Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Stuckness and the Art of Boat Trailer Maintenance

A couple of weeks back I decided to do a bit of minor maintenance on my boat trailer the day before heading off to a regatta in New Hampshire. Unfortunately I am not good at anything practical or mechanical. So, in the process, I managed to make the electrical problem with the lights on my trailer far worse that it was when I started, and managed to introduce a new issue with one trailer bearing that wasn't there before.

Robert Pirsig wrote about this many years ago in his classic book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  I wasn't very old when I first read the book, but I felt he was talking about me when he addressed the issue of "stuckness."  From an early age I have been an expert at creating stuckness and being frustrated by it.

Using an example from motorcycle maintenance, Pirsig explains the essence of stuckness...

A screw sticks, for example, on a side cover assembly. You check the manual to see if there might be any special cause for this screw to come off so hard, but all it says is "Remove side cover plate" in that wonderful terse technical style that never tells you what you want to know. There's no earlier procedure left undone that might cause the cover screws to stick. 
Your mind was already thinking ahead to what you would do when the cover plate was off, and so it takes a little time to realize that this irritating minor annoyance of a torn screw slot isn't just irritating and minor. You're stuck. Stopped. Terminated. It's absolutely stopped you from fixing the motorcycle.

I've been there so many times. I had a wiring problem. I tried one thing to fix it and broke something. I tried something else to fix it and broke something else. This is always the way when I try to fix something. Eventually I end up with a worse situation than when I started, without the right part, or the right tool or, more often, without any clue as to what to do next.


Back to his motorcycle example, Pirsig writes...

This is the zero moment of consciousness. Stuck. No answer. Honked. Kaput. It's a miserable experience emotionally. You're losing time. You're incompetent. You don't know what you're doing. You should be ashamed of yourself. You should take the machine to a real mechanic who knows how to figure these things out.
It's normal at this point for the fear-anger syndrome to take over and make you want to hammer on that side plate with a chisel, to pound it off with a sledge hammer if necessary.


I have what is effectively a small sledge hammer in my tool box. It's amazing how many times I reach for it in such moments of frustration. If something is stuck, surely beating it with a hammer will unstick it?

It's not that I'm stupid or incapable of rational thought. It's just that my brain freezes up in situations like this.

I am also a very impatient person. When I get stuck I become even more impatient.

I should have learned by now that the secret in such situations is to take a deep breath, slow down, go for a walk, have a beer, maybe sleep on it, and eventually a solution to unstick the stuckness might appear.

But often it doesn't.

Pirsig says...
The fear of stuckness is needless because the longer you stay stuck the more you see the Quality-reality that gets you unstuck every time. What's really been getting you stuck is the running from the stuckness through the cars of your train of knowledge looking for a solution that is out in front of the train. 
Stuckness shouldn't be avoided. It's the psychic predecessor of all real understanding. An egoless acceptance of stuckness is a key to an understanding of all Quality, in mechanical work as in other endeavors.

I don't begin to understand what those last two paragraphs mean.

I didn't understand them when I first read them almost 40 years ago. And I don't understand them now.

If I did understand them, I might be a much better person.

If I did understand them, I guess I might not have missed the regatta because of my bloody trailer problems.


Mark R said...

I like the final paragraph to the point of buying the book for my Kindle! My take on it is that he is saying that you need to put yourself in difficult situations as a precursor to self improvement.

Tillerman said...

I hope you enjoy the book. There's a lot more to it than the extract I discussed here. I did find some other sections somewhat hard to understand but it certainly makes you think.

George A said...

I'm a simple soul. I don't understand all the fancy "zen" stuff. As a former mechanic I faced frozen fasteners all the time. The key word in that last sentence is "time". As in "time is money". A mechanic can't waste much time if money is to be made. In the words of my ex-boss: "The (fill in with your issue here) is broke. In order for it to be fixed it must come apart. Now, it'll either come apart in one piece or in a handful, but one way or another it MUST come apart in order to be fixed." At that point I'd reach for either a bigger hammer or the torch. Things always did come apart in the end.

Tillerman said...

I like your ex-boss's philosophy. I always feel bad when I break a part of something I am trying to fix, but I guess he is right. Smash it first. Then mend it properly. Pass me the hammer.

George A said...

This is why a lot of shops don't encourage the customers into the service area. In our shop the boss, only half jokingly, hung up a sign in a prominent place that read along the following lines:

Labor rate--$25.00 per hour.

$50.00 per hour if you watch.

$100.00 per hour if you "help".

Some times it's best if the customer doesn't see how sausage is being prepared on a particular day.

/Pam said...

So did you get the trailer fixed?

Anonymous said...

I can't comprehend how someone can have kids but not be capable of fixing anything.

Every night I get back from work I am presented by one or more things that need fixed. Every weekend I have a list of stuff that needs fixed. The only time I am not fixing something at home (or reviewing the "needs fixed" list) is a Wednesday evening when I go Laser sailing. And today is Wednesday!

One of the best things about Lasers is that they very rarely need fixed.

I will grant Tillerman the concession that boat trailers are the devil's work but a necessary evil. (Is that a consistent or mixed metaphor?) Mine has one metric hub and one imperial...a hammer reaching moment just waiting to happen.


Steve said...

Unless you understand the stuckness you cannot understand the complete repair??

I re read Pirsig every 5 years or so and still don't understand it so I got copies for children. They have given no insights.

But each to their own, I do long beats better when I remember to sing Gilbert and Sullivan


Tillerman said...

Oh yes, singing really helps when sailing long beats or in hairy winds. I prefer Wheels on the Bus.

Tillerman said...

Good point R.

I wonder if my total klutziness at all things mechanical is what motivated both my sons to major in mechanical engineering at university?

Tillerman said...

Yes thanks Pam.

After a few hours practicing an "egoless acceptance of stuckness" I figured out what I needed to do with both the electrics and the bearing. I did use my hammer though.

O Docker said...

I have no more idea what Quality-reality is today than when I first tried reading that book thirty years ago.

But I think the best solution to stuckness is sticking to it.

Anonymous said...

That sounds like a sign from an altogether different establishment.


Tillerman said...

As I recall, much of the book is a discussion of the meaning of "Quality". And I'm with you, I never really grasped what he was trying to say. Maybe I should read the book again now I am older and wiser?

George A said...

Having never read the book, I'm thinkin' maybe "quality" implies that the damn thing still runs after you're done "working" on it? Could be wrong.

PeconicPuffin said...

One of my three favorite books of all time. As I recall the understanding that stuckness was a precursor to was that the stuck screw's value was precisely that of the entire motorcycle. Appreciation of the screw and its value leads to a meditation that reveals ways to unstick it. If the screw IS the motorcycle, you approach it with more patience, respect and consideration.

That's some pretty nose in the air stuff! I like how later in the book he talks about asshole statements by Aristotle.

Tillerman said...

And what are your two other favorite books of all time?

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