Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Not by the hair of my...

A few months’ back, a friend of mine was trying to describe the degree of closeness she felt for another woman. She flailed a bit, and then said in relief, “Well, she’s my tweezer friend”. I said in a tone which I hope was polite and not just alarmed, “Your what?”

“She and I have an agreement. When we’re old, if one of us is in the hospital and not doing well, the other one will come over and tweeze off the weird facial hairs. Tweezer friend.”

Her tone indicated I had been missing out on universally-known phenomena. Being as "Cluelessly bumbling through life" is both my default setting and my personal fear, I did some research. The first woman I asked knew nothing of this idea, and looked at me if I was trying to lead into a conversation about partner-swapping. My personal dignity had taken a swift kick to the ankles, but at least this tweezer business wasn’t common knowledge. But then I asked a second woman about a tweezer friend, and she nodded vigorously. “Not only do I have a tweezer friend, I have a back-up tweezer friend in case the first one has, you know, already died or can’t see well enough any more.”

Not only do others know about this, they’re buying in bulk? Am I about to find out that they have their own Political Action Committee? Within two days, I found another woman with a tweezer friend and a woman who was currently deciding who to ask. Hearing that, I suddenly felt the same low panic I felt in high school when I found out that prom dates were being nailed down six months’ before the actual dance. Can you be more than one person’s tweezer buddy? Even though I am twenty-five years’ from retirement age, had I waited too long to ask someone, leaving me stuck with the only tweezer buddy with a guide dog?

Mostly, I felt embarrassment. Before she had turned a month old, I had arranged for a guardian for Daughter in the event of our death before she reached majority. Even with my overwhelming love of butter, the odds of my dying before her 18th birthday are very small. And yet I had completely skipped arranging for someone to take care of the excess hair of my dotage. Unsightly hair in old age is a nearly 100% certainty. I imagined myself, old and unconscious, lying in a hospital bed, looking not unlike Rasputin. Invigorated, I started to plan who to ask.

No one seemed to expect their children to be their tweezer wielder, which makes sense; even the best parent/child relationship has moments of high emotion, and who’s to say the child won’t—completely unconsciously, of course – fail to notice that four-inch long white hair protruding from your neck as a way of getting back at you for having to wear anklets to her eighth-grade graduation?

No one was asking their husbands or partners which, again, made sense. Statistically, most men won’t live long enough to be of real help during our twilight years and the mere phrasing of the question takes away what little romance and mystery might be left in even the best relationship. Also, do you want to leave your personal grooming to a man who didn’t notice for nearly two months that you had bangs cut?

No, it has to be a friend. A friend who knows you and loves you, lives fairly nearby and had never voiced any desire to retire to Florida. Unless, of course, you are thinking about retiring to Florida, in which case, you both need to be in agreement about whether it’s to be a Gulf of Mexico retirement or an Atlantic retirement. When you and your tweezer-buddy are eighty, you don’t want her further than a few blocks away. Think how badly you’d feel if your friend mistook the brakes for the gas and ended up in the produce section of the Piggly Wiggly just because your chin felt fuzzy.

And as with everything in my life, I became enthralled with the etiquette niceties. It seemed pretty obvious that if someone asked you to become their tweezer-buddy, she would automatically become yours, but what happens if this dear friend of yours, this otherwise faultless person, has already shown a far looser definition of the words “Sufficiently hair-free” than you do? If she leaves you with a Van Dyke beard, albeit neatly groomed, what have you gained? Can you agree to be her tweezer-buddy with no reciprocity without hurting her feelings? On the other hand, should you go to your friend who is a marvel of personal standards but will probably slip a fifty to a nurse on staff to administer to you the shots of Botox she’s been after you to get for years? I have one friend I know would keep me as sleek as an eel but will have me in highlight foils before the coma reaches its second day.

To sum up, you want someone with exactly your personal standards, who plans to live near you forever and is in good enough health to be available when needed. I had already found the love of my life; it seemed greedy to expect the perfect tweezer-buddy as well.

I asked another friend what, if anything, she had planned. She answered crisply, “I’ve got my godson on it. He’s twenty-three, lives in town, is going to cosmetology school and is queer as a tick, so you know I’ll look good.”

Some women have all the luck.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Costume Drama

The dreadful thing about adolescence is not that there are a disproportionate amount of soul-withering things happening in a very short period of time. Enough Pinot Grigio applied in later years, the searing memories would blur into a pinkish, distant haze. No, the most dreadful thing about adolescence is how it refuses to let you go.

All you have to hear is a song, smell a clove cigarette, see a pair of leg-warmers or an injudiciously-worn headband and your memory picks up your self-esteem and shakes it vigorously; self-esteem as chew-toy. Whatever reconstructive work I’ve done on myself can be completely undone by the phrase “Costume Party”.

I was fourteen years old and I was invited to the party of an acquaintance at a local school. I was eager to attend because I understood that in the teenage coolness geography the hostess dwelt on Mount Olympus and I had bought real estate in Death Valley. I have never had, before or since, such a singularly unattractive year.

My adolescent growth spurt had, so far, manifested itself in my nose, knees and lips. Since giving up ballet the year before, I had gained weight in several unexpected and nearly universally-unappealing spots such as my neck and upper arms. My skin reminded no one of the glowing girls leaping for Frisbees in Seventeen magazine. Considering all these facts, I went and got a perm because to my thinking what a large-nosed, spotted, tiny linebacker needed to wear was what appeared to be a docile Portuguese Water Spaniel as a tam. The corduroy walking-shorts and argyle sweaters I favored at the time added an aggressively discordant note. Had I tucked a mothball behind each ear and sung Gilbert and Sullivan at the top of my lungs I couldn’t have been less appealing to my peers.

But the Queen of Cool was also terribly kind and we knew a few people in common, so the next thing I knew, I had an invitation to her sixteenth birthday party. A costume party! I could barely breathe for the excitement. No more social bottom-feeder for me. I’d go to this party where no one would know me, and no one would know what a eye-covering loser I was, and I’d be so spectacular that I’d have a boyfriend before the ice-cream cake had thawed enough to cut.

My first clue I wasn’t about to head into the third act of my own personal John Hughes movie was when my mother dropped me off at the nightclub which had been rented for the afternoon.

We arrived one minute before the party started, because nothing says "Cool" quite like "Rampant Punctuality". I then made her sit outside until I saw enough people walk in to take the stink of geek off of me. We watched in silence as other kids entered the venue.

“You don’t have to go if you don’t want to,” my mother said sympathetically.

“No!” I yipped. “It’ll be…” My voice faded away. I couldn’t think of a single adjective that might be something I was allowed to say in front of my mother.

The boys who were arriving had decided “Costume Party” meant “Dress as usual, but pencil on moustache and slap on a fedora”. The girls had taken the costume part seriously. There was a Slutty Cat, a Slutty Waitress, a Slutty Ballet Dancer, and several outfits which could just be summed up a Slut. I think one girl was dressed for her first gynecological appointment. I was a hamster among strippers. And yet the same part of my brain which sometimes decides to trim my own bangs insisted I leave the car and join the orgiastic festivities.

I opened the door and started extricating my skirt. Owing to a love of the book and, perhaps, some inchoate need to die alone and be eaten by my nine cats, I had costumed myself as Scarlett O’Hara. In this land of exposed teenage flesh and barely-concealed desires, not to mention pudenda, I was covered from sternum to floor. I came looking to find and win a boyfriend and chose an ensemble where even the most intrepid suitor would have to stay three feet away or risk bouncing off my hoopskirt. In an endearing misapprehension of my own attractiveness I had attempted to curl my perm into Vivien Leigh waves. The result was a near-perfect hair pyramid which drew attention to my nose, neck and upper arms. I had little lace gloves on.

I slithered through the front door, pulling my skirt into a more discreet five feet in circumference. The Cool Queen and her mother were welcoming people. The Cool Queen was dressed as a Slutty Jockey, with knee-high boots, tight satin pants and a riding shirt unbuttoned to her waist. I didn’t know if any racing organization would condone the look, but she looked flawless. I started to sweat, causing my hair to stick to my forehead. Both mother and daughter cooed over me, pronouncing me “Adorable”, which somehow made the whole thing even worse.

As unobtrusively as I could, I sidled into the main room and headed towards the snack table. There was one boy there, and I looked at him appraisingly. He was far cuter than I was, but was probably 5’3”; his shortness negated enough of his cuteness so we were almost on a level playing field. I swung my skirt to draw his attention. The corner of it hit him and knocked him into his friend.

“Dude,” he spluttered, “watch the f#ck out!”.

I mumbled an apology and blazed bright red. Dude? He thought I was a boy? This wasn’t some ironic “Duuuuude”, like years later we would tell our short-but-handsome children about how Mom assaulted Dad with her big skirt when they first met and he teased her by calling her Dude. This was “I don’t know why you dressed as a woman considering that you’re a guy, but learn how to work that thing.”

I raced off the dance-floor, and heard two micro-skirted teenage girls giggle as I passed them. It might not have been directed towards me, but I was willing to bet both of those historically accurate lace-up boots I was wearing that it was.

I found the nearest pay phone. My mother, having just gotten home from a nearly forty-five minute trip back from the nightclub, was understandably reluctant to make the trip again. Much whining ensued. Finally, after I escalated into a tearful “I’m the ugliest person on earth and my skirt won’t stop touching everyone!” she sighed darkly and agreed to come back. I was to be outside in about an hour.

I looked around desperately. I couldn’t bear thinking about being back out in the middle of the dance-floor, surrounded by nearly-naked flesh and expressions of pity or contempt.

I could stand behind the snack table, but there was a real possibility my skirt would spring forward, tipping the table over.

I could hide in the bathroom, but my skirt didn’t fit in a stall.

If I stood outside for the whole time, someone might think Civil War reenactments were going on in here.

Adolescence at its worst is suspecting that everyone knows something you don’t, you look stupid and everyone is laughing at you. Usually, looking back, you realize no one knew anything, you looked fine, and everyone was so worried about their own stuff they didn’t give you a second glance. This time, I had every reason to suspect my inner fears were exactly matched by the actual situation. And I had nearly an hour before I could go home.

Where could I hide?

The coat room wasn’t exactly interesting, but it was quiet and dark. There was plenty of room to sit on the ground, my skirt puffing around me like a lacy beanbag. I redid the laces on my shoes so they were completely even. I used the small mirror in the drawer to try to convince my bangs to lie flat. I worked on a few old ballet steps. I listened to the conversations of seemingly-graceful and confident teenage girls, heading toward the bathroom next door. No one sounded in the least insecure over wearing what amounted to a lobster bib and drop earrings. Everyone but me, it appeared, had gotten to bases. Many, many bases. Also, according to my unseen sources, the dip sucked.

In the coat room, I contemplated my own freak flag. How long had I been an outsider? I started school a year early, which meant I was short and young, two qualities that rarely scream “Leader!” in the early years. Also, I knew everything and apparently got headaches if I didn’t relate every single fact I knew, and that doesn’t exactly bring friends flocking around. And then I skipped a grade, so now I was even shorter and younger. I loved to read, usually to the exclusion of talking to other people on the bus. When asked, I had once told a fourth-grade classmate that my favorite show was “60 Minutes”. Then, to drive that last nail in the social coffin, I began acting. Looking back, I am surprised I didn’t receive more beatings.

I paced the closet. We had established I was an outlier and an oddity for at least half my life, but now I had to ask the question: did I care? Was at least part of the problem right now that I had attempted to participate in a process the outcome of which puzzled, bored and scared me? I wanted to win a boyfriend, but God knows I didn’t want to follow through with what I understood to be going on in the VIP room.

I didn’t want any part of this evening. I wanted to be home, hanging out with my pets, reading and eating something which went to my neck. No one could doubt I had failed at this evening but maybe the greater embarrassment wasn’t the seriously misguided outfit as much as the fact that someone as fundamentally strange as me tried to pretend to be just another teenager for the evening. I was left thinking that my weirdness, which I had always vaguely imagined to be conditional, might be as ingrained as my allergy to lobster.

I heard a horn tap outside. In two notes I recognized both the sound of my mother’s car and the degree of irritation she felt at having driven for a solid hour and a half, round-trip. With one panicked jeté, I flung myself through the open door and tucked my big skirt around me for a diving leap into her car.

My mother glanced at me and said, “Are you alright?”

I said, “Yeah”, because I was. Now that I was free of Plato’s Retreat, I was almost giddy.

“Did you thank the hostess?” she asked.

“Of course,” I lied with a clear conscience. Had either the mother or daughter been hiding in the coat closet with me, I’d have thanked them with perfect grace.

As we pulled out, another car pulled in, letting out half-dressed teenagers. They were a happy, noisy lot, calling to each other, the people inside, the mother driving. Final coats of lip-gloss were being applied, hair was being tousled and flipped, long coltish legs in high heels were teetering towards the club. The last girl out of the car stopped, glanced at herself in the window and flicked one strand of hair from one side to the other. Smirking seductively, she bolted into the dark club, trailing wisps of gauze. Her gauzy dress reminded me of Titania. Maybe, I thought, I’d read Midsummer Night’s Dream tonight.

We drove home.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Patrick Thomas Dwyer, 1964-2001

This is a repeat, but he deserves it.

I participated in the 2,996 Project, for which 2,996 bloggers volunteered to write a memorial for one person who perished in the attacks on 9/11.

Patrick Thomas Dwyer, 37, Nissoquogue, NY. Bond trader at Cantor Fitzgerald. Left behind a wife JoAnn, a son Brendan and a daughter Sarah, who were five and three at the time of their father’s death.

When Patrick was randomly assigned to me, I stared at my computer screen blankly for a long time. Weeks, in fact. I wanted to do the right thing by this man, but what do I say which doesn’t become political, maudlin, or somehow all about me? Even the best eulogy becomes as much about the speaker as the departed, and I don’t claim to write a world-class eulogy. The memorial becomes exponentially more difficult when you don’t know the person intimately, and I had no desire to write something general and inane about how he was a nice person and that this was such a tragedy. My first rule with this blog has always been: “Tell the truth, Quinn, as best as you can”, and I certainly wasn’t going to break that rule now.

I never met Patrick Thomas Dwyer. From what I have read about him, this is my loss. Patrick loved what he did for a living and did it well enough to find plenty of time to enjoy his family and friends. He and his wife centered their lives on their kids and their friends and extended family. They loved entertaining.I have never met nor spoken to anyone in his family. I do, however, know what it’s like to have your father die when you are very young.

The brutality of losing a parent when you are a child is that the death continues to reverberate forever. It isn’t a huge single loss; it’s a continuum of huge single losses.Patrick was there to teach his son to ice-skate, but he wasn’t there to teach his daughter.He was there to see his son go to school for the first time, but not his daughter.Brendan will remember him, and probably idolize him his entire life. Sarah might not have anything but filaments of memories from a birthday party or an afternoon at their pool that last summer of 2001 -- memories which are half-real, half constructions from photos she has seen or stories she has heard. Brendan and Sarah will grow up, and laugh, and cry, and slam doors, and graduate, break bones and win awards. And each time something happens in their lives their father will be dead.

Within their family and their community, they will be Patrick and JoAnn’s kids. There will be plenty of people around them eager to tell them what a funny guy their father was, what a sports fan and a true friend, and what a great marriage their parents had. But as they grow up, and make new friends and meet new people, there will always be that hanging question: “You were how old when your father died? When did he die? Oh my God, did he die on 9/11?”At the least likely moments, when all they want to do is be normal and anonymous, they will be forced to embody a national trauma and to relive the greatest pain a family can endure.For a while after my father died, I told inquisitive strangers -- people I never expected to see again -- that my parents had gotten a divorce because that was accepted without further comment. A dead father led to more personal interrogation than I was prepared to undergo. Until my thirties, I would actively avoid telling people he died on the last day of shooting of “The Goodbye Girl”, because the combination of pity and curiosity was nearly unbearable. Brendan and Sarah will never stop being victims of 9/11 and I feel so wretched for some of the stupid and thoughtless things people are going to say to them in years to come.

If Consort gets home late, after Daughter is sleeping, he will always go in and kiss her goodnight. Being a very sound sleeper, she takes this with nothing more than a slight break in her teeth-grinding and maybe a murmured grunt. But Consort doesn’t mind. He says, “She knows I kissed her goodnight. Her skin knows it". With a father who took the 5:20 train every morning to get to his desk at the World Trade Center, I bet Sarah and Brendan had a lot of kisses left upon them when they were sleeping. I hope their skin remembers. I hope his kisses give them some comfort today, and every day of their lives.

JoAnn Dwyer, my condolences on your loss. I wish I had met Patrick. I wish I had no reason to be writing about him.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Hardest To Learn Was the Least Complicated

My eyes snapped open and my head sprang from the pillow. Silhouetted in the bedroom door was Daughter. Having arrived well into the first act of this particular story, I struggled to fill in the details. It was night. Daughter must have said “Mommy…?” causing my maternal alert system to spring into action, which puts me in a totally wakeful state without actually switching on my brain.

“What is it?” I asked, trying to remember her name. “A nightmare?” She shook her head no.

“The blanket came off, and I couldn’t sleep.” Ah, there’s the brain coming online. I could feel it whirring away in there, spitting out such questions as “And it seemed easier to walk all the way down the hallway than pull up the blanket at your ankles…?” and “When it’s nearly eighty degrees in the house, how much did you need that blanket, anyway?” But what she was really saying was “I have a mammalian need to be near my pack”. I’m all too conscious of how brief this period of her life is, so I wiggled over a bit and patted the pillow.

Even in the near-darkness, Daughter saw the invitation and leapt nimbly into bed. Within a minute, she was asleep. I knew she was asleep because she started expanding.

My daughter is a perfectly normal-sized girl for her age, but when sleeping in a small space, she has developed the ability to lengthen her arms and legs by up to a yard. Interestingly enough, this new length is entirely comprised of elbows and knees. The first shot across the bow was a baby giraffe-length leg flung across my hips, six or seven knees grinding into my ribcage. When that was placed back next to her, she tried for a five foot-long arm, inserted into my ear.

Consort, on the other side, has a more subtle approach. When we first moved in, I offered him whichever side of the bed he wanted, and he chose. He swears he has never reconsidered his decision, but each night, once asleep, he longs for my side of the bed, and he will achieve it, one patient inch at a time. I call it the Kudzu approach, after the invasive climbing plant you find in the Southern part of the US. This vine, if given enough time and lack of attention, will cover barns, outbuildings and slow-moving livestock. Consort, given eight hours, will claim the entire bed, leaving me a nearly unrecognizable lump huddled between the pillows. I have taken to sleeping with a fork.

Between the two of them, I was a relatively small country with no natural borders staving off constant sorties from aggressive neighbors. I think this made me Poland.

I lay there, flinging off non-Quinn body parts and clawing at my eye. Three days before, I noticed my eye was itchy. I assumed I was having allergy attacks because the air was especially foul all week and because Lu the cat has been especially eager to nap with her ass ground into my pillow. I kept taking Benadryl, which is effective but turns me into the dormouse from Alice in Wonderland, randomly falling asleep into my lunch. Being as I was so rarely awake, it took two days before I noticed it didn’t seem to be working. Not only was the pill not alleviating the symptom, the allergy only seemed to be localized to one eye and the eye looked puffier and more tired than usual. Considering how I kept falling into a Benadryl-induced coma, an asymmetrical look of exhaustion hardly seemed fair. Also, I was acutely sensitive of every time I blinked and I longed to scratch my eye until there was nothing left but a non-itchy socket.

A typing-in of symptoms into Google indicated I probably had a stye. Very close scrutiny found a small white bump on the lower eyelid, which proved my diagnostic skills but gave me a new level of exasperation, because if you had asked me what the sensation was like, I would have said “There is a huge, irregularly-shaped boulder wedged in my tear duct”, and now I was going to have to carry around a magnifying glass if I expected any pity at all. The most maddening part was that we stye-owners are told specifically DO NOT SCRATCH and scratching was simply the most wonderful sensation in the world. I skirted the law by creating a sort of vicious rubbing which didn’t legally fit the parameters of scratching.

Styes, I am pleased to note, can be brought on by stress.

The eye was not the only new onus in my life. Daughter’s school had sent out her school-supply list back in July. I had carefully placed it on the fridge and forgotten all about it, confident that September was very, very far away. September remained far away until August 31st, wherein I said something astute like “Oh, CRUD!” and ran for the list. The school encouraged me to involve Daughter in the process of supply-buying because, as they so optimistically noted, school supplies are “Fun”. They actually put “Fun” in quotation marks, as in “We’re not saying buying pencils in bulk is fun for the average child, we’re saying that someone said it once, and we’re quoting them”. I decided it would only be “Fun” if I were to “Drink before noon”, so I opted to leave Daughter at a friend’s house.

I scanned the rest of the list. It was copious, but nothing stood out as being especially difficult to find. It seemed like nothing more than a trip to Mother’s Little Helper, Target.

You know why they sent the supply-letter out in July? Because the supplies arrived in the stores in July. By the last day of August, every child in the Los Angeles area had picked, and picked through, the school supply inventory for the entire Pacific Rim. Within seconds, my priorities changed; I was no longer just looking for “4 notebooks, lined”, I was desperately hunting for “4 notebooks, lined, not already scrawled in, preferably without a cover declaring my daughter’s love for NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon or Pikachu”. Instead of “Box of colored pencils, twelve”, I sought “Dented box of no fewer than ten colored pencils which aren’t all burnt umber”.

It was school supplies for the Island of Misfit Toys.

And then there were the objects notable for their specificity. Daughter needed “Six-inch ruler, American and Metric, metal”. Six-inch rulers they had, in every color and major summer movie tie-in of my choice. All of them had both Metric and non-Metric measurements, which I think augers well for America’s ability to play well with others. But they were ─ every single one of them ─ plastic. I even toyed with getting her a twelve-inch ruler, but chickened out because the list seemed so specific: “Six-inch ruler, American and Metric, metal”.

Maybe the school wasn’t covered for any ruler-related injury over six inches. Maybe if given a foot-long ruler too early in one's academic career, a student was more likely to sniff glue. Whatever created this kind of absolutism on the part of my daughter’s school, I wasn’t prepared to risk it. Besides, all the twelve-inch rulers were plastic as well. I stood in front of the supplies, consulted my list, and clawed at my eye. I had everything but a certain weight of construction paper, a pocket-sized dictionary and that ruler. A thorough search of Target produced some adorable bathmats and a sudden need for a bag of toasted almonds, but no more school supplies.

Regretfully, I left Target and drove to Staples.

If Target is candy-colored fun, Staples is beige in a box; the only excitement coming from buying your envelopes in bulk. I clawed and walked around, finally seeing someone sporting a name-tag. I grabbed him and chanted “Metal ruler, six-inch; construction paper; pocket dictionary.” Obligingly, he walked me to three rows, each row containing one of the items. I’d have asked for iced-tea/valium Arnold Palmer, but that struck me as greedy. I eye-clawed and thanked him. As he was about to walk away, another woman ran up and nearly yelled “A watercolor kit, but only ten colors, blue erasers for pencil tops and three by five-inch label-stickers”.

“Wow”, I said sympathetically.

“I know", she moaned. "It’s like the world’s most boring scavenger hunt”.

I noted the cold sore on her lip, a malady also associated with stress. In fact, while waiting on line (because in the week before school starts, why on earth would Staples have more than one person working a register?), I noted that every single customer in that store was a woman in her thirties or forties. Many had decided to partake of the “Fun” of shopping with their children, which meant they were now handing out Red Vines like communion wafers in a vain hope of improving everyone’s mood. I was the only one trying to remove her own eye, but no one looked their best. Even those without stress-induced skin conditions had at least an inch of roots. I humbly suggest to any parent of a school-age child to avoid having their drivers’ license picture taken in the last week of August.

Back in bed, I fought off Dervish Daughter and Creeping Consort. I thought about the stye and the school supplies, thought “I have to write about this”. And then I thought, “Why?”

Even the most self-absorbed among us (read: Me) might declare both topics to be less-than-compelling. But, readers please forgive me: I love this life I have right now. I don’t want to forget it, any of it, and I keep relearning how easy it is to lose great chunks of your life due to lack of attention. For example, my eye itches like mad and I’d like to think I’d remember that, but when I first self-diagnosed, I thought Have I ever had a stye before? But I couldn’t remember. I’d be more than happy to forget four days of warm wet compresses and moist shirt-collars, but if I forget that, maybe I forget Daughter’s head next to mine on the pillow, snoring and flailing and never exactly like this again.

I can give her back to school, and later on to her life without me, much more easily if I can keep these mundane little pictures in my pocket.