Under the hood of Jen's RAV4.

on being careful what you wish for, and getting it done anyway

This past weekend, I did something I didn’t think I could: I replaced the spark plugs and ignition wires in my car.

Several weeks ago, a friend and I were musing on the things we’d like to do when the pandemic has eased enough that we can be safely out in the world again. We talked at length about taking an auto maintenance class. We liked the idea of building real-world skills and flexing our independence as strong and capable women — as strong and capable women who also happen to be beset by chronic conditions.

In part, this was a lesson is being careful what you wish for, because not long after that conversation, I was on my way to a curbside grocery pickup when there was a sudden, terrible banging racket under the hood of my RAV4. When I popped the hood, I found that one of the ignition wires had sprung out of place. (In truth, it took me more than a few minutes to figure out what was wrong.)

I’d spent nearly $1000 on an extensive brake job in February and I was a) not looking forward to another expensive garage service, and b) afraid I’d finally reached the point in this vehicle’s life where little and big things would start going wrong with increasing frequency. (This is a 1998 model, which I bought new off the lot. I don’t know too many other people driving 23-year-old cars.)

With some encouragement from Twitter friends, I decided to attempt the job myself — though I’ve not done any auto maintenance work before. I was afraid of getting it wrong — or worse, doing real damage to a car I can’t afford to replace. But the internet can be a wonderful place, and after watching a few YouTube videos and finding guides like this one, I had a little more confidence that it shouldn’t be all that hard, and that my chances of really screwing it up were slim.

It took a few days to get the parts and tools assembled, but by mid-day Saturday, I was ready. I carried everything out to the car and popped the hood.

. . . And then was immediately stymied by disconnecting the battery, because I’d brought the wrong size wrench and I was trying to loosen the wrong nut. Not an auspicious start. But M carried the big tool bucket out to me so I could play trial and error with wrench sizes and went back inside to work on his own projects.

After finding the right size wrench and loosening the correct nut to disconnect the battery, I turned my attention the hole where the ignition wire boot had disconnected. The spark plug simply wasn’t there. I’m guessing that’s why the wire had come loose? I got the first new spark plug seated and then realized the OEM ignition wire wasn’t labeled with its firing order. I was taking them one at a time, to reduce the chances of getting them out of sequence, but I was nervous about getting it wrong. I pulled out my phone — the internet again — and found a diagram for the spark plug and ignition wire firing order, just to be safe.

Then I got stuck trying to dislodge the cap on the second wire. It’s a tight space under the hood, and it was difficult to get any kind of tool in there or even get a clear view of what I was doing. I called M for help, and he couldn’t get it to budge, either. I’d been trying to pry the cap loose by wedging the tip of a flathead screwdriver under the cap’s base, and that just wasn’t working. I was wearing myself out fast and kept having to take breaks to rest and stretch. By lucky accident, I found vertical slits in the side of the cap facing away from me, and I was able to pry the cap loose by wedging the screw driver in there. After figuring that out, the next one was so much easier.

Once I got the hang of what I was doing, I realized how simple the process was. It took some time to figure out a few things, and I had to take rest breaks, but I got into a nice rhythm with the work and I enjoyed it.

I was cleaning up and putting away the tools when M ran through the yard chasing Chloe the cat, who’d gotten away from him while out on her leash and harness. I called him over to witness the starting of the car, and he made a spectacle of standing far away and holding his hands over his ears, because he knew I was afraid of blowing something up. But the car started up with no problem on the first try—and no more banging under the hood.

I’d done it. I’d done the work on my car myself (with a couple of consults). When I drove out to pick up a pastrami burger as a reward for myself, I noticed how much quieter the engine is running. It had gotten pretty loud in the past couple of years, and I’d assumed it was because the car is old and was starting to run rough. The idle is smoother, too.

Part of me is feeling kind of silly for having been apprehensive about trying to do the work on my own. But how many people make the attempt? Maybe the work wasn’t, ultimately, all that difficult, but I’m proud of myself for taking the chance and getting it done.

This is a long way around to my encouraging myself — and everyone — to try to tackle something that looks scary. It meant a lot to be able to fix something in my life that was broken, especially because I hadn’t thought I could do it. I like surprising myself with the discovery that I’m more capable than I assumed.

Posted in thoughts from the spiral.

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