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As Long as We Remember...

March 17, 2009

Exhibiting America’s Traits

Nick Diaz

There was a time when one, in the world of machines, could hardly hear two dirtier words than “Planned Obsolescence.” The very idea that a complex mechanical object should have a deliberately abbreviated life expectancy was nothing less than a kind of mortal sin against proper engineering.


In a way, that attitude coincided precisely with our self-definition as Americans, based on the way our history had defined our cultural philosophy.


“Rugged Self-Reliance” was one cornerstone of the American personality, a trait prized in those bold settlers that made up the first wave of American immigrants – such as refusing to accept any form of handout or charity as a matter of pride.


“Resourcefulness” was another leg of the structure. Bogart, the Duke, Chuck Norris, McGyver, Clint Eastwood – these are some of the popular resourcefully adventurous archetypes. Never flustered by adversity, they overcome obstacles by sheer will if necessary.


“The Entrepreneurial Spirit” was another great American trait; the popularity of TV’s The Apprentice a short time ago testifies to that. It wasn’t enough to simply build a log cabin; the smartest ones opened a sawmill to enable other settlers to establish a thriving community.


“The Outlaw Ethos” has had a similar effect on a substantial portion of us – motorcyclists especially. A disdain for laws that don’t recognize individual freedom, a willingness to go it alone regardless of what anyone else thinks, and a certain style that flaunts your individuality – all these are part of that. Ask any former school colleague of mine, past or present, (especially principals or supervisors) how much of an “outlaw” I instinctively am.


Perhaps there are other factors that I’m blind to, but I’m certain there once was such a generally accepted image of what it meant to be an American. In the past, the design of our motorcycles clearly reflected that philosophy. Machines could be repaired by the side of the road and were designed to last virtually indefinitely by resourceful, self-reliant, entrepreneurial owners.


Perhaps alone among modern motorcycle manufacturers, Harley-Davidson has prospered by expressing that same image. (Goodness, how I hate to admit this, given my well-known antipathy toward The Motor Company!) It’s obviously still a powerful element, and Japanese companies are rightly frustrated that they cannot capture that same All-American spirit, even though their products have often been assembled here in the USA.


I’m willing to assert that many motorcyclists genuinely enjoy working on their machines, like I do. Way back when, I learned firsthand that shops would sometimes cut corners on accuracy and technique when possible, just to get a job done more quickly, so I learned to do it myself. After simple tune-ups, I learned to do the maintenance that was generally ignored, like regular brake fluid and suspension oil changes.


Modern motorcycles, however, heavy on electronic controls, have effectively eliminated a number of systems that used to be handled mechanically in a way the owner would understand and could then tweak into better order. Some motorcyclists have indeed upgraded their skills and equipment to keep up, but many mechanically inclined riders are indefinitely maintaining older bikes rather than trading up for machines they can’t deal with.


Most of my friends in the “Between the Sheetz Gang” can’t and won’t bear to accept dated, inferior braking equipment, old-fashioned tires, or bouncy suspension. They’re spoiled by exposure to the latest and greatest. For one, my economic situation dictates that I shall remain the recipient and practitioner of “Planned Obsolescence.”


In other words, I’m a cheap SOB – a teacher with a daughter in college.  My 1988 Yamaha Venture has four carburetors. Carburetors! What modern car or motorcycle still has carburetors, in this age of electronic fuel injection and digital everything? Compared to a 10-year-old BMW K1200LT, or a Honda Gold Wing, the Venture is woefully outdated, not only in fuel delivery, but in frame, suspension, brakes, and amenities. Heavens, the sound system runs cassettes – not CD’s or MP3’s. Cassettes!


Yet the darn thing still runs. What pleasure it is to keep it running!


Every once in a while I have to consider the fact that coming technology can thoroughly outdate, in less than a decade, what passes for excellent today. Is it still a sin not to build a motorcycle to last forever? Just as the U.S.A. is changing quickly, so is our attitude toward “Planned Obsolescence.” The German, Italian, and Japanese motorcycle manufacturers have been in such a furious race of development in the last 30 years that what passed as “State Of The Art” just two years ago has been totally eclipsed this year.


If I could afford it, would I really want to ride a bike with vastly substandard brakes, tires or suspension? If I were into raw power, how could I pass up the latest engines, which deliver such stunning high-rpm performance while retaining delightful drivability at lower rpm? Given these realities, I must constantly ask myself if “Planned Obsolescence” isn’t simply an appropriate response to an accelerating rate of change, and that to cling to the past is to miss the advantages of the present.


Still, for many of us motorcyclists, the act of riding remains an antidote to the creeping dilution of that essential American Character. In an environment where split-second reactions can have life-and-death consequences, we have the freedom to make right or wrong decisions. Taking responsibility for being 360° aware of our surroundings, as well as the presence, velocity, and acceleration of every vehicle within our personal danger zone – and to ride accordingly – also serves to make riding well a seriously transcendent effort.


By doing this successfully, repeatedly, the exercise becomes a way to build our psychic muscles, so that we are able to cope with an ever-changing world without losing our identity. The pace of change may make us accept that “Planned Obsolescence” is truly inevitable.


I will never stop enjoying the fact that motorcycling is a way to express that unique American Character. As a child, I told friends that I wanted to be either a cowboy or a truck driver, two professions that fully embraced that attitude. My mother, meanwhile, wanted me to be an engineer.


Well, I never did become a cowboy, or a truck driver, not even a helluva engineer; I did, however, become a motorcyclist, the motorcyclist who teaches for a living (not the teacher who rides motorcycles!)


That will do just fine, thank you…


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