Also, the attitude that it's normally approached with from the start is one of wanting to "experience" it. The slightest flick of your wrist or subtle movement of your body are all that is needed to produce dramatic results in what your ride is doing (it's not entirely unlike dancing). So you're much more acutely aware of your control over your machine and the experience you're creating with it.

** ...and other things, like to reach down and take hold of my tasty beverage, bring it to my lips and drink from it, put it back down and get my hand back to my console takes only about 11-12 seconds; less if there's a straw involved.