Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Zen and the knuckleball -- from Pirsig to R. A. Dickey... does the cosmos have a mean streak?

Photo courtesy:

Note: This is a long lazy post, not appropriate for blogging. Put on some coffee and keep it hot if you decide to read.
Finished two books on New Year's Day. R. A. Dickey's autobiography Wherever I Wind Up and Robert Persig's classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. They were strikingly alike in many ways, some expected and some quite surprising.

Dickey's book was new to me, written during the 2011 baseball season and published this year. Zen I've read a half-dozen times, at least, generally when I felt myself in a period of drift. I started Dickey's book on Christmas Day but I started Zen back in July. It was the fourth or fifth inning of the second game of a doubleheader on a steamy Tuesday night. I was at third and a hard hit groundball had just scooted under my glove -- a sixty-four-year-old reaction glitch.

I was getting wound up about it, spitting in the pocket of my glove then pounding it with my fist. I'm pretty sure our shortstop, an engineer by trade named Mike Alteri, noticed.

"Hey, John," he shouted without taking his eyes off the hitter, "you ever read Prisig's book?"

"Yes," I said, temporarily distracted from a bout of self loathing.

"I took a road trip once," Alteri said, "and followed the same route he took on the motorcycle."

I loved playing next to Alteri. For one thing, when he went back on a pop up, he sang 'I got it" like Mario Lanza. But only if he really knew he had it. That was the signal. More important, he knew how to keep the game fun. I could always depend on him to unwind me with a question about the '27 Yankees or the '64 Yankees or a book like Zen. Mike knew, and I was learning (at 64!), you cannot play the game tight.

I went home after the game, took Zen off the shelf and decided to read it again, only this time slowly and patiently, a page or two a day. This time I wanted to untangle as much of the philosophy as I could -- just to see if I could.

So I was well into the Zen journey when I started R. A. Dickey's journey What struck me as I read them together was how honest both Roberts seemed to be about their failures, their failures as father and husband, as thinker and athlete.

I found I was much more comfortable with the religion in Zen than I was with the religion in Wherever I Wind Up. I grew up Methodist and we took seriously the injunction against being heard praying in the temple. We took it so seriously we almost never said the words God or Jesus unless we busted a knuckle on a stuck bolt and cried out for divine intervention.

But, with a little help from my wife, who grew up Mennonite, I got comfortable with Dickey's language, comfortable enough to take meaning from it. I found, to my surprise and dismay, that if I just substituted the word 'luck' or 'good fortune' for 'God's blessing...' I was perfectly comfortable. Now, there's a bone I'll be chewing on a while.

I left Dickey's journey wishing he had not left out a key piece of the puzzle. I'm sure I can find this piece elsewhere but what I wanted to know was how he had managed to combine Eastern religion with Western religion. Dickey's discovery seemed to be the ability to live life in the moment, one knuckleball at a time. I'm used to such an idea in Eastern thought -- it is certainly key to Pirsig's story in Zen -- not Western religion where the focus always seems to be on the future, where all eyes seem always to be on Heaven. Dickey finds salvation in living one knuckleball at a time; Pirsig in maintaining the motorcycle one screw at a time.

And both Roberts break through finally by finding a way to live directly, to lift the fog, to open the glass door in the mental hospital or speak the truth to the general manager. Both find a way to speak the truth to others and, far more importantly, to speak the truth to themselves. This authentic way of living frees them from the bonds of illusion -- the bonds of their histories, their failures, their senses of themselves as "damaged goods" -- as Dickey puts it.

Their kinship is not only in the writing, it is also outside the published narrative. This was the surprise. Their kinship is in what happens next, what happens after their books are published. Now, I am absolutely not comparing the import of what happened to Pirsig with what happened to Dickey. Let me make that perfectly clear. But if you know what happens next in both cases, you can't help but be guided by that next unwritten chapter while you read.

It is obvious from the beginning to the end of Wherever I Wind Up that all R. A. Dickey wants out of baseball and life is a home. The boy who slept in empty houses in high school -- couch surfing at the level of burglary -- only wants stability. He only wants to belong somewhere. He wants, moreover, to believe he belongs somewhere. And, he has chosen the koan of pitches, the knuckleball, to make his way in baseball, and the least stable of professions, baseball, to make his way in life. That's a tough row to hoe. When the book closes, he's talking about the New York Mets in terms of 'us' and 'we.' He's rapturous over having his own parking spot at spring training, even if he often rides his 10-speed to the field in Florida.The following season, a season he doesn't know about when he writes the book, he will win the Cy Young award, the highest honor given for a season of pitching -- despite being a knuckleballer, it must be said.

And, then what happens? The Mets trade him to the Toronto Blue Jays. The man without a home remains a man without a home. That is the unwritten chapter.

And, of course, the tragedy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is well known. Persig's quest from the opening page to the last is driven by his desire to reach his son, Chris, to somehow walk through that glass door of the mental hospital and take him in his arms. The glass door is a wonderful metaphor. It is more difficult than most will admit for a father to walk through that door to embrace his children directly. I don't know why. He can be perfectly honest with a co-worker but being absolutely himself with his children is tough. My daughter seems to have found the way to do this with her children and I envy her that.

From beginning to end, Persig's character is trying desperately to reach through the fog and touch his son -- or is his son trying to reach him? Their cross-country journey by wheel is, I think, completely about this reach and touch. As he does philosophically, he must destroy the subject/object dichotomy of their relationship to reach Chris, to reach Chris as a real man, not a shadow of a man. Dickey's epiphany comes in the swirling waters of the Missouri River in the moment he believes he will drown (is this not the Buddha's moment of truth, also?) and Pirsig's comes in the sand by the ocean shrouded in fog. It is there his true voice, his authentic voice -- to borrow Dickey's use of the word -- comes from his soul and reaches directly into Chris's soul. From this moment, the narrative, the few paragraphs left in the story, are the lightest, the easiest, the most sparkling in the entire book... or in any book.

And, in his unwritten chapter, ten years later, Chris is stabbed to death, an innocent bystander on a sidewalk in San Francisco.

No way a baseball trade and a son's death share the same level of importance, but they are both unwritten next chapters. Both foreshadow the story that builds toward them because neither writer knew when he was writing what would happen next. I'm at the end here and searching my brain for a clue but I cannot tell you what this means, only that it has happened and you might not have recognized it if you weren't reading both books at the same time.

All I can say is that in the case of R. A. Dickey, the cosmos, perhaps, has a sense of humor and in the case of Robert Prisig, you have to wonder if the cosmos just has a mean streak.

--Lofflin -- Our 500th post, by the way...

Pirsig, of course, wondered about the cosmos but with a bit more depth than I did. In the afterword of later editions of Zen he thinks about Chris' death and reaches a conclusion well beyond my cute throwaway line about the cosmos and a mean streak. His conclusion is surprising. I'll just leave it at that. Another bone to chew on, I'm afraid.


  1. I've read "Zen" one time. It was the cheapest non-free book I ever purchased, and for me, that is a bone to chew on - I got it for five cents at a used book sale in Wynne, Arkansas (the second-cheapest book I ever bought was a signed copy of Heat-Moon's "PrairyErth - 10 cents). I was in my early- to mid-twenties when I read it, and I think I may have been too immature to soak it in appropriately. I remember being proud of myself when I understood a certain passage or chapter. I look forward to dusting off my nickel copy in a few years and take the journey again.

    Happy 500th, partner.

  2. Indeed. Fivehundred. Who'd a thunk it. It is a tough book, but I found when I read it this time that many of the ideas had wormed their way into my teaching. Wormed, is not the best verb because what I realized is they have become some of the core ideas and approaches -- attitudes -- in the toolbox. The Dickey book is a little more than a nickel but a compelling read. There is more than a little Henry Wiggen in his story. Wonder if he's read Henry Wiggen?