There is nothing like a literary reference, however oblique, to make a hack like me look better. Or more intelligent. Or better read. Or, at least, better at coming up with oblique literary references.
It’s been quite a while since I’ve read it, but Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has been on my mind lately. As far as the Zen part goes, I have not found Zen and therefore can offer no revelations pertaining thereto. Actually, that’s not quite accurate. If Zen is where I last saw it – in an old lemon-drop tin, way back amongst the dust-bunnies under the couch (damn cats!) – then I do know where it is. It would just require effort and teamwork to move that couch out, and I just never seem to get around to it.
And if Volkswagen maintenance is art, then I’m finger-painting my way to mediocrity and destined for a pauper’s grave.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance really has very little to do with maintenance – motorcycle or otherwise. Much of the book was over my head (as is too often the case), but my takeaway was Pirsig’s treatment of the nexus of technology and aesthetics. The book chronicles a motorcycle trip the author takes with some friends and his son. Pirsig is a gear-head; around the campfire, he finds it frustrating that his friend John merely yawns while the author waxes technical about the subtleties of carburetor jetting or welding technique. John just wants to ride his shiny BMW and have a good time.
The book is almost as old as I am, and it’s taken me this long to appreciate what he was getting at. The aesthetic side of old Volkswagens has spoken to me since before I could drive (although it’s telling that, just now, I mistakenly typed “ascetic”). When I owned my first Beetle in high school, I could admire its beauty all day, but had very little interest in how it actually worked.
Today it’s almost the opposite. It’s true that I’ve spent vast swaths of my free time the past eighteen months doing little more than getting the body – the curvy, sensuous, (and sensual – oh, YES!) art side of the equation – ready for paint. But I’m also dying to get my hands greasy addressing the mechanical side of things – engine overhaul, brake system rebuild, all new wiring stem to stern, and anything else that stands in my way.
I was in kindergarten when the book was first published (I would wait a few years before attempting it), so excuse me if my memory of the era seems a bit fuzzy. But it seems to me that, at the time, it was still possible to envision a livable balance between the technological and the aesthetic – at least, as long as we didn’t nuke ourselves silly. These days, electronic gadgets seem to lurk in every dark corner, finding new uses for themselves, solving problems that we didn’t even know we had.
Okay, so I won’t argue with the benefits of airbags, although I think I would have a hard time living knowing that (in the words of Thom Yorke) “. . . an airbag saved my life.” Don’t know why, exactly. Hope to not find out.
But damn. Do we really need GPS and back-up cameras in every car? How about learning to use a map, and snapping out of our stupor long enough to watch where we’re going? Roll down the windows, engage someone, ask directions, holler, listen, and go.
Would Pirsig find the technologically-driven death of print media ironic? I don’t know. But my attempt to find Zen in the garage is only half of why I need to reread his book. The other half involves a horrible confession I need to make – something that will reveal me as the hypocrite that I am: I recently bought an eReader.
Right now I’m trying not to read too much into the fact that my spell-checker flagged “eReader.” I prefer to think this is due to my computer being old enough to have walked to school barefoot, in the snow, uphill both ways — before there was such a thing as an “eReader.” I certainly hope it’s not because I’m (gasp) an “early adapter.”
I will not attempt to defend or justify myself here. But the very fact that there is turmoil in my headspace over the whole thing shows that I have at least some semblance of a conscience about it. I am acutely aware that my taking this device, to have and to hold, could be perceived as flying directly in the face of something I harped upon in an earlier post; namely, the demise of the independent bookstore.
Being presently over-caffeinated and under-utilized, I’m going to lay another revelatory jelly donut on you. Ready? As I type, I’m sitting at a Starbucks, in a Barnes and Noble, next to a mall! Hypocrisy – if not outright heresy!
Okay. Now that it’s all on the table, I will at least offer a ‘splanation. Again, I will not try to rationalize. But I will present the facts.
For starters, I am currently traveling on business. Hence, the Starbucks/Barnes and Noble/mall thing. My preferred situation would either be at home at my desk, with a cat in my lap, or at my favorite local coffee shop, sipping a locally-roasted brew, with my bicycle chained up outside. But it was either here or closeted up in a hotel room with a huge-ass television and windows that do not open.
I travel often. This is the main reason for the eReader. I am usually not one to jump on the latest gizmo, just to say I have the latest gizmo. I’m not one of those morons who would pay extra for a faster watch. Also, those who know me, know that I am gizmologically challenged, mainly due to the giant electromagnet in my skull — the one that sends nearby electrons into a frenetic tizzy. I can blow transformers just by thinking about it – but I choose not to. Please do not ask me to demonstrate this.
I started to notice several of my colleagues carrying these eReaders around. On occasion I would ask to see it, and was distinctly underwhelmed. Eventually, though, I met a guy that had one that I really liked. In other words, when he showed me its features, I suddenly decided that this was technology I could live with.
I’ve only had it for a couple of weeks. At first, I played games with it. No, I don’t mean the Sudoku application; I mean I played games with it. Like, I’d stuff it in a drawer and pretend, for a couple of days, that I didn’t actually buy it. I don’t know if it was guilt, buyer’s remorse, or trying to prove that (see?) life would go on without it. Or maybe it was that general malaise that accompanies what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.”
At the height of this phase of our relationship, I actually tried to give the thing away. I woke up early one morning, as I do, in a hotel in Memphis. Before heading downstairs for breakfast, I thought it might be nice to have the twisted-crystal version of The New York Times to accompany me. The magnet, apparently, was acting up again. The internet connection was weak and I quickly lost patience – which only served to prove that I was rapidly becoming a slave to the damn thing.
“Fuck it,” I said, to no-one in particular.
I clapped the faux-leather case shut, put on my boots, grabbed the eReader and bolted out the door. Across from the bank of elevators, there was a small library table against the wall, with a touch-tone house phone and a fake fern. I placed the confounded contraption on the table – with the charger, which I remembered to grab on my way out. I stepped into the elevator and down I went. That would teach me to waste my money on shit I don’t need!
In the dining room I ordered the full-Monty hungry American trough-style buffet, and while the television blared I had half a bagel, three bites of melon cubes, and a whole pot of burned coffee. I guess you could say it was a sort of self-imposed time out.
See how you are? What do your actions say about you?
Well, the damn thing was still sitting there when I stepped out of the elevator on the eighth floor. Couldn’t even give it away. I gathered it up and went to my room, and tried not to think about it too much the rest of the day.
I do not know what the definition of “Zen” is, but maybe it manifests in ways such as the decidedly more healthy relationship I now have with my eReader. When I’m home I don’t use it much. But it’s a convenient tool to travel with, because I can have newspapers, magazines, and books, as well as work-related and personal documents, all in one place. It’s good at some things but not others.
The other day I was in a used bookstore in Asheville, North Carolina (one of my favorite towns anywhere). That shop is the kind of place where I lose all track of time. The kind of place where I emerge onto a dark street and bells clang behind me as the door closes. A hand appears and turns the dangling sign in the window around: CLOSED. In my arms I have a stack of real live books that I can feel and smell and fold pages over and scribble illegible notes in the margin of and make coffee-rings upon, if I wish it.
There is no app for that.
And yes, in this thing at least, I can have it both ways.
The Singularity people have stated their intent to live forever on a microchip, via biologically enhanced technology. Or technologically enhanced biology. It’s one and the same, in their vision; ergo, the Singularity. They figure this will happen around the year 2045, as described in a recent article in Time, as well as in Ray Kurzweil’s 2005 book, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.*
I tried to read that book. I really did. It was clear to me that Mr. Kurzweil and his ilk are extremely intelligent people, who already – even in their degraded “natural” state – possess brain power that cretins such as I can’t even begin to comprehend. It was also clear to me that these people, either as a group or individually, need to get laid.
I’m not trying to be funny here. I mean that.
They should stand on a deserted beach at dawn, with their feet in the sand, and close their eyes, and listen and feel. They should take a swim in a cold wild river. They should ride bicycles in the rain, and enjoy every minute of it.
They should hang out at a bakery one morning.
I guess what I’m getting at is this: what would eternal life in virtual reality be like? Is my limited brainpower also limiting my imagination here? Am I the only one who thinks this is creepy as all getout? Couldn’t they figure out something more useful, like a cure for hangovers?
I do hope they succeed in their mission. I believe they will. By 2045, I’ll be a crotchety old geezer of seventy-six, God willing. It will be great fun to download a six-pack of beer, a pizza, and a box of adult-sized eDiapers; then log on, sit back, and watch them make complete fools of themselves.
Okay, yeah. Who first?
At the count of three.
One . . . two . . .
* This book is available in eReader format, as is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.