Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Wanna Be Startin' Something


Imagine confetti just rained down on you and there is an open bar.

It will go like this: for the next three weeks, I'll answer a question from a reader every day. If I answer your question and you have a blog, you can publish it over there and, of course, I'll link to it. I'll try to choose questions which would be interesting to the widest audience and this is why I picked the following question...

[Although the first question HAD to be from Sara J. Henry, as she gave me the idea for the first blog book tour three years ago, and it ended up being the best publicity the book got. Actually, it ended up being pretty much the only publicity my first book got. I'd talk about publishing my first book, but I try very hard to work clean.]

Now, does everyone have a drink? Are the cater-waiters handing around bruschetta? Excellent. Let's begin!

Sara asks:

What was the single most surprising (shocking, depressing, inspiring) thing you learned about homeschooling-and the same for conventional schooling?

I won't go all the way to depressing, but it's deflating to realize how much of one's personality is hard-wired. In school, I barely had a metabolic rate, academically. In 7th grade, I had a well-meaning Spanish teacher who said we could move at our own speed; I spent the entire year reviewing the first chapter.

I knew that first chapter very, very well.

Ask me about Juan's pelo negro and gato blanco.

Because I was smart enough to float along with the current, I cheerfully did so until the academic waters got rougher, at which point I flailed a bit and then drowned. This was no one's fault but mine. My family and my teachers had given me nothing but opportunities to be a person who gets a wonderful education, and I threw it all away.

Eventually -- well, after I was finished with any formal education but long after it could have done me any good -- I discovered that I do, in fact, like to learn. I CAN study hard. I CAN actually get work done before the night before it's due. Imagine how much nicer of a house I'd be living in if I figured this out when it could have helped my paycheck. When Alice came along, I swore she'd be a better student than I was. Having read Po Bronson's book,  Nurtureshock, her father and I never praised her intelligence but, instead, her hard work. We told her doing extra credit projects were fun. Thinking it's easier to model behavior if you're immersed in it, she took extracurricular classes with groups of kids who will never know what a B looks like on their report card. She saw me write and publish a book which, while not steam-fitting, meant I was showing her that anything worth doing is going to take time, and effort, and sometimes looks like window-shopping the J. Crew website.

Still, by 4th grade, my daughter was riding the academic currents as easily and passively as a leaf on a river. What she could do without effort, she did and professed to love. What didn't come to her in a second, she decided she hated. One thing she did differently than I did was not catch my allergy to authority figures. I had to make sure they knew I had no respect for them, at which point they'd send me to have a chat with the vice-principal. Alice's tactic with authority figures was different. When challenged, she'd look sweet, cry, and be allowed to go read to calm down a bit which means, of course, that my daughter is smarter than I am. But I feared she was well on her way to an adulthood where she'd look back and wish she had learned something beyond the ability to cry on cue.

By the second day of homeschooling, I was aghast to discover she had no compunction about crying and feigning ignorance with me as well. That's the other daunting thing I learned about homeschooling: sometimes the problem -- like a smelly, flea-ridden dog -- follows you home. The student at the kitchen table isn't that different from the student in the classroom. We've been homeschooling for three years now and while I'm very proud of how hard she works, we're still struggling to make sure Alice can look at any work she does and  honestly say she couldn't have done it better.  Then again, we're still working on my nervous, negative inner Eeyore and Consort's vein-popping rage at incompetent drivers. Why should Alice have all the fun?


[If you'd like a question answered, please write it as a comment on the blog. I won't post it as a message but I will add it to the contenders.]

Friday, July 27, 2012

Quinn Cummings Blog Book Tour 2012

Yes, I know I owe you the end of the story (the trip home involved WEATHER and CONSORT LOOKING DETERMINED and WATERBURY CT), but I suddenly realized time was slipping away to set up the Quinn Cummings Blog Book Tour 2012.

It goes like this; on Tuesday of next week, we'll be one week away from my new book, The Year of Learning Dangerously, arriving in stores. So, starting Tuesday, I'll answer one question a day from a reader for 21 days. Ideally, it will be someone with a blog, who will put the question and answer up on their blog, but not everyone blogs, so if you're a reader but not a writer, your answer will go on here. In fact, apparently fewer people are blogging, or reading blogs, than the last time I did this;  I should send you a muffin basket for even BEING here right now, but I'm a writer and my name isn't Stephen King or James Patterson of that shades of something lady. Best to stick to smaller gestures, like a blog-book tour. I'll try to pick questions I believe are the most entertaining and/or revealing, but it's safe to say the answers might involve my toast, my pets, or my untreated concussions.

Here's how to do this; write a question in as a comment on this blog. I won't print it, but will use that as the place where I start collecting questions.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Vacation, Had to Get Away

[Before I begin, let me commend those people who noticed in the last blog how Daughter was now Alice. You are far more observant than I am, because I didn't notice that before I clicked "Publish." On the other hand, I've been meaning to sync the books and the blog for a while and maybe this was my subconscious way of getting around to it. Hereafter, Daughter is Alice, which is no more her name than Daughter is. It is her nom de livre. Or nom de blog, as the case may be. Consort will remain Consort, because it pleases me to do so.]

Hi, I'm back! I mean, literally back. The family and I took a trip to the east coast for fifteen days. We had two days in Westchester county with Consort's family for July 4th festivities; six days in New York City; three days at a lakefront cabin in Connecticut and two days outside of Boston; with two days for travelling and semi-professional shoe-removal and personal-space invading included for padding.

We had an unqualified blast. Consort's family is of Italian ancestry, which means I now understand that a nine foot-long table crammed with food is, in fact, just the appetizers. The night of the 4th, there was pouring rain, thunder, lighting, marginally-legal fireworks being set off by the kids in the house across the street and Consort's cousin, the retired detective, playing patriotic songs on his bagpipes. The finest bagpipe player in New York - the man who played at the funerals of scores of firefighters and officers after 9/11- is 100% Italian-American, born in the Bronx. I listened to the music, barely hearing it over the storm and the fireworks, as I chewed on the sixth course of the second meal of the afternoon. If our trip had stopped there, it would have qualified as a perfect vacation.

Then we landed in New York City, pet-sitting for a friend whose apartment overlooks the Hudson River. When I say "overlooks," I don't mean the usual New York real estate agent version of overlooks, which means "If you squeeze your body through the vent over the shower and cling to the outside wall like a gecko and extend a make-up mirror to the corner, on the right day you can see a bit of the river between the buildings." I mean this...

And this was the inside...
We had gotten the Brigadoon of house-sitting: a spacious, gorgeous, air-conditioned Manhattan apartment complete with the most perfect accessories ever.

May I present the accessories. Bruiser, in my laundry bag:

 And this is Edna, taking over the bottom third of the bed and encouraging me to sleep in a position which resembled a boiled shrimp.


It was a perfect NYC trip with wonderful adventures and wonderful people (and perfect cats) but it will be a long time before I wax rhapsodic about the weather. It hovered near a hundred degrees most of the time. We took subways everywhere, both to save time and money and to keep the kid from romanticizing the city too much. The hottest day, we took a subway from Washington Heights to Brooklyn, which should have been a long, air-conditioned respite were it not for the fact that the trains are air-conditioned but the stations are not and the stop before ours was apparently Neptune. The F train took an hour to arrive. The platform was about a hundred and ten degrees but it was a dry heat...no, wait.  It was like standing in a damp towel. An oppressively warm, damp, urine-scented towel. On the Staten Island ferry, we heard someone standing behind us loudly admit to a murder but, as she carefully pointed out several times, "Bitch shouldn't have been (sexually congressing) my man."

Yes, I believe that exception was noted in the Supreme Court case Doe v. Ho.

On Candlewood Lake, Alice got to drive a speedboat. She showed a certain aptitude. She noted this to us several times and suggested this meant she could probably drive the car. We all got to kayak. I showed a certain aptitude for going purposefully in all random directions except for the direction I wanted to go. A swan picked a fight with our host's boat, which is exactly the sort of behavior I associate with swans. I sprayed everyone with sunblock, constantly. When I wasn't spraying them with sunblock, I was suggesting a quick yet thorough tick-check. Deer ticks are what an obsessive pessimist would dream up while dozing in the subway station waiting for the Brooklyn train to arrive; they are smaller than freckles, easily missed, hide in hairlines, and cause a disease with all sorts of nebulous symptoms which can be misdiagnosed for months and can lead to permanent neurological damage. But what about the iconic bullseye mark, the one Lyme disease sufferers get and lets the world know you need three weeks of antibiotics, you might ask? Turns out, about 20% of victims never get that. You could be getting sick right now and you might never know. Fixate on that sitting by the pier for a while and I promise you that you'll feel someone very small striding aimlessly up your calf, or in your eyebrow, or spelunking in your armpit. 

Virtually no one was excited about my idea of putting away the kayaks and settling in for an afternoon with a magnifying glass, a powerful flashlight and a tweezers. It saddens me when my family tosses away bonding experiences so recklessly.

Next time: I wind this up and get us home. It's less orderly than it sounds.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Tell Me, Who Do You Think is Out There

This sounds slightly different than Usual Quinn, but it was meant to go somewhere else. Now it's here, because recyling isn't just for pasta-sauce jars.

Some people paint. Some people create sand mandalas. I worry and then I nag. I won’t say I nag excessively but my daughter once staved off homesickness at a sleepover by imagining my nagging her to brush her teeth.

“It was almost like having you there,” Alice explained as she unpacked her bag the next day. I countered with reminding her that the wet beach towel didn’t belong on the floor, as it’s unsightly and could lead to mold.

Why do I nag? I nag because I love. Of course, many people love their children as much as I love mine and not every one of them has a lecture called “Please don’t share hairbrushes with friends unless you enjoy the lice-removal process” waiting in the wings. Maybe I nag because she’s twelve and I have, at most, five years to get her into the habit of taking care of herself, and of viewing her body and her life as being precious and worthy of maintenance. Maybe I nag because my father died suddenly when I was nine and there’s a small, insistent voice in my head constantly murmuring,” If you died tonight, would your daughter remember to floss tomorrow? Who would remind her that the bacteria between teeth has been linked to heart attacks? Would anyone check the filters in the dryer or would they just wait for the laundry-room to burst into a lint-fueled inferno?”

Mostly, I nag because I possess all the joie de vivre of a FEMA first-responder and I know that bad things happen. They happen without warning. Often, they happen to somebody’s child. If I alert my daughter to every single thing which might possibly wish her ill, I can delude myself into thinking she’s inoculated against bad fate. Otherwise, I’m going to have to be restrained from inserting a tracking device in her sternum. As it is, I’m going to be that parent who e-mails articles to her grown children about how beach-towel mold might lead to brain tumors. No such articles exist but it’s the type of thing I fixate on. I’ve apologized in advance to Alice for this.
Recently, Alice and I were racing out the door to day-camp. There are fifteen things which need to be done before we leave in the morning and we never get more than thirteen done, leaving two for the car. That day, it was sunblock and breakfast. She suggested pizza squares. She always suggests pizza squares. Remembering the pediatrician’s recent suggestion to increase her calcium, I handed her yoghurt instead. As we raced off, I could see her in the rearview mirror prodding moodily at the cup.

“I hate yoghurt,” she grumped. “Why do I have to eat it?”
“If you don’t, you’ll get sunburned.”

We both waited a long beat to see if that started to make sense. It didn’t. Playing it back, I realized this was the part of the journey where she typically complains about the sunblock, so I had run the usual nagging response for sunblock. My parenting was now so predictable I had nags specific to certain freeway exits. This struck me as hilarious. My anxieties seemed so completely absurd. My child was saner than her mother and nearly everything I’d ever worried about hadn’t come to pass. For one strange moment, my inner FEMA official gave way to Zorba the Greek. Life is brief, and a gift, and catastrophizing probably wasn’t going to make it longer or better.

I have a friend whose first daughter fought, and beat, cancer before she was three and whose fourth child was born with multiple health issues. If these had been my kids, I’d have tried to stuff them in my mouth for safekeeping, as certain kinds of fish do. My friend has a different impulse. She simply shrugs and says, “Today was a good day, and that’s what I have.” My worries and nags jangled on, but my friend’s words kept percolating up and that day in the car, I finally admitted she was right. It’s exhausting and terrifying to believe you can make everything right. It’s just as terrifying but far less taxing to suspect you probably can’t change a damn thing.

Back in the car, I agreed I wouldn’t get that particular kind of yoghurt again if Alice agreed to eat a few spoonfuls. Without prompting, she dabbed sunblock to her nose, cheeks and ears. I’d have preferred more of a spackle coat but held my tongue. Maybe the lesson would be more durable if she had a pink itchy nose all week. At the camp, she flung herself from the car, kind of looked both ways as she trotted through the herd of minivans, and raced through the camp gates, beyond which I couldn’t see her any more.