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The Five Year Engagement

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Went to see The Five Year Engagement  Sunday with my son, and was glad I opted for a movie over dinner in a restaurant with the mother mobs.

I always forget, and hereby vow to remember, how great it is to see comedies in a movie theater, for several reasons. Most important, at other kinds of movies—dramas, documentaries, even simple love stories—I inevitably fall asleep. This comes of not sleeping well at night, so the minute I let my exhausted body sit still for more than two minutes, it collapses into a blissful state of REM. But at funny movies the audience keeps me awake with laughter. And if the movie is really funny, my own laughter keeps me going.

Film comedy has improved in the past decade, maybe more.  They used to be much stupider, aimed, like everything else, at kids; but moviemakers seem to have discovered you can be funny and still have a double digit age and a triple digit IQ. Other than Woody Allen, the most genuinely funny film I’ve seen as a grownup was The Wedding Crashers, so maybe the improvement started then. On the other hand, maybe I’m not as smart as I think or pretend to be—I’m the only person on the planet who thought Ishtar, made in the mid-70’s, was a scream.

The Five Year Engagement was done by the producers of Bridesmaids, which right away is a great reference. Engagement turns on one simple plot point. A madly-in-love couple get engaged with the best of intentions, begin planning their wedding, but get sidetracked, as the title implies, when she’s accepted into an academic program at the University of Michigan. Did I mention they live in San Francisco? And that he’s an up-and-coming chef in this gourmet city?

Thinking it’s no big deal, that they’re so in love they can handle anything (uh-huh) they put off their commitment date for what they expect will be  two years. Then life takes unexpected turns and things get more complicated.  The relationship starts to crumble before it can even begin.

The film is rated R, but don’t get excited…the sex is minimal. To compensate, most of it was shot in San Francisco. I have only one criticism: if they wanted Van Morrison songs for the soundtrack, why not Van himself and not covers?

I went into the theater stressed out from my daily life without even knowing I was; by the time the film ended I was as relaxed as after 3 days in Costa Rica, my mind having been transported, and laughter having shook the tension from my body. It’s fine to watch heavy dramas and intellectual fare at home, the bed nearby  and only 3 bucks wasted–or a chance to do a re-run at breakfast. But for ten bucks forced into an upright position, I’ll take laughter every time.


Sex Offenders and the Laws That Don’t Stop Them

Lost Memory of Skin cover

Speaking up for the rights of sex offenders is a little like defending the rights of smokers: God is never on their side, and almost anything said to defend them comes off as desperate or lame.

I’m not going to defend the rights of smokers just now, but rather the rights of those other pariahs. Because of widespread confusion, ignorance and fear about sex itself — not just harmful sex — whenever another sickening crime occurs, legislators go  into panic mode and pass a new law. Some make sense, others don’t, but the worst thing about our sex offender laws is they seldom if ever distinguish between different kinds of sex “crimes.” These laws plunk together the 19-year-old kid who has sex with his 17–year-old girlfriend into the same category as the 30-year-old child-snatcher who molests five-year-olds in his car. These draconian laws vary from state to state.

In Russell Banks’ latest novel, Lost Memory of Skin, The Kid, a 21-year-old virgin and Internet porn addict (in this
case the term porn addict isn’t a stretch) is invited by a girl on a chat group to come over while her mother’s out of town. Naturally, The Kid is champing at the bit, eager for his first real sexual contact, and rides the bus to the suburbs, bearing gifts of condoms, beer, and his favorite porn video. When he walks into the house, he is promptly arrested by an FBI agent.

Lost Memory of Skin is fiction, but these things happen to real people in real life. (See To Catch a Predator, TV reality show.)  At 17, Anthony Croce began having sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend; when he turned 18, the girl’s disapproving mother pressed charges and Croce pled no contest. He was then legally compelled to register as a sex offender. This is the most common teenage sex “crime” and punishment: when an amorous couple are caught “doing it”, if she’s underage and he isn’t, he’s arrested. He cops a plea or goes to trial, and carries the “sex offender” stigma for ten years or more, sometimes for life. His mug shot is posted on the Internet and sometimes around his neighborhood.  In most states he’s not allowed to live near schools, parks or other common kid spaces – one teen, Generlaw Wilson, couldn’t even live with his family because his kid sister lived in the house, and he wasn’t allowed to be near her. Some sex offenders have to wear GPS devices, or tell prospective employers they’re perverts. On Halloween, cops in towns and cities make the rounds from one sex offender’s home to another, checking to see that they’re home with the lights out and the shades drawn so as not to attract trick-or-treaters to their doors.

Acknowledging that youthful intimacy is not the same as child molestation, a few new Romeo and Juliet laws attempt to correct these overly harsh punishments. (Romeo would be labeled a sex offender today, as he was believed to be 16 and Juliet 13.) Still, even these are frequently enforced unfairly says Mark Chaffin of the National Center on the Sexual Behavior of Youth. “In many cases, they are enforced largely by how angry the parents of the younger party are.”

Not surprisingly, R&J laws are even harder on gay and lesbian teenagers. Matthew Limon was a mentally disabled 17-year-old who had consensual sex with a 14-year-old boy. If the boy had been a girl, Limon would have been sentenced to 15 months in prison under Kansas’s Romeo and Juliet law, but because it states that partners must be members of the opposite sex, Limon was given a 17-year sentence.


If, as I believe, the proliferation of child sexual abuse is a by-product of sexual ignorance, then instead of passing legislation we ought to be investigating why people become predators. Banks’s Kid wasn’t a predator at all, only ignorant and isolated and horny as hell with a sad screwed-up family background to boot. Why do grown men lust after children? What makes someone so crazy out-of-control with…what? Is it lust? Is it, as with adult rape, an assertion of power? Wouldn’t it be good to know? Molesters don’t give a shit that they’re hurting kids; doesn’t that make them psychopaths? Yet they apparently don’t even care about the consequences to themselves. Would research tell us why?

Unfortunately, at this time (as throughout most of history), anti-sex attitudes prevent such research from happening. According to “Long After Kinsey, Only the Brave Study Sex,” an article in the New York Times, very little sex research is conducted these days. From the article:

 “Pedophilia in particular is off-limits. Psychiatrists and psychologists have studied and tried to treat people imprisoned for sexual crimes, with limited success…People do not choose to become pedophiles, experts say, but usually discover as adults that they are afflicted with unusual desires, and many long resist the urge to act on them….The intensity of the emotion on this issue is so high that it is heresy to express any concern about a person with pedophilia,” much less study treatment, said Dr. Fred Berlin, founder of the Johns Hopkins University sexual disorders clinic.”

Dr. Berlin has been widely vilified for his views on the subject, and is a target of venomous threats online.

One reason I feel so strongly about this is that, if these attitudes and laws had existed back in the day, my beloved G.D. would have been sent up the river for the scandalous things we did in his car when I was 16 and he 19. Half my male friends would have kept him company in nearby cells. I’ve always been grateful I had the opportunity to explore my sexual feelings with my peers, rather than among church groups under a pledge of chastity, and I genuinely feel sorry for kids today. I’m no fan of teen pregnancy or exploitation of young girls – but if the grownups won’t give them real sex education, instead of adding to their shame and confusion,  they should just leave the kids alone .

Anyone with an inkling of curiosity about the plight of people like Andrew Croce and Generlaw Wilson, or Russell Banks’s treatment of the subject, should read Lost Memory of Skin. Aside from everything else, it’s a terrific novel.

Big Sex Little Death: Review

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Susie with Cocktails at Bruno's in the Mish

Big Sex Little Death
A Memoir by Susie Bright
Seal Press  2011

I wasn’t certain I’d review Big Sex Little Death, Susie Bright’s long-awaited memoir, since I’m too close to some of the material to be purely objective — but as it turns out, I just can’t stop myself.


Full Disclosure: Susie Bright was one of the first people I met when I came West from New York some 25 years ago, and one of my first acts as a San Franciscan was to submit my sex stories to her Herotica collection. Shortly afterwards, I joined the On Our Backs staff as Susie’s assistant, a year later became their fiction editor, and, finally, was second successor to the editorial throne. Shadowing Susie didn’t end at OOB: I assumed editorship of Herotica with the #4 volume, when Susie moved on to more lucrative projects. I told her I  seemed to be following in her footsteps; she replied with her radiant million-dollar grin, “I’ll just keep warming up the chair for you.”


That charm and generosity are quintessential Susie, and they permeate Big Sex Little Death, her journey from childhood to teen socialist to feminist to sexual activist and public figure. I was familiar with much of this history, but seeing it all together in one place, I recognized, for the first time, how much Susie and I have in common, beginning with abusive mothers who lost their own mothers at an early age. Being a “motherless daughter,” I’ve recently learned, can affect a woman more profoundly than any other aspect of her life; it particularly influences the kind of mother she becomes. My mother was emotionally abusive; Susie’s was mentally ill (apparently undiagnosed), and  physically abusive:

She pinched the top of my arm and dragged me out the door. I remember her grip on my arm—and her disgust at my blubbering. I was pathetic, I knew it, but I couldn’t stop. I could see in her eyes how loathsome I’d become.

All this because Susie missed her cat, which her mother had unceremoniously abandoned.

I know all about that look in a mother’s eyes; that Susie was on the receiving end of it makes it that much more astonishing that she grew to become such a strong powerful woman. Lest anyone foolishly credit such experiences with helping to radicalize a person, it was not her mother’s abuse but her father’s love and support that pushed Susie forward. He stood proudly behind his teenage socialist firebrand, and he welcomed her home when the fires went out. Both parents – Mommy dearest was not all bad – were “braniacs; they were language, poetry and music fiends; they took enormous pleasure in big ideas and the power of word. They were literary sensualists.” Not a bad heritage for a feminist leader.

Susie took a dollop of this and a plateful of that from her parents. She incorporated socialist ideas into feminism – and took feminism even further, insisting that female-centered sexual representation and expression were its logical extension.

I wish she’d probed a little bit deeper into her life as an active Socialist. As her one-time editor, if she had asked for my opinion I would’ve urged her in that direction. Some of her anecdotes of life among the Commies aren’t reflective enough to satisfy, and while I loved what I read, I wanted more.

One of the major differences between Susie’s journey and mine is timing: I was a young mother when I first became, as I see it, conscious — while Susie seems to have been highly conscious from birth. I don’t know of many teenagers who can be as confident as Susie seems to have been in her beliefs, especially since they ran against received opinion.

The first time she stands up for women and their bodies is, appropriately, the day she first bleeds. Late returning to school after lunch, sent to the principal’s office, Susie marches right in “like a mad bear,” protesting, “This is not right…My period just started at noon, and I had to figure out the Tampax all by myself….and you can’t discriminate against me just because I’m menstruating…” The mortified principal nearly passed out and practically begged her to leave his office, showing her the power of her sexuality in one fell swoop. She has continued to confront sexual ignorance and patriarchal privilege ever since.

Although I ate up the first two sections of the book, I was, naturally, in something of a hurry to get to the part about OOB. Reading Susie’s account of each incident, from the founding of the magazine to its change in ownership, I kept receiving little shocks of recognition with every turned page. If this was a comic book, light bulbs would be hanging over my head, popping off in every panel, so faithful is Susie to what happened, at least as I remember it. For those who weren’t  close to the scene, I direct you to the book. It’s a helluva story; maybe someday I’ll have enough distance to write more about it myself.

Big Sex ends on a positive note – the day that Susie and Jon and baby Aretha move to Santa Cruz to begin family life anew. That too I remembered….then I eagerly turned the page…and was confronted with a page headlined “NOTES.” I could not believe I’d reached the end! And more than 15 long years ago!

Now,  I have been waiting since the day Aretha popped out of Susie’s belly to see what kind of American girl/child/woman Susie Bright’s daughter would become. As a mother who feels that I fucked up the sex education along with everything else, I was dying to see how Susie did with the hardest job on the planet. Unfortunately, a veil descended and I didn’t find out.

Susie has a right to put in or leave out whatever she wants from her memoir – but as a reader, and as her friend, (and as an editor) I wanted more. I especially want to know what happened in the years since the time of this book’s ending. I want to know about her mothering: how did being raised in an atmosphere of, or at least lip service to, sexual freedom affect Aretha and her attitudes? What about their relationship? My daughter is still angry about some of my sexual openness; what’s the story with Susie’s? More than most people, I understand the delicacy of the mother-daughter relationship, as well as the desire not to violate a child’s privacy – but surely some of Susie’s story can be told without inflicting damage. This is not just idle curiosity, either: I honestly believe that Susie has something important to contribute to  this other area of female experience that’s been historically shrouded in darkness.

Because of this and a few more minor gaps, it doesn’t feel like Susie’s story has been fully told. Then again, nobody’s story is ever fully told, is it? Still, Susie has a lot more livin’ to do: I’m looking forward to a sequel.

Confessions of a She-Fan: The Course of True Love with the New York Yankees

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Confessions of a She-Fan: The Course of True Love with the New York Yankees, by Jane Heller

In 2007 the New York Yankees had a baaaaad season. They started badly, didn’t even make it to a .500 winning percentage until mid-season, barely slid into the postseason, and then went down to ignominious defeat against the Cleveland Indians in the first round of playoffs. Well before that point, Jane Heller, a writer and passionate fan, gave up on the team she’d loved for years: in a fit of disgusted rage, she served notice, in an op-ed piece for the New York Sunday Times, her intention to “divorce” the Yankees. In a city where people live and die by this team, reactions were intense and critical: a true fan is supposed to stand by her team in sickness and in health. Heller was vilified as a “bandwagon fan,” the equivalent of a fair-weather friend. The week her piece ran, it was the most emailed and talked about article in the Times.

Stunned by this response, Heller took a long look at her relationship with the Bronx Bombers, and, smelling a book contract on the road, decided to follow the team around the country for the rest of the season. Her husband Michael (your average fan as opposed to a rabid maniac) went along to lend his support. The result, Confessions of A She-Fan, is the best book I’ve ever read on the subject of baseball. I admit this is a  totally biased, lopsided, and personal opinion, that I’m well aware  She-Fan is far from The Best Book  – but on a personal level, it is. More important, She-Fan is the first book that talks about the game from a female perspective. My perspective. The perspective of She-Fans.

As with most areas of life, there’s a difference in the way women participate as sports fans, specifically baseball, from the way in which men participate. This is something I’ve long suspected, but, conceding sports as the exclusive province of the male, I didn’t much talk about it. I’ve been afraid my POV is less valid than men’s, and stifled some of my observations. In baseball conversations with men, I’m insecure, afraid of sounding idiotic. I’ve written all my life about gender differences in attitude towards food, sex, movies…you name it. I’ve never been intimidated about expressing my opinions, and certainly never thought my perspective was inferior to men’s. But sports? It’s a whole other ball game (pun intended).

Men know and care about statistics, more important in baseball than in any other sport. Men remember plays in games that took place years or even decades ago. I envy this skill of instant recall. Women, on the other hand, watch interactions between teammates – not as mere celebrity gossip, but as to how it affects their game. Heller acknowledges these differences, and more, without self-judgment or apology. In doing so, she’s given women permission to speak our baseball minds. That crackling sound you hear is the shattering  of another glass ceiling.

Heller’s relationship to the Yankees will resonate with other New York fans; at least, it did with this one. I was born and spent the first six years of my life in the Bronx. Rooting for the Yankees was in my blood and my bones, a given, something you just did. The world was smaller back then, and Yankees filled a big piece of mine.

The tone of the writing is intensely personal and insanely funny; at times Heller flips into a kind of Woody Allen-esque self-deprecation. Comparing herself to a friend who, she says, is shaped like “a normal woman,” she describes herself as looking like “a pencil.”  Her pet names for various Red Sox players are laugh-out-loud funny: Jonathan Papelbon is Pap Smear; Big Papi is Big Sloppy.  And she lives up to the “confessions” of her title, letting readers see her quirks and vulnerabilities.

She manages to turn the book’s major weakness – lack of access to the team; she wasn’t even allowed in the press box – into a strength, by creating an element of suspense, sprinkling in quotes from an unnamed Yankee player. Naturally, I kept trying to figure out who the mystery speaker was, guessing and un-guessing Jorge Posada, A-Rod, Joe Torre, or even Steinbrenner himself. The suspense built until I could stand it no longer, and if Heller hadn’t eventually revealed the truth I would’ve killed her. (I won’t spoil it by revealing it here.)

Speaking of Joe Torre, 2007 was, as every Yankee fan will remember, the year he left after 12

English: Photograph of Joe Torre taken by Goog...

Photograph of Joe Torre taken by Googie Man (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

seasons as manager. It was also, in hindsight, the beginning of the end of King George’s rule, when his health began to fail and his sons stepped in to take over. For Heller, these transitions were emotionally difficult, and she holds  nothing back, revealing without shame moments like her gut-wrenching crying jag in the stands, where she remains long after the last out of the final losing game.

What does it mean to love a baseball team like this? Why does Jane Heller – why do I, for that matter – love the Yankees with such passion? As a kid I simply accepted that I was a Yankee fan. As I got older, this unquestioned loyalty began to fade. I was disillusioned to learn that a team’s players don’t necessarily come from or live in the city they represent – and to tell the truth, I’ve never fully recovered from the shock of that. From it I deduced that loving a team is purely arbitrary, that you could simply choose a team ro love. When there was no choice in the matter, it was somehow easier to be loyal.

But it turns out that the Yankees are more like family than just a team: love ’em or hate ’em, you’re stuck with ’em. I suspect that’s why so many New Yorkers were outraged when Heller announced she’d simply up and divorce them. It’s like divorcing your family, never mind just your spouse.

By the end of the book, though, Heller reaffirms her love for the Yankees; she’s grown, she’s moved to  a whole other level of fandom. She’s been to hell and back, learned a few things about love, loyalty, patience, and commitment, and she’s in it for the long haul. Win or lose, in sickness or health, she’ll stick with pinstripes til the day she dies. There’s no choice when you’re to the Bronx team born.

Welcome to the family, Jane. We’re glad you decided to stay.

Jane Bites Back: Review

Jane Bites Back
by Michael Thomas Ford
Ballantine Books

Whew! Am I relieved! As I read the last page of Jane Bites Back, my heart rapidly sank—there were still a few ends left untied, one of them pretty significant. Then I turned to the back and discovered a sequel’s in the works. My spirits were immediately revived: I cannot wait to read Jane Goes Batty, “coming soon” from Ballantine Books. I wonder what “soon” means—the publishing biz can be maddeningly slow. Guess I’ll just have to ask the author. (Full disclosure: I know Michael Ford slightly.)

Following Ford and his twisted mind on this roller-coaster ride made for a rollicking good read—or should I say the rollicking read made for a roller-coaster ride? Either way, I had a blast, and it made me wonder why I’ve shied away from the vampire genre. Actually, JBB doesn’t fall into any genre, fang-related or otherwise. It’s a novel/romance/satire and even mystery all rolled into one. Ford pokes his knife-edged pen at all things romantic, generic, novelistic, and vampiristic, and does a side-splitting number on a pair of talk show hosts named Comfort and Joy. I especially loved his delicious satire of the publishing game.

Jane, by the way, is Ms. Austen, undead in a remote little town in upstate NY, where she’s carved out a fairly normal life, except for her proclivity to inflict in-depth hickeys on the townsfolk every now and then.  Prim and proper Jane hates having to do it, but she’s hunger-driven, having been turned 200-something years ago by none other than Lord Byron.  As Jane Fairfax, she runs her own bookstore and hangs out with the locals, writing a novel in her spare time. When it’s published, her little world bursts wide open, bringing more excitement and danger than the poor girl’s had in, oh, 150 years or so. Can she handle it?

How could she not? when the guy pulling her strings has a mind more imaginative than that of any writer I’ve encountered in a pretty long time (I’m thinking here of Katherine Dunn, author of the outrageous Geek Love). Ford is wickedly funny: I cackled my way through half the book, especially the vampire stuff. Still, I’m a writer reading a writer writing about writing, so the parts I related to best were of Jane as the Austenmeister. For instance, “She herself had become somewhat resentful of newly published books—much as childless women sometimes regarded new mothers and their infants with a mixture of jealousy and despair…” Talk about schadenfreude!

Ironically, a book as much fun as JBB is a good cure for schadenfreude. How can I possibly resent my friend’s success when it’s bringing me pleasure? I don’t—and I eagerly await Jane Goes Batty. Hm…I just remembered…Batty. Bats. Vampires. Ford hints towards the end that Jane needs to spend more time with “her own kind.” Methinks we’ll be meeting some of those creatures in the sequel.