Motorcycle Maintenance haiku

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

There once was a time
motorcycle maintenance
meant something to me


NOTES:  Got the news today that Robert Pirsig has died.  When his book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” was published in 1974, it became an unlikely best seller, and an iconic work as the counterculture was fading away.

Like many a child of the 1960s, I read the book, and pondered its ponderous philosophy of “Quality.”  As the son of a mechanic, I resonated with his idea the “classical” personality, who pays close attention to his machine and makes sure it runs at peak efficiency.  I wanted to be like that.

But I realized I fell more into the category Pirsig calls the “romantic personality,” that was more focused on living in the moment at the expense of rational analysis.

To this day I’m not sure if “Motorcycle Maintenance” is a great work on the level of Plato, or a pop phenomenon.  But I sure thought a lot about it.

The primary reason I perked up my ears when I heard the news today is more poetic than philosophical.

You see, the very first date I went on with my wife was at the Blue Heron Café in Minneapolis, a hippy-dippy veggie establishment that was operated by Pirsig’s ex-wife, Nancy James.

Who needs online dating services?!  The first time I saw my future wife, she was glowing.  Honest to Pete.  She was bathed in a golden aura, sitting a darkened auditorium, listening to the chaplain of the U.S. Senate speak about living “the deeper life.”  We were both independently reading St. Augustine’s Confessions.  (Is that weird or what?)  We were both footloose and fancy free and unencumbered by any other relationships.

After I finally screwed up the courage to ask her out, among other things, we discovered that we had the same favorite restaurant in common — the aforementioned Blue Heron.

So, of course, we had to go there for dinner there on our first date.  Which we did.  I do not remember the main course, but I do remember drinking a bottomless glass of herbal iced tea.

Then on to the second part of the date, the initial screening of the German World War II movie, Das Boot.

In case you don’t remember this classic, starring Juergen Prochnow, 90% of it took place on a German submarine.  Close quarters, high tension, and lots of dripping water.  Lots of water.

I was quite sure that it being a sophisticated foreign film, there would be an intermission when I could go to the restroom and relieve myself of all the iced herbal tea.

Wrong.

No intermission.

When the movie was finally over, and the final sub was sunk, we both sprinted for the bathrooms.

Quite the romantic first date.

Somehow we survived this inauspicious beginning, and 35 years later are still together.

So, tonight, I raise a glass of herbal tea to you, Robert Pirsig.  Godspeed.

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Hometown tanka

The 1969 M senior guys and their pyramid scheme
Courtesy of Susumu Wakana

Dear upperclassmen,
we idolized you so much,
you were like heroes.

Then, that class trip fiasco,
And class trips were abolished.


NOTES:  The class ahead of us in high school was impressive.  It included some very smart and talented people who challenged and inspired us underclassmen.

Counted among its members were some of the best athletes, actors, debaters, musicians and scholars ever to come out of our little Missouri town of Marshall.  When they went away to college in the fall of 1969, they returned on their breaks with fascinating stories of life at their campuses.

I paid close attention to their testimonials, and followed a couple of them when it came time to make my own college choice.

The class of 1969 certainly went out with a bang.  Our high school had long had a tradition of the senior class trip, which involved a long trek to some exotic destination far enough away to make getting there grueling and sleep-deprived.

That year the seniors made the long bus ride to Six Flags Over Texas.  But during the course of that journey, something happened.

The stories we heard were somewhat hushed and confusing, but whatever happened was so serious that school officials cancelled senior trips forevermore.

The next year, there was not even a discussion about our own class taking a senior trip. Not. A. Chance.

The Class of ’69 was already notable in that it had voted to abolish the venerable tradition of selecting the most popular and respected girl to preside over Achievement Night as Miss Fair Marshall.

Now, our heroes had managed to put the kibosh on another tradition.  In a way it enhanced the reputation of the Class of ’69 even further.  In addition to all their other superlatives, they had also become the Biggest Screw-Ups.

I’m hoping some of my old schoolmates from the Class of ’69 might finally come forward with the true story of what transpired on that notorious trip.  Why don’t you just come clean?  Confession is good for the soul and the statute of limitations on your crimes certainly has expired.

Some members of my own class are still a bit aggrieved that we didn’t get to have our senior trip because of you.

It would be good to be able to put the scurrilous rumors to rest, and to finally forgive and forget.

STYLE NOTE:  Like haiku, the tanka is a traditional Japanese short poem form with a prescribed number of syllables.  The pattern is 5-7-5-7-7.

Hometown haiku

Marshall High School cheerleaders, 1968.
Courtesy of Susumu Wakana

Unattainable,
cheerleaders stirred crowds and our
imaginations


NOTES:  Here’s another invaluable photograph from my friend, Susumu.  This must have been taken in the fall of 1968, amidst an exciting small town high school football season.

It most certainly was an away game.  The home games of the Marshall High School Owls were played at Missouri Valley College’s Gregg-Mitchell Field, and this setting does not look familiar.  I’m guessing it might have been the away game that year at the home field of our most hated rival, the Excelsior Springs Tigers.

Marshall had been playing second fiddle to the Tigers for several years, just unable to put together enough power to overcome dislodge them from the top of the Missouri River Valley Conference.

The year before, we had endured a humiliating defeat as the Tigers came into our stadium and beat us on a frigid night in Marshall.  Those old aluminum benches had never felt so cold.

This year turned out much better.  Coach Cecil Naylor had us worked into such a frenzy that we could have taken on a band of Viking berserkers.  We travelled into the Tigers’ home turf, took care of business, and vanquished them 20 to 0.

But I digress.

The topic is cheerleaders.  What is with their mystique?  And why couldn’t they get a date with their own classmates?

I could be misremembering, but it seemed that very few cheerleaders ever dated guys in their own class.  Older guys might work up the confidence to “date down” with a cheerleader from lower grade.  But mating between cheerleaders and a classmate was scare and rare.

One of life’s great mysteries.  The Cheerleader Paradox.

Mysterious even when you factor in the fact that in our little town, many of us had attended school together since first grade, and the rest of us had been together in the same building since 7th grade.

The long history and close familiarity meant that most of your classmates were like family.  That contributed to sense that the cute girl in chemistry class seemed more like your sister or your cousin than girlfriend material.

I mean, you’d grown up together!  You’d seen each other on good days and bad days.  Good hair days and bad.  You’d fought on the playground in grade school, and competed for teachers’ attention.  Not much mystery left.

But even that doesn’t explain the Cheerleader Paradox.

Dr. Freud, call your office.  I’m open to hypotheses.

Hometown haiku

Marshall, Missouri, 1968.
Courtesy of Susumu Wakana

Old streets remind me
I did not know compassion
when I walked them then.


NOTES: I have come into possession of a treasure trove of photos from the late 1960s taken by an old schoolmate, Susumu.  He was our Japanese foreign exchange student when I was a junior in high school in 1968 and 1969.

Across the years and across the internet, we reconnected and he sent me the photos he collected during his year in my hometown.

Susumu saw things through his camera lens that I had long forgotten.  These are shots I would never have thought to take.  Simple street scenes.  Iconic buildings long since torn down.  Teachers and friends long forgotten.

The gift of these photos is almost indescribable.  It is as though I am seeing my hometown again, for the first time.  I’m transported back nearly half a century to the place of my childhood, to the places where I lived my formative years.

No fancy Instagram filters are required.  These photos already have the faded Kodachrome quality you cannot fake.  They come with authentic poignancy.

These photos take me back to my youth.  And my heart is filled with questions.  What if?  If only?  Didn’t I realize?