"No one has enough money anywhere—Banker, Indian Chief, Gestalt Therapist, no kind of person—to not set their own valves on their own Volkswagen!"
- John Muir
No, not the Sierra Club John Muir. The How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive; A Manual of Step-By-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot John Muir. Thus did my adventure in DIY auto mechanics reach its event horizon, suck me into its black hole and unexpectedly spawn a lifetime of largely satisfying, if unspectacular, creative accomplishments.
As with most of these stubbornly individualistic undertakings, necessity—and a limited budget—was the mother of invention. The unforeseen reward was passage through the four Zen states of mind. Of course, I didn't know there were four Zen states of mind until a former girlfriend pointed them out to me, and I had no idea I'd ever visited them, let alone seemed to live in them, as a result of simply doing things I couldn't afford to let other people do or couldn't find other people to do for me.
But back to Volkswagens...shortly.
I always liked tinkering with engines. I called it tinkering; my father called it destroying. I was being romantic; he was being pragmatic. A Briggs and Stratton lawnmower engine was the first victim of my tinkering. I learned a lot destroying it. Like there are no "extra parts" when you're putting an engine back together. Oh, and gaskets and washers really do serve a purpose. Destroying that engine was, perhaps my first visit to shoshin, the first mindstate characterized by the eagerness and openness one might experience embarking on a new endeavour. Enthusiasm but no skill necessary.
The Batchelor Brothers' Texaco station a block away from where I lived guided me to the second Zen state, fudoushin—steadfast determination and absolute control over oneself. OK, absolute control may have been delusional but I was determined to learn whatever they were willing to teach me about what they called mechanicin'.
Texaco was threatening to take their station away because, being church-going guys, they closed on Sundays. Being a godless heathen—a character flaw they grudgingly overlooked—I offered to mind the pumps and do whatever repairs wouldn't threaten their customer's cars in exchange for them acting the role of sensei. That worked for a while and I learned a lot, but then Texaco showed its real hand and closed the station down anyway since the real estate it was on was way more valuable as something other than a sleepy gas station.
And to finally get to Volkswagens, Muir opened the door to the third mindstate, mushin, or as I referred to it, mush-mind, a mindlessness, a mind empty of thoughts, existing in the moment or in the zone, whichever cliché you prefer. I eventually came to refer to it as "eating the elephant" because, being there was the only way to accomplish an impossibly complex task—say, putting the several hundred parts of a VW engine scattered across the kitchen table, counters and floor back together without going crazy or giving up. It all happens one part at a time, much as the elephant goes down one bite at a time.
The simple instructions and hand-drawn illustrations in Compleat Idiot led a former engine destroyer to rebuild several VWs, none of which cost as much to purchase as the last pair of running shoes I bought and the profits from which helped me get through university with what today is bemoaned as a lot of student loan debt but was then thought of as pretty normal.
It also gave me a heightened appreciation for the act of creation—repair being a form of creation—and gave me the confidence to take on other tasks far beyond my skill level.
Cooking, for example.
When a friend and I moved off campus at university—OK, when we got asked to move out of the dorm we lived in—I broke out in a cold sweat when, on the first evening in our new slum, we realized the best thing we knew how to cook was spaghetti with tinned chili poured over it. With no realistic possibility of either of us attracting a girlfriend willing to feed us, I decided I'd better learn how to cook.
It turned out to be way harder than fixing a VW.
Mechanics are pretty binary. Put the pieces together right, they work. Cooking is chemistry and getting it right is more akin to fixing your car's electrical problem than rebuilding its engine.
Recipes only tell you what you need to collect and measure and how to go about putting it together. They don't begin to tell you the myriad ways you can foul it up in the cooking process. It's kind of like knowing how chess pieces move as opposed to how to play chess. One is simple. The other, multidimensionally complex.
But if you understand how things go together and what happens in the oven or pan or barbecue, you can free yourself from the confines of recipes and create. Which is largely how I fed myself once I figured that out. I'd hang around a friend's house long enough to offer to scour the cupboards and pull something together for dinner, often after having been told there wasn't anything in the house. It seemed like magic to them; seemed like dinner to me.
So, what does this have to do with anything? I'm disappointed in you. After all these years you still believe there's a point to these columns? Oh well. I guess is has to do with the value of doing the endless, repetitive, yes, creative things that fill our lives. The value of fixing things that are broken, of making things our minds can picture and our hands can create if we drag ourselves away from the noise that consumes too much of our lives.
Creating things, whether it's a car that runs again, dinner, a piece of furniture, a painting—heck, even a pointless piece of writing—makes us more human, engages us with a part of the world outside ourselves and breaks us out of our bubbles. Creating makes us more likely to engage with our community and the people around us. It makes us less likely to destroy, deface, or diminish the creations of others. It enriches our lives in ways no amount of likes on social media ever will.
I learned to make good bread because I couldn't afford to buy good bread. I still make it because it's second nature ... and just maybe the doorway to zanshin.