Thoughts on the book Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance.

I didn’t want to read this book. I don’t have much patience for Zen, and I never could fix my motorcycle. Actually, it was my brother’s motorcycle. He could fix it, but he was in basic training with the Army. I wouldn’t have wanted to try to fix it myself, and I never had to because it never broke. At least not to my knowledge.

Fortunately, my feelings about the book soon changed. It’s the unknown that we’re afraid of. It’s like going on a trip. Everyone tells you that you’re going to have a good time, and you’ve even told yourself the same thing. But it’s the unknown, and it takes so much effort. Ultimately, you go on the trip, and you have a good time. In fact, you never want to leave. Maybe it’s change we’re afraid of. That’s worth looking in to. At any rate, I enjoyed “Zen the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” which I affectionately call ZAMM.

“Zen the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert M. Pirsig.

Naturally, Mom didn’t want me to get my license.

“It’s too dangerous,” she had said.

The folks in the Emergency Room at Maine Medical Center called them organ donors. I called it transportation. I didn’t have a car, and I worked seven miles away. It was the summer after my junior year in high school. In April of my senior year, my parents gave me their old Dodge with its classic Slant Six engine. I couldn’t fix that one either, but I knew it was classic … and reliable.

So I got my license. I actually got my permit without ever having ridden a motorcycle! It was a multiple choice exam, and my brother had told me all of the answers. I got an 80%.

There’s something inherently pleasant about riding a motorcycle. Maybe it’s weaving in and out of a traffic jam or knowing that you’ll always find a parking space. For me, it was being able to see the world, really SEE it. And hear it. And feel it. You become part of it, right there in the middle of it all. Of course, the cars can’t see you, and that’s a problem. I prefer relying on myself rather than the other guy in an emergency, and you can usually do this and get out of the way. Usually.

I only really had one close call, and that was with myself. I was riding home thirty miles from my girlfriend’s house in the middle of a hot July day. The whoosh of the air, the hum of my machine, and the warm sun on my back made for a very soothing environment. Too soothing. When I woke up on the wrong side of the road, I suddenly felt wide awake. Boy did I feel stupid.

A similar thing happened to my friend Jon, only he was riding at night, and we wok up going 50 m.p.h. out of control on the sidewalk. After he hit the telephone pole and was somehow thrown free of the bike, he landed on his head in a driveway and immediately somersaulted to his feet. Yes, he was wearing a helmet. I think “embarrassed” was the word he used. How about lucky. His bike was bent at a 90 degree angle, and he only had a bruised kidney and a cracked bone in his foot. (Apparently from the foot pegs.)

Reading ZAMM, these and other memories came to mind.

I’m on a quest myself, the quest for order. I’m a neat freak, but I have a sense of humor about it. For example, if I wear a shirt once, it’s not really dirty. (I like to think that filth doesn’t constantly emanate from my body.) So after I’ve worn it once, I hand it up with the open end of the hangar hook (we need a better word for this…) towards me instead of towards the wall. The next time I wear it, I know to toss it in the laundry when I’m done. Sometimes my whole closet is full of backwards hangars. I’ve been avoiding them like reading a new book or going on a trip. Eventually, everything ends up in the laundry. It’s a silly system, but it pleases me. And it humors me.

Then there was my trip across the country this summer with my girlfriend. We drove from Boston to San Diego. She was moving there. I was taking my heartbreak on a vacation. I knew I’d never see her again. My flight back took only seven hours. It had taken nearly two weeks to get there. Wait a minute, something’s wrong. I was going back in time. The East Coast was ages ago.

“Don’t you think you’re missing something?” I wanted to ask the other people on the plane.

“When are we going to get there?” they seem to be saying.

It’s going to be a long summer.

I was always partial to winter, growing up in Maine and all, but it’s not very good for riding your motorcycle. I rode in sleet once. Take the road more traveled by. I’m not sure where that’s from, but it helped me in this case. Winter. Back to Mom and public transportation.

I think driving made my girlfriend tired because she always slept when I drove. I’m glad she feels secure with my driving, but I’m missing out on some deep intellectual conversations I had hoped to have. Oh well, I can still think. Even sex wasn’t very exciting. That must have made her tired too.

I like to mix the order in my room with a bit of aesthetics. Pure order would just mean books on my shelves, but I have some display shelves too. Organized creatively. I organize my books by height, not subject. This makes for some interesting combinations. “Wings,” a book of Air Force planes, is next to “Go, Dog, Go!” (a gift from a friend at Georgia Tech.) which is next to some French textbooks which are next to some “Bloom County” books etc. The largest and smallest books always seem to be dictionaries, or Bibles.

Phaedrus reminds me of one of my Dad’s friends. He is a genius, one of the smartest men I know. He’ll begin studying one thing and then see how it relates to something else which branches into two more things and so on. Frustrating. He wants to know it all. He knows more than I do, but when you subtract something finite from infinity, you still get infinity. In fact, infinity gets larger.

I guess I’m not really trying for a mix of aesthetics and order, but rather a blend of the two. Like the difference between a mixture and a compound in chemistry. In a mixture, you can separate the different materials or elements into groups and you really haven’t changed anything. When you separate a compound into groups, you have to go through some chemical process like heating, or you have to add another material, a catalyst, to the material. The end results is the same as with a mixture – you have separated the compound into two groups. But it’s different somehow. You can’t just throw them back together and expect to get what you started with. It’s the difference between dousing a fire with water and dousing it with two parts hydrogen gas and one part oxygen gas.

This blend of aesthetics and order cannot be broken down into the separate parts. Order doesn’t end where aesthetics starts. The order is the aesthetics, or is the aesthetics the order? Or is there a catalyst called Quality which can separate the two? And do I even want to separate the two? Can I? Dare I?

I think I like my room just the way it is. The Quality is the personality, and it’s got plenty of that. My girlfriend always wanted to know where we’d eat and sleep every day. I was glad to play it by ear, but I always told her something just to please her. My room pleases me. I had a good time getting there. I didn’t like leaving. Back to my room. After I graduated from high school, a friend and I went to Europe with no plans. That’s Quality. She would never have come.

I’m not going to try to fix my car either. I’ll leave that for my brother. It pleases him.

I have more patience for Zen now. My quest for order will continue, and I don’t think I’ll go insane as long as I keep my sense of humor about it. The sixth sense of humor. Overall, my experience with ZAMM was a good one. Sentimental. Pondering. The next time I go on a trip, it will be a little easier.

[This article was written while Erik J. Heels was a student at MIT for the course 9.68 Affect: Biological, Psychological, and Social Aspects of Feelings; taught by Stephan L. Chorover (http://web.mit.edu/bcs/people/chorover.shtml. It was reprinted here, for no apparent reason, sometime before Erik’s 40th birthday.]