Wednesday, June 29, 2005


(Happy Birthday Jaison, 30 years old!)

While Keith is repairing my Dodge, I am driving my mother's car. It's a 1992 Pontiac LeMans (Keith says it was made in Korea--he pays attention to things like that) automatic transmission. MY car is 5 years newer and has a standard transmission.

In my entire adult life, I've never driven an automatic. I can’t say I like it. It takes the decision-making and skill out of driving and assigns it to a machine. It's like driving a bumper car, minus the bumpers.

[Bumpers these days are useless. Keith says the whole car is designed to absorb the impact and that saves lives. Lives are more valuable than cars, but cars are pretty expensive. I want to save lives, AND I wish the would design a car that would safely withstand collisions keeping the passenger healthy withOUT ruining the car. If we an send a man to the moon . . . There must be at least one intelligent engineer out there.]

I don't like the idea of driving a mind-numbing bumper car. I never liked it when my Ford Escort announced when it was time to shift. I would never buy another of those, either. Or any other car that tells me what to do.

Bumper Cars. When I was a child, I used to love bumper cars, or thought I did. I loved driving them around, driving fast, whipping around the corners, avoiding the empty bumper cars parked in the path. What I did not like is the hostility and aggression. I did not like being attacked. The "boys" (my brothers and their friends) would get a running start and crash into me. I felt violated, in a mechanical sort of way. And worried, scared.

The boys said I was a wimp. For me, this was the ultimate insult. I was a Tomboy, and I liked to think I could do anything the boys could do, as well, or better. The bumper car crisis might have triggered the end of my love affair with being a Tomboy. I still liked climbing trees and catching frogs and playing hardball in the back lot, and I still hated dolls and playing house. But I did not want to crash into someone else or have him (or her) crash into me.

Oh-oh! I was different. I didn’t fit in anywhere. I wasn't a boy and I was a lousy girl. One of the reasons I started writing was because I didn't fit in. I still don’t fit in.

Another reason why I don't like automatic transmission cars may be a knee-jerk reaction to not wanting to be one of the masses. I like to make my own choices. I like to shoot my camera on manual when I am taking a serious photo. Auto doesn't know how to do it. It shoots at an unnecessarily high speed and low f-stop. No depth of field.

The little LeMans has been serving me well so far, knock knock, and I am able to ignore its shortcomings. My mother loved the car, called it her “ladybug” because it was little and bright red. Now, when I tell her at the nursing home that I am driving her car, she doesn’t remember it. The one she remembers is one of her first cars from 1943, black and humped. I bet that was no automatic! (She thinks she has left it on the desert and wants to retrieve it. But that’s another story.)

Sara has a little red car. It's not working at the moment, and she may have to get a new one, but it has served her well. It's a Geo Metro "pod car." It's a standard transmission. Sara did not learn how to drive when she was 16. We did a lot of "Sara Wrangling," as she calls it. After she graduated from college, she got a job where she needed a car. She got a license (maybe before that), and the bought the Geo Metro, with a standard. It was the only one they had. She had to drive it home and off to her new job and she didn't know how to drive standard. She was not happy. But she grew to love it, and wants another "pod car." And probably a standard.

She would like to get a hybrid. But they are still cost prohibitive for normal folk. Too bad. I, too, would like to make environmentally supportive decisions. Like vote shrub out of office. No wait, I was talking about cars and wind and solar power.

My parents had always had standard transmission cars, but when I was 15, they bought their first automatic, a turquoise Chevelle convertible. I think. That thing boogied, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Or aside of myself. I wasn’t going there.

Back in those days, about 1962, if you took a driving test on an automatic, that stamped your license automatic and you could not drive a standard. That was the year everyone we knew switched to an automatic. We looked around for someone with a standard to teach me to drive and to let me take my test on his or her car.

We found Andre Van Hall. He was a recent Hungarian Immigrant brought to our town by the members of our church. My mother was helping his wife, Afra, get settled and integrate into the community.

Andre spoke very little English. He had a harelip and a lisp. The car was old and rusty and falling apart and there was no floor under the clutch, brake and gas pedals. He stuck a narrow board under there, but it didn't give me much confidence to see the road rushing by underneath.

As AndrĂ© tried to teach me to drive, he shouted at me in broken lisp-ized English. If I didn't understand him, and I never did, he shouted louder and more urgently, but still in garbled incomprehensible speech. I pumped and pumped that clutch. The bare road rushed under me and Andre hollered what sounded like gibberish. I would come home shaking from frustration and fear. But I passed the test. I was grateful to Andre. I got a license to drive standard, and I don't want that taken away. It’s a badge of honor and courage. It's something few people today understand.

Sometimes I think there is so much we don't understand about each other. We casually dismiss another person as weird because we are too busy to get to know them.

If I got in a bumper car and crashed into all those people who made fun of my choices, would that help? I don't think so. I can embrace myself, though, have patience with myself. And I can celebrate diversity by remembering when someone else seems odd or annoying, they might have their own bumper cars.

Comment, later: It occurred to me that someone might think of was being critical of people who drive automatic transmission cars. People often misunderstand my intentions, so I want to be clear about them. My intention is not to be critical of anyone for his or her reasonable choices, but in fact to NOT be critical without just cause. Everyone is slightly different and we need to have respect for each other and the vagaries of experience. I want to be accepted and accept others.

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