Monday, March 21, 2005

Active Listening

I have been asked whether it is difficult writing something when I have no idea whether it’s actually being read. Do I find it strange, people ask, to seek contentment putting my words and thoughts out there without expecting a response? Clearly, they have not met my family. No one has heard a word I’ve said since the turn of the millennium.

No, that isn’t exactly the situation. They all hear me, but my words are anemic and frail, barely able to inch their way from outer ear to inner skull before they collapse from exhaustion. My words rarely make contact with the decision-making parts of the brains inside the rest of my family. Let’s start with the cat, as cats created the Ignoring Standard the rest of us can never hope to measure up to.

Scene: I am sitting in armchair, doing needlepoint. Lulabelle walks into frame.

QUINN: Hi, sweetie.

LULABELLE: Yeah, whatever. I'm going to sit in your lap now.

QUINN: But, there's needlepoint in my lap.

LULABELLE: I’m on my way up.

QUINN: This is an expensive canvas.

LULABELLE: Gonna feel good under my toes.

QUINN: How about I pet you while you’re standing on the ground?

Quinn pets Lulabelle. Lulabelle considers.

LULABELLE: (After a beat) Nope, I'm coming up.

Quinn sighs gustily and moves the canvas seconds before cat projectiles into her lap.


Then there’s the dog. Polly has, without doubt, the most aristocratic bloodlines in the house, but her intellectual inadequacy would transform the most ardent monarchist into a Bastille-storming revolutionary.

Scene: I am walking dog. Dog spies something weird on the street next to the curb. Dog lunges for it.


QUINN: (Yanking leash) It’s not food, you idiot. It’s not even digestible. I think it’s part of a car’s cooling system.

POLLY: (Lunging) FOOD!

I grab the dog by the collar and start dragging her down the street. I expect the PETA S.W.A.T. team to rappel down from the sky at any moment.

QUINN: Two thousand years of careful breeding and you’re the outcome? You were the most they could hope for?

Polly does the “lying down and feigning death” thing. As I walk towards her to hoist her up, Polly darts back to the weird street thing and eats it. She chews and swallows quickly.

QUINN: AUGGHHH! You freak!

POLLY: You know, that might not have been food.

(Later trip to the Veterinary ER is both too expensive and too unpleasant to relate)


Now we shall discuss the bipeds in my house and their inability to hear my voice. The only time Daughter seems able to hear and remember my words is when I am whispering in the other room:

Who gained a ton of weight, Mommy?”

Mostly, however, our conversations go like this:

Scene: As always, we are in the car. Daughter is humming tunelessly and playing some game with her Ariel Barbie that involves pulling off and torturing all of Ariel’s crustacean accessories. I glance back.

QUINN: Babe, please don’t bend the tiara like that, it’s going to break.


A second passes. I hear the same sound of plastic being torqued.

QUINN: I mean it, if you keep doing that, it will break. I have no idea where I would buy another Ariel Barbie tiara, nor do I have any intention of buying another Ariel Barbie tiara.


QUINN: What did I just say?

DAUGHTER: Don’t break the tiara.

QUINN: And if you break it?

DAUGHTER: I’m not getting another one.

QUINN: All right, then.

Sound of small plastic thing snapping. Sound of small girl child, crying softly.

QUINN: May I guess what just happened?

DAUGHTER: (simpering) It broke.

Please note she was never directly involved with the process. It broke. As in…Time stopped briefly and when we regained consciousness, this object was mysteriously broken.

DAUGHTER: (Simpering turns to full-on sobbing) I need a new one.

QUINN: Um, no.

Daughter wails in outrage and shock; this is entirely new information to her.


As far as Consort goes, I am partially responsible for his inability to hear what I say. After years together, he knows that I spend about 10% of my speaking energy on anecdotes about people he doesn’t know well, with whom I speculated about the motivations of people he doesn’t know at all. I will be telling him a hair-raising story entitled: Why This Complete Stranger Who Knows an Acquaintance of Mine Cannot Be Trusted to Drive Carpool and he will frustrate me by asking questions like “Wait, how do you know this person again?” or “Have you ever met this person in your life?”

I finally trained him to understand he needn’t listen at these times; he doesn’t even have to make eye contact. Just don’t obviously be reading or overtly talking on the phone and I can pretend this is a conversation. What this means, though, is that at least part of the time, I have given him permission to tune me out completely. This leads to the following:

Scene: I fly in the front door, Daughter trailing behind me. Consort is at the computer.

CONSORT: Hi, where have you been?

QUINN: I told you that she had a Traditional Ixtec Poetry and Cooking class. (To Daughter) Please go get your exercise bag and the party dress from your closet. (To Consort) Now, let me walk you through the rest of our day.

Consort’s eyes do not leave the computer screen.

QUINN: You’re listening, right?

CONSORT: (Irritably) Yes.

QUINN: Good. She has Karate class until 12:30, at which point she and I will swing over to Amanda’s birthday party, which is (Raising voice to Daughter in her bedroom) WHY I NEED YOU SIGNING AMANDA’S CARD RIGHT NOW, PLEASE. We will then try to stop by Ethan’s birthday party, so PLEASE GET YOUR SWIMSUIT AS WELL, SWEETHEART. After that, please arrive at La Cabana at 6:30, because we’re meeting Veronica and her parents there for dinner. Okay?


I grab a bottle of iced tea. Grab Daughter. Grab accessories. Have one foot out the front door, when I hear:

CONSORT: Wait a moment…what?

QUINN: What do you mean “what”?

CONSORT: What are you doing this afternoon?

QUINN: What did you hear?

CONSORT: I am supposed to bring…a birthday card and my bathing suit to Veronica’s house?

The presence of my daughter saves him from the most punishing verbal blows.

I have to keep it in perspective, I guess. As my mother says “They ignore you because they love you. They have to take you for granted to a certain extent; you’re the fulcrum that allows them to go spinning off and do wonderful, brave things”.

Or something like that.

Frankly, I wasn’t totally listening to her.


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