Friday, June 25, 2010

Fantasy Shared

If I had my way, I’d make “Free Fall” assigned reading for every man interested in or currently engaged in a relationship with a woman. In other words, I’d like you men to read a book about a woman in the throes of passion.

After, I’d demand (since I’m in control of this fantasy, I can demand) an essay. The essay question: What scares you most about what you’ve read?

I know, it sounds like torture. Perhaps an exercise like this is torture because no one, especially men, want to admit to fear. And anyone reading this can guess where I’m going: Men, some anyway, fear certain things about women. It may look like disdain or discomfort or anger or dread or impatience, but I’m saying fear plays a role in the man/woman dynamic. I’m saying something else, too. We fear what we don’t fully understand.

Here’s how I see my fantasy assignment working: I’d lock each male into his own little room. Men, you’d have all the comforts: a couch to stretch out on, a good reading lamp, lots of munchies, a couple of bottles of wine, and a sock. A sock? One thing you may not know is that “Free Fall” is hot.

Want some music? Sure. A bag of chips? Fine. A little break for a televised baseball game? All right. But you can’t leave till you’ve read “Free Fall” and written your essay. An honest essay.

Here’s what I think the essays would suggest, not in these words exactly, but the message would be clear:

Before I read “Free Fall,” I could feel myself growing anxious when my wife spoke because her language contains words that reveal emotional content.

I don’t want the bother of a woman’s emotions because it makes me nervous.

I’m uncomfortable knowing what my girlfriend feels. I don’t know what to do!

I fear that what she’s saying is going to require that I do something.

I fear that I won’t be able to meet expectations.

I fear I won’t be able to understand what is needed.

I’m afraid of complications. I want out of here.

Or: Damn it. Why can’t we just keep it simple?

Believe me, I’m not finger pointing. I’m trying to understand.

The difference between “Free Fall” and “Deep Throat,” between erotica written by me, a woman, and a pornographic movie is that in “Free Fall” I please Jim and Jim pleases me but … I allow access not just to my body but to what’s going on in my head. In “Deep Throat,” one of the few porn movies I’ve seen, it’s sex minus thought or feeling.

My last book-related event took place at the Rockport Public Library on Wednesday evening. It was a panel discussion I organized and the topic was writing memoir. One of the panelists I invited was Amy Ferris, a fellow Seal Press author, with her own new book out titled “Marrying George Clooney: Confessions from a Midlife Crisis.”

Amy is a soul mate, as I see it. She’s taken on menopause the way I’ve taken on passion, and she’s dug into the weeds on it. Attendance that evening was excellent and people were very interested in Amy and what she had to say. Men, too, asked lots of questions but I am sure they will not buy and read her book. It’s about women. It’s about menopause.

And here’s the thing: The book is a delight. It’s entertaining. It involves men, in particular her wonderful husband Ken. Men, if you read “Marrying George Clooney,” think how much better prepared you’d be when your own mother or wife experiences menopause. I’m here to tell you, menopause is a group experience. Why not get a jump on it?

So I’m rethinking my fantasy. It now goes like this: You men must go into that room, not just for the 8 hours or so it takes to read my book, but for a week. Inside the room is a bookcase filled with “women’s” literature. You must read our literature just as we have read your literature. Your literature, in fact, has been assigned to us over the many years of our education and beyond, by our teachers and professors and Publishers Weekly (last December, their top books of 2009 contained not a single book written by a woman) and the New York Times book reviews and on and on.

All right. All right. I’ll allow conjugal visits.

But before I do, I’d like to see a rough draft of your essay. It will be a much more equitable world when men read women the way women have always read men.

Fantasy concluded.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Pajama Party!

When you're in love, sunsets have more colors

My “Free Fall” readings and especially the discussions afterward remind me of pajama parties.

A combination of things contributes to this post-reading — shall we call it ambience? — including the type of book I’ve just published, the make-up of the audience, and the wonderful way readings in local libraries and independent bookstores are warm and intimate. It almost can’t be helped. For now, though, I’m leaving my actual pajamas at home.

Case in point: the reading at Jabberwocky Bookshop in Newburyport last Thursday night.

After reading for 15 minutes, which is about as long as people really want to sit quietly on aluminum chairs and listen attentively, I stop and grope a bit for a few remarks that reference what I’ve just read. I do this to give people time to exit their passive listening state, send a little blood to their glutes, and allow their questions to percolate up to consciousness.

On Thursday we talked about the fact that we don’t talk about this stuff (i.e. sex). Then we launched in, beginning with anecdotes — older friends and relatives who are in their 70s and 80s and enjoying burgeoning love affairs. Said one woman, “She’s so giddy, like a schoolgirl.”

Yes indeed. Good sex can be a little like speed: you can’t stop talking, your smile pulses “Hello there!” and everyone comments on your luminosity, you lose 50 pounds and your desire to complain. You drink wine, burn candles and suddenly notice the spectrum of colors in sunsets. What you need to watch out for, however, is the tendency to run on empty for days and weeks. When you emerge from this hormonally induced state, you’ll probably be exhausted. The older you are, the harder this is for your body to handle. You won’t care.

We talk a little more about passion, available to anyone at any age, and more join in. A sensitive issue comes up: What about married people for whom sex is not necessarily as exciting? Not only is the sex not new, but the two main players know what irks and what riles — death to passion, really. Are we to leave this out of the discussion? The book is about passion but the discussion leads to maintenance issues or, worse, ‘working’ at the sexual relationship. Oh please, I caution myself, never make this part ‘work.’

I point to Jim — I call him Exhibit A these days — and he smiles on cue. “We’ve been at this for three years now. We make adjustments, as well, to honor the sexual part of the relationship we discovered late in life. We’ve talked about this. We like sex and want it to last. Thank goodness for candles and martinis and date night.”

And, I think to myself, thank goodness for Jim. For here is another thing: Paying homage to your loved ones so they can hear you is essential. As Jim once said to me, “Almost nothing is as seductive as being adored.” Tell each other what you really like about him or her and make sure some of the items on your list have to do with their sexuality and the ways they turn you on.

Jabberwocky Bookshop is special. Owner Sue Little has set aside a room set for readings. It’s large enough to accommodate 50 or more people, but the chairs seem to wrap around like a circle. I like the feel of the conversation that comes to the fore here in the green room, as it’s called. People freely associate. One thought leads to another. One question prompts the next. I don’t have anything to teach here; the role I take on is that of writer with info. Because I’ve written a book that touches on gender issues, sex, career and power, mental illness, passion, creativity and more, I can at least share what I’ve learned from writing, thinking and talking about these issues with other people.

So we talked. It felt intimate, friendly, curious, open. In the same ways being a journalist allows me into other people’s lives with the probing and personal questions I sometimes have to ask, writing and publishing a book give me access. Access like this is a gift. Here, in this dedicated room, people pull up their chairs and speak. We compare notes. We share intimate thoughts. Guess what? You’re never too old for a pajama party. Books are like pajamas, I guess. They open the way to deeper conversation.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Reading Erotica to a Crowd

Or, Sharing Your Sex Life With Strangers

Two free drinks, free copies of Penthouse, free cupcakes, too

I probably won’t have to do this again — thank god — but the other night I read a very erotic scene from my book “Free Fall” to a large and lively crowd in a dimly lit bar in SoHo. The scene, from pages 238 to 243, features me as the actor and Jim as the happy recipient. It’s Jim’s favorite sex scene in the book.

What happened was more of a performance than a reading. I hasten to say, I didn’t perform the scene but I performed the reading, liked a staged reading in theater or like I did back in college in my class called Oral Interpretation of Literature. I am shy and the class taught me to slow down, enunciate, broaden the vowels so I sounded less “Western.” To prepare for my erotic bar reading, I rehearsed several times in advance, made notes in the margin, underlined words I wanted to emphasize. Too bad, in a way, that I won’t be reading this again out loud because I worked hard on the preparation.

I expected this to be the reading from hell. I agonized over what to wear. I made a special trip to the colorist to be sure my roots were the same color as the rest of my hair. I taught myself to keep smiling regardless. I should have mentioned first thing that those in the audience were at least 20 or 30 but more likely 40 years younger than I am. I wrote this book, with glimpses into my erotic life, in a vacuum. I didn’t know what other people do in bed so I had no idea how different sex at 58 was from sex at 21. People tell me all the time that it was courageous of me to write about my sex life but, no, that part was fun. It’s courageous to be 61 and read about your sexual activities to kids to whom you could have read “Hop on Pop.”

Oops. Maybe “Hop on Pop” is the wrong reference to make here…

When I was writing that scene, it never occurred to me that I would one day be called upon to read it aloud in a bar in lower Manhattan called Happy Ending where, in the low light, I would encounter tables thickly strewn with stacks of porn magazines free for the taking.

I hadn’t looked at porn in years so what I saw surprised me. For instance, women no longer grow pubic hair and most of them now have sex with other women. Men are incidental to the sex act, it seems, except for that one super-enormous male body part that occasionally crops up, sans the rest of the male body. Oh wait. I get it. This is what men want to look at, not necessarily what they want to do.

Seeing all this, I immediately fortified myself with a gin & tonic with one of my free drink tickets (my payment) and found the last two seats in the place for Jim and I. I had no choice but to rest my sweaty drink on the cleavage of a woman featured on the cover of Penthouse “Variations.”

Something else balanced atop the stacks of magazines: tiny cupcakes, little Barbie confections, each distinctively frosted. They seemed completely at odds with beer, gin and tonic, the Penthouse “Forum” and the red wine but, in fact, no. The cupcakes, generously iced and very sweet, suggested lavish excess, over-the-top indulgence, a night of abandon. The event’s organizer, Rachel Kramer Bussel, made the rounds with spicy tortilla chips and petite cupcakes a couple of times. Enjoy, she urged. Have another. Don’t hold back.

It was a standing-room-only situation at the Chinatown bar. As a newly published author, I suppose this was one indicator that I had officially arrived. Hello Happy Ending. Many well-known writers have read here. It was my turn. And it was up to me how I would view (as in ‘spin’) this reading. This is a tough world for shy authors — brand and opportunity and innovative selling require continuous hard work and a deep reservoir of chutzpah.

I am shameless. I wear skinny jeans. I tell the crowd that my book is true and it has sex in it so I must belong here, on the night dubbed “True Confessions.” I try to ‘own’ what started with a call from my book’s publicist. I read sex scenes to the possibly virginal. I smile at Jim and say, “Thanks, Jim, for the material.” I read, the word “penis” passes several times through my lips. None of it is forced. This, I have to admit, is all my own making. I wrote the book. I do what’s needed. Actually, I have a little fun.

I have to be realistic about another thing. For this crowd, a happy ending means only one thing — enthusiastic erotica that in real ways preps one for that important ‘happy ending’ eventuality. My job, here at the In the Flesh reading series, was to titillate. I did my best.

Oddly, it wasn’t so bad.

I spoke into a microphone. I rested my book on a lectern. I squinted into blinding lights and took note of the video camera a reporter had aimed my way. I read, just as I’d practiced, hitting the words I’d wanted to emphasize, rounding my vowels for dramatic effect, and smiling because this was fun as long as I didn’t think too hard. Like giving birth, I wasn’t about to picture what I was actually doing. A baby’s head squeezing through a cervix dilated to 10 cm is just as absurd as a 61-year-old woman describing sexual techniques to twenty-something men.

When it was over, I stood to receive a few cheers. I recall hearing laughs. A few men came up afterward to compliment my writing. I appreciated this. It was the man, after all, to whom I paid homage in that scene. Perhaps I got something right.

The readers that followed were more performer than I was. An obscene folk duo, a storyteller who’d been on “This American Life,” a woman lamenting how oral sex with her well-endowed husband had reshaped her jaw and caused a need for braces. Had I known ahead of time, I might not have had half the bravado I’d managed to summon.

I am still the same writer. Fame and fortune elude me, as they do most of us. But I got through another writer challenge with a certain dignity. I call this a happy ending for me, too.