Sunday, July 10, 2011

Just fixing

I probably shouldn't be given pocket money and allowed to go to yard sales. I never saw a mechanical device at a yard sale that I didn't want to think about taking home. I am somewhat circumspect. I will avoid the worst, most of the time, the drippy oil pans, the seized blocks, the ancient rust.

But even then, if the price is right...

It's high summer in Maine, with rolling thunderstorms sweeping through from Manitoba on a regular basis, hot humid days before the storm, dry breezy ones after the storm. The wind research crew just got done with the second-last anemometer tower of the field season, and we have a three-day weekend before completing the last tower, which is in any case only a little one, a baby 30/40 footer for student edification and experimental purposes on campus.

The pressure is off.

Accordingly I'm feeling relaxed and expansive, and I just re-read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for the fortieth or fiftieth time, which always adds greatly to my serenity.

High summer is, however, the worst of times or the best of times, for yard sales where mechanical equipment is being sold.

Don't stop me now...

In the last two weekends I have purchased the following broken or run-down motorized equipment:

1) A small Poulan weedwhacker, starts hard but runs, needs some carb TLC, five bucks

2) A small and very ancient post-hole digger, motor completely shot, but will take a new (secondhand) motor someday, fifteen bucks

3) A much larger Cub Cadet four-stroke weedwhacker, pictured, already repaired and running well, ten bucks

4) A Craftsman five-horse mower, pictured, fires but won't run, needs carb rebuild, ten bucks

5) A 2-inch pneumatic brad nailer, works well, ten bucks

In addition to these items requiring mechanical attention, I also stripped most of the bed off the farm truck, the better to get at a combined muffler and rear brake line replacement job.

You can see the new muffler kit behind the weedwhacker.

The short, very rusty pipe in the last picture (of the truck's rear area) is the one that needs to be replaced right now. But to be on the safe side, I'm replacing all the brake lines that are in the road salt zone.

Even after nearly 210,000 miles the engine bay of this truck is still rust-free, and the cab itself is nearly rust free, but the rear end is another matter. last year I chipped away at much of the rust with an air chisel, then cleaned up much of the rest with the wire brush on the angle grinder. Finally, I gave the whole rear end two coats of red oxide primer.

Even so, there's still rust, new rust and old rust, and I may do some more air-chisel/angle-grinder/undercoating work before I put this baby back on the road.

To say I enjoy mechanical work is an understatement. It really doesn't matter to me how beat up or run-down a piece of equipment is. I can always get some pleasure out of trying to fix it.

What I like best, I think, is the trial-and-error logic process. I also enjoy the unhurried feeling I have when confronting a mechanical issue, especially on the farm in summer. There's just me and the piece of equipment, and I can study the problem for as long as I want, stripping it down as I go until I get to the faulty parts, and then just go find or make whatever replacement parts I need. The Internet is a real boon to the farmyard or dooryard mechanic, if he or she is computer savvy. Most manuals and parts lists are now available online, and spare and replacement parts can be found speedily from online parts houses and even Google shopping.

But I also have welding gear and other fabrication tools and a huge pile of saved parts from all kinds of equipment, but of which I can use to make or adapt my own parts.

Mechanical repair work is a very meditative process. I've been properly taught to meditate, by both Buddhists and Quakers, and although these days I never attempt a proper sitting meditation, I certainly do lots of mechanical meditation.

Pirsig was right. There is definitely a kind of Zen to it all.

The important thing is not to fix the equipment, but yourself. What is most important is the control you achieve over your own mind during the process of fixing the equipment, and the balance and serenity that results.

Zen masters talk about "just sitting." I could talk about "just fixing." It's the same thing.

By just sitting or just fixing, you can begin to subtract your ego and the problems your ego causes in both your own self and in the machine.

Most mechanical problems are in fact personal problems. To paraphrase Pirsig, the real machine you're working on is a machine called yourself.

By working properly on both at once, you build balance and serenity in yourself, which then allows a more perfect use of reason.

You can also then take that balance and serenity, and more perfect use of reason, to other areas of life's endeavor. You can even put it to use for society.

Most societal problems are personal problems writ large and magnified by the unintended consequences of all our collective personality problems working together. If even one person can build balance and serenity and employ reason more perfectly, than that person can create an oasis within society where things work, for once, because personal problems are not allowed to ruin the machine.

You could become a wind researcher, for instance, learning where the wind power is and what problems there are that will be caused for people by using the wind power.

That's definitely a job that needs the use of a more perfect reason. There's an awful lot of unreason in the wind power business in Maine, from both activists and corporations, and in the energy business in general in the United States.

Or you could be a better teacher. That is definitely a job where a more perfect use of reason would come in handy.

For me, the phrase "day job" means teaching, which is much harder than fixing or even wind research. Teaching is a real challenge because it doesn't build serenity for me the way that mechanical work does.

There's not much Zen in teaching, it seems.

Actually, that's not quite true. If, and it's a big if, you have all the time in the world to work with the student and all his or her hang-ups, and your own hang-ups about the student, one step at a time, one student at a time, then teaching is all about Zen.

But this kind of concentration of time and effort and serenity rarely happens. Instead of working properly on every student, and every student's personality, and every instructor and every instructors personality, one step at a time, building balance and serenity as we go, and developing a more perfect use of reason in student and instructor, most teachers are in fact doubly employed.

We're hired as teachers for students who do want to learn, but society also wants us to be, at the same time, baby-sitters for students who don't want to learn. And this second role subtracts greatly from the first.

I'm not a baby-sitter. I'm a fixer, an applied scientist who, given time and funds and equipment, can figure out the answers to all kinds of difficult problems using reason.

Don't send me your kids who don't want to learn. Find them a baby sitter.

Send me the ones who do.

The world is full of problems for them to fix, if they can just learn the art of just fixing.

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