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Robert Pirsig and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Robert Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values has died.

The New York times has an excellent remembrance as does the New York Post. It’s worth reading both and no doubt others that will come out in the days ahead, each will have different takes on this fascinating man and his surprisingly popular book.

Robert Pirsig’s writing had a profound affect on my life and while I read this book in 1976, many of its ideas have stuck with me.

Here’s an anecdote that I remember from the book although my memory is no doubt burnished. And, I was and remain a weak reader (dyslexia) so I’m slow and tend to miss things.

Surface appearance vs. underlying form

Pirsig is riding cross country (Minnesota to San Francisco) with his son Chris and a friend (John) and his wife. Pirsig is on an old Honda (or something like that) and John and wife are on a new BMW (a much more expensive bike).

They’re somewhere in the middle of their trip, camping out and sitting around the campfire one night drinking beer. John has been complaining about the handlebars on his BMW being loose and is wondering if they’ll pass near a BMW place so he can have them fixed.

Understand that the handlebars on these motorcycles are attached to the post they sit on with a clamp (just like a bicycle) and the adjustment bolt/nut could be tightened all the way and there might still be play between the clamp and the handlebars. Unless one can fill that space, it’s a serious problem.

Pirsig is thinking that he could cut up an aluminum beer can with the tin snips he has in his saddlebag and make perfect shim stock (soft aluminum) to take the play out of John’s handlebars. But John, no doubt, would have none of it because to use a beer can on his fancy BMW would be just plain wrong. Pirsig knows that the BMW repair guy will probably use the same type of thing and charge John a fortune for it. Then Pirsig goes deep into the idea of underlying form (the way things actually work) vs. surface appearance (the BMW brand cache), and also the fact that he has no way to talk about this stuff with John and he goes around and around on this in his head, driving himself crazy.

These deep mind trips Pirsig calls “chautauquas” and he has many in this book. They’re laced with a bit of paranoia and mania (Pirsig was in real life, schizophrenic) and for me, that made them even more real.

This loose handlebar scene and resulting chautauqua becomes a metaphor for other scenes in the book and for those of us who read it, for many things in our lives.

For example, some people buy iPhones because they’re the cool phone to have, others buy them because they understand and appreciate Apple’s design of both the hardware and the iOS software underneath. Geek (underlying form) vs cool hunter (surface appearance).

If you’re into the technical stuff it might be frustrating to have some teenager who wants a pink iPhone to look cool to her friends have the same phone as you and have no clue how it works. Or, the teenager can use the phone amazingly well but doesn’t appreciate the stacks of software underneath the surface appearance.

Substitute anything for iPhone, it’s not about Apple vs Samsung, it’s about surface appearance vs underlying form. Android geeks might have the same frustration with people who buy Android phones simply because they’re cheaper.

Understand that Pirsig’s description of this frustration was the first I’d ever read of it and it hit home to me and has continued to hit home with me for over 30 years.

When I read this book I was not a big reader, this was one of the first “big” books I read that had an affect on me. And, it was scenes like the one I describe above that did it. I was struggling to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do with my life and I experienced Pirsig’s struggle. And, Pirsig wasn’t just struggling with ideas, he was struggling with mental illness which affected his ability to relate his ideas to other people.

Phaedrus

Ten years after I’d read this book I found myself running both the Macintosh and HyperCard groups on AOL (America Online). One of the thousands of user/participants in the group had an interesting screen name: “Phaedrus47.” I remembered that Pirsig had used the name “Phaedrus” to describe his past self as a struggling creative writing teacher.

I sent a message to Phaedrus47 asking if he’d read the book. Indeed he had and this started an amazing, multi-year email discussion/chautauqua between me and Phaedrus47 / Alex Forbes who I met years later at Macworld in San Francisco and am friends with to this day.

Less is more

I’m not a big reader of books, not because I don’t want to, but because I’m so slow it might take me many months to finish one and reading is exhausting for me. For every one book I’ve read my wife has read a thousand (seriously).

But, for me, this means that the books I actually stuck with and read have been worth the trouble and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, while in many ways a slog of a read, connected with me and had a big effect.

I will never forget Robert Pirsig’s personal struggle and his articulation of it in this book.

The Real Terrorist Threat

The Real Terrorist Threat

L-R, top to bottom: Kellyanne Conway, Mike Pence, Donald Trump, Sean Spicer, Stephen Miller, Stephen Bannon, Michael Flynn (resigned), and Reince Priebus.

There are many more but this has been my protest sign in the marches I’ve taken part in. I’ve heard Julia Hahn is part of the team now, a recruit from Breitbart.

Feel free to take this and use it as you like.

I’ve been sitting on my hands and not posting political statements to Flickr or my blog but the time has come for any of us who are seriously worried to get to work in any way we can to save our country.

I’ve never stopped taking pictures even though my output is low, I’m simply so upset about what’s happening in my country to focus on much else and I’ve been tossing most of the images I take. Being upset has a terrible affect on one’s creative output although for some it can stimulate it. For me it’s led to a lot of sleepless nights.

Stock up on Xanax.

Gene Cernan on the moon

Cernan Jump Salutes Flag

Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon during the Apollo Program, died today. He was 82.

“Eugene A. Cernan, Commander, Apollo 17 salutes the flag on the lunar surface during extravehicular activity (EVA) on NASA’s final lunar landing mission. The Lunar Module “Challenger” is in the left background behind the flag and the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) also in background behind him. While astronauts Cernan and Schmitt descended in the Challenger to explore the Taurus-Littrow region of the Moon, astronaut Ronald E. Evans, Command Module pilot, remained with the Command/Service Module (CSM) “America” in lunar-orbit.”

Cernan Driving the Rover

“Astronaut Eugene A. Cernan, Apollo 17 mission commander, makes a short checkout of the Lunar Roving Vehicle during the early part of the first Apollo 17 extravehicular activity (EVA-1) at the Taurus-Littrow landing site. This view of the “stripped down” Rover is prior to loadup. This photograph was taken by Geologist-Astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt, Lunar Module pilot. The mountain in the right background is the East end of South Massif.”

Stephen Bannon

President elect Donald Trump has appointed Stephen Bannon as his “senior counselor” (think Karl Rove).

Bannon ran Trump’s campaign but many of us hoped the relationship would end if Trump got elected. It obviously hasn’t.

Bannon is the chairman of Breitbart News, an ultra right wing organization aligned with the Alt-right movement.

All of this to say, Donald Trump has appointed an openly anti-Semitic and racist person to be his closest political advisor.

Note: Even though I’m a news junkie and very political, I’ve tried over the many years I’ve been publishing this weblog to keep politics out of it. The fact that I’m posting about our recent US election and Donald Trump in particular has everything to do with the kind of campaign he ran, not his particular policies which we know little about at this point. My grandparents got out of Europe before 1900 but as a Jew I’ve been taught all my life to keep an eye on any politician who uses fear, especially of “foreigners” to drive popularity. Trump is the first politician in my lifetime (I’m 65) who has won an election using this tactic. It may not be the main reason he won, but its at least a part of the many reasons he won. I think it’s important to keep track of this and I plan to, here.

This Too Won’t Pass

This Too Won’t Pass

Dave Pell has written a terrific essay on how the US election looks to his parents who are both Holocaust survivors.

My dad survived the Holocaust, lost his entire family, fought with the Partisans, and is a full-fledged hero. My mom survived Kristallnacht, seventy-eight years ago today. She escaped to a children’s home in France and eventually made her way to America, where she’s been working to help educate people and end prejudice of all types for her entire adult life.

Can you imagine what they must have thought when they witnessed people at Trump rallies yelling “Jew-S-A”?!

Note: Even though I’m a news junkie and very political, I’ve tried over the many years I’ve been publishing this weblog to keep politics out of it. The fact that I’m posting about our recent US election and Donald Trump in particular has everything to do with the kind of campaign he ran, not his particular policies which we know little about at this point. My grandparents got out of Europe before 1900 but as a Jew I’ve been taught all my life to keep an eye on any politician who uses fear, especially of “foreigners” to drive popularity. Trump is the first politician in my lifetime (I’m 65) who has won an election using this tactic. It may not be the main reason he won, but its at least a part of the many reasons he won. I think it’s important to keep track of this and I plan to, here.

Anne and bicycle

Anne and bicycle

1959, Evansville, Indiana.

My wife Anne Latham and her (blue) bicycle. She was 12 when this image was taken.

Anne’s sister Betsy was cleaning out a drawer and found this photograph and sent it to us. Anne hadn’t seen it or thought about it since it was taken. Amazing how an image can be a wormhole back to another place and time.

Anne, Margie and cousins

Anne, Margie and cousins

1952, Kewanna, Indiana.

My wife Anne (on the right) and her younger sister Margie (center) and cousins at their aunt’s house. Anne and Margie grew up in Evansville, Indiana but spent parts of summers at their aunt’s farm upstate.

Update: Left to right: Mary-Nell Masteller, Sally Masteller, Margie Latham, Barbara Masteller, Anne Latham.

For perspective, here’s a more recent picture of Anne, Margie, and siblings:

Latham siblings

Left to right: Mary (Latham) Weeks, Margie (Latham) Bosse, Buzz Latham, Betsy Latham, and Anne (Latham) Wanderman (my wife).

Anne reflects on iPhone

Anne reflects on iPhone

I was so stoked on the Degas mono print show at MoMA we’d just seen that I forgot that I snapped a picture of Anne reflecting in my iPhone which somehow got moved to the middle of the table (an unlikely place for it to be with beer, wine, and food around).

When you see a shot like this you have to quickly take it. Not a lot of time to fiddle with camera settings but more and more I’ve been leaving both cameras in spot metering mode which is essential for a shot like this in order to get the surface of the iPhone exposed correctly on the white (paper placemats) background.

This happened to me once before and I liked the results then as I like them now.