Saturday 17 November 2012

Masochism and the Modern Mechanic

I am a mechanical masochist, a man who enjoys the otherwise unpleasant task of fixing things that are broken. I am an amateur of the arts of repair, maintenance, modification and tuning, those mystifying tasks that befuddle the average commuter. Some days, including today. I wonder what drives me to subject myself to such endless tinkering. It is avoidable. It can be excruciating and unfathomably frustrating. But I still crave it - and I tend to gravitate towards machines that require constant care to keep on the road, a peculiar trait that most people find hard to understand. So in the spirit of self-discovery and towards the wiling away of some hours while I battle this evening’s insomnia, here are my thoughts on this, my cult of vehicular masochism.   

My interest in vehicles and mechanical devices began in my adolescence. I have always been fascinated with things – objects, tangible items, material stuff. I’ve always had an eye for design and functional beauty. I like to manipulate things, dismantle them, feel the textures and examine the components. I don’t like being detached from the function of a piece, so if I can’t understand what is going on inside I tend to lose interest. As such the current and future generations of vehicles leave me cold, with their electronic systems and computer controlled drive-by-wire networks that put more and more silicon between you and the function of the machine. If I need to use a computer to diagnose a problem on a vehicle, I don’t want it in my garage.  

I have developed a certain sensitivity to the function of mechanical machines, motorcycles in particular. After 10 years of riding I have honed a delicate sense of feel and sympathy that often mystifies my peers. Mainly because I have a hard time explaining it to people who aren’t mechanically minded. In essence it’s a sense of direct connection to the various functions of the machine, and an intense desire for absolute purity in response so that you can maintain that connection. I demand absolute precision in my bike – the throttle response must be perfectly tuned, there can be no extra slack in the controls or suspension, there can be no odd noise unaccounted for. I spend a lot of time adjusting and tuning every control, every assembly, so that it functions like clockwork and channels delicate feedback to my body.

Any disruption to this feel is immediately apparent. I know when a problem will arise, often before it manifests itself in a significant way. That minor part throttle stumble wasn’t there before… And the motor is afterfiring on overrun more than usual. Then, as anticipated, a fuel starvation issue appears.

As for mechanical work, I started following the lead of my father many years ago, watching him spin wrenches and troubleshoot issues on the various vehicles that passed through our household. From him I gleaned my first techniques and pieces of wisdom. I would stand by his side, handing him tools, asking questions, and intently watching him manipulate bolts and widgets, listening to him occasionally break his intense concentration with a flurry of laboured curses – a trait that I would inherit.

As I grew older I began to help with the various tasks. I began to develop my own techniques and formulate my style. Each person has their own way of approaching issues and solving problems - Each mechanic has their own way of fixing things. Some are studious and prepare meticulously, researching thoroughly and referring to a spec sheet at every step – these are the young factory trained mechanics that follow the rules laid out by the almighty manufacturer’s service manual. Others are more hands-on and look for the problem with their own eyes, ears and hands – these are the veterans who can rely on many years of experience to guide them. I fall somewhere between the two. I rely on research to make up for my lack of experience, but I face challenges with an open mind and attempt to solve problems on my own.

Generally I worked on my own vehicles exclusively, but occasionally branched out into fixing things for other people. I helped friends with their machines here and there. I worked as a proper motorcycle mechanic for a brief period during university. I have never felt at ease working on the machines of others. I am too slow and meticulous when I’m punching a clock and charging for labour. I never feel a proper sense of accomplishment when the vehicle isn’t my own. And the spectre of an angry owner chewing me out for one of my errors never sat well with me – if I make a mistake on my own project, I have only myself to blame. If I screw up someone else’s ride, I have violated their trust.

Above all I try to maintain simplicity in my work. It’s always best to begin with the simplest explanation and then work your way up to the most complex (and expensive) solutions. Put another way, it is the principle of Occam’s razor: the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. It’s a philosophy that seems straightforward but can often be forgotten in the heat of an issue. When the oil light starts flickering, the mechanically sympathetic man starts panicking and preparing to deal with an imminent engine rebuild – when really he should be examining the oil pressure switch and the wiring to make sure it isn’t just a bad sensor or electrical fault. Simplicity in troubleshooting is a skill that requires cultivation.

I am an intense and quiet individual on most occasions. I absorb myself in my tasks and filter out the world around me as I work. Working on my motorcycle is an escape, not only from the outside world but also from my own thoughts. It’s also the only time where I may crack my calm façade and exhibit genuine anger and rage, if something goes horribly wrong – a process that is sometimes cathartic and liberating to the insular individual. When my mind races and becomes convoluted I find it therapeutic to sit in front of my Ducati and start making adjustments. I may simply sit in silence and cast my gaze over the assemblies, mentally tracing their symmetry and memorizing their forms. I enjoy the opportunity to perform maintenance as a way to delve into the heart of my machine, to better understand the various components and their interrelation.

Over time I build a mental image of the machine from stem to stern in my mind’s eye. At a certain point you can visualize a problem and its solution without even turning a wrench. That is the point of absolute connection to your machine, one that is not often achieved unless you own and maintain a single vehicle for a period of many years. It’s something that is becoming far more rare as we distance the user from the dirty functions of the machine. The spinning bits are hidden beneath plastic cladding and any adjustment requires the input of a computer-wielding factory technician. We also live in a throwaway society that encourages the replacement, rather than maintenance, of our things. Most people I know rarely keep a vehicle for more than 3 years before they get something newer, shinier and better. If they do keep them longer, it is often due to necessity rather than desire.    

Bikes are complex organisms, but they have a certain elegant simplicity. Compared to the complexities of modern life and the minefields of social interaction, the oily bits of a motorbike are refreshingly straightforward. Each system is interrelated and functions in harmony. You can trace functions through an imaginary chart, each task relying on the previous one to make the machine work. Think of a wiring diagram but apply it to a series of mechanical assemblies. You can trace everything in a loop that feeds itself and animates the motor. The cycle sustains itself and disruptions to the flow are what create problems. Solving problems requires a keen understanding of that important interrelation between systems.

The most glorious moment for a mechanic is always the end of a long process culminating in the final result – a perfectly functioning machine. It may sound obvious, but fixing the problem is the most satisfying part of the process. That sense of accomplishment is what drives me to tinker and repair everything myself. I get a pang of anxiety when I picture someone else messing with MY machine. Not only do I not trust the skills of others, but I also lose out on that addictive sense of triumph when the task is done. I’ve been known to kiss my bike when it bursts into life after a long period of downtime; I can barely contain my elation when I hear that familiar reverberation of mechanical noise once again, the balance restored to the harmony of the system by my own hand.

My obsession with mechanical work is hard to convey to the average person. Many prefer a machine that functions without issue, taking them from A to B without worry. Those people own vehicular appliances, cold and soulless machines that do their tasks with calculated precision. If you want to move your body around without fuss, you get a scooter or a bland commuter car. For individuals like myself only a cantankerous, high maintenance bitch of a vehicle will satisfy the desire for emotion and excitement. I crave mechanical diversion and revel in tinkering with my machines. If my bike never broke or required my input, I would never feel connected to it and would quickly tire of it. I simply can’t leave well enough alone. It’s a sentiment lost on most of my peers.

My father has told me I do too much maintenance. I feel that I don’t do enough. I’ll never get bored of going elbow deep into a finicky machine – it is what defines my passion for motorcycles, and that glorious moment of bringing life to my machine after a long period of work is utterly addictive. The anticipation as I thumb the starter button, and the pure ecstasy as I listen to the motor thunder to life once again is what drives me to be a mechanical masochist.

1 comment:

  1. Finally, someone with the literary ability I lack to put to words the thought and emotion behind what most to considered at best OCD, and at worst (as my wife has coined it) an autochondriac.

    Well said good sir, well said indeed!