Back in 1974, the self-help art form was blossoming. Today, every other television or social media ad with which we come into contact implores us to help ourselves by following their particular program, system or app. 1974 was a different age. Cigarette commercials had only been banned four years prior; offering books and products specifically intended to help individuals help themselves were still relatively new trends.
One such book was Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” The fictionalized autobiographical account of a cross-country motorcycle trip became a smash best seller.
Pirsig wrote computer manuals for a living, so the book clearly scratched a very different kind of artistic itch. He creatively used motorcycle maintenance as a grounding point for intersecting Zen, Greek and other philosophical forms in discussions on how to purposefully engage with the modern world, with those around us and with ourselves. It’s the kind of introspective study from which many would benefit, it seems, in this time of COVID.
I was reminded of this book last weekend when my wife and I decided on Saturday to enjoy the beautiful spring weather with lunch at one of Carbondale’s dining establishments. Still wary of the virus and wanting to spend time outside, we picked a restaurant with outdoor seating and arrived early enough to choose a table in eyesight of our vehicle, parallel parked across the street.
That’s when the fun commenced. The space behind our vehicle was available for another car, but without enough room for a driver to “nose in” their car and successfully park. In other words, it required that the vehicle’s driver be sufficiently skilled to back into the space using the parallel parking technique that all drivers, in one form or another, should have learned in driver’s education – but which upon my unscientific observations, some have long ago forgotten.
The first vehicle to attempt the task, a midsize SUV, was successful. Two men and four children appearing to be between the ages of about 6 and 10 trundled out of the vehicle and made their way across the street towards the restaurant. My wife was the first to observe that there was not a mask among them.
Upon arriving at the restaurant’s door, the server asked them cordially if they had masks, to which one of the men said no. The server told them they could not enter the indoor space but were welcome to eat at one of the socially distanced tables in their outdoor dining area. They apparently agreed and made their way past us to an available table and sat down. Only a few minutes later, however, for some reason they all stood up and made their way into the restaurant through a side door. A few minutes after that, they all exited the restaurant through its main door, returned to their vehicle and drove away.
Shortly thereafter, another midsize SUV attempted three times to parallel park in the newly vacant space. This SUV’s efforts drew my close attention, as the driver struggled to navigate the angles necessary to park successfully and avoid caressing my vehicle’s bumper, the SUV’s increasingly jerky motion evidenced the driver’s growing frustration with each subsequent failed attempt. Ultimately the vehicle drove off, orbited the block, reappearing in my line of sight on Main Street, found an open spot and successfully “nosed in.” A couple exited the vehicle, and like the six maskless men and boys before them, made their way towards the restaurant. The couple, however, donned masks before entering and did not reappear before we finished our meal and left.
It’s perhaps not immediately obvious the lessons extant to this observation of comparative parallel parking and COVID-era public dining skill sets. The first driver mastered the former, but to the detriment of his entire party of six, apparently failed at the latter due to an unwillingness to wear — or at least the unavailability of — face masks required for restaurant entry. The second driver failed at the parking effort, but along with his dining partner, donned masks and gained the ability to dine publicly.
Just like motorcycle maintenance seems unrelated to the deepest philosophical questions and our purpose within them, one’s mastery of the long-established and well-understood driving skill of parallel parking seems disparate from our ability to navigate the emergent, sometimes confusing, and almost always frustrating fluidity of COVID-era rules for public engagement.
In Pirsig’s book, the act of maintaining a motorcycle provides a tactile metaphor of individual, physical engagement, accountability and problem-solving that helps the writer and the reader connect to life’s deeper questions. Today, motorcycles barely require maintenance and many new cars can parallel park themselves at the push of a button.
We all (well, I suppose the vast majority of us) want this era of COVID to end soon. But will things ever be exactly as they once were? I doubt it, and therein lies the rub, and the challenge of finding internal peace in this disrupted age. There is no button to push that guides our individual navigation of the often confounding and seemingly nonsensical changes swirling around us; not to comply with the requirements of some external authority, but to remain sane within the boundaries of our own mind. So how do we find peace? Grounding oneself in one’s individually defined purpose, rather than the imperatives foisted upon us by others, is always a good place to start.