Zen and the Art of Truck Maintenance

Man, I did a lot this weekend. That’s not really bragging either more just a statement of fact. As I look back from Monday morning, I’m actually kind of impressed with myself. Not in the, “Oh my god you’re awesome, Dave” kinda way, but more in the, “Hm, good job, Dave” kinda way. Personally, I think that’s a great way to roll into Monday morning.

Meet Monday with a list of accomplishments already under your belt and the week starts off with a momentum that just carries you along nicely. And if I decide sometime midweek that I need a bit of a break, well, I’ve earned it.

So what, you ask, did I do this weekend that explains this smug entry into the week? Like I said, a lot.

I finished up a little early at the gym on Saturday. My usual 11:30 massage appointment decided to go ahead and have her baby four weeks early (Congratulations, Nicole) and she and her tiny family are resting, happy and healthy, at home. Bronwyn finished her cleaning duties at the gym and we headed out for lunch.

After lunch I was planning on running the chainsaw and clearing a few trees I had marked in the Back Forty. Most of these are small oaks, less that a foot in diameter. I wanted to clear out the smaller ones which were crowding the two or three big ones. Those that are straight will be cut into 4 and 12 foot lengths to be used as borders for raised beds.

Unfortunately, I had not anticipated the rain. It settled in while we were eating and made it clear that it wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while.

Steph had said earlier that she was planning on coming by to work in the garden and she pulled up shortly after we had gotten home. The back yard was swampy and wet and it was clear we wouldn’t be working in the garden. We resigned ourselves to looking through seed catalogs and planning our future on the calendar.

It’s here that I’ll throw out a plug for my new favorite site, http://weathertrends360.com. This site offers forecasts 360 days into the future with, according to Mental Floss magazine, a 76% accuracy. Your local weatherman averages around 70%. Armed with the weather predicting skills of Nostradamus we planned out the next few weekends.

Given that this weekend was our last frost and average lows would be in the mid 40s for the next few weeks, with a general warming trend, we decided next weekend we break ground. Steph’s husband Rob, of Pet Stop fame, has a giant tiller. I’m both excited and trepidatious.

The following weekend I’ll be tied up with school functions for both Bronwyn and Madeline. The weekend of the 10th we’ll bring in composted manure to feed the beds. The weekend of the 17th I’ll be in St. Petersburg, Florida for a workshop. By the 24th of March highs will be in the mid 60s and that seems like a good time to start planting. We’ve lots of volunteer tomatoes in the cold frames and I look forward to setting them out.

While planning we checked out an article from Mike at the Backyard Pioneer on hugelkultur. This is a German method of raised bed gardening that involves burying rotten wood under the raised bed. The wood serves as a moisture reservoir as it soaks up and holds moisture, and as it continues to rot it releases valuable nutrients into the soil. There is an abundance of rotting wood in the Back Forty and so we’ve resolved to try this method out with at least one bed.

The rain continued and our kids were busy entertaining themselves, a shopping trip seemed the only reasonable recourse. There is a Tractor Supply Company ten or fifteen miles from the house. I have been meaning to get out there for some time and this seemed like the perfect opportunity.

If you don’t have one Tractor Supply Company is like the Walmart of Feed and Seed stores. Living in Birmingham, like I do, a Co-op or an Ag Supply Store is hard to come by. TSC, then, is like a candy store. There’s just so much cool stuff!

Saturday, I bought hoof trimming shears (so I could return the kitchen shears to a more sanitary use), jute twine, string (you can never have too much cordage), two watering wands (on sale for $2.99!), a grease pen for the chainsaw, a 40lb bag of lime and a 40lb bag of a mixed pasture seed. (I want to sow the slopes and non-garden areas with pasture seed to provide additional forage for the goats. The lime is just to ensure everything comes up nice and lush.)

Steph and her kids left around 3:30 or 4:00. The rain continued and it was clear I would not be running a chainsaw anytime soon. I decided to get a jump on my Sunday task of tuning up my truck. The idle had gotten rough lately and I had been tinkering on it all week. I replaced the air and fuel filters during the week and had turned up the idle, but decided a true tune up was in order. I had already bought new plugs, plug wires, distributor cap, and a rotor. After Steph left I set to clearing out a space in the garage I could pull the truck into and work. It was a tight fit. I had to fold the mirrors in to get through the door and there was just enough room for me to sidle out if I needed to.

It’s a good thing I don’t pay myself by the hour to do these kinds of tasks. As a mechanic I am s-l-o-w.

By 10 pm I had swapped out 4 plugs and wires. Most of this was due to inexperience and over caution.

I bought my first car in 1987, when I was 16. It was a 1979 Toyota Corolla. A friend of my mom’s, an early male role model, encouraged me to get a Haynes manual for the car and to learn to do much of my repairs myself. I changed my own oil and brakes, even swapped out the master cylinder, but that was the extent of it. As I got older my time became more valuable to me and I began to rely more and more on mechanics. Well, besides the time thing there was that whole bit about the engines getting much more complicated and seeking professional help just seemed safer.

This weekend I did more work on my truck than I’ve done on any vehicle since I was a teenager. I was a little giddy and nervous at first. At some point I was reminded of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It probably came about as I was reminding my self not to hurry. I frequently find myself hurrying. It seems like I was trying to finish a task, to beat some external clock. There’s a client who will be here in fifteen minutes, three more tasks that need attending to or I’m about to run out of daylight. There’s more work than the time I have allotted and I need to get done.

But you can’t rush certain tasks and changing out the plugs on a 26 year old truck is one of them. I removed and replaced each plug, painfully aware of how disastrous a broken or cross threaded plug would be. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance embodies this no rush approach elegantly. The writing is unhurried and moves at just the pace it needs in order to say what it has to say. It truly is zen. I still have to work at it and that is not so zen. As I worked I took breaks often to survey what I had just done and to assess what and how I was going to do whatever came next. The process was, depsite my anxiety, enjoyable.

By 10 pm I was grateful I had decided to get a jump on things and still had all day Sunday to finish. Samantha and I slept late and I did a little online research while she made breakfast. Confident I was on the right track, I took my coffee and returned to the garage. I began by focusing on the distributor cap and replacing the rotor. In replacing the cap I saw that the ignition coil, which is housed in the cap, was arcing and that the insulation had burned through on one of the wires. I called O’Reilly Auto Parts and made sure they had one. Thirty minutes later I was back in the garage and installing it.

By 3 o’clock Sunday afternoon I was finished and had buttoned everything back up. With not a little trepidation I turned the key in the ignition and Barry fired right up (you know I named my truck Barry White, right?). I took it out for a quick test drive and to bask in my success.

Back at the house I took advantage of the remaining daylight. The goats have been climbing up into their feeder and pooping all over their hay. I ripped some three inch rails and installed them on the long sides to discourage this behavior. We’ll see how well it works.

I then took out the chainsaw (finally!) and tackled one of the trees I’d marked. After felling it I got two 12 foot sections and two 4 foot sections for bed borders. The rest I cut into 16 inch sticks for firewood.

By then the sun was setting and it was time to put my tools away. I came in, showered, cooked flank steaks with sautéed spinach and sautéed mushrooms in butter. After dinner Samantha and I watched a bit of TV together.

Not bad for a weekend. One day, everyday could be like this.


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