Follow-on to In Praise of Talent

Occasionally feedback on my newsletters and resulting conversations are more informative and meaningful than the original piece.  The “In Praise of Talent” newsletter seems to be one of those. Here is some of the feedback, a day or so after publication of the newsletter with its special nod to photographers. First, I got the following email from my friend, Paul R. Hagan, who spent his career as a professional writer:

Paul wrote: “Enjoyed your article. You must have a great laptop!”

I replied: “Paul, Thank you for the brilliant, succinct and hilarious feedback. You truly are a great writer. I was lucky to meet you when I was young. Learning through you some of the skills necessary for putting words together in just the right way was an inspiration. Being close enough to you to see how much work it was, the time and amount of effort required and what it took out of you to do it helped me understand what it meant to be a professional writer.”

And then I added this postscript: “As you can tell, I rarely bother with the hard work of getting 1,000 words down to 100, much less 9.”

Not all great writing is making things as short as possible, part of the art and special skill of copywriters like my friends Paul Hagen and Arthur Einstein, Arthur of “Plop Plop Fizz Fizz, Oh what a relief it is,” fame. Like me, my good friend Rich Marin puts only a minimal amount of effort into reducing his written output or length of his prose. Rich expressed his thoughts about my newsletter and added some significant perspective of his own in his blog post this morning, which you can see here.

My good friend David Barnett came over yesterday morning and we chatted in my workshop over cups of espresso. We discussed the newsletter and I found myself telling David I believed there was a certain level of achievement or mastery of something one had to attain before you truly began to appreciate the way it is practiced by those who make a profession of it. As we talked, I came up with four areas where I felt my experience and skills had been refined enough to genuinely appreciate how much better the pros are: photography, motorcycle riding, driving a car fast on a track and writing. During our discussion, a fifth came to mind.  But first, these four:

  • Photography: This will be quick as you’ve just read the newsletter before this, which outlines my observations of those who have perfected these skills. I’ve spent hours with pro photographers and talented amateurs and easily see the delta between what I do and their work. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a bad photographer, in fact, I’d rank myself as much better than most. But compared to them? Not really.
  • Motorcycle Riding: Over the years I’ve taken countless riding courses and tested my skills in amateur races on big name race tracks. My off road skills have been exercised in chasing the Dakar Rally and countless rides in and around Arizona, Utah, Mexico and Colorado. Finally, I performed and competed with a precision motorcycle riding team.  Without gloating or exaggeration, I believe my riding skills are better than 95% of the people riding motorcycles on the streets today. This is what allows me to see and appreciate the skills of those who ride for a living. I don’t care how good you think you are on a motorcycle, until you’ve ridden with those who ride many hours every single day of the year and their livelihood depends on this particular set of skills, you have no idea the width and depth of the gap between your skills and theirs.  I’ve been honored to ride with a host of professional riders over the years, including motorcycle cops, World Superbike and MotoGP competitors, flat-track racers and trials riders and many who teach motorcycle skills for a living.  And like my photography efforts, I know the difference.
  • Auto Racing: Although it’s been many years since I’ve tracked a car, I do know what is involved. I worked at it, read books, practiced and took lessons from very good instructors. However, it typically took less than half a lap for me to appreciate how much better my instructors were at driving my car than I was.  My most recent experience was riding with McLaren’s top test driver in a new McLaren 720S. Even on city streets and scratching ever so slightly the surface of the car’s full capabilities, his mastery of the vehicle was astounding.
  • Writing: Ha! Visitors to my home can’t miss stacks of magazines everywhere. I love those who practice this particular craft. For over 25 years I’ve nibbled around the edges and managed to get a fair amount of my work published. But I know that “real” writers hang out at places like the New Yorker, the WSJ, Washington Post or the Atlantic. Maggie is a skilled technical writer and I’ve learned the process required to be very good at that. Malcolm Gladwell gifted me with late night phone calls over a period of several weeks when he was working on one of his books and later he spoke at some conferences I’d organized. Again, the masters at this or any other pursuit, make it look easy. It genuinely is not.

The fifth area that occurred to me while speaking with David Barnett was the ability to successfully work on cars.  My friends Brett Engel, Wayne Viall, Jim Unsworth and of course, David Barnett come to mind.  Outside of the immensely competent and carefully vetted professionals who contributed to the rebuild of my Lotus Elan like Brian Duffy and Brian Buckland, these four men with day jobs did the greatest amount of work and impressed me so very much.  These four have core similarities:  First, absolute confidence in their ability to figure anything out, repair it or make it better. Second, they are always calm. They never panicked, threw up their hands and wailed, “Oh man, what are we going to do now?”  Lastly, they exuded pure joy as they worked. They were in the zone, doing something they were exceptionally skilled at doing, with friends who recognized and appreciated their talent.  For those of us around the edges of this process, it was a joy to bring them tools, run to the auto parts store, watch them figure things out and scream, clap and yell with them at winning battles along the way, like when the engine first fired to life after re-assembly.

Some of the best times of my life have been in the presence of these special people, those who have mastered one small corner of the world and play in it with such effortless joy.

Larsen’s Ultimate 100 Song Motorcycle Riding Playlist

A bit over ten years ago I began adding music to my motorcycle helmet for longer rides. While testing and reviewing various helmet music/intercom systems I found some did okay playing music, but listening to music while riding didn’t appeal to me. And then, all of a sudden it did, and now I love it. Not for shorter rides, 2-3 hours or less, but when on a trek of a week or more, loading up my phone with music to fit various riding moods is fun.

There are classic, even iconic, motorcycle tunes that are “required” for any serious motorcycle ride. I’ve been working on this “ultimate” list of 100 songs for the past few months. I’m ready to open it up for critique and suggestions and would love to get feedback. One important caveat – it’s perfectly okay to suggest a song to the list, but not without suggesting the song it should replace. That’s the tricky part, deciding what song the new one will replace. I debated adding my dozen or so “almost” made it songs, but decided against it. A song either makes the list or it does not. Get it?  While I’m not sure how this will work for you, here is a link where you should be able to hear these songs, in order.  If you have never been to Amazon before, it will do one thing, if you are an Amazon customer, it does something else, if you have Amazon Prime something else and finally, if you subscribe to Amazon Music something entirely different.

But even if you can’t hear the songs, most should be pretty recognizable. I’m now officially open to comment and debate. So, with no further delay, here is the list:
https://music.amazon.com/user-playlists/4f972cb03b6e460bb3a311486bb74f53sune.

Playlist songs 1-10

Book Review: Adventure Motorcyclist: Frazier Shrugged

I’ve just finished Dr. Gregory W. Frazier’s latest book, Adventure Motorcyclist: Frazier Shrugged. (Order from Sound Rider.) The book is a collection of Frazier’s columns, many from the pages of CityBike Magazine, where Frazier was a long-term contributor, before the publication folded its tent in 2019. Although it’s likely they appeared in many others as well. Frazier is a prolific writer and regular contributor to a variety of domestic and international motorcycle magazines. Like me he’s written for BACKROADS, Motorcycle Consumer News and RoadRUNNER, but adds Motorcycle-USA.com, American Motorcyclist and Road Bike here in the States to his domestic list. His work also appears in motorcycle-oriented publications in Germany, New Zealand, Great Britian, Russia and Japan. We share reputations for solid product evaluations and compelling stories of our motorcycle journeys. We’ve both raced motorcycles, although few records exist of my middle-of-the-pack finishes, Frazier has won races on BMW and Indian Motorcycles and competed successfully on Hondas and Yamahas as well.

That is where the similarities end. When it comes to riding, Frazier is on the other end of the scale. He’s the only guy I know who has circumnavigated the globe by motorcycle six times. He’s been shot at, jailed, bitten by snakes and run over by Pamplona bulls. He’s broken down or had flat tires in more countries than I’ve ridden in. His over 1,000,000 miles on a motorcycle have taken him to Alaska, Ushuaia, Argentina, North Cape, Norway, Cape Agulhas, South Africa and New Zealand, among many, many others.

Thorough the riding stories in Frazier Shrugged, he expresses thinly veiled disgust with the erosion and broadening of the word “adventure.” I understand. He’s built a life around a series of genuine motorcycling adventures. He’s personally navigated the globe on a variety of motorcycles half a dozen times, most often alone. Having the term “adventure” applied to low-risk guided motorcycle tours lead by a GPS equipped tour professional, followed by a cradle of riders with a sweep van filled with tools and luggage going from one 5-star hotel to another, manages to get his ire up. When the term adventure is further extended to a host of motorcycles and accessories, it infuriates him even more. I get it. The dictionary definition of Adventure includes terms like risk, hazards, exciting action and uncertain outcomes. However, tolerance for risk and ambiguity varies from person to person.

Frazier’s perspective on his fellow riders reminded me of an incident a few years back in Camden, Maine. Overhearing a conversation between two obvious Maine residents, I could barely hold back a chuckle. The first one asked the other, “Where ya from?” and to the reply of “Portland,” he huffed back, “Portland! You might as well live in Massachusetts!” Now, to fully appreciate that, you’d need to add a deep Maine accent — “North Haven” becoming “Nahwth Haven” and “summertime” heard as “summahtime.” Running into the Portland resident later I asked if she’d been offended. She said, “Oh no. That’s pretty common. Anyone living in Maine who lives further south from where you personally reside is considered fair game to the criticism that where you live might as well be ‘a suburb of Massachusetts.’ In their estimation, genuine and true Maine residents only live right where they do – or further north and east.”

This same judgement is often expressed in automobile drivers: a growing frustration and mutterings of “what’s wrong with this idiot,” when following someone going slower than they wish to proceed. Of course, a few minutes later, commenting “Look at that crazy idiot,” when someone speeds by much faster than they are moving. In other words: “If you’re going slower than me, you’re an idiot and if you go faster than me, you’re an idiot.”

It’s difficult for me to criticize Frazier. We’ve shared editorial homes over the years and met a few times. I like him. When it comes to global riding, with minimal resources and support, he’s absolutely the genuine article with his million plus miles to nearly every country in the world prove that. My riding “adventures” are far lower on the risk and ambiguity scale than Frazier’s – although higher than many of those with whom I typically ride. I’ve ridden in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada (does that count?), Croatia, Chile, Greece, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, South America and Turkey and some more than once. My rides have been a mixture of solo efforts and guided tours and I’ve loved both. Readers of this newsletter can find copies of some of my stores about these trips here.

Frazier’s animosity for those lower than him on the scale of risk, danger and ambiguity is not a feeling I share. To me the point is this – no matter where you are on this competency/experience scale, there is someone higher, who could, if they wished, make snide and derisive comments about your experiences and accomplishments: “What, you slept in a flea-bag motel with a real roof which was mostly water tight? You wimp! We camped 100% of the time, even in the snow!” Or, “What, you had a 650 cc bike? We did all our trips on nothing bigger than 250 cc’s. How can you possibly consider any experience on a 650 cc bike an ‘Adventure? What kind of fraud are you?’”

Frazier isn’t a tourist, he’s a traveler. Like my cousin, John Gravley, who spent several years of his life traveling the globe, Frazier’s travels are not a holiday. He takes whatever time is needed to get from A to B, and once there, decides what point C will be and when he’ll head in that direction. He’s not there to see the sights, at least not the ones in a guidebook. He eats what locals eat, although happy to see a McDonald’s. Frazier makes an effort to learn at least some of the language of whatever country he’s passing through and, over the years, has been able to communicate capably in many of them. This is a very different approach than a typical ten-day riding vacation where you are essentially a tourist. But what he perhaps does best is capture the feelings of those experiences and pass them on to readers. As an editor of mine once told me, “Your job is to never say, ‘Well, I guess you had to be there.’ Your job is to take them there.” In this, Frazier succeeds, albeit with a shorthand sometimes only other travelers and adventure riders will hear. But as my Australian friends say, “Good on ya!”

While I don’t agree with his penchant for dissing the foibles, lack of planning and unrealistic expectations of other motorcyclists, I must admit some of his stories are pretty funny. Readers who enjoyed his columns will remember why they liked them. If you have ever thought about hopping on the back of a motorcycle and taking a really, really long multi-month ride, you owe it to yourself to read not just this book, but some of his other books as well. You can find several on Amazon.com, although I prefer to order them from Sound Rider, feeling he likely gets a bigger cut and these online retailers need all the support they can get. My favorite Frazier books are:

  • Down and Out in Patagonia, Kamchatka, and Timbuktu (also available from Sound Rider)
  • Motorcycle Adventurer: Carl Stearns Clancy – First Motorcyclist to Ride Around the World 1912-1913
  • Motorcycle Touring: Everything You Need to Know
  • On the Road: Successful Motorcycle Touring

His other books include: Alaska by Motorcycle, Europe by Motorcycle, New Zealand by Motorcycle, Riding South: Mexico, Central America and South America by Motorcycle, Motorcycle Sex: Freud Would Never Understand the Relationship Between Me and my Motorcycle, Motorcycle Poems by the Biker Poet, Motorcycle Cemetery, Indian Motorcycles International Directory, BMW GSing Around the World, Riding the World, Motorcycle Touring: Everything You Need to Know, On the Road: Successful Motorcycle Touring.

First speeding ticket in my Lotus

 

With my purchase of a 1969 Lotus Elan in 1971, I became the only Lotus owner in Rochester, MN. As such, I was occasionally pulled over by the police, mostly to answer questions like, “What kind of a car is this?” or “Who makes Lotus?” However, when I tried to outrun one of those cops, things changed. This is the story of how I got out of a speeding ticket written for “120 mph+.”

A first drive in the Lotus Elan had left me stunned.  I’d never experienced anything like it.  Rounding the curves during my test drive near Munger Imports at the far end of 4th street in Rochester, MN, the car not only seemed to hug the road, it felt like it had been launched from a slingshot as it accelerated out of each corner.  I instantly realized I’d need to have a lot more time in this car to be able to drive it well, clearly a far better car than I was a driver.

Finding a buyer for my Triumph Spitfire, I bought this mysterious and wonderful vehicle, a car I still own nearly 50 years later. The night in question occurred during my first year with the car. I was returning home from a manager’s meeting at Schaak Electronics HQ in Minneapolis.   It was a warm, clear summer night as I headed south on Hwy 52, a four-lane divided highway. Just south of Cannon Falls I somehow attracted the attention of a car full of guys, perhaps high school age. They made the classic male testosterone-fueled aggressive automotive gesture – pulling level with my driver’s window, moving parallel with me for a bit while revving the engine. Then they’d floor their accelerator and speed off.  After a few hundred feet they’d slow down, allow me to catch and pass them, then they’d repeat the process again, while I kept my speed consistent at 60-65 mph and attempted to ignore them. This maneuver was repeated several times, sometimes with guys in the open windows facing me yelling obscenities.

About the 4th time this occurred, I’d had enough. As they dropped back again, this time when they were level with me, I dropped the gearbox from 4th to 3rd and floored the accelerator. If you know nothing about cars, let me briefly explain the concept of weight to horsepower ratio (PWR). You simply divide the power output of a vehicle by its weight. For example, in a car that weighs 2000 pounds and has 250 HP, the PWR will be as follows: 250 / 2000 = 0.125 hp for every pound of car. My memory says they were driving an older 4-door Impala. Those cars weighed in at 3,600 lbs dry. Add fluids and 4 average-sized farm guys and you’re looking at 4,500 lbs, easy. The 1960 Chevy Impala 4-door sedan was powered by a 235 cubic inch, 135 HP engine. On its best day, the Elan had only 115 HP, so the Impala out powered it by 20 HP.   However, here’s the big difference. The Elan weighed only 1,550 lbs. Even with my 150 lbs, I weighed less than half what they did. With horsepower that close and weight that much different, and with both cars already moving, the term “leaving them in the dust,” came to mind as I rapidly pulled away up to about 90 mph, when I shifted into 4th and again pushed my foot to the floor and kept it there until the car was not accelerating any more. As my friend Brett Engel who owns a racing version of the Lotus Elan said, it really wasn’t much of a contest. “Even without the radical difference in weight, your Elan has far better suspension, better weight distribution and lower polar inertia, and far better aerodynamics.”  (Note: The Lotus Elan is such a magic car, at the end of this story, you may wish to head over to my blog to read about it. Here is a direct link the section of my blog about the Elan, which I’ve updated for the publication of this story.)

Watching the headlights of them behind me, I gradually slowed down. But the guys in the Chevy were soon back, apparently wanting to make another run at it.

At this point, I saw the sign near Hader where Hwy 57 would take me directly south to Kasson, MN in Dodge County, were I had recently bought a house. As they raced their motor and rapidly pulled ahead of me only to quickly return level with me once again, I waited and then braked rapidly to make the exit off to the right, onto Hwy 57 south. If you think a light car like an Elan accelerates quickly, you would be correct. But it’s nothing compared to how quickly it will stop. The Elan’s 4-wheel disc brakes slowed me to an easy turn off speed while the Impala had no chance of making the turn. Although they tried to stop, their car continued straight on Hwy 52, where the next exit was at least a mile down the road. Even they knew enough to not try backing up on an Interstate highway at night.

As I drove south on Hwy 57, I saw nothing for the next 10-15 miles and gradually relaxed. No sooner had I concluded they were history, than I saw a set of headlights rapidly coming up behind me. Now I was worried. This was no longer a large, wide, forgiving Interstate but a rural, 2-lane blacktop. As the headlights approached, I sped up but kept watching behind through my rearview mirror. Sure enough, as my speed increased, so did the car behind me. Remembering my prior encounter on the Interstate and guessing now that perhaps alcohol may be involved, I decided to get out of there. I knew I had a long straight away ahead that dropped gradually down to a bridge and then an uphill stretch, also straight. I decided if I was going to lose them, now was the time. As I hit the downhill stretch and their lights dropped out of sight, went down a gear to 3rd and felt the rush of acceleration for a few seconds as I floored it, and then shifted back up to 4th. The Elan’s little twin cam engine howled with delight as I accelerated down the hill. I felt I was closer to flat out than I’d ever been. At this speed, the Elan feels almost more like an airplane wanting to lift off the ground. I kept my eyes focused straight ahead as I threaded the slight narrowing of the road and flew across the bridge. With my foot still buried to the floor, and half way up the hill on the other side, I risked a quick glance in the rear view mirror. That was when I saw the rack of lights on top of the police cruiser pursuing me. “Aw Shit,” I thought, “I’m in for it now.”

Cresting the top of the hill, I immediately utilized the Elans stopping prowess and pulled off to the side of the road. Far off the side of the road, as I had an idea of what would happen next, and it did. A police car crested the hill at high speed, saw me as he raced past and frantically applied his brakes. It still took at least 100 feet before he could stop. He backed slowly up and I watched him as he pulled his car in front of mine and got out. By this time, I’d exited the Elan and was leaning against the driver’s door.

The first words out of his mouth were, “What the hell kind of car is that?” and “Why the hell were you driving so fast?” Failing to come up with any better excuse, as calmly as I could, I related my I-52 experience and my thinking he was “one of those guys,” back to try and run me off the road. I may have left out the part of me blowing them off on the Interstate. But I explained that I feared for my life and was in a panic, attempting to get to the police station in Mantorville to seek refuge.

I’ll say this. He listened to my tale, although I’m not sure he believed any of it. He finally wrote me a ticket for “120 mph+,” saying, “I don’t know how fast you were going, but my car’s odometer (a Ford Police cruiser) only goes to 120 mph and you were pulling away from me, so I’m saying 120+. I took the ticket and drove the rest of the way home. God, I was in trouble. The next day I called Bob Suk, the attorney who’d helped me with some real estate deals and told him my story. I asked him to represent me on this ticket as I was pretty sure they were going to throw the book at me, at the very least, a big fine or maybe, even jail time and I needed a lawyer. I had no idea or reference for this sort of thing.

Dodge County Courthouse

And now, boys and girls: do you remember the old adage that sometimes it’s better to be lucky than smart – and to always tell the truth? When I called the Dodge County court house to plead Not Guilty and get my court appearance date, I was told they’d need to call me back. A week went by and I heard nothing. Then my attorney called the following week and said he’d set up a meeting with the judge at the Dodge County court house and gave me the date and time. On the scheduled day, I met Bob Suk in the parking lot of the Dodge County courthouse and he explained a few things. It turns out that Dodge County could not afford to have its own prosecuting attorney. As a result, they contract with Rochester’s legal community for this service. Rochester attorneys take on this typically light workload as an adjunct to their regular practice, rotating the responsibility every year to someone different, so one person wasn’t always the same one to be burdened with this task. Well, guess who’s turn it was to be Dodge County’s prosecutor that year? Ah yes, you are correct. It was my attorney, Bob Suk.

It seems he called the judge and explained that one of his clients was faced with a serious moving violation charge and, since it was his client, he’d have to recuse himself on this case, as he would be defending me and could not act as prosecutor. To prosecute me, Dodge County would have to find an interim prosecutor, contract for and pay that person. The prospect was a huge headache and a paperwork nightmare and so the judge had asked if we could meet to see if there might be some way out of this mess. Suk told me that once in the judge’s office I was to only answer the precise questions directed to me and nothing more. “Steve, I know you like to talk, but this time you need to shut up and only answer the questions.” As we entered the judge’s office, I saw the police officer who’d written the ticket sitting there, in his uniform. I thought, “Well, this can’t be good.” After introductions, the judge asked the officer to recount what had happened that night that led to him writing me a ticket for “120 mph+.” After describing the circumstances, the judge asked the officer if the defendant (me) had offered any explanation for my driving behavior. The officer recounted what I’d told him about my encounter with rowdy guys in an Impala and I had told him I’d been speeding as I wished to find a police officer in Mantorville. The judge looked at me and asked, “Is this what you told the officer?” and I replied in the affirmative. He then asked me if it was true and again, I said yes. He looked around the room for a bit, then said, “Well, Mr. Larsen, we’ve decided to let you off with a warning this time, but we don’t ever want to see any more driving behavior like this again, is that clear?” I said “Yes Sir,” and a few minutes later we left.

Before I could congratulate Mr. Bob Suk on the result, he said, “Do you know why that just happened?” I said “No, what do you mean?” Bob explained, “Last week when I spoke to the judge, I relayed the story you told me about your being pulled over. That officer just told the judge the exact same thing. When that happens, judges feel they’re getting the truth, and you get points for that with some.” I smiled. Then he said, “But I’d still watch your speed around here. They’re going to be keeping an eye on you.”

Epilogue: If you’d like to know about my Lotus Elan, a car I am approaching a 50 year ownership history with, do follow this link.