Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Hand (Tool)

PHOTO: Mauricio Orantes

Monday, June 29, 2009

On Hands, Tools, and the Value of Work

I usually work alone when I work on my bicycles, in part by design because I enjoy the quiet, and in part because it’s not usually a job that requires two people. As a result, I have never put much thought into how I perform the work, or why I do certain things the way I do. I’ve learned to work – or I should say, am learning to work – in the way that best suites me. It’s a process that demands little active self-reflection, just trial and error. And error. And error.

Recently, however, I have been helping a friend work on some of his old bikes, and I find that my work style is under some scrutiny. I’ve been told that I am very “creative” and “inventive” in my solutions to problems, and I have been gently critiqued for the fact that I don’t, as a general rule, use power tools.

While I would like to agree that I am creative in my problem-solving skills, I rather think that my way of working is, in fact, so simple as to be uninteresting, and that my creative problem solving is merely a function of the fact that my tools are often either simple or improvised out of necessity, rather than any great degree of creativity or inventiveness on my part. I can’t afford a lot of expensive or specialized tools, so I only buy tools when I absolutely need them, and I’m always looking for ways to make one tool perform multiple functions.

As I’ve mulled over my friend’s observations and my own reactions to them over the past few weeks, I’ve realized that my way of working is due in large part to watching my father work, and from spending a great deal of time knocking about in my grandfather’s garage. From my father I learned patience and swear words (not mutually exclusive, mind you), and the truism that there is always more than one solution to a problem. From my grandfather’s garage (sans grandfather, who died when I was very young) I learned the value of disorganization, organization, improvisation, and thoughtful planning, all mashed together into a mélange of competence, experimentation, thrift, and precision.

Also from my grandfather, or rather his tools, I learned to be distrustful of anything I don’t power myself. All of the electrical gadgets or power tools in my grandfather’s garage were broken. Motors had burned out, circuits had fried, wires had corroded, switches had broken, etc. All of the hand-powered tools, however, were all still in perfect order. Hammer and axe handles had been replaced, wooden sheaths had been fashioned for handsaws to protect their teeth, moving mechanisms had been carefully oiled and wrapped in rags or plastic bags for storage.

As a kid, I had my own set of hand tools, which I employed on any number of non-threatening and largely non-functional projects, most of which ended in frustration (although I now know how valuable this was). Now as I work on my bicycles, I find myself able to judge the stubbornness of a stuck bolt or screw by applying pressure in just the right way with a wrench or screwdriver. I rarely strip a bolt or screw, and in fact, I find it much easier to ruin a project with a power tool than a hand tool. I can usually tell when I need to let up the pressure, and I can also usually tell when I’m going to need to improvise a solution beyond the simple tool I have in my hand. I have a pretty good feel for when the hacksaw is really biting, and I can usually tell when the file or rasp needs a little more pressure on the outside edge.

Does all this make me a master project-doer? Hardly. But whether it’s bikes or some other project, I know that I feel more connected to my work because I use the strength of my hands and arms, and the leverage of my elbows and shoulders, to accomplish it. And if I can improvise a solution without buying another tool, I won’t deny that I do feel some small sense of pride, and the impression that maybe my grandfather would have approved.

As I mash my way through repairs and restorations, and even basic maintenance on my bicycles, I am constantly grateful for the lessons I’ve absorbed, the mistakes I’ve made, and the modest successes I’ve earned with only my two hands and my small collection of tools. It’s further proof for me that the bicycle, with its relatively simple design, ease of maintenance, and accessibility is not only a machine to move our bodies through space, but a mechanism by which we can move ourselves in perhaps even more fundamental ways. 

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Foolish Scorchers

A scorcher and his bloomered mate,

Each mounted on a "bike,"

Bore down upon an old toll-gate

That stretched across the pike.

SOURCE: Chicago Tribune, 12 July 1896

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The View from the Sidewalk

Or, why Americans were once-upon-a-time in love with the bicycle, and why they should be again.

The argument that bicycles are not a viable form of transportation in our auto-oriented culture is predicated on one basic assumption: bicycles are car replacements. As such, they compare rather unfavorably: they can’t carry as much, they’re slower, they require more effort (there are at least twice as many good counter-arguments, but I don’t think I need to enumerate them here).

In all of this, we should keep in mind that bicycles, at the moment of their innovation, were not viewed as car replacements because there were no cars.  When bicycles came into widespread use, they were an alternative to walking, streetcars, horses, and horse-drawn vehicles.

Imagine that, by some quirk of fate, that all of the necessary technological convergences required to innovate the automobile never happened. The car was never invented, it never entered our culture, it never occurred to anyone. It’s a stretch, but bear with me.

Without our cars and buses, what options would we have for daily transportation? The lack of possibilities is somewhat startling. Walking becomes the cheapest and most accessible mode of travel. Horses are expensive to buy and maintain, and streetcars can only run on tracks, and thus cannot go everywhere. For a great deal of our daily travel, we’re left with only our own two feet to get around.

Imagine then, what an impact the bicycle would have on a pedestrian culture. Suddenly, our possibilities for independent travel seem endless. We might think something like this, which appeared in the New York Times in 1881:

“The Future of the Bicycle,” 26 June 1881

Upon the conditions of practice and fairly good roads the bicycle is a practicable and practical vehicle….  Its superior efficiency as compared with walking is also strictly under physical laws. It converts reciprocal into rotary motion…. The movement in walking is continuous only in one sense, being broken every time the foot strikes the ground; the wheel, on the contrary, has an uninterrupted motion…. The special heat and fatigue of the feet, noticeable most in warm weather, are also avoided, and the swifter motion produces a little breeze for cooling…. At first, the riding is itself the end sought, and the satisfactions and physical benefits therefrom are ample justification for seeking that end.  But the strictest utility is reached when, having to go somewhere, one chooses the bicycle as the efficient instrument for going.

Incidentally, and apropos of my earlier post about the state of our roads, the article goes on to conclude that increased advocacy for “very smooth roads” with be “one of the most valuable offices of the bicycle in America.”

If there’s a point here, it’s this: when you consider all of the modes of transportation available to you, stop thinking about it from only one point of view. Instead of comparing bicycles to cars, compare them to walking, which is pretty much the only option left to us if we take the automobile out of the equation. With rising fuel costs, crumbling infrastructure, and continuing economic downturn, a lot of people are finding that they’re using their car less, or that they simply can’t afford to drive or own a car at all. In fact, there are a lot of people, most of them hidden from those of us in a comfortably middle-class position, who are not a part of America’s car culture because they simply can’t own a car. These are the people we need to get on bicycles, because for them, for all intents and purposes, it’s still 1881.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Greatest Safety

SOURCE: New York Times, 20 June 1891