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Zen and now

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Mark Richardson
Mark Richardson recreated Robert Pirsig's Minnesota to California motorcycle ride, and then went looking for the story behind "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance." His book is called "Zen and Now."
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

The Desnoyer Park neighborhood in St. Paul is usually an oasis of calm. But on this particular morning, Mark Richardson is standing by his Harley dealing with an annoyance. 

"I'll take it out of my glove right now," he said, pulling out a small yellow clamp emitting an obnoxious beep. "It just started this morning," Richardson said as he muffles it again inside his glove.

Mark Richardson
Richardson writes about motorcycling in Canada. He didn't start out to write a book about recreating the "Zen trip," but found his subject once a friend described the subject of Robert Pirsig's book as "the elephant in the room."
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

It's a yellow anti-theft wheel clamp for his motorcycle. Richardson says it works well. But it has an alarm, and the batteries have run low, so it's beeping an annoying warning.  It takes a tiny little Allen key to change the batteries, and he doesn't have one. 

Richardson is frustrated, but help is at hand. John Curry, who owns the home we're visiting, comes to the rescue.

"You don't have a tiny little Allen key, do you?" Richardson asked.

"I should," Curry replied. "You know how tiny we are looking?"

"I'll show you exactly how tiny," Richardson said, and points to the screws which need to be undone. 

As Curry disappears inside with the beeping lock, we turn to his house. This is a special place for Robert Pirsig fans. This is the home he left with his 11-year-old son Chris to ride to California, the trip that Richardson says became the basis for a cultural sensation. 

"I don't know that he wrote 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' here," Richardson said of Pirsig. "He thought about it a lot. He went away and wrote it, actually, in his office." 

"It allowed people to recognize what their generation was looking for at that time, and how they could find some kind of solace from the difficulties of it."

Richardson says Pirsig would sleep through the evening in a flophouse away from the disturbances of his family. He would write through the night until breakfast time. 

"Then he would come back here to Otis Ave. to see his family," Richardson said. 

John Curry returns with a clamp and the Allen key. Richardson gets to work, but drops the screws as he unfastens the battery case. 

"Under your right foot, there's a couple of missing parts," Curry pointed out.

"I don't care. I hate them," Richardson laughed  as he removes the batteries, and the beeping finally stops.

He then looks for the missing screws.

"Screw that back in so it doesn't get lost," he mutters to himself. Then he looks up.

"This is a big part of the book, actually, that Robert Pirsig says. Take the time to do it right. Don't just shove the screws in your pocket and say 'Oh, I'll get to it later.'" 

Mark Richardson didn't set out to write a book about Robert Pirsig. He wrote the motorcycling column for a Toronto newspaper, and he thought recreating Pirsig's ride could make for a good trip. 

He did it in 2004, visiting the places and meeting many of the people Pirsig mentioned. He even wrote a manuscript about it, but no publisher was interested. Then he showed it to a friend.

"And he read it and said, 'You know what's missing from your book, Mark? It's you don't even touch on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. You don't tell me anything about Robert Pirsig. Zen and the Art is the elephant in the room,'" Richardson recalled.

In 1974, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" became an instant bestseller. It  still sells 60,000 copies a year. 

"I think it was Pirsig himself who called it a seed crystal for a generation," Richardson said. "It allowed people to recognize what their generation was looking for at that time, and how they could find some kind of solace from the difficulties of it."

So Richardson did more research, and he found there was little written about Pirsig himself. 

He corresponded with the author. He talked to family and friends, and he found there was great sadness behind the story which brought clarity to so many people. 

"The irony is of course, as I say in my book, for Robert Pirsig, his home life was in turmoil at the time." 

Pirsig addresses his own mental health issues in "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," and his experiences with electric shock therapy. 

The book made him wealthy, but later both of his sons battled with drugs. Eventually his marriage ended as he struggled to write a sequel.

Chris, the son who rode with his father, died when he was just 23, murdered during a holdup. Pirsig now lives as a recluse on the East Coast. 

Mark Richardson's book "Zen and Now" balances the larger realities of Robert Pirsig's life with the lessons he himself learned during his own cross-country ride.

"I try to be more patient about everything, though as you have seen this morning it doesn't always work with stupid technology sometimes," said Richardson. "You do the best you can with what you have, right? But it does make me appreciate what I have. It makes me -- when I am riding my motorcycle -- more relaxed, more 'zenned out' in many respects." 

He'll have lots of opportunity for that in coming weeks. Mark Richardson begins a national book tour, with a reading this evening at Ramsey County Library in Roseville. 

He'll then ride his bike to the West Coast and then back to the East Coast, doing readings along the way.