On the passing of Robert Pirsig

A note of appreciation on the passing of Robert Pirsig…
I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance at an age when it addressed (and helped form) the urgent questions that filled my mind, like,
“what the heck are we doing here?” and
“why is it so hard to be both rational and emotional/spiritual?”

Pirsig didn’t really answer the first one, but he dug into the second one, deeply. He found some answers, but for me, the joy was in the digging. Robert Pirsig taught me how to dig.
At the time, I was discovering the joy of making things out of wood. Pirsig worked in steel, but his lessons were profound.

He wrote about “quality,” a seemingly simple idea that turns out to be quite elusive. He helped me understand two of my friends who had opposite understandings of quality. One, David, referred to the native American notion that if you make something that’s perfect, put a little ding in it, because only God makes things perfect. The other friend, also named Robert, could make extraordinary things from wood. But if he made something that was flawed, he would ceremoniously take it to the river that ran by our woodshop and toss it into the passing current. The two of them were best friends, but they couldn’t have approached quality more differently.

Robert was passionate about quality on a level that few people could understand. It was a philosophy to him, rather than an obsession. He had to live up to his standards, there was no choice. Pirsig would have understood. Robert, my friend, applied the same standards to his life. He excelled at many things, mastered architecture, became a successful entrepreneur, and was a dedicated father. But when his life crashed down and he couldn’t fix it, Robert did something that only a few of us understood. He ended his life by throwing himself into a river. Pirsig would have understood that, too.

Robert Pirsig’s ideas had an enormous impact on millions of people. He was able to reach so many because he mastered one marvelous skill: he was a great storyteller. For me, that was as much a gift as the ideas themselves.

When I wrote Some Way Outa Here, Pirsig was never far out of mind. He taught me how to tell a story that’s grounded in ideas, that seeks to find truths that surpass the facts of the story. And I learned from him that the most interesting stories are those that cross the chasm between what we think and what we feel, and help us discover who we are.

Earth Day and the know-nothings

This year, we’re celebrating Earth Day with a march to support the very existence of science. How did we get to the point where know-nothingism is winning?

It’s easy to forget that first Earth Day, in 1970, wasn’t a basket of roses. It was the culmination of a bitter fight for clean air and water that was just beginning to gain traction. Environmentalists were commonly called “Communists,” and calls for clean air were considered an attack on American workers. From the beginning, we were swimming upstream.

Now the stakes are higher – despite 47 Earth Days, the planet is overheating and the future is in doubt. And a cadre of greedy idiots have seized power.

But just as a broken clock is right twice a day, the Trump forces are right about one important thing: There are people being hurt by the transition from a carbon-intensive economy to a clean-energy world. The problem is that Trump is more concerned with the owners of the coal companies than with coal miners. Did you see the photo of him with the “miners”? They were coal executives. The miners were behind them, out of the picture. That’s Trump’s energy policy in a nutshell.

Coal miners deserve better. They could be building wind farms on top of the mountains that the coal companies have flattened. The miners could be making electric vehicles. Instead, we’re going to subsidize more coal production.

The miners are, well, the canary in the coal mine. We need to work with them, not against them. They are not attacking science – they’re being lied to about the role of science by Fox “news” and craven politicians like our new Energy Secretary.

Earth Day is about ecology – the interrelationship of living things and their environment. That means all living things, including miners and other victims of the carbon economy. The best hope for those most at risk from a changing economy and deteriorating environment lies with…science.

So let’s march today. Let’s show the know-nothings that we outnumber them – bigly – and we’ll sweep them away if they persist. In the name of science.


In 1970, I began Earth Day in a courtroom, and finished it in a school encounter that opened some minds – including my own. Read about it in Some Way Outa Here.