Back Page: Zen and the art of Ford Explorer maintenance

“Don’t get mad, get even.”

Ever hear that saying? It’s attributed to Joseph Kennedy, patriarch of the Kennedy clan, who lost his first son to a war he wanted us not to fight and two more sons to assassin’s bullets.

The Kennedy quote came to mind after I was recently volunteered by a friend from church into leading an anger management class for some ex-convicts. That I was deemed an expert in such matters did not bring on the expected snarking from my wife. But the following Sunday during the worship service I was half convinced she was singing: “Our God is an ironic god … ”

Still I had to come up with something for the class, and I was thinking about Kennedy’s quote and what made me mad. I’ve been maintaining a fleet of family vehicles for many years now. And if there is anything that brings out the red in my neck it’s a hard-to-reach component, or that some Mongo with an impact wrench has crushed a nut or bolt with a million pounds of torque. Many weekends have been ruined thus.

My latest adventure started when the temp light came on in our Ford Explorer. For two days I chased the problem to no avail. By the next weekend I was out of options. I couldn’t blame Ford. The engine is accessible and well designed. Nor could I blame the spirit of Mongo. I’m the only monkey who ever wrenched on this one. I thought perhaps some of the parts I’d replaced might be defective, but the odds of that were slim to none. So I was stuck, defeated, tired and starting to channel my inner Dirty Harry.

What kept me from blowing my stack, though, was a book I’d read years ago, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which the author makes two key points:

  • One: all machines are logical
  • Two: failure to diagnose a mechanical problem is a failure of human logic or perception or both, and that no amount of anger, wishful thinking or superstition will fix the problem.

The next day I was rereading for the umpteenth time the car’s manual where it said: “if the top radiator hose is hot, the problem probably isn’t the thermostat.”

Probably? Because of this sentence I had done everything but replace the thermostat. Then I realized: “probably” is a weasel word. When a writer says “probably,” he or she is really saying they don’t know.

So I opened up the housing and sure enough, the thermostat was in pieces. “Probably isn’t” turned out to be definitely was. The manual wasn’t wrong, just ambiguous. An all-too-common human shortcoming.

Everyone knows anger clouds the mind. The trouble is most of us get more satisfaction out of anger than we do logic. And that’s what gets us in trouble, in the shop or in life. Early on Joseph Kennedy acquired great power and wealth getting even with people, but in the end, life beat him mercilessly with a parade of personal disasters.

So that’s the lesson I decided to take to my anger management class: Don’t get mad, get the solution. Every problem, by definition must have one; but if we’re thinking like Dirty Harry or Joe Kennedy we’re never going to see it. That’s what I enjoy about working on cars or anything mechanical. Machines don’t give a hoot about your ego. They mock vanity, but reward diligence.