A Distraction at the Edge of Failure – June 30, 2021

It’s creepy quiet. It’s like that in the plant when there is no scheduled production. You’re so used to the louder-than-you-realize background noise of a factory, that when find yourself there with the lights dimmed, few people around and none of the grind, squeal and bang noises of industry at work, it’s unsettling.

I’m here because they’ve called the Team Leaders back to work one week before the rest of the plant is to report back. We’ve been laid off for the last four weeks, due to the ongoing global micro-chip shortage. We only worked for one week prior to that, as we’d been off since late March for the same reasons. Rumors and speculation abound as to how long we’ll work this time out.

Empty walkway of automobile industry. Interior of car factory.

Being off of work hasn’t really been a hardship. My plant is unionized, so we’re treated very well, even when we’re not working. I feel horrible for those at the small feeder plants that supply us with parts, who don’t have the bonuses and protections we do. They are struggling to make ends meet, as they are down along with us.

I haven’t written in quite a while, though I’ve obviously had ample time. Actually, I have been writing, but what I’ve managed to write, apart from this, is something I’m not yet ready to share.

I said in my previous post that my next entry would be a recounting of my mother’s surprise visit a few weeks prior. Several months back I had chosen to cut ties with her because of the near constant attempts to find a way to blame me for an outburst that my brother had on my her birthday, that resulted in a family schism. My mother wasn’t witness to the outburst, but everyone who was, my wife, aunt and cousin’s wife, had explained to her definitively, that I had done nothing to instigate his behaviour. According to them, I carried no fault for the incident. My brother, obviously, has disputed this, though he’s managed for the most part to avoid having any further confrontations with me, choosing to not attend family functions that I’ll be present at.

I have gotten far enough into it that by rights I should split it into two separate ones as it’s grown that long, but reliving that event on paper has dredged up a whole host of feelings. I’ll have to take some time to deal with those before I can put the story out there for the world (or the twelve people that read my blog) to see. You might guess that recounting the event as I wrote it down allowed me to see how I may have held at least some responsibility for what occurred, that perhaps I lashed out too harshly, that I found some reason to regret my part and to come to terms with shouldering some of the responsibility for what’s happened. 

You might guess that, but you’d be wrong.

With every word, with the deep self-examination that those words triggered, I found only more reason to be hurt and angry. Some members of my family desperately want me to take on what I feel is undeserved blame just to make life simpler for everyone, and that I just can’t do.

Believe me when I say I looked. I dissected all of the events that have occurred over the last two-plus years, looking for anything that could even suggest that I did  something to trigger this schism that has broken my extended family. I’ve looked at it again, and again, as objectively as I could, and I can honestly say that I’ve found no reason for my brother to became as unhinged as he did that night.

Before I travel much further down those particular tracks, I’ll cut this off here. It may not be satisfying, but I’m not ready to put the whole of that experience out there yet. I do promise I will eventually finish that entry and post it, I’m just not through examining it, and myself, to the degree I think I need to. I have to be sure that I’ve been totally honest with it, to you and to myself.

So, best to change the subject, for now.

It’s been a month since I last made a post, and for most of that time I’ve been laid off of work. I’ve kept myself busy and active, and have had some very good times in those four weeks, though they’ve been peppered with days that haven’t gone so well.

Both the re-hashing of my family troubles through writing, and the oppressive weight of the ongoing pandemic through this latest bought of idle time have brought on some very depressing days, despite the summertime weather. I’ve done my best to keep moving and to try and stay motivated, but I haven’t been nearly as productive as I’d like.

For the first time in a long while, I have to confess that I’ve slacked off on my workout routine, which I’d managed to keep at consistently for more than a year. I was doing well, working out four to five times a week, whether I was able to go to a gym or had to work out at home, but lately it’s been down to two to three times at best, sometimes even less. I’ve been hard pressed to push myself  keep up with my daily walks as well.

I’m really trying to get back on track with that. The last thing I want to do is backslide on my health goals as that might mean increasing my insulin dosage. Physical activity is one way I can work to keep my glucose levels under control, so no matter how depressed I get, I can’t afford to let my moods keep me from working on my health.

I started out on this latest bout of work down-time with two main project goals, and several smaller ones. The currently high cost of lumber has forced me to put aside any construction or wood-working oriented projects, at least for now, but I wanted to continue the work on my Traveler Van, the Roncinante, and work on the head-gasket replacement for my daughter’s former PT Cruiser. 

We bought the PT Cruiser nine years ago, a year before my daughter became old enough to drive, to replace our aging second car and have something the kids could learn to drive on. My daughter inherited it in her last few years of high-school, to use for school, work and through her University career. It’s been a good car, though like any other, it’s had it’s issues. I’ve always like the design, kitschy as it is, and I have a bit of a sentimental soft spot for it. It’s also a lot more fun to drive than the mini-van I’m driving now. Last summer, my daughter bought herself her own car, and gave the l’il Cruiser back. 

I debated getting rid of it, as we don’t need a third car, and were already looking at buying a new one to replace the Caravan. I held on to it though, as, like I said, it’s fun to drive and I have some sentimental attachment. We had been told a while ago that it was suspected the head gasket was blown, a notoriously common occurrence with that model, but oil treatments kept it going, as having the gasket replaced at a shop would have cost more than the car was worth.

Having so much time on my hands, I decided to see if I could fix up the Cruiser myself. We didn’t end up buying a new car, for no other reason than the pandemic protocols were making it a real pain to shop around and schedule visits to car lots. Since both our cars were and are running well, we decided to put that off for now. I figured if I could fix the Cruiser for the cost of a couple of hundred bucks and a chunk of my idle time, great. If not, she’d go to the scrapper’s. So, just before this last layoff, I removed the cylinder head and took it to a machinist to clean up and plane.

Once I got the head back, installing the new gasket and the cleaned and planed head went well enough. I replaced the spark plugs and ignition wires, as well as the timing belt. I had watched a bunch of YouTube tutorials, and got quite a bit of advice from friends more in-the-know than I. A local store called Princess Auto, kind of a Canadian version of Harbor Freight Tools in the States, a “Value Minded” tool and surplus Store, had opened a second location, also not far from me, which worked to my advantage.

Princess Auto has a very liberal, “No Questions Asked” return policy for their products, and since I normally buy quite a few things there, I didn’t have too much guilt exploiting that. I would buy a tool, say a foot-pound torque wrench, to tie down the cylinder head bolts properly, use it while being careful to keep it clean and new looking, which wouldn’t have mattered, and then return it to the store when finished. If I needed a different tool, say a smaller, inch-pound torque wrench for tying down the rocker cover bolts, I’d go buy it at the second store, and likewise return it when done.

Don’t think too harshly of me – I’ve spent quite a bit of money there over the years. It’s always my first go-to for tool purchases. I spent at least a hundred dollars there just in that particular project, and then again when the first location, now closing, had it’s clearance sale. I’m going to miss having that store right around the corner from my home. 

I spread the work out over a few days, so as not to let the project consume me. I still had work on the Rocii I wanted to do, and was behind schedule with making her ready to camp overnight in. I had planned to try and have a camp-out during our Victoria Day long weekend, (May 22 – 24), but the Rocii is taking more work that I imagined. Though I suppose all I really need is to throw a futon mattress in the back at this point and go.

Two flaws that I can admit to having and needing to work on are my impatience and my tendency to  lose interest in a project when setbacks begin to frustrate me. That’s come into play with the Cruiser project, unfortunately.

I know I followed all of the steps to replace the gasket and re-install the head on the engine properly, but so far, things haven’t gone as well as I’d hoped. I have a mechanic friend who has been shepherding me along and offering advice as I go, but this project is testing my admittedly feeble patience, and more than once I’ve nearly thrown in the proverbial, and literal, towel.

At first, once I had everything back together and the fluids all back in, she refused to start. I wracked my brain trying to figure out why, and retraced the steps I took putting everything back together. I went so far as to re-watch the relevant portions of the YouTube videos I had been following.

The first mistake I discovered was that I had mistakenly plugged the Cam Sensor wire into the Ignition Coil, and vice-versa. Hence, the no-start, as the spark-plugs were not getting any electricity from which to generate a spark from. Why the manufacturer would use the exact same connectors on both of those particular wires, I don’t know, since every other wire on the engine uses a different, unique connector, making them impossible to plug in the wrong spot.

After correcting that, the car did start, though it was running very rough. It would struggle to turn over, and when it did manage to catch, it ran rough, backfiring and shaking quite a bit. My friend N., the mechanic, offered some much needed advice over instant messaging, and I did my best to follow the troubleshooting steps he’d laid out.

Turns out, that particular problem was a case of me being over cautious. In my desire to make sure I did the best job possible with this repair, I had used some sealer at every junction that I didn’t have a gasket for, and even a few that I did. I had placed a bit too much of the sealer around the Cam-Sensor housing. The Cam Sensor measures the position of the Cam, to let the car’s systems know when to fire the spark plugs as well as other sundry things. 

The excess sealer was partially blocking the sensor, making it unable to see the position of the marks on the end of the camshaft that tells it’s position, meaning the ignition coil wasn’t firing at the proper times. Once I cleaned that up, the engine ran quite a bit smoother, though still not perfectly.

N. informed me that it would tend to run rough for a while while all the sensors “reset”, and everything else kind of “found it’s groove again.” Now, I’m only playing at being a grease monkey, and though I do know how to change the oil and replace the brakes, this current repair was pushing the limits of my abilities as they pertain to auto-repair. Most important, he said, was to make sure I burped the engine properly.

When you do a repair that involves the engine itself, often times it’s necessary to drain most if not all of the fluids out of the head and block. Naturally, before I started the engine up again, I refilled the oil and other fluids, and as much of the coolant as I could. The coolant is the problem, as because of the way an engine is designed, there is no way of just “filling” the coolant back up to the proper level. Just filling the radiator, the overflow tank and what you can fill of the block from the thermostat housing, still leaves quite a bit of air inside of the engine itself, as the coolant won’t on it’s own travel to fill air pockets above the housing in the block and the head. So, you have to “burp” the air out in order to fill it properly, which requires some patience.

Hence, my current problem.

Following the instructions I was given, I raised the front end of the Cruiser up on my jack, made sure I had topped up all of the fluids as best I could, left the radiator cap off, turned the heater up to full (a very important step) and the A/c off, and started up the car. 

The goal was, with the heat on full blast, to run the car until she got up to normal operating temperature, and then watch the level of coolant in the radiator. Once it got hot enough, the thermostat would open, allowing coolant from the radiator to flow into the block. Letting it run like that with the cap off would, supposedly, allow the air still in the engine to gradually be pushed out and into the radiator, so you’d have to watch the level in the rad and keep topping it up as it dipped. Usually, doing this for about forty-five minutes would be enough to clear the air from the engine.

Forty-five minutes is a long time for someone who is notoriously impatient, unsure of his skills, and often has to deal with bouts of anxiety. I did as instructed, at least until the coolant level seemed to stabilize for a little bit. I thought it had been forty-five minutes, but it could easily have been much less. I had forgotten to check my watch.

Satisfied, I shut the car down, replaced the rad cap, and lowered her back down. Then I took her for a drive. The running rough had smoothed out a bit, I’m not sure if that was the sensors resetting or the engine re-finding it’s groove or whatever, but it was easily drivable. And it did well, holding at operating temperature… for a while.

About my third time around the block, the needle on the temperature gauge started to climb towards the red. My spirits took a hit, but not too hard of one. I pulled back into my driveway, and then let her sit a bit. I could hear air bubbling into the coolant reservoir, but due to my limited knowledge, I wasn’t sure if that was more air escaping, or the coolant just bubbling over from the heat. 

I popped the hood, and when the coolant stopped bubbling in the overflow tank, I filled that back up and then decided to leave her alone for a day and go work on something else.

The disappointment I felt with the Cruiser project not going well the first time out affected me enough that I didn’t touch her again for a couple of days. Instead, I did some work on the Rocii. I put in some more work on the platform sofa-bed, giving in a back I could lean against, and strengthening the platform slats.

 

I considered taking the Cruiser down to my mechanic, to see if they could discover if there was something I had missed that would be causing the rough idle and especially the overheating, but instead, I sent off a message to my friend N., explaining the situation.

He promptly informed me that most likely I just hadn’t given the Cruiser enough time to get out all the air, and I should try burping her again, this time for longer. He emphasized that I should give it a solid forty-five minutes to get out all of the air, and that if I cut that short, the engine would still tend to overheat. I took in everything he said, and though he convinced me to give it one more go, I ended up waiting until the next day before I tried again. 

Again, I put her front end up in the air a bit, and turned the heater on full. I took off the rad cap, and then started the engine.

It started running as it had before, a bit rough, but smoothed out like before. I waited until it reached it’s operating temp, and then began to watch the radiator’s coolant level, waiting for it to drop.

After a while, it dropped a very little bit, and I quickly topped it back up. A little while later, coolant began to sputter out of the apparently full rad, sometimes shooting a few feet into the air. Again, I was unsure if that meant the air was escaping, or if the coolant was just boiling over. I let that go on for a few minutes, but then my anxiety at the situation again got the better of me, and I shut the car off. After I put the rad cap back on, I watched as the level of coolant in the overflow tank dropped once more, which I took to mean that the radiator was sucking in coolant to replace the air it had burped out.

I was nervous enough about the situation to leave it alone again for the day. My anxiety wasn’t because I was afraid that the engine would blow up, but more so because I worried that what I was doing was incorrect, and I was damaging the engine. I began to wonder if I hadn’t done something wrong from the get-go, and the overheating was related to something besides trapped air. For a moment I even worried that I might have installed the gasket wrong somehow, backwards or upside down, though I’m pretty sure that they can only go on one way.

The next day, with a bit more trepidation, I again took the Cruiser out for a drive. Since it was starting cold this time, it ran for quite a bit longer, before it again started to overheat. So back home I went, now beginning to get really depressed about the whole endeavor, and my perceived lack of skills.

I let another day go by while I worked on the Rocii and other projects around the house, trying to get my mind off of the Cruiser. When I did think about the car, it was to try and convince myself to just call my mechanic and make an appointment to have him check the car out. My mechanic is a very good guy. He’s loaned me specialized tools when I did the Cruiser’s water pump and again with this project. I’ve never felt ripped off or poorly treated by him, and would recommend him to anyone looking for a good mechanic.

I fired off another message to N., explaining what had happened, and let him know my thoughts on taking the car in to get looked at. My mechanic’s shop isn’t far, and I could easily drive the Cruiser there, from a cold start, before it would have time to overheat. I was pretty down about the whole situation, and since I do tend to see setbacks as personal failures, the Cruiser’s condition was adding to my lingering gloomy mood. A big part of me just wanted to close the book on the project.

N. again encouraged me to keep trying. I’ll say this for him, he’d make a great coach, because, as bummed as I was about the failure of my attempt at playing mechanic, he managed to coerce me into giving things yet another try. This time, however, he told me to try things a little differently.

There is a small bleeder valve on the thermostat housing, just below the thermostat itself. He told me to open it wide before burping the car again. I was to watch this valve, and to close it only when a strong and steady stream of coolant shot out from it.

Again, I waited another day to rev up my motivation to attack the problem. I opened the valve, and then started the engine. Things progressed as they always did, with the car starting rough and then smoothing out. I kept an eye on the small valve, waiting for coolant to begin sputtering out from it. 

Eventually, as the car reached operating temperature, the coolant did begin to spit and sputter out. It was slow at first, but gradually more would shoot out in short bursts, getting more frequent as the minutes ticked by. Finally, when a strong and steady stream came out, I shut off the engine. I could see the level of coolant in the reservoir tank drop as it cooled, and I took that to mean the coolant was being sucked in to fill the former air pockets.

Once more I waited a day to let the engine cool and build up my motivation to keep chugging away at this project. I was cautiously optimistic that maybe this time I had done everything right, and that things would work out as I’d hoped. My hopes had been dashed too often for me to be overly confident, however, but despite that, I took the Cruiser out for drive to see if I’d finally gotten things right.

As before, she started rough, smoothing out in short order. As I drove around my neighbourhood, the engine reached operating temperature, and then held there. I didn’t want to get my hopes up, but as I rounded each corner, block after block, the needle on the temperature gauge stayed glued to the center mark.

Until it didn’t. 

After about twenty minutes of driving, the needle began to slowly creep upwards towards the red, and dejectedly, I drove her back home before she could over heat again.

Given everything else that was going on in my life – the hurt and anger dug up by my writing about my family troubles, the idleness and boredom from being laid off again, the continuing background worry brought on by the still on-going pandemic, etc, feeling like I’d failed yet again only worsened my already dismal mood. I shut off the car convinced that I should just take her to my mechanic, or have her hauled away to the scrap yard. At that point, I was surely done with her.

The next day I messaged N. again, letting him know that I’d decided to give up and have my mechanic look the car over. A few moments later, my phone rang.

As I said, N. has been really helpful. He’s a patient guy and a great cheerleader.  He called and asked me to go over step by step what I had done the day before. I did so. Turns out, I forgot one important element

N. stressed that it was imperative that I take the rad cap off with the bleeder valve open before I started the engine, something I hadn’t done. I had thought that with the valve open, leaving an avenue for any air to escape, there would be no need to take the cap off. Apparently, I was wrong.

Again, N. convinced me to give it one last try, this time taking off the rad cap, and watching the level in the radiator closely, topping it up whenever the level dipped. He encouraged me to keep at it, telling me again and again that I was doing a great job for someone who’d never done this before, as it was by no means a beginner level undertaking. He assured me I was likely very close, and if I just stuck it out a bit longer, I would eventually get all of the air out, and then we could attack any other problems that might crop up.

So, that’s where that project sits now. I haven’t gotten around to continuing the work on the Cruiser yet, as I wanted to put in some more work on my Van and around the house before I went back to work. I will get to it this weekend, though. I’ll let you know how that turns out.

On the writing front, while I have made an effort to get back to writing regularly, very little of that has been work towards my current novel. Almost exclusively, apart from this post, my writing was focused on the recounting of my mother’s recent visit. I wasn’t expecting that to affect me as much as it has, so I’m setting that aside for now. I will get back to it, finish it and post it at some point, but I’m not sure when that will be. It won’t be until I’ve worked a few issues out with my feelings about that incident, though.

The work on the Rocinante, my 1993 Chevy G20 Traveler Van, is progressing, though I’ll have to go into detail about that in another post. I have some scheduled time off in August, and, unless I get more layoff time, I’m planning on having her ready to take out by then, if not sooner. I’ll be sure to keep you posted.

My health has been mostly good. It’s difficult to maintain consistently good blood glucose levels when your daily schedule keeps getting turned upside down. Inconsistent routines can throw everything off. I’m hoping we are back to work for a while before the next bout of down-time, so I can get back to a stable regimen. My sugar hasn’t been horrible though, just a bit higher than I’d like now and again. Though I have been slacking lately on my workouts and other physical activities, I hope returning to work and having a more stable  routine will help me get back on track.

This past Saturday, I got my second shot of the Pfizer Covid vaccine, and am a few days into the two week waiting period before being considered fully vaccinated. It’s probably a bit premature, but I’ve decided that I’m going to start living like the pandemic is over for me, in so far as I’m not going to worry about it more than I’m absolutely required to. That’s a big step for someone with even the small amount of anxiety issues that I have, but after the last fifteen months, I want to feel like I’m living again.

I don’t mean that I’m going to flaunt mask mandates, or demand mask-less service or any of the other stupid, attention-seeking stunts that the anti-mask movement engages in. I mean I’m going to absolutely take advantage of any familiar and long put off little luxuries and activities from the “before-times” that are available to me as often as I’m able. I’m going to make a special effort to meet with those of my friends that are now comfortable doing so, frequent my favourite bars and restaurants in whatever capacity I can, attend whatever social events are held, and try to return to the  “normal life” I remember, or as close to it as possible. And after not being able to do much of that for the past fifteen months, I’m going to relish and appreciate, all of it.

I’m going to end this post now, though there’s much more I could and want to say. I’ll save that for some other time.

Oh, and one more thing. A couple of days ago, I officially put an end to COVIDBeard™, the magnificent and majestic facial mane that I had been cultivating for 466 days, ever since we were told to go home and shelter in place, and the first Pandemic Lock-down began. It was fantastic in it’s beardiness, but it’s time has come and gone.

I hope you’re all well, and I wish you all health and happiness in this, (hopefully) the dawn of the post-COVID Pandemic age.

Be Well,

Rob.

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