Worry

It’s dark outside.  I’ve been riding all day.  I left Wakeeney, Kansas before 7 this morning, and now it’s after 11.  I finally found a place to camp – at least, I think it’s a place to camp.  It was dark when I pulled up, and there’s no one around.  There’s no camp host, no designated camping spots – I just pulled the bike near some trees in what seemed to be a clearing, in what I am very much hoping is Hoosier National Forest, and pitched my tent.  It’s so hot.  Unbearably hot.

I can’t bring myself to try to go to sleep yet – I’m still wound up from a long day of riding, and really, it’s so hot.  So I sit, sweaty and sticking to my little backpacking camp chair in the dark.  No book, no music, no campfire, I’m too tired for any of that.  Just the dark.  I watch the fireflies flicker.

I’m here now.  I’m comfortable.  I’m fine. I’m on schedule even! Still, I can’t escape the sinking feeling in my stomach – the one that is so insistent that it’s all about to go wrong.  Or worse, that it’s already gone wrong, and I’m too incompetent to realize it.  It’s been with me for the entirety of the 2 days since I left home.  


I’m not a mechanic.  I’m not really even mechanically inclined.  In spite of that, last summer, I bought an old motorcycle, and deemed myself fit to both ride and maintain it.  For the most part, this has been smooth going – stuff stops working, I furiously google until I have a guess for what it is, and manage to fix it.  I read endlessly on motorcycle forums to find new things that might go wrong, and try to decide what needs to be overhauled next.

I buy tools and parts.  I mess things up, then figure out how to fix what I broke.  I break down on occasion.  I read, and read some more.  I put together a toolkit with the things most likely to keep me running on a long trip.

I’m still no mechanic, but slowly, steadily, I’m building a mental model of how the bike works – what happens when I start it, what to check when it feels like the engine is going faster than the wheels, what it means when it feels like the handlebars are bouncing too much.  What the bike should sound like when I’m on the highway, and what it should sound like when I’m pulling away from a stoplight.


I’m a thousand miles from home, sitting peacefully on a quiet Indiana night, and I’m convinced the bike has an oil leak. 

My suspicion started last night, in Kansas.  I had pulled up, let the bike cool down for a while, and checked the oil sight window – and just at the bottom was a hint of an oil line.  It should be right in the middle, maybe even a little over.  If I lost that much oil in the 400 miles that day, I was in real trouble on a 6000 mile trip.  

Tonight, reluctantly, I tap on my phone’s light and walk around to check the sight window.  No oil.  Of course.  What did I expect?

I check around the bottom of the engine for signs of dripping, and don’t find any indication of leaking oil.  I am not comforted, just further convinced of my own incompetence.  Probably all real motorcycle mechanics know that leaking oil shoots out the handlebars or something, I don’t know.  I just know I’m going to be stranded here, lead astray by my own hubris.  I’m sure of it.

There’s nothing to be done but sit in the sticky humidity and ponder where it all went wrong. 

After a bit of good old fashioned wallowing, I look at the bike again, from my chair.  It’s parked on the soft grass, on a slight slant.  it’s leaning slightly to the left.  The oil sight window is on the right side of the engine.  Logically, I know that this means the oil would have settled in a way that would be invisible in the sight window.  To check the oil that way, the bike has to be level.  Not seeing the oil in the sight window is meaningless.  

Now that I think of it, I had this same thought last night, in Kansas.  The bike was leaning left then too, and I knew it.  Logically, the evidence provided by the sight window tells me nothing – and I knew it both nights. but still, I can’t shake the idea that there is an oil leak.

I’m now faced with a discrepancy – between what I can reason, and what I feel.  I’m a rational person.  I know there’s no reason to suspect an oil leak if I have no evidence of an oil leak.  And yet, as I talk myself through this, rationally, logically, the very real feeling rock in the pit of my stomach does not go away.  I’m unwilling to trust logic.  The bike is not going to make it, I just know.

The next morning, is cool, damp, and pleasant.  I pack up the tent, load the bike, and it starts like an anxious toddler who has been told we’re going to the park.  The bike purrs through the misty Indiana hills.  It’s some of the most enjoyable riding I’ve ever experienced. At the first town I come across, I find a gas station to head inside and pick up oil to refill what’s been lost.  Coming back out, I check the sight window.  Here, parked on level ground, I can see what I rationally understood last night – no oil had been lost.  The bike was fine.  It ran for 5500 more miles, and got me home (almost) without issue.


I couldn’t stop thinking about this night for the rest of the trip.  I had no evidence to believe that the bike was not fine, but it wasn’t enough.  I was far more willing to believe my fears than reason.  My brain wanted, needed something to worry about, and it wasn’t about to let a little reason get in the way of that.

Worry is a hell of a drug.

Standing Ovations

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself at a David Copperfield show.  Yes, that David Copperfield.  I’m not a magic aficionado, but the show was fun – well produced, polished, and generally entertaining.

I’ll admit that half the fun of the show was not the show itself, but watching it and figuring out how it was produced.  I don’t really mean the magic – figuring out how the tricks worked – that was mostly beyond me.  I’m perfectly willing to suspend my disbelief and just agree that he’s sold his soul to the devil in exchange for a full head of thick black hair, and the ability to make big stuff show up where big stuff could not possibly have been moments before.

What I found interesting was the sheer amount of production that went into the show.  Everything was rehearsed, and rehearsed thoroughly (and repeated several nights a week, I guess).  Nothing went wrong – and when it seemed like things might be going wrong (as it sometimes does whenever members of the audience get involved), Copperfield’s experience as a performer and manager of audiences, clearly extensive, took care of it.

Everything had a place.  Every step, every trick, every word.  It felt like watching a TV show in person.  The entire thing had been crafted – designed to direct our eyes, our attention, and our emotions.

The end of the show rolled around, and with it some kind of 2 part finale.  I don’t actually remember what the tricks were, I just remember that there were 2 standing ovations. I’m always intrigued by the concept of the standing ovation.  You go to a show, you get to the end, you’re already applauding, but it’s not enough.  You’ve got to really let the performer(s) know that they were so compelling, so amazing, that you cannot stay in your seat.  You have to stand up, clap wildly, even whistle, if you’re one of those people blessed with the ability to make a shrill, fingers in your mouth whistle.  And it’s never just one person.  The whole crowd gets up, or at least the front section (why is it always the front section?) in a nearly unanimous decision that the performance was too amazing – butts cannot remain in chairs.

So I was particularly surprised when, at the end of this show, not one but two standing ovations took place.  The show was nice, I enjoyed it, but I would not put it in the category of “to applaud this man while sitting would be a travesty”.  And everyone in front of us stood up to clap.  Twice.

But I noticed something during the first standing ovation.  Being alert for this kind of thing (I’m always keen to try to work out the motivations of that first person who stands up during the applause.  What a weight on their shoulders!), I watched the first dude stand up.  He was young-ish, probably early to mid 20s.  But what struck me was the fact that after the applause, he left, like he had to go to the bathroom or something.  Then the second standing ovation rolls around, and lo and behold, it’s the same dude.  Stands up, gets the ovation going, and leaves.

So clearly, he’s part of the show.  And his role is: Trick (guilt?) the people in the front section into standing up and clapping.  And that doesn’t sound so surprising, but think through how this went – they planned this.  They sat down at some point before the show, and somebody said

“Alright, Chad, you’re on ovation duty tonight.  I want you to sell it.  Don’t be a Zack.  We all saw what happened to Zack.  I’ll give you a crisp $5 bill if you can squeeze a tear out.” 

 And he went out there and did it.  And dutifully, the people around him bought it, and stood up.  

Chad here, who showed up 38 seconds ago, found this performance worthy of a stand-and-clap.  Good enough for Chad, good enough for me.”  

Or maybe they didn’t buy it.  Maybe they saw through it, but somehow felt like it was their job to stand, and Chad was their leader – giving them non-verbal cues on how they were expected to behave for their privileged position at the front of the theater.  Maybe they felt bad for Chad, standing all alone, and quickly got up so he didn’t feel silly, or, you know, suffer the same fate as Zack. I don’t know.

Regardless, the lesson was:  Don’t trust Chad.  And maybe don’t trust our deeply ingrained, follow-the-leader instincts.  Because apparently (I learned after the show), this is so common, it’s a thing, with a name.  We’re all so willing to follow the Chads of the world, who will head to his next job, resume in hand, listing his exemplary skills in “Leadership in standing up”.

Don’t follow Chad.  Watch out for Chad.  He’s at the theater, where he’s innocuous, but I’m guessing he’s elsewhere too, preying on us psychologically, convincing us of what to care about, what to do.  And he’s doing so with his own motivations, his own goals, his own agenda.

I’m watching you, Chad.

Anatomy of a bad decision

Once upon a time, I was making a long drive home. The drive was from my brother’s house, in central Utah, to my house, in Northeastern Colorado. If you’ve not made this particular drive before, I’ll fill you in on the important bits:  It’s long, boring, and almost entirely spent in Southern Wyoming.

Don’t get me wrong, Wyoming has some great stuff in it: Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, the setting for “Brokeback Mountain”.  Southern Wyoming, however, really just has Tree in the Rock:
Tree Rock

I made a lot of trips as a child across this road to visit my grandparents, and as I recall, this tree is really it – the most exciting thing I-80 has to offer.  It’s generally brown, monotonous, and most importantly, eternally windy. It’s the kind of place you just want to drive fast through.

As I recall, it was right around this time of year – maybe late February or early March. I was driving alone, and the weather was nasty – snowing pretty heavily, with very icy roads. On the way out of Utah, I watched multiple cars slide off the road. Once I got out of the mountains of Utah and headed into the plains of Wyoming, the weather seemed to let up a bit – not much snow on the roads, and even a peek of blue sky now and again.

So I sped up.  I was making great time, when I saw a road sign: “Highway Closed at Rock Springs”. Sure enough, I get to Rock springs a few minutes later, and the highway is blocked, all traffic being diverted into town. Immediately, I’m annoyed. I don’t want to be on this road any longer. I’ve been away for a week, and the idea that I’ll have to wait a few more hours (at best) in Wyoming, of all places, is unthinkable.

So, I made a good decision: I stopped, and ate a burrito. It was tasty.

Burrito consumed, I got back in the car and checked the radio: Highway still closed.  It’s been maybe an hour. So I figure I’ll do a little investigating. How closed is closed, anyway? Maybe I can get around it.

Impatience

So I start poking. I try a frontage road, which, in case you call it something else colloquially, is the much smaller road next to the highway. I drive a little way down, and there it is – a state trooper parked sideways across the road. He flags me down and motions for me to turn around. I ask if he has any idea how long it will be. Clearly annoyed, he condescendingly tells me “Son, just head on back to town. It will be open when it’s open.”

I’ve had various problems with authority in my life, and I don’t take kindly to condescension – from a Wyoming State Trooper of all people. This man has just made my decision for me: I will find a way around this road closure.

Hubris

So I head to a Mcdonalds, and use the wifi to pull up a map of the area. (Side note: At the time, this area of Wyoming did not have 3g service. I had no internet.  This should have given me pause.). I find a route that seems promising. it’s pretty far out of the way, but it should definitely get around wherever the closure is. Knowing I won’t have internet once I leave the warm glow of this McDonalds, I take this series of screenshots:

As you can see, my plan is foolproof.

So I head out. After a few misses, I find my first turn. I distinctly remember thinking it  was a little weird that I had so much trouble finding the turn, and that this road was so poorly marked. It looked like the road I needed to turn onto was not plowed, which also seemed a little strange. I put my blinker on, and slowed down. For a brief moment, I considered just heading back to Rock springs.

I turned onto the road. It was clearly unplowed, but that was ok – there were some tracks through it. The road felt a little strange under the wheels, and it took me a bit to figure out why.  Soon I realized: Oh – this seems bumpy because this is a dirt road. I didn’t notice because it’s covered in snow.  This was not part of the plan.  I carried on

Commitment

As I drove on, the snow on the road started getting deeper. What started as wide, messy tracks slowly transitioned into deep, well defined ruts in the snow.  But I was ok – I’d driven in the snow lots of times before.  It was fun!

Then something strange happened: I started getting little blasts of snow blowing up over the windshield.  I couldnt figure out what was going on at first – was the wind blowing?  Is it gusty?  It happened with increasing frequency until snow was flowing over the windshield in a steady stream, making it hard to see.  That’s when I realized what was really happening – the snow was deep enough that it was billowing up over the bumper, and over the windshield.

At this point I realize that I should probably be concerned.  This isn’t going well.  Still, I drove on.  Because – what if I’m just about to hit the next road – plowed and dry?  Won’t I feel silly for almost having turned around!

As I’m having this thought, I head around around a bend.  The road becomes sloped down to the left. I can’t keep my tires in the ruts, and in spite of steering and frantic yelling, the car starts to slide toward the ditch at the bottom of the slope. I know if I end up in the ditch, I won’t escape without a tow truck. So I stop the car.

Acceptance

The car stopped. It was mid afternoon, and I knew it would be dark in a couple of hours. I was on an dirt road, covered in close to a foot of snow, and I was probably 25 miles from the closest city. The gravity of the situation was setting in. Getting to this point involved a number of poor decisions, but those were irrelevant now.

I decided I needed to get the car turned around.

Decision

Of course, this might not have been the right decision. I didn’t know how far the road ahead was. I didn’t know what the conditions ahead were. It might have been smarter to keep driving forward, or just start walking and abandon the car, or just hang out in the car with the heater on and wait for someone to come along. I didn’t know for sure – but in that particular moment, I committed to the decision to turn around.  I knew if I thought about it too long, I’d second guess myself – so as soon as the car stopped, I was out the door, figuring out what I was going to do.

My plan was to clear the snow from a large portion of the road so that I could turn around on dirt, not snow, and avoid sliding down into the ditch.  I’ll do it  Austin Powers style – lots of back and forth.

So I dove in, working frantically, to keep my mind from spending too much time thinking of how this could go wrong. Get down on my hands and knees, push a bunch of snow out of the way, hop into the car, move it a foot.  Hop out, push some snow, hop in, move it another foot.

Help!

I had the car a little over halfway turned around and I look up, and to my surprise, see a rowdy pickup truck coming through the snow. I look up, and lock eyes with the driver. I’m in the middle of nowhere, down on my knees, in wet jeans, pushing snow around on a dirt road with my hands – not unlike a child in a sandbox –  next to a 15 year old Honda Civic.

There is an iMac in the backseat. It’s wearing a seatbelt. My shame is palpable.

I knew I had to ask for help – but to do so meant acknowledging my situation and the decisions I had made that got me there. Terrible decisions that I didn’t want to have to justify to anyone. He rolled the window down, and offered to push my car back into the middle of the road, because he didn’t have a tow rope. I was appreciative, although the plan of essentially ramming my poor little civic down the road was not my favorite.  Still, what could I do?

He attempted to drive around the back of my car (ramming position), but getting there was tricky because of the snow and the slope.  He managed to slide his truck into the ditch, and had to spend some time figuring out how to get out of it.

In the meantime, I kept working. I had the car pointed mostly in the right direction, so I cleared 20 foot “runway” in front of it that I could use to pick up speed before I had to get back into the snow. I hopped in my car, signaled to them that I was going for it, and took off, shouting “thank you!” out the window.

A few seconds later, I was back in the ruts, and headed back towards town. I had made it.  I’m not sure what happened to them, but I like to think that at the very least, they had a pretty funny story  when they got to their destination.

I slowly made it back to Rock Springs – beaten, but alive. I pulled into that same Mcdonalds – the one where my plan was originally hatched.  I went inside, ordered a milkshake, and sat down – willing to stay there for hours – days even – until that condescending state trooper told me it was all clear.