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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Good-Bye Mini Good-Bye

We sold the Mini Cooper S. Good bye but not good riddance. This is the car which taught me how to drive a stick shift.

There is a saying, attributed to Einstein, that when you turn 50 you should learn to play a musical instrument or learn a new language. My husband decided to learn Russian around the time he turned 50. He enrolled in classes at UCLA and got hooked by the Cyrillic alphabet.

When I turned 50, I did not follow Einstein’s advice. A little later, Mr. Wonderful made the decision for me. He surprised me with a Mini Cooper S for my birthday. He is enamored of manual transmissions and thought that my learning how to use one would be like learning a musical instrument. He was partially correct.

Learning to drive the Mini was certainly musical. It was opera  -- tragic opera -- until the day it became second nature. When it was time to sell it, however, it was a bittersweet parting. I took my last drive and shifted gears like moving through soft butter:  smooth, assured, natural.

Twice in the past, Mr. Wonderful had tried to teach me how to drive stick. It was in Europe and the pressure was on. He’d say things like "don’t pop the clutch," and I’d say "what’s a clutch" and "what’s pop?"  He’d give me lots of words, detail, and theory, while I sat with beads of sweat on my upper lip, a death grip on the wheel and the shuttering stop of a stall out at a red light. There were a few times when I did “get the car in gear” and drive along a county road, but each time I had to start from a full stop felt like mission impossible.

Finally, I decided that I really should know how to drive a car with a manual transmission if we were going to be renting cars in countries where they actually apologize if all they have is an automatic. Besides, I am a terrible passenger and prefer to do more than my share of the driving. So, I started talking about how cute Minis are.

My Mini was dark green with black roof and two black stripes on the hood. The interior was black and the car was equipped with Bluetooth and an iPod connector. It was surprisingly spacious and with the back seats folded down, it was even big enough for a Costco run. The “S” meant that it had more zip.

Mr. Wonderful was still providing me with too much information on what it took to get out of park into first gear and then into second. After second gear it was easy, but the low gear beginning was a terror. "Give it more gas," he kept saying. "More gas? I don’t want the car to jump out and hit anything," I’d respond.

After several tries with my dearly beloved issuing instructions from the passenger seat, the stress was too much. Luckily, my computer came to the rescue. The Internet provided articles on driving stick and there are videos on YouTube. I’d watch the videos, realize that I was not the only one having difficulties learning this “instrument” and feel better about myself. In the evenings, I began taking my Mini out for a spin around the neighborhood. Stop signs became learning experiences … practice. Little hills became challenges. Actually, my eye suddenly could discern the tiniest of inclines where I’d seen none before. In a short time I was driving on the freeway to work.

Although there were lots of rough starts and bumpy shifts into first gear, I thought I was making progress. Until one day I had a crisis point. During lunch hour I needed to drive to the drug store to buy something. I left my office and got out of the parking lot. Then the trouble started. It seemed that I hit every red light between my office and the store. There was a slight uphill incline at each light. The only turns were left turns on busy multi-lane streets. I stalled out at each stop, and not just once. The drivers behind me were irritated and showed it. The two miles to the store seemed to take a lifetime to transit. Finally, stressed and sweaty, I got to the store and parked.

At the drug store I was walking down the center aisle in one direction while having my head turned to the right to read the signs above each aisle indicating what’s there. Suddenly, bang! I bumped into a clerk wheeling a dolly loaded with products. I got a small cut on my foot. Tears started flowing and flowing. All the while I was assuring the stocking clerk that he did not have to call his manager, that I did not need a chair and that I was really OK.

Still in tears I walked out of the store and got into the Mini. I thought of calling Mr. Wonderful to “save” me, but he was playing golf that day and he never keeps his cell phone on. Then I thought of calling my friend Paul at work, he is a buddy and a car collector. Then I realized that if anyone “saved” me from driving the Mini, I’d never drive it again and I’d never learn stick shift. I buckled the seat belt, took a deep breath, and put the clutch into reverse. Reverse is really what saved me. When moving in reverse, there is a natural tendency to take one’s time, to release the clutch slowly and smoothly while giving the engine gas with the other foot. Made it. Now, I just had to apply the same principle when going forward. It worked –- not beautifully but it worked. I got back to the office. My meltdown became a positive turning point.

It took more time to get the hang of things and to be confident enough to go up steeper hills. Although I still stalled out from time to time, my confidence never fled again. I got to know what to do and how. Ultimately, smooth like a hot knife through butter. Yeah!

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