26 December 2018

Jumping to conclusions

 The other day, I went to park my car before taking the train to London. The car park was full and I had to wait until a space became vacant. I saw someone come back to his car and positioned mine to drive into the space when he had gone.
When I tried to put the car into gear, I found the clutch pedal lying uselessly at the bottom of its travel. It has needed occasional pumping to operate properly for a long time, although recently whatever has been causing that problem seems to have gone away. But pumping the pedal wasn't even possible this time. I put it into first and turned the key, taking care to keep my right foot off the throttle. It crawled forward on the starter  motor, then fired up and trickled into the space. I left it and went for my train - wanting to put as much space as possible between me and it.
When I returned that evening, I called the RAC from the station. By the time I had gone through the "onboarding" process for a new breakdown, and was being connected to a real human, I had walked a lot of the way back to the car park. The human needed to know (of course!) much of the information I had already given. When the registration number revealed to him that it was an MGF, he told me delightedly "I used to have one of those!" Better than being asked whether it was diesel, as a different RAC call handler did once.
As I continued my walk to the car park, he told me that the system showed they would get to me between ten and eleven that evening. I didn't fancy the wait. "What time does the car park shut?" he asked me. "It doesn't - there are no barriers" I told him, then realised my mistake. "I should have said in half an hour, shouldn't I?"
He offered me the alternative of a two-hour slot the following morning, and I agreed on the 8-to-10 option. Then he asked what exactly was the problem: I had already told him it was the clutch. I explained the symptom. He shared the information that a slave cylinder should be pretty easy, and cheap, to obtain, then suggested I might try lifting the pedal using my toes. "That often works", he said, and paused. I realised he was waiting for me to try, and I had to tell him I was still some distance from the car - but a minute later, when I reached it, I opened the door, sat down, lifted up the pedal and found it restored to what passes for normality. I engaged reverse and moved a few inches, reporting success over the phone, then (with the phone on hands free) reversed out of the space and set off in first to exit the car park, at which point I thanked my interlocutor profusely and ended the call.
The episode put me in mind of a passage from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I slightly misremembered. Now I have found a text of that great book online - an infringing copy, I suppose - I have tracked down the passage I had in mind and, on the basis that this is surely fair dealing for criticism and review, and it is a small part of a fairly big book, here it is:
We were wearing the ponchos which had served as a tent the night before. Now they spread out like sails and slowed our speed to thirty miles an hour wide open. The water on the road became two inches deep. Lightning bolts came crashing down all around us. I remember a woman’s face looking astonished at us from the window of a passing car, wondering what in earth we were doing on a motorcycle in this weather. I’m sure I couldn't have told her.
The cycle slowed down to twenty-five, then twenty. Then it started missing, coughing and popping and sputtering until, barely moving at five or six miles an hour, we found an old run-down filling station by some cutover timberland and pulled in.
At the time, like John, I hadn’t bothered to learn much about motorcycle maintenance. I remember holding my poncho over my head to keep the rain from the tank and rocking the cycle between my legs. Gas seemed to be sloshing around inside. I looked at the plugs, and looked at the points, and looked at the carburetor, and pumped the kick starter until I was exhausted.
We went into the filling station, which was also a combination beer joint and restaurant, and had a meal of burned-up steak. Then I went back out and tried it again. Chris kept asking questions that started to anger me because he didn't see how serious it was. Finally I saw it was no use, gave it up, and my anger at him disappeared. I explained to him as carefully as I could that it was all over. We weren't going anywhere by cycle on this vacation. Chris suggested things to do like check the gas, which I had done, and find a mechanic. But there weren’t any mechanics. Just cutover pine trees and brush and rain.
I sat in the grass with him at the shoulder of the road, defeated, staring into the trees and underbrush. I answered all of Chris’s questions patiently and in time they became fewer and fewer. And then Chris finally understood that our cycle trip was really over and began to cry. He was eight then, I think.
We hitchhiked back to our own city and rented a trailer and put it on our car and came up and got the cycle, and hauled it back to our own city and then started out all over again by car. But it wasn’t the same. And we didn’t really enjoy ourselves much.
Two weeks after the vacation was over, one evening after work, I removed the carburetor to see what was wrong but still couldn't find anything. To clean off the grease before replacing it, I turned the stopcock on the tank for a little gas. Nothing came out. The tank was out of gas. I couldn't believe it. I can still hardly believe it.
I have kicked myself mentally a hundred times for that stupidity and don’t think I’ll ever really, finally get over it. Evidently what I saw sloshing around was gas in the reserve tank which I had never turned on. I didn't check it carefully because I assumed the rain had caused the engine failure. I didn’t understand then how foolish quick assumptions like that are. Now we are on a twenty-eight-horse machine and I take the maintenance of it very seriously.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, pages 21-22.

Pirsig doesn't explicitly cite this as a "gumption trap", one of the most useful concepts I learnt about from the book, but I think it falls within the definition: "These drain off gumption, destroy enthusiasm and leave you so discouraged you want to forget the whole business." Of course, that begs the question, what is gumption? Well, I think it's something you recognise when you see it - or when you don't have it, which is the condition in which I usually find myself.

12 April 2017

Buckets of Rain

47 years ago to the day, the weather was not so nice. But it did give rise to a legendary motor race.

07 March 2017

Gentle on my Mind

An idea for a piece of fiction, perhaps: a man (or I suppose it could be a woman) is considering making a phone call which could have a significant impact on their life - one way or another - but then Mahler 5 comes on the radio and (naturally) cannot be interrupted. As it did this evening, bringing back all sorts of memories of Warwick University, Ken Russell's film and a great deal more that is associated in my mind with the symphony. Aided by the fact that I was driving down the A46 at the time - every week that part of the drive makes me nostalgic for my time at Warwick. Mahler as a piece of madeleine ...

The interesting thing about the piece of fiction (should it ever be written) will be whether Mahler affects the protagonist's state of mind sufficiently to change the outcome. In the right circumstances the Adagietto can cause - has caused - tectonic shifts in emotions.

18 February 2017

Orange Juice

For no better reason than that it was on the radio this morning when I was driving to Didcot, where I arrived 1 minute 25 seconds after the start of the Parkrun, the Concierto de Aranjuez (or "orange juice", in brass band circles, I just learnt). After hearing different recordings compared on the radio, I need to find more about Kazuhito Yamashita who sounds like a musician worth hearing.

Not a bad run this morning. I haven't been training much - even missed my regular weekly run in Nottingham, as it was reading week, so I only had to make a dash - a "raid", indeed - to one postgrad seminar and had no overnight stay. Unfortunately, having to add my handicap to it - the runners had disappeared from view by the time I got to the start - spoils my time a bit, but it seems as if it might have spurred me on to a good pace.

23 January 2017

Black night

My streak faltered yesterday. Every day of the year, until 22 January (so not really much of a streak), then Achilles said, quite insistently, that's enough for now, take the day off. I had run about ten yards, and on the basis that I was wearing running shoes (and all the other stuff you need to run in sub-zero temperatures such as have been experienced in Oxfordshire for a few days now, the frost not even going from the roads during the days) perhaps I should count it as a run anyway.

A day's rest and Achilles seems happy again. Perhaps a couple of hours sitting in the car, driving to Nottingham, was the cure he needed. Whether listening to Act 2 of Die Walkure on the way helped, who knows? It can't  have gone amiss, I suppose, and as I explained to my colleague Philippa over coffee this afternoon (an important business meeting to discuss the intellectual property module - she takes half the seminars) the working-my-way-through-the-Ring-Cycle thing is a major part of the all-round experience of my teaching at Nottingham Law School.

So too is the evening run, in the dark, to the park-and-ride to collect the car and bring it to the car park opposite my hotel. Park-and-run probably wasn't what the planners had in mind, but park-and-ride-and-run-back seems reasonable. When I explained what I was up to in conversation with a random cyclist (and runner) who didn't pass me but rode along with me for half a mile or so chatting, he approved, and we agreed about the excellent running track provided alongside the tramlines.

This was after I had called the police to alert them to a trio of youths who seemed to find it amusing to shine a laser pointer into the faces of passing cyclists and - I feared - tram drivers. I suspect it's a growing problem, as laser pointers become more common. Not in the same league as dazzling pilots, but bad enough I think. However, it was an episode later in my run that I particularly wanted to comment on - showing my tendency, which I found myself explaining to a new group of students this afternoon, to digress. (Does this sound familiar to any former students out there?)

Near the end of my route, I caught and passed a couple of ladies out for a run. They were well wrapped-up against the cold - hats and jackets. I was in tee-shirt and running tights, having left my hat and gloves in the car - but that's not the point. One of them remarked as I passed them that I was putting them to shame. I assured her I wasn't, but the better response only came to me after I was out of earshot. (What's the street-running equivelant of "esprit de l'escalier", or staircase wit? "L'esprit de trottoir" perhaps.) Afer I'd reached the end of my run I retraced my steps, hoping to be able to tell them that no runner would ever put them to shame. Everyone encounters runners who are faster them them: they don't put slower runners to shame, they can't. If they try they are not fit to be called runners. I wanted to say to them, if you're running, nothing can shame you, no matter how slow you may be, how short your run. But I couldn't find them again, so this will have to do. Perhaps they will read it. Perhaps someone else will, and will take something from it.

I try to live up to my reputation for decency ...

15 January 2017

Too much too young

Still keeping up my running streak: every day this year, so far, although some of the runs have been rather short. But if I have running shoes on my feet, and at some point in each stride both feet are off the ground, it's running, isn't it? Yesterday another Didcot Parkrun, and Jean-Luc led me to a time a whole minute faster than last week - for him as well as for me. When I found myself on his shoulder, at about two-and-a-half miles, something clicked and made me up my pace until I was past him and comfortably ahead. Unfortunately whatever happened at that point didn't happen again at about the three mile point, when he had a similar experience and came blasting past at a pace I couldn't begin to match, even with the finish line in sight.

Today the same distance, tediously, round the playing fields - nine times. It keeps me fit and feeling reasonably good - which is a worthwhile end in itself. And maybe there will be more time to take off my time next Saturday morning - although due to other commitments I think I might be giving it a miss, and getting in my run somewhere else.

11 January 2017

January Song

Someone - a very important person to me - once used the word "decent" to describe me. It might seem a rather weak compliment, but it's the adjective I would instinctively turn to to describe my father, who would have been 92 today. So to have the word that I would choose to describe the person who is still the greatest influence on me, used to describe me, is actually the greatest compliment anyone could pay me. Thanks. You know who you are.