If you’ve never repainted something with spray paint, you should try it. Go on, look around you. Got an old BBQ grill? Rusting lawn chair? Neighbor’s cat? Grab it, get the cheapest can of spray paint you can find, and lay it on. Now go enjoy yourself a beer, because in about 20 minutes you will discover that you are a master at rebuilding outdoor furniture and cats.
It’s really that easy. Spray paint is the paragon of instant gratification. According to a study I just performed by closing my eyes, humans rely on sight more than any other sense. We need our eyes to understand the world around us, but more specifically we use our eyes to find imperfections. Ever pulled your favorite jeans from the laundry and realized that one nickel-sized stain didn’t get washed out? Or woken up and realized that that one pimple is going to ruin your self-image for the next week? We use our eyes to find and probe imperfections.
And that’s fine. It’s only natural to be drawn to imperfections. But sometimes we want or need to cover those imperfections from other prying eyes. Spray paint is a delightful tool for doing this in the automotive world. Like cosmetic concealers, spray paint can help mask minor imperfections–scratches, dents, rust–and have things looking better in the time it takes the paint to dry.
Whether the paint ultimately makes something actually better, though, is a different issue. In the automotive world, there are $200 paint jobs, and there are $20,000 paint jobs. You may be surprised to learn that the price difference isn’t really in the primer, paint, or clearcoat. The difference is in the hard work and diligence of one person or many people, people tasked with meticulously and painstakingly finding, pulling, and repairing every imperfection on the body. Because paint doesn’t fix poorly gapped panels, dents, or rust, it just hides them from the casual glance. When someone takes the time to look, the difference between the quality of the two jobs is as striking as the difference between a spray-painted cat and an unpainted cat.
But with quality comes diminishing returns. It takes about twenty minutes to go from shitty to passable, about twenty hours to go from passable to “not bad,” and it takes twenty weeks to go from “not bad” to “belongs in a museum.” In the automotive industry the amount of prep work is dictated by two things: the objective for the car and the pocketbook of the customer. Is it a racecar? Just get it looking decent and focus on engineering and assembly; you won’t be able to tell when the thing is going down the road at 120 mph. What, you only have $15,000? Well that was easy – forget about that $20,000 paint job.
I’ve been trying to glean a life lesson from this. I want to draw a moral from the fable of car restoration, because everyone struggles with a constant, unresolved tension between instant gratification and long term satisfaction. On one hand, instant gratification can be the right answer. Sometimes the quick and dirty solution is truly the more valuable solution. Sometimes it’s actually better to treat yourself to that dessert/vacation than it is to buckle down and be miserable. And honestly, how many twenty-week blocks of time does anyone have left in their life anyway? Think about it, the answer might surprise and scare you.
On the other hand, there is often immense value in delayed gratification. There can be value in hard-work and self-sacrifice when pursuing an end result that is rarer, more durable, and more valuable than anything that comes in a can. Diamonds, they say, aren’t made overnight, and neither are accomplished concert pianists, entrepreneurs, or marriages. Sometimes, there just aren’t any shortcuts. Those who live solely for moment can suddenly realize that their lives are good from far, but far from good.
So what balance of instant satisfaction and long-term satisfaction is the “correct” one?
Let’s see if car restoration has any answers. Perhaps the right philosophy is resource-centric. Maybe the solution is to delay gratification for as long as possible, as much as possible, and only seek quick gratification when you run out of the currency of willpower. This could be the solution, if all of life could be simplified to a single difficult decision. But there are dozens of difficult decisions demanding our willpower at all times. Sometimes working really hard at work leads to unhealthy eating or drinking habits. One can focus on friendships only to find himself or herself without the time to enjoy interesting books or television programs. How often do we see the trope of a successful businessperson who works his ass off for decades only to squander a marriage on hookers? This philosophy is not sophisticated enough to process life’s multi-faceted nature.
Perhaps the “objective” principle, then, leads us to more answers. Focus on a few key goals, then line the pieces up to accomplish just those goals. Do I want to be a career man? Do I want to be a family man? Do I want to be a master craftsman or an expert musician? If we identify the right “type” of desires, and we focus our resources to achieving those desires, won’t that ultimately lead to the most contentedness? This approach sounds appealing, but fails to recognize that we may not truly understand what we “want.” Even if you understand yourself pretty well now, you can’t guarantee that you won’t feel differently in the future. When this self-change occurs and the result is positive, we call it an epiphany. When the self-change occurs and the result is negative, we call it a ______ (insert period of time)-life crisis. Either way, we didn’t see it coming. How can we plan for something that is by definition unknown?
I’ve thought about this problem long and hard, and I now offer a two-part philosophy for your consideration:
First, I suggest that you always accept your decisions. So far we’ve been trying to figure out how to make the “correct” decision. We want to make the decision that we can look back on and be happy with. But the truth is that we’re usually looking back on our decisions because we’re not happy with the results. We revisit our decision-making process already having decided that it was the wrong decision. Not only is this unfair to our past selves, but it’s a perilous mentality because it can paralyze us. It can lead us to be so scared of failure that we don’t try at all. I recall my biggest car project failure: I started an expensive Datsun V8 project, let it languish in the garage for years, and then sold it for pennies on the dollar. Upon reflection I’ve realized that my true failure wasn’t starting the project without having done enough homework: my problem was that I was so scared to do it wrong that I stopped trying to do it.
Second, I suggest that you never accept the result if you’re not content with it. This may appear irreconcilable with first rule, but it’s not. When I first started working with my boss, a legendary classic car restorer, I was shocked to learn that his most valued asset isn’t attention to detail (which he has) or a talented eye for sculpture and design (which he also has). The asset he values most is his willingness to try and fail and try again. Despite a lifetime of experience and accolades, he still sometimes fabricates parts he feels are inadequate and makes decisions that he is unhappy with. But when he reaches these barriers, he is able to accept his past decision to take a certain course of action, reject the result because it doesn’t meet his exacting standards, and make a new, better decision. And you know what? It fucking works, and his cars are among the best in the world.
Here’s why this approach might also work for you and me. Personally, I’m afraid to always accept my decisions because I’m worried that this mentality will lead to complacency. This is a valid concern, but if you apply rule #2 and you never accept the result that you’re not satisfied with, then you must try again until you have achieved your goal. On the flip side, a firm commitment to rejecting unsatisfactory results can lead to a lifetime of self-loathing. But if you accept your decisions, you may realize the truth: that generally we make rational, understandable decisions that only become “incorrect” in retrospect. Seeing this truth will help you forgive yourself and help give you the strength to try again.
Try it, and let me know how it goes. This is new to me too; we’ll do it together.
I’ve now been restoring cars for almost four months. I owe you an update:
The Berkeley classic car community has welcomed me with open arms, and I can’t describe how grateful I am. It is the coolest feeling to rub elbows with some of the best classic motoring professionals in the world and be even tolerated among them. I’m humbled daily.
But I’m even more humbled by the love that Conrad and Christine (my boss and his wife) have shown me in the months past. They’ve invited me to many of their family social events and I always have a wonderful time. This generosity is such a blessing to me, especially because my own family is so far away.
Working at the shop has changed my social landscape. My desire for club-hopping, keg party-ing weekends is on its last legs (and may already be six feet under); life is different these days. Watching Star Trek and quietly eating soup noodles with my close friends is an exciting Friday evening now. I’ve always enjoyed these kinds of things, but in my new life they’re a bigger part of how I spend my time. I’m told this is related to something called “growing up.”
Goodness, I can weld! Not as well as my boss, of course, but I’m proud of my new-found ability to join otherwise unrelated pieces of steel. Like motorcycle riding, violin playing, oral argument, the act of welding requires a delicate touch and good instincts. It’s a discipline; it must be practiced extensively before it can be mastered. I love it because it’s a form of literacy. Welding, when combined with other metal forming skills, is a vehicle of expression and creation; welding is a new way for me to improve my world.
I’m also improving as a mechanic. All mechanic work is problem solving: flow-chart processes coupled with good powers of observation and hand coordination. I’m not as talented as I would like to be, but working with a masterful mechanic and fabricator helps me see the flowcharts more clearly.
I’m having a great time. I hate that I often feel incompetent, but competence will come with experience and diligence.
Body and Mind
When I first started working as a public defender, I spent the first three months adjusting to the unrelenting pace of court and brutal 60-hour work weeks. I’ve had to make a similar but different adjustment in my new line of work: I’ve had to get physically stronger. Nearly every part of my body has had to toughen up enough to be a mechanic: I’m on my feet all day, lift heavy objects often, and I never, ever stop moving.
There has been a related self-image adjustment too: my big sister told me the other day, “when I first heard the Justin Timberlake song “Suit and Tie,” I thought of you. And then I realized that song doesn’t really describe you anymore.” Whoa. Blue collar Justin has arrived, and it’s a brave new world.
I’ve also found myself toughening up mentally. My ship has never had the strongest emotional anchor, but the people in my life have always been a safe harbor around me. In search of self-improvement, I’ve wandered a bit from shore. I still lean on my friends for support, but I’m more independent than I’ve ever been. I’m told this is also related to something called “growing up.”
photo credit: #nicbillings
My short term goals are easy to identify: Improve my fabrication and mechanical skills daily. Adopt a healthier lifestyle. Build a bitchin ’67 Alfa Romeo GT. But my long term goals are unclear: Do I want to make a name for myself in high-end show pieces? Do I want to be at the track turning wrenches on racecars? Do I have the talent, dedication, and courage to be a master-of-all-trades like Conrad? I don’t know, and as a goal-driven person it makes me uneasy not to know.
Life is a highway, but where am I going?
I’ve started doing bodywork on the Junior. Most of the body panels are 21 gauge steel, which I was told is very difficult to weld because the heat from the welder burns through the paper-thin sheet metal. Judging by the amount of swearing I’ve done in the last few days, I’d say that “very difficult” is an apt description.
The photo below is the “before” picture. As you can see, I’ve already sanded away the paint and filler, and what I’m trying to do is fill all of the holes. Those holes used to hold the sidemarker light, but I’m “deleting” it, so the holes need to be filled in flush with the body. There were five holes originally (one big one in the middle and four flanking it), but I managed to hamfistedly fill three yesterday.
This is a wire brush. Wire brushes are inexpensive and very useful for cleaning grease and dirt from old car parts. All you need is the brush, some rags, and a lawyer to stand in 40 degree weather and scrub for hours.
Welcome to my glamorous world of classic car restoration.
Public defense work was a grind; the hours were long, the cases were countless, and the constant multitasking required to do the job properly was mentally exhausting. But none of those tribulations prepared me for the physically difficult work that is working at a shop. Much of my work right now consists of lifting, scrubbing, and degreasing things around the shop. You’d be amazed at how much vinegar 7 hours of scrubbing will take out of ya.
And for barely any money too. At the PDs office I was making $63k a year, which isn’t much for an attorney from a good law school, but making $15 an hour part-time is something else entirely. Every time I pull out a credit card or dollar bill, I think about how many hours of billable work my purchase is costing me. $7 at chipotle? Half an hour of stripping paint. $6 pint of beer? See this pile of transmissions? Move them over there. $30 dinner? Fugetaboutit.
When I was a public defender, I was often interviewing folks who were either unemployed or chronically underemployed. I remember being shocked to learn that many people are getting by on less than $1000 of monthly take-home income. I sympathized with them very much, but now I can empathize a little bit more. Of course I’m still privileged and blessed in many, many ways, but at least now I have a slightly better idea of what it feels like to break my back for hours for not that much recompense. A lot of good people live their lives this way, and I doubt many university grads really know what it feels like. It’s not better, or worse. It’s just different.
But of course this endeavor was never about the money; it was about PASSION. You want to know about the PASSION. How does it feel to be involved with something you’re so PASSIONATE about? What’s it like to be involved with a PASSION dream project job?
If I had to describe it right now, I would call it a slow but satisfying burn. I was very passionate about PD work (and don’t get it twisted; still very passionate about the clients and their struggle), but when I started working as a attorney the job picked up a megaphone, turned it up to 11, and screamed “GO BE FUCKING PASSIONATE” in my ear. PD work is about fighting, fighting loudly, and fighting brashly. It’s a job that makes you feel passionate when you’re doing it. It’s passion by Red Bull.
My work now is more red wine than Red Bull. Even though motor racing is loud and brash, my current theory is that being passionate about motoring is neither of those things. The passion manifests itself in patient, quiet, prolonged problem solving. When I took this job, I had a romantic vision of being a master craftsman: I imagined working alone by candlelight, with pipe smoke (?) curling around me as I slowly whittled a piece of mahogany driftwood into a seatbelt buckle or something like that. There is some truth to this vision, but a lot of the truth is in the shadows. I mostly work alone now, and it can feel quite isolating. At the PD’s office I was ALWAYS surrounded by lots and lots of people–coworkers, court staff, clients. Now it’s pretty much just me and my boss. Every day. To be honest, it can be kind of lonely. We’ll keep an eye on that.
For years and years I’ve admired the work of good fabricators, skilled welders, and restoration experts. I’ve pored over tens of thousands of high-res images of cars, motorcycles, and custom parts in my lifetime. Now I’m getting to be a part of those projects, and so far I’ve realized two things: First, having a master craftsman teach me techniques is a dream come true. We live in a world where there is a ton of information online, but not all of it is good. Having a celebrated veteran of the field teach me what really works is incredible. Second, behind every single mirror-like paint job, every sexy fast race car, every hand-carved-mahogany-seatbelt-buckle was someone who spent hundreds and hundreds of painstaking, unglamorous hours. For years I clicked through photos of beautiful vehicles; now the finger I use to click the mouse is starting to wear the callouses of building cars like that, and I’ve barely done shit.
So everyone has been asking me “HOW IS THE PASSION GOING? IS IT SUPER PASSIONATE??” and I’m not sure how to answer. Not because I don’t like what I’m doing, but because it feels very different from the passion I was experiencing before. I once thought that when being a trial attorney was at its best it felt like busting out the most badass, overdriven, fingers-up-on-the-little-tiny-frets improvised guitar riff you could imagine in a crowded, excited venue. You are completely in control and everyone’s attention is on you. You are a fucking rockstar.
I’m not sure what restoration work will feel like at its best, but I suspect it’s going to be something much more humble and involve wire brushes.
Things are going to be different.
Three weeks ago, I told the Public Defender of Contra Costa county that I would be leaving the office. I had worked as a deputy public defender for about a year, and I had a promising future there. But the job had its ups and downs. At times it was the most uplifting, sublimely satisfying work I could ever imagine doing and at other times it was the most emotionally brutal, grueling thing I have ever experienced. So I decided to try my hand at something completely different.
A friend of a friend runs an Alfa Romeo shop in the East Bay, and he offered me a part-time, $15/hr position working on some of his personal racecars. ”Hooray!” I thought. ”This could be my first step towards becoming Shinya Kimura or Roland Sands! Rather than a lifetime of bickering with DAs and judges I’m going to spend my days coaxing beauty out of steel and copper and aluminum.” So I accepted the position, put in notice at CoCo, and switched to (even) cheaper beer and wine.
Court starts in seventeen minutes. Believe it or not, there is court on Christmas Eve, and my stalwart colleagues (love you guys, keep up the good fight) are heading over there right now. Normally I would be pulling on a suit, selecting a tie, and wondering which case I was going to be spending the next week selling to a jury. But not today. Today I’m sitting in bed in my pajamas trying to write something interesting about this transition.
So what now? Did I quit my job so that I could blog about quitting my job? No! One reason I decided to make this leap is because I felt that I was working too many hours and didn’t have enough left over to pursue non-work related goals. You may recall the Triple Crown: my über goal of crossing three milestones by the time I turn 30: win a trial (check), win a ring fight (I eat nothing but fried food), and podium a race (all my cars and bikes are broken). And I have other goals too: there are lots of vehicles I want to own and build, many famous roads and racetracks I want to drive, and many high-level fabrication skills that I want to learn. In theory this decision is about attaining those goals. All of them.
Many people have told me that they thought my decision to leave the office was “courageous.” I think they’re wrong. It takes little courage to leave a job; even a coward can quit. The courageous part, the difficult part, will be pushing myself towards my new goals now that I’ve wandered off the beaten path and into the woods. For the past 26 years I’ve been climbing a tall, tall ladder: do well in grade school, get into a good college, get into a top graduate school, get a good job, etc etc. I was good at it; it was safe. Now I’ve decided to spread my wings and push off into the void.
Let’s hope I can fly.
On a motorcycle with no plastic fairings, the fuel tank and seat define the appearance of the bike. Having already chosen the fuel tank for this project, I set myself to choosing a seat. Modern motorcycles tend to have sloped seats that put the passenger higher than the rider; this gives the bike a rakish, aggressive appearance. Classic bikes though, tend to have seats that are flat and parallel to the ground:
Take a look at the picture above. I’ve loosely mounted the stock seat – notice how aggressive the angle is. Because this project is about backdating the styling of a modern bike, this seat-line had to change. But this wouldn’t be as easy as bolting on a flat seat – the shape of the motorcycle frame would need to be changed.
The stock Ninja 250 frame slopes up away from the rear tire, which means the rear suspension has plenty of room to move. Lowering the back of the frame could result in interference with the rear tire on hard bumps, so I first needed to figure out whether there would be enough rear suspension travel. To accomplish this, I ratcheted the rear end to the trailer (thanks Rob!) and cranked it all the way down. I couldn’t actually crank it hard enough to put the rear on its bumpstop, but I used up most of the travel. This is what I came up with:
With the rear suspension cranked all the way down, I still had about 3″ of extra travel in the rear suspension. That meant that I could lower the rear framerails at least 2″, if not more in a pinch. This might still be an issue later on, but since this isn’t really a two-up bike and I’ll be adding a stiffer rear shock, rear suspension travel should be adequate even with the modification. That settled, I whipped out the angle grinder and went to work:
With the frame chopped to roughly the right height (more cutting will be required later), I started trying out various seats. First I mocked up a seat with cardboard:
Then for fun I tried a spare SV650 seat I had laying around The Future:
It actually turned out pretty cool – a bit streetfighter/bobber-like. Unfortunately that’s not the style I’m looking for on this bike, so I went to Hayward Cycle Salvage where they let me root through their storeroom for seats that might work. I bought four and brought them home:
This is a Honda CL350 seat. It looks fantastic, fits well, and is about the right length. It also has a seat strap, which is a very convenient feature for moving motorcycles around.
This is a CB100(?) seat. It’s in clean condition, but its immediately apparent that it will be too short.
This is another CL 350 seat. This one has a different pattern in the leather, but also looks great. Even before trying the last seat I suspected we had a winner.
This is a seat from a Kawasazki KZ400. I like how the front of it is sloped forward, but the leather feels cheap, and it lacks a seatstrap.
It looks like I’m going to go forward with the CL350 seats. Interestingly enough, the two different ones I bought have different mounting provisions, so it’ll be fun to experiment with them. Here’s another angle on the seat:
PS. Happy New Years!!
A couple months ago, I finally got around to doing a trackday. Even though I had the most awful towing setup known to man, and I only got four hours of sleep the night before, I managed to have a really great time. I didn’t even crash! T and the dogs came with me, and they were very supportive throughout the sometimes stressful experience. Enjoy the pics:
Of course I’m sporting the #26.
Getting ready for tech inspection.
Barreling down the front straight for the first time. What a thrill!
Tipping into Turn 13.
Turn 5 is a blind crest that drops into an off-camber right hander. They call it the Cyclone.
Showing poor body position in Turn 15.
A photograph of the GotBlueMilk print. I think this is Turn 2. Thanks Dito and friends!
My trusty pit crew
The dogs got to eat french fries for lunch that day. The fries gave them food coma.
I’m not the terminator, but I’ll be back. Trackdays kick ass.
- May 2013
- April 2013
- January 2013
- December 2012
- March 2012
- January 2012
- December 2011
- November 2011
- October 2011
- September 2011
- August 2011
- July 2011
- June 2011
- May 2011
- April 2011
- March 2011
- February 2011
- January 2011
- December 2010
- November 2010
- October 2010
- September 2010
- August 2010
- July 2010
- June 2010
- May 2010
- April 2010
- March 2010
- February 2010
- January 2010
- December 2009
- November 2009
- October 2009
- September 2009
- August 2009
- July 2009
- June 2009
- May 2009
- April 2009
- March 2009
- February 2009
- January 2009
- December 2008
- November 2008
- October 2008
- September 2008
- August 2008
- July 2008
- June 2008
- May 2008
- April 2008