Monty Python and Zen Motorcycle Repair Shops


I’m pleased to say that Jeff finally got his bike back from the repair shop. Since we’re leaving in two days the delay was putting an unneeded and unexpected burden on our moods; his mainly. It got me thinking about my experiences with repair shops and whether there was any use exploring the problem from a Zen perspective.

We’ve all asked the question: “When will this be ready?”

Instead of getting a response like “tomorrow’ or “Monday” which I know is just a wild guess I’d rather just get a more honest Zen reply, like: What is the sound of one hand clapping?

We all meet a variety of skill level people everywhere we take our business. Motorcycle repair shops are just the same. There are some extremely competent people there and then sometimes, in the Monty Python tradition, you just wish you could yell: “Will every mechanic who is a mechanic punch a mechanic who isn’t a mechanic?”

I must say that overall I’ve had good karmic experiences at motorcycle shops. But then I haven’t had to use one in a long time. That’s because this is the first motorcycle I’ve owned in about 22 years. Before that I did ride a succession of bikes: Kawasaki 125, Honda 350, BMW R60/5 for years until I got the old “ultamato”. One day, staring at the BMW my wife at the time said to me.” Gene you’ve got a child on the way, it’s either us or the bike.”

I had sort of guessed this was coming. She’d hinted around about it. And, of course, you have to answer quickly because saying ‘I’m thinking about it’ would release a whole lot of pain on you that you don’t need.

“Of course”. I answered, already thinking that maybe I’ll put such an absurdly high price on it that no one will make an offer.

I reflected on the carefree days when the two of us would have great adventures riding all over the rolling hills and back roads. And you know that just offering to buy a side car, for some reason just won’t cut it.

Mothers-to-be are programmed to say these things. It’s instinctual. They know that our having a motorcycle will just interfere with our hunter and gatherer skills. Unless you are talking about hunting down and gathering more motorcycles.

Before I could get an advertisement in the paper I guy I know offered me money for the bike. In front of my wife. The worst place he could have done it!

So when I returned to riding motorcycles after the kids were grown I realized that, just like cars bikes had evolved technologically. Motorcycles also now have those check engine/ maintenance required lights that flicker on and off. The bike mechanics can plug your bike into a machine and it’ll whirl, groan, and then spin out some arcane number, both mystical and alchemical that may or may not give a clue to the problem. I’ve never seen one of these decoding machines work but I have seen the confused looks on the faces of mechanics. I remember hearing one exclaim: “Check the lean-angle sensor. Where the hell is that?”

In Zen motorcycle repair shops they probably get an answer more like: “Do not look outside. The answer is within.”

In the old days you’d stand there with the mechanic, he’d be wiping oil of his hands with a blue rag and he’d just say: “She done froze up on you.” That was the explanation for everything. We’d nod our heads in agreement and then shake them sadly in unison, staring at the bike.

I actually feel more comfortable when the check engine light is on. It’s reassuring. Most of the people I know ride with them on and, like me, get worried when the light goes off. “Okay, what’s wrong now? The light went out.”  If you’re like me you put a piece of black tape over the light so you won’t have to look at it all time. And if you’re like me you also angle your head to the side every now and then just to make sure it it’s still on.

You can tell a lot about the psychological makeup of a wife or girlfriend just by their reactions to the check engine light. Try this experiment: Next time you’re in a car and the light goes on or goes off what do she immediately say?

If she says: “what did I do?” it means she’s guilt prone, like me, and tends to take responsibility for her mistakes, along with the mistakes of others. Now that’s a way of being-in the-world you can work with.  There’s some self -reflective ability there, which, in moderation is good. If she looks at you and says: “What did you do or not do?’ you can tell that marriage counseling is likely to be ineffective with this person should you need it someday. You are going to get blamed for everything. These folks have an ability to see everyone else’s check engine lights, but their own. The Zen way of responding is just to smile, wonder at and appreciate the beauty of the disappearance of the check engine light.

I wish motorcycles would come with a check engine light, check light so I can be sure that my check engine light is always working. What if there’s a fault in the check engine light itself? . But then, having studied philosophy I know that my simple wish to have a check engine light, check light,  if followed, according to Zeno’s paradox would result in an infinite number of check engine light, check lights, each checking on each other. Motion itself would become impossible. Nobody wants that.

So how can we apply any of this to Zen motorcycle repair shops? Well it helps to teach us patience and to have compassion. Zen motorcycle repairmen have no more control over the future than we do. They are at the whim and mercy of their stock, the correctness of their inventory updates, the honesty of their suppliers and the talents and abilities of their staff, just like we are. The Buddhist idea of interconnectedness helps us see that we’re all in this together.

And while we watch them do their silly walks around the repair place, just like we do ours, we should relax, stay centered, breathe, and have gratitude.

After all, I know it’s in the Bible somewhere, maybe worded slightly differently, that we should deal with our own check engine lights first, before we point to those in others.

Makes good sense to me.

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