For me, the story begins a long time ago, years before thousands of Subaru Outbacks plied the streets along the Wasatch Front. It was well before the sporty Ford Mustang took the country by storm. There once were so many Mustangs cruising around Salt Lake City you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting one. The pre-Mustang era belonged to Volkswagen. The VW was truly a car for the people. It was a favorite in Utah and the car of choice for the counterculture.
Writing that word—counterculture— makes me nostalgic. The word evokes images of music-loving, tie-dyed, carefree, long-haired peaceniks for whom Tim Leary’s admonition to “turn on, tune in and drop out” was holy writ. It’s a shame, really, that “counterculture” is passé; it’s really a shame that “culture war” holds sway and contributes to this age of incivility. It is a mistake to clothe “counterculture” in hippie garb, however. The movement was complex and it was grounded in idealism. One of the subtexts was a do-it-yourself ethos manifest in the back-to-the-land movement and in a book by John Muir called How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot (still available from Amazon.com 40-plus years later).
I spent more time with that book than any college text. I owned a red VW beetle for 13 years and a tan VW squareback for six. From Muir’s book I learned to file points, adjust valves, gap spark plugs and time the air-cooled engine. I never understood how these adjustments benefited the engine, but the skills I gradually developed helped me to grok each car, just as Muir instructed. So that’s how I was introduced to the verb from Mars. Most Earthlings learned grok from Robert Heinlein’s classic sci-fi novel Stranger in a Strange Land. In grokking my Volkswagens, I engaged them at an intellectual and emotional level, and in so doing, came to comprehend the essential nature of each. (This profound understanding is not to be confused with the telepathic aspect of the Vulcan Mind Meld as practiced by Spock in Star Trek.)
All these years later, there is more and more stuff I am unable to grok. Some is metaphysical but most is not. For example, I don’t grok big houses. In Ozzie and Harriet’s time, the average house size was less than 1,000 square feet. It’s now about 2,400. I do grok Wendell Berry, who points out that any house “takes the world’s goods and converts them into garbage, sewage and noxious fumes—for none of which we have found a use.”
I don’t grok Chopper 5, KSL-TV’s helicopter. It seems to me that besides a few mountain rescues and a couple of fires each year, Chopper 5 gathers little news. However, I confess to being charmed by meteorologist Kevin Eubank’s chipper refrain, “Chopper 5, out and about!” as he shows video of back-country skiers, elk with big antlers and sunsets on the Great Salt Lake. It must cost a lot of money to get that artsy, aerial footage. It seems like an extravagance for KSL, whose revenues are surely falling along with its ratings.
The Utah Department of Transportation is tough to grok. It is able to pull off mind-boggling engineering feats with four-million-pound bridges even as it refuses to accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists in redesigning such congested arteries as Foothill Boulevard and 5400 South. Evidently, UDOT doesn’t grok the end of cheap gasoline. UDOT’s design paradigm has four wheels, a six-cylinder engine and an exhaust pipe. From the pipe spew pollutants, the primary ingredients in the blanket of smog smothering Salt Lake City each winter. I don’t grok the lackadaisical response to it. Too many people regard the opaque January air as an atmospheric problem for which the only remedy is a passing storm. What is UDOT doing to reduce the four-wheeled polluters? What is the Legislature doing?
Alas, the Legislature busies itself with message bills and such inconsequential matters as guns and feral cats. I find the collective zealotry there utterly ungrokable. I rely on The Salt Lake Tribune’s editorial cartoonist, Pat Bagley, to grok the Legislature and then render it in its true colors. Like Bagley, I was outraged at House Bill 477, baffled by the refusal to accept $100 million in federal unemployment benefits and dumbfounded by the mandate to shutter profitable liquor stores. I am sure guys like Michael Waddoups and Carl Wimmer don’t grok guys like me, but they should readily grasp the concept of shooting yourself in the foot. They would, of course, take great offense at my use of an un-American word in writing about them. They would be right to do so but for the fact that our official national language lacks a verb that conveys the exact meaning of grok. If English can’t express an idea, I think borrowing from another language is acceptable. If the mother tongue has the right word, we should use it proudly. That’s why I don’t use words like cojones, au contraire or schlemiel.
The world is much changed since I first grokked the VW engine with Muir’s book in my greasy hand. The complexity of today’s fuel-injected auto engine has rendered my acquired mechanical skills obsolete. I have discarded the timing light, point file and feeler gauge Muir taught me to use. Not so for the Martian verb. I use it every day to try to fathom Earthling behavior.