Friday, July 31

With the right philosophy, motor cycling can be inspirational

The worries began when I dropped the motor cycle in Terrigal. I'd pulled up on a steep grade, brakes holding the bike as I gave way to a car on the right. But when I put out a leg to prop us up, I couldn't reach the sloping pavement, and over we went.

For the following weeks I took my time as I cannibalised an old bike to replace the broken bits. The replacements look a bit tatty, but they do the job. I also put a spanner over the rest of the bike.

Great! Everything working well with days to go before the bike needed its re-registration inspection.

Alas – not so great! The rear brakes wouldn't release, and the front brakes didn't come on when I pulled the lever. Unused for a couple of months, the systems had gummed up with brake fluid which must have passed its replacement date a decade or two earlier.

With the rego deadline looming, the master cylinders and perhaps the slave cylinders too would have to be stripped, cleaned and rebuilt before I replaced the fluid and bled the air out of the lines.

Once again, everything went sweetly. I must have good karma.

Not enough good karma, however. Took the bike for a test up Ocean Beach Road, no problems. Exhilarated at being on two wheels again, I turned to take the twisty road over to Patonga. Then I realised:

(a) It was a very cold day
(b) I was wearing a T-shirt
(c) I already had the beginnings of a mild cold.

Now I know how to turn a mild cold into something longer lasting and not so mild. I'm still a bit thick with it, but I did re-register the bike in time. Unfortunately, I didn't feel up to blogging. My apologies.

All those thoughts of karma reminded me of a book I read more than thirty years ago – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I dug it out, and took it back to my sickbed.

It's about this philosophy professor who went nuts trying to define quality. We don't learn until near the end of the book that he'd had shock treatment in an attempt to cure his obsession, nor that the book was written by that man.

Although he never confirms it, we end up knowing author Robert M. Pirsig is the philosopher and that his book is a first-person account of a motor cycle trip across America with his son on the pillion.

Pirsig has an old bike, and realises he has to maintain it himself if it's to be done right. His thoughts contrast with those of another couple who ride along with him on a new BMW and are uninterested in the technical bits – a contrast Pirsig uses in a series of mini-essays about the philosophical treatment of quality. Here's a sample from early in the book:

And it occurred to me there is no manual that deals with the real business of motorcycle maintenance, the most important aspect of all. Caring about what you are doing is considered either unimportant or taken for granted.

On this trip I think we should notice it, explore it a little, to see if in that strange separation of what man is from what man does we may have some clues as to what the hell has gone wrong in this
twentieth century. I don't want to hurry it. That itself is a poisonous
twentieth-century attitude. When you want to hurry something, that means you no longer care about it.

That's an easy passage. As the book continues, Pirsig becomes more rigorous in his philosophical discussion and the reader has to work harder to follow it.

Pirsig sent his manuscript to 122 publishers. Only one thought it worth publishing – and even that publisher didn't think it would make a profit. But Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance went on to sell four million copies.

For many of its readers, it was inspirational. Perhaps the times were right – in 1974 the world was caught up in the excitement of a new order, with millions of people questioning the doctrines and moral certitudes of the 1950s and 1960s. The book's sub-title is An Inquiry Into Values.

A good account of the book and its themes appears here. Wikipedia also has an entry.

This is a book I hope to re-read, more carefully and thoughtfully, when I find the time (it joins a growing list which includes works like Patrick White's The Tree of Man, all of them read too quickly the first time).

We should caution that Zen etc. may disappoint many bikers. In an Author's Note, Pirsig warns:

What follows is based on actual occurrences. Although much has been changed for rhetorical purposes, it must be regarded in its essence as fact. However, it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It's not very factual on motorcycles, either.



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