Excerpt from the novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Parsig
The flatness of the prairie disappears and a deep undulation of the earth begins. Fences are rarer, and the greenness has become paler… all signs that we approach the High Plains.
We stop for gas at Hague and ask if there is any way to get across the Missouri between Bismarck and and Mobridge. The attendant doesn’t know of any. It is hot now, and John and Sylvia go somewhere to get their long underwear off. The motorcycle gets a change of oil and chain lubrication. Chris watches everything I do but with some impatience. Not a good sign.
“My eyes hurt,” he says.
“From the wind.”
“We’ll look for some goggles.”
All of us go in a shop for coffee and rolls. Everything is different except one another, so we look around rather than talk, catching fragments of conversation among people who seem to know each other and are glancing at us because we’re new. Afterward, down the street, I find a thermometer for storage in the saddlebags and some plastic goggles for Chris.
The hardware man doesn’t know any short route across the Missouri either. John and I study the map. I had hoped we might find an unofficial ferryboat crossing or footbridge or something in the ninety-mile stretch, but evidently there isn’t any because there’s not much to get to on the other side. It’s all Indian reservation. We decide to head south to Mobridge and cross there.
The road south is awful. Choppy, narrow, bumpy concrete with a bad head wind, going into the sun and big semis going the other way. These roller-coaster hills speed them up on the down side and slow them up on the up side and prevent our seeing very far ahead, making passing nervewracking. The first one gave me a scare because I wasn’t ready for it. Now I hold tight and brace for them. No danger. Just a shock wave that hits you. It is hotter and dryer.
At Herreid John disappears for a drink while Sylvia and Chris and I find some shade in a park and try to rest. It isn’t restful. A change has taken place and I don’t know quite what it is. The streets of this town are broad, much broader than they need be, and there is a pallor of dust in the air. Empty lots here and there between the buildings have weeds growing in them. The sheet metal equipment sheds and water tower are like those of previous towns but more spread out. Everything is more run-down and mechanical-looking, sort of randomly located. Gradually I see what it is. Nobody is concerned anymore about tidily conserving space. The land isn’t valuable anymore. We are in a Western town.
We have lunch of hamburgers and malts at an A & W place in Mobridge, cruise down a heavily trafficked main street and then there it is, at the bottom of the hill, the Missouri. All that moving water is strange, banked by grass hills that hardly get any water at all. I turn around and glance at Chris but he doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in it.
We coast down the hill, clunk onto the bridge and across we go, watching the river through the girders moving by rhythmically, and then we are on the other side.
We climb a long, lang hill into another kind of country.
The fences are really all gone now. No brush, no trees. The sweep of the hills is so great John’s motorcycle looks like an ant up ahead moving through the green slopes. Above the slopes outcroppings of rocks stand out overhead at the tops of the bluffs.
It all has a natural tidiness. If it were abandoned land there would be a chewed-up, scruffy look, with chunks of old foundation concrete, scraps of painted sheet metal and wire, weeds that had gotten in where the sod was broken up for whatever little enterprise was attempted. None of that here. Not kept up, just never messed up in the first place. It’s just the way it always must have been. Reservation land.
There’s no friendly motorcycle mechanic on the other side of those rocks and I’m wondering if we’re ready for this. If anything goes wrong now we’re in real trouble.
I check the engine temperature with my hand. It’s reassuringly cool. I put in the clutch and let it coast for a second in order to hear it idling. Something sounds funny and I do it again. It takes me a while to figure out that it’s not the engine at all. There’s an echo from the bluff ahead that lingers after the throttle is closed. Funny. I do this two or three times. Chris wanders what’s wrong and I have him listen to the echo. No comment from him.
This old engine has a nickels-and-dimes sound to it. As if there were a lot of loose change flying around inside. Sounds awful, but it’s just normal valve clatter. Once you get used to that sound and learn to expect it, you automatically hear any difference. If you don’t hear any, that’s good.
I tried to get John interested in that sound once but it was hopeless. All he heard was noise and all he saw was the machine and me with greasy tools in my hands, nothing else. That didn’t work.
He didn’t really see what was going on and was not interested enough to find out. He isn’t so interested in what things mean as in what they are. That’s quite important, that he sees things this way. It took me a long time to see this difference and it’s important for the Chautauqua that I make this difference clear.
I was so baffled by his refusal even to think about any mechanical subject I kept searching for ways to clue him to the whole thing but didn’t know where to start.
I thought I would wait until something went wrong with his machine and then I would help him fix it and that way get him into it, but I goofed that one myself because I didn’t understand this difference in the way he looked at things.
His handlebars had started flipping. Not badly, he said, just a little when you shoved hard on them. I warned him not to use his adjustable wrench on the tightening nuts. It was likely to damage the chrome and start small rust spots. He agreed to use my metric sockets and box-ends.
When he brought his motorcycle over I got my wrenches out but then noticed that no amount of tightening would stop the slippage, because the ends of the collars were pinched shut.
“You’re going to have to shim those out,” I said.
“It’s a thin, flat strip of metal. You just slip it around the handlebar under the collar there and it will open up the collar to where you can tighten it again. You use shims like that to make adjustments in all kinds of machines.”
“Oh,” he said. He was getting interested. “Good. Where do you buy them?”
“I’ve got some right here,” I said gleefully, holding up a can of beer in my hand.
He didn’t understand for a moment. Then he said, “What, the can?”
“Sure,” I said, “best shim stock in the world.”
I thought this was pretty clever myself. Save him a trip to God knows where to get shim stock. Save him time. Save him money.
But to my surprise he didn’t see the cleverness of this at all. In fact he got noticeably haughty about the whole thing. Pretty soon he was dodging and filling with all kinds of excuses and, before I realized what his real attitude was, we had decided not to fix the handlebars after all.
As far as I know those handlebars are still loose. And I believe now that he was actually offended at the time. I had had the nerve to propose repair of his new eighteen-hundred-dollar BMW, the pride of a half-century of German mechanical finesse, with a piece of old beer can!
Ach, du lieber!
Since then we have had very few conversations about motorcycle maintenance. None, now that I think of it.
You push it any further and suddenly you are angry, without knowing why.
I should say, to explain this, that beer-can aluminum is soft and sticky, as metals go. Perfect for the application. Aluminum doesn’t oxidize in wet weather—or, more precisely, it always has a thin layer of oxide that prevents any further oxidation. Also perfect.
In other words, any true German mechanic, with a half-century of mechanical finesse behind him, would have concluded that this particular solution to this particular technical problem was perfect.should have done was sneak over to the workbench, cut a shim from the beer can, remove the printing and then come back and tell him we were in luck, it was the last one I had, specially imported from Germany. That would have done it. A special shim f rom the private stock of Baron Alfred Krupp, who had to sell it at a great sacrifice. Then he would have gone gaga over it.
That Krupp’s-private-shim fantasy gratified me for a while, but then it wore off and I saw it was just being vindictive. In its place grew that old feeling I’ve talked about before, a feeling that there’s something bigger involved than is apparent on the surface. You follow these little discrepancies long enough and they sometimes open up into huge revelations. There was just a feeling on my part that this was something a little bigger than I wanted to take on without thinking about it, and I turned instead to my usual habit of trying to extract causes and effects to see what was involved that could possibly lead to such an impasse between John’s view of that lovely shim and my own. This comes up all the time in mechanical work. A hang-up. You just sit and stare and think, and search randomly for new information, and go away and come back again, and after a while the unseen factors start to emerge.
What emerged in vague form at first and then in sharper outline was the explanation that I had been seeing that shim in a kind of intellectual, rational, cerebral way in which the scientific properties of the metal were all that counted. John was going at it immediately and intuitively, grooving on it. I was going at it in terms of underlying form. He was going at it in terms of immediate appearance. I was seeing what the shim meant. He was seeing what the shim was. That’s how I arrived at that distinction. And when you see what the shim is, in this case, it’s depressing. Who likes to think of a beautiful precision machine fixed with an old hunk of junk?
I guess I forgot to mention John is a musician, a drummer, who works with groups all over town and makes a pretty fair income from it. I suppose he just thinks about everything the way he thinks about drumming—which is to say he doesn’t really think about it at all. He just does it. Is with it. He just responded to fixing his motorcycle with a beer can the way he would respond to someone dragging the beat while he was playing. It just did a big thud with him and that was it. He didn’t want any part of it.
At first this difference seemed fairly minor, but then it grew… and grew… and grew… until I began to see why I missed it. Some things you miss because they’re so tiny you overlook them. But some things you don’t see because they’re so huge. We were both looking at the same thing, seeing the same thing, talking about the same thing, thinking about the same thing, except he was looking, seeing, talking and thinking from a completely different dimension.
He really does care about technology. It’s just that in this other dimension he gets all screwed up and is rebuffed by it. It just won’t swing for him. He tries to swing it without any rational premeditation and botches it and botches it and botches it and after so many botches gives up and just kind of puts a blanket curse on that whole nuts-and-bolts scene. He will not or cannot believe there is anything in this world for which grooving is not the way to go.
That’s the dimension he’s in. The groovy dimension. I’m being awfully square talking about all this mechanical stuff all the time. It’s all just parts and relationships and analyses and syntheses and figuring things out and it isn’t really here. It’s somewhere else, which thinks it’s here, but’s a million miles away. This is what it’s all about. He’s on this dimensional difference which underlay much of the cultural changes of the sixties, I think, and is still in the process of reshaping our whole national outlook on things. The “generation gap” has been a result of it. The names “beat” and “hip” grew out of it. Now it’s become apparent that this dimension isn’t a fad that’s going to go away next year or the year after. It’s here to stay because it’s a very serious and important way of looking at things that looks incompatible with reason and order and responsibility but actually is not. Now we are down to the root of things.
My legs have become so stiff they are aching. I hold them out one at a time and turn my foot as far to the left and to the right as it will go to stretch the leg. It helps, but then the other muscles get tired from holding the legs out.
What we have here is a conflict of visions of reality. The wold as you see it right here, right now, is reality, regardless of what the scientists say it might be. That’s the way Johnh sees it. But the world as revealed by its scientific discoveries is also reality, regardless of how it may appear, and people in John’s dimension are going to have to do more than just ignore it if they want to hang on to their vision of reality. John will discover this if his points burn out.
That’s really why he got upset that day when he couldn’t get his engine started. It was an intrusion on his reality. It just blew a hole right through his whole groovy way of looking at things and he would not face up to it because it seemed to threaten his whole life style. In a way he was experiencing the same sort of anger scientific people have sometimes about abstract art, or at least used to have. That didn’t fit their lifestyle either.
What you’ve got here, really, are two realities, one of immediate artistic appearance and one of underlying scientific explanation, and they don’t match and they don’t fit and they don’t really have much of anything to do with one another. That’s quite a situation. You might say there’s a little problem here.