Do stuff you’re bad at

It was dark in my old home town and I’d just run over a curb.

I was piloting the Nissan Rogue Sport SUV I’d rented earlier in the day, driving through Ambler, Pennsylvania, a half-mile from where I went to high school and 400 miles from where I live now. You know how, when you get behind the wheel of a vehicle you haven’t driven before, it takes a little while to get used to how wide it is and how sensitive the pedals are? That was me. And I hadn’t been to Ambler in decades.

I’d take a short trip to the drugstore at about 8pm to pick up some distilled water for my medical device, pulled into the driveway of a strange Rite Aid, and cut the wheel a little too soon. The Rogue easily hurdled the curb — way to go, Sport! — and as I pulled into the parking space, a low tire pressure warning appeared on the unfamiliar dash. I walked around the car and sure enough, the tire on the passenger side was flat.


I called the emergency roadside number on the rental keychain and waited five minutes on hold. Finally a woman came on the line.

“Are you in a safe location?”

“Yes,” I said.

“What’s the problem?” she asked.

“I have a flat tire,” I responded.

“Is there a spare tire?”

“I’m sure there isn’t,” I said. Then I looked in the back, figured out how to open up the panels covering the back part of the SUV, and pulled them up.

There was, indeed, a spare tire.

I’m an idiot, I thought. I told her I’d fix it myself and hung up.

Everyone should be able to change a tire, right?

When was the last time you put on a spare tire?

If you read this blog, you’re probably not an auto mechanic. And you probably fall into one of two camps.

Some of you are saying, “Everyone should know how to put on a spare tire.” It’s one of those things you should learn to do, like writing a check or buying condoms in a drugstore. So you are saying, “See, you should know how to do that, and if you don’t, it’s your own fault.”

Others are saying, “Half the cars don’t have spare tires any more, you can always call roadside assistance, how often does a person need to put on a spare tire? Be serious, dude.”

Well, I did at one point know how to put on a spare tire. I learned how to do it in a high school driver ed class, about half a mile from where I was stuck at that very moment. And I’d done it once or twice — but the last time was some time in the 1980s, when Duran Duran and Dire Straits were all over the radio. And Duran Duran and Dire Straits were not available to help me change the tire in 2021.

But I said, “Hey, I can do this.” After all, I did it when I was 28. Why shouldn’t I be able to do it when I am 63?

I’m a lot fatter and the back and the knees are in crappy shape but really, I ought to be able to change a tire, just like those of you who are male and over 50 are all saying I should. Lord knows how long it would take to get AAA out there, or whatever passes for roadside assistance for the rental car company. So instead of waiting around, I decided to do something.

The jack was a diamond-shaped thing called a scissor jack, just like the ones I’d used on my ancient Toyota station wagon in the 80s. The spare was one of those skinny donut tires, not a full sized spare, but seemed to be fully inflated. So I hauled all the stuff out, laid out low next to the side of the car, and observed the part of the frame under the front passenger door where, if things hadn’t changed in the last 40 years, that jack should attach.

Here are the steps I remembered from driver ed in 1975.

  1. Put a chock (a wedge-shaped piece of wood or metal) under a tire to keep the car from rolling.
  2. Put the jack under the frame in the right spot.
  3. Use the tire iron and other pieces of the jack to jack it up, but not completely off the ground.
  4. Loosen and remove the lug nuts in a star-shaped pattern.
  5. Jack it up a little more so it’s off the ground.
  6. Take off the tire.
  7. Mount the spare.
  8. Put the lug nuts on, finger tight.
  9. Let the jack down a little so the tire touches the ground.
  10. Fully tighten the lug nuts in a star-shaped pattern.
  11. Let the jack down all the way.
  12. Put the jack and the flat tire in the trunk and drive away.

You might switch steps 3 and 4. But if you know how to do this properly, can you see the step I left out?

Theory versus practice

I skipped step 1, because there was no chock in the back with the jack, and no convenient rock nearby to wedge under the tire.

I put the jack in the right spot and started to crank it by connecting the jack to two separate metal pieces, one of which is the lug wrench that doubles as a crank. It eventually became clear which direction of rotation would raise the jack and which would lower it. I cranked for a while, and the car rose up a half inch at a time. But the jack had somehow gotten canted and was no longer straight up and down.

So I cranked it down again and, grunting and sweating and sliding around on the asphalt, repositioned the jack and started again.

I took my jacket off. Thank God it wasn’t too cold and it wasn’t raining.

I cranked the jack up again. The tire lifted enough that I could start loosening nuts. But the jack was off axis again. And this time it was starting to look twisted.

I tend to do a half-assed job with these things, so for a moment I seriously considered going ahead with the jack canted like that. But if that failed, the car could fall over on me or onto the bare steel wheel or something else really awful could happen. So I tried to crank it back down again. But it wouldn’t go.

At this point, I cursed the people who’d designed the driveway of the Rite Aid, the designers of the jack, the manufacturers of the tire, and the people who’d named the vehicle “Rogue Sport” (surely, with a name like that, it should be able to handle going over a curb, right?).

I began to figure out that there was nothing wrong with the jack or my placement. When the car rose up a little, it was moving a little forward. And you don’t want a car to be moving when you’re working on it.

I got back in the driver’s seat, turned the car on, and pulled forward six inches. The car came down off the jack, I could feel it settle back down. Not the best way to do it, but now at least the jack was disengaged.

So I set the parking brake, just as I should have done in the first place to keep the car from moving. (If you correctly identified “Set the parking brake” as the missing step in my list, you get a gold star. I’d forgotten that I was supposed to do that in the 40 years since I last changed a tire.)

Then I removed the headrest from the passenger seat and wedged it in front of the right rear tire. It wasn’t ideal, but it was better than nothing.

My pants were dirty, I was sweating like a pig, it was still dark and little cold, but I had a feeling that now it might work. The jack was still in reasonably good shape despite my abusing it.

So I jacked the car up again (this time, it stayed straight — which is why you put the brake on!), and started to loosen the lug nuts. Since they had been tightly attached by somebody with an electric machine, this required positioning the lug wrench on each nut and jumping up and down on it until the nut came loose. I actually remembered that part from the last time, even though it was at least 70 pounds ago. Finally, a moment when being obese was an actual advantage in this process.

Steps 4 through 11 went just as they were supposed to. I was inordinately proud of remembering that you don’t jack the car all the way up before loosening the nuts (if you do, the tire just goes round and round when you’re trying to take the nuts off) and that you loosen the nuts on alternate sides of the hub, and tighten them in the same sequence.

I cranked down the jack and threw it and the flat tire into the back of the Nissan Rogue Sport (take that, sport!) and, for the first time that night, actually went into the drugstore. It was a full hour since I’d pulled into the entrance and jumped the curb.

They were out of distilled water. Figures.

Doing things badly

I am a hell of a writer. I’m an awesome editor. I’m excellent at math. I’ve been doing these things for decades.

As an auto repair guy, I suck. I’m one step above “helpless.”

Anyone who spends time around cars would laugh at my flailing around with the tire. But I felt some pride at having, however badly, accomplished my goal. I wasn’t helpless. I was actually proud of being one step above that. And next time I do this — if it indeed occurs before spare tires disappear entirely — I’ll do better, including setting the parking brake first. I learned that one thing, at least.

As I help people to learn about writing, I need to remember that they haven’t been practicing for decades, they had teachers who taught them the wrong way to do things, and they lack confidence. I know how that feels, if I stop to think about my tire.

“Just write,” I think as I advise people. As if you could just write. As if you just knew how to do it. As if I were an auto mechanic and said to you, “Just change the tire.”

This week, I read Amber Naslund’s piece “It’s easy because you’re fucking good at it.” She said, be proud of what you know, and confident about it. Don’t forget that you know stuff other people don’t. And I read Rishad Tobaccowala’s piece about how talent is going to quit and make money from being talented.

Yeah, Amber and Rishad, I made a career out of that. I know I’m good. I’m not shy about it.

All of us focus on what we’re good at, because it’s fun and you feel good when you’re doing it.

But sometimes you have to do stuff you’re not good at.

You know, like changing a tire.

Do it badly. But do it, nonetheless. Stop running from stuff you’re bad at; do it enough to get better at it.

I’m bad at cooking, too. But I’m learning. (My wife is the experienced and talented one, and she’s patient.)

I’m bad at playing the piano. But I’m giving it a shot. I may be 63, but I’m not done learning.

True, I probably almost dropped a car on my foot. But I figured it out. I muddled through. I got to the end and drove away, even if I never did get that distilled water.

Honestly, just do more things you’re no good at. You have to start somewhere. And you never know when you’ll need to change a tire, or play the piano, or cook a meal — and have the confidence to do it, even if you do it badly.

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One Comment

  1. You just made my day with this post! I’m OK around vehicles but I’ve been bad at golf for 40 years. Playing again on Wednesday !%^&*^%$#!!!