Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Try To Remember.

When children are babies, parents have to remember this:

1. Feed him.
2. Change his diapers.
3. Put on cute small outfit in the 90 minutes during which it actually fits.
4. When you have done the above, he's probably ready for a nap.

Then they get bigger, and the list gets longer, quietly. They are mobile and your list becomes:

1. Feed her.
2. Change her diapers.
3. Remember that she’ll only stay still for a diaper-change if she gets to hold Baby Giraffe.
4. Let her roam as you search the house for Baby Giraffe.
4a. Remember to start laundry which has been soaking because you thought it might help get rid of the sweet-potato stains.
4b. Remember to pop thank-you notes for birthday party into bag.
4c. Remember to read article on how to get gum out of hair because you just know that's going to happen eventually.
4d. Forget why you're walking around with a clean diaper in your hand.
4e. Remember and find Baby Giraffe.
5. Wrestle child back on to changing table for diaper change.
6. Let now clean child go and realize that the rest of the afternoon will now be spent cleaning up the mayhem an ambulatory child can wreak in the time it takes to find a Baby Giraffe.

Getting to the park requires a flow-chart in the parent’s head that would unnerve the Army Corps of Engineers. And yet the child’s needs are met, lovingly if not perfectly, most of the time. We parents remember nearly everything we’re supposed to and learn to fake the stuff we forget.

They get older and the list of things to remember grows longer. Yes, you no longer specifically need to remember “Feed child” because child is now four and has an endearing habit of standing in front of you acting out Mimi’s death from “La Boheme” to indicate she’s feeling a mite peckish. You do, however, need to remember what the last eight meals in this child’s life have been, otherwise she’ll talk you into pasta again and develop something like scurvy or rickets and you have to remember that carrots are eaten but only if ranch dressing is offered. And then you have to make sure that there is ranch dressing. And then you have to remember that you’re trying to add broccoli to the repertoire while she's still in the “sneering and shunning” phase but is sometimes acceptable, but only with ranch dressing. And then you have to remember if you got the cookies currently in favor which look nearly identical to those other cookies which are, unaccountably, disgusting. Only then do you remember that you, too must eat, only thinking about food makes you both really hungry and flatteningly tired, which is why you’re eventually discovered hiding in the bathroom eating a pint of ice-cream using potato chips as a spoon.

And then they get older and ther are more things to remember. We volunteered to bring the class frog his crickets every third Friday. Your kid seems to have skipped the head-lice which went through the school but she could still be in the incubation stage for strep through the end of the week. The girl she wasn’t talking to last week is now her best friend. Her haircut is on Saturday and she’ll outgrow her school shoes right around spring break. By Monday, she needs a costume to perform her role as Pinocchio’s left arm. I won't say that I remembered all the details, but I was definitely falling into the psychologically acceptable realm of “The Good-Enough Mother.” People might think I was kind of competent and even a little fun to be around, as long as Daughter never got emotionally invested in good cooking or attractive sewing. And if only she'd gotten her father’s teeth.

It was the palate-stretcher that energized the droning harpy side of me. There’s nothing like a tiny object the looks like an untwisted paper-clip, can fit in the palm of my hand and costs more than my first car to make me want to ask questions. Questions like “Where’s your palate-stretcher?” and “You haven’t just put the palate-stretcher in the paper napkin next to your plate, have you?” and “Do you want me to tell you again about the times Nana made me go through restaurant trash-cans to find my palate-stretcher I had forgotten to take out of my napkin?” To Daughter’s credit, she sighed significantly less frequently than I nagged…I mean, reminded.

A year has passed and I am proud to say my daughter has the same palate-stretcher she started with. This is not a bet I would have taken. I’d like to think this is because of some wonderful blending of her sterling character and my endless commentary on the palate-stretcher, but it’s probably just the sterling character. I've come to realize that Daughter now senses when I’m talking about her orthodontics and tunes me out completely. Truthfully, I mostly tune myself out at this point, but it’s always on the “To Be Remembered List” until the orthodontist says we’re in the clear. I had hopes last week at her most recent appointment when the doctor motioned for me to come over to the chair. I thought we might have a ritualized removal of the palate-stretcher and then a nice celebratory stomp.

But, no; it turns out that Daughter’s tongue, when at rest, leans against her front teeth which — while it might seem logical to those of us who have never actually thought about tongue-placement — is terribly, terribly wrong. Untreated, this can lead to moving her teeth right back to where they started. The orthodontist alluded to social isolation in adulthood and, eventually, dating those people who dress up like stuffed animals for romantic reasons. He handed me a sheet of tongue exercises she was to do twice a day. I read them and squinted dubiously.

" Okay. I’m supposed to believe that an exercise done five minutes a day can override an unconscious act done the other 23 hours and 55 minutes a day?”

He shrugged, “Can’t hurt.”

Even he didn’t believe in these exercises. Daughter might as well avoid walking on sidewalk cracks and lines to keep my vertebrae safe. But, dutifully, I had the paper laminated and placed it next to her bathroom mirror. Now, every morning and night, after I have reminded her to do every single thing that had already been on the list, I get to utter the deathless phrase “Have you done your tongue exercises?”

I think I’ll try to forget that.

To think I know nothing of the modern world.

Here's how my brain works: I've spent months torqued with guilt over -- among countless other things -- how I haven't been blogging enough. "Soon," I promised myself, "the book shall be done and then oh! What blogging I shall do."

Because my inner voice sounds a little mannered.

And then the book got done, and then done again, and then a little more done and then finally it was done. And I was still only blogging once a week. The feeling of guilt rolled over me like an itchy Dacron sweater dipped in Nutella and yea verily how I suffered. So yesterday I'm feeling my guilt and insisting I write more often and wishing I had Nutella in the house when it occurs to me that I could Twitter.

[My mother reads this blog. My mother has no idea what I've gotten into now. So Mom, Twitter is a format wherein I can send messages of no more than 140 characters about what I am doing right now; I think we all understand it will frequently involve carbohydrates or impotently shouting at the cat. ]

So if you go to and type in Quinn Cummings, you'll find me.

I can't promise I'll be interesting, but I never promised that anyway.

Friday, January 23, 2009

That Girl

This will eventually become my second This I Believe” essay, but in order for it to make any sense we’re going to have to take the scenic route to get there. Trust me. I know where I’m going.

Right around the time Daughter was born, the American Pediatric Association issued a recommendation that children under the age of two see no television at all. I don’t always take doctor’s recommendations (See: Quinn’s vegetable intake), but this one made sense to me. I had all sorts of high-minded reasons for keeping children’s TV off in my house but the most resonant reason was the most selfish: Elmo.

Friends with older children had already warned me that even a single exposure to that fluorescent carpet sample would cause my Daughter to cling to the TV like a life raft, moaning “Elmo, Elmo…” ceaselessly until I brought him back. I wasn’t so fond of Dora either, and we don’t even need to discuss the big purple dinosaur. The No TV rule meant the brand-extension department at PBS didn’t help raise my child; she didn’t agitate for a particular variety of cookie because someone was on it. Sure, I didn’t have the free babysitting to use when I wanted to take a shower but I neatly circumvented that by showering in the middle of the night. Or not showering at all. No one ever said parenting was pretty.

When Daughter was three she still wasn’t seeing TV. One day I suddenly thought, “Mister Rogers is a very nice man, and if I continue to keep the TV off she’ll never know that.” So, gingerly, I allowed a little Mister Rogers which led to a little Between the Lions and then, fearfully, Sesame Street. Elmo, while appealing to her, was meant for a younger crowd and never held her captive. I think she saw Dora the Explorer twice and the big purple dinosaur once. I was knee-bucklingly relieved that she didn’t ask for him again.

TV is a part of her life, but a small one. We watch a movie on Friday night and she can see some cartoons on the weekends. She got to see some of the Olympics, which included the commercial half-time show of hearing her mother rant about the hypocrisy of the greatest athletes in the world being sponsored by fast-food and soda companies. I’m lax about so many things, but what she sees isn’t one of them. And then right before Christmas we were at my friend Marina’s house, and Daughter and Marina’s son were comparing notes on favorite television shows. I don’t remember what Daughter said, but Marina’s son was vehement in his choice of “Drake and Josh” as the finest half-hour on television.

“I can’t watch that,” said Daughter in a beleagured voice.

Marina, hearing this, looked at me and said softly, “You have to let her watch some pop culture. You don’t want her to be one of the weird kids, do you? You remember the weird kids from elementary school that didn’t get to watch TV.”

I remembered the weird kids all too well. Of course, since I went to school in the 1970’s in Los Angeles, the weird kids not only didn’t watch TV but lived in a geodesic dome, had birthday cakes made of tempeh and were named Starlight Amber. But the fact that they didn’t know which one was Bobby Brady and which was Peter just sealed their isolation. Maybe Marina was right, maybe I needed to loosen up. Over the Christmas holiday, Daughter looked through the TV Guide in the paper and noted hopefully, as she’d been doing for weeks, when Suite Life and Drake and Josh were on. Unlike every other day, where my usual response was a derisive snort, I said deliberately, “Well, it’s Christmas, you don’t have any homework..."

She looked at me, barely daring to breathe.

I sighed, “Yeah, let’s give ‘Drake and Josh’ a try.”

If a child screaming in delight indicates quality parenting, I’m up for a large award. I turned on the TV just as the show started and went off to fold laundry, confident in the knowledge that the show, while too teeth-chippingly stupid for me to watch without gagging, would be appropriate for my kid. After all, she was in the sweet spot, demographically, of their target audience. I came back in after a few minutes; there were the two leads and the little sister of one of them. Daughter was laughing like a loon. I listened; the dialogue went something like this:

PERSON: You’re stupid.

ANOTHER PERSON: You sound so stupid when you say stupid.

FIRST PERSON: That’s the kind of thing a stupid person like you would say.


Okay, I’m exaggerating, but not by nearly enough. It was several minutes of people only slightly older than my Daughter speaking horribly to one another, giving her a road map of how she was supposed to treat people. I flinched and said to Daughter, “You know I never want to hear you talking like this to anyone, right?”

She sighed and said, “I know.” The girl said something snotty and dismissive and Daughter cackled again. Now no longer confident in either Drake or Josh, I went to grab the laundry basket to pair up socks while also watching the show with her. When I returned to the living room, Drake and Josh had moved to some kind of coffee house. Drake or Josh was on a couch, locking lips with a girl about his age. Josh or Drake walked into frame, poked Drake or Josh in the shoulder and said, “Dude, you don’t even KNOW her!” The laugh track screamed in delight and I realized there are worse things than being the weird kid in elementary school. I grabbed the remote and switched off the TV. Daughter spun on me, prepared to fight to the death for this wonderful window into how an American teenager behaves . I opened my mouth to say something and froze. The emotion I felt the most strongly was anger, but it wasn’t towards Daughter. It was towards Nickelodeon and the producers of Drake and Josh.

Their audience wasn’t yet into its adolescence but the producers chose to make teen promiscuity a joke -- I was later to learn this is a running joke. The US has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the developed world, one in four teenage girls are infected with an STD and the Mensa candidates who wrote this show decided their best shot at pre-teen humor comes from dry-humping a stranger. A study came out last November which noted a correlation between early sexual activity and seeing sexual acts on TV. Does anyone else notice the heartbreaking disparity between a show where making out with someone you don’t know is a punchline bracketed by commercials for Legos? There is a time and a place for humor based on sexual situations. That place is called HBO.

I seethed and I planned. I’d say something to Daughter about why she wasn’t going to be watching the show anymore and then I’d write such an email to the producers of Drake and Josh and one to Nickelodeon while I was at it. I had now become one of those parents who, when confronted by the inevitable coarsening of the culture and eager to protect my child, indulges in the futile and antiquated weapon of the Sternly Worded Letter. I had become that person.

And here, dear readers, is where the My Belief comes in. I believe we should treat those people we find absurd with great care, because eventually we will become them. You might avoid becoming that person with the minivan only to wake up one day to discover you are that person with the home perm. Sure, you can mock that person who begins every new thought with “At the end of the day,” but you'll hear yourself bewailing the tiny print in menus that same evening. Whatever personality quirk you sneer at most vehemently with your friends has just inserted itself into your DNA, waiting until the most public and least-opportune moment to express itself. We are all someone else’s punch line waiting to happen. Karma dictates we must be kind to others, especially if we hold out any hope for our own weaknesses.

I, of the toothless Sternly Worded Letter, stared at my daughter trying to think of something illuminating. “I’m sorry," I finally said slowly. "But I didn’t like what they were telling you. Being snotty isn’t funny. Making out with strangers when you’re thirteen isn’t okay. And I will not let people into my house who tell you that.”

She scowled and raced to her room. I thought about following after her and telling her how much I loved her and how desperately hard I would work to keep her safe until she was old enough to make reasoned decisions for herself, but I wasn’t sure she’d be able to hear me over my blinding unfairness for at least a decade.

In the meanwhile, I had letters to write.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Creative Process.

Oh how I hate my manuscript right now. Don’t worry, those exceptionally kind people who have pre-ordered the book from Amazon, I have every faith the final book won’t make me want to go after it with a carving knife. But the stage we’re in right now is ripe for metaphor; it’s the transition stage of labor, it’s your eighth-grade school picture, it’s 85% of your Internet dating experiences. It’s that ugly and awkward. Right now, splayed obscenely all over my kitchen table, is my manuscript. It has been to the copy editor and it is filled with red marks, all of which I have to consider. Did I mean to use the word “Clearly” that often? I didn’t realize I had but now that you’ve circled each and every one, I’ll find a synonym or two. Did anyone teach you grammar? Copy Editor, it’s a valid question, but you have to understand that I went to elementary school in the seventies when grammar was deemed to interfere with self-esteem. I do have an old copy of “Free to Be You and Me,” if that helps. What’s with all the italics? They make me feel warm. And so I sit, hunched over my manuscript, fixing, endlessly being reminded of my cavalier attitude towards comma placement.

But I’d spend all eternity making my manuscript readable in English if I could just avoid the content notes. My editor got the copy-edited manuscript the same day that I did and must have thought “Gracious, this book is being filed under ‘Comedy’ and yet it has all the buoyancy of a matzo ball. Must…give…book-saving…notes…”

So drizzled across my table-spread manuscript are the emails I’ve gotten from my editor over the last few days with such terrifying and open-ended comments like “I think this could be funnier” and “Find the guffaw here. I know there is one” and “Is this what you meant to say?” Who wouldn’t love someone so eager to help them find their personal best? Me. I stare at a note about how I should make a paragraph funnier and I actually start to pass out, the tunneled vision seeing on the words “Funny” and “Could be better”. Yes, it could be funnier, we’re all in agreement about that, but let’s stop to consider something. I’ve been writing this book for over a year; I’ve been writing this blog for over four years; I’ve been leading this life for over forty years. If I’ve put in up to four decades considering the humorous potential of some aspect of my life and have yet to find it, perhaps we need to look into outsourcing. There must be someone in Mumbai who can come up with a quirky yet wise spin on my person struggles.

In the meanwhile, I am going back to work. Not for me the soothing aloe of a blog, a thousand words or so on how I feel about toast and naps and we're done without rumination. Instead, I will spend the rest of the week constructing a sentence here, a digression there, mining the bit of funny that I hopefully have left to seed throughout the book. And then I will eat toast and have a nap.

Monday, January 05, 2009

You Say You Want a Revolution.

I have never done a movie review here but it’s time -- mostly because the only other thing I want to write about is how I'm the only person I know who loves fruitcake (No thanks, I don’t want the one you’ve been using to keep the shed door closed. When it comes to fruitcake, I have standards).

So, with only three digressions, I now present my review of “Revolutionary Road.”

Digression #1: If I may brag a bit, Consort and I are pretty great at handling stress together. Instinctively, we trade off who gets to be the Sane One and who gets to be the Other One. Unfortunately, on Christmas Eve day we both opted to be the Other One. This might have had something to do with the fifteen errands which suddenly ballooned from “Niggling” to “Mandatory”. Or it might have been the keyed-up child buzzing around the house, ramping up the keyed-up dog, both of them running into an adult or a breakable object every nine minutes. Most likely, it was that we were going to the Christmas Eve service in which Daughter's friends were in the pageant. Owing to the popularity of the pageant-service, we knew we had to be in a pew no later than a half-hour before the service.

Sadly, on Christmas Eve my house entered a worm-hole and came back out the other side having lost two hours. At the moment we should have been sitting down in church I was standing in my house grabbing random members of the family and shrieking “Have NONE of you showered?” Consort, surprisingly, found this a less than embracing environment and started snapping at me. I snapped back. I was aggressive and he was defensive, and then we tried it the other way, which was also fun. Daughter, sensing the parents weren’t on their game and might be divided, angled to open a present right then; we briefly reconfigured as a single unit to shut that idea down. We squabbled all the way to church, mostly in two words sentences on his part and operatic sighing on mine. Once we finally arrived, we ended sitting in an area I think the church elders traditionally refer to as “The broom closet”. But we did see her friends perform adorably and by the time the pageant was over, good humor had been restored and the spirit of the season was upon us all again. I still want everyone to know that I was right, though.

Digression #2: On Christmas eve, the playwright Harold Pinter died. In case you lead a life with few playwrights in it, know that he was probably the most influential writer of his generation. I don’t suggest just picking up a play of his, though, and expecting to shout “Yes! That’s some fine and highly influential playwriting!” because you won’t. His dialogue consists of small bits of information cushioned by pillows of pauses and silences. The more consequential the characters' discussion, the shorter the sentences become and the more carefully noted the pauses. Directed badly, it’s like being forced to listen to someone else’s tax audit. Directed correctly, it’s riveting; the layers of what isn’t being said choking in the characters' throats, invisible to all but the audience.

Digression #3: There’s an acting exercise wherein the actor does a scene but, instead of saying the dialogue as written, he verbalizes what his character wants and what is stopping him from achieving these goals. After you do the scene in this manner you go back to the dialogue which might be about something else entirely, but the words are now infused with the underlying motivation. “Can I have a slice of your pizza?” should sound different if your character is delirious with desire than if she just found out the other person had bankrupted her company. The malocclusion between the small talk and the big wishes of the character make things far more interesting.

Christmas night, after Daughter finally collapsed from glee, Consort and I sat down to watch Revolutionary Road.” Within minutes, the husband and wife were in a car having a fight. Consort and I, having some experience with this, watched with a practiced eye. At the end of the scene, Consort said “This scene should have been three sentences.” I agreed. If you've been together for years, you fight in shorthand. We’re supposed to understand they’ve been unhappy for a while, so we know this couple would go from zero to sixty, argumentatively, in less than five seconds. Instead, we had a lot of “We live here, I feel this, I am this kind of person who wants this in life.” This was the fight of two people who barely knew one another and had been through copious therapy; which is to say, not these two people. But I felt generous and was still digesting fruitcake, so I decided to stay with the movie for a while. Maybe the scene was an aberration.

But it wasn’t. The entire movie was an endless litany of the underlying motivations and fears of this couple, played ably by Kate Winslett and Leonardo DiCaprio who could have done so much more with so much less. The writer gave the audience no credit for being able to read between the lines, choosing instead to fill that space between the lines with lots and lots of words. Heartbreak, betrayal and grief do better as “Show” than as “Tell” and both actors were more than up to the task. A few Pinteresque pauses would have been so much more affecting than the PowerPoint presentation of suburban anomie we were forced to sit through.

In the end, both people were unhappy and I didn’t care. I knew too much and had learned nothing at all. I just wanted quiet. I prodded Consort, who had fallen asleep to get away from them. “Is it over?” he asked, stretching. I nodded, and removed the cat from my lap and stood up. Looking down at Consort on the couch I was filled with a flood of thoughts, mostly about how grateful I was for him and how he ignores my more virulent moods. What a good person he was. How happy I was that we weren’t making each other miserable in the suburbs. I toyed with telling him all of that but decided I could cover the whole topic with an affectionate pause and “You go to bed. I’ll get your Benadryl.”