An Oil Change Never Felt So Good

An Oil Change Never Felt So Good
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 pulverised 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.

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.

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.

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 he dream of wrenching on your own car is rarely as glamorous as it looks on TV. (Or, I guess, YouTube.)

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.”

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 colour 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.

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.

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 by 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 11 kilograms; my right is over 45. But finally, actually, it feels like the worst of this, maybe, is over.

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.