On Cars and Moxie

I have always wanted to be a person who knows intimately about cars. There’s no denying, it’s just a cool thing to know about. Forget about makes and models and all that shit. I mean more like all the systems and how to diagnose issues, and what leads where, and why things are configured one way and not the other, and the physics and chemistry of the whole racket. I realized in grad school that I loved osteology because the human skeleton is a gloriously intricate jigsaw puzzle, where every piece has a label. Cars are the same sort of thing. Only there are so many different permutations, so many different versions of these massive moving puzzles.

And it’s such a cult, especially where I live – or worse, I suppose, in the regions immediately north of where I live. Unless you’re a dedicated hermit like I am, you’re very likely sCult of the Carpending a significant portion of your life in Southern California in a car. Because, I dunno, something about GE buying out all the cable car networks or something (tinfoil hat-ish, perhaps, but there’s probably an ounce of truth there). Imagine if the world were simply set up to be reasonably walkable, like everywhere else on the planet outside of the United States. As an American, the thought of that likely just blew your mind. Because we cannot even conceive of such a reality. Because: Cult of the Car.

Though I probably drive less than 20 miles/week, I am a card-carrying member of said cult. The engineering feat that is the car, alone, is mind-boggling. I get sort of tripped out thinking about how as a species we’ve only recently developed the advancements in technology that allow for an engine block to be created, never mind on a mass production scale. And how the advent of industrial technologies like the automobile have served as the gateway to astounding developments ever since. The moon, people. We sent dudes to the freaking moon. Like it was nothing, really. Definitely going to credit Henry Ford with at least a bit of that.

Anyway, I’ve always suspected that all that spaghetti churning under a car’s hood held some fascinating magic in its secrets. As a 15-1/2-year-old, gearing up to take my driver’s license test, my grandparents offered to put $2K toward the purchase of my first car. I was so excited. My dream: a 1952 Ford pickup, all chubby and amazing, and paint it creamy white with red-to-yellow flames along the front end, the words “Flaming Marshmallow” calligraphied all Chula Vista across the tailgate (never mind why – another story for another time). Because (and I refuse to address the politics of the following phrase, so don’t even…) I’m a girl. And girls, though they might appreciate and yearn for an education on the mechanics of the engine, are still starting with the paint job. You know it’s true.


Anyway, I wanted this sick-ass truck. God, I even had a driving outfit picked out in my mind.

So can y’all guess what I ended up with? Cue the gold 1984 standard-transmission Camry, with traaaaaaashed upholstery. (Though ridiculously amazing air conditioning. Go figure.)

First cars should suck.
Only gold. And not nearly as sexy. Photo: wikipedia.org

I know. First-world problems. A shitty little suburban girl doesn’t get the car she wanted, so she’s going to cry about it. Which, I totally did. I had myself a big ol’ cry about it. My car was stupid, and ugly, and totally the wrong color, and seated way too many people which made me the freaking neighborhood school shuttle.

All these things, yes. But mostly? My car was driveable, as is. It was reliable. It didn’t require any engine hauling. Any cylinder boring. Any wire harness pulling. Anything other than new upholstery – which my dad took care of for me in a single trip to Tijuana. My car required me to figure out how to drive a standard transmission and how to break it to my friends that they were going to have to kick down a few bucks per ride because I am no goddamn sucker and gas ain’t cheap (except it SO was back then. If I had only known). My grandparents had conspired with my parents to find me the (cheapest) most reliable car they could. So it would never break down on me. So I would never have to fix it. And I never did.

Four years later, my brother would embark on the same process – with one major difference. He was entrusted to select and purchase his own vehicle with his allowance… because, Boys and Cars, something something. He chose a 1972 BMW 2002 that made it exactly 65% through the Boys and Carsround-trip to and from school on the first day of class. And he spent the next 6 months learning everything about how Germans used to build automobiles.

Does the double-standard of it all make you want to stroke out? Are you even still reading this, or have you thrown your mobile device onto the floor in ardent protest?

When I was 16, I learned how to drive a stick-shift.

When my brother was 16, he learned how to rebuild a European transmission.

What the fuck?

This actually makes my blood pressure rise a little bit. Granted, I don’t envy my brother for those 6 relentless and claustrophobic months he spent trapped beneath a car that could possibly never run again. I might have given up a bit sooner than he did, given that nothing he was trying was working and there are like 6,000 models of cars out there that would serve as a better introduction to auto mechanics than a 1972 Beemer.

But lets consider the bigger picture here. How did this gender-specific parenting approach reverberate through our individual development as people? I know, over-think things much? It’s what I do.

Hour after hour of fixing, and testing, and failing, and starting over from scratch was growing a steadily deepening sense of moxie in my brother. Repeating the cycle of troubleshooting, then fixing, then realizing that the fix was wrong and correcting the course taught him that taking things apart and putting them back together was not an impossibility. Annoying? Yes. Frustrating? For sure. Seemingly endless? Definitely. But in that annoying, frustrating, apparent endlessness, he was building a sense of being capable, of tackling a problem, of growing an ability to fix something that he knew nothing of how to fix before ever attempting it with his own hands.

I’m not denying the definite and obvious genetic predisposition to mind-numbing levels of stubbornness that floods my family’s DNA. To a degree that some Mind-numbing levels of stubbornnesshave suggested it’s contagious. But I still maintain that in the example of my brother’s heinous 6-month journey we witness the miracle of the inter-connectivity between the human brain, hands, and sense of self. Of a person assessing a problem and delving into it with a spirit of curiosity and ingenuity, and emerging with a self identity that now includes “Knows how to take a car apart. And European one at that, mo-fos.” I’ve resented missing out on this lesson, specifically as it applies to fixing cars, ever since.

Of course, if I’m forced to really think about it, I’ve managed to learn that lesson through other means. I learned to sew practically at gun point when the director of my high school play announced three weeks prior to opening that she was sure we’d find perfectly suitable 1920s evening wear at the Chula Vista Disabled American Veterans thrift store. What? Fuck no, lady. How hard can it be to figure out how to sew art deco formal wear while memorizing my lines as one of the lead roles? I learned to sew, man, and hard.

I added wig ventilation to my resume after my mom sat me down one evening to explain that I needed to get out of her house because I was a grown-ass woman and it was time for her to enjoy peace in her home. A position opened up in the wig shop at the theatre I worked at, and I learned to hand-tie a wig in an evening. Experiences like these led to a sneaking suspicion that most things are figureoutable. Which led to things like refinishing the wood floors in my rental when the landlord alluded to replacing cat piss-stained carpets being tied somehow to rising rent prices. And sewing a number of wedding dresses after realizing that couture anything lies far beyond my grasp and the grasp of anyone I currently associate with, at least for the foreseeable future.

I did eventually end up taking a couple courses in automotive technology, goofing around with a VW straight-4 and a Cadillac V8 engine block. It was fun. And stressful. I was the only girl in the class. I was also the only person in the class that was actually learning things for the first time. Coincidence? No. I learned Check engine lighta lot about the 4-stroke engine, and the differences between gas and diesel engines. I learned what a micrometer is. And what it means to bore out a cylinder. But the class was limited to the basics of the engine block. I still have no idea what is happening in all the spaghetti hiding under the hood of a car. I know nothing of manifolds or transmissions or ball joints. I cannot diagnose a problem with my car. Incidentally, my check engine light has been on for the last 2 months and I’m happy to let my eyes drift over it, ignoring it blissfully until I’m absolutely forced to do something about it.

Those classes were stressful because they required me to sit in discomfort, the only girl, outside my familiar world of textiles and human hair sold by the ounce and entry-level home DIY. I may have been moved to tearful tantrums as a 16-year-old, saddled with my gold 4-door sedan fate. But not enough to, like, pop the hood and ever tinker around, mind you. Not enough to ever change my own oil. Or get familiar with brake pads. Or do anything mechanically minded with any car, ever since. Automotive science pushes my limits. It’s scary. It hurts a little. It makes me feel dumb. And naked.

But I want to push these limits. Left to my own devices, I’m more likely to push the limits of what I’m already adept at before anything else, perhaps exploring fine tailoring or fabric dying or weaving. And that’s okay. Growth is good, even incremental growth. But in the true spirit of moxie building, of wearing a groove in my spirit that informs my greater self that I am someone who really, really figures things out, I want to tackle uncomfortable things. So I have to say it out loud here. I want to absorb as close to the totality of human material culture technique as possible. Which I understand is a lofty goal. But why the hell not? This moxie thing is a muscle that needs to be worked to exhaustion in order to grow and become usable. Why the hell not try? I’ve decided to make an effort to explore how humans make and do things. To push the limits of what I feel comfortable trying to learn. And hopefully, with enough persistence and maintenance, to ultimately self-identify as someone who truly, without hesitation, figures things out.

And I want to pick the brains of people who I feel embody what moxie means. What makes them tick? Why are they how they are? What are their limits? What makes them feel naked and dumb? These people are everywhere. Someone decided it was possible to make freaking suspension bridges, for chrissakes. Elon Musk is a human. As a species, we’re sort of made of moxie. If you’re into that sort of thing, I hope you’ll tag along with me. Posts will be sporadic, in no small part because I’m training up two tiny moxie-mites in addition to myself, so bear with me. But it should be a fun ride. Let’s see where it takes us, yes?


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