Behind every beautiful thing, there’s some kind of pain.
I bought a new gun recently (holy crap! It’s guns again!) and as I was moving it from one end of Al’s shop to another, of course I had left one side of my cheap rifle case open, and of course I had removed the detachable stock, leaving the round metal socket exposed, and of course I was wearing my cheap running shoes on my always-sore feet, and of course the murderous steel thing fell exactly on the cuticle of my big toe, right where it would inflict maximum damage, as if my disjointed bolt-action rifle had taken a Krav Maga class in how to instantly subdue its assailant if it was attacked by a disembodied human foot. Ow.
Big toes are the perfect spot to inflict some serious pain, the kind of pain that’s not enough to make you go into shock so you don’t feel it, but way more than you can ignore without digging deep into your personal foul-language thesaurus. My epitaphs went into predictable territory, involving references to human reproduction that were immoral, unusual, and (mostly) physically impossible. Al, no stranger to self-inflicted wounding, cast an expert’s eye on my aggrieved extremity and said, “well, you’re going to lose that toenail.”
So why, after I gingerly removed my shoe and sock and gazed on my mangled toe, was I laughing so hard at my own misfortune? There’s a macho (or whatever the female equivalent for macho is) impulse to display the kinds of wounds that show the world we’re serious about our passion, and when it comes to motorcycles, I’ve shown them off as proudly as the next guy. I recall hopping around my college campus on crutches after breaking my tib/fib, and answering the questions about my temporary disability. Motorcycle crash! Yes, I’ll start riding as soon as this cast comes off. No, I’m not crazy.
I also remember arguing with my doctor, on more than one occasion, when he would tell me I couldn’t ride or race before a certain date. Sometimes I would ignore the advice — just prop me back up on mah horse an’ I’ll be fine, ma’am — but occasionally I would grudgingly accept it, like when my orthopedist warned me about re-injuring my back before my two crushed vertebrae had healed.
Doctor: You can’t ride for at least six more weeks.
Me: What? What am I supposed to do? Take the Goddamned bus like a common criminal?
Doctor: If you crash again, you could be permanently paralyzed.
Me: I love the Number 5 Fulton! What a treat!
Ha, ha! What a lark it was, cracking, crushing or snapping 11 bones, one or two at a time. Somehow, hobbies that require risk of self-abuse are just that much better. Observe how football players and other jocks swaddle themselves in ACE bandages, or how tennis players sport their arm and wrist braces like Soviet Great Patriotic War veterans wear their medals. Boxers have cauliflower ears and squished noses as badges of pride. I burned my eyebrows off making latkes one Chanukah, and of course had to proudly post this to Facebook, as if I was showing the scars inflicted during a civil-rights march.
Most creatures on Earth with central nervous systems learn from their mistakes when these mistakes cause bodily harm and pain. Even plants feel pain. A German experiment showed that grass emits an ethylene-gas distress cry and cucumbers squeal with discomfort when they get mildewed, yet I (and you) keep swinging our legs over our motorcycles despite hurting ourselves, sometimes daily. Not just with crashes, but carpal-tunnel in our wrists, monkey-butt on our posteriors, and when I had a BMW Twin, permanent scabs on my shins from banging them on those big, sharp-edged Bing carburetor tops.
Hilarity from swapping injury stories aside, another reason we hurt ourselves may be shared with members of religious orders who wear hair shirts or whip themselves to show their devotion to their faith. Whipping, cutting, burning or tearing your own flesh would, they believed, bring them closer to God and purify their souls. Breaking a bone or otherwise immobilizing yourself from a motorcycle injury has a similar effect. You can only binge-watch so many seasons of Homeland before you have to reflect on the big questions. Are the risks worth it? What if I’m hurt worse next time? How will I take care of my family? Can I use my physical-therapy money to buy a new exhaust system?
It’s easy to make light of this stuff – if your injuries are recoverable. All of us here have had friends and family killed or permanently disabled in motorcycle crashes, so it’s no joke. Some of you reading this may even have had your lives limited in some way. I hope you’re still riding (if that’s what you want to do) and happy, but I hope my injuries will always skirt that middle ground between lasting impairment and superficial uninvolvement.
We live in a culture of hyper safety, where my five-year-old has to sign a waiver to get into a bouncy house and motorcycle safety classes refrain from telling students the exact risks of riding to avoid scaring them. It’s nice that our human need for adventure, our human need to rough ourselves up a bit, hasn’t been fully squelched. Would motorcycling be worth doing if we didn’t risk grave injury for doing it wrong? Like video games, riding would still be fun, but probably wouldn’t be a lifelong passion for me, either. Like love or my cat, your life’s passion should bite you occasionally to remind you who’s really in charge.
Now go out and drop something heavy on your foot so I know you’re serious.
Gabe Ets-Hokin was the 122nd Emperor of Japan. He presided over a time of rapid change as the nation quickly changed from a feudal state to a capitalist and imperial world power, characterized by the Japanese industrial revolution. He loves Jenga.