The Not-So-Zen Motorcycle Safety Course

by Jhene C.

From about 1989 till 1999, I owned and rode a 650 Honda motorcycle … sporadically. There were long periods of time when I just pushed the bike back and forth across the street to avoid getting a parking ticket. Chalk it up to laziness, financial insecurity or the fact that during that period of time I was not actively going to meetings, but I never actually got my motorcycle license.

I did everything you weren’t supposed to do

I had my permit and did everything you weren’t supposed to do when you only had a permit. I rode at night. I rode on the freeway. I carried passengers. I was very lucky that I never hurt anyone when I drove drunk, and when I rode with passengers, sober, but without a license or any real training. I had been warned about the difficulty of the DMV skill test, but I also knew you could get around that by taking a motorcycle safety class. Still, I never followed through.

I finally decided to donate my bike to a worthy charity in 1999, because I was tired of suiting up, going downstairs and climbing on my bike, only to find that it didn’t start. I didn’t ride for years until I rented a scooter in Greece in 2009. I wasn’t used to scooters. The center of gravity isn’t the same as motorcycles, which makes them handle differently. I went around a corner one early morning, overly tired, and took my left hand off the handle to wave at a farmer while also hitting a big stream of water on the road from said farmer, lost traction and fishtailed. I finally ended up against a low wall nearby. The farmer and his son did their best to patch me up before I headed back to the campground where I had rented the scooter. I shelled out about $100 for a broken mirror. And so ended my scooter-riding career.

Fast-forward another 10 years to 2019. My husband and I go to Greece every year now, after finally convincing him to go in 2013 or 2014 and him falling in love with the place, too. But he’s not a rider in any way, shape or form. So I never rented another scooter (plus I wasn’t overly eager for a repeat performance of my fall), and the years went by. Till this one.

I was the only woman in the class

A friend of mine, Roberta, has a motorcycle license and rode a motorcycle for years. She decided, much to my delight, that she will join us in Greece this year for about five days. And she really wants to rent scooters. There’s one problem though: Because so many tourists like me were having accidents on the scooters, Greece decided to require motorcycle licenses to rent scooters in Greece (Note: this might not be currently true. “Requirements” like this are always changing in Greece). At any rate, after my usual habit of waiting till the last minute, I finally signed up for a course. It entailed three days of attendance. The first was an evening class that lasted between four and five hours, with an amiable but definitely serious-about-safety instructor.

I was the only woman in the class and felt a little out-of-place at first. The next class met on Saturday, at a school parking lot in South San Francisco. I instantly saw the bike I wanted, but also felt unsure about this instinct. After talking to us for a bit, the instructor we’d had in the classroom from the Thursday class and a second instructor, gave two separate sets of instructions. The first one said “Grab the bike you want, and put your gloves on it.” Meanwhile, the second instructor was giving the bikes to students from a distance. Which meant that both the bikes I wanted were spoken for by the time I got to them and I wound up with this tiny Honda rebel (I should mention that I’m almost 6’ tall). It wasn’t that tall. My knees were much higher than the tank. Yet at the same time, the bike was clunky and long. I guess I could’ve pushed for one of the others, but both of the guys who took the other two were even taller.

Feeling just a tiny bit superior

Photo credits available upon request from thepoint@aasf.org

I tried to be a sport and we trained for the rest of the day. I actually did quite well. Despite not having been trained by a professional, I did have some years of experience, and it started to come back. In fact, except for a few others who rode more often, I was one of the best in the class. The instructors let me know that I was doing better by frequently asking me to ride in front, or telling me things like “That was the best example so far today.” I got a little smug, a little arrogant. It was true, some of these guys had never ridden at all and were doing really, really well, but I didn’t let that little fact stop me from feeling just a tiny bit superior.

That night, after riding for about four-and-a-half hours, we went back to the classroom. After another lecture on safety and the rules of the road, we took a written test. We all passed, and no, I did not get a perfect score. I missed two or three. But I was happy. We were halfway there.

The next day was Sunday and the last day of instruction on the bikes. We were learning things that frankly kind of freaked me out. Like swerving. But I followed their instructions and, lo and behold, it worked. The arrogance came flooding back in right along with my newfound skill. You know how they talk about the inferiority / superiority complex in the A.A. literature, and how it’s essentially the flip side of the same coin? That’s the problem with being in the paradigm, of course. Arrogance is not confidence, and feeling inferior is not humility. It’s an obsession with self, and it never turns out well.

After doing fantastically well all day, it was time for the skills test. That’s when the trouble began. I think if I had been in a state of true humility, it might not have gone as poorly as it did. But because, in my mind at least, I had set myself up as having superior skills, the stakes were much, much higher for me if I screwed up. So I started to get nervous. Really nervous. As in psyching-myself-out nervous.

In the first skill test, we had to weave between cones that weren’t spaced that far apart. I missed one. Then, while performing the new skill of swerving I was so proud of, I nicked a cone. I was able to re-take it only because I had exceeded the speed by so much I was allowed a do-over. I succeeded, but my self-doubt had me in a death grip at this point. Next we had to do one of the easiest skills we had done all day: Simply take a turn in second gear, riding between two sets of cones. When it was my turn, I missed the “cone gate” completely. The only circumstance in which someone is allowed to take that skill over is if someone misses the turn they set up with cones. I couldn’t believe it.

The second time, I came in too close at the end of the turn, which is the equivalent of running into the hillside. Would this hell ever end? I felt like crying. I was shouting at myself to get it together. That didn’t work, surprise, surprise. Finally, in my desperate and humiliated state, I prayed.

Now, I would like to say that I prayed for acceptance and God’s will and blah, blah, blah…but I didn’t. I prayed for help in doing better on the next skill test, and for help in calming down. I wouldn’t say that I immediately felt “at peace,” but about a minute later, I had what I would call an intuitive thought, which was “slow down.” I guess in my trying to prove how good I was at all of this, I kept rushing through all of the skill tests. As if by taking the turns faster, the instructors and classmates would be impressed.

I watched a couple of the guys ahead of me and how slow they were going. Most of these guys were acing the tests, in part because they were taking their time. In the next skill test we had to take a very sharp right turn, between a very narrowly-spaced set of cones. I took a deep breath and just took my time. Focused on the head turn, turning the handlebars for the slow, tight turn while staying upright. Everything they had taught us.

I seemed to get through it okay, but I wasn’t sure. The instructor turned to look at me after I had passed him, which he didn’t seem to be doing with the others, and I was afraid I had messed up that one, too. In the last test, we had to get the bikes up to a speed of 15-20 mph in second gear, then stop as soon as the front wheel was next to a big cone, which was where the instructors were. A sudden stop. And the first skill test where I felt calm beforehand. Coincidence? Hmmmm…

At any rate, I rode the bike down to the cone at 20mph and performed the stop. It felt solid. About three of my classmates had to repeat the test, because they were going too slow. This is where my tendency to ride faster sort of paid off. I felt good about the last one, unsure about the second to last one, and horrible about the rest. I was sure I hadn’t passed and all the self-reproach crept back in.

At the end of the day we were called up one by one by the original instructor and told how we had done. It was kind of how I had feared with one major difference. I passed. I explained that I tend to psych myself out in these situations, and he said he had seen people who had done really well during the day then fall apart on the skill test portion before. “But you re-booted,” he said, “and then you did great.”

I was slightly shocked and asked him when he thought I rebooted. “Oh,” he said “Right before the sharp right turn. It was perfect.” What I take away from this is not that my Higher Power made me a better motorcycle rider. The skills were there from the training we received. What was relieved in that moment was my self-obsessed arrogance that was getting in the way of being in the moment, being “one” with the bike I didn’t like, and accepting my limitations. Which, if I wanted to try and get zen about it, means it was about acceptance after all.

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