In yesterday’s column, I mentioned that I ride a motorcycle. It’s a big bike. The industry calls it a heavy cruiser. I call it a hog. Either way, it’s my favorite form of transportation. Unless it’s cold or raining. And I’m not so sure it would be a lot of fun in Florida’s love bug season. But I used to have a tee shirt that read, “You can tell a happy biker by the number of bugs in his teeth.” It’s something I’m willing to try.
I bought my bike two years ago. Before that, it had been 33 years since I’d been on a motorcycle. And everybody had something to say about it. If you buy a sports car or motorcycle at the age of 51, everybody assumes it’s a midlife crisis. It’s not. Getting my ears pierced at 53? Well, maybe.
It’s funny, of all the people who should have been concerned about me getting a motorcycle, my wife was the one who said the least. Of course, this is the same woman who once gave me a gift certificate for the office of Jack Kevorkian. Another time she offered to pay for skydiving lessons. But three times in the previous year, our local skydiving school was in the news because one person made it to the ground a whole lot faster than the others. So while she may have been trying to ease me into a midlife crisis, it’s possible she was trying to help me skip it altogether.
And what is the big crisis anyway? I’ve seen a lot of older men driving Corvettes, and not a one of them looked overly distressed to me. In fact, judging by the swimsuit model seated next to them, I’d say life was pretty good. And the girls looked happy, too. Maybe that’s because they knew the Corvette would be theirs someday, and they’d still be young enough to drive it. But that’s not for me to judge.
It’s funny how we slap labels on people when they don’t conform to our values or fit a certain mold. If an older woman dates a younger man, she’s a cougar and he’s a boy toy. If a younger woman dates an older man, she’s a gold digger and he’s … well, we don’t really have any names for him. But his ex-wife does.
And it goes beyond just differences in age. My oldest daughter’s boyfriend is a hillbilly. I say that with complete confidence that he won’t read this and sneak over in the middle of the night to paint my front porch a lovely shade of black. He knows we think the world of him. Besides, I’ve never actually seen him read.
But the fact remains, he was raised in the hills of Tennessee. Spend thirty seconds talking to him, and you’ll quickly figure out that he’s not from the big city. Discuss a dinner menu with him and you’ll know he’s seen his fair share of dirt roads. But he’s got a heart of gold, and to us he’s family. So I guess that makes me a bit of a hillbilly too, doesn’t it?
Besides, if you knew my mom’s family … whew! Not only have these folks seen a few dirt roads, some of them still think asphalt is a medical condition. These people grew up deep in the woods in clapboard shanties with a tin roof and no plumbing. My uncle bought a “house trailer” and people accused him of showing off his money. Funny, when he parked a brand-new Cadillac out front, nobody said a word.
It’s all relative. And in that part of the country, they’re ALL relatives. Pick up the local phone book. Two hundred pages, and only six family names. You do the math! Sorry, I couldn’t resist. Mom would have gotten a laugh out of that, and some of these lines are just for her. She was the only person I’ve ever known who could watch Deliverance and get homesick.
But the thing is, we all tend to spot the differences in people quickly, and whether we want to or not, we form an initial opinion on that basis. That’s just human nature. The trick is to look beyond those differences and find out what lies inside. Because the truth is, most times we’re not really that different.
I was in the Navy toward the end of the cold war era. Back then, Russia was the big bad boogey man. Everything we did, every move we made, was to protect our country from a surprise invasion by the Russians. They were “the enemy.”
One day while we were patrolling the Indian Ocean, the captain made an announcement that we were letting a Russian cruiser come alongside. I grabbed my camera and ran to the port side to catch a glimpse. I looked around and saw a hundred shipmates lined up against the rail, shielding their eyes from the sun, looking through binoculars, and taking pictures.
Two hundred yards away, there was the enemy, casually cruising along as if daring us to make a move. I remember looking at their guns and missile launchers just to be sure they weren’t pointed at us. They weren’t.
Just as I was ready to leave, a shipmate offered me his binoculars. I put them to my eyes and it was like looking in a mirror. On the Russian ship I saw a group of sailors lined up against the rail, shielding their eyes from the sun, looking through binoculars, and taking pictures.
In that moment, I came to know my “enemy.” He was a sailor. His home was a big gray boat. He worked long hours, ate crappy food, and slept in a crowded room with a bunch of other sailors. He missed his home and he missed his family. He wanted health, happiness, prosperity, and peace. He was me. The only thing that separated us was geography and the leaders we would follow into battle if the time ever came.
This world is filled with a lot of people. No two are quite the same, but then again we’re not so different either. It’s easy to form opinions, but not so easy to change them. That’s why it’s so important to open our minds and embrace the diversity that surrounds us.
Is a 53 year-old with earrings and a motorcycle suffering a midlife crisis? Is my daughter’s boyfriend a hillbilly? Is a sailor from a rival nation itching for the chance to take a shot at me? Maybe. But the truth is, probably not.
I often thought if our ships had gone into port together and we met in town that evening, without uniforms or flags to cloud our senses, I bet we would have had a great time together. Language may have been a barrier, but there’s something to be said for a pat on the back, a cold beer, and a few hearty laughs. It would have been a memorable evening.
Alan Alda once said that when people are laughing, they’re usually not killing one another. And as I look at the turmoil in our world today, the significance of those words is astounding. So simple, and yet so true. Can laughter stop wars? I think it’s possible. Wouldn’t it be nice to find out?
Copyright 2011 – Dave Glardon