Monday, September 13, 2010

Verboten? Not really

The "Exposing a Difficult Past" memoir panel
at the Brooklyn Book Festival Sunday.
From the left, Darin Strauss, Kathryn Harrison,
Elizabeth Wurtzel, Nelson George and Piper Kerman.

What is unmentionable in public is, nonetheless, fair game in print.

This past weekend I went to the Brooklyn Book Festival. One of their first panels sounded especially intriguing. A group of well-known memoir writers was to discuss what it was like to write about events most people don’t even speak of out loud.

I’m talking about such matters as a secret battle with depression and drug addiction, a family torn apart by AIDS, an upstanding woman’s year spent in prison, a cyclist’s death after veering into a writer’s car (from the writer’s point of view) and, most horrific of all in terms of societal taboos, a young woman’s sexual relationship with her father. Kathryn Harrison did this last thing and wrote about it in “The Kiss,” a book I’d reviewed in the late ‘90s when it came out. I also referenced “The Kiss” in my book proposal for “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair” and considered it one of my models.

I couldn’t have known, but Harrison and I have more in common than just telling very personal things to the whole world.

When explaining why she wrote about her incestuous relationship, she said: I was blessed. I was totally unconscious about what I was doing to myself. I wrote without thinking about it and I didn’t think about what would happen.

People I meet are similarly curious: What were your intentions? What do your friends think?

I was a little more cognizant about my purposes than Harrison. I wanted to include erotica in “Free Fall” because I was having what could only be described as a torrid affair. And sexual activity was a catalyst to what followed — a total jettisoning of life as I had been living it for the past two decades.

The sex was fun and sobering at the same time. The element of abandon, something my lover Jim was aware was happening to me during sex, was something I could recognize as important and transformative. I could stop thinking, let go and just be. How novel is this state of being for a middle-aged woman! How pleasurable! Jim gave me this opportunity to let go of a very challenging existence and our sexual activity showed me the way.

The sex scenes in “Free Fall” are strategically placed and though brief they are explicit. I describe them not in graphic terms but in emotional and psychological terms. Sex, in this type of literature, is metaphor. I loved writing it and admit that I was and am very turned on by my own writing. I loved the times, as well, when I could present a completed chapter to Jim, with its erotic parts, to see what he thought. It was fun but, like Harrison, I simply didn’t think too much about it.

That changed when I discovered that my book had been classed as “erotica,” as I’ve written about before. My worries had to do with marketing my book, making use of my mostly male network of published writers and figuring out how to transition intellectually from selling a memoir to selling erotica. I was doomed with that classification, or so I thought. My publicist and editor did their best to help me adjust my thinking: Things are going to be fine. Not to mention, sex sells. It will be OK. You’ll see.

I’ve handled it. My male writer friends/colleagues disappointed me. They stayed away from endorsements or public gestures despite promises of help. Many men friends, on the other hand, wrote thoughtful letters about their own sexual lives and their positive responses. I’ve been interested and impressed by their openness. One thing I still worry over and work at: How do I stimulate sales? Well, we are all trying our best. Promotion, too, is another story for another day.

I still don’t dwell on the erotica in “Free Fall.” When asked how I feel about having such personal information shared publicly, I answer truthfully: I don’t. It was writing. I did it. It’s all there, between the covers, so to speak. And I’m out here, writing, living, moving on.

The sex belonged there. I did what a writer would do, or I should say, what I needed to do as a writer. There was and still is an unconscious aspect to it. I occasionally wonder if those sexual revelations are in any way defiant, anti-social aspects of behavior. I may appear contrite and conformist and gushy-grateful, but I’m counter-culture all the way.

A few months ago, I asked our library director in my town of Rockport what people were saying privately to her. Her answer: I’ve heard people wonder why you couldn’t have written it as fiction.

Like Harrison, much of my fiction is informed by my life. But I wanted to tell this story as truth in case there was one woman out there trapped by circumstances she thought she couldn’t escape. I wanted to show that you take what’s given and you use it to make a change. I wanted to show the value of sex. I wanted to say that sex matters and be heard. I own this story.

Sex is important. Or it can be. It is often the start of a new beginning whether or not we openly acknowledge it. Sex is, for women, probably one of the greatest of all life-changers right up there with education and having children. We meet a man (or a woman), we are attracted, we get intimate. Whoa! What power. What force. It’s all too much. So we create some rules around sex. Society gets a toehold. Order is established, more or less.

And books get written that challenge our tidy constructs.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

A little like Durga

Durga has 10 arms, great compassion
and an ability to soothe
in times of stress. In other words,
like women everywhere, she is a equipped to multi-task.

Rae right now: Happy. Anxious. Focused. Hungry. Sore. Frustrated. Guilty. Tired.

Guilt is never not on the list. Pretty much the same is true of hunger. Always guilty. Always hungry.

I’m not bad at playing host to joy and misery all in the same 5-minute span. My memoir “Free Fall” is a good example of simul-emoting but I contend that most women are pretty good at simul-anything. This skill takes many forms, from multi-tasking to multi-emoting to multi-perception. Yes, children, we do have eyes in the backs of our heads.

Out of necessity (that is, because no one else is taking care of important business) we developed that part of our brains that allows us to multi-task. We routinely walk around with 50+ to-do items of unequal importance in our heads. Tasks range from remove rubber band from wrist … to blog (doing that) … to get plums and sea salt … to pee immediately … to get this cat hair off my black T-shirt before heading out for said salt … to inquire as to the status of my book proposal. And so it goes, from the petty to the life-altering all right here right now.

Think yoga: We are masters of the multi-task form. Do we not console and assert simultaneously? Do we not frost the cake as we lick the bowl? Do we not love a good simultaneous orgasm when we can get one? And whenever feasible, we seek the singular experience made up of eating and talking and drinking with friends. This experience is called Joy, with a capital “J.” If a kid or a lover calls while we are so engaged, sure, no problema, lay it on me.

Women don’t have to be told: We personify the mode known as many. Or, think myth and religion: Medusa, Hydra, the goddess Durga, Teotihuacan Spider Woman. Not all positive, to be sure, but when you’re multi-tasking the smile tends to strain. People notice.

Have you never seen a woman drive and apply mascara, for instance? Not recommended, to be sure, but there it is: X-treme multi-tasking as the world is my witness.

Mixing it up can be a healthy thing. Studies show that people who eat just one food at a time, protein, for instance, from their dinner plates before digging into the next thing, the starch component, for instance, have a greater probability of being psychotic.

I contend that researchers have a disproportionate need to identify links between food and behavior. Worse, they scour our psyches to find links between our mothers and our psychoses. So, caution, please. A pinch of salt when espousing scientific theories about eating behaviors or moms.

Just a few hours ago I realized I was experiencing what was looking more and more like a sleepless night. Oh well. I got out of bed at 4 am, stretched out on the couch, fidgeted, thought about things, got up, fed the cats, washed last night’s remaining dinner dishes, mulled the situation, petted a cat, on and on. I pouted. I sighed. I fretted. I enjoyed a good cup of coffee.

Life is complicated, more so as we age. Yet I’m calmer. The goal, perhaps, is an overlay of contentment as we push on, vacillate between conundrums, appreciation, guilt, frustration, pleasure. It’s all there all the time. Durga, with 10 arms and the wherewithal to intervene in stressful situations, lend me a hand.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Afterbite™, please

Q: Who goes to movies
in NYC these days?

A: Bedbugs

We are having a bedbug infestation here in NYC. It’s a fairly clandestine menace, worse than the Invisible Man, by far, but not as bad as that salmonella there in your egg whites.

To make matters worse, I’m scratching all the time. I hasten to add, it’s poison ivy. I got a case of it this past weekend while felling small shrubs, yanking out entrenched bittersweet and weeding the Rockport backyard. Like everything else, poison ivy has taken on a new vigor due to global warming. It’s more poisonous and more prevalent.

I look like a bedbug dining hall. Not good.

Even though it’s going up to 97 degrees today, I wonder: (A) Should I wear long sleeves? (B) Should I go to see the new George Clooney movie I had promised myself as a reward for waking up, going straight to my computer and dashing off an honest review of Tess Gerritsen’s newest suspense novel “Ice Cold”? For good measure, I cleaned the cat litter, worked on (this) blog and sent a book proposal to my agent. I deserve George Clooney.

Why all the hand-wringing about movies and the heat index?

(A) If you admit to bedbugs or look like you have bedbugs, your social life is over. I need a social life. Bedbugs are the modern-day version of shunning. Got bedbugs? Go away.

(B) Movie theaters have bedbugs and one in Times Square had to close to properly fumigate. Some people refuse to go to movies, or at least refuse to sit down once there.

(C) And here is a link, if you want to know more about the bedbug scare:

Routing out the bedbugs is expensive and exhausting, I would imagine. I’m not up to the task and therefore insist that no bedbugs traverse either of my thresholds. You would need to summon the zeal of a Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau if you intend to rid your domicile of the tenacious bedbug. You must hunt them down where they sleep, which is in dark crevices in secret places. They are the size of a lentil or thereabouts when mature and they are red, redder if they’ve just feasted on you. They can live a year without eating! And coolest of all, according to Wikipedia, they are traumatic inseminators:

All bedbugs mate by traumatic insemination. Because the female has no genital opening, the male pierces her abdomen with his hypodermic genitalia and ejaculates into the body cavity. Especially desperate males sometimes mistake other males for females and fatally wound the latter in the abdomen.

Oh please! Hypodermic genitalia!

Why are we worried about a little itching when there are hypodermic genitalia on the loose?

It gets worse. If you read this carefully, you will come to realize that there is such a thing as a desperate male bedbug, one that stops at nothing to ejaculate. These pierce-able carapaces we humans slather with moisturizers? They are ripe for the taking. For all we know, the male could be inseminating humans as we speak.

I cannot curtail my life in fear of the bedbug, however loathsome. I will probably get them. One in every 15 New Yorkers supposedly battled bedbugs last year. It’s probably worse now. But I’ll never tell. And if Jim tells he’s catsup to my bedbug. There are worse things than stealth inseminators, I guarantee.