Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Nippled Irish Royalty and Their Less Fortunate, Usually Dead, Nippleless Relatives

My museum time today yielded the following:
Sucking a King's nipples was an ancient Irish form of submission. It rains a lot here (Dublin) and is rather chilly, so I would think the King would cover his chest. That means there must have been royal reception days when the King exposed his nipples in order to facilitate nipple sucking.
So much easier to just bow and kiss a ring.
As with all royalty, there were power games in the nipple hierarchy. Cutting off a royal descendant's nipples made him ineligible for kingship. Not as subtle as poison, but undeniable evidence of his unsuitability for a kingly role. No nips, game over.
A Celtic King was wedded to the Earth, and as her representative his nipples were important. His/her power is transferred to the grain. When it's harvested, his power is sacrificed. The Lord must die, Joseph Campbell said: "A God dies for his people so that they may live." The story repeats itself in multiple mythologies, legends and religions. But must the mortal king die in order to insure a successful harvest?


Human sacrifice was apparently a normal part of the Celtic rituals, especially of kings in hard times. "The king had great power but also great responsibility to ensure the prosperity of his people. Through his marriage on his inauguration to the goddess of the land, he was meant to guarantee her benevolence. He had to ensure the land was productive, so if the weather turned bad, or there was plague, cattle disease or losses in war, he was held personally responsible," said Ned Kelly, keeper of antiquities at the Irish National Museum.
His kingly role required him to keep nature and society in equilibrium. A little nipple sucking would surely increase his self-esteem and help him on his way.

Also at The Huffington Post

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The MRS Degree

Overheard at dinner this past weekend in a room filled with recent graduates from pricey private schools and the parents who had financed their attendance:
"What did your daughters study in college?"
"Sociology and psychology," the father said, and paused, shrugging. "Don't get me wrong. We think it was important they got an education, but they were really after their MRS degrees." His wife sat next to him, beautiful and inscrutable.
All sound fell away for me as if I'd been sucked back to 1976 when I first heard the very same comment from some burly guy with a ruddy complexion. He swept his arms wide to include all the women sitting at the cafeteria table, in the dining hall, registered at the university, and on the planet earth, "They're just here to nab a husband."
One of my suite mates giggled and said, "I want to graduate in June, and get married in July." She batted her heavily mascaraed eyes at him, and he sat down and shut up. She didn't even have a steady boyfriend, but seemed sure one would materialize within her time frame. Clearly, she was after her MRS degree and wasn't shy about saying so.
He made me angry, and she made me feel dirty. I joined the feminist ranks on the spot.
But I thought all that had changed for younger women. Surely, they'd never say their sole goal in life was to marry. And what if that was their sole goal? I'm all about choice, and we all know elderly people, still married, still taking comfort from each other's presence. Did they achieve that blessed state with each one marching forward intent on their singular goals or did one subsume his/her path, realign it, walk behind or at least slow down in order to make it work?
If you can have a happy marriage, what does personal achievement matter, and does personal achievement have to be defined by a career? Another way of phrasing this is, does having other goals in life besides marriage doom the marriage?
And more importantly, why am I so agitated over this subject?
A movie out now is plying the submissive role of women. One of my friends was perturbed when I refused to see the movie. I didn't read the book, either. "I don't want to be dominated," I said, "but that doesn't mean I want to dominate. Not everything is either/or."
Yeah, and I don't think that makes for gray areas in my choices because that's not my reference point nor my artistic palette.
This morning CBS news aired interviews with prominent women who have chosen to be submissive in their marriages. The title of the video is "Submissive women who have chosen a softer approach to keep their relationships strong."
1976 to 2015. For many, the clock has stood still.
Blast From the Past A definition of MRS degree from the Urban Dictionary.
This blog also at the Huffington Post.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Rose Fades: Las Vegas

My lover flew us in his private plane to Las Vegas. A limo delivered us to whichever casino was comping our current trip: the Riviera, the Flamingo, the Stardust or the Sands. The Strip beckoned with dazzling light in the desert night. It was difficult for me to keep from hanging my head out the window like a dog, so I mimicked the sophisticated composure of '40s movie stars -- Bacall, Hayward, Crawford, Stanwyck -- I'd watched on late night TV in New Mexico. I was 19, a sophomore in college. Garry was 20 years my senior.
We'd usually head right for our room, bathe and make love. Dinner followed and then a late show. Rat Pack? Of course. Add Elvis, Tom Jones and Charo to the list. Back at school, the Love-Lust poem was the latest subject of protest marches. The entire English department went on strike and you couldn't walk across campus without hearing Lenore Kandel's ode to a particular part of her husband's anatomy. Garry did his level best to make me fall in love with his. It was 1969; no pun intended.
He liked blackjack, but he'd also roll the dice. I stood behind him dressed in my latest cocktail dress and heels, bought on sale with money earned from working the front desk at my dorm. It was worth the sacrifice of a few meals to feel so glamorous, beautiful and desirable. Every showgirl and cocktail waitress was gorgeous. I never heard any slot machines, although I'm sure they existed. 
Fast-forward 12 years and my new husband wanted to honeymoon in Vegas. Anything with showgirls interested him. Comedians were okay. This time around, I noticed gray-haired old ladies sitting at the slots with their oxygen machines next to them. We met Joan Rivers after her show. In typical Rivers' style, she told me that I was completely "different from what I imagined Gerald's wife would be." Hmm. 

In the '90s, my Las Vegas experience was the polar opposite of my youthful adventures. I had my sons with me, aged 11 and 7. We stopped in Vegas for one night going to and returning from Lake Powell in Utah. It was on this trip that I noticed people with families, even pushing strollers, and how casual the dress code had become. We stayed at the Luxor and did everything you could do for free in Vegas: visit the White Tigers on display at the Mirage, watch the Pirates of the Caribbean enactment at Treasure Island, and marvel at the acrobats performing above us as we walked through the Circus Circus casino.
At Circus Circus my sons asked me to drop a quarter into a slot machine. We played until an officious woman came up and told me to stop. Children could pass through the casino with parents, but not actually gamble. Thereafter, asking me to play a slot became my boys' most fervent desire. I complied. Someone always asked us to please stop, which I did because I'm a role model, right? My sons thought Vegas was wonderful and wanted to move there. They had also wanted to move near the truck stop in Barstow where there were video games and five junk food places in a row.
Altogether, I count at least 15 trips to Las Vegas in my lifetime, most of which I don't remember. That's either a sign of a rollicking vacation or that I've repressed the memories. My husband and I usually take a long weekend for our anniversary. He had business in Vegas so off we went to celebrate 33 years together. 
It's not easy trying to avoid humanity in a crowded and noisy Las Vegas casino. Slot machines flashed and beckoned with discordant sounds meant to sound fun. People laughed and moaned around card tables. There was no flow, no symmetry to the human movement. An odd lurch, a mismatched gait caught my eye: a cocktail waitress carrying a tray of drinks moved past me. She wore the sleeveless low-cut top and short skirt mandated by the casino. The flesh on her arms was wrinkled as well as on her chest. There were fishnet stockings, but mercifully her feet were encased in orthopedic shoes your grandma would wear. Didn't help with her limp. Thin and haggard, her dowager's hump emphasized by a stoop, she returned my amused stare. Her eyes were dark and angry. Every line on her sagging face expressed hateful defiance. One in four Vegas cocktail waitresses has worked at her job for 15 years or more. 
Notes: At the casino buffet I watch a couple with a child across the room. The adults don't speak, but bow their heads over iPhones. The kid has some sort of device, too. Not unique to Vegas, happens everywhere in the U.S. The father goes to get food. The mother stares off into space, looking pissed. Her eyes sweep the room and find mine. I smile. Her scowl deepens and we have a stare-off. She dismisses me with a flick of her shoulders and lovingly gazes at her iPhone, giving it the smile I wanted. 
They leave and are soon replaced by another couple, ex-hippie rock star types. The male is tall and severely overweight in a huge shouldered way. He bends over his food, a leather headband holding back his long silver hair. The woman with him has softly coiffed blond hair. They don't speak, either. Her eyes are abandoned pools of hopelessness. Life clearly didn't turn out the way she expected. Settled in, selling out, settling for less.
My husband suggests I try the shrimp. A tattooed couple is making out in front of the seafood. Both of them are muscular, the woman buxom with a leather halter-top and hip-hugger pants. They move down to the salad bar and start again. By make out I don't mean just a sloppy kiss, but full on wrap one leg around the guy and then the other so that he has to hold her by cupping her butt. This last is in front of the dessert section. I take my time picking the perfect slice of pie.

Back at the table, I describe the couple and my husband gets up to check them out. We share similar interests. Later, we stroll the strip which is a festive place filled with a diverse mix of people, all looking for the right ingredients for fun, the kind movies and ads promise. My view of Las Vegas is no longer rose-colored and romantic, nor do I see it as a child would, all madcap rides and sparkly lights. I see the people in extremity, wild and ruthless in their pursuit of joy, their lives ahead of them. For others, each action is endlessly repetitious; they've overdrawn on their joy accounts. Their lives are over. They just don't know it.

 This blog first appeared in the Huffington Post

Friday, December 19, 2014

Henry Miller's iPod

So I was helping Mom set up her new iPod, which meant I had to be at her computer, and that’s when she made me read her blog. Before I could escape she’d clicked an icon on her desktop, and the blog came up. I looked away from the screen fast, twisting my neck as far as it would go to look up at her.
“Jeez, you’d think I was asking you to walk the plank. Can you at least feign enthusiasm?”

“I’m just a 15-year-old guy, Mom. What do I know?” Seriously, I accidentally read some of her stuff once. It was about women’s sex fantasies. I couldn’t even look my girlfriend in the eyes for days after that.
“You’re online all the time and when you’re not, you’re reading, thank goodness, and you’re a good writer. Just take a look, and tell me what you think. It’s short.”
Mom thinks I’m brilliant–mature and all that crap–but I have my limits.    

“Is there gonna be stuff about sex?”
The crease between her eyebrows deepened. “Interesting you should ask that. According to my tracking stats on who reads the blog and where they come from, most of my hits seem to be for phrases like pubic hair, masturbation or hot mother-in-laws.” She looked out the window and tapped her cheek, perplexed. “Why is that, I wonder?”
I slapped my forehead. “Did you use the word masturbation in your blog?” No kid should have to ask his mom that.
“Doesn’t everybody?”
She laughed. I looked toward the door of her office, calculating my getaway. She’d decided to be a writer and this small attic space was the only place in the house where she could do it. Mom loved it in here, but I’d have to squeeze past her to get out. Helping her with her iPod was one thing, but reading her blog was asking too much.
I took a deep breath and spoke slowly so she’d understand. “You must have used those words–pubic hair, masturbation and mother-in-law somewhere in your blog.” My voice cracked like an 8th grader’s, “Hopefully not all together.”
Mom got all snobby. “I don’t know anything about mother-in-law’s masturbating,” she said. “I assume they masturbate, and if they don’t I hope they soon start, but what does that have to do with my blog?”
I stared at her, trying to keep my head from exploding. No telling what I’d see on the computer. I raised puppy-dog eyes to her and pleaded, “I have homework. Can I take a look later?”
“And I didn’t write about mother-in-law’s and pubic hair, either, in case you’re wondering.” Defiant, she raised her chin and looked out the window again, probably thinking about how masturbating could change the lives of countless mothers-in-law. Seriously, she’s like that. My friends love her, so I guess she’s cool, but not really.
“Just read my latest entry,” she said.
It was a flash about an affair a woman (I wonder who?) had a million years ago with some old fart while she was in college. Years later when she’s also an old fart and he’s somehow still breathing they talk on the phone and she fantasizes about their former sex life.
“Nice.” I stood to leave. She backed up about a millimeter and I had to lean backward in order to skinny past her, making me trip on the chair leg and bump into the filing cabinet. I don’t know how she works in this dump.
“Wait a minute, will you, and tell me what you think?”
I rubbed my shin trying not to look at her. “Again, Mom, what do I know?”

“You’ve read Tropic of Cancer,” she said, “more than once.”
Mom and I have argued about Miller’s writing. I like him. She doesn’t. She probably thinks I read him just because of the sex, but I don’t. Miller was having an adventure in Paris. The sex just happened along the way.
“That’s different. Henry Miller wrote actual books.”
Her smile collapsed. I felt like shit, but, well Miller was an artist, doing the dude thing every chance he got. I planned to live like him someday starving for my art in some attic somewhere. I would update Henry Miller. He probably had horny chicks surrounding him nonstop. I bet Anaïs Nin could load and unload his iPod like a pro. My face felt hot. Mom was staring at me. I still held her iPod. I dropped it on her desk and wiped my hand on my jeans.
“Do you have a fever?” Her hand felt icy on my forehead. “You look flushed.”
“It’s hot in here. I gotta go.” She moved the back of her hand to my cheek, all standard operating procedure. Next thing she’d want to take my temp and discuss whether I’d had a bowel movement recently.
“What keywords should I use?” she asked instead, apparently no longer interested in my health. “C’mon, you know everything about computers.”
“I don’t know everything. I’m surprised ‘sex with old farts’ isn’t a popular search phrase for your blog.” I edged closer to the door.
“That wouldn’t be good,” she said and stared at her computer with a worried look, like maybe it could write her sex stories on its own. Then she looked at me and smiled. “Unless, the searcher was an old fart agent or publisher.”
I was almost at the door. “Agents and publishers probably have special porn sites only they know about.”
She laughed. “Yeah, and maybe if you’re published in The New Yorker they might give you the password. I think I can expand this piece and use it in my novel.”
“Yeah, Mom, keep plugging. It’ll happen.” She settled into her chair and studied her manuscript. The sun slanted in through the dormer windows highlighting dust motes circling her head, and I thought of Miller again, cigarette smoke curling around his head, poor and happy writing in his attic.
I was out the door and pounding down the stairs, Miller’s sexual escapades and Mom’s story alternating in my brain. At the bottom I looked up to the attic. The echo of her keyboard clicks flowed into me like the soft beat of rain on the roof of a Parisian garret.

Saturday, November 22, 2014


My sister has been through two husbands, both tall and fair. There were children, one from each husband. They cheated on her, and she cheated on them. There was drinking. There were drugs. They'd slap Lydia around, and she'd beg forgiveness. They always took her back. Or, she took them back. It depended on the whim of the week. They did this until it played out.

"Remember that time your dad came for a visit?" Lydia said to me one day. She was in the hospital recovering from her latest beating. "I was around four."

I remembered and felt guilty all over again. He'd come for my graduation from high school. His occasional presence always sent my brother and me into father-worship hysteria. Some of it must have rubbed off on my little sister. Lydia was the sweetest kid, shy and quiet, never a problem. She hung around my father's knees, staring at him adoringly, and asked, "Can I call you daddy?"

"No," came his stern reply.

Lydia looked hurt, but she didn't cry. She never asked again, nor did she mention the incident, but her questions regarding her own father increased: the unraveling of my mother's past had been set in motion.

Lydia's birth seven years after my parents' divorce had always needed some explaining. Back then, Mom had filled in the details in her own enigmatic way. "Your daddy thought you were beautiful," she'd say to Lydia with a sigh. "But, he was a musician, and it just wasn't meant to be."

My brother and I accepted this version of the affair that produced my sister with few questions, even though Lydia looks completely different from the rest of us. Mom is a long-legged Latina, but my brother and I take after our father. We're both tall blonds. Lydia is petite and cinnamon-coffee dark with tightly curled blue-black hair.

"Your father was Sicilian," Mom said. 

We anxiously believed that somewhere below the boot of Italy, there was a whole flock of people who looked just like our sister.

"I want to find my real father," she said now, forty-five years later.

We had the name of the man Mom claimed to be Lydia's father. With the internet the rest was easy. So Lydia called this guy, Sam Gianni in Michigan and said she was his grown-up daughter in Santa Fe just calling to say Hi! Yes, he told her, he was a musician who had traveled there to play for the opera, but no, he was not aware of the birth of a daughter and what's more, he didn't remember our mother.

All hell broke loose at that point.

Sam's loss of memory regarding their affair hit Mom's vanity dead center. Her bedroom eyes snapped open, but turned hard and small in the depths. "Just like a man," she said. Her slippered feet pounded off in the direction of her bedroom, but her shoulders slumped like the little old lady she is. She refused to discuss the matter further.

A few weeks later, we went out for drinks--my little sister, Mom, and I. While sitting at the bar together, Lydia started begging for the truth. Again. 

"Who's my real father?" she said. "Why won't you tell me?"
"I've got a confession to make," Mom said in her smokiest storytelling voice. "Around 1966, when I was bartending at the El Corral . . . something happened." She took a slow puff of her cigarette, drawing in deeply since it's a low tar brand, her only concession to the Surgeon General's report.

"Business was slow," she continued on the exhale. The nimbus of smoke surrounding the three of us excluded everyone else at the bar; we were in our mother's world now. "I locked up early to get a head start on inventory. I was in the backroom when I heard a noise behind me." She paused here, holding Lydia's enraptured gaze.

"A black man was standing there. He said not to be afraid, that he wouldn't hurt me if I didn't scream. He emptied the cash register . . . and then he raped me." Lydia and I gasped.

Mom looked pleased. "I had been with Sam earlier that day. So, you see, I really don't know who your real father is." Lydia stared at Mom, her mouth slightly open.

It could have happened like this. Or maybe not. Mom's older sister told on her. "Your mother was dating a black guy back then. I don't know why she can't admit it." My aunt tapped her fingers and stared off into space. "He played the saxophone at the jazz club."

Sam the Sicilian's instrument was the violin.

Mom doesn't understand why it's so important to Lydia to know her father. "I was the one who took care of her," she told me. In my mother's world, the fathers and the truth are always expendable. "I know you all think I'm a bad mother," she added, a question beneath her armor.

"No, Mom, it's not that we think you're a bad mother," I said. "It's that we think you're a bad liar."

That day in the hospital with my sister I held her bruised and swollen hand, and remembered another incident from our shared past. When Lydia was five, I came home for a weekend from college. My brother and I, along with our little sister, had driven over to a shopping center to buy shoes. A demonstration for Black Power was in progress in the parking area. A lot of that went on in those days.

As I helped Lydia down from the car, a tall, very thin, and very dignified, Afro-haired young black man stepped apart from the crowd and approached us. He was carrying a stack of leaflets with various slogans printed on it. Ignoring my brother and me, he stooped low and handed Lydia one of the papers.

"Here you go, sister," he said to her.

My brother and I laughed, standing there in the hard sunlight. My memory is an unrelenting snapshot: our heads tilted back in the same way, our blond hair and strong teeth gleaming mercilessly bright above the rare blue-black luster of our sister's curly-topped head. We laughed back then, looking into each other's eyes and never told Mom, nor kept the memory alive for Lydia.

No father ever came to claim Lydia.

No son of Sicily, memory restored and classically trained, arrived to lift my sister's spirit on lofty waves of Bach or Mozart. No ebony patriarch appeared to teach my sister about her roots, dark and deep, black pride reverberating on the complex notes of his sax.

"Black is beautiful, sister," he could have told her. "Take pride."

Friday, November 07, 2014

The Homesman Is a Woman

There are Pawnees and claim jumpers, rifles and Colt Repeaters, young prostitutes waiting for customers in a saloon, and mules pulling plows in The Homesman, a western directed by Tommy Lee Jones, in which he co-stars with Hilary Swank. But the person behind the plow is Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank) an old maid in the parlance of the time working her farm alone.

She’s also the one cooking the supper she serves to an eligible bachelor neighbor right before she proposes marriage. She’s still of childbearing age, has money in the bank, and their union is a logical combination for their adjoining farms. “You’re too plain and too bossy,” he tells her, right before grabbing his homemade cheese and hightailing it out of there.

There’s also plenty of sex in this movie but it’s the spread-your-legs-and-accept-my-seed variety, usually accomplished with the woman’s mom lying horrified in the same bed next to her daughter or the standing version completed in the space of time between slopping the hogs and feeding the mules. Yup, it’s a wonder all the pioneer women who traveled from the East didn’t lose their minds.

The plot revolves around madness. And loneliness. And doing the right thing. Three women went crazy not just because of the bad sex, the infant mortality, the harsh winters and the meager rations when a harvest was lost, but because all semblance of a life they’d once known lay at the bottom of a trunk full of keepsakes.

They had Faith, though, in God, in the man they’d wed, in the promise of children. Until they lost all of it along with their minds. Mary Bee isn’t like these women. Most of them were required to marry and leave their parental homes. Mary had the wherewithal to make her own choices, but she hadn’t counted on living “uncommonly alone.”

She’s the one who volunteers to be the Homesman, the person who transports the three mad mothers from Nebraska back to Iowa. They’re babbling lunatics tied up in a wood-frame wagon. The full sense of her responsibility prepares her to grab at the chance of help when she encounters George Briggs (Mr. Jones) strung up in a tree. She frees him on his promise of aid.

There is the hope of redemption for everyone: the lunatic moms who minimally respond to kindness, for Mary Bee who makes another bold move involving this new man in her life, and for Briggs, if that really is his name, who survives and tries to do right.

The Homesman is a captivating story and Tommy Lee Jones got the history right.

Directed by Tommy Lee Jones
Written by Kieran Fitzgerald, Tommy Lee Jones, Wesley Oliver
Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, William Fichtner, Meryl Streep

Monday, October 27, 2014

Halloween Interlude

Crisped whispers from the leaves above remind me that it's a SoCal fall. Gone before you know it. Some of the leaves hold on to genetic memories and defiantly turn red, but most of them have given up, yellowed and rustled a goodbye to their mates as they float down. Joey loves pissing on the dead leaves. I wait patiently for him to finish, listening to the wind stir the trees, a friendly caress.

A tiny Asian woman approaches me, smiling. “Please, you tell me where this is?” She holds up an iPhone. “The man say I turn right here.” She smiles again and asks, “Is your baby friendly?” Joey tries to sniff her iPhone. I hate it when people call him my baby. An assumption about Americans and their pets on her part, a friendly crossing of borders, I decide. 

  “He’ll just try to lick you.” She’s so small and thin, I tighten my hold on his leash in case he decides he loves her. My baby is a musclebound 75 lbs.

I stoop and peer over the top of my sunglasses at the iPhone screen. It shows a deposit slip with an address in Century City. Not here. The image revolves in the opposite direction. She tries to adjust it by squeezing her thumb and forefinger on the screen, but when she holds it up for me, it switches again. An Asian who can't control an iPhone? Interesting.
Near here, but a long walk, I say. "There’s probably a branch on Wilshire, but I don’t know exactly where." I suggest she call the bank and ask for an address. She shrugs and says she’ll look for it. She's exploring. I’m heading in the same direction so we walk together.
Turns out her husband is a student at UCLA in Astrophysics. She’s probably got time on her hands. I ask where she’s from.

She laughs. “I guess you know I’m Asian.”
“Right! But which brand? What country?”

China is her point of origin. She expresses surprise that there are so many Asians on the UCLA campus. No comment from me on that, but I want to know the specific focus of her husband’s research. She claims ignorance.

We stop in front of a house with the lawn jammed with inflated ghosts, ghouls and witches.

They hover, expressing nothing more than lack of inspiration. An electric hum in the background is the machine which keeps them engorged. Joey is strangely quiet, ears erect, wrinkled brow expressing his version of WTF.
Next door is more creatively decorated. Grasping skeletal hands, skulls, spiders and webs sprout out of the lawn.
“What the hell is that?” I ask Joey, gripping his leash. He whines, anxious to attack the skull which he thinks is a warped soccer ball.

“This is frightening,” my Chinese companion says. “I don’t understand. Why dead things?”

“Good question,” I say. “It has something to do with All Saint’s Day. Saints are people who died vaingloriously for some dumb reason.” Her lips part as she takes this in. Hey, diplomacy is not my strong suit.

“Are you afraid of the dead?” I ask.

“No,” she says, “but skulls not welcome, maybe lewd.”

Welcome to America!

More on All Hallows Eve: Today's Halloween customs are thought to have been influenced by folk customs and beliefs from the Celtic-speaking countries, some of which have pagan roots, and others which may be rooted in Celtic Christianity

Veneration of the Dead by various cultures: