Allegory of the manual transmission

As we were driving home after school a few weeks ago, one of the kids remarked that it must be scary to start driving uphill after being stopped at a light halfway to the top. I said it wasn’t really scary to me, at least in the kind of car I drive, which has an automatic transmission. I explained what that meant, and we reminisced not-so-fondly about my old Suburban that would sometimes fail to automatically shift into first gear, leaving us to coast in neutral for a few seconds while I pressed futilely on the accelerator, only to have the car jerk forcibly into gear with enough momentum to engage the seatbelt locking mechanism. Anyway, then I described what it’s like to drive with a manual transmission and told them all about learning to drive in my dad’s Jeep when I was fifteen. I mentioned how terrified I was to have to go from neutral to first gear after having been stopped at that same stoplight on the bypass heading east, almost exactly in the middle of a rather declivitous hill. I said that those few seconds, when I was trying to carefully calibrate my left foot easing off the clutch with my right foot depressing the gas pedal after shifting into first while the car was at a standstill pointing upwards at a roughly 45-degree angle, were hair-raising indeed. That feeling of limbo when the car is beginning to roll backwards in accordance with gravity, combined with the pressure of needing to coordinate my physical movements in such a way as to successfully move forward without stalling out, plus the distressful knowledge that there was a car directly behind me threatening the potential for collision should I fail to propel the Jeep gently into forward motion, is enough of an anxiety trigger that the very thought of it makes me break out in a sweat to this very day.

The memory led me to think about all of the times in life that feel a bit like that: when circumstances require you to orchestrate very specific interactive maneuvers (physical or mental or otherwise) in a time-sensitive fashion while worrying about the crash that could occur should you act too slowly or imprecisely. Alternatively, if you’re too hasty with your right foot or too abrupt with your left, if your actions aren’t in specific cooperation and alignment with each other, you’ll freeze up with a stalled transmission of sorts, which could incur unpleasant feelings in others (like all of the people stopped behind you after the light turns green while you jam your feet back on the clutch and brake to restart the engine and try again).

There are so many moments in life that demand this of us, that call for nearly preternatural proportions of fortitude and control, wherewithal and focused presence, all interplaying to produce a very particular harmonic. So many moments when we feel like if we don’t get it just right, we’ll stall into a kind of nonfunctioning paralysis, inconveniencing or exasperating those who are relying on us to push through, who then might misunderstand our plight and provide us with the kind of negative feedback that would only worsen the situation (think laying on the horn, fist-shaking (with or without the middle finger raised), rolling down the window and yelling). Or, worse yet, if you don’t act swiftly (but not too swiftly) and with careful conviction and proficiency, you could precipitate a destructive impact with someone else that would then require repair, if not reparation. That process can be complicated. Work will need to be done, and others might need to get involved. The stressful knowledge that these outcomes are possible only entrenches and intensifies the stress of the moment. And yet there are so many times like this, when life just stands there looking us right in the eyes, asking us to summon a symphony of strength barely one wavelength removed from magic.

I didn’t say these things to the kids, but I filed them away for use at a later time. Instead, I lightened the mood by telling them the story about when I pulled my dad’s Jeep into the garage for the first time and misjudged the spacing, scraping the passenger’s sideview mirror straight off the car and raking the Jeep’s entire right side along the partition between the garage bays with my dad sitting right there in the seat beside me. They laughed in horror at the jocular tone of my recounting, but after that conversation I’ll bet they won’t go looking to try driving stick shift for many years, if ever. Well, except for Arlo. He probably wants to try it tomorrow.

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