The Torch of Ineptitude

blue bicycle in the mojave desert
While I was out of town, a welding torch showed up on my doorstep. The FedEx man had set the box (containing hoses and regulators and two high-pressure tanks) right in front of my door so that it couldn’t be missed. If the tanks had been full, he’d have set enough energy on that porch to destroy my entire house. But the tanks were empty. Empty and waiting.

Worn out from my flight home, I walked up my front steps and almost ran into the box.

I’d forgotten I ordered the torch.

But the heavy box, with its strapping tape applied so neatly it must have been done by a machine or an artist, insisted I remember. “Remember me?” it asked. “You had big plans for me when you sent in your order. Don’t let me down, buddy.”

I did have big plans. From the day I realized that vehicles were made by actual people instead of some alien race of master craftsmen, I’d wanted to design and build my own vehicle.

From scratch.

I’m not talking about picking some bolt-on items from a catalog and wrench-twirling my way to a so-called custom machine. No. I meant drafting the lines and the angles. I meant practicing that black art known as vehicle dynamics. I meant spending days figuring if that 1/4” bolt should have been 3/8” instead.

I meant, that is, accepting the strong probability that my creation would fail. Because that’s what it means to make something from scratch, always-imminent failure. So when the welding torch arrived, I was excited, but also scared. With such a tool, the only thing standing between me and my dream of a home-made vehicle, was my own substantial ineptitude. But I believe we are all inept while exploring the realm of The Interesting. It’s the nature of that space.

I filled the empty tanks a few days later and began creating fantastic piles of useless metallic sculpture while practicing my brazing and welding. Eventually I started to get the idea. I learned how to move both hands in precise motions at the same time, like a silent, pyromaniac, drummer. I learned how to adjust the regulators and light the torch without blowing myself up. I learned how to breathe and hum a tune to keep my hands loose. I’m still not very good. My welds are not yet art. But as I practiced, my joints went from brass and steel-splattered failures, to things with actual structural properties that withstood hammer blows. Eventually they were good enough that I trusted them, and I began building my motorized bicycle.

Welding and brazing weren’t the only required skills, of course, but I followed much the same course for each new challenge. Every step demanded I jump into the pit of ineptitude and claw my way out. Never was it clear that I’d succeed. But in the end, I built the bike you see in the picture. I’ve ridden it from San Diego to Las Vegas and spent five days on it touring around Arizona. For each of those thousand or so miles, I listened with the ear of a new parent for the sounds of danger. Every new noise was cause for a roadside inspection. I still listen to it the same way because it is, after all, my own creation. There’s no user’s manual to inform me of its needs.

This is a success story but they don’t all turn out as such. When it comes to doing your own thing, failure is always more likely. Writing fiction is a good example of this. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve written and had to throw away. When I started writing Terminal Visit, it began as a completely different story than the novella I ended up with. At least three times I gave it up, only to start again a week later when some new aspect of Bryson or Allison’s character began nagging at me in my sleep.

The characters in Terminal Visit, are a husband and wife in the not-too-distant future who followed their own direction and ended up lost. Does that mean they failed? In the end, I’m not sure. Does that make them admirable? To my mind, absolutely. But as to whether or not the sacrifices they make are worth it, each of us will probably see differently. I’d love to hear your take on the matter.

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