Let me be up front and say that I actually like listening to All Things Considered. What I'm less crazy about listening to is a lot of inane misinformation about cars, just to tenuously make some half-assed point about fatherhood and manliness and a bunch of other crap that actually made me long for a pledge drive.
All Things Considered is doing a considered thing about Men in America, a subject which, frankly, is about as interesting to me as Long-Term Cold Storage in America would be. Still, this most recent installment caught my attention because it's about cars, specifically DIY car repair. And, even more specifically, how, apparently, no fathers and sons do this anymore because it's just gotten too damn hard.
Really, that's pretty much what the story says. Here's NPR's own headline for the story:
... and here's their blurb for it:
The automobile has long served as a symbol of manhood, with lessons in fixing cars doubling as rites of passage for some boys. But that's changing, now that cars are getting more complex and less important in the lives of many young people.
This is just another one of those interminable stories we've been hearing over and over for the past few years about how young people don't care about cars, about how modern cars are more complex, and other related clichés. Only this time the writer has somehow managed to blame modern cars for the assumed loss of some nostalgic bit of father-son automotive theater that's been sugarcoated to the point where you'll get diabetes just conjuring the images up in your head.
The idea is that, during some golden era of the past, every weekend would find driveways packed with father-son teams working on cars, the unspoken love between them so dense and potent that it blots out the sun.
Listen to this description from a professor of "Men and Masculinity:"
RONALD LEVANT: Let's say, you know, they're working on a car out in the driveway there, you know, the hood is up, it's a hot day, right? They both got their shirts off, you know, they're each are kind of bending over one fender looking into the hood there.
GLINTON: Levant says, the image is so fundamental, it's so masculine and American that it conjures up deep, deep feelings.
LEVANT: You know, you walk out and you see that and you feel in your heart they love each other.
Of course, Levant qualifies this by suggesting that all these dads of that unnamed era were so repressed and emotionally stunted that synchronizing some carbs was the only way they could express love. I have no idea how you could even try to prove a statement like that, but that's not even what I have my big issue with.
The biggest issue is this idea that fathers and sons just can't do this sort of thing anymore. The writer, Sonari Glinton, has hunted down a real auto mechanic and asked him about this:
GEORGE CLOS: Most cars don't have dipsticks anymore. You can't drink a six-pack with your friends and change the oil in front of your house.
What the hell are you talking about, George? Sure, some cars have gotten rid of dipsticks, but it's hardly most. And, even so, for the vast majority of cars out there, if you want to drink a sixer with your friends and change your oil, that's a pretty realizable dream. Don't waste that Make-A-Wish call, people, because I'm pretty fucking sure the only thing stopping anyone from changing their own oil is a desire to do something else that doesn't end with a tray full of black, filthy oil.
Of course you can change your own oil. And, if you want, you can do it with your son. Is changing the oil as easy on a 2014 Fiat 500 as it was to change it on a 1964 Galaxie 500? Honestly? It's a few more steps, but that's mostly because of how tight that engine compartment is. Really, though, it's basically the same thing.
Plus, I'm not really buying that father-son auto maintenance was a near-universal thing. Sure cars did need more maintenance, but I suspect that there was a subset of fathers and sons who genuinely liked working on their cars, and they're the ones who actually did it — and the same is true today.
My father could barely operate a staple gun and had no interest in tinkering with cars, but I loved him anyway and still managed to become a gearhead despite it. I genuinely hope to work on cars in the future with my son, both on my vintage cars and modern.
Sure, modern cars are vastly more complex than cars of the past, but that hardly means they're these untouchable things. Along with the greater complexity comes greater tools to deal with the cars. For the same amount of will and determination it once took to rebuild a carburetor, you can plug a laptop into your car's ECU and learn how to improve and modify your car that way.
You can watch YouTube videos showing you (and your possibly hypothetical son you can't bring yourself to hug) how to work on all manner of car repairs. You can buy and install kits to improve your suspension, to increase power, to alter the lighting of your car or change the look or do any number of thousands of other things.
Just like you could do in some hazily-remembered and imagined past.
The idea that cars are too complex to work on, with your offspring or otherwise, is a lazy, clichéd idea the media trots out to fill air time and invoke rose-colored nostalgic thoughts that instill unwarranted dissatisfaction and hostility to today's youth. Some of whom may actually love cars.
So, my advice? Don't listen to NPR about cars. You can absolutely work on a modern car. Some things may be trickier, sure, but you'll learn, and the cars are a hell of a lot more reliable. Or, hell, get a vintage car — there's plenty of amazing ones out there, and if you want to work on a car for pleasure, have at it.
It may be the conclusion of this story that bothers me the most, though:
GLINTON: Levant says, dads today are much more hands-on. They're just much more emotionally involved with their children. George Clos, the mechanic, says, it's not practical or necessary for a father to teach his kids about cars.
CLOS: I teach a class for Boy Scouts on car maintenance and I tell them that, you know, the best thing to do is to learn to read the owner's menu and to join AAA.
GLINTON: That's advice he'd give to any father who wanted to bond with his son over cars. Clos says, leave the cars to the experts and just tell your son you love them.
This is ex recto speech of the worst variety. It's total horseshit. Sure, there's nothing wrong, if you don't care about cars, with just letting AAA handle it. But the idea that "any father who wanted to bond with his son over cars" should "leave the cars to the experts" and "just tell your son you love them" is almost offensive.
Wanting to work on a car with your son and being able to tell your son you love them are by no means mutually exclusive things. I don't have to pick one or the other. I don't have to make the agonizing decision never to express my feelings for my son just because I need his help with those little hands to get the cylinder 3 plug out of my Beetle.
I mean, for fuck's sake, NPR. I absolutely plan on working on cars with my kid and I told him I love him so many times that the little dummy probably thought it was his name up until he was two. If you don't want to work on a car, fine. If you don't want to bond with your kid, that's fine, too, for you. Just don't drag the developments of modern cars into the mix as an excuse.