Just imagine for a moment cruising around the Mediterranean Riviera on a motorcycle, by yourself or with friends, whatever your pleasure, with an itinerary based upon concerts. Would you start in Rome and work your way north and then west through France and Spain? Or are you more attracted to the east side of the Middle-earth Sea, to the Greek Isles maybe, or to Istanbul, or the so-called Promised Land? Or, perhaps you have a thirst for the peoples of North Africa–for Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco? Or maybe you’d do it all. Anyway, sounds like a great vacation to me. Now if only I could find a way to finance it!
But contrary to whatever ideas the title of this post may suggest about travel, what I really want to discuss here is another “m” word: manumission. For each of these things–motorcycles, music, and the Mediterranean–represent a liberation for me from a burden that had become a sort of personal bondage. Perhaps this manumission has something to do with why I continue to be so drawn to each today. (Perhaps, too, that imagined vacation suggested above will become a personal reality someday.)
So: motorcycles. How do these represent liberation for me? To answer I must go back to my boyhood, to when I was twelve years old or so and I got my first motorcycle. It was a Yamaha MX80, not sure of the year, maybe 1972. An unreliable two-stroke motor powered the beast. I remember that it fouled sparkplugs regularly, so I soon learned to carry a spare in my increasingly bulging portable tool kit. It possessed all of 6 or 7 horsepower, and could reach a top speed of thirty-five, maybe–if I rode it down a really steep hill wide open and engaged the clutch!
But it provided me with a certain freedom I’d not known previously. For my older brother, who had a much more reliable 1976 Honda XR75, and I now had the ability to explore far beyond where any of our previous pedestrian adventures had allowed us to go. Many a time did we ride from our house to the bed of Callegas Creek, taking whatever footpaths and backroads we could to get there and to avoid the fuzz. We fashioned ourselves as little rebels without a cause. At least we did until another fouled plug threw a temporary glitch into the day. But then we fashioned ourselves as expert mechanics.
On this note, I remember a day when we couldn’t for the life of us figure out how to get my steed back in working order. We were three or four miles from home, stuck in a fairly boggy part of the creek bed, scratching our heads in adolescent befuddlement. Long story short, one of us found a bedraggled piece of discarded rope; and, knowing how to tie numerous knots from Scouts, Older Brother towed me the distance. To heck with non-street-legal status, we said; this was an emergency! Fifteen minutes later we’d made it home in one piece, and we’d avoided the fuzz’s notice.
We didn’t always succeed, however, at avoiding the fuzz’s notice. I can remember more than once riding my manumission-enabling motorcycle right past a cop driving in the other direction. I can even remember seeing the cop’s frowning face and pointing finger, indicating his desire for me to pull over.
But I had some things going for me, and I knew it. First off, the roads were narrow and windy. It would be at least thirty seconds before the cop could turn around successfully. By then I’d be a quarter-mile away. Second, I knew these quasi-rural narrow windy streets as well if not better than he did. There lay before me any combination of lefts, rights, and straight-aheads so that by the time said cop managed to turn his bulky Ford-Crown-Victoria self around he’d be left to guess his way forward like so many youths in the Minotaur’s labyrinth. Ha! And, third and finally, I could go off-road if necessary, as a last resort (which I actually did once). What could the copper do then? Pull his pistol on me? Really? Yeah, like that’d go over well in the Camarillo Daily News! Cop Shoots Kid on 6-Horsepower Sparkplug-fouling Motorbike.
Anyway, I never did get pulled over, arrested, thrown in juvey, whatever. Instead I always managed to defy the law (and my plug-fouling steed) successfully, high-tailing it home lickety-split, parking the bike in the garage, shutting it down, closing the garage door, and heading into the house to take a nonchalant seat on the couch as if I’d only been playing Space Invaders on the ATARI all morning long.
Manumission I tell you!
A second liberating experience happened in college, after deciding to change my major from mathematics to music. It happened this way.
I entered college in 1986, three months after graduating high school. But I had no idea what to do with my life, what to declare as a major, and so on. Long about second semester of my senior year in high school, in fact, I’d looked around and thought, “Yeah, I guess I ought to go to college. Don’t want to end up delivering flowers the rest of my life.” So I applied to enroll like so many of my friends at a local community college.
But that blasted application asked me to choose a major!
So I wondered and reflected and contemplated and pondered and thought and over-analyzed, as I am wont to do. What am I good at? What do I like to do?
In the end I checked the box that said forestry. How cool would that be, I reasoned, to backpack around Yosemite or Kings Canyon and check the lakes to see if they’re stocked with enough fish!
But in my first year of college I almost gave up. Flower delivery, after all, was paying me pretty well.
It was the math, really. I’d let calculus get the better of me.
The fall of 1987 came around and I determined to get back up on that horse–or, to use another metaphor, to fix that fouled plug and ride the motorbike home. I poured every bit of mental effort I had into my second attempt at calculus. And I found I actually understood it, even liked it!
At the same time I was taking music appreciation and music theory courses. These I enjoyed too. But they were almost effortless for me. I wrote the first coherent paper of my life, comparing Beethoven to the Beatles–and earned an A. I devoured every musical rule I learned; compositions flowed. So, I reasoned, because of the effortlessness these courses must not be as academic as math, somehow.
Yet I enjoyed them so much so that I shared with my engineer-dad my struggle. “Dad,” I said, “um, well, I’m still technically a forestry major. But I’m thinking of changing my major to either music or math. And, uh, since you’re paying the bills and all, well, what do you think?”
“What kind of job could you get with a music degree?” he asked.
So I officially changed my major to mathematics.
Three years later I was in Davis, California, the fall of 1990, beginning what I hoped would be my final year of college. Math was a struggle, but the end was in sight–if only I could pass analysis and combinatorics. Everything else came easily enough for me. But these two courses were a struggle.
Then there was music. I was still taking music courses on the side, for fun. But it felt somehow wrong, like dating two girls at the same time.
“And besides,” I asked myself, “what would I do with a math degree? Teach?
“I could always teach music. . . .
“And that whole silly dream of being a fighter pilot in the Air Force, well, really, Tim, that was kind of a passing fancy, wasn’t it?
“Aren’t you really feeling more of a tug to pursue ministry?”
And so I was.
Couple this with things taking a turn for the worse in my first significant relationship with a girl–another story for another day.
So then, it all exploded over Christmas break. My girlfriend broke up with me (on Christmas Day no less!) and faithful Music and jealous Math found out what was going on. The gig was up.
So I again sought sage Engineer-dad’s counsel.
“Do what you want, Tim,” he said. “But keep in mind that the money will be used up by the end of this year. So if you end up staying on, you’ll have to pay for it.”
So I did. I changed my major to music and stayed on–another two years. And I paid for it out of my own pocket. Happily! For I’d been manumitted.
On to the Mediterranean then!
Some years after graduating college I was indeed teaching. Ironically it included math. By now I was married with two daughters, ages 3 and 1. And I was frankly disappointed in the educational prospects for my kids. So I began to consider and contemplate and think about and ponder and over-analyze the idea of home-schooling my children if necessary, to offer them something better than the other options we were faced with–if necessary. My question to myself, then, was where I lacked.
I began reading lots of books about education, turning first to the history of education and then to the seven liberal arts of the Middle Ages themselves. Curiously, my education had included lots of stuff. Serendipitously, I was already quite well-versed in the quadrivium–arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music. But, aha!, the trivium revealed a gap. Sure, I knew some things about grammar, dialectic (logic), and rhetoric. But these were not taught once upon a time as we teach subjects today. They were seen more as stages, as Dorothy Sayers points out in a rather famous essay. Anyway, to learn the languages of Greek and Latin would reasonably fill in my personal academic gaps, I concluded.
So at 32 years of age I dived into the ancient Mediterranean pool of classical languages. And again I experienced a sort of manumission. For I wasn’t the only person seeing educational deficiencies in our modern culture, I soon discovered. Lots of schools in fact were restructuring their curricula to incorporate these same ancient models, or starting up as altogether new. And I soon found a place teaching Latin, not to mention ancient Mediterranean cultures, to students. I found schools to which I could send my kids with a clear conscience too. Manumission!
So there it is, really: my manumission theme and three variations. But, before I conclude, I’d like to add a coda.
That 3 year-old is now a sophomore in college. She is studying this semester in Florence, Italy, smack-dab in the middle of all things Mediterranean. And she is having the time of her life.
She’s been there only a few weeks. But already she has traveled to Rome and Pompeii, and to Ravenna. She will be taking a field trip to, among other places, Venice. While in Florence, in addition to studying, she will enjoy an internship restoring Etruscan artifacts. She recently wrote me to say,
“While doing my homework this evening, I glanced at a picture of Zeus that I’ve seen in several textbooks over the years. I then realized that this sculpture resides exactly where I do. I think it’s finally hit me that I live in the midst of, essentially with, all the history and art that I have studied in the past several years. I’m currently in awe.”
There’s something very liberating in all of this.