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.

Gold Soul

I’ve written before about the Platinum Stylist, the dedicated professional and perfectionist who cuts my hair and gives me a head and shoulder massage, mini-facial, and hot towel treatment to boot.  She’s an exuberant personality, and our appointments always end up being fun encounters where I walk away relaxed, refreshed, and with the best haircut you could possibly get anywhere.

static1.squarespaceThe Platinum Stylist’s real name is Alyssa Rowland, and at our appointment on Thursday she told me that she’s starting up a new consulting business.  (Fortunately for me and the rest of her coterie of intensely loyal clients, she’ll continue to cut and style hair.)  The Platinum Stylist is maintaining her association with precious metals by calling her company Gold Soul, and you can read about it and the services it offers here.  Its focus will be on helping and motivating people to provide exceptional customer service — something that the Platinum Stylist does as a matter of course.

I wanted to give Alyssa a shout-out and a plug because she practices what she preaches when it comes to going the extra mile and because I think anybody who has the guts and moxie to start and run their own business deserves a boost and a pat on the back.  Entrepreneurs who believe in what they can offer make the capitalist world go round.  I also think, though, that Alyssa and Gold Soul, with their emphasis on service and quality, have identified something important that is increasingly lacking in modern commerce.  With goods and products becoming more and more commoditized and “self-serve” the new normal, it’s pretty rare to have any kind of positive service experience these days.  And yet, don’t we find instances where we have received fine personal service far more satisfying than the now-standard fare of sterile, rushed, generic treatment?

ashanti20gold20dish20late2019th20centuryMy conversation with Alyssa and Gold Soul’s website remind me once again of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a hugely influential book for me that I wrote about in one of my very first postings for the Webner family blog, more than seven years ago.  The author, Robert Pirsig, posited that “quality” was a kind of innate characteristic that people could recognize in just about anything — be it art, writing, or hair styling — even if they hadn’t been trained in art criticism or didn’t hold a Ph.D in literature.  The core concepts of “quality,” such as care and attention to detail, come shining through.

Although I’ve not seen one of Alyssa’s Gold Soul presentations, I have no hesitation in saying that I am completely confident that they are great.  She’s just that kind of person.  If you work for a business that is looking to up its game in the customer service department, it would be worth your while to give Alyssa and Gold Soul a call.

Uncle Mack Hangs Up His Spurs

Yesterday I got an e-mail from William Mack Webner — known to me as Uncle Mack — announcing that he is officially retired from the practice of law.  His decision to retire marks the end of more than 40 years of practicing as one of the premier intellectual property lawyers in the country.

Mack Webner (right) at a 2008 conference

It has been a distinguished career, indeed.  Through his representation of the Elvis Presley estate, entertainers, and a wide variety of different commercial entities, Uncle Mack has played a significant role in the development of the law on licensing and marketing of personalities and protecting and enforcing trademarks and other forms of intellectual property.  As the American economy has grown to focus more and more on the value of concepts, brands, and ideas, intellectual property law has grown and adapted to respond to those developments.  Uncle Mack has been one of the agents of change.  He also has been very involved with his alma mater, the University of Akron, with various professional organizations, and with various community groups.  You might say that, through these different activities, people have seen him “in triple focus.”

Because of these other interests, Uncle Mack is not one of those people who have let their work define them, so that when they retire they feel lost and uncomfortable without a job to tether them.  I know he wants to work on his golf game (what retiree doesn’t?) and he and Aunt Corinne still have a lot of exploring to do in Savannah, Georgia and its environs.  He’ll keep reading, and thinking.  I expect that I will get book recommendations from him, as I always have; he was an enthusiastic proponent of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Watership Down, among many others.  Uncle Mack no doubt also will continue to be as open to trying new things as he always has been — whether it is experimenting with woodworking or finally writing that novel that he and I used to talk about when Kish and I lived in Washington, D.C. in the 1980s.  You would expect nothing less from a man who made his career dealing in the world of ideas.

A Fan Of Hurricane Camille

I am a big fan of Camille Paglia, whose most recent column is here. Why? First, she is independent-minded. Her column always reflects her own views, not some distilled and recycled conventional wisdom. She obviously doesn’t feel the need to be a shill for anyone, and is willing to criticize the actions of politicians whom she supports. I have tremendous respect for that characteristic. Second, her interests are wide-ranging. Her columns often address political issues and feminism, but equally often discuss music, performers, and other popular culture issues. She has the self confidence to express thoughts on topics that actually interest her, without self-editing because she worries that some observers might view her as a lightweight. Third, and most important to me, she is an extraordinarily gifted and powerful writer. Anyone who can appreciate quality — and as a devotee of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I think that includes just about everyone — will recognize that her prose reflects the pen and mind of a true craftsman. Her column appears monthly on and is not to be missed.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

One of my influential books

One of my influential books

When I was a senior in high school I went to visit my Uncle Mack and Aunt Corinne at their home outside NYC. They were fascinating and unpredictable relatives for several reasons. For one, they lived in urban areas far from Ohio. For another, they tried to treat me like an adult. Furthermore, they liked to talk about things other than sports, TV shows, or music. My aunt was tireless in encouraging me to improve my vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. My uncle, on the other hand, always had a recommendation of a book that might help me to become a better, or at least more thoughtful, person.

One of the books that Uncle Mack recommended was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. I remember reading it and thinking, “Wow, this book is weird!” There was a kind of creepy tension to the text, because the narrator had admitted mental problems, he seemed to be struggling in his interaction with this son, and you just hoped that he would make it through his motorcycle trip without having a relapse and being institutionalized. It may well be that the weird vibe of the book helped to make some of its message more memorable, but in any case it is one of those books that had an enormous impact on me. I am not alone in this regard. It has now been 35 years since Zen was first printed, and Wikipedia states that it is regarded as the most widely read book about philosophy, ever.

I particularly recall the portion of the book where the narrator discusses his view that “quality” is a kind of innate characteristic that people can recognize intuitively. He relates an incident where an English class reads well-written pieces and poorly written pieces, without having received special training in sentence structure, foreshadowing, character development, or other technical aspects of writing. Notwithstanding the lack of such training, the class was easily able to distinguish the high-quality pieces from the low-quality pieces. That particular concept, and anecdote, has stuck with me, and I often refer to the book when I talk to associates at the firm about legal writing and the need to strive for “quality” in their work. If my comments about writing have had any positive impact on the work product of our lawyers, the firm and its clients have Robert M. Pirsig to thank.