Monday, January 18, 2010

Miss Outlier, Mechanic

Author's note: I believe that now, a bit over a year since I began blogging, that I finally feel like I am a blogger. I know this because as I go through the week, I file away in my brain events and happenings that I think would make good posts. And then, because my brain does not hold onto items like that, I write them down. So I now have a backlog of post ideas that would last me a good month or two. So if for two months I do nothing but sit on my tush in bed watching House reruns, I could still manage to make my life sound interesting and full. That, dear internet, may be the true sign I am a blogger...

I'm a student. I have to learn things all the time. I stayed in school for graduate work because I like learning new things. (Before anyone corrects me, I do realize that even if I wasn't a student, I'd STILL have to learn things at a job or just during life in general. I just don't think about that, because I like to fantasize about the point in my life where I no longer have to take tests.)

I learn things in school for research, I learn things that will help me in my career, I learn things just for the fun of it. Over Christmas break, I learned something new because it's just one of those life skills I thought I should be aware of.

My dad taught me how to change brake pads, brake rotors, and spark plugs.

The garage at my parent's home is, well, HUGE first off. It's really less of a garage than an engineer's carefully crafted adult playroom. Although it's a six-car garage (which conjures up images of, oh, say, CARS), no cars are kept inside - unless you count the myriad quads and motorcycles that my brothers keep in varying states of repair. You should picture more of a combined carpentry and mechanic's shop.

My dad's car (a '99 Acura Integra) needed new brake pads in the back. My mom's car (a '01 Nissan Altima) needed new front rotors and brake pads. So one afternoon was dedicated to working on this project.

Now any project begins with a trip to the appropriate store - be it Home Depot for one of my brother's ideas, or A.C. Moore for my mother's art. For this trip, my dad and I hit up the local auto parts store.

Now the auto parts store is a culture unto itself. It requires a certain swagger to enter, a certain brand of brazen leaning-on-counter-with-Carhartt-jacketed-elbow confidence. My dad has this, and I do not. So I trail behind with my hands in my pockets while my dad strides up to the counter.

"Mr. Outlier, right?" asks the guy at the counter. Wow, I thought, they know him by name? "You just called in about brakes in stock?" he continues. My dad affirms this, and the guy disappears to collect the order. I imagine rows and rows of gleaming parts in the back room - that swinging door is the separation between the shelves of vast automotive parts for people who are ACTUALLY working on cars, and the sad shelves of windshield wiper fluid in the front store for people like me, who are doing well if they know where the oil dipstick is.

Boxes appear on the counter - front brakes for this car, rear brakes of this brand, rotors of this type.

Now my dad rocks back on his heels, and wonders aloud "Hmm, is there anything else I need...?" I know this feeling all too well. There is always something you forget, and recall again the instant you leave the store. (The worst place for this is the grocery store - you buy all the ingredients to fulfill the chocolate fix you are craving, only to find you forgot the chips for the chocolate chip cookies...)

"Ah!" he exclaims, "Need to change the spark plugs on the Altima." More boxes appear. There is a discussion of platinum versus nickel, a reference to current stock prices of precious metals, and a quick decision. An exchange of credit cards (after a quick wiping of be-grimed hands on a rough towel) leaves me carrying a box of assorted metal back out to the car.

On the way home, my dad explained that you change brake pads after they wear away, and you change the rotors if they become warped or pitted. "Actually," he remarked, "they used to put rotors on a lathe to clean them up instead of replacing them." Wistfully, he considered the fact that our garage includes a lathe. "But," he resigned himself (as if reluctantly giving up a fun project), "now that rotors are only thirty bucks a pair, nobody does that anymore."

Once home with parts in tow, I successfully managed to back the car into "Bay 2" (as my dad jokingly refers to the area where he keeps the mechanic's tools), and assisted as much as I could while my dad changed the brake pad on the first wheel. I seemed to get the hang of it, so I did most of the second wheel myself. For the second car (which needed both new pads and rotors), I again watched the first one and did the second wheel myself. Then we popped the hood, replaced the spark plugs, and put everything back together.

There is nothing so satisfying as that "thonk" when the hood slams shut. Men have this built-in urge to smack the hood after finishing the job - and although I don't have quite the testosterone for that compunction, it seemed an appropriate gesture.

Have you seen the Fast and Furious movies? Complex and nuanced cinema they may not be, but thanks to two brothers I have seen the whole series. At the end of this endeavor I felt very much like Letty:

Look out, boys. Now I can not only change my own tires, but my own brake pads and brake rotors, the spark plugs, AND the windshield wiper fluid. Next time I go home over break, I'm hoping to learn to change the oil. I might even drape an elbow over the auto parts counter and order my own parts from that shiny back room.

Thanks, Dad!


  1. Wow, that sounds awesome! I'm very jealous of people who learn skills like that from their parents.

  2. I'm very glad that you are knowledgeable enough to know the basics in car repair. Like you, my dad also taught me how to repair our car. But because I'm busy with my work, every time my car breaks I often go to some shops who does auto repair in Indianapolis. Auto repair shops (Indianapolis have great car care services that the customers will surely love.