Sunday, April 30, 2017

Zen and Death

Robert M. Pirsig, who inspired generations to road trip across America with his "novelistic autobigraphy," Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, died Monday April 24th 2017 at the age of 88.
His publisher William Morrow & Company said in a statement that Pirsig died at his home in South Berwick, Maine, "after a period of failing health."
Pirsig wrote just two books: Zen (subtitled "An Inquiry Into Values") and Lila: An Inquiry into Morals.

Author Robert Pirsig works on a motorcycle in 1975.
William Morrow/HarperCollins
Zen was published in 1974, after being rejected by 121 publishing houses. "The book is brilliant beyond belief," wrote Morrow editor James Landis before publication. "It is probably a work of genius and will, I'll wager, attain classic status."
Indeed, the book quickly became a best-seller, and has proved enduring as a work of popular philosophy. A 1968 motorcycle trip across the West with his son Christopher was his inspiration.

An excerpt from the first chapter of the novel:

"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 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 8 thought have been too deeply cut and no change was possible, and nothing new ever 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 wasteful fulfillment of its own internal momentum. Some channel deepening seems called for."

Image result for robert pirsig

My buddy Jack Riepe, a scribe himself of no mean repute grumbles that after ten pages of this classic hippy tripe he got bored, put he book down and gave up on his first plan when he was given a copy of the book. He wanted to imitate the  novel's bestseller style in order to make himself a fortune just like Pirsig. Unlike Riepe I liked Zen and found it to be a revelation for my young self. In those days there was no internet so what I gleaned from the book about the author was all I knew and the story was the story with no access offered to explain further details about Pirsig and his tortured psyche.

I pretty much ignored the stuff about how to lose your mind and gain it back but the discussion about Quality and coping with mechanical failure I took to heart and found great relief in discovering that I was not the only amateur motorcycle traveler who had ever got hung up on and stripped on recalcitrant fastener while trying to accomplish a roadside repair. Pirsig gave me a new appreciation for how to overcome roadblocks be they ever so small, and to take  the time to study the problem before trying to tackle the solution.
Related image
The effect of this philosophical tome might be described as being rather lightweight in my life but it didn't feel that way and in many respects I still feel comforted by Pirsig's vision of life metaphors expressed in terms of motorcycle repairs. For the past 40 years motorcyclists everywhere have discussed and quoted and critiqued Pirsig's discussion of Quality as though the background of a motorcycle trip to Montana makes the points raised purely a motorcycling issue. It really isn't as Quality or lack of it is what flustered Pirsig into writing the book. His descent into madness, in the third person, is part of his pursuit of Quality, much derided by his haters.
Image result for robert pirsig

"The mechanic's feel comes from a deep inner kinesthetic feeling for the elasticity of materials. Some materials, like ceramics, have very little, so that when you thread a porcelain fitting you're very careful not to apply great pressures. Other materials, like steel, have tremendous elasticity, more than rubber, but in a range in which, unless you're working with large mechanical forces, the elasticity isn't apparent. 

With nuts and bolts you're in the range of large mechanical forces and you should understand that within these ranges metals are elastic. When you take up a nut there's a point called ``finger-tight'' where there's contact but no takeup of elasticity. Then there's ``snug,'' in which the easy surface elasticity is taken up. Then there's a range called ``tight,'' in which all the elasticity is taken up. The force required to reach these three points is different for each size of nut and bolt, and different for lubricated bolts and for locknuts. The forces are different for steel and cast iron and brass and aluminum and plastics and ceramics. 

But a person with mechanic's feel knows when something's tight and stops. A person without it goes right on past and strips the threads or breaks the assembly. A ``mechanic's feel'' implies not only an understanding for the elasticity of metal but for its softness. The insides of a motorcycle contain surfaces that are precise in some cases to as little as one ten-thousandth of an inch. If you drop them or get dirt on them or scratch them or bang them with a hammer they'll lose that precision. It's important to understand that the metal behind the surfaces can normally take great shock and stress but that the surfaces themselves cannot. 

When handling precision parts that are stuck or difficult to manipulate, a person with mechanic's feel will avoid damaging the surfaces and work with his tools on the nonprecision surfaces of the same part whenever possible. If he must work on the surfaces themselves, he'll always use softer surfaces to work them with. Brass hammers, plastic hammers, wood hammers, rubber hammers and lead hammers are all available for this work. Use them. Vise jaws can be fitted with plastic and copper and lead faces. Use these too. Handle precision parts gently. You'll never be sorry. 

If you have a tendency to bang things around, take more time and try to develop a little more respect for the accomplishment that a precision part represents."
Related image

I suspect some of my fondness for this book and its mixture of motorcycle travel and philosophy stems from the fact that I read it and had my mind expanded when I was young and to re-read Zen is to travel back in time in a more perfect way than it was at that time... And I also believe that the issues he raised back the n about Quality in our society are more relevant than ever in the Internet Age. I wonder if the youngsters I work with could ever be persuaded to read and ponder this weighty subject. I expect they are too busy with their phones.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Backcountry Art

A collection of random pictures taken on assorted Lower Keys walks.

 Rainy  season is starting to flood the trails. I wear Crocs, Rusty doesn't mind. 

  Alone on Middle Torch Key:

 Summer sun and clouds:
 People love their fires:

Taken the first night of Passover:

Friday, April 28, 2017

Slow Summer

I rode in to work two nights ago for a late shift starting at one in the morning, and I was cold. Granted it was 71 degrees American (26 Canadian) and for many people that might be considered comfortably warm, but around here if it's not 80 degrees it's noticeably cool. And all this nearly in the month of May. Very nice, as summer will inevitably be long and hot; no need to rush into it.
Above we see a hand written notice my colleague Chelsea photographed when she went to get coffee for our night shift.  New management made the decision to close the 24-hour coffee shop after midnight but apparently they have been told we need them in the early hours. I took the picture below on Tuesday in the early evening at Higgs Beach. There were a few people on the beach just outside the frame, but the image actually shows the spacious empty feeling of the waterfront after the winter people have gone home.
Yet traffic on Highway One remains heavy and unrelentingly slow. The city's vague promises to consider affordable housing have predictably led nowhere except into a world where working people can't afford to live in the city. I'm finding the scooter a great way to commute as it keeps up easily with the cars but doesn't tempt me to pass (too often). Sometimes it encourages the socially insecure to speed ahead of "the moped" and prove they can't be passed. That leaves me on a stretch of open road to enjoy unencumbered by car drivers and their telephones.
I brought Vespa S150 home in time for the Ides of March and in the six weeks since I've put 1800 miles on the scooter. It maybe a 2009 but (so far) it runs like new and i am enjoying it very much.
A young gay couple were strolling past the gym hand in hand Tuesday evening as I pulled up on Truman Avenue. "Cute ride!" one of them said to the old graybeard (me). Er thanks I mumbled long after they had lost interest in my orange Vespa. I'm looking forward to a long hot summer. I just wish traffic could pick up the pace a bit.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Beach Walk

Continuing the tedious theme of overcast skies earlier this week I got a bit spectacular with the orange:
And kept the bilious shade photographing the runway at the Boca Chica Naval Air Station:

 Rough waters but the pelicans kept busy diving for breakfast.

Brisk overcast and delightful: a morning at the beach.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Mallory Square Morning

Every time I  cross paths with Mallory Square I am forced by my peculiarly wired brain to think about the name. Stephen Mallory? The Secretary of the Confederate Navy? What a strange choice of historical figure to commemorate even if his mother was a much respected widow, described as the first woman settler in Key West in 1823.
Ellen Russell emigrated from Ireland and met Mallory in Trinidad and had two sons. Her husband died from consumption in Key West and their elder son also died shortly thereafter of causes not recorded. Stephen Mallory grew up in his mother's boarding house, the only such place in Key West before the Civil War and she sent him Up North to get an education and become a lawyer. She died in 1855 and din't get to see him join the losing side. Still he gets the square named for him.
Mallory Square in those days was called Tift's Wharf after Asa Tift who was a merchant and wrecker of fearsome repute in Key West. He still has an approach road to Mallory Square named for him, Tift's Alley. As usual there are only so many wealthy and influential people to go round so their names tend to pop up more than once.
The Pez Garden is where the history of KeyWest is on display, behind the fence. The wall is where homeless people hang out and pass the day. 
 It's an odd mixture of people, eager tourists, lots of attractions, and then there are the hopeless, the crazy, the destitute, all mixed in. The city offers services of all kinds, food and communal shelter, but there are those who simply want or need to live on the streets. 
 And the other early morning denizens are the ones getting the attractions ready, the not so glamorous  work of clean up:
I enjoy the early  morning sunlight in the streets of Key West and the shadows it casts as well as the way it illuminates the buildings and trees. Walking Telegraph Lane the street sweeper left straight lines that caught my eye. Rusty seemed indifferent: 

 Flowers and a dog. Good enough for one day.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017


Silly of me I suppose but I was quite surprised or even shocked to see the free city boat ramp at Simonton Beach in use.  And they were launching a sailboat to boot, not just another center console fishing platform.
I saw evidence of more radical boating at Blimp Road near my home on Cudjoe Key. Two Hobie beach catamarans getting loaded up on trailers at the free county launch ramp:
There are lots of ramps available for anyone to use, one of those little remarked features of life in Monroe County. Roadside ramps with no fees or rules or hours or anything. Show up, launch, park your trailer and go sailing. Cool. 
Bigger boats don't have that option but standing on shore I enjoy taking pictures with my Panasonic telephoto lense. 
This one below was anchored beyond Sunset Key, well to the west of Key West:
These guys were off for a sail, looking good on their South African built Leopard catamaran. My wife and I sailed on a smaller catamaran than this from San Francisco to Key West and you'd think looking at them I'd feel some kind of yearning to be out there again. There isn't.
I'm not sure what happened. I think at heart I am a traveler not just a sailor. The prospect of sailing away from key West as we last arrived  makes me think of a trip spent sailing not sight seeing. Sailboats suck up tons of energy in both time and money. They also limit your ability to get away from them and explore on land. Besides all that Rusty wouldn't like it. He shows no facility with weird stuff like boats.
I saw this flag of convenience across the marina at what was the Westin Hotel and is now known as the Margaritaville Resort (not to be confused especially when sending an ambulance, with the Margaritaville Cafe on Duval Street). I peered at the flag through the camera and realized it was an unusual one on a part of the world that flied flags of convenience from Panama and the Bahamas and Bermuda, among others. Flags of convenience are nautical hold overs that allow ship owners to register their vessels in countries that maybe charge low taxes or require no minimum crew payments or have lower safety inspection standards. There's no requirement to actually visit these countries or belong there and these things make sense to people who own expensive yachts as well as cruise and cargo ships. This yacht was flying the flag of Cyprus. Mind you it was opposite the welcome sign to the "Conch Republic" so in effect one fiction was greeting the other.
Certainly they can look luxurious at the dock but out on the water pounding into the winds they are as uncomfortable as anything. That's also why owners have crew to do the hard work while they themselves jet off to some other destination.
Key West is done for the year, time to find some other fashionable destination.