Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Long or Short?

Simple though the task may be, removing a nut requires making a critical set of choices even before the tool touches the steel.  Which tool?  The long or the short?

This question can and does apply to both the process and the tool required for it.  In terms of the process, the first decision is about how much time I want to take for the removal.  If time is of the essence, then I will choose the socket wrench, since this is a much faster way of removing a bolt than using an 'old fashioned' spanner wrench.  If space is the key factor, then even if I want to be quick about it, I am forced to use the spanner.

The question is, why would time ever be of the essence?  Why shouldn't I take my sweet time with every nut and bolt, using only the most basic--and less likely to fail--tools and methods?  Perhaps the automotive mechanic who is getting paid by the hour needs a socket wrench to improve his efficiency, but why should I, a mere South-Austin-driveway mechanic, need to be efficient with my time?

Philosophical considerations that take into account the value of my time along with my desire to enjoy this process--as opposed to knocking it out as quickly as possible--notwithstanding, I  have the sense that even though I don't have to, it is nice to use a socket wrench to speed along the removal of all those nuts and bolts.  In addition to enjoying the nice little precise sounds of the ratchet, I have the feeling that I am making good progress as the wrench moves from side to side and the nuts spin off effortlessly.

Contrast this with the slow-as-molasses feeling I get when easing a nut around a bolt head, one milimeter at a time, and it's easy to see why I would instinctively choose the short process over the long one.

Or is it?  Yesterday as I removed the nuts holding the alternator stand to the engine block, I had to use the spanner for two of the four nuts.  Though I would have preferred to use the socket for all four of these fasteners, in a liberating moment of compare and contrast, I came to appreciate the slowness of the spanner wrench.  

The feeling of 'breaking' the nut with the spanner is much more physical and immediate, requiring my palm to sense, perfectly, the amount of force needed to move the steel without hurting myself.  Then, when the nut begins to move, even though the action comes in much smaller increments than it would with the socket, the physical feeling of the wrench easing the steel around is much more sensitive--and therefore that much more satisfying--than the all-mechanical feel of the socket.

Of course, some situations call for the improved leverage of the socket, and some situations call for the delicate placement of the spanner, so it's more than just a time commitment.  Sometimes, one of them is the right tool for the job.

And, it's not as if the choice is between an 'old-fashioned' hand tool (the spanner) or a 'new-fangled' mechanical gizmo (the ratchet).  Both still seem like basic hand tools, especially when compared with, say, a modern compressed-air driven impact wrench.  

No, it's about time, and how much of it I want to spend on any one particular piece.  Even though it be unconscious and seemingly practical, most often the choice between the socket and the spanner is a still essentially a philosophical one.  How much time have you got?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


I'm stuck.

It's not a big problem, really. But it is enough to have got me stuck in what Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance called a "gumption trap." This is a place where, for a reason often very, very small, an entire project grinds to a halt because the driving desire behind the project--the gumption--is lost.

A gumption trap starts with something simple that fails or doesn't work the way it is supposed to. In my case, it's a stuck nut. I know, I know, that sounds like a perfect description of yours truly.

In this case, the project that has ground to a gumption halt is the Green Ghia.  And the nut I'm talking about--the one that has me figuratively stuck because it is literally stuck--is a rather large steel one. To be precise, it is an 42mm nut, and it holds the brake assembly--drum, brakes and backing plate--to the rear driveaxle of the Ghia. There are two of these nuts, one on each side of the car.  They are--quite naturally, given the job that they do (holding the wheels on)--torqued down very, very tight.  I got one off, no problem.  But the other one is, well, stuck.

I don't know how many foot-pounds it takes to break this nut exactly, nor do I really care, but I do know it's one helluva lot. I know (now) that you are supposed to break these nuts while the car is not merely still assembled, but also while it is still resting on the ground. In other words, this should have been one of the first things I did, like six months ago.

This nut is stuck because the amount of force required to break it free is no more than two or three pounds less than the entire weight of the car.  Now that it's stripped down to the frame, I just can't bring enough force to bear. My puny little 140 pounds of dead weight is just not enough. Even the breaker bar that extends my reach by a foot and a half and doubles my leverage is insufficient to the task.

So, there you go.  I'm stuck. I've tried various solutions, but so far, nothing's worked. In fact, so many things haven't worked that I can say with some certainty: I am stuck. I look at it. I think about it. Nothing comes to mind. Yet.

Actually, being stuck isn't all bad. In fact, it may be the very reason why I've undertaken this project in the first place. In Zen, Pirsig used the idea of 'stuckness' as a pivotal point for his inquiry into the nature of Reality.  He observed that it's not until we are stuck--that is, in a critical situation without an obvious solution--that we become momentarily aware of Reality itself.

Reality appears to us only for that moment, however. As soon as we find our solution, we lose that direct contact with it, and find ourselves dealing instead with the duality that masquerades as the world.  We turn from the light and again see only the shadows.

Fear not, I'm in no danger of losing touch with Reality.  Though I am staring at the light, I'm still well and truly stuck on this damn nut.

The exasperating aspect of this situation is the fact that this is a double-edged sword (or wrench, if you will) that I'm holding here. On the one hand, as both Readers know, I love the metal and the grease and the whole taking-things-apart idea that the Ghia project embodies. In a simple world, it'd be easy to explain these impulses as simple boyish desires to have fun tinkering and getting dirty.  I don't deny it. To a large extent, that is actually the case.

On the other hand, if it were all too easy (if that nut were to just come right off), it'd be no fun either.  Ironically, it actually feels good to be stuck.  For a while, anyway.  It seems that I seek stuckness as a way of finding satisfaction in what I do.  It's an integral part of the process and the source of my motivation.  Escaping from the gumption trap is truly an exhilarating feeling.  But you can't get that feeling without getting stuck, first.

I know, to a casual observer driving down our street on a Sunday afternoon, it might look like I'm just standing over a rusted hulk of a car with a couple of buddies, drinking beer from a green bottle and doing nothing. There's some truth to that.

But that's only part of the story.

Inside that stereotypical South Austin driveway mechanic is a true philosophical type, pondering the infinite mysteries of a stuck bolt in much the same way Socrates considered the nature of Love during one of those infamous all night drinking parties he had with his buddies.

Ok, ok, so I'm no Socrates and this is no Symposium. But then, could he, would he, have figured out how to break this damn nut?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Two New Things

Never let it be said that I am unwilling to try new things. Why in just the past couple of days, I've tried not one but two new things.

1. Bubble Tea.

Hmmmm, this opens up so many crude and disgusting descriptive possibilities that I don't want to explore that it's hard to even think about extolling any part of this experience. If either Reader be inexperienced in the matters of this beverage, suffice it to say that my descriptions of the same are unlikely to tempt you into trying it. If you have already experienced it and liked it, well, you may go ahead and skip to the second half of this little rant.

Why it's called Bubble Tea I do not know--and clearly I haven't budgeted even a moment to a Google search prior to writing this--but I think it is related to the tapioca globs of snotty goo...erm, I mean 'pearls' that are dumped into the bottom of a cup of weak and sweet milk tea. Various flavors are available, in all sorts of combinations resembling a sno-cone stand, all of which had virtually the same appeal as 99% of the sno-cone flavors.

In other words, I could have had a papaya-banana-mint bubble tea. I'd rather have had the V-8. I had the plain milk tea. This, my friend explained, was my mistake. But, while he chose the papaya something-or-other at the end as he slurped out the dregs (mmm)he proclaimed it was not as good as he recalled. Oh well, my level of satisfaction will never even rise to that level. Nor will it for my second new thing of the week:

2. A minivan.

I was obliged to rent a car for a trip to Houston yesterday, and I selected a nice mid-sized car because I had two colleagues to transport as well as myself. When I arrived to pick it up, the young man asked me if I'd prefer a minivan. With a merely appropriate amount of scorn (that is, barely visible) I turned down this offer and soon found myself presented with a little red Chevy car that looked like a fake hot-rod. Not quite even as good looking as the PT Cruiser (which I will not deign to describe), it is called, I believe, an HHR.

I don't know because a minute after driving away from the rent car place with this thing, I had to return it. The interior was so dirty that I could not in good conscience allow my colleagues to ride in it. The fellow was most pleasant about it, and said he'd get me another car.

But, would I prefer the minivan?

Alas, I said yes.

It's sad, but the very moment that I set out in it, I felt embarrassed. There's really no other word for it. I have never driven a minivan for a reason. I have always felt that they are abominations, encouraging not only poor driving habits, but poor relational and nutritional habits as well.

Of course as I drove it through the Arby's drive-thru, I felt perfectly comfortable for a moment. And, to be fair, it was great on the road, and quite comfortable for the trip. The thing was a Dodge Grand Caravan, but I have to say, I didn't feel particularly grand in this oversized plastic and tin boat. Maddie noted that it was, perhaps, the faux marble accents that made it seem so, well, regal.

Don't allow any of this delicately offered faint praise to trick you into thinking I am going to go back to the well for either of these experiences in the near future.

Been there. Done that.