Zen and the Art of Motorbicycle Maintenance

roughrider

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Before I wrote this, I did a search to see if anyone had talked about Robert M. Pirsig's book as it relates to motorized bicycles. Though I found a couple of people who use quotes from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in their sigs, and another who used the "wrench in the lotus" icon as his avatar, I was surprised that no one had addressed this interesting read in a post.

So here goes.

First, for the benefit of those who have not read the book, it is a story about how the author rides a motorcycle--never given a brand, but having a two cylinder, four stroke "Otto" engine--cross country, taking back ways, with his young son, and, for part of the journey, with two friends. Pirsig uses the journey to explore philosophy. "ZAAMM" as the book is referred to in the wiki was written in 1974. I am re-reading the 1984 version with a new introduction by the author.

Later, I'll expand on some of the ideas introduced in the book, but for now, I'll just say that Pirsig is at first frustrated and then intrigued by the attititude his friend, John, and his wife, Sylvia, toward technology. They absolutely refuse to learn how to work on their expensive BMW.

Pirsig notices that this attitude shows up in many ways, like a dripping faucet at home that after one fleeting attempt at repair, goes "drip, drip" forever after. He sees that both his friends have a barely suppressed RAGE at technology, blaming its gray, impersonal, "logic" for all the ills of the world. But John and Sylvia are intelligent, competent people. They could easily learn many mechanical skills.

Yet they don't.

The author, on the other hand, rather enjoys working on his bike. As they climbed the Montana Rockies, he felt his engine bogging and clattering a bit. He uses a bit of deductive analysis, theorizes that it's running rich, verified by a plug inspection, gets a couple of leaner jets, and adjusts the "tappets." (Usually, I hear that process referred to as a "valve adjustment," but Pirsig is probably being more precise in his terminology.)

He is at first disturbed--then amused--by his friends' attitude towards mechanical things. God help them if they have a breakdown! When Pirsig suggests that John could shim his loose handlebar brackets with aluminum from a soda can, his friend prefers to ignore the problem. He cannot understand that "the can" is anything other than a soda can, and nothing like that is getting near his precious Beamer! John cannot see into things. He cannot see that the aluminum of the can is as perfect a shim material as any German engineer would use.

Pirsig calls his friend's way of seeing the world the "Romantic" view. The author identifies himself as a "Classicist." One view sees surface appearances, the other sees internal structure. Apparently, the two views are incompatible.

Later, Pirsig attempts to reconcile these views. He also reveals that he went insane, earlier, trying to define "Quality," and he went into an institution and emerged with a different personality. Along this journey, he has to face his former self, called "Phaedrus."

If anyone finds this all intriguing or enjoyable, I'll add to this thread later, but at the moment, I'd like to stick just the one, first aspect of the book and explore it a bit with others. This whole "Romantic vs Classic" thing. Do you agree? Disagree? Why?

As an example, I have seen that there are some moto-bikers who "just want something that works" while there are others who "enjoy a bit of tinkering." Some would rather build from a kit, others would rather build from scratch. Yet even among fabbers, there are strong divisions. Some do not care in the least about appearance, only function, for others, its ALL about the look.

Such observations tend to support Pirsig's first thesis. However, bear in mind, he later challenges this himself. Your thoughts?

BTW, Since I am waiting on parts, I've had a lot of time to stare at my bike and think. Pirsig thinks that mechanical arts, despite the visceral nature of the work, are primarily mental. That is counter-intuitive, but I am afraid I have to agree. A stupid, thoughtless mechanic is a BAD mechanic! The poor John and Sylvias of the world are at their mercy, for good, honest mechanics are the exception rather than the rule...

Sorry, that's a another topic entirely! However, it does relate. I hint at my own classicist bias.

Cheers,
Rick
 

roughrider

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On the first reading, I never could figure out how his book had anything to do with Zen. His opening blurb says as much; that is, it has little to do with it.

This time around, I see that he is, so far, actually arguing against Zen, saying--so I have gleaned--its "just be there" actually interferes with insight. Zen is "outsight." It's Romantic. A Zen "master" would never figure out why an engine didn't work. He might make a pretty picture of it though. :)
 

grinningremlin

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Zen can be attained by anything that takes you out of yourself, if even for a moment.As far as different people, well we're different.I've never been a car guy, couldn't care less how it looked, but my bike is done to the 9's.I have a glove-leather seat, compound-curve wood fenders and sit back and just look at it for long stretches.
Like in musicians, I know people who can play ANY music set in front of them, but when you ask them to freeball a solo or come up with a song they give a blank stare.Then the one's who can't read a lick, but will smoke near anyone when it comes to improvising, different brains, and bless them all.
 

roughrider

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Form and function are, for me, inextricable from each other. I have to have both, and I will work very hard to achieve that.

grinninggremlin, you say you have compound curve wooden fenders? Perfect example. Few people know that properly selected and prepared woods when laminated, have higher strength weight ratios than high grade aluminum, rivaling carbon fiber, yet unlike the latter, they are less susceptible to catastrophic failure. Very functional, yet also exquisitely beautiful.

I have been trying to develop the techniques to make compound curve fenders myself. I built a steambox, and managed to get compound curves, but I find I need a thickness planer to get my materials down to a consistent 1/16". I could use hand planes, but I'm also working on a boat, so the planer is justified. I'd love to see pictures of your fenders!

On another topic, I noticed that there was this odd rumor around the net that Pirsig committed suicide, but last I heard, he was alive and well and living in Europe. In the 1984 intro, he does say that his son Chris was murdered in San Francisco. In the book, the 11 year old boy has no problem shooting his mouth off at the wrong time. Pirsig's terse comments suggest that Chris may have antagonized his assailant as well.
 

Richard H.

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If you use the google search feature rather than the internal search, you'll find many, many mentions over the years here on ZATAMM. Just a fyi...........
 

roughrider

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If you use the google search feature rather than the internal search, you'll find many, many mentions over the years here on ZATAMM. Just a fyi...........

Hi, Richard H. I'm not sure what you mean by "internal search" vs "google search feature" since the "internal search" is, according to the text "Google Custom Search." But after scanning 7 pages for non spurious hits, I saw that no one had said what I had to say; thus, it seemed that the topic was not closed. Is the topic closed, in your opinion?
 

Richard H.

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Hi, Richard H. I'm not sure what you mean by "internal search" vs "google search feature" since the "internal search" is, according to the text "Google Custom Search." But after scanning 7 pages for non spurious hits, I saw that no one had said what I had to say; thus, it seemed that the topic was not closed. Is the topic closed, in your opinion?

No, of course not and it wouldn't be up to me to say. I didn't mean to imply the topic was closed, it was just a fyi. The topic has been touched upon many times over the years though, a somewhat natural progression from MC to MB as it were, and I was simply recalling that.

The search feature using 'advanced search' is part of the forum software I believe, while 'google custom search' I think offers a broader range of SEO type hits on a given topic. Just now playing with both, the former offered little on the topic while the latter offers pages and pages where the topic gets mentioned.

hth.
 

darwin

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Zen lost out to johnny the tinkerer, then it became popular and the Johnsons took over.
 
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