Tag Archives: zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance

The Beer-Can Fix

Beer Can, Marine, Waste, Moss

One of my favorite moments from Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle comes around the end of the first third of the book. The dysfunctional family, composed of an alcoholic engineer father and a tree-hugging lunatic religious mother and their four kids, inherits a relatively palatial house in Phoenix. (I’ll point out that the mother is a lunatic who happens to be religious, rather than a religious person who is, by extension, a lunatic). The house has termites, though, and before long the floors become unstable, to the point where a misplaced step results in somebody’s foot going through the floor. This proceeds until it can’t any longer, at which point the father enacts a fix which is simultaneously brilliant and idiotic. He buys a six-pack of beer. Downs one. Uses his tin snips to turn the can into a little metal tile. Then hammers the can down over the hole. This process repeats anytime the family kicks a new hole in the floor, which is often. It’s the height of pragmatism — he’s going to drink anyway, so why not use it to fix the floor — and ridiculousness — picture the lovely parquet floor pockmarked with Budweisers and PBRs.

And I have a similar favorite moment in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Dude’s hog has a problem with its steering. They know that the repair that’s needed (some sort of ionized stripping installed around the axle or whatever) will be prohibitively expensive; several hundred bucks. The narrator points out that the repair can be effected — not as a stop-gap measure, but well and truly fixed — by snipping a beer can open, cutting it to fit, and wrapping the strip around the steering bits (I don’t cars, sorry NOT SORRY). The beer can, which is oxidized (or un-oxidized or whatever) on the liquid side so as to safely contain the beer, serves as a perfect insulator that won’t break down or rust over time. But the dude isn’t about to have his brand-new motorcycle, the epitome of engineering, repaired by a lowly can of beer. He doesn’t accept that it could work. So he drives it with the janky steering until he can overpay for a “proper” repair.

Why are these moments banging against each other in my head like literary pinballs? Well, I’m nearing the end of the edit on my first novel, and I’m ironing out the last few problems. Spoiler-free, the problems are: I’ve got some characters who pull a disappearing act when they shouldn’t, and others who don’t pull a disappearing act when they should. I’d been mulling the problem for a few days when a startlingly simple solution struck me.

And then today it struck me that maybe the solution was too simple. Too pat. Too surface-level. Maybe I was patching my busted floor with a spent beer can. So I find myself wondering whether I’m fixing these last few problems “properly”. Whether, a la The Glass Castle, I’m using ridiculous if not trashy easy fixes for problems that need deep, structural focus and foundational repair. Or, whether, a la Zen, I’m overthinking things and the beer can is not only adequate, but more elegant and simple than a highfalutin ground-up rethink.

At this point it’s probably impossible for me to know. I mean, I didn’t catch this mistake on my first read-through (nor did one of my readers, actually). My wife caught it. (Thanks, wife!) So the fix probably will look equally fine to me.

There’s only one thing that’s actually clear in all of this.

Beer fixes everything.

If only I liked beer.

Get Up and Go (A Gramble About Gumption)

By the way, “Gramble” is just a word I made up. I wanted to keep alliterating with “G”s so I stuck one on the front of “ramble”. Don’t be afraid of my Frankenstein’s monster of a word. Its literary thirst for blood can only be satiated with ink.

Anyway. Gumption. Where does it go?

Some days the gumption is there; it burns away in your belly, it secretes its smoky certainty through your pores and fills you to the tippy top with vigor and optimism. Other days, the fire goes out, and all that’s left is the ashy residue of a bonfire, some empty beer bottles, and a few condom wrappers from where all the cool couples disappeared into the woods.

“Gumption” itself is one of those outdated words that you don’t hear much anymore, but there’s no word quite like it. We’ve got the newfangled Play-Doh lump of a word, “sticktoitiveness”, which is not so much a word as a philosophy. There’s “tenacity”, which has something to do with gumption, but isn’t the same thing. Then you can go and get all negatively-connotated and toss out “stubborn”, which, again, rubs up against gumption but doesn’t take the prize turkey home.

“Gumption” is homey and colloquial and down-to-earth. It’s a don’t-give-up mentality that somehow runs the gamut between boundless optimism and pigheaded refusal to back down. It’s a quiet, determined certainty that with hard work, anything can be achieved.

Maybe it’s one of those things that’s impossible to define, but you know it when you see it.

Gumption is a concept that has resonated with me since I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. I first read it in my senior year of high school, then again in my sophomore year at college, then again in my fourth year of college, then again shortly after graduating college, then again after I graduated college again, and it’s recently been in my brain that maybe I ought to read it again. It’s a fascinating little book that’s not actually very much about Zen or motorcycle maintenance, but rather about the world at large and how you choose to view it. If you’re philosophically inclined at all, you’ll probably get some mileage out of it. One of its defining moments for me is a scene wherein the protagonist fixes his buddy’s misfiring motorcycle with an old beer can. The protagonist is pleased with his ingenuity; the buddy is flustered and ultimately unable to live with the notion that a piece of trash could fix everything that’s wrong with his bike. He’s too caught up in the idea of what the bike should look like and what fixing it should entail to realize that the chemically-treated, rust-proof surface on the inside of the can provides all the fixing his bike could ever want at a fraction of the cost and time needed for a “proper” fix.

Anyway, I love the idea of gumption — that inevitable, inescapable quality within the self that just knows how to buckle down and get sharknado done — but I’m faced with a terrible truth lately. Mine is gone.

Like, a few months ago, I had it. I knew right where it was. In the left lobe of my brain, next to the wrenches and the repository of dangling participles. But now it’s gone. Misplaced? Stolen? Dried up?

I’m reminded of an Aerosmith lyric: “My get-up-and-go must have got up and went.”

Seriously. I’m behind on the novel. I wanted to finish the first edit by the end of January, and now it’s trailing off into March and I’m always “just a few weeks away.” I’m behind on grading papers at work and have been since… well… January. Even my posts on the blarg have been fewer and farther between since… ahem… January.

What happened in January?

I have no idea, but whatever it was ran my gumption right out of town. But, see, that doesn’t make sense. Because gumption is a part of who you are. Right? It can no more leave you than your wits, or your good looks, or… maybe these are bad examples.

The point is, my gumption is missing lately. If you’ve seen it, please tell it I would very much appreciate it if it would return home. I have a lot of work to get done. And a lot of get-ups that need to get going.

This post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday.

The Doldrums

It’s no secret I’ve struggled with the editing of this novel. The highs are stratospheric and the lows are Death Valley-esque.

But I’m in the midst of an issue that I am unsure of the cure for. I feel rather like I’ve set off on the Oregon Trail, but I didn’t pack nearly enough provisions and all I can do is watch my livestock and then my family wither and die in the wilderness. (You have died of dysentery.)

I had the “brilliant” idea a few weeks back to add a new character to the story. He’d bring balance to the force, I thought, and provide some growth for certain characters while getting in the way of others. He’d plug up plot holes and give me a path to a much cleaner resolution than the one I wrote the first time around. In short, he’d fix my problems.

Now, I’m about a week into trying to shoehorn him into this thing and… oh, man, I just don’t know. On the one hand, I feel he certainly has the potential to do all the things I wanted him to do, but in his current form he’s doing them about as well as a guy with no hands can read braille. Which is to say, all he can really do is lean into the story and mash his face against it. It’s torturous work trying to make him interface with the existing plot and characters in any meaningful way that doesn’t feel totally artificial and tacked-on. It’s mentally exhausting pondering the ways to make all the things that have to happen happen (untangle that, grammar checkers), and much like a hapless tracker in a driving snow, I keep retracing my steps. I’ve rewritten one series of two pages four times now, and it’s impossible for me to tell which version is any better than the others. You add to that the fact that every little change I make here means other dangly bits and loose ends elsewhere in the story have to be busted apart and rejiggered, and the whole mess has devolved into one great giant gumption trap, to borrow a term from Robert Pirsig (from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance).

To nutshell and paraphrase, a gumption trap is a small problem that trips you up in a big way, then pretends to be bigger than it is to make itself seem unsolvable. The example I recall from the book was rounding off a screw on an engine compartment panel, thus effectively sealing the panel shut. Not only do you have the problem of unscrewing a screw with no head, but you can’t even begin to think about how to solve the problem that you were trying to get into the engine compartment for in the first place until you can deal with the tiny screw. It swells so large that it fills your vision, and you lose all sense not only of any possible solution to the problem itself, but also of your entire ability to achieve the thing that the problem got in the way of in the first place. You can spend hours staring at a gumption trap, pondering and scheming and hypothesizing, and end up no closer to solving it than the moment after it sprang itself. Yep, that pretty much encapsulates my feeling on the novel right now. A broken motorcycle whose engine I can’t even look at.

So the edit is a problem. But what’s doubly troubling is that I can’t even measure the progress I’m making. For every step forward, I have to take about three steps back. But then I can steal the good ideas I had for this other idea and divert them to this other other idea to make it work better, so I mentally copy and paste a little and gain back a step or two. But then that idea breaks down and I feel the urge to undo what I’ve done, and that brings me back to the original thing which I then also subsequently want to undo, so I write it again. On an internal level, I know that there’s “work” being done here, but it’s impossible to quantify it. Some days I add to the word count of the original. Some days I subtract. Today all I’ve been able to do is stare at the page while the characters swirl around my head and shout obscenities at me about how useless it is to have them swirling around my head all day. They want to fix their problems. I want to fix their problems. Problem is that for those problems to get fixed, ultimately the road leads through me, and I feel about as qualified to sort out any narrative snarls as a seal is to help you with your math homework, which is to say, not at all, unless that homework involves a bunch of fish and barking, which my story does not. GET OUT OF HERE, IMAGINARY SEAL. YOU’RE NOT HELPING.

Triply troubling is the fact that I can feel the morass of this thing sucking at my boots as I try to wade across it. With each step, I feel a bit more gunk collecting on my undersoles, a bit more narrative dead weight hanging like an albatross about my neck. Momentum matters, as I’ve pointed out before, and my momentum on this thing feels like it’s barely crawling forward, if it’s moving at all.

In short, I’m stuck in the doldrums with this thing, and there is not a breeze in sight to catch my drooping sails and propel my scurvy-ridden crew out of this mess any time soon. To complicate matters further, for some reason my running playlist keeps throwing at me the song that’s inspired the next novel I plan to write, which makes me want to think about that story instead of this one. I know that that way madness lies, because the moment I take my focus away from the current project, it’s going to start to sour in the sun and I might never return to rejuvenate it.

No, this is no time to abandon the Project, or turn my back on it even for a moment, no matter how much its quagmire is pulling me down. Solutions will present themselves. Once I can solve the project of this shoehorn character, I suspect that the rest of the edit will look like a field of candy corn by the end. Of course, that simile only works if you like candy corn. Anyway… I’m working on it. I’m blarging more about it. That always seems to help knock the ol’ cobwebs loose. And I’m trying not to think too hard about it, because like any gumption trap, the more you bang your head against the thing the less capable of fixing it you become, until all you want to do is throw the whole contraption in the fire, and that’s a thing I don’t want to feel compelled to do. Because if presented with the opportunity, the Id-Writer may just snap his chains, jump the fence, and do exactly that.

I have to remind myself to breathe and to keep writing. Eyes on the prize and all that tripe. It’s still first stages. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Just keep writing. Keep working. I’m at home in the me that is on this adventure.


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