An Oil Change Never Felt So Good

Imagery by the author
Imagery by the author
Illustration: Andrew P Collins

I’m can’t claim I was any kind of hotshot mechanic before an off-road accident pulverized my left hand, but like many car enthusiasts, I like(d) to tinker. Recovering my dexterity has been and will be an ongoing process, but I’m proud to say, after many months, I am back on the tools. And it feels good.

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The quickest version of the backstory here is that I crashed a UTV buggy, big time, in August 2018. Since then my left paw has been operated on many times and basically been in some form of immobilization or stitches until the last few weeks. Even when it wasn’t, I’ve had to exercise extreme caution around sharp things and caustic chemicals because the skin was very fragile.

But I’ve finally advanced to a point where I can start pushing myself a little more, going to occupational therapy a lot less, and try my hand (ha) at working with metal again.

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So to celebrate, I changed the oil on my Mitsubishi Montero.

I had heard some fresh Rotella might resolve the lifter tick the engine gets below normal operating temperature (it... kind of helped?) but mostly I just wanted an excuse to get greasy again.

The hardest part was working slowly. My hand’s configuration has been altered significantly since the last time I put it to work, and getting used to that in the context of mechanic-ing was a little unsettling. I don’t have a pinky anymore, and the remaining fingers are bent differently than they were for the first 30 years of my life. So weakness aside, grabbing things and manipulating them was hard. And frustrating.

To talk myself off the ledge of temper tantrums, which I edged towards after every “ping, ping, ping” of my 17mm socket falling out of my hand and onto the pavement over, and over, I kept just thinking of context.

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Like, “hey man, I’m working on a cool car that runs. This is living the dream.”

Many of you are probably already painfully aware that living the dream of wrenching on your own car is rarely as glamorous as it looks on TV. (Or, I guess, YouTube.)

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I mean, it was nice to not have Richard Rawlings or whoever screaming at me about deadlines or the Orange County Choppers fellows throwing chairs around. But it was cold, it was wet – yeah, I had to do this on the one “real winter” day Los Angeles got this December – and I kept doing dumb shit like dropping my drain plug onto the filthy floor of my apartment complex garage.

Of course, the threads were covered in little rocks when I picked it up.

“This is fun,” I reminded myself many times, between deep breaths. “This is my thing.”

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Now I’m not down with the gatekeeping attitude of “you’re not a real car person if you don’t change your own oil.” The convenience of having somebody else do your automotive dirty work can totally be worth the cost. But there is something nice about seeing the color of your engine’s spent lifeblood with your own eyes, getting a little more familiar with the underbelly of your vehicle, and more importantly, knowing that the oil, filter, and crush washer are changed with exactly the type you want and the appropriate twisty bits are torqued to spec.

I keep notes on my cars like grandmothers keep recipes.
I keep notes on my cars like grandmothers keep recipes.
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But hey, I didn’t write this to brag about my condition or show off my diligent note-taking.

The point is, a year ago, a nurse was coming to my apartment every day to change my bandages and lubricate an exposed tendon on my hand. I was in blinding pain all the time, I even couldn’t hold down a receipt to sign it. Now I’m carrying my toolbox again.

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In between, there was a 16-month montage of squeezing “therapy putty,” stretching, wearing weird braces, and feeling like picking my nose was about as athletically intense as bench pressing three times my body weight. Some other time, I’ll talk more about that.

And it ain’t even over for me. My left hand’s squeeze strength tops out at 25 pounds; my right is over 100. But finally, actually, it feels like the worst of this, maybe, is over.

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An oil change is amateur hour as far as wrench-turning goes. In fact, it barely requires many wrench-turns at all. But I’ll be damned if I didn’t feel like a master mechanic when my SUV was purring with fresh blood and a new filter replaced correctly by yours truly.

Take your health seriously. Focus on the long game. If you have a big setback, take your comeback as slowly as you can. And when you can take a win, revel in that shit.

Reviews Editor, Jalopnik | 1975 International Scout, 1984 Nissan 300ZX, 1991 Suzuki GSXR, 1998 Mitsubishi Montero, 2005 Acura TL

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DISCUSSION

Rykros the Disdainful - I drove a CX-5... and I liked it.

Apologies ahead, Andrew - this is a long one.

It’s the little things that feel friggen amazing, and I’m glad to hear that you’re recovery is coming along.

About 8 years ago (maybe 9? 10? I don’t know, my mind likes to muddle around that time period and I think I still have a mental block) I was in a head-on collision. The unibody of my Taurus wagon literally looked like an arch bridge afterward. Engine was just about sitting in my lap, the floorpan scrunched up like an accordion and crushed my left foot into the driver seat. Had to be cut out of the car. I think I broke my left arm by hitting the door so hard to try to get it to open. I was in a bad place and the adrenaline and shock were the only things keeping me going. It was still dark, it was a country road without streetlights, and I couldn’t see anything.

Long story short: 3 out of 4 limbs broken in some form or fashion. Multiple screws in my ankles, a metal plate in my left foot plus a bone graft, metal plate in my left arm. Foot was broken on a 90 degree angle DOWNWARD. This is why I can’t drive a manual transmission vehicle any more as a DD; even treadmills still cause my foot to cramp up, or if I’m a smart ass and try to do a sustained run (sprinting and short distances are fine, but anything more than a 5 minute jog and I’m toast. Yay ellipticals!).

That’s also why I enjoy DCTs so much; it gives me the joy of the FEEL of a manual, without having to push the clutch. And I can still left-foot brake!

But anyhow - a month of in-patient physical therapy. I think it was 4? months in a wheelchair; THAT shit makes you ACUTELY aware at how POORLY businesses implement accessible bathrooms and such for mobility-challenged individuals. It’s also why I NEVER take the “big stall” in the bathroom in case a person in need, needs it! Multiple months with a walker. Almost a year having to keep a cane by my side.

There was even the fear of getting hooked on pain medication; coming off Opiate painkillers is frightening, and awful, and I basically felt like I had the flu for a week. I couldn’t tell if I was warm or cold, I couldn’t eat. I threw up sometimes if food smelled strong. I got angry a lot. I had emotional breakdowns at the smallest thing. I came unhinged and screamed at people for the smallest things. It was. Not pretty. After weeks 2 and 3 I calmed down and things got closer to normal.

After that, I had years of “bad days” where I can’t walk well. Even now, if I get out of bed too quick, my foot will give out. Needs a moment; swing the legs out over the side of the bed, give myself a few deep breaths to get the blood pumping, and on my feet. A couple feet of walking and my foot loosens up enough that it’s good for the day. I’m lucky I can still walk normally at all, even run.

I still have large portions of the inside of my foot where there’s no feeling; just whatever the periphery of my nerve endings pick up in the surrounding tissue. I think I have a bunion starting to form at the base of my big toe. Every single toe was snapped off the foot and needed to be re-set. My Achilles Tendon was severely lacerated almost to the point of being cut clean off by the edge of the driver seat. It still can’t flex or stretch as far as my right (and I have somewhat-hyperextensible feet, ironically). My toes overlap each other worse than they did before. It’s a miracle my toes can even move, but up and down a few degrees is about it. No “wiggle your big toe... OK, hard part’s over.Kill Bill bullshit. Used to be able to grab things with my left foot. Not any more.

So far as my arm is concerned, my grip is mostly fine but I sometimes feel pain if I try to push too much weight at the gym, even though the bone has long since mended. And it’s an awkward sick feeling when I bang my arm on something hard, especially something metallic, because it’s that gross sort of weird skin-on-tendon, skin-on-metal slippy-slidey squirmy feeling. And it also pinches the nerves, which stings.

It’ll never be 100%, but after a few years, I finally accepted my new normal. Mostly because... after a few years, it just became normal! I’ve almost forgotten what it was like “before”, and the mobility that I had. You’re also now, probably, a human weather vane; I bet your hand aches when the weather rolls in. I thought it was bullshit too (it’s not!)

Though for you, you probably ARE at that “OK, hard part’s over!” impasse. I can almost tangibly feel your excitement at changing your own oil, and cranking that filter wrench. For an interest and a hobby we all love so much, and facing down the very real possibility that you may never be able to wrench again, maybe even in ANY safe capacity, let alone a limited one.

Plug away at your exercises, be diligent and accepting of new challenges. Meet them head on, be excited, and know you’re coming back with a vengeance. With every milestone you pass, you can flip off the injury with your good hand, and allow yourself a satisfied smirk. .

Because one day, you’re going to get pissed off at the Scout, throw a wrench at it with your LEFT hand, and then realize... you just threw something. With your left.

And FUCK A DUCK, is that moment going to feel good as hell.