Monthly Archives: November 2005

Less exhausting

Over the last few months, my motorcycle has steadily grown louder, due to the gasket sealing the rear exhaust tube being blown out. A big two-cylinder pumps out lots of exhaust on every other stroke, and the little ceramic and steel wool donut that seals the rear exhaust tube takes a beating. Eventually, the ceramic blows out, and then the exhaust escapes loudly during acceleration, and it sucks in cold air on deceleration and backfires.

In addition, the bike was still running on its original battery, now eight years old. Which is not a problem, it was just getting down on juice, making it slower cranking and harder to start, but still starting reliably every time. But a battery can give out with no warning, and I really didn’t want to be stranded anywhere now that I don’t have a truck to haul the bike with.

So I bought a new gasket and battery, and with the help of my 3 kids, installed them. They love to be helpful, and offer wrenches, screwdrivers, and whatever else they can pick up and hold out to me. They ask questions every step of the way, and put their little two cents in.

Eventually, we had the bike put back together. I started it up, and we all listened. It sounded just like new again – quiet bassy burbling exhaust, humming motor, the unique tapping of the valves. Nothing else sounds like a TL1000 – except for all the other bikes built with the TL motor, I mean.

It’s pleasant to have a quiet motorcycle again. The noise from a loud exhaust is just tiring to have to listen to, mile after mile. Plus, it disrupts the locals, and can anger the helpless cagers stuck in traffic as I pass between them. Besides, if quiet works for ninjas, it’s good enough for me.

Maintenance Note: 74,900 miles, New battery and rear exhaust gasket.

Promotion exam

Full of nervous energy, I drove to Leigh High School for the NCKF promotion exams. Deep in a quiet suburb of San Jose, the residential district was wholly unaware that some 200 swordsmen were converging in their neighborhood to prove their art and skill before a panel of judges.

It was my first time there, so I was somewhat nervous, and hoped I’d at least be able to find the room or building the exams would be held in. I needen’t have worried. The place was deserted, aside from one portion of the parking lot roped off for an MSF class, there was a huge crowd of cars in one corner, and dozens of people moving between the cars and a large building, which was swarming with kenshin. Obviously, that was where I needed to go.

I parked, grabbed my stuff, and went in. Friendly faces pointed me to the sign-in desk, then the changing rooms, then the practice & testing area. After changing from my street clothes into full kendo gi and armor, I went into the practice area to figure out what the heck was going on, and what would happend during the exams.

I found a few friends from my dojo, and they helped me warm up, practice routines, and educated me on how to enter the arena, when to bow, walk, and start. I learned the new word “hajime” – the word used to signal the start of a match.

Sooner than I anticipated, a fellow with an unintelligible asian accent started giving instructions over a very distorted PA system, and all the participants started milling about on one side of the room. Within a few minutes, one of the examiners came over, calling participant numbers, one by one, and putting us in 3 general groups, lined up 4-7 deep. I wound up in spot #3 of my group, on the first row. Noooo! The sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach sunk even lower. Turns out, I was to be in the first group of 4 to be examined!! All my hopes of being able to see what to do before doing it were dashed!

Happily, I wasn’t nearly as nervous as the guy in spot #1. They were working though the groups in order from newest to most advanced, and none of us had done this before. Guy #1 was sweating bullets, and stuttering as he asked the sensei all the questions I was thinking. Happily, they explained where we were to go, what the routine would be, and where to go afterward.

So the four of us put on our helmets and gloves, stood, and lined up. Guys 51 and 52 walked out onto the floor at the designated spots, performed a kirikaishi, then a keiko. Exam over, 51 rotated out and, too suddenly, it was my turn to rotate in!

I tried to remember everything I had been told, as I walked to the mark, forgetting to draw my shinai as I took my third step in the ring, and did so after squatting in the ready position. At the call, “Number 52, kirikaishi. Hajime!” We stood, and I did the best kirikaishi I could muster. Tension filled my body, and I hope my form was good, because none of my strikes or footwork were produced by conscious effort or control.

That done, we returned to the start marks, and held kamae. The sensei called, “Number 51, Number 52, keiko. Hajime!” At that, we began a regular fencing match, looking to strike whatever we could remember to do. I don’t remember ever checking or correcting my form or kamae, but I know I looked directly in my opponents eyes, watching, and striking at the first opportunity. I don’t know how long we went before the sensei shouted “Yemen!” signalling the end of the match.

51 rotated off, and I crossed over to take his spot. 53 took the spot I just vacated, and we did the exact same routine, except this time he struck kirikaishi on me. I remembered and tried to perform the tips on receiving kirikaishi given me by my dojo-mates earlier, holding the shinai straight up, and blocking with firmness.

That done, we went into keiko, and then the match was done. I rotated out, and went back to the spot where we originally lined up. After 53 fought 54, and then 54 fought 51, our whole group was done, and we kneeled and removed our helmets and gloves.

The whole rotation took less than 15 minutes, but it was a good 20 minutes more before all the pressure in my chest and head returned to normal. I can’t believe how stressed I turned out to be! My mouth was completely dry, which I hope was a sign of good, loud kiai.

We sat for another hour and a half, until our whole group was done with examinations. The judging panel then pulled us up into a half-circle, to give instructional tips on our technique. Summarized, it was: good footwork is crucial, don’t just wait to be attacked or take turns hitting, perform to your level all the time, the body must move in harmony and coordination, and to control and use effective maai, kamae, and zanshin. We were told we had all performed well, and congratulated. We’ll find out during regular practice this week or next whether we passed.

I also finally understood what they kept telling me in practice – not to go for points, but just to use good form. I still saw it as a match, and you have to get good strikes in during the match, right? I mean, it’s not give up and roll over time.

But I finally realized it wasn’t a contest. The exam isn’t about how good the opponent is, or how many strikes he gets on me, or me on him. It was about how well I performed, and how well I executed the techniques I had learned. It didn’t matter if either of my exam partners were more skilled than I. They were being judged on their level, and me on mine. I had to perform as well as I could, and that’s all that mattered.

And so it is in life. When it’s all over, we’ll be judged on how well we lived according to our knowledge. We cannot “win” vs anyone else, nor will our life be judged in comparison to anyone else. All that matters is that we each live as best we can, to the fullness of our potential.

When I left, the MSF students had mounted their motorcycles, and were slowly, timidly putting around the parking lot, learning how to push on the bars to turn. I watched them for a while, remembering when I took that class, 11 or so years ago. I wonder if they know what’s in store?

Saturday’s Frolic In the Hills

Today was the first time I’ve ridden a motorcycle since last Saturday. Until yesterday, the shin muscles of my left leg were so sore, I could barely lift my toes! It’s been a rough weekend, trying to walk around the house, and to and from the mail box, barely able to stand or make my legs swing beneath me.

Saturday morning, I awoke at 6:00 AM to the sound of my clock radio, softly blaring meaningless noise across the bedroom. After shuffling around in the dark for 15 minutes, gathering up some warm and comfy clothes, some food, water, and plastic armor to cover every external surface of my body, I hopped into my car, and drove over to my cousin Mike’s house.

Describing the trip down there would take too long, so let me state that:

  1. It’s amazing how much stuff you can fit in the cab of a truck with three people, and
  2. You regret doing so pretty quick into the trip.

So, after a long trip, we go to Hollister Hills Recreation Area, unloaded three dirtbikes and our gear, and got suited up to ride. We each took turns straining and grunting, kicking madly to get our motorcycles to start, only to have it die when setting off. One problem with wearing multiple layers – the warmest layer is always too hot to wear while kickstarting a grumpy bike.

Thus, it was with reserved elation that we finally set off down the dusty dirt road on a calm warm-up trip, Mike and Christian zipping up ahead, bumping and pushing each other, trying to get each other’s motorcycles to shut off. I followed up the rear, trying to get my dirt-arms back.

You see, sailors have what they call “sea-legs” – that comfortable feeling in the brain and legs, that allows them to walk around a pitching deck without losing balance, or feeling nauseous and barfy. A land-lubber feels disoriented on a boat, being used to solid land that doesn’t move.

A motorcyclist who’s only ever ridden on the street has a similar condition. We’re used to riding on asphalt, that doesn’t move. When you steer, the wheel turns, and the motorcycle follows. However, on the dirt, the ground moves! You turn the wheel, the dirt spins beneath, and the whole vehicle slides around. It takes considerable effort to relax the arms, and back, and just let the motorcycle do what it needs to do on the dirt, trusting that it’ll eventually go where you want it to go, or somewhere similar.

And so it went. We headed into the hills, the crisp morning air blasting off the kickstart-sweat. It’s a tremendously exhilarating feeling to have a motorcycle pull you up a hill, over rocks, across ruts and pits. Things you would expect to toss you off into a thorny bush simply disappear beneath the front wheel, the seat kicks you in the pants, and then the obstacle is behind you. If your arms are loose, and your legs relaxed, the entire motorcycle bucks and tosses below, and you just fly across terrain that’d take hours to traverse on foot.

When we returned to camp for lunch, Christian told me we’d ridden 45 miles of trails. Forty-five miles, I marveled! No wonder my legs were so tired! Try staying on a pogo-stick for 2 hours – that’s about what it was like. But what a way to exhaust oneself, racing up and down hills, popping wheelies, sliding sideways into corners, and generally getting away with what would result in arrest in the city!

After lunch, we headed over to the motocross track, where Mike’s been working on his mad jumping skills. I was somewhat dubious on running the track, but what the heck. We rode over, pulled into the staging area, and watched the traffic. The traffic pulled directly away from us alongside the road, three large jumps in view. It then turned left, up the hill, with more jumps. It wound back down, then up the hill, finally turning back into the start point.

Mike and Christian started up their bikes, and took off onto the track. After watching them, I started mine up, and rode up to the first track. It reminded me of walking down a pier, how it extends away from the ground, but instead of water being five feet below, the pier extends 20 feet into the air, and just stops, and the ground beyond is 30 feet away.

I simply rode up once side, slowly traversed the peak, and back down the other side. This was not for me!

So I instead rode back over to the TT track we passed, and tried that out. It was a flat, windy dirt racetrack, laid out like the outside of an amoeba. This is what I could get into – speed down a long straightaway, slow slightly for a long left-hander, accelerate out into another straight. Hit the brakes hard for a tight 360-degree left, speed into a not-so-tight right, then speed zip into another 360-degree left that puts you back where you started.

The trick was, the hard-packed track was covered with dirt, so if you left the main path and tried to hit the brakes or turn, you’d slide the direction you were going, until hitting something that would either stop you, or let you turn. What a blast!

I joyously put in more laps than I could count, running ‘round and ‘round, until, on the last lap, I strayed into the slippery silt, and the bike started to slide out from under me. No big deal – I just held on, kept steering where I wanted to go, and hoped for the best, but suddenly the bike just stopped, flopped over on the other side, and left me standing, feet splayed widely apart, the bike lying on its side beneath me.

Shoulders heaving with laughter, I lifted the bike, and pushed it over to the rest area – a gazebo-like structure with a picnic table beneath. I took off my helmet and gloves, and sat down on the table to rest, stretch, and figure out if anything was broken. My legs were tired and stiff, and my toes hurt.

I was fine. Bruised both my big toes somehow, had a major shin-splint on my left leg, and lots of really tired muscles from the all-day workout, but nothing broken, pulled, or sprained.

What a fun time, I can’t wait to go back!