Sunday, September 11, 2011

Spark Plugs

I changed the spark plugs in my car today, with my trusty Haynes manual and a friend who had "done it once before on his car" as my guide.

I take a kind of gender-role-defying pride in doing simple work on my car myself, just the easy things like changing the oil and rotating the tires, and occasionally more tricky things like tightening the emergency brake cable and changing the transmission fluid.  Sometimes doing the labor yourself saves money and what I do pick up in understanding how my car works give me confidence in driving it if not any actual real tangible skills with cars---but I think I mostly do it out of a continuing determination to be just as self-reliant as the boys. I actually am really claustrophobic and pretty much hate every moment I spend staring up at my transmission and hoping this isn't the moment an earthquake strikes strong enough to shake my car loose from the jack stand, hand groping for the oil filter.

The spark plug thing took about three times longer than I'd planned--mostly because every time I undertake anything like this I am always surprised by how divergent are the experiences of theory and practice.  In theory, you just pull the spark plug wire out at both ends and snap the new one in.  In practice, the damn thing's screwed into some weird plastic housing whose access is frustratingly obscured by some damned other hose, so that getting a hand or a wrench in there, much less doing anything with it, takes a lot of physical forbearance.  In theory, you just screw in the new plugs to the requisite torque--in practice, the little tool extension you use to get the spark plug down into the engine stays stays stuck in when you try to take the torque-wrench out.

A physics professor of mine once cracked the joke, "I think I'll go into theory" after he picked up a transparency projector by it's thin neck only to cause the top to break off.  (you know, those big boxes with the light and the mirror that teachers used to use to project dry-erase markers written on transparent 8.5 x 11 sheets).  I don't feel that way necessarily but I sure do remember that setting the damn laser up to shine through the diffraction grating had carried it's own, unexpected frustrations, just as irksome as working out the locations of the bright parts of the interference patterns of theoretical laser beams shining through any number of different theoretical slits had been.  Manipulating the physical world in ways you don't get much constant practice with can require surprising amounts of time and concentration--which really makes me respect the work of pioneering experimentalists like Hertz and Tesla and Marie Curie even more.

My car's been put back together and is running fine--better now, with new equipment--and at the end of it all I found a huge cache of petrified acorns sequestered in a cavity perfectly inaccessible to human hands, just above my front wheel well. Maybe next time I go groping for that oil filter, I'll find I have some company.

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