Fiction’s Frilliest Genre Gets Real(er)

Note: A version of this article was originally published in the San Antonio Current in 2002, and was reprinted in the Detroit Metro Times in 2003.

She gasped as he plunged his fingers beneath her heavy skirts. He grinned like a pirate when he discovered her honeyed folds — No, wait — as he plundered the honeyed core of her desire. Yeah, plundered is more pirate-like. Arrr! She reached out, tentatively, until her trembling fingers brushed the soft suede of his breeches. She felt enormous heat and hardness there, and knew she touched the pulsating evidence of his manhood. Pulsating evidence? Hmm… the throbbing shaft of his manhood. “Oh,” she gasped, her swollen, tortured lips sheened with the dew of her desire. “In truth, you may prove to be far too much man for me, Aelred.” “There is only one way to find out, my lady,” Aelred growled. In one move he bared himself to her, the enormous beast of his need rearing up from its inky thatch…

If I tell you I write romance novels, odds are you’ll think I sit around all day in my pink satin robe, popping bonbons while dreaming up passages like the one above (the purplest of purple prose that sprang, like Aelred’s manhood from its inky thatch, from my own imagination). For those who have never read one, the idea of a romance novel conjures images of a shirtless Fabio clutching a frilly female on the cover of a book filled with references to his throbbing shaft, her velvety sheath, the glistening dew of her passion, the devastating extent of his arousal, and the quivering mound of her femininity.

No wonder the romance genre still exists in so many minds as a ridiculous and easily dismissed form of fiction.

Fact for the uninitiated: Those flowery, gooey allusions to penis and vagina are generally found only in historical romance novels, not contemporaries. Another fact: Even historicals have updated themselves, often beyond recognition as “just” a romance novel. Read Patricia Gaffney’s fabulous Wild at Heart (Signet, 2002) for a case in point.

Take the term “bodice ripper.” Coined by the media and still used — by the media — to describe any and all romance novels, the phrase has been both outmoded and out of favor for decades. Originally invented to describe historical romantic fiction of the 1970s and ’80s, in which rape was, unfortunately, a common initial phase of the courting process between hero and heroine, the term “bodice ripper” is now, thanks to the efforts of feminism, frowned upon by the romance writing and reading communities. Continue reading “Fiction’s Frilliest Genre Gets Real(er)”

Target, You Are Dead to Me

Target + Tom Emmer = love? Damn. Target, you’re dead to me.

Oh, how it hurts to write that. I dearly love Target. This is one big-box store that fits my budget and, I thought, my politics.

Like Costco (my other favorite store), Target has received a lot of my business over the years. One of the ways in which I assuage my guilt about favoring these businesses over local or independent ones is the fact that both companies donate substantially more money to liberal and Democratic causes than they do to conservative or Republican ones.

Apparently this is no longer so, at least in Target’s case. In the past week, the Internet is buzzing with the disturbing, dismaying, surprising fact that Target Stores has contributed over $150,000 to the innocuously named political action committee Minnesota Forward. This PAC exists for one purpose: to promote the candidacy of Tom Emmer for governor of Minnesota.

Here is a good rundown of Emmer’s destructive, idiotic, unconscionable, irrational, and far-right-wing opinions and causes. In short, he is fiercely anti-gay marriage, anti-women’s reproductive rights, and pro-Minnesota sovereignty — meaning, he wants Minnesota’s state constitution to block federal laws. (Wtf?)

As long as Target supports a candidate like that, I can’t support Target. I actually think this is going to be tough for me.

On the other hand, maybe this can be the nice, clean break that pushes me to put my money even more squarely where my politics are. I’ll purchase my cheap, cute clothes at local thrift stores (farewell to my favorite clothing designer Mossimo, hello Room Service and Blue Velvet), my affordable cosmetics at Wheatsville (both local and independent) or HEB (hey, at least they’re local), and my toys for children’s birthday parties at Terra Toys or Toy Joy (both local, independent, and fabulous). And — whew — as far as I know, Costco’s still good for bulk TP, organic dairy products, and bags o’ chicken boobs. It’s a relief to know some things are still sacred…for now.

I’m a Joiner

In one scene in the 1987 film Dirty Dancing, Baby (Jennifer Grey’s character) is about to go meet dashing, dangerous Johnny (played by the dear, departed Patrick Swayze), but she lies to her parents that she’s going to play charades in the West Lobby. Her sister, Lisa (played by Jane Brucker, who was brilliant in this role but whom I don’t think I’ve seen in anything else) — no stranger to illicit liaisons, herself — knows the real deal, and quips snidely, “Ohh, quite the little joiner, aren’t we?”

Seeing that film for the first time when I was eleven, and literally hundreds of times since, made its message, humor and values hugely formative for me. That particular line taught me that being a joiner is a bad thing, something only goody-goodies and dirty liars would do.

Unexpectedly, it has turned out that I am quite a joiner. I love belonging to groups! I love having membership cards in my wallet and attending group meetings. Thus, it seems paradoxical to me that all of the groups to which I belong are of my own choosing, and yet none feels like a completely natural fit. Take music, for instance. For years, my band members and I played shows with several other bands, traveling together in packs like minstrels whose scope spanned three small blocks of Red River Street. Making music with my band mates made me feel as close as I’ve ever felt to the Spirit, and yet many times I wished I weren’t a part of the music scene. Like any small, intimate group, things often got messy within the band and the community.

Another of my chosen communities: writing and writers. For nearly a decade, I have been a member of the Romance Writers of America. As a group, romance writers have cultural peculiarities that make me feel excluded from what has to be an inside joke. Here is one that even has a joke-like setup: Walk into a room full of romance writers and say the word “chocolate.” Mention you love dark chocolate, or make a joke about chocolate, or say you’re having a crap day and ask if anyone has some chocolate to share. Everyone will titter knowingly, as if you were talking about orgasms instead of candy. Every time this happens, I wonder — what in the world is the subtext? Is it that eating chocolate triggers the release of oxytocin, which is also released post-coitally? Is chocolate truly a good substitute for sex? If so, is there a future in chocolate novels? They could complement the numerous choco-porn TV commercials advertising Dove Dark (my personal favorite — tee-hee), Hershey’s Bliss, Godiva and other brands with purple prose that would rival the best romances of the ’80s.

Another example of my unease within this group: When the Austin chapter of the Romance Writers of America elected me to serve as their chapter president in 2004, I felt I had to begin shaving my armpits. At twenty-eight, I was one of the youngest members of the group. I came to meetings wearing clothing ensembles even I considered odd (picture a former-punk, Target-meets-vintage aesthetic). I couldn’t figure out why the group had elected me to serve; the stark differences between myself and them, of which my hairy pits were one obvious example, made me ostracize myself in my own mind.

My fellow members of Austin RWA had elected a hairy president, and yet I felt with deep certainty that I could not possibly serve with unshaved underarms. Where did this irrational idea come from? Looking back, it seems to have materialized spontaneously in my mind — Chapter presidents do not stand up at group meetings with hirsute pits! Before the January meeting at which I took over the job of president, I shaved. Until then, I had been hairy and proud, a product of my permissive family, my own laziness regarding personal upkeep and hygiene, and the tiny northeastern college I had attended, where people espoused such progressive ideas as women’s bodies being beautiful in their natural, hairy state (though that actually seems more regressive to me — a return to the way things once were). Ever since, I have kept my underarms smooth and inoffensive. In my own mind, I have sold out.

Another community in which I have an uneasy membership: athletes, gym rats, people who work out, enter races and get ripped. After a childhood beset by asthma, bad vision that necessitated glasses, and the attendant fear of objects flying at my face (including any kind of ball or puck), I became a kickboxer in my early twenties in San Francisco, and discovered I loved being athletic. When I moved back to Austin, I switched to swimming, biking and running, and started competing in triathlons. But I often felt excluded at races or group workouts. When registering for my first triathlon, I was dismayed to find that my weight qualified me to enter in the “Athena” group — women weighing over 150 pounds, whose racing times aren’t expected to be as fast as those of lighter women because we have more bulk to haul around. At the free core strength training classes I used to attend at Jack and Adam’s bike shop, I would overhear conversations that made me feel as if I must be in a parallel dimension. “I did an eighty-miler this morning,” someone would toss off breezily. “I was so mad at myself — I only averaged twenty-two miles an hour!” (Cycling, not running — I think.) Who are these people? I would wonder. Even at a “mere” 22 mph, an “eighty-miler” would take nearly four hours, and the core classes were on Monday and Wednesday afternoons. Didn’t these folks have jobs?

It seems at once pitiable and amusing to me that there is no one group to which I feel comfortable belonging. I am reminded of Groucho Marx’s quote about not joining any club that would have him as a member. On the other hand, I think that must be part of the reason why I appreciate my husband so much, and our marriage — our little community of two, another group of my choosing, and the only one in which I almost always feel completely known and utterly at ease.

Last time I checked, Jack and Adam’s Bikes, on Barton Springs and S. Lamar, still hosted their free core strength training classes on Mondays and Wednesdays at 5:30 pm. If they’re anything like they were two years ago, they are incredible, challenging, kick-ass, 60-minute classes. Show up at least 30 minutes early if you want to get a spot anywhere near the instructor, which helps with hearing instructions. The shop also hosts free weekly training rides. Check their Web site for more details.

Meditative Acts

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy…but the meditatin’ ain’t. At least, not for me.

Wait, let’s back up a minute. (See? Lack of focus. That’s part of my problem.)

Barton Springs is beautiful anytime, but my favorite times to visit are during the free hours — and not just because I’m cheap. At nine o’clock in the evening, after a sweltering, sluggish day, there’s just nothing like a visit to the Springs. The air near the water is cooler than the air farther up on dry land. The water itself is a sweet, cold revelation. And it’s dark enough out to imagine that it’s, say, a hundred years ago — back before A/C, when Austinites probably came to the Springs of a summer’s eve because it was the only way to cool down. I mean the only way — there weren’t any Polvo’s margaritas or noon shows at the Alamo Drafthouse back then.

The Springs are also gorgeous at around six-forty-five in the morning, when the sun is coming up and it’s just you and a handful of other lap-swimmers doing the eighth-mile length of the pool as many times as you can take it. That first plunge into the water takes your breath away, but since it isn’t too hot out yet, the shock isn’t as bad as it is in the afternoon. Your body adjusts. You surge forward, and then it’s just arm over arm, breath after breath, water in your ears, lungs tight but strong as you watch the fish twit back and forth in the reeds beneath you.

Before I moved back to Austin, during my four-year sojourn in San Francisco, I was a kickboxer. Like a lot of people in that city, I headed west when a love affair went really, really bad. I needed kickboxing: needed to pound it out on a heavy bag or my sparring partner, to use not just my fists but my knees, shins, elbows, heels, and also my speed and my instincts — my tools for avoiding injury. I’m untouchable. I’ll mess you up, but you can’t get me, never, ever again. You can see why martial arts might appeal to the brokenhearted.

It also appealed to me because it was the only time of day when I was thinking of just one thing: how to make my muscles keep going; how to get through the ninety-minute class without passing out or dying. I wasn’t fit, back then. I hadn’t known until then that exercise could quiet an overcrowded, constantly chattering mind. My obsessive, pessimistic, second-guessing thoughts just evaporated when I was kickboxing, vaporized by power, sweat and exertion.

By the time I moved back to Austin, I didn’t need such an aggressive workout anymore. My broken heart had healed. I got into more meditative forms of exercise: swimming, biking, running. You know, triathlons.

Meditative. It means “involving or absorbed in meditation or considered thought,” and it is one of my favorite qualities of some of my most favorite activities — running, playing music, writing. Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote about flow, the state of engaged focus and absorption in a meaningful task that leads to, or perhaps is equivalent to, optimal experience. This touches on what I’m describing: When I’m doing something I find meaningful and interesting, something that requires my focus and shuts out the jibber-jabber of my slightly neurotic brain, I’m in the flow, a meditative state that is either happiness or something even a little bit better.

So if I can achieve meditative states, why, oh why, can’t I meditate?

Here’s an example of what happens when I try. At Barton Springs this morning, after swimming a half-mile, I get out of the water feeling pretty darn good. Muscles tight, skin chilled but warming up under the morning sun. I walk over to my towel, keeping my stomach sucked in, though there aren’t too many people around yet; probably no one’s looking. Hey, maybe I’ll take advantage of the early hour, sit and close my eyes for a few minutes, and just focus on my breathing. That’s what meditation is, right? In its simplest form? That’s what many people and Web sites and texts have told me.

So I sit, cross my legs, get comfortable. Close my eyes. Breathe, in, out, in, out. I’m conscious of the sounds of splashing water, birds calling to each other, insects doing their thing. I try to do what I’ve heard I’m supposed to do, and let those sounds enter and exit. Don’t attach to them. Don’t attach to my thoughts. If they surface, I can just let them go, like catch-and-release fishing.

Remember that time when a fish bit the crap out of my ankle when I was standing in the deep end? That thing left a fish-mouth-shaped scab on my leg! I swore there were piranhas in Barton Springs!

Oh, crap, I’m thinking. Let it go. Back to focusing on my breathing. In. Out.

And then…suddenly, the sounds of splashing and insects and bird calls and people’s voices came together in a swelling orchestra, and she let the sounds enter her, and she was One with the sounds: One with Barton Springs —

Argh, thinking again. This always happens — whenever I try to meditate and stop thinking, I start narrating my meditation! Okay, I’m focusing, I’m focused

Maybe I should write an essay about this. Narrating your mediation. That’s kind of funny, right? Maybe that happens to a lot of people when they try to meditate —

I stop, and give up for the day. It was a good try — four-and-a-half whole minutes. I’ve read research studies that show just 10 minutes of quiet time at the beginning of each school day helps students perform better academically. Maybe 270 seconds of quiet time will help me meet the rest of my day with greater comprehension, compassion and equanimity.

Or maybe, if meditation forever eludes me, meditative acts can serve as a close cousin. I think, with a brain as garrulous as mine, they’ll have to do.

The Barton Springs free hours are between 5 and 8 a.m. every morning, and between 9 p.m. and closing time at 10 every night. You can also go at other times of day for just $3 (adult entry fee). Visit the Barton Springs Web site or call the hotline at 512-867-3080 for more information.

The Politics of Birth: How I Learned the True Meaning of “Reproductive Rights”

Today, June 10, marks a landmark in reproductive rights and women’s sexual independence — the 50th anniversary of the debut of the Pill. Somewhat embarrassingly, my perspective of reproductive rights has always been largely self-centered, stemming from my own reproductive needs of the moment. From when I became sexually active until I became pregnant with my son, that was the need to avoid pregnancy.

A longtime committed proponent of access to sexual education and contraception, I view the abortion issue rather simplistically: Like it or not, abortions are going to happen; therefore, they must be kept safe and legal. My likely romanticized image of the sexual revolution of the 1960s is one of women finally being able to explore their sexuality without fear of pregnancy. For much of my life, these ideas and goals were things I believed in largely because they dovetailed so seamlessly with my own interests.

Only when my reproductive needs changed did my narrow-minded perspective broaden a bit. This is probably utterly obvious to everyone else, but I did not realize until my pregnancy and the birth of my son that reproductive rights include the right to choose not only whether to reproduce, but also how to reproduce.
Continue reading “The Politics of Birth: How I Learned the True Meaning of “Reproductive Rights””

Alejandro’s New Guitar Sings to the Lord

The Continental Club, South Congress Avenue
This past warm, humid Tuesday night, Alejandro Escovedo played one of a series of Tuesday-night shows at the Continental Club, accompanied on stage by his Sensitive Boys (although two members of his band, backup singers Karla Manzur and Gina Holton, are not boys at all).

Even after seeing Alejandro play fifteen or twenty times over the past 12 years, in many different venues and cities and band iterations, I still get a rush every time I’m heading to one of his shows. The Continental Club is one of my favorite places to see him: It’s so small that there isn’t a bad spot in the room to see the stage. Tuesday night the band went on nice and early — 10:30 pm — and when the music started, it swarmed into the bones of my chest, its deep vibration making me grin through my end-of-a-long-day tiredness.

L-R: David Pulkingham, Alan Fisher, Alejandro Escovedo, Hector Muñoz
Before the band began to play, Alan Fisher, the Continental’s barbecue man, joined them on stage. “Alejandro has a new guitar,” he told the crowd. He talked about Al’s new guitar singing up to the Lord, and I thought about how that’s the best reason I know to go to church — the same reason I’m in a band, myself: to sing together, play instruments together, and feel the Spirit move in ecstatic synchronicity within us all.

Alejandro told the crowd that eating Alan Fisher’s barbecue “makes you feel good”; then drummer Hector Muñoz kicked the band into “Always a Friend.” Aside from Alejandro himself, Hector is my favorite part of the band. He is from El Paso, and his skin shines with sweat as he plays, though he sits calmly on his drum throne, his body almost unmoving, his face a study in concentration and internal stillness while his hands and drumsticks are all in a blur. It’s called economy of motion, and anyone from Texas knows it’s essential to living in this intensity of heat and humidity.

There’s a new album, “Street Songs of Love,” coming out June 29. After that, as Alejandro said, we won’t see the band around these parts for a while, as they head out on tour. Until then, they have several shows in and around Austin, including the next two Tuesday nights at the Continental (May 18 and 25, both at 10:30 pm). Get out and see them while you can.

And if you’re like me and enjoy taking one great musician and using him as a hub, following the spokes out to other great bands, albums and artists, you might want to research Alejandro Escovedo’s music, influences and followers dating back to the ’70s. He was part of the San Francisco punk rock scene back in 1977, when he was one-third of the Nuns. Then he moved to Austin around 1980 and formed Rank and File with brothers Chip and Tony Kinman, who had been the Dils back in San Francisco — another spoke off the hub, and another great punk band. Another spoke: Alejandro’s youngest brother Mario Escovedo, who was the frontman for one of my all-time favorite bands, the Dragons, based in San Diego; I used to go see them play at the Casbah, where I would stand by the bar and feel overwhelmed by the sheer rock-and-roll power. Another spoke: After Rank and File split up in the early ’80s, Alejandro formed the True Believers with another of his brothers, Javier, who had been in the Zeros, another awesome 1970s punk band based down in Chula Vista, near the California-Mexico border. All great bands and musicians. Have fun looking ’em up.

Modern-Day Saints

As a young girl, I loved the Virgen de Guadalupe. Not the Virgin Mary — not that I had any issue with her, as she seemed like a very nice lady; but I loved la Virgen, specifically. While obviously kind and saintly, the Virgin Mary seemed like a woman who would faint a lot — pale and quiet-tempered, truly chaste, as her name suggests, and not much like anyone I knew or could relate to. She seemed sad, as if she had long since despaired of getting whatever it was that she desired.

La Virgen de Guadalupe, on the other hand, seemed so festive, so vital, glowing amidst a riot of color and bursting rose blooms. Like Mary’s, her expression was one of repose, but there was still a liveliness, a sense of humor, a hint of sexuality, a certain je ne sais quoi about her that spoke to the riotous, fiery color I felt blooming inside of me.

Unfortunately, not being Latina or having grown up Catholic or even Christian, I felt I had to adore la Virgen in private. It seemed disingenuous to adopt her as my non-Latina, non-religious own. But love her secretly I did, in part through regular pilgrimages to the saint candle aisle at Fiesta Mart. I was drawn especially to the La Virgen candles with pink wax that gave off the faint scent of roses, which represented how I wanted my life to look and smell: sweet, colorful, flowery, busy and, yes, exalted, but in a friendly, accessible way.

(I am reminded now of a Spring 2007 trip to Puebla, Mexico, where I was enchanted by pictures I saw everywhere of what I called “Approachable Jesus.” Of course I had seen all sorts of representations of Jesus, ones in which he looked saintly or holy or concerned or even beleaguered. But in these pictures all over Puebla, on the walls of restaurants and for sale in the mercados, his expression just looked so friendly and approachable, like a guy you would want to sit down and have a beer with, and talk over your problems. Viva Approachable Jesus!)
Continue reading “Modern-Day Saints”

Books Every Teenage Girl Should Read — In Secret

WeetzieBat In our freshman year at Austin High, my friend Mary (whom you know as Dog Canyon contributor Mary Lowry) brought a treasure to school: A slender book with a paper cover the color of persimmons, which turned out to be an uncorrected, galley-proof copy of a novel called Weetzie Bat.

We were in the cafeteria — that I remember clearly, along with the sunlight that streamed through high-up windows as Mary pulled the book out of her backpack, her look of glee like that of a boy pulling out a contraband copy of Playboy. I don’t recall how she’d gotten her hands on a galley copy. She was always doing things like that — introducing me to things I’d never heard of before; making unlikely miracles seem regular and effortless, and sharing them blithely with her friends. I do remember having the sense that, holding the galley proof, we were holding raw Truth in our hands.

The book begins with these two sentences: “The reason Weetzie Bat hated high school was because no one understood. They didn’t even realize where they were living.” Those lines held all the promise I needed that Weetzie’s life would mirror my own: the isolation of high school, of being a nerdy-cool girl who made my own awkward clothes and wore them with proud defiance, of feeling almost painfully awake to music, ideas, art, while adrift in a sea of zombies — other kids, my parents, everyone around me who just seemed so damn asleep. What could be closer to the teenage drama and psyche than that? My years from age twelve to twenty-two were spent actively trying to figure out who I was and what my place in this weird, chaotic world might be, and Weetzie Bat helped.

Girls in America grow up with the knowledge, whether conscious or subliminal, that in the eyes of much of the world, their worth is based in their bodies: their looks, their passive ability to seduce men. (By passive seduction, I mean our culture’s version of female sexuality, in which seduction is as simple as standing still and being admired, desired or possessed.) Since some people believe this is all a girl has to offer, a girl must make a choice: to be complicit with this version of herself, or to reject such a straitjacket in favor of self-determination.

What helped me navigate the rough, unpredictable waters of growing up female in America? Books. Novels that brought clarity and definition to my feelings and experiences. Weetzie Bat was one of those novels, and twenty years later, I view my first reading of it as a turning point. I could have drowned under the weight of the overt pressures of teenage boys or the subtler pressures of the American Beauty Standard and patriarchy in general. Instead, I grabbed onto books as lifeboats, and fought for the courage to be myself — or at least to experiment, through clothes, hairstyles, music, literature, friendships, with what “myself” might turn out to be.

Thank goodness, my mother never limited my reading material. I didn’t have to read Weetzie Bat in secret. But many teenage girls might. After all, Weetzie’s best friend, Dirk, is gay, and they go “duck hunting” together — trolling for true love, or at least for cute boys to hook up with. One hilarious and vivid image from the book: When Weetzie and Dirk meet up for breakfast the morning after a duck hunt, a cart of rubbery pickles wheels past, and Dirk winces, presumably unpleasantly reminded of whatever he and his duck got up to the night before. Oh my!

(Several of Francesca Lia Block’s novels have been on banned-book lists. In her own words from this 2009 interview with the Kids’ Right to Read Project: “I’m a bit surprised in one way [that my books have been at the center of censorship controversies], because the message of all of them is love, tolerance and self-expression. On the other hand, I am not surprised because the message of all of them is love, tolerance and self-expression.”)

AlamoHouse Did Weetzie Bat’s content warp me? Nope. I was already warped; Weetzie Bat helped me feel more acceptable. The same is true of Sarah Bird’s novels of the mid- to late-eighties, Alamo House and The Boyfriend School. Those books were my bibles throughout junior high and high school. They taught me how to take my sharp yearning for boys’ attention and turn it into something funny, something normal, something my friends and I could cackle over. Instead of being the victim or the reject, I could become the arch comedienne, the one holding the strings of the marionettes and making them dance.

Perhaps most influentially, those books were about friendships, connections among women that were strong and complicated and essential to survival — pretty much what my own friendships in high school were.

Weetzie Bat, Alamo House, The Boyfriend School: Three books that helped me become a stronger, more self-realized young woman. There are so many other books that could also be included on this list. (I considered including Richard Adams’s fantasy novel Maia, a dark, twisted tale that speaks so eloquently about the politics of power and sexuality, but that deserves an essay all its own.)

It gives me a pang of regret to think some girls might not get to read these books if their parents or school administrators or local librarians believe they’re Doing The Right Thing by declaring them off limits. On the other hand, the idea of girls finding and reading them in secret, of reading as a dangerous, defiant and revolutionary act — well, it could be worse.