Our shiftless youth

Farewell, Fahrvergnügen. We’ll miss the experience and the meaning.

Jeffrey Denny

Breathless headlines about the headlong rush by Google, Apple and others to develop driver-less cars suggest autonomous Priuses are coming to a dealer near us soon.

Awesome. Just like the personal flying car that Popular Science promised decades ago that should be clogging the airspace by now.

Reality is more … realistic: “Vehicles equipped with Level 5 systems (that can operate anywhere a person can drive a conventional vehicle today) will likely not be a majority of the fleet for three more decades,” the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers testified before Congress. “Ubiquity is not projected to occur for at least four decades.…” That’s roughly when Millennials are seniors and I’m dead, mostly dead, or looking forward to being dead.

I’m ok to miss driver-less cars. I don’t get the excitement.

Seems the human, intellectual, technological and investment capital would be spent better on the Cancer Moon Shot or fast, cheap sequencing of the human genome to explore, fight and cure all human maladies and conditions. Or on leaps in solar tech and other non-fossil energy sources. Or on protecting our ozone layer and planet. Or at least, we could first expand mass transit and fix the crumbling roads, rail and bridges we have now.

Sure, if computer-driven cars mean fewer knucklehead-driven cars causing fewer accidents, injuries and fatalities … if driver-less cars know that GREEN MEANS GO ALREADY, FOR CHRISSAKE and THE LEFT LANE IS FOR PASSING, NUMBSKULL … if android Acuras allow people to text without the distraction of driving … if Teslas can be programmed to avoid hitting pompous, cavalier cyclists or ignoramus pedestrians hunched over their phones, dawdling at the curb and suddenly stepping into traffic … if we can reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions while also getting hybrid/EV drivers to stop swelling about their sacrificial enviro-heroism … then fine. Let R2D2 drive and C-3PO backseat drive.

Let’s face it— the fantasy of driver-less cars is not really about traffic safety and the planet.

It’s about having freedom without responsibility.

(Not unlike what the internet offers execrable trolls who debase our politics and public discourse — abusing the First Amendment as a sword and shield — but lack the courage to sign their names to what they say.)

In a free, self-governing democratic system and society, you can’t have freedom without responsibility. As the old idiom goes, freedom isn’t free.

Driver-less cars promise the freedom — the autonomy to come and go — that an automobile offers, without the responsibility to drive well, pay attention, interact with other drivers, pedestrians or cyclists, and engage in the driving experience.

Is this good for us? Do we really need to sit passively while our cars drive us? Do we need more freedom to be enslaved by our phones?

Worse, driver-less cars accelerate the trend of replacing reality with “reality,” the virtual kind.

We see this trend daily.

It’s shopping online instead of at the store, killing bricks & mortar retail as we wonder why stores are boarding up.

It’s texting instead of talking.

It’s looking at our phones on a date, at a concert, or anywhere we should find more stimulating than anything on a little screen.

It’s taking phone pictures or video of something exciting instead of just experiencing it.

It’s thinking we can multitask and do a super job on each task because we’re just that smart, while clueless that others are left picking up after us.

It’s taking notes at a meeting on a laptop, focused on the keyboard and screen, instead of looking at people who are talking and actively listening so we truly hear and engage them.

It’s Googling a theatrical production while we’re at the theater watching it, even during the most powerful moments. (See Season 5, Episode 6 of Louie.)

It’s failing to be fully present in the moment, missing the experience and the meaning.

And it’s the Millennials’ disdain for driving stick.

Millennials in fact are killing the stick-shift automobile.

This is not another slam on 20–30 somethings as coddled, entitled, parent-leeching, tech-obsessed, mentor-demanding young adults preening with unearned self-esteem, more confident than competent. That’s a horrible, shallow stereotype, and like all stereotypes, completely without basis in fact, as a Millennial will explain and crunch the data to prove.

My concern, as a car lover, is that unlike previous generations, for whom burning the clutch and parental patience was a rite of passage, most new adults today will never learn to drive stick.

One wag called the stick shift a “Millennial anti-theft device.”

Why does this grind my gears? Millennials are delivering a death blow to the manual transmission. Their new surge in car-buying — after first snorting at owning cars — is driving the auto market. They prefer automatic transmission. Result: Just three percent of new cars come with stick. You have to special order a starter base Honda Civic with a shifter.

Millennials eschew — and thus deny future generations — the experience and pleasure of full mind and body engagement with the machine, the Zen of doing one thing at a time and doing it well, and making today’s amazing cars, even the cheapest Kia, perform as engineered and designed.

The kids of Millennials may never thrill in downshifting instead of braking to let the engine slow the car or to power out of a corner, onto the highway and past the primly motoring Prius … or in listening, feeling and matching the gear to the engine’s RPM … or in driving a car, not sitting, steering and glancing at the windshield like it’s the biggest Apple Retina screen ever albeit with bugs (and not iOS kind).

And I’d suggest, without the requisite welter of backup data, driving stick would be safer for Millennials. It’s hard to Yelp a restaurant with left hand on the wheel and right hand on the shifter. You have to put down the phone and drive.

Millennials are missing out on true driving pleasure. Driving stick is the cheapest road-trip fun. A gently used VW GTI hatch or Mazda MX-5 roadster, or heck, even an ‘08 BMW 128i with its legendary in-line six and six-speed stick— all for less than $15,000 — will change your driving life and emotional relationship with cars forever.

To me, the experiential difference between manual and automatic transmission is like the difference between real tennis and Wii tennis. And I suspect a driver-less car will feel exactly like Wii tennis.

Yes: Fahrvergnügen is not everyone’s cup of tea.

Just like tea is not everyone’s day at the track. And hard to sip on the hairpin turns.

For many, driving pleasure means lazily Waze-ing from A to B in comfort without the foot and forearm workout. A friend drives a Lexus sedan because he wants to “drive his living room.” Commuters stuck in stop/go traffic don’t thrill in the constant shifting, and I don’t blame them. Plenty of intelligent, decent people have never learned, or prefer not, to drive stick and somehow manage to live a happy, productive, fulfilling life.

Many vehicles — especially trucks, SUVs and minivans — aren’t right for rowing the gearbox. Even Homer (the ancient Greek poet, not the Simpson) might prefer the ease of PRND in his Honda Odyssey when he returns home to wife and kids after a long difficult journey.

Families need big, easy cars to do family things. Like taking four kids to baseball, soccer, hockey, field hockey, tennis, dance, music, theater, karate and other practices that schedule-conflict and the kids may not enjoy, stick with or get a free college ride for, with birthday parties and other events thrown in between.

We also have urban insufferables who humblebrag about going carless but often rely on others with cars, including Uber or Lyft drivers, which makes the proud carless Certified Pre-Owned DBs.

Many Americans also might take mass transit and leave the driving to others, but it’s not a viable option in most places. Our system — especially now in Washington, D.C. — is a global embarrassment, often unavailable or inconvenient. Our towns, lives, commerce and infrastructure are built around cars. So much so that many mall-surrounding suburbs are seeking to recreate the old town square experience.

Which would make folks less reliant on dull family transport, and perhaps, drive more for sport.

The demise of the stick shift, and rise of machines that drive our lives, calls up the oft-quoted passage from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:

The moments of happiness — not the sense of well-being,
Fruition, fulfillment, security or affection,
Or even a very good dinner, but the sudden illumination —
We had the experience but missed the meaning,
And approach to the meaning restores the experience
In a different form, beyond any meaning
We can assign to happiness.

In other words (Eliot scholars, quibble at will), experience illuminated by meaning brings more than happiness. Happiness alone can be superficial and fleeting. Happiness shot with meaning fulfills.

Experience with meaning is a memorable drive in a rented Citroën shifting through Sicily’s mountain villages. It’s cracking a cookbook and screwing up dinner instead of clicking GrubHub. It’s wallowing in a hilarious, imbibing dinner with ridiculous friends … or sitting silently, front row center, anywhere, watching sunset colors change by the second … or seeing an infant chortling at her toes. But not shooting and posting pix or videos of the experiences, while they’re happening, for “friends” or “followers.” Just taking in the amazing moments, banking them in memory.

A friend occasionally attends the late Sunday mass at the glorious St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C., cite of JFK’s funeral and her father’s too. She goes not just as a Catholic, but also because the mass offers pause from our noisy life for an hour to do nothing — absolutely niente— but wallow in the experience and meaning rolled up like a cannoli. And to join with others doing the same nothing at the same time, the perfect communion in the broader sense.

Few places remain sacred from recording the experience — and missing the meaning.

I’m still struck by this year’s Academy Awards not only by Moonlight’s win and Viola Davis’s speech, but when a group of Hollywood bus tourists — always hoping to spot a real movie star — was surprised by host Jimmy Kimmel’s affectionate prank as they were guided into the Dolby Theater and brought on stage as a highlight of the show.

It was funny and sweet. The theater audience — the classic Hollywood everyone who’s anyone — erupted as if the tourists were the stars. Kimmel and the front-row celebs could not have been more gracious, carried away by the spirit of the moment. Nicole Kidman, thrilled, reached out to hug. Ryan Gosling got up, shook hands and signed autographs. Denzel Washington came up, embraced an engaged couple and “married” them on the spot.

The scene was a show-stealer. But with a weird off-note: As soon as the tourists filed into the theater, they whipped out their phones and began recording the experience. Some put their phones in the actors’ faces instead of engaging them and their attempts to engage personally. To me, the tourists were not only rude and dehumanizing, but in trying to record the experience, they missed it and the meaning.

I know: In a productive life, we can’t live every moment fully. It would be exhausting and maybe make us insane or move to Vermont.

Sometimes “reality” is better than reality — thus we have art, literature, theater, film, TV and all forms of entertainment from T.S. Eliot to Pokemon Go. Escaping reality can be fun, healthy, relaxing and good for the soul and humanity.

“Reality” also can inform and improve on reality. I just saw How I Learned What I Learned, a reenactment of August Wilson’s monologue of his life as a black artist in Pittsburgh and how he came to write landmark works from Fences, to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, to The Piano Lesson.

Wilson’s story about the black experience in America was more real than anything I could have encountered personally or from reading the New York Times and other media that tries to capture the black reality for audiences like me.

But as we select our “reality” to escape or inform our reality, let’s also take time out to dwell on the mundane. And find the sublime.

Let’s notice the stains on the sidewalk … the woman passing by with matching umbrella and dress … the funny way a friend starts a sentence with “actually…” and how Ryan Gosling seems smaller in real life and a little embarrassed by the attention, but pretty nice in person for a major movie star confronted by tourists in his face.

Let’s stop, focus and notice, as William Carlos Williams did, how “so much depends on a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens.”

Most of all, for me, since my greatest fear in life is accidentally hurting someone with my car, I would love if pedestrians could put away their phones, engage their surroundings, and be present as they approach the crosswalk.

I’ll return the favor as I happily row the gearbox, thrill in the song of the engine as it changes chord with every shift, and turn the grind of driving into the sublime. With more meaning than I can discern in the moment.

You know, because I have to pay attention. My car won’t drive itself.

Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer

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