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.

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