by Thomas Day
Regardless of the manipulation of political hacks and word spinners, words have meaning with historic context and those meanings, thanks to dictionary publishers, don’t change with the breeze. I’m a big fan of a couple of words that have been abused for the last 30 years: “conservative” and “liberal.” I use them all the time and I try to remember the actual definitions of those words to remind my readers, sympathetic and otherwise, that I’m sticking with the historic definitions regardless of what idiocy the media is farting at us this week.
If, for instance, I suggest that your cornering style is “conservative,” I mean “one who is marked by moderation or caution . . .a cautious or discrete person.”1 If I compliment your “liberal” application of throttle in a difficult section of road, I mean “generous.” If you make up your facts from whole cloth without knowledge of history or human nature, you could be a pseudo-liberal or a pseudo-conservative and I’m completely uninterested in your opinions. And so on, as the “liberal” writer Kurt Vonnegut once ended many paragraphs in at least one book.
One of the advantages to getting old is that you are risking less every year that passes. The idea that aging and conservatism go together bugs the snot out of me. All of the 60’s “liberals” I know who “turned conservative” in middle age were as disconnected and disengaged as kids as they are as geezers. They didn’t change so much as continue on the same path to nowhere. I turned 63 in July. That’s not ancient, I’ll admit, but it’s more than twice as long as I expected to live. In many ways, I feel more bulletproof today than I did when I was 30. About a decade ago, I turned a corner on having dependents that counted on me for their survival. My wife requires my existence less every passing year, since her dependant list has shrunk along with my own. I have never been afraid of dying, but I’ve always been worried about getting hurt. One “advantage” of getting old is that I hurt all the time so I’m becoming a lot less sensitive to pain as I decay. That is a surprise. I am, however, continuing on the same personal path as I started.
A friend and constant source of insight into all things, Martin Belair, was explaining his theory on why motorcycling events are losing their audience and participants. Outside of “everything is economics,” he ascribed much of the vanishing sport to an increasing American aversion to risk. “We don’t take chances anymore. We’re afraid to get hurt.” Martin, an ex-US Trials champion, described telling his daughter that she could forget about riding a scooter on the street. “Too much risk.” That was an interesting limitation, considering the source.
Risk is part of any worthwhile activity and a necessary part of growth, cultural and personal. If you’re so afraid of getting hurt that you never venture outside of your comfort zone, you’ll find yourself living in a shrinking comfort zone. If you’re not pushing against the walls, the walls will close in on you.
A while back, I got tangled up in a discussion with a kid about motocross. I raced, a long, long time ago, and he talked about racing as if he knew something about it, until he started talking about stunting during races. Pretty quickly, I realized that he was talking about playing a motocross video game and he had deluded himself into believing there was a connection between twiddling your thumbs in front of a television and the real thing. I extracted myself from the conversation and decided to never again talk about motorcycles with anyone under 21. Apparently, some of those squirrels can’t tell virtual from real world experiences. Later, a young friend tried to equate Guitar Hero with playing a real guitar or other real games; like basketball or even non-virtual golf. Conversations like that make me fear for my grandson’s generation’s mental and physical health. Get this straight: wiggling a control bar and pushing five buttons is not playing guitar and twiddling your thumbs while watching interactive television is not racing a motorcycle. Those activities barely qualify as activities, let alone an interesting skill, and they are in no way “sport.”
A few weeks after the virtual-vs-reality conversations, I found myself at a cornering seminar at the Dakota County Technical College’s drivers range. A friend loaned me his Suzuki DRZ-400 Supermotard for a few laps and after a while my knees were coming close to the track in the tighter corners. In my last lap around the course, I managed to take one corner particularly well (for me) and I noticed that I could have touched the ground with a hand without much of a stretch. Spontaneously and totally out of context to anything I was thinking at the moment, I shouted, “F–k video games” when the Suzuki popped out of the corner and lifted the front wheel a little on the exit.
I guess we’ve turned a corner as a country. Crossing the ocean or floating down a big river to get to America was once a major risk. If you came willingly, out of necessity or in slavery, you were at risk of losing everything, including your life. Now, immigrants expect to have welfare, Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, health care and public education benefits from the moment they cross the border. Some argue that immigration is the lifeblood of the “American spirit.” I think a willingness to take risks is more important. If we become a conservative nation, we’re not going to be very interesting and the Brave New World will happen, regardless of how cowardly we behave.
1Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary