Books That Kicked My Ass–#1. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Robert M. Persig)

 

Zen

 

Turning points. Smart people call them paradigm shifts. I call them Oh shit! Moments®. Those events in life that come crashing into you, leaving you dazed, changed. Like you just walked away from a traffic accident.

You’ve had yours. I’ve had mine. 

  • The moment I got my university/NYU acceptance letter. 
  • The moment I first set eyes on the love of my life. 
  • The moment that my neurologist (who has the worst bedside manner in the history of bedside manners) told me that I have Parkinson’s disease.
  • The moment I was told that my mother was dead.

My list is legion. 

Most of the time we recognize these events when they are happening. We can even predict the oncoming crash, watch it as it careens through what was an otherwise normal day, its gaze set firmly on you, intent on keeping your appointment with destiny. No, make no mistake, most of the time we know it’s coming. We know when it’s happening.  

But sometimes you don’t know. Those moments so subtle that their impact isn’t realized until, finally, years later they spring upon you like some long ago planted seed that finally took root. Or like some stealthy mosquito that ostensibly bit you in the night for your blood, but whose real, clandestine intention was to plant eggs under your skin to be nurtured by your body heat, your ignorance, to bear its progeny at a moment that you least expect and are ill-prepared for.

My introduction to what has proven to be my most important book in my life was like that…


October, 1981, North Thurston High School, Olympia, Washington–5th Period

“Fuuuuuuu…,” groaned Jeff as he slammed his locker door shut.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“…uuucccckkk,” he looked at me like he had just been handed a death sentence. “Gribbin’s class. What an asshole. I thought art was supposed to be easy!”

“Ah, man. C’mon, he’s not that bad.”

And he wasn’t. Okay, sure, Mr. Gribbin was an asshole—there was no denying that. He was grumpy, impatient, and had a personality that could only be described as grizzled. But if you understood him, if you could, somehow, empathise with his point-of-view, he was the best teacher you would ever have. Of anything. Anywhere.

Here’s Mr. Gribbin at a glance:

  • Art teacher
  • 6’2”
  • Thin and muscular
  • 63-years-old
  • Somewhat longish grey hair and beard—that would be at once acceptable and pushing the envelope for a teacher in 1981
  • Grumpy as all fucking get out
  • Seriously—and I mean seriously—interested in you leaving his room with more knowledge—about anything—than you did when you walked into it. It was his mission

A feature of Gribbin’s class was the music. He taught art and, to Gribbin, to be in art class meant that you were making art—constantly. Every period was, pretty much, a work period—there was very little lecture or, really, much instruction of any kind. What Gribbin did provide was music while you worked. A lot of it.

Next to the sink, where you would wash paint off brushes or clay off of your hands, was a big tape deck—a ‘boom box’. On this tape deck would be a revolving series of cassette tapes, a different tape for each class, rotated, in order, throughout the week. And next to the tape deck was the roster of music for the week. And, holy shit, what a list.

If you had class first block, you might be listening to London Calling by The Clash. Second block? Phil Ochs. Third block? Bach fugues by E. Power Biggs. Fourth block? Merle Haggard. And so on. The next day, he would just move the order up. Tuesday’s first period would listen to what the previous day’s second block was listening to on Monday, for example. (So, from that order, Tuesday’s first period class would be treated to Phil Ochs.) The bottom line was that most all of Gribbin’s selections would be a revelation to you, and you could see what you’d be listening to tomorrow and, alternatively, look forward to it or, as the case was sometimes, brace yourself.

And Gribbin knew his music. He would provide running commentary about the music’s connection to politics, the personal lives of the musicians, and its place in the soundtrack of history. To Mr. Gribbin, everything was art—music, literature, politics—and, to Gribbin, art was the very fabric of human existence. It was why we were here. To Gribbin, even being in love was a form of artits highest form of expression.


“Well, Mr. Carver, how is our charcoal study going today?” Gribbin asked gravely, more grim assessment and condemnation in his voice than honest enquiry.

“Fine,” Jeff stared at his paper, head bowed down, defeated.

“What’s this business here?” Gribbin asked, his crooked finger pointing menacingly at what was obviously an errant smudge.

Jeff looked at it nonchalantly. “A shadow?”

“A shadow… of what, I can only hazard a guess, Mr. Carver,” Gribbin said and walked away. He began to pass by but paused. He placed a book on my desk near my drawing and said, “Talk to me when you are finished with this.”

And then he walked off.

I looked down and saw the book. The title was intriguing. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance—An Inquiry into Values. I wanted to ask him about it, but when I looked up, he was already four desks away. He never mentioned a single thing about it until Iweeks later, after I had finished itas directed, approached him.

My next class that day wasn’t a class at all, it was a study block. I had, at this point in my grade 12 year, completed enough credits to have free periods. In these periods you could bring homework and silently study. I walked in, took my seat, and opened the book.

I can see by my watch, without taking my hand from the left grip of the cycle, that it is eight-thirty in the morning. The wind, even at sixty miles an hour, is warm and humid. When it’s this hot and muggy at eight- thirty, I’m wondering what it’s going to be like in the afternoon.

So begins Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It begins in the middle of action, or en media res, reading more like a travelogue than an inquiry into values and critical thinking. And the present tense, first person point of view makes it feel as if you are actually experiencing these things. I was immediately hooked.

I took that book with me everywhere. I read it on the bus rides home, I took it to my rock band’s practice—about 45 minutes up the highway in Tacoma, Washington; I read it—sometimes aloud—as our lead vocalist drove, I carried it with me on clumsy dates with my first, ever, girlfriend.

And I knew damn well that I was only understanding about 13% of what I was reading. While I couldn’t fathom most of the conversations and treatises about quality, values, and ethics, I was taken with Persig’s ability to make me feel as if I were actually on a motorcycle road trip across the United States—so it was this that I, initially, focused on. I knew, somehow, that I was ‘getting’ the more intellectual content, too, although on a more, let’s say, holistic level—at least for the time being. And being a seventeen-year-old with a burning desire to see and be in the world, those crisp descriptions of the American wilderness told from the vantage point of a motorcycle on country back roads were the next best thing to actually being there. It was ambrosia to me, a kid who felt abandoned to the periphery of a small and small-minded town, my horizons shrinking ever so perceptibly as my graduation inched nearer and my inability to afford university became clearer. I wasn’t going anywhere, but reading this road trip, so viscerally described in the book, made me feel, for a time, that I had, to paraphrase John Gillespie Magee, slipped the surly bonds of my small town and touched the face of God.

But a funny thing happened. The ostensible ghost story that Persig tells, the inquiry into the value and meaning of education, the examination of the very definition of quality, the near demand of the reader to think critically, substantially and with intent… these all stuck with me long after my graduation from high school.

After graduation, my friends left for university in droves. While none of my friends went to particularly exotic or lofty institutions, they did leave. So what if they weren’t attending Columbia or Harvard, or, ironically, where I would finally attend, NYU? They left town. Me? I was stuck at home.

I made do. I had to. My band worked hard to get the few gigs a week to keep us all afloat—but just. Finally, I added a pretty brutal job as an assembly line worker to my repertoire at an electronics factory north of Seattle—hours away from home. I’d finally left.

And Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was never far from my fingertips. I read and re-read that book several times, and each time I felt that I had pulled back another layer, another thin veneer of understanding was revealed that was previously obfuscated by my lack of knowledge, my inability to piece it together during the previous reading. But with each successive reading I got a little bit closer to the truth. I could feel it, the light bulbs turning on. They were small wattage bulbs, to be sure, but those fuckers were lighting up my world.

I was reading Zen… one night after work. My fingers were sore from the hundreds and hundreds of circuit boards I had assembled during the day and I looked forward to the hour or two of cognizance I had in the evening, before I collapsed into sleep from fatigue. The phone rang—right in the middle of Persig’s investigation into the efficacy of the use of grades in university study. Aren’t grades, he basically asked, merely an incentive for hoop-jumping? Wouldn’t knowledge be more substantial, more authentic—have higher quality—if the knowledge were gained for its own sake? I answered the phone. It was a good friend calling from home—where he had just returned. He just dropped out of university. And so began the deluge.

Several of my friends left their colleges. Most changed schools and degrees while others—to me, a staggering number—just dropped out entirely. Suddenly, Persig’s argument, that modern university systems were merely churning out factory workers of another variety, rang true. I knew what I had to do. I quit my factory job, went back home.

I went back home and thought about a major tenet of Zen...: quality. And the pursuit of quality in my life. In short order, I taught music and saved enough money to fund my first two years of community college. I had a plan and stuck to it: achieve quality in my work, be a critical thinker, be exceptional. I figured that if I stuck to this philosophy, I would, in time, find a permanent way off of the rock I was stuck on. I did exceptionally well in community college and applied to New York University. I was accepted and was offered a full scholarship. I was on my way to New York City. And, for me, this journey started with Mr. Gribbin dropping off that book on my desk.

Zen Working

“I’m not sure I completely understand it,” I confessed to Mr. Gribbin after I had finished the book. He didn’t look up, his attentions tuned to the pottery wheel, his hands forming a vase out of the clay.

“Mr. Hahn, you should understand that you can never completely understand anything—or anyone. It is all a matter of degrees—it’s not a question of understanding, but how your understanding has changed, improved since you last engaged with this thing or person,” is what he said to me, his eyes never leaving the wheel. “This clay, for example. Every time I touch it, it improves its quality—ever so slightly, maybe even imperceptibly. But it will never be perfect. I will never understand it—I will never know it—or anything or anyone—completely. It is both our gift and our curse, you see. All you can do is try to get a little closer—even though it, whatever it is, whoever it is, too, retreats with every step you take towards it.”


Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has been a touchstone of sorts for me. And, if I’m honest, it’s when I go some length of time without thinking about its principles or just plain not reading it, learning more from it, that things tend to go pear-shaped in my life. The very Greek philosophy styled ‘What is good?’ type questions that make up the foundation of its inquiry both keep me honest and serve as a good way to remind myself of how to treat other people, how to pursue a happy life—a ‘motorcycle’ whose handlebars I am too often guilty of letting go of.

I keep Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance near me wherever I am—a copy at home and two ‘working’ copies in my classroom, at the school where I teach. Those ‘working’ copies are for any students that may want to borrow it, start that road trip of confusion and discovery…

…to feel that the wind even at sixty miles an hour, is warm and humid.

 

 

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