There’s an old story about Chinese luck. It’s probably B.S., which is why it belongs in this blog…
An aged farmer’s stallion kicked down his stall and ran off. The farmer’s neighbors commiserated.
“Ah, bad luck!,” they said, but Li Chien only shrugged.
“Good luck, bad luck,” he said. “Who can tell?”
Shaking their heads at his absurd fatalism, the neighbors walked away, chattering about fortune. There were ways to propitiate the gods, offerings to earth and sky and river and underworld. Everyone cherished a theory.
Don’t they always?
Three days later, the farmer heard a quiet snort in the flossy grey light of predawn. His stallion had reappeared in the pasture. By his side were three strong mares, one pregnant. Without a word, the farmer and his son, Li Cheng, set about repairing their corral fence as the four horses grazed quietly inside. His neighbors watched, impressed but not impressed enough to lift a hand to help.
“Such wonderful fortune!,” they agreed among themselves. “Three new horses, and one with a colt quickening!
“Surely the gods have smiled on you, Li Chien. You must render offerings.”
The farmer said nothing. They all stayed late at his home that night, singing and drinking and rubbing elbows with the blessed man until he finally snapped at them.
“There is no unmixed fortune!” He glared at them, eyes glittering black through the smoky lamp light. “Have you learned nothing?
“Nobody knows what tomorrow brings!”
Startled, they drank off the dregs of his rice wine and slouched off into the night, muttering about his ingratitude to Fate. The farmer and his son watched them go.
“Tomorrow is not promised to us,” Li Chien told his son, “so we must remember to enjoy its blessings as they arrive.”
“I will remember, father.”
The next day, breaking the second of the three mares, Li Cheng fell hard and broke his arm badly above the elbow. As the farmer splinted his white-faced son’s terrible fracture, first pulling it into place as Li Cheng bit down on a bamboo stalk and tried not to scream, the neighbors proffered their wisdom once more.
“Terrible,” they said, shaking their heads, “terrible fortune. You have angered the gods this time, Li Chien. It will go ill for you now.”
No one offered to help break the mares. Li Chien offered them no wine. He reminded them only of the obvious fact that the world spun beyond the control of men or sprites or house gods.
“Good luck,” he said again, “bad luck… who knows?” But he wasn’t trying to reach them anymore. His mantra had become just a resigned murmur, backbeat to their chatter, a quiet carrier wave to the white noise of the world.
“Who knows,” he hummed to himself, gently dressing his son’s arm, “who ever really knows?”
Chien Li looked up at the most vocal among his expert fortunetelling neighbors.
“You, Jun Hai,” he ordered, “bring wine for my son.”
The fat neighbor pulled his chins back, indignant.
“But I may run out!”
Based on his recent experience, the farmer was forced to agree that this could happen to anyone.
The next day, a cavalcade of soldiers entered the town, resplendent in sparkling, richly embroidered dress armor and preceded by trumpets and criers. Awed by their presence, every family from the town and its surrounding farms gathered in the public square to see them and hear whatever magnificent message they might bear… perhaps from the Emperor Himself!
In hushed tones, they all agreed it was a most propitious moment. The most richly arrayed officer among the soldiers unrolled a scroll. His tone was peremptory, his attitude commanding, and the scroll’s message short and to the point.
Save for Cheng Li with his useless arm, every young man was promptly impressed into the service of the Royal Armies of the Son of Heaven. They were herded up, lightly armed, and marched away to battle Mongols that very afternoon.
“Ai-eee!,” Chien Li’s neighbors shrieked, tearing at their clothes. “What miserable fortune has befallen us! Why do the gods punish us? Will we ever see our sons again? How will we bring in our harvest?
“Why is this happening to us?”
Palms up, the old farmer had but one thing to say. Perhaps it was wisdom. Perhaps he was only simple. Perhaps his neighbors listened to him, although that seems unlikely, does it not?
We were supposed to ride to Laconia Bike Week last month, followed by a motorcycle camping trip through B.C. and Alberta this month. That seemed a fine plan, right up until I slipped in one extra trip to ride Triumphs around San Diego County’s Pine Valley area, tipped one over and took a frame rail square on the medial malleolus.
Crushed that sucker good and proper.
Riding with a busted shank is bloody inconvenient. Worse, putting weight on a broken ankle can displace the bone, resulting in longer (and even more bloody inconvenient) healing times. I know this because the orthopedist told me so. I know this because orthopedists past have told me so, more than half a dozen times so far. And I know this because I’ve been a hardhead and screwed up my rehab before. That proved to be a boo-boo…
So no weight bearing, and here it was the beginning of summer (FSVO “summer” as expressed by virtue of a warmer troupe of steely clouds than bears on us during the other three laughingly named “seasons” experienced by Northwesterners).
Whatevah was a moto boy to do? It’s hard to tell what the meaning of events is. Probably depends on how we construe them as much as how we react to them. What did a broken ankle mean to our summer?
Well, for one thing, it meant we were at home when our buddy Ken rode into town for the start of the 2011 Iron Butt Rally. He wasn’t riding in it — chose to go with the Utah 1088’s “extended bonus round 72-hour version” instead — but Ken knew just about everybody in the LDR community and was there to help out, encourage and generally cause that kinda trouble, being cool like that.
Pretty Wife baked him a scratch-made pizza and we dug out a Tecate Light lager ’cause Ken didn’t drink no pretentious, micro-brewed ales. I remembered looking at that crappy-ass Tecate after a friend left it off during a house party, and asking Pretty Wife what the Hell we’d do with it.
“Who knows?” She shrugged. “Somebody will want it.”
Being off regular bikes also meant that I could (finally!) follow my editor’s instructions and go test Harley-Davidson’s three-wheeler, the ever-genteel “Tri Glide Ultra Classic.” Thanks to Eastside Harley-Davidson in Bellevue, Washington, we were able to get our mitts on one in time to ride it to the annual WetleatherTM Goat Roast out on Vashon Island. Creaky bones or not, I tanked up on ibuprofen and we enjoyed a beautiful two-ferry route to Vashon where we sucked goat marrow, single malt and MGDs, cuddled the indigenous poodles and had a generally lovely time at the first Goat Roast in the past few years that was wide-open sunny. Turned out to be our first nice family ride with Smalldaughter this summer, and it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t crushed the ligament-bearing knob on my ankle.
The law of gravity is a capricious variable compared to the universally overwhelming Law of Unexpected Consequences.
I felt like a goober pulling up on that chromed golf cart, but what the heck… it was good for a laugh and a lot of conversation. Moreover, in a group that lately discusses our cardiologists and oncologists with the same fervor and precision as lap times and tire compounds, it’s entirely possible that the trike revealed a glimmer of extended possibility. Chrome hips and plastic knees aren’t universally conducive to stoplight stands on a two-wheeler.
Laugh-a while you can, Monkey Boy! Time and chance happeneth to us all…
The next morning, Pretty Wife’s dad was scheduled to visit. Given that he tattooed his cardiac trace around his biceps just to freak out any doctor who catches sight of it, we always make time for him. Pretty Wife bustled efficiently around, preparing brunch and cleaning meticulously while I desultorily browsed email with my bungled foot propped up on a cushion. Pretty Wife was visibly annoyed when I suddenly cried out.
She always hates it when I do that; shoots the adrenaline right through her, it does. This time, it wasn’t because I had moved wrong.
“Ken is… Ken’s…”
She came and looked over my shoulder, crushed my trapezius unconsciously, and then we both agreed to talk about it after her folks had left. We would talk late into the small hours that night, finally changing out the pillowcases for dry ones.
Details were scant and some will never be known, only guessed at. This year’s Utah 1088 started before the Iron Butt Rally finished. There was a huge bonus offered to “long form” 1088 riders who lit out on a 4,000-mile detour to get their picture taken with an Iron Butt competitor at the IBR checkpoint in upstate New York. For those of you playing along at home, that’s one helluva side trip that required maintaining a 55 mph average for three solid days.
No problemo, señor.
Ken was in shape, he was cookin’ along on a well-sorted DL Maximus, and he knew practically every real competitor running the IBR. Ken loved him some bonii, and that one probably smelled like good luck from the saddle.
Maybe it was, for him, even if G-D knows it was tough for a lot of people who cared about him. Smacked abruptly into the next life, Ken went out at the top of his game, known to virtually all long-distance riders as the notorious Dread Pirate Kermit who somehow posted an official finish of the 2005 IBR… on a CX500 Silver Wing. He was “doing what he loved” (to quote the old cliché), healthy and happy and basking in the love of his beautiful wife. When he was here for pizza, practically all we talked about were great rides, pretty wives, and our kids.
Ken’s buddy Tedder and his wife Tamara led a dedicated band of friends who threw a helluva memorial for him, one week after Ken met (a truck wake? Tornado? Standing water? Sandman?) his final mortal moment on a lonesome highway in the Nebraska panhandle, all by himself in the dark with no one but the night to see him off.
He was impressively skilled, rigorously prepped, physically fit and thoroughly experienced. The Dread Pirate Kermit didn’t just know what he was doing; he knew how to do it better than almost every other rider out there.
The wake was a ride-to call, of course. Purely due to Eastside H-D’s generosity with the Tri Glide, I was able to get there on a kind of “bike” with Smalldaughter perched on pillion, Pretty Wife scouting along on her F650GS and my crutches strapped to the top rack. It was a simple affair with more hugs than ceremony, featuring Ken’s precisely worded request from an online conversation months before: friends gathered around a cheap keg, a little food, a lot of memories, and a rev-off of the assembled bikes. Ken’s brass plaques and rally towels decorated the walls, his ashes sat on the memorial table next to a great picture and a can of crappy beer; his friends were everywhere, all over the world but especially concentrated there, in that suburban cul-de-sac, remembering.
Tedder green-flagged our rev-off at four p.m. Others would later send cell phone video of individual revs performed simultaneously in the midwest, Canada and the Oregon Desert. Because I happened to get dented the week previous, we got to do ours there in his driveway. Trike or no, the Harley acquitted itself well, making much more noise off the bottom than pinned at redline because (as every session player knows) all bass notes go to Heaven.
From two-strokes to sportbikes to hawgs, it was something to hear. Not only did the neighbors not complain, some of them joined in. I don’t know that Ken’s ashes rolled over, but then again I couldn’t see them through the box.
He’ll never suffer from prostate cancer, diabetes or heart disease. On the day Ken died, he was 51 years old. He could still bicycle a hundred and fifty miles with his sweetie for fun, ride two weeks at a 1,000-mile-per-day clip, and knock out a hundred sit-ups without a rest. He declined a third slice of pizza when he was here, and I couldn’t get him to drink the last can of that lousy Tecate, either. That’s how it ended up on the memorial table in his garage. I’m not proud of that; but unlike Ken, I don’t always play fair.
Good luck, bad luck…? Ken never had a chance to watch himself crumble; good looking corpse and all that. I may envy him that some day, as the future becomes increasingly foreseeable and the open chance of life devolves into creaky-boned iterations of Groundhog Day…
We like to think that the last thing going through Ken’s mind was a thought about his sweetie. Chances are good; he never could stop talking about her, and he was generally grinning like a lovestruck fool when he did. It’s a misery for her to lose a man like Ken.
It’s a misery for everyone who knew him. Ken was that guy who never made you earn it. He acted as a friend without ever a thought to do otherwise, and you suddenly felt like you’d known him for decades. We would have done anything for him, and by “we” I mean to include hundreds of people, most of whom I don’t even know, have no right to speak for — yet am correct about.
There’s no good luck in losing such a friend, such a father and fellow rider and husband and pet owner and all-around mensch. What malevolent, undiluted misfortune — and yet, how much less terrible than never having known him.
Good luck, bad luck…
We may not have tomorrow, but today we remember our friend. The worst luck that Ken brought us was the day he went down and didn’t get up. The best luck that he brought us was the reminder to ride it out until the last, gunning toward one more sunrise to clear our night-bleared eyes.