I Have No Idea What I’m Doing

            This is my blanket cop-out, my self-abasing mantra that instills the proper sense of humility and gravitas in the face of a seemingly insurmountable task: I have no idea what I’m doing.  But if I’m honest, it’s mainly a disclaimer intended to pull the rug right out from under the would-be (and mostly imaginary) critics:

            Critic #1: Man, that guy is lost.

            Critic #2: Yeah, you got that right.  But I think he’ll give up before too long.  Just hope he doesn’t do too much damage in the meantime.

            Critic #1: I mean, that guy is going eighteen directions at once.  His bodywork sucks, he can’t tell the difference between a camshaft and a pushrod, he has no shop skills, and his compressor is woefully small and inadequate.  And his welding, I mean, shit!  My five-year-old can do better than that.  And—

            Critic #2: I know, I know.  But he did say that he had no idea what he’s doing.

            Critic #1: Yeah, that’s true.  But he’s still a moe-ron!

[Curtain falls while chorus sings an a capella rendition of “Everybody Plays the Fool” by The Main Ingredient.]


This man knew what he was doing.

            So I’m trying to establish – and I can’t say it enough – that I have no idea what I’m doing.  If you follow this blog for any length of time this will become readily apparent to you, and no further convincing will be necessary.



This man did not.


             One question, however, may remain.  To wit: why?  Why does he have no idea what he’s doing?  And why does he persist, in the face of that admission?

            There’s a family story about the time my grandfather cut the couch in half.  I’d have to check with my mom to make sure I’ve got this right, but the gist of it is that my grandmother, who suffered from a wide variety of psychological afflictions of the type that, in more recent times, the pharmacological industry has engorged themselves upon (she suffered from disorders that hadn’t even been “invented” yet); I say, one day my grandmother decided that she wanted a couch in the shape of an L.  Though I loved my grandmother, who was always kind to me and spoiled me rotten, she was a fussy and demanding German woman who had to have things her way, or there would be hell to pay.

            This occurred before my time, in the 1950’s.  My grandparents had just bought what was then a modern sofa – a huge, swoopy thing, starkly modern and Jetson-esque.  My grandfather had begun his new life in America in 1926, sweeping floors in the Garment District in Manhattan.  His fortunes improved so that by the time of the couch incident, he ran his own woman’s leather accessory company, drove a Cadillac, and had a rambling (but not showy) home in the suburbs.  Not bad for a post-war German gentile in what was then an overwhelmingly Jewish industry.  So the couch was likely not a cheap acquisition.

            In spite of years of being browbeaten by my grandmother, my grandfather was still a practical man.  When she suddenly decided that, no, she wanted the new couch over there, in the corner, and not in front of the fireplace, even though it wouldn’t fit over there, it would have been very uncharacteristic for my grandfather to say, “Of course, mein Schatz!  Perhaps we should yet another new couch to purchase, nicht?  There is no written transcript of the exact exchange, but my guess is that he mumbled a half-hearted acquiescence and considered the matter in silence for a while, buying himself a little time.

            I remember watching him repair things around the house in his retirement years.  Whether it was a balky lawnmower or a kitchen stool coming unglued, his approach always entailed more time examining the item – to see how it was put together, to see how it might be made to function again – than time spent on the actual repair.  He did not have a shop full of tools – just a small workbench in the garage and a metal tool box.  When he finally decided what he needed to do, he would go to the workbench, collect exactly what he would need, and have at it.

            So apparently he decided to cut the couch in half.  And then reupholster it.  Himself.  All the while, more likely than not, having to endure an unholy, never-ending tirade from his better half – a veritable sermon, no doubt, exposing all of his foolishness and erring ways, delivered in that nearly incomprehensible mishmash tongue of her own invention, which in later years we jokingly referred to as “Germish.”

            My grandparents owned that couch for the rest of their days – for over thirty more years.  I remember it well.  I would have never guessed the story behind the two-couches-that-were-once-one had I not been told about it.  Each one – now one large chair plus one somewhat-diminished (yet still respectable) couch – still retained its original, exaggerated, swan-like gracefulness – on one end, at least.  The other end, come to think of it, was by contrast stubby and more angular.

            Machts nichts.  It was the foreshortened ends that were, I remember now, nestled against the glass side-table.  Schon gut.

            When I’m not making a mess of things in the garage, I enjoy running marathons and going for very long bicycle rides in the countryside.  My grandfather must surely have had an abundance of willpower and endurance to stoically tolerate my grandmother for all those years.  I like to think that some of those traits wore off on me.  Alas, I did not, by any stretch of the imagination, inherit his cleverness.

            I did not inherit my father’s cleverness either.  His skill set wouldn’t do me much good in my current endeavors anyway.  Pop is a numbers man.  That is not to say he didn’t play the roll of household handyman well – especially in the early years, when it was probably out of financial necessity.  There were plenty of painting and wallpapering sessions, and one time he laid slate tile in the foyer of our modest split-level house.  Another time he built a patio out back, complete with tiki-torches and a surrounding rock garden.

            And in those “salad days,” occasionally Pop would tackle an automotive chore.  Mom likely shudders to recollect this, but there was a time when she drove a second-hand 1968 Plymouth Fury.  They bought it from my grandfather for one hundred dollars.  That was likely a family discount.  The car was probably worth more like one-fifty.  Two hundred, tops – with free gas for a year.  If it made it that long.

            That was a mean-looking monster, that car.  Seeing it there in the driveway, I always thought it would really, really suck to get hit by a car like that, with the last thing you see in this bright blue world being that scowling, frowning, and furious chrome grimace looking down at your dying self.  If Stephen King ever wrote a sequel to Christine, my mother’s Fury could have played the role well.  Although it was only about five years old when my parents relieved it from my grandfather, the New York winters had already taken their toll.  The rust-gremlins were eating away at the quarter-panels.  When the same malady ate holes in the muffler, my mother simply drove a louder mean-looking monster.

            For a while, at least.  Money was tight in those days.  I remember Pop crawling under that car with a coat hanger, a pair of shears, and a roll of muffler-repair tape.  And I also remember the special way he had of blurting, “Ah, shit!” when things weren’t going as planned.  It sounded almost like a sneeze.  It made me laugh then.  It makes me laugh now.

            Another time, I “helped” him install Pioneer eight-track tape deck in our 1972 Pinto wagen, I mean wagon (sorry – I’m a VW guy).  The car was the special “Country Squire” edition – you know, the one with the wood-grain contact paper along the sides.

            There were no Volkswagens in the family.

            That sentence I wrote just now makes me sad.  Can’t quite say why.  Maybe it’s a poignant suggestion of what might have been.  Like they never had children or the kids never had a dog or they never built a Starbucks within eyeshot of the house.

            The family would never know the joys of owning a Volkswagen – that rich musky horse-hair and coco-mat smell; the way the basket-weave vinyl stuck to the back of your legs when you wore shorts; the warm, purring vibration of the little air-cooled four-cylinder low-revving motor; the pleasant round lump in the driveway after a heavy snow.

            None of these things were my father’s passion.  He has always had, however, a passion for his family and a commitment to hard work.  He is also a dauntless optimist.  A rising telecommunications executive, he worked long hours and traveled often.  He wasn’t around a lot, especially during the week.  But we were never lacking.  We always took a vacation, the four of us – even if it was a week at the Jersey shore.  As time went by we eventually moved to a house in a fancier neighborhood, took flying-vacations, and bought new cars – which were maintained by the dealer.  Mom never suffered the indignity of driving a second-hand car with a holey muffler again, and I was given tacit license to skate on by, right through college, like the spoiled brat that I was.

            In my current employment, I am part of a dying breed – the unionized American worker.  As such, my compensation and benefits are just this side of excessive for the modicum of skill I purportedly have.  I greatly admire (more so every day) those in the skilled trades – electricians, plumbers, machinists, welders, maintenance technicians, and the like.  People who actually know how to do something, how things actually work.  But I’m more on the operational side of things, the main benefit of which is that it would be a real bitch to outsource my job to, say, India.  I have tons of time off, and very little brain-power is required to remain employed.  As a matter of fact, being of the union persuasion, I would have to show up drunk, with no pants on, before they fired me.  And I’d probably escape the latter offense with just a warning.

            Excerpt from the Personnel File for Bruce [the Bewildered], employee #83054:

            Employee was reminded of, and acknowledged, the importance of wearing pants to the fostering of a positive, safe, and professional work environment.  Employee agreed to wear pants while at work and will be monitored for compliance (ref: Employee Handbook Ch. 5 para. (2)(a)i. and (2)(a)ii.).

            My union membership notwithstanding, I like to believe that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and that I’ve learned at least something from the old man.  I do not shy away from hard work.  Just today I spent hours block-sanding and filling the driver’s-side door – the same thing I’ve been working on for a couple of weeks now – trying to get it perfect.  And I’ve spent countless hours correcting small imperfections that will be carpeted, painted, top-coated, or otherwise hidden.  Nobody would ever notice.  Only I will ever know – but ultimately, that’s who I am to please.

            It’s called integrity.

            One last thing about Pop is that he is one level-headed dude.  So sometimes when things are going really bad out there, and I find myself suddenly afflicted with a case of Midas-touch in reverse, I think, “What would Pop do?”  This in life, as well as in Volkswageneering.  Sometimes, the smartest move is to do absolutely nothing.  Roll it up and call it a day.

            “Sleep on it,” I can hear him say.

            As far as practical, hands-on Volkswagen experience, I have very little.  It is true that my first car was a 1975 Beetle, and that I did some basic maintenance on it, with John Muir’s “Idiot Book” always nearby.  Once I even replaced the clutch.  Pretty good for a seventeen-year-old on a busboy’s budget.  I installed new fenders from JC Whitney and got an Earl Sheib Special for my birthday.  By the time I passed it on (oh, how I regret that day!), it was looking really nice and got compliments often.

            I’ll wax nostalgic about that car another day, but the relevant point here is that there was roughly a twenty-year interim with no Volkswagen.  During that time I seldom maintained my own cars, preferring quickie oil-changes and scheduled maintenance with a trusted mechanic.  I was busy getting married and settling into a career, as the story goes.  Often I would daydream about getting another VW, but it wasn’t until I found my current 1965 model that I somewhat impulsively took the plunge.

            Being a fool, I seemed to have lost track of my original grease-smeared, dog-eared, tear-stained copy of John Muir’s How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: a Manual of Step by Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot (a.k.a. “The Idiot Book”).  So the second purchase, after the ’65, was a new copy.  Man, I’d forgotten what a wonderful book that is.  Not only is it jam-packed with useful ‘splanations and how-to’s; the conversational, witty, and sometimes irreverent writing style, coupled with the artful and downright hilarious cartoons make it a riot to read.  Having another copy of that book was almost as fun as having another Volkswagen.

Since then, I’ve amassed a small Volkswagen library:  restoration manuals, maintenance manuals, engine building and parts interchange guides, and miscellaneous other picture books for inspiration.  Add to this more general subjects like body work manuals, a guide to automotive painting, another guide to automotive welding, and even a “hot rod” manual (not my thing, but great for a theoretical understanding of performance, carburetion, ignition, handling, engine building technique, and the like), and the huge amount of material available online, and I have plenty to keep myself entertained from now until I pull the last of my hair out.

I am loath to blow my own trumpet, but this brings me to what I see as three things I’ve got going for me:

  1. I love to read, and I love to learn.  Hence  the ever-expanding book collection, and the hours spent on the internet.
  2. I have more free time than the average American.
  3. I am of one hundred percent German descent, as far as I know.

I know, I know.  I’m reaching with this last one.  But I was making a list, and in my world, two items doth not a list make.

Cicero said that.

            Still, nothing has prepared me for this.

            Did I mention that I still have no idea what I’m doing?


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