Sunday, October 11, 2009

Shiftless and Clutchless

I am not here to dish on automatic motorcycles, although making fun of Honda’s tragic new DN-01 is good fun, like harpooning a carp in a martini glass. If you haven’t seen one of these grotesqueries, it’s what happens nine months after a nice young sportbike from Teaneck, New Jersey, off her anti-psychosis medication, had one tequila shooter too many and was date-raped by an unemployed scooter and his no-good friend, a middleweight metric cruiser with a minor criminal record. The resulting child, given up for adoption and then raised by an orthodontist and his wife in Kansas City, means well, but there’s something terribly wrong with him you can’t quite put your finger on. But it’s not because he’s an automatic. I have a token automatic-motorcycle friend, the Aprilia Mana, and he’s okay. He could even date my sister.

Anyway, did you know something like 95 percent of cars and trucks sold in the USA these days are automatic-transmission equipped? Yes, it’s true, and ask a room full of 20-somethings how many of them can drive a stick-shift and you’ll see maybe three or four little pink paws thrust into the air. It’s shocking. And try to teach them how to work a clutch. You’d think the Goddamned thing was an Armenian-labeled electric zither, the way some of them struggle.

At least they’re struggling with something. After all, for many of us, especially the pale-of-hue and middle-of-class, struggling is optional. We all know the story, as the media hasn’t shut up about it for the last 60 years. The G.I.s come home after Saving the World, go to college, get subsidized mortgages and drive on the most expensive road system ever built by mankind, all on Uncle Sam’s dime. Suddenly, after 30 years of enjoying subsidized gasoline, food, heating oil and cotton, and with no sense of irony at all, they gang up on poor little government like a pack of wolves suddenly turning on its ailing alpha male. For the average American, life had gone from hardscrabble On the Waterfront/ Grapes of Wrath drudgery to bubbly Brady Bunch fun in a generation.

Seemingly overnight, life was not so hard. And even after the every-CEO-for-himself 80s, 90s and Oughts, the Enrons and Bernie Madoffs of the world let the middle class keep enough residual wealth so it could go on coddling its kids and enjoying the good life, happily ensconced in its green-grassed and Walmart-ized suburbs. And so we merrily bumble our way through life, trying out one lifestyle after another, expecting everything to come as easily as an adjustable-rate mortgage or ordering the all-you-can eat shrimp platter at Red Lobster (just $14.99 with coupon).

Oh, here comes the e-hate-mail to “My father slaved away at IBM so he could buy his house, and I had to work my paper route for three summers so I could buy my Honda Trail 90, you commie fag!” Indeed. We all work hard. But most of the planet’s population has worked just as hard—harder—for centuries, millennia, for the generous reward of an occasional all-you can-eat yam supper and a short life in a palm-frond shack before dying of amoebic dysentery. In fact, even today about three billion people live in appalling conditions, regardless of how hard they toil. If they could buy a Honda 90, they’d probably slice it carpaccio thin, drizzle it with olive oil and eat it. “Oh, sahib, If only we had some capers!”

Seriously, how can you be offended by the reminder that Americans are lazy? We’re the Little Richard of modern laziness. Consider the telephone: A boon to the sluggish, but once we realized we didn’t have to walk to our friend’s house to invite him to dinner, we slipped further down the slope of sloth, inventing the rotary dial, then push-button dialing, then the cordless phone so we didn’t even have to walk to the room with the phone in it (“what?” says the 12-rupee-a-day coolie, “you have a whole other room?”). Now we have voice-activated Bluetooth headsets. We literally don’t need to lift a finger, unless we get cut off in traffic.

So why extend that slothfulness to motorcycling? Learning how to ride a motorcycle without killing yourself is rewarding because it’s challenging. Part of the challenge is acquiring not just one or two, but a whole range of new skills that the rider has to exercise flawlessly, without thinking. Not everyone can do it, but given enough time, practice and the right attitude, almost anybody can. But you have to stick with it.

Stick with it?! We want it now. And if you think this is Old Man Ets-Hokin railing against Kids These Days, let me tell you that I see this in all ages and subgroups. They want an $11,000 sportbike, but can’t be bothered to take a 15-hour training class. They long to be that guy riding his chromed-and-krunked Street Glide down Grand avenue in Oakland, stereo booming louder than the 110-decibel drag pipes, but can you loan them your 50cc scooter, because they can’t do a U-turn in the DMV parking lot. They want to be the sassy 65-year-old grandma tooling around Castro Valley on a pink Sportster, but why is everybody driving so fast? I paid my $20, so give me my M1 endorsement, bitchez!

It used to be that motorcycles, along with guns, power tools and Soviet-built adult novelties were the last refuge of idiot-killing products. Now we’re loosing even that. We’ve got traction control, anti-lock brakes, automatic clutches and even a little red light that reminds us to shift gears (“oh, is that what that shrieking sound is? Guess I better shift! Wait, I don’t know how to shift!”). Next up: proximity alarms, heads-up displays, laser-triggered training wheels?

I don’t like being one of these middle-aged assholes constantly talking about how he was a U.S. Marine, but the comparison is too apt: motorcyclists are the Jarheads of public roads. Motorcycles are challenging, almost impossible to ride without dumping at some point. We don’t have boot camp or screaming drill instructors to weed out the bed-wetters, the non-hackers. We have Sir Isaac and his laws of physics, showing less mercy than the toughest, meanest D.I., killing, maiming or at least scaring shitless those who insist on repeatedly making bad decisions, exercising bad habits.

I’m not saying we don’t appreciate the brilliant engineering that’s making our sport safer, more comfortable and more enjoyable. I’m just saying our sport doesn’t need the inevitable audience idiot-proofed products attract.

Gabe Ets-Hokin is currently in a fetal position under his desk. Please bring him a glass of warm skim milk. Read more Gabe at, or recruit him to your 419 scam by emailing


HarmonizedKaoS said...

I love you

Gabe said...


Anonymous said...

Ah come on, tell us how you really feel.

The part about not be able to complete u-turn was priceless.

Bakerslove said...

Did you know you can buy a car that parks itself?
Nice post Old Man Ets-Hokin.

chessie said...

I'm making sure a whole lot of other people see this...this is a great way to say the things I've been've covered my thoughts well...uh...have you been in my head or something? LOL
Thanks Gabe...

Gabe said...

Thanks Chessie! I will leave your head...for now...