Once upon a time I was in graduate school. I studied history, which was an error. I should have studied anthropology. It doesn’t matter–it was a long time ago. I was in my 20s, and there were quite a few older students in the department. These “adult” learners were invariably interesting, having backstories and life experiences far richer than my own. One of these older students was Gary.

Gary was probably in his mid-late 40s at the time I knew him and he was a biker. Black leather jacket, boots, the whole deal. Gary was a live and let live kind of character, not the sort to get too worked up about pretty much anything. Except one topic. Helmet laws. Gary hated helmet laws. Hated them to the core of his being. On this topic and this topic alone he would become immediately vitriolic. A biker’s right to ride without a helmet was, to Gary, the very essence of freedom. It was the whole point of being an American. Gary was up to speed on the state of helmet laws pending helmet legislation all over the country. This was in 1999, and George W. Bush was running for president. What did Gary think about Bush? Well, he’d say, when Bush was governor of Texas he didn’t support efforts to pass a helmet law. Therefore, he’s a good dude. That’s it, I would ask? That’s all you need to know? That’s all I need to know, he said. Gary was a true single issue voter.

I marveled at the clarity, the pointillistic precision, of his politics. Would life be better or worse if approached in this manner, I wondered. For the most part it seemed life would be immeasurably better. To know what matters and have that thing be so easy to quantify and discern must free one’s mind up in so many ways. The truth was I envied Gary’s outlook.

Later that year Gary’s brother, also a biker, died in a motorcycle accident on a New Mexico mountain. It was a sad day for the department and for Gary. His brother was a biker and a cop, and I happened to walk past the church where the funeral was being held. There were dudes in Hell’s Angels jackets and cops in dress uniform side by side. Gary came by the graduate student office a day or two later. Yeah, he said, a funeral like that is the only time you’ll see bikers and cops side by side. He talked about his brother and how much he loved his motorcycle. I offered my condolences, but then curiosity got the better of me, as per usual.

“Gary, I have to ask, was your brother wearing a helmet?”

“Of course not. He died like he lived, free.”

“Does the accident make you think any differently about helmet laws?”

“If anything, it makes me more opposed to them. The right to ride without a helmet is what makes a biker a biker. Without that, we have nothing. My brother would feel the same.”

So there you had it.

This was 20 years ago, and I still think about Gary and his views a lot. The Kinks tell us that it’s a mixed up muddled up shook up world except for Lola. Gary felt that is was a mixed up muddled up shook up world except helmet laws were the devil’s doing. My own life since meeting Gary has involved navigating one grey area, after another, after another. I still envy his moral clarity.

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