Week 7: Drive a Stick Shift

Now that I’ve completed a handful of manly challenges, the novelty of playacting a man has worn off somewhat and I’m more drawn to the serious pursuit of those overarching qualities I mentioned in Week 0.5.  Every challenge so far has been a blast, but if at the end of fifty challenges I haven’t changed as an individual, it will be hard to call this grand experiment an absolute success.

My fear of failure is a tremendous inhibitor.  I’ve set bars lower or qualified my end goal in order to avoid disappointment, like when you break up with someone because you know they’re getting ready to dump you.  It’s winning by default.  Because of it, I haven’t accomplished as much as I’d like.

In any case, none of that has entered my mind yet when I travel to Bethesda, MD, to meet my best good friend Jenny who will teach me how to drive a stick shift.  Jenny is ecstatic to be this week’s MANtor – she’s called me a “grandma” driver for years now, a baseless accusation if you ask me.  She thinks I drive slow and don’t pay much attention to my surroundings.  And that I regularly run over curbs and forget to close the sunroof when I park the car.  Ridiculous.  Little does she know her years of teasing has denied her access to the Werther’s Originals I store in the glove box.  Your loss, Jenny.

Jenny is gracious enough to let me learn on her Toyota Yaris named Yogi.  As we drive through downtown Bethesda to find a suitable place for instruction, Jenny explains the basics of driving stick – press the clutch in while starting the engine, switch gears between the 2 and 3 on the tachometer, etc.  Our intrepid photographer Drew (a future MANtor) also knows stick and adds helpful tips.  I listen intently and feel as though I’m grasping the core concepts.  The people who know about this week’s challenge seem to think that I won’t have too much trouble, considering I already know how to drive.

Our search culminates at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, a shimmering, bright white building with spacious parking lots.  I immediately think back to my first driving lessons at fifteen, driving our white minivan around Robinson High School while my dad gave instructions in the passenger seat.  There’s a comfort to this congruity.  Plus, I can probably still pass for an older high schooler if anyone looks from afar, which might help the soccer players’ parents in the adjacent field be more forgiving when I crash into their parked cars.

Jenny hops over to the passenger side and I find myself at the wheel.  The layout is familiar enough – it’s not a major transition to feel comfortable with the extra pedal.  I move the seat and the mirrors with extra care, as if gearing up for a long road trip.  Jenny hopes my dance training will come in handy with getting the right equilibrium of the clutch and gas to get the car going.  We first met when she was the choreographer for our high school musical, so she more than anyone knows that’s flatly untrue, but I appreciate her well wishes.

jenny instructs

Jenny gives some last minute tips while we wait for nearby cars to exit the parking lot.  I start the process of doubting myself, but try my best to push those thoughts back down.  I ask Jenny if she has any good stories from the first time she drove alone.  I’ve found that most people have pretty good stories from that first solo drive; personally, I had to drive through a raging storm that gets more and more raging every time I tell the story.  I’ve started mixing in plot points from Twister for added effect.

A couple days after receiving her license, Jenny’s parents were out of town during her dance recital, so she had to drive herself back home.  On a steep hill that connects with the main road back to her neighborhood, Jenny became terrified when she hit a red light and knew she’d have to start the car without it rolling back into the cars behind her.  She called our friend Ryan, who taught her how to drive stick, for guidance and moral support, but through her tears and the limitations of late 90s cell phone technology, he couldn’t hear what she was saying and hung up.  But Jenny made the turn just fine.  I’m beginning to realize it’s these trials by fire that are essential prerequisites in finding that elusive manliness.  But I’m getting ahead of myself – I have to get the car going first.

I press the clutch in and start the engine.  Jenny tells me that as long as the clutch is in, the car can’t stall and having that panic switch puts me more at ease.  Though this is a newer car, the clutch is stiffer to push in than I would have thought.  Jenny tells me to stop thinking and just go for it.  I focus on keeping the gas and clutch in equilibrium but as soon as I hear the engine revving up, I quickly take my foot off the clutch and we lurch forward, tires squealing.

I don’t stall out but it’s certainly not the cleanest start.  Drew snaps a pic of the skidmarks for posterity.  As I continue practicing, I stall a couple of times, but it doesn’t dissuade me, and I’m able to get Yogi moving most of the time, albeit with tires screeching.  I start feeling pretty good so Jenny suggests that we move into the upper parking lot where I can practice some turns.

The upper parking lot is flat and Jenny gives me the task of making a loop around a line of cars, stopping Yogi after each turn to practice more starts.  I’m feeling confident in my abilities until my first go-round, when the car stalls out and the check engine light flashes on.  Jenny tells me not to worry about it, which is sweet considering I’m about to break her car.  After a few more tries, I’m able to get the car started again, but I feel myself worrying more and overthinking everything.  Jenny sees how tensely I hold my shoulders and tells me to relax.

inside car

Jenny tries to film me starting the car from inside, but every time she turns on the camera, I overthink and stall the car.  She even tries the old trick of swearing she’s not recording, but I see past her ruse and stall anyway.  When I do manage to start the car, I end up pushing on the gas so much in fear of stalling that the wheels spin out and Yogi jerks forward.  So I’m either breaking her engine or burning the treads of her tires and either way I’m convinced I’m wrecking my friend’s only method of transportation.

I do manage a few relatively smooth starts, and with that in mind, Jenny suggests that we drive around the neighborhood behind the high school.  I’m hesitant of my abilities, but I hope that getting into a real-world driving situation with stop signs and right turns will help me get out of my head.

After a minute of neighborhood driving, I can see why stop signs are the bane of every stick driver’s existence.  Every stop sign, of which there are many, is a new opportunity to stall and embarrass myself.  As we drive around, we pass by kids rollerblading, a mother with a baby in a stroller, and families enjoying the unusually warm winter day.  Jenny yells “Sorry!” out the window every time I screech the tires in lieu of a student driver sign attached to Yogi’s roof.  We drive past the mother with the stroller several times on our short jaunt, and each time we pass, it’s obvious that she’s moving further and further away from the street.

high five

On the whole, I drive through the neighborhood without incident.  Though I can’t quite master a smooth start, I only stall out a couple times.  I’m still avoiding hills, but I’m able to kick into second gear from first with no issues.  Jenny assures me that moving from a stopped position is really the most and possibly only difficult thing about driving stick shift, but every time I stall out my confidence level drops a few notches.

After I wait at a stop sign for minutes in case anyone within a five block radius would like to cross the street, Jenny proposes we take a break for lunch, and I agree wholeheartedly, jumping out of the driver’s seat before she even finishes the sentence.  We stop at a nearby sandwich shop, and I devour a Thanksgiving Leftover sandwich.  The tryptophans seep in and do their work and that’s when I start to convince myself that I’ve done enough driving for one day.  I let Jenny and Drew take me around Bethesda, showing me some of their favorite places.

It’s silly.  I wanted Jenny to show me how to drive a stick shift as part of my manly journey, yet when I start to run up against any obstacles, I start to flake out.  If it’s not easy, if I’m not excelling right away, then I figure that I’ve done enough.  I adjust my original goal to something easier to achieve, like just driving around a parking lot and a neighborhood, and I try to convince myself that I’ve succeeded.  I was hoping that by Week 7 I would be starting to excise these qualities in myself, but this feels like a step backwards.

nervous driving

Though I’m increasingly hesitant to step back into the car, Jenny doesn’t let me off that easy.  She suggests that we continue the lesson in the parking lot behind her apartment.  We continue to work on starting from a stopped position, since that’s clearly the part of the process I find the most problematic.  Even though we’re just replicating the same exercise from before, I do even worse, stalling often and losing what little faith I had in my abilities.  Jenny’s neighbors walk out of the building into the parking lot, and even though they are 100 feet away from the car, I fear that I’ll lose control of the car and hit someone.  Jenny can tell I’m getting frustrated and overthinking everything, but she’s a patient teacher despite of it.  However, I’ve practically given up.  I don’t even bother letting her show me how to park the car at the end of the lesson – I just get out and let her do it.

When I text Q to tell her how the challenge went, she’s confused as to why I didn’t attempt the upper gears or some real road driving.  I tell her that I was worried about breaking Jenny’s car or ruining her tires, which is true, but it feels more like an lazy excuse than a rational reason to stop.  I get upset with Q for not appreciating what I actually did accomplish in the challenge, but I’m really just displacing my disappointment in myself for letting my fears and frustration overtake me.

This is maybe the first major skill I’ve attempted to learn so far – maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on myself.  It’s presumptuous to think I could feel totally confident after a few hours of driving.  And of course, living in New York makes it that much harder to practice stick shift.  But all of these points seem to be half-assed attempts to sidestep the real issue, that I never gave myself a chance to work past my fear.  The moment has come in other challenges when I just went for it and didn’t obsess over possible failure.  When the time came for me to do the same in this challenge, I simply gave up.

Jenny and Drew offered to let me try again next time I was in their neck of the woods, which is very generous of them, considering Yogi is probably less enthused about a re-do.  I’m very much hoping to hop back on the proverbial horse and give manual transmission a second try, either with Jenny or some other gracious (or merely irrational) volunteer.  If there’s a bright side, beyond getting to spend time with very patient friends, it’s that I’m now fully aware how disappointing it feels for me to give up and let my doubts take center stage.  I’m hoping I can learn from this cautionary tale and work on getting out of my head for good.


It’s hard to define a proper score, seeing as I don’t think I fully accomplished this challenge.  I found the degree of difficulty to be high, and certainly the extra steps and techniques require much more focus and attention than when I drive my automatic.  I’ll put this one at a tentative 3.96, because driving stick is a very attractive skill to have, but we’ll have to put a little asterisk by that score for now.