Carpochondria

I don’t know much about cars. What I do know has come about through necessity as problems have arisen. This is my own fault, but I must plead that there have been mitigating circumstances. By the time I was old enough to understand cars, they were already unfriendly to hobbyists. The advance of technology and regulation has made hands-on experimentation almost non-existent. For most of my life what I knew about the internal combustion engine came from boring drawings distributed by the local public school #69. There was one exception, our high school physics teacher, who would tell us spectacular stories about stuff blowing up, which makes it a little more interesting.

Lack of knowledge can do a couple things. First, there is cluelessness, at which time one thinks everything is just fine and you don’t need to do a whole lot, except maybe change the oil. Ignorance is bliss. Then you get bitten in the nose by a huge problem that comes up because your car wasn’t properly maintained in all the details. This happened to me in October 2007. I was home for a family funeral when my aunt asked my father what that horrible noise from my car was. I thought they were nuts. The car made some noises, but I didn’t think there were any severe problems. My dad listened to it and said take it to the mechanic and be prepared to spend money—lots of money.

The mechanic had my car for two or three weeks. Saturns, the brand I drive, are notoriously difficult to get parts for, and so things took awhile. The engine also needed to be torn apart. New timing chain, new engine mounts, a bunch of other stuff I can’t remember anymore. But I do remember that it cost $1500. That’s a lot of money for a restless artist like me. Luckily I had recently gotten a bunch of gigs that gave me the money I needed to get this work done. I remember standing at an ATM with a friend of mine in mid October, looking at my unusually high bank balance. I said, “Something is gonna happen and I’m gonna have to part with all this money.” And it did. I learned not to tempt fate with comments like that.

You’d think that getting the car back after such a thorough job would re-instill confidence in my outlook on cars. Instead, the whole episode fired up my OCD, and every little noise I heard scared the hell out of me. This is the second consequence of ignorance. One afternoon I was driving down Oregon Ave. and I heard the most awful brake noise ever. After I stopped, though, it kept going. I looked up and saw that it was a plane landing at the airport. Not only that, valves tapping can sound a lot like a bad timing chain (to my untrained ear, anyway), so that always had me compulsively listening to the engine. In the wake of the major repair, the engine was running a lot more quietly, and so I heard a lot of extraneous noise.

I shared all this one day with Jeffrey Tucker, who is an astute observer and advisor on things both profound and mundane. “Michael, you’re a carpochondriac,” he said. It’s true. I have terrible anxiety about cars but little of the knowledge to deal with it. This means that I often take to Google to sort out the issues that need attention and the ones that don’t. This is dangerous, a little bit like going on WebMD with a headache. I’m the kid in Kindergarten Cop that says, “Maybe it’s a tumor.” I always gravitate toward the worst case scenario—a problem which is probably diagnosable outside the specific subject of cars.

Wednesday, on the way back from Atlantic City (where I lost a small amount of money playing roulette; just call me Dostoyevsky) the low coolant light came on. This hasn’t happened in years. I probably should have had the coolant completely replaced a while ago, but this is one of those maintenance things that can get lost in the daily grind, given the hidden nature of much auto maintenance. Last night on the way home from rehearsal, I heard a sound of rushing liquid under the dashboard. This has happened from time to time for awhile, but only for the first acceleration or two, first thing in the morning. I never looked into it; most of the time I wondered if I was just nuts and was hearing things. Last night it was bad enough that I Googled it. It can be a sign of low coolant, which seems harmless enough. However, it can also be a symptom of a damaged or blown headgasket. This worries me, since this sound happened occasionally well before the low coolant light ever came on. The good news is that the oil on the dipstick looks normal. Oil with a creamy consistency is bad news.

With all this weighing on my mind, I did what any reasonable person would do: I went for a long run, and I just let my mind crank out ideas. If this is the end of this car, I’ve got options, none of which involves getting a new car. Options are good; they get you out of doomsday territory, which is not a very happy place to be.

I stopped in to my mechanics’ shop earlier today and told them the cliff notes version of this story. They seem less than half as concerned as I am, but then again their knowledge comes from years on the job and not from a couple of frantic internet queries. They have a game plan in place and don’t seem to be ready to pronounce the car dead yet.

Why do I obsess on the worst? Maybe there’s a part of me that has a death wish for this car. I’m tired of the anxiety it causes me, not to mention the money I spend to keep it going. If we get through this little bump in the road, there’s the inspection, which is due in May. My car is 12 years old, and one of these days I will need a major fix to keep it in line with these ridiculous emissions regulations. With the economy in the tank and people driving cars longer, I wonder how long it will take for pressure to mount for some of these regulations to be relaxed. Fat chance. Passengers are being digitally examined just to get on an airplane and few people are even making a peep about it. We like misery.

But forget the car death wish. Maybe this is the impetus to put automobiles on my list of new hobbies to be explored. Over the years I’ve learned to admire car mechanics. They get a bad rap, but the good ones are fantastic. They can hear the difference between valves tapping and a timing chain on the brink. They can chase down problems step by step in machines that often seem to have minds of their own. They’re like doctors, really, or maybe philosophers. There was a time in my life when I had been reading too much Richard Weaver when I thought all this was just boring stuff on the sensate level. I was a bit too much like Niles and Frasier Krane. But the best philosophers were also concerned with matters of science, as well they should be. This really can be fascinating stuff, especially when you have a good mechanic like mine who believes that an informed customer is a good customer. So they explain everything to me. As a result I know a lot more about cars than I used to, but still not enough to keep carpochondria from being my first reaction to a problem.

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