The Zen Master Passes On

Robert M. Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:  An Inquiry Into Values, died on Monday at age 88.  It is sad news for those of us for whom Pirsig’s book — an intriguing combination of travel writing, novelized autobiography, rumination about various facets of modern society, and study of motorcycle mechanics — was an important, shaping rite of passage when we first read it.

pic0904-pirsig002I was introduced to Zen by Uncle Mack, who told me that I absolutely needed to read this book.  (To provide some context, he also told me at about the same time that I needed to read Watership Down, which told the tale of rabbits in southern England who had their own language and liked to silflay under the moon.)  Because I am a dutiful nephew, I of course read Zen, and it forcefully struck an inner nerve.

The arc of the book, which tells the rambling story of a man struggling with mental illness who takes his son on a long motorcycle trip and along the way realizes that he and his son will always deal with those issues, was interesting, but what really got me were Pirsig’s miniature lectures, which he called chautauquas, that were interspersed throughout the book.  The lectures reflected a way of looking at and thinking about the world that really had an impact on me.  One concept in particular — that “quality” is a kind of independent characteristic that can be recognized by people intuitively, without training, and should always be the ultimate goal of whatever you are doing, whether it is writing, living, or repairing a motorcycle — has been hugely influential and is a concept that I have returned to again and again.

I wasn’t the only person touched by Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  It was a kind of phenomenon in the ’70s, and according to the New York Times obituary linked above it has been cited as a personally influential book by the likes of basketball player and coach Phil Jackson, Star Trek star William Shatner, and others.  It was Pirsig’s first book, and he later recounted that it was rejected by 121 publishing houses before William Morrow finally put it in print.  Pirsig’s persistence was rewarded when Zen sold a million copies in its first year — many, no doubt, due to the insistence of friendly uncles — and sold millions more in the years since.

I will always be grateful to Robert M. Pirsig for writing this book.

The Inevitable Post-Election Tell-Alls

It’s been six months since the last presidential election, which means it’s time for those tell-all books about the campaign to start coming out.  The first one that I’ve read about is called Shattered:  Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign.

hillary_abcAs if often the case, the publishers of the books try to gin up interest by releasing supposedly tantalizing details about incidents that occurred during the campaign.  In the case of Shattered, the incidents involve a phone call in which Hillary and Bill Clinton both unloaded on the campaign staff, and the prep sessions for one of the debates with Bernie Sanders in which Hillary Clinton got mad and made one of her preparers stand up and answer questions while she critiqued him.  The underlying message of both incidents was:  Hillary Clinton was angry that she wasn’t doing better and just couldn’t recognize that the problem was due to her personal failures, rather than failures by her staff.

I enjoyed the Theodore White Making of the President books way back when, and Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing:  On the Campaign Trail ’72 remains one of my all-time favorite books, but I’ve long since stopped reading the “insider” accounts that now come out after every election.  I haven’t read one in decades because the lack of loyalty inherent in the form of the book makes me sick to my stomach.  Professional staffers provide juicy tidbits as part of an overall information campaign to cover their own butts, make themselves look good, and position themselves to get hired and do it all over again in the next campaign cycle.  The losing candidate always gets torn down, while the wise, far-sighted staff that the candidate was supposedly stubbornly ignoring get elevated.

So, Hillary Clinton was frustrated that she wasn’t doing better, and from time to time lashed out at her staff when voting results or polling weren’t favorable?  Gee . . . is anybody really surprised that a person who is seeking the presidency — and who saw her election as an historic opportunity to shatter a very visible “glass ceiling” for American women — from time to time had that reaction?  When you’re on the griddle for months, 24/7, as presidential candidates are, of course there are going to be times when fatigue and frustration leave you not at your finest, and when the results aren’t going as you hoped, the effects of that fatigue and frustration will inevitably be compounded.

So Hillary Clinton lost her temper, and she and Bill Clinton administered an occasional tongue-lashing.  So what?  She lost.  Can’t we just let it be, without having rat-like staffers heaping scorn on the losing candidate with anecdotes carefully pitched to make themselves look good?  If I were a potential presidential candidate, I would never hire somebody whom I suspected was the source of leaks in one of these tell-alls.  Loyalty is an important quality when you are working for a politician, and people who leak stories to promote themselves are finks who simply can’t be trusted.

Beach Reads

When you’re on a beach vacation, having a good book to read — or maybe, say, five of them — is essential.  On this trip I’ve enjoyed Bill Bryson’s wonderful, funny, and fascinating book about the summer of 1927 and the latest Harry Bosch book by Michael Connelly, and I’ve got two books of short stories inspired by Sherlock Holmes and a non-fiction book about Wall Street greed in queue.

I love books with continuing characters and their adventures, so when a new Connelly Bosch book appears I snap it up.  There’s only one problem:  I can’t put them down.  I zip through them, relish every word and Boschian revelation, and immediately am hungry for more.  I hope Connelly, and Bosch, live until they’re 120.

Farts In The Arts

When Russell went off to Camp Seagull in the Carolinas as a young lad, Kish and I waited with trepidation for his first letter home.

Most camps in those days didn’t let kids call home for a few weeks.  Campers could write letters, but not call — the reasoning being that hearing Mom’s voice might just produce even great bouts of homesickness.  So we waited, and when Russell’s letter arrived we tore it open and read it eagerly.  We realized that he would be OK when we got to the part where he said he thought he would really like his cabin mates because “they all thought farts were funny, too.”

250px-firefartIt turns out that Russell and his Camp Seagull buddies had a lot in common with the ancient Sumerians, Shakespeare, and Jonathan Swift.

A recent article tackles the important and surprisingly under-researched topic of flatulence humor in literature.  It reports that the earliest known fart joke in history is also the oldest known joke, period — which tells you something about the significance of flatulence humor in human civilization — came from the Sumerians circa 1900 B.C.  It is: “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.”  Admittedly, it doesn’t really seem very funny these days, but let’s give the ancient Sumerians a break — since it was the very first known joke in history, we can’t reasonably expect Seinfeld levels of humor, and besides, we’re probably missing some important sound effects that accompanied the gibe and dramatically increased the humor quotient.

Of course, fart references were found in Chaucer and Shakespeare — where your British Literature professors might dismissively refer to them as “bawdy humor” — and in Mark Twain’s writing, too.   Jonathan Swift, who wrote Gulliver’s Travels, seems to have been weirdly obsessed with breaking wind.  Writing under a pseudonym, he penned an entire book on the subject called The Benefit of Farting Explained that articulated, in painstaking detail, Swift’s views on the different categories of farts.

So if you read or heard about the recent report about the unfortunate woman who passed gas during surgery in a Tokyo hospital, igniting a laser being used during the procedure, and thought it was funny even though the woman was burned as a result, you’re not alone.  Humans have been chuckling about farts since the dawn of recorded history — and probably for as long as humans have been around at all.

Dylan’s Nobel Prize

Yesterday Bob Dylan, the beat folk musician who turned electric and helped make the ’60s the ’60s, won the Nobel Prize for literature.  Dylan is the first musician ever to have won the award — and, not surprisingly, the decision to give one of literature’s great prizes to a rock singer immediately produced criticism.  One writer said “Bob Dylan winning a Nobel in Literature is like Mrs Fields being awarded 3 Michelin stars.”

50-shades-bob-dylanMost of the criticism of the decision to give the Nobel Prize to Dylan focuses on whether lyrics can ever rise to the level of “literature.”  It’s a kind of snooty argument that necessarily comes off as dismissive of songwriters, suggesting that poets and novelists labor over their craft, think big thoughts and wrestle with the big issues, and produce timeless works of literary art — while songwriters simply dash off a ditty and consult their rhyming dictionary as necessary.  Still others argue that Dylan has received enough awards — he’s won a lot of Grammys, for example — and he doesn’t need the Nobel Prize.  As one critic of the award put it, reading is declining, writers and poets are struggling for recognition, and “awarding the Nobel to a novelist or a poet is a way of affirming that fiction and poetry still matter, that they are crucial human endeavors worthy of international recognition.”

Kind of sad, isn’t it?  Years after Shakespeare, Dickens, Wordsworth, and Hemingway, people are arguing that the Nobel Prize is what is needed to show that writing poetry and prose matters?  And, in a way, that argument is self-defeating, isn’t it?  After all, the Nobel Prizes in literature that have been awarded pre-Dylan – and you can see the list here — haven’t exactly prevented the worldwide decline in reading and recognition of writers and poets that some people are bemoaning.

The notion that the Nobel Prize somehow legitimizes literature seems pretty silly to me.  Nobel Prizes always appear to be highly politicized, and the concept of honoring writers and poets through the selection of one award winner doesn’t make a lot of sense.  The Nobel Prize for literature in 2011, for example, was given to Tomas Transtromer “because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality.”  How does the award to Tomas Transtromer affirm the value of authors and poets who write in different genres and different styles?

Words are words, and the Nobel Prize for literature recognizes that words have power.  Whether the words appear in a book, a poem, or a recorded song, the key point is whether those words are being used in a memorable, beautiful way to send a lasting message to the reader — or the listener.  No one who has listened to Bob Dylan’s music has failed to appreciate the lyrics, which undeniably have their own unique, poetic power.  Dylan’s writing — like, apparently, the writing of Tomas Transtromer — makes us think about words and their message.  I think he’s a fitting recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature.

Long’s Gone

When you get older, you come to accept the inevitability that things you remember from your youth — whether it is TV shows, favorite athletes, failed breakfast cereals, or brands of beer — will vanish into the mists of time.

mt_long_book_demo_fs_3Still, it was weird to see recent photos of demolition equipment tearing down Long’s college bookstore, across the street from the OSU campus.  When I attended Ohio State back in the ’70s, Long’s was as much a part of the University as the Orton Hall chimes.

Everyone who went to Ohio State — and that covers a lot of people — stopped into Long’s, or its nearby competitor, SBX, to buy their textbooks.  Students would take their course syllabi, scan for the required texts, and then head to Long’s to get the books.  It was a crammed yet sprawling, ramshackle store that also sold OSU fan gear and therefore attracted a good crowd of Buckeye fans, which just added to the hustle and bustle of the place.

At Long’s you would learn that your college professors often wrote the textbooks for the courses they taught . . . and that the texts seemed to carry an awfully high price tag compared to some of the other books available.  But, what could you do?  It was a required text, and how in the world could you expect to pass the course if you didn’t have one?  Experienced students learned that it paid to get to the bookstores early, because with luck you could find a reasonably used copy of the text at a much lower price.  And then, at the end of the quarter — for it was quarters, not semesters, back in those days — you would resell your books to Long’s or SBX for pennies on the dollar.  Why?  Because it was a buyer’s market, and no college student wanted their apartment cluttered with texts from Philosophy 101 or Poli Sci 265, and you’d rather get a few bucks that you could spend on beer and pizza.  It’s not like you were ever going to read a textbook again, anyway.

In this simple way, Long’s taught naive OSU students some valuable lessons.  Buy low, sell high.  Brace yourself for a gouging.  And understand that the world isn’t fair.

Those are some pretty enduring life lessons, when you think about it.

The New Main

IMG_2365Yesterday Kish and I walked over to check out the refurbished Main Library branch of the Columbus Public Library system.  It reopened recently after being closed for about a year for renovations.

The renovations focused on the interior and rear of the building, where the second and third floors now feature two-story floor-to-ceiling windows that look out over the Topiary Gardens Park behind the library.  The huge windows give the interior a much more airy and bright feel, and the library has maintained that feel by providing lots of seating areas, open spaces within the interior of the building, and less cluttered shelving.  As you walk through the building — and yesterday there was lots of traffic — you can’t help but be impressed by the spaciousness.

IMG_2370The renovations also included some landscaping of the front lawn leading up to the familiar facade of the original Carnegie library building, as well as adding some green space and a patio area between the rear of the building and the Topiary Gardens.  On a sunny day like yesterday, the towering windows and new green spaces made the library seem more integrated with its surroundings than ever before.

I think the new Main looks great, and I’m happy that it has reopened.  For all of the sleek changes to the interior and exterior, Main also has a great selection of books — one that is much larger than that available at the Parsons branch that we have been using.  Yesterday we picked up a few books after some browsing, which is one of the things I like to do at a library.  I’m glad Main is back in the rotation.

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