Pirsig

When I took Freshmen Composition at Azusa Pacific University back in in 1986, we were required to read Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. I wasn’t much of a reader back then; if a book or magazine didn’t have pictures, I wasn’t much interested. That changed when I read this book. In my first reading, I was most interested in how the novel describes Pirsig’s motorcycle journey, crossing the country with his son. In subsequent readings, I became more interested in the metaphysical wanderings that Pirsig chronicles, the thought that took place on his motorcycle ride.

I kept returning to this book, rereading it, always surprised to find out how different ideas in the book would resonate with me at different times in my life.  And, as I kept reading the book, I kept dialing in one specific passage:

Peace of mind isn’t at all superficial. It’s the whole thing. That which produced it is good maintenance; that which disturbs it is poor maintenance. What we call workability of the machine is just an objectification of this peace of mind. The ultimate test’s always your own serenity. If you don’t have this when you start and maintain it while you’re working you’re likely to build your personal problems right into the machine itself.

The paragraph resonates with me because I value peace of mind. I’m grateful that, at a young age, I learned that serenity requires ongoing maintenance, as does a motorcycle. I laminated the quote and put it in my wallet; it’s literally been with me every day since I was 18 years old. I also write about the passage in my book, The Descent into Happiness, on p. 158-59 (in fact, I mimicked the organizational scheme of Pirsig’s novel when I wrote The Descent).

When I teach Freshmen Composition, I require my students to read Pirsig’s novel and am grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to experience the novel both as a student and as a professor. When we discuss the work in class, we talk about the value of serenity, how we must struggle to maintain it.

Robert Pirsig died this week. Several friends of mine knew that Pirsig was important to me, and they shared their condolences. One friend gave me a copy of his obituary that appeared in The New York Times.

I’m grateful that Pirsig wrote the book, grateful that William Morrow published it (after 121 other publishers rejected the book), and I am grateful for the peace of mind the book has provided me with for my entire adult life.

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The copy of Zen that I keep in the office.
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The home office

We recently purchased a new sofa from West Elm. It’s amazing–each cushion is covered in goose down. It’s the kind of sofa that you cannot get off of, it’s so comfortable.

Before we had the new sofa, we would sit on a futon mattress when we’d watch movies in the TV room. We called it the “slouch couch”, because the more you’d slouch, the more the mattress would slide off of it. I’m a sloucher, so I loved the slouch couch. I like the new sofa, but I love the slouch couch.

Then I had an idea: what if the slouch couch became a desk in a home office? What if I had a desk that I could slouch on? After all, I work on my computer when sitting on the couch in our family room; how different would it be to have a dedicated space where I would write on my computer or do research reading books–while slouching? I’ve never been one for a desk and office chair. I don’t like sitting upright. This new “office furniture” seems like a better fit for my disposition.

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The new West Elm couch that displaced the slouch couch, thus creating a new desk in the home office.

One way

On May 29th, my daughter and I are going to take an Amtrak from St. Paul, Minnesota to Spokane, Washington. We’re departing the day after she graduates from St. Olaf College with her degree in Asian Studies (with an art emphasis). It’s a one-way train trip. We’re biking back.

We’re biking back by going over the North Cascades Highway, visiting family in Seattle, celebrating Evan’s birthday with him in Portland, and taking the Lewis and Clark route that will go over Lolo Pass, through Missoula, through Bizmark, all the way back to “The Cities”.

I love one-way tickets. We have a plan as to how we’ll get back, but you never know. Variables may get in the way, those moments in the journey that will make it a journey.

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The route (more or less) we’ll take to get back to The Cities.

The blue loop

Yesterday, I took the Fatboy out on the Blue Loop of the John Muir trail system in the Southern Kettle Moraine. The DNR describes the loop as 12 miles of “…hard trail with very rocky section, many hard up hills and several fast down hills.” Riding a fat bike helps mitigate the risk involved in riding the blue loop; it’s 4.8 inch-wide tires role right over the rock gardens and tree roots. It’s design also forces the rider to slow down just enough so that you look around at the natural wonders of the Southern Kettle Moraine.

The DNR calls this the “blue loop” as a way of distinguishing it from the other loops on this particulate trail system. I call it the blue loop because I tend to ride it when I’m feeling blue. It’s a great cure for melancholy. The exposure to the woods, the physical exertion of riding this particular trail, the hours it takes to do the entire loop… it makes the blues go away.

A thunderstorm passed through last night, dumping a ton of rain, so the trails are closed again until they dry out. Here’s hoping they open before another patch of melancholy comes along.

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A path to serenity.

Gift giver

I think of Gayle, my mother-in-law, whenever I bake biscuits. She gifted me the double-layered baking sheet that gets used whenever it’s time for biscuits. Gayle made great biscuits.

Over the last couple of decades, I’ve made countless biscuits on this baking sheet. It bears the scars, dark around the edges where things weren’t scraped off, lighter in the middle from use. I’ve thought about hanging it on the wall as a work of art, testament to the gift that continues to give.

It’s been a few years since Gayle passed away, which is why it’s important to make biscuits, simply because the biscuits baked on this sheet, this piece of metal, remind me of her, and I enjoy remembering Gayle.

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Time to break out the butter and honey.

The edge of the outdoor

It’s warm outside–too warm for spring, some unseasonable southern gust of summer. The cats sense it, fighting for their spot on the windowsill. I had the window open all night, listening to the thunderstorm over Lake Michigan, then listening to the birds sing in the morning hours. The cats listen too as they gaze out at all things living outside. They’re indoor cats; we stopped letting our cats go outside decades ago–they kept dying from coyotes and cars.

Our indoor cats wouldn’t know what to do out there. Ironically, they’re designed to be outside. Raised in the domestic yet longing to be outside. I’ll be biking across the country this summer, six weeks of living in a tent. That will be a nice break from the urban, the indoor. Maybe I should take the cats along.

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Shelby and Lillian fighting over the windowsill.

Formal education

I was pretty tired of being a college student when it when it came to an end. I wouldn’t wish a Ph.D. program on anyone. It was truly too much of a good thing.

If I had it to do all over again, I would have stopped after receiving the Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. There were things I learned getting the Ph.D. that took me decades to unlearn, things like how to effectively hop through political hoops, or how to not sleep because there’s too much work due, or how to ignore those you care most about because you have an essay that must be completed by the end of the week.

The M.F.A. was fun. And, the students in the program were fun, creative, engaging. My Masters thesis was a collection of poetry–how cool is that? I should have stopped my formal education long before it ended; but how can you learn that lesson unless you put yourself in the position to do so?

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The degree I value most is the MFA in Creative Writing from The University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

Bacon and the brain

I don’t need an excuse to eat bacon. But if I needed one, it would be the generation of serotonin and tryptophan:

Another neurotransmitter, called serotonin, helps you feel serene and content, combating anxiety. A carbohydrate snack will raise your serotonin level quickly, but it will also make you sleepy, so again, it is better to keep the level steady.

To manufacture serotonin the brain needs tryptophan, a substance found mainly in eggs and meat – the good news is that a bacon and egg breakfast will supply your body with serotonin building blocks to last the day.

Click on the image to watch this morning’s breakfast sizzle.

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Solitude

Yesterday, I watched one of my favorite films, Cast Away. I enjoy the middle portion of the film, when Tom Hanks’ character is alone on a desert island. Yes, he’s with Wilson– but the film, at this point, focuses on how he can survive in solitude.

He doesn’t handle solitude very well. At one point in the film, killing himself (hanging from the tree at the top of the island) was a viable alternative to being alone. Eventually, he finds the resources to escape the island and re-enter society.

So why does the movie paint such a bleak picture of being alone on a desert island? Granted, the life he was living was bleak. But the film spends ample time focusing on the protagonist’s struggle with solitude. Really, it’s not his struggle with solitude so much as his struggle with loneliness. What’s the difference between solitude and loneliness? Probably self-awareness, self-definition, and Hanks’ character was defined not in who he was on the island but who he was off of it.

Few stories only have one character, because the drama audiences are drawn to is typically human-to-human. In fiction, the rare exception is Hemingway’s short story “Big Two-Hearted River.”

In poetry, there is always one character–the poet’s point of view. Maybe I don’t want this film to be a work of fiction so much as I want it to be a poem, a poem about how to be alone.

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Weekend rides

In 2 months, I’ll be heading out on the open road with my daughter Kait for a 3,000 mile cycling adventure. The only way to prepare for such an undertaking is to get out and bike, bike, bike. The best preparation for cycling is cycling.

But it’s not just about getting the legs ready to do copious miles per day. It’s also getting ready to go out there and meet good people. Take this weekend, for example:

  • Yesterday, I had a flat in Port Washington. I took out my repair kit, only to discover that I was missing the CO2 adapter for the cartridge, which meant I had no way to fix the flat. Google Maps told me that the nearest bike shop was miles away. I started to walk the bike to the shop, when  woman named Sue pulled over and said “Hey, I’m a cyclist too. Let me give you a ride to where you gotta go.” Which she did. On the way to the bike shop, we had a great conversation about how wonderful it is to accept the generosity of strangers.
  • At the bike shop, the two service technicians helped me find a new tube, a new tire (which was on sale), and a new CO2 adapter (majorly on sale). Five minutes later, I was back on the bike and heading toward home.
  • Today, I was biking down the Interurban Trail, and a guy I was passing asked “Is your name Dave?” I stopped to say “Yep!”, and we then had a great conversation–his name is Jamie, and he recognized me from the photo on the back of my book. He told me that he read the book and it inspired him to find a cool touring bike on Craigslist.

So, do you only meet good people riding bikes on a big tour across the country? No. You also meet good people riding your bike around town. Maybe the trick is to simply be open to the good people that are out on the bike path, or in the bike shop, or driving by and offering to give you a hand.

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Jamie and his cool touring bike.