Failing to learn


“On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.”
― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

One of my favourite memories of when I was a kid was riding my bike around the neighbourhood with my friends.  It was freedom.  And when my family moved out into the middle of nowhere (a rural community), bicycling became my salvation.  I would ride for hours just to do something and be on my own.  I also fancied myself a bike mechanic , but in reality I probably just cleaned it, kept the chain in good shape, and watched for signs that things were off.

So, it’s not entirely surprising that about five years ago I decided to get my motorcycle license.  I was inspired and encouraged by my husband who has always had a motorcycle since he was in high school. I often thought about riding my own bike, but having young kids, dealing with shift work schedules, and just life in general put this low on my priority list.  But it WAS on the list. 

Fast forward to a time when the kids were old enough to be properly embarrassed by the idea of their mom riding a motorcycle…I knew it was time.  So I took the course, passed, got the first few stages of my graduated license and have been riding for the past few years.

But hanging over my shoulder was the fact that there was one more road test to getting my full license – something that can only be done once you have been riding for at least 18-24 months (it varies based on whether you took a formal training course or not).  Honestly, I was in no hurry to do this final test since there were no restrictions that impeded where or when I could ride.  So I just coasted along.


This is the point where I should provide a bit of a sidebar to explain that we both ride vintage bikes (1973 & 1975).  They are awesome to get around for our Sunday-esque rides and often are conversation pieces. However, like many things from the 1970s, they suffer from the odd malfunction, leak and short.  I know this from personal experience, being of the same vintage.

My husband is our in-house mechanic.  He has no training or calling in the area – just a desire to tinker, a need to fix things, and the ability to listen to the most monotonous Youtube DIY videos on repeat.  So, he has taken care of oil changes, tire, and a range of other issues, including minor electrical stuff.   It’s not a lack of willingness on my part to learn – I just relied on him to manage things in this department.  I am actually interested and have some adeptness in learning mechanical things, but for whatever reason – I let this be his thing and didn’t bother.


A few weeks back, I arranged for my final license test and showed up to the testing site.  My husband accompanied me, but we agreed that he would leave beforehand so that I wouldn`t be distracted while they prepped me and inspected my bike.

When the inspection part started, I had to demonstrate that all lights and bells worked and they all did.  Except one.  For whatever reasons, one of my brake lights was not working.  I tried again.  And again.  The tester let me turn my bike on and off, just in case.  No luck.  I was stunned and left standing there not knowing what to do.  They deemed the bike not road worthy and I never even left the parking lot.  Technically I didn’t fail, but in the moment it certainly felt that way.

I had a long 30 minutes to wait for my husband to return and in that time I went through a range of emotions: irritation, frustration, and above all, embarrassment.  When he finally made his way back and I told him what happened – he was shocked and disappointed.  He got me to start my bike and test the brake light.  I have to admit that I was somewhat relieved that it didn’t work.  He knelt down beside the bike and fidgeted with a wire.  The brake light worked.

My emotional state went straight to mad – mad at myself for not knowing how to fix that.  Mad at myself for not even thinking to fix it.  Mad at myself for not having checked it before my husband had left.  Mad at myself for letting myself be so fucking complacent and lazy with the excuse that someone else would take care of it, so why should I bother learning.

I processed all of this internally, but I am sure it showed on my face.  We got on our bikes and headed home; it was a much quieter ride (we have headsets) than the way out.  At some point, he must of thought it was safe to talk to me and said it was okay.  It sucked, but it was okay.

And I knew he was right and said so.  I also told him that as of that moment, he was not allowed to work on my bike unless I was with him and that I would learn as much as I could about the mechanics of maintaining my bike.

This situation  reminded me of when I read Robert M. Pirsig`s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values  about a year ago.  I had mixed thoughts about the book – on one hand it came across as a  pretentious pseudo-philosophical awakening journey.  On the other hand, there was something that struck a nerve with me – the idea that maintenance was a dying or lost art – and that it’s not enough to just go along hoping things will continue to run smoothly, or that someone else will fix it, but that you need to be prepared to try to solve the problem:

“And it occurred to me there is no manual that deals with the real business of motorcycle maintenance, the most important aspect of all. Caring about what you are doing is considered either unimportant or taken for granted.”

I really wished that I had made the connection earlier and not taken for granted to importance of not only knowing how to maintained, but also the simple and basic idea that they need to be maintained.


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