Thursday, July 29, 2010

Emotion Ocean

Emotions. Don’t ask me. Just toss me a life preserver. It’s just one big upheaval and under I go. Hey. Somebody. Help!

Recently, Jim’s daughter told us that her friends held a “Free Fall” event at a restaurant. There, the lot of them treated her to a spirited reading of the sex scenes between Jim and me that I detailed, with some specificity, in my memoir. Father and daughter shared a hearty laugh over this incident. Tears of hilarity welled in their eyes. She retold the story. And retold it again. All good fun. He dabs at his eyes with the corner of a napkin. She smiles. A good storyteller can’t help herself. And she has a hum-dinger.

Uh oh, I thought, looking on at the two of them. This is going to be a problem. Why? I’m not laughing, is why. I’m the opposite of laughing.

I can diagram the mechanics of an emotional reaction with the accuracy of a scientist. Think of it as the physics of a hissy fit. I just can’t do much about containing it.

Here, in Part II of the restaurant incident, I detail the 12 stages of emotional meltdown. Whether 62 or 2, it’s terrible.

1. Trigger: Something dreadful happens, like my lover’s daughter relates an abhorrent incident, and my lover bellows laughter. Contagion. Others guffaw.

2. Confusion: Huh? What just happened? I feel a little strange. Alienation.

3. Chaos: Impulse in. Reason out. Wild energy — adrenaline? — shoots out the top of my head. I am lightning. I crave discharge.

4. Freeze: Ow. Holding it in hurts. But something, a kind of emotional rigor mortis, has turned me rigid. Mortification.

5. Cognition: Adrenaline rush subsides. What’s this? I think I’m pissed off.

6. Choice: Quick. People are wondering where my guffaw is. What to do?

a. Display anger — “In my next book, worm man, you couldn’t lure a dogfish.”

b. Play Miss Congeniality — “Very funny, dudes. What did you love most, guys, the blow job or the Orange Motion fantasy?”

c. Deliver The Look “Tell me the truth, girl. You learned a trick or two yourself, right?”

d. Detach and Move On — “Hey sweetie. Have you stopped going to the gym or what?”

e. Drink — Alter one’s consciousness till sanity catches up to you. I choose “e” and keep my mouth shut.

7. Go Passive: My affect flattens. I circle my psychic wagons. Put on a neutral face. Relax hands. Make level eye contact. Bite tongue and loosen only to imbibe.

8. Phew: Surfacing now. Breathing again. A modicum of self-control restored. I suspect that I will not say anything I regret. On the other hand, I will not say anything.

9. Reckoning: I start to wonder: What precisely am I feeling? What don’t I like about what’s happening? What should I do? What are the words needed to convey my distressing message? Shit. Must I?

10. Snickers vs. martini: Some truths require a soothing tonic. Pause here for a treat.

11. Emboldened: Say it.

12. Free Fall: No regrets.

Jim is the rod to my lightning. I light up his world. Not necessarily in a good way.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

'Free Fall' Gets Passed around the Table

A group of young adults read sexy passages
from "Free Fall" out loud in a restaurant
while Jim's daughter sat and listened.

A newspaper editor I worked for said, and I paraphrase: Once you write the words down, they no longer belong to you.

I understand what he means. Whether it’s an e-mail or a book or a journal, once I create it, it’s out of my hands. This is true of many of our most valued works, from the children we bear to our signature recipe for coq au vin.

I should not be surprised, therefore, by what happened to my erotic memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” a few days ago.

The book is, among other things, a candid and passionate portrayal of my love affair with Jim. The long-distance affair began when Jim was 67 and I was 58. “Free Fall” celebrates adult sexuality and explores major life changes, especially those prompted by increasingly untenable situations. As you can imagine, Jim and I had plenty of life under our belts when we came together, including four grown children.

One of these young adults recently sat at a table in a restaurant with a group of friends (my imagination insists they were intoxicated). The friends took turns reading aloud the graphic sexual passages to Jim’s daughter. My imagination also insists there were plenty of snickers and loud guffaws.

There’s a lot to be said about this incident, from the disrespect paid to the young woman whose cherished father and new lover were the butt of their joke, to the lack of consideration to the literature and the other restaurant patrons, to the possibility that this may have been done while the young woman remained in their highest esteem.

Another of our children, a librarian, had a very different experience. My daughter’s friends bought, read and posted reviews of the book on Web sites like GoodReads. They wrote both of us, sending along congratulations and rave reviews. One of her library manager friends invited me to her library to read to patrons. It was one of the best nights of my life: my daughter, Jim, my daughter’s good friend and a group of interested and open-minded patrons together sharing stories.

Jim was amused and unbothered by what his daughter’s friends did. It’s something men do to each other all the time, he said. They jam you up, test your mettle, play a form of psychological chicken.

As a woman, and the author, my take is different. There are numerous short but graphic erotic scenes in “Free Fall.” A group of young men and women taking turns reading these sex scenes aloud in a public place feels akin to a verbal assault. We all knew that Jim’s daughter had no interest in reading about her father’s sexual activities.

When I asked my daughter what she thought, the first thing she said was, “This is how it is with books. Once you write it and publish it, it’s no longer yours. It’s like a book burning, only mockery.”

In “Free Fall,” I write a lot about letting go, staying open, not holding on so tight to what I think I know. Once again I find there is no such thing as a lesson learned for keeps. You learn a lesson in the moment and relearn it, when the need arises.

Good luck, “Free Fall.”

You can find this blog post on author Joan Price's blog this week. Joan is a leading authority on senior sexuality and fitness. Find out more!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A CAMPFIRE READING: It was too hot to light the fire

Question of the day

If a writer gives a reading in a forest, will anyone hear it?


I told my friends beforehand: My campfire reading in the vast and wild northern New Hampshire is going to stand as the pinnacle of my career as a published author.

Pinnacle reached Friday night. Prediction accurate.

The township of Pittsburg NH, geographically the largest in the country, only has a population of around 800 residents. By the looks of things, there are more moose per square mile than people and more lakes than any other place in the United States. More exploits. More feistiness. Here’s one example: In the early 1800s Pittsburg formed its own militia, made its own money, appointed its own Supreme Court, passed its own constitution.

What book experience could touch a campfire reading up there on the Canadian border, where newspaper articles and events listing, fliers posted kindly by libraries and hotels from Lancaster north did little to pull in the crowd. Not even word-of-mouth worked. It was Facebook, a tool (however sketchy the Internet) that builds lifesaving virtual networks in long winters that did it.

Ask an author to choose: Oprah vs. reading to people in a circle in the woods accompanied by the cry of the loon and the winking of fireflies and the wilds encircling us like a dark and wondrous fairytale.

Question: What am I getting at? Answer: This place and its people are magical.

What do I know about being on Oprah? Nothing. But in terms of sheer fun and novelty, a reading by a campfire in Pittsburg NH, way up north on the Canadian border, is as good as the hot fudge sundae you get at Moose Alley Cones a half mile north on Route 3.

I can go no further until I talk about Lisa and Tim Savard, owners of the Cabins at Lopstick. They need to write their own memoir detailing their exploits as successful and hospitable lodge owners, fishing and hunting guides (Lisa was the first licensed female fishing and hunting guide in New Hampshire), commanders of fleets of snowmobiles in winters, branders of business, artful decorators, adept at survival in a deep freeze seven months of each year. I thank them both profusely.

Tim gave me a reading lamp hooked up to electricity, there in the woods. He gave me a leather chair from which to hold forth and a circle of chairs upon which our guests sat and listened. Lisa provided homemade sangria and a platter of gorgeous bruschetta. She posted the event and talked it up and people came: an ER nurse practitioner who stands in for doctors in that lone hospital in the North Country, a psychologist, an advertising and branding specialist with advanced digital tools and expertise, a newspaper owner, etc.

One woman snowshoes alone in the deep winter woods at night with a lamp clamped onto her forehead. They’ve been known to face down bear. They toil long hours coming up with yet the next ingenious enterprise to help make ends meet. I love the creativity and the zeal for life.

I share passages from my memoir. I read about love and sexual attraction and they think it’s grand. One woman says she gives little vibrators as party favors, ensuring her popularity and lots of invitations. Another talks about the lively smut shop she’d love to run in New Orleans. Another acts out a bout of womanly hysterics, the turn-of-the-century cure for which was a prescribed course on the doctor’s large vibrating machine. A couple’s little dog wriggles out of its collar, clearly annoyed by the antics of the humans, and escapes into the waiting woods. Party ends. We hightail it after baby frou-frou, bow affixed to an exuberant topknot. Hurry! She’s the perfect tidbit for the wry coyote or sage fox sneaking about on the periphery.

As a child I was the transfixed onlooker at many a lively campfire. That was out West in the deserts, the high Sierras, the arid mountains and campgrounds inland from my hometown of Santa Barbara, and on beaches late at night when I should have been home in bed.

Bonding around a campfire over a good story is something I still crave.

There’s nothing quite like the smell of pine, the sound of the loons floating up from the First Connecticut Lake, the rustle of varmints in the brush, the crackling fire, the blood red sangria, the people gathered around, mere miles from Canada, in a huddle under a stew of stars so thick it seems that you could reach out and scoop them up. Fireflies zig and zag to form a perfect sphere of twinkling lights — that we inhabit — from rich earth to North Star. Quiet little words spoken from my book drift into the mix. Who better to understand Free Fall than these daring and hardy folk?


If a writer gives a reading in the Pittsburg woods on a lovely summer evening in July, interesting people who’ve checked Facebook will come. Some will bring their pets, sangria, friends, a sense of adventure. All will go home thinking: Yep. Anything can happen here. A moose running through the garden. Two adolescent foxes frolicking on the side of the road. Great views from Mount Magallaway. An erotic reading. That’s why I came to Pittsburg. You just never know.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Free Flow

There’s a lot of debris clogging this harbor, metaphorically speaking. Something has to give.

I’ve been reading a new book called “Seven-Tenths: Love, Piracy, and Science at Sea,” by David Fisichella. He writes about the ocean’s many layers of currents, the volume of water in each current, temperature, speed, salinity, water density. There’s even a special nomenclature (Sverdrup) for describing water volume because there’s so much of it. That book had me thinking as I slogged through my 8 a.m. run on Sunday. It was 78 degrees, 62 percent humidity, and the Hudson River Parkway smelled like the inside of an exhaust pipe.

Nature is where I get my best lessons and I never have to look that hard.

Oceans are deep, vast and complex organisms. Sometimes I sit on my Rockport deck, as I did the other night, and look out over an Atlantic Ocean so flat and still I cannot believe a wave could be tweaked out of that expansive lethargy. Air’s movement across the surface abrades, piques, teases ripples that join other ripples. Waves crash at our feet. That’s all just surface activity responding to external forces.

Fisichella tells us that waves can travel in opposition to current direction. Rogue waves — unexpectedly large and powerful aberrant waves — derive from this phenomenon and they can be troublesome.

So, too, women’s internal workings and surface responses can be at odds. I speak of women of my generation. We grew up feeling responsible for our fellow man and woman. From that orientation, many of us find ourselves striving for unity, harmony and compassion among friends, family and colleagues.

It’s not easy being nice all the time. I, like others, have engaged in a long and frustrating struggle to reconcile opposing forces: my valued role as humanitarian vs. my responsibility to my singular voice.

Does this sound familiar? Like something in assertiveness training we never really caught on to the first time we heard it in the early ’70s? Only a year or so ago I heard Gloria Steinem and Suzanne Braun Levine admit to a large Barnes & Noble crowd that they still had trouble saying “no.”

Saying ‘no’ — code for direct communication — feels counter-community.

About a year ago I met one of my clients in a train station. I was just coming into Boston from New York City and, after weeks of doing business by telephone, we were going to have lunch and discuss face-to-face the events we were planning to promote his new documentary film.

I recognized him and approached. Immediately the 6-foot, 5-inch man began yelling. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “You,” he shouted. “You are what’s wrong.” He stormed off to the Dunkin’ Donuts kiosk to order a few doughnuts and coffee. When the non-English-speaking server got his order wrong, he shook a long stick-like doughnut in her face and screamed obscenities. The doughnut broke off and flew across the counter. Everything she did enraged him more but when she handed him a pink frosted doughnut instead of a Boston Crème concoction, I thought he would smash it in her face.

I shoved money at her and dragged him by the arm to a seat in the station. “Where’s your wife?” I shouted, desperate for help. She was across the country and I was there, stuck with this madman, just a day before a long weekend full of events I’d already been paid to publicize and oversee was about to commence.

My job shifted from arts publicist to psychiatric nurse as he trained the invective stream back on me. Any minute the police officer I saw out of the corner of my eye was going to arrest him.

My one overriding reaction while the encounter was taking place? As absurd as it seems, all I could feel was this: The man is suffering.

At least I had the common sense to cancel lunch, though I sat with him 40 minutes as he settled down and explained his concerns about getting an audience, getting bloggers to cover the events, getting interviews in all the big newspapers. He was a man of little faith and enormous rage. The last leg of my train trip to Rockport from Boston was spent managing my PTSD-like shakes. It had been a truly horrid time and yet I never did the one thing that could have saved me. Instead of walking away, as I should have, I stood and tried to help him calm himself and avoid the embarrassment of a confrontation with police.

I could have said: I quit. I could have said: Goodbye. Call me when you’ve got a grip.

Diplomacy takes precedence and my form of diplomacy clearly isn’t as forthright as I want or need it to be. This problem, I suspect, is surmountable. It has to do with knowing what we want, what we want to say, and finding a way. I am of the school of problem-solvers for which there is always a way. But we have to factor in the reality: For women there’s a nuanced art to speaking honestly, being heard, helping and not offending. When we activate our voices, we are doing so in the context of community.

I call myself ‘politic,’ but that way of thinking has become a rationalization for a form of verbal cowardice or confusion.

Since my memoir Free Fall has been published and since I no longer report to a day job, I’ve had the privilege and time to take a deeper, closer look at myself. Believe me. This was nothing I would have volunteered for. It hasn’t been fun or easy. I’m not distracted, like I was, by a contentious boss or the ongoing threat of a loved-one’s suicide. I wake up and the first thing I think about is not work but the knot of anxiety in my gut. Why is it there? What is it?

Now, with nature in front of me once again as a model, I see what needs fixing.

The gradual clearing out I desire has to do with opening up the harbor, letting the waters flow in and out as conditions shift and change. I want currents to align with surface activities, to say what I mean.

The next time my client wields a doughnut as if it were a weapon, I would like the presence of mind to hand him a cup of coffee and say, “Dunk it.”