Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Hello, Car!

Meet Nina, my Toyota Corolla. After years of practicing on cars forged for the likes of giants (i.e., a Ford F150), it is relieving to settle down with a car that is proportional to my frame. She was made when I was ten years old and has a duct taped mirror, but she will probably go on living forever. This is exactly the quality I like best in a car: immortality.

But I didn't always have a car, or even a license for that matter. Heavens, no! Nina was a hard-won conquest, the result of six years of carrying and renewing a learner’s permit, three repetitions of the five-hour licensing course, weeks of professional lessons, one successful road test, and several months of lurking on Craigslist.

The first ill-fated road test was eight months ago. In a fraught moment of circumstantial dyslexia within the first five seconds of driving, I transposed left and right and got into the left lane, which was not the right lane. Then I panicked and swerved from the wrong lane to the right lane but did not use my directional. Needless to say, the game was over and I was left in the dust with a lengthy list of errors. I did not even get to the parallel parking performance I had practiced for weeks. It was a catastrophic blow.

Crushed under the proverbial anvil of shame, I immediately contacted a professional. I needed a professional. For the next several weeks I was under the guidance of a kind, old black man with a salt-and-pepper afro and a flaky leather jacket. Propped upon a silken pillow embellished with the image of a peacock, I steered an antiquated transportation vessel to the tune of my ever-serene instructor’s encouragement as his toe hovered above the second break.

With the excellent teaching of my sensei, my driving act was cleaned up and I steered with the grace of a high seas pirate. I passed the test and finally got upgraded from permit to license.

As I endured the continued stresses of public transportation, it was clear to me that I needed to find a car. To avoid fees and ghastly insurance premiums, I was set on purchasing a used vehicle from an independent party. Unfortunately, selling cars brings out the worst in humanity. The Craigslist cars were over-priced and ancient. People were hawking cars from the early 90s for thousands over their value with the most atrocious grammar, usually accompanied by such phrases as “the check engine light is on.”

Every day I sent Dave a “Car of the Day” email with one or two cars that seemed passable. The response emails would say, “170,000 miles is too much” or “5-speed means it’s manual, Brittany.” And every time I opened an ad, I would think, “Wow, it has five speeds! Just like my bicycle! Surely I only need one speed.”

One thousand Craigslist ads later, Dave and I went to see a Subaru. A grandfatherly older man was selling it because he had already replaced it with a shiny new model. Dave and his knowledgeable friend poured over the details of the whatsits under the hood as I attempted to adjust the seat to fit a child-sized woman. They only found one flaw – oil leaking from something under the hood. Thus, an important car part would have to be replaced within the next month, but they didn't think it the cost of the repair would offset the tremendous value of the car itself.

Only after offering to buy the car did we find out from Dave’s mechanic friend that it was a $1500 repair, several times more than the price they expected and more than half the cost of the car. I was ready to throw in the towel and go to a dealership. I had heard tales of dishonest used car salesmen, but could they be any more disreputable than the sort of swindlers who sell cars on Craigslist?

In spite of all this, I made another call and I spoke with another seller. I was put off initially because I was trying to ask him questions and he appeared to be having a conversation with someone else. Speaking with him was frustrating. Besides the fact that he was not listening to me, I detected a strong Spanish accent that was difficult for me to decipher.

Dave and I went to see the car. On the way there, I had another exasperating conversation with the seller, who offered to show me the car at a different address but didn't understand me when I declined.

“It’s just a misunderstanding,” I assured Dave. “I’m having trouble with his Spanish accent.”

We arrived on the crowded one-way street where our rendezvous was to take place. Dave’s dad was there to help us judge the car and haggle, if necessary. When I called the man to let him know we were outside, I couldn't understand him at all. I passed the phone to Dave in frustration. After a couple of minutes of difficult conversation, Dave finally asked, “Do you speak Arabic?” He asked the question in Arabic. Then he passed the phone to his dad, who speaks fluent Arabic.

“Spanish accent, Brittany? Really?” Dave asked.

“He’s Arab?” I asked, dumbstruck.

“Probably Egyptian,” Dave said.

Not only was he Arab, he was a sort of family friend. He drove up in the Corolla, garish with Christian artifacts and strung with rosaries. There was a large bag of bagels in the back seat.

“Do the bagels come with the car?” I wondered aloud. We all know where my priorities lie.

There was a fringy throw pillow with a butt-shaped indenture in the driver’s seat.

“My wife, she is very small,” the man said.

“So am I!” I cried.

Dave took the car for a test drive up and down the one-way streets and back to where we began. The Egyptian man sat in the back seat and together they bewildered me with mostly-Arabic conversation about their families. I noticed the duct-taped mirror to my right but decided as long as it wasn’t a $1500 fix I would happily take it. Dave’s dad proceeded to try to talk the Egyptian man down in Arabic. The man took out his phone.

“I have a call from an 815 number. What area code is that? And 917 – that’s somewhere in Queens, right? So many people are calling to buy this car,” the man said with downcast eyes.

We talked him down a few hundred dollars and perhaps still paid a bit more than it was worth. I didn’t mind. Throw in the bag of bagels and you've got yourself a deal, I thought to myself.

Now Nina is sitting in the driveway, un-drivable due to her lack of plates and my lack of car insurance. But this is another story for another day.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Let's Read Short Stories

It’s National Short Story Month. It’s also National Poetry Month, although it seems rather unfair that the two writing forms that have to compete for a single month. One of my goals is to read 26 short story collections and anthologies by the end of 2013. I’m reading a lot of women writers particularly, because they don’t get enough love. Not even from me, a woman. So far I’m on the tenth book. I’m a slow reader, easily distracted by online literary journals and articles about the fiber content of ground flax.

I told a friend at work, an avid reader of romance novels, that I was reading short story collections for a while and she was surprised.

“I didn't know authors wrote books of short stories,” she said.

Quite understandable. Until rather recently, they were considered unmarketable. I suppose the last time she saw a book of short stories, it was a fifth grade English textbook – a time in life that no one likes to look back on. Or maybe it was a collection of fairy tales or Greek myths. I didn't know I liked short stories until I read Poe and Kafka in high school, but I always loved fairy tales and myths of all sorts.

Some very good reasons to read short stories: You can read a short story on a fifteen minute bus ride. You can read a few short stories on a forty minute train ride. You can read a short story on your cell phone now. You can squeeze one in at the end of your lunch break. And if your job happens to be waiting for a phone to ring, you can read stories in between calls and not feel as jolted out of the story as you would reading Mark Z. Danielewski’s 27 volume opus about cats.

Here are some short story collections and anthologies that fill me with immense readerly pleasure. This list features entirely women, because they don’t get enough love. If you have a penchant for the surreal, absurd, uncanny, and grotesque, you would probably appreciate these. If not, click here to be led away from this nonsense forever, as it will annoy you and furrow your brow. And if you would like to discuss the beneficial lignans in ground flax, feel free to contact me on the “Contact” page.

1. Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link

Kelly Link might be my favorite living short story writer at the moment. The cover says, “A Best Book of the Decade.” I thought to myself, “That is, indeed, a haughty claim.” This book lives up to the hype on its cover. Kelly and her husband, a sci-fi writer, had to create their own press just to publish her first collection. At the time, short stories were considered to be unmarketable and her stories also don’t conform to one genre. They are a mix of experimental literary fiction, horror, fantasy, sci-fi, myth, fairy tale, and surrealism. Ghosts, zombies, and fairies are presented in unique ways. They present you with uncanny pajamas or dog fur handbags. A ghost wife gets divorced from her living husband in Disney World; the Devil gets Seven Minutes of Heaven with a cheerleader. Kelly Link does magical things with sentences. Whenever you think you know where the story is going, you really don’t.

Definitely read: “Magic for Beginners,” “Lull,” and “The Faerie Handbag.”

2. Museum of the Weird by Amelia Gray

I read a lot of these stories multiple times and I never get sick of them. These stories are mostly very short, have unusual forms, and make me laugh loudly but also make me deeply depressed. It’s an emotional roller-coaster to say the least. The collection lives up to its name with characters feasting on their own hair and toes, an armadillo hitting on a penguin in a bar, and a guy who marries a bag of frozen tilapia. Click here to get threatened by the author.

Definitely read: “Babies,” “The Cottage Cheese Diet,” “Trip Advisory: The Boyhood Home of Former President Ronald Reagan,” and “Code of Operation: Snake Farm.”

3. Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls by Alissa Nutting

Alissa Nutting has an awesome brain and I would pay thousands of dollars for it in an Ebay bid. This is a very funny book. The humor sometimes reminds me of Futurama, maybe because there is an intergalactic deliverywoman in it. You may wonder what unclean jobs it features. There’s a porn star who is paid to have sex with a game show contestant on the moon, a human ant colony, and a romantic funeral home employee who smokes blunts stuffed with the hair of the dead. I'm kind of in love with the "Sweedishy" model Garla (just like everyone else is) and the experimental rock singer who wears a tight leather jumpsuit with a butt-flap so he can easily relieve himself anywhere. So many characters that I love. So much awesome.

Definitely read: “Dinner,” “Model’s Assistant,” and “Bandleader’s Girlfriend.”

4. Fantastic Women, an anthology of stories from Tin House

Here is an anthology of 18 stories by women writers that are uncanny, absurd, and surreal, all bound together behind underwhelming cover art that doesn't really fit. Kelly Link is here; Alissa Nutting is here. There are quite a few authors that I had never read before that I love now. The women in these stories undergo metamorphoses, travel between pocket universes, and socialize with lonely circus dwarfs. Sometimes they are tied up and suspended from the ceiling of their charming suburban homes. There are  even werewolves and somehow I don’t want to punch them.

Definitely read: “Dinner,” “Abroad,” “The Wilds,” and “The Entire Predicament.”

Last year I got an email from a former professor suggesting that I read this collection. She knows me too well. The narrators of these stories are precocious children on an imaginary island near Florida. They lure baby turtles out of the sea, learn to behave like humans, and follow the Oregon Trail with a Minotaur. Their voices are wonderful; you want to give them a hug even when they make atrocious mistakes.

Definitely read: “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” “Z.Z.’s Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers,” and “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.”

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Ethiopian Food

I have a list of 24 things I want to do before I turn 24, and that list includes a lot of food adventures. One such food adventure I longed to experience was eating at an Ethiopian restaurant. Dave was my sidekick on this adventure and together we set off to Westchester’s only Ethiopian food restaurant, Lalibela. It was in a little pedestrian shopping strip with brick sidewalks and budding trees.

We found the restaurant in a side street, right next to a People’s Bank. There was a trail of petals through the doorway. “Ooh, they’re trying to seduce us,” I said. These petals were the product of flowering trees and spring winds.

Dave and I took a seat at the window and picked an appetizer to share. Ethiopian dishes are presented lumped on an enormous, crepe-like bread called injera, which tastes like a bit like sourdough bread. It’s made from a grain called kamut that is indigenous to this part of the world. We received our appetizer, an avocado salad, heaped onto some injera. There are no utensils. We ate with our hands, pinching up the meals with torn off strips of injera. It was delicious.

Just when you think you’re jaded to the disorienting nature of faraway cuisines, someone takes away your utensils and bids you use your hands. Yes, there is still magic in the world. Like the first time I used chopsticks.

Next came the entree,  a spread of lentils, cabbage, green beans, and collard greens. One mound of lentils was spicy and the other was buttery and mild. I liked them both, but the spicy one was unsurprisingly my favorite. The lentils and avocado salad were the stars of the whole meal, and the injera was very moist and fluffy like a pancake. I found myself at home later thinking to myself, I wish I had some injera now. Sigh.

Now that I have conquered Ethiopian food, I need to cross of Sri Lankan food off my list next. This adventure will take me well out of Westchester, I am sure.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Walk the Cat

The world is mine oyster.
Walking cats on a leash is rather boring.

I don’t even know why I’m writing about it.

The hardest part is convincing the cat to wear a harness. It offends their deepest sensibilities. Olive feigns a struggle on principle, knowing secretly that the harness is her ticket to the mysteries of the unknown.

It’s adorable for the first five minutes or so, watching the cat behold the breathtaking world of grass, trees, and swarms of insects. Within seconds, there is a cloud of flies in orbit around my head like space debris. I want to go home.

When I walk Olive, the first thing she wants to do is ditch me. She tries to duck under a spiky bush or crawl into the spaces under the stairs. No amount of arguing will dissuade her from exploring tight crevices, so I pick her up and move her somewhere more human-friendly, hoping to disorient her enough that she forgets just how fascinating the spiky bush is.

Then Olive sees a majestic cardinal and she ducks down to watch it for the next ten minutes, chirping with predatory flicks of the tail. I wonder if the chirping is Olive’s interpretation of a mating call, in hopes of luring a desperate and confused bird into her open jaws. The bird is twitching its crest, fanning its tail feather – a come-hither in the universal language of love.
Soon she finds something a hundred times more interesting than either bird or bush. It is a bit of sidewalk covered in a metropolis of ant hills for Olive to roll in. These are ants either of the red, bity persuasion or the refugee ants that gorged on our tahini last year, eventually conquered by Dave and some borax. Somehow they all live in quiet harmony in the cracks of the walkway. Olive collapses onto her back as though coerced by something stronger than her will. I lift her away from the anthills before the ants recognize Olive as a point of entry into our home.

Once Olive is begrudgingly within the apartment, freed from the leash that binds her, she is already craving more. What secrets lay entangled within the spiky bush? Will rolling in the ant hill fill the emptiness inside her? Now Olive will never know. Penny is nearby and before she knows what is happening I have the harness slipped over her head and fastened around her legs, secure as a straitjacket  I am very proud of this accomplishment. After six months with Penny, I have never managed to hoodwink her into a harness. Now she’s nice and snug and I lift her through the door.

For ten minutes, Penny stands just outside of the doorway. She is testing the waters. I don’t think Penny remembers grass and dirt. Then the spiky bush calls to her like a relentless siren. Come all ye cats, says the spiky bush. Alas, I cannot hear the bewitching music myself.

Penny weaves her way up the stairs to my landlord’s part of the house and gets tangled in the railing. With a tremendous tug, she shoots through the harness and leaves it dangling on the rails. Fortunately for me, she is too bewildered by nature to get far. I scoop her up and bring her indoors.

Once cats get a taste of taking walks outside, they can never go back. Olive is at the door now, trying to turn the doorknob with both paws, falling short of the strength and the appendages needed to actually do it.

Now that Penny has experienced the harness, I’m one step closer to training my cats to pull a chariot – the only reason I take them for walks at all.