Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Of Wheels and the Metaphysics of Memory

Yesterday, after lurking for weeks around ebay searching in vain for a steal on a new wheelset for my fixie, I gave up and headed over to my L(ocal) B(ike) S(hop) to buy a rather costly set of wheels I'd been admiring in their showroom for a while. I spent most of the evening scavenging my old wheels for carry-over parts (tires, tubes, cog) and putting everything together. All too conscious of my colorful history with manual tasks, I decided not to try the wheels out for the first time with a morning ride to work; I waited until this evening.

Of course, I would have to have exceeded even my capacity for mechanical error to screw my wheels up to a dangerous degree, and I headed out uneventfully as soon as I returned from work this afternoon. If roads were made of silk, this is how they would feel. If I could ride fixed on a cloud, it wouldn't be any better.

Hyperbole: the Pittsburgh pavement crumbles like parmesan, and every ride is an ordeal in some essential way. But the ordeal is familiar, and the compensatory measures it requires reflexive by now; relatively speaking, these wheels are silk. Gone is the vague vibration in the drivetrain of a perennially underlubricated rear hub; gone the vague kick in the pants the strange bump in my former rear rim administered with every rotation, a metronomic, almost droll reminder of imperfection.

Of course, the wheels weren't perfect. I had tightened the lockring insufficiently, leaving the cog about a half rotation of play, of which it happily availed itself the first time I skidded -- ironically, that sort of thing was what originally planted the seeds of this purchase months ago. That couldn't ruin the new smoothness of the drivetrain, however; once, riding up Beechwood, I stood into the pedals and the response was so immediate, the acceleration so slick, that for a moment it felt as though something had slipped, which I knew wasn't the case. Greased lightning. Literally.

I decided to visit the LBS. I needed to modify and add to an order I had placed last night, and although I might have called, it was as good a destination as any. There, I regaled the indulgent staff with how happy the wheels had made me, they tightened my lock ring for me, and after picking their brains on a couple of topics I returned to the street.

During the ride it struck me that this day, this particular ride, is a special occasion precisely for its ephemeral quality, deriving from the inadequacy of comparative memory. Tomorrow, I will remember less than I do today how rough and imperfect the prior wheels were. Next week, what I call my 'memory' of my sensuous dissatisfaction with those wheels, which I suspected or posited but couldn't really understand until I felt the new ones beneath me, will no longer have any tangible content. It will have diminished to abstraction.

This is how we come to take things for granted: our inability to retain context, to sustain comparison. This is how we surrender: for want of reliable memory, too often we take is over aspiration.

Some senses more powerfully linger and signify than others. It is a commonplace that smell is the sense of memory, but the importance of sight, perhaps in virtue of its obviousness, is often understated; sight, sometimes with an aural component, feeds my deja vu far more often than olfaction. Touch and taste, perhaps, are less easily recalled, although once I gently kissed the clavicle of a former lover, years after what we both had imagined would be our encounter, and nearly fainted under the overwhelming familiarity of the suite of taste, smell, and touch (the landscape of her delicate back under my trembling fingers as familiar to me as the front yard of my childhood), humbling and haunting. The room spun; the strength drained out of my body; I surrendered to the moment absolutely.

How much more rich our lives might be if we could retain the perfection of our contemporaneous satisfaction at jobs well done, at the incremental improvements that punctuate and thus mold our otherwise quotidian routines, smart purchases, generous compliments (given or received), apt and timely bon mot, the blush of new affections or, more rarely, love?

Last week, I was the guy who rode the franken-wheeled fixie with virtually no name-brand high quality components in my drivetrain. Today, I've got fantastic hubs, better hubs than I should use for a daily commute, hand-built wheels that are effectively flawless. Soon, however, I will have lost all concrete sense of how much better these wheels are than those they replaced; short of restoring the old wheels, I'll have no access to the physical truth of the dramatic change in the quality of my ride.

Oh, but if I should be forced to ride inferior wheels, then I'll know. And that's the bitch of it: if my elevated standards are going to bring me occasional dissatisfaction (as when I find myself eating second-rate sushi), then oughtn't I be afforded the ongoing ability to appreciate what I have for its quality, for the privilege standing alone?

I suppose this is an inevitable consequence of cognition's fundamentally associative cant, the centrality of pattern recognition. We are programmed to heed change over sameness, our minds like cats' vision, half-blind to the status quo but honed to a murderous edge in the face of even subtle variation, suspicious of movement.

But it doesn't seem fair.


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