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Week 4: The Gift of Taking Ownership

Photo by jonboy mitchell on Flickr

I yanked on the combination lock in growing despair, the perfect row of numbers impervious to my attempts.

My preschooler sat patiently in the bike trailer, the only “available” vehicle among us. We were outside a fast food restaurant 3 miles from our house with my son’s little orange bike and my red Schwinn safely chained to a wooden pole in the parking lot.

“I must have re-set the combination when I was jiggling the red things to lock it up,” I said to my son, the calm in my voice belying the sinking feeling inside.

“What does that mean?” he asked.

“That our lock is now set to a new, random combination and we can’t get our bikes out.”

“Oh no! My bike! My speedometer!” my son wailed. Having logged close to 200 miles since July, the speedometer had now become as precious as the ride itself.

Unable to reach my husband at any of the numbers I had for him, I took a deep breath.

“We’ll have to walk home pushing the bike trailer,” I said, looking uncertainly at my daughter, whom I had bundled up for a 20 minute ride on this February day, not a one hour walk.

Then, acting more on an impulse to connect with another human being than on any hope of assistance I added, “I’m just gonna run inside the restaurant and tell the manager.”

After waiting in line with other customers, I told the manager my story – twice – before he seemed to accept it. “I’m not asking for help,” I assured him in response to the uncertain look on his face. “I just wanted you to know what was going on, so you wouldn’t worry – or call the police to remove the bikes – or something.”

Trudging back into the cold I took another minute to jiggle the unyielding cable and stare mournfully at the two trapped bikes. In my mind, I could hear my husband’s tone of “patient exasperation” as I told him what happened. I was dreading it.

Just then I noticed a Latino man in a crisp blue button down shirt heading our way. According to the gold tag on his chest he was Juan, a more senior manager who had been called by the other manager to see if he could help us out.

After scrambling the numbers and spinning them back to the combination I provided, he dropped the cable and stepped back, examining the scene with a thoughtful eye.

“Huh..” he said, as though seeing a solution to a Mensa puzzle that was too simple to be true. “I think you could just…”

And then Juan, like a magician performing the final move in an impossible act, deftly slid the cable down the handlebar, looped it through the frame, and pulled it out, leaving my bike free while the cable remained solidly around the wooden pole.

“Wow!” my son and I cheered. “That’s fantastic! Thank you so much!”

Juan smiled shyly.

“I mean that’s terrible!” I said, laughing. “I did that chain all wrong! Anyone could have taken the bike!”

Juan was already kneeling to examine my son’s bike, which was held fast only by the spaghetti thin tubing of the brake.

Running back into the restaurant, he returned with a wrench and within minutes had taken apart my son’s brake mechanism, placing various parts of it around us on the sidewalk and freeing the bike.

I felt grateful, elated, lucky, and not a little embarrassed. Here I was a University professional who couldn’t even lock up my bike properly, never mind use a simple combination lock without re-setting it.

“How did you know how to do that?” I asked Juan after he had reassembled the brake and tested it.

“In Mexico,” he said (pronouncing it Meh-hee-co), “if you don’t know how to fix your bike, you don’t have a bike.”

I was curious and asked more questions. Juan told me how he uses salvaged parts from all kinds of models to fix his friends’ bikes – and how his bike was once stolen under his nose when he went inside for a minute to get a tool.

The kids were waiting and it was time to go. As we pushed away, I felt exhilarated at the turn of events, the only ransom for our freedom a $7.00 cable left hanging around the pole.

And there was something else as well. A spaciousness and a feeling of awakening. Something in what Juan had said had tapped into a deep place in me, a place of “recognizing” a truth I already have.

It is the part of me that wants to take care of my own stuff, to know what I am eating and where it comes from, to understand how things work, to be closer to the underbelly of the beast.

It is the part of of me that wants to learn to take apart my own brakes – and to unhitch myself from the wooden posts that seem to trap me, when in reality, I am free to go the whole time.

It seems that in my life, as in Juan’s, if I don’t know how to fix my bike, I don’t really own it.

Thank you, Juan, for the inspiration and the reminder.


About Elaine Shpungin

Elaine Shpungin, Ph.D. is the founder of Conflict 180: an indivualized approach to whole school turn-around. Her writing has appeared in academic articles,, Tikkun Magazine, and edited books on pop culture themes (e.g., The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, House M.D.). Her weekly Restorative Tips newsletter has more than 700 subscribers and can be found at

4 responses »

  1. Hi Elaine,

    I love the irony of you messing up the combination – and life providing the perfect combination of craft, knowledge, absence, wanting to learn – by simply getting the right people together, perfect timing, perfect place.
    And then let it happen to those who right about it, so I can sit here smiling :-))

    Thanks !

    • Thanks Verena. I like the way you put it – life providing a perfect combination and putting us all together in the right place in the right way. Part of the gift of writing about these is the slowing down and awareness it creates in me. Otherwise, it’s easy to move in the hustle of daily life, feeling grateful for a moment but not really savoring the learning. I am glad that someone else also gets something out of it. 🙂

  2. Nicely told, Elaine.

    I grew up in a household where no one knew how to fix anything and almost took pride in that. Now, I’ve made it a mission to do most of my own work around the house (other than most plumbing stuff!) There is indeed a feeling of freedom and ownership in it. Something breaks, or the faucet is leaking, and rather than a sinking feeling, I get a little rush– time to rise to the latest challenge– the latest battle against chaos and entropy! Dramatic, yes. Unfortunately, one of the side-effects of such valiant effort can be robust cursing. phil

    • Phil – I thoroughly enjoyed your comment – both the humor and passion in it. I love the robust cursing part (as we can see from my story, one is not immune from THAT by not knowing how things work). Carry on the good work (well, except for most plumbing) and hope to see you again in these pages.


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