There has been so much written about Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZMM) that it seems presumptuous of me to attempt to add anything more. What can I add to what has already been written by real experts about the philosophical discussions, the psychological discoveries, the effective use of the first person Narrator, the personalities of the Narrator and Phaedrus, and the links between these and the descriptive parts of the travelogue? Even in this list I’m sure I’ve left out many important topics, but it doesn’t matter, you can find out about them from other sources, intelligent and intelligible ones. So I wasn’t going to write anything.
But then another member of our book club “quietly urged” me to write something. I thought, well, since it’s a “Retired Men’s Book Club” perhaps I can add something from that perspective, and in doing so add value to people in that stage of life.
I retired 5 years ago, what does ZMM have to say that is relevant to my fellow book club members and me? I pondered this and thought that maybe I should take the title literally – that is: assume ZMM is in fact is a book about the maintenance of technological things because that’s what the title says it’s about. Or more broadly, it’s about our state of mind while we are fixing/maintaining things.
Maybe this is a good approach because one of the core “discoveries” of my retired life is that an awful lot of things are constantly breaking and therefore in need of maintenance. In this way ZMM may be relevant.
Ah, but here is my first problem! ZMM talks about technology and our mental and physical relationship to things technological. But the things that break in my life aren’t mostly what I’d normally classify as technology (they certainly aren’t as technological as a motorcycle!) For instance a few weeks ago a cedar fence post rotted through (or maybe some vandals pushed it over) so now the fence is sagging and bending. Are fences technological? It really doesn’t matter because I have to fix it whether it’s technology or not. (Robert Frost’s stone fence might help the discussion of the definition of technology here, but since my fence is not stone it would be a digression.) Another example: the stitches that attach the strings on my favorite cooking apron broke (it was made for me by my 15 year old niece so it’s important). Are aprons technological? They too require maintenance so I guess they belong within our topic. Certainly precision and peace of mind are required when an amateur starts sewing.
I’m not being cute or coy here. Maintenance is a big part of my life and I suspect this is also true for other retired men, so if ZMM has any value it should say something relevant to us. ZMM might even be a sort of necessity since having to maintain things can cause a loss of peace of mind and therefore take away some of the enjoyment of being retired.
Now, to make the maintenance of technological things more real in this essay, I need to talk about the flush handle on my basement toilet.
But before I get into that, I have a question regarding the whole basis for this essay. It’s clear from ZMM that The Narrator is basically a creep. I was told by a skilled, licensed and practicing psychologist that if she were to observe The Narrator treating his son as ZMM describes, then in the state of Washington at least, she would have to report him to Child Protective Services who would probably remove his son from his custody. This strikes a major blow to the basis for my essay because the greater part of the discussion regarding maintenance with peace of mind comes from The Narrator, not from Phaedrus. There’s scant evidence that Phaedrus had either an interest or much of a talent related to this topic. Is the incident that The Narrator describes about an earlier trip being aborted because the biker failed to figure out that there really was gas in the tank, a description of Phaedrus’s Zen like relationship with technology? If so then the whole maintenance with peace of mind discussion in ZMM must be The Narrator’s creation. How can I possibly base an essay on what he says? Pirsig neither liked him nor trusted him, and virtually the whole TRMBC (figure it out), went nearly apoplectic about his unsavory character. So if the Narrator created the ideas regarding how to maintain technology with an improved Zen-like attitude, then I’m up a creek because we all agree that my chief source on this topic can’t be relied upon. If you can’t believe The Narrator, then you can’t believe this essay, and I’ve already wasted 3 minutes and 17 seconds of your valuable time. (This fancy technological word processor tells me how long it will take the average retired Tacoman to read up to any point.) In fact if the first person Narrator is unreliable then almost everything in ZMM has a serious cloud hanging over it.
(pause to think this over)
Well, now that I’ve slept on this conundrum I’ve decided it’s your problem not mine. There are lots of good references on ZMM, so I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine if anything of quality can be gleaned from the parts of the book that are clearly attributable just to The Narrator. (Answers can be posted as comments.)
Now back to the flush handle on my basement toilet. From ZMM I learned that the Buddha is in that very handle and that if I develop the correct Zen-like attitude to it (I’d prefer to use the term “relationship with”) that handle, then fixing it will likely be easier, and more successful. To do this I have to seek to become “one” with it, and feel it’s structure, function, essence.
For the sake of brevity I’m going to skip quite a few details here. Suffice it to say that motorcycles and toilet handles have more than a little in common with respect to their maintenance. They both have tolerances (the bottom stopper must lift precisely to let the flush occur at the right speed, and then it must fall exactly back into place to allow the tank to fill without leaking.) This all depends on the proper placement and length of the chain and handle level, which in turn depends on the proper degree of tightening of the bolt and nut which is difficult because they are both plastic. Without peace of mind, and/or without ones oneness with the mechanism, one can easily mis-install a handle and make a mess. But, using what I had read in ZMM, I did get it assembled and working just fine.
Two days later my wife returned from a business trip and of course I wanted to show off my new skills and attitudes. It did not help when I started off by explaining the importance of “being one” with the toilet handle. She was convinced I’d flipped out in her absence. It didn’t help either that the toilet did not flush during my demonstration. I wasn’t worried though; I knew that all would be right, the only problem was that more communing was necessary. I knew this, not just from reading ZMM, but because I felt that something was amiss. Further communing with the handle revealed that probably the plastic bolt had loosened during the first days of operation and it needed some fine-tuning. Inspection showed I was correct. I made a minor adjustment until the tightness felt just right. The toilet now sounds very content. Apparently it is in a state of peace of mind. I certainly am.
But toilet handles are not delicate instruments that need really fine precision tuning like motorcycles. In fact I only have one possession that does: an Atmos Millennium Clock that was given to me as a present. Since this clock was made especially for the turn of the (most recent) century it has three hands: a minute hand, an hour hand, and a year hand. The year hand moves very slowly, taking 100 years to go from 2000 to 3000. Further the clock never has to be manually wound because its power comes from the expansion and contraction of a special gas in a special cylinder. If the temperature in the room changes by 1 degree C over a day this provides enough power to keep the clock running. Needless to say it must be set absolutely level, cannot be jarred, and must be handled with special white gloves (there is always grease on you fingers.) It does need to be stopped and oiled every 40 years, but fortunately I’ll probably be long gone by then so it won’t be my problem, I’ll leave it to the son who I think needs to work more on developing his peace of mind.
I constantly live in fear of breaking this gift, especially on a daylight savings day when I actually have to touch it. You can look up the manual on the Internet (The Narrator would love that) but it only says, “Don’t even think about touching it to try to fix it. You will only screw it up!”
But there is a also a sentence that says “if it stops unexpectedly here’s what you can do to start it again – begin by donning your white gloves…”
Now my clock stopped a few months ago, and, not having the proper relationship to it, let alone not having the requisite peace of mind, I just left it alone and tried not to look it in the face.
But thanks to ZMM and The Narrator, and in spite of the bad press Pirsig, Phaedrus, and the Book Club have given him, I did have enough trust that the Buddha was in my clock and that if I relaxed I could develop enough peace of mind to try…
(details here are unimportant)
The Millennium Atmos clock is working again and is keeping the correct time relative to the atomic clock in the same room.
Our peace of mind is complete.
The Narrator gives a full discussion of “Peace of Mind” during his visit with DeWeese in Bozeman. He later provides step-by- step instructions in the section on gumption and value traps etc. You can look these up if you are interested. They were obviously useful to me.
But frankly, The Narrator’s ideas in these parts of ZMM seem to me to be a caricature of Phaedrus’s philosophy. They turn some very creative and deep thinking into a users manual. This of course is fitting since it is The Narrator’s profession.
Did Pirsig intend the literal interpretation of ZMM to be an enhancement of Phaedrus’s ideas? If so does this enhancement work? Or did he include them as a way to demean The Narrator? But if the purpose was to demean then why did he choose the ZMM title?
I guess you’ll have to look that up elsewhere too. (Once again comments will be appreciated.)
pf (Provence, April 2011)
1 The occasional use of the italics typeface here was made necessary because some dummies couldn’t understand this essay unless I added special emphasis in a few places.