Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Hey Baby, I'm Your Handyman.

The first thought was marvelous in its simplicity; Daughter needed bookshelves. No one who had walked into her room and high-stepped over the multiple piles of books could argue with that. Once we all agreed on bookshelves, we added “And also some room for her globe, and her copious small objects, and the sports-equipment which keeps rolling out from under the bed and trying to kill her parents…” and, once again, we were all in agreement. I would find catalogues, we would price bookshelves and we would be people who bought bookshelves. I found a couple of six-foot units which seemed doable.

Then Consort, damn him, had to bring math into the picture. He estimated that with the amount of books alone, not even counting dioramas and soccer-balls, we would need three six-foot bookshelves. Another storage-space would have to be brought in for oddly-shaped objects, thereby giving the effect of living in a Barnes and Noble which catered to soccer fanatics and cat-fetishists. Almost unnoticed, the conversation shifted from “We’ll get bookshelves and things will be better…” to “It might make more sense to install built-in bookshelves, to most efficiently use the space and keep Quinn from tripping over shin-guards. Also, we can rewire the room so there is more than one forty-watt bulb lighting the entire room and add a small desk.”

As a homeowner of some experience, I have learned that the most expensive thing you can say is “Well, as long as we’re ____________, let’s _____________!” We brought in a carpenter/contractor for an estimate of bookshelves, the desk and the wiring. The estimate caused me to rub the bridge of my nose and say tiredly “Is that estimate based on making the shelves out of gold and fetal pandas?” I longed to go back to the halcyon days of two six-foot bookshelves but I couldn’t, because we knew too much. Stupid math.

Consort brought out his woodworking magazines, sketched a few designs. Within a few weeks, we had gone from cheap, ugly and readily available bookshelves to a couture unit specially designed by Daddy. I was charmed, and I was cautious. Consort is great at starting small projects, and keeping this house from sliding into its natural state of entropy and feral aggression towards improvements. Consort is less uniquely gifted at finishing large projects, which is only noticeable when I’m waiting for months for a folding-table in the laundry room to be assembled, but would prove problematic if the work-space in question is Daughter’s bedroom and the length of time is the remainder of her childhood.

We put the plans on the kitchen table (which took him a year to get around to varnishing), and we talked. He had a plan; he would build the bookshelves in sections in the garage. Only when it was done and ready to be installed would he bring the chaos indoors. He would move the wiring, he would install the bookshelves and the desk, he would wear a tool belt and clean up after himself, and it should take no more than two weeks to bring her room into submission.

“Of course,” he said, too calmly, “I’m going to have to check out the water damage”. Silently, we stared at one another. There were two indications of water damage in the outer wall which had existed since I moved in. Remember the money-phrase? This was “As long as we’re screwing bookshelves into load-bearing walls, let’s see if the load-bearing walls aren’t riddled with wood-rot!”

But, he concluded in a soul-strengthening tone, the odds were pretty good that it was nothing more than leftover damage from an ancient and long-sealed leak. Besides, he had a plan; he was finishing a work-project in mid-July and the next project wasn’t really ramping up until mid-August. He’d arrange to have the bookshelves ready to install in that period where he was at loose ends, a man with a plan and a ready jig-saw. He spent the better part of the evenings of early summer standing in our garage, making noise and being a local luminary. He’d wear his tool-belt and his protective glasses and he’d make noise and people would look down our driveway and say in wondering tones “Look! He’s…making something!” Men would wander down to comment on the noise-making thingies and women would say things like “Wow, I wish I could get my husband to make things!”; small boys would linger on their bicycles, gazing longingly at the sharp blades he was wielding. Behind the clouds of sawdust worked Consort, a figure of glamour in a tool-belt.

I thought things like “This isn’t that hard at all…” and “Why didn’t we do this sooner?” and “Maybe, after this, I could talk him into making bookshelves for every single room in the house!” I would go out and watch him and not realize that what I had thought was the sound of evening birds was, in fact, the sound of the Fates, giggling behind their hands.

(Next: It stops being polite and starts getting real.)

Monday, July 21, 2008

Smoke from a Distant Fire.

I know I was just recently complaining about an object in the kitchen that didn’t work and it’s kind of churlish to complain about something working which is meant to save your life, but would someone please come over and talk to my smoke detector? A few months ago, Consort upgraded our kitchen smoke detector. It not only senses smoke, it senses carbon monoxide, radon and people with malignant thoughts. It’s possible I wasn’t entirely listening.

After installing its little square battery, Consort tested it by pressing the “test” button. It screamed BLEEP! at us and we flinched. This was an alarm in the truest sense of the word. Consort installed it high in the corner of the kitchen and pressed the “reset” button. After a couple of grumbling Bleeps it tucked its nose under its tail and went back to napping. The user’s manual assured us we had purchased the most sensitive smoke-detector on the marketplace and I have come to agree. It is sensitive. My, but it’s sensitive. Twelve year-old girls are less sensitive.

Its first night in our house, I made a quesadilla in the usual way. That is, I let the tortilla cook a few seconds longer than usual, leading to a bit of smoke wafting around. The smoke detector, ever alert, screamed BLEEP! several times while I learned that even standing on a kitchen chair I am too short to reach the reset button. Several more BLEEPS occurred before I located the step-stool, dragged it into the kitchen, grabbed a wooden spoon and began whacking at the infernal siren until it finally shut up. Consort wandered in a few minutes later and said “I guess you’re just going to have to be a little more careful when you cook”, which caused me to look around for the wooden spoon yet again. I did get my revenge when later that night he decided to cook up a steak and we discovered that the smoke detector is programmed to worry about our cholesterol. I’d have enjoyed me revenge more, though, if it hadn’t been accompanied by BLEEP BLEEP BLEEP BLEEP BLEEP (and the sound of wooden spoon whacking plastic).

Over the next few days we learned that any sort of kitchen smoke worries the smoke detector. So does boiling water, a fire in the fireplace, mammalian body heat and certain Verizon commercials. It’s as if the last thing the detector did before it was shipped to us was attend a conference at the Airport Hilton about being the very best smoke detector it could be. Now I can certainly appreciate anything which worries that much about my family’s well-being, but it’s hard to enjoy life if you are constantly second guessing an over-enthusiastic appliance:

(Quinn and Daughter are in the living room, reading and enjoying the afternoon sun. Consort wanders in carrying a hot drink from Starbucks. Instantly, Quinn springs catlike to her feet and crosses the room to form a physical wall between the steaming cup and the kitchen.)

QUINN: When did you get that?

CONSORT: Uh, about ten minutes ago.

QUINN: Are you insane?

CONSORT: I was falling asleep at the wheel!

(Quinn blows firmly at a whisp of steam rising from the cup, gently directing it towards an open window.

QUINN: It doesn’t like steam. Have you forgotten the minestrone incident already?


(As polished as a dance troupe, we swing into gear. Consort lunges toward the detector, I swoop the step-stool into place as Daughter tosses the "Whacking Spoon”from the drainboard. As Consort passes me, I notice he’s wearing a red shirt and, fearing the color might set it off again, offer to take his place.)

Eventually, we started to remove the smoke detector's battery whenever we cooked, took showers or thought the air temperature in the kitchen might rise above above seventy-three degrees. But we could no longer avoid the inevitable: the world’s most dedicated employee had to be fired. Consort purchased and installed a new, less emotionally labile detector as I imagined the exit interview with our old detector:

(Quinn is behind an office desk. The smoke detector is sitting in a chair in front of her, weeping copiously.)

DETECTOR: But…why?

QUINN: Because you woke us up three times in one night to tell us someone was walking past the house, thinking about smoking a cigarette.


QUINN: Where?

DETECTOR: (Miserably) I…don’t know. Somewhere. SMOKE!

QUINN: This is what I’m talking about. No one doubts your passion.


QUINN: Maybe I could just pour you a nice glass of bourbon. A tall glass of bourbon. With a Valium crushed into it...

DETECTOR: No one will ever protect you like I did.

QUINN: I can only hope. But please know that I’ve found you a wonderful place to work, an enthusiastic and like-minded group filled with individuals just as passionate and dedicated to the cause of rooting out danger as you are. They can’t wait to meet you.

(Quinn opens a packing box and pats the inside appealingly.)

DETECTOR: But...I love you.

QUINN: I know.


QUINN: Get in the box.

And with that, the detector scrabbles in to the carton and settles down for a troubled and smoky voyage to its new home. Quinn tapes the box closed and carefully writes the address across its surface: U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Washington, DC, 20528.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Test results.

For those of you consumed by the question Yes, but how is Quinn’s dog doing?, he sends his regards and wants you to know that he’s very happy. This beastie, found running down the street nine months ago, is the best dog I’ve ever had.

[The dog we had when I was growing up was better, what with being the dog I had growing up and all, but since she belonged to my parents and not me, my current dog squeaks by on a technicality.]

We finished Canine Good Citizenship training, and then we took our test. I’m not developing boundary issues with the dog; it was truly our test. Sure, he had to sit and not throw tantrums when left with a stranger for three minutes, but I had to leave the room and cross my fingers really hard for those three minutes. I had to create a new walking pace, just below a sprint, which made him appear to be in a heel position all the time. He had to be checked to for cleanliness, but did he feel the sting of being told his ears were filthy? No, he did not; he smiled and thumped his tailed pleasantly as a Canine Good Citizenship Judge lectured me for several minutes on the topic of Ear Cleaning. To hear this judge, I was feeding the dog things I found under park benches and setting his tail on fire for fun. When she tired herself out on the subject of my failures as a dog-parent, I whispered “So, we failed…?”

She answered grudgingly, “No, they are within the acceptable limits. But they really should be cleaner.”

Sweeping generalization: Some people are animal people because they lack any interpersonal skills whatsoever.

We got to Test Seven: Meeting a Strange Dog. Since the first day, I had known this was his and, by extension my, Achilles dewclaw. The dog cannot simply let another dog exist unmolested within smelling distance. They must be befriended, or eaten, or played with, or terrified into urination. Therefore, we trained, albeit in a desultory way. We walked only when we assumed we wouldn’t meet other dogs, so that any dog-meets had the casual spontaneity of a G-8 summit. If we did see a dog on our walk, we’d hide in a driveway behind trash cans until the threat passed. We arranged to have a rehearsal of the test with an Australian Shepherd, because the rumor was that the test dog was an Australian Shepherd.

We were very, very geeky.

Test Seven came, and we and our irredeemably dirty ears got in a “Sit” position. The judge went into the other room and walked back in with an Australian Shepherd at her side. She walked up to me and we shook hands, the dogs on the outside of each one of us. My sweet boy, sensing my nerves, had been bouncy and borderline sassy for the previous six tests, but somehow managed to calm himself for the meet n'greet. The judge and I shook hands and he stared off into space. I breathed out. The judge turned to leave and we – who had been in a perfect “Sit” – stood up to look more closely at the dog that was now leaving.

We failed. And we still had to do the final two tests, on the off chance that if we wanted to retake the test at some point in the future we’d get credit for those parts we did pass. On everything else, we were flawless. The judge released us, our teacher hugged us compassionately, and we were back in the car. I called Consort, home with Daughter awaiting the results, as I had determined we might be distracted by family members.


“We aren’t Good Citizens,” I said glumly and to my acute embarrassment, felt myself choking up. Quinn, get some perspective. We weren’t refugees in Darfur; our house wasn’t in foreclosure; I was getting emotional over our inability to not sniff another dog’s butt? But the fact remained, we might have failed, but I dropped the ball. Had I carved out a little more time for training, he might have kept his head about him for another ten seconds. Ten seconds! Argh!

I composed myself as Consort told Daughter who sniffed a bit in disappointment herself. Consort got back on the phone.

“I’m sorry he didn’t pass,” Consort began kindly, “but if you don’t mind my saying, I’m kind of glad. Had he passed, you wanted to take him to visit children at hospitals, and I never did understand where you thought you would find the time to do it.”

“There’s that,” I mumbled, opening the bag of Gummy Bears I had bought myself as a post-test reward.

“You would have crammed it in to your schedule and you would have gotten tense and frantic-“

I was grateful he didn’t say “More tense and more frantic.”

“And you would have taken even less time for yourself.”

I chewed and shrugged. Since Consort couldn’t hear shrugging, I swallowed and said grudgingly, “Maybe it’s for the best.”

“Oh, definitely,” Consort said, “We have a much better-behaved dog than before. He may not be a Canine Good Citizen, but he’s our good dog.”

I looked over at the dog curled up in the passenger seat, the celebratory rawhide gripped between his front paws. The post-test exhaustion was such that he was worrying the chew-toy in his sleep. I patted his bottom. He was our very good dog.

“We’ll see you in a few minutes,” I said, preparing to drive us home.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Rewrite here. Rewrite now.

You know what’s nice about rewriting a manuscript?


Oh, come on, there has to be something nice about rewriting a manuscript. It…puts a gunshot wound into perspective? It allows you to tap into feelings of self-loathing and paralyzing self-consciousness you haven’t felt since eighth grade? It means you’re one step closer to publishing, at which point everyone can know you wrote the worst book in the world?

People are kind enough to ask me how the book is going. Frequently, they say things like “Is it out yet?”, because it seems as if I have been working on the book since before the advent of movable type. But no, it isn’t out yet. It will be out February 1, 2009. Publishing has its own pace and it is a measured pace. There is plenty of time booked in for taking the notes your editor has given you and incorporating them into your work. Days on end can be dedicated to polishing a paragraph your editor has noted is awkward and lacks a transition. More days can be booked in for deciding your entire writing style is awkward and lacking in transitions. Nights can be given over to obsessing about how your entire life is awkward and lacks transition. Fixating over your overuse of adverbs is a nice palate-cleanser.

And then the person who has so kindly asked if the book is done yet and has been rewarded by me looking pained and rubbing the bridge of my nose tries to atone by asking a perfectly reasonable question: “What did you decide on for the title?” They are rewarded with me putting my head down on the nearest horizontal surface and crying long hopeless sobs.

I still lack a title. I have come up with a few but Marketing at the publishing house hasn’t felt that special mix of humor, accessibility and shocking profit-margin they like in a title, so I keep getting sent back to the mines. Not only do I have to have a title, I have to have a wacky, appealing and even more audience-pleasing subtitle. My online friend Jen Lancaster is deliciously gifted at both. It now appears I am gifted at neither. Let others decry how bad the American school system is; how our students think the three branches of government are Kevin Jonas, Nick Jonas and Joe Jonas. I am only interested in decrying that a "Title Creation" class isn't a prerequisite for graduation.

So of course I am focusing deeply on anything but the book and its missing title. For instance, I am fascinated by the contents of our shower caddy. There are three human beings living in this house. None of us are hair models. Our follicles are not insured by Lloyds of London. So why do three people have eight bottles of shampoo? At the very worst, shouldn’t there be something like…three?

Let’s examine this mystery more closely. First, there is Consort. Consort likes this particular shampoo which makes my hair look like seaweed, so he has his own bottle. But Consort also has a habit of seeing the bottle of shampoo get below the half-full mark, thinking “I’m almost out of shampoo!”, buying another bottle and starting to use that one, while leaving the first bottle alone because it’s half-full, so in his mind it’s empty. He then works the new bottle halfway down and thinks “Zoinks! I’m almost out of shampoo!”

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

And then there are my shampoos. There is the organic shampoo which promised me shine and body but actually gave me new cowlicks and a peculiar smell. I keep it in there because I spent good money on it and I can use it on Daughter, but only periodically, because the smell draws possums. I also have the cheap shampoo which works well, but only on me, and then I have another bottle of that shampoo, because what I thought was conditioner turned out to be shampoo. I then have a shampoo which describes itself as “Color-Enhancing” which actually means “Hair-Dye”, and I only use it if I remember to wear surgical gloves to shower, because it will leave my nails and palms sort of a coral-rust color for a day. Also, it tints my ears. Mostly, I don’t use it, but still it stays and why?

I spent good money on it.

And then there’s Daughter's shampoo, which is organic and sweetly scented and not tested on animals and more expensive than anything which removes poster-paint should be. It sits in the shower caddy, but slightly apart, as befits its stratospheric price; it’s lobbying for its own caddy, with a plasma-screen TV and a publicist. And what is this next to Daughter's shampoo? Why, that’s the dog’s shampoo. I wash the dog about once a month, and damp trial-and-error has taught me that it’s just easier to put on a bathing suit and wash him in the shower.

I’d store his shampoo and only bring it in when I’m washing him, but then I run the risk of again getting both of us in the shower and only then noticing I’d forgotten the shampoo. At which point, I slipped out of the shower to get the shampoo, but the dog followed me and raced around the house in fragrant wet-dog delight at having escaped. He then raced outside, tap-danced in the dirt, and flew back in. Twenty minutes later, when I finally caught him, the only places in the house without muddy footprints were the crawlspace and a few square inches behind the fridge.

Yeah, his shampoo stays in the caddy.

The next mystery is the teapot. Correction: the next mystery is the last three teapots I’ve owned. Not a complicated bit of engineering, teapots: they boil water; they make a noise when the water boils; they have a hole through which you pour out the boiling water. I’m not exactly sure how the noise is created from steam but since I’ve never seen Microsoft enter into the teapot marketplace I’m guessing it’s pretty straightforward. So why is it that I cannot buy a teapot which works? Two teapots prior to this current one, I had a model I called “The Strangler” because the sound which indicated my water had boiled wasn’t a whistle as much as the sound a chicken would make if someone were cutting off its air, slowly. It’s not fun to have a kitchen device which makes guests think you’re making money on the side dressing poultry. Still, I kept that stupid teapot for years because beyond that hellish death-rattle there was nothing wrong with it and…

Right. I spent good money on it.

Eventually, it developed a leak and I could discard it with a clear conscience. I decided the reason the teapot made that awful noise was because I bought the cheapest one I could find. So I went up-market and bought a slightly better one. I brought it home. I boiled water. It peeped sweetly at me. Gladdened by how my extra money was well-spent, I threw away the receipt. The teapot, sensing it was now home forever, never spoke again. Whenever I boiled water I would have to hang around the kitchen like a stove stalker because the only indication this teapot gave that water was boiling was an intermittent, asthmatic wheeze. We had gone from the poultry slaughterhouse to the ICU. In any living thing, this sound would have been a reason to summon a priest but this teapot beetled along, gasping and boiling, for years.

When I could finally justify the length of time I had owned the wheezer (Consort once accused me of "amortization fever"), I bought my freedom from the kitchen by getting a new teapot. This most recent one is an evolutionary step forward in some parallel universe because not only does it not make a whistle, -- preferring instead to make a sound I have dubbed “the whispering retch”whenever I use it -- it slops hot steaming water all over my hand, the tabletop and generous lashings onto my legs. Where it doesn’t pour water is in the cup. Nevertheless, I’m keeping this one, and not because I spent good money on it but because these things seem to be learning and I know the next one will go for my eyes.

My most troubling mystery, however, is Ken. The name Ken is in the top twenty of 20th century’s most popular names for boys, but just barely. James is the most popular, and Consort knows two of them. John is the second most popular and, again, Consort knows two of them. Robert, Michael, William, David…they are all represented in our social circle in reasonable sprinklings. However, if Consort says “I’m going to see Ken this afternoon…”, I am instantly at a loss. The man knows at least nine men named Ken. None of them go by Kenneth. If any of them have a nickname they’re keeping it quiet. It doesn’t help that Consort, seemingly forgetting that we’re surrounded by a clutch of Kens, dives into anecdotes without illuminating which Ken he’s talking about:

CONSORT: Ken brought his new girlfriend to the office today.

QUINN: Oh my god, when did he break up with his wife?

CONSORT: He was married?

QUINN: We had dinner at their house. Her name was Sheryl. They seemed so…wait. You’re not talking Work Ken, are you?

CONSORT: Sure I am. Wait, you mean Other Work Ken. This is New Work Ken.

QUINN: I met New Work Ken. I'm, frankly, a little shocked that he has a girlfriend.

CONSORT: No, that's Gay New Work Ken. This is another guy.


QUINN: Did none of their mothers have imaginations?

I’ll let you in on a secret: sometimes, when Consort is talking about something and my mind drifts, I cover myself by asking “So, what did Ken think about all this?” Works every time.

And with that, I have to go back to title-birthing, a process only slightly less taxing and unsanitary as the regular kind of birthing. As with the regular kind, I have to assume it’s all going to come out right. February 1st, 2009, head into your local bookstore and glance at the “New Books” table:

A THOUSAND MEN NAMED KEN AND ME: A life of crowded showers and empty teacups