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Late Night Thoughts on the Wanting of a Motorcycle

06/03/2014 02:26 pm ET | Updated Aug 03, 2014
Tim Platt via Getty Images

Dear Friends, forgive me. This is cliché, I know.

I am 55 years old. My children are grown and healthy, out of the house and happy on their own. I have been married for 29 years. My wife, as I type these words, is a short hallway and corner away, watching television in our bedroom, though she is probably asleep by now. The dishes are washed and put away. The garage door is closed and the mail has been sorted. We've brought in the cushions from the porch, in case it does rain.

I live in a polite little town. People say hello when they pass, whether I know them or not. The lawn is mowed. Yellow school busses wait for the students dashing after them, hastily packed lunches swinging in their hands. Just today, I walked by what I thought was a sidewalk lemonade stand and discovered instead the two boys, maybe 8 years old, were displaying rocks they had painted. Not selling. Just showing off what they had done. Another neighbor is building a twelve foot tall horse in his backyard from driftwood.

Yes, I am 55 years old and, suddenly, I want a motorcycle.

***

I was talking with a woman I do not know. We have some connection, though. Her family started the magazine I now edit. She and I sometimes trade internet messages, but we have never been in the same room at the same time. What we know of each other we know from pictures and from words.

"You court nostalgia," she said one evening. "I fight it every day with a sword."

We were talking about an old Paul McCartney song, "Mull of Kintyre." Her life has not been an easy one. "So many dead," she said.

I wanted to tell her I understand the weight of memory's luggage. But her verb caught my breath. I court nostalgia? Absolutely. I woo. I do my best to seduce.

I know nostalgia is a medical term, though that use is now obsolete (and thus, perhaps, nostalgic itself). It was coined during World War One, the Great War, to describe men brought to the front who could not get over what they had left. It's where we get the term home sickness. What they knew from home could not be left far enough behind to pull a trigger, drop a bomb, launch a canister of gas. What weight they carried could not be lifted to move ahead.

But this is not what I mean. I court nostalgia because I cannot wait to see what comes next.

***

Here is another door, or window, or rabbit hole. And please trust me, there is a path back to the motorcycle. It's just a long path, and it winds. Imagine the way a motorcycle leans into a corner on a narrow road.

I am old enough to have begun Dr. Who with John Pertwee, and I have been watching ever since. What is the allure of a time traveler except nostalgia? Is there a name for nostalgia doubled, because the event, whatever love or invasion that event may be, is in the Doctor's past and the world's future?

Imagine this moment. There is a scene in the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special, near the very end. The adventure is over. The crisis has been avoided and a catastrophe that has haunted the Doctor has been remade. William Hurt has said goodbye. David Tennant has said goodbye. Only Matt Smith remains, in a museum, looking at a painting. He is told the museum curator is looking for him.

"I could be a curator," he muses. "I'd be great at curating. I'd be..." he lifts his hands as if to frame a camera shot and pauses. "...The Great Curator." He chuckles. "I could retire and do that," he says. "I could retire and be the curator of this place."

And then there is another voice in the room.

"You know," it says. "I really think you might."

Wonderful, suspenseful, slightly ominous music begins in the soundtrack.

If you are a fan of the show, you know the voice is Tom Baker's, perhaps the version of the Doctor that holds, yes, the most nostalgic weight. Matt Smith is astonished to see himself, the Tom Baker himself, standing in the room.

"I never forget a face," Smith says.

"I know you don't," Baker says. "And in years to come you might find yourself revisiting a few. But just the old favorites."

Smith smiles and winks at Baker. Baker delivers a bit of news about the results of the show's plot. His past self bringing news of the future. And Smith hears this news as a challenge, a goal, a quest.

"Now you must excuse me," Baker says a minute later. "Oh, you have a lot to do."

Baker walks out, perhaps sadly, while Smith smiles. Purpose regained. They are the same person, of course. Yes, this is the show that begins with Clara, the Doctor's companion, dashing off to meet him on a motorcycle. And the last line of the show? "I am going where I have always been going. Home. The long way around."

***

I do not want an old man's motorcycle. No fat cruiser with a fairing the size of a small boat, saddlebags and rear carrier large enough for a wardrobe, stereo, cruise control, some very small dog in a kennel strapped to the back. Nor do I want some low slung hog, the rider looking like a fat and poorly washed hooligan. And I do not want a crotch rocket, some machine whose only real purpose is to make noise and leap away from traffic lights.

I want nothing at all from the idea that a motorcycle is a mid-life crisis, some desperate attempt to regain a youth that slipped by, uninformed, unaware.

No, what I want is called, accurately perhaps, an adventure bike. There is long travel in the suspension. It's fast enough to do well on pavement. It does better on gravel roads.

What I want, in other words, is the ability to accelerate, to lean more deeply into corners now that I know what a corner is, what danger and grace the bend may hold, to go nearly everywhere, exposed to the air, the wind, the temperature and humidity. I want that rush of movement to press against my chest and knees. If there is a path, follow it. If there is no path, stop and breathe. Decide to make one, or decide to leave it alone.

I am 55 years old. That is not very old at all, though my beard is gray. I live in a polite little Midwestern town, visited by blizzards and tornadoes and hail and lethal cold. I have the good fortune to have traveled. My boots have seen Rannoch Moor as well as the Louvre, Otago and Uluru and Jaipur and Cairo, Stovepipe Wells and the Narwhale Hotel, the Peninsula Hotel as well as fire-burned earth and tents that have failed in storms. Every pleasant day carries the tremendous weight of memory and experience.

A curator's job is to procure and protect, and -- most importantly -- to display. To tell a story, or a thousand. But it would be a mistake to say The Great Curator's job is to create a simple nostalgia. When you leave the museum, the world should be clearer, larger, less simple, more frightening, more wonderful. Let's say nothing of retiring and letting those memories become the whole thing. This planet is larger than a span of one man's life and Once More to the Lake is just an introduction. If middle life brings anything, it should bring the desire to go faster, to learn harder, to never forget a face.

Yes, this is mid-life for me now. It's late at night, I am listening to a sad old song and rain is coming. But I have a desire for a motorcycle. If there is a crisis, point me in that direction. Let's see how fast I can get there.