There is a half read book on my nightstand at home called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In it, Robert Pirsig takes a trip across the American West on his motorcycle with his slightly autistic son and a couple of friends. Most people look at that title and wonder what kind of drugs someone had to be on to come up with something so inane. Having read a good half of it, before other books jumped up the ladder, I find that some of the most instructive tomes about life seem to be the most random.
I had my own moment of Zen on a pushbike yesterday. Fearing that the weather might turn rainy later in the week, we tried to get out and see as much as we could yesterday. A trip to the Recoleta Cemetery, a place that puts the greatest of New Orleans mausoleums to shame, and a lunch of empanadas and tortas had shown us two different neighborhoods, but we resolved to get some bikes and make our own tour.
No one moves very quickly in Argentina, and the nonchalance with respect to time has already infected us, so by time we actually got to the bike shop, it was nearly 4PM. Being winter in the Southern Hemisphere, we only had about two hours of daylight left to burn. We grabbed a couple of maps and headed off through a city seen as one of the most bikeable in the world.
Then things started to go a bit haywire. Ben and I lost the girls after about 10 minutes of riding, which was probably to be expected. We meandered along some bike trails, edging closer to the water, but only getting into the port district. Seemingly anywhere in the world, you’d never prefer to be by the docks as the sunsets, but there we were.
Also, as opposed to nearly EVERY map I’ve ever seen in this life, the map given to us by the bike shop was oriented not on a North/South axis, but instead on the city grid of Buenos Aires, which was laid with a datum relative to the river instead of cardinal directions. This meant that saying I want to go “up” on the map than I am now was a very trying experiment in map turning.
About 7 miles from home, my chain came off and became wedged between the sprocket and chain guard. Having no tools and not enough Spanish to figure out “wrench” we battled with the bike for about ten minutes before deciding that I should just throw it into a cab and head back before it got dark. Ben grabbed my map and headed back on his bike, because neither of us fancied a nocturnal bike ride around a city we’d known for only 24 hours.
I thought getting a cab would be easy, but no one wanted to let me put my greasy bike (and even greasier hands) in their tiny Peugeot cab. So I stood there slackjawed, wondering how in the world I was going to make it home without a map, Spanish skills and a bike a chain off the rails and no way to fix it. Finally a security guard finally took pity on me and brought me out a pair of pliers, and I quickly got the bike back in working order. Then a couple of Venezuelans came and took pity on me, giving me some very general directions toward the Palermo neighborhood where I’d started. At this point, I was nearly 6 miles away with a very quickly setting sun.
I took their advice to the best of my ability, taking a bike path to the end of the line (praying that I’d come out at the CORRECT end.) A quote from Pirsig started to hum in my ears as my mindset moved from annoyed to determined.
“You look at where you’re going and where you are and it never makes sense, but then you look back at where you’ve been and a pattern seems to emerge.”
Trying to isolate the pattern, both in my own life and in this particular bicycle marooning, was a trying exercise. I had left the docks, where I at least knew my general relative position to home, moving in a direction that the Venezuelans promised would take me home. Having no geographic context to draw from, I had to stay 100% true to their directions or I’d end up god knows where.
Looking back on my own life, I recognize the same pattern. So many people put their heads down and start charging off in a direction given to them by others, only to find that the slightest deviation in direction will leave them stranded with no idea how to get either back from whence they came or forward to an original destination.
That is why the need for context is sacrosanct. Knowing only a handful of street names, my context in this odyssey was very limited, so I was dependent on external forces to give me a direction. The more streets that one recognizes, the more able to self-help he becomes. He recognizes small mistakes before they lead so far off track that it loses all feasibility.
The same is true in life. For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be rich and live in NYC. I grew up on a diet of Friends, Seinfeld and the Wall Street Journal, and I knew that at the Southern tip of an island at the center of the world, my dreams would all come true. (There is currently a gingery Semite, a sleeping Indian, an illiterate Italian, and a bald…well whatever Gar is, reading this and laughing hysterically that I thought that all my dreams would come true in our dingy corner of the financial world.)
I got to my destination, and for a while, I loved it. The stress, the money, the comical number of amazing women to be found in Manhattan…this is what I came for.
Then complacency snuck in. My whole life had been about getting to this place, covering the distance, both physical and cultural, that lay between the sleepy cornfield I’d grown up in and the screaming trading pits that I so desperately wanted to be a part of. Once I’d stopped “pedaling” as I arrived at my destination, I got nervous that the bike would fall over on top of me.
Back in Buenos Aires, the sun had set and the buildings weren’t getting any nicer. I followed Cordoba street until it Y’d off. Inevitably, I took the wrong side of the Y. Pedaling faster was motion, but it was not to be confused with progress by any means. I was merely going faster in the wrong direction for 20 blocks.
Finally I began asking anyone standing still how to get to Palermo. My original directions were now defunct, and the only way I’d get home was to find a new set. An older woman (hell this is South America, she could’ve been 35 or 55 and I wouldn’t know the difference) told me that I was at least 40 blocks from Palermo, but if I went up 3 streets and turned right, that I would get onto Serrano and as long as I kept pedaling, I’d get to somewhere I’d recognize.
Now I had a direction that would turn my motion into progress. This was the “eureka” moment that gave purpose to what was otherwise aimless wandering.
Sure enough, after hoofing it 14 miles around Buenos Aires, I came up to the Plaza de Armes and knew that the bike shop was just around the corner.
Eureka moments happen in all facets of life, not just with hopelessly lost Americans on pushbikes. Mine happened on that brutally cold February morning in Chicago, that moment when I knew that I was headed in the wrong direction. So I asked if I could follow someone else’s for a while, and much to my benefit, he said yes. Eventually Ben’s direction and mine diverged, but that was alright, because I had enough context to self-correct. My direction is rarely perfect, but knowing that a path is the wrong one is always worth something.
If I’ve got one lesson to teach anyone, let it be the danger of sheepishly following along. One has to find their own direction, otherwise we’re just eating and shitting until we die.
Also though, I’d still advise a map in Buenos Aires, but boy can you learn a few things without one.
“The truth knocks on the door and you say, “Go away, I’m looking for the truth,” and so it goes away. Puzzling.” Robert Pirsig