Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Room and Bored

As always when I am in the car, I was listening to a podcast. This one happened to be an NPR magazine-format show called Weekend America, and the segment was one of those “No, duh” pieces about how being a parent is harder once the kids get out of school for the summer. This piece is the flair-for-the-obvious fraternal twin of the segment they will do in December about how hard parents are working to find the hot toy of the year for the holidays.

Anyway, they were interviewing this couple who were listing the classes and camps they had lined up for her pre-teen sons for this summer. To his credit, the father said at one point, “You know, we’ve become those over-scheduling parents”, which is admirably self-aware of him, and the mother did say she kind of wish summer didn’t have to be like this. And then she said, “But I don’t want them to be bored!”

This woman isn’t alone in this fear. For many parents, boredom has gone from being a temporary feeling your child might have, which is quickly alleviated by threatening them with chores, to something on a par with radiation poisoning:

They’re BORED! Dear God, fix it before it does permanent damage!

They’re BORED! Brain cells are dying all over the place!

They’re BORED! Decontaminate them as best as you can before the UC college system hears of this!

The funny part of it was, this same mother had just recited the painfully hackneyed Baby Boomer monologue, When I was their age, I would go out for the day on my bike, my mother would never know where I was, and I would come home for dinner, but they can’t have that.

Let’s disregard whether childhood has gotten less safe, or is now just perceived as less safe, thanks to 24-hour news channels which need you anxious enough about the latest child abduction so that you’ll stay tuned through the commercials; like I said, let’s disregard that. If she truly believes her children can’t have freedom outdoors, and she truly believes that helped shape the person she is now, wouldn’t it behoove her to give them some serious freedom inside their own heads?

A brief digression which will make sense in the long run, I hope. There has been some pretty conclusive evidence that the children who have been raised in highly clean, antiseptic environments are having greater problems with allergies and asthma than kids raised with pets and a certain laissez-faire attitude towards cleanliness. It turns out that our immune systems might need things to react to, and learn from, or it doesn’t respond correctly to normal stimulus.

Likewise, I believe small doses of boredom throughout childhood teach a person how to create an inner life. If your entire day, or week, or month, or year is planned out, your boredom immune system will never have the chance to develop a normal response. Sometimes you have to get bored, and then really bored, and then lie-on-the-floor-and-count-the-paisley-squiggles-on-your-bedspread bored before inspiration strikes. What is the brain deprived of if it doesn’t get that opportunity?

A childhood of nothing but enrichment and structure might create an excellent cubicle jockey, capable of following orders resentfully but correctly, but I don’t think it will create a visionary or a leader. Even if a parent reading this doesn’t see much job security for their kid in the “Visionary” sector, consider this; learning how to find your own way out of boredom without outside help takes practice. Would you like them to learn it as small children or as adolescents, when the ways to eradicate boredom are plentiful and dangerous?

I am not without sin; I too have enriched to a fault. But I am a big believer in a bored child. This week, for example, I have cleared the deck of everything until mid-afternoon each day. Yes, the first hour on Monday was like chewing in tinfoil, because Daughter believes I will get suckered into entertaining her if only she draws attention to herself often enough:

“Mommy, you should come and have a tea party with me.”

“No, sweetie, I have to work. If you want guests, invite the Polly Pockets.”

(Two minutes later)

“Mommy, please get down the tea set”

(Two minutes later)

“May I have water for the tea?”

“Of course, you know where it is.”

“But I want ice, please.”

(Quinn got ice)

(Two minutes later)

“I need cookies.”


“You need cookies…what?”

“I need cookies…for the tea party.”

(Two minutes were spent doing our version of “Who’s on First?” until Daughter remembered “Please”)

(Two minutes later)



“The tea party’s over. Are you done working so we can play Candyland?”

At this point, I dragged her into my lap. I looked deeply into her eyes.

“Listen to me carefully. There are people who don’t know how to entertain themselves. We are not those kinds of people. I have every faith that you will remember how to make your own fun. I will work on emails, and you will work on remembering. If you are spurting blood, come into the office and show me. Do not use the stove. Otherwise, I will see you in an hour.”

She huffed out, and I listened with half an ear to her stomping around the living room, flopping on the couch, sitting behind the armchair, listing my faults to anyone who might be interested. After a while, she banged into her room. I went back to cleaning up emails which required something more than a form response, and stopped listening to her. A few minutes later, I heard knock on the door.

“I need Popsicle sticks, Play-Doh, and three paper plates, please.”

It was said civilly enough. I retrieved the objects from the craft drawer. She took them with a soft “Thanks” and headed back to her room.

When I was finally caught up, I looked at the computer clock; nearly an hour had passed. I went to her room and knocked on the door.

“Come in.”

Daughter was at her desk, the objects she requested strewn around her. She was frowning.

“How’s it going?”

“It’s not doing what I want it to do.”

“Do you want some help?”

(No sane person would give Daughter unsolicited advice twice.)

“No. Just please go away. I’m working.”

I accidentally tripped over her trashcan on the way out of her room, making a fair amount of noise as I did so. Daughter never looked up from the paper plate she was cutting.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Deficit of Attention.

I just want you to know why nothing gets accomplished in my house.

Tonight, I walked into our bedroom, and noticed that the lid to the laundry basket was perched jauntily askew on a pile of laundry which rose easily six inches over the top of the basket. Had the basket been French, and the lid been a beret, it would have been terribly chic.

“Well,” I thought astutely, “I might want to do laundry”.

I dragged the basket to the laundry room, holding the lid in place with my chin, neatly avoiding the dog that, sensing I was attempting to do something, became anxious and tried to knock me over so she could sit in my lap and talk about her feelings and the cat who is under the mistaken impression that if she causes me to break my neck, she gets the full inheritance.

I got to the laundry room, opened the washer lid and discovered wet laundry. I then dimly recalled starting a load of sheets and towels last night.

No problem, I thought stoutly. They weren’t left in the washing machine for several days, leading to a weird smell (I’m not saying that’s ever happened); they will go in the dryer or on the drying rack, and I’ll start another load of laundry.

I opened the dryer. I stared at the pile of laundry in there, waiting to go into the folding basket. I looked over at the drying rack, and noted that it was full. I then glanced at the folding basket; it too was full.

Someone please explain to me how three people of average wardrobe size generate the laundry of a college dorm.

But, sadly, I couldn’t focus on that, because I had to take the laundry from the dryer and put it in the folding basket. I had to put the laundry from the drying rack, and put in the folding basket. I now had enough clothing piled in the folding basket that I could conceivably hike it for training for Mount Whitney.

Having created space, I was able to put the air-dry things on the drying rack, and the machine-dry things in the dryer.

I then stared around, pleased but a little confused. I had cleaned out the dryer, I had hung things up to dry, this was all good, but didn’t I come in here for another purpose? Mercifully, the dirty laundry drew attention to itself by suddenly slumping sideways against me, knocking me off balance.

The washing machine dutifully chugging away, the smell of Shout strong in the air, I contemplated Mount Laundry. I had, easily, forty-five minutes of folding and sorting to do. The only painless way to do this would be to watch TV at the same time. Ah, yes. My rented DVD of “Deadwood” -- Timothy Olyphant might possibly be the only antidote to “Where the hell is the other khaki sock?”

I dragged the folding basket into the living room, setting it on the couch. As I did that, I came across a letter which must have slid out of my hands as I came in with the mail this afternoon. It was from the Humane Society, asking for money. I have given them all I can this year, but the letter reminded me that I wanted to get certified to be an animal rescue worker. After New Orleans, a couple of rescue groups started training for people to be able to go into disaster situations and help locate, triage and house domesticated animals in the same way the Red Cross does for people.

I looked at the letter. Had I actually signed up for training, or did I just think I had signed up? I left the living room, went into the office, got online, and froze. What was the name of that organization again? I scanned all emails which might have something to do with animals; when you’re me, that’s a half-hour right there. I finally found, only to discover they didn’t have any nearby training planned for right now. I made on the note on Outlook to check their website in the beginning of August, answered a few emails, and then sat there for a moment.

Wasn’t I doing something?

Oh, right. Laundry.

I went back into the living room, and tried to locate the “Deadwood” Netflix envelope. Hurrah, the envelope! Oh, it’s not “Deadwood”, it’s “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse”. Paul Reubens is a fine actor but I needed lanky and tortured by moral uncertainty, not a red bow tie and a way with the phrase “I know you are, but what am I?”

I continued my search, which produced a hairbrush I returned to the bathroom, an overdue library book I took to the car, and a small bag of cat toys I deposited in the laundry room, next to the litter box. By now, nearly two hours had passed since I first walked into the bedroom.

While I was in the laundry room, I moved the by-now washed clothing into the dryer, and I took the finished clothing in the dryer out. Holding it in my arms, I looked around. Where was the folding basket?


Methodically, I walked to the living room. I noted, but did nothing about, the pile of today’s paper on the kitchen table. I passed a blinking answering machine light without a pause. I walked to the couch, and dumped the dried but unfolded clothing on top of the last three weeks worth of same. I then dragged the entire thing back to the laundry room.

I got the clothing out of the wash. That’s really all anyone should expect of me.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

She was just Seventeen, you know what I mean.

Was it really so long ago that fashion magazines were fun sources of inspiration to me (Not to mention endless sources of perfume strips to slip under the driver’s seat to push out the smell of dog)?

I’m not saying I would page through Vogue, see an especially stylish Helmut Lang suit and call my personal shopper at Barney’s. But I would look through the editorial section and think “…Hmm, I should try my riding boots with my knee-length skirt, see how it looks…” or “…Aubergine! I should try aubergine lip gloss! No, wait. Aubergine is purple. But I could wear that color on my toes…” , or “….Carolina Herrera is right. There really is nothing prettier than a clean, crisp white shirt. Pity I get pizza stains on my clothing even when I haven’t eaten pizza in three weeks…”.

In short, fashion magazines inspired me. They amused me. My relationship with Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Elle was shallow, but affectionate; it was the same relationship you want to have with your hairdresser.

Trying to recall where this relationship began, I would have to point a vaguely embarrassed finger at Seventeen Magazine. I adored Seventeen. Towards the end of every month, the twelve and thirteen year-old Quinn would start to twitch; the new issue of Seventeen was somewhere out there.

Would it come today? No!

Would it come today? No!

It’s on the newsstands, but I must not open it, because I will find one in my mailbox today…? NO!

(Looking back, it’s possible I needed a hobby)

And then, when I could bear it no longer, it would arrive! Seventeen Magazine, cheerfully promising me dating tips, lip gloss secrets, hints for highlighting your hair at home. It mattered not that I wasn’t allowed to date until sixteen (not a big loss: the boys I knew spent every Saturday at someone’s bar mitzvah party doing obscene things with napkin swans), and wasn’t allowed to wear lip gloss or color my hair.

What mattered was, this was my future! Within four years, I would be seventeen, and the magazine had promised me that I would be one of those cover models with the straight shiny hair tumbling down my effortlessly thin back, skin like Egyptian cotton and teeth which veritably screamed “I had an extremely competent orthodontist, but I haven’t had to see him in two years. I eat taffy all the time now!”

The future was so bright, I had to wear shades and, thanks to Seventeen, I knew exactly what shape I should wear for my face, if only I could settle on what shaped face I had (hexagon was never offered as an option).

If I had to pick a favorite magazine month, though, it has to be September. All the way back to Seventeen, that was the issue around which you could structure a weekend. First of all, it was so hefty, which gives a person that satisfying feeling of having gotten some bang (or, “How to cut your own bangs”) for the buck. Also, for me, fall clothing is so much more attractive.

As an adult, I have finally made my peace with the idea that if I am very good and virtuous in this life, perhaps next time I will come back and be able to wear shorts without worrying that my legs are being confused for wee little marble Doric columns. But, as a child, I still had hope, and for several summers, I attempted to tan.

I attempted even though all that ever happened was that I would end up with red stripes on the tops of my calves and thighs, and a really itchy sand flea bite someplace too personal to scratch in public.

By the end of August, I would be lying in our backyard, poking at my milky thigh and gloomily deciding that not only had I not tanned, I had actually paled since June, when lo and behold, I would hear the sound of Remembrance of Things Past being dropped in our mailbox and I would think, Seventeen! Fall fashions! I would peel myself off the lounge chair and head towards my destiny.

And what a fall it would be. I would stare enraptured at the pictures of shiny, smiling girls walking around unnamed East Coast colleges in corduroy pants, kicking multicolored leaves with penny-loafered feet as smiling, shiny boys looked on approvingly. “That’s just like ME!” I would think happily, ignoring how I lived in a city where the summer doesn’t really break until October; how I went to a school where Dolphin shorts and Dr. Scholls were the mark of the true society dame; how corduroy pants make me look like an upright carpet roll.

The strange thing is that I loved Seventeen even though, to the best of my recollection, I never found a single wearable outfit for me in there; I seem to remember instructions for how to make yourself a top out of a pillowcase, a look that even I understood would make me appear insane. It was hope with an address label, and some part of my instinctively understood, Don’t poke hope too hard.

But long before I actually was seventeen, I moved beyond Seventeen to Mademoiselle, a brief flirtation with Jane, and into a long-term relationship with Elle, and with each I was illogically happy. I knew I wasn’t gorgeous, tall, or underfed, or the child of a famous person (which would have magically rendered me all of the above) but I was optimistic.

This time, purple mascara the magazine said would bring out my green eyes wasn’t going to make me look as if I had conjunctivitis.

This time, a charcoal gray sweater would make me look moody like the model they situated posing prettily over an espresso in a café in Paris, instead of making me look as if I had sold half my blood to buy heroin.

This time, a calf-length skirt wouldn’t make me look a fat Amish woman!

With each public misstep, I would develop a little more cynicism towards my friends the fashion and beauty editors.

Maybe, just maybe, a group of people who do an editorial piece on what to wear on Valentino’s yacht might not have my lifestyle in mind.

Maybe I should note the fifteen-page spread that Yves Saint Laurent’s make-up company has bought in the magazine before I believe the beauty editor’s assertion that I need their green lipstick and yellow blush.

Maybe I need to have read about the musings of Lindsay Lohan’s stylist for the last freaking time. It’s possible that if I read about one more daughter of a media titan who has created a jewelry line she’s selling “To a few dear friends”, I might become a Communist.

Do I still buy magazines? Sure. Not often, but sometimes I just need the laughs. I sit cross-legged on the bed and have whole conversations with myself.

(It’s possible I still need a hobby)

“…Leggings; because they were so flattering the first time around? And they’re showing them with a cropped jacket, which is over a long cowl-necked sweater and ankle-high booties. Apparently, the look for fall is Bank Teller, circa 1983.”

“…Evening…shorts? With heels? Not unless I plan to earn the money to pay for dinner in the alley behind the restaurant.”

“Well, now. A mouse-colored Empire-waist dress with a bubble skirt; because what woman doesn’t want to look unwell, flat-chested and hippy? And those cunning vixens, they put black opaque tights and white shiny pumps with it. Is this some sort of cry for attention? Did readers not send enough mail when dresses were flattering…?”

I just noticed something. For under five dollars, I am happy for an entire evening. And the car still smells pleasantly of Marc Jacobs Rain, and not Slightly Incontinent Dog.

I’m in love again.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Big Daddy.

(This is a re-run, but it ran in the first six months of my doing the blog, so not everyone has gotten a chance to see it. And I really want you to meet my father.)

In keeping with today's holiday, I want to introduce you to my father. His name was Sumner, which I include not because I called him by his first name -- I called him Papa -- but because I think it’s a cool name: unusual without being precious or bizarre. If any of you are pregnant and thinking about giving the world yet another Jack or Ethan, I humbly suggest another option.

The house in which I grew up was perched on a narrow winding road in the Hollywood Hills. It had a porch which ran the length of the three bedrooms on the top floor which, because of the nature of hillside architecture, was four stories above the street below. On airless summer nights, I would sleep out there on the chaise enjoying the random cool breeze that meandered up from the ocean a dozen miles to the west.One morning, just as the sky was pinking up, I awoke to the sound of a voice. It was Papa’s voice. He was in the middle bedroom, which my parents used as an office, and he was making a business call to somewhere in Europe. I lay perfectly still, watching him through the French doors, and I remember feeling completely secure.

The city below spread out huge and daunting in every direction, the world beyond it was even more immeasurable to a girl my age, but when I woke up that morning, I could see my Papa, so everything was as it should be. The world was perfect and I was safe in it.

I doubt anyone else would have looked at him and thought “This man can protect me”. He was short (sadly, I didn’t get any of my mother’s Northern European height genes) and slight. He had suffered through an adult case of a typically childhood illness, which triggered a life-threatening fever, which somehow caused most of his hair to fall out, of which very little came back. This wasn’t a dad you would see modeling a kayak in the L.L. Bean catalogue.But short men can do heroic things, and members of the Cummings family can do heroic things in offbeat ways.

Papa graduated from Cornell with a double major of Classics and Astronomy -- apparently, during the late 1930’s, there was a thriving job market for people who could point out Polaris while reciting The Iliad.

When Pearl Harbor happened, the flying inventory of the United States Air Force was almost entirely comprised of aircraft left over from World War I. These were little more than winged, canvas-covered crates and lacked even the most rudimentary navigational technology of the day. The war effort began frantically manufacturing modern planes but that didn’t help the fearless airmen who, in those dreadful early days of the war, took to the skies over a smoldering Europe or the vast and hostile Pacific. What did help these heroic men was a small book an Air Force Lieutenant quickly wrote about how to navigate by the stars.That Lieutenant was my Papa.And he helped bring many of these men home.


He was terrifically funny, but in a weird, quiet way, which happens to be my favorite kind of funny. One night, as my mother was making dinner, the phone rang and Papa got it. I will give you both sides of the phone call, as Papa explained it to my mother that evening, who recounted it to me many years later.


“Yes, may I speak to Mrs.…Cumming please?”

(From the slightly askew pronunciation of his name, my father figures this is a telephone solicitation of some kind. He had a few minutes to kill while the chili cooked, so…)

“I’m so sorry. We lost her last week”

The telephone solicitor now has something much more interesting to do than call the next mark. Besides, Papa sounds unnervingly cheerful to be delivering this kind of news.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Uh, was it sudden?”


“If you don’t mind my asking, what happened?”

“We went to a Dodger game. She went to the bathroom and never came back.”

“You mean… you lost her as in you can’t find her?”

“That’s right. No idea whatsoever. I looked around for a while at the park, but it was getting late, so I decided to go home”

“You didn’t think to wait for her?”

“No. She knows where we live.”

That was my Papa.
Papa was already in his forties when I was born -- a far less common age for paternity than it is now. He had two sons from his first marriage who were twenty and twenty-two years older than I am. I can only imagine how he could not have forseen having another child at this stage of his life. But he fell for and married a woman who wanted a child, and here I am.

I’ve been told he had some ambivalence about starting a new family before I was born. I can see him being the kind of father who only gets interested when the kid starts talking in full sentences. [You’ll be shocked to know I started talking very early and very emphatically.] But by the time I remember him, I never doubted for a second that I was thoroughly adored right down to my toes.

In certain emotionally lean times of my life, I have drawn from that deep well of unconditional paternal love. I’m sure he would have been amused by all the nonsense surrounding “The Goodbye Girl”, but he couldn’t have loved me one iota more than when I was simply running around the house, making noise, chasing the dogs and generally being his nutty little kid.

My mother and I were in Manhattan for the final three weeks of shooting “The Goodbye Girl”. Papa, of course, had stayed home in L.A. to work. He had experienced something odd on the tennis court a few weeks earlier and worried it might have been a heart attack, but a quick trip to the ER had determined it wasn’t a heart attack. I was outraged when told about this at the time. “Do they think he made it up?” I groused. “Papa doesn’t lie!”

On the eve of the last day of shooting, Papa had a massive heart attack and died at the hospital. They reached my mother early the next morning and told her what had happened. Somehow, she held it together for the entire day so I could finish my last day of work in ignorance. She told me that night back at the hotel.

He was 57. He was in good health. He ate decently and exercised regularly. There was no history of heart trouble in the family. What he did do was worry. He had been promoted to President of a large manufacturing company the previous year and I still sometimes imagine him walking around with the entire factory and all its employees sitting on his shoulders. The man I saw from the sleeping porch making an overseas call at dawn was probably making a call to Japan late the night before. For years before he had the title of President, he had done the work and carried the stress of the job. A man probably best suited for the inner life of a scholar and writer had worried himself to death.

The board of directors of the company – a company for which he literally worked his heart out -- sent a sympathy note and hired a new president within two weeks. They had to. I understand. He was replaceable to them.

He was irreplaceable to me.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Your presence is present enough.

Before I begin today’s topic, you need to know something. One morning in the past week, I fed Daughter fruit pie for breakfast. My reasoning went like this:

1. It was the last week of school, during which Daughter’s presence was required at 643 graduation-related events

2. I could either remember to buy bread or I could remember to pick up a gift certificate for her teacher but, sadly, I couldn’t remember both and

3. Apples are fruit. Pie crust is a carbohydrate, I forced broccoli into her last night, and

4. Shut up.

In short, I am forced to admit I am a mother of the cutting-corners variety. Having admitted that, may I please discuss a variety of mother who simply must be lectured? Maybe not by me; maybe they should be lectured by someone who didn’t toy with the idea of adding a scoop of ice cream to breakfast pie (you know, for the calcium). But someone needs to talk to these women.

I am talking about the women who leave their children at after-school classes and/or athletic practices and then take off for parts unknown.

I have spent several years in the après-school trenches, all smelly hallways and broken chairs. I estimate that 20% of any given population of children in a dance class/gymnastics class/aikido class/soccer practice would answer the question Where is your parent? with a shrug or “She’ll be back later”. It would be one thing if these kids were in their teens, or even nearly in their teens, but these kids are sometimes no more than seven or eight years old. In one particular place Daughter takes classes, the bathroom the kids use is at the far end of a public hallway, accessible with very little effort by anyone else in the building. Call me a worrier but I’m not comfortable ending up as the woman interviewed on local news saying mournfully, “We always knew something would happen in there.”

I waffled about writing this for a while because I fear I have a “Let them eat organic croissants” thing going on here. I know there are parents who can only afford to pay for these classes by working full-time. I am aware that running Hiphugger means I am one of those lucky women who is available to her kid when her kids needs her, without having to run it by management. But the other two women I am closest to in those dingy hallways both work full-time and they are there with me, walking other people’s kids to the bathroom. Both of these women arranged to start work at six in the morning so they can be with their kids in the afternoon, which means I admire them without qualification and can never complain to either one about feeling tired.

I’m not suggesting every single mother needs to sit there video-taping each arabesque and scrimmage. I’m not even saying a mother has to be there; there are kids in Daughter’s class who are monitored by older siblings or grandparents. There are groups of kids who are brought by one mother and the responsibility traded-off between weeks. In short, I don’t care who watches out for these kids, but shouldn’t it concern the parents that no one might be?

I’ve asked the teachers and coaches about this practice. They roll their eyes and mumble the names of the most notably absent parents, but unless it’s a private gym with specific rules about parental involvement, they can’t force the parents to attend. The amazing and maddening thing is, when these kids get injured, the parents call the next day screaming about how “You were supposed to be taking care of them! Why weren’t you doing your job?”

Sometimes it isn’t about the parent’s professional workload. Sometimes, I think, in multiple-child families, it’s about the embarrassment of riches in terms of after-school programs here in Los Angeles, and a certain panic about keeping up with the parental Joneses. Do you want to be the parent who chooses to actually sit with one child and not get the other child to Fun with Fractions?

This past week (the same week I fed Daughter breakfast pie, let us not forget), one of the more defiant and exhausting children in one of Daughter’s classes came bouncing into the park. Following behind her was a small woman with a similar nose. I hazarded, “Is Emma your daughter?”

She smiled wearily, “Yes.”

Emma ran around the field, removing field cones and kicking balls into the hedges, something she did at nearly every practice. However, since her mother hadn’t been here for months, this behavior might have been news to her. I waited for her to say something. She watched Emma as one would watch a television show.

I ventured, “You know, they aren’t allowed to do that.”

Her mother watched for another thirty seconds or so and sighed.

“Emmy, baby, this woman says you can’t do that.”

Emma kicked two more balls into the hedge and ran off to interrupt someone else’s game. The mother turned to me.

“It’s sure hard to park around here, isn’t it?”

I restrained the urge to scream “I bet slowing down at the corner and letting your daughter tuck-and-roll out of the car is MUCH more convenient!” Instead, I mooed sympathetically.

Thus encouraged, Emma’s mother told me about her afternoon schedule. It seems she has three kids, and she has them all in after-school programs. She spends nearly every afternoon dropping them off and picking them up, but because of the overlapping nature of the classes, she never actually views any class. She just drives in circles. One of her kids was at camp this week, which meant she had the time to see Emma at practice.

I was just about to start feeling a certain measure of sympathy for her schedule, if nothing else, when she said, “…and now the principal says we really should start family counseling, because he says the kids are acting out at school to get attention, which I don’t get. I mean, look how I spend every afternoon. But the only time the counselor had available was five-thirty on Fridays, and that’s Bethany’s ice-skating lesson. I don’t know where we’re going to find the time…”

I watched Emma, under the guise of getting control of the ball, push a smaller boy into the dirt, and then glance quickly in our direction. I looked over at her mother. She had never taken her eyes off the side of my head as she was talking to me.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Climb Every Mountain

I want you to imagine a place about eleven miles from where you are right now. Imagine going there, eating a snack, and then coming back.

Okay, now how did you get there? Most of you probably imagined you took a car. If you live in a city with an adequate public transportation system, maybe you saw yourself in a subway, or on a bus. A few might have seen themselves getting there by bicycle. But did anyone imagine walking?


If not one single person reading this imagined getting there by walking, that’s okay, I understand. I walked twenty-two miles today and I still can’t exactly imagine it.

Mount Whitney is now less than ten weeks away and my friend and hiking partner Jill suggested we arrange one hike the same distance as the actual Whitney trek. Being as she is organized, she organized it. Being as I am lazy, I let her. It was to be a climb up one of the steeper canyons of a local wilderness area, and then a hike along the fire-road at the canyon’s crest. We would travel the length of two discrete cities, eat some lunch and come back; all told, a distance of twenty-two miles which is only about a mile short of the Whitney hike we plan to do in August. Jill estimated this would take about seven hours.

It says something about my new definition of “fun” that I woke up a half-hour early this morning because I was simply too excited to sleep. I dressed in layers, snapped on my stylish anti-tick socks (Thanks again, Lydia!) and spent an embarrassing amount of time dithering between Hiking Boots #1 and Hiking Boots #2 -- one pair is more comfortable, but the other pair has more ankle support. These are the kinds of internal debates I imagine Lindsay Lohan has all the time.

I went with ankle support.

The day was perfect for hiking, overcast with a fog dense enough to create a cooling mist. When you are scrabbling like a rat up a steep hill trying to stay on a path which keeps coyly morphing itself into The Arboretum of Itchy Plants, you don’t want to be fighting desert heat at the same time. We got to a rare interval of flatness and I, sighing in relief, took off at my usual insane pace.

At which point Jill called out, “Bees.”

An old hand by now, I pulled my non-red hoodie up over my head, jammed my hands into my pockets, and moved towards the middle of the path, away from the plants where the bees seemed to be hovering.

Julie, who was walking behind me and a little to the side suddenly yelled, “Quinn! Bees! Under your feet!”

I looked down and saw dozens of bees shooting up from holes in the ground. My now hovering foot was frozen mid-swarm. I hop-scotched over a few dozen buzzing little demons and made it to safe ground. Unlike the previous incident, I wasn’t frightened this time as much as puzzled. And, frankly, a little pissed. I am not completely ignorant -- if I see a hive in a tree, I give it wide berth. I know overhanging eaves frequently come with their own wasps’ nest. I know the rules.

But now it appeared that the entire species minimus stingyerassifous was branching out. It was no longer just roaming bands of nomadic bees or evil clusters of nest-swarming bees, we now had especially sadistic bees living in subterranean condos. What next?

“…I was standing in line at Starbucks when I noticed this huge worker bee in front of me, ordering. He got a latte. Extra milk…”

“…Last night, at the Ahmanson, I shared a box with a queen bee. She agreed with me that the Jerome Robbins piece was a bit overwrought...”

“…Correct me if I am mistaken, but wasn’t that a yellow-jacket teaching Spinning today?”

But it’s not just the stinging denizens of nature you want to watch out for when climbing neglected fire roads. It’s hot. And it’s the Western United States. So we’ve got diamondback rattlesnakes. The dog once stuck her nose into a clump of grass by the side of a trail and we all discovered that a medium-sized dog can live through a rattlesnake bite, so long as you are willing to throw unbelievable amounts of money at the problem. I’d rather throw the same amount of money at some decent clothes when this hiking crap is done. So, I kept my eyes peeled for ground bees and sleeping rattlesnakes.

And mountain lions.

Jill reminded me we were sufficiently far from civilization to be in a mountain lion’s foyer. But, they are terribly shy, and usually indifferent to human beings, so we were completely safe.

Unless they’re sick.

If a mountain lion is injured and incapable of feeding itself properly, or sick and disoriented, it has been known to attack humans. Los Angeles has, maybe, six mountain lions in the Verdugo and Santa Monica mountains. None of them are sick to the best of our knowledge. Then again, we really don’t know how many are up there, so it’s a fair bet that we haven’t taken all their temperatures or checked their most recent stool samples.

As we trudged onward, and I scanned for ground bees and sleeping rattlesnakes, I said to Jill, “Refresh my memory. If a mountain lion comes on the path, I stand completely still, wave my arms and make a big noise.”

Ever the naturalist, Jill said, “Right.”

“And,” I said, while trudging. “If the bees start to swarm, I stay silent, walk and don’t run, and make no extra movement with my body.”


I thought, sweated, and trudged.

“So, Jill, if we are attacked by a mountain lion and a swarm of bees at the same moment, we’re pretty much hosed.”

“Pretty much.”

Between scanning the ground in front of me for swarming bees, the plants alongside me for poised snakes and the hills for crouching lions, the hours just flew by.

The first three miles, all uphill, took less than an hour. The last two miles, which were virtually flat, took over an hour. Jill and I only spoke to share some new pain or to mention another beverage we were going to drink once we got home. Somewhere around hour six, my beverage fantasy vacillated between ice-cold Southern sweet tea and the classic blended margarita. At hour seven, I was convinced I could put both in a blender and create the hottest new drink in the bar scene. At hour eight, I was going to fill a bathtub with this recipe and lie in it with a snorkel.

Eight hours and twenty minutes after we started we arrived back at our cars. I stared fearfully at the driver’s seat -- I knew I could sit down but had no reason to believe I would be able to get back up again. When I arrived home, they’d have to cut the seat out of the car, attach wheels to the bottom, and insert a feeding tube so I could have my Sweet Tea-rita without embarrassing myself.

But, actually, it wasn’t all that awful. It took me no more than fifteen minutes to walk from the garage to the back door, a distance of about ten feet. In my defense, my right knee was no longer bending so dragging my leg behind me was throwing off my gait.

I got through the door. Consort and Daughter got to witness me attempting to untie my hiking boots with fingers as thick and numb as kielbasa before Consort kindly took over. Daughter dabbed a cool washcloth against my feet, which were steaming. Two toenails were already starting to bruise. It will be November before I don’t have a toenail in some form of decomposition.

Consort asked sympathetically, “So, how was it?”

I thought about it. I picked a spider out of my sleeve. I swallowed some dust along with the ice water kindly proffered by my kid.

I answered honestly, “Not bad.”

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Roar of the Greasepaint.

This one is dedicated to those people who live in the Los Angeles area, or who plan to be there on July 8th. Occidental College, in East Los Angeles, does terrific theater for kids, and that month will be doing that marvelous children's standard "Dracula and the Beanstalk".

Okay, it's a little off the beaten theatrical path, but they do excellent productions for children up to the age of eleven or twelve. It's a fun and unusual way to spend a Saturday morning, with a quick jaunt afterwards down to Chinatown for dim sum.

Most important, the money raised from the July 8th show will go towards a highly worthy cause. My friend Amy's son Soren was diagnosed at six months of age with a seizure disorder called Infantile Spasms. Two years later, after multiple drug treatments and two trips to the Dominican Republic for stem cell treatments, he is finally seizure-free, but is currently at the level of development of a four month-old. They are raising money for another trip and stem cell treatment.

You and your family will have a good time at the theater; the Rogers family will have another chance for their son.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Walk this way.

So, after having iced tea with the charming and talented Jon, I dabbed at my lips daintily, grabbed my grubby mom purse and said "Now, I hike the canyon."

Jon looked dubious. "Mid-day? It's going to be pretty hot."

Well, yes, it was a nippy eighty-seven degrees with air consistency of Nutella, but I need training time in weather extremes for Whitney. Hiking Mount Whitney, we've been told, can lead you to enjoy a) great heat, b) near-freezing temperatures, c) thunderstorms [if you are above the treeline during a thunderstorm, you have to come down right away, as you are the tallest thing for miles, and lightning likes talls things], and d) snow. If you are paying off a karmic debt, you can experience all four things in one day.

Being as very few people have the need to make themselves dehydrated, the parking was easy near the entrance to the canyon. I bolted up the hill. Now, I must digress for a second ("What," I hear you saying, "Quinn? Digress? That's crazy talk!"). Before I started training to climb Whitney, my uphill walking pace was about 3.8 miles an hour; even untrained, I am a bit of a trotter. Then again, my natural energy level is that of a Jack Russell terrier who has been crated all day, so a brisk walking pace comes as a surprise to no one. Now, having trained for nine months, my uphill walking pace is about 4.2 miles an hour.

This is useful when trying to get a hot canyon hike done quickly before the sweat and dust on your skin form clay. However, I have noticed recently 4.2 miles an hour is now my default walking pace. This, as a normal pace, isn't. Normal, I mean. I know this because I will be walking from Place A to Place B in no particular hurry, thinking my own thoughts (which are judgemental and profane), when I become aware the person ahead of me is getting closer to me by the second, and has begun glancing worriedly over his shoulder at me. Eventually, the person just stops and lets me pass, staring at me, clearly looking for the mugger who is chasing me or the cooler in my hand labeled "Human transplant organ".

By that point, it would be stupid to slow down; I've already alarmed a stranger. I toy with the idea of explaining that my walking pace has sped up, what with training for Mount Whitney and all, but I sense the only thing which would make this interaction creepier is if I prolong it. So, I smile, mouth "Thanks!" and do the pathetic "Don't mind me, I'm just a really fast walker!" wave as I pass.

The nice thing is, now my walking is only half as slow as my talking.

Actually, that's not entirely true. Most of the time, my speech is not much more than grunts and pointing; this might have something to do with maternal fatigue and something to do with my suspicion that no one in this house listens to me anyway. But God help you if you're my first adult conversation in days, and I've had just a touch of iced tea...

'So, we're thinking of keeping my car through next year, at the very earliest-hold on, wait, no, that's not my phone. I've got to change my cell phone ring, it sounds just like everyone else's and I keep grabbing my phone in public places and it makes me look as if I'm desperate for calls. Which you know I'm not, I do have friends. Anyway, what was I saying? Oh, yeah, the car. I think it makes sense to wait for the first rush for hybrids to calm-where did you get that wallet? It's adorable. Maybe it's the flowers, or the color of the trim; I always forget how much I like melon as an accent color. Also, I know it's not from this country because I always fall in love with leather goods that are either hideously expensive or cannot be found on this continent. Did you get that in Italy, because it seems Italian to me. Not that I don't think you also spent a hideous amount of money on it. Wait, that came out wrong. I'm sure you spent exactly what it was worth on it. Do I have lip gloss on my teeth? I'm sorry, what were we talking about?"

"I asked you to please hand me the creamer."

At this point, I have no option but to hand over the creamer to this stranger and walk out of Starbucks. But at least I walk out of Starbucks quickly.