Sunday, September 19, 2010

Stick-Shift It Where The Sun Don't Shine!

I've been driving cars for half my life now, which tends to make a person fairly confident in her abilities, but recently, I acquired an adorable 1970 Gremlin, Big Bad Orange in color, that I dubbed "Ginger."  Well, Ginger features a three-speed manual transmission.  She was originally "Three-On-The-Tree," but thankfully, somewhere along the way, someone thought to put the shifter on the floor.  I think cars with the shifters on the column are nerdy, whether they're manual or automatic, but that's a vortex for another day.

Now, I absolutely adore my Gremlin.  The whole way home from New Jersey, where we bought her, I kept turning around so I could see her riding proudly on the U-haul trailer we rented.  I got the biggest charge out of watching vehicles that would pass us on the 4-lane slowing just a little go get a better look at the ginger-colored gem that was now my Very Own Gremlin.  I'd "SQUEEEEEEEEEEEE!" with glee every time someone would give me a thumbs-up.

But of course we got Ginger home, and it was time to drive her.  Now, when I was learning to drive, my parents let me drive their old Plymouth Voyager, a mild-mannered whale of a minivan with a four-cylinder engine and automatic transmission- shifter on the steering column- perhaps you see whence my bias against comes. And for almost sixteen years, the only kind of transmissions on any vehicles I've encountered since has been automatic, although with the "PRND12" on the floor, at least, mostly.  So knowing that Ginger was manual, and that my dad happens to now own a manual Neon, I thought it would be fun for him to give me a crash-course in driving stick in the little red car the day before my husband and I headed to The Garden State after Ginger.  Cereal, how hard can driving stick be?  I'm pretty flippin' good at handling the "autostick" in our 2009 Dodge Challenger R/T (don't roll your eyes that we bought an automatic sports car- we wanted a damn Challenger, and the dealership that had any on their lot had the one we got and an SE model, which is the 6-cylinder, automatic, "Soupy Edition" because it's the watered-down one, and it was during the spring of '09 when Chrysler's assembly lines were shut down while they got through another of their squirrely periods- so our R/T has the frackin' Hemi and autostick, and I can still teach every pimply-faced seventeen-year-old in late-model Rustangs and zipper-cars a lesson at stoplights.) 

The giant hole in my logic that I'd be a natch at driving stick is two-fold: first, I underestimated the clutch.  Second, I underestimated how being back in the position of having to learn something like driving from my dad, just how spazzy and high-strung I can be.  Now, my dad's a very nice person, and as evidenced by his coterie of devoted grad students at the university where he works, he's obviously a good teacher.  And he taught my sister how to drive stick and he had a hand in teaching one of my cousins how to drive.  But I'd forgotten the yelling matches we'd get into when, at sixteen, I was learning how to drive with Dad in the car.

The first stick lesson went about how you'd expect it would have, except, I'd been driving for fifteen and a half years, thought I knew all there was to know, and got really upset when I couldn't take off without jumping, I couldn't stop without stalling, and I accidentally ground the gears once.  And instead of yelling something useful like "Clutch!" (even though I'd been briefed before we got in the car that the clutch is the default thing to use whenever the car's making a disconcerting noise, feels like it wants to stall, etc., in the heat of the moment, truth was, I was flustered!), Dad just started yelling incomprehensible syllables.  I can't remember what finally got my foot to the clutch, but I did get the car in the proper gear, the disconcerting noise stopped, and the whole episode lasted just a few seconds.  I know that's enough to damage push-rods and such, but anything I broke, I would pay for!  After that brief lesson, my self-esteem had taken a beating, not so much because my dad peeled my butt for being inept- he didn't, really, but he has a way of not saying anything that conveys disappointment and surprise that a kid of his can be so thick- something I saw a lot of during the alebra-geometry-trig years in high school- that gets me every time.  So I did what any self-respecting thirty-one year-old would do after disappointing Daddy.  I stomped into my house, opened up a bottle of wine, and bawled about it all evening long.

The second lesson, two days later, on a Saturday morning, began with a run-down of all the shit I did wrong during the first, and a lecture that "you can fly airplanes, so this shouldn't tie you up in knots like it does!"  Well, when I learned how to fly airplanes, both my instructors would tell me all the shit I did wrong as soon as we were on the ground and let me go home to think about it, and then at the next lesson, it was a clean slate.  I was already still brittle after my first battle with driving stick in the Neon, so this probably wasn't the way to start out, since it took me a good two miles of jack-rabbit starts, stalling out at intersections, and inappropriate up-or-down-shifting, to get myself together and stop that "tears are imminent" feeling in my throat and nose.  See, I have been a grade-grubber since birth, and any disapproval from anyone in a position of authority has always and still does push the high-strung-ness button I have.

Anyway, we went to the high school parking lot, which was thankfully empty, to practice starting and stopping, pulling into and out of parking spaces, and driving at slow speeds.  Dad kept saying how the real way to learn to drive stick was to learn on a tractor with manual transmission, which made absolutely no sense to me, because I don't have access to such a tractor, and here we were, in a perfectly good, although old Neon.  This lesson lasted about an hour, and I think Dad realized I was thisclose to humping up and bawling the whole time, thanks to the rundown of all the rookie mistakes I made during our first lesson, and my inability to shift at appropriate times on the road on the way to the school, because on the way back to my house, he said how impressed he was by my control of the steering wheel.

"Well, I should hope I could keep a car between the ditches on dry pavement after doing this for fifteen years," I said.  Duh, I wasn't exactly starting from square one with the driving, just the dance between clutch and gearshifter.

I'm pretty sure my dad has been relieved that I never asked for another lesson in the Neon.  In fact, I'm not going near that car, ever again.  I make it sound like my relationship with my dad is contentious, but it really isn't.  It's just literally been since he taught me to drive back in 1994, that we've experienced this particular dynamic, that we both forgot that being in the car together on a teacher/student basis brings out the worst in both of us.  In fact, for a couple weeks after these two disastrous attempts at trying to teach me to drive stick, Dad would tell anyone who knows us both just how surprised he was that I was so nervous behind the wheel, especially since I can wrestle a small aircraft safely to the ground in a cross-wind without half as much drama as was happening in the Neon.  It was my younger sister who pointed out that although most of the time, if I'm going to pick a fight with one of our parents, the safe money goes on Mom, when I was learning to drive, it was my mother who was the more patient teacher behind the wheel, and Dad was good at driving with Colleen, but Mom and Colleen didn't get along during Colleen's learning to drive.

I tried driving my Gremlin a couple times after we brought her home, practicing in the yard such maneuvers as taking off up a hill without rolling backwards, and K-turns without stalling out.  Eventually, fate intervened, and Ginger had to go to the shop for a few months over the summer, and I got to forget for a while just how stupid I am at this particular facet of driving a car.  The Jeep makes me look good, because I've driven that vehicle for seven years, I know right where the wheels are in relation to the edge of a road or a curb, and there is no stalling at at-grade intersections.  I love my Jeep!  And in the Challenger, I look like one hot mama, especially since the auto-stick feature, coupled with the ability to turn off the posi-trac, has made for some pretty impressive burn-outs while I've been behind the wheel.

So it was with some trepidation on Friday night, when we went to the shop and picked up Ginger.  I let my husband drive her from the shop to the gas station, because I get irritated at the Sheetz in Coudersport anyway, trying to make a left turn out of there, and I knew if I were in a car that could stall out in the middle of such a maneuver, there would be some road-rage incidents.  But then my husband pulled over in Colesburg, and we switched vehicles.  He followed me in the truck.  I got me and Ginger home without much incident, but I wasn't sure when to shift, and going around corners at intersections consisted of some good luck in the traffic department, with a shift down to second and whipping around the corner.  I squealed her new brakes a couple times, and was completely over driving her by the time we got home.

Yesterday was a new day, though.  Although I wanted to find someone who wasn't my dad or my husband to coach me on driving stick, because well, as I've just written, Dad and I aren't so good together in that situation, and I really, really hate looking dumb in front of my husband, Shane got Ginger out of the garage for me, got her warmed up, and we did some backing up up a hill and driving up a hill drills before he drove her into town for me so we could get gas, got me away from the intersection, and then made me get behind the wheel.  I was literally sweating like a stuck pig, and my hands shook, but I didn't stall out as I pulled out of the bus turn-around, and I even had a small audience.  At every side-road, Shane would make me slow down and down-shift as though I was going to turn, then up-shift and go, sort of a driver's ed version of the touch-and-go I've done so many times in the plane.  I drove Ginger to my parents' house without incident, without even stalling at the inclined intersection of Second Street and Main Street in Harrison Valley, and no jackrabbit start.  On the trip back to my place, I stalled in the driveway a couple times, then once again getting back onto the main road, and then at the intersection right in front of my house, where I will probably always stall for some reason, but once we were up to the garage, Shane told me to back the Gremlin in.  We have tandem parking and a gravel floor right now in our garage, and Ginger's place is where else but smack in front of the Challenger, the car that Shane doesn't even allow to be parked outside, not even for a minute, if it's home, the car where we'll park in a different ZIP code when we have it out driving and we wind up at a restaurant or a store.  I really, really didn't want to be the one to be maneuvering the Gremlin around, near the Challenger, because as you can imagine, I'd be doubly in trouble for smacking into that car with a classic car, if I got squirrely with the gas and clutch pedals.

But I didn't smack into the Challenger or fling gravel all over the place when I got Ginger out today for a little practice in the yard once again.  I'm thinking this driving stick-shift thing might work out after all.  I definitely appreciate why old dogs are reluctant to learn new tricks, though, because I wasn't the happiest person back when I was sixteen, and when I was twenty-seven and learning how to fly a plane, every instructor or examiner who flew with me commented that I'm 'high-strung', and all this being in a new situation at an age when other people have these sorts of things all figured out, definitely makes me feel like a clueless teenager again, I realize now that pretty much everyone is a beginner at some time or another, and instead of just throwing up my hands and declaring myself not good at this, I'm going to stay with it and get so I'm as slick on stick as my sister is. 

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Do They Mean "Comfy" for Standing, or "Comfy" for Walking?

This summer that's practically in the rearview mirror now was going to be the summer I fell in love with the sandal.  I've never been one much for sandals because I hate looking at feet, my own as well as other people's.  My worst nightmares involve those in which I'm employed as a pedicurist.  Yeah, it's that bad.

But I also don't like to be uncomfortably or unfashionably warm, and I figured the current trend of gladiator sandals would be a good compromise between my love of black leather and lots of hardware and my need to stay fashionably cool in the hot months.

I went to and bought four pairs of sandals- two pairs of Steve Madden "bandage" platform sandals, which feature criss-crossing elastic and four-inch heels (one black and one ultraviolet) , a pair of 3-inch black gladiators by Blowfish with lots of buckles that my sister dubbed the "dominatrix shoes" at first sight, and finally another pair of Steve Maddens, flats, made of faux brown and tan snakeskin that zip up the back for easy on-off.  That impressed the heck out of me. The thing all these pairs of sandals have in common, besides their obvious edge and gladiatorness, is that they were all rated "super-comfy" by fellow shoppers.

And when I tried each pair of sandals on, upon their arrival early in the spring, oh my lord, you probably heard the "SQUEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!"  They really were comfy!  I'm short and hating it, so I'm no stranger to four-inch heels and shoes on platforms, and by those standards, the "Bandage" shoes were pretty great- with skid-proof treating on their soles, a good angle and a pretty comfortable footbed.  The Blowfish dominatrix sandals were even better, with their padded and sueded footbed, the slightly lower heels, and for-real rubber soles.  And the snakeskin zip-up Steve Madden gladiator flats- well, they're flats, so how bad could they be?  The rolled leather thong on those gave me pause, a little concern, but come on.  Flats.  Babies and guys wear flats.

The first pair of these sandals I began to doubt the comfort of was the brown and tan Steve Madden gladiator flats.  I wore them with a white skirt and blue top to "girls' day out" at Susquehanna University- a day when my two besties from college and I returned to our old stomping grounds, took a walk around campus, then went for an afternoon of milling around the Susquehanna Valley Mall.  I was over the rolled leather thong between my toes by the time our lap around campus concluded.  Some inconsiderate son of a boob managed to design those shoes so the seam of the thong is placed right in prime blister-rubbing position when the wearer is walking.  Plus, they're thin-crust-pizza flat, so I was that uncomfortable walking around, and still a mere sixty-four inches.

The dominatrix-y sandals with the rubber soles and squooshy-cushy footbeds were the next of my four horsemen of the comfort apocalypse to do me wrong, and these made me cry when I realized just how uncomfortable they could be, because I'd worn them on lots of shorter and moderate walking trips to parties and shopping all summer, with no blisters and much success.  And so of course I decided to pair the skorts and skirts I took with me to New York during the Big Apple's big heatwave at the end of July with the dominatrix sandals.  I wanted comfort and style, and as far as I knew, these sandals delivered. 

Okay, so we WALKED (upon my suggestion, because said the very sandals I was wearing were 'super-comfy!') from our hotel in Times Square, at the corner of 51st St. and 8th Ave. all the way through Central Park to the Museum of Natural History.  I began to question the "Super-Comfiness" of these shoes about midway through the park, but my bubble was completely burst as we were sitting under the dinosaur skeletons in the museum lobby.  My husband was getting his bearings, looking at the map of the museum, and I was trying to figure out if this was the sort of place that sold Isotoner slippers in its gift shop (heads-up: they're not) because I had the most epic blister I've ever seen. 

The whole time we were at the museum- from 10 a.m. until 2:30 p.m., I could feel the blister throbbing, and my husband would hear no complaints, first of all because I insisted on wearing those stupid sandals and secondly because I insisted on walking to the Museum instead of taking the subway.  In my defense, I was thinking in Philadelphia-scale, not New York-scale.  So by the end of the day, with all the little children running around the museum like screaming banshees, I began to understand why the Wicked Witch of the West wanted to get Dorothy, another insufferable little brat.  The Witch's feet probably hurt, because she was wearing Blowfish gladiator sandals, and that twit Dorothy had the ruby slippers, which as everyone knows, have the body of a Manolo, but the soul of a Nike.

In an uncharacteristic show of self-restraint, I didn't pop that ginormous blister that night.  My husband tells me they heal faster if you leave them alone.  So the next day, I wore a sneaker-friendly skort and my Skechers Shape-Ups- the cool black ones- and even though I looked like Olive Oyl, except short with stubby little peasant legs, I was "super-comfy" hoofing it all over Lower Manhattan, Liberty Island, and Ellis Island.  Although, somewhere halfway through Battery Park, the blister popped, and I lost a full two inches of height on the left side.  That's how blistery the blister was.  But it felt so much better!  And that day I realized that it might not have been that the Witch's feet hurt that she wanted Dorothy's head on a stick; it's because children are obnoxious, and so are their parents who think it's so damn cute to just turn their little demon spawn loose on ferries and at tourist attractions and act as though it's the peevish adults who have no sense of humor when the little brats run into you when you're trying to hear the tour guide.

On the penultimate night of our trip, after two full days of running around in those glorious sneakers of mine, I pressed my luck right out of my life, deciding to wear my black "Bandage" Steve Maddens to Grand Central Station's Oyster Bar, then "Rock of Ages" at the Brooks Atkinson theatre.  Well, long story short, not only did I give up on our way from the Oyster Bar to the subway platform, I effing gave up and bought a pair of ten-dollar flip-flops that are worth about a dollar-forty-nine and cost half a cent to make somewhere in China, and wore those the rest of the night.  I carried the "Bandage" shoes like a badge of shame and tossed them unceremoniously into my suitcase when we got back to the hotel, which is where they are to this day.

Shlepping around in 100+ weather in ungodly humidity, none of these sandals are "super-comfy," neither for standing, nor walking around in.  I've just come into a fresh box of Dr. Scholl's moleskin, though, and plan to pimp out the gladiator sandals for fall.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Fun With Pennies!

A few months ago, my husband and I were shopping along Main Street in a decent-sized small town about half an hour away from our home.  We were throwing money in the way of the barber shop, the jewelry store, and a notable diner-type restaurant, all located on the same block.  And we were lucky enough to get a centrally-located parking space.  So we parked the Jeep at a meter, saw there was some money left on it, and threw in an extra dime.  Our things we needed to do weren't going to take very long.

Well, as it turned out, Everyone and his brother in town was queued up at the barber's, I was having an indecisive moment in the jewelry store, and then the B-team was cooking in the diner, and it took fifteen minutes for our food to come to us, instead of the usual instant-to-five minutes.  It was okay, we'd be cutting it close with the meter, but we'd have time.

Except, we didn't.  We must have missed the meter running out by two or three minutes.  And sure enough, the zealous MeterMan (no MeterMaid for this town!  It's a man's job!) had already written and slapped a ticket under the wiper blade.  He was only three cars away, scribbling out another ticket for some other poor schmuck.  We thought, 'whatever,' and figured the town could use the $2 parking fine, and we could have put in another dime on our way into the diner, but we'd felt lucky and luck wasn't on our side, and all that.

And then I looked down at the front passenger side tire and saw it was flat as a diner griddlecake.  This was a bit of a surprise, but not really.  We'd just had the Jeep in to the garage to have a tire plugged, and the tires rotated, so either the plug failed, or we were enjoying the gift of a second flat tire in a week.

Either the parking ticket or the flat tire wouldn't have caused much stir.  Both on the same day, at the same time- that was another story.  In my head, MeterMan was even more of a twenty-four karat-dipped horse's behind for writing a ticket when we already had a flat tire.  He had to have seen the flat- injury.  Then he wrote the ticket, just moments after the meter ran out- insult added to said injury.  And the little SOB was now four cars down, writing yet another parking ticket on a partly-cloudy autumn Friday afternoon.

The humanity!

This normally would have really irritated me.  I understand the guy's just doing his job, and parking meters are the one thing standing between society as we know it and complete and total anarchy, and if people just started ignoring the parking meters, eventually civilization as we know it would crumble and we'd all have to learn how to live in a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-like world where people park their dunebuggies in front of all the good (read: open) stores and restaurants and leave them there for weeks on end with no consideration to anyone else who wants to park there. 

On this day, I wasn't at all irritated.  In fact, I had an idea, as my husband and I switched our flat for the spare on the back of the Jeep.  A couple people stopped to talk to us, and we told them about the parking ticket AND the flat, and shared what a bastard MeterMan was, considering we'd spent a good bit of money up and down Main Street that day, but overall, the blood pressure stayed low and slow.  My plan was brilliant.

After getting the tire changed, I took the little envelope that was the ticket, conveniently sized for accepting payment for said two-dollar parking fine, and got into where I keep the change in the Jeep.  I didn't have any singles on me, after all.  We put down all the singles we had as a tip in the diner!  And in the first or second grade, when I learned to make change, I learned that you start with the biggest coin you can- in this case, a quarter, and then go down in denomination as required by the amount of change you're counting out.  I should have done the job in eight quarters, but you know, quarters are just so convenient to spend, both in parking meters (ahem) and vending machines when one is driving along and suddenly needs a Coke or a Snickers Bar.  Twenty dimes?  Sure, I had a change holder full of dimes.  I could have paid the fine in dimes and had dimes to spare.  Nickels are my least favorite coin.  I still hold nickels responsible for my failing a pre-test in math in fourth grade.  In my defense, the copy was crappy, and it was difficult to tell the different denominations apart, and I mistook the nickels for pennies.  Unfortunately for nickels, I hold a grudge for a long time.  Which left pennies.

Pennies are fun. My hair's the color of some pennies.  You have the face of Honest Abe on the heads side, and on the tails side, there's an image of the Lincoln Memorial, with Honest Abe sitting inside.  I kid you not.  Get a microscope and check it out sometime.  You can use pennies to shore up a wobbly chair leg.  You can even hot glue them to a lampshade or a wall for a fun and interesting decorative piece or objet d'art.  And, you can also pay a parking ticket fine with pennies.

This isn't a terribly original idea, I know.  People have been paying fines and their rent in pennies for ages.  It's a wonderfully passive-aggressive way to stick it to the man, and it's completely legal, because at least right now, pennies are still legal tender!  But I was going to take the passive-aggressive one notch closer to aggressive-aggressive, as I am wont and duty-bound to do.  I was going to waltz into the police station, hand my fine to the person who was in charge of receiving parking fines, and pleasantly ask for a receipt, so they'd have to count every penny.  I was laughing so hard I was snorting as I filled that envelope with a hundred and seventy pennies and six nickels (I only had a dollar seventy-three in pennies and had to fill in with the hated nickels, after all).  And I was going to stay unfailingly pleasant, even as that miserably public servant counted the change, no matter how sour he or she was in the process.  I was even going to wait until I got out to the Jeep to toss the receipt I'd get.

After counting the change three times to make sure it was correct, a hundred-seventy cents and six nickels, we drove to the police station, and I literally skipped my way inside.  This is how gleeful I was, anticipating how cleverly my plan was going to go off.  Then I saw it: a big, heavy metal box put in the lobby for the specific purpose of collecting parking ticket fines.  (Deposit Parking Ticket Fines Here is emblazoned on the box in unmissable yellow block letters.)  What, no person to count the change and give me a receipt?  What a gyp!

The envelope with my ticket and fine was meant to slip through a slot in the top of the box.  And it would have, if I would have paid with two singles, or eight quarters, or probably even twenty dimes.  A hundred-seventy pennies plus six nickels was too much for the slot, and as I struggled to flatten out the envelope, my heart started racing.  Having to call on a person to help me get my fat fine envelope through the tragically narrow deposit slot wouldn't have played out as slick as making someone count my change whose job it was anyway.  Needing assistance at this point would be simply obnoxious, and any right to smugness I had would be negated as soon as I uttered a weak "help."

So I shook and shook the envelope, got half of it in the slot, then worked the remaining change in the envelope either above or below the place where the slot was holding it fast.  Finally, after what felt like far longer than the Jeep had been parked on Main Street to earn a parking ticket, the copper-laden envelope hit the bottom of the deposit box with a loud metallic thud.  I didn't hear any envelope breakage, no telltale sound of pennies rolling around loose, like undisciplined children in a store.  And with the mission accomplished, sort of, I hightailed it out of the police station lobby and back to the Jeep.

"Drive!" I commanded my husband.

"What'd you do?" he said, waiting for the random parade of South Main traffic to pass so we could pull away from the curb.

"Nothing!  I just paid the fine, and now let's just drive and put this awful experience behind us!"

He looked at me as though I'd sprouted antennae, and deliberately pulled away from the curb, instead of peeling out like I thought he should have.  After all, I'd just paid a parking ticket with pennies.  We were practically anarchists!  That should have warranted leaving a little spare tire tread in front of the police station!

As we got farther and farther away from town, I told of the catastrophic failure of my plan, that it ended in a nearly anti-climactic thud at the bottom of a metal deposit box.  But all was not lost.  Even though I could hear the defeat in my own voice, one sound I could not hear was the jingling of pennies that had been growing louder and louder every time over months that  I went into a store and came out with pennies.  Into the center console they'd go with a coppery plash.  They'd slosh around whenever I'd take a corner too fast, and really, is there any other way to take a corner?  They cluttered up the center console, rendering it difficult to put other interesting things in there, like a pair of emergency mitts for Sabres games, or various chargers for electronic devices, or heck, even a pen.  Everything smelled like pennies. 

And now, all but three were gone, sitting in the bottom of the police deposit box.  The remaining three were nicely corralled in my Tupperware change holder.  Surely I would save a ton of gas money every time I drove the Jeep, just by having all that extra penny weight gone.  And that made me feel less of an anarchist and more of a winner!

Now, though, when we go to town with the intention of spending any time on Main Street, we find a free space, where MeterMan has no dominion.  We'll walk a quarter of a mile if we have to.  And just the other day, I caught MeterMan snooping around at cars in Walgreen's parking lot.  There aren't meters there!  What on earth did he have any business doing there?  Clearly, more people should pay their parking tickets in pennies to keep him busy counting and off the streets...