Fifty Shades of Who Cares

So why IS this book Fifty Shades of Grey such a best seller? They say that for Victorian men one major draw in visiting ‘Ladies of the Night’ was  to enjoy the feeling of not having to be in control for a while  – so wearying to run an Empire AND bully your wife over the dinner table! –  but I imagine the old Joy of Sex was pretty high on the list too.

Still I don’t find the idea of reading one silly handcuff story after another all that compelling.

I have nothing against handcuffs. I saw the film Bill Durham like everyone else; I remember how rookie Tim Robbins gets to pitching so much better after Susan Sarandon starts tying him by his wrists to the bedposts and reading him poetry – remember?

But still: I’m pretty sure when God gave us sex he was thinking “Here’s a fun thing to do,” not “Here’s a fun thing to watch, or read about – other people doing.

Plus you don’t get a new person with second-hand sex. and new people after all are what it’s all for. 😉


So here’s something worse than finding your Slam Book page covered with casual cruelties: You do a little video of what the Boston accent is like and post it on YouTube. Six months go by and every few weeks someone sees it and writes a comment saying ‘Yeah that totally IS the real Boston accent’ or ‘Actually you sound like you’re from the Bronx,’ or ‘Hey I know someone named Marotta, are you related to Frank  Marotta ?’  etc.  This is me I’m talking about, just to be clear, and I like all these comments that have been left on the site by people killing a little time and curious about the way people talk around here.

And then the day before yesterday someone wrote “Wait, is this a drag queen?” About me.

‘Drag queen’ is a word you don’t hear too often outside the theatrical world – I don’t anyway. I mean people are trans-gendered or trans-sexual, people are transitioning from male to female or from female to male but “drag queen “feels to me like an old word, used more for guys who enjoy dressing as women for the simple fun of it. They can even be straight guys, but for someone to seriously think I’m doing that? That I’m a man trying to pass himself off as a woman? As if menopause  wasn’t bad enough! 

Is it because my hair gets so puffed-out and helmety in summer humidity that it looks like a wig? Did the light on my face make me look like I was suppressing whiskers?  I probably am suppressing whiskers these days with the estrogen going out like the tide, but I actually think it’s my general… presentation. I am ‘feminine,’ whatever that means or so I’ve been told along the way, sometimes by people who seem sort of sore about it. I mean once in my 20s a guy actually said to me, “You know you’re not as pretty as you make yourself appear!” What did that mean? That he thought I was working some kind of con? Am I? And am I now some sort of ridiculous figure, who is ‘older’ and should look … less like a woman?  “So sue me” I tried to say back in’the hell-with-you-pal’ fashion but the truth is, I was hurt.

I was hurt this time too, so much so that I erased the comment the minute I saw it.

I did leave the video up because people seem to enjoy thinking about our accent here in Boston, and I like to revisit the subject now and then. I’ve even been thinking of seeing if my nephew will do a 60-second podcast with me where we just talk a little, since when he talks the whole world gets to see what the total no-holds-barred Casey-Affleck-in-Good-Will-Hunting Boston accent really is.

Anyway this comes at a good time in our little Back-to-School week here at Exit Only.

Now here’s Felcity Huffman in the very tender movie Transamerica, just to open our hearts a little. And here  – I’ll just give you the link, I still haven’t been able to go back there  – is me. It kinda brings the bad part of the teen years back in full force.  

Tomorrow: back to the sweet subject of the high school yearbook.

Whose Body Is This?

When Our Bodies Ourselves first appeared in Boston as a stapled-together pamphlet in 1969 it was hard to find reliable information about birth control. Why? Because thanks to the Crimes against chastity law, the distribution of contraceptives by anyone other than a doctor to anyone other than a married person was illegal, even in the now-progressive state of Massachusetts.

I don’t mean abortion; I mean birth control.

This man, Bill Baird, was arrested at Boston University when after addressing an overflow audience of 2500 he gave a condom and a package of  contraceptive foam to an unmarried undergraduate woman. 

Arrested. Hauled off to jail and held there for months.

This was in 1967.

The law was still unchanged  in the summer of ‘69 when the women of the Boston Women’s Health Collective were writing this pamphlet that would become a book. 250,000 copies of it sold in the first year, mostly thanks to word of mouth.

I was about to enter my senior year in college in the summer of ’69. The summer before that, I had fallen in love with a boy named David. We had told our families that we’d be marrying as soon as I graduated. I was 19-and-a-half. I didn’t know much, but I knew I needed a prescription for the Pill.

But how would I get such a thing? Especially on the serene and cerebral  campus of  my women’s college? Lucky for me that college was Smith College, that drew from every state in the union,  and the roommate I’d had freshman year was from the sunny sane west. A citizen of the world from Aspen Colorado, she knew a lot more than I did.  “Call the Infirmary and tell then you have to see a doctor.” she said. “Say ‘I’m thinking of becoming sexually active and I need protection.’”

But could it BE that easy? Could I just say that to some stranger, just as if I had a right to ask such a thing?  It could and I did. I said what she told me to say and just like that I was protected until the time of my marriage and for half a dozen years afterward, until this David and I welcomed our first baby and thus began upon the joyful chapter of life that brought us three kids of our own and the opportunity to welcome and shelter a five more kids beyond in their teen years.  

Our Bodies Ourselves, now in its 11th printing, is not just about sexual health but about health of every kind. Here are  some of the women who worked on it, as they looked in those heady and complicated early years, this from the forepages of a companion work Ourselves and Our Children. I salute them. 

Sex Questions? Ask ’em

There’s more to be said about sex and The Kinsey Institute, which I toured before their researcher Debby addressed us columnists Friday. It has a website called Kinsey Confidential for one thing where you can get information and ask her your own questions. When I roamed its galleries filled  with examples of erotic art I had to keep channeling Liam Neeson as he played Dr. Kinsey with his calm scientific manner. You sort of have to fix your mind on that manner so you don’t jump a mile when a passing staff worker greets you even as you are peering at an early 20th century photograph of a very limber gentleman executing a feat you wouldn’t think human anatomy would allow for. (“Thanks so much for visiting our center!” smiled one plump staffer of middle years, looking at me with the same warm expression Gandhi  might wear if he saw you giving your last crust bred to the poor.)

But the torment and guilt people have suffered over sex! The sin of what advertisers have done with sex in our own time, essentially stealing it from us, then trying to sell it back to us as a pair of jeans or shoes or makeup!

I’m getting too worked up though. Let me stop and watch again the trailer for that terrific film about Kinsey and his work. Let me look on the face of the luminous Laura Linney as his wife, the face of Liam himself who did not know when he made the film what suffering lay head for him, the faces of all those perplexed young people trying to come of age in this outwardly pious and violent culture.



I rarely get embarrassed these days and certainly the tubes of Astroglide and the extensive collections of sex toys on the counter of that fancy bra shop didn’t embarrass me.

“I see you’ve expanded into new territory“ I said to the young woman helping me, since really there was no avoiding these bright and fanciful gadgets.

“Yes, we thought a touch of something light and fun,” she said, blushing as prettily as a contestant in the Miss America pageant.

“Well I’m all for sunlight. It was never right for a girl’s sexuality to be a mystery to the girl.”

“No,” said the young woman, who seemed so sweet I decided to tell her what else was on my mind.

“I really appreciate the fact that during the fitting you didn’t used the kind of slang I could hear other clerks using with their customers. “Let’s hoist these girls high!” one of them said in the dressing room to her client. I just find that so sort of …awful.”

She blinked – in surprise? – and said “Well I appreciate your telling me that and I will certainly pass it on to Management!  You find it inappropriate you’re saying?”

“No, that’s not the word quite. Most times I hear the word ‘inappropriate’ somebody’s using it to shame and one-down somebody else.”

I went on, understanding my thoughts only as I talked.

“It’s just that in the old days we didn’t have the real words for things. We could only point vaguely, saying “here,” or “there” or, God forbid, “DOWN there. The only words for breasts were the guys’ words for them and we couldn’t use those!”

“I was raised by two women and in all my life I never heard either one of them use the word ‘breast,’ which seems pretty sad. So a clerk saying ‘these girls’ or ‘these babies’ just seems terrible to me. We have the language now – we even have shops like these!” I said, indicating the virtual candy store of sexual aids “and it seems like all of this grows out of respect for and an appreciation of our bodies which work so hard every day to do our bidding.”

And there ended the conversation. She thanked me for my thoughts again, and the male shop owner, who I’d seen lurking in back, drifted out front to see who the HELL was assigning so much meaning to his inventory.

But he was nobody I wanted to talk to. I had said my piece to this young woman, sweet as she was and helpful, and so I took my two $85 miracles of engineering and walked out into the parking lot.

Peachy Keen: Dirty Pictures?

Here’s a shocker, found right in the pages of the June Vanity Fair and why don’t I say here that the column I wrote about it appears at the top of the Home Page (I will do this at the start of every weekend from now on: post a little more here at Exit Only about whatever topic the week’s column deals with.) This week’s is about things going in and out of style in general and about a new elderflower drink called Delice Du Sureau by Maison St. Germain in particular – it’s also about absinthe, such a kick-ass drink it was outlawed all over the place for decades and decades and also blamed for being practically psychotropic, which basically means you think your shoes are talking to you.

This picture just stuns you when you come upon it, which the folks brewing happily away at Maison St. Germain very well know it will do since they made the ad an actual postcard that you can tear out send in the mail to anyone at all except maybe your old teacher and your clergyman because look how shocking:

Or maybe it’s not shocking so much as it compelling, because it so thoroughly hijacks your attention in just the way the dark center of the flower does with the bee; in just the manner the dark nipple on its paler field of breast summons the infant.

It compels us because it’s familiar. The  bottom looks framed in this way looks like a perfect peach, like aswelling, bifurcated, which when you think about it is a design repeated all over the body and in both genders. In the womb, you grow a bud and you grow two pillows. Nature has already tossed the dice to make you male or female and after a while the differentiation begins: If you’re a girl, the bud stays small and the pillows rise to cover it. If you’re a boy the bud grows and the pillows flank it.

So here’s to our common roots. God made us male and female. Male and female created he us. Now as Rodney King said,  WHY CAN’T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG?!

Sex and the Ninth Grade Ninny

The column I wrote for this weekend is a tribute to my middle school teacher who just last week departed this life at the ripe old age of 102. You can see it at right now by clicking here.

In it I told of the English class we had her for and her sweet vexed utterances at all our hi-jinks. (“What AILS you people?” she was always saying to us.) I did not tell how naughty we really were, especially my best friend Kathy and I. For example we had a music teacher named Miss Priest, a maiden lady, young and pale in a cashmere sweater and pearls who disapproved of the two of us, perhaps because we held our violins under our chins in Orchestra and those instruments just shook with our laughter the whole time we were rehearsing up under the sweltering roof of that Civil War-era schoolhouse. Kathy always got assigned the cool complicated part with many curlicues and arpeggios, while I was always given the dumb part that no matter what the tune was went basically “Uh uh, UH uh, uh uh, UH uh…” – just the two sounds, just what you could saw out for the low notes without doing too much violence to the melody. A monkey could have played my part and this was what we found so killingly funny. We laughed all through “Scenes from Carmen” and even, preparing for graduation, through the grave and weighty bars of “Pomp and Circumstance” itself

We thought we didn’t like Miss Priest; probably we had crushes on her. Anyway we found a greeting card designed for an ordination, tore out the real message inside, wrote a new message in a demented-looking scrawl and slipped it under her door. “Thou Art a Priest Forever” the real part of the card said, then in our writing on the inside, “That is, until I crush you in my arms my little PASSION FLOWER ha HAH!” We didn’t get suspended but we sure-enough got caught and so set out to compose a long and earnestly over-the-top letter of apology that made us feel wonderful connected to the side of the angels, just wonderfully forgiven if only by ourselves.

And that wasn’t half as bad as what we did when we found out the youngest male teacher in the school was getting married: We put a jar of Vaseline on his desk which carried the strong implication that of all things he would need in his new conjugal state Vaseline was uppermost – just as if we actually knew Thing One about the marital act, which, uh, we didn’t.

Back in the late-90’s, thirty years and three kids into my own marriage I remember a youth group leader telling the high school kids we both worked with that they really and truly would be a lot better off postponing sex until much later because it was, well… it was just too complicated.

“Complicated?” said one of these sweet kids, looking truly puzzled. “Why complicated?”

“Let’s just say it involves a lot of towels,” she said with a meaningful look.

Dave! I rushed right home and said to my husband, “I think we’re doing it wrong!”

Ah dear…Our old English teacher was great all right but how could she answer the pressing questions of her middle-schoolers? How could anyone have answered them when what we really wondered about was sex which of all things in this wide world is STILL the most mysterious?