Monday, June 30, 2008

In Sickness and in Health.

A few weeks ago, Daughter began to look unwell, with a low-grade fever and various body aches and the glazed expression I used to get in childhood which my mother referred to as “Sick Eyes”. By Saturday morning she was officially sick. But even officially sick, I was still puzzled, because everything was “Kind-of”; she was kind-of feverish, kind-of achy, kind-of nauseated.

A quick trip to the doctor’s office on Saturday morning diagnosed strep throat with an underlying viral infection, which solved the mystery; I knew about this virus, it had been galloping through her friends. The doctor confirmed what I had already heard from the other mothers; keep her quiet and make her eat and drink.

The keeping her quiet was easy about a third of the time, when she was exhausted. Otherwise, I constantly had to clarify that “Rest on the couch” did not mean “Practice your back walk-over on the couch”. But resting was as nothing next to eating and drinking. She wasn’t hungry and she did not want to eat or drink.

She didn’t want to eat or drink on Friday.

She didn’t want to eat or drink on Saturday.

She didn’t want to eat or drink on Sunday.

Both the doctor and the other mothers who had gone through this had been clear; the child will have no appetite, but if they don’t eat or drink, they will stay sick for a very long time and might even develop complications, especially if they aren’t drinking enough. It doesn’t matter what they ingest, but they must ingest. She doesn’t have the kind of build which laughs off hunger strikes; she was getting thinner every day. The tablespoon of garbanzo beans and quarter-cup of water she called dinner wasn’t cutting it. The nearly hundred-degree heat outside wasn’t exciting her appetite any, either.

Sunday afternoon, I took her to the grocery store with me. Sagging against me, she declared that everything smelled weird. Throwing quality-parenting to the wind, I pointed out every food which is usually either a “No” or a “Maybe, if you do your vocabulary pages…”. I offered her cinnamon rolls; I offered her popsicles; I offered her gum-drops, but I was politely declined.

I looked at her, her thin little face and her shadowy eyes, her bony fingers hiking up her now-loose shorts and all I could think was “How can I cram the densest calories per-square-inch into this little person?”. I worked backwards from what every diet book ever told me not to eat and I had a flash. Cheese! “How would you…” I said in my best Aren’t we a lucky girl? Voice, “…like to go to the gourmet cheese store?”

She shrugged and said, “Okay.”

This isn’t as NPR-ish and culturally elite as a might appear. Readers, here was my logic. Fatty, soft, mild European cheeses, eaten correctly, can cause a person to outgrow a pair of jeans in a single meal. I’d buy her bottled water in a pretty European container and when she finished the contents, I could refill it with Eau D’Arrowhead. Maybe a shaft of sunlight would bounce off the glass tureen of olives and excite some interest in her. Or, she’d shun everything edible and I’d get a bottle of decent red wine to fortify Consort and me for the battle of getting her to eat.

The cheese-store was full of the kind of people who say to one another “Jasper, after we leave the Modern Art Museum let’s pick up some delightful raw-milk sheep’s cheese for snacking on tonight while we listen to bootleg live Maria Callas reel-to-reels” and “I’ve finally finished the third-act of my operatic adaptation of ‘Where’s Waldo’; let’s celebrate with a light Riesling and Iberian ham.”

And plopped down amongst the lovely and the literate was Daughter and me, freshly exhausted from the one-block walk from the car in the hundred-degree heat. At least she wasn’t completely out of place, being as she was now the weight all of these people long to achieve. I was merely her sweaty, suburban driver. She drooped. I dripped. When I wasn’t blotting sweat off my purse, I was extolling the virtues of every fatty food I saw. She declined them all. The walk having tired her, she moaned, “Can’t we just go home?”

“No,” I snapped, my good humor worn about by three days of her swearing that a sesame seed counted as an entrée, “We are not leaving until you pick out two cheeses that you will eat.”

Either there had been a lull in the generally artsy conversation, or my voice naturally carries above people who write blank verse in their spare time, but several people looked over to see who was the maniac with control issues over cheese. I waved and blotted at my forehead. A saleswoman asked me if I needed help.

“Yes,” I began, “I need to get some cheese.”

“What do you like?”

“Oh,” I said, distracted by the tattoo of Alice B. Toklas on the customer next to me, “it’s not for me. It’s for my kid.”

The saleswoman stared at Daughter, who didn’t appear to be the kind of fine, discerning customer who usually quizzed the staff about upon which mountaintop the milk-giving cows had grazed. She appeared instead to be the kind of customer who could be tempted by cheese with holographic properties or a built-in DVD player. Daughter wilted against the counter and looked disinterested. I tried to care for both of us.

“See,” I said, in a slightly more confidential tone, “she needs to put on a little weight. She’s not eating.”

AUGH! I had just suggested my daughter was anorexic! Strangers would judge! I sweated faster and clarified.

“I mean,” I stammered, “she’s just not hungry. She thinks she looks fine. I think she looks fine. Actually, I think she looks thin, which is why we’re here.”

“I’M VERY SICK,” Daughter announced in another one of those conversational lulls. The few people who hadn’t inched away from us when I was insisting she pick cheese now got closer to other, presumably less-lethal, people. The saleswoman and I stared at one another. I whispered, “It’s just a bug...”

She said, quickly, “Sure, sure", while covertly placing a tarp over the cheeses closest to us.

I continued, “...but if she doesn’t eat, there could be complications and I...“

“Of course, of course,” she said, straightening up a pyramid of Welsh cheddars and moving them away from us.

“Well, you know, nothing’s fattier than good cheese!” I finished brightly, adding a high-pitched yip of a laugh which had been meant to indicated a certain casual good-humor but instead made me sound as if I had been given a drive-by mammogram. The saleswoman, suddenly very eager to move us on to some other store, hastily made suggestions, gave me samples. I chose the ones which had the least flavor with which Daughter could take offense.

Daughter, in the meanwhile, had recovered from the heat and was quietly agitating to be allowed to do jumping-jacks next to the ricotta. I whispered to her that she could do calisthenics at home, after she had some food. She frowned and whispered back that she wasn’t hungry. I suddenly got very tired in a way that had nothing to do with a virus. I grabbed something from the cabinet next to me and handed it to the saleswoman.

“And add this bottle of red to my tab.”

Daughter recovered, without ever eating the cheese. The cheese did, however, go beautifully with the wine.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Scales of Justice.

My existential dilemma began, as so many do, in PetCo.

Actually, the first hint of this dilemma began at a school fair. With Daughter currently home-schooling, I’m an ideal candidate for being talked into attending the school fairs of others; there’s nothing like several months of not having to attend fund-raising committee meetings to make a person enthusiastic about a fair. Metaphorically, this was the sausage made by others which I could enjoy in sweet ignorance.

And it was a fine fair. The weather was bright and pleasant, the booths numerous, the food copious and fried. We easily located Daughter’s friend and her mother and I sent Daughter off with a twenty-dollar bill and a warning that the money would not be replaced by more money when she and her friend used up her scrip, so plan wisely. Daughter, confronted with the equally novel experiences of being allowed to walk around a fair with only her (older and far more reasonable) friend and a crisp Andrew Jackson crumpled in her hand, dashed away. I settled in to my portion of the day, which was to hang out with the mother of Daughter’s friend — a lovely woman in her own right — while she served time as the monitor of the Silent Auction. This mostly involved dissuading people from opening the sealed paper around the donated cookbooks. Every twenty minutes or so, Daughter and her friend would come flying in, brandishing some new fair-triumph.

“We made a candy necklace!” Daughter announced, half of the necklace hanging from her mouth reminding me of the time I found our cat, Lulabelle, eating a lizard. I waggled my fingers in support, shouted “Great!”, and went back to watching no one bid on the trip to Hearst Castle.

They came back a while later and Daughter hiked her sleeve up her arm to reveal an electric blue flower.

“Tattoo!” she sang out in delight, flexing her bicep.

“Lovely!” I caroled back, “And it goes so well with the jelly-bean stuck to your hair!”

Daughter, nearly giddy now at this new mother who didn’t seem to actually do any parenting, dashed off. I toyed with bidding on a day-trip to the Santa Anita race track, but then remembered I’m wildly allergic to horses and losing money. By this point, I had entered that best of all states of perfect boredom where all thoughts have equal weight and nothing seems impossible and nothing seems worth moving from wherever it is you are standing. Time passed.

Daughter sped in, carrying something. She thrust said something into my hands: a small bag. I looked down.

“I won us a goldfish!” she shrieked.

“Oh…”, I said dumbly. And then, thinking I could improve upon it, I added, “Look.”

She grabbed back the little container and said, indicating her patient friend, “I’ll put it with Annabel’s stuff, on her desk”, she squealed breathlessly and raced off towards the classrooms. I sighed and stomped over to my friend, who was separating another mom from a sealed cookbook. “It now seems we own a goldfish.” I said bleakly. “A school-fair goldfish. Well at least it won’t last long.”

I knew of which I spoke. I had won a few of these in my childhood, the thrill of winning only eclipsed by the gray sensation of scooping a stiff, twisted fish-corpse out of the tank with a tea-strainer. One magical morning, I stepped barefoot on a pinky-sized corpse after the fish decided to escape its prison and walk home. No fair-fish ever lasted longer than a week.

“Don’t be so sure,” my friend said darkly. “We’ve had Pizza for two and a half years.”

I hoped she was bragging about how rarely she cleaned out her fridge, but no, it seems they have a school-fair goldfish that is one month away from joining the AARF. I sighed and glanced at a hot bidding war for a mother who would bake your classroom snacks for a year, but the responsibility-free feeling was gone. Daughter raced back in, carrying a small box. She held it up in triumph.

“I won us another fish, so they can be friends! And a holder, so we don’t have to worry about getting them a tank!”

Some combination of overwhelming love for this sweet kid and the good time she was having and a certain dull resignation that we were now in the fish business kept me from screaming, “Oh dear God, enough with the fish!” I did suggest that respected goldfish-behaviorists recommended that two was the ideal population, which she accepted, before going off to move both fish into their new digs. New digs which, while slightly more spacious than a plastic bag, were created of some unholy mixture of Saran Wrap and Kleenex and leaked water from several seams. I mentally erased Drive in a leisurely manner home from school fair and relax into couch from my afternoon plans and wrote in Drive like maniac while blotting water from car seat, leave fish and child at home and go to PetCo to upgrade housing. Somewhere in the back of my brain, a voice said firmly, “And then we get a margarita”. I know better than to argue with her.

Which brings us around to where we first found me, standing in the fish department of PetCo, contemplating the peculiar responsibility of goldfish-ownership. I knew I needed a bowl big enough to keep two goldfish comfortable, but what does that mean? When your entire life is dedicated to eating and aimless wandering, how much room do you need? Believe me, I’m not slighting eating and aimless wandering; I could also call those two activities “Quinn: 1997”, but was I slighting the fish by not giving them enough room to unroll a yoga mat?

I found a bowl which seemed about the right size for under ten dollars, but put it back because it lacked a lid and without a lid on the tank, the cat was going to view this as nothing more than a to-go cup. A lid meant a water-filter, which now put us into the fifteen-dollar camp. The water purifier and the food brought us in at twenty-four dollars. I held the can of goldfish food in my hand; it was about six inches high. There was no smaller size of food. The instructions said to feed each fish no more than about two flakes of food per feeding, twice a day. This food would serve us until, conservatively, the earth spun into the sun. The fishes would probably be dead before I remembered where I put the back-up house keys.

I wondered. Did the very brevity of their lives give them meaning, causing us to contemplate our own short-lived span upon this earth? Did the fact that I’d probably be trying to pull their carcasses out of the water-filter before “So You Think You Can Dance?” is over render their—and, by extension, our—lives meaningless? More likely, I am just making sure I'm prepared the next time someone requests a donation for a fund-raising garage sale. A full fish-tank set-up should net about fifty cents. I’ll throw in the lifetime food supply for free.

I shrugged and said “Oh, well” out loud, startling a woman standing next to me comparing prices on plastic deep-sea divers. I grabbed a bag of festive blue gravel and headed home. The big questions needed to be contemplated, but first I needed to purify some water, move a couple of fish, and mix myself a drink.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Please hold; Your call is very important to us.

Sorry, all. The week has been hectic. I promise to have something up in the next day or so.

In the meanwhile, I'm just reminding you that the Humane Society could certainly use any and all help right now.

See you before Friday-


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

It Ain't Me, Babe.

I hate disagreeing with well-meaning strangers but when someone says, “Your daughter looks exactly like you!” I am forced to say “No, she doesn’t.” In my defense, I try to say it softly. But then the other person insists, “No, really. She’s the spitting image of you”, at which point I say something conciliatory like “You know, now that you mention it…sure. Okay.”

But she doesn’t resemble me one bit. I say this with only the slightest eye-raising to Heaven, thanking whoever answered my prayers. What she does have are my facial expressions, my muscles under her face so to speak. I don’t own the building but the infrastructure is mine. Sometimes, watching her talk is like watching a very familiar movie with an entirely different cast. It is that combination of the familiar and the alien which is endlessly fascinating to me. Lately, the familiar has been all but overrun by the alien.

Take eggs. Please take them. With respect to eggs, I’m like a child, incapable of eating them if there is any discernible movement of either white or yolk. Any egg I eat must have the consistency of a manhole cover. If another person at the table is having a soft-cooked egg, I have to give myself little pep talks to not run screaming from the room clawing at my eyes. So, of course, I now have a daughter who is experiencing another growth spurt and requires an extra eighty grams of protein a day, She will eat three sunny-side-up eggs for a snack. She breaks the yolk open and lazily dips toast into the horrifying gooey yellowness while I stare intently at my cuticles. She eats the egg, luxuriating in whatever pleasures her sort of people derive from eating food which is still quivering. I closely examine a freckle on my wrist. A fork slides between me and my wrist, holding a bit of white limpness dotted with yellow slime.

“Want some?” she asks innocently, “It’s really good.”

I restrain myself from screaming and say through gritted teeth, “I’m…full. But thanks.”

I look up just in time to see her pop an entire egg yolk into her mouth.

“You’re sweating”, she notes.

“Yeah, I…excuse me” I say, racing from the room clawing at my eyes.

And then there’s Bob Dylan. I understand on an intellectual level that he is one of the great songwriters of the modern age and the reigning poet of his generation. I’ve read some of those lyrics and realize he’s said many important things about love and human existence, more then I ever will. For example, I don’t think he ever ranted about eggs. And how can I not appreciate someone who gave the world “The Mighty Quinn”?

[Actually, I could have done without that.]

But writing is one thing, singing is another. The first time I heard him sing was on Live-Aid. He was among the last performers of the world-wide extravaganza and it was generally understood that we were all to be very excited that Bob Dylan was going to sing for us. I sat at home, full to the eyebrows on Doritos and as keyed-up as a four year-old at Chuck E. Cheese after watching many slender British men being sensitive. And now, DYLAN! I was going to watch BOB DYLAN! And then I was going to UNDERSTAND! And then I would be COOLER! After great fanfare, they cut to what seemed to be a pile of paint-rags. The paint-rags had on a guitar and a harmonica. The paint-rags said something not entirely intelligible and then someone commenced to opening a squeaky door. Slowly. After a minute or so, I understood the paint-rags were, in fact, Bob Dylan and the squeaky door was his singing voice. I was crestfallen but illuminated. Dylan fell into the same category as Bergman films and soccer. I could respect the artistry of Bob Dylan without enjoying Bob Dylan. And barring a few painful weeks when Consort decided I’d like Dylan more if I heard more Dylan, there it was left for nearly two decades.

A few weeks ago, Daughter was avoiding handwriting practice by claiming to need background music. I don’t know why that particular CD drew her attention but the next thing I knew, “Blowing in the Wind” was blowing through my house and the squeaky door which is Bob Dylan has attained hegemony on my daughter's playlist ever since. I’m not exactly complaining, especially since the other option was the Zac Efron oeuvre, but there is something unsettling about such a small girl crooning over the soul-crushing despair of her last breakup. On the other hand maybe anomie, like measles, is less dangerous if contracted early. I do know that Consort, who is right about a great many things, was wrong about this: constant exposire to Dylan is not making me any fonder of Dylan.

Then there are the bookshelves. Rather, there is a lack of bookshelves. When our house was built, people didn’t own anything besides a pair of shoes, a towel and a copy of the Bible. At least, I assume this is true, what with our impressive absence of closet, shelf and book-space. Daughter gets new books but rarely wants to give up any old books and Daughter has the room with the absolute least amount of any kind of storage space. This has led to multiple book-ziggaruts dotting her floor. Some are small enough to step over, some tall enough to create a kind of end-table, upon which yet more books are piled . Fearing the Harry Potter-based landslide which would follow even a minor earthquake, Consort has decided to build floor-to-ceiling bookshelves running the length of one wall, complete with a built-in desk. This involved, among other things, dredging out old issues of Joinery Monthly, American Miter and similar magazines whose covers tempt you with “Seven Ways to Avoid Kerfing” and “What I Did for a Panel Saw”.

I did what I always do when Consort is thinking about using the tools which live in our garage, I said supportive things like “Look at you, touching sharp things and making a lot of noise!” and “Don't forget your protective eyewear.” It never occurred to me that Daughter would want to participate because my people don’t willingly interact with lumber. We either hire people to interact with lumber or we do without the object, creating some stand-in out of rain-soaked paperbacks and hardened cheese. But one of the goals for this spring had been to have father and daughter spend real quantity-time together and what says bonding quite like breaking a drill-bit and having to go to the hardware store for the third time in a single morning? And how else is she going to learn the more arcane obscenities?

As it turns out, she’s not just in it for the Daddy-time and forbidden vocabulary. Daughter loves working with Consort on projects. Measure twice, cut once? Yes, please! Daughter complains heartily when she is denied the chance to use the tool which has another name but I call the Finger-Eater. Daughter has taken to asking about whether there is a kids-camp for contractors. Once again, I am reminded that we are different people. Saturday, when I walked into the kitchen, the plans for the bookshelves were all over the table. Daughter was in her chair, up on her knees, stretched across the table, studying the drawings. She said happily, “I just love building things.” I nodded in a way I hoped indicated that I appreciated her passions without understanding them in the slightest.

Then I noticed what she was eating. Painfully slowly, she lifted a bit of moist egg to her mouth. Rapt in examining the blueprints, she let the fork dangle there in space, her lunch making a moist mockery of me. I needed to stop seeing it.

“Don’t you want to…” I began in a plangent tone and gulped heavily before I could finish, “…eat that?”

Distracted, she popped the shivery yellow glob in her mouth. Somewhere in the house, Bob Dylan complained about something. Daughter glanced away from the plans and smiled at me. Her expression was mine, but the brain behind it was totally hers.


Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Sweet Sole Music

Saturday morning. I walked into the living room and announced, “I am going to the gym. I’ll be back in an hour.”

I was not expecting a catered bon-voyage party but I was humbled by the collective vacuum of indifference. The cat continued to dig something out from between her toes. Consort’s eyes never left the business section of the paper. He didn’t even give his customary moo of “I hear that you just said something; I pray to God that you don’t quiz me later”. Daughter, knee-deep in a book involving ancient curses, a cat and a girl her age, was barely breathing let alone acknowledging her non ancient-curse-hurling mother. Even the dog, who hopes that someday we will go steady and I will wear his letter jacket, continued to snore into his own lap. I waited a second and then, shrugging, headed towards the door. I assumed I’d get a call in about forty five minutes asking where I was.

As my hand touched the doorknob, Daughter’s attention drifted off the page and towards me. “You’re going out?” she asked in confusion.

“Yes,” I said patiently, jiggling slightly from foot to foot in my eagerness to walk in place while reading InStyle magazine.


I said with slightly less patience, “Play back the tape in your head of what I just told you.”

She thought a moment, then asked “Are you sure you said it out loud?”


She thought some more. Consort continued to be enthralled with the Wagnerian opera that is any article about digital rights management. The cat, having finally snagged whatever was between her toes, ate it. The dog snored. Finally, Daughter shrugged.

“I didn’t hear what you…Wait! You’re going to the gym!” she said in relief.

“See how much easier life becomes if you listen to me?” I asked, preparing to give a quick-yet-dreary lecture on listening which, of course, would give her no incentive to ever listen to me again. She shook her head.

“No. I still didn’t hear what you said. I just heard your shoes.”

It’s not bad enough that I took step classes in the 90’s, and that my grapevine up-and-over was the talk of West Hollywood. I had to go and hurt myself in step class in such a way that I will carry the injury for the rest of my life. Yes, readers, I have a step-class war wound. This is like getting a disfiguring scar from a guinea pig named Mr. Squeakers. It doesn’t help that my injured body part (the meniscus) sounds like the kind of flat fish nice restaurants can’t sell until someone re-names it Costa Rican Velvet Salmon.

The good news was that I didn’t tear my knee enough to require surgery. The bad news was that I didn’t tear my knee enough to require surgery. Instead, I was sent into the limbo realm of physical therapy. I spent lots of time with someone named Tammy doing exercises designed to provoke hilarity in the viewer but provide no appreciable improvement to my joint. A few months later the doctor declared me “cured”, which could also be pronounced “we’ve used up your insurance payout”. He told me to get specially-made orthotics to keep this from happening again. I was handed the card of a trained professional whose great calling in life was crafting shoe inserts.

This was not a terribly interesting time in my life and I can’t recall tons of it, but the trip to the podiatrist was memorable in several ways. First, I had to pay five hundred dollars in cash. Cash-only transactions are understandable when you are buying a Vuitton purse on a New York sidewalk but they do give a person pause when dealing with someone who went to medical school and, theoretically, doesn’t have an antagonistic relationship with the authorities. Second, I could read the entire thesaurus and never come up with a better word to describe sticking your feet into buckets of warm plaster than “weird”. Third, I could read the entire thesaurus and never come up with a better word to describe this particular podiatrist than “weird”. Something told me touching feet wasn’t just a job for this guy.

Three weeks later, I was handed blue plastic shoe inserts to be worn every single time I worked out, unless I wanted Tammy-time again. I heeded this warning far more closely than I’ve heeded other equally insistent caveats, at least partially because every time I’d decide to go orthotics-free to the gym, within a week I’d be dragging my leg behind me and doing a kind of tuck-and-roll to get out of the car. It appeared the odd little man’s appliances and I are going through life together and I have no problem with that, just so long as I never had to watch him fondle my instep again.

So of course, about two years ago the designers got together and changed some basic element of the sports-shoe architecture. I don’t know what it is. The shoes feel identical to me but I know something changed because now every time I remove the cheap factory-made insert and put in my orthotics, I turn my shoes into a wind instrument. Every time I step down, I get a small but very distinct “WHHHEEEEeeeee!”.




I’ve had six different brands of shoes and they’ve all had something to say. I keep thinking I’ll learn to tune it out but in the meanwhile I entertain myself at the gym by pacing my steps to the song:

"Hey now…"

. "…You’re all all-star…"

. "…Get your game on…"

. "…Go play!..."

It also works if I can arrange my workout for the same time as the guy with Tourette’s Syndrome. His throat-clearing provides a nice bass note to the soprano lilt of my insoles, and he’s the only other member of the gym who doesn’t start taking great care to not look at my musical feet.

Standing at the door, I stared at Daughter who was clearly enjoying her deductive skills. I shifted my weight and the shoe wheezed in response. Imperceptibly, I shifted my balance to my toes, away from the orchestra. Kissing her good-bye, I flew off through the yard, my tiny syncopated cheerleaders celebrating each step towards health, and away from dignity.

“WHHHEEEEeeeee!” “WHHHEEEEeeeee!” “WHHHEEEEeeeee!”