The Zen of the Wrench

There are days when I want calm, want remove, want to shut much of the world away. Like cutting fat from meat, I eliminate email, social media, the phone, the to-do list, the meowing cat and sometimes even traffic. What I’m left with are movies (I don’t watch TV), books or working on bikes.

It’s not uncommon for me to choose working on bikes as a way to center myself. Bleeding a set of disc brakes can take me an hour from start to finish. Does it need to? No. Were I working in a shop with a clean bench and everything readily at hand, not to mention the muscle memory to run on autopilot, I could do a single brake in ten minutes, maybe less. But because I’m on my time and because in a way my primary motivation isn’t so much a bike in better working order, but a me in better working order, I’m in no rush.

That lack of a clean workbench with everything readily at hand and organized like the aisles of a grocery store means that I may spend a few minutes looking for the correct brake block. I’ve also done things like prepare to do a bleed after removing the wheel but not the brake pads. Gaffs like that let me know my head isn’t fully in the act.

I turn the music down, close my eyes and do what I couldn’t slow down enough to do in my bedroom. I breathe. I feel the wrench in my hand, sensing its heft, judging its balance. None of this is germane to the bike. It’s about me, and in that I’ve finally realized I’m not really fixing the bike at all.

I won’t say I’m fixing me because that sets up the lie that there’s something wrong with me. The reality is though I’m biology and the bike parts are metal, we both need the tuneup and giving my bike the attention it needs is my excuse to do the same for myself. It’s a little piece of subterfuge, and I’m wise to it, but this is one magic act that still works. Even this explanation matters not one whit. When I close the garage door and walk upstairs, I’m smiling—maybe not on the outside, but always on the inside.

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  1. khal spencer says

    The longer version is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig. One of my advisor’s post-docs recommended it to me as I was starting my graduate studies. It got me through a lot of issues, mostly about me rather than my motorcycles but it helped me keep my motorcycles running well, too. Padraig, that was a great short piece and I strongly recommend Pirsig’s book as the followup.

    1. Padraig says

      I adore that book. It was the one book I took with me to Japan a few years back for a very intimate revisit.

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