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Get in touch with your gears—You never know when you may need to drive a manual transmission

By Chelsea Fagan

“You have to learn to drive a stick,” my mother would say. “What are you going to do if you need to rent a truck to move your furniture?” It was probably a reasonable question, as life tends to be full of inconvenient moments when you have to borrow other cars, rent them or find a truck big enough to move an entire apartment’s contents. But at 16, the only purpose for a car was driving to the mall to stand in front of stores with energy drinks. I didn’t see the point.

I wanted a car that was easy to learn—one that required little more know-how or connection to the road than a go-cart. My most pressing request was that the car be pink, a color that I didn’t realize until much later makes even the classiest automobile look like a clown car chauffeured by Barbie.

I had no reason to learn stick, I thought. But since my parents only drove stick, and I was certainly in no financial position to up and buy myself a limousine to spite them, I was just going to have to do it.

Sure, the first few tries around the parking lot of the community pool were…unflattering. They mostly consisted of me puttering around in circles in the sticky, relentless Maryland heat, dropping the clutch every five to ten seconds and peeling myself off the black vinyl seats (which, in 95-degree summer heat with no AC, felt like oversized griddles for your thighs). I remember turning to my mother with nothing short of blind rage in my eyes.

“I can’t do this, mom! I look like an idiot! Can’t I just go get a regular car?!”

I can only imagine my sweaty ridiculousness, implying that driving manually was some kind of crazy, advanced feature. I’m sure my mother would’ve traded in her entire life’s savings at that moment for a driving school—even, perhaps, the light-years-out-of-my-league Stay Clutch Program recently hosted by Chevy Sonic—that could’ve taken adolescent me off her hands. How wrong I was.

As the whole process of driving became more and more natural (after about three months of false starts and stalling out with a line of cars behind me at the green light), I realized how indispensable driving stick actually was. Being more in touch with the cars I was driving, generally feeling like some fearless, charming Man vs. Wild type who could master any automobile in a matter of minutes—it was awesome. It seemed silly that I’d been unwilling to learn, even in the face of all a stick shift’s technical and secondary benefits: better gas mileage, more control over the engine and familiarity with most everyday driving systems, to name a few.

But my teenage self couldn’t see beyond her dream of a car where you just plop down in the driver’s seat and are whisked away by some British-accented automatic driving system. What a shame.

I haven’t even mentioned yet my move to Europe—the land where the automatic car (along with central air-conditioning) has yet to really…integrate into society. Had I not gotten comfortable with driving manually when I first learned, I don’t know what I would’ve done in Paris the first time I found myself behind the wheel of one of those fine, if cramped, automobiles. Having sacrificed my fun and offered to be the Designated Driver of a friend’s car for the night, I was given by my incapacitated passengers the vague but insistent command to just “Allez!”

I think knowing how to drive all kinds of cars is necessary—you never know when you’re going to be in a situation where it’s required. I suppose the general rule “Be Prepared” is a good one to take from my driving experience. And though that doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll always carry a bowie knife in the event of a wild animal attack, I’ll at least know how to drive your moving van for you.

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Chelsea Fagan is an editor at the online magazine Thought Catalog. Her work has appeared in Le Monde, Grantland and The Atlantic, among other publications. Her forthcoming first book, a tongue-in-cheek guide to starting life as a grown-up, will be published by Running Press in 2013. On Twitter she’s @Chelsea_Fagan.


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