I go on a reading binge every year at Christmas. The learning-things center of my brain is mysteriously the only one that works when I'm otherwise not having any fun. I can't do anything with it when I'm like this, since concentration requires massive amounts of caffeine, and I can only do that for so long; I just start pounding large wadges of some random kind of information into my head for a distraction, and take it on faith that it will be someday be of some use to me. I read through most of the sci.electronics.repair FAQ collection one winter when I was laid up with flu, and now I know far more than any normal human being ever needed or wanted to know about how to dynamite my way into a broken portable CD player and make a Jacob's ladder out of an old microwave transformer.

This year it is apparently going to be cars. Mainly because my sidekick is about to cough up 30k for a convertible, and when she gets neurotic about enormous things she knows damn well she's going to go through with anyway, she wants to talk about it endlessly, and I feel better if I have some idea of what she's waffling on about. She gets to pick it up Saturday, incidentally. She's effectively just bought herself an MX-5 for Christmas. She's been making soft pitiful whimpering noises at photos of Miatas at least since I met her, not unlike the noise you would expect out of a dog who is being forced to stare at a pile of steaks through a plate glass window, so I expect her to be terrified and excited (terrifited? excitified?) for quite a while.

I'm not actually completely oblivious to cars -- it's just that I don't drive, so the only relevant opinions I have are whether any given vehicle is comfortable and/or attractive. They're valid opinions, but generally if you don't also know the parts about valves and differentials and turbochargers, gearheads will assume you are muggle, and hence won't really talk to you about any of it. Lecture at you, possibly, but not actually chat.

I have, in fact, got a decent idea of how cars work, as pieces of machinery. I do grasp the theory behind the internal combustion engine. I know how an automatic transmission works and why it ceases working when the fluid leaks out; I know that a clutch is called that because it clutches at an important gear and pulls it away from other important gears while it moves over a bit, so that your gearbox doesn't chew itself to bits when you try to change gear ratios. I know why brakes used to lock, I know that your e-brake uses steel cables and if you don't use it regularly, it'll rust and you won't be able to emergency-brake anything with it anymore, and I get the difference between front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, and four-wheel drive -- and also that all-wheel drive is not quite the same thing. I know that when you start the car, you use the battery to start a starter motor, which gets the engine spinning, which additionally turns a little inducty-thingie called an alternator, which charges the battery so that you can do that all again the next time. I even have a rough idea of how a suspension works, although the finer points of the different kinds still escape me.

The problem is that I have no way to relate this to an actual car. My brain is very bad at mapping neatly-drawn diagrams to real life. I have the same issue with biology. If you show me a drawing of the insides of a frog, even if nothing is labelled, I can take a pretty good stab at finding the heart, the liver, the stomach, the intestines, etc. If you show me a photograph of the insides of the frog, I see a pile of gooey frog organs. I can look at cutaways and explanatory diagrams and demonstration models until I'm blue in the face, but whenever someone opens up the hood of a car, I see: car parts. Probably grimy ones.

No one wants me to pop the hood and poke around inside their car in the name of learning any more than they want me to crack open their chest and give their heart a good squish in the name of science, so I've never really figured it out. I probably could have asked my father, as I suspect that at some point he was able to repair his own car, but by the time I got old enough to even consider caring, my parents had ossified into their present yuppiedom, and were even getting their oil changes done by the dealer. Right about when I hit adolescence -- prime car-appreciating age -- was when the Very Sensible Family Sedans died, and I strongly suspect that the replacements were the very first cars either of them had ever gone out and bought brand-new off a showroom floor, from people who wanted to get them endless coffee and ask them questions about financing and trim packages.

The reason it took me until Emma (that's as in 'Mrs Peel', and would be the prior Miata, for anyone not keeping track of the comments; she's mariner blue with a black rag top, and last I heard needed at least one new axle soonish and a back window pretty much right that moment. Also some kind of fussing with hinges -- her owner made the most appalled face when he realized that her prior keeper had hopped in and out of her over the door, as apparently cool kids don't open things anymore? I don't know. He was displeased) to care about cars at all is that just about every other car I have ever been in, in my entire life, has been a box that got me from point A to point B. They were just boxes on wheels, a means to avoid having to drag bookshelves home on foot.

[Occasionally, they even fucked that up. Mog and I and our third roommate at the time were trying to get from Vegas to Phoenix in a borrowed SUV once, to retrieve its owner at the airport, when the throttle jammed open, just a few miles from literally the only traffic light we had seen for at least an hour. I got to talk to a 911 operator while our roommate gathered whatever we thought was important from the backseat; Moggie steered us towards the shoulder, which out there means open desert, then stood on the brake pedal while hauling up on the aptly-named emergency brake as hard as she could. We practically fell out of the car. Hilariously, while I had my purse and the phone and our roommate had actually festooned herself with all the overnight bags in case the car took off without us, Moggie had apparently chosen to save... her can of Rockstar. Because caffeine is absolutely what you need after something like that.

This after that same car had overheated while we tried to get its owner to the airport in the first place, and stranded us in Phoenix with my parents, who lived unfortunately close. And again, on the side of the highway, on a different trip up the mountain from Phoenix to Flagstaff, when the radiator sprung a rather phenomenal leak. I learned two things from this: One, if you are a twenty-something woman standing next to a broken car by the side of the highway, people will materialize out of fucking nowhere to try to help you fix it. Cops, bikers, old couples in RVs, parents hauling their kids back to college, everyone. And two, I need to never spend the night in my parents house ever again. Jesus.]

My parents apparently made the drive from Massachusetts to Arizona in a 1978 Mustang, which I only remember very vaguely. I assume it was a stylish car for the era, being a Mustang and all, but it was long and low, and my father is built like a Wookiee, so he pretty much drove with his skull grinding up against the headliner. It was succeeded, for most of my childhood, by a series of Nissan Sentras. They were reasonably good at being transportation, very good at being cheap, and a failure at pretty much anything else. Sentras were, and probably still are, shoeboxes on wheels; they are so aggressively generic that they are exactly what you picture when someone says the word 'car' and then doesn't tell you what kind. I don't recall what happened to the initial silver one, but its hideously beige successor met its maker at the hands (wheel?) of a tourist who blew through a red light in downtown Phoenix while my father was driving home from work, and effectively took the engine block right off the front. I don't know how the other guy came out of it, but probably not well; I remember going to pick Dad up at the body shop where the tow truck had dropped both him and the wreckage, and not even recognizing the front end of the former Sentra as belonging to a car, never mind one of ours. My father walked away with a nice bruise where he whacked his nose against the steering wheel. And the testimony of several police officers who happened to be watching when the other guy t-boned him, inasmuch as the idiot had done it right in front of Phoenix PD Headquarters. And a replacement value check from the insurance company.

What he ended up buying was a Suzuki Samurai, which so far as I am aware, stayed on all four of its wheels for its entire life. Not that Dad didn't try. One of the reasons I never learned to drive was that my parents said they'd pay for lessons if I sat through a driver's ed course in school; I spent a semester correcting the textbook ("You don't mean speed here, you mean velocity. And it's not weight, it's mass.") and trying not to fall asleep when they spent an entire week on the concept of 'yield to the train', they reneged, and I refused to learn from either of them. The attempt would have ended with one of us exiting the still-moving car at a high rate of speed, and I was not altogether sure which one of us it would be. Both of my parents throw the shifter around like a gorilla with anger management issues, my mother has a leadfoot, and my father has a temper on top of that. The results would not have been pretty. My sister learned from our mother, and last time I was in a car with her she still drove like she took speedbumps as a personal insult.

The other sedan was scrapped when it started making an alarming THK-THK-THK noise on right-hand turns. Turns out that replacing the steering column on a 1988 Nissan Sentra is more expensive than just replacing a 1988 Nissan Sentra, so they did that instead. Continuing their theme of picking cars based on whether the seats could be adjusted for both my 5'2" mother and 6'5" father, rather than on oh say the results of the crash tests, Mom bought an adorable little 1995 Hyundai Accent. In retrospect, that car was rather terrifying. They have dinky little engines, but also weigh nearly nothing; I'm fairly sure the chassis is made of recycled pop cans and duct tape, and that the most sophisticated piece of engineering in the entire vehicle was the stereo. My mother took it down to the highway between Phoenix and Tucson once, because there's a good fifty mile stretch where nobody gives a flying fuck and she wanted to see how fast the thing would go. She never did get an exact figure. The speedometer on those things runs out of dial somewhere around 110mph, mainly because no one in their right mind would go anywhere near that fast in a plastic car whose main safety feature is fervent prayer.

Last I checked, my father was driving a Nissan Xterra, and my mother had a Honda CR-V. Why they need these things, I do not know. They live in an area as suburbby as any suburb that has ever suburbbed. If you've ever seen Edward Scissorhands, it's like that, except without the redeeming value of the creepy castle with Vincent Price and Johnny Depp in it at the end of the street. My mother was even an Avon lady for a while -- no lie. The Xterra was a great hulking thing that rode like you'd expect a great hulking SUV to ride, and had enough room in the back to get a St Bernard to the dog groomers; literally the only thing I remember about the CR-V was that it was extremely green (the color, not the environmental attitude) and that next to the Xterra, it looked very happy and cubical and Keroppi-like in what was probably an unintentionally hilarious way.