What I Learned From Repairing an Old Lawnmower

Rolling up your sleeves and figuring things out can teach you about more than just small engine repair.

My dad and grandfather were magicians of manly trades – one of which was repairing stuff around the house. It wasn't until my recent battle with a forest green Bolens lawn mower did I understand how that magic doesn't come easy.

One of the reasons it doesn’t come easy for me is that I'm not a natural mechanic – I learn by taking about twice as long as most people to do an easy task. But I'd guess that most of us are not straight-from-the-womb handymen, and what I discovered through my struggle with this cantankerous lawnmower ended up being just as applicable to my life in general as it did my mechanic skills.

As far as lawnmowers go, my Bolens was a simple machine: a small, 5.5 horsepower engine and a 21-inch-blade. Not a giant killer, but stout enough to cut back ankle-high turf. I bought it off Craigslist from a guy in my neighborhood. But after a few mows, the thing was coughing like it had a case of the croup. So I took apart the carburetor and gas tank, put it all back together and gave the starting cable a nice yank. No luck.

After a few YouTube searches, I learned that floating junk in the gas tank could clog the fuel system, so I whipped out a turkey baster, emptied the tank and put fresh gas in. A few frustrated pulls on the cord and I was still left with an ailing mower that wouldn’t start. Next step: the spark plug. I unscrewed it, cleaned it off, made sure it was gapped (you can get a spark-plug gapper from the auto parts store) and screwed it back in. Didn’t work. Frustrated and at wit’s end, I decided to buy a new gasket set for the carburetor, installed them, and then got ready to start the mower.

And then I reached that pause that all men feel when they've fixed a problem but have yet to verify. It's a nervous moment – you're playing this weird mental game where you convince yourself you succeeded, but you know that it's entirely possibly that you failed completely. I reached down and primed the engine with three confident pumps. I grabbed the starting cord and squeezed down the handle and gave a sturdy pull. And then, after a glorious fraction of a second, the mower growled to life.

I cut the engine, pushed the old Bolens to the backyard, started it up again, and passed back and forth over the backyard, wild shoots of green vegetation falling by the wayside as the 21-inch blade did its dirty work. During one of those triumphant passes I realized a few powerful lessons. And they didn't have to do with your pedigree as a natural mechanic, your deft handling of a power tool, or an envious knack for diagnosing an engine ailment just by listening to it.

Keep At It

Getting things done around the house and in life doesn't start with any of those things. It starts with a stubborn desire to fix a thing no matter how damned frustrating it gets. You keep at it because you know there is a solution, because men before you have found themselves staring at the same engine or IKEA diagram or relationship wondering what the hell went wrong. And you figure it out.

Pay Attention

There are times when it takes a laserlike power of observation to reveal what’s wrong. For a lawnmower engine, that meant looking over every screw, fuel line and gasket to find the problem. After enough observation, I saw the little mistakes I made and corrected them.

For a relationship, it’s a matter of pausing listening and putting yourself in the position of the person you love. It’s worth taking time to understand what’s happening in order to fix what is sputtering or may soon come to a halt. For the dad, it’s a matter of soaking up the moments you have with your children when they are young. Pre-occupation with things which are not timeless will tarnish the time with those moments which are.

Enjoy the Small Victories

You get two payoffs when you commit to a task, observe what's happening, and apply what you’ve learned to remedy what went wrong. First, and most simply, you get to enjoy a new world where that thing that didn’t work now does work, making your life less stressful than before. Second, you get to enjoy the satisfaction of, as they say, a job well done. I remember pushing that old Bolens across the front yard believing I could accomplish anything. Obviously, this wasn't true. At all. I was still the unintuitive pseudo-mechanic upon whom the jeers and sympathetic chuckles of greater men would land – but still, it felt good.

If you’re like me, mechanical things don’t come easy. You’re probably more comfortable talking about the nuances of Bulleit than actual bullets; more deft at building a wardrobe than building a house. There’s no shame in that, gents. There is great value, though, in examining your life and figuring out what’s not working quite right. That could be a coughing lawnmower, a creaking bedroom door, or a not-quite-level relationship.

The medium doesn’t matter. It’s the method that gets you the triumphs, and that's what that old lawnmower taught me. Those little wins are what make you a hero, no matter how mundane the task.

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