Monday, January 28, 2013

I blame you, Robert Pirsig

Over the past few months I've become obsessed with motorcycles -- to the extent that I am increasingly able to rattle off tedious facts about displacement and torque and various other words that are as foreign to the average person as Congolese plant life. You don't have a motorcycle, so you don't really need to know these things. I understand that, which is why I haven't blogged in a while. I find it difficult to think about anything else.

I also don't have a motorcycle, but I tell myself constantly that Someday I will. And when that magical faraway future becomes the present, I tell myself, I will be one of those dudes who pays attention to his bike and is capable of resolving most mechanical issues on his own. I will be a guru, man. I'll ride around with little more than a roll of duct tape and the hunter-orange screwdriver I bought at Mills Fleet Farm, confident in the knowledge that if there's a problem, yo, I'll solve it.

(Check out the hook while my DJ revolves it)

Inevitably, of course, this sort of thinking was going to lead to my deciding to read Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Which is what I started doing this weekend after giving up on the esoteric tripe of Zadie Smith. In the first few pages of the novel, a character is introduced who seems to hate the idea of fixing his own motorcycle. He prefers to take his bike to a mechanic and let him deal with it.

He does this not because he is dumb or elitist but because he possesses a hatred/fear of of the great uncontrollable unknown that swirls around him. Technology in its broadest sense is named as the object of his frustration, but I take it as something even less tangible. And it's a same sort of anger/anxiety that I struggle with in my own self. This is why, when I had a car, I would feel physically sick and filled with rage when I had to take it to a mechanic.

My car would make a rattling noise or fail to operate in the way we expect of cars, and I would have only a faint idea of the problem. I could point to the right front wheel well, say, and identify that a noise was coming from there, and thereby narrow down the list of possible maladies. Maybe it's the brakes. Or the steering. Or the suspension. But I wouldn't know. I didn't possess the knowledge to say to the mechanic: "Here is the problem, good fellow. Correct that issue and all will be well."

No. I had to take it to a person whom I inherently did not trust, to a person who did not really care about my car in the way I care about it (the mechanic doesn't need my car to get to work, he/she doesn't use my car to pick up stuff from Ikea), and who stood to benefit financially from exaggerating the severity of my car's issue. I had to put my faith in this person, I had to force myself to trust them, and after a series of inconveniences that would too often leave me feeling like a needy girlfriend ("Hi, I'm just calling to see if my car is ready... uhm... because you said it would be ready five hours ago and that you would call but you hadn't called, so I thought maybe... No? It's not ready? You found an additional problem with it? Oh, yeah... OK... that's cool. Well, you know, if you could just call me when it's ready. OK... uhm... bye... Call me.") I had to give them great sums of money that would set me back for months thereafter.

As much as I like where cars can take me, I have always hated them for the way they make me feel -- so inferior and out of control. When I sold my Honda Accord for scrap last year, I very much wished that I could be there to watch them crush it, to laugh and spit on the crumpled heap of metal that had caused me so much misery.

But, of course, a car is an inanimate object, and the thing I felt angry toward was the culture around cars and my ignorance thereof. I didn't want to have to learn about cars; I didn't want to invest my mental energy in them. I wanted the damn things to take me from point A to point B. In reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance I realised I was the dude with the BMW R60, the dude who felt angry and cheated by the fact that mechanical things sometimes break.

Motorcycles, meanwhile, are notoriously more temperamental than cars. They are famous for zipping along doing what they're supposed to do be doing, then suddenly, inexplicably, not doing it*. Bike was going, bike is not going, seemingly nothing occurred between those two states apart from the passage of time. But, for some foolish reason, I tell myself that I will be OK with this aspect of motorcycling. Perhaps I am lured into a false sense of security because a motorcycle's engine is smaller and easier to see: all the bits are there and relatively accessible.

"Hell, fixing my bike will be fun," I've told myself.

I'm sure that "fun" is exactly the word I'll use when I'm sitting on the roadside in pissing rain, trying to figure out why the engine has seized up. But I'm not allowed to have any of that fun yet due to the absence of funds. (See what I did there?)

Which leads to last night. In an effort to somehow find money that could go toward motorcycle ownership I've decided to stop taking the train to work. Instead, I will take my bicycle. Brilliant. A monthly savings of roughly £28. That's not a lot of money, admittedly, but having £28 is more than spending £28.

The only flaw to this plan, though, is the state of my bicycle. When I first moved to the UK, I brought along a fancy new Trek 7.3 FX. It had to be disassembled to go on the plane and was reassembled in Cardiff by a nice chap with a shop in Roath. That was the last time it saw maintenance. In the interim 6.5 years, I have ridden the bicycle hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of miles, been bumped by a car, run into a bus (just because you can go fast doesn't mean you can stop fast), and subjected it to all other forms of neglect.

It's a testament to the quality of Trek bikes that it is still usable. But the bike definitely needs some work. It needs new tires, new chain, new gear cassette and new crankset. Those last two things are words I have just learned in the past 24 hours, because I have decided that if I really am going to fix stuff on my motorcycle of the future, I should be able to do the same on my bicycle of the present. I mean, hey, how hard can it be? Right?


Great googly moogly are bicycles loaded with fiddly bits. Dozens and dozens of itty-bitty grease-covered bits that have no visibly logical way of fitting together. So that if you are so unlucky as to drop the bits on the floor before getting to thoroughly examine them and memorise their order, you will not have a clue as to how to put them back onto the bike. I may imagine motorcycle maintenance to be "fun" but the words coming out of my mouth as I adjusted my brakes last night were: "You shitting cock of worthless fuckery." 

That's my new nickname for the bicycle: SCOWF for short.

But I'm committed, my friends. I am determined to restore the SCOWF to full working order, even though doing so will eat up money I'm supposed to be saving for a motorcycle. And, yes, becoming skilled at repairing and maintaining the SCOWF won't go very far toward developing the skills necessary for doing the same with a motorcycle, but I think it can still be beneficial. I'm hoping it will help me accept that some things require time and effort, and help me to overcome my fear/disdain of putting in that time and effort.

Or, it will instill in me a new appreciation of trains.


*I should point out that modern motorcycles are infinitely more reliable than the machines of old.


Dan Glover said...

Hey Chris,
Lovely piece of writing! One of my friends from (a discussion list for all things Pirsig) recommended your blog so I thought, hey, why not take a look?

I know your story is somewhat tongue-in-cheek (can you say things like that in Great Britain and Northern Ireland without the locals getting stuffy with you?) but you have some good points, especially for a beginner.

Any kind of maintenance requires great peace of mind. A good camera helps a lot too, so you can take pics as you disassemble said machine with high hopes of then being able to reassemble it when whatever problem you are working on is corrected.

Remember, Robert Pirsig didn't start out as an expert on motorcycle maintenance either. He duly brought his ailing machine into the shop only to have it butchered by incompetence, at which time he decided to take the wrench into his own hands.

Too, he had his share of mishaps. Don't want to be a story spoiler and I know you are just starting to read the book so I won't go into them. Suffice it to say it took him some time to become as proficient at fixing motorcycles as he is at writing about fixing motorcycles. Well, come to think of it, he doesn't really write much about that either.

Oh well, you get my drift. Anyway, may I also recommend his second novel, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals, whenever you finish Zen and the Art, of course. My first book is loosely based upon that one, and Mr. Pirsig was quite good enough to supply an introduction and annotations for it.

I don't mean to toot my own horn, mind you, but I suppose if I don't no one will. Anyway, thanks again for your most excellent story and best wishes for any future endeavors.

Dan Glover

Jan-Anders Andersson said...

Hello Chris
I got the tip fromthe same source and I enjoyed reading it too. I am that kind of person who once totally dissasembled my car into pieces and put it together again. I've done that seven times. I was in that lucky situation of having a cousin nearby who owned a car demolishion shop and a mother with a big barn to keep the parts into. During that period I also had a Motorcycle, a Triumph T100 SS. I put that into pieces too, while reading Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance in hope of some Mechanical enlightment, which didn't help much, and sold it later because riding motorcycles in rain isn't that fun. Years later I've read Pirsig's second book "Lila" and also wrote an own, based on my experience from Business and Family Maintenance. It's called "Money and the Art of Losing Control". You can find it for free at several places on the internet. But I suggest that you take a look at "Lila" first.
Best wishes
Jan Anders Andersson

Rhys said...

I'm in a similar situation with my bike (althoug a slightly older one - bought when I was 15 yr sold).

I can change a wheel, ok at adjusting brakes and barely replace the brake cable.

Now it's totally neglected and there's now numerous issues that needs dealing with, which even IF I were to sort it out myself (unlikely), it would cost more than buying a new bike of similar spec (a 15 speed bog-standard mountain bike).

But I'll be damned if I'm going to throw/give away my bike.

Before leaving Cardiff I intended to go on a course with these lovely soundign folk:

Yes, you're forking out more money again to attend the course, but in th long run it should save money.

Lucky said...

Didn't you change the squirrel cage fan in you car? You're going to be able to handle working on a motorcycle, yo.

I think you'll find the most frustrating part of motorcycle repair is waiting for the parts. The rest of it is just poking and wiggling things until you find the broken bit.

Of course bicycles, well, those are just infernal contraptions made of mystery and suffering. Good luck with that, man. ;)

I found I had to skim most of "Zen and..." I liked what he had to say in a general way, but heavy philosophical musing is not my bag. I had the same problem with "Shop Class as Soulcraft."