‘Down There’

I just wish that when I was little I had known what boys looked like ‘down there’. My only exposure was statues in the park with fig leaves over the pubic area, which I can tell you seemed far  more disturbing than any actual truth could be. Boys have – what? – parsley growing out of their bodies?

I was ignorant, in short, and stayed ignorant even after that time I was three and our mom’s friend’s three-year-old peed on my leg in the bathroom. It was the arc of gold I noted though and not the delivery system.

In the meantime I was growing up in a houseful of women, where none of the real words were ever used. My sister and I, for example, called breasts ‘lumps’ because we had no other word for them. We certainly had no words for the other parts of our bodies. Our grownups were so highly ‘evolved’ no such words ever passed their lips, which was too bad.

I was in college before I could really ‘see’ the stunning beauty of the body. I think it was Art 100 when we studied Michelangelo’s David.

I listened as the professor walked us through its details, from the earnestly furrowed young brow to the hand holding the slingshot, oddly bigger than the hand of such a youth should be; and the veins in that hand, more prominent than the veins in the hand up by his chin because of course they would be: with gravity; with being held in that downward position, until the moment when he would lift the arm and swing it and at last unleash the stone that would kill a giant.

I read that sentence and see for the first time how in the moment just ‘before’ the stone flies, the sculpted hand with its veins engorged suggests potency in all its manifestations, that ineffable mighty force that keeps us reproducing.

I’m not like the two women who raised me, too shy to use the words even for the parts of our bodies; but I am their child in this way: I can’t bear leering descriptions and/or nicknames for our body parts.

It’s ordained minister Fred Rogers I have always identified with, sweet Mister Rogers with his kindliness and his respect for all the Created world. Here are the lyrics to ‘Everybody’s Fancy’, about the difference between boys’ bodies and girls’ bodies, and here below is the man himself testifying before the U.S. Senate in 1969 about what his show can do for America’s children. The Senator’s reaction is as moving as this good man’s testimony. Take five minutes and see if you don’t feel like weeping for how far we have fallen.

What a good man he was and how we miss him!

Diamonds and Rust

She loved him, for sure. She loved that Bob Zimmerman who renamed himself Dylan and the song ‘Diamonds and Rust’ that she wrote a dozen years after their affair proves it. I’ve always been haunted by the image in it of her watching him, his back toward her, as he looked out the window of a rundown hotel in the Village; the brave vulnerability in that line “speaking strictly for me we both could have died then and there.” In that moment anyway, she was ecstatically happy.

She wrote ‘Diamonds and Rust’ the same year she let someone shoot this brief footage of her in a bar where she has gone to meet her former lover. In the two-minute segment she suggestively caresses her shot glass, arches her back, comes in too close, far too close to this man who no longer loves her. It squeezes the heart to see it. Slide the bar in to about one minutes 25 seconds marker to catch the brief, brief scene.

So apparently there was sex between them; however there is never only sex between two people. If they sleep together over a period of time it is never ‘only’ sex I don’t think. I remember feeling cloven in two the first time I read the book by Evelyn and James Whitehead called The Sense of Sexuality. They assert that in sex very subtle but real promises are always made, promises not well kept in casual encounters. “They need a home, a place in which to grow.” We also need to rescue Eros from its contemporary degraded connotation as the merely erotic, they say. In classical times, people understood Eros to represent our passionate drive for life and growth. “It moves in all our longings to make contact, to be quite literally in touch. That’s Eros, whereas intimacy refers to the many ways we hold one another. As friends we hold one another in affection. As colleagues, we hold one another accountable in work. Intimacy is part of sex but it encompasses more than sex they say. “An intimate relationship draws us close enough to one another that we are changed in the process”.

Maybe that’s what happened between these two. 

Anyway here footage from the 2005 Scorsese documentary No Direction Home. Watch it and think about who you have linked your life to, whether in passion, or work, or devotion to a cause; then think what the two of you together have put in the world as a result.

We don’t know what there was between this Baez and Dylan when they were this young in a long-gone world. We do know what they did together; we know the songs he wrote and she sang in that long ago time. Dylan himself speaks about four minutes and again at eleven minutes in. The best part though is Joan, all grown up in her 60s, looking back with such kind wisdom at the boy who broke her heart. 

Adam’s Apple

Yesterday was Father’s Day, today’s my anniversary – how much fond personal narrative can  the blogosphere stand? And yet, I can’t resist…

Robert Louis Stevenson called marriage “a sort of friendship recognized by the police.”

I guess that’s one person’s account of it.  

Here’s another, from Annie Dillard’s beautiful novel The Maytrees.

The Maytrees are in this scene a young husband and wife, living in Provincetown: 

She lay shipwrecked on the sheets. She surfaced like a dynamited bass. She opened her eyes and discovered where on their bed she had fetched up. She lay spread as a film and as fragile.… She loved Maytree, his restlessness, his asceticism his, especially, abdomen…

Maytree, flexed beside her, was already asleep. He usually fell asleep as if dropped from a scarp. From above he would look as if his parachute failed. Intimacy could not be unique to her and Maytree, this brief blending, this blind sea they entered together divng.

His neck smelled as suntan does, his own oil heated, and his hair smelled the same but darker. He was still fresh from an outdoor shower. Awareness was a braided river. It slid down time in drops or torrents.

Now she as he woke the room seemed to get smarter. His legs moved and  their tonus was tight. Her legs were sawdust; they were a line old rope shreds on sand. All her life the thought of his body made her blush.

“We should get up”  Maytree said and moor the dory. Tide’s coming in.”

Now he stood and brushed sand from the side of the sheet. They always had sand in the bed it. It was a wonder she was not slimmer….

I’m happy to say I find marriage to be more like this second account than the first. Friendship is crucial of course – also the ability to laugh at yourself, to forgive and to admit that you’re no picnic to live with either. But if you also have those times when you get taken outside yourself? Well, that’s just the icing on the cake. 🙂

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.

Notes from a Nobody

female cellistBack in 1993 when I was a serious Nobody (as opposed to now when I’m a Nobody with damaged hair) our late national treasure of a novelist and poet John Updike sent me a postcard in response to a column I sent him about an ABC boy who died young. I guess it was also about my mom dying in front of my eyes, the beauty of oranges piled in a bowl and how a woman cellist looks when she takes that instrument between her legs, which both embarrasses and moves you at the same time and makes you realize how Sex and Music and God really ARE all connected.)

I’ve been reading Updike to cheer myself up. Others would read him to feel jealous but the thing with the guy is how generous he always was to everyone; how gracious, even to us little people: Back in ’93 he wrote a short story for The New Yorker about his mother dying. Anyone could see it was his real mom, so the column I sent him accompanied a condolence note. When he answered it he said I wrote ‘like a dream’ which is nonsense but such gallant nonsense. I’m writing for 1,000 years here and still no book offers! Still no requests for my endorsements on bras for your full-figured girls! I have never been on staff at a newspaper; haven’t earned a salary since I stopped teaching high school, topping out at the handsome figure of $12,000. But I have five books which I by-God published myself. And I make a princely ten dollars a column from the papers who still bother to pay me, who haven’t themselves gone under for the third time. And every April 15th my husband David says “T, you couldn’t be earning LESS!” – to which I say ‘So what?’

Remember that great thing labor leader Eugene Debs said 100 years ago? “While there is a lower class I am in it; while there is a criminal element I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free”? Well where there’s a way to lose money I have found it, all unwilling, or else it has found me. At the same time I do know this, that the best fun  I ever had was on the day I took the train to New York on my own dime, went to The Ethel Walker School in Brooklyn, taught the whole day and gave away five cartons of my funniest book, the one from my children’s childhood with all the pee-pee and bum-bum jokes in it.

It’s what God wants of me I think. And to have written all your adult life is such a privilege.

These last seven days I have been writing my way out of sorrow over the death of my cat Charlotte and now here I am on the zillionth rainy day of this rainy cold summer and I feel swell. We’re on vacation with our mildewed clothes and Old Dave is doin’ the crossword ten feet away. Our remaining cat Abe is calculating the minutes ’til his next pig-out on fresh shrimp, eight strangers are coming over for drinks at 6 and God bless you guys I’m writing to you.

To read what I said about the dead boy, the oranges and the cellist give me a minute. Takin’ a quick walk for the sake of the old bones, then I’ll put her up.


The Cheeseball as she looked last month.

cheeseball(Took one look  at this pic and went straight to the beauty parlor. “I have black curly hair, dammit; Throw out the peroxide and the straighteners and let me be what I am.” Today it’s the color of charcoal ready for the steaks. And by God if the curl isn’t comin’ back at the edges too! (that’s what’s known as FAKE HAIR stuck to the back of my head in the photo. Marie Antoinette called. Cue the guillotine guys.)

Some Cialis Please – Supersized for the Fat Girl

You know you got fat when your rings, your bikini undies AND ALL YOUR BRAS are suddenly too tight. You know it when you look at yourself in the mirror from the back and think “Michelin Man.”

My question is What happened to that SYLPH from five years ago? Plus, where’s my black hair? What’s with this dry-mop the color of battery acid? and what’s with the mustache action all a sudden?

If I’m gonna like TURN INTO A MAN all I can say is, I want some Cialis. Now! And oh yeah, a wife to wash my giant clothes and do all my bending over.

Failing that, I’m off to Weight Watcher to liberate this poor girl (She’s under here somewhere!)


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?