How Learning to Drive Stick Got Me Unstuck

Carston Knox was in his 40s when driving lessons gave him the chance to relate to his automatic behaviors in a new way.

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I remember vividly the days when I first learned to drive. The sheer terror. I carried the responsibility of a two-ton death machine with me every moment I was in the car. All the dials, levers, and pedals I needed to focus on to make the thing go, to get me from Point A to Point B.

And how quickly it became rote. The exhilaration of driving quickly dwindled. Now, with thousands of miles of road behind me, I just put that sucker into drive and away I go. It’s totally thoughtless, to the point where I can now drive somewhere and forget how I got there, distracted by whatever is going on in my head.

Then came a birthday request from my girlfriend, who owns a car with standard transmission. After six months of playing chauffeur, Sharon wanted me to take the responsibility of getting us places.

Fair enough.

Here I am, in my 40s, learning how to drive stick. Everything’s awkward and unfamiliar. Is it possible I’m less coordinated now than I was in my 20s?

On a sunny, spring day she drove us to a largely unoccupied parking lot. I climbed into the driver’s seat, her into the passenger side. Right away, I felt that quarter-century-old anxiety return—maybe even more so this time.

Here I am, in my 40s, learning how to drive stick. Everything’s awkward and unfamiliar. Is it possible I’m less coordinated now than I was in my 20s? I certainly have a more chummy relationship with my own mortality. I’m a whole lot more fragile than I was then, back when I still clung to the illusion of immortality.

Sharon gave me a few pointers: ease the clutch. You’re going to stall all the time at the beginning, everyone does. Don’t let it bother you. Listen to the engine, it’ll tell you when it’s time to shift.

It didn’t take long to get frustrated with both the car and the instruction. Once I understood the basics, being in the car with someone giving me pointers was the worst. It was pride—I didn’t want to struggle and screw up in front of her. It’s true what they say: Men will never admit to being bad at sex or at driving.

The sense of vulnerability was intense and humbling. Whatever thought of control I’d enjoyed while driving automatic completely vanished with the stick in my hand, suddenly gripped by an inchoate fear of hills, heavy traffic, or making a left turn in an intersection.

I stalled about a hundred times in the first, tentative few weeks taking the car out for test drives. Popping the clutch was the other frequent outcome, but at least that propelled the car forward. Anyone on the street who saw or heard that loud engine revving and wheel-spinning accompanying the “pop” would have thought me an idiot. Who’s the guy in the red subcompact looking for attention?

I actually said this out loud in a moment of shrill pique: “I’m never going to get this!”

But, slowly, I began to.

As I grew familiar with stepping on the clutch in tandem with the brake and accelerator, shifting the gears up and down, my relationship with the car, the road, and my surroundings started to change.

I looked at the speedometer and tachometer much more regularly. I listened to the sounds the motor makes, with a better understanding of what it’s actually doing in response to my commands. I found a new sense of control over the machine, one that required I pay much more attention.

A breakthrough was realizing the more relaxed I am in the driver’s seat, the better I am at driving standard. Jerky, sudden movements lead to mistakes.

The vehicle responds directly to my state of mind. Easing from one gear to another, and remembering to breathe, really works. If I’m stressed or distracted, it chugs and creeps and lurches and doesn’t do what I want it to do. I need to always remember what gear I’m in, where I’m going, and at what speed.

Now it’s fun. I’m enjoying having my left leg and right arm engaged as part of the machine’s operation. I’m starting to feel a little bit of confidence.

But I’m also embracing being regularly humbled by this thing, driving being something I used to kid myself I had once mastered. I still stall, I still get frustrated in stop-and-go traffic, up- and downshifting to get where I need to be.

And I don’t expect driving stick will ever become as automatic as automatic was. It’s too demanding of my focus.

Frankly, I wouldn’t want it to. I now understand why driving can really be about performance and control, and how a genuine interaction with the car requires you know how to manually shift. Getting to my destination, parking, and pulling up the handbrake: those simple actions now trigger a sense of satisfaction I never knew before.

That gift for Sharon? It’s really a gift for me.

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  • Carsten Knox
  • August 4, 2015