Sunday, June 21, 2009

Rain by the week-load, and the Zen of Motorcycle Maintenance

We've had almost an entire two weeks and a half of rain, puctuated by the one dry day in which I managed to get some science work done.

This has put the tomatoes back a bit. Still, a wet spring -- this is really still spring in Maine -- is not unusual, and the tomatoes that are planted outside will form sturdy stems and roots, and when the real muggy heat of July comes, they will take off like weeds.

Summer in Maine may be as little as one-and-a-half months long, July and half of August. First frost can happen quite early in August, and spring rains may continue through the end of June. Still, we make up for it with our superb 4-month long fall season, in which the weather in my opinion is just perfect for human beings, 30-40 degree nights, crisp mornings, dry warm days, no mugginess, only a little rain (and the occasional hurricane remnant or even a hurricane).

The lambs, also growing like weeds, are huge, and rambunctious. Two ram lambs got out last night and got caught between the hedgerow and the fence, bleating away to be rescued. We have the windows closed against the rain and so we couldn't hear them, fo who knows how long. I went out to take the dogs for a whiz and they bleated very sadly at me, so I went to investigate. Lifting up the fence to let them shinny under, I had to stand there holding it for a while before they figured out that they could move again.

Maybe lambs don't see well in the dark.

The nice thing about this spring, and what makes it different from previous ones, is that our rotational grazing scheme is working well, with three functioning permanent paddocks, and a fourth and fifth temporary ones on the lawn and the island in the middle of our driveway turn-around. But the lush feed makes for very active lambs.

We went second-hand shopping Friday and yesterday. The school board has built a fine new high school building, now nearly finished, and the old one is to be demolished, so they were selling off the old furniture and some equipment. Aimee went round to buy bits and pieces for her biology lab work. She also got a big wooden cupboard too for our garage, and she is ridiculously happy with this $5 purchase. It's so fun to see someone so pleased with such a cheap and sensible purchase.

Me, I have more expensive tastes, I guess (and believe me, I'm hearing about it too).

Yesterday, I bought a second hand motorcycle, more to tinker with than to ride. It had sat unused in the back of a friend's workshop for half a decade, and so I get to make it run again, which is making me happy. I like fixing things mechanical. They're like big messy jigsaw puzzles. If I was wealthy and had nothing better to do with my money, I would have the nicest, cleanest shop in the world with all the best tools, and then lots of things to tinker with, airplanes, helicopters, boats, bikes. I doubt I'd use them much. Just tinker. Except maybe the helicopter. I'd like to learn to fly a chopper.

I can't do that, don't have the moolah, but I do have all kinds of farm equipment to fix almost constantly, which makes me happy. And now this bike, which we bought home on the back of the pick-em-up truck.

I would like a motorcycle to commute to work on and save gas on warm dry fall days, but this is not the motorcycle I ultimately want. It's a Yamaha Virago, one of those semi-customized street bikes from the eighties, and too low in the seat for a fat Englishman. Although it's a V-twin, which is a nice configuration for a motor. Other than a vertical single or a flat four, the V-twin is my favorite configuration. What I would like is a more basic single cylinder, perhaps an Enfield traditional. But for now it's fine, and if I get it running well I expect I could sell it after a year or so, and get another fixer-upper, and sell that, and so work my way up to the bike I'd like.

The Virago needs a good clean, a new battery, a rear tire, a carb rebuild, and a starter rebuild. Other than that it's all there and seems to be working. Only 34,000 miles. I paid $200. Not too shabby.

When I was a very young droog and fresh out of Basic at RAF Swinderby in December 1978, the RAF gave me papers and a train ticket and sent me to Number One Technical Training School, RAF College Halton, as a Direct Entrant Fitter trainee. The idea of the direct entrant program, now defunct, was to take older guys with mechanical training, give them a truncated year of engineering training, have them bypass the boy entrant apprentices who trained for three years, and graduate them as JT's (lance corporals) with immediate responsibility for supervision.

This would have worked fine if each entrant had actually been experienced, but recruiting sergeants bent the rules. In my case, it was enough that I'd finished O-levels, came from Sheffield (a city renowned for mechanical engineering) and a technical high school (metalwork, woodwork, plastics and technical drawing), and had rebuilt motorcycles for a hobby. In reality, I was pretty poorly prepared. Almost all of APD 34, my entrant, was of the same ilk. Only one guy had really worked in mechanical engineering of any kind.

However, on the way to RAF Halton, I had to change trains at, I think, St. Pancras, and so I perused the WH Smith bookstore. There was this strange little book called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It said it was a best seller, so I picked it up. I thought it was about fixing motorcycles. I had a Fantic Motor 50 cc Italian-made trail bike at that time that I used to tear around the moors and edges of Sheffield on, making mud everywhere. The Fantics were crap, always breaking down, but beloved trail bikes when they ran well. I thought the book would help me fix my bike.

Boy, was I ever wrong. And did that book ever change my life.

It's probably due to the ideas and philosophy in that book that I'm now a PhD and an applied scientist. Still, as a definite Sheffield lad, with a Sheffield lad's education, it took me twenty years or more to read it to the point where I understood everything in it.

Even as philosophers go, Pirsig is cranky and rambling, and I think that the only reason he manages to get out any good points at all is the juxtaposition of the second and third plots, the trip and the motorcycle maintenance. But what he has to say about science, daily life, and even Zen has stood me fairly well.

And to this day, if I want to absorb myself away from the world with a demanding but calming and meditative project, the best place to be is in the shop with a piece of machinery.


  1. Hi Mick,

    glad to see you're doing well. I read Zen & the art of motorcycle maintenance - good book as you say. I now ride a Harley Davidson Sportster and love it! your Fantic Caballero was a great bike, full of character as they say but I don't believe you could "tear" anywhere on it ( wink )

    Take care

    Steve Ralls ( one of the unprepared APD 34 guys )

  2. Hey Steve. Blast from the past!

    I couldn't remember the name of the bike: Caballero. I can look it up know, see if any of those things are still running. No, I couldn't tear anywhere, but I did once win a street race with a Yamaha by taking a shortcut across the moors. The other kid tried to follow me but soon worried for his shocks and sump and slowed right down and lost!

    So what are you up to these days? How did you get to my site? Not by googling the word Fantic, I expect. Do you know what happened to any of the others?

    Got the muffler for the Virago yesterday, so tomorrow we'll finish up the project. Good excuse to stay in the shed and out of the heat.


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