Autumn is Coming, Pirates, Hungry kids, Random Acts of Kindness

Autumn is coming. Trees on the hills are gossiping about their changing colors.

Despite having put 10, 000 miles on the bike this summer I can’t stop riding Big Red, my 2004 Harley Road King Classic. I enjoy it so much. We’ve been having a drought here in Georgia so every day’s been dry. And hot too. So hot that chickens have been laying boiled eggs; men have been proposing to tall women just for the shade. You get the idea.

Yesterday, as I headed home from work the rain started falling. It wasn’t too bad at first but then it became heavier. At this point bikers usually look for an overpass they can park under to either wait it out or put on their rain gear. Or maybe they start looking for a gasoline/petrol station where they can hunker down for a while until it lets up. That’s what I did. I knew there was a station just a few miles down the road so I kept going. While riding there, rainbows started to almost crowd the sky. It was like they had been waiting for the damn drought to be over so they could show off their beautiful colors. Rainbows to me are always harbingers of hope, reminding me that we all can learn to be at home with insecurity. Leaving the gas station a drizzle continued and I watched the mist, rising off the hot asphalt and the fields near the road, and watched it kissing the low lying clouds. Romance is everywhere.

Rode Big Red up to work to teach my class, and since it was International Talk Like a Pirate Day I dressed up. Hopefully, I can get a picture attached.

I also rode it up to the free meal program I volunteer at and enjoyed the excitement of the little kids who climbed up on it and tried on my helmet. I don’t do much at that program other than read books, make paper airplanes, talk to folks and mop up. I can swing a mean mop. I offer my students extra credit if they’ll go to the program, not tell folks they’re students or what they’re doing, mingle a little, have a meal and write a paper about it. I usually only get a few students who’ll do it but they always find it a profound and humbling experience. It’s one thing to read about poverty and see it and another to feel what it’s like. No one wants to ask for help, or be seen receiving it.

Big Red brought me over to the river the other day so I could walk on the tree lined path that accompanies it. It was hot and I got pretty sweaty. I had a Harley shirt on and some jeans but I must have looked a little rough when I stumbled into a barbecue joint to get some ice water. After sitting there munching on ice for a while a man walked up to me and said in a low, gentle voice: “Excuse me sir. My family and I are were talking and we wondered if we could buy you a meal?” I was surprised, smiled and told him thanks, that I was alright. What would you have said?

They must have thought I was homeless. That’s fine with me. But heartfelt, courageous, random acts of kindness are so beautiful they fill me with hope, just like rainbows.     wp_20160919_15_08_51_pro

Day 21: Leaving Bandon; 856 Miles to LA; Random Reflections; Zen; Gratitude.

Day 21: Leaving Bandon; 856 Miles to LA; Random Reflections.

The good thing for me is that these 865 miles are all on the same road – Hwy 101 in Oregon and 1, The Pacific Coast Highway in California. Staying on the same road significantly decreases my chances of getting lost!

I like Sunday mornings. Especially rides on Sunday mornings. It’s often the church of choice that I visit. Not that I have anything against regular churches – I’ve attended many different kinds: Catholic, Episcopalian, Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Anglican, ecumenical, etc and others that were non-Christian. My thought is that if they help make you a better person in the church and out of it, then more power to you. I always liked it that the Dalia Lama said something like: I don’t want you to become a Buddhist. I want you to take what anything you find useful from Buddhism to help you become a better whatever you are. That’s what I try to do. Anything that helps me become less judgmental and more compassionate I’m all for. Mother Theresa nailed it when she said that if you’re busy judging people you can’t be busy loving them.

My church is the open road where you meet people that need help (sometimes just a smile) or ones that have a message for you. Buddha spent a lot of time on the road. Jesus also ran up a lot of miles. If he could have, I know Jesus would have ridden a Harley Road King, like Big Red. Buddha I see cruising around more on a Fat Boy.

This morning’s ride was holy, full of grace and gratitude. I rode along the magnificent coast of Oregon and stared out at the Pacific, its roiling waves, whitecaps, and the huge determined stones that jut out from it. It reminded me a lot of the coast of Ireland, except in Ireland everything was greener and windier and wetter.

I thought about Robert Pirsig’s line (which others had said in various forms before him) that the only Zen you find at the top of the mountain is the Zen that you brought with you. I agree to an extent. But certain places help bring out the Zen more in me. A peaceful, silent ride like this morning’s has me sinking into the present, letting go of the past and not worrying about the future. A deep sense of gratitude comes over me and I shout: Thank you God! Much like Kerouac did. Zen is a tool. It is not a religion, it’s a philosophy, a method to use to help reach a sense of completeness, peacefulness, love, compassion and gratitude. Whether you’re at the mountain top, riding along the coast or just washing dishes, it helps you see that at every moment you have everything that you need to be happy. You don’t need more, better, faster, prettier, thinner…you need awareness, self-acceptance and compassion (including compassion for yourself as you are). Rub these things together like sticks, and you get the sacred fire of gratitude.

May you ride down whatever road you are on today with the fire of gratitude in your heart.

Taoheading and Zenheading – Winding up Anywhere, Tao and Zen

“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.”
Laozi (Chinese: 老子; pinyin: Lǎozǐ; Wade–Giles: Lao Tzu)

This trip will be like no other trip I’ve taken. To start with, I don’t know where I’m going. Normally, not a good idea as the old saying warns: If you don’t have a destination in mind you can wind up anywhere. And I guess that is my goal-to wind up anywhere.

All my life I’ve had goals and destinations, plotted things: college, jobs, cars, motorcycles, trips, kids’ education, holidays. Other times, I’ve been resident in some place, hunkered down and on the annual treadmill calendar of events there. New Years, St Patrick’s day, Easter, 4th of July, Labor day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas. Work, parties, meals, football, baseball and baseball coaching, soccer, basketball and hockey. Taking care of myself, my relatives, my children. One can live one’s life out on this treadmill, not altogether unpleasantly. Along with the death and separations that inevitably come along there are the births and the new beginnings. The revivals of hope.
My buddy Jeff can’t be on this trip with me because he has a new beginning, as of yesterday. He’s a grandfather now for the first time. It’s a girl and dad gum is he proud.
But every now and then I ask myself: What if I did something different? And I don’t mean just taking a class in watercolors or tai chi at the local community college ( both of which I’ve done!). What if I put myself in new places, different places, where I had no plan, where I didn’t have the security of routine, the family and work responsibilities, the usual contours of escapes, distractions and pleasures?
So that’s what I’m going to do. I know I need to be out in LA (not lower Alabama!) by the 12th of June (and today is Monday the 12th of May) but I can ramble any which a way, as long as it’s generally west, to get there. So I’m not going to plan the trip, book the motels. I’m going to get out on the road and see what happens. Have to admit it’s a bit scary. But all true adventures have an element of peril in them.
So what’s going to guide me?
I plan to mix a bit of Taoism and Zen with whatever jams I get myself thrown into.

The Tao (Chinese: 道; pinyin: dào) is a Chinese philosophy and literally means “way” or “path”, but it also signifies a cosmic order of things; that in life there is an underlying flow, rhythm and balance. To follow the Tao means to tune into the rhythms we find in nature, ourselves and those we meet on our road.

“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”
Laozi

Zen is a very popular word that’s thrown around rather loosely. (I have been known to do that!) For the record it refers to a type of Buddhism which relies on meditation as a way to enlightenment.

Derek Lin describes some of the qualities of Zen
(http://www.taoism.net/articles/what_zen.htm)

“…the closest we can come to describing Zen in words may be as follows:
• Zen is more of an attitude than a belief.

• Zen is the peace that comes from being one with an entity other than yourself.

• Zen means being aware of your oneness with the world and everything in it.

• Zen means living in the present and experiencing reality fully.

• Zen means being free of the distractions and illusory conflicts of the material world.

• Zen means being in the flow of the universe.

• Zen means experiencing fully the present, and delighting in the basic miracle of life itself.”

So I’m getting ready to hit the road. One more day of gathering things, packing and saying goodbye should do it.
I’ll be Taoheading and Zenheading come this Wednesday morning.
Follow me on my journey! I’ll keep blogging now and then, Tao and Zen.

Monty Python and Zen Motorcycle Repair Shops

I’m pleased to say that Jeff finally got his bike back from the repair shop. Since we’re leaving in two days the delay was putting an unneeded and unexpected burden on our moods; his mainly. It got me thinking about my experiences with repair shops and whether there was any use exploring the problem from a Zen perspective.

We’ve all asked the question: “When will this be ready?”

Instead of getting a response like “tomorrow’ or “Monday” which I know is just a wild guess I’d rather just get a more honest Zen reply, like: What is the sound of one hand clapping?

We all meet a variety of skill level people everywhere we take our business. Motorcycle repair shops are just the same. There are some extremely competent people there and then sometimes, in the Monty Python tradition, you just wish you could yell: “Will every mechanic who is a mechanic punch a mechanic who isn’t a mechanic?”

I must say that overall I’ve had good karmic experiences at motorcycle shops. But then I haven’t had to use one in a long time. That’s because this is the first motorcycle I’ve owned in about 22 years. Before that I did ride a succession of bikes: Kawasaki 125, Honda 350, BMW R60/5 for years until I got the old “ultamato”. One day, staring at the BMW my wife at the time said to me.” Gene you’ve got a child on the way, it’s either us or the bike.”

I had sort of guessed this was coming. She’d hinted around about it. And, of course, you have to answer quickly because saying ‘I’m thinking about it’ would release a whole lot of pain on you that you don’t need.

“Of course”. I answered, already thinking that maybe I’ll put such an absurdly high price on it that no one will make an offer.

I reflected on the carefree days when the two of us would have great adventures riding all over the rolling hills and back roads. And you know that just offering to buy a side car, for some reason just won’t cut it.

Mothers-to-be are programmed to say these things. It’s instinctual. They know that our having a motorcycle will just interfere with our hunter and gatherer skills. Unless you are talking about hunting down and gathering more motorcycles.

Before I could get an advertisement in the paper I guy I know offered me money for the bike. In front of my wife. The worst place he could have done it!

So when I returned to riding motorcycles after the kids were grown I realized that, just like cars bikes had evolved technologically. Motorcycles also now have those check engine/ maintenance required lights that flicker on and off. The bike mechanics can plug your bike into a machine and it’ll whirl, groan, and then spin out some arcane number, both mystical and alchemical that may or may not give a clue to the problem. I’ve never seen one of these decoding machines work but I have seen the confused looks on the faces of mechanics. I remember hearing one exclaim: “Check the lean-angle sensor. Where the hell is that?”

In Zen motorcycle repair shops they probably get an answer more like: “Do not look outside. The answer is within.”

In the old days you’d stand there with the mechanic, he’d be wiping oil of his hands with a blue rag and he’d just say: “She done froze up on you.” That was the explanation for everything. We’d nod our heads in agreement and then shake them sadly in unison, staring at the bike.

I actually feel more comfortable when the check engine light is on. It’s reassuring. Most of the people I know ride with them on and, like me, get worried when the light goes off. “Okay, what’s wrong now? The light went out.”  If you’re like me you put a piece of black tape over the light so you won’t have to look at it all time. And if you’re like me you also angle your head to the side every now and then just to make sure it it’s still on.

You can tell a lot about the psychological makeup of a wife or girlfriend just by their reactions to the check engine light. Try this experiment: Next time you’re in a car and the light goes on or goes off what do she immediately say?

If she says: “what did I do?” it means she’s guilt prone, like me, and tends to take responsibility for her mistakes, along with the mistakes of others. Now that’s a way of being-in the-world you can work with.  There’s some self -reflective ability there, which, in moderation is good. If she looks at you and says: “What did you do or not do?’ you can tell that marriage counseling is likely to be ineffective with this person should you need it someday. You are going to get blamed for everything. These folks have an ability to see everyone else’s check engine lights, but their own. The Zen way of responding is just to smile, wonder at and appreciate the beauty of the disappearance of the check engine light.

I wish motorcycles would come with a check engine light, check light so I can be sure that my check engine light is always working. What if there’s a fault in the check engine light itself? . But then, having studied philosophy I know that my simple wish to have a check engine light, check light,  if followed, according to Zeno’s paradox would result in an infinite number of check engine light, check lights, each checking on each other. Motion itself would become impossible. Nobody wants that.

So how can we apply any of this to Zen motorcycle repair shops? Well it helps to teach us patience and to have compassion. Zen motorcycle repairmen have no more control over the future than we do. They are at the whim and mercy of their stock, the correctness of their inventory updates, the honesty of their suppliers and the talents and abilities of their staff, just like we are. The Buddhist idea of interconnectedness helps us see that we’re all in this together.

And while we watch them do their silly walks around the repair place, just like we do ours, we should relax, stay centered, breathe, and have gratitude.

After all, I know it’s in the Bible somewhere, maybe worded slightly differently, that we should deal with our own check engine lights first, before we point to those in others.

Makes good sense to me.

Biker Mind in a Cage and Enlightenment in Piggly Wiggly

I was having problems with my Jeep about a month ago and I took it to Mike’s to have it checked out. Mike has a reputation for doing good, honest work and he’s a nice guy.

“I’ve got good news and bad news for you.” I was told.

“What’s the good news?”

“You only need one part replaced.”

“And the bad news?”

“It’s your engine.”

So began the journey of various Jeep engine parts to Rome Georgia, an odyssey which is still going on.

No big deal, I thought.  I’ve got the bike and over the last few weeks, rain or shine, I’ve ridden her faithfully and wetly.

But today was different. I had to run a few errands (“messages” in Ireland) and I needed a car. I’d been asked by a friend to drop off some food for a housebound woman. No big deal for me, I was honored to do it.

My nephew Matt loaned me his and it was a strange experience. First of all I tried to get in on the wrong side of the car because my old reflexes from Ireland kicked in. (The steering wheel is on the opposite side of the car over there because they drive on the wrong side of the road!) I finally managed to get into the car, something we bikers call a “cage”.

Now, how do I operate this thing? Right, take the parking brake off. It’s already off. Again, I have to remember that I’m not in Ireland where they always use it. I crank her up and since it’s an automatic I reverse easily and then head out. First thing I have to do is roll the window down. I have to have the wind on me. There’s a great quote I heard which says that only a motorcycle rider understands why dogs love to stick their heads out of car windows. I mosey up to the main four lane. I’m thinking: There’s a cage turning, probably not paying attention. What about that lady driving talking on her phone? (Illegal in Ireland.)  I don’t try and make eye contact with her to confirm her driving intentions instead I stare at the car’s front wheel to make sure it’s not moving. It isn’t and I pull out onto the highway.  I realize what I’m doing. I’m driving a cage like a biker. I’m scanning the area looking for hazards, especially people who don’t see you and cut in front of you. I had the biker mind going in the cage. It was weird. I relaxed a bit and I thought: hey this isn’t too bad. Got a roof over my head, listening to some blues music. I can take a sip from my coffee cup. Smoke my pipe if I want to. (But not in Matt’s car!). This is kinda cool.

But I still had the biker mind going and found myself waving a salute to other bikers as they passed by.

I had to pick up some groceries for myself and while wandering around in the Piggly Wiggly I was thinking: better not get too much I don’t have a lot of room in the saddlebags. Then I realized again that I wasn’t on the bike. I could get anything I wanted; there’s plenty of room! This was great. But I didn’t like how my mind was shifting back to the idea of “buying stuff”. I used to be quite a collector of things: books, old coins, baseball cards, bad habits-you name it. But when I left Ireland after 16 years I gave most of my stuff away and managed to pack my life into four suitcases. It wasn’t easy or fun. In fact, it was painful because I was attached to all the things I had and the people I knew and loved. And yet it was freeing at the same time. It helped me to realize how little I really needed; what was important in my life and what wasn’t. It reminded me of what the Dalai Lama said: Attachment is the origin, the root of suffering; hence it is the cause of suffering.

Non-attachment means letting go. It means recognizing that all things are impermanent: material things, our bodies, even our relationships. This might sound depressing, but it isn’t. It’s actually liberating. “When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose”. You don’t suffer from worrying about getting something or losing someone. When I can keep this kind of awareness in my mind it helps me to appreciate every moment, to be centered and content with what I have, to be aware and grateful.  I’m much happier and healthier now.

I bought the few things that I needed and got back into the car. I drove over to the house, dropped the food off, rang the doorbell and left. On the way home I reverted to biker mode: watching for potholes in the road, tar snakes, inattentive drivers, road gators (bits of shredded tires from semi-truck tire blowouts), and steering aids (Bikers hate these! They’re gouges/ruts in the road from trucks. The ruts can guide your front wheel in a direction you don’t want to go.) None of us want to get into ruts. To go in directions we don’t want to go, because of someone else.

Surviving these hazards today, I came home. If I can stay centered I might survive tomorrow as well.

It was fun driving the car. But I still prefer the bike.

Planning the Trip: Harleys, Country Fried Steak and Gravy, Great Craic, A Trip to the Harley Shop, Beef Jerky and Cookie Selling Scouts and Zen

Our USA Rand McNally map was inaugurated successfully yesterday with coffee cup stains and bits of country fried steak and white gravy at Wes-Man’s restaurant in White, Georgia. Jeff and I unfolded the big map on the table and we began pointing at routes with our forks. “Can we get to Fort Smith the first day?” Jeff asked his fork hovering over Arkansas.  

     “Buddy,” I replied, “I think that might be a wee bit much.” I realized immediately and regrettably that I had used the Northern Irish vernacular “wee” in the sentence. Sixteen years in Northern Ireland leaves its trace in your language as well as your heart. The other day he had asked me how the Briar’s Club Night had been at Old Havana Cigar Bar in Rome and I had responded: “Terrific. The craic was great! Ninety.”

     “The what?” He had asked. “You boys using crack cocaine?”

     I laughed. “No, craic in Northern Ireland means…” I rolled my hands trying to think, “great banter, a really enjoyable time, good clean fun.”

     He eyed me suspiciously. “And ninety?”

     I raised my shoulders. “For some reason that’s the best the craic can get. Don’t ask me why, I didn’t make up the rules about it.”

     But now Jeff was shaking his head again and had a look on his face like he’d just smelled something bad. “Look here pal, don’t you start saying “wee” again. I’ve told you that real men don’t use the word “wee’! I don’t want to hear any of that Irish lingo. We’re Americans, tough bikers and we’re about to ride cross country on our Harleys.  We’re gonna look and sound like bikers!”

     I ignored him. “Jeff, Atlanta to Ft Smith would be about 700 miles. Unless, you’re practicing for the Iron Butt competition that’s a … bit much for our first day. Why don’t we stop in Memphis. I’ve never been there.”

     He shook his head in agreement. So at least we had our first destination planned: Memphis.

     After eating we drove down the road to the Cartersville Harley Davidson where a big shindig was going on. The place was packed with bikes and pickup trucks. Outside people were mingling, burgers were being grilled and music was blaring. We went inside and were immediately met by uniformed cub scouts and girl scouts selling beef jerky and cookies, respectively. The place was packed with people looking at the over 200 bikes on display for sale.

     I shook my head. “This is bad.” I said as I moseyed over to a magnificent looking bike. “This is a 2013 CVO Road King.” I drooled. “Says the color is ‘diamond dust and obsidian with palladium graphics’.

     “Palladium, I thought those were some of those people living in Sri Lanka?”

     “No those are Dravidians.”

     “No, those are them boys down in Waco Texas.”

     “No, those are Davidians.”

     “Purty bike.” Jeff said.

     “Yeah,” I replied, “and the list price is only $30,000!” I shook my head. “This is bad.”

     “Why?”

     “Cause I want it and I shouldn’t.

     “Why not?”

     “Cause Buddha says that suffering comes from a desire to be something or have something. I want that bike!”

     “Aw man! Don’t go all Zen on me. Bad enough you went Irish on me back at the restaurant.

     “God says the same thing.” I replied defensively.  

       He wandered off and I followed. Jeff looks every bit like the archetype of a biker. Strong, well built, tough sounding, thick grey hair (he was bald for a while), chiseled face, chin bearded, biker swagger, and he had this drawn out way of eyeing you up and staring at you that could make you want to confess sins you hadn’t even committed yet. If you ended up in a fight you wanted Jeff on your side. Even if you were assaulted by jerky and cookie selling kids you wanted him there to protect you.

     I didn’t look like a biker. I looked more like a mad professor, a tamer version of Doc from the Back to the Future films. Make him shorter, chubbier and take away his intelligence and you’ve got me!   

   I followed Jeff around as he pointed out things I needed for the trip. Before we got out of there Jeff had hooked me up with saddlebag liners, a three pocket windshield pouch attachment, a personal electronics magnetic pouch to hold my phone on my fuel tank, some Plexus plastic cleaner, Bugslide (“The Cleaner, Polisher and Bug Remover with Attitude”) and some beef jerky and cookies.

     With a handshake and a manly hug we said our goodbyes and agreed to meet next Friday at Old Havana in Rome to smoke a cigar and continue our planning.