…life on the synaptic firing range

Location: Los Angeles, United States

Bent but unbroken Southern California native seeks understanding, companionship, and resonance along and off the beaten path. Teresa plays well with others and makes every effort to perform to her potential. Usually. *processed in a facility that processes nuts and nut products

Monday, July 16, 2007

shifting gears

“Hey, do you guys fix and sell bikes?” a passerby stopped to ask one Sunday as Sporks and I tinkered with our bicycles in the garage.

At first it seemed like a random question, but then I took an objective look at our garage, noting the shop stand; the shelves full of spare pedals, saddles, and other bike parts; two bikes in various states of undress, their tires propped against the fence; and three other bikes hanging about.

“No, sorry,” I said. “We just really like them.”

After a brief discussion about where she might find a cheap used beach cruiser, she went on her way, not realizing, I’m sure, the tribute she had paid me. Imagine me, a bicycle mechanic!

If you’re like me, you seldom appreciate the talents you have, instead eyeing with envy skills you lack. I, for instance, have not as yet revealed anything in the way of musical aptitude. As much as I love music and covet the ability to make it, notes and chords and…stuff aren’t at all intuitive to me. I can poke at keys on a piano or strum something vaguely recognizable on a guitar, but only by rote and not at all soulfully. If only my parents had pushed me to be a well-rounded child, I’ve thought poutily, then I might have developed my musical gifts early, when our skill sets are elastic. And if such had been the case, the reasoning continues, I would undoubtedly be making my living as a singer-songwriter today.

Instead, I make my living as a copy editor. I’m pretty good at it. Give me a muddled manuscript and I can bully it into making sense. I may even be able to make it sing, manipulating the words—mostly the author’s, some my own—and orchestrating the commas and their poorer punctuatorial relations into some kind of musical flow. On especially rare occasions, I’m even artful enough to get away with making up words, like punctuatorial.

But in my continuing quest to decide what I want to be when I grow up, I’ve lately flirted with the idea of going to school to become a bicycle mechanic. Not hard flirting, mind you, rather the kind of flirting one might engage in while already in a committed relationship.

While I’ll admit that, for me, a major industry attractant is the wardrobe, there are others: I enjoy hanging around bike shops, tools are cool, bikes are sexy, and basic bicycle technology—not the quality of components or frame materials but the way a bike works mechanically—has remained static for about a hundred years. That can’t be said of cars, which in a single generation have morphed from the family sedans our dads tinkered with on weekends into vehicles with engine cavities so inscrutable those same dads can only stare forlornly at the tightly packed network of housings and hoses, wishing they could tell us why our goddam “check engine” lights keep flashing.

I got my first taste of wrenching at a hands-on “advanced bicycle maintenance” seminar offered at a local bike shop. I was the only one who showed up, resulting in plenty of personal attention—as well as an earful of sensitive information. My instructor, let’s call him “Dave,” had become a certified mechanic, he said, in response to his fiancée’s demand that he relinquish his former career as a host at swingers’ parties in Chicago. Dave’s was a niche market: He served as a “fluffer” at gatherings of white heterosexual couples who fantasized about having three-ways with black men, he being one such man. Dave didn’t actually have sex with anyone. Rather, his job was to, (a) entertain couples who indulged in the fantasy aspect alone, and (b) prime couples who might be inclined to contract with a hustler, should one happen to be available, coincidentally, at that very same party. Dave may also have appeared in one or two erotic videos, but if he did, he stressed, he didn’t engage in sexual contact—rather, he (may have) played the porn trope of the third-party voyeur, that ubiquitous fellow who stumbles on a couple having sex in, say, the copier room, he being there maybe to fix said copier, and gets so turned on by their naughty public display that he must then remove his own pants and play with his pee-pee. Anyway, his fiancée, a corporate attorney, thought maybe they should move away from Chicago and that maybe, once a couple thousand miles away from his networking circle—in which he operated under a pseudonym connoting meatlike properties—he could do something…else. And he loved her, so he went to bicycle mechanics school.

Dave inspires me, not for the obvious reasons but because when I think about the almost total lack of overlap between his former skill set and that required of a certified bike mechanic, I imagine that my own transition would be a breeze. After all, wrenching is wrenching, whether fixing broken drive trains or clunky sentences. If you want your wheels (subject) to move, you need to pedal (a verb), but if your chain (subject-verb agreement) is broken, your trajectory (sentence) will stall. With all other parts in harmony, your journey (idea) will ramble beyond control should your brakes (punctuation) fail. If you want to move not merely forward but toward a specific destination (direct object), you’ll need to pedal and steer (a predicate), as opposed to merely pedaling (an intransitive verb).

Of course, just as experienced copy editors can spot disagreeable text without diagramming sentences, competent mechanics are able to localize a bike’s problem without having to think through how bicycles work. And just as enthusiasm for reading doesn’t necessarily equip a person to edit what he or she reads—though we all occasionally want to chuck a book or magazine across the room because the person who is being paid to write but is not therefore a writer is incoherent, predictable, annoying, abstruse, contrary, or plainly inept in directing their story—riding a bicycle gives me no particular talent for fixing one.

Thanks to Dave’s instruction, I can do more than clean a chain and fix a flat, though my efforts at adjusting derailleurs and truing wheels are amateur at best. Happily, I don’t let that stop me from hiking my bike up on a shop stand and performing a professional pantomime, turning cranks and shifting gears as I watch the chain’s motion and listen for disagreement. As with language, there’s a certain music to all components working in harmony (and as with music, my overambitious manipulation of said components often results in discord).

Still, I can sling my guitar or drape a mechanic’s shirt over my shoulders and fool casual passersby into thinking I am what I am not, and for just a moment I’m not what I am: a comma jockey, wielding no instruments or tools but a dictionary and corrective pens. Not that I think my skill set is unimportant. A poorly punctuated maintenance manual results in confusion at best and mechanical breakdown at worst. And I do so wish that Joan Osborne had asked, “What if God were one of us?” even as I recognize that though Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” might inspire images of an egg-retentive hen, “Lie Lady Lie” just isn’t…musical.

So we all, or most of us—I can’t speak for retired fluffers or Bush administration appointees—stick to what we do best, happy in the knowledge that there are others out there ready to do for us what we suck at most. But don’t think for a moment that I’m therefore willing to concede my guitar or my mechanic’s shirts, because the one thing in which we all excel on common par is dreaming.


Blogger sporksforall said...

I would really like a picture of you (with spurs) riding a comma!

The dilemma I have, now that I have a job I'm good at but can't easily explain to people is, given that I administrate, what is the IT that I do?

I can say two things you do for me (and there are lots), you make me a better writer and you fix my bicycle. For those two things (and many others), I am humbled and grateful.

10:37 PM  
Anonymous hopskipjump said...

That is the damndest thing - why we want to be promoted out of our real skill set into mediocrity. Wasn't this the "Peter Principle" of the 70's? To be promoted, e.g., into management from design when you have plenty of design skills but no management skills. Obviously, Dave was familiar with the "Peter Principle" as a porn mechanic - at least he got training as a bike mechanic.

This was a hilarious blog! Thanks. And you have ruined Dylan's song for me and I don't even care.

I swear I went out with a guy once whose wheels I thought were really moving, but when I started to pedal he broke his chain and missed his trajectory, poor guy.

8:21 AM  
Blogger alice, uptown said...

I *did* have the music lessons, and the sewing lessons and the cooking lessons and the tennis lessons, and I have no athletic ability, and very limited musical and domestic abilities.

My skill sets, as they call them, are still primarily fixing sentences and investments (one is words; the other is numbers -- not so far removed from one another as you might think). That's what they pay me to do.

But sometimes I wish someone had taught me how to be something like an electrician: you can never find one when you need one, they can set their own hours, and their skill set commands a high price tag. Or, why didn't I study meteorology: the weather forecast can be wrong 10 days out of 10 and still, the weather people's paycheck don't bounce.

And fluffing? Who knew such a profession existed?

4:57 PM  
Blogger Sarah said...

Own what you're good at-that is probably the most productive way to be. Work towards the other things (music, bikes, etc) but own what you know you can do well. Everything else is gravy.

Dreaming is nice...I wouldn't mind being Oprah Winfrey right now and sailing on a yacht or living in one of my 20 estates, etc. That would be sweet.

4:28 PM  
Blogger weese said...

I don't have a bike. Therefore, I would have no need for your services as a bike mechanic.
It's my fondness for your properly placed commas that keeps me coming back.

I think you are indeed well suited for your position.

I would also imagine you make a better living wielding this pen, than you would that wrench.

1:20 PM  
Blogger WenWhit said...

You know damned well how much I envy your comma jockey position. You are my editorial hero.

But you'd look cute working on a bike...

6:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do it. Go to bike mechanics school. -MAW

5:26 AM  
Blogger weese said...

yup, that would be my free-spirited wife.

9:42 AM  
Blogger the only daughter said...

Long live the dreams.

4:27 PM  
Blogger KMae said...

So glad you're posting again!
Love your writing.

10:43 PM  
Anonymous funchilde said...

wow. loved this post from top to bottom Scout. So glad you're back. This makes me want to run out and buy a guitar AND a bike! And that "Dave" the "Fluffer"

6:53 PM  
Blogger Gunfighter said...

Heyy Scout, when it is time, would you edit my book?

It's about Zen, and fighting with guns.

7:58 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home