Friday, November 24, 2006

James Bond the Sensitive Lover

I just saw Casino Royale, the new James Bond movie. I’m a longtime fan who hasn’t seen a James Bond movie in a decade. As a teenager, I ventured out of my suburban enclave to see Thunderball in downtown Washington, DC. And I was very impressed. I watched it twice through in one sitting, and thereafter recited every patented Bond quip at both appropriate and inappropriate moments. But what I did not talk about, because one did not talk about such things back then, was Sean Connery’s alpha male sexuality. I didn’t like how his James Bond treated women, even the sluttish women he encountered. But as a female, I recognized and responded on a visceral level to his dark, commanding maleness.

Thereafter I had a love/hate relationship with Bond movies featuring Sean Connery. I did not ignore them, precisely, but I was leery of them. Roger Moore’s James Bond wasn’t the same problem. He went for an urbane and superficial Bond. So it was easy for me to enjoy the action and ignore the rest, what little there was of it. None of those movies engaged me emotionally. I admit that I am a Pierce Brosnan fan but never went near his version. (I always think of him as Remington Steele, anyway, the Steele of the first year of that series who is an actor/con man playing a role, not the man in charge he later became.)

So I don’t know why I decided to see Casino Royale. Probably it was the preview shot of actor Daniel Craig, who plays Bond, in those tight swim trunks. In previous Bond movies, bikini-clad women rose from the surf like goddesses, notably Ursula Andress and Halle Berry. In this one, James Bond himself comes out of the water, his physique looking quite godlike to my admiring eyes.

Maybe it was sheer lust that led me to this movie—lust, and a liking for movies in which numerous bad guys get shot and things get blown up. I like action movies. They remind me of the 17th century English revenge tragedies I studied in college. And the body counts are about the same, too. The action movie that launched Clint Eastwood to a new level of stardom, Dirty Harry, had lots of dead people. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a revenge tragedy, too, and also has a large body count. But I digress.

So, I went to see this new James Bond expecting a hot male body and some people getting shot, stabbed, punched, and blown up, in no particular order. And I got all of that, plus top-speed running, jumping, car screeching, and drop-dead shooting. And fabulous locales beautifully photographed, underlining the wealth and power of the people involved in international terrorism and in high-stakes poker games. Very glamorous.


But what I did not expect was a sensitive love story in which James Bond falls for a seemingly sincere and somewhat hostile young professional woman. Eva Green’s character, Vesper, jousts with Bond, trying to take him down a peg, even while she’s obviously fascinated with him. That one could expect, and one could also expect that he would take advantage of her eventual softening or of her inevitable vulnerability and get her into bed. But instead, he comforts her when she’s freaked out over the violence. And he doesn’t put the moves on her. Later, after they’ve been through the usual capture and torture by the fiendish bad guy, and are recovering, Vesper declares her love. And then he lays his heart and his future at her feet. He declares his love, too. They become lovers. He resigns, so they can have a life together. And this James Bond does it with no irony intended. He holds nothing back. He is not expecting Vesper’s betrayal.

Sadly, I was. I’ve seen a lot of these movies, read a lot of these books. We see James being tortured, and only hear Vesper supposedly being raped in another room. Maybe she is, maybe she isn’t. But she’s sure sexually confident when she tells James, during his recovery, that she is his. One would expect a little more hesitation from a woman who just got—at the very least—brutalized by some man. She acts as if nothing happened to her. And to me that shouted betrayal.

So, I was ready for the big doublecross, as James Bond was not. My heart broke for him as he kept opening himself more and more to Vesper. As he began to relax into being a playful, normal guy instead of a cold killer. I knew that what she was doing to him could wound him to the core. It could turn him into a coldhearted user. It could make it impossible for him to love again. In fact, it could turn him into something like Sean Connery’s James Bond.

As the story concludes, this Bond is all poised for that, even bitterly denigrating his dead love as a bitch. But his supervisor points out some clues to Vesper’s wish that it could have been otherwise. And so the movie ends with this James Bond having loved and lost, but knowing who the real villains are. It’s a remarkable movie. This is an exceptional vision of James Bond. I don’t expect a sequel to be anything but disappointing, but I treasure how deeply this story probes into the heart of a heroic man.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Mindful (Mindless?) Explorations

Dreams and fantasies. Where would romance writers – or readers – be without them?

A couple of weeks ago the Washington Post ran article about dreams. Among other interesting assertions, the article stated that there is now an enormous prejudice against dreaming (who knew?), and that many people continue to believe that interpreting dreams is, at the very least, a waste of time because (in their opinion) dreams are meaningless.

The human mind is such an incredibly complex piece of internal real estate that I doubt that anything that goes on in it is entirely without meaning. Nor do I have anything against dreaming. In fact, I dream almost every night – and I even remember most of them.

Which is how I know that even if it is possible to interpret their meaning, I don’t particularly want to. If there was ever a time to let sleeping dogs lie, so to speak, this is one of them.

I once dreamed that I was dancing on stage at the Kennedy Center.

With Henry Kissinger.

Now, why in the world would I want to know what that meant?

Another time I dreamed I was running up (and down) the escalators late one night in the recently defunct Hecht Co. being chase by some people who were trying to kill me. I mean, sure I owed them a few dollars, but that seemed to be carrying things a bit far.

As most of my friends (and what few readers I may have) know by now, Pierce Brosnan has been for some years the object of many a fantasy of mine. Curiously enough, however, I had never actually dreamed about him until a few nights ago.

In the dream, Pierce and I had been friends for many years, but were never romantically involved. (Right away, I “interpret” this as a dumb dream.) Anyway, one day he calls and asks me to visit him in New York. (Did I mention that in my dream he is fabulously wealthy?) At first we just enjoy sitting around chatting – having what the British call a good old “chin wag.” (Being of Irish decent, Pierce might not want to call it that, but, hey, it’s my dream.)

Then one afternoon – in his glorious and appropriately dreamy penthouse apartment with a view overlooking Central Park – we decide to dance. There we are dreamily swaying in each other’s arms – and it happens.

We both have to go to the bathroom. Now, having been good friends for so many years, we have no trouble telling each other that nature calls. Moreover, in the course of the (brief) discussion we discover that each of us has recently been experiencing some minor bladder control problems.

Suffice to say, throughout the rest of the dream every time we reach a point of potential intimacy, our respective bladders signal a halt to the proceedings. Moreover, and for reasons that make no more sense that the rest of this crazy dream, throughout Pierce’s beautifully appointed home – there is only one bathroom. Thus, it always comes down to an issue of whose need is the most urgent – his or mine. At first he insists that he should go first because male plumbing is on the outside and therefore he can’t hold on as long, but just to be fair about it we soon take turns going first.

Later on at some point we go swimming and he doesn’t like my hair after he sees it wet. (Can’t say as I blame him on that. Neither do I.) Still, his attitude offends me and we have an argument. But we make up quickly, and to soothe my hurt feelings he whisks me off to some island (the name which begins with a “W”), where he has yet another beautiful home – with only one bathroom.

Since these bladder problems seem to coincide with any moves toward intimacy, we soon decide to give up on sex and just enjoy lying in bed holding each other and talking.

Still later, back in New York, we are standing in the lobby of his building waiting for the elevator. When it arrives, who should step out but – Dr. Phil. Pierce decides he wants to do one more James Bond move just to get it out of his system, so he punches Dr. Phil in the nose. Now, Dr. Phil was not alone in the elevator. There was a woman with him. I don’t know who she was, but it wasn’t Robin. So I punch his female companion in the nose.

End of dream.

Paging Sigmund Freud. Paging Sigmund Freud. Please call your office.

I woke up laughing out loud, which is not a bad way to start the day.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Where's the Humor in Romance?

People often ask why don’t you put more humor in romance? The easy, technical answer, is that writing humor is difficult and it often falls flat. There aren’t many writers who can manage to be funny in print. But that’s not the main problem. When you put humor in romance you run the risk of undermining the grand seriousness of romance.

I just experienced a vivid example of this situation. I went to see Cinderella—Rossini’s opera version, not Disney’s cartoon—the other night in Philadelphia. The director had decided to treat this 190-year-old work as an opportunity for clowning. Not only were the costumes retro 1950s, but Cinderella cleans the house with an upright vacuum, wearing a bouffant, many-petticoated silk dress and high heels with her maid’s cap and apron. (This is typical of 1950s media nonsense about domestic life. In old TV shows like “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” the wives wear similar get-ups—including pearls!—to do housework. Right. Like this really happened.)

Anyway, in this Cinderella, the ugly stepsisters, one skinny, one buxom, were garbed in pink plastic hair curlers and later in swimsuits with flowered swim caps (all the rage in the late 1950s, but you may only have seen these atrocities on women doing that bizarre Olympic competition, synchronized swimming). When Cinderella got all gussied up in the last scene, she looked like Lauren Bacall or Princess Grace in a “fur” stole, tiara (!), and strapless cocktail-length gray gown.

[[By the way, just to interrupt myself, have you noticed how cumbersone it is for me to describe what these people were wearing? Do you see why I love the comics medium, which gives a picture to go along with my words? I tried to find a photo of the production from the Philadelphia Opera’s web site that showed the characters and the stage backdrop, but there was nothing comprehensive.]]

Right. Back to Cinderella. Sounds good so far, you say. And it was. Sort of. The ugly stepsisters hammed it up, and the costumer managed to make them both look remarkably unattractive by clever mis-positioning of seams and decorations on their dresses. They were funny, and so was their father, played by a standard comedic basso.

But here’s where the romance got messed up: In addition to the upright vac that glided about the stage with a mind of its own (funny, but what’s the point?), there were three panels suspended in the air that from time to time lit up and featured comic book style art. These obviously were meant to be symbolic, not part of the direct action. But what they did was cause the audience to start giggling just when some important emotional revelation occurred.

When the prince-disguised-as-a-servant meets Cinderella in her maid’s uniform, they fall instantly in love. Their emotional turmoil is expressed by the actors being drawn together and then shying away, sneaking peeks at each other and closing in again, only to shy away again. Sounds romantic, if a bit juvenile. (And of course, they are singing during all this.) But then the three graphic panels above them show a valentine heart drawn in a cartoony style with sun rays coming from behind fluffy clouds. And Cinderella’s mental confusion is shown as visions of vacuums and brooms dancing in these panels, in which her filmed, moving figure is superimposed! The audience cracks up.

Laughing when love at first sight is occurring totally flattens the emotional balloon. It’s a fairly delicate balloon to begin with, for how many people really believe in love at first sight? Oh, we give lip service to the idea, but true love, the real thing, is such a complex grouping of emotions that few of us think it can be recognized in an instant. Attraction, yes. Lust, sure. But the meeting of souls that is what we call true love? Not so fast, buster. Let’s get to know each other first.

So laughing at the precise moment when the hero and heroine are first meeting and sizing each other up, dealing with a possibly overwhelming physical attraction and their shock at experiencing same—well, to laugh at this key moment is to laugh at love, not with it.

I was pretty upset. I came to see Cinderella, the classic story with all the bells and whistles, not a mockery of it. Other people in the audience felt as I did. During the intermission, one man told me he thought the production was a monument to the director’s ego, not to art. And during the second act, I heard one woman say “That’s a shame!” as the bit players were mugging and making the audience giggle during the tenor’s most strenuous, bravura arias. The hero was singing his heart out (and, folks, what a voice! Wonderful tenor Lawrence Brownlee), perfectly hitting the demanding high Cs again and again—and the audience was sniggering at two male chorus members embracing.

Clearly, the director had injected laughter into this love story the wrong way. The humor wasn’t falling flat, but it was interfering with the romance that is the basic story of Cinderella. You don’t come to see Cinderella to laugh at it. You come to see Cinderella win the handsome prince because she is good and modest and her selfish, vain stepsisters are not. And when she forgives them, you want to bask in her generosity of spirit. This is hard to do if the humor has been made too obstreperous, as in this production, and the romance itself has been mocked and laughed at. As in this production. Laugh at the stepsisters. Laugh at the stepfather. Laugh at the prince’s servant pretending to be him. But don’t laugh at true love.

And that, in a nutshell, is why there isn’t much humor in romances. It’s hard to do. It’s even harder to do right. And when it goes wrong, it destroys the magic of romance.

I haven’t given up on Cinderella, though. I hear that another composer did a Cinderella opera, Jules Massenet. I’m going to try again.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Glamour of Romance

I was talking to a writer recently who has been immersing herself in the romantic era of King Louis XIV of France. The Sun King had a keen sense of the importance of appearance. He made the court of France the most glamorous and romantic of Europe. He turned his palace of Versailles into a world-famous exemplar of luxury: an enormous and ornately decorated building with lavish gardens packed with the most glittering, richly-garbed courtiers ever.

This writer I was talking to was enchanted with the idea that someone could draw a story of hers about Louis XIV’s era. Although right now only publishes contemporary romances, maybe some day we’ll do historical novellas, too. Just picture it: The Sun King in his mountainous curly wig and gold-embroidered satin suit, the ladies of the court in their elaborate gowns, wearing ringlets and fabulous jewels, dancing in the famous Hall of Mirrors. It could be an artist’s delight! Or it could be a disaster if the artist takes shortcuts. The glamour that is created by complex costuming and attention to architectural detail—the glitter of the Sun King’s court—would be lost.

I hope you have noticed that in our romance novellas here at we make a big effort to show our heroines and heroes in credible styles of hair and clothing that women and men actually wear today. Our graphic medium has great storytelling potential and we want to use it to the fullest. We ask our artists to emphasize glamorous settings and romantic locales. But we also want to anchor our romantic tales in reality. So we try for the variety and look of real people and places. Sometimes our characters live in cutting-edge, modern apartments. Other times they reside in homes decorated with classic comfort in mind. And some of our rich heroes live in out-and-out mansions with museum-grade furniture. These homes have wallpaper and decorations, textures, distinct styles. We try to make sure that our artists show you these differences, because they are important in setting the tone of the story.

Yes, faces of our heroines and heroes are smooth and attractive, probably more so than in real life. Bodies, too. But as in real life, our heroes and heroines change their clothes. They wear visors and sneakers and midriff-baring T-shirts. They wear patterns. They wear skimpy underwear or no socks. It’s all part of fully using the visual aspect of our romances to give the stories extra dimension. We don’t allow our heroines to wander around exotic locales in boring, shapeless duds. A romantic, formal evening out calls for a fancy gown and the hero in a tux. We provide examples of trendy modern clothing for the artists to copy, culled from major magazines and other current sources. When you read a love story, we want you to recognize the heroine’s haircut as something a person of her age and background would wear, something you could have seen on a model in In Style Magazine or on a normal person in your local mall. We’ve even had heroines with obvious tattoos when it seemed right for the story.

We want our characters to have distinct looks, too. For instance, in Master of Fusion, new this month, the heroine, Shelley, has a style she adheres to as the owner-hostess of her restaurant. Usually, it’s a form-fitting long gown. But it’s never exactly the same in color or cut, and sometimes she wears a sharp, short-skirted dress instead. When it’s not showtime at the restaurant, she often wears a jacket, as managers do. The hero, Daniel, doesn’t get as much choice in clothing because he’s a chef and there is prestige in appearing in his white uniform. But when he’s not in uniform, he’s wearing softly flowing shirts that look like silk and encourage you to get a sensuous, tactile impression of him. And check out another new story we’ve put on the site, Dangerous Seductions. The story takes place in the glamorous fashion industry, and each character, even the people in the back of the office elevator, has a distinct look. The heroine, Jenna, isn’t competing with the trendy styles seen on the models, but she’s making a fashion statement with her every outfit. She’s no Ugly Betty.

It is not an accident that the graphic medium of comics is presented to you in full color, either. The choice of color, and especially the artistic application of color shading, gives each story vibrance and visual depth. When you look at a heroine’s face and see a shadow on it, you often are seeing the physical representation of emotion. When a hero embraces a heroine in the moonlight and they are bathed in its glow, we hope we are transporting you to this romantic setting and bringing you close to their emotions. In our story Summer Love from a few months back, the beautiful ocean and the gorgeous sunsets are virtual actors, too. When the heroine and hero reunite at the end, every physical part of their world—the sky, the sun, the beach, and the ocean—echoes their joy by being beautiful and perfect.

We’re hoping our attention to detail is giving you a romantic read equivalent in glamour and glitter to a night at Versailles with the Sun King.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Who Writes Women’s Books?

I was thinking about how romance comic books historically were written and drawn almost entirely by men. And still are. An occasional female has managed to make her way into the comic book business, but precious few have stayed for long. See Trina Robbins’ roundup of women artists in the comics for more details.

It was also common but mistaken knowledge when I was growing up that all romance novels were written by men. (Occasionally I still hear it today from cynical types not in touch with the current publishing scene.) I don’t know where this nonsense originated. I know there were certain male writers who wrote many, many books under female pseudonyms, such as Dan Ross as Marilyn Ross for gothics (of course it turns out that his wife, Marilyn, helped him enormously, especially in getting correct female point of view). Various more obscure romantic novelists of the 1960s and 1970s were men writing under female pseudonyms. Sometimes gay men, if the truth be known. But Mary Stewart, Dorothy Eden, Victoria Holt, and Phyllis Whitney (who by the way, is still alive at 103), all preeminent writers for women, were definitely real women. Georgette Heyer, who singlehandedly was the Regency subgenre in her lifetime, was a woman. And Daphne du Maurier, that grande dame of the “had I but known” gothic tale Rebecca, was a woman. For gosh sakes, Margaret Mitchell, famed author of Gone with the Wind, was a woman, too!

So where did this idea that men write all the women’s books come from?

The authors I’ve mentioned all were published first in hardcover. I’ve heard that the early writers who wrote paperback originals often were men, and that there was a lot of switching between genres. One week, a hack writer would do an adventure tale of a man being captured by the luscious, sexually aggressive Amazon women of some unknown civilization in a dark continent. The next week, he’d write a big city noir murder mystery with a tough guy detective who constantly encounters “real blondes.” (You know what that means, don’t you? It was the sly 1950s way of saying that the guy had sex with the gal, and saw that her pubic hair was as blonde as the hair on her head.) And the third week of the month, the writer would write a rip-roaring western. The fourth week he’d pen a sweet romance about the girl next door who can’t make up her mind between the earnest but bad-tempered boy next door and that smooth night club owner who wines and dines her. Of course she chooses the guy without the money. (Flashy guys make bad husbands is the subtext.) Maybe these versatile writers became insider publishing gossip. Or maybe, like Dan Ross, they received a bit of publicity and the general public began to think that all romance writers were men writing under female pseudonyms.

There were plenty of women writing original paperbacks at the same time. Elsie Lee, who did gothics, contemporary romantic suspense, and Regencies, comes to mind. And Arlene Hale, a prolific writer of nurse romances and sweet romances, not to mention that she probably ghost wrote some of the last novels purportedly by Emilie Loring (which were published long after Mrs. Loring died, and clearly are written by several different uncredited authors). I’m sure I’m missing some prominent female paperback novelists of the 1950s-1970s, and of course I do not count any Harlequin authors because at the time, none of them was American. I’m not sure if any even was Canadian. If anyone knows, please tell me.

Today, most writers of women’s books are women. I’ve met them, and you’ve probably read a lot of publicity about them. Multi-bestselling author Nora Roberts definitely is a woman, as you can tell from her web site. Most active romance writers have web sites. As for male presence, there are several husband-and-wife teams writing for the women’s fiction market, including category romances, and they do it openly. Lynda and Dan Trent come to mind. (Sorry, I couldn’t find a web site for them.) Their books are usually sold under a female pseudonym, but the co-authorship is plainly stated in the interior pages. And there are some female authors who get writing contributions from their husbands but do not necessarily give them shared billing. I won’t mention who they are since they obviously do not want to tell the world. As to Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer, the new romance writing team making publicity/writing seminar stops all across the country, they live in different states and apparently are just writing partners, not the more typical intimate duo. Janet Evanovich and Stephen J. Cannell have just signed to do a similar team up, so we can expect more of these strictly business relationships. Other than these anomalies, pretty much every romance novel you see published today is written by a woman.

It turns out that women write women’s books.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Dating Turkeys

It’s holiday season, and because we’re all about the love here at, we’re giving you a chance to tell us about your WORST date…your holiday turkey. I work here and so I’m not allowed to enter the contest, but that won’t stop me from blogging!

If you read my previous blog entry, you know that I am now happily married, but getting there was a trip. In order to maintain my sanity during my post-divorce dating days I kept a journal of my most memorable dates and life as an Internet dater. The best ones I would share with my friends and family. This is the story of my first date, five years ago:

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about dating. I suppose that the main reason for this is that I have found it entirely too difficult to do. Because statistically, I am now knocking on AARP’s door (isn't everyone?), some women believe that I no longer fall into the category of prime relationship material. Ah, but age is one of those deceptive quantitative measures. Witness the grandfatherly, OK, let’s be honest and call it feeble, visage of a Hugh Hefner. Hef has had more covert operations than the C.I.A., yet he still attracts women. Why? I don’t know and I don’t care to answer it here, although it might have something to do with the raw sexuality of facial crevasses.

It all starts with Jane (yes, her name has been changed, although her innocence is in question). I was living in an incredibly cool 6th floor bachelor loft. It had 1200 square feet of crazy, hipster, artsy-looking space with a commanding view of downtown Portland, Oregon and the West Hills. I couldn’t have picked a better place to live. Portland is a great city, and it has developed suburban sprawl that has extended across the mighty Columbia River into the state of Washington. True Portlanders would never consider living in Vancouver, WA unless they wanted to avoid state income taxes or had the genetic inclination to buy a cookie-cutter “contemporary” 3bd 2.5ba home in a neighborhood filled with nouveau riche neighbors with tonally equivalent flesh. Jane lived in Vancouver.

We met via and exchanged endless amusing e-mails. Once we had exhausted our witty e-mail verbiage, we moved on to the harder stuff…cell phone calls. We scheduled to meet on a Sunday afternoon in late October around 5 p.m., walk around the city a bit, and then go to dinner. Just before 4 p.m., my phone rang. It was the building’s front door intercom system. I had just gotten out of the shower and Jane was at the downstairs door.

I said, “I’m sorry, I thought we said 5 p.m.”

“It is 5!” she chirped.

“No, it’s not…it’s 4…um, didn’t you set your clock back an hour last night?”

“Set my clock back? Why?”

Through the silence, I could hear plinks of water drops falling from my body onto the flagstone floor. Not a good start. Nevertheless, I buzzed her up.

Now, I’ve been in situations like this and I realize how difficult it is to extricate oneself from appearing idiotic. Jane, however, made no attempt to upgrade her image.

I hurriedly put on a pair of black slacks and a cobalt blue dress shirt. I opened the door. In dating, first impressions mean everything, or so I am repeatedly told. Jane would have nothing of that. She arrived in sweatpants and matching sweatshirt, make-up askew, and chewing a wad of gum so forcefully that I momentarily pondered harnessing her jaws as an alternative energy source.

She apologized for her early arrival while I finished getting ready in the bathroom. I checked my sarcasm and told her not to worry. Ten minutes later, we walked out the door to wander through my neighborhood, the Pearl District, then up to an Italian restaurant on 21st Street. While we walked, she told me about her friends, and how they were generally screwed up in some way or another…alcohol, drugs, parenthood at 18 and divorce at 21. I was willing to suspend my belief that their various maladies had also visited Jane. After fifteen minutes of chatting, I knew we had nothing in common, but I thought that I should make the best of this. As my friends later said, “Treat it as a learning situation.”

At the restaurant, I asked her if she would like wine with her meal. She said no and then detailed the previous night. She was with her friend, Bobbie (fake name here, too, kids!), who has a kid by her former husband. Bobbie was depressed, drinking, snorting cocaine—generally self-destructive. I empathized with an occasional “how sad” or swiveled my head back and forth. As it turned out, Jane didn’t want any wine because last night, she had had too much to drink with her friend. Yes, Jane took her best friend, the alcoholic, suicidal, drug abuser to a bar for her birthday. I asked her, “Why did you take Bobbie to a bar?” Jane said, “Well, it was Saturday night, wasn’t it?” My jaw dropped into my gnocchi. I ordered another glass of wine—for me.

Does it end there? Not a chance. It was at that uniquely surreal moment that a fully adorned, robed monk walked in and sat down at the table across from me, a stunningly beautiful young woman at his side. They had the most wonderful conversation, filled with laughter and thoughtful conversation. I couldn’t help but wonder to myself if vows of chastity might be the most effective means to attract eligible women, or perhaps my sex life had become so vacant that even a monk can get some, but not me.

As with all of my dates during this period, this one ended with a whimper, not a bang (ahem). We walked back to her car. After a couple of awkward moments, we quickly kissed, and she was on her way.

This was a milestone in my post-divorce life, and I would treat it as the hump I needed to get over. Surely better times lay ahead.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Euphemistically Speaking

“Making love is quite an art.” Cole Porter wrote those words, which Frank Sinatra sang to the radiantly blushing soon-to-be-former actress Grace Kelly in the 1956 movie musical “High Society.”

Making love. The words have such a sweet, tender, elegant sound that I sometimes find it hard to reconcile them with the fact of the act to which they refer. Because having sex, however pleasurable it may be, looks anything but elegant. In fact, if you really think about people doing it, it’s down right funny.

Tell the truth. Would you want to imagine anyone you know having sex? Would you want them to imagine you having it? Of course, not. Because everybody – every body – irrespective of how attractive they may or may not be, looks silly having sex.

No, I’m not a voyeur. In fact, I wonder why anybody in his or her right mind would want to be a voyeur. But the descriptions I’ve read and the examples I’ve seen on film have led me to an inescapable conclusion: People just look funny when they’re having sex.

And they sound even funnier.

A couple of years ago, on some sitcom (the name of which escapes me), a young couple was ribbing each other about the noises they made during sex.

“You sound like a deranged Evangelical,” she said, “ ‘Oh, God! Oh, Jesus! Oh, God! Oh, Jesus! Yes…Yes…Yes! Oh, God!!’ ”

“Well, you sound like somebody directing a bus,” he replied, “ ‘No. Not there. A little to the right. No, too far. Go back a little and to the left. Not that far. Up a little. That’s it. Wait. No. Go back down. There. Yes…Yes…Yes…No, wait. Back up a little.’ ”

I believe writers are, in no small measure, responsible for the myriad terms that society has adopted for use when referring to the sex act. Some of these terms are long overdue for burial, or at the very least for an extended moratorium on their use. I am thinking, specifically, of the “f” word, which lost its shock value 50 years ago. Now, whenever I hear (or read) it, I can only conclude that the user has either a very limited vocabulary or equally limited intelligence. Or both.

There are other terms that show an equal lack of imagination. Back in the day, against my better judgment, I let myself be talked into seeing a film called (rather pointedly) “Shaft.” Our hero, of the same name, spent a good deal of time talking about getting laid. If somebody asked him where he was going, he snarled, “To get laid.” If somebody asked him where he’d been, he re-snarled, “I got laid.” While there was ample reason to believe that this was the character’s not-so-quaint way of telling the inquiring party to mind his or her own business, the line was delivered in such a distasteful manner that it left me wondering why any woman would let this self-absorbed, neanderthal get within 10 feet of her – even if they were both fully clothed. Like the “f” word, the term “getting laid” merely indicates the user’s limited vocabulary.

And then there are those phrases that just make you wonder what the person was thinking (assuming there was thought involved) before hand. Some years ago, in the throes of lower back pain, I went to an orthopedist who, presumably as part of his attempt to diagnose the problem, asked me, “When was the last time you had your caboose rattled?”

I am ashamed to say that it took me a few minutes to figure out what the heck he meant. In retrospect, I was not offended, though several people (particularly women) to whom I later related the incident expressed significant outrage. I preferred to attribute the unusually phrased question to the fact that the orthopedist was an older man still laboring under some rather old school ideas about how one addresses one’s patients. Had he been speaking to a man, he might well have asked, “When was the last time you sunk a putt?” In either case, it would never have occurred to the good doctor to ask simply, “When was the last time you made love?” Just doesn’t have the same ring.

Perhaps it says something about me – something that I would rather not examine too closely – that I find the Yiddish phrase, “getting schtupped” hilarious. Even though it is considered a vulgarity by many connoisseurs of the language, to me it sounds not only like a fun thing to do, but also like you should be laughing out loud while you do it!

But the hands down prize for the most euphemisms (that I’ve come across) for the sex act goes to the British. Now I’m not talking about the Queen’s English. That these phrases are rarely, if ever, heard bandied about Buckingham Palace goes without saying. The very idea!

But get out into the British countryside and (if British comedies are any indication), you are apt to hear a handsome and interesting variety of terms.

In an episode of the 1990’s BritCom “Chef,” the ever-frustrated wife remembers driving down to the beach with her husband to watch the sunset. “I thought to myself, I’m married to this wonderful, wonderful man, who bought me this wonderful, wonderful car, and any minute now he’s going to spread me over these wonderful, wonderful seats and Roger me senseless!”

Roger?!? Now that was a new one on me.

In still other BritComs, couples are often referred to as being “at it like rabbits,” which makes some sense, or “at it hammer and tongs.” The literal meaning of that phrase is to do something (usually argue) with a lot of energy, and even violence. Yet more than one BritCom writer has used it in reference to sex.

Among the British, one can also get “shagged” or “stuffed,” both of which bring interesting pictures to mind. As a British subject, if you knew a couple who were sexually involved, you might say they were “havin’ it off.”

In the end (no pun intended), I don’t suppose it matters what you call it. Author Peg Bracken once referred to sex as something that is often more fun to have in the mind than in reality.

Will sex, itself, ever be as interesting and entertaining as the language we have come to associate with it?

Maybe. Once in while.

If we “get lucky.”

Who Knew?

Neil Patrick Harris, aka Doogie Howser M.D., has come out. Now, fans across the internet are all a-buzz about their star being gay.

Can you believe it? Neil Patrick Harris has fans. I'm shocked.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

What did Madame Bovary want, and what do you want?

Madame Bovary was not a romance, but it always felt like a romance—a doomed one—to me. An important piece of mid 19th century French literature by Gustave Flaubert, among other things this novel showed how an obscure young woman raised on romantic dreams of glamour could completely ruin her life in search of it. Emma Bovary really didn’t have a chance, stuck in a world in which women could only rise through marriage or sexual liaisons. Modern America is different...or is it?

We still have plenty of women today who have Madame Bovary’s deadly fixation, the yearning to be the belle of the ball in an empty world of glitter. It isn’t just the wannabe actresses and models. Think of the Bridezillas turning wedding celebrations into tense, tantrum-filled pageants in which the bride is the ├╝ber beauty contest winner. Or the compulsive shoppers who constantly outfit themselves with clothes (which, like Emma Bovary, they can’t afford) suitable to the late Princess Diana’s social schedule.

In most of these visions, there is a central male character. But he’s more a prop, like a Ken doll in a Barbie set, than a real man. The princess can’t dance alone at the fabulous ball. Or walk down the aisle in her bridal finery to meet no one. So there is a man. But he’s a shadowy figure, well dressed, maybe handsome, but essentially empty. This is the common playacting of little girls. But grown girls, women, still think this way. They look for the show of romance, not the substance.

Compare this image of the glittering social event, the beautiful gown, and the handsome bridegroom doll to real life relationships in all their potential. To the first meeting of two strangers, the wonder at suddenly looking into someone’s eyes and seeing a reflection of your true self. To the long walks or long talks with a person who gets you. To loving, transcendent sex, not just going-through-the-motions sex or getting-yours sex. And then there are all the joys of being with someone who cares, day after day, year after year, through all the stages of life. Who, with a look, can share the full emotional depth of ineffable moments, experiences that language simply cannot describe.

Romance is an adventure that has both an exterior and an interior. Too many women mistake the one for the other. To be fair, some Bridezillas are trying to live out the fantasy romance just for one day of their lives. But the next act in the play is being a Stepford Wife, isn’t it? Or being poor Emma Bovary, always in search of that elusive romantic image, instead of its substance.

So, here’s the question: In that secret place in your mind, are you dreaming of an unreal, gaudy world of fancy gowns and spectacle? Or are you dreaming of a man, a real human, with whom you can be real when the party lights are off?