Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Robert Pirsig, author of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, died at age 88 this week. I read the book because it was part of (what we’d now call) new age/zen/spiritual English curriculum that one of our teachers built for us, a plate of Pirsig sprinkled with heavy Castenada seasoning and a bit of Pierce’s cosmic egg to make us question our realities. If it was possible to give literary acid to high school students, that was it.

I don’t remember much of what I read in high school, but parts of Pirsig’s book stood out to me, not only then but in discussions years later. The emphasis on “gumption”, the desire to do something the right way, and the various traps that drain your energy, motivation or desire to tackle something challenging has come up repeatedly. The thought that the journey is as important as the destination, that the ride matters, certainly informed and prepared me for reading Neil Peart’s moving, haunting and touching motorcycle travelogues thirty-five years later. Finally, his matter of fact approach to maintenance, especially the beer can handle bar shim (horrifying his riding companion but so illustrative of the idea), tied an episode from my childhood to one of my parenthood.

My father and I built a number of models together; one of my favorites was a bass and balsa wood model of a Chris Craft power boat. It was a thing of scale model beauty, down to the lovingly applied finish on it that gave it the feel of a wooden ocean faring boat, scaled to my world and horizons. My father decided we should have not only a model but a boat that could truly power, so he outfitted it with an electric motor and propeller gently welded to the end of a brass shaft. The prop shaft ran through a tube he had installed, at an appropriate angle, through the floor of the boat, and again gently sealed and fitted against leaks (including a bit of non-water soluble lubricant on the shaft so that it would not grind, rattle or even allow water to encroach on the drive train). The concentric brass tubes weren’t part of the design of the model, but solved a problem neatly when tackled with all of the gumption that two inland residents could manage.

Fast forward about forty years, to a day when my son was outfitting a bass guitar with custom tuning heads. The new heads were slightly smaller than the headstock holes left by the original equipment, meaning that the bushings around the tuning pegs were likely to grind, slip or otherwise chip at the headstock. Taking one of the fancy brass tuners in hand, we ventured off to the (last remaining) local hobby shop, known to stock brass tubes in a variety of diameters. Finding one that slipped neatly over the tuning pegs, it filled the headstock bore snugly enough to solve the problem for under $3. It was never part of the original design, nor an intended after market custom shim for nearly $100 worth of tuners, but those small brass barrels cut from the tube solved the problem We faced a gumption trap and drove around it, small bag of scale model parts in hand, the journey providing as much resolution as the final fit and finish. The whole way I was channeling that Chris Craft boat, and Robert Pirsig, and thinking about that beer can shim, a few pennies of aluminum that amplified the value of an $1,800 motorcycle so wildly up or down, if only you had the gumption to fold it to fit.

Somewhere my English teacher is smiling – and for good reason, as the book was less than five years old when we read it — a miracle of modernity, as most of our history books didn’t include the Korean or Vietnam Wars. Thank you Robert Pirsig, for taking us through your Chautauquas, and to the teachers and friends who have reflected on our personal quests for Quality with me over the years.

Plate o Shrimp Musical Hat Trick

Yesterday was Record Store Day, Earth Day and the Science Marches – a hat trick of espousing our preferences for the natural sciences and their appeal to our emotional states. Wrapped inside of my semi-annual pilgrimage to the Princeton Record Exchange was another hat trick of musical plates o shrimp, those casual references that seem to be threaded together, perhaps because we’re looking for them or perhaps because they are the warps (in every sense) of the fabric of our social lives.

I wandered over to the Record Exchange counter to inquire about a vinyl copy of Regressive Aid’s two I’ve been in a mathcore/industrial rock groove (in 7/4) lately and it seemed like a good artifact; while there were none in stock I found out that (a) one of the guys at the counter used to room with RA’s bass player (b) Sim Cain, RA’s drummer (who also played with an early incarnation of Ween), would be sitting in with the Chris Harford band that evening and (c) the 1980s Princeton/Hopewell music scene has persisted and matured and while it’s not same magnitude as the impact of Seattle on grunge, it’s a nice confluence of folk, ska, reggae, rock, and progressive. Does it count as a plate o shrimp if the term was just entering the vernacular at the point of origin?

Browsing through the vinyl that was haphazardly placed into the “new arrival” bins, I got to relive some of those 1980s musical journeys, remembering the time, place, context and to quote Marti DiBergi “the smells” of each of those albums. A preponderance of early Traffic albums had me thinking about Steve Winwood, nearly failing freshman physics and how the sound of mandolins makes me immediately think of grad/curl/div vector fields. A few hours later I got a text from a friend who was at the Winwood show in Philadelphia, depicting the ex-Traffic frontman with — what else — a mandolin. Complete and total plate o shrimp, down to the resonating surfaces.

Wrapping up in Princeton, I wandered over to the jazz section, a nice mix of bebop and fusion and big bands that has the equivalent scattered yet somehow organized feel of the rock vinyl bins. A neat Dave Brubeck boxed set also had me thinking in odd time signatures, carrying me over til dinner at Shanghai Jazz in Madison where the Eric Mintel trio channeled Brubeck classics. You can’t make this stuff up, although sometimes I wonder if we find these weird connections and themes when we’re looking for them.

United’s PR Flap

Having flown nearly 2.4 million miles on United (and Continental, pre-merger) Airlines, having probably lost likely one full weekend per year due to delays and operational problems, and being remarkably vocal about what I see as United’s operational woes, I seem to be tagged left and right in reposts of coverage of the recent forced removal of a passenger from a United flight.

I have three thoughts on the matter (since a number of people have asked): United was within its rights as a carrier, but barely; United created this issue for themselves due to lack of operational excellence; United poured gasoline on the dumpster fire by once again handling a customer relations issue without the simplest of apologies (even if they believed they were in the right).

United and all other airlines routinely overbook flights. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t get the maximum revenue per flight (or accommodate all passengers) when people fail to show up, change plans, or get delayed on their inbound connections. While it’s a huge pain to those on the flight when this happens, it also means that there are seats when you have to make last minute travel plans. What is borderline about this case is that it wasn’t caused by an overbooking but rather by United’s need to move four flight crew to Louisville. United needed the seats, they weren’t sold as extra capacity in advance. United then followed procedure – they asked for volunteers, and when they had no volunteers, they selected based on an algorithm that rewards fare paid, loyalty and disabled or minor passengers. Had they decided to skip the chosen passenger, and pick the next one, they set themselves up for cascading chorus of “I’m important, pick the next guy”. And not to truly pile on, but if you have something time critical, do not depend on the airlines to get you there just in time when you’re flying through a busy hub known for weather and operational delays. Just as doctors sometimes slip their schedule due to emergencies, airlines do the same. There: I defended United. On the other hand, I’m not defending the manner in which the passenger was forcibly removed from the plane — but that’s on the policing force, not on United. I know, shocking for me to admit that an action with bad optics performed by United Airlines was within guidelines, but from my perspective, it was.

Here’s where it goes south: United created this problem for themselves. If you have to move four crew members to the next destination, and your flight is oversold, book them on another carrier. Charter a flight for them. Put them on a helicopter. Clearly, the backsplash from this incident is costing them more than the $50,000 it would have cost to do this in an egregiously expensive but less customer impactful way. This is where United continues to fail its customers – they seem to operate with the thinnest margins of slack in the system, whether it’s maintenance windows or crew arrival or gate availability. My BOS-EWR flight on Thursday was delayed 5 1/4 hours by weather — yes, there was bad weather — but the operational information on the United website was useless — it had incorrect inbound flight information (so there was no way to gauge or plan alternatives), and the sequencing of inbound to EWR and inbound to BOS flights was laughably implausible for hours. In the 18 months, I’ve had more than five flights held for a variety of mechanical problems, or flights held because crew was on an inbound and there were simply no options. I had believed one of the tenets of the hub and spoke model was to make it easier to substitute crew, equipment, and services as needed, but it seems that United is gaining no operational efficiencies at all, and perhaps suffering from needing to get crew to and from hub cities (EWR and ORD being among the worst).

And here’s why United continues to be the public relations pinata they so richly deserve to be: They routinely fail to apologize to the customer. This is true in every interaction I’ve had with United over the last ten years. They never admit that they created a bad customer experience (whether their fault or not, it’s the customer experience that matters). Admit that this could have been handled better. Admit you caused no end of public humiliation and personal aggravation. When my BOS-EWR flight was delayed and I began chirping @United via Twitter, I got back a series of “Tell us what flight” and explanations of their plane logistics, rather than (John Mullaney voice here) “We are sorry! We just destroyed your evening and the first day of your vacation, here is a $100 travel voucher or 25,000 miles for your troubles”. JetBlue does this — I flew on JetBlue right after Christmas, had a TWO HOUR delay, and was given 10% of my ticket price as travel voucher, without me asking, purely because they saw and admitted the problem (which was weather, not their doing). That’s customer sensitivity and customer service.

Until United starts to demonstrate an understanding of the total end to end customer experience of their airline, each and every incident (whether the leggings issue, or an involuntary bump, or just a hideous in flight experience) will get amplified and echoed through social media, because United offers no other signal to combat the negative noise.

CEO Oscar Munoz posted a public promise to focus on these things just a short time ago: Let’s see some transparency and accountability, and maybe the friendly skies will start to feel that way again.

Hall Of Fame Lifecycle

In the span of 24 hours I revisited forty years of parenting, music and sports.

Friday night we attended the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction at the Barlcays Center in Brooklyn, mostly to see two-thirds of Rush (inducted a few years ago) do the honors for Yes, my all-time favorite band and the core of so much of my love of music. Saturday took us to the other new hockey arena in the tri-state area, this time to see Patrik Elias take one final pre-game lap as he has announced his retirement from the NHL. Elias cemented us as Devils fans, not just for bringing home two Stanley Cups (and two more Finals appearances) but for his loyalty, work ethic, and popular presence in the local area. His number will be retired by the Devils in 2017-18, and he is a likely NHL Hall of Fame candidate. Over the course of two nights in two big rinks, we saw the past, present and future of various testaments to craft well plied, through the lens of our past, present and future love of music and sports.

The similarities between the two nights were subtle but present: Playing — sports or music — is critical to our enjoyment. Seeing something live gives you context and texture and experience that you can’t get from recorded or televised events. Our heroes, whether known to us personally or just from the backs of their sports cards and record sleeves, influence our approach and goals and style. Our greatest moments of joy are often theirs as well.

Hearing Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson describe the influence Yes had on them as teenage musicians was priceless; it was a peek past the close of the “R40” tour that wrapped all the way around to the beginning of Rush time. Devin Harrison connecting Jeff Lynne’s ELO to his late father, and Geddy Lee invoking the awesome power of Chris Squire’s bass lines by sitting in with Yes on “Roundabout” made it feel as if both musical icons were smiling from on high. From past to present to future – Elias was greeted at center ice for the ceremonial face off by his wife and daughters, a surprise that made all in attendance (including Patrik himself) tear up; they are the influences on his future life.

Season’s End

For the first time since Labor Day weekend, my car does not have a bag of pucks, coach’s whiteboard, hockey stick and some collection of gloves, jackets, helmets and skate repair kits clanging around the rear hatch. Today ended another season of Mites hockey, my third as a team coach and fifth as a development squad coach, and perhaps for the first time I understand what university professors must feel as a stellar class of students leaves for the real world.

I started coaching travel hockey three years ago, when about half of this team were U6 Mites. They were wobbly, funny, and sometimes more concerned about whose birthday party was after the game, or if they had an itch under their helmet. Today I saw them passing, shooting, supporting each other and showing every aspect of a game that’s ready for full ice, full sized nets, and full score keeping. It was a pleasure to see these kids grow up with hockey as part of their lives.

I got to coach my first tournament – and took a silver medal. I’ve been there as a manager, and as a parent, but never with the responsibility for ensuring the team had a wonderful tournament experience. Despite losing the medal game, it was the type of bonding and mildly exhausting trip that will be etched into hockey memories.

I got to be Coach Santa and Coach Leprechaun. My repertoire is expanding, and the kids seem to love taking pictures and hamming it up with whatever alter ego is calendar-appropriate.

I had the pleasure of sharing the bench with two men who played at a high level, versus the beer league and education-through-sports casting training I’ve had. They brought an amazing mix of humility, humor and knowledge to each game.

At the end of today’s game, concluding our in-house tournament, amidst handing out medals and cupcakes, I took 30 seconds to talk about each player. It was the easiest public speaking I’ve ever had to do, and it happened without notes, because I just had to say what each player made me think.

It was a mixed year outside of Devils Youth hockey – a full season (so far) without Saint Patrik Elias, the patron saint of dangle pie in our house; a horrendous season for the NHL Devils yet one in which I still follow every game; a year in which I got to see playoff hockey in Prague and see my Princeton Tigers return to the ECAC playoffs (and win a series for the first time in nearly a decade); the first year in which I didn’t play in a single adult beer league game due to work, travel and injury schedules. But when you see 11 small players throw their gloves in the air, pile on their goalie and celebrate like they’d just won the Stanley Cup, it’s a good year of hockey.

Bradys, Partridges and “This Is Us”

For weeks I’ve been trying to put my finger on why I adore NBC’s “This Is Us” so much. It’s not just the Ken Olin reflection of “thirtysomething” of twenty-something years ago; it’s a deep visceral feeling that it’s TV that we truly need right now. Two simultaneous conversations refocused my thinking – one was a Facebook comment thread in which friend Jenni commented that “This Is Us” is a show about adoption, and the other was a long phone call with my sister, happily recalling the small screen families with whom we grew up: The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family. The plate of shrimp turned all the way around when I remembered an early first season Partridge Family episode in which Danny believes he was adopted (and yes, I checked the air date — March 12, 1971, precisely 46 years earlier).

“This Is Us” works because it echoes the same risks, themes and family situations, recast forty years later, as the shows we loved the most as tweens.

Shirley Partridge was a widow. The Brady Bunch were the original blended family. Danny thought he was adopted. The Patridge Family, especially in its last season, dealt with women’s liberation, religion, the precursor to Title IX sports equality, gender roles, aging, subtle racial bias (when the Patridge Family and the Temptations bookings are switched) and the strong nuclear bond of the non-nuclear family. The Brady Bunch dealt in simpler fare: sibling rivalry, respect, dignity in failure. Put this television into the context of the early 1970s: a country reeling from racial tension and social schism around Vietnam, the collected after images of Woodstock, JFK, MLK, Nixon, Apollo 11 and Apollo 13. Like “thirtysomething” which was essentially a comedy with serious family and professional relationship undertones, our 1970s family comedies stepped up to present difficult (for the time) themes. We were just slightly younger than the lead characters of each series, looking up to them as fictional older siblings and idealized role models.

When we watch “This Is Us”, then, we are transposed twice in time – we are older than the Pearson kids in the 1970s timeline equivalent of our TV days, and older than their current ages in the forward timeline. We are now the slightly older, perhaps wiser siblings to our TV characters. Having navigated teenage and adult years we see “This Is Us” as validation that our issues with parents, family structure, rivalry, pressure, perfection, friends and extended family are universal, and maybe just maybe we successfully navigated them and the “Us” refers to the characters as it reflects the audience.

Suny B Psycho Squad, Assemble

I nearly missed my ride to Newark Airport screaming at my Princeton Tigers in the semifinal of the first Ivy League Men’s Basketball Tournament (seems like it needs a name, and a championship trophy name). The game went into overtime, with Princeton’s ability to tie it in the waning seconds presenting a kick-save opportunity for a game in which they never led. Along the way, I channeled every single strange event memory I could dredge up, from Carril era nicknames for players who made poor shot selections to performing my own, best-viewed-privately version of the Suny B Psycho Squad cheer while wearing this shirt.

No manner of weirdness, no talisman, no historical reference, no alliterative profanity is too far when you are on the doorstep of the big dance, wishing for a ticket to get in, to relive your salad days and remember great friends for two weeks. If the Olympics are an international house guest that makes you feign interest in strange sports in the name of national pride, then March Madness is a mini college reunion of friends with whom you cheered until your throat and head hurt equally.

Here’s what I remember from various Princeton basketball games between 1982 and 1984:

My friend Ed had a rubber chicken that we brought to most games our senior year. The Columbia game that winter was 11-10 at halftime (no shot clock, and verrrryyy long possessions) and ended with Princeton losing 33-31. I said some mean things that night and we did a few visual puns with the chicken that would be unacceptable on the Monmouth bench (or anywhere else with respectable adults present).

Princeton clinched an Ivy Title, and an automatic tourney bid, in the last game of the year versus Penn, which I listened to on my Walkman (!!) in the EQuad terminal room (think about it: you could take cassettes with you, but you still had to go to where the computers were). My friend Lemon knew I was working on my thesis, and brought me a stromboli from Victor’s about an hour after the game. There were no cell phones, no email, no texting, she just knew where I would be and what would make that evening perfect. It was one of the finest acts of friendship during my four years as a Tiger.

Princeton had an alt-cheering force known as the Suny B Psycho Squad, of which friend Ed and a number of other arm’s length friends were members. Their cheers featured animal onomatopoeia, hand-lettered poster board signs to goad us into joining them, and in later incarnations, the rubber chicken providing aerial support. It was fun and goofy and nearly impossible to explain, but the people who “got it” can still trigger a tight network effort on Facebook with a mere “E I E I E I O”, the clarion call, shofar-like, of the assembly of the Suny B team.

Ed’s rubber chicken disintegrated somewhere along the travels of married life with kids. I bought him a new one a few weeks ago, in the middle of Princeton’s run to a 14-0 Ivy season. It seemed the right thing to do.

Slowly march, forward, thirty-three years and Princeton finds itself in the Ivy Tournament finals, an invitation to dance forty minutes away. Penn has been defeated, at the Palestra, again, and in the course of yammering online I heard from Ed, Lemon, and a host of other friends who recognized the animal sounds and requirement to cheer in non-obvious ways.

For one shining moment, we were all on the bleachers again, rubber chicken in hand, despite a few thousand miles of geography and three decades of life.

The International Bank of Stern

I honestly forget who introduced me to Kiva — maybe my former co-worker Dr Jim, definitely one of the more socially minded people at Sun Microsystems in the pre-Oracle days. I just made my 140th Kiva loan, bringing my total notional amount to just shy of $4,000. With a 2017 resolution to do more social good and build bridges, I made a small donation to Kiva and topped off my account so that I was able to fund seven new loans today, primarily using the balance from previous repayments over the last six months.

Some interesting statistics, most taken from my private page, a few from my public lender profile:

  • Loans made: 140. Under 2% of them have run into payment delinquency, and less than 0.7% have defaulted.
  • Total amount loaned: $3,990 (this includes re-loaning funds that have been repaid). I’ve benefitted from six different promotions, and over the course of eight years as Kiva lender I’ve re-loaned each dollar about twelve times. That is a remarkably efficient velocity of money given the frequently retrograde payment, disbursement and records keeping mechanisms in play.
  • I’ve invited 26 people to Kiva and they have made an aggregate of 199 loans. More than half of the total I’ve invested in Kiva ($475 of the $770) has been in the form of gift cards – one of my favorite gifts to give for someone who has everything including elegance in giving their time and energy.
  • Of the $295 out of pocket I’ve invested in Kiva, about $25 has gone to currency loss and $25 to default. At about 0.7% each, those rates are less tha one-third of what you pay in credit card currency translation or the national average credit card default rate. In short, banking the unbanked is better business.
  • Demographics: 35 countries, 16 sectors, 64 field partners and 68% of loans to women. That’s what empowerment looks like – helping women start and grow their own businesses, with local partners interested in job creation and economic expansion rather than fees and interest rates.
  • If you’re wondering about that “International Bank” bit, it’s liberated from The International Bank of Bob: Connecting Our Worlds One $25 Kiva Loan at a Time which is an amazing introduction to the world of unbanked populations, microloans, and social impact.

    In this last batch of loans, I made sure I included a country in which I’d never made a loan before (Congo and Peru), and a segment I hadn’t funded (arts). Of course, I also made a few new loans in Rwanda, where I’ve seen excellent performance of the portfolio and have had a personal interest since our daughter spent a month in the hills teaching English. My investment strategy is simple: I am for loans that are under 12 months in duration (because it allows me to turn the funds over, and because I believe that limits the dynamic range of delinquency events). Look for field partners who have experience, low default rates, low currency risk, and make an about-market return on their funds (so they aren’t taking advantage of their local customers, but aren’t in the money losing business).

    High notional volume, low return, multi-party mutual funding — it’s the model that grew the American insurance businesses through the 1950s, and now it can grow small scale business opportunity. If you grew up in the Tri-State Area and remember Phil Rizzuto pitching for the Money Store, it’s that idea taken globally.

    Always Play The Over

    I have told my kids, half-jokingly, to always play the over in life. Most sporting events have a sports book line on the total score, with even money bets offered on the total being over or under the established line. An NHL game might have an over/under of 5.5 goals; Super Bowl LI’s over/under was 58 points (a record high); a boxing match over/under may involve the number of rounds before a knockout.

    Always play the over. If wager on the under, you’re betting on something not happening. You’re hedging against faith, spirit, confidence, and good luck. Those bets may pay off sometimes, but against a large cross section of people, over time, they lose. Jodi Picoult, a favorite author, wrote that sometimes a miracle isn’t what happened but what didn’t; that case is the strong exception. The Patriots coming back from 25 points down to tie, then win the game? You don’t bet against that. A Super Bowl that had a scoreless first quarter ending in 62 total points? The only thing that was freaking out Vegas odds makers was the Super Bowl ending with a sack in the end zone for a safety, New England by 2 and only 58 total points. But that’s a bet on a miracle; a bet on motivated teams produced a favorite covering, the over covered, and somehow, another Super Bowl title for New England. Like the Voldemort lookalike on their helmets: you count them out and they come return in some weird configuration to take the day, again.

    Always play the over in life. Don’t bet against yourself, your peers, your friends, your like-minded but unknown teammates. Doing so is a lack of confidence and hope, both of which are in short supply in some quarters.

    Living Through The Narrative Arcs

    We are all more exposed and more immersed in celebrity deaths with the advances in social media because we get to gauge the reactions of our friends and family to events that may have only been tangential to our lives. Yes, I was saddened by the death of David Bowie, but immediately thought of college friends who idolized him in each of his musical phases; of friends’ bands who learned “Rebel, Rebel” and “Suffragette City” and not much else; of my fellow Phish fans who can generate a grin simply by saying his name with appropriate cadence. Prior to our ability to broadcast our feelings, I’m not sure I would have stepped backwards quite as far with his passing.

    Carrie Fisher threw me for a short non-infinite loop, and the timing having just finished “Princess Diarist” and the theatrical release of “Rogue One” was eerie.

    When the celebrities have loomed larger in our childhood hagiographies, when the heroines and stars and swashbucklers of the stories we idolized in our formative years die in real life, we are, suddenly, trying to see the next chapter in the story no matter how long it’s been relegated to the recesses of happy memory. Billy Crystal wrote that Mickey Mantle’s death forced him into adulthood; when we are faced with the narrative arcs in real life taking the dramatic turn where the hero, the inspiration, the leader dies, we are immersed in that story not as a character but as a contemporary.

    This is why Facebook amplifies these feelings — clearly, Facebook has become the narrative channel of the late boomers, while our kids use Snapchat and Instagram and more image based tools, we cling to the notion that we’re writing our own great American stories, all of the time. Facebook just lets us do it simply and immediately, incorporating real world events into the narrative arcs in a way that would make EL Doctorow or Jo Walton proud.

    We can argue that statistically 2016 was a rough year for celebrities, but it’s more likely that our longer term view of celebrity has been amplified by improved average life span, more media coverage, and franchise reboots that remind us of the earlier, simpler parts of our own stories.

    Do take events as turning points in the story line: What happens next is up to us, and that’s the thought I’m riding into 2017.