Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Dial 'M' for Manual

Recently, I agreed to come to Mexico without knowing that once I got here I would have to drive a car with a manual transmission, aka a stick shift, in order to fulfill the duties I had promised to fulfill while here (notably left out of the pre-arrival instructions, I might add). I am of the opinion that it is difficult for someone who has driven many, many, many automatic transmission cars to unlearn two decades of habits, i.e., driving without having to worry about a !@#%* clutch and without thinking about in which @$%&*! gear the car finds itself.

Now, it is not strictly true that I have "never driven a stick." Back in the day, I had three and a half experiences behind the wheels of not-automatic-transmission cars. Click here for more on that history. But it is certainly true that I did not know how to drive a stick. Fast forward to Mexico, where I quickly learned how very little understanding the clutch-down-gas-up-clutch-up-gas-down idea in theory actually helps one know how to deal with this beast. I was a wee bit skeptical about Brian's assurance that he could teach anyone to drive a stick in a day. (Why must we put numbers on these things? How about a week of lessons? A month? )  But time was ticking and the Boss Men were all like, "Hasn't she learned to drive that thing yet?" after exactly twenty minutes of my rambling around in circles ovals in a quiet, cobblestone-y bit of Queretaro. Fun fact: we saw a student driver in an actual Escuela de Manejar (Driving School) car go by on the same oval. But with less stopping and starting. At least we knew we had instinctively picked a good spot, but I was not picking this up and couldn't even get up to third/the speed I thought was required for third, and did I mention that I stalled a lot? I wasn't entirely sure how to stop any other way.

That was a Saturday. On Tuesday, we headed to a different cobblestone neighborhood, with longer streets, more turns, and fewer people. Maybe this physical change of setting worked, or maybe it was the Beck Weathers (Left for Dead) (as in, on Everest) refrain running through my head: "I was in deep shit, and the cavalry wasn't coming" but one way or another under driving coach Brian's instructive guidance I started doing things like stopping, starting from a stopped position, driving in third, and I even turned around once. But I still had, you know, fears. And I stalled. That pesky clutch! Why do I have to press it down so much? And why couldn't I appreciate the virtues of neutral, as preached by my driving coach? These were the existential quandaries with which I was presented. At any rate, we had actual progress, which we reported to the Boss Men.

Then came Thursday. I had the car to myself while I waited for Brian and one of the Boss Men to come out of a place of business, and they suggested I drive the car around the parking lot and the totally empty wide street in front of it. I did, but the chugging in second made no sense to me. And then I had to reverse into a parking spot, and I couldn't, and then I saw a nice man getting his briefcase out of his car, and, you know, sometimes I have these moments where I am overwhelmed by humanity and I want to express my intense compassion and good will to all humankind and this man was just going to work in Mexico and somehow watching him made me realize that I was a horrible idiot because aren't we all lucky to even have jobs? and livelihoods? and limbs, come to think of it?  And I could have real problems, such as being beheaded by a drug cartel or something, and here I was lamenting my stupid stick shift(less) fate and that just made me even more upset, because recognizing idiocy, while important, is not always helpful and productive.

The Boss Man recognized my fragile state and said that they could pay for an actual Escuela de Manejar for me (I had wished out loud for this solution days before, I would like on the record...I mean, the Boss Men are the ones who needed me to drive, after all) but then when he called a few schools and got the prices he wondered about me trying one more lesson with Brian instead, which we had planned to do anyway, Brian and me, and so on Friday it was back to the cobblestones, only this time I was also allowed to drive on the real pavement street (in fourth!) and I also learned to shift into neutral when slowing/rolling, and I tackled speed bumps. No, actually, that's really important because there are tons of speed bumps in Queretaro, like on random busy wide fast city streets.  Anyway, after that lesson and bit of progress I decided to drive the car back to the Boss Men on the freeway's frontage road (which here in Mexico is more like two lanes of the highway off to the right and separated by a median, but with pull-outs to shopping centers, and a slightly slower speed of traffic). Only Brian somehow convinced me to get on the actual highway highway, probably by shouting (but in a friendly way), "Get on the highway!" to which I replied, "I don't want to!" to which he replied "Do it anyway!" and in the heat of the moment I did, which was my baptism by fire. Fire and fifth gear.

Really, things went fine, and I even managed to pull out of a stuck right exiting lane back into the traffic and also to do my first traffic circles and basically to just astound myself that I had in fact progressed to actual driving of this thing. Now, this week, I have begun driving without the coach, much to the happiness of all parties involved, I suppose.

I have had to explain to some of our fellow English teacher peeps around these parts, many of whom are from England, exactly why I don't didn't drive a manual transmission already. Oh, those wacky Europeans. Don't they know that in MURRica, we have loads of automatic transmissions? Why, the only people who buy stick shifts, in my perception, are just -- what would you say? -- gearheads. People who are just really into, well, cars, and that is so not me. My idea of buying a car is: "Is it blue? Four doors? Bumper to bumper warranty? Where do I sign?"  I suppose also there are the totally flashy sports car people--aren't those usually stick shifts so they can rev the engine a lot? Or people who reallllly want to save $2000 off the MSRP, although I would personally sacrifice power windows over automatic transmission.  But never ever ever in the U.S. would you find a company car that multiple co-workers will have to drive, or a rental car, or any kind of general, shared vehicle that is not an automatic.

I have several friends who say now and who have said in years past that driving a stick shift is more "fun" "interesting" "exciting" etc.  They say that driving an automatic is "boring" and that there is "nothing to do with your hands." Well, except for the one hand that we hope is on the steering wheel, presumably. I have never had that problem. First and foremost, there's this little thing called a radio, but besides that I don't generally spend my driving time looking for something to "do" with my various body parts. Driving time is thinking time!

The way I see it, I just don't understand why anyone bothers with a manual transmission now that the automatic transmission has been invented. I mean, it's like the rotary phone. First, that was what we had, and it didn't seem cumbersome, but now it is antiquated. Rotary phones still have their place (like prop departments) and manual transmissions still have their place (race tracks, I suppose) but for anyone to just go out and buy one for their daily use seems silly. It seems like those early push button phones, not cordless but the ones that still rested in a cradle and all, that had an option to switch between "dial" and "pulse" when calling a number. Remember those? Like, the "pulse" would mimic the lengthy rotary sound after each button push. There was absolutely no reason for this, that I can see, other than to placate the people clinging to a bygone area.

But now I am one of you people, at least out of necessity, along for the ride.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good for you, one more check mark on the things to accomplish list! Do you remember the Fiat, it was manual? When I got the truck, mom said "OK, as long as it is an automatic." Just keep at it, in a few weeks or so it'll be second nature, you are talented, smart, and have the right "I can do it" attitude. Remember, "If you think you can do it, you are probably right. If you don't think you can do it, you're probably right." Next challenge will be starting, stopping and holding position, without rolling back, on hills."