Tuesday, February 28, 2012

I'm Still Here

I hate to sound ungrateful. It’s nice people care about me and all, but man, do I hate “Where are They Now?” stories. I hate being asked to do them for a number of reasons:

1. You’re not being asked because you were on the cover of Time magazine last week. Ergo, you’re not what you once were. And if you’re me, you’re not what you once were when you were nine. I’m totally comfortable with my current level of artistic achievement and wouldn’t change a bit about my life (except getting over this present stage of growing out my hair to bangs-length, please), but “Where are they now?” can only be answered with the question “Yeah, where am I now?”

2. It’s lazy writing. No offense to the editors who greenlight these stories, but stories like this (and, by extension, the people who commission them) are one reason why newspapers are dying. If five hundred words leaves the reader with no stronger sensation than “huh,” then you, the editor, should ask your uncle, the dry-cleaner, if you can start working a few shifts at his plant. And don’t tell me people are curious. If they were curious, they’d have Googled me to see whether I was dead or not. At best, people read pieces like this because someone left the page folded open next to the sugar dispenser at the coffeeshop and they glance over while the person in front of them hogs the cinnamon.

3. I’m inevitably bracketed by people who’ve overdosed or filed for bankrupcy. Again. The only thought more deflating than “Yeah, where am I now?” is “Well, at least I didn’t die in a flophouse in Kingman, Arizona.” These articles are the express-elevator to diminished expectations.

And yet, I did another one if these where-are-they interviews last week. I did it because the last time I held my nose and agreed to one of these pre-obituary profiles, it actually led to my first book deal and I don’t know if you’ve noticed but I have a new book to promote. So I told the reporter I’d do it. I only flinched a bit. At least they’d mention the book’s title.

[The Year of Learning Dangerously. Pre-order it now!]

Being interviewed is an inherently weird social interaction. It’s like a blind date. A blind date where only one person gets to ask questions, can ask whatever questions he likes, and the other person can't sneak out the back door if things get too uncomfortable.

“Why did you stop acting?”

“Did it bother you that you never reached that level of fame again?”

“Do you wish you’d been one of those child actors who actually made it as an adult?”

“How are you making a living now?”

Or, as I could also describe it: The Same Intrusive Questions I’ve Been Asked for Two Decades. As I’ve noted in the past, people don’t actually think before they ask questions of people they have seen on television in their childhood. It would be as if they could ask intimate questions of their Atari or their Easy-Bake Oven. I suppose I should be pleased I’ve never been asked about the results of my latest Pap smear or demanded my TRW. Yet.

So, today, I’m going to answer the Question Which Underlies the Same Intrusive Questions I’ve Been Asked for Two Decades: Quinn, why aren’t you nuts? Why aren’t you squatting semi-naked on some street corner, having a weave-pulling battle with a transsexual and huffing Febreeze?

First, I’d quibble about the “Not nuts” part. My own delightful child—who is blessed with both a clear eye and a prodigious vocabulary — when recently asked to describe me in three adjectives, said “kind; hardworking; and fretful.” I have same the innate capacity for joy as a mechanical pencil and can spend an entire evening stewing that I haven’t done enough to save the sea turtles. I’m not anyone’s idea of a fully actualized human being. And yet, compared to some other former child actors, I’m a bedrock of stability. Why is that?

You ready?


Yes, my parents gave me lots of other advantages. They loved me dearly. My mother took me to see “Fantasia” multiple times, even though she hates animated movies. But the difference between me and many other child professionals was that I was never expected to support my family. If 15% of a child’s income is the parent’s income, the parent is no longer in position to make decisions for the child based solely on what’s best for the child's overall welfare. They might tell you the child comes first, they might even believe the child comes first, but at some point there will be a mortgage payment due or a car to be replaced. Introduce into this mix a job the child might not actually want to do and the parent/manager will make a choice that a parent/parent might not. Soon enough, you end up with a dynamic where even the most woolen-headed kid understands she’s the well from which all benefits spring. She's the anointed one whose fame makes her more valuable than other members of the family but also someone whose desires will only be recognized if they’re in alignment with the bottom line. Eventually, time does its pesky thing and she’s no longer cute, which is when things usually go to hell.

Cue the Febreeze fight.

In case you’re curious, the article for which I was interviewed was titled something like “After Oscars, the Inevitable Downfall.” They neatly cherry-picked the quotes that make me sound most elegaic about a business I haven’t cared about in over a decade. And, of course, they didn’t mention the book’s title. So I’m out of the “Where Are They Now” business.

Where am I now?

I’m here now.

And I’m doing just fine.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Just Breathe

When I was twenty-four, I was diagnosed with asthma in the traditional way: at a dinner party at a doctor’s house. I had gone from the dining room (warm) to the porch where people were having canapés and cocktails (cold) and commenced to cough. Since I was in day nine of Quinn’s Annual Bronchial Plague, I thought nothing of it and sequestered myself by the tomato plant in the corner to have a satisfying half-hour hack. Nearly everyone inched away from me, but my feelings weren't hurt in the least. My bronchial opera isn't pleasant to be around. I have been known to break blood-vessels in my throat, such is my coughing. Once, I found myself in an ER waiting room sitting across from a person holding a dirty rag against what appeared to be a stab-wound. He  watched me cough a few minutes and said I could go ahead of him. So you can imagine my surprise when the host actually sought out my company.

“Where’s your inhaler?” he asked.

I waved my arms around in a way I thought would convey Thank you for your concern, but this isn’t asthma as much as the tail-end of a bronchial Cthulhu and it will abate somewhere between now and next month.

“I don’t know why anyone hasn’t told you this, but you have asthma,” he said firmly. “Now come in the house and let me see if I have something for you.”

Always accept dinner-party invitations at a doctor’s house. A few minutes later I was no longer coughing. One specialist's appointment later, I had an official diagnosis: asthma. I had the type most usually aggravated by a previous illness, which explained why my November cold usually left me hacking and wheezing until April. I was given two inhalers -- one for crisis situations and one for every day use -- and told to take care of myself. Since “take care of myself” meant “stay away from people who are smoking and work out regularly,” I can honestly say asthma may be the best thing which ever happened to my health. Of course, I’m great in a crisis but kind of a disaster when is comes to mundane tasks. Some days, I’d carry my inhalers; most weeks, I wouldn’t. Hey, I’d think. I’m fine! When I’m not fine, I’ll carry my inhaler! Come to think of it, I haven’t had an attack in months. Perhaps I’ve outgrown asthma! And sometimes I’d forget to get a new inhaler when the old one ran low but, Hey, asthma hasn’t happened in months!

About six years later, I got sick. Because I’m all about timing, my illness ramped up and required antibiotics late one night, on what turned out to be  the coldest night of the year. Consort offered to make the run to the all-night pharmacy but I got weirdly stubborn and insisted I could take care of it myself. He drove. When we arrived at the pharmacy, I got out of the car (warm), and since I couldn’t breathe through my nose, I sucked in a blast of nearly freezing air through my mouth. My bronchi closed with the finality of a bank-vault and I started to cough. Coughing pushed whatever air was left in my lungs out, but when I attempted to breathe back in, I couldn’t. And then I’d cough again. The force of it caused me first to lean against the car and then eventually sit cross-legged on the ground, coughing and pawing through my purse looking for my inhaler which was safely and ineffectively back home. Consort was next to me, looking down and saying calmly, “We have to go to the emergency room now, you’re not breathing, let’s get you into the car” and I’m coughing and waving my hands at him in the It’s really not that big a deal, just give me a quick tracheotomy and we’ll be on our way manner, but I was clearly hypoxic and I rarely make my best decisions hypoxic. And all the while some part of my brain is thinking This can’t be the way I die. It’s too stupid.

We found an inhaler in the glove-compartment. I have no recollection of putting one there. I think the universe looks out for me but is well within its rights to roll its eyes every now and again.

I thought of that incident this week when Anthony Shadid died. Mr. Shadid was, by any measurement, an extraordinary journalist. This is from Wikipedia:
  • From 2003 to 2009 he was a staff writer for The Washington Post where he was an Islamic affairs correspondent based in the Middle East. Before The Washington Post, Shadid worked as Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press based in Cairo and as news editor of the AP bureau in Los Angeles. He spent two years covering diplomacy and the State Department for The Boston Globe before joining the Post's foreign desk.
  • In 2002, he was shot in the shoulder by an Israeli sniper in Ramallah while reporting for the Boston Globe in the West Bank.
  • On 16 March, 2011, Shadid and three colleagues were reported missing in Eastern Libya, having gone there to report on the uprising against the dictatorship of Col. Muammar Al-Ghaddafi. On 18 March 2011, The New York Times reported that Libya agreed to free him and three colleagues: Stephen Farrell, Lynsey Addario and Tyler Hicks.The Libyan government released the four journalists on 21 March 2011.
  • Shadid twice won the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting, in 2004 and 2010, for his coverage of the Iraq War. His experiences in Iraq were the subject for his 2005 book Night Draws Near, an empathetic look at how the war has impacted the Iraqi people beyond liberation and insurgency. Night Draws Near won the Ridenhour Book Prize for 2006. He won the 2004 Michael Kelly Award, as well as journalism prizes from the Overseas Press Club and the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Shadid was a 2011 recipient of an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the American University of Beirut. He won the George Polk Award for Foreign Reporting in 2003 and in 2012 for his work in 2011.
This guy was the real deal. He spent his career making a fascinating and dangerous part of the world comprehensible to civilians like me. Last week, Mr. Shadid died in Syria, not from a bullet or an explosive device, but from asthma. He was trying to leave Syria on horseback and suffered an asthma attack. Reports were he was especially allergic to horses. He probably wouldn’t have chosen to leave Syria that way but it’s a war zone and he took a chance, as he had so many times before while reporting from that part of the world. Maybe he had his inhaler with him. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe this was avoidable. Maybe this wasn’t -- some asthma attacks are not going to turn around even with an inhaler. Maybe he had a moment of thinking "This can’t be the way I die. It’s too stupid."

Mr. Shadid left a legacy of award-winning journalism and great writing.

Mr. Shadid also left a wife and two small children.

And Mr. Shadid left a chilling reminder to all of us who live with asthma; can kill you. If you’re reading this and you have asthma, please stop reading right now and check to make sure you have a working inhaler and that it's with you at all times. Make sure it’s not expired. If it is, get it replaced. You’ve never gotten me a birthday present, so consider it an early gift to me.
Rest in Peace, Mr. Shadid.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

When True Simplicity is Gain'd

Right now, Daughter is in her room, attending an online history class. Consort is at the kitchen table, at a meeting on Skype. I’m hiding in the office thinking up a blog which looks very much like gazing at pictures of breaded-cats on the Internet. And here, next to me, is a rainbow Slinky. The rainbow Slinky is the embodiment of why no one is ever invited to my house.

After thirteen years in this house, we still don’t have dining-room chairs. We don’t have dining-room chairs because we got the table at an estate sale and needed to buy chairs, but in the times we can afford chairs we can’t agree on them and when we find the right chairs the cars develop neurasthenia and need some time in a sanatorium. We do, however, have a rainbow Slinky which was gifted to the child at some point in the past. She walks around the house, idly Slinking, leaving it wherever it stops being relevant. I point it out to her, she picks it up; sometimes it even goes back to her room for a while. But then a day or two pass and I step into the shower and lo, rainbow Slinky is wrapped around the conditioner. Anything which actually requires thought before purchasing doesn’t get purchased, but the house is filled with random objects which washed up on our shore and have now applied for citizenship.

Here’s another member of the family. Daughter had a science experiment, one involving a straw, a bottle-cap, a CD, and a balloon. I don’t remember what it proved scientifically, but it went up in the air and beetled around and has since proven that something which goes up in the air and beetles around is entertaining about every 94 days and cannot be thrown out. Once it comes out of the closet for beetling-time, it tends to stay out for at least three days, usually on the coffee table. You know what’s never on the coffee table? Coffee. You see that little green rectangle behind the experiment? That’s dental floss, left over from another experiment. Whenever a human in this house thinks a room doesn’t look quite festive enough, we race to the bathroom and get something minty to liven up the place.

Here’s a bookshelf. You can tell it’s a bookshelf because there are four remotes and some Wii-related objects in there. Also, Capturing the Friedmans, a documentary about molestation. We’re going to hope Daughter will never think she’s grabbing the Mario and Sonic Wii game and plays that instead.

Oh, the traditional drawer; Pictures Left Over from Daughter’s Nursery, Needlepoint Frames I’ve Been Given and Perfectly Usable Bits of Wrapping Paper. What, you say you don’t have such a drawer? But then where do you put your roll of pink and green ribbon, your seven marbles and the Christmas ornament you found behind the couch in mid-February?

See that pile? That pile, I’ve been told, means something. I may not throw the pile away, because Consort is just about to take care of it because it’s very important. The pile has remained unsorted for about a year, so a more cynical person might think something like “How important can that stuff be if you can ignore it for a year?” Luckily, I’m not cynical.

People talk about the desk-drawer which collects the random objects; I’m starting to suspect the house is trying to become one giant drawer. There’s nothing which says “Please cross the threshold and be embraced by our warmth” but I comfort (or delude) myself that there’s plenty which says “These people might be bouncing through their lives like a Superball right now, but you can’t say they aren’t interesting.”

Which is true. You also can’t say we don’t own sixteen Superballs, because the cats keep finding them, even after I swear I’ve thrown them all away. But we’re starting businesses, and writing books, getting educated and learning great quantities of things, and maybe the house is just an outer manifestation of the hectic and happy state of our minds right now. If dining-room chairs and dental floss only in the bathroom meant Consort and the kid might not be doing a crossword puzzle together right now, it wouldn’t be worth it.

In sum, no one’s coming over soon but we’ll meet you someplace clean, sane and quiet, and we’ll bring stories from our loud, chaotic lives and together will dream of a day when we manage to be both organized and creative.

The rainbow Slinky will make an excellent file-holder.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Fight the Power

Consort has opinions about my cat-blogs. Or, rather, he has one opinion; upon coming in to the office and finding me writing, he'll sneak a glance over my shoulder and sigh "Oh. CAT-blog." With the seasoned ear of someone how has spent over a decade and a half parsing Consort-speak, I can tell you what this means:

"Quinn, my presence here in the house prevents you from being the genial pet-hoarder you long to be, but people who often write about their cats are only two steps above cat-ladies whose floors eventually give way from all the soaked-in cat urine. The next step down is sequinned cat-sweatshirts. Please don't make me love a woman sporting an abdominal glitter-kitty."

I answer this unspoken damnation with the dismissive wipe of a tape-roller over my hoodie (this being the "Office tape-roller," as opposed to the several "Closet tape-rollers" and the under-lauded "Car tape-roller"). I'd de-fur my lap while sitting at the computer but, of course, Squeakers is sitting there. Since I sit at the computer on one of those rolling exercise balls in a futile attempt to strengthen my abs and not get what a friend called "Blogger-Butt," you'd think I wouldn't have a lap. Squeakers would beg to differ. There's a thigh and over there is another thigh. Legally, somewhere in between is a lap, even if the legs happen to be a foot apart. If the ball shifting makes me constantly readjust my center of gravity well, that's what claws are for. It's as if we domesticated a box of syringes. I cut her nails, I swear. It's just that when I'm doing something selfish like not opening cans of wet food, Squeakers runs off and gets a mani-pedi where the secret ingredient is lasers; she cuts through me like room-temperature butter.

It's not mean, though. Oh, howdy, it's not mean. Diana likes me, but Squeakers wants us to move to a more tolerant country where we can finally make it legal. For the first year-- in recognition of Consort's allergy to cats and his incredible patience when it comes to my ferocious need for pets-- the rule was NO CATS IN THE BEDROOM EVER. We all understand that meant every time the bedroom door was opened, a feline would fly into the room as if from a giant slingshot, run for the bed, and throw off a cubic yard of fur. Within months Consort, who knows a lost cause when he sees one, amended the rule; they can visit during the day, but the air-purifier runs at all times and no sleeping there at night. Truly, that would have been the end of it, were it not for the fact that when I wake up in the night—either because nature or Daughter calls—I am never awake enough to remember “Say, between me and the place I want to go is a closed door.” The first full face-plow at 3:30 am had a certain graceless charm, if you like swearing and waiting to clot, but by the 8th example of moving force/opposable object, things needed to change. The air-purifier was ratcheted up and the cats slept where they liked. No more bruising occurred and peace reigned.

Well, sort of. The air-purifier is now set at a level where it’s not unlike living on a tarmac. This must have bothered Squeakers delicate feline ears, because she established a new policy; I sleep under the covers, next to my beloved, the one with the perforated upper-thighs. Consort came in one night to the sight of my sitting up reading and next to me Squeakers on her side, a front leg stretched protectively across my abdomen, snoring softly.

“They’ve won, you know,” he said conversationally.

"Of course they haven’t won, I whispered, “they’re pets. We’re still the final vote around here. Now get into bed quickly, because she doesn’t like when the quilt moves and she gets cold.”

I think he mumbled something about a sweatshirt but it was hard to hear over the air-purifier and Squeakers purring.