My manly self-image isn’t based on mechanical aptitude, so my ego is letting me share these stories. Then I’ll turn to my area of real competence: analyzing the anecdotes.
Saturday morning I sold our old generator to a guy who saw my ad in the classifieds. He said he’d come by around eight. I figured that the sale would go more smoothly if the generator would start. Sometimes it’s a terror to get going when it hasn’t been started for a while.
I don’t run the generator very often, so I got out the manual and reviewed the start-up procedures. They were listed as bullet points. Looked pretty straightforward. Just then the guy drove up. I said, “Hey, you’re younger than me, it’s early, and I’m not warmed up. Why don’t you pull the starter cord?”
He did. And then he did again. And again. I read him the instructions. Open choke. Pull three times. Close choke. Try again. We did all that. Still wouldn’t start. I started to feel this deal slipping away.
Then he walked over to the other side of the generator. “Look,” he said. “The Run/Stop switch is on Stop.” He flipped it to Run. Pulled the cord once. It started right away. I felt like a fool. I told him how I felt. He was gracious. “Missing something obvious with a machine, happens to me all the time.”
Somehow I don’t think it happens to him as often as it happens with me (he does maintenance work for a local government) but I appreciated the camaraderie. I told him that I’d just read the starting instructions and it didn’t mention the Run/Stop switch. He looked at the manual. Pointed out a line in the paragraph above the bullet points: “Make sure the Run/Stop switch is set to Run.”
I’d been focusing on getting the choke set right and making sure the fuel valve was open, neither of which had anything to do with the generator not starting.
Second story: I recently got a new DR Field and Brush Mower. After unpacking it the time came to add oil and gas. I took the oil cap off and started pouring in a quart of oil. Then I thought, “Soon I’ll be able to put the cap back on and fire this baby up.” Which brought to mind another thought: “Where did I put the cap?”
I looked around. I didn’t see it. I remembered that the cap was black, like the one on the old DR mower. I was looking for a black cap, no doubt about it. I couldn’t find the damn thing. I’d rolled the mower back a ways to get it more level before adding the oil. I figured the cap might have fallen under the mower. I figured wrong.
After ten minutes of looking around our carport I started to get pissed. Actually, that happened quite a bit earlier. But after ten minutes I was really pissed. It just seemed absolutely bizarre that I couldn’t find something that I was sure was right at hand. I kept retracing my steps. I even looked in the house, thinking that I might have absentmindedly carried the oil cap inside with me when I took a break to eat lunch.
Then I looked down at my feet. There it was, plain as day. A yellow oil cap. I’d been looking for something black. My brain kept ignoring the oil cap even though I’d looked at it many times in the course of my searching. I’d been zeroed in on black. My problem hadn’t been that the oil cap was hidden, it was that I’d been looking for the wrong sort of object.
In both cases I’d fallen into what Robert Persig calls the “truth trap.” At least, it’s darn close to it. In his classic “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” after talking about the truth trap of yes/no logic, Persig says:
Because we’re unaccustomed to it, we don’t usually see that there’s a third possible logical term equal to yes and no which is capable of expanding our understanding in an unrecognized direction. We don’t even have a term for it, so I’ll have to use the Japanese mu [“wu” in Chinese].
Mu means “no thing.” Like “Quality” it points outside the process of dualistic discrimination. Mu simply says, “No class; not one, not zero, not yes, not no.” It states that the context of the question is such that a yes or no answer is in error and should not be given. “Unask the question” is what it says.
Mu becomes appropriate when the context of the question becomes too small for the truth of the answer. When the Zen monk Joshu was asked whether a dog had Buddha nature he said “Mu,” meaning that if he answered either way he was answering incorrectly. The Buddha nature cannot be captured by yes or no questions.
Is the reason the generator won’t start because the choke is in the wrong position or because the fuel valve is in the wrong position? Mu. None of the above.
Will I find the black oil cap if I look long and hard enough? Mu. Wrong question. I won’t find a black oil cap, but I will find a yellow oil cap.
The Wu Project meanders on. I’m getting results from my investigations continuously. Generally the data are telling me, Mu.
I love these down-to-earth examples! Way to go.
Posted by: Dave | March 06, 2006 at 05:03 PM
Dave, I'll return a compliment and say that I love your own Via Negativa weblog.
Finally got around to adding you to my Links to Explore list after having browsed you before.
Figured that since we have each read Feyerabend's "Against Method," we've got a lot in common (like, insanity?).
Posted by: Brian | March 06, 2006 at 09:43 PM
Reminds me of the Takehashi poem translated by Lucien Stryk, which he calls "Absence". I took a slant translation of the whole thing as a meditation sound once upon a time: Ru Su Mu - absent self.
As a child, I bothered my mom by asking questions, and her throw away response was always, "Who wants to know?" Of course, I thought about that. So years later when shonen asked if I would stay to work at the temple, I said, "mu." He made me a cup of coffee.
Posted by: Edward | March 07, 2006 at 05:37 PM
Thanks, Brian - I'm honored. As for insanity, I prefer to think of it as a well-developed sense of play. On the other hand, it's probably true that my sense of humor is the *only* thing standing between me and full-blown, whacked-out looney toonism.
Edward, that's great, to get a koan from your own mother!
Posted by: Dave | March 08, 2006 at 04:02 PM