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.

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