Hoops of Fire

As I near the end of a period of living & working in the US, in the Tennessee Valley in northern Alabama, I notice a few of my blog posts recently closing circles, mainly in musical connections. One obvious circle for Sylvia and I is that, purely coincidentally, the move from the US, is not a return to the UK but to Oslo, Norway where we were married 27 years ago.

Three years ago we were “the parents who left home“, that UK home, when our two boys reached maturity, to go on an adventure of our own. A parallel I find myself drawing in recent days with Bob and Nancy Pirsig, who are described exactly that way in Mark Richardson’s “Zen and Now”, by their younger son Ted, then still at high-school in 1975 with brother Chris just recently off to college. That was when Bob and Nancy had set off on their Great Lakes and trans-Atlantic sailing adventure, part of which provides the narrative backbone to Bob’s second book Lila.

Mark used the word “resolution” several times in launching his book last Tuesday night in Minneapolis-St.Paul. Resolution in Pirsig closing his own circle in the original Zen motorcycle road-trip, a journey designed to loop his philosophical “chautauqua” writing project in time and place around his own troubled biography. And resolution for Mark too, not only in ostensibly closing the chapter in his life he freely refers to as his “mid-life crisis“, but in joining the dots between his own teenage motorcycle travels across the US mid-west and north-west, and those of Pirsig and elder son Chris, retraced in Zen and Now.

Without getting deeply philosophical in any academic sense, Mark also succeeds in summing up the Pirsigian message that whatever “quality” is, evolving a net increase in quality in the world has something to do with the idea that “if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well”, and that doing something well is about total involvement; individual participation in the world of here and now, and engagement with both fellow humans and technology. Listen to Mark’s recent public radio interview, also involving Ron DiSanto (author of the “Guide to ZMM”) and Jim Landis (original editor of ZMM) to get a good sense of this.

So why did I make a 2000-plus miles round-trip flying-visit to a friends-of-a-Minnesotan public library branch meeting, to witness the launch of a book by a hitherto unknown author ? That closes a loop or two for me too. Mark kindly acknowledges that his biographical research into the Pirsigs, included in Zen and Now, had originally spun out of research I had collected in a biographical timeline I published as part of the Psybertron blogging project. That timeline had been gathered from public sources and from clarifying correspondence with Bob. Mark took up the baton, to ensure that the Pirsig story was not just the one told “for rhetorical purposes” by Bob in ZMM and Lila, but a more complete view corroborated, and indeed extensively filled-out, by close family and friends.

That baton passing is paralleled in Bob’s story too, when on his second writing project that ultimately created Lila, he had to concede that whilst he had his own creative ideas; and very creative his genius proved to be, one thing he didn’t have was “the knack of eliciting stories from other people“. That, he recgnized, was the skill his friend Verne Dusenberry had in spades. There was a very clear point when my biographical research became Mark’s own. It was when we both realized that I had tracked down points of contact to further information, including for example younger son Ted, and that the biography had changed from analyzing, corroborating and synthesizing from the public record, to one of personal stories from private individuals. Originally I had intended simply to get my own readings of ZMM and Lila on a footing of “where was Pirsig coming from” when he wrote this stuff ? I had to decide where I wanted to take this; Poking into private lives was never my objective, and I was already uncomfortable.

It was a no-brainer. Mark’s journalism skills were essential to finish the job, and if a job’s worth doing …. Well, Mark’s done a great job.

As Mark says, there was, still is, an interesting Pirsig story to be told beyond the pages of Bob’s books, and Mark tells that story with the compassion of a fellow traveler; There but for grace go we all. The circles of lives of the Pirsig family and friends, were fiery hoops, and meeting some of them … ex-wife Nancy and friends, John Sutherland and daughter(s) as well as other friends of the Pirsig sons Chris and Ted … one can feel nothing but respect for those who come through strong, happy and well-adjusted. Chris Pirsig, the boy in the original book, of course did not make it. As Eddie Dean says in his review of Zen and Now in The Wall Street Journal, (and Mark quotes in the recent interview) …

“[The Pirsig story] is a reminder
of how much pain it can take
to make so many people feel better.”

So for me the launch of Mark’s book, closed the loop on a chapter in my own life, a little biographical research project of my own. But like any new human experience, so many new avenues open. Speaking to people at the book launch, as well as at the after-launch party at “the Pirsig house” hosted by current occupants Susan Nemitz and John Curry, so many new conversations, new subjects and letters to write … The White Album, Ivan Denisovich, Dostoevsky, the US-Pragmatists and so much more.