Friday, June 10, 2011

Riding Half-Naked (Or The Conversion of a Safety Nazi)

I just read this article from the International Journal of Motorcycle Studies and thought I'd share it. It made me think about the American helmet debate differently, but also made me realise how much their real issue connects with the extreme pleasure I take in, once in a while, riding with no gear, or with just my pudding basin loosely strapped and tilted right back on my head. The truth is, when I head off on the bike this Sunday I'll be geared up from head to toe. So the article spoke to me as somebody who sits on both sides of that fence. Which is the position Moon ends up in. But her essay is also about the bigger picture. It could have been written about motorcycling itself, for an audience who is sceptical of riding - who experiences and perhaps expresses that basic cultural hysteria about "the dangers" of riding. Either way, its powerful point is communicated through the way it makes me attend, for a moment, to that basic fear that sits in me and which wrestles with my desire for the freedom of immersion in experience, sensation, with life itself in all its danger. The trouble with that fear is that it sits in us, and in our society, at an often unreflective way where it can drive us rather than exist as a consideration - such that it is more impervious to reason. When this drive takes the form of people imposing force on one another - such as restrictive or anti motorcycle legislation - then the problem becomes particularly nasty. I guess that as a motorcyclist I need to be part of an explicit conversation that analyses this fear and its consequent discourses/actions. As I say, the challenging thing about the article is that I am struck by how much that critique needs to start within myself.

Riding Half-Naked (Or The Conversion of a Safety Nazi)
Wendy Moon

In late September, I flew from Los Angeles to El Paso, Texas to spend a long weekend with my friend and co-academic Revvv. Because he was picking me up at the airport on his Harley Sportster, I brought my T-bag and that meant there was no room for my full-face helmet. He, of course, didn’t wear one, as both New Mexico and Texas are free states. But Revvv said not to worry as he had an old one I could borrow.

Now this was a concession on his part. We’d been having heated debates over helmets and helmet laws ever since we started working on a project about women and motorcycling. Helmets had nothing to do with it, yet they kept cropping up in our conversations. He quoted studies and I quoted others. “It’s about freedom,” he declared. “No one has the right to tell me what to do.”

“Freedom!” I said. “It’s just what you say to get your own way. Freedom is in the ride, not what’s on your head.” I thought his views were reactionary, unreasonable and too passionate, and that’s what he thought about mine. After several arguments, we realized it was hopeless and tried to avoid the subject—with frequent relapses. So, that he would, without comment, offer me a helmet was very generous of him.

And I needed that promise of a helmet. Too used to piloting my own Sportster, I was nervous enough about riding behind Revvv, and, besides, that spring, I had been riding behind a gentleman on a Kawasaki Ninja when he had gone down in a low-speed low-side in a corner and I had hit my head on the curb. The gentleman had a tiny scrape on his knee. I had a concussion. I couldn’t bear the thought of riding pillion without a helmet. At least, that’s what I thought when I got there on a Wednesday night. I had no clue the weekend was going to open my mind about helmets and leathers and freedom.

It was cool and dark when I arrived. As he had promised, there was the full-face and his beanie. “I wasn’t sure which would fit better,” he said, “so I brought both.” A beanie, I well knew, was just for show—it had no protective value except from hail so I put on my chaps and his full-face as Revvv fastened my T-bag onto his sissy bar. The helmet was too large, and I joked about his having a big head even as I worried that it wouldn’t be any more effective in an accident than the beanie. I tightened the strap to the point of strangulation, nervously got on back and we took off.

As we rode down nearly deserted streets, I realized the visor was so scarred that all the lights looked like miniature star bursts. I opened the face-shield and it was better. He took the dark, lonely Trans-Mountain Road and headed towards the New Mexico border. Revvv, unlike my Ninja rider, clearly had a great deal of practice carrying a passenger and I relaxed and enjoyed the scenery.

The next day, he had a meeting at the University of Texas, El Paso, and I planned to tag along. I looked at my chaps and decided I didn’t want to have to wear them all afternoon or tote them around. Denim jeans and a jacket would have to do. Then I looked at the useless full-face helmet. “When in Rome…” came to mind. I would dare to ride on the other side of the issue. Just for research, mind you.

Nervously, I got on behind him, feeling vulnerable and extremely conscious of every movement the bike made as he pulled out of the parking lot and onto the road. Revvv lives a quarter-mile from Texas in the green band along the Rio Grande, and we passed horse farms as my hair whipped around my ears. When we rode down Mesa Street through El Paso, I relaxed. This wasn’t so bad. It even felt daring, adventurous, but I was still nervous. After the meeting, Revvv suggested we go up to Las Cruces on Highway 28 and so we did. And in that ride, I began to see why people were so passionate about riding without a helmet.

Perhaps it was the clouds. We don’t get many in Southern California and I had forgotten how beautiful masses of thunderheads could be. Perhaps it was the lovely fields of Egyptian cotton or chilies and the green shadowed stillness of the pecan orchards we rode through. Perhaps it was just that I trusted he was a safe rider. But I began to revel in the journey. Of course, I always do—I am a biker—but this was different. For one thing, I could see.

I had argued that the helmet opening didn’t interfere with sight lines—and it doesn’t. But Revvv had argued that the weight of the helmet—its presence alone—changed the ride, changed how one sees, and damned if he wasn’t right. To “feel” the ride with my head—the wind in my hair, the real temperature on my scalp, was exciting. I discovered I could lean close enough to him that we could talk. Not much closer, but far more easily than with inches of plastic and foam between us. And sitting closer to him led to another discovery.

I had begun riding as a pillion passenger before graduating to riding my own bike. I enjoyed it, but, I realized as I rode behind him, there had always been a sense of disconnection, even isolation. The helmet, the leathers imposed layers that left me, literally, behind—like I was a piece of baggage. But, as we rode in t-shirts and jeans, I felt him in front of me—his warmth, his solidness, and, for some strange reason, it made me trust his riding even more. When he shouted back, I heard him. I could tuck my head behind his for respite from the wind and peek around with his hair tickling my cheek. It felt good. I was not only content to ride pillion, I was luxuriating in it because it was a more intense sensory experience. So, this is what it’s all about, I thought. This is what they know and I never suspected.

The next day, we had meetings down at UTEP again—ones for which I had to dress up and look professional. Once again, I didn’t want to haul my chaps or my boots around, so I chose to wear my skirt and heels. And visions of road rash danced through my head. Fear rose up in a dust storm of anxiety—what if we were in an accident?

From the first time I had gotten on a bike, I had been a safety-girl—ankle-high boots, denim if not leather, leather jacket, gloves, full-face helmet. After all, riding is dangerous. It only made sense to take precautions, to ride “as if they’re out to get you,” as if you’re going to fall. But at that moment, I suddenly realized that fear had motivated my caution. Fear of falling. Fear of injury, of pain. Perhaps death. I hadn’t thought I was afraid. I would’ve argued caution was a logical response to the painful realities of motorcycling. And it is. But as I climbed on behind Revvv in my skirt and heels, as I looked down and saw my bare legs and the ground, I realized fear had always been a bigger part of my equation than I had suspected.

It was chilly that early in the morning, and I was glad Revvv’s body blocked more wind. El Paso is in the desert and sand stung my legs on the freeway. That I could do without, but later, on city streets, it felt good to have the sun on my legs instead of sweating inside my leathers. I had never realized, before, how all that gear made me feel as if I was inside a house—or a car. I had never felt the connection between nature and myself until I rode half-naked. As we rode along, I realized I wasn’t taking that much more risk that normal.

In one way, it didn’t matter if I wore in leathers or if my skin was exposed to my thighs or whether my head was covered. Regardless of that, Revvv was exactly the same rider and traffic was as crazy or sane as it always was. That part of the risk hadn’t changed. What had changed was the likelihood of injury if we fell or were in an accident. But the operative word was “if.”

In that moment, I saw I had been basing my entire riding life on “ifs.” I always assumed something bad would happen and I had to protect myself. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, accidents do happen. That’s reality—but it’s a fairly rare one when the rider is skilled.

Oh, the Safety Nazi inside me protested as we zoomed along. It doesn’t matter how rare it is when it does happen. Road rash is painful. Concussions are horrible. Death is permanent—and it’s so easy to forestall with a few more layers. The great unknown could get you, the Safety Nazi whispered.

But that’s just the point—I really don’t know what will happen or when it will happen. We’re generally fed statistics that seem to prove an injurious fall is definitely in our future, so piling on as much safety gear as we can seems to make sense. But that means riding for an unknown number of miles and hours—maybe only one, maybe hundreds of thousands—specifically for those seconds when the accident occurs. It could be years before I’d need the protection a helmet and gear provided, and, suddenly, it seemed like a bad trade.

Plus, there’s another problem with statistics—they only reveal part of the picture. Some people fall more often, some never do. Some people die despite a helmet, some people would’ve lived had they worn one. Sometimes the safest riders go down while the fools recklessly ride on. There are no guarantees. Wearing safety gear improved my odds, sure, but at the cost of personal freedom.

Well, damn, Revvv was right—it really is about freedom. But it wasn’t the freedom the riders’ rights organizations claim—that nasty governmental interference in our private lives. Oh, that’s certainly an issue, but, as my hair streamed behind me and skirt hitched up on my thighs, it wasn’t the main one. There was a clear difference in how I experienced the freedom without a helmet and gear. As free as I felt on my own bike, I felt freer still—even though I was riding bitch. But what I felt, what I understood on the back of Revvv’s bike was more than merely the sensory level, so that wasn’t it either.

No, it was freedom in its essence. To the degree we live in fear, we must react, not respond, to life. We who live this way plot, plan, and prepare to prevent an accident that may not happen. Every time I go for a ride, it takes me a few minutes to gear up. When I stop, it takes another few minutes to take off the helmet, gloves, jacket and chaps and stow them, then repeat it all when I mount the bike again. Those minutes add up. Gear costs money and needs to be replaced by preference or wear. That adds up, but it’s small compared to the mental effort required to maintain that protective attitude. I am not free to live in the now because I’m enslaved to the future “what if.”

Underneath this fear is an abiding defensive stance in which even offensive actions are to protect ourselves. But that’s America for you. We see this in home security systems which lock us in as much as they keep others out. Nationally, we see this in homeland security since 9/11. Internationally, it propels us into wars. And, I saw, when it comes to riding, my unconscious fear cheats me of the totality of the experience, steals my present and doesn’t guarantee my future. And that’s what all these domestic, corporate, national and international precautions ultimately do.

We live in the land of the free but we do everything possible to limit the risks that come along with it. The measures we take sap away ability to live freely—not only in actual time and money but in a deeper sense. America is seized by a low-level paranoia; not only are “they” out to get us, but life itself means to do us in, so nature must be controlled as much as possible. And this paranoia results in adding on layer after layer of supposed protection to keep us from some potential harm, no matter how unlikely. So we gradually distance ourselves from experiencing a full and free life and we don’t even know it. As a society, we’re like kids so bundled up against the snow we cannot move at all. Unlike kids, though, we aren’t aware how little fun we’re having.

And this, I think, is what the protest over helmet laws is really about. It appears to be about the government dictating our choices, but perhaps it’s about this deeper level. Those who ride without helmets refuse to live their lives by the “what ifs” that dominate society. They know freedom is risky—it always has been, always will be. Embracing that risk rejuvenates the soul and empowers one to live the rest of her life as she wants. To ride without a helmet helps us remember what life is supposed to be about. What America is supposed to mean.

There on the Southwestern highways and byways, I came to see true freedom is an attitude of overwhelming “Yes!” to all that life may bring. But I couldn’t understand that until I rode without a helmet. The real issue, though, isn’t the item; it’s the attitude behind it. The fear others have for us when we don’t wear it, the fear we may have even when we do—that’s the real tyrant, the real killer. It’s not just the laws we must fight against, it’s this endemic attitude that risk is bad and safety precautions will really keep us safe. There are no guarantees and anyone who promises us that is trying to sell us something or gain power.

I live in California, a helmet state, and so I put it on when I got back. The first time, though, after my trip to the Southwest, it felt like a box on my head separating me from the rest of my body, from everything around me, but it didn’t feel quite so odd on the way home. It’s that attitude I must hang on to now. I haven’t changed entirely—there are times when I know I’ll still prefer to wear one. LA traffic is insane and my odds at becoming a statistic are higher, it’s true. At high-speed in the desert it keeps me from dehydrating quite so fast; and a helmet is more comfortable in the rain. But one thing is certain: Revvv and I won’t be arguing about helmets any more.

Moon recently and unexpectedly died. Her blog is still on the net and an obituary can be found here.

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