Friday, September 14, 2007

Plato's Unheard Doctrines

There is a passing reference in Aristotle's Metaphysics to "the unwritten doctrines" of Plato's school. Certain (principally) German scholars in the late 20th century decided that this meant that there was some sort of secret teaching at the Academy that didn't make it into the dialogs. Aside from Aristotle's cryptic remark there is no evidence to support such a claim, but publish or perish, as they say, and now lots of folks write about this secret doctrine all the time.

I mention this for reasons that are probably not very closely related to anything at all relevant other than the fact that I am not hearing some things about Plato that I was expecting to be hearing right now. You see, I was supposed to go to a conference yesterday at the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana on Plato's Timaeus (you can find the conference details here). I had been planning on, and looking forward to, going to this conference for months. Plato's Timaeus is a fascinating text, and can, in some ways, be read as a kind of introduction to Platonic philosophy of nature (though, as usual with Plato, there are lots of other, equally plausible, ways of reading the text). Many of the biggest and brightest names in Plato scholarship were going to be there, including a few friends of mine, among whom I count the redoubtable Allan Silverman of Ohio State University, a verifiable genius, and that other Allan, Allan Code, probably the best ancient philosopher in the country.

Since Illinois is not that far away, I decided that I would drive there. I didn't know it at the time, but that was my first mistake. My car is, for me, anyway, a relatively new one, a 1997 Subaru Outback. As recently as last May, however, I took it in to my mechanic because it was starting to have a little trouble with sticking in first and second gear. My mechanic replaced some fluids and put in some cleaners and said that sometimes these things get a little gunky and he suggested that, in a month or so, the problem would just clear up on its own. I didn't know it at the time, but believing that was my second mistake. Last month the whole family went for a trip to Lake Michigan, and the car continued to have that little problem, and it wasn't getting any better, as one might expect in the case of a problem that is in the process of "clearing up on its own". Every morning, I had to drive around the block for ten minutes until the gears started shifting normally. Until things got loosened up, I couldn't go above 20 mph without sending the engine to the redline.

So yesterday I packed up the car and hit the road. I didn't know it at the time, but that was my third mistake. I drove around the block until the gears loosened up and then went to the highway. I got as far as a little place called Huber Heights, Ohio, before I decided that it was time for lunch. I wasn't really all that hungry, but I decided that I may as well get some more gas, too, so I pulled off the highway. I'm still not all that sure whether this was my fourth mistake or not. The car was working fine, and maybe if I had just kept on going, I would have made it all the way to Illinois. On the other hand....

As soon as I got to the end of the exit ramp, I heard The Noise. Probably you've heard noises kind of like this one, even if you've never experienced transmission trouble. Have you ever seen a backhoe being used to break up an asphalt road? If so, then you've heard a noise just like the noise I heard coming from under my car as I pulled up to the traffic light. When the light turned green I noticed, with a little alarm, that the car would not go when I gave it gas. The engine revved, and then, ker-chunk, it just dropped into gear and took off. It reminded me of when I was learning how to drive a stick shift: it was just like somebody dropping the clutch. I also began to wish that I still had a stick shift car instead of automatic. As I went faster, I noticed that things got back to normal once I was in fourth gear, and I calmed down a little bit. But only just a little bit, because I am probably one of the most panicky bunnies on the road when it comes to car trouble miles from home.

So I headed over to the nearby McDonald's and had myself a QPC, but everything tasted rather dry because I was beginning to work myself up into a state. I actually called my mechanic and asked him what to do (my mechanic is fabulous: during his off hours his calls are forwarded to his cell phone so he can help customers just like me who are on the road and starting to chew through their own body parts). Like a doctor, he said he couldn't tell me much without running some tests. He did advise me to check the fluids, which I did. This was either my fourth or my fifth mistake, depending on how you keep count: I did not bother to note, when I pulled the dipstick out, just whence I was pulling it. I then found that I couldn't get the transmission dipstick back into the proper place so--I swear to you that I am not making this up--I called my mechanic again to ask him how to do it. I'm sure it was all he could do to keep from busting out laughing on the phone, but he helped me out and I did get it back in with only a small case of the jitters. It occurred to me that I should drive around a little to see how things were "clearing up", because the transmission fluid looked fine to me. And you know what an expert I am at judging the status of transmission fluid.

It was then that I discovered that the car had somehow forgotten how to move backwards. I put the car in reverse and applied the gas, but it surged forward. I put a stop to that right away (good thing, too, because I was parked facing a very busy road). I let the thing idle for a second--you know, to let the problem "clear up" a little on its own--and tried again. This time the car wouldn't move at all, but I had that feeling one sometimes gets that there was some kind of struggle going on just beneath me. It really did feel as though the car was being pulled in two different directions at once. Then it began to move backwards and forwards, though mostly backwards. I got out of the parking place and drove over to a smaller parking lot where there were no other cars, and I parked in such a way that I could just pull out forwards when I was ready to leave. If I could get myself to that kind of state, that is.

I called--yep--my mechanic, and he said that it sounded to him like the transmission was failing (apparently my recent discoveries vitiated the need for those fancy tests he had talked about earlier). He recommended that I return to Athens.

I avoided making my fifth or sixth mistake by not continuing on to Illinois. Instead, I got back on I-70 East and drove home. It took me a little while, because I couldn't go above 55 or 60. I was trying to keep the engine at about 3500 rpm, and I appeared to have only one gear, so this was rather tricky. It took me three hours to get back, and I went straight to--yep, my mechanic's shop. Here another mistake was made, but I am happy to say that, for once, it was not mine. I stopped in front of the shop, but my mechanic said to pull into the bay, and maybe it was partly my fault but then again he's the expert so who am I to second guess him but I did know that there was no reverse on my car and I probably should have said something to him about that but, well, I pulled into the bay. It took my mechanic about 10 seconds to figure out that the whole transmission was shot, and he said he'd have to order a rebuilt one and it would take a while so why not drive home and wait for the call. OK, so how to get the car out of the bay? Oh, yeah.

Interestingly, even in neutral the car would not move. The guys in the shop had to jack the thing up on one of those jacks with wheels and roll it out into the street, where I started it and managed to drive it home (we only live about two blocks from the shop, which is rather convenient when you have cars like ours).

So here I am today, in Athens, wishing I were in Illinois hearing about Plato's Timaeus, but grateful for the existence of just the sort of expertise that Plato was always talking about, because my mechanic is definitely one of the best, and if it weren't for him I would be even more nervous about cars than I already am. Someday the conference papers will probably be published, and I can read them at my leisure. But I won't get to ask questions--that's always the best part about hearing papers at a conference, and it's more like the dialectical setting that Plato recommends for philosophy. On the other hand, when I read them in journals I never find myself distracted by worries about how I'm going to get home.


CrimsonCatholic said...

I had a similar experience, although we actually made it to the event. My wife teaches for the University of Phoenix, and she thought it would be fun to don the academic regalia and attend graduation. So we set out to drive to Phoenix, where the temperature is in the one-teens. I had a feeling this was not a good idea, but when my wife wants to dress up and attend an event after spending basically her entire waking and sleeping life with two small children attached to her, I'm not going to argue.

Problem #1: the idle sensor in the CRV breaks down not even a mile from the house. We're stranded at a stoplight, and a cop ends up ramming us from behind to push us over to the shoulder. The good thing is I only have a mile to schlep back with the double stroller; the bad thing is it's near ninety, and we don't have air conditioning in the house. We tow that over and get it fixed. But the missus clearly still wants to go, and like I said, I'm not going to stand in the way of a woman who just needs to do some adult activity for a change.

So we set out a lot later than we had planned, and then Problem #2 emerges. While moving very little on the Riverside Freeway, it becomes apparent that the air conditioner is not capable of keeping its temperature down, meaning that the engine temperature is going up. Of course, we can turn of the compressor and turn on the heater to keep the engine temperature down. Which we do. Did I mention it was almost ninety, and we're driving to Phoenix? And how much I love my wife?

Long story short: we make it, despite having to kick on the heater in the desert more than once. Dr. Prejean does her thing, meets some online buddies, gets to explore the secret Super Bowl catacombs of University of Phoenix Cardinal Stadium (I know, it makes me laugh every time I read it too), and enjoys herself immensely. But when I go to pick her up in the 117-degree heat, the air conditioner begins to fail in a much more impressive way, and the car starts producing this knocking that doesn't go away even when the A/C isn't on. We took it in, but it's a Saturday afternoon, and nobody is even going to give it a listen. We ended up parking the poor vehicle in the shade and making a beeline back for California at six the next morning, so we got back to reasonable temperatures before the sun got too high. But between your story and mine, let's just say I'm glad that Dr. Prejean's new position as the nutrition department head at Kaplan University will involve flying to graduation rather than driving.

Scott Carson said...

Wow, I hope you got husband of the year award that year! There's nothing quite like having to be in a swelteringly hot car for long periods of time.

This may sound like that Monty Python routine where the old men are sitting around comparing horror-stories of the good old days ("You were lucky to have a box! We had to live in a ditch by the side of the road..."), but I have yet another tale of that same 97 Subaru.

I noticed one day that the "Check engine" light had come on, and my mechanic was able to turn it off with a little doohicky thinamabobber that he has in his shop, and it stayed off for a while. But it would come back on--usually on the highway miles from home, of course--but I could always get my mechanic to turn it off, and he assured me that it usually had to do with some kind of emissions monitor that would cost $400 to replace so his advice was to just reset the thing and ignore it.

One day, though while I was driving, the tachometer starting jumping up and down from 0 to 4500 rpm. The engine was not going from 0 to 4500 rpm, however, so I realized that the tachometer was failing. I was about half way from Athens to Ann Arbor at the time, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Then the speedometer started jumping around the same way. It was freaky. I started to have my usual panic reaction, and then I noticed (it was raining out) that the windshield wipers were going slower and slower, and my radio faded out completely. In short, the battery had gone dead.

Well, people who know about cars will know that the only way for the batter to go dead in a car that is moving is if the alternator is failing. Sure enough, the next thing to go was--MY TRANSMISSION! The damn thing is (well, was, I suppose, is the best way to put it now) electronically controlled and the car started slipping into lower and lower gears. It just wouldn't go above 35. I got off the highway in Findlay, Ohio (of recent floading fame) and was fortunate to find a Subaru dealer there, where they informed me that there was a recall on my car's alternator.

That was the bad news. The good news was that, because it was the subject of a recall, they would replace the alternator for free. All I had to do was find a place to stay that could take me, my wife, my two kids, and my dog. That proved rather difficult, but in the end not impossible, and we drove off the next day with no more (or, well, fewer, anyway) worries.

I will just pass over in silence the fact that this very same car, when I first got it, had to have its engine replaced when it blew its head gasket.

Oh, did I mention that I bought this car from my mechanic? I often tease him about it ("Well, once I replaced the engine and the alternator [and now I can add, 'and the transmission'] it was a great car!") but he really is a great mechanic.

But why is it that cars never fail right as you're pulling out of your own driveway? How do they know how far you are from your house?

CrimsonCatholic said...

Wow, I hope you got husband of the year award that year!

Actually, my thought was that I will surely do something that will disqualify me for the award before the year is out, so I had better bank the goodwill why I had the chance! :-)

This may sound like that Monty Python routine where the old men are sitting around comparing horror-stories of the good old days ("You were lucky to have a box! We had to live in a ditch by the side of the road..."), but I have yet another tale of that same 97 Subaru.

LOL! I can't complain much though; the '98 Civic passed on to me by my wife has had one major repair in 175K miles despite having been from Cambridge to California. It's the young whippersnapper that left me stranded!

But why is it that cars never fail right as you're pulling out of your own driveway? How do they know how far you are from your house?

I'm fairly certain that it's a tracking circuit placed by the manufacturer that locates the nearest service department and makes sure that you are closer to it than your home before allowing anything to break. If you're lucky, that sensor will be broken, and nothing on the car will ever break.

John Farrell said...

I linked to this, Scott. Whoever said being a philosopher means a life without adventure?

I had some similar adventures with my old '92 Taurus station wagon, which I inherited from my late father.


Sophocles said...


I laughed alot reading this post beginning at your mention of "The Noise". To the end the mirth continued. Hope your vehicle recovers soon.