Grooving On It

Excerpt from the novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance icon-external-link-12x12 icon-search-12x12 by Robert M. Parsig icon-external-link-12x12 icon-search-12x12

Robert M. Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" book cover. [Formatted]

     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 what?”
     “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.
     “What’s shim?”
     “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.

The First Normal Thing I’ve Said in Weeks

Excerpt from the novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance icon-external-link-12x12 icon-search-12x12 by Robert M. Parsig icon-external-link-12x12 icon-search-12x12

Robert M. Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" book cover. [Formatted]

     By the time we are out of the Red River Valley the storm clouds are everywhere and almost upon us.
     John and I have discussed the situation in Breckenridge and decided to keep going until we have to stop.
     That shouldn’t be long now. The sun is gone, the wind is blowing cold, and a wall of differing shades of grey looms around us.
     It seems huge, overpowering. The prairie here is huge but above it the hugeness of this ominous grey mass ready to descend is frightening. We are traveling at its mercy now. When and where it will come is nothing we can control. All we can do is watch it move in closer and closer.
     Where the darkest grey has come down to the ground, a town that was seen earlier, some small buildings and a water tower, has disappeared. It will be on us soon now. I don’t see any towns ahead and we are just going to have to run for it.
     I pull up alongside John and throw my hand ahead in a “Speed up!” gesture. He nods and opens up. I let him get ahead a little, then pick up to his speed. The engine responds beautifully—seventy… eighty… eight-five… we are really feeling the wind now and I drop my head to cut down the resistance… ninety. The speedometer needle swings back and forth but the tach reads a steady nine thousand… about ninety-five miles an hour… and we hold this speed… moving. Too fast to focus on the shoulder of the road now… I reach forward and flip the headlight switch just for safety. But it is needed anyway. It is getting very dark.
     We whizz through the flat open land, not a car anywhere, hardly a tree, but the road is smooth and clean and the engine now has a “packed,” high rpm sound that says it’s right on. It gets darker and darker.
     A flash and Ka-wham! of thunder, one right on top of the other. That shook me, and Chris has got his head against my back now. A few warning drops of rain… at this speed they are like needles. A second flash-WHAM and everything brilliant… and then in the brilliance of the next flash that farmhouse… that windmill… oh, my God, he’s been here!… throttle off… this is his road… a fence and trees… and the speed drops to seventy, then sixty, then fifty-five and I hold it there.
     “Why are we slowing down?” Chris shouts.
     “Too fast!”
     “No, it isn’t!”
     I nod yes.
     The house and water tower have gone by and then a small drainage ditch appears and a crossroad leading off to the horizon. Yes… that’s right, I think. That’s exactly right.
     “They’re way ahead of us!” Chris hollers. “Speed up!”
     I turn my head from side to side.
     “Why not?” he hollers.
     “Not safe!”
     “They’re gone!”
     “They’ll wait!”
     “Speed up!”
     “No.” I shake my head. It’s just a feeling. On a cycle you trust them and we stay at fifty-five.
     The first rain begins now but up ahead I see the lights of a town… I knew it would be there.

     When we arrive John and Sylvia are there under the first tree by the road, waiting for us.
     “What happened to you?”
     “Slowed down.”
     “Well, we know that. Something wrong?”
     “No. Let’s get out of this rain.”
     John says there is a motel at the other end of town, but I tell him there’s a better one if you turn right, at a row of cottonwoods a few blocks down.
     We turn at the cottonwoods and travel a few blocks, and a small motel appears. Inside the office John looks around and says, “This is a good place. When were you here before?”
     “I don’t remember,” I say.
     “Then how did you know about this?”
     “Intuition.”
     He looks at Sylvia and shakes his head.
     Sylvia has been watching me silently for some time. She notices my hands are unsteady as I sign in. “You look awfully pale,” she says. “Did that lightning shake you up?”
     “No.”
     “You look like you’d seen a ghost.”
     John and Chris look at me and I turn away from them to the door. It is still raining hard, but we make a run for it to the rooms. The gear on the cycles is protected and we wait until the storm passes over before removing it.
     After the rain stops, the sky lightens a little. But from the motel courtyard, I see past the cottonwoods that a second darkness, that of night, is about to come on. We walk into town, have supper, and by the time we get back, the fatigue of the day is really on me. We rest, almost motionless, in the metal armchairs of the motel courtyard, slowly working down a pint of whiskey that John brought with some mix from the motel cooler. It goes down slowly and agreeably. A cool night wind rattles the leaves of the cottonwoods along the road.
     Chris wonders what we should do next. Nothing tires this kid. The newness and strangeness of the motel surroundings excite him and he wants us to sing songs as they did at camp.
     “We’re not very good at songs,” John says.
     “Let’s tell stories then,” Chris says. He thinks for a while. “Do you know any good ghost stories? All the kids in our cabin used to tell ghost stories at night.”
     “You tell us some,” John says.
     And he does. They are kind of fun to hear. Some of them I haven’t heard since I was his age. I tell him so, and Chris wants to hear some of mine, but I can’t remember any.
     After a while he says, “Do you believe in ghosts?”
     “No,” I say.
     “Why not?”
     “Because they are un-sci-en-ti-fic.”
     The way I say this makes John smile. “They contain no matter,” I continue, “and have no energy and therefore, according to the laws of science, do not exist except in people’s minds.”
     The whiskey, the fatigue and the wind in the trees start mixing in my mind. “Of course,” I add, “the laws of science contain no matter and have no energy either and therefore do not exist except in people’s minds. It’s best to be completely scientific about the whole thing and refuse to believe in either ghosts or the laws of science. That way you’re safe. That doesn’t leave you very much to believe in, but that’s scientific too.”
     “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Chris says.
     “I’m being kind of facetious.”
     Chris gets frustrated when I talk like this, but I don’t think it hurts him.
     “One of the kids at YMCA camp says he believes in ghosts.”
     “He was just spoofing you.”
     “No, he wasn’t. He said that when people haven’t been buried right, their ghosts come back to haunt people. He really believes that.”
     “He was just spoofing you,” I repeat.
     “What’s his name?” Sylvia says.
     “Tom White Bear.”
     John and I exchange looks, suddenly recognizing the same thing.
     “Ohhh, Indian!” he says.
     I laugh. “I guess I’m going to have to take that back a little,” I say. “I was thinking of European ghosts.”
     “What’s the difference?”
     John roars with laughter. “He’s got you,” he says.
     I think a little and say, “Well, Indians sometimes have a different way of looking at things, which I’m not saying is completely wrong. Science isn’t part of the Indian tradition.”
     “Tom White Bear said his mother and dad told him not to believe all that stuff. But he said his grandmother whispered it was true anyway, so he believes it.”
     He looks at me pleadingly. He really does want to know things sometimes. Being facetious is not being a very good father. “Sure,” I say, reversing myself, “I believe in ghosts too.”
     Now John and Sylvia look at me peculiarly. I see I’m not going to get out of this one easily and brace myself for a long explanation.
     “It’s completely natural,” I say, “to think of Europeans who believed in ghosts or Indians who believed in ghosts as ignorant. The scientific point of view has wiped out every other view to a point where they all seem primitive, so that if a person today talks about ghosts or spirits he is considered ignorant or maybe nutty. It’s just all but completely impossible to imagine a world where ghosts can actually exist.”
     John nods affirmatively and I continue.
     “My own opinion is that the intellect of modern man isn’t that superior. IQs aren’t that much different. Those Indians and medieval men were just as intelligent as we are, but the context in which they thought was completely different. Within that context of thought, ghosts and spirits are quite as real as atoms, particles, photons and quants are to modern man. In that sense I believe in ghosts. Modern man has his ghosts and spirits too, you know.”
     “What?”
     “Oh, the laws of physics and of logic… the number system… the principle of algebraic substitution. These are ghosts. We just believe in them so thoroughly they seem real.”
     “They seem real to me,” John says.
     “I don’t get it,” says Chris.
     So I go on. “For example, it seems completely natural to presume that gravitation and the law of gravitation existed before Isaac Newton. It would sound nutty to think that until the seventeenth century there was no gravity.”
     “Of course.”
     “So when did this law start? Has it always existed?”
     John is frowning, wondering what I am getting at.
     “What I’m driving at,” I say, “is the notion that before the beginning of the earth, before the sun and the stars were formed, before the primal generation of anything, the law of gravity existed.”
     “Sure.”
     “Sitting there, having no mass of its own, no energy of its own, not in anyone’s mind because there wasn’t anyone, not in space because there was no space either, not anywhere—this law of gravity still existed?”
     Now John seems not so sure.
     “If that law of gravity existed,” I say, “I honestly don’t know what a thing has to do to be nonexistent. It seems to me that law of gravity has passed every test of nonexistence there is. You cannot think of a single attribute of nonexistence that that law of gravity didn’t have. Or a single scientific attribute of existence it did have. And yet it is still ‘common sense’ to believe that it existed.”
     John says, “I guess I’d have to think about it.”
     “Well, I predict that if you think about it long enough you will find yourself going round and round and round and round until you finally reach only one possible, rational, intelligent conclusion. The law of gravity and gravity itself did not exist before Isaac Newton. No other conclusion makes sense.
     “And what that means,” I say before he can interrupt, “and what that means is that that law of gravity exists nowhere except in people’s heads! It’s a ghost! We are all of us very arrogant and conceited about running down other people’s ghosts but just as ignorant and barbaric and superstitious about our own.”
     “Why does everybody believe in the law of gravity then?”
     “Mass hypnosis. In a very orthodox form known as ‘education.'”
     “You mean the teacher is hypnotizing the kids into believing the law of gravity?”
     “Sure.”
     “That’s absurd.”
     “You’ve heard of the importance of eye contact in the classroom? Every educationist emphasizes it. No educationist explains it.”
     John shakes his head and pours me another drink. He puts his hand over his mouth and in a mock aside says to Sylvia, “You know, most of the time he seems like such a normal guy.”
     I counter, “That’s the first normal thing I’ve said in weeks. The rest of the time I’m feigning twentieth-century lunacy just like you are. So as not to draw attention to myself.
     “But I’ll repeat it for you,” I say. “We believe the disembodied words of Sir Isaac Newton were sitting in the middle of nowhere billions of years before he was born and that magically he discovered these words. They were already there, even when they applied to nothing. Gradually the world came into being and then they applied to it. In fact, those words themselves were what formed the world. That, John, is ridiculous.
     “The problem, the contradiction the scientists are stuck with, is that of mind. Mind has no matter or energy but they can’t escape its predominance over everything they do. Logic exists in the mind. Numbers exist only in the mind. I don’t get upset when scientists say that ghosts exist in the mind. It’s that only that gets me. Science is only in your mind too, it’s just that that doesn’t make it bad. Or ghosts either.”
     They are just looking at me so I continue: “Laws of nature are human inventions, like ghosts. Laws of logic, of mathematics are also human inventions, like ghosts. The whole blessed thing is a human invention, including the idea that it isn’t a human invention. The world has no existence whatsoever outside the human imagination. It’s all a ghost, and in antiquity was so recognized as a ghost, the whole blessed world we live in. It’s run by ghosts. We see what we see because these ghosts show it to us, ghosts of Moses and Christ and the Buddha, and Plato, and Descartes, and Rousseau and Jefferson and Lincoln, on and on and on. Isaac Newton is a very good ghost. One of the best. Your common sense is nothing more than the voices of thousands and thousands of these ghosts from the past. Ghosts and more ghosts. Ghosts trying to find their place among the living.”
     John looks too much in thought to speak. But Sylvia is excited. “Where do you get all these ideas?” she asks.
     I am about to answer them but then do not. I have a feeling of having already pushed it to the limit, maybe beyond, and it is time to drop it.
     After a while John says, “It’ll be good to see the mountains again.”
     “Yes, it will,” I agree. “One last drink to that!”
     We finish it and are off to our rooms.
     I see that Chris brushes his teeth, and let him get by with a promise that he’ll shower in the morning. I pull seniority and take the bed by the window. After the lights are out he says, “Now, tell me a ghost story.”
     “I just did, out there.”
     “I mean a real ghost story.”
     “That was the realest ghost story you’ll ever hear.”
     “You know what I mean. The other kind.”
     I try to think of some conventional ones. “I used to know so many of them when I was a kid, Chris, but they’re all forgotten,” I say. “It’s time to go to sleep. We’ve all got to get up early tomorrow.”
     Except for the wind through the screens of the motel window it is quiet. The thought of all that wind sweeping toward us across the open fields of the prairie is a tranquil one and I feel lulled by it.
     The wind rises and the falls, then rises and sighs, and falls again… from so many miles away.
     “Did you ever know a ghost?” Chris asks.
     I am half asleep. “Chris,” I say, “I knew a fellow once who spent all his whole life doing nothing but hunting for a ghost, and it was just a waste of time. So go to sleep.”
     I realize my mistake too late.
     “Did he find him?”
     “Yes, he found him, Chris.”
     I keep wishing Chris would just listen to the wind and not ask questions.
     “What did he do then?”
     “He thrashed him good.”
     “Then what?”
     “Then he became a ghost himself.” Somehow I had the thought this was going to put Chris to sleep, but it’s not and it’s just waking me up.
     “What is his name?”
     “No one you know.”
     “But what is it?”
     “It doesn’t matter.”
     “Well, what is it anyway?”
     “His name, Chris, since it doesn’t matter, is Phaedrus. It’s not a name you know.”
     “Did you see him on the motorcycle in the storm?”
     “What makes you say that?”
     “Sylvia said she thought you saw a ghost.”
     “That’s just an expression.”
     “Dad?”
     “This had better be the last question, Chris, or I’m going to become angry.”
     “I was just trying to say you sure don’t talk like anyone else.”
     “Yes, Chris, I know that,” I say. “It’s a problem. Now go to sleep.”
     “Good night, Dad.”
     “Good night.”
     A half hour later he is breathing sleepfully, and the wind is still strong as ever and I am wide-awake. There, out the window in the dark—this cold wind crossing the road into the trees, the leaves shimmering flecks of moonlight—there is no question about it, Phaedrus saw all of this. What he was doing here I have no idea. Why he came this way I will probably never know. But he has been here, steered us onto this strange road, has been with us all along. There is no escape.
     I wish I could say that I don’t know why he is here, but I’m afraid I must now confess that I do. The ideas, the things I was saying about science and ghosts, and even the idea this afternoon about caring and technology—they are not my own. I haven’t really had a new idea in years. They are stolen from him. And he has been watching. And that is why he is here.
     With that confession, I hope he will now allow me some sleep.
     Poor Chris. “Do you know any ghost stories?” he asked. I could have told him one but even the thought of that is frightening.
     I really must go to sleep.

Good-Natured, Friendly, Easygoing—and Uninvolved

Excerpt from the novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance icon-external-link-12x12 icon-search-12x12 by Robert M. Parsig icon-external-link-12x12 icon-search-12x12

Robert M. Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" book cover. [Formatted]

     The road winds on and on… we stop for rests and lunch, exchange small talk, and settle down to the long ride. The beginning fatigue of afternoon balances the excitement of the first day and we move steadily, not fast, not slow.
     We have picked up a southwest side wind, and the cycle cants into the gusts, seemingly by itself, to counter their effect. Lately there’s been a sense of something peculiar about this road, apprehension about something, as if we were being watched or followed. But there is not a car anywhere ahead, and in the mirror are only John and Sylvia way behind.
     We are not in the Dakotas yet, but the broad fields show we are getting nearer. Some of them are blue with flax blossoms moving in long waves like the surface of the ocean. The sweep of the hills is greater than before and they now dominate everything else, except the sky, which seems wider. Farmhouses in the distance are so small we can hardly see them. The land is beginning to open up.
     There is no one place or sharp line where the Central Plains end and the Great Plains begin. It’s a gradual change like this that catches you unawares, as if you were sailing out from a choppy coastal harbor, noticed that the waves had taken on a deep swell, and turned back to see that you were out of sight of land. There are fewer trees here and suddenly I am aware they are no longer native. They have been brought here and planted around houses and between fields in rows to break up the wind. But where they haven’t been planted there is no underbrush, no second-growth saplings—only grass, sometimes with wildflowers and weeds, but mostly grass. This is grassland now. We are on the prairie.
     I have a feeling none of us fully understands what four days on this prairie in July will be like. Memories of car trips across them are always of flatness and great emptiness as far as you can see, extreme monotony and boredom as you drive for hour after hour, getting nowhere, wondering how long this is going to last without a turn in the road, without a change in the land going on and on to the horizon.
     John was worried Sylvia would not be up to the discomfort of this and planned to have her fly to Billings, Montana, but Silvia and I both talked him out of it. I argued that physical discomfort is important only when the mood is wrong. Then you fasten on to whatever thing is uncomfortable and call that the cause. But if the mood is right, then physical discomfort doesn’t mean much. And when thinking about Sylvia’s moods and feelings, I couldn’t see her complaining.
     Also, to arrive in the Rocky Mountains by plane would be to see them in one kind of context, as pretty scenery. But to arrive after days of hard travel across the prairies would be to see them in another way, as a goal, a promised land. If John and I and Chris arrived with this feeling and Sylvia arrived seeing them as “nice” and “pretty,” there would be more disharmony among us than we would get from the heat and monotony of the Dakotas. Anyway, I like to talk to her and I’m thinking of myself too.
     In my mind, when I look at these fields, I say to her, “See?… See?” and I think she does. I hope later she will see and feel a think about these prairies I have given up talking to others about; a thing that exists here because everything else does not and can be noticed because other things are absent. She seems so depressed sometimes by the monotony and boredom of her city life, I thought maybe in this endless grass and wind she would see a thing that sometimes comes when monotony and boredom are accepted. It’s here, but I have no names for it.

Now on the horizon I see something else I don’t think the others see. Far off to the southwest—you can see it only from the top of this hill—the sky has a dark edge. Storm coming. That may be what has been bothering me. Deliberately shutting it out of mind, but knowing all along that with this humidity and wind it was more than likely. It’s too bad, on the first day, but as I said before, on a cycle you’re in the scene, not just watching it, and storms are definitely part of it.
     If it’s just thunderheads or broken line squalls you can try to ride around them, but this one isn’t. That long dark streak without any preceding cirrus clouds is a cold front. Cold fronts are violent and when they are from the southwest, they are the most violent. Often they contain tornadoes. When they come it’s best to just hole up and let them pass over. They don’t last long and the cool air behind them makes good riding.
     Warm fronts are the worst. They can last for days. I remember Chris and I were on a trip to Canada a few years ago, got about 130 miles and were caught in a warm front of which we had plenty of warning but which we didn’t understand. The whole experience was kind of dumb and sad.
     We were on a little six-and-one-half-horsepower cycle, way overloaded with luggage and way under loaded with common sense. The machine could do only about forty-five miles per hour wide open against a moderate head wind. It was no touring bike. We reached a large lake in the North Woods the first night and tented amid rainstorms that lasted all night long. I forgot to dig a trench around the tent and at about two in the morning a stream of water came in and soaked both sleeping bags. The next morning we were soggy and depressed and hadn’t had much sleep, but I thought that if we just got riding the rain would let up after a while. No such luck. By ten o’clock the sky was so dark all the cars had their headlights on. And then it really came down.
     We were wearing the ponchos which had served as a tent the night before. Now they spread out like sails and slowed our speed to thirty miles an hour wide open. The water on the road became two inches deep. Lightning bolts came crashing down all around us. I remember a woman’s face looking astonished at us from the window of a passing car, wondering what in earth we were doing on a motorcycle in this weather. I’m sure I couldn’t have told her.
     The cycle slowed down to twenty-five, then twenty. Then it started missing, coughing and popping and sputtering until, barely moving at five or six miles an hour, we found an old run-down filling station by some cutover timberland and pulled in.
     At the time, like John, I hadn’t bothered to learn much about motorcycle maintenance. I remember holding my poncho over my head to keep the rain from the tank and rocking the cycle between my legs. Gas seemed to be sloshing around inside. I looked at the plugs, and looked at the points, and looked at the carburetor, and pumped the kick starter until I was exhausted.
     We went into the filling station, which was also a combination beer joint and restaurant, and had a meal of burned-up steak. Then I went back out and tried it again. Chris kept asking questions that started to anger me because he didn’t see how serious it was. Finally I saw it was no use, gave it up, and my anger at him disappeared. I explained to him as carefully as I could that it was all over. We weren’t going anywhere by cycle on this vacation. Chris suggested things to do like check the gas, which I had done, and find a mechanic. But there weren’t any mechanics. Just cutover pine trees and brush and rain.
     I sat in the grass with him at the shoulder of the road, defeated, staring into the trees and underbrush. I answered all of Chris’s questions patiently and in time they became fewer and fewer. And then Chris finally understood that our cycle trip was really over and began to cry. He was eight then, I think.
     We hitchhiked back to our own city and rented a trailer and put it on our car and came up and got the cycle, and hauled it back to our own city and then started out all over again by car. But it wasn’t the same. And we didn’t really enjoy ourselves much.
     Two weeks after the vacation was over, one evening after work, I removed the carburetor to see what was wrong but still couldn’t find anything. To clean off the grease before replacing it, I turned the stopcock on the tank for a little gas. Nothing came out. The tank was out of gas. I couldn’t believe it. I can still hardly believe it.
     I have kicked myself mentally a hundred times for that stupidity and don’t think I’ll ever really, finally get over it. Evidently what I saw sloshing around was gas in the reserve tank which I had never turned on. I didn’t check it carefully because I assumed the rain had caused the engine failure. I didn’t understand then how foolish quick assumptions like that are. Now we are on a twenty-eight-horse machine and I take the maintenance of it very seriously.
     All of a sudden John passes me, his palm down, signaling a stop. We slow down and look for a place to pull off the gravelly shoulder. The edge of the concrete is sharp and the gravel is loose and I’m not a bit fond of his maneuver.
     Chris asks, “What are we stopping for?”
     “I think we missed our turn back there,” John says.
     I look back and see nothing. “I didn’t see any sign,” I say.
     John shakes his head. “Big as a barn door.”
     “Really?”
     He and Sylvia both nod.
     He leans over, studies my map and points to where the turn was and then to a freeway overpass beyond it. “We’ve already crossed this freeway,” he says. I see he is right. Embarrassing. “Go back or go ahead?” I ask.
     He thinks about it. “Well, I guess there’s really no reason to go back. All right. Let’s just go ahead. We’ll get there one way or another.”
     And now tagging along behind them I think, Why should I do a thing like that? I hardly noticed the freeway. And just now I forgot to tell them about the storm. Things are getting a little unsettling.
     The storm cloud bank is larger now but it is not moving in as fast as I thought it would. That’s not so good. When they come in fast they leave fast. When they come in slow like this you can get stuck for quite a time.
     I remove a glove with my teeth, reach down and feel the aluminum side cove of the engine. The temperature is fine. Too warm to leave my hand there, not so hot I get a burn. Nothing wrong there.
     On an air-cooled engine like this, extreme overheating can cause a “seizure.” This machine has had one… in fact, three of them. I check it from time to time the same way I would check a patient who has had a heart attack, even though it seems cured.
     In a seizure, the pistons expand from too much heat, become too big for the walls of the cylinders, seize them, melt to them sometimes, and lock the engine and rear wheel and start the whole cycle into a skid. The first time this one seized, my head was pitched over the front wheel and my passenger was almost on top of me. At about thirty it freed up again and started to run but I pulled off the road and stopped to see what was wrong. All my passenger could think to say was “What did you do that for?”
     I shrugged and was as puzzled as he was, and stood there with the cars whizzing by, just staring. The engine was so hot the air around it shimmered and we could feel the heat radiate. When I put a wet finger on it, it sizzled like a hot iron and we rode home, slowly, with a new sound, a slap that meant the pistons no longer fit and an overhaul was needed.
     I took this machine into a shop because I thought it wasn’t important enough to justify getting into myself, having to learn all the complicated details and maybe having to order parts and special tools and all that time-dragging stuff when I could get someone else to do it in less time—sort of John’s attitude.
     The shop was a different scene from the ones I remembered. The mechanics, who had once all seemed like ancient veterans, now looked like children. A radio was going full blast and they were clowning around and talking and seemed not to notice me. When one of them finally came over he barely listened to the piston slap before saying, “Oh yeah. Tappets.”
     Tappets? I should have known then what was coming.
     Two weeks later I paid their bill for 140 dollars, rode the cycle carefully at varying low speeds to wear it in and then after one thousand miles opened it up. At about seventy-five it seized again and freed at thirty, the same as before. When I brought it back they accused me of not breaking it in properly, but after much argument agreed to look into it. They overhauled it again and this time took it out themselves for a high-speed road test.
     It seized on them this time.
     After the third overhaul two months later they replaced the cylinders, put in oversize main carburetor jets, retarded the timing to make it run as coolly as possible and told me, “Don’t run it fast.”
     It was covered with grease and did not start. I found the plugs were disconnected, connect them and started it, and now there really was a tappet noise. They hadn’t adjusted them. I pointed this out and the kid came with an open-end adjustable wrench, set wrong, and swiftly rounded both of the sheet-aluminum tappet covers, ruining both of them.
     “I hope we’ve got some more of those in stock,” he said.
     I nodded.
     He brought out a hammer and cold chisel and started to pound them loose. The chisel punched through the aluminum cover and I could see he was pounding the chisel right into the engine head. On the next blow he missed the chisel completely and struck the head with the hammer, breaking off a portion of two of the cooling fins.
     “Just stop,” I said politely, feeling this was a bad dream. “Just give me some new covers and I’ll take it the way it is.”
     I got out of there as fast as possible, noisy tappets, shot tappet covers, greasy machine, down the road, and then felt a bad vibration and speeds over twenty. At the curb I discovered two of the four engine-mounting bolts were missing and a nut was missing from the third. The whole engine was hanging on by only one bolt. The overhead-cam chain-tensioner bolt was also missing, meaning it would have been hopeless to try to adjust the tappets anyway. Nightmare.
     The thought of John putting his BMW into the hands of one of those people is something I have never brought up with him. Maybe I should.
     I found the cause of the seizures a few weeks later, waiting to happen again. It was a little twenty-five-cent pin in the internal oil-delivery system that had been sheared and was preventing oil from reaching the head at high speeds.
     The question why comes back again and again and has become a major reason for wanting to deliver this Chautauqua. Why did they butcher it so? These were not people running away from technology, like John and Sylvia. These were the technologists themselves. They sat down to do a job and they performed it like chimpanzees. Nothing personal in it. There was no obvious reason for it. And I tried to think back into that shop, that nightmare place, to try to remember anything that could have been the cause.
     The radio was a clue. You can’t really think hard about what you’re doing and listen to the radio at the same time. Maybe they didn’t see their job as having anything to do with hard thought, just wrench twiddling. If you can twiddle wrenches while listening to the radio that’s more enjoyable.
     Their speed was another clue. They were really slopping things around in a hurry and not looking where they slopped them. More money that way—if you don’t stop to think that it usually takes longer or comes out worse.
     But the biggest clue seemed to be their expressions. They were hard to explain. Good-natured, friendly, easygoing—and uninvolved. They were like spectators. You had the feeling they had just wandered in there themselves and somebody had handed them a wrench. There was no identification with the job. No saying, “I am a mechanic.” At 5 P.M. or whenever their eight hours were in, you knew they would cut it off and not have another thought about their work. They were already trying not to have any thoughts about their work on the job. In their own way they were achieving the same thing John and Sylvia were, living with technology without really having anything to do with it. Or rather, they had something to do with it, but their own selves were outside of it, detached, removed. They were involved in it but not in such a way as to care.
     Not only did these mechanics not find that sheared pin, but it was clearly a mechanic who had sheared it in the first place, by assembling the side cover plate improperly. I remembered the previous owner had said a mechanic had told him the plate was hard to get on. That was why. The shop manual had warned about this, but like the others he was probably in too much of a hurry or he didn’t care.
     While at work I was thinking about this same lack of care in the digital computer manuals I was editing. Writing and editing technical manuals is what I do for a living the other eleven months of the year and I knew they were full of error, ambiguities, omissions and information so completely screwed up you had to read them six times to make any sense out of them. But what struck me for the first time was the agreement of these manuals with the spectator attitude I had seen in the shop. These were spectator manuals. It was built into the format of them. Implicit in every line is the idea that “Here is the machine, isolated in time and in space from everything else in the universe. It has no relationship to you, you have no relationship to it, other than to turn certain switches, maintain voltage levels, check for error condition…” and so on. That’s it. The mechanics in their attitude toward the machine were really taking no different attitude from the manual’s toward the machine, or from the attitude I had when I brought it in there. We were all spectators. 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 and want to get on to other things. I just want to get at it slowly, but carefully and thoroughly, with the same attitude I remember was present just before I found that sheared pin. It was that attitude that found it, nothing else.

I suddenly notice the land here has flattened into a Euclidean plane. Not a hill, not a bump anywhere. This means we have entered the Red River Valley. We will soon be into the Dakotas.

The Stream of National Consciousness Moves Faster Now, and Is Broader, but It Seems to Run Less Deep

Excerpt from the novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance icon-external-link-12x12 icon-search-12x12 by Robert M. Parsig icon-external-link-12x12 icon-search-12x12

Robert M. Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" book cover. [Formatted]

     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.
     In the wind are pungent odors from the marshes by the road. We are in an area of the Central Plains filled with thousands of duck hunting sloughs, heading northwest from Minneapolis toward the Dakotas. This highway is an old concrete two-laner that hasn’t had much traffic since a four-laner went in parallel to it several years ago. When we pass a marsh the air suddenly becomes cooler. Then, when we are past, it suddenly warms up again.
     I’m happy to be riding back into this country. It is a kind of nowhere, famous for nothing at all and has an appeal because of just that. Tension disappear along old roads like this. We bump along the beat-up concrete between the cattails and stretches of meadows and then more cattails and marsh grass. Here and there is a stretch of open water and if you look closely you can see wild ducks at the edge of the cattails. And turtles…. There’s a red-winged blackbird.
     I whack Chris’s knee and paint to it.
     “What!” he hollers.
     “Blackbird!”
     He says something I don’t hear. “What?” I holler back.
     He grabs the back of my helmet and hollers up, “I’v seen lot’s of those, Dad!”
     “Oh!” I holler back. Then I nod. At age eleven you don’t get very impressed with red-winged blackbirds.
     You have to get older for that. For me this is all mixed with memories that he doesn’t have. Cold mornings long ago when the marsh grass had turned brown and cattails were waving in the northwest wind. The pungent smell then was from muck stirred up by hip boots while we were getting in position for the sun to come up and the duck season to open. Or winters when the sloughs were frozen over and dead and I could walk across the ice and snow between the dead cattails and see nothing but grey skies and dead things and cold. The blackbirds were gone then. But now in July they’re back and everything is at its alivest and every foot of these sloughs is humming and cricking and buzzing and chirping, a whole community of millions of living things living out their lives in a kind of benign continuum.
     You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.
     On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it’s right there, so blurred you can’t focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness.
     Chris and I are traveling to Montana with some friends riding up ahead, and maybe headed farther than that. Plans are deliberately indefinite, more to travel than to arrive anywhere. We are just vacationing. Secondary roads are preferred. Paved county roads are the best, state highways are next. Freeways are the worst. We want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with emphasis on “good” rather than “time” and when you make that shift in emphasis the whole approach changes. Twisting hilly roads are long in terms of seconds but are much more enjoyable on a cycle where you bank into turns and don’t get swung from side to side in any compartment. Roads with little traffic are more enjoyable, as well as safer. Roads free of drive-ins and billboards are better, roads where groves and meadows and orchards and lawns come almost to the shoulder, where kids wave to you when you ride by, where people look from their porches to see who it is, where when you stop to ask for directions or information the answer tends to be longer than you want rather than short, where people ask where you’re from and how long you’ve been riding.
     It was some years ago that my wife and I and our friends first began to catch on to these roads. We took them once in a while for variety or for a shortcut to another main highway, and each time the scenery was grand and we left the road with a feeling of relaxation and enjoyment. We did this time after time before realizing what should have been obvious: these roads are truly different from the main ones. The whole pace of life and personality of the people who live along them are different. They’re not going anywhere. They’re not too busy to be courteous. The hereness and newness of things is something they know all about. It’s the others, the ones who moved to the cities years ago and their lost offspring, who have all but forgotten it. The discovery was a real find.
     I’ve wondered why it took us so long to catch on. We saw it and yet we didn’t see it. Or rather we were trained not to see it. Conned, perhaps, into thinking that the real action was metropolitan and all this was just boring hinterland. It was a puzzling thing. The truth knocks on the door and you say, “Go away, I’m looking for the truth,” and so it goes away. Puzzling.
     But once we caught on, of course, nothing could keep us off these roads, weekends, evenings, vacations. We have become real secondary-road motorcycle buffs and found there are things you learn as you go.
     We have learned how to spot the good ones on a map, for example. If the line wiggles, that’s good. That means hills. If it appears to be the main route from a town to a city, that’s bad. The best ones always connect nowhere with nowhere and have an alternate that gets you there quicker. If you are going northeast from a large town you never go straight out of town for any long distance. You go out and then start jogging north, then east, then north again, and soon you are on a secondary route that only the local people use.
     The main skill is to keep from getting lost. Since the roads are used only by local people who know them by sight nobody complains if the junctions aren’t posted. And often they aren’t. When they are it’s usually a small sign hiding unobtrusively in the weeds and that’s all. County road-sign makers seldom tell you twice. If you miss that sign in the weeds that’s your problem, not theirs. Moreover, you discover that the highway maps are often inaccurate about county roads. And from time to time you find your “county road” takes you onto a two-rutter and then a single rutter and then into a pasture and stops, or else it takes you into some farmer’s backyard.
     So we navigate mostly by dead reckoning, and deduction from what clues we find. I keep a compass in one pocket for overcast days when the sun doesn’t show directions and have the map mounted in a special carrier on top of the gas tank where I can keep track of miles from the last junction and know what to look for. With those tools and a lack of pressure to “get somewhere” it works out fine and we just about have America all to ourselves.
     On Labor Day and Memorial Day weekends we travel for miles on these roads without seeing another vehicle, then cross a federal highway and look at cars strung bumper to bumper to the horizon. Scowling faces inside. Kids crying in the back seat. I keep wishing there were some way to tell them something but they scowl and appear to be in a hurry, and there isn’t….
     I have seen these marshes a thousand times, yet each time they’re new. It’s wrong to call them benign. You could just as well call them cruel and senseless, they are all of those things, but the reality of them overwhelms halfway conceptions. There! A huge flock of red-winged blackbirds ascends from nests in the cattails, startled by our sound. I swat Chris’s knee a second time… then I remember he has seen them before.
     “What?” he hollers again.
     “Nothing.”
     “Well, what?”
     “Just checking to see if you’re still there,” I holler, and nothing more is said.
     Unless you’re fond of hollering you don’t make great conversations on a running cycle. Instead you spend your time being aware of things and meditating on them. On sights and sounds, on the mood of the weather and things remembered, on the machine and the countryside you’re in, thinking about things at great leisure and length without being hurried and without feeling you’re losing time.
     What I would like to do is use the time that is coming now to talk about some things that have come to mind. We’re in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of endless day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went and sorry that it’s all gone. Now that we do have some time, and know it, I would like to use the time to talk in some depth about things that seem important.
     What is in mind is a sort of Chautauqua—that’s the only name I can think of for it—like the traveling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America, this America, the one that we are now in, an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer. The Chautauquas were pushed aside by faster-paced radio, movies and TV, and it seems to me the change was not entirely an improvement. Perhaps because of these changes the stream of national consciousness moves faster now, and is broader, but it seems to run less deep. The old channels cannot contain it and in its search for new ones there seems to be growing havoc and destruction along its banks. In this Chautauqua I would like not to cut any new channels of consciousness but simply dig deeper into old ones that have become silted in with the debris of thoughts grown stale and platitudes too often repeated. “What’s new?” is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question “What is best?”, a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream. There are eras of human history in which the channels of thought have been too deeply cut and no change was possible, and nothing new every happened, and “best” was a matter of dogma, but that is not the situation now. Now the stream of our common consciousness seems to be obliterating its own banks, losing its central direction and purpose, flooding the lowlands, disconnecting and isolating the highlands and to no particular purpose other than the wistful fulfillment of it’s own internal momentum. Some channel deepending seems called for.

Up ahead the other riders, John Sutherland and his wife, Sylvia, have pulled into a roadside picnic area. It’s time to stretch. As I pull my machine beside them Sylvia is taking her helmet off and shaking her hair loose, while John puts his BMW up on the stand. Nothing is said. We have been on so many trips together we know from a glance how one another feels. Right now we are just quiet and looking around.
     The picnic benches are abandoned at this hour of the morning. We have the whole place to ourselves. Johns goes across the grass to a cast-iron pump and starts pumping water to drink. Chris wanders down through some trees beyond a grassy knoll to a small stream. I am just staring around.
     After a while Sylvia sits down on the wooden picnic bench and straightens out her legs, lifting one at a time slowly without looking up. Long silences mean gloom for her, and I comment on it. She looks up and then looks down again.
     “It was all those people in the cars coming the other way,” she says. “The first one looked so sad. And then the next one looked exactly the same way, and then the next one and the next one, they were all the same.”
     “They were just commuting to work.”
     She perceives well but there was nothing unnatural about it. “Well, you know, work,” I repeat. “Monday morning. Half asleep. Who goes to work Monday morning with a grin?”
     “It’s just that they looked so lost,” she says. “Like they were all dead. Like a funeral procession.” Then she puts both feet down and leaves them there.
     I see what she is saying, but logically it doesn’t go anywhere. You work to live and that’s what they are doing. “I was watching swamps,” I say.
     After a while she looks up and say, “What did you see?”
     “There was a whole flock of red-winged blackbirds. They rose up suddenly when we went by.”
     “Oh.”
     “I was happy to see them again. They tie things together, thoughts and such. You know?”
     She thinks for a while and then, with the trees behind her a deep green, she smiles. She understands a peculiar language which has nothing to do with what you are saying. A daughter.
     “Yes,” she says. “They’re beautiful.”
     “Watch for them,” I say.
     “All right.”
     John appears and checks the gear on the cycle. He adjusts some of the ropes and then opens the saddlebag and starts rummaging through. He sets some things on the ground. “If you ever need any rope, don’t hesitate,” he says. “God, I think I’ve got about five times what I need here.”
     “Not yet,” I answer.
     “Matches?” he says, still rummaging. “Sunburn lotion, combs, shoelaces… shoelaces? What do we need shoelaces for?”
     “Let’s not start that,” Sylvia says. They look at each other deadpan and then both look over at me.
     “Shoelaces can break anytime,” I say solemnly. They smile, but not at each other.
     Chris soon appears and it is time to go. While he gets ready and climbs on, they pull out and Sylvia waves. We are on the highway again, and I watch them gain distance up ahead.

The Chautauqua that is in mind for this trip was inspired by these two many months ago and perhaps, although I don’t know, is related to a certain undercurrent of disharmony between them.
     Disharmony I suppose is common enough in any marriage, but in their case it seems more tragic. To me, anyway.
     It’s not a personality clash between them; it’s something else, for which neither is to blame, but for which neither has any solution, and for which I’m not sure I have any solution either, just ideas.
     The ideas began with what seemed to be a minor difference of opinion between John and me on a matter of smaller importance: how much one should maintain one’s own motorcycle. It seems natural and normal to me to make use of the small tool kits and instruction booklets supplied with each machine, and keep it tuned and adjusted myself. John demurs. He prefers to let a competent mechanic take care of these things so that they are done right. Neither viewpoint is unusual, and this minor difference would never have become magnified if we didn’t spend so much time riding together and sitting in country roadhouses drinking beer and talking about whatever comes to mind. What comes to mind, usually, is whatever we’ve been thinking about in the half hour or forty-five minutes since we last talked to each other. When it’s roads or weather or people or old memories or what’s in the newspapers, the conversation just naturally builds pleasantly. But whenever the performance of the machine has been on my mind and gets into the conversation, the building stops. The conversation no longer moves forward. There is a silence and a break in the continuity. It is as though two old friends, a Catholic and Protestant, were sitting drinking beer, enjoying life, and the subject of birth control somehow came up. Big freeze-out.
     And, of course, when you discover something like that it’s like discovering a tooth with a missing filling. You can never leave it alone. You have to probe it, work around it, push on it, think about it, not because it’s enjoyable but because it’s on your mind and it won’t get off your mind. And the more I probe and push on this subject of cycle maintenance the more irritated he gets, and of course that makes me want to probe and push all the more. Not deliberately to irritate him but because the irritation seems symptomatic of something deeper, something under the surface that isn’t immediately apparent.
     When you’re talking birth control, what blocks it and freezes it out is that it’s not a matter of more or fewer babies being argued. That’s just on the surface. What’s underneath is a conflict of faith, of faith in empirical social planning versus faith in the authority of God as revealed by the teachings of the Catholic Church. You can prove the practicality of planned parenthood till you get tired of listening to yourself and it’s going to go nowhere because your antagonist isn’t buying the assumption that anything socially practical is good per se. Goodness for him as other sources which he values as much as or more than social practicality.
     So it is with John. I could preach the practical value and worth of motorcycle maintenance till I’m hoarse and it would make not a dent in him. After two sentences on the subject his eyes go completely glassy and he changes the conversation or just looks away. He doesn’t want to hear about it.
     Sylvia is completely with him on this one. In fact she is even more emphatic. “It’s just a whole other thing,” she says, when in a thoughtful mood. “Like garbage,” she says, when not. They want not to understand it. Not to hear about it. And the more I try to fathom what makes me enjoy mechanical work and them hate it so, the more elusive it becomes. The ultimate cause of this originally minor difference of opinion appears to run way, way deep.
     Inability on their part is ruled out immediately. They are both plenty bright enough. Either one of them could learn to tune a motorcycle in an hour and a half if they put their minds and energy to it, and the saving in money and worry and delay would repay them over and over for their effort. And they know that. Or maybe they don’t. I don’t know. I never confront them with the question. It’s better to just get along.
     But I remember once, outside a bar in Savage, Minnesota, on a really scorching day when I just about let loose. We’d been in the bar for about an hour and we came out and the machines were so hot you could hardly get on them. I’m started and ready to go and there’s John pumping away on the kick starter. I smell gas like we’re next to a refinery and tell him so, thinking this is enough to let him know his engine’s flooded.
     “Yeah, I smell it too,” he says and keeps on pumping. And he pumps and pumps and jumps and pumps and I don’t know what more to say. Finally, he’s really winded and sweat’s running down all over his face and he can’t pump anymore, and so I suggest taking out the plugs to dry them off and air out the cylinders while we go back for another beer.
     Oh my God no! He doesn’t want to get into all that stuff.
     “All what stuff?”
     “Oh, getting out the tools and all that stuff. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t start. It’s a brand-new machine and I’m following the instructions perfectly. See, it’s right on full choke like they say.”
     “Full choke!”
     “That’s what the instructions say.”
     “That’s for when it’s cold!”
     “Well, we’ve been in there for a half an hour at least,” he says.
     It kind of shakes me up. “this is a hot day, John,” I say. “And they take longer than that to cool off even on a freezing day.”
     He scratches his head. “Well, why don’t they tell you that in the instructions?” He opens the choke and on the second kick it starts. “I guess that was it,” he says cheerfully.
     And the very next day we were out near the same area and it happened again. This time I was determined not to say a word, and when my wife urged me to go over and help him I shook my head. I told her that until he had a real felt need he was just going to resent help, so we went over and sat in the shade and waited.
     I noticed he was being superpolite to Sylvia while he pumped away, meaning he was furious, and she was looking over with a kind of “Ye gods!” look. If he had asked any single question I would have been over in a second to diagnose it, but he wouldn’t. It must have been fifteen minutes before he got it started.
     Later we were drinking beer again over at Lake Minnetonka and everybody was talking around the table, but he was silent and I could see he was really tied up in knots inside. After all that time. Probably to get them untied he finally said, “You know… when it doesn’t start like that it just… really turns me into a monster inside. I just get paranoic about it.” This seemed to loosen him up, and he added, “They just had this one motorcycle, see? This lemon. And they didn’t know what to do with it, whether to send it back to the factory or sell it for scrap or what… and then at the last moment they saw me coming. With eighteen hundred bucks in my pocket. And they knew their problems were over.”
     In a kind of singsong voice I repeated the plea for tuning and he tried hard to listen. He really tries hard sometimes. But then the block came again and he was off to the bar for another round for all of us and the subject was closed.
     He is not stubborn, not narrow-minded, not lazy, not stupid. There was just no easy explanation. So it was left up in the air, a kind of mystery that one gives up on because there is no sense in just going round and round and round looking for an answer that’s not there.
     It occurred to me that maybe I was the odd one on the subject, but that was disposed of too. Most touring cyclists know how to keep their machines tuned. Car owners usually won’t touch the engine, but every town of any size at all has a garage with expensive lifts, special tools and diagnostic equipment that the average owner can’t afford. And a car engine is more complex and inaccessible than a cycle engine so there’s more sense to this. But for John’s case, a BMW R60, I’ll bet there’s not a mechanic between here and Salt Lake City. If his points or plugs burn out, he’s done for. I know he doesn’t have a set of spare points with him. He doesn’t know what points are. If it quits on him in western South Dakota or Montana I don’t know what he’s going to do. Sell it to the Indians maybe. Right now I know what he’s doing. He’s carefully avoiding giving any thought whatsoever to the subject. The BMW is famous for not giving mechanical problems on the road and that’s what he’s counting on.
     I might have thought this was just a peculiar attitude of theirs about motorcycles but discovered later that it extended to other things…. Waiting for them to get going one morning in their kitchen I noticed the sink faucet was dripping and remembered that it was dripping the last time I was there before and that in fact it had been dripping as long as I could remember. I commented on it and John said he had tried to fix it with a new faucet washer but it hadn’t worked. That was all he said. The presumption left was that that was the end of the matter. If you try to fix a faucet and your fixing doesn’t work then it’s just your lot it live with a dripping faucet.
     This made me wonder to myself if it got on their nerves, this drip-drip-drip, week in, week out. year in, year out, but I could not notice any irritation or concern about it on their part, and so concluded they just aren’t bothered by things like dripping faucets. Some people aren’t.
     What it was that changed this conclusion, I don’t remember… some intuition, some insight one day, perhaps it was a subtle change in Sylvia’s mood whenever the dripping was particularly loud and she was trying to talk. She has a very soft voice. And one day when she was trying to talk above the dripping and the kids came in and interrupted her she lost her temper at them. It seemed that her anger at the kids would not have been nearly as great if the faucet hadn’t also been dripping when she was trying to talk. It was the combined dripping and loud kids that blew her up. What struck me hard then was that she was not blaming the faucet, and she was deliberately not blaming the faucet. She wasn’t ignoring that faucet at all! She was suppressing anger at that faucet and that goddamned dripping faucet was just about killing her! But she could not admit the importance of this for some reason.
     Why suppress anger at a dripping faucet? I wondered.
     Then that patched in with the motorcycle maintenance and one of those light bulbs went on over my head and I thought, Ahhhhhhhh!
     It’s not the motorcycle maintenance, not the faucet. It’s all technology they can’t take. And then all sorts of things started tumbling into place and I know that was it. Sylvia’s irritation at a friend who thought computer programming was “creative.” All their drawings and paintings and photographs without a technological thing in them. Of course she’s not going to get mad at that faucet, I thought. You always suppress momentary anger at something you deeply and permanently hate. Of course John signs off every time the subject of cycle repair comes up, even when it is obvious he is suffering for it. That’s technology. And sure, of course, obviously. It’s so simply when you see it. To get away from technology out into the country in the fresh air and sunshine is why they are the motorcycle in the first place. For me to bring it back to them just at the point and place where they think they have finally escaped it just frosts both of them, tremendously. That’s why the conversation always breaks and freezes when the subject comes up.
     Other things fit in too. They talk once in a while in as few pained words as possible about “it” or “it all” as in the sentence, “There is just no escape from it.” And if I asked, “From what?” the answer might be “The whole thing,” or “The whole organized bit,” or even “The system.” Sylvia once said defensively, “Well, you know how to cope with it,” which puffed me up so much at the time I was embarrassed to ask what “it” was and so remained somewhat puzzled. I thought it was something more mysterious than technology. But now I see that “it” was mainly, if not entirely, technology. But, that doesn’t sound right either. The “it” is a kind of force that gives rise to technology, something undefined, but inhuman, mechanical, lifeless, a blind monster, a death force. Something hideous they are running from but know they can never escape. I’m putting it way too heavily here but in a less emphatic and less defined way this is what it is. Somewhere there are people who understand it and run it but those are technologists, and they speak and inhuman language when describing what they do. It’s all parts and relationships of unheard-of things that never make any sense no matter how often you hear about them. And their things, their monster keeps eating up land and polluting their air and lakes, and there is no way to strike back at it, and hardly any way to escape it.
     That attitude is not hard to come to. You go through a heavy industrial area of a large city and there it all is, the technology. In front of it are high barbed-wire fences, locked gates, signs saying NO TRESPASSING, and beyond, through sooty air, you see ugly strange shapes of metal and brick whose purpose is unknown, and whose masters you will never see. What it’s for you don’t know, and why it’s there, there’s no one to tell, and so all you can feel is alienated, estranged, as though you didn’t belong there. Who owns and understands this doesn’t want you around. All this technology has somehow made you a stranger in your own land. Its very shape and appearance and mysteriousness say, “Get out.” You know there’s an explanation for all this somewhere and what it’s doing undoubtedly serves mankind in some indirect way but that isn’t what you see. What you see is the NO TRESPASSING, KEEP OUT signs and not anything serving people but little people, like ants, serving these strange, incomprehensible shapes. And you think, even if I were a part of this, even if I were not a stranger, I would be just another ant serving the shapes. So the final feeling is hostile, and I think that’s ultimately what’s involved with this otherwise unexplainable attitude of John and Sylvia. Anything to do with valves and shafts and wrenches is part of that dehumanized world, and they would rather not think about it. They don’t want to get into it.
     If this is so, they are not alone. There is no question that they have been following their natural feelings in this and not trying to imitate anyone. But many others are also following their natural feelings and not trying to imitate anyone and the natural feelings of very many people are similar on this matter; so that when you look at them collectively, as journalists do, you get the illusion of a mass movement, an antitechnological mass movement, an entire political antitechnological left emerging, looming up from apparently nowhere, saying, “Stop the technology. Have it somewhere else. Don’t have it here.” It is still restrained by a thin web of logic that points out that without the factories there are no jobs or standard of living. But there are human forces stronger than logic. There always have been, and if they become strong enough in their hatred of technology that web can break.
     Clichés and stereotypes such as “beatnik” or “hippie” have been invented for the antitechnologists, the antisystem people, and will continue to be. But one does not convert individuals into mass people with the simple coining of a mass term. John and Sylvia are not mass people and neither are most of the others going their way. It is against being a mass person that they seem to be revolting. And they feel that technology has got a lot to do with the forces that are trying to turn them into mass people and they don’t like it. So far it’s still mostly a passive resistance, flights into the rural areas when they are possible and things like that, but it doesn’t always have to be this passive.
     I disagree with them about cycle maintenance, but not because I am out of sympathy with their feelings about technology. I just think that their flight from and hatred of technology is self-defeating. The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower. To think otherwise is to demean the Buddha—which is to demean oneself. That is what I want to talk about in this Chautauqua.

We’re out of the marshes now, but the air is still so humid you can look straight up directly at the yellow circle of the sun as if there were smoke or smog in the sky. But we’re in the green countryside now. The farmhouses are clean and white and fresh. And there’s no smoke or smog.