Sunday, December 14, 2008

Brake me off a piece of that...

At least the car didn’t fall on me.

I’ve been a part of enough workshops, panels and brainstorming conglomerations in my day to have participated in a myriad of ice breaking activities. From the simple” let’s go around the room and take turns telling everyone your name and why you’re here” to “who was the first major band you ever saw live, or tell something about yourself that nobody would guess” these little games are meant to put the folks in the room at ease and to build a bit of camaraderie.

With the latter I usually answer that I was once a barrel racer. Barrel racing is a rather cowboy kinda event. One races around three barrels placed in a ring some good distance apart (makes sense so far right) in a cloverleaf pattern – sometimes the event is called cloverleaf barrel racing – cowboys like to get to the point. Well, at least most cowboys I have met are taciturn that is except for the exceptions – cowboy poets – they can be quite long winded and rhymy to boot (no pun intended) – but that would be another post in which my friend and cowboy poet expert Jim Blasingame would have to make a ten gallon and spurred appearance.

Nope, this post is about brake jobs – that’s my second double secret talent – I am capable of performing maintenance to the part of an automobile that keeps you from plowing into a crowded Walgreens pinning some assistant manager against the photo developing kiosk.

This may seem an unlikely aptitude for a poet to possess, mechanical ability – and I do know my share of verse slingers who have an aversion to physical labor but there are also those bards who swing stanzas like a blacksmith’s hammer. Now I’m not talking the drum circle Robert Bly Mythopoetic ™ embrace your maleness new aged hoo-haw that staled a decade or two ago. I am thinking more along the lines of Carl Sandburg, Gary Gildner or Wendell Berry – those “guys who take showers after work” as Senator Chris Dodd has been expounding on as of late.

Anyway – once you’ve done a brake job or two you’ll have a basic working knowledge of what is going on and should be able to figure your way through changing pads and rotors on most vehicles. An easy way to visualize the set up is to imagine a CD spinning and you stopping it by pinching the spinning disc with your forefinger and thumb (another way to look at it would be a giant red lobster pincing a roulette wheel, not certain why one would want to – but ya could.) The CD is the rotor attached to your axle and your fingers would be the brake pads - pretty basic concept.

Of course, different manufacturers like to throw in little obstacles like the need of a special wrench or impossible to remove Phillips headed screws so no brake job is without its unforeseen impediment, usually accompanied by rust. The nuts, bolts and screws associated with brake assemblies are by design impossible to get at, requiring creative combinations of various hand tools accompanied by muscle taxing contortions of the human body. And, since brake jobs are generally only needed every couple years these fasteners have ample time to corrode into single units. Did I mention skinned knuckles? Expect them – and if you are lucky enough as I was to be doing these repairs in an unheated garage when the temperature is below freezing you understand the exquisiteness of the time delayed pain of flesh scraped off on a rusted bolt head when a wrench has slipped.

Even so, there are few satisfactions comparable to stepping on a brake pedal and having your automobile stop with the knowledge that you’ve just saved yourself a couple hundred bucks in the process. Of course, this talent is best kept hidden because much as the person who owns a pickup truck is so very popular amongst friends looking to move large objects so too can the mechanically competent be pressed into service. Therefore, when participating in these ice breaking activities I will continue to list barrel racing as my hidden talent – one doesn’t get many requests to help a friend because the barrel racing light is on in their car.

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