“You should move the seat further up.”
“But I can reach the pedals from here.”
“You should be able to push the clutch all the way down without straightening your leg.”
“All the – wow, that’s a lot more travel than I was expecting.”

I’m sitting with our beloved leader senior editor Jonathan Yarkony in a Volkswagen Golf idling in a mostly empty parking lot. I’m now scrunched up close to the steering wheel and I can’t shake the feeling that he’s playing a joke on me because I never saw his left foot travel more than a couple of inches on our drive up here.

I know how the clutch works, in theory. Leave the clutch pedal alone and the clutch is said to be engaged – engine and gearbox are connected. Depress the clutch pedal and two parts of the powertrain disengage, leaving each half to its own devices. I realize this when we start rolling backwards from a dead stop on uneven parking lot asphalt because my right foot’s resting on the floor mat and not on the brake pedal where it should be.

Same as when we’re in neutral. Neutral is a thing you have to deal with in a manual transmission car. It’s like playing “the floor is lava”, except it’s all the lines in a gear shift diagram. If you’re not in gear, you’re in neutral. Yes, it’s a stupidly obvious statement, but the point here is that you’re in neutral a lot. You’re in neutral to start. You’re in neutral to stop. You’re in neutral because you didn’t quite push the shifter into gear and instead of forward movement, your vehicle becomes a captive of momentum and gravity and inertia. Forget Zen Buddhism. If you want to be one with the universe, just hop in the driver’s seat, floor the clutch and let the sensation of the pavement travel up the wheels and flow through you.

Basic theory covered, the first thing he has me do is try revving the engine just past 2,000 rpm and holding it steady. (“Justin Couture mentioned that he learned by trying out just the clutch pedal first, but that’s not how I learned it,” says Jonathan.) It’s tricky, but easier than Flappy Bird, I guess. I’m supposed to get a feel for the engine, listening for that precise timbre that tells me I’ve got sufficient revs to shift. Right now, my other foot’s holding the clutch pedal up against the firewall, and I’m supposed to slowly, very slowly release it.

So I do, slowly. It catches! It moves! It shudders! It’s… stopped. The lights are definitely still on, but no one’s home, so to speak. There’s an eerie silence in the cabin.

“Huh, there’s no stall warning. I never noticed that.” Because I never stall the engine because I’m not a noob, he leaves unsaid.

So we restart the engine. I’ve got my hand on the key and I wonder if I should count to three before I start it back up, like some piece of electronics equipment. And I get a sudden flashback to the first time I tried to start my mom’s Avalon but my hand slipped and instead of roaring to life, the engine sputtered and died and I worried about immediately trying the ignition again because I didn’t want to risk flooding the engine because dammit, I’ve watched enough scary movies to know that’s a mistake that everyone makes.

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