Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thanksgiving and all that

This is Thanksgiving season in America.  I say season because Americans really like to string their holidays out.  Thanksgiving seems to kick off right off the back of Halloween, even though it's not until November 26th.  Halloween starts sometime in mid-September.  Christmas is going to be interesting.

I had my first experience of a family Thanksgiving dinner yesterday, which was very nice.  It's always good when a family gets together for a positive reason.  In my experience, my family only ever got together because somebody had managed to die.  Still, with my family being mostly Irish, this means that family gatherings have marginally cheaper bar bills than they otherwise would have done.

It wasn't the gathering that put me in a bad mood yesterday, it was the preceding events.  You see, everyone had been asked to bring a dish and be there for 5pm.  Sounds reasonable.  So we decided we would make green bean casserole, which is to all intents and purposes a load of green beans shoved into some cream of mushroom soup.  Not the most challenging of dishes to prepare.

As usual, I was left with the task of cooking, which I happily did (I don't mind cooking).  I did however miss out one semi-important step in the cooking process - I was supposed to cook the beans first, but instead I threw them into the mix in their frozen state.  This brought about howls of derision from wifey, along with the instruction that we had to leave early.  Okay, so I can cope with a bit of a cooking mishap and salvage most things, but as I am sadly lacking in psychic powers there was no way I was to know we were supposed to be there early when nobody on the face of the planet had mentioned this to me.  The combination of wife's wails of doom and her inopportune deadline rescheduling irritated me greatly to the point where I suggested that she go ahead, alone, while I tried to rescue the food.  She took me up on my offer following a brief exchange that included lines such as "Why don't you go back to England?" (I paraphrase but you get the gist of how loving the exchange was).  So there I found myself, wifeyless and trying to sort out the dinner and in a bad mood.

I discovered that all I had to do was to cook the food a bit longer and it would be fine.  So, no big deal and I could still be there for 5pm as originally planned.  This was okay, until I realized that I would be taking the casserole dish straight from the oven and had no way to carry it.  A few texts to wifey later and I had a solution that involved balancing said casserole dish on my car seat on some pot holders.

You can see where this is going.

At 4.50 I set off with the steaming hot casserole dish sat next to me in the car, full of perfect green bean casserole that I felt rightly proud of.  It was a dish suitable for a grand entrance to my first Thanksgiving dinner.

Now to get to the main road, I need to drive along a bumpy, uneven gravel track.  You'd think if the casserole was going to make a bid for freedom, it would have done it there and then, but it hung bravely on until I reached the main road and made a left turn.  Not a fast left turn, just a regular one, but that was enough to overbalance the casserole and send it on a magical journey over my car seat and onto the floor, like a tidal wave of fresh donkey vomit.  The casserole had survived all of a minute in my car.

You know those moments in life where everything just stops and you sit there and think 'This is not happening to me'?  Well, this was definitely one of those moments.  I pulled over and just stared at the steamy, drooling puddle that was dripping onto the floor while the casserole dish leant drunkenly to one side, lined with the remnants of the casserole.

I couldn't think of anything to say to make myself feel better, so I just said what I was thinking, which was: "For fuck's sake." Then I turned the car around and drove back.

I spent the next forty minutes cleaning out my car and washing away bits of bean and onion, held together with lumps of cream of mushroom soup from my car and then pot holders.  I was in a foul mood and texted wifey to say I'd had an accident and wouldn't be making it.  This resulted in a barrage of calls and texts from my family demanding I turn up, which I eventually did, carrying the remains of the casserole in a tupperware dish.  I'm sure half of them thought I was making up excuses to not go.  Well, for those half, try crawling around on your hands and knees scraping up warm casserole off your car and then tell me you're in the mood to go party.  And no, I didn't scrape the remains back up off the floor, tempting as though that was.

When I arrived, my uncle (he is technically my uncle, even though we are the same age) opened the door and said the magical words "Do you want a beer?"  It's amazing what cold, cheap beer can do to you.  That and the company of a good family.

I have another family dinner on Thursday.  This time I hope there is no carnage or car decoration because I don't think I could handle that again.  I can however cope with more beer.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Pipe dreams

When I moved to America, I had to buy a car.  In England, I drove a Citroen C1, which I named Benji.  I bought Benji for a couple of reasons.  He was cheap - to buy, run and insure - and also the C1 was the least depreciating car in the UK market at the time.

I owned Benji for three years, and in that time I put about 13,000 miles on him.  That's nothing.  When I took him for his first MOT on his third birthday, the mechanic turned the ignition on to read the mileage, burst out laughing and said 'I don't think you're going to have any problems, mate.'

Benji went to live with my brother when I moved here.  That car was like new - it even had new tires fitted to it, so he really did get a great little car that replaced his dying Nissan Micra.

So I had to replace Benji.  There's no real equivalent to Benji in America.  They have Smart cars here, but they are a novelty and given how Americans drive, I wouldn't put my life in one of those things.  HGVs and trucks are not restricted here.  I got overtaken by a cement mixer doing eighty miles an hour once.  Imagine that hitting a Smart car.  Splat.  So no, that wasn't an option.

I did a bit of hunting around for a second hand car.  It had to be second hand because I didn't have the budget for a new car and I didn't have a driving license, ID or credit, so no dealership would come near me.  Using Craigslist, I started looking around at local cars.  Craigslist is useful in that it puts you in contact with a lot of sellers, but it's also full of some supreme bullshitters.  I went to look at an old Mercedes E class that was described as being in 'immaculate condition'.  It wasn't, it was a piece of shit and it had clearly been hit in the side at some point, despite the owner denying it had ever been in an accident.  I walked away from that one.

I looked around at a few Ford Focuses, because they're exactly the same as in England and I've driven them and I liked them.  The only ones I found though were really tatty and didn't appeal to me at all.

Then my future father in law suggested 'a fun car' (his words).  He had been helping out a colleague at word with their MX-5 and had test driven it and told me it was a lot of fun.  We looked around and found one that looked really good, so we went to look at it.

I should point out here that in all my car hunting, not once did I talk to an American.   All the people selling cars were foreign.  The guy I bought my car off in the end was Russian.  I don't know if that was all just coincidental or what but it did strike me as strange.

The MX-5, or Miata as Americans call them, was in great condition.  It was twelve years old and had 111,000 miles on the clock, but we test drove it and it seemed fine.  All the electrical systems worked and it drove okay.  So after a little haggling, I bought it for $5,150, and owned an American car.

Since I've owned it, I've sort of fallen in love with it.  I've never driven anything that handles or feels like it.  It feels alive.  That said, it's given me some headaches.  The driver's side electric window broke, which I replaced after a lot of hard work.  The gear change wasn't great, but I read up and took the shifter out and cleaned and replaced parts and it seems to be doing better.  I'd never done anything to a car before this one.  Now I can change oil, spark plugs, filters, rotate tires, and do minor repairs to a gearbox.  That's nothing but for me it's an achievement.  It's also given me a bug.  You see, for all the fun of the Miata, it's underpowered.  It could go faster and be more exciting, it really could.  And having done a lot of reading, it seems that for a not impossible budget, you can modify these cars endlessly to turn them into supercharged racers.  I would kind of like to do that.

What I'd like to do is get another, sensible car, like a Ford or a Kia or something to commute in and turn the Miata into a project car.  Then I would add a roll bar, race seats, new wheels and tires, new suspension, a new clutch, radiator and flywheel and then a supercharger.  I reckon I could do all that for around $10,000 dollars.  Yes that's a lot, but $15,000 dollars for a truly exciting sports car sounds like a decent deal to me.

I'd also lighten it, taking out as much excess weight as possible, and adding carbon fibre panels if I could.  All this would be with the aim of making it even more thrilling to drive.  But in spite of all that, I'd do it carefully, so that any modifications could be easily removed and returned to the original settings.  I wouldn't want to completely bastardize an already beautifully handling car.

Now this may all remain a pipe dream, since it will cost time and money and buying a new house, which I'm in the process of doing, tends to eat into those things.  But having now discovered that I can work on, fix and improve a car with my own hands, it's given me a bug.  I don't know if I'm going to be able to shake it off.

Oh, and my Miata doesn't have a name yet.  I kind of think it's a girl rather than a boy, but I can't think of a decent name for her.  Maybe I will find some inspiration soon.