In early 2003, at the age of 31, I decided to quit my job and go travelling on my own for a year. One of my many great career choices with hindsight (not!) but, hey, I wasn’t going to reach enlightenment sitting in an office near Embankment advising one boring company on how to buy another boring company was I?
Career progression aside, it was an amazing year and I will always have incredible memories that I am sure I will draw on from time to time on this blog, not just because every day was an adventure in a new and exciting location (except maybe the three days in Bangkok I allude to below) but with all the long bus journeys and spending a lot of time alone, I was able to catch up on reading some of those classics that one never gets round to normally.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about one such book from my travels: “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig. It was quite appropriate at the time as from memory I was holed up in a tiny hostel off the Khao San Road in Bangkok, on my bed with my feet resting above my head on the wall trying to urge a thumb-like vein back into my anus. Even a Buddhist monk would have struggled to stay calm.
Yes, readers, I suffer from the dreaded piles and they come out to play whenever I put my body through an intensive period of hell, usually alcohol-based. It’s almost as if once the alcohol level in my blood gets above a certain amount, one of the Numbskulls, let’s call her Emma Royd for want of a better pun, is sent out to the surface for air in slug-like form to send me a message to stop poisoning my insides.
Clearly, one bucket too many on the Thai islands had taken its toll and I had to go through the excruciating few days of penance and abstinence before it was safe for Emma to retreat back inside and tell her Numbskull friends that it was all ok again and the ones in the brain could then lay off the “Pain worse than childbirth” button.
If there’s one thing to take your mind off the indescribable pain of the ‘roids, then it is trying to understand a long and turgid philosophical opus about Zen and the metaphysical nature of “Quality”. Still no idea.
It was a tough read, particularly as every few pages, a surprising squeal emanating from the couple shagging in the bunk below would make me tense muscles in my buttocks that I never knew I had, sending a shooting pain through the anal area.
Anyway, apparently ZAMM, as I’m calling it, is in the Guiness Book of World Records for being a bestseller with the greatest number of rejections from publishers before being accepted, with 121 of them. Strange record that, perhaps I’ll have a crack at it. If I send this blog to 200 global publishers and just wait for the rejections to flood in, then at least I’m a contender, right?
I’m not totally surprised at the first part of the record, although I can’t actually believe that the 122nd publisher, William Morrow and Company, actually took it on, although I suspect drugs may have been involved! And 5 million people have read it – really??
Look, I’ll be honest, I’m no Zen Buddhist and so I can’t guarantee that I fully understood all the points Pirsig was making, and catching up on some reviews as research for this blog hasn’t really helped me either. However, my take away is that clearing your mind and focussing on a particular task, even one as seemingly boring as motorcycle maintenance, can be quite satisfying and calming, but the key is to keep your mind focussed and to not let other thoughts get in the way, such as “Why didn’t I just take this bike to the garage?” or “Oh shit, I’ve now got grease on my favourite top” or even “Aaaargh, my arse!!”
Well, I’ve come to the conclusion that Zen (whatever it is) is crucial to childcare.
As you know, I look after F on Thursdays and yesterday I must have thought “D, be Zen, be Zen” ten or so times, most notably in the following situations:
1. When chasing F round her bedroom from her changemat to her playmat desperately holding an open nappy round her bits and frantically trying to do up the tabs on the side as she crawls about naked, praying that she doesn’t take the opportunity to piss and shit everywhere.
Why we bothered putting a nice light-coloured carpet in her room, I’ll never know; it’s a minor miracle that it’s not covered in baby effluent already.
2. During the half hour immediately following her afternoon nap in which I can only presume she wasn’t fully rested and tried to scream the house down regardless of my various distraction techniques – reading Pirsig quotes had no noticeable effect – “But F, don’t you realise ‘Metaphysics is a restaurant where they give you a 30,000 page menu and no food’?”
3. While wrestling with F, first to get her clothes on without dislocating her arm out of her shoulder socket and then trying/failing to strap her into the buggy – do those straps shrink in length each time?!
4. When playing “Baby-Carrying-Apparatus-Tetris” in the under the stairs cupboard. We live in a pretty average Victorian terrace with limited storage for buggy et al. Accordingly, we squeeze the buggy, car seat and baby rucksack thing in the cupboard under the stairs and it is impossible to take one thing out without everything coming out and even then the fuse box cover invariably falls off and the gas pipe looks like it’s going to split open.
5. As I finally moved all the spare boxes of crap from our move last September into the loft, the opening of which is conveniently situated on a tiny mezzanine area above the stairs which requires balancing a step-ladder on the stairs in a way that may even be too risky for Alex Honnold, let alone me, who gets a bit nervous walking next to a low wall if there’s a drop on the other side;
6. On the third occasion on which I banged my head on our living room lights – they’re about a foot too low, don’t ask!
7. Unloading and loading the dishwasher …..again
8. When being offered a spoon with my latte at Caffe Nero, although I tell them every day that I don’t need a spoon.
I accept that I have now well and truly moved into ‘First World Problem’ territory so I’ll stop there.
The irony is that although Robert Pirsig was ostensibly writing a true story of a road-trip across America with his young son, Chris, he doesn’t come across as taking as much care with his father-son relationship as he does with the spark plugs of his 1964 Honda Superhawk or his self-absorbed philosophical ramblings.
A tragic postscript is that Chris died in 1979, only a few years after the book was published, in a mugging incident that only makes one want to treasure the moments with one’s child even more, despite the need to give a nod to Zen from time to time.
So F – keep screaming, smiling, wriggling, pooing, giggling, whining, not sleeping, grizzling, reading, clambering and peeing. Keep doing all of the good stuff and all of the tedious stuff, just keep doing it. Please.
Anyway, that’s enough philosophical musings for one day, time for Twenty Questions. Mx36, I’m now totally confused so going back to basics with this one: “What is the meaning of the Buddhist idea of emptiness?”