"With the certitude of a true believer, Vellya Paapen had assured the twins that there was no such thing in the world as a black cat. He said that there were only black, cat-shaped holes in the universe."
-- Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Warning Signs

Car Talk

I love the show “Car Talk” on NPR.  This is not because I am into cars or know about cars or even care about cars that much because I’m not and I don’t and I never have been.   But you don’t have to be into cars to enjoy listening to Tom and Ray Magliozzi (otherwise known as “Click” and “Clack”) diagnose car trouble on the radio.  Those guys are hilarious and it’s amazing how much advice they can give people over the phone.  Tuning in to their show is like listening to Abbott and Costello solve mysteries while blindfolded, and really, who wouldn’t like that?  My favorite part is where the people who call in try to mimic the sound that their car is making.  There are some brave and talented souls out there.

Just because I don’t love cars in general doesn’t mean I don’t love my car.  My car is a 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid named Heidi. She was my first new car to purchase by myself and I approached that very serious and adult decision with all the maturity and expertise of a first grader choosing a retirement plan.  Without doing any research or shopping around at all, I drove to the Honda dealership and bought a car. 

Heidi when she was shiny and new

See, I had decided that I wanted to save the world and I was going to do that by purchasing a hybrid.  There weren’t a lot of hybrid options in my price range back in 2005.  I was pretty much choosing between the Toyota Prius and the Honda Civic, and I thought the Prius “looked weird” so I went with the Civic.  (Seriously, I now spend more time comparing toothpaste brands than I did shopping for a new vehicle.)  Luckily, my extreme naivety didn’t get me into too much trouble at the dealership because there just wasn’t a lot of room to wheel and deal.  I wanted a Civic Hybrid, and that’s what I got.  The only real choice I had to make was the color.  (I went with “Shoreline Mist Metallic” and I’ve never regretted it.)

At some point during the process of putting myself in debt, the salesman explained to me how the “Integrated Motor Assist” system worked and mentioned that a new battery pack would cost $8,000.  But at my look of panic, he quickly reassured me that it was guaranteed for 80,000 miles and said I’d probably be driving something new by then anyway.  For some reason that seemed like a perfectly reasonable prediction, so I nodded and continued signing my paycheck away.

Junk in My Trunk

Heidi is a good little car.  Despite her dings and dents (for some reason people really like to run into her) and my husband’s grumbling that she has no pick-up on the highway (she does get up to speed eventually though, says the ticket he got in Italy, Texas), she generally gets me where I want to go with few complaints.  But when Heidi turned six years old, that big $8,000 battery pack in the trunk died.  (!!!)  The good news was that these days those batteries only cost about $4,000 (yea?) and the even better news was that Heidi only had 78,272 miles on her so the repair was covered under warranty.  (Yea!)

After being told that she was “good to go”, we were back on the road together, singing along to the radio and laughing about the bullet we dodged and things were smooth sailing… for 17 months.  And then the IMA system died again.  This time it was NOT covered by warranty, but the nice man at Howdy Honda got the company to pay for MOST of the new battery due to “the circumstances”.  (The “circumstances” were that a battery that in theory should have lasted another 80,000 miles only lasted 16,000.)

So… after ANOTHER new battery pack was installed, we were back on the road again, though more cautiously this time, with the radio volume on low and very little singing at all.  And yet, STILL something is not right.  Heidi’s dashboard just keeps lighting up with bright orange symbols of disaster.  I fear the end may be near.  But... it’s not fair… she’s so young.

Give It to Me Straight, Doc

I wish I could call the guys at Car Talk and ask them to help me figure out what’s really wrong with my little car.  But I can’t.  Because 1) after 35 years on the air, they retired last month, and 2) that’s not how mechanics do things anymore.  During none of the occasions that I have taken Heidi to the shop have I had to describe or mimic or act out her problems.  All I do is point to the orange light on the dash and they connect a little doo-dad to the computer and read a code and fix what the code says to fix.  I hate it.  It is so backwards seeming to me, so impersonal.  I guess I should be thankful that we have such modern conveniences when it comes to diagnosing these expensive pieces of our lives, but I miss the intuition, the guessing, the exploratory surgery.  After the new barrage of lights came on, I asked my guy at Honda, “When they replaced the IMA, did they check out the rest of the car?”  He said, “No, there were no other codes.”  Well… ok.  But maybe you should have anyway.

"I ate a red candle I found on
the bathtub and my belly hurts."
I can’t help thinking about my dog.  He’s a hybrid too, though we’re not exactly sure of the make and model.  Sometimes I wish Uno could talk so that he could tell me what’s wrong when he doesn’t feel good.  But he can’t, so I have to make my best guess.  And I like the fact that when I take him to the vet and give my amateur opinion of the problem, my awesome veterinarian checks out the whole dog instead of just the one body part that seems to be the trouble.  If I take him in for an itchy left ear, Doc looks in the right one too.  If I take him in for a sore back leg, Doc examines all of his legs and joints.  It just makes sense!

I know that computers run our lives now—my dog already had a chip inside him (which kind of freaks me out if I think about it too much)—and I know that sometimes it would be easier if I could just push a button and find out what my pup’s symptoms mean, but I am NOT ready for the “Integrated Doggy Assist” system to come along and take the place of my vet’s forty years of expertise and know-how.

Yeah, I drew that.

Down the Road

I’m not sure what’s in store for my little Heidi.  We’ll probably keep making repairs on her for a while longer, begrudgingly, rather than shop for something new.  And when we do go shopping, it will not be for another hybrid.  My husband is fed up with them, and I can’t really blame him.  His 2010 Volkswagon Jetta TDI gets better gas mileage than my car AND has power.  Who knew?  (Oh, yeah, he did, because he actually researched his vehicle choices.)

As for the dog, we’ve made the investment for the long haul, though we know there is going to be some body work in our future.  I just wish those legs came with a warranty. 


  1. Indeed, I have been working on cars all day and finally have a second to comment. I do like the Tappet Brothers. I like to challenge myself and "play" along with them trying to guess the problem too.

    Darcy has realized with all the times I've come across a problem that cars are not as easy to diagnose as she thought. She believed it to be exactly as you said - that the diagnostic scanner tells you what to fix and that's it. It's not that simple. The scanner tells the mechanic what is out of specification, however, there can be many causes for that fault.

    Darcy has equated fixing cars to doctors practicing. You rule out the easiest and most likely causes first until you find the problem or rule out everything else.

    I recently had a car come in that didn't have a code, yet it wouldn't start, long story short, it took me 3 days to rule out the different possibilities until I determined the computer itself as bad.

    In another case, the code may say the oxygen sensor is reading the exhaust as being lean (which means it's reading an abundance of oxygen). This could be caused by the sensor being bad, a faulty injector, a faulty spark plug, a faulty distributor, a worn engine or a number of other conditions. Most people will replace the oxygen sensor and when that doesn't solve the problem, they wonder why.

    If the customer doesn't complain of any other problems, I will only check the most basic items. Fluids, brakes, belts, suspension. This are maintenance items that need to be kept up on. Any other problem will only be checked if there's a reason to check it.

    People are already leery of mechanics that fix problems that haven't become a problem yet. Without a reason to check, it seems a little suspicious.

    I had more to say but after being interrupted by dinner, I've lost most of my train of thought.

  2. Hi Mrs. Juettner! I can't believe your not teaching anymore!! I hope you're enjoying writing! Your still my favorite teacher! :)