Scheduled Maintenance

Tom Bodett

Tom Bodett | May 25, 2016

I spent yesterday morning at one of the best medical centers in the country for a series of routine tests and check-ups. As far as those things go it was pleasant. The staff and doctors were cordial. The place was clean and relaxed. I’m not going to die next week. All good.

The warning lights go from "Service Engine Soon" to "Pull Over Or Die!", in about ten days. (A+ Japanese Auto Repair)

I am spending this morning at the Toyota dealership service center outside of Keene, New Hampshire for a series of routine tests and check-ups on my van. Also very pleasant – cordial staff, clean, calm, wi-fi, etc. Not as much hand sanitizer at the dealership. No free coffee at the hospital. All in all, though, very parallel experiences and I’m sitting here in the waiting room sipping coffee that is surprisingly not awful using the free wi-fi and trying to figure out why I feel so differently about yesterday and today.

I brought in the van for its appointment without hesitation. In fact, as I sit here waiting for the outcome: new oil, clean filters, summer tires, brake wear report – a sense of gleeful anticipation is palpable. I’ve been riding around for ten days with the maintenance lights glowing disapproval from the dashboard. They start subtly, “Maintenance Needed Soon.” This gets it on your mind. Then it progresses through “Maintenance Required” and “Maintenance Required Now!” to “Pull Over Or Die!”

Figure 1. Terrifying. Figure 2. Not terrifying. (Tom Bodett)

I made that last part up, but that’s what it begins to feel like after ten days. I booked this appointment and cleared a morning I couldn’t afford to lose in order to be here.

My medical appointments took me months to get around to. I skipped last year altogether. Anything at all on my calendar was more important.

“Sorry, the seventh is no good. It’s the birthday of my brother who I think still lives in California somewhere. And the tenth is worse. I have a haircut AND it’s time to fertilize the fruit trees. Sorry.”

This guy understands the importance of regular plant maintenance. But we won't ask when he last visited a doctor. (Victorgrigas, Wikimedia Commons)

Having the wife point out the spare tire growing around your waist and wondering out loud if you will live long enough to see your children graduate from high school is never as compelling as noticing the tread wear on your expensive snow tires and wondering if you’ll get another season out of them if you change them out now.

Can someone tell me why I want to know if I need new brake pads, but would rather not be told if something dark and weird is growing in my liver?  Why do I look so closely at the condition of the oil on my dipstick, but try not to think about the chunks of cholesterol drifting north to my brain?

It's got to be about the money. If you don’t take care of your car it will eventually break down, and that’s expensive. If you don’t take care of yourself you’ll eventually drop dead and that’s free -- for you, anyway. It will cost your family a pile, but it would be inappropriate of them to mention it. And if you don’t die from the heart attack, your insurance pays for it. If the car isn’t damaged in an actual accident, you pay for it.

If I was a car I would be considered a classic by now. I’d be a 1955 something or other. Coincidentally, my first car was a ’55 Pontiac. I owned it 38 years ago and it was a wreck then. If it was still on the road, as I currently am, its owner would fuss over it compulsively -- rust checks, compression tests, wheel alignments. Just as I should be compulsively fussing with melanoma checks, blood pressure tests, and yoga on this classic I still drive. But I don’t. Some, but not much.

If Tom were a car he'd be a 1955 Pontiac -- a classic ride that requires meticulous, regular maintenance checks.

It is a strange mind game – okay, let’s call it what it is: insanity – that allows us to accept the realities of wear and tear on our cars, and deny it on ourselves. Figuring that ominous new mole on your cheek is “probably nothing” is as crazy as finding a rust patch on the front quarter panel and deciding it won’t get any worse.  

How whacked would you have to be to treat your car like you do your body? Stop checking the oil because if it’s low you’ll just have to add some. The grinding noise in the transmission? It’s just the way cars that age sound. Blowing black smoke all the way up the hill to town? Got some bad gas, that’s all.

I think what’s missing is the idiot lights. If we had a dash panel on our forehead for everybody else to see, things would be different.

“Dude,” says the lady at the donut counter, “Your cholesterol’s at 275. I can’t sell you the maple cream.”

“Your aorta is 60 percent blocked, Dad. Why don’t we rent the cart today instead of carrying the clubs?”

Imagine if your kids could see your blood pressure in real time as they tried to talk their way out of the dent in the garage door? The world would be a better place.

But, it still won't be fair and equitable until I look out into the service center garage and see my van in a flimsy little gown with its tailpipe hanging out.

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