'Now, let's talk about derailleur adjustments," says a male ectomorph I'll call Henry. Henry uses the airline-stewardess "happy-to-serve-you-and-I'd-like-to-watch-you-die" dialect for public discourse. He is employed as a bicycle repairman, which is a job title from yesteryear. Nowadays, bike repairmen are hip, they have attitude, they work in stores that sell $2000 bicycles and $100 shorts; they are somebody. We seven, who are taking this six-and-a-half-hour class on bicycle maintenance, are nobody. We are privileged to be here on a too-early Sunday morning, privileged to hear the Word.
I am the most inept pupil of seven. I knew it was going to be like this. I knew it was going to be exactly like this.
Although some part of me has always understood I have -- how shall I put this? -- a certain disinclination when it comes to the general field of mechanics, I didn't realize how all-encompassing that disinclination was until I hit my teenage years. It was on that ground I encountered the puzzle of making-out-with-girl-while-slyly-placing-two-hands-on-the-backside-of-her-brassiere-in-order-to-undo-brassiere-hooks. Said mechanical problem was a necessary -- nay, a mandatory step one had to complete in order to proceed.
It was impossible for me. Unhooking brassieres became a curse. I could see the brassiere test rushing up at me from way down the railroad tracks, say, the first brush of fingers as we walked toward my car. The test-seeing caused great anxiety in itself. When unhooking time came I would fumble, and every fumble produced more anxiety, which produced droplets of sweat, which caused more fumbles, which begot great goblets of sweat, which inevitably led to manly sweat dripping onto girl's face and blouse. Fellas: females often find great goblets of male sweat to be unromantic.
At least that's what they told me on their way home. Very quickly I learned to say, "You take off your clothes, I'll take off mine, we'll meet in the middle of the bed."
Sadly, that life-saving technique didn't work with trucks, carpentry, plumbing, household repair, or any of the 10,000 fix-it problems a man is supposed to master. Worse, I've always been attracted to a life where competency in fix-it problems is number one. I lived in a cabin I built in Alaska. That was home base for 25 years. A mile walk in from the nearest dirt road, no water, no electricity. Absolutely absurd for me. My domestic arrangements were clumsy, uncomfortable, idiosyncratic (the cabin door opened inward as a welcoming gesture for ravenous black bears; not outward, as it did in every other Alaska cabin), and eternally half done.
Seemed okay to me.
Time passes. My mechanical abilities do not undergo transformation, but my knees do. Aforementioned body parts demand a bicycle. I figured if I was going to ride a bike, I should learn how to fix flats and maybe one or two other maintenance tricks. It seemed, as the deer said to the headlight, like a pretty good idea at the time.
Henry points to his carbon fiber bicycle frame, which is hanging on a bike stand, and says, "Let's say the current front derailleur is a triple-chain Shimano. The question is, can you replace the front derailleur with any Ultegra triple?"
I break in, "What's a derailleur?"
Henry, winces, answers in bicycle lingo at triple-time speed. I do not hear the word, "derailleur" at any point during his spiel. His last sentence is, "Make sure your adjustment screw position is correct and the guide plates are parallel to the chain."
I ask, "What's a derailleur?" Silence. "Show me." This is said in a hostile, "Give me what you know about derailleurs, fucker," tone of voice. I'm four hours into this, I'm hungry, I have a headache, I'm tired of Henry's bullshit, I want to get to the flat-tire stuff, and I want to get to it now.
Henry makes his airline-stewardess smile and says, "We'll get to that in a minute," and begins a new bicycle monologue.
This kicks off an interior conversation that goes like this: "Yes, Henry's a pompous windbag, but he knows more about bicycles than the seven of us put together. Henry has probably taught this class for years, and more than likely will bring everything together at the end. It is not for me to try and reorder the structure of his lecture. And, this is a perfect opportunity to practice patience. God knows I need it. I should fade into the background, let bicycle maintenance come to me. And while I'm at it, I could have a little compassion for Henry; his arrogance is probably a cover for a lifetime of bad feelings. Cut the lad some slack, it will be good for both of us."
I draw in a slow, calming breath, sit up in my chair, fix a steady gaze upon Henry's face, and say, "Show me the derailleur. NOW!"