Driving lesson

With ride and vacuum, it’s all about countersteering

Artwork by Ryan Olbrysh

“A rod went through the block. The engine is finished,” said the workshop technician, confirming my worst fear.

I knew the situation was dire since the day before when I floored Suzi for a third-gear pull to belt her exhaust at the bottom of a freeway overpass. She roars in the fading light of summer, then thunk, its engine stopped. His accelerator pedal felt lifeless under my foot as we drove to the side of the road and waited for a flatbed tow truck as the sun set. Suzi’s engine died like a warrior: VTEC engaged, revs rose rapidly to redline until a bang at 7,000 rpm, and no more. However, her sacrifice would have been avoided had I not sent her into battle ill-equipped. I had wronged him, even though I owed him my life.

Six months before the explosion, a psychiatrist at my five-day-a-week mental health clinic probed the likelihood of my suicide: “Have you ever thought about driving your car into another car?

I laughed. “Nope.”

The doctor didn’t understand what was funny, but in the depths of my depression, I still found humor on the gallows. I couldn’t think of any scenario that could have more clearly distinguished the value I placed on my life versus my car. I wouldn’t put Suzi in front of an oncoming car any more than I would with my kids. Me, on the other hand. Soon the doctor and the team of therapists discovered that I was always thinking about killing myself; they considered hospitalization to keep me safe. Maybe a psychiatric ward should have been the move, but I’m still here, even though my car isn’t.

Michael Cohen S2000

Courtesy of Michael Cohen

The 2.0 liter 9000 rpm engines of early Honda S2000s like Suzi’s tend to burn oil as they age. So, between regular oil changes, owners are advised to top up as needed. Let me take a deep breath and confess: I saw Suzi’s gauge…once. When I first took it to a mechanic years ago, he urged me to check it often for fear of disaster. As for oil changes, well, at one point I took Suzi to a shop that did otherwise flawless service but didn’t put an oil change reminder sticker on the windscreen. The next time I took her in, just because her clutch had failed, the tech told me her engine was almost out of oil. Was it 5,000 or 10,000 miles since the last oil change? After? No idea. I would drive Suzi everywhere except until I died, so how was I not attentive to the simple task of checking her oil?

Of the nine main criteria for major depressive disorder, five are needed to diagnose. In a rare feat of overcoming – at the lowest of my depression in the clinic five days a week – I encountered them all: depressed mood, loss of interest/pleasure, weight loss or gain (I gained 40 pounds in less than a year), insomnia or excessive sleep (I slept too little), restlessness or psychomotor retardation (mine was the last; I moved slowly), fatigue, feelings of worthlessness or excessive/inappropriate guilt and thoughts suicidal.

There is an additional criterion: “The symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.” Even the most basic tasks like showering, brushing my teeth or getting dressed exhausted me – a crippling arthritis of the mind. Work? Forget. Self-care? Certainly not.

honda s2000 snow tires

Syd Cummings

In other words, in Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, “I’d rather not do it”. In the story, Bartleby refuses small assignments until he refuses to do everything, each time invoking his mantra, “I’d rather not”. Eventually, he just stares at a wall. It was my depression, an unspoken preference for nothing.

A few months after my visit to the clinic, I started to get better with the help of therapy, medicine, family and a little blue roadster, whose engine – a powerful but torqueless little marvel – required turning to the moon and constantly changing gears. Suzi could trudge around town or drive down the highway, but the harder I worked her, the happier she seemed and the happier I was. More than a respite from depression, she taught me a way out, rewarding me for mastering her lesson: wanting me ateven when I would rather not.

honda s2000 suzuka blue

Courtesy of Michael Cohen

Suzi loved touring as much as rev. A figure skater approaching a spin pulls their arms toward their torso, bringing mass closer to the central axis, thereby reducing rotational inertia. Similarly, an S2000’s longitudinal inline-four sits behind the front axle, abutting the firewall – front mid-engine – concentrating weight closer to its middle. Double triangles are deployed at all corners. Expensive and bulky, these A-arms have fallen out of favor with manufacturers, but offer precise control and quick rotation. However, when the tires lose grip in a turn, the car can spin, not gradually but abruptly, snapping like a twig under pressure that doesn’t bend until it breaks. The suspension geometry escapes me, but I understand that the early S2000 chassis has issues with toe shifts that make it particularly vulnerable to oversteer.

When Suzi’s tires were firmly in contact with the ground, her handling was telepathic, but if she had a weakness, scratch it, she was perfect. If it had, say, a challenge, its electronic power steering might not have given the operator enough indication of how far its tires had given up buying tarmac. So when she started to slide while turning right—her mute steering wheel in my hands—she would tell me through the driver’s seat, My hind end spins faster than yours, so command your hands counter-clockwise after haste – or we spin into a tree. When the slide begins, I have to turn in the opposite direction, i.e. countersteer. Despite preparing half a dozen videos, my instinctive preference when first encountering instant oversteer was to do something other than countersteer. Instead, I wanted to continue down the sliding path, slam the brakes, or in paralytic shock, let go of everything, including my intestines. Still, I countered my instincts and turned in the opposite direction, staying out of the trees.

Some days I wake up exhausted. Go to work? I would rather not. But I’m afraid that if I sleep even once, I’ll do it again the next day, and before I know it, I’ll sink into depression. Instead, I apply a skill I learned in therapy: action versus emotion. It’s advice eat your vegetables. When emotions encourage unhealthy actions, do the opposite. So tired mornings start with black coffee. This way, I counter-steer away from Bartleby and the depression.

blue suzuka s2000

Courtesy of Michael Cohen

I wish battling depression was as simple as mind over matter and caffeine, but I need stronger stuff. It takes more than two hands to count the number of antidepressants I’ve tried in the past two years. But there is one, recommended by more than one psychiatrist, which I resisted, lithium. I’ve associated lithium with gambling and other people’s sleepless three-day manic episodes. On the other hand, I was perfectly fine. I just wanted to die all the time, miss growing old with my wife, watch my kids grow up, and never redline Suzi again. So, thanks, no thanks, doc, but i won’t take lithium because if i did it would mean i’m crazy. Until I do, I am not.

The only fool here is logic. What a cruel judgment of people who take lithium. How cruel to me to let my stigma prevent me from having access to a medicine that could help me. Contrary to my instincts, I ended up trying it. A new psychiatrist explained to me that I wasn’t bipolar, but something in between that and depression, mid-spectrum depression. Fingers crossed that’s why lithium works. At work, I find lithium on a poster of the periodic table along with oxygen and carbon. Lithium becomes just one of many elements my body needs, and the edifice of shame I’ve built around this atom crumbles. But the stigma persists. Holding my lithium pills before bed, the feelings of humiliation come back. How broken am I to need this?

blue suzuka s2000

Courtesy of Michael Cohen

I don’t choose depression and I can’t help but put myself in places where I have to turn around. Driving Suzi hard, sometimes in turns, requires straightening up like I do to fight depression. The difference is that I choose to drive this way because Suzi wants it, while depression does the opposite. Suzi knows I’m more capable than I realize, constraining myself like a teacher pushing his student into awkward situations he wouldn’t otherwise have. It took more than a year of her absence to learn that the lesson applies to more than driving her.

Is Suzi’s nervous nature a flaw? The answer doesn’t matter. It is her nature, and I am bound to her like my children. There’s no cure for her spinning or my depression. His fancy Swedish coilovers and my lithium pills are cures. Ultimately, it’s up to me to take care of what’s needed, even when I’d rather not. Like changing oil. To get out of bed. Or reminding myself that I am more than a diagnosis or a pill I take.

More than a year and a half since that explosion in the twilight of summer, Suzi makes a stint in a second workshop (several, because it’s so bad), while waiting for the reconstruction of a faulty replacement engine from the first. workshop. It sports new mounts ready to cradle its engine and transmission. Its coilovers are upgraded, held in place by new control arms and bushings. There are new summer tires on my S2000.

Once she’s rebuilt, I’d love to do what Suzi was made to do: spin her biggest cam lobes and blast a language, Japanese for winding mountain road. Unfortunately, the shop prescribed a methodical burglary. After a rebuild, even Suzi has to pull herself together. It won’t accelerate quickly on flat ground for a while, but I have help for it. We’ll settle for the only real winding descent nearby, a wooded ravine in the foothills of Mount Fuji just a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan. The road descends in zigzags to its nadir, a blind 90 degree right turn. The conditions—oil, gravel, water, etc.—always changing. At the margin, there are so many variables that I can’t predict if we’re going to slip. Will Suzi and I make up on the bottom?

Nothing is certain, but we are ready to counter-steer.

winding road sophie cohen

Sophie Cohen