Paint boxes and used cars: tactile and tacit

In the Learning Creative Learning online course, one suggested activity this week was to read Gears of My Childhood, Seymour Papert’s essay on how playing with gears as a very young child has influenced his life, and to share with others in the course a similar reflection based on your own experience.

I’ve enjoyed reading many of these. People talk about skateboards, about a box of dress-up clothes, about a “typewriter” with 12 keys (constructed from an egg carton, a paper-towel tube, and similar highly engineered materials).

One woman wrote about a box of watercolor paints her mother got for her:

…which she said were the best watercolors on the market at that time. I felt so professional! I made many paintings with them, including huge ones… The little watercolor pans are incredibly visually appealing to me and have a particular paint smell that I still find irresistible. I love the case, the way it snaps, the way the brushes fit elegantly in the isle between the rows of pans, and the way the palette comes out and attaches to the box to create huge mixing space.

She captured me with that snap. To me the word, the sound perfectly captures a way in which childhood memories are stored so deeply. We’re attending (without necessarily focusing deliberately) on so many parts of the experience and interpreting them in ways that make sense to us.

So the snap of the box is a central part of how she remembers and relives her paintbox experience. She is now a teacher of visual and media arts. In her comments, she says:

I recommend that my students go touch all the sketchbooks in the art store and buy the one that feels the best to hold. For many it helps establish a different relationship with the work and be a lot more productive. I think this concept also applies to the physical spaces in which we live and work.

Immediately I thought of an artifact from long ago — a repair manual I bought in college to help maintain my 1963 VW Beetle. I’ve written before about How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive as an outstanding job aid.

The words about touch, though, reminded me of chapter 3, “How to Buy a Volkswagen.” The chapter is 10 pages long, including an 18-step “pre-purchase procedure” that starts by telling you what tools to bring along.

It’s crammed with practical information intended to help the novice make a better decision about a used car:

[Start the car, and with the engine idling]…put your hands over the tail pipes, quickly because they’ll soon be hot, and feel the pressure. Feel the pulses; they should be even…

Then hold your hands about four to five inches away, letting the exhaust pass over them. The pulses should be even and about the same temperature   If they are not, the engine needs or will soon need a valve job.

 Prior to that pre-purchase procedure, Muir has advice on things to do before you even put the key in the ignition. These are paraphrases:

  • Walk around and look at the car. Does it sag and look beat? Do the doors open and close well?
  • Put your foot on the brake; it should stop three inches or more from the floor.
  • Push the clutch pedal with your hand till it’s hard to push. Let it up and see how much free play there is. More than two inches: the clutch is suspect.

He goes on with a short paragraph about the upholstery (as an indicator of overall treatment), the engine (it’s air cooled – dirt is a bad sign), play in the front wheel.

And then:

Now sit back and look at it again. Does it stand up with pride? Does it feel good to you? Would you like to be its friend? Use your other senses. Sit in the driver’s seat and scrunch your butt around. Hold the wheel and close your eyes and FEEL!

…Get away from the car and the owner or salesman to let your mind and feelings go over the car and the idea of the car. What has its karma been? can you live with the car? Walk around or find a quiet place, assume the good old lotus and let the car be the thing. At this point some revelation will come to you and you will either be gently guided away from that scene…

It is important that you neither run the motor or ride in the car until this preliminary scene has run its course. It also puts the owner-salesman up the wall because he has no idea of what you are doing and will be more pliable when the hard dealing time comes.

I was never quite that touchy-feely, not even when I bought my original copy of this guide from the Whole Earth Catalog back in 1968 or so. But I think Muir did a great job of situating the pragmatic, procedural parts of VW ownership and maintenance within the context of the reader situating the car into his life.

4 thoughts on “Paint boxes and used cars: tactile and tacit

  1. What great memories in this manual. I maintained my 69 VW Bus and rebuilt the engine using this as reference. What was so helpful with this book is that it was a shared experience with John Muir. I did this; so can you. Other manuals (Haynes and others) were impersonal sequences.

  2. Don, you are exactly right. I think that’s why I included such long passages–to give a sense of John Muir’s voice, guiding you through whatever the process was.

    I did not rebuild an engine, though I removed one. I’ve always smiled at the three tiers of tools Muir had (for non-cult members: Muir put each repair or maintenance task into one of three tiers; he also had corresponding lists of tools, so that if you had all the Tier I tools, you could take on and Tier I job, and the fact that removing an engine is a Tier II job.

    “I did this; so can you.” Just terrific. Thank you for commenting.

  3. Hey Dave. Arrived here via LCL. That v-dub manual brings back some fond memories of my ’67 Beatle. I can still recall the chapter on throttle pedal adjustment and the author’s warning “don’t diddle the clevis…”. Brilliant! Anyway, thanks.

  4. James, thanks for dropping by. And look what’s going on: several people, most of them lacking a technical background, recall with clear affection a book that shows you how to do things like adjust valve clearances or cope with spark plugs that come out of the engine with the sleeves from the spark plug hole still attached.

    It seems to me that at least part of that affection stems from the good-teacher syndrome: John Muir was directly responsible for my ability to successfully do X with my car.

    Yes, I had to apply his guidance, and most likely I made mistakes along the way. But as a kind of auto-maintenance instructional designer, Muir did a hell of a job.

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