“Come to kindly terms with your ass, for it bears you.”
—John Muir, How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive
I’ve published exactly one book—a memoir about cars and death and grief. Spoiler alert: The book ends with a scene in which my son and I replace the fuel pump on our 1984 Volkswagen camper van, Trooper. In the book, my son, then seven, lays with me in our driveway, looking up at the thirty-year-old undercarriage of our van as I point out the fuel tank, fuel lines, filter, and pump. I have two books open on the concrete, in arm’s reach: a Bentley manual (the technical authority for Vanagons), and John Muir’s How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive (a van Bible, of sorts). The latter gave us a simple fuel-pump narrative to follow. Words have always been better guides for me than diagrams, pictures, and labels.
My son watches as I detach the fuel lines and plug them with pencils. He hands me the tools I request. On the recommendation of my mechanic, who owns a fleet of seventeen camper vans, which he rents and maintains—no small feat—I had bought the fuel pump for a 1984 Mustang. It was the same as the more expensive Bosch fuel pump originally used in my 1984 Westfalia, only half the price. But the fuel filter opening and the fuel pump opening are a couple of millimeters different in size. I had to bridge that gap, clamp and stretch and wrench and tighten until it held just right. I finagle and cuss and apologize until the off-size fittings finally fit together.
Boom. Done: My most significant auto repair to date, completed the year I turned forty.
I ended the book with that scene because it shows me claiming a kind of power I was not raised to believe I had. This criticism is not aimed at my parents. I mean it on a larger scale: that in this culture I was not raised to believe I could fix things. And by “culture” I mean “patriarchy.” No part of our capitalist patriarchy in the 1980s would benefit from a little white girl from Indiana learning how to fix her car. So, I did not.
Here is what is not in the epilogue of my memoir about death and grief and cars: The scene that happened right after we fixed the fuel pump, when I pulled my then-boyfriend by the arm out to the van and proudly announced my repair. I am not sure what I expected him to say. I certainly did not expect that he—or you—would quite understand what this kind of self-reliance means to me. My life had been marked by the people closest to me letting me down, one at a time, through things I could not take personally but were devastating still: suicide, alcoholism, narcissism, failure to thrive. The lesson I had gleaned from these experiences: You are all you can count on. Self-reliance was my balm, a Swiss Army Knife I kept under my pillow to help me sleep.
Here is what is not in the epilogue of my memoir about death and grief and cars: The scene that happened right after we fixed the fuel pump, when I pulled my then-boyfriend by the arm out to the van and proudly announced my repair.
I did expect at least vague congratulations from my East Coast musician boyfriend with the salt-and-pepper beard and a collection of stringed instruments worth more than my van. Or, perhaps, an I’m happy you’re happy kind of smile. Maybe even a hug. Instead, he scowled and got under the van. He was no mechanic but, as a male six years older than me, had been raised to know the basic parts and functions of cars. He scoffed and announced he would fix it. And that I should have waited for his help.
I got quiet the way I do when my feelings are hurt, and he prodded me: What’s wrong with you?
I likely said some vague thing about how I was proud of myself, how I had expected him to be proud of me.
He glared. And said this, this line I cannot forget: What? You want a gold star for doing shit work?
That is the story that is not in the book.
Here I was, a forty year-old solo mom who had once hiked a good portion of the Appalachian Trail, who had survived her only sibling’s suicide, the subsequent demise of her family and marriage, who had birthed two children naturally, dragged them through a semi-homeless year, fed them on food stamps while writing textbook materials day and night. I could knit a sweater with my eyes closed, run a marathon, assemble freezer meals for friends in distress, and write a heart-rending memoir in my “spare time.” But my boyfriend’s response rattled me. It drove home the question I had spent a lifetime internalizing: Who was I, to try and fix a simple thing?
Sometimes you cannot see clearly when you are in the middle of something. It is like standing on top of a mountain and trying to see the mountain. In that relationship, I could sense the bad weather, the wrongness of what was happening, but I could not name it the way I can now. The resistance to me fixing my car was about power, about keeping me disempowered to ease my mate’s insecurity, which, I believe, echoes the insecurity of the culture I was raised in: What happens if a woman can step out of her house, leave the kitchen and the laundry and the kids behind, and just drive away? What then?
As a kid I learned to sew by sitting on my mom’s lap, feeding fabric through her ’70s Kenmore, while she worked the pedal. When I got older and my legs grew long enough, she would hover over me, guide me with words, let me make mistakes, and learn. I can, to this day, sew clothes, make patterns, mend garments, stitch quilts—the whole shebang.
I learned from magazines and the women around me how to do hair. I could French braid, Dutch braid, fishtail, feather, curl, and straighten. In middle school, during the swimming unit, the girls’ locker room smelled like butane and burning hair as my peers and I had ten minutes to shower, return to class, and curl and spray our bearclaw bangs back into place using portable, gas-powered curling irons. (Plug-in items were not allowed in the locker room, for electrocution prevention, perhaps.)
In home economics I darned socks, sewed a cloth drawstring backpack, cooked tuna noodle casserole with potato chips on top, flipped pancakes, and resuscitated a fake baby.
I did not take Shop. Shop was for boys— by rule or default, I cannot recall.
Outside of school, I did ballet, figure skating, choir, theater, flute, swimming, and a bit of gymnastics.
Meanwhile, my brother ran free, more or less, on a skateboard or bike, in and out of our house by day and by night.
I never made it to high school in my hometown, where, I believe, auto mechanics was an elective. I went away to art school in northern Michigan, to study writing, on a scholarship from Cummins Engines, whose world headquarters takes up much of the downtown of my hometown. Airfare from Indianapolis to Chicago to Traverse City cost about as much as my first car: a 1980 Toyota Corolla. I worked the summer I was sixteen to raise money for my own ride, and my folks pitched in to help. As soon as I got that car, I was off to concerts in Chicago, to school in Michigan, to New York City over spring break. I had always wanted to fly, and with the Toyota, I could.
The resistance to me fixing my car was about power, about keeping me disempowered to ease my mate’s insecurity, which, I believe, echoes the insecurity of the culture I was raised in: What happens if a woman can step out of her house, leave the kitchen and the laundry and the kids behind, and just drive away? What then?
Did my father teach me anything about basic car maintenance? I cannot remember, but my gut tells me he tried. I am guessing that scene went something like this: My father brought me to the curb to show me the mini-spare, nestled under the trunk bed. I stood ten feet back, in striped tights, cutoffs, and Doc Martens, smoking and nodding as I watched his tire change demo.
Here’s the jack. Miss. Here’s the wrench. Miss. Melissa?
I may have snapped-to for a moment, dragged away from a memory of drinking pink champagne the week before with my best friend and her thirty-year-old cousin who worked for the local news channel.
I got it. Thanks, Dad.
However it went down, I am certain my weight fell on one hip, my eyes in a constant teenage roll between automotive lesson and sky. I already knew the only things I thought important then: How to gas up, work the stereo, which pedal meant “go” and which meant “stop.” All else was moot. Until it wasn’t.
I drove that Toyota all over tarnation, forgetting to change or even check the oil until the warning light went off, then enlisting help from strangers in gas stations. One man said, Your oil looks like honey, Honey, and topped it off for me, making me promise to stop by a Jiffy Lube soon. Two other men replaced a cracked distributor cap in a parking lot somewhere in Michigan, telling me to be safe and not talk to guys like us.
When big things went wrong, like the rear wheel that seized up somewhere in Pennsylvania, or the electrical system that burned through the console and side panels of the Saab that replaced the Toyota, I found the nearest phone booth. I would call home from Washington State, California, or Montana, and alarm my parents. They would give me their credit card number, and I would call a tow truck, spend a day or two in the nearest town with a shop, fork over my parents’ virtual cash, and drive off again. I was a hundred-pound damsel in distress, again and again. The world seemed all right with that. The world seemed, in fact, to support that.
• • •
A week after the fuel pump argument, we took Trooper on a Fourth of July weekend camping trip, with the boyfriend. After his criticism of my van repair, things had been tense for a few days, but we eventually came back together, not mentioning the conflict that had caused injury in the first place. The fuel pump seemed to work fine. On the homestretch, we stopped at a restaurant on Flathead Lake for burgers and fries, and to give the kids a break from the hot van— Montana has a dry heat, but it is hot in peak season, like a sauna, until sundown at 10 p.m.
When we got back to the van after our meal, I turned the key. Nothing. Not the engine turning over. Not the whirr of the starter. Only the soft click of the battery engaging, brake light and oil light blinking on, as usual. I tried again.
The boyfriend: It’s your goddamn hack job on the fuel pump.
Even if it is a hack job, I thought, it’s my hack job. No one else’s. (Just like my writing.) He opened his door and lay under the van, back down on black asphalt in the ninety-five degree day. I did not want him touching that pump, but he was escalating, and I had two young kids stuck in a hot van. I could protect them, or Trooper, so I set the kids 10 yards away on a blanket with drinks and coloring books, in the shade of a parking lot tree.
Five years later, the fuel pump I installed works fine. The boyfriend? I ended that shortly after.
I have a PhD from the school of life in handling drunks, upset kids, and angry men. I handle all three the same way: Step back, let them rage, maybe offer a glass of water when they are done. Later, when the weather shifts and I am back on safe ground, I let them know in no uncertain terms that such shit will not fly with me again.
As the boyfriend cursed and rattled, I opened up the engine compartment and poked around. Spark plugs, fine. Belts, fine. The computer, appeared fine. I did not know what I was looking for, but I had learned at least to look. Observe. Pay attention. A few minutes in, I saw it: A connection (to what, I don’t know) undone. I plugged the male and female parts back together, told the beau to move back, turned the key, and drove us home.
Five years later, the fuel pump I installed works fine. The boyfriend? I ended that shortly after. I hear he found another single mom with a couple of kids, and I think about her and her two boys more than I think about him. I hope she is ok.
The bigger question: How did I end up a single mother surrounded by people who drained my cup instead of filling it? I had been raised to fix people, not things. Caregiving was a thing I did well, and constantly, without recognition or pay. Even a mechanic gets a paycheck, but not a daughter or a wife or a mom or a girlfriend performing wound care on her mate’s fractured ego.
• • •
I had bought Trooper in 2012, the year I became a single mom to two young kids. We had just moved back to Montana, and the kids had never been camping. I owned a tin-top ’84 Vanagon through college. I knew the deal: They were old vans now, finicky. Not for damsels in distress who solved automotive problems with phone calls and credit cards. I was no automotive genius, but I had learned the parts of things. I could point out the engine, the tranny, the cooling system, brakes, starter, alternator, and so on. I had learned through my broke grad school years, and my broke married years, how to change a tire. So I scouted a camper van off eBay, caught a ride to Casper, Wyoming, and drove her home.
The world still did not encourage me to learn about cars, and the way things work. Shortly after buying my van, I lost the engine. Having owned one of these vans with the same four cylinder waterboxer engine before, I knew I might have to replace it but had hoped to avoid total failure so soon.
In the meantime, I drove the 2003 Saturn Wagon I had bought in Austin so that my babies would have air conditioning. The Saturn was a car without character, but it kept my family safe and comfortable. It was cheap, and it rolled. It also had a coolant leak. GM had bought Saturn and thrown on a bunch of crap plastic parts. One of these—the intake manifold, where the coolant hoses connect to the engine block—had hairline fractures in the plastic so that when the thermostat opened and the part warmed up, coolant leaked onto the block and a light smoke rose up from the hood at stoplights. I had no money for the $400 repair, so I would drop the kids at daycare, go write at a coffee shop, then pop the hood and top off the coolant.
Almost every time I did this, a man would ask if I needed help. I did not mind the asking, but I did not need the help. One day I wore a dress, blue tights, and boots. As I propped the hood, a man came by and offered to fix my car. He gave the engine a glance and announced with certainty, It’s your carburetor. I can fix that carburetor.
Dear Reader: A 2003 Saturn wagon does not have a carburetor. Carburetors were replaced by fuel injection systems in the late seventies/early eighties.
I opened up my gallon of coolant and politely declined. But I wonder what would have happened if I had not known better and I let him fix my carburetor. I might have said yes, when I was sixteen or eighteen or maybe even twenty-one.
The more I learned about cars, the more I saw through the random “help” that was offered, and the more I was empowered to step away, to handle things myself. Fixing your car as a woman, or fixing a car as a human, or fixing any thing at all, is not encouraged by the capitalist patriarchy. Fixing things, I am beginning to believe, is a form of daily activism. A statement. A reclamation of power.
Almost every time I did this, a man would ask if I needed help. I did not mind the asking, but I did not need the help. One day I wore a dress, blue tights, and boots. As I propped the hood, a man came by and offered to fix my car. He gave the engine a glance and announced with certainty, It’s your carburetor. I can fix that carburetor. Dear Reader: A 2003 Saturn wagon does not have a carburetor. Carburetors were replaced by fuel injection systems in the late seventies/early eighties.
My first VW van drew me in, and since Trooper I have become committed to the brand. I later bought a 2002 Eurovan, and, just last month, a 2013 diesel turbo wagon. Volkswagen translates to “people’s car.” Though the roots of the company are tangled up with WWII, Hitler, and concentration camp slave labor, the company achieved their goal of creating durable, repairable vehicles at a price the masses could afford.
In 1969, John Muir became a VW guru of sorts (not to be confused with the naturalist John Muir, who died only a few years before the birth of VW John Muir, who self-published the VW repair guide, How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive). His guide became one of the most successful self-published books in history, and it built on VW’s ongoing mission, as captured in a 1972 ad that paired an image of an open engine hatch of a bus with the slogan Power to the People.
VW John Muir helped put tools in the hands of the people. His Compleat Idiot’s Guide (“compleat”—get it?) provided humor, philosophy, and an approachable narrative for the roadside mechanic. The granddaddy to all Idiot’s Guides, the book does a thing no manual had done before: It props you up when you are down, and talks you through a process step-by-step. That is what it did for me, and my son, as we tackled Trooper’s fuel pump.
• • •
I took my kids to the Volkswagen lot last month, to test drive a used TDI wagon. Though the walls held pictures of the iconic bay window buses and a Beetle or two, no modern cars I know of are engineered to be accessible for the lay mechanic. Quite the opposite, in fact—modern cars are designed to be inaccessible, to foster dependence, and become quickly obsolete. Still, I’d researched exactly the car I wanted: a six-speed manual turbo diesel wagon with heated seats. The TDI wagons nick forty-two mpg on the highway, and, as a single mom who drives kids eight hours to Seattle and back for gymnastics meets, fuel economy is important. I bought from a dealer because I could not find the vehicle I wanted from a private seller. The Montana used-car market is as sparse as our population. I researched comparable vehicles for sale, and the NADA car value, and spent two hours holding firm to my price, declining clear coats and undercoating and “full wrap” warranties, and warranties on those warranties, until, finally, I left with the car I wanted at the price I wanted.
Part of knowing about cars is knowing about the business these days, and all the ways in which they prey on ignorance, fear, and scarcity in order to hose you. A middle-aged single mom with two kids is their ultimate target—what is known in shop-talk as a gravy boat. To which I say, Not today motherfuckers. Not today.
I am not going to end up on the side of a remote Montana highway pulling the diesel engine out of this wagon. But I understand the major systems. I know how to pull the engine codes and find out what’s going on. I know how to look under the hood, under the body, how to find and change the tire. That’s what John Muir advocated for—a fix-it mentality. His widow said John used to get postcards from readers, and one man wrote to say, First I fixed my car, then I fixed my washing machine, and now I’m building a house.
Part of knowing about cars is knowing about the business these days, and all the ways in which they prey on ignorance, fear, and scarcity in order to hose you. A middle-aged single mom with two kids is their ultimate target—what is known in shop-talk as a gravy boat.
With the help of YouTube videos, I have fixed our washing machine twice since replacing Trooper’s fuel pump. My son fixes things, too. He has an extensive original GI Joe collection, and he repairs his figures when they break. He constructs cities out of Legos, going off track and creating his own designs. And now, at age thirteen, he fixes phones. His father had kicked down an old one, which he used and broke, so he researched online, and ordered the parts and tools for a screen replacement. Several months later, he replaced the phone’s worn-out battery. Last month, he repaired my phone.
I am not pitching for Volkswagen here, or any certain brand. Hell, I once loved a two-door Hyundai Accent. I am simply advocating that you learn the basic parts of the things in your life, whether that’s a second-hand dishwasher, a lawnmower, or a Geo Metro. And when a thing stops working for you, that you take a moment to investigate before you write a blank check to the fix-it man.
I bought the TDI wagon to replace Trooper, which I just sold to a woman who lives a couple hours away in Montana. We are keeping the Eurovan for our camping needs. The beds are bigger, and it has creature comforts the kids like: air conditioning, and outlets to charge phones and iPads on long summer trips. Trooper is perfect for the new owner, whose kids are flying the nest for college.
As I readied the van for her new adventure, I noticed the after-market A/C outlet was not working. The new owner is a writer, like me, and we had talked about how useful that outlet is for charging a laptop. I thought to call my trusted mechanic—a true VW fan and John Muir disciple who often talks me through fixing things myself. But I paused. I looked at the outlet, traced the wires in one direction to the auxiliary battery, then in the other direction where they ran inside the kitchen cabinet. There I found it: a wire disconnected, the male and female ends hanging an inch apart.
Boom. Fixed. A simple thing. I thanked Trooper for all she taught me and sent her on her way.