Monday, September 29, 2008

Poetry In Motion.

Sometimes when Consort and I are feeling affectionate we debate which of us is going to die first. Being as I am female and he is male, I am quite certain he is going to die first; actuarial tables and any retirement home would prove my point. Sometimes I even find an actuarial table online and wave at it in front of Consort, basking in my rightness. He’ll die first, and I’ll cry and cry and cry and then I’ll get his side of the bed.

Consort, upon being informed of this inevitability, always shakes his head and says “Yes Quinn, if you were a normal female, you’d outlive me. But you’re you.” And then he brings up some really grotesque injury I inflicted upon myself. He might even mention the time I was eighteen and fencing competitively and I was running up a flight of stairs to a fencing lesson and I fell up the stairs and landed on my own foil, removing a chunk of shin bone in the process. I usually parry such anecdotes with a waved hand and an airy “I don’t do things like that anymore. I’ll outlive you and I’ll crack my neck in whatever room I want and you’ll just have to listen to it in the afterlife and suffer.”

Last week, I awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of the dog being emotional. It went on long enough to rouse me from a sound sleep, which is usually longer than it takes to scare off dragons. Somewhere in my REM-haze, I thought he might need to go out. I staggered to the back door, only to be confronted with Consort coming in with the dog. They both looked pleased. I muttered, “Is the dog okay?” and Consort breezily answered, “Oh, yeah, he’s fine. It was tree raccoons.”

It’s a testimony to my ability to get up from a bed, walk the length of a house and talk without ever waking up that I nodded in agreement and went back to bed. The next day, I called him at work.

“I’m sorry, tree raccoons?”

Yes, tree raccoons. The night before, at 2:30, the dog suddenly grew very excited about the subject of out. He had to be out now. Out is the new black. OUT! Consort, working on something and being annoyingly nocturnal, was up and was about to let him out when he realized the excitement might be over a skunk, which might not want a new excitable friend lunging at him. Consort locked the dog in the house – which had led to the girlish hysteria I had heard – and headed outside to shoo away whatever was thrilling the dog. He saw no skunk, but he did see a huge cat waddling around the yard.

Consort went back in, got a flashlight, and determined the waddling cat was, in fact, a waddling raccoon, which then trundled over to the biggest tree in the yard and scampered up with surprising grace; Consort described it as watching Chris Farley rock-climb. Following the raccoon up the tree with his flashlight beam, Consort found no fewer than four raccoons, all of Samsonite heft, hanging out in the tree, staring at him. For reasons that I’m sure made sense when normal people would have been sleeping, he decided to shoo them away. He made noise; they blinked. He poked at the tree with a rake; they yawned and opened another bag of Funions. Finally, he determined that waving the rake back and forth either made a noise they found displeasing or their pity for him was cutting into their appetite, because they all hopped down and toddled away.

I was fascinated. Tree raccoons! Now that I thought about it, it made sense that raccoons would be up in trees, until such time as they raised enough money to come up with a down payment on a condo, but I had never actually thought about raccoons in my trees. I made Consort swear that if he ever found tree raccoons again, he’d wake me, even if I hit him when he tried to do it. Consort, weary and confused that someone in the house was even more excited about tree raccoons than the dog, agreed warily.

The next night, I was about to go to bed when I went to the back door to let the cat in. Usually, she’s hostile about domesticity until the last call of the night, when she comes flying to the door as if Cerberus the canine gatekeeper of Hell is breathing down her neck. She then stands in the doorway for a few minutes dithering about whether she really wants to come in or not until I remind her that Indoors=Kitty Stars by shaking the bowl. She shoots me a filthy look and rushes to her bowl. It’s wondrously predictable. But that night, I called for Her Grace several times without getting an answer. I looked out in the yard and saw no football-shaped object careening towards the door but, in the reflected glow from the house, I thought I saw eyes in the tree.

I squinted; tree raccoon or cat? Whatever it was, it was shadowy and coy. I stepped a little further out into the yard, but the shadow didn’t become either a cat or a raccoon. If it was a raccoon, I wanted to see it and if it was my cat, I wanted to shout impotently at it. I went back inside and got a small flashlight. I walked toward the tree, getting directly underneath it; its body was hidden behind a branch. I took a step sideways; still hidden. Another step sideways; still hidden. Another step sideways and my foot hooked under the wooden Adirondack chaise, one of only two objects in the entire back yard. The momentum of catching my foot caused me to arc sideways over the chaise, the leg of the chaise now enmeshed with my leg. I landed on the ground and a second later the chaise landed on top of me. A second’s pause and then the flashlight hit me as well.

I lay on the ground, staring at the night sky, or what I could see of it through the top half of the chaise which was pinning my head to the ground. Through the slats, I saw the animal look down at me. It was, I was disappointed to note, the cat; she appeared to be disgusted. Sighing, I righted the chaise and carefully folded up my pant leg so I could avoid bleeding on yet another piece of clothing. Automatically, I mentally checked my tetanus-shot status and was happy to note I was unlikely to develop lockjaw. I then went inside to tell Consort that I gave him permission to date after I was gone.

Monday, September 22, 2008

I Feel For You

As I have mentioned here previously, I volunteer with a private cat-rescue organization. I don’t bring this up so my readers will think I’m some Converse-shod angel doling out kitty stars for public admiration. I bring this up because if you’ve ever been to Los Angeles and seen me someplace and thought to yourself, “Say, isn’t that the former child actor whose name I can’t recall! That’s odd, she smells like soiled cat litter…”, I just want to assure you that yes, I do.

On most days, I go directly home from the shelter but if I stop somewhere for caffeine and can’t find a drive-through I will at least try to stand next to an open window. Between the stink lines rising above my clothes, the pink runny eyes I sprout from the blizzard of cat dander and the rasping noises I make trying to expunge cat hair from my trachea, I resemble that thing small children are convinced dwell under their beds.

Week after week I have plodded in and I have cleaned. Not only do I clean cat boxes, I take home bags of laundry. Believe me, I am not a good person. I have personally lowered the limbo pole for all sinners everywhere and yet I do believe my time in hell will be reduced by a few decades for having laundered several tons of damp cat-infused rags during my tenure.

But this month, my nastier allergies finally trumped my nobler instincts. I couldn’t spend two hours in a confined space with dozens of cats and expect to breathe inaudibly the rest of the day. Luckily, my histamines hit critical mass just as we had an influx of new volunteers, all clear-eyed, eager to serve and impervious to kitty stank. I happily surrendered my on-site shift and took on another crucial responsibility: as of three weeks ago, I am the official chauffeur for cats going in for the Very Special Operation. You know what I'm talking about. One day you’re a kitten who finds your tail endlessly fascinating. Then you start to find the tails of other cats endlessly fascinating. Suddenly you want to pick fights, put on tight clothing and go to nightclubs. That’s when I swoop in and take you away for the day. After a week or so, you realize other cats aren’t nearly as interesting as a really big bowl of food.

Because kitten season is in the spring we now have lots of adolescent antics going on; many teenage cats are making a spectacle of themselves. Once a week, the director of the rescue group decides which cats are the most frisky and leaves me a message indicating who is on the chopping block, as it were. Every Friday morning, with all the car windows open to ventilate the clouds of dander and relentless screaming, I deliver this chosen few to our offsite vet. Every Friday afternoon I pick them up and bring them home. It’s the most organized thing I do every week. Or it should be.

Last Friday, I opened the shop and was greeted with a snarly mass of cats swarming around like a rebel army. It took no more than a second to determine what had happened. Usually, the volunteer who closes up at night puts food into each cage and the cats, hungry and tired after a day of glaring at one another and grooming, slink into their individual quarters and wait to be locked in. Everything is very regimented, very routine. Imagine the world’s most lethargic prison. Or the early-bird special at a chain restaurant in Boca Raton. The night before, however, had fallen under the command of a new volunteer, one who wasn’t well-versed on the ritual. So, of course, our normally well-mannered little charges turned into middle-schoolers testing out a substitute teacher.

Each of the cats milling around was a cat who, in the past, has shown a fondness for challenging authority figures. I could easily imagine how the volunteer spent a frustrating half-hour or so wrangling cats that rewarded her with hisses and scratches before cramming themselves into the quarter-inch space behind a cabinet. She probably then thought something like, “Fine! To hell with you and your cattish ways! Go without dinner and see if I care!”

We’ve all been there. I didn’t judge. But it did mean I was now slogging through a roiling sea of cats, hungry from not having had dinner last night and enraged that I wasn’t running towards the dry food bin. I felt badly for their hunger, but I knew another volunteer was arriving within the hour and there wasn’t a cat in the place who couldn’t survive that long. The cats disagreed. My ankles got nipped a couple of times but it felt less hostile rage than pre-prandial sampling.

I grabbed the carry-cages for the cats on my list and looked around. I knew I was taking Bosco, Ramon and Edgar. I had no idea who Bosco and Edgar were and only the dimmest recollection that Ramon wore a natty tuxedo but this wasn’t a problem as every cage has an information sheet. The first cage had a red sign indicating it was Bosco’s place but when I looked inside I saw a large elderly tabby whose man-feelings had been taken care of many years ago. A quick scan around the cages told me I had another problem besides the cats trying to rappel up my leg to eat the breath mints in my pocket.

The volunteer from the previous night had let the cats go into whatever cages they wanted. Even discounting the cats I knew were adults and the kittens that were too young, I had easily fifteen cats who might be Bosco or Edgar. There were three tuxedo cats, any one of which might be Ramon. Now what?

I went to each cage harboring an adolescent kitten and opened the door. The kittens, coursing with testosterone and giddy with low-blood sugar and the cry of freedom, would attempt to leap out of the cage. If there was only one in the cage, I would simultaneously stop its leap to freedom and give it an exploratory grab in the back to see if I had snagged a male. For some strange reason, this always made the cat shriek in protest -- a noise which folded nicely into the rest of the caged cats voicing their irritation that I was feeding someone else as well as the free-range cats who were manifesting their hunger by batting one another and screaming like chainsaws.

Sometimes, the first gender-grope would be inconclusive and I would have to visually examine the rear end: are those small because he’s had the operation, or is he just one of those boys who’s going to have to develop a sense of humor? I would make an executive decision and either go to the next cage or go off in search of his roommates, if they had propelled themselves out of the cage when I was asking him to turn his head and cough. Every few minutes, I’d peel cats off my legs and sometimes my shirt. The din was indescribable.

After a half hour, I was beaten. I could only see out of one eye, the other being busy streaming tears so as to remove the pound of hair a well-placed tail had inserted. I had claw marks down my arms, my chest and my back, all of which itched and were starting to swell. Most discouraging, I had no more information than I had before. Nearly all the adolescent cats were male, as were all three of the tuxedos. I wanted to go years before I even considered the notion of cat testicles ever again.

Through my one working eye, I saw that I had ten minutes until we were due at the vet. I felt tired and I felt vindictive. Assuming that violence and physical strength are practical indications of testosterone level, I grabbed the three half-grown cats that had clawed me the most deeply and jammed them in the cat carriers. I stacked the cages under my arms and hobbled to the door. The cats not coming with me, gleaning that I wasn’t the caterer, started howling more loudly.

Emboldened by having captured my charges -- who might or might not have been Bosco, Ramon and Edgar-- I turned back to the wailing throng and shouted warningly, “Really? You want a piece of me? Just ask these three tonight what happens to cats who cross me.”

The new volunteers have vigor, but we veterans have style.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

...where credit is due.

Consort was describing a relative by marriage, dead many years and scarcely lamented:

"He was the guy who'd come to a wedding and eat all the shrimp."

I was delighted. I made him repeat it. He swore he made it up. He gave me permission to use this anywhere as needed but I'm all but certain I'll forget it before then, so it goes here.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Getting to Feel Free and Easy.

Just for fun, let us pretend that you are all me.

If you feel the need to get deeply into character, I suggest you spill something on your shirt and start fixating on something inadvertently offensive you might have said to someone six months ago. Good, now you’re me. And many years ago you meet a guy and you fall madly in love. Yes, you’ve cared for other men before, but this is different. This guy, he’s something special and you’re completely captivated. He’s the smartest, kindest, most wonderful man you’ve ever met. You find the way he rolls up his sleeves strikes you as witty; his ability to make pasta Putanesca speaks to his depth of character; his relationship with New Yorker magazines is an adorable quirk. You get to know him better, and you only love him more. Years pass and you have a child, and he is a wonderful father. You love this man very much. But now, sometimes you manifest this love by being convinced that he’s sneezing just to annoy you.

Consort and I were battling something last week. I know it was allergies because neither of us had a fever, Consort thinks it was a cold because he’s wrong. I carried around my asthma inhaler like it was my very own American Girl broncho-dilator and Consort sneezed. The first time he sneezed, all living members of the family jumped about four inches; the fish didn’t jump but it did look startled. I said “Bless you” in a sympathetic way, as I did the next four times he sneezed. After that, I descended to mumbling “Ble-ya” every sixth sneeze or so. And then I tried covering my growing lack of compassion in his sneezing by being attentive.


“Can I get you some Kleenex?”

“No, I’m not congested, just sneezing. But thanks.”

“Oh. Okay.”


“Maybe you should take a shower? That helps me when my allergies are acting up.”

“Yeah, I just took one, it didn’t seem to help. That’s because it’s a cold.”

“I’m telling you, it’s al-“



”How about a Benadryl?”

“No, it doesn’t help.”


Doesn’t help.”





“You must be so uncomfortable.”

“Actually, it feels great.”


And that is how you, Quinn, ended up cleaning out the trunk of the car at 10:30 at night. Because sitting in the garage refreshing the car emergency kit was less aggravating than listening to Consort have involuntary responses which he was totally doing on purpose.

And then there’s Daughter, who was not sneezing. She was eating. “Why, of course she was eating,” you might protest, “Did you think children got their calories from the air?”

Well no, although I do know a few children I have not actually ever seen eat, and their mothers insist they are living on the particulates of Pirate’s Booty which hover over any elementary school. Daughter’s eating habits force one to resort to Animal Planet analogies: Daughter is to eating as a shark is to swimming; both must happen continuously or the animal dies. Here’s another animal analogy: Daughter, much like a hummingbird, eats up to five hundred times her own weight every day.

Like the hummingbird, no one particular meal is large, but they make up for it by allotting nearly all their waking hours acquiring food. If someone asked me what she ate for breakfast, I’d have to ask which one. The breakfast when she first wakes up or the one an hour or so later or the one when she can scarcely contemplate making it to lunch without a little sustenance? Since she and I rarely eat meat, a great many of these meals involve lentils or pinto beans, which are supposed to be filling. It humbles me to think that those complex carbohydrates are the only thing standing between my daughter and having to have an IV line inserted to keep her feeling full. I can’t fault her instincts, because her energy level would exhaust a team of ferrets and she’s shaped like an arrow.

And this child, the child of the man I adore beyond measure and will be avoiding until he stops that infernal sneezing, this child I stared at for hours on end as an infant and thought things like “I have never loved anyone as deeply and fully as I love you, even your father whom I adore beyond measure”, this child now gets a mother who says supportive things like “You want to eat again?” and “Oh, come on. The bean-heating pot isn’t even dry yet...” and “I’m convinced you have a tape-worm.” And sometimes I go hide from both of them for a while. And then later, when they are sleeping and not sneezing or angling for an entire jar of applesauce, I come into the bedrooms and I pet their heads and I hope they know that the annoyance is nothing more than a storm cloud passing through, the sky behind it eternally and endlessly blue.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008


For those of you who don’t spend every waking hour transporting a child to extracurricular activities, or who do but spend those hours listening to Radio Disney and praying for deafness, let me tell you about “This I Believe”. It’s a segment which runs on National Public Radio in which people write three minute-long essays about the belief systems which keep them going. Some of the writers are famous; most are not. I don’t always agree with the belief, but I’m never bored. At the end of each essay, I find myself thinking I should write one of those! Actually, to be more accurate, I find myself thinking I should write that a parking space? No, it’s a red zone, darn it, but if it was a parking space, I’d have to drive quickly around the block and you just know it won’t be there when I get back... of those!

And then I wouldn't. This is partially because I fear my deepest belief system involves buttered toast at more meals and partially because even if I did come up with a belief system I thought was worthy of writing about, my inner voice would say What a lovely essay, Quinn. Too bad you’re a total maniac and don’t follow it in any way, shape or form. Stick to writing about toast. Months have passed since I first considered this subject until this past weekend when I realized that I do have a belief. I don’t always follow it, but I am certain I’d be a happier person if I did. I’d write in to NPR, but I’d rather write it here.

When I was fourteen, my mother took me to Europe for ten days to see the sights. We saw Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, the Louvre, the Champs Elysees, all the usual suspects. During this entire time, we took only four photographs. One was of my hand when I didn’t realize the camera was on; two were of a daschund sitting in front of a café; and the last was a picture of me in front of Versailles in which you can see a great deal of the pavement and nothing of Versailles. Were my whole memory of the trip based on those pictures, I would swear to you that Versailles was known throughout the world as the loveliest parking lot in France. Luckily, I have my memories but, really, what are memories but mental pictures I have chosen to keep? Which leads me to what I believe:

Life is where you frame the picture.

How we see ourselves is nothing more than the stories we tell ourselves, the accumulation of mental pictures which confirm suspicions we already have. The things we remember and the things we forget, the parts of the story we place in the middle of the image and the things we cut off or leave blurrily walking out of frame are what comprise how we view each new event in our lives.

A few years back I worked as an assistant to an agent who required, it can be said delicately, a certain amount of work. Her tantrums were legendary and her mood swings would have warmed the heart of a Lithium distributor. One of her worst moments was when a client or agent would leave the agency. This would lead to an afternoon of sulking, shouting, berating and general cat-o’-nine-tailing anyone within reach, followed by her slumping over her twelfth Diet Coke of the day moaning about how everyone left her. The people around her, planning our exits ourselves, would never state the obvious, which included:

  1. When you throw a Diet Coke can at an assistant, all but the most psychologically unsound are going to look for other work.
  2. You had just been complaining about how much you disliked the person who just quit.
  3. Every single person in the entertainment industry moves around. The assistant washes the Diet Coke out of her hair and becomes a low-level agent somewhere else. The ingénue is scooped up by a big powerful agent who scares her into thinking she’s not getting in for the big movies. The agent takes his clients and sets up shop on his own.

When I was first interviewed for the job she was incredibly charming and I was starting to doubt every story I had heard about her moods. Suddenly, in the middle of extolling my virtues and painting pretty pictures of how my being her assistant would be a lot like a sleepover only with a paycheck, she frowned. The room seemed to darken. “You’ll leave me,” she snapped, “everyone does.”

Her picture was framed not around how she had managed to become a highly successful person in a business based on transience and petty betrayals, but on people leaving. Not just leaving, but leaving her. Every time someone left, it sharpened the focus on that picture. No one had the nerve to point out that if you keep telling people they’re going to leave you, and you keep treating people as if they are sneaking away when you’re popping another Diet Coke, they’ll do just that. Her picture, her narrative, could have been about the gorgeous house she bought herself, or the dozens of famous and successful actors she had discovered and represented during her amazing career, but instead it was how she would lose the gorgeous house if people kept leaving her, and how those actors she'd discovered had left her by the wayside. It was a sad and dreary picture, which I added to when I left myself.

Of course, framing works positively as well. My friend Mary is getting her PhD in Theology. She writes books on travel and is currently off on an annual road trip with a friend, enjoying world-class barbecue in many forms and many time zones. She also has been living with a mean and stubborn cancer for just about a decade. This summer she started an intensive course of chemo and an intensive course in German. Besides being the friend I have who puts the whole idea of multitasking into perspective, she is one of the most alive people I know. She has framed her picture so that her travels, her studies, her husband, her dogs and her pork products are smack in the middle of the frame. She refuses to let the cancer be anything more than noxious weeds on the edges of the picture, and of her life.

I think praying is asking whatever name you give God to move the frame of what you see from where it is to where it should be. For every miracle which comes from prayer --where the problem simply and inexplicably goes away -- you get a hundred examples of people praying and finding they now have the strength to see the problem from a new angle, or to put it in clearer focus. This certainly doesn't have to come from prayer alone. I think running allows some people the time to reframe. For others it might be a yoga class, Mozart, or a road trip through the desert at night. I keep hoping a pint of ice-cream might shift the focus of my problems but so far all it's done it add being bloated and sticky to the composition.

What framing and reframing require to work best is quiet and contemplation. I don’t know anyone who has enough of that. We certainly have enough props and costumes to fill up any layout. We’re online reading the news and catching up on TiVo or we’re reading Us Weekly while sitting at the orthodontist’s office and we’re all so terribly packed with information. But if you’re not careful to carve out time there’s never a point where you look at all the things you know and see and have experienced and actually crop the image. There's no room to think this is important and this makes me who I am and this makes me happy in a way I can’t exactly explain.

Too often, the loudest events which come up in our lives become the most important, even if we don’t really like them or don’t want to make them a priority. The narrative, the picture, becomes one of great movement and activity but we lose the thing at the center of the frame which matters. We find ourselves wondering why an entire week has gone by and everyone we care for has been fed and cared for but we haven’t had a single transcendent moment. Maybe we tell ourselves that feeling a sense of connection to our ultimate goals is too much to ask for on the week the kids go back to school, or we start a new job, or the holidays are upon us. But then when can we ask for it?

I need to frame my picture better. I need to move less and think more. I need to start viewing each day as productive not only for how many things I knocked off the “To-do” list but for the moments when I was truly present and grateful.

This I believe.