Monday, May 25, 2009

The People Ride in a Hole in the Ground.

Consort, being from the New York area, has a few verbal tics. Some are delightful. We shall focus on two I have taken over because they are useful.

As you might know, I am female. Therefore, I have been known to enjoy telling a long and pointless anecdote about people Consort doesn't know. It's taken him years, but Consort no longer bothers to pay any real attention to me. His questions like, "Who is this again?" and "Wait, are we still talking about Thursday's piano lesson?" and "Do I know anyone in this story?" just irritated both of us. I don't care if he listens. He just needs to appear to listen. So now he just waits for the sound in my voice which indicates I'm wrapping up and he says mildly, "Good for him/her/them." This is the New York version of "I couldn't care less had I gotten a PhD in not caring but if these people's being happy doesn't inconvenience me in the slightest, I'm happy for them."

The other New Yorkism is the most versatile conversational button anyone will ever give you besides "I think my water just broke." And really, considering that half the population can't really get away with that one, this is even better. It's "There you go." If you're an optimist, a pessimist, a phlebotomist, or whatever, it works.

A good thing happens to a good person or a bad thing happens to a bad person? "There you go." Which is to say the world is, after all, ultimately just.

A good thing happens to a bad person or a bad thing happens to a good person? "There you go," meaning the world is, after all, ultimately unfair and the dice is rigged.

A true New Yorker believes both of these things at once, in a simultaneously fair and unfair world. It's what allows them to live below someone who seems to have clog-dancing competitions every night without setting fire to their building. The New York sensibility might be periodically aggressive, obscene and hold deeply-held beliefs on pizza, but there's a marvelous Buddhist equanimity in there somewhere.

You know what I say?

Good for them.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

People Will See Me and Cry

In case you’ve been reading Remembrance of Things Past lately, let me bring you up to speed on Jon and Kate Gosselin: either the husband in America’s Most Overexposed Family has a girlfriend, or he does not. Or maybe Kate Gosselin, patron saint for caponizing harpies everywhere, has been dating her bodyguard. Or maybe this is all just a ploy to make sure everyone is watching their show when it comes back on the air next week. The timing of the scandal lends credence to it being a marketing maneuver but if Kate has been faking her general air of shrill misery for the last season I'd pay to see her interpretation of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.” In sum, they are probably wildly unhappy and are seeing this play out in the same format in which they have lived their lives for the past four years -- the public eye.

Kate even got the cover of People magazine for this sordid business which must have just driven the Kardashian family insane. In the event you haven’t read the article, here’s what Kate needs you to know: It’s Jon’s fault; he hates to participate in the speaking engagements; he’s never made as much money as she has; he’s constantly whining about how unhappy he is and she knows he’s choosing to feel this way. Also, she’s pretty certain he’s cheated. She, on the other hand, has been a blameless rock, soldiering on, creating the show which she’s only doing to provide for her children.

And how is this affecting the children? According to Kate, they’re fine because she’s doing major emotional support of them, talking to them on the phone in her spare time.

[God, I wish I had just made that up. I can only imagine the expression on her PR handler’s face when she came up with that.]

Again, according to Kate, the kids are fine because they go to a school where no one cares about the tabloids. We can assume her neighbors spend all the time in a check-out line reading the folic-acid content on their cereal boxes. We can also assume they don’t read People magazine either and that no one in the school is going to tell these children their mother thinks their father is an unfaithful, depressed ne’er-do-well. They live in Pennsylvania. Perhaps the school is mostly Amish.

What you don’t hear in the story, in any way, shape or form, is Kate saying “I wish I had never started on this stupid reality-show train.” Maybe she said it, and the reporter didn’t use the quote but I don't think so; it would have made a nifty tag line. Maybe she feels some great responsibility to not bite the hand that’s feeding her somewhere between $25,000 to $50,000 a week. Or maybe she has regrets in life but making her family a media commodity isn’t one of them.

Look at the following character traits:

Believing that you're better than others
Fantasizing about power, success and attractiveness
Exaggerating your achievements or talents
Expecting constant praise and admiration
Believing that you're special
Failing to recognize other people's emotions and feelings
Expecting others to go along with your ideas and plans
Taking advantage of others
Expressing disdain for those you feel are inferior
Being jealous of others
Believing that others are jealous of you
Trouble keeping healthy relationships
Setting unrealistic goals
Being easily hurt and rejected
Having a fragile self-esteem
Appearing as tough-minded or unemotional

No, this isn’t a casting call-sheet for the next season of “Real Housewives”. These are the clinical symptoms for Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Of course, I’m not a doctor, not even on TV, and I know those shows are constructed for conflict and then edited to maximize the drama so I’m not saying all of those people are untreated narcissists. I tend to believe most of them were just garden-variety aggravating before getting picked for a show. But once they got on television some hellish mix of the producer’s encouragement and their own weaknesses led them to behave like five year-olds after back-to-back birthday parties. Because the narcissists are the most entertaining to watch and anyone longing for some kind of stardom has twenty years of reality shows from which to cherry-pick the best bad behavior, the results continue to draw a crowd.

“The Real World” was dumb, but like many dumb things it was remarkably potent. It began on May 21st, 1992 and was based on the simple premise that if you jam attractive young people with different views together in a confined space they will either have sex or kill each other; and either will be fun to watch.

[I find it interesting that one of the seminal reality shows was created because the producers realized they couldn’t afford to do a soap opera for teens.]

"The Real World" was wildly successful and ran all the time. Soon enough, there was “Real World: Los Angeles” and “Real World: San Francisco” and so on. It's still running. The show is a marvel of stock characters; Virgin, Christian, Trollop, Gay, Instigator. It’s Commedia Dell’Arte for the Clearasil set. And the kids watched and they learned. This reality-show format was creating its own language and, as with any language, it’s easier for the young to learn a new one.

I was twenty-four when the show went on the air -- the last generation who didn’t grow up with “Reality-television star” as a career choice. I have a friend who teaches high-school in a lower middle-class neighborhood and he told me fifteen to twenty percent of his students, when asked what they want to be after school, say “Famous.” Why shouldn’t they? If you’re attractive and loud enough there is no reason to think someone won’t hand you a show. In some ways, this is even more democratically American than voting. If you are convicted of a felony you can’t vote; I think a felony conviction slightly increases your odds of a reality show.

A friend of mine once asked her eleven year-old what she liked about the sitcoms geared towards her age group. Her daughter answered, “They show me how to be a teenager.” My friend rewarded this cogent and mature answer with a long mother-daughter walk and a very boring lecture. But the girl was right. Television is one of the places our children visit on a regular basis to figure out how to be adults, and reality television is telling them that throwing tantrums in public is a path to success.

Even as I’m writing this, I’m sneering at myself, “Quinn, you flagrant hypocrite. You of the self-centered blog, self-centered Tweeter, self-centered entire stinking book, how are you different than these people who long for shows dedicated to themselves?” Here’s my justification for separating me from them: my art, such as it is, is the writing. I write about myself because I’m too timid to go to a war zone and write about that. And I keep doing stupid things I think might be entertaining to read about. If you are on a reality show, it’s understood that you need do nothing more than exist. You might be a would-be rapper, or clothing designer or best friend to Paris Hilton, but in the end your finest creation is you, behaving badly in front of a camera. That is more than enough.

Americans have always thought themselves to be special. In 1630, John Winthrop told the Puritans who were about to disembark from the Arbella and form what became the Massachusetts Bay Colony, “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” We still expect eyes to be upon us. It’s just that almost four hundred years later, the city on the hill is now an underdressed woman with bleached teeth and a camera crew demanding of a nightclub bouncer, “ You have to let me in. Don’t you know who I am?”

I do. She’s a cardboard city on a hill, a Potemkin village in the suburbs of the American dream.

Friday, May 15, 2009

And Her Shoes Were Number Nine

For those people who have come forward and admitted that yes, they too have a pet temporarily living in a bathroom, I offer you Clementine. Please note how I whisked her out for a photo shoot because I thought the green was a better contrast than white tile.
Because I'm full-service like that.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Light She Was and Like a Fairy

Those of you who follow this exercise in pathology I like to call my blog will recall I had seven houseguests a few weeks ago. The expectation was I would have them until June 1st, when the kittens would be eight weeks old and off to their new homes and Carmen would go to the woman who had generously offered to take her. Until then, they would live in my garage and I would feed them and care for them and never get anywhere near Carmen unless I was wearing the long gloves. But about three weeks ago it got very hot around here, over a hundred degrees during the day. The garage is shaded, with windows I kept open at night and a fan I ran during the day and for the first two days, it wasn’t too bad. But then the walls started radiating the heat they had absorbed, making the inside of the garage even hotter than it was outside, and all seven of my guests were panting. Cats aren’t supposed to pant; it’s unsettling.

They couldn’t live in the back yard, because even in the cage they would be vulnerable to raccoons, possums and coyotes. They couldn’t live in the house because Carmen couldn’t be exposed to other cats. They had to move; a call went out among the volunteers and a couple nobly offered to take in the motley and malodorous crew. All I had to do was get them there, which meant tearing down the cage they were living in, putting it in my trunk and jamming Carmen and the kids into a cat-carrier which actually fit into my car.

Consort, of course, was in the stage of Big Project known as Sudden Trip out of Town, leaving me with only my child to help. She was very eager to be of service but since I believe that part of the social contract of parenthood is to get them to adulthood with all ten fingers intact, I put on the long gloves, said a quick prayer of help to Saint Francis of Assisi, and started moving bodies. Two good things came of this; all seven cats were moved without insult to either me or the cat and I now have a new example for the word “Ordeal.” They were situated in their new home which was indoors and air-conditioned, I bid them a fond farewell, Carmen hissed at me for the last time, and the kid and I went home.

The heat-wave broke the next day.

I offered to take them back, but the head of the group decided moving them was too stressful on everyone involved; I couldn’t exactly disagree. Also, the new couple liked the chaos, everyone was happy, I wasn’t needed. I was okay with that, but the part of me which needs to be of service sulked. “Give me a cause,” it warned, “Or I swear I’ll dredge out the unfinished knitting.”
Mercifully, a cause arrived at the rescue within a week. Someone found her on the street and brought her in. She was about eight weeks old. She was probably black and white under all the dirt. She had a bronchial infection which prevented her from being in the kitten population and therefore needed a foster-home. She was very loud. I got some kitten shampoo, a weeks’ worth of antibiotics and kitten-food, and she and I went home. I named her Clementine. She shouted at me, purred sweetly and ate my hair. I put her in a spacious and comfortable crate in the garage.

The next morning, a heat-wave started.

Clementine had to leave the garage, but she couldn’t go back to the store and I didn’t want to ask another person to take over my responsibility again and she was very tiny and took up very little room…I made a decision.

I take great pleasure in the times when I write about something I think is truly peculiar about me, being a documentary-hag or inadvertently insulting a little person or being unclear on adult activities, only to have people write into the blog and say things like “You, too? Oh my God, I thought I was the only one!” It’s cozy, this community of awkward people. But I think I’m pretty much alone when I tell you that I have a foster-kitten living in my bathroom. Yes, the heat has broken but I’m convinced that all I have to do to make it come back is set up the crate out there again. Besides, it’s kind of fun to have a kitten in the bathroom, as long as you aren’t too shy about being stared at while doing bathroom-type things or having a cat rappel up your pant-leg doesn’t cause your bladder to seize up. She’s fun and, as Consort astutely noted, if you are going to have a litter-box in your house, it’s best to have it in a room that has a strong fan.

On May 22nd, her new parents will pick her up and take her to her new home with her new housemate, a twenty-eight pound cat. She will boss him around and I hope my darling Clementine will be very happy and lead a long and lovely life. And then the part of me which needs to be of service will walk into the bathroom and sigh wistfully, lacking a project. With any luck, it won’t notice we need to repaint.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The Sounds of Silence

I have been accused of taking the scenic route in my blogs. Readers have said things like, "Gosh, I had no idea where you were going with that blog but it all kind of made sense in the end. I guess." So today I'm going to give you a map before we head on our way. First, we're going to learn why I've been so quiet this week. Then we're going to discuss a mystery in my world which will dazzle and amaze you. Finally, Ed Begley will shout in my ear.

I haven't written this week because Consort has been on one of his Big Projects. This last week has been nothing but Consort mumbling obscenities, cold cups of coffee with congealed clouds of milk floating on the top and the big computer screen collaged with endless pages of Excel spreadsheets and flow-charts, or whatever unholy mess a Visio diagram is. Yes, I could have used one of the several laptops we own but I hate writing on a laptop. I am convinced the smaller keyboard makes me sound whiny. So I waited for an opening on our household's version of the WOPR and watched Consort have what will come to be known as the World's Longest Conference Call.
The company he works for is on the East coast. First-thing-in-the-morning for them means Consort is drinking last night's coffee and logging into a video-conference at six a.m. I'd leave to take the kid to school and work out; I'd return to find him still on the call. I'd mouth "Delaware?" and he'd mouth back "New York". I'd nod sympathetically without having any idea why or when he'd changed states.

I'd make him some fresh coffee and poke my head in the office just in time to hear things like this:

PERSON ON PHONE: So does this settle the WYP-CZ issue?

CONSORT: Yes and no. WYP is now WYYP which fixes the LMJX issues, but still doesn't fully address CZ in either MDCW or MNVC.

These calls were the place vowels go to die. At noon, the East coast business contingent would sign off leaving Consort with the tech contingent here on the West coast and the consonants would fly even more freely. Three to five hours later the call would neatly head further west and become Consort flinging acronyms at someone in Korea. My job was to raise our child, keep the pets quiet and offer him liquid to prevent dehydration and/or laryngitis. Eventually, I would go to bed. At some point after that - maybe three whole hours before a new conference call would emerge from the depths - Consort would sleep. This is not the modern world the Jetson family promised me. But it's work, and we're grateful.

Before bed however, he needs some way of cooling down. You don't go from staring at a computer screen for eighteen straight hours directly to bed. It would bring on the bends. No, when you are Consort, you gently reestablish contact with the earth by staring at another screen: the television. The way he describes it: he returns sixty-two empty coffee cups to the kitchen, pours himself a glass of wine, turns on the television and watches a few quiet minutes of something breezy and distracting. I would beg to differ.

Our house is small. It's a typical 1920's Los Angeles bungalow. When I'm feeling positive about our circumstances I frame it as providing a degree of family intimacy you larger-house people just don't understand. When I'm feeling less positive, I toy with the idea of climbing into the laundry hamper for just a few minutes of alone-time. But as small as it is, the house has aural rabbit-holes. Just as there are certain neighborhoods where you know you will lose your cell-phone connection, there are sound chasms in this house. For example, if you are standing in the kitchen you can hear someone at the back-door perfectly clearly and you can hear someone in the dining room perfectly clearly, but the person standing next to the fridge might as well be on the dark side of the moon. Here's how it works on a typical afternoon:
CONSORT (Walking from back door to kitchen): Hi, I hope you don't have anything going on tomorrow because I just got a call from the doctor and -


CONSORT (Past fridge now): -which probably can be done as an outpatient.

This happens all the time. It's not just Consort. I do it as well. Because we have enough things to remember as modern Americans and "Don't say anything of consequence near the fridge" doesn't seem to strike either of us as important, it will continue to happen. And it's not just the Black Hole of Pantry. If you're standing at the front door I can hear you in my bathroom,. This never fails to alarm me. The cat, when she chooses to lock herself into the hallway closet, sounds as if she's outside. You can't find a cat in the closet if you're looking in the garden. For those people who have noted how confused I frequently seem, my house really isn't helping matters.

As there are sound-chasms in the house, there are also sound-amplifiers. The couch is five feet from the television in the living room and the bedroom is on the other side of the house yet, thanks to the demented acoustics of my home, the television playing at a volume a couch-sitter would describe as a comfortable is so loud in the bedroom the water in my bedside glass ripples with each line of dialog. Last week, I snapped awake and thought,""Why did Ed Begley just shout about composting human waste in my ear?" My brain sullenly switched over to "awake" mode and I realized that no, Mr. Begley was probably sleeping under his own bamboo sheets in his own home. The television was attacking me again. I staggered out to the living room, where Consort was watching something palliative. The volume, I noted, was perfectly normal out here.

"Turn off the evil screaming light-box and come to bed," I yawned. Consort looked at his watch and shook his head.

"It doesn't make any sense for me to go to sleep now," he said, "I've got to talk to Canada in an hour. I just wanted to get out of the office for a while. Go back to sleep." He slunk past me into the kitchen to pour himself some iced-coffee.
"You know," I said, feeling only just a little sorry for him. "Maybe you don't have to go back into the office. I bet there's a place in this house where you could talk at a perfectly normal volume and Canada would hear you just fine."

Consort might have said something snappy in return but luckily for our continued domestic bliss, he was standing next to the fridge at the time.