An Inquiry Into Values: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Long read)

Robert M. Persig died recently; he was the author of the metaphysical classic with the inverted title above. I did that to the title because you almost never get the subtitle when people mention “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”

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Without the subtitle one gets the impression that the book is about fixing two-wheeled vehicles. The Zen part, unless you know anything about Zen Buddhism, is usually completely ignored.

For me, the most important part was the “inquiry into values.” Eventually, I got that motorcycle maintenance was the vehicle through which the author discusses philosophy with us. Values are beliefs, feelings and actions which are important to us, the most important of which are actions. I was very intrigued by this title.

The author uses motorcycle maintenance as a metaphor for defining quality. Quality in one’s life. Quality of thought, of writing, of being.

My older brother turned me on to the book in my early teens. I wasn’t mature enough at the time to appreciate the metaphor. In fact, developmentally, I could not have understood or appreciated it. I, like most adolescents and teens, lived in a literal world. Our humor was literal (MAD magazine), our vocabulary was literal (slang notwithstanding, “bad” was good), and our social world was literal (if you could touch, taste, smell, see and hear it, it existed).

Zen was as far from literal as you could get.

In my late teens I began to become more aware of perceptions other than my own. I began to be curious about existentialism. I grew as a Christian and as a young man. At 17 I became interested in motorcycles as a means of transportation.

My father was into “bikes,” and owned a Honda Gold Wing (1979 GL1000), a BMW 750 (1975) and a 1958 Zundapp (not working).

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The Zundapp 250 was a German mountain climber, so had a short gear ratio that increased the torque. Once running it was fast (not quick) and did much better than its small engine size suggested. The trick was getting it running.

Zundapp 250

My father noticed my interest in the bike from the get-go. I asked him about it incessantly. I’d been driving cars (not my own) since I was 16, and the summer of my junior year in high school was coming up and my mother had gotten me a job through the university she worked for. I would be picking jojoba beans in the hot, arid fields of Southern California about 15 miles from my home and I needed a way to get to and from the job.

My father’s deal was simple, get the bike running and then I could use it in the summer.

Challenge accepted!

The clutch plates were rusted together. Rust is a bad sign when opening up the guts of a machine. It meant the bike had been neglected and left outside for God knows how long. This would later prove to be its undoing, but initially it was just something to overcome.

It took a few weeks, but I finally got the thing running. It had a beautiful, throaty sound in open throttle. Waaaaaaaaaaaaah! Not too high pitched, either, like the little rice-burner dirt bikes that everyone seemed to have. It was masculine and bold, but not unnecessarily loud like a hole in your muffler.

My father had taken the paintable parts off of the bike while I was working on the clutch plates and he’d painted the thing near candy apple blue. Gas tank, fenders and frame. It was a sight!

I could not stop at a traffic light or gas station without at least one person giving me the thumbs up with a head nodding broad smile. Conversation starter? This was So Cal. Bikes were IT. And this thing turned heads.

Sadly, it didn’t run for long, as the rust thing reared its ugly head chronically. The fuel tank was rusted. We tried pretty much everything, lastly putting an in-line fuel filter in place so I could clear the line frequently. But it wasn’t enough.

The several weeks I had my own transportation was enough for a teenager to be smitten.

I had learned the inner and outer working details of a motorcycle in a very intimate way. I understood the relationship between the parts. I learned the holistic philosophy of one thing affecting the whole, a mechanical butterfly effect.

I knew the sounds, shakes and smells necessary to diagnose issues before they became problems. I learned the limits and safe limits of the being that was the machine under me.

I learned to respect the machine. I learned that the weakest part of any system was the human part, either in design or in maintenance or in operation, the human was always the weakest link. I learned to trust what I knew about the thing, and then act on what I knew.

By the time I had started to read the book again I was already half way through it with my knowledge and appreciation. The literal layer of Zen was mine. I got it. I was it.

Then the book took a turn for me.

I had epiphany after epiphany.

What was QUALITY? How did I know?

What was EXCELLENCE? How did I know?

Big, juicy questions at just the right time in my life.

Once you learn how to question, the world literally opens up. Everything becomes interesting and a puzzle or challenge to be solved or met.

That’s about the time I went to college. Perfect timing.

The summer of my freshman year in college my father helped my purchase a Yamaha 360. An upgrade in engine size from the Zundapp, but not a perceptible improvement in power. The Yam’ was peppier, and quicker, but the speed and power of the 250 Zundapp would have almost been a match for it.

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I used the 360 to go up the California coast a spell to a summer camp counseling job near Ronald Reagan’s Rancho De Cielo (Ranch in the Sky), in the hills overlooking Santa Barbara.

It was a handy machine, and a babe magnet of sorts.

In the end, when it was time for me to return to college, since I didn’t have the means to take it back to Alabama with me, I loaned the bike to a German friend of mine from college who wanted to stay in CA for another several weeks before heading back to Alabama. He left the bike with a family friend in CA before he returned to school.

Just before my third year of college I became financially independent. I got a lot of grants and loans for school, and had enough to buy my first brand new motorcycle, A Yamaha SECA 550. A four cylinder beast. Quick, fast and furious!

Yamaha XJ550 Seca

White features with red trim (my favorite color combo!). A very stylish sport bike, the 550 had an abbreviated racing faring. Just enough to hide behind while laying down on top of the fuel tank, while trying to break new land speed records, aerodynamically reaching speeds unmentionable. There are limits to a speedometer.

Every bike has a sweet spot. A speed at which it becomes one with the universe. A speed at which there are virtually no vibrations. With my Dad’s BMW it was 75 miles per hour. It was like a dream. I never rode it by myself, but rode plenty of times as a kid hanging onto my father from the back. It was a smooth ride to begin with because at that time BMW’s had drive shafts and not chains to drive the rear wheel.

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The BMW seemed to float and fly at 75. I knew that was how fast we were going because I could see the speedometer over my father’s shoulder. It was bliss. Just hearing the hum of the shaft driving engine, wind winding around my helmet, fluttering my shirt and jeans.

As described in Persig’s book, you become one with your environment, you are not separated from the scenery, and you are in it, a part of it, as opposed to taking trips in a car, where the windshield becomes more of a movie screen, a separation between you and nature.

The sweet spot for the 550 was 65 miles per hour, exactly! 64 m.p.h. was no good. Shakes. 67 m.p.h. was no good. Vibrations. But at just 65 it hummed. It flew. It loved the world at 65.

I took that bike up and down the California coast. I took that bike from San Francisco to Chicago to New Hampshire back down to Alabama and Florida, through Texas, back to California and then all over again. Alone.

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Literally from the red wood forests to the Gulf Stream waters, to the New York islands, this land was made for me and my bike.

The most spectacular scene in my life on a motorcycle came when I rode through the Rocky Mountains. So vivid and beautiful, as if God had saved his best work for this one place on the planet. The only comparison I could make was the Swiss Alps. Well, in America, we don’t need no stinking Alps! We got the Rockies!

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As in the book, when you’re on the road lots of things can and do happen. Almost all of the things are a surprise. They are a surprise because if you take care of your bike like you take care of yourself, a beloved pet, or even a child, you know its tick’s and tock’s. You predict when it needs this or that. You pay attention to mileage and oil changes and tire pressure and chain tension. So, when something goes wrong, you are surprised, taken aback. What could possibly have gone wrong?

Nothing serious mechanically for me, ever.

Was it my careful Zen maintenance routine? Maybe. Fate? Maybe. Luck. No, not luck. Luck only comes into play when you’re NOT trying to do something. The only luck in motorcycle maintenance is self-made bad luck when you don’t do the right thing.

The book had me from “go” once I was mature enough to appreciate the concepts. The book helped me take care of my machine, and helped me develop my perceptions.

I wanted to experience arête, excellence. I wanted everything I did to be perfect, although nothing ever seemed to be that way unless I was on my bike, going here or there, on the open road, “bugs in my teeth.”

I last rode a motorcycle in 1987.

I had used up my nine lives, so-to-speak.

Thunderstorms on the open plains of Texas, with nowhere to hide. Large semi-tractor trailer trucks pushing waves of water, like shooting a pipeline in the Southern California surf, except if you wipe out on the road you are done.  You go faster in the rain and hydroplane and you’re done. You go too slow being passed by a semi in the rain and the wave pushes you over, and you’re done.

So, how do you get through it? Prayer. You pray you stay upright as the monster passes you. You pray that when you can see again you are still on the road. You pray for that lone overpass in the distance you can sprint to before the wave hits.

Heavy traffic in L.A., getting to a third job, eight lanes of bumper-to-bumper. Do you split traffic and play Russian roulette, or do you play it safe and risk becoming a pin ball? A little of each please, but go light on the splitting! Oh, and be careful of falling asleep in the So Cal heat and monotony of the thousands, no tens of thousands of vehicles, and exhaust, and dirt, and grime, and BUMP!

One time and one time only did I ever rear end anyone. It was on the 360, heading into Century City. Fell asleep for a split second, woke up to a bumper sandwich. It doesn’t take much. Maybe two or three miles per hour, and not enough time to react. I hit and the bike went over to the left. I let it go and then examined it for damage. None. Man behind me out of his car, “Are you alright?” “Yes, thank you,” I said. “Bike OK?” “I think so, thanks.”

You shake it off quickly and then get back on. Or else.

I fell asleep approaching Chicago once at dawn. The highway wasn’t too busy yet, and I had been riding for a very long time with just a few hours of sleep in an Iowa campground restroom. I had hallucinated myself through most of Iowa’s rolling hills to the east. I stopped once at a diner for food and coffee. The images my sleep deprived mind created were frightening. Winding roads fed into the giant mouths of dragons! Monsters grabbed and licked at me with chomping jaws!

I was grateful for the sun coming up. I was almost at my destination, but the sleep monster had me.

The next thing I knew my toes were bouncing on the turf of the median of the highway. My body was so stiff I had maintained my posture as the bike slowly glided off the road to the left. My hands still but barely on the hand grips, the accelerator gently returning to the off position.

I was probably going about 25 miles per hour when I woke up. I quickly pulled my feet up and could feel my whole body cringe, certain I was about to crash and then die.

I resisted the urge to apply breaks, either front hand or pedal rear. For applying breaks on grass could be the last thing you do unless going super slow.

I let the bike slow, and then gently stopped her and got off. Putting down the kick-stand I stood beside her, shaking.

Now what? I asked myself.

Now what are you going to do?

Years before, while on the 360 I was riding up the side of Mt. Rubidoux, in my home town with a childhood friend on the back. I hit a patch of gravel on a turn and had no choice but to lay the bike down. I wasn’t going fast, but I had lost the road. Once the contact part of the tires lose contact with pavement you are done. My friend hopped off, and then at the last second I let the bike go and it slid to a stop.

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Without hesitation, my friend said, “Get back on.” I was just staring at the bike, heading into shock. He didn’t let me. He took my arm and led me to the bike. “Pick it up,” he said. “Let’s go.”

There was no discussion. I don’t remember saying a word.

I do remember thanking him later.

Now, standing in the grass median, which sloped gently toward the center, I remembered that Mt. Rubidoux event. I started up the bike, slapped myself hard once on each cheek, and then cursed at myself: “You stupid @#$%^#*&%$#! Do you want to die?” “NO!” I answered myself. “Then stay the %$#@ awake!”

Off I went, promising, and then keeping the promise, that I would never ride in that condition again, and I didn’t.

I kept a Walkman radio/cassette player in my jacket, and fed the earphones into my helmet. My pockets were full of tapes. To this day if I hear a song from one of them I flash back to the open road, on a bike, alone. Very relaxing.

Billy Joel. Simon and Garfunkle. America. The Eagles. Willie Nelson. Chicago. And soundtracks, Jesus Christ Superstar, Annie, A Chorus Line, Godspell, Fiddler on the Roof. I would sing to all of them, which helped me stay awake, and alive.

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Too many close calls. And then finally, in 1985, after my last summer camp job before graduate school in New York City, I met my future wife in the graduate housing lobby. Smitten at first sight. Still together, and remembering that first meeting like it was five minutes ago.

The tussled helmet haired California boy meeting the cosmopolitan sheik Long Island girl. She says she “knew” at that moment she was going to marry me. All I know is that the first girl I met in New York City might as well have been the last. No looking back.

The thing was that when we started dating and I offered to spur us around the City on my bike she wouldn’t have it. She wouldn’t even sit on the thing standing still.

“Why?” I asked.

It took many times asking that question to get an answer. Finally, she told me her best friend and neighbor, a boy, had died riding a quad in the woods behind their neighborhood while they were in Jr. High. She promised herself she would never get on a quad or motorcycle and she didn’t.

After grad school I returned home on my bike, alone. My future wife was doing three masters degrees on scholarship, and I had just done one. I spent a year in California with the Seca, but grew love sick and finally sold the bike to a friend for $1, and got myself back to New York and into a teaching career.

I taught health, physical education and occasionally “Life Skills.” I was also a Dean of Students, all in the New York City public high schools, mostly in Manhattan.

Academic freedom was alive and well, so as long as I taught the curriculum I could really add whatever else I wanted.

I added values education and a unit on spiritual health. I never preached to my classes. In fact, my lessons were never about me. When asked, I would defer. “Mr. Granger, what religion are you?” “That’s not important,” I would say. “What’s important is what you think and believe and act upon.”

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Robert Persig’s book played prominently in my health and Life Skills classrooms.

The discussions on quality and excellence were lively and intense at times. My students could not stop talking about the subject as they left class. Discussions would never end. I gave them projects and outlets for their awakened passions and creative thinking.

Persig said no one can define quality or excellence, but we know it when we see it.

You can set grading criteria or rubrics, but do they capture the essence of a piece of work or art?

Spelling and grammar are elements of writing, but are they essential to something being special, or excellent?

Should I give grades or subjective narratives?

Does one learn better when they know there won’t be a final grade but a written evaluation? Or does the lack of a grade confound the competitive spirit of a straight “A” student?

Are we even ready to really learn anything substantial at 18, 19, 20 or even 21 years old?

This is the meat and potatoes of Zen and the Art of motorcycle maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values.

It is a gift that keeps on giving because there are no pat answers to the questions posed. To the inquisitive mind the book is a playground, a mental Disneyland.

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Persig wrote other books, even a sequel to Zen. But the first book is a standalone classic that will forever spark the memories I’ve shared with you here, and that is an excellent A+ awesome job of the highest quality!

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