Life life

Mythbusting Self-Reliance

This morning I went out to my bicycle with a small set of tools because I had some adjustments to make.

I turned the high screw on the front derailleur a turn and a half to the right. I lifted the seat about 3/4 of an inch higher. I checked the tension on the rear derailleur and tightened it slightly. All of this gave me an immense amount of satisfaction, because while I’ve been riding bikes for about four decades, for the first time I feel like I understand them.

Or, at least, this one. I built it.

By the Grease on Their Hands Shall Ye Know Them…

The crank and the chain had to be replaced. I did keep the fender and the rack, replacing only the screws...
The crank and the chain had to be replaced. I did keep the fender and the rack, replacing only the screws…

I spent about 9 hours total last weekend at the Freewheel Bicycle Collective, conveniently located a few blocks from my house. There a volunteer mechanic walked me and a few others through a “Build-a-Bike” workshop. First we picked out a frame – and I do mean just a frame, as you can see to the right – and then bit by bit we scrounged through parts that had been donated or discarded at the co-op.

As we went along, we also learned how to do things – the instructor wouldn’t just show us how to do what was needed on our own particular bike, he showed us the variations as well. There was a “learn one-do one-teach one” attitude as well, such as when I used a special tool to take off my crank and was immediately told to go help a fellow builder do the same.

By the end my knowledge of bicycle mechanics was increased exponentially – certainly enough to let me know how much I don’t know, but also enough to make me confident that I can build my grandsons’ bikes when they get a little older.

More to the point, there was an indescribable feeling of independence when I rode my bike across town. I was not dependent on gasoline. I wasn’t even dependent on the money it would usually cost to purchase a bike like this – no, I had created it with my own hands, out of things that foolish wastrels had considered detritus! I was a Thoreauvian Velocipede, visions of the Kevins (Bacon and Costner) dancing in my head as my grease-stained fingers shifted smoothly through the gears…

Then my chain fell off.

So I stopped, and put it back on, and adjusted the front derailleur so that it wouldn’t happen again.

Thoreau’s Donuts


Henry David Thoreau is famously held up as a rugged icon of independence, building a tiny cabin and spending a year out at Walden Pond reflecting on the solitary life. Amanda Palmer, in her book The Art of Asking, reminds people of a few truths inconvenient to that myth:

What he left out of Walden, though, was the fact that the land he built on was borrowed from his wealthy neighbor, that his pal Ralph Waldo Emerson had him over for dinner all the time, and that every Sunday, Thoreau’s mother and sister brought over a basket of freshly-baked goods for him, including donuts.

The idea of Thoreau gazing thoughtfully over the expanse of transcendental Walden Pond, a bluebird alighting onto his threadbare shoe, all the while eating donuts that his mom brought him just doesn’t jibe with most people’s picture of him of a self-reliant, noble, marrow-sucking back-to-the-woods folk-hero.

By the same token, that vision of building a bike from the sweat of my brow has a few other things to consider. There’s the fact that I live in a culture so rich that people can literally throw away enough parts of bicycles that I can assemble one. There’s the business that sponsors Freewheel by providing space, as well as the bike mechanic who gives away years worth of knowledge for nothing. There’s the precision tools and instruments that have been donated to the shop for use by anyone.

There’s the fact that I have a flexible schedule of work which lets me spend hours in a bike shop. There’s living in a city which spends lots of money maintaining bike paths. There’s my partner Natasha who brought me a protein shake in spite of the downpour outside. There’s the upper-middle-class family that raised me, with my parents giving me just enough motivation to figure stuff out myself while also often providing instruction for how things worked. That attitude of “I can figure this out…” is probably the single most valuable attitude they instilled.

In other words, yes, I assembled and fine-tuned the bike, and that knowledge is a powerful thing. But to pretend that I did it independent of a huge infrastructure of (yes, I know it’s a dirty word) privilege would be pretty hypocritical of me. It’s fine to feel more self-reliant, but people who are truly required to be self-reliant are usually in pretty dire circumstances – such as survivors of the Nepal earthquake.

I’m not sure what the phrase should be – “gratefully self-reliant”, perhaps? Maybe “realistically Libertarian” – acknowledging that yes, people should be responsible for their own lives as much as possible, which includes helping others when they need it. Like the folks at Freewheel, like my father when he was a volunteer EMT, like the Marines who gave their lives trying to help the Nepalese earthquake victims, a part of being self-reliant is recognizing that we are all connected to each other. Helping you helps me, even if indirectly, because it makes the world we both live in a better place.

The next day the derailleur had to be adjusted the other direction due to some other chain frictions, but it wasn’t too bad. There was a thrill to not just being aware of the problem but also knowing how to fix it. And knowing that at some point in the future there will be someone else’s bike with a problem that I might be able to fix. And I will do so happily.

You can rely on that.

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