Thursday, May 29, 2008

Modem Operandi.

I blame myself.

I’ve read books on the proper raising of both children and dogs, sometimes finding identical sentences in both. I know that I will get more out of my child and my pet if I “Catch them doing good”; this is to say commend them on doing the right thing rather than constantly harping on the things they get wrong. Praise Daughter to the skies for getting her jeans in the hamper, then casually mention how she might want to use this newly acquired skill on Mount Dirty-Sock looming at the end of her bed. Coo and croon to the dog when he manages to stay in something resembling “Heel” for a minute at a time, but not haranguing him about the other twenty minutes of the walk where he is a handsome speedboat and I am a hapless water-skier. I like to think we are all happier when we’re caught being our best.

It never occurred to me that the computer longed for positive feedback as well.

All these years, I should have stopped typing mid-sentence, gazed down fondly at the zip-drive and purred something like “Look at you, saving! What a wonderful saver you are!” I should have brought the keyboard little scented hand-towels to bathe its abused keys, especially the “A”, “S” and “E” keys, all the while commending its work ethic. And, as it turns out, I should have taken the modem out for lunch, someplace a little fancy, just to say “Thank you” for all its hard work. Just because I don’t completely understand what it does, doesn’t mean I can’t say thanks. But, as with children and pets, electronics -—if not given positive attention -– will arrange to get themselves some negative attention. And they will usually wait for a three-day weekend.

The family got home from dinner on Sunday and I drifted in to the office to check email. I noted the last message had come in three hours before, which seemed a little odd. We’re not Prom King and Queen, mind you, but three hours is an awfully long time to go without some form of incoming missive, even if it’s only an offer for cheap diet pills or a chance to date lonely Russian ladies. It’s a strange world indeed when one is alarmed by a lack of spam. I tried refreshing the email and got the dreaded red X across the "checking Messages" line. We were not connecting. I switched off the computer and switched it back on again but the mailbox still snubbed me.

“E-mail’s down!” I shouted to Consort, who was supervising teeth-brushing.

Over the sound of a small girl explaining why no one else her age had to brush their teeth every single day, he shouted back. “Try re-booting it!”

“I did that!” I said, faintly aggrieved that he’d even ask. Consort knows that switching something off and on and hitting the side of it with my palm are my only electronic repair tools. I thunked the side of the computer. Twice. The email remained mute.

“Check if we can get online!”

I opened the browser and was rewarded with an unlovely message telling me that either the page I wanted was unavailable or we weren’t online. Since I’m guessing that Google hadn’t taken the weekend off, it stood to reason that we were down across the board. I felt the first twinge of panic in my lower spine. I like checking e-mail. It’s peaceful and costs me nothing. If an e-mail leads to unpeaceful thoughts or indicates bad news or is some sort of a bill I simply click down to the next email, which is usually from my mother and includes a picture of a cat wearing a tam. Consort came in the office and turned the computer on and off again a few times. He prodded at various intimate bits of the computer. He pointed to a light which was yellow.

“See that light? Means the network is down,” he pronounced.

I squinted at the light, trying to remember if I had ever looked at it before in my life. “Isn’t it always yellow?” I finally asked.

“Yeah, but it shouldn't be blinking.”

Sometimes, I think he just makes things up to ensure his job security.

I went off to play with Daughter, Galicia and the dog while Consort settled in with a glass of wine and a speaker-phone for the inevitable call to Tech Support. I asked him to give India my regards. An hour later, our daughter and our foster-kitten were in their beds, the dog was exhausted from entertaining them both, and I sidled in to the office to hear what Consort had learned from Rajit. The wine-glass was drained. Consort was huddled under the desk poking at wires. He stuck his head out.

“Apparently the connection is fine to the pole. Neither laptop is working in here so the problem comes from inside the house." He was using the same voice you'd use to tell the babysitter the maniac’s call was coming from the kid’s room. Then he added, “The modem might need replacing.”

We both stared at the modem, which appeared to be working. Only now I understood this was only a simulacrum of a working modem, its blinking yellow light a mockery of the robust digital health we had all taken for granted.

“Um. How long will it take to replace?” I asked hopefully, irrationally convinced that a DSL modem might be one of those items Consort insists on stocking in multiples, like Murphy’s Oil soap and capers.

He blew out a contemplative breath, the same breath my mechanic blows out before he explains that the car needs a liver transplant. “If it’s the modem, and we won’t know for another day or so, I’ll have to order a new one.”

A silence permeated the office. I said slowly, “So, for the foreseeable future, we are going to live like it’s…1995?”


I found the bottle of wine and got another glass. I poured each of us a restorative volume of something red and contemplated my fate. Consort was only mildly inconvenienced. He had a Blackberry and the computer at work. I, however, was Helen Keller. I needed to let people know I’d be unreachable by email for the unforeseeable future. I started with my mother because we’re one of those modern families who discuss the news of the world through email. “News of the world”, of course, mostly means “Pictures of cats in tams”, but on the off chance the most recent hatted-cat photo also included a message along the lines of “...By the way, I’m typing this from the ground, having fallen down two days ago...”, it behooved me to let her know I was off-line.

To my book editor, I left an email message through my phone. The phone is very old, as far as cell-phones go, and was never purchased with an eye towards texting. The keys are small and ungainly and the only way to put in punctuation tends to make me call voice-mail. I was planning to write:

Dear Brenda,
My computer’s modem is broken. Until such time as it is either fixed or replaced, you can reach me at this email. Barring that, you can always reach me on the phone.

Seventeen attempts later -- three of which accidentally led to me checking my voice mail -- I decided I was okay with this:

B Puter daed finD me hereor call/ q

This left me with the rest of the world. Did I need to tell anyone else I wasn’t getting email? I doubted the Russian mail-order brides or Viagra-vendors would be too concerned but I had a bunch of people who had kindly offered to help with the book. Some were reading it to give me constructive criticism. Some were reading it to help move the almighty blurb process forward. Both were necessary and much appreciated. If anyone wrote to me with either comments or a suggestion about who they might know who could blurb, I wanted to answer them in respectable haste. Otherwise, I’d look ungrateful. If the comments they gave were anything but “WHAT A MARVELOUS BOOK! DON’T CHANGE A THING!”, any silence on my side might be construed as pouting. While I have been known to pout, I wanted to make damn sure I’m not getting tarred with the pouting brush when I’m just a victim of a temperamental modem. I called one of the readers:

(Ring. Ring. Sounds of humans at play in the background.)

READER: Hello?

QUINN: Hi, it’s Quinn. Am I interrupting something?

READER: No, we're all hanging out in the back yard enjoying the long weekend. What’s up?

QUINN: I just wanted you to know that my modem is down for at least a couple of days. So I can’t get email.

READER: Oh. Okay.

(Silence, as we both listened to children flinging water balloons at each other.)

QUINN: You know, in case you had read the book or anything. Had some notes. Didn’t want you think I was pout...

READER: It’s right next to my bed. This last week was a real bitch, but I’ll start it tonight..

QUINN: No, no. Don’t worry. Whenever.


QUINN: It’s just that the modem isn’t blinking. Or is, or something. Really, no rush on those notes.

READER: Sure. Hey, why don’t I get the manuscript right now, start skimming through it while the coals heat up.

QUINN: No, please. It’s Memorial Day, for God’s sake.


QUINN: My modem really is broken.


READER: I know.

His goodbye to me had a sympathetic tone I didn’t like.

Consort called me from the office. The light which had been blinking was now not blinking. Whatever the problem, it had fixed itself for the time being. Consort clicked the Inbox and dozens of emails flew in, nearly all of them promising me relief from my problem with erectile dysfunction. Arrowhead water wanted to be paid. There were some petitions to sign. There were no notes or offers of blurbs. I noticed one email which required my immediate attention. Alertly, I opened it and was rewarded with a story of a King Charles Cavalier spaniel that is fostering three baby bunnies in England.

I’m finally back in the real world.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Guest Quarters.

I have to do rewrites on the book. I have to try to educate my daughter or, as we all call it around here, “Prove my idiocy daily”. I still sell a Hiphugger or two. I really should get to the gym. So, of course, I decided to take in a house-guest with indifferent personal habits and a hearty appetite.

Two weeks ago, I was at the cat-rescue place where I volunteer. The head of the group, Kate, was there, administering worming medication to all sorts of adorable tiny kittens before handing them back to their mothers. We chatted as she squirted. With her chin, she motioned to the cage we reserve for new cats whose health is unknown to us.

“Look what I found this morning. Someone left her outside in a box.”

I looked in the cage. Something stared back at me. I thought and said, “She’s…”

Now, a side note. I once read an article about some photographer who has made, it seemed, a good living for his entire career of almost three decades photographing cats. The reporter asked him whether in all that time, he had ever seen an ugly kitten. In the article, he was quoted as pausing meaningfully and then saying in weighted tones “Just once.”

I looked at this kitten. She was orange, where there was fur. Mostly, she was pinkish skin. She had a large nose with a scab on it, small beady eyes, a long hairless tail and a body which shape suggested less being born than being extruded from the sausage attachment on a Mixmaster. I started again, “She’s…are you sure she isn’t a rat?”

“No, it’s a kitten. She’s just pretty undernourished. I’m amazed she made it through the night in that box. I’m going to try to find someone to take her home, feed her on demand and pay some attention to her.”

I know this woman well; nowhere in there had she said, or even intimated, “Quinn, I now hand the baton of responsibility to you. And the baton of responsibility resembles a rat wearing an orange wig.”

I stared at her some more. I noted her eyes were slightly crossed: nice touch. I asked fearfully, “Not bottle-fed, right?”. Because after last spring, I’m not wiping butts and waiting for Death’s scythe, but Kate said, “No, she’s eating on her own. Not nearly enough, but she’s eating.” As if on cue, the cat-rat opened her mouth and delivered a silent mew; she had three teeth, all of which were crooked. I heard myself say, “I’ll keep her until she’s…”

I thought, what? Attractive? Hairy? Strong enough to star in a remake of Willard?

“…ready for adoption.” I finished. Because somewhere out there, someone is saying to their friends “What I really want is a house-pet who makes people flinch.” Kate gave her worming medication and a small amount of IV fluid to strengthen her enough to, as it turned out, scream for the entire trip home. Gazing at her face at stop lights, I decided that the vigor she was showing her temper tantrum boded well for her living through to an adoptable age. She needed a pretty name, I decided, for incentive if nothing else. I free-associated; what hair she had was orange….oranges…Navel? No. Oranges remind me of Spain…Madrid? Navarre? Valencia? Why do I know all this? Oh, right; crossword puzzles. Why doesn’t Daughter’s education want my crossword puzzle facts? Would it kill them to ask her what you call an eagle’s nest or a sewing kit?

I made a left turn, causing the cat-carrier to jostle, increasing her irritation, which helped me focus.

Galicia…Asturia…The Canary Islands…wait, back up. Galicia. That’s not bad.

I stuck my fingers in the cage and waggled them at her. I crooned “Galicia, pretty girl. You like that? You like the name Galicia?”

Her screaming stopped; I felt her little head rubbing against my fingers, which seemed like an auspicious omen. I peeked in. At some point in the previous few minutes, she had rid herself of what appeared to be three of four days’ worth of bowel movements. Purring in delight at being petted, she curled up in her filth and took a brief nap for the rest of the trip home. I now understood why Kate had sent me home with kitten shampoo.

The next few days were a blur of feeding and screaming and surprisingly copious excretions; this is the kitten we should clone and hand to every teenage girl who romanticizes having a baby. The fact that she threw fits when she couldn’t see me only added to the general noise level. She liked Consort, she enjoyed Daughter, but all six of her brain cells had decided I was Mommy, which when you look like a rat in a cheap orange wig is faint praise indeed. I carried Galicia around nearly constantly, when I wasn’t putting her in the litter box and encouraging her to give it a go, which annoyed her and made her holler. She had a free-spirited notion that if she could see the litter box from where she was standing, no matter how far away, she was in the litter box. When I wasn’t holding her, I was holding a bottle of bleach. Daughter alternated between “Awww…” and “Ew.”

And where were the pets during all of this? Well, if she was the new infant in the house, they were the older siblings. Lulabelle, the cat, has taken the attitude of “That thing which is very ratlike and is shouting is not in my house. Because if it were in my house, I would have to deal with it, which would probably mean eating it, and I think you would get irrationally emotional about it. So, I’m going to ignore on a world-class level. If I have the misfortune to see her, I will indicate my displeasure by gurgling in rage for a few minutes and then vomiting. You might want to just put the bottle of bleach on some kind of tool-belt around your waist.” The dog, on the other hand, was ecstatic from the first moment he saw her in the cat carrier while I set up her first de-fouling bath. Some combination of a cat that, unlike his regular one, didn’t seem to want to slap him and the way she smelled like partially-digested cat food was the culmination of a dream for him. Every time I would take her someplace contained for her daily “Stagger around and shout” time, the dog would insist on joining us and then proceed to play tag with her. He’s not a large dog, but he was large enough so that she got knocked over every single time they played, and he would somehow end up sitting on her, grinning in joy. I would separate them, banishing him from the room but they would shout and cry for each other from the other sides of the door. Lulabelle is her contemptuous older sister, and the dog is her affectionately abusive older brother. And I’m the mother shouting “Oh, would you three just go watch television or something!”

Somehow, along the way, her hair grew in. The scab fell off her nose, which stayed the same size, while her face and her eyes grew. She became cute. Consort, who would take her out of the cage in the evening for a friendly game of “AUGH! BITE YOUR FINGER!”, said things like “She’s really sweet. She can stay, if you want.” This was an incredibly kind statement, considering that I was dosing him with Benadryl twice a day just so he didn’t fall down in an anaphylactic seizure. I assured him that no, I was enjoying her very much but that didn’t mean I needed to add another litter box permanently to the household. Daughter enjoyed her thoroughly, but also had enough experience with foster-kittens that she wasn’t putting too much of her emotional life into this one fuzzy little body.

This weekend, we’ll take her into the rescue, where she will stay until Sunday night, so that people looking for a kitten can meet her. Then, we’ll bring her home during the week. I imagine someone will put in an application for my loud little friend and the home-check will be done within days. We’ll have another week with her, but probably not another two weeks. She’ll go to be someone’s cat, and she’ll have another name, and with any luck another cat-worshipping dog. We’ll have memories of a kitten I would vote the Most Improved Player.


Someone asked if she was actually female, because he had heard that orange cats can only be male. Yes, the orange coloration is on the X chromosone, so if you have a solidly-orange cat, no other color, that's male. But you will notice she's got some white in there as well; she's a Creamsicle.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Taught to the Tune of a Hick'ry Stick.

Home-schooling one’s child is so educational, and in such unexpected places. I always assumed Daughter would learn a few things here and there, accrue some new facts and generally become the sort of person her mother could rely on to remember trivial details while doing a crossword puzzle and getting stuck on the four-letter word for trickster god of Norse mythology.


And, to her credit, Daughter is continuing to become that person. She is also learning other facts, and nearly all of them have to do with Who My Mother Really Is. This alarms me. For example, after a week at home, she knew that “Please give me some quiet time, I’m working on the book” really means “I want to read brain-damaging gossip websites while eating foods from my hidden cache of snacks”. Two weeks into home-schooling she had determined the location of the hidden snacks, but more painful than my rapidly-diminishing pile of Gummy Bears is the fact that Daughter now knows I am an idiot. We haven’t left the grade-school curriculum yet and she already views me as the one who gets the scissors with the rounded edges.

I was never anyone’s idea of a great student. Owing to an adorably misguided notion I had a a youth -- specifically that most of the work I was assigned was boring and repetitive -- I was convinced I should make a political statement by throwing pencils at the heads of my classmates. By the time I was attending an academically-rigorous prep school where the work stopped being boring and repetitive I was well beyond the mental state necessary to reevaluate my view of school as being anything but a holding pen. Ergo, like many people out there – perhaps some even reading this blog right now—what I like, I know pretty well; what I don’t like, I usually hire someone to do for me. Or palm off on Consort. This system has worked remarkably well.

Until the beginning of this year, when I was horrified to find out that trains still leave stations in word problems.

Daughter, working on an online math program, called me for help. Ambling in, I was confronted with a word problem. It seemed there were two trains. We, the problem-solver, were taking a train from Woods Hollow into Lake Field and, having arrived, getting on another train for Port Side but, like so many things in life, it wasn’t that easy. One train took an hour to get to the station and arrived every two hours. The other took two hours to arrive and left every three hours. All we were given to work with was their first departure of the day, from which we could extrapolate out this insanely-complex schedule. Our job, whether we chose to accept it or not, was to determine the best departure time so as to spend the least amount of time in Lake Field waiting for our connection, and to give the length of time we would spend in Lake Field. The problem added in passing that the trains were going at a constant rate of speed, as if this would somehow make this hellish bouillabaisse more digestible.

Daughter looked at me expectantly. I felt the blood rush to my feet, far away from the head which was somehow going to be conscripted to address this hideous challenge. This wasn’t algebra. I couldn’t inwardly start my rant about no one needs such skills in the real world. In fact, this was the kind of irritating and relevant task I was asked to do all the time, and I never do well. Consort learned a long time ago not to let me arrange airport connections because I generally end up with six minutes between flights, or two days. To properly appreciate my travel-planning skills, you'd need to pack either rocket-propelled shoes or a cot. Staring at the screen, I stalled.

“Have you...” I breathed in, trying to think of something productive. “Made a chart?”

Oh, that’s good. Either the chart will illuminate the Stygian depths of this puzzle or simply drawing it will waste enough time until Consort returns home.

Daughter sighed. I frequently suggested charts when confronted with math or diagramming sentences.

“I can just wait until Daddy gets home, if you want,” she said, patting my hand. And with that, with the unspoken understanding that Mommy is the kid who eats paste, I was mortified and motivated into helping her solve this word problem. I pulled up a chair and a clean sheet of paper. I stared at the screen and carefully wrote down every single number on that stupid screen. I then stared down at them on the page.

“Well,” I said, and stopped. We both stared at the page. Daughter’s hand came out and patted mine again, softly. Sympathetically. I started again.

“Well,” I said, slightly less definitively and gazed at my pencil. I noticed the lead wasn’t completely pointed and yelped happily, “Ooh, this needs sharpening!”

I dashed off to find a pencil-sharpener, ignoring the one inches from the chair. When I returned several minutes later, Daughter was staring at the screen again. She turned to me and said, “I think I take the 1:15 train.”

I gaped, not the least of which because when I had run away--I mean, gone off to improve my work tools—there hadn’t been a 1:15 train. I looked at the page; she had roughed out the schedule. Reading it, it appeared that yes, the 1:15 from Woods Hollow would leave us with no more than about a half-hour to kill in the Lake Field train station. True, we wouldn’t get to see much of the city of Lake Field, but that was a problem to solve another time. She typed in the answer and answer lit up green, indicating it was right. It seemed a little anticlimactic for a problem of such complexity. Had I done this by myself, I would have expected Gummy Bears shooting from the CD-ROM drive directly into my mouth. The screen went dark for a moment then reactivated, indicating she was entering a new level of complexity.

Daughter said joyfully “Geometry! YEAH!”

My mouth went dry. In that moment, I couldn’t have told you if it was from fear or having eaten paste.