Fix or Repair Daily Redux

I'm not sure when I caught it, or if I've always had it, but I definitely have a troubleshooting bug. I didn't notice it as much in my school years, but it became very apparent early on in my career. Working for a small publisher right out of college, we didn't have a tech support department. I served as both a graphic designer's assistant and the guy who kept our hardware and software in working condition. And over time, even when I got to larger companies, I was still inclined to figure things out for myself.

Part of it is definitely the puzzle aspect of a good problem, the sense that there's a mystery to be solved. Maybe that stems back to my boyhood dream of becoming a detective like the heroes of the novels I read, role models such as Sherlock Holmes, Jupiter Jones, or McGurk. I think it also bothers me when I don't know the answer to a question, and I have an obsessive-compulsive need to add to my mental database. I'll research until I find the answer and, failing that, make sure the person tells me later on when he or she find out. Then that information is stored in my brain for future retrieval.

Due to the nature of my work, this idiosyncrasy of mine is most prevalent in the realm of computers. I'll contact tech support when I'm stumped, or when I face a problem that they need to be aware of because it affects our entire department. But it never stops me from doing my own research, checking message boards, testing solutions, and on rare occasions solving the problem for our tech people. Some mysteries are ongoing, and even if my attention is focused on deadlines and more immediate priorities, glitches are always being pondered in the back of my mind. “Why did the machine crash when I did this? What if I do that instead next time?”

One area in which I could use more knowledge is that of automobiles, and it's no mystery why. I am the son of a mechanic. I've spent my life holding flashlights and handing my father wrenches, and most of my childhood I hated it. I wanted to be inside watching cartoons. I didn't like being covered in grease. I was a fool. I wish I'd paid more attention, and it's only in the last few years as my dad's gotten older and I've learned the value of such skills that I've actively expressed interest. When something needs to be done on my car, I don't make the 80-year-old man with arthritis and a heart condition lie on the ground. I need him on a consulting basis, but I do all the heavy lifting. I've picked up a few basic things, like how to replace brakes, patch a tire, or how to do an oil change. But that's the extent of my abilities, and I'm certainly not the diagnostician that my old man was in his prime. Time was, we'd be in the car and he could hear if something was off and know what it was. Now, I'm lucky if he hears me talking to him.

One of my friends at work had car trouble on Thursday, and discovered at lunch that it just wouldn't turn over. His first few attempts got a sluggish “R-R-R-RRR” before sputtering out, and then it was just clicking when he turned the key. I know enough to know the most obvious causes of that situation are a dead or drained battery, or a bad starter. But then, so do most people. Being a mechanic's son should give me a little more insight than that. One of the older guys at work tried jumper cables, and when that failed, he became convinced that corrosion on the battery was the problem. He hunted down a wire brush to clean the leads, while the rest of us stood around an open hood debating. The battery wasn't totally dead if he had lights, an alarm, and other accessories. The starter had been replaced a few months ago. We did have heavy rains and some flooding the day prior, conditions that had my rear brakes making scraping noises. It seemed like too much of a coincidence for his car to just die the day after such conditions, although it didn't explain why it worked in the morning.

We checked fuses, not knowing what we were really checking. One of my friends who lives near the office went home and came back with some tools. We tried jumping it again. I traced the wires to what I thought was the starter, and phoned my dad to confirm. In the past, he's gotten me out of similar situations by hitting the thing with a hammer while I turned the key. It's not the most elegant solution, and it doesn't do the starter much good, but it can save you a tow truck and get the car running long enough to move it elsewhere. In the end, I didn't have my dad's magic touch, and didn't have the right angle to hit it with the metal end of the hammer with enough force. My friend ended up having a tow truck bring it to a local repair shop, and I gave him a lift to his friend's place in the area.

It's funny how an open car hood will stop people, how everyone will stand around and offer solutions. When I got home, I even read a similar situation play out in a preview for an upcoming Superman comic book. I don't think any of us could ask for a better diagnostic tool than x-ray vision, although we still need to know what we're looking at in the first place. It's hard when things don't work the way they usually do, the way we expect them to, and more often than not it happens suddenly. It happens with computers. It happens with cars. It even happens with people. I still retain numbers and information in ways that scare people, but I remember at my first job knowing the code numbers to every job I worked on. My recall is slowly declining, and if I'm not what I was ten years ago, I won't be what I am now in ten years. My dad laments that heart surgery wasn't a fountain of youth. Sure, there are signs and symptoms sometimes, but often they're so small and gradual that we don't notice until something big happens, whether we get a chest pain while walking fast or our car doesn't start. It's so important that I maintain my obsession with problem-solving, because the older I get, the harder it will be to learn new things. One day the bucket will be full, and I won't be able to find everything I need in there. One day, I'll spill knowledge while trying to retrieve some of it. One day, my writing will turn to rambling, with no clean conclusion.

I hope today's not that day.


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