A word of advice to all the women out there in readerland preparing to learn how to drive a car with a manual transmission: bring perfume.
Trust me. You?re going to need something to mask the odor of burning clutch . . . it?s really, really bad. You know the smell your hairdryer emits when you get hair caught in the filter? That?s sort of what this smells like, only five times worse.
Blame it on my gender or my generation, but I?ve never arm-wrestled a stick shift. Come to think of it, neither have any of my friends, nor any of the guys I?ve dated.
Stick shifts, I thought, were reserved for the stock-car racers (and the succession of macho street-demon wannabes) of the world.
I, on the other hand, am a full-fledged member of Generation X: I?m lazy and impatient and would prefer to have everything done for me, including the shifting of the transmission.
But on a snow-covered back road in the middle of Mount Nowhere, I accepted the challenge.
Driving a ?stick? is a delicate give and take, kind of like the dating bible, The Rules, minus the lies and deception.
The instructions sound sort of like a simple square dance: clutch in, gas, catch, more gas, release the clutch. Now swing your partner ...
Well, apparently I have two left feet, or maybe it?s two right feet, because my attempt at shifting sounded more like this: gas ... no, too much gas ... clutch in ... more gas ... more gas ... more gas ... no, you released the clutch too soon!!!
?You have to feel it,? my poor instructor repeated.
Believe me, I felt it ... in the form of an uncontrollable shake in my left leg.
And what really added to my frustration was watching a 70-year-old woman in a hand-knitted hat do laps around me in her manually shifter vehicle. A grandmother can do it, for goodness sakes! A grandmother! Why can?t I?
After about an hour of grinding gears and burning clutches - and a near run in with an unruly garage door - my weary teacher took pity on me and decided I (he) had had enough for one day. Truthfully, I think he was just getting sick of that five-times-as-bad-as-burnt-hair smell.
I pried my white-knuckled fingers from the steering wheel and let him take over as I massaged the cramp out of my left thigh and he drove around for a good 15 minutes to air out the car.
Critiquing my performance over a stiff drink (a double for my instructor) I marveled at my ability to walk, given my embarrassingly obvious lack of coordination of my own two feet.
And I wondered, as a card-carrying member of Generation X, why on earth anyone would want to go through all the trouble of manually shifting if you didn?t have to.
Sure, the driver has more control, it offers better braking capabilities ... and, oh yeah, you can pretend you?re closing in on Earnhardt Junior on the final lap at this weekend?s NASCAR race.
But until you master this beast, it?s nothing but a pain in the . . . er, um . . . left calf.
Round two: with my left leg shaking and my ego in overdrive, I was determined to beat this one-armed bandit.
I closed my eyes, held my breath and repeated, ?slowly ... slowly ... slowly? as I slowly ... slowly .. slowly removed my foot from the clutch and almost forgot to accelerate. I was caught up in the moment, thrilled that I didn?t stall the darn thing.
Around and around we drove in circles in the parking lot of a movie theater, drawing the attention of mall security who surely must have wondered what we were up to.
I worked my way from first to second to ... OK, it was fifth, but eventually I made the natural progression from first to forth and back enough times to convince my coach that I at least grasped the concept, if not the technique ... and that I no longer needed the perfume.