The Automatic Papercut

I traded in my manual transmission. It was a great move for the environment, since I picked up a used Civic Hybrid. It wasn’t a huge monetary loss as I was able to trade my manual transmission Civic with a minor exchange of money. I even got a 2008 for a 2007 (albeit with more miles). All of these things are good. But if you know me, you know that there is a symbolism that goes with trading in my manual transmission. It is a T.S. Eliot whimper. It is another papercut. Why do I even care about this? Why does giving up the manual transmission even warrant commentary?

A manual transmission requires two hands and two feet. It requires ears that can hear the rev of the engine, and a sense of touch that feels the right gear. While it isn’t rocket science, a manual transmission requires engagement with the road that says, “put your feet on this ground and pay attention.” I love driving this way. I feel like I can maximize the capacity of the car. Undersized engine? Get the rpm’s up. Need to bring the speed down on ice? Downshift before braking. Listen to the engine, and feel the speed. Decide the appropriate gear (the more the merrier in my book). Engage your hands feet, ears and eyes, and notice the ride moment by moment. Driving a manual transmission is about the drive from the time you get into the car to the time you have arrived.

Automatic transmissions let you float above it all. They are mindless. You don’t need to pay attention to the sound and feel of driving, because the decisions are made for you. You get to take driving for granted with an automatic. Just shift into drive or reverse and go. One foot. One arm. Eyes on the road and feel free to drink that coffee, apply that makeup, go “hands free” with your cell phone. An automatic encourages you to drive without realizing what you are doing, no attention needed, and no real sense of the moment until you look up and you have arrived. You lose that time and space that got you to this place.

So, my inability to drive the manual is another papercut, earned without trying, on my Dis Ease journey. I just cannot make my left foot go down anymore with the authority necessary to disengage the gears, and I cannot bring it up with the finesse required to ease out the clutch so that my passengers don’t get jolted. The manual transmission is ease when done right. It is grace and it is a prop that forces attention. Now, I need to put my attention past the automatic, to find a way to stay engaged with the road, in spite of a vehicle that encourages me to just let it happen. Physically, it is one more papercut on this very short and human journey. But emotionally, it symbolizes a giving up that requires tremendous energy to overcome. All of us face this, we just don’t always pay attention.

This is a new attention. Time to get moving. I’m going to go out to my “new” Civic Hybrid, and put it into gear and let it take me where I will go. I’ll try not to shift it, even though my well trained left foot will want to. I’ll try not to pay attention to the rpm’s and wish I could nudge them up just a little. I will keep bringing my attention back to the road, remembering what the manual transmission has taught me. The road is as interesting as the destination, and every time I get on it, I might just learn something new, even in a vehicle that encourages disengagement. But I won’t put on makeup while driving!


11 thoughts on “The Automatic Papercut

  1. Bruce — I totally get what you’re saying about manuals. My dad let me drive his 1978 Dodge (really Mitsubishi) Colt when I was in HS. It was a cheap car that didn’t go fast or impress chicks, but it had a four on the floor that let me compensate for its engine’s and body’s weaknesses and still made me feel like a race car driver. Since then I’ve had a parade of manual cars: a 73 Super Beetle in college, another Colt in grad school, and then Ringo the 96 Saturn SL2 after I got here — all small but reliable, fuel efficient and fun to drive.

    A year ago even the Asian junior faculty candidates were dissing Ringo (ok, he was looking a little shabby) so I went shopping for a new car. Of course it had to be a manual, but I was surprised how few such cars remain on the market; less than 10% now, and most of those are European or Japanese. I went with an Audi (her name is Katja, since she’s German and looks rather feline from the front) and she can do things none of my other cars could do — not just go fast but dial my telephone for me, pick out the right lights and wiper settings, etc, etc. But I still get to shift her (6) gears and so I retain some small measure of control and feel, just like you talked about.

    One more thing: I had surgery on my L knee a few years ago, a “lateral release” to relieve pain from an old nagging injury. Katja’s driving position is subtly different from Ringo’s, so when I switched, I was getting some pain in my L knee as a result of having to adjust to K’s clutch. If I keep her as long as I kept Ringo, it’s pretty clear that my *next* car will have to be an automatic, since I too will not have L leg that is up to the task. Perhaps I”ll wind up with an all-electric car that’ll be so quiet it’ll take quite an adjustment period as well 😉

    Cheers, Brad

  2. I share your love of the manuel driving experience. I reluctantly took a “free” car from my dad a few years ago because he deemed my old ford escort mini-wagon unsafe for his grandchild. (He wasn’t wrong.)

    I went back to a cheap manuel (mini-mini-van) as soon as I could afford to. I agree, severing that fine tuned relationship between car and driver does bear some loss. As I drive along these days, I keep thinking that driving is all about to change for everyone. Bring on the electric mini-van!


  3. Aahh, thanks for finally starting this. And yes, having recently inherited Angie’s 6 speed Matrix, I understand the comfort of that control. But a great ride doesn’t have to be about being in total control, you say?

    You will teach us well, I know, as you share this trip with us.

  4. I love the feel of a manual transmission. You can be part of the engine — or so it feels. I remember a few mornings up north when the transmission was so frozen and hard to awaken. Now I too drive an automatic Honda. I blew out the L5S1 disc a few years back and the doctor said ” Manual, no more.” Alas, those driving days are now memories remembered on days when I am not trying to use the manual choke or coax a cold gear box. Yes, it is a papercut.

  5. My family recently visited our son, Dan, who is teaching in Saipan. Dan met us at the airport in a battered “junker” of a car. Many of the car’s parts weren’t working quite right. There was a “trick” to closing the window and the engine needed frequent attention of additional oil. But, the car got us safely to all our destinations. I realized that the condition of the car didn’t really matter. What was important was the safe trips, and the wonderful conversations and laughter our family shared as we viewed the spectacular sites and scenery of Saipan.

  6. Thank you, Bruce for articulating so beautifully my thoughts and feelings about driving a stick shift car. I had the opportunity to drive/own a number of them, but I think my favorite was the last one we had-a VW THING. It was bright orange, and had custom-fitted orange shag carpet for floor mats. Our three girls took their turns driving it and it carried our family blackberry-picking, off-road exploring and deer-watching in the evenings at our cabin. It was of course the most fun with the top down. Amazing, isn’t it how much a part of the family a car can feel!

  7. I totally get what you are saying about having to make this change. It it difficult. I think of you often.

    On a lighter note, I drove a manual car for years. Imagine my surprise when (not thinking, of course) I jammed on the clutch on 35W in my automatic car and about broke my back when I was thrown forward! It was such a surprise to me, but like you, I was “listening” and (unlike you) I was not thinking!!

  8. Bruce! You sing the clutch eclectic! I never knew that about you.
    Where was this blog when I was trying to convince Steph that my mid-life crisis car, a Toyota Corolla with the Mennonite Package (no frills, wool seat covers), HAD to have a manual transmission? She loves it now, but it was a hard sell. And you’re absolutely right–the “responsibilities” of a clutch completely change the driving experience; pardon the pun but it forces the driver to engage with the car, the road, etc.. I think you could make an argument that many of the conveniences of Modern Life have carried the side effect of allowing us to disengage from what it is we’re doing, from the here and now. I still enjoy kind of enjoying washing the dishes, particularly in the winter.
    And now you, the biker, are driving a hybrid! I never realized how much I rode my bike with my ears until the hybrids arrived, spookily showing up out of nowhere, out of an auditory nowhere.

  9. There is another option – we have a Subaru with auto trans. However, there is a sports chouce in which the car performs as with manual trans. You can shift manually and don’t need a clutch – no need to worry about less than 100% performance in left foot. Not quite the same as manual but an option.


  10. This is a great post!
    Not only have I found a term to describe my wife’s car preference as “Early Mennoninite”, but I found another man who puts makeup on before he drives instead of in the car, Whew…

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