Writings by Cole Huffman

Inertia Switched: Thoughts on Manual Labors

I am accepting congratulations for acquiring new wheel bearings on my old Toyota SUV, and donations to my keep-it-running fund if the Spirit moves you. Bearings aren’t made of Kryptonite, you know. My truck’s mileage (167,000) translates in Carl Sagan-esque to billions and billions of RPMs wearing them down. That all four wheels don’t need bearing replacements at once is a mechanical mercy. When your cars are older such that you weigh cost of repairs against vehicle value, you take no mercy for granted.

I like getting maximum years and miles from cars. Driving one well beyond the years it takes to pay for it feels like getting away with something. And, in a disposable society devoted to the new and the now, it feels almost countercultural. With regular cleaning and maintenance one doesn’t usually tire of a car he likes too soon.

Dad taught me how to change flats and oil and filters though I hire these services now. I got Mom’s acuity with words more than Dad’s mechanical aptitudes. Nevertheless, the Yogi-ism (Yogi Berra) that you can observe a lot just by watching is true. Dad tinkered with MGs in my teen years—my first car a 1977 MGB—and I held the flashlight for him and reached tools he needed. From that I learned enough about cars to impress someone who knows nothing that I know a lot.

“You’re overdue an oil change,” I said to my oldest son the other day, and it wasn’t code for an attitude adjustment. His vehicle is our oldest and highest mileage, a great first car (unlike a 1977 MGB, which continually needed work). He asked if we could do the oil change ourselves, and I was happy to oblige him. I liked hearing him say it’s satisfying to know how to do something like an oil change oneself. Matthew Crawford makes the very point in Shop Class as Soulcraft:

“The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, because he has no real effect in the world. But a tradesman must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away. His well-founded pride is far from the gratuitous ‘self-esteem’ that educators would impart to students, as though by magic.”

Most of the working adults I knew in my growing up years were tradesmen. They could build, repair, weld, harvest. Manual competence didn’t make all of them “quiet and easy,” in Crawford’s words. Some of them needed oil changes, and by that I do mean attitude adjustment. As mentioned above, not having natural aptitude for mechanical processes myself—I almost cross-threaded the drain plug on my son’s truck doing the oil change—I envied their skills. But I minimized them too in that I didn’t quite think of their work as thinking work. To play off Crawford, I was geared to manifesting myself more abstractly in the world. I thought mechanical work simply a matter of know-how and didn’t consider as much the how-know, as if the workman was all knack and didn’t have to think through the stuff he did.

From those halcyon days of MG ownership, I retain memory of the inertia switch. It’s a mechanism that in the event of collision or rollover disables the fuel pump. The inertia switch is a safety measure that frequently misbehaved in MGs, further complicating notorious electrical issues behind the dash, leaving owners feeling anything but romantic about these old British roadsters.

Inertia switches changed how I construe thoughtful work. My dad was an engineer vocationally, and yet MG electronics befuddled him. It took me years to realize he didn’t work on MGs to shut his brain off. The car was less a hobby than a chess match. He cogitated his next move again and again, like Kasparov versus Deep Blue (the ’77 MGB was Tahiti blue). In working on MGs he had to employ technical understanding of electronics, math, logic—and theology too when the car really tried him! But when the car purred, the sense of accomplishment was actually relief in the truest sense. A mental burden lifted. Enjoyment followed.

That’s what I envy in the trades: the palpable sense of concrete accomplishment as an existential portal to enjoyment. It’s why sometimes I ponder getting one more degree, like formal training in basic auto repair. Not to make a living from it. I would starve. My trade is working with words and the Word, making my living from the gospel. It’s just that I’ve long wanted to know I could go find a Bronco as old as me and fix it up myself, to turn the pages of my Bible on Sunday mornings with just a trace of engine grime under my fingernails.

I could point to the text: This is the word of the Lord. And I could point to the parking lot: The car now runs. A man quiet and easy, indeed.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 9:11 AM
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