Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Car Talk

Ever listen to Car Talk on NPR? It's great! I don't know if it's still on the air, but the few times I listened to it, I was very entertained/educated/impressed. These two wise-cracking brothers field calls from people with problems and questions about their cars. With only the slightest info given to them, these brothers can diagnose problems and recommend solutions in an instant. The depths of their knowledge of makes, models and the unique characteristics of all cars is astounding. It's like an extended version of Marisa Tomei's expert testimony in "My Cousin Vinny," only it's not scripted. These guys are talking off the top of their heads, and they're funny! Listening to them, it really makes me wonder at how much there is to know about things we use so frequently, and take for granted.

I'm a curious person by nature, and I like to learn about new things and feign deep knowledge about them. Cars are no exception. There was a two-week period three years ago when I couldn't read enough about cars and mechanics. It was fascinating how the internal combustion engine works, how the fuel-air mix is injected, how the valves are timed, how the spark plugs fire at just the right time to cause an explosion and force the piston back. Don't even get me started on transmissions! Not that I can say much about them, but it's so fascinating how they transfer motion from the engine, to the drive shaft, and then to the wheels. And then you add in the gears. It seems so complex, but those are just the bare-bones basics! Every car has computers in the engine that regulate so much activity, it's mind-boggling. How do people like Click and Clack get to be so conversant with the facts of car operation and maintenance? Such mastery of knowledge makes me insanely jealous, of course.

I like to read car magazines every now and then to fantasize about cool cars I'll never own. I try to follow along with the jargon, the technical specs, and the nit-picking accounts of suspension, down-force, under/over steer, etc. It's all Greek to me. But the people writing, and even "normal" people in online forums, notice these things as readily as if the car was neon purple. Again, envy rises in me. I want to learn so much about cars that I can talk impressively about them and fix the cars of my friends and family so they won't get gouged by "professional" mechanics. Sure, I could do that.

But then a humbling experience brings me back to reality. I went car shopping with my wife. The salesman was really cool. He didn't try to oversell us on the car, didn't embellish features to impress/deceive us. But I couldn't scrutinize the car the way I wish I could. All I could do was ask "What does this button do?" and "How do you turn on the high beams?" Humiliating. I flirted with the idea of looking under the hood for about a half-second before realizing how foolish I would have looked to both my wife and the salesman just looking at the engine, saying "Looks good!" We drove it, though, and it's a sweet ride! It's a Volvo, too, so it's safe. The car would be for my wife, primarily, so I guess it doesn't matter what I know about it. It gets good reviews, mostly, from the people who know and drive it. But it would have been SO satisfying to go in there, brains blazing about how long it takes the turbo to kick in, the handling at high speeds and the reliability of the drive train. Let that salesman know I know all the shortcomings of the car. The only reason I'm looking is because my wife thinks it's pretty. So he better bend over backwards (or downwards on price) if he wants to make a sale!