Zen and the Art of Lawnmower Maintenance

Insight is truly Zen – a flash of brilliant white light that ignites dozens of little fires. I was mowing the lawn when one came ....

The old Honda was a gift from a friend I had done some work for. With good friends, it’s always hard to put a price on your labor; there is the danger of money coming between, and good friends are too hard to come by. So I declined. But my friend Bob wouldn't have it. Take the Honda mower, he said, he didn’t use it anymore; it just sat in the garage taking up space. So I accepted.

Now, ten years later, the clanking and groaning of the mower came as no real surprise. The thought crossed my mind to buy a book on small engine repair and rebuild it, but my few successes as a fix-it man are far exceeded by the occasions when I disassemble something, stare at the parts, and try to reassemble it. Sometimes I get it back together, but seldom do I get it fixed. I am not one with machines.

·     ·     ·

I decided to take the mower to Edmondson’s Repair Shop. Edmondson’s was one of those places described as picturesque or a dump depending on how far you live from it. A small teal-colored shed with flaking paint and sagging roof, surrounded by once-red mowers rusting away in various stages of disassembly waiting a slow death in the Florida rain and sun.

Edmondson’s could have been one of those quirky places where a misfit genius turns grease and oil and an array of mislaid parts into miracles, a kind of mechanical alchemy – but it was not. Instead, men with little love of machines scratched out a living working for themselves, because no one else would have them.

“Piece a crap Honda, huh?” one grunted.

I winced. “Been a pretty good mower for me.”

“Aw, they ain’t nothin’ but Jap junk.”

“Well, this one needs an oil change and a tune-up–and I think there might be a problem with the driveshaft.”

The phone rang and he answered it, ignoring me. I waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, I grabbed a repair ticket, wrote my name and number on it, and hung it on the mower.

“Give me a call when it’s ready.”

Several days passed before I got the call and headed to Edmondson's to pick it up.

“I’d keep a good eye on the oil,” Edmondson said. “It’s burnin’ it pretty good.”

The engine had never been low on oil, had never burned any oil – I should have known then something was up.

·     ·     ·

In summer the grass grows thick and fast in Florida. The missed mowing from the previous weekend would not be good news for the old Honda. I put the lever on choke and pulled hard on the starting rope. Again. And again. And again. Finally she fired, screamed for thirty seconds and died. Odd. I pulled again. Again she fired and died. Hmm! A third time she started and this time she held. We drove off in the overgrown grass to do battle.

The sounds were not good as the old Honda struggled with the too deep grass. The groaning and clanking were still there as loud as before, only now they were continuous. And there was something new. I rubbed my finger along the top of the mower deck. Oil! Dark oil I had never seen on my mower before clung to my finger ominously and insistently.

Leak – always an ugly word. Oil, water, or gas – it’s never good news.

Now what should I do? Take it back to Edmondson’s and insist they fix it? No – Edmondson’s was not the kind of place to insist on anything. I cursed myself for dealing with a bunch of yahoos. What did I expect? Why hadn’t I gone to a reputable repair shop? Why hadn't I followed the sage advice that you get what you pay for?

The old Honda sat in my shed for years, waiting for a man who was one with lawnmowers.

·     ·     ·

Another of life's hard lessons is that sometimes you don’t get what you pay for.

There was the time I took my Datsun 280Z to the dealership to have the full injection lines replaced, before making a 700-mile trip to Nashville. Halfway into the trip, my windshield was covered with moisture, like it was raining, only it wasn't raining. I popped the hood on the Interstate and was aghast to find gasoline spraying all over the hot engine. The mechanic had replaced the full injection lines, but hadn’t tightened them properly. My wife and I could easily have been killed in a fire.

Then there was the time I took my GMC diesel pickup to the dealership to have the starter replaced. That set me back $375 for a rebuilt starter and another $100 for labor. The starter failed less then 8000 miles later, and the dealership refused to stand by their work. So much for Mr. Goodwrench.

Then there were the thousand sad things I saw as a carpenter ... the merely shoddy and the the downright dangerous things done by men who did not love their work. One thing I learned as a carpenter:  Good guys sometimes do bad work, but bad guys never do good work.

I thought on all those things, and I thought of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. And in that one white flash of insight, I finally understood what Robert Pirsig meant about being one with the machine and one with your work. A man who does not honor his machine or his work has no honor himself.

Mechanic, carpenter, writer, senator – a man who does not love his work can never do it well. He will do that which must be done to earn a dollar or a vote, but he will not do that which must be done for the machine or the cabinet or the book or the country.

Views: 140

Comment by Dicky Neely on January 23, 2019 at 5:18pm

Excellent post! I, too have experienced a litany of screw-ups by mechanics, plumbers and others, not to mention several of my own!

I have also had many moments of Zen and I hope for many more!

Comment by koshersalaami on January 23, 2019 at 5:52pm

And it helps if you like your customers

Comment by Tom Cordle on January 23, 2019 at 6:21pm

Dick  I fibbed a little in this post – I fix quite a few small things around the house and car, but I know my limits.

Kosher  Boy, you got that right! Thing is, though, a lot of people go into the trades because they are lacking in people skills.

Comment by Ron Powell on January 23, 2019 at 11:47pm

The small engines I worked on through college and law school:

My basic tools were the shop manual and the kit that came with the car...

My primary rule of thumb: If I could see it and put both hands on it, I could fix it

Comment by Tom Cordle on January 24, 2019 at 7:31am

Great cars, and British racing Green is one of my favorite car colors.

I had a bug that leaked oil like crazy ... I used to buy a two-gallon can of drain-oil and I'd run a hose into the oil filler spout and breeze on down the road leaving a trail behind me. Of course, it finally blew up after awhile.

I had a TR-4 that I absolutely loved. That starter went bad, so I always parked it pointing downhill, that way I could push it and jam it in gear to start. I grew tired of that, finally, and yanked the starter. Cost me $8 for a bushing, and I "rebuilt" the starter myself.

So I guess I'm partly one with machines.

Comment by Steel Breeze on January 24, 2019 at 8:25am

as a mechanic of 50+ years, i've always said if a man built it, i could fix it. but repair was the easy part, the challenge was to modify until perfomed better than the original design.......sometimes worked,sometimes not....

Comment by Rosigami on January 24, 2019 at 9:33am

My step-dad was a man who made his living, such as it was, as an auto repairman. He could fix anything, and he always had a band of truly quirky folks hanging around his shop while he worked, plus his big lunk of a Labrador/shepherd named Champ, who could catch bees in her mouth. 
I loved hanging out there. He paid his bills and he paid his assistant, but that was about it. He couldn't stand to charge people more than they could afford, so he usually got the parts paid for and a little extra. Not always. It drove my mother to distraction, but she made a good enough living to support them, and so it went. 
One time he had his assistant rotate the tires on my '66 Beetle. Afterward, I went to drive away, and two of them fell off. Yikes. 

Comment by alsoknownas on January 24, 2019 at 9:42am

Early on, being perpetually low on funds and high on determination, I decided to rebuild the carburetor on a '72 Datsun pick-up. Most of a Sunday had passed by the time I was ready to turn the key and marvel at my new skill.

Something had not been tightened properly, probably several somethings. I turned the key and the flames rose.

Mrs. dashed out on the porch and hollered "What's going on ?!?!?!"

"Hurry!! Call the fire department !!" I shouted back.

"Why?!?" , she hollered again.

"Oh Shit. The cat's on the roof!!!" I declared having lost all hope in matters at the moment.

Then it occurred to me to shut the hood and find an affordable mechanic next time.

Comment by Anna Herrington on January 24, 2019 at 10:04am

My husband would surely appreciate this post... he's a craftsman/carpenter by trade and wants his homes to last 100 years, a bit out of step with the slap em up home builders all around. I've also watched him take apart lawnmowers, his Datsun pickup, and carefully and meticulously replace the drive line in said truck, plus tons of other giant projects, fix whatever was wrong with the lawnmower, spend ages re-planing ancient doors so they re-hang correctly *in our rental homes* over the years...

with my brain so wired differently, pretty much anything not-mechanical I can handle, I am continually in awe of those folks who are good, careful and caring with mechanics, or in the trades. There's a hashtag going around on instagram some like to use, I like to go check out what's going on: #keepcraftsmanshipalive

Comment by Tom Cordle on January 25, 2019 at 9:07am

SB  Good on ya!  These days, though, it isn't mechanics that trip-up guys like me, it's electronics, and EVERYTHING seems to have some sort of electronic component. As a result, most appliances other than an automobile have become more or less disposable.

Rosi  Sounds a lot like my Grampa Frank, who was a very skilled carpenter. He could make anything but money.

AKA   Well, if it was a choice between my truck or the cat, I'd have had to let the cat use up one of its nine lives.

Anna   I can relate, I'm from the school that believes everything I do has my name on it – even when it doesn't actually have my name on it.

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