Jul 222015
 

Mental illness has a stigma. The term “crazy” is certainly a pejorative, even if it refers to an incorrect idea, and not genuine mental illness. We often recoil from strangers in public who behave erratically, as we assume they may be mentally ill. Some homeless people are significantly mentally ill, and because of this appear physically disheveled. These are not people with whom we would breathless anticipate going on a first date.

Where do the mentally ill homeless fall on the social spectrum? That is, how do they fare in opinion polls of things like trustworthiness? Some advocates for movement atheism like to point out how low atheists fare as far as electability to public office, or as candidates for their children to marry. Indeed this is a significant problem, but as Ryan Bell pointed out, our society includes an “untouchable” class of people that are not even included in opinion polls, namely the homeless. Would you want your daughter to marry a homeless person? Would you vote for a disheveled schizophrenic living on the streets for president? Yes, atheists face silent shunning and prejudice, but nothing like street people.

Because mental illness is now seen as an illness, and not a result of demon possession, at least in 21st century America, we can study it and treat it. The current gold standard text on the subject is the DSM V, or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, version five. Within that text is listed the criterion for major depressive episode. Major depression is thus “officially” a form of mental illness.

So it is with some degree of trepidation that I have decided to write about my own struggles with depression, and how it eventually intersected with pseudoscience. Weirdly, I am far more uptight about discussing my own struggles with anxiety and depression than being “out” as an atheist. But there is simply no good reason to consider major depression to be anything other than a result of events not of our own choosing. There is no act of “free will” involved; by no means did I choose to become depressed. I think I retain some inhibition about discussing anxiety, which, if sustained and untreated, can most certainly lead to depression. Anxious behaviors are often perceived by others as demonstrations of being “uptight” or emotionally rigid. We all want to be thought of as cool, whatever that means, and avoid “uncool” people. When I was younger, I’d worry I was “hung up Mr. Normal” from the rock opera Tommy.

Hey hung up old Mr. Normal
Don’t try to gain my trust
‘Cause you ain’t gonna follow me
Any of those ways
Although you think you must

Tommy

My first bout of significant depression occurred during my first year in college. I was living at home with my parents, and attending the University of Montana. Our family lived a block and a half from campus. The situation was a perfect storm of multiple emotional problems. I was never a particularly good student in grade school or high school, and college is certainly a more demanding academic environment. I retain the conceit that I’m an intelligent person, but I willingly concede that I simply didn’t work very hard in school. My hand printing is poor, and I never took good advantage of the notes I took in class. I attended class regularly, but relied on reading textbooks to pass classes. I was not failing my classes, but I was not thriving, either. Some of my good friends from high school had gone to other colleges, and thus my social circle was diminished. My relationship with my mother was becoming chronically antagonistic. She constantly derided the rock music I loved, and my deconversion from Christianity added a new layer of criticism. I was not aggressive about finding good summer jobs, and the ones I had in college were really poor. My parents gave me little or no spending money. Because they had grown up in the Great Depression, the idea of discretionary income for kids was anathema, particularly for my mother, who controlled the family finances. I had not had sex at this time, and I had to deal with raging hormones. To this day, I have to wonder how men can attain anything higher than a bachelor’s degree without regular sex. Even the hours of concentrated attention to dry and abstract concepts needed to earn a bachelor’s degree seem to me threatened by virtually continuous sexual ideation. I consider it possible that I simply have a higher sexual drive than other men, but this verges on a humblebrag. It’s possible that other men more academically successful than me have similar or even greater sexual drives, but that they have greater powers of concentration. Sexual frustration is clearly more than not experiencing sexual pleasure, as it factors deeply into one’s sense of sexual value to others. Who wants to have sex with someone deeply unattractive, or grossly uncool? If one is not having sex, the mind easily flows into considering the deeply upsetting prospect that this is because one is ugly or grossly socially maladjusted. “Hung up Mr. Normal” indeed.

Because I was living at home at this time, my social life was limited in ways that those living in the dorms did not experience. Thus I fell into the easy trap which we see on Facebook today of imaging that everyone else is having more fun than me. Everyone else is going to parties, driving around in cars, having sex, and going out to bars.

I discovered a University program ostensibly designed to help academically struggling students with study skills. The man who ran the class was also one of the student psychological counselors. One day I approached him to ask if I could see him privately for psychological counseling. He agreed, and we began to meet in his office. I believe he was not an MD, as we didn’t discuss psychiatric meds. Frankly, I remember very little about our conversations, and my real take-away memory is that he smoked a fucking pipe in his office.

My conflicted and depressive emotional state was somewhat lifted by moving into the dorms the next year. I ~literally~ moved out that previous summer, as I had a marginal job doing maintenance at a motel, and living with my mother was becoming intolerable. I had actually rented a room, and planned to keep my job. I think I went so far as to buy dried beans and rice to live on…

Not surprisingly, my father quickly interceded. The boiling emotional conflicts with my mother which he knew nothing of were publicly voiced, and he allowed me to move into the dorms for the next year. I abandoned my plan of living in a basement room and living on beans and rice.

While still in college a few years later I experienced another bout of depression, probably triggered by ongoing academic struggles. I recall making an appointment inside the student health service to see a psychiatrist after a particularly grueling emotional situation in pharmacy class. The appointment was weeks in the future, and when the time came I canceled, imagining that to see a psychiatrist was a sign of weakness.

Eventually I graduated with a degree in pharmacy and moved to Seattle in 1987. I was free of depression for a number of years, but it came back with a vengeance in the mid 90’s. I believe this bout was triggered by a number of factors, which include a relationship with a physically abusive woman, transition away from a dream job, excessive alcohol use, and simply job stress. In the late 80’s and up to the mid 90’s I was involved with a woman who physically assaulted me on multiple occasions. Domestic violence is one of those situations that people imagine will never occur to them, or that they are too smart or cool to befall them. I believed that. I fell into the trap of believing that she was the only woman for me, that I was simply too weird to be loved by any other woman besides her. The first time she assaulted me was in our Mountlake Terrace apartment, and I called the police and she was arrested. I do not know the outcome of that arrest, and I believe she escaped any sort of legal punishment. But as the abused often do, I rationalized that she “turned a corner” on her behavior, and that she wouldn’t do it again. We moved into my house in South Seattle shortly thereafter. I believe it was on my birthday in 1994 that she hit me again, after a night of carousing at Moe’s bar on Capitol Hill. A neighbor call the police, and she was arrested again. I remember the indignity of going to work afterwards with a black eye. I didn’t achieve cognitive clarity about this person until about a year later, when I demanded she leave, and in fact obtained a restraining order against her.

I had a “dream job” of being a sideshow performer from 1991 until 1994, and going back to pharmacy was a giant emotional let down. I went from being treated as popular performers are treated to facilitating the insurance claims of people who don’t want to be in the pharmacy in the first place. While it’s a well paying and esteemed job, retail pharmacy is a grueling, anxiety provoking, and demanding job. I still have nightmares to this day about having to “fill in” for a day at a pharmacy!

I started drinking when I was about 19, and by the time I moved to Seattle it became a nightly ritual. Alcohol is deadly dangerous for the depressed, as it provides momentary chemical solace, but in a crude and rather addictive way. For years, most of my days were spent in vaguely hungover states, which acts as another stimulus to drink again that night. I never missed work because of alcohol, unlike my brother who lost his job because of it and eventually died of cirrhosis of the liver.

The first psychiatrist I saw during this period gave me a long multiple choice quiz to fill out. I remember crying while doing this, as it felt like I had ended up in such a worthless and degraded state as to necessitate filling out a form to ~quantify~ how degraded I was. My shrink sat behind the largest and most imposing wooden desk I had ever seen in my life, which was positioned between us in his office. At some point he obtained the results of this test I’d taken and advised me, essentially, that I was depressed because I was an asshole.

I found this weird and dispiriting, as I genuinely don’t think I’m an asshole, but someone who suffers from a condition I was powerless on my own to correct. I was put on Paxil, and probably dosed too high, as I found myself suddenly experiencing anorgasmia. I decided to find another shrink. I asked Giant-Desk-Guy for my medical records, of which I was legally entitled, as I wanted to understand how he came to conclude I was an asshole. Even the direct intervention of my new shrink, and my own registered letters requesting my records were stonewalled.

My new shrink’s office was on Capitol Hill in Seattle, and I drove my 65 Mustang there on many occasions. Despite hours of conversation and thousands of dollars, my only real take-away wisdom from the experience was that untreated anxiety can easily result in depression. I believe this to be true. I was prescribed Serzone, an SRI which did not result in anorgasmia, and clonazepam, a benzodiazepine for anxiety. While the efficacy and wisdom of using pharmacological therapy in depression is controversial, it must be conceded that the drugs really work. They do abate unnecessary suffering. In retrospect, my great failure at this time was to understand the detrimental effect of alcohol, whose use it took me until early 1998 to stop. Depression is a condition that often resolves on its own, but my recollection is that I discontinued treatment because I became “sick of being sick.” I became sort of ~angry~ that I was participating in this process, and simply chose to stop.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, there is a stigma about mental illness. I was frightened, probably irrationally so, that other pharmacists might discover I was being treated for depression. I would read the law book of Washington State regarding pharmacy practice, and worry if I could be disciplined or stripped of my license for “moral turpitude” which is a term literally on the books. Despite the meds and the psychiatric counseling, this episode of depression was especially dour and dark, and resulted in significant suicidal ideation.

I was free of depression from the time I discontinued that period of psychiatric treatment until about 2007 or 2008. This bout was triggered by the breakup of a significant relationship. I contacted a doctor I knew in Seattle for a recommendation for a psychiatrist, as the shrink on Capitol Hill declined to take me again. I don’t know why he declined.

The new psychiatrist advised me straight away that he didn’t engage in psychotherapy, but simply prescribed meds. I was OK with this, because as I mentioned earlier, I simply don’t recall that I assimilated much therapeutic wisdom in the long run from my previous shrink. I believe he prescribed nefazodone, the generic version of Serzone, and clonazepam. At this time I was working at a local metal fabrication plant, as I had given up pharmacy in 2002. Less money, obviously, but less job stress. Eventually I left the fabrication plant and returned to school at South Seattle Community College.

The climax of this story should be of interest to skeptics. One day I arrived at my psychiatrist’s office and was expecting a routine and prosaic session. This was anything but. He began to describe how a female patient of his was entirely refractory to pharmacological therapy. The drugs didn’t work for her. But something else did, and he wanted to show me!

What was this magical thing? A Power Balance band!

power-balance

There is a significant power imbalance between any sort of doctor and their patient, especially in the doctor’s office. This was made overt by my previous shrink, with his brobdingnagian desk, and more disturbingly, his unwillingness to relinquish my medical records. While I’d love to tell a courageous story of reason battling nonsense, I simply acquiesced to participating in his bizarre performance.

He produced a Power Band, complete with magical hologram, and asked me to stand up. I engaged in at least some of the usual demonstrations, using my arms as levers to demonstrate strength and/or flexibility. It was a surreal experience, sort of like when Mandrake is forced to listen the psychotic ravings of Jack D. Ripper in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. Neither Mandrake nor I considered it reasonable to dispute their interlocutor in that moment. I can only speculate why he did this. Did he truly believe it worked? Did he know it didn’t work, but believed that a placebo effect might help some people? Did he no longer want me as a patient, and was “clowning” me so I would leave? I have no idea.

To be clear, Power Bands are not evidence based, nor effective medicine. His behavior is an example of egregious malpractice.

I was so angry with this treatment I decided I must do everything to stop the therapeutic relationship. As a person obsessed with losing weight might do, but in an unhealthy way, I went on a “crash diet” by abruptly discontinuing my meds, albeit not both at the same time. The side effects of sudden withdrawal are nasty, and produce a weird phenomenon in the case of SRI’s know as “brain zaps.” This is a sudden sensation akin to being severely startled or electrically shocked. The more serious side effect is simply a continuous and deep malaise. I remember driving to a Super Bowl party in heavy traffic during my SRI withdrawal period. While traffic jams are no fun, this took on Apocalyptic seriousness, as though I was in Hell itself.

Yet the depression abated, largely because I found meaning in moving back to Montana and helping my father near the end of his life.

I am like all other human beings, and wish for happiness. We spend the majority of our lives trying to manipulate our circumstances to augment this sensation. I can’t claim to have discovered a magical formula for happiness, or even claim to know how to avoid depression, but I’m currently convinced of the virtue of meditation. I’ve only been meditating for about three years now, and in moments of meditation, I experience an anxiolytic effect as profound as that of benzodiazepines. Even as a beginner, it’s a sensation that’s eminently reproducible. I never experienced euphoria from benzodiazepines, as some evidently do, but in meditation I can experience an altered state of consciousness and euphoria analogous to that of cannabis.

Clearly other fundamental processes must be in order for one to experience real happiness. These include financial security, exercise, good health, freedom from physical pain, mobility, social connection, and sexual health. I recognize that I still remain in a higher risk demographic, being single and having no family. For this reason, and the reason of my history, I take the pursuit of happiness quite seriously and find myself something of an evangelist for the virtues of meditation.

I do not believe in “free will.” In an ultimate sense, I believe depression is something that simply occurs to us, in the same way as catching a cold simply occurs to us. Nevertheless, I’m also convinced, at least in my case, that we have it within ourselves to avoid or mitigate anxiety. Learning to “key in” to states that meditation can produce enables one to “fall into” these states in the real world. I am now convinced that real happiness is largely the ability to be mindful, to experience states of “flow” and to learn how to live in the moment. It takes real work, just as exercise is real work. My promotion of this comes at a time in history when meditation and yoga have a certain faddish quality about them, which might be reason enough for some to reject them, but this would not be based on the reality of the virtues of meditation.

For those unfamiliar with meditation, I highly recommend Sam Harris’ book Waking Up.

 Posted by on 07/22/2015 Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on Pseudoscience in the Treatment of Depression
Jul 072015
 

A recent local news story featuring a short video of a UFO caught my attention. “Hector Garcia, of North Philadelphia, went outside for a smoke Sunday, looked in the sky, and noticed something blowing in the wind above the corner of 7th and Tioga. He captured video of a nebulous flying blob with his phone and it is attracting attention.”

Garcia’s short cell phone video was also uploaded to YouTube. Being that local news stories, and sometimes YouTube videos, may not stay on the internet for very long, I’ve included two screen captures of his video to illustrate what he saw.

YouTubeUFO

YouTubeUFOTwo

Garcia’s video seemed familiar to me, as on two occasions I’ve seen similar things in the sky. The first occasion was with my friend Alex. It was a beautiful, sunny day in Seattle, and we were standing in Kerry Park enjoying the view and taking photographs. Suddenly I saw a diaphanous blob in the sky, moving westward. I had my DSLR camera on a tripod, and I tried to grab it to take a photo. By the time I got my hands on the camera, the object was gone. My friend Alex had much less of a psychological reaction on seeing it, believing it to be a balloon. My memory was that it was clear, or translucent, which is unusual for balloons, which are often brightly colored. Ultimately, I don’t know what it was that I saw, and is thus (for me) a genuine UFO.

In May of 2014 I was in Missoula, Montana. One sunny afternoon I drove up to Miller Creek, not far outside of the city. I brought along a Canon DSLR camera with a good telephoto lens. It was a nice day, but a bit breezy. I saw a black plastic bag, or perhaps a very dirty plastic bag, tumbling along, just above the tall grasses of an open field. I know it was a plastic bag, because I was close enough to it to get a good look at it. I watched it gain altitude, and I began taking photographs. I probably watched it, intermittently, for perhaps 20 minutes. It’s hard to judge altitude, but I would guess it gained several hundred feet, as it floated aloft and drifted away. It was certainly not a helium balloon, as its shape was irregular. Click on the photos to view them in full resolution.

UFO One

UFOTwoCrop

UFO Three

I strongly suspect that the object Garcia recently recorded was a plastic bag. It moved slowly, its shape was irregular, and it appeared to be either white or translucent. It may have been catching sunlight at different angles during its flight. Being that Garcia used a cell phone, and probably zoomed in, the object may have been slightly out of focus which would enhance the mysteriousness of the event.

Post Script: Mick West, curator of the excellent Metabunk website, has suggested the object is helium foam.

 Posted by on 07/07/2015 Personal History, Pseudoscience, Science Tagged with:  Comments Off on Plastic UFOs
Jun 282015
 

I think this essay qualifies as an outright self-indulgent dive into personal nostalgia. Thankfully it’s ~pleasant~ nostalgia.

When I was a teenager in the 70’s, the brand of tennis shoe one wore was an overt display of how cool one was. The boys I associated with all seemed to have an understanding of how much certain models of certain brands cost, and the more expensive the model the better. I would imagine that process is still active today, but I can’t be sure. By the mid 70’s, Adidas seemed to be the dominant brand, much cooler than any sort of cheap Keds or even Converse Chuck Taylors. As I recall, there was an Adidas model with red stripes which was the cheapest, and to wear those was a bit un-cool. I think I had some, as my mother had grown up in the depression, and was VERY unwilling to spend money on ANYTHING that seemed extravagant. That said, I accept responsibility for my own poverty, as I really didn’t have the gumption to obtain any sort of part time job for myself while in high school. My friend Jeff had various jobs, and not surprisingly, he had more than one pair of clearly “cool” tennis shoes.

The weird and giant breakthrough for me came when my mother allowed me to buy a particular model of Adidas; the “Stockholm.” These had a blue suede upper, and a thin gum rubber sole. They were unbelievably supple, probably because the suede was so soft, and because the sole was so flexible. No one else had this model, and I don’t recall it gave me much social cache, but I didn’t care, as I believed I had found the ULTIMATE tennis shoe. They looked super cool to me, and more importantly they were the most comfortable footwear I’ve ever owned.

Being an impertinent youth, I didn’t treat them with the respect they deserved. I had always insisted on walking outside in the winter in tennis shoes. My father even commented on this, and I felt confused, as I didn’t have enough of my own spending money to go out and buy proper winter boots. I suppose I could have complained to my mother, but honestly I simply felt more comfortable in tennis shoes than boots. I think I rationalized that I was not harming the tennis shoes because “I was walking on top of the snow.” By now I think you see where this is going, as water and snow is death to suede. Indeed, the shoe’s flexion point beside my little toe on my left foot turned into a hole. I decided I liked my Stockholm shoes too much to just get a new pair. I used a product intended to waterproof heavy boots called Huberd’s Shoe Grease, which I see is still made. This was a product NOT intended for suede, but I used it anyway. Not surprisingly, it blackened the beautiful blue suede, and turned it weird and greasy.

I still had a problem, though, as there was still a big hole beside my little toe. Again, I tried my own “creative” solution, which was to sew a patch over the hole. Instead of using some sort of thread, I decided to use WIRE. To this day, I’m not sure what my thinking process was on that issue.

During this time in high school, we had a PE class that involved playing table tennis. This I quite enjoyed, then as now. One day in the class a ping pong ball rolled toward me, followed by a boy attempting to retrieve it. The ball came to rest against my greased and wired Stockholm shoe, and his hand touched my shoe as he grabbed the ball. I believe he noticed the weird greasy feel to my shoe, as he gave me a strange, silent, quizzical look as he stood up. At that point I realized how deeply weird it really was to grease my pair of blue suede shoes…

Not surprisingly, I had to abandon that pair, and move onto others. I wanted to get another pair of Stockholms, but they were not to be found! I was shocked, as I couldn’t imagine how something so cool could simply vanish! Didn’t other people venerate these shoes as much as I did? My frustration went on for years. In the early 80’s my brother visited France for a time. I asked him to buy a pair of Stockholm shoes if he saw them for sale, but he never did. Stockholm Adidas became one of those cool things from my childhood that went away forever, sort of like Quisp cereal and Space Food Sticks.

Many years later, I realized that shoes could be purchased over the internet. I never cared for shoe shopping; all the waiting around, being fitted by unctuous sales men and women, and pretending to know if they fit well by walking in them a few steps. On a lark, I searched Amazon for Stockholm Adidas, as I had “heard” that certain models were being re-introduced as a sort of retro style flashback. Amazingly, Stockholms were again available! And they were blue suede with a gum rubber sole, just like in the 70’s.

Adidas Stockholm

I ordered a pair in my size from Amazon. As I recall, they were ridiculously expensive, over a hundred dollars. I think they were shipped from Hong Kong. Alas, nostalgia has a way of exaggerating details in the mind, and when I wore these ULTIMATE shoes, I discovered they sole was actually ~too~ thin, and didn’t quite offer enough padding. The suede uppers were as supple as I remember them, but these days I simply need a thicker sole for more comfort. I’m also vain enough to worry about wearing expensive shoes, even tennis shoes, out into the real world, lest they get scuffed!

The most recent pair of shoes I bought were also Adidas, but from Costco, for only 30 dollars! Because the uppers are a synthetic mesh, they “breath” nicely, unlike even thin leather. They are running shoes, probably the cheap “trainers” but the soles are thick, especially in the heels, and provide a nice feeling of “rolling” forward when I walk.

Costco Shoes

I will always have fond memories of those Stockholm shoes, and will doubtless wear the pair that I now own, but I must concede that my nostalgic mental model is better than present reality.

 Posted by on 06/28/2015 Growing Up In Montana, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on My Ultimate Pair of Tennis Shoes
Jun 272015
 

Last night I had a brief spiritual experience. Let me describe the antecedents to this experience.

Seattle has been experiencing a bit of a heat wave recently. Mild by the standards of many parts of the rest of the country, but challenging for Seattle “weather wimps” such as myself. I walked from my house to Seward Park and back yesterday morning, which took about an hour and a half. This route includes a bit of elevation rise and fall, so I consider it legitimate exercise. I try to stay hydrated. I bought a new pair of running shoes yesterday afternoon, and was curious to try them out for walking.

So last night I drove down to Alki Beach and went rollerblading. The sun was out, and I believe the temperature was in the 80’s. But when I got back to my car, I felt good, and wanted to try walking in my new shoes. I put on my shoes and headed north on the sidewalk. At about 20 minutes into my walk I suddenly, spontaneously, and unbidden, transitioned into an altered state of consciousness. It was pleasant, almost euphoric, and I immediately recognized it as a meditative state. For those who don’t meditate, I suppose it would be analogous to a mild cannabis high, or the anxiolytic effect of benzodiazepines. I would hasten to add, though, that this naturally occurring state had NO drug side effects, no cannabis induced anxiety, dry mouth, or lethargy.

I kept walking north as I experienced this positive state of consciousness. I began to key into the people around me. I began to experience a mild form of “universal love” at least in that I stopped perceiving other people as simply physical obstacles to move around, as I walk fairly briskly, and judging them, to seeing them as part of an organic whole. This is hard to describe, but I would say I saw them as just like me; simply a member of Homo sapiens out enjoying a beautiful evening. It was an empathetic and loving perception.

Not surprisingly, this experience faded. I think it lasted two or three minutes. It was less intense than the experience I had at Costco some time back. I was not quite as giddy as I was at Costco.

Today I am more inclined to attribute this experience to the practice of meditation than I was before, simply because its character was almost exactly like that I’ve experienced during meditation. But I hasten to add the elements of physical exertion I’ve mentioned. I suspect it’s similar to the “runner’s high” or even the meditative states experienced during the milder exertions of yoga.

I am concerned that some might find this account boastful, perhaps on the grounds that such experiences are “personal” and thus should be kept to one’s self. I hope I am not being boastful, and have decided to share this because I increasingly find meditation truly transformative, and wish I had started many years sooner. Believe it or not, meditation is somewhat demanding and difficult, and one must engage in some degree of self discipline to proceed with it as a habit. Last night’s experience was a wonderful reminder to me that disciplined practice can have real-world benefits.

 Posted by on 06/27/2015 Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on Another Spiritual Experience
Jun 222015
 

While waiting at a stoplight recently, I began thinking about working a clutch, and more generally, how I learned to drive.

I grew up in Montana, where one could obtain a driver’s license at age 15. A “learner’s permit” allowed one to drive at age 14 if accompanied by a parent. I had heard through word of mouth that kids even younger than that were allowed some sort of special dispensation if they lived on a farm, and operated farm vehicles, but I never followed up on that claim and I don’t know if it’s true.

Back in the 70’s, our high school offered “driver’s ed” or driver’s education, if one chose to learn how to drive through conventional means. This was one of the few classes that kids looked forward to, at least in considering it a legitimate means to an end, as opposed to something like algebra class. Over the years I recall learning that high schools do not offer driver’s ed as routinely as they once did, but I don’t know this as a fact.

I was lucky, in that my mother saw fit to teach me how to drive even before high school driver’s ed. We lived in Missoula, which encompassed Fort Missoula, just on the outskirts of town. Its grounds were open to the public and had wide, flat roads between buildings. The buildings were either not in use, or were used by few people, so the place was largely deserted. My mother and I drove out there in our metallic aqua Ford Galaxy station wagon. Not surprisingly, this vehicle had an automatic transmission. I’m firmly of the belief that one should learn how to drive with an automatic transmission, simply to master the basics of starting, steering, stopping, signalling, and basic control before attempting the tricky business of working a clutch. Frankly those lessons were so prosaic I barely remember them. I probably drove no more than 25 MPH on dry, flat roads with few stop signs and no traffic.

My mother didn’t care for our big Ford station wagon, as it was something of a boat; she regularly drove our Renault 12. She and my brother were Francophiles, and had previously owned a Renault Dauphine, which must have been one of the smallest four door sedans ever made. The Renault 12 had a clutch, and I needed to learn how to work it.

For those who have never driven a clutch car, it’s tricky learning how to engage it without stalling the engine, especially when starting from a stopped position in first gear. The clutch pedal is first depressed all the way to the floorboards, then slowly “feathered” out while simultaneously pressing the accelerator pedal just a bit. Perhaps others had an easy time learning this task, but it vexed me significantly at age 14. Inevitably I would “rev” the engine a bit too much, and “pop” the clutch pedal out too fast, and kill the engine. My mother was remarkably patient in allowing me to try this. She was also remarkably tolerant in allowing me to try this without even a learner’s permit!

One time our Renault was parked over at my grandmother’s house, which was only about two blocks away from our house. My mother gave me the keys and allowed me to walk over and drive the car back. I was thrilled she would let me try this! I walked over, got in the car, and tried to start it. I couldn’t! The steering wheel had a locking mechanism that was becoming popular in the 70’s, and I couldn’t figure out how to work it. In retrospect, this was a bad idea on the part of my mother’s as there was a stop sign on the road between my grandmother’s house and our house. A vehicle driven by an unlicensed driver stalled in the middle of an intersection would have been a foreseeable outcome with a driver still learning how to work a clutch…

I remember finally mastering the clutch; again with the Renault parked at my grandmother’s house. Again my mother allowed me to attempt driving solo. This time I knew how to work the locking steering wheel, and managed not to kill engine while feathering out the clutch pedal! But what now? I drove into the intersection in first gear then pulled a big U turn and drove back. Instead of parking across the street from where I started, I decided to park on the same side from which I started, facing the wrong way. I came in WAY too sharply for reasonable parking, and managed to hit the front wheel on the curb! Amazingly, my mother was not particularly upset by this. I dodged a couple of bullets on that day…

Eventually I took driver’s ed class at Hellgate High School. This involved a combination of classes and supervised driving. The cars used to teach students were big sedans with automatic transmissions, and brake pedals for the instructor in front of the front passenger seat. All in all the instruction seemed quite reasonable, except for the “Link Simulator.” This was one of the most absurd and insane wastes of money in the name of education I’ve ever seen. It was contained in a semi trailer parked in a parking lot on the south side of the building. Inside was a movie screen at the front of trailer, with the rest of the space given over to weird driver consoles that sort of duplicated a car interior with a steering wheel, an accelerator pedal, turn signals, a brake pedal, and probably a seat belt. Being the 1970’s, there was no feedback between what the “driver” did behind the wheel and what appeared on the movie screen. This was not a video game. The movies were relentlessly square, Leave it to Beaver – Readers Digest Americana, with scenes of picket fence neighborhoods navigated by cars driving about 10 miles an hour. We were told that somehow our “scores” were being recorded, as allegedly the Link Simulator could tell if a driver over corrected with the steering wheel, or failed to brake at the correct time. When I was a student we were never given these “scores” and I have to wonder if we were simply being lied to in an attempt to keep us from completely screwing around. Imagine if you were being taught how to throw free throws, or hit a tennis ball using a video game in which there was no feedback; it’s an insane idea from an educational standpoint.

Eventually I got my learner’s permit, and drove around a few times under the watchful supervision of my father. I turned 15 in August 1977, and very much looked forward to getting my real driver’s license. I dimly recall taking the “practical” portion of the test, which involved parallel parking. I must have passed, as I was given my license. I recall driving the Renault 12 by myself all the way through Deer Creek and Pattee Canyon that day. A genuine adolescent rite of passage!

I moved to Seattle in 1987, and was shocked to encounter people who either didn’t own cars, or who didn’t know how to drive. I couldn’t fathom how young people wouldn’t WANT to own their own cars and know how to drive! Personal power and freedom felt so good, why didn’t everyone want this?

Sometime in the late 80’s I was involved with a woman who didn’t drive. I decided to teach her how. At the time I owned a 1987 Dodge Daytona.

Dodge Daytona

Unfortunately for teaching purposes, this vehicle had a clutch, so my poor student had to learn this to start with. One night we drove out to Northgate Mall, as I believed wide open parking lots would be a good place to start. Not surprisingly, this episode didn’t go well, and we never repeated it. There’s a great scene in Breaking Bad in which Walter White tries to teach his son how to drive in similar circumstances. It’s a cringe worthy scene, and reminds me of my own attempt.

As I mentioned at the start of this essay, I recalled my clutch history while waiting at a stoplight. I realized, decades after it could have helped, that actuating a clutch is MUCH easier if the car is already in motion, and the easiest way to do this is by gliding down a slight hill. Jebus, such a simple tip; why didn’t I think of this years ago, or learn it in driver’s ed?

 Posted by on 06/22/2015 Growing Up In Montana, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on Learning to Drive