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Zen & the Art of Politics and Motorcycles

I had both a fascination with and fear about motorcycles. Fear won out until I was 28. Then I bought my first motorcycle. I did not ride it until I passed motorcycle school. Fear said, “If you are going to do this, listen to the experts.” Here are the lessons I learned in motorcycle school that can be applied to politics.

Motorcycle Fatality Stats

1. Half of all motorcycle deaths involve alcohol consumption by the rider.

2. Half of all motorcycle deaths involve the rider exceeding the speed limit.

3. Half of all motorcycle deaths involve riders with less than two years of experience.

“Hey” I thought, “I could reduce my fatality rate by 75% by not drinking alcohol and following speed limits.” So that’s what I did. I was still a social drinker back then, but I never took a drink if I was going to be on the bike within the next four hours.

As for the inexperienced part, I cut my odds by following SIPDE protocols—something taught at motorcycle school. We’ll talk about that later.

Before I analogize these motorcycle stats into politics, I need to bring up the lifestyle of the average politician. Politicians are always on the go: legislative floor duties, meetings, office duties, party functions, media, staying well dressed, meals to make connections, ribbon-cutting ceremonies, other public functions, and more meetings. A good politician is probably on the go 80 to 100 hours a week.

Alcohol leads to motorcycle deaths. While alcohol probably doesn’t kill politicians, those politicians who have more than a couple of drinks are losing focus and judgment to do their job as well as they are able. Alcohol works with neither motorcycling nor politics.

Speed leads to motorcycle deaths. Political speed can end a political career. Politicians need to set speed limits for themselves. They cannot give into all requests for their time. They have to set priorities—even if some citizens get offended.


SIPDE is the acronym for Scan/Interpret/Predict/Decide/Engage.

SCAN is looking around in the right way and places. Shoulder checks, mirror checks, eyes always moving around, especially in city traffic.

INTERPRET is analyzing the traffic around you.

PREDICT is determining what aspects of traffic can harm you and figuring out a way to avoid a danger.

DECIDE is the decision. Compared to cars, motorcycles have better braking, acceleration, and maneuverability. Use these three tools to avoid a collision.

ENACT is doing what it takes to get out of danger.

In my first two years of motorcycling—and even after, I would play out traffic situations on the road with SIPDE. Many dangerous situations can be spotted well in advance. And actions can usually be taken in advance, so the situation is no longer dangerous.

For example, I am riding on Main Street. I see a car about 30 meters ahead pulling up to Main Street from a smaller street. This car is going a little too fast and may not stop in time. I will either cover my brakes to reduce my reaction time or just brake—well in advance. Collision totally avoided. It did not matter if the car saw me or not. I saw traffic as a big chess game that needed skillful playing. SIPDE was my tool to move my bike to a less dangerous position. It was actually fun to SIPDE.

In time, my SIPDE skills became more automatic. And on a bike, a rider has a fuller picture of traffic than a car driver will have. I got to a point where I thought my chances of a motorcycle accident were much lower than a car accident.

In normal times, a skillful politician will be using a political version of SIPDE as he/she is engaging with the other politicians, the people, and the media. Some politicians may have more natural talents, but it still takes experience to figure out how to interact with all the other chess pieces on the political board to attain certain political objectives.

In the USA, these aren’t normal times. Political SIPDE has become irrelevant. Democracy in the USA is at a crossroads. A Republican oligarchy is plausible. Today’s commentators on the political left probably have a good handle on SCAN, INTEPRET, and PREDICT of the political situation. But let’s look at their DECIDE and ENACT.

From my perspective, there are three kinds of DECIDE & ENACT actions that political commentators are making:

1. Write more anti-Trump, anti-Trump base, anti-Republican rhetoric.

2. Write rhetoric to admonish Joe Biden and the Democratic Party for not making the right moves.

3. Write rhetoric about the upcoming dystopia.

For the first DECIDE & ENACT, these commentaries have been around since Mr. Trump rode down his escalator. He was a viable contender in 2016. He was a viable contender in 2020. If he is alive in 2024, he will still be a viable contender. So, it’s safe to say more of this “anti-Trump stuff” is not going to convert enough Trumpists into a new and better religion.

For the second DECIDE & ENACT, Mr. Biden and crew have a lot of their plate. I doubt they have time to read articles from armchair politicians who will never be elected. The more likely tangible result is that these articles are only going to erode the soft support of the Democrats, meaning fewer votes in the next election.

For the third DECIDE & ENACT, the analogy would be for the motorcyclist just to collide with the car moving too fast into the intersection on Main Street—because that was what was going to happen anyways.

Come to think of it, the other two DECIDE & ENACTs are probably going to have the same result.

So, what to do? What to do? What to do?

What to do?

Look, and Your Bike Will Follow Your Eyes

My motorcycle trainers stressed your bike goes where your eyes are looking. In the big training parking lot, they got us to look here and there and observe where our trainer bikes were taking us. You can’t keep a straight line if you are staring at the cows in the field or the girl on the sidewalk.

While there is a balance to doing a proper SCAN of traffic, a rider should also be putting attention on the destination of the next few seconds.

The axiom holds especially true when going through a curve at highway speeds. A rider’s eyes should be on a spot in the curve, maybe 30 to 40 meters ahead. When the eyes are there—and still moving forward as the bike moves forward, the bike will track that path made by the eyes. And it’s a great feeling: the rider, bike, highway, and wind are all in one spirit—in one great motorcycle lean.

Cast eyes away from the curve, and the bike wants to follow those eyes. Fortunately, the bike still has physics to contend with and can’t fully follow these wandering eyes. But it loses the good path through the curve. The front wheel loses the line. The rider senses the loss and refocuses. But this requires a little waggling of the handlebars to bring the bike back under better control. Clumsy riding! If an emergency comes up during the waggle, things could be dangerous!

Here’s another look lesson from my motorcycle instructors. When faced with an imminent collision, get your eyes on a path beyond that collision. That path will take you to a place better than the collision that you are looking at. A ditch on the side of the highway is better than the semi-truck cutting into your lane. A ride over a curb and onto a lawn is better than into the erratic drunken driver coming at you. Fortunately, I never had to apply that axiom in my 25 years of motorcycling.

Beyond the Collision

“Beyond the Collision” is the big lesson motorcycles can give to politics.

If we are looking at the collision coming to our bike, we will hit that collision.

If we are looking at the future Republican oligarchy, we will hit that oligarchy.

Think deeply about this analogy.

Astute Americans really need to see the zen here: Cast eyes beyond collision.

May I suggest that we start building a new democracy. A democracy with no Democrats, no Republicans, no political parties at all! Let all these silly people play their silly games—while we, the wiser, build this new democracy.

If we can keep our eyes on this new democracy, we can build it. That’s the zen of motorcycling speaking to us all.

Published on Medium 2021

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