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?

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