Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Essay Faire

Dear Future Readers of My Book,

First of all, thanks for all the notes and questions about the book. If you are new here, I have a book coming out next year. I’d give you a more specific date, but it’s been changed three times already. I have been assured that this most recent date is the real and final publishing date, but when my editor said that I said “Uh-HUH, okay!” in the bright and superficially supportive way I used to when friends would swear to me that their fifth trip to rehab was going to be the one that stuck. As soon as we all agree on a title, you will know that as well. Marketing has yet to be sent into raptures over a title suggestion of mine and, in publishing as in nearly everywhere else in the explored world, we need to make Marketing happy. But right now, I want to you to know what I am doing for you, the reader. Even more than Marketing, I work for you and you are a stern taskmaster, you are.

Because of you, I read nothing which would make me happy. There is a new David Sedaris book in the stores; it’s been there since late May. I have not bought it, nor have I looked through it at Borders, even when it called to me sweetly from behind a copy of Teen Cosmo. There is a new Sarah Vowell book out shortly; I have not bought it in advance on Amazon. And it’s not just the written word, either.This American Life plays every single week on NPR, and I turn it off if anyone more compelling than an insurance actuary has written a segment. I heard David Rakoff’s voice on Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me and after I turned off the radio I fell into a self-pitying fugue state for the rest of the afternoon. I do this because I love you.

I also do this because I am very much like tofu, in that I absorb the flavors of whatever writer is being smart, self-deprecating and quirky near me. If I read or hear the Davids (Rakoff or Sedaris), I end up sounding like the poor man’s gay man. And, believe me, when you grow up in a gay neighborhood and then you go into the entertainment industry and you live for a while with a bunch of gay men and then you move to the Castro district in San Francisco and you kind of look like Liza Minnelli in the wrong light, you’re very nearly a gay man as it is.

I can’t read Anne Lamott right now because if I read her, I start thinking I have something to say to or about God. She writes about her faith so simply and lucidly that a person starts to think, “Why, I’m having doubts, just as Anne had doubts! I should write about those doubts and then overcome them with prayer!” forgetting that I can certainly shake a doubt loose or two with the best of them but I find that prayer isn’t always as effective for me as reading essays by the Davids, which I can’t do now. So, no Anne.

I can’t read Sarah Vowell because her voice walks confidently into my head and sets fire to mine. Sarah has an encyclopedic knowledge of history, and such a seemingly effortless way of finding the small human voices in the shouting tumult of American history that illuminate the bigger picture. If pressed, I remember something about the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria.

[Actually, I did find something recently that I liked. As I have mentioned before, my favorite royal family were the Bourbons of Spain, for no better reason than they did some of the most unapologetic inbreeding seen in a royal family since the Egyptians. Searching for something else in Wikipedia, I found a picture of a Bourbon, and I found a picture of his family tree, which is less tree than double-helix of cousin-marrying. He was related to his own great-grandmother fourteen times over. Oh, how I love the Spanish Bourbons.]

Recently, I learned that Sarah Vowell, David Rakoff and members of the Sedaris family are friends, which made some sort of horrible sense. It’s like a lunch-table I can only peer at longingly. God knows, I can’t read it.

It goes on. I can’t read Bailey White, or Jean Kerr, or Erma Bombeck. I can read lesser essay writers, but why would I want to do that? I could read fiction, but I don’t want fiction. I could read science books, but I don’t want science books. Like my friends who have drifted down the path of Atkins, gazing at a plate piled high with bacon and steak, weeping piteously for a Saltine, I want the thing I cannot have the tiniest bit of right now. I want essays, good ones. I want my book finished so I can go back to being the kind of person who when asked “How’s the book?” will only think of the paperback jammed in her purse and will say happily, “It’s great, you should read it.”

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Balance Beam

I don’t know about you, but when a former male model wants to sell me on the idea of a balanced life I’m all ears. Actually, he wasn’t talking to me, exactly. He was being interviewed by Elle magazine. Cameron was shown both in his previous incarnation as a Guess jeans model, pouting and flexing, and in his new form as an Ayurvedic healer, pouting and flexing in an enlightened fashion. He stayed with the reporter for a day, helping her improve her life (beyond whatever inherent benefit you get from staring at a really well-defined profile for 24 hours).

What he suggested to the reporter made sense in a “I think my mother said something like this” kind of way. Go to sleep early. Drink lots of water. More vegetables than meat and alcohol, while hugely fun, has never improved either the inner or the outer Quinn. But mostly what he talked about – besides his website where we could all benefit from his knowledge and cheekbones – was the idea of balance. He also talked about air, water, fire, all in alignment with your charkas, something about dripping oil on your forehead…I’m sorry, I kind of drifted, because I read the article standing in the “Twelve items or less” line and I couldn’t decide whether the woman in front of me had one group of lemons, which put her under twelve, or four lemons, which put her over twelve. And then my phone rang but I couldn’t find my Bluetooth in my purse so I decided to buy gum, which put me over the twelve-item limit and I became confused. Anyway, once again I was reminded that I’m supposed to be living in balance, no one element of my life should take dominance over the others. I can’t think of a single religion which disagrees with that statement. It’s sane, it’s sensible, I couldn’t agree more. I just want someone to come into my life and make me do it.

For instance, how am I supposed to live in balance in a world which contains ponytail holders? For those of you without long hair in your life, either on your head or the head of a loved one, ponytail holders have only two development stages: all or none. I either cannot walk through my house without wading through a teeming mass of mating hair-elastics or I am taking my daughter to ballet which is ten minutes away and starts in five minutes and there isn’t a single ponytail holder in the entire house. I will eventually grit my teeth and pull her hair back with a rubber band, knowing it will lead to tears and scissors-wielding later. I also know that after everyone is settled in for the evening and I go to lock up the house for the night, a thousand ponytail holders will form the world’s longest conga line through my house. I know, I’m supposed to put them in a special hair-elastic place, which is just the sort of thing balanced people do. Cameron probably does it. I can swear under oath that I do put them someplace dedicated to hair-elastics. But they move. And the next thing I know, the cat is using them as soccer balls. This is entertaining, but this is not balanced.

For a compete lack of balance in one's life, there is nothing which compares to Facebook. There is no dabbling in Facebook just like there is no kind of swimming the English Channel. After enough gentle mocking from friends about my lack of Face, I created a Facebook page. Within minutes, I had my first friend request, from one of the mockers. Delighted, I invited her into my book. Or my face. Or whatever. And I happily invited those who came afterwards. Then, I got a friend request from someone I knew from elementary school. I thought a bit about this one, and then invited her in. Within days, I had a nest of people from elementary school sitting in my inbox.

Then high school classmates started finding me. Then friends I knew from acting in my twenties started finding me. People were poking me, hugging me, sending me theater announcements and birth announcements and “I changed my font!” announcements and online drinks, which struck me as just teasing, really. Consort pointed out that I – barely social in the three-dimensional world – had now created a whole new world in which to long to be left alone in no dimensions. Within weeks of creating a page, I had people leaving plaintive messages to the effect of “Guess you don’t check your Facebook page that often…” and I was about to write a long impassioned wall-graffiti about how I mean to write all of them back, and I’m terribly happy to be poked, and keep those delicious online daiquiris coming, when it suddenly dawned on me: this modern age was bringing me more guilt, that most ancient of emotions.

So, here is what I am. I am the mother of a child who is back in her own bedroom. I am the owner of a house without a single right angle. I am a person with three pets indoors and several outdoor feral cats who sneer at me but still hang around waiting for dinner. I am a writer with a deadline. I am a person with a great longing for a hair-band and a slight fear of being tickled online. I am a person who goes to the grocery store far too often but appreciates the magazine-scanning opportunities. What I am not is balanced. The magazine and the gum went back into their shelves.

I did, however, grab a box of ponytail holders.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Summertime, and the livin' is easy...

I rarely offer helpful parenting suggestions, mostly because I suspect my readers know too much about me to take anything I say beyond “Buttered toast? Yes!” seriously. But here goes; if you need to buy a present for a two or three year-old, might I suggest some big lightweight scarves? I got Daughter some for Christmas the year she was two and she played with them a bit on Christmas day before lunging at a new present, which I can only assume was cat-related.

But in the following days, and months, long after the wind-up toys had been sprung and the small toys had been lost and the age-appropriate toys had been grown out of, the scarves abided. They were girl-wardrobe, and stuffed-animal wardrobe and pet-wardrobe; they were tents and casts for pretend broken legs and rivers for her finger-puppets and things to pitch at your mother when she was being especially annoying. In retrospect, they were the smartest things I ever bought her. Why do I bring up the scarves? Am I trying to burnish my own parental halo? No, and I’ll prove it by balancing the scarf-business by telling you that Daughter had an ice-cream sandwich for dinner two nights ago. No, I mention the scarves because they, and every other item of her childhood, are currently in active use in my living room.

Daughter went to a Montessori school early on, and was carefully inculcated into the idea of putting things back once you’re finished with them. Our house isn’t large, so I eagerly (less enlightened souls might say “Maniacally”) encouraged this behavior at home. When she doesn’t put things away, I trot out my worn and aged speech about respecting our things by treating them well, putting them where they belong, Mother gets weak and fretful when she can’t see the floor in your room, tra la la. And then came the move into the living room where, it has been noted, there isn’t any “Away” into which to put things.

For the first couple of weeks, I was the shouting micro-managing parent, pointing to different horizontal spaces and saying things like “Create a system! A system of…piles!” And then I grew very tired. It was hot, and every tool Consort used was loud or dust-generating. The air-compressor made a noise like thousand bullfrogs burping twelve times an hour. A pile of Barbie clothes stopped seeming so important. Then the Barbie clothes developed a satellite of paper dolls, which begat a construction of her wooden blocks (which had been my blocks and my mother’s blocks). I stepped over things, and I ignored. Once I choose to ignore, I am very good at it. Some times, I would walk into the living room and I would think “What a dreadful place. I wonder who lives here.” And I would go on ignoring.

The dining-room, rendered unusable by her mattress and dresser, generously donated its dining-room table chairs which, covered with a scarf, became a clubhouse for the pets. The dog would only go in if Daughter went in first and the cat would only go in if immobilized by another large scarf, but no matter. At last count, there at fifteen books of hers in various states of reading dotted around the room. Nearly all of her dress-up clothing is strewn about, in case she is walking between books and suddenly needs to become a hula dancer.

And I don’t care. It’s temporary and no one can say it isn’t generating creativity. There are daily productions for me to see which involve singing, dancing, light comedic patter and the liberal use of scarves. I can’t say as I am always up for an afternoon at the theater but -- as with certain little-theater performances of friends I have been forced to see over my lifetime -- I keep a pleasant smile on my face and use that time to make a grocery list. And, unlike the performances of friends, Daughter doesn’t make me get a drink with her afterwards and dissect her performance. She doesn’t need to hear what I thought of her; she knows she was fabulous.

Consort is now at the wallpaper stage of the renovation, which means we’re not too far from the end. He swears she’ll be back in her room this week, Friday at the latest. I, being of a less credulous mind, translate that to mean she’ll be back in her room next Thursday. Either way, house-as-playroom model will come to an end. There will be all sorts of new and organized places to put her things. We’ll blow the renovation-dust off the books and put them into their new bookshelves; the construction toys will be boxed up and put where they belong. The scarves will have their own scarf-spot. Our living room and dining-room will no longer resemble the inside of my daughter’s mind. I will be relieved, and I will be a little bit sad.

Monday, August 04, 2008

I'm Busy Twenty-Four Hours a Day.

Unless you like the taste of confusion, you're going to want to read the blog before this one.

Mid-July came, and the bookshelves were as completed as they could be in the garage. We had to move this project indoors. There’s a business-school aphorism which goes “The chicken is involved with your breakfast, but the pig is committed.” We were about ready to move from eggs to bacon. We moved all the furniture out of Daughter’s room, boxing the books and putting a sleeping bag in the living room for what was estimated to be no more than two weeks.

Now, here’s the truth: when Consort and I first talked about doing this, part of my brain thought “Whee! Blog-fodder!” And we all know what kind of fodder I was going to get out of this, the spouse-teasing kind. He was going to do his best, but between a little procrastination here, a little dropping-things-on-his-foot there, and an allover patina of obscenities, I gleefully figured his foibles would write the blog for me. So let’s get this out of the way right now: Consort has been fabulous. Professional, hard-working, exact in his measurements to an almost unsettling degree; had he been working in a vacuum, we’d have been drinking gin and tonics in Daughter’s finished bedroom two weeks later. Yes, the obscenities have been plentiful, but it’s safe to say that he earned them.

The fates sent their first volley in the form of Consort’s work projects. Anyone who rents their brain for a living already knows that the July project ran late, but did you think the August project would start early? Has a project, ever in the history of the modern industrial age, started early? And let us all bow our heads for a second at the exquisite timing; he was not alerted to the new start-date until he had opened up the wall with the water-damage, thereby making it impossible to put Daughter back in her room. His time was now split between one of the more arcane and theoretical corners of digital rights management and me poking him in the shoulder whining, “Is that mold? Should we move out? I think it’s mold. Should I call a guy? I feel congested. It’s mold, right?”

No, Quinn, it’s not mold. It’s old wood with only moderate damage from water a very long time ago, requiring nothing more than a little lathe replacement and the time to plaster, which Consort did, as time allowed. “As time allowed” came to mean “Between eleven and two o’clock in the morning”, which meant that for a few days there all of my dreams would involve George Clooney and me having an intimate dinner at the Villa D’Este which was undergoing extensive remodeling. The replacing of lathe was followed by plastering which possessed its own mischievous spirit. Consort plastered in three places, using the same plaster and the same plastering technique in all three spots. Two of the plastered areas dried within a day, and the other refused to dry. Days later, it still had the cool moist feeling of a healthy gecko. I would come in, and he’d be staring it in confusion, sweating from the heat-lamps he had directed on the mutinously moist spot. We both look at it for a while and then, realizing I was pretty much watching paint dry, I’d grab him by the hand and draw him towards the living room. We’d get into the living room and usually head back into Daughter's bedroom, because it was less stressful.

The living room is currently operating (I cannot honestly say that it’s functioning) as Daughter’s bedroom. For the first few days, whenever she would bring something out, I’d say in my best boundary-establishing tone, “Please put that away when you’re done with it.” Daughter would say in justifiable confusion, “But where?” and I would respond by waving my hand towards the rest of the house and finally saying, “Well…just keep it off the floor at least.” She and I both knew that “At least…” meant “I have lost control of this situation.” She did what anyone would expect a child to do; she piled her toys and books on the couch. Part of her clothing is in the dresser, which is in the dining room, which also houses her mattress. Because it isn’t easy to get to the dresser, we’ve created a second, more easily-accessible pile of daytime clothing next to the television. The cat keeps sleeping on that pile. The dog keeps sleeping on the toys on the couch.

Daughter starts off the night sleeping in our bedroom so Consort can watch “Dexter” without worrying about destroying his Daughter’s ability to form healthy attachments. Then, one of us moves her into the sleeping bag when we go to bed. Moving her sleeping form was an unremarkable process when she was small, but now kind of looks like those pictures I sometimes see in the paper of horses that have fallen down canyons being airlifted out. In both cases, there are an awful lot of limbs flailing around. Half the time, we leave her in our bed and one of us just ends up sleeping under the hot pink sleeping bag, Barbie and Ken gazing down lasciviously.

After a week, the plaster finally dried and the August project reached a place where it could be palmed off—I mean, delegated. Consort brought in the bookshelves and installed them. Consort ran the new electrical wiring and outlets and got about 78% of that done. The wallpaper wasn’t up and there was still work to be done, but we could see the finish line from where we were. I commended Consort on his work ethic; he complimented me on not bursting into tears when I opened my lingerie drawer and found a small crowbar. We both spent a lot of time in the bedroom, raving over the improvements he was making. Unbeknownst to us, the rest of the house heard this as well. And the rest of the house got very jealous at the focus being paid to one unworthy little corner. Why, all the other elements of the house thought, we’re just as cute as that old room! What’s it going to take to be the object of that kind of attention?

Which is when the house planned its revenge, which I think in the labor sector is known as a rolling sick-out. Day One, the garbage disposal died: Consort bought it and replaced it [Elapsed time: 5.25 hours]. Day Two, our bathroom sink backed-up: Consort diagnosed and snaked it [Elapsed time: 4.0 hours] and produced something which looked kind of like a nutria, which led to Quinn and Daughter getting the “No hair in the drain” lecture again. Day Three, my car developed a case of dashboard lights: Consort diagnosed problem, bought and added fluids [Elapsed time: 3.45 hours]. The house grew confused and frustrated, because Consort was taking on each challenge with something approaching good humor and was still working on the bedroom, albeit slowly. What could the house do to cause all attention to be drawn away from the bedroom for an extended period of time?

Which is, of course, why the computer’s main hard-drive crashed on Day Four. There’s nothing like a void of blackness where there had just been a manuscript to make a person get right with God, very quickly. Consort was able to salvage the book and a few other essentials on to a backup computer before the last saliva-bubble passed the computer’s metaphorical lips, but for three days there was no talk of the bedroom. There was the hired geek for three hours and then there was Consort working heroically for nearly forty-eight hours, refusing to allow the computer to walk towards the light.

Day Five, I headed out for the evening, to see a friend I hadn’t seen in two years. Part of me felt guilty leaving Consort and Daughter, but Consort waved me off with a distracted “Go, go…tell me what sunshine is like.” Daughter was sitting on a stack of her own t-shirts watching “Sponge Bob Square-Pants”. I was redundant. I pulled out of the garage and hit the button; the garage-door didn’t close. I hit it again, and the garage door moved an inch, after which the motor made an almost animal scream of terror. Then, it started moving up and down, an inch each way, screaming all the while. Any other time, I would have been alarmed. Now, I was just mad. I stuck my head out the window and yelled at the house “I HATE YOU! I REALLY, REALLY HATE YOU!” What the neighbors thought, I don’t know. I turned off the car, stomped into the garage and closed it from the inside. It shut with a minimum of shrieking. “Stupid garage,” I said bitterly, “the computer has us booked through the weekend. You weren’t supposed to go out until Monday.”

I stood in the garage for a second before going through the yard to the car. I noted the remnants of the bedroom project: the trim for the bookshelves, neatly painted; the low-VOC paint; the carefully-chosen rolls of wallpaper, waiting to go up. I felt a rush of love for Consort, who was working well beyond his pay-grade to make a lovely room for his daughter.

I decided to tell him about the garage-door next week.