Zen and the Art of Single Lady Car Maintenance

One of the things that makes me not that happy about single life is the sheer amount of panic that ensues when something goes wrong and a significant other could absolutely make everything so much better. At least in theory.


I think I have Car Attention Deficit Disorder. I grew up on subways and walking around New York. I do not get cars. I will not apologize for it.

I learned how to drive when I was already ancient in car driving years — 22. (I fondly remember my newspaper colleagues telling me stories about learning how to drive tractors when they were 12, and I didn’t know whether I should be impressed or depressed by that.) I had a driving instructor who had a face like Bill Clinton and wore tiny shorts like Richard Simmons.

You know, the kind of thing you can’t make up.

So, two weeks after I got my car, if that, I got into an accident. I rear ended a lady. I busted my front tail light and the hood of my Toyota Corolla was bent a little. I had to drive to East Texas and work for six months. I figured it would be fine.

And then, there was Tropical Storm Allison, and everything flooded. Including the car. And on my way to work one evening, the hood flipped up and cracked the windshield. My city editor, Jim, met me in a random parking lot to help me tie the thing down to the fender or whatever big metal piece was available for his boating rope.

The love of my life would have said, “You really need to get that fixed.” Or, “I can come pick you up when you drop it off to get fixed.”

A partner would have also dissuaded me from parking in front of a fire hydrant in Seattle, which is what I did after I drove there from East Texas in 2001. Again, I had no frame of reference for fire hydrants and cars and the fact that they did not go together.

Not long after I arrived in Seattle, I walked down the hill from my lower Queen Anne apartment into the Seattle P-I newsroom, bereft.

“Someone stole my car!” I was about to toss myself on the floor.

“Where did you park it?” One of my stoic editors asked.

“Right outside of my apartment, near the fire hydrant.”

They did not laugh openly at me. Someone suggested I check the nearest towing company.

Had I missed that in the driver’s handbook? Apparently, yes.

In California, I had the mother of all single lady car problems. On my way to work at the San Francisco Chronicle, a motorcycle cop pulled me over for…I’m not sure what. I had not updated the registration on my car for at least two years, because I’d been moving. I had not renewed my driver’s license within the allotted 10 days of arriving in the city. I did not have current insurance.

It was his dream come true. “I am going to have to impound this,” he said, asking for my keys.

A features editor loaned me the money it took for me to undo the $2,000 worth of neglect, to bring my car current. It would be about five years before I mangled that car and had to buy another used car. (Editors and co-workers have always come to my rescue during these things. It’s amazing.)

My biggest problem in my latest car are the tires. I feel like a jerk, but I am always in danger of a flat. I run over nails, I bang the tires against the curb. I am just generally not good at tire maintenance.

This summer, the issue is my battery. My car is old enough that it takes water in the top. Who knew? At this point, I will know more about my car than I do about relationships. Or maybe my car trouble is a huge metaphor for my relationships & tending to them and learning about them. It is all very mysterious. I do know that I no longer take it for granted when I get in my car that the thing is going to start. As my friend Pamay posted on Facebook not long ago: “It’s all fun and games until the check engine light comes on.” Welcome to my world.

44 thoughts on “Zen and the Art of Single Lady Car Maintenance

  1. In everything there are rules unknown to us. We get to navigate them daily stumbling into mistakes which depending on our attention bias come up later as why we are failures or at least less self-worth. In truth, we make similar mistakes all the time but where we are confident, we correct them an move on.

    As a information technology professional, I make enormous mistakes all the time. Because I am pretty good, I can figure them out faster than if it was my car or a social interaction. I can then quickly fix the computer issues myself. Whereas I take my car to someone else to fix. For a long time, I would ignore car trouble because I could not fix the problems myself. The change was buying a new car and a change of focus that I would treat it well and keep it healthy, especially so I could not worry about driving it out of town.

  2. I can’t be bothered with cooking. I eat an orange and an apple most nights for dinner because I HATE cooking and if worse comes to worst I’ll make microwave scrambled eggs…or spaghetti.

    However, I like you, am amazing and I’m sure if I wanted to I could transform into a wonderful cook and make great tasting meals. It is not one of my top things to do/learn/spend energy on.

    You’ve had great adventures that you detailed above and that that I laughed at…thanks for that. I’ve accidently put curdled milk on my cereal for two days in a row without knowing it. Bottom-line is that we are still alive and do well. When the time is right I’ll learn how to cook and you’ll stop running into stuff…until then don’t worry about it!

    • Yes, it is a miracle we manage to survive ourselves, I think! Car maintenance is not particularly high on my list of things to master, either, I have to say. It would be nice to have the peace of mind that comes with knowing I could fix whatever was wrong with my car, but the most important lesson I learned was that even when things go horribly wrong, there will be people in the world who know such things who are willing to help and it’s not the end of the world. I used to really take all bad things that happened in my life as signs that I had somehow failed at life. The great thing about getting older and becoming more mature is realizing that car trouble is not the end of the world.

  3. As awful as all that has been, you made it through! I learned to change a tyre well before I learned to drive (I actually said at age 18, “If I can;t get a ride there, I must not need to go”) And then I managed to write-off my car a week after getting it & my licence!! I’ve been pretty good to all my other cars; 4-6 month services, checking tyres, etc. (Changing the little b*tches that decide to go flat when I need to get to work -__-,)
    The things that drove me to tears, no few times, have been my experiences as a condo owner. “Good debt” I was told; hah! It’s certainly better than credit card debt, but like student debt it can be toxic as all get out. Any loan too large is always a problem (and anything which gives me near panic attacks is now to be avoided as worse than the zombie plague). Everyone always seems to underestimate the costs involved….But again, it has been a learning opportunity for me. I now know I can handle it when leaks happen, and immediately-necessary repairs pop up out of nowhere.
    The most important thing about all of the troubles I’ve run into is: I can overcome them, especially when I let myself get competent assistance. The help is worth every penny. And the new confidence and knowledge is worth at least my weight in gold!

    • Yes, it’s a very inspiring thing to know that you can handle whatever comes. Good for you for staying positive! A lot of my angst about being a single woman comes from the fear that when I need people most, I will be a burden to them in some way. But I’ve learned that most people really love offering help and that part of being connected to a broad community means that when one of your friends/relatives/loved ones needs you, you can also be there for them.

  4. I can really relate to your blog post – my car has broken down again today. It’s always something that I dread but I accept that it’s down to me to get it all sorted out and so now just get on with it – no drama and no tears (well not many anyway)

  5. This was a pretty funny post. I think all single girls out there can relate to the whole “car attention deficit disorder” ha my favorite line. I used to feel like that constantly because in 2000 I used to drive a 1987 BMV. I thought it was a classic, many thought it was ready to go down for the count. That car is no longer here and I now have a friend whose a mechanic.

  6. Single life sure does have its perks but having to take care of your car by yourself and get rid of all the big bugs and spiders definitely sucks! It’s always awkward/funny when you finally do take your car to a shop and they’re like “what the heck happenned?!” as if this was the first time they’ve ever seen a missing bumper….or “how long has it been making that sound?” ….uhhh what sound? oh well….good luck to the future!

    • That’s true! They always look at me like: “How did you do this?!” And I always look at them like, “That’s what I need you to tell me!”
      I’m thankful that things get easier as time goes on. I’m just on my second car, so maybe by the time I get to a third, things will be a little easier

  7. I’m grateful I live near my dad who miraculously fixes my cars. I’ve even been underneath the car, hiding my face as I hold a piece of the muffler that he’s welding back together.
    I was not kind to my first car. It received many dents along the bumper for a few years before I rear-ended another car – that’s a long story by itself. It took me a while to learn to care for my cars better, especially so that, while living in California, they can pass SMOG.
    Thanks for sharing your car experience.

    • Thanks for sharing yours! The guy across the street who helped with my recent battery experience said the same – that a lot of women live near their dads & can get help that way – I don’t have that luxury, but I’m glad that I have lots of good friends who don’t fall out laughing when I have car trouble. And it turns out there are lots of single women who know a lot about cars. I need to learn from them!

  8. Oh I can so relate to this as I believe I too have “CADD”. However I have been lucky in that I have located a good (well I think he is) mechanic. I suppose I should learn to follow in my sisters footsteps as when she was single she took a cooking class. Sort of learned to cook but more importantly met her future hubby who loves to cook and does not allow her in the kitchen! Not a bad idea but like you I just want the friends – you know like the mechanic, the cook, the cleaner, the gardner…

    • I taught myself how to cook over time, and I wish that learning the car situation was as simple and intuitive. Unfortunately, things start to add up when you don’t know what you’re doing.

  9. Boy! You sure had your share of the car-jeebies! I am a new driver too. It’s been three months and no accidents until now. I did make all my share of mistakes while learning though. Took me ages and several disgruntled instructors to get me officially on the road. I always learn by making mistakes of my own.
    Nice reading your experience. Nice to know I am not the only one!
    Congrats on being freshly pressed!

    • Many thanks! My dad used to say that the best way to learn any territory was to get lost. So I always think of him when I’m lost and when something goes wrong with the car.

  10. First, congratulations on being FP’d! I really enjoyed this post, and have (almost) complete empathy with you; except we have no fire hydrants in UK. After years and years of unreliable moptors, I finally bought something half decent a couple of years ago, and it has transformed my life. No more dread as I leave the house clutching the ignition key – I know it’s going to start. (And there’s always my trusty mechanic workshop just around the corner in lieu of a significant other, should things get desperate!)

  11. Great post! As a fellow news journo, you’ll appreciate that I did not know how to drive until I was 30 (grew up in Toronto and Montreal — hello, taxis!) and once took a cab about 200 miles to reach a rural story when working for the Gazette. Then I learned to drive and had a lot of (minor!) accidents until I got sick of paying really high rates as a single woman.

    I totally get this idea of CADD and appreciate the candor. This reminded me of a (deeply repressed) memory from the summer of 1996 when I came back to empty pavement (albeit with a boyfriend) and had to go claim my car from the pound.

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

    • Yes! I totally understand. The first major story I was assigned in Houston was to follow an air conditioning repair guy up into the attic of a house on a day when it was about 110 degrees. I took a cab from downtown Houston into the suburbs, rode around with him and waited what seemed like an eternity for a taxi to pick me up and drive me back downtown, while I was on deadline. I barely made deadline. The only reason I didn’t get heartburn back then was because I hadn’t driven a car yet and didn’t understand the depths of how deprived I was. I bet the public transportation in Canada is much better than it is in Houston, though.
      Thanks for the kudos.

  12. The trick is to get your first giant metal boulder-on-wheels while you are still living at home. That way your dad can teach you eveything. When you move out, you’ll be like: “Wooo look at me, I can change my own air filter!” Everyone will be so impressed.

  13. This world is a strange place. Sometimes it seems as if we lived by inertia, or trying to please other people instead of living our own lives. How many times have we heard that “mantra” of ” I don’t have time”… But time is what we have. Each of us are unique and nobody is entitled to tell us what to do. First step. Second step: mindfulness or “state of alertness” (Gurdjieff). Be yourself, enjoy your uniqueness, share your feelings only with those who look at your eyes and listen to you without trying to tell you his/her own problems. And then, listen to those people yourself.
    Love is not sought for. It is found.

  14. I am now more grateful than ever that my dad refused to let me grow up not knowing how to work on my own car! Heck, my husband calls me when he has a car problem on the road to ask me what might be wrong! He gets teased by the guys at work.

    I have yet to begin teaching my two kids basic auto mechanics. That stops this weekend! Car maintenance 101 begins at my house asap!! Although engines were much easier to service yourself 15 years ago, the basics will keep my kids from getting ripped off when they need to take it in for work. I figure they’ll call mom when they aren’t sure.

    It is good to know that you have emerged from each of your encounters better for the wear and wiser too! Thank you for the giggles and gratz on making Freshly Pressed!

  15. I have a similar, but a bit different problem — my dad owns his own car repair shop. Which means my car problems growing up have simply been “Hey dad, my car’s acting weird” and “Hey dad, change my oil please?” If I’m on my own, I’m going to be as lost as ever because I’ve come to take it for granted so much. Love your blog!

  16. Pingback: Single & Happy « aneroidocean

  17. totally agree with that first para. I’m single and happy too, but when I’m clueless, feeling insecure or afraid, I just wish there’s a man to assure me that everything’s gonna be okay.

  18. Cars ARE a lot like relationships, the more time and money invested, the harder it is to let go. And once you’re a “car” person, see how easy it is to get back into the flow of mass transit …………….. not. My only bit of advice to a vehicularly-challenged individual like yourself would be to either lease every three years, or find yourself a damn good mechanic you can trust. Actually, you have a better chance of finding the perfect mate than a mechanic you can trust. Happy motoring!

  19. “At this point, I will know more about my car than I do about relationships. Or maybe my car trouble is a huge metaphor for my relationships & tending to them and learning about them” – Loved this! Thanks for writing this

  20. This story reminds me of my very first car: a silver (well, more like rust colored) 1966 Ford Mustang. I had the habit in high school of filling the rust holes in the rear window seal with left over chewing gum. As gross as it sounds, it worked on rainy days when I didnt want the water to leak into the backseat. Great memories. Thnx for sharing.

  21. My first car I called Gideon. It runs on faith alone. You’ll never know what trouble you’ll get into the moment you close the door and drive. I’m happy though, I haven’t been in a huge accident with the very old car.

    It pays to know a few tricks with your car – apart from driving it. Or find someone whom you can trust to work on your car. Put that person on speed dial!

    Keep safe!

  22. Haha! Sounds like an account of my early driving exploits. Except the car I rear-ended was a Police car. yep, and I’m not even joking. What i learned through driving is that its all down to experience. And driving is expensive.

  23. In my younger days, I had enough knowledge to fix most basic problems which cropped up in those less complex cars.

    But, with our current hi-tech cars, those days are gone, and I have to rely on the fix-it man/woman.

    To me, cars are just like women, a total mystery. Best left to steer their own course and not to be messed with.

    Now I’ll slip back into my cave and draw some more cartoons for my blog.

  24. Great post – very easy to relate to. I personally disintegrated the breaks in one car fully…didn’t think the horrible grinding noise they were making for two months was that big of a deal. Go figure. Anyways, I recommend finding a place to live that has good public transportation. If the bus has no breaks, hey, at least it ain’t my fault.

    Congrats on getting Freshly Pressed! Stay happy, and single I guess!

  25. I didn’t start driving until I was 33. That was the age that I could finally afford to buy a car. I have had my car for 4 years and only have 27,000 miles on it and am at a point where here in the near future I am going to have to buy new tires and I am freaking out. Cars are great but the maintenance side of them sucks.

  26. I feel your pain. My check engine light has been on for 4 years. Most of the time my car runs anyway. I’ve gotten a little attached to that light. I take it as my car’s way of saying “hello!” every morning, but one day that light will signal the true demise of my vehicle and I’ll have to move on to a new one.

  27. “It’s all fun and games until the check engine light comes on” hahahaha. I am totally in your shoes – I have horrible car luck AND I am horrible at knowing what to do. I always call my parents in a panic (even before AAA) even though I should know what to do by now because I’m in my late 20s. Well, maybe one day. I just traded in my last car because it had it’s check engine light on for a year and after a tough six years was just ready to go. If my car were a person, it would have been an 86 year old lady who had a good life but was so ready to sleep. Forever. Best of luck with all future car woes, and congrats on being FP!

  28. Pingback: Top Posts in August: Single Lady Car Maintenance, Learning Intimacy & Wisdom from Alice Walker | Single & Happy

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