Friday, December 30, 2005

The Gender War and Why I Write Under My Own Name

Happy Donna’s Birthday Eve! My Christmas was fun, and not too outrageously consumeristic, although I was suffering from a nasty and lingering flu that I am just now getting over. My hubbie did an encore of last year’s very favorite gift, a fine panettone imported from Milano (a specialty of Pasticceria Massimo, sold by my local gourmet Italian deli, A.G. Ferrari). I’ve figured out that the secret is the quality of the candied fruit, although the airy, orange-scented bread is key as well. We still have two slices left for my birthday breakfast tomorrow. I also got some interesting books, including Maureen Dowd’s Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide from my brother-in-law, who always gets me something thought-provoking to read.

I must admit the first chapter is rather depressing because Dowd goes on and on about how the feminist revolution has basically failed. Thirty years later, men still make more money, marry younger, less-accomplished women and feel threatened by women who strive for any sort of equality. Women are apparently abandoning every worthy feminist goal in droves, insisting men pay for dates, “trapping” husbands so they can retreat to the world of babies and clever accessorizing. Yes, reading these words made me feel rather blue and hopeless, dyed-in-the-wool feminist that I am, but then I got to thinking that I don’t really know anyone who fits this picture exactly. Many of my women friends are home now with their babies or grade-schoolers. Few make more money than their husbands, although some do. So in that respect, the revolution has not (yet) succeeded. But for heaven’s sake, think of where we started a mere generation ago! Can anyone argue that amazing progress hasn’t been made? The agricultural revolution was probably thousands of years in the making. The middle class was rising for centuries. Shouldn’t something as huge as a gender revolution take some time to work its way through the fabric of human society?

Besides, back to my real-world friends (versus Dowd’s anecdotal examples), the couples are equals in one important respect: education. I see no evidence at all that the men want dumber wives. The majority of my girlfriends are Ivy League graduates with graduate degrees from Stanford and Cal Tech and not one is a sad old maid. When I was in grade school, Princeton was closed to women. When I went there, ten years after the first female students were admitted, the ratio was two male students to every woman. And now, it’s 50-50.

Quickly enough the depression began to lift. In fact, in spite of real and often troubling differences in the way the sexes relate, I truly believe we all want the same thing deep down. We want to find a special person who will value us and really listen to us and care about us. And when you find this person, any notion of gender difference slips away and you are just two lucky human souls who have the most precious thing in the world. My insistence that men and women are alike where it matters is probably helped by the fact I have two sons (and an almost-perfect husband). But hey, the world needs a little more optimism now and then!

Speaking of how things have changed for the Baby Boom generation, I was at a Hanukah/Boxing Day party on Monday (medicated and discreetly coughing into my sleeve) and I actually had a conversation with a man I didn’t know. He was a P.R. person, which is why the encounter happened at all. I’ve always been the type to blend into the wall paper at parties and my skills have only gotten better (or worse) since my single days. Anyway, I was making an effort to be upbeat and positive about myself, so I told this friendly stranger I was a writer and mentioned my soon-to-be-forthcoming story in Best American Erotica 2006. After some more talk on the subject, my temporary companion said something along the lines of, “Well, I hope you don’t get type-cast as an erotica writer.” He was, by his own admission, no expert on the writing scene, but I must confess I felt a touch of panic. Am I indeed “destroying” my chances of being taken seriously as a writer by "putting out" all these sexy stories?

Can you believe I would still be bothered by this question? (And, if you don’t think we’ve made any progress in the gender revolution, consider how much chance for public sexual expression any woman had before feminism.) Again, it took but a few moments for my deep-rooted beliefs to reassert themselves. If writing erotica is something to be ashamed about, then it follows that sex itself is something to be embarrassed about, especially for a serious, intelligent person. However, the very reason I write erotica is that I’m trying to make the point that sex is worthy of serious, intelligent attention. It has long been a pet peeve of mine that smart women and sex are seen as mutually exclusive categories in our culture.

The trauma dates back to high school (doesn’t everything?) when I overhead a cute blond telling his friend “Donna George is pretty cute. I’d go out with her if she wasn’t so smart.” Be smart or have a date--it was a choice I did not want to have to make. (By the time I got to college, with that favorable two-to-one ratio, I didn’t have to.) But, guys, before you start feeling smug, smart men and sex are seldom seen in good company either. When is the last time you saw a movie with a brainy, sexy man? No, sorry, smart guys, you’re all hopelessly nerdy and incompetent with women (or hot guys, depending on your preference), forget about anyone ever thinking you’re sexy. Except me. Without exception, I’ve found a direct correlation between smarts and skill in the sack. The most important sex organ is the brain and all that…but why don’t we seem to believe it, at least as reflected in popular culture?

I don’t write under a pseudonym and I’m well aware I have this luxury in part because I live in a relatively open-minded community and my sexual imagination runs to the vanilla (a high quality French vanilla, I hope). But it does take a bit of courage to step forward and say, in a public forum, “Ordinary housewife/moms have sexual feelings and thoughts. And not only that, they have the power to move and arouse you with their words.”

Mine is just one small voice in the void, but it will only make a difference if I use it.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Best Rice Pudding in the World

The Best Rice Pudding in the World (6 servings)

1/2 cup water
1/2 cup rice
2 Tablespoon butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 cups milk (2% works okay)
1/2 envelope gelatin (about 1 teaspoon)
2/3 cup sugar
2 Tablespoons rum
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup cream, whipped

Bring 1/2 cup water to a boil in a heavy pan. Add rice and butter. Cook uncovered over medium heat until water disappears, stirring frequently. Add salt and milk. Cover and simmer over lowest heat until rice is tender and milk is absorbed, about 40-45 minutes. Dissolve gelatin in 2 T. cold water. Stir into hot rice. Add sugar and cool. Add rum and vanilla. Fold in 1 cup whipped cream. Chill an hour.

(I've put the recipe first for all of you who are googling for recipes only. This IS the best, a mousse/chiffon-like miracle of a rice pudding. My feelings about rice pudding in general, the source of this recipe, and the best place to buy a variety of rice puddings in NYC, all spun out at great writerly length, follow below).

I’m always on the verge of doing an entry on writing and the creative process, when I’m sidetracked by another holiday sweet idea. This is the time of year to stay inside, keep warm (even here in northern California it’s been frigid these past few days) and indulge in inside indulgences. And so, as I huddle inside my modest, but charming craftsman home next to the Christmas tree, my thoughts invariably turn to…rice pudding.

I love rice pudding. Actually, I adore it. There’s something about the creamy custard and faintly resistant tenderness of the rice that is pure ecstasy. I would even choose rice pudding over chocolate, if I were assured the two were of comparable quality, and that’s saying something, because chocolate, well…I don’t have to make a case for that.

I’ve tasted some pretty marvelous puddings in my day. I suppose it all began with my German grandmother’s pan of baked pudding, which was on the table at every dinner. I got a secret thrill serving myself what I considered dessert right next to the chicken, potatoes and gravy, and green beans cooked for days (or so it seemed) in ham broth. This pudding had two tiers, a dense, mildly sweet rice layer and a golden custard topping. It was equally good warm and later cold for supper. Since then my rice pudding experiences have expanded far and wide, across international boundaries. A fairly recent find is the khao niaw mamuang at the weekly Sunday lunch buffet at the Thai Temple in Berkeley. The presentation is modest, a clear plastic container with one generous cooking-spoonful of sticky white rice and one of black rice, both steeped in sweet coconut milk and topped by slices of mango. At four dollars a tray, it’s a gourmet’s bargain. And I go back for it again and again.

And then of course if you happen to be in NYC, you should try the smorgasboard of rice pudding flavors at Rice to Riches on Spring Street in Manhattan (that city does have everything, much as I hate to admit it). The best part is that they let you taste all the flavors, or as many as you can manage before you’re too embarrassed to continue and then you ask your sister who doesn’t eat sweets to pretend to taste and slip you the spoon on the sly. This past summer, my favorites were cherry mascarpone and almond schmalmond. Sex, Drugs, and Rocky Road was good, too, with a rich, dark chocolate flavor and chunks of nuts and marshmallows. Too bad they didn’t have the maple-blueberry in the summer! Rice to Riches does mail order, but they’ll only send larger tubs and it’s pricey, but if money is no object, I would highly recommend their offerings.

Homemade is best though and I’ve tried various recipes, but the one I keep coming back to year after year, usually at Christmas, is a Swedish rice pudding I discovered thirty years ago in a book I got at my local library, America’s Christmas Heritage by Ruth Cole Kainen (copyright 1969--thanks to alibris and the wonders of the internet, I own a precious copy now.) I’ve always been a bit of a cookbook freak, dating all the way back to my elementary school days. I might even love reading about food more than eating. This is not true of sex, however, although I do enjoy good writing on that topic.

No, I’m not usually one to make extravagant claims, but I have sampled many rice puddings in homes and restaurants and I’ve yet to find one that boots this recipe out of first place. It’s more like a rice mousse than a pudding thanks to gelatin and lots of whipped cream. Over the years I’ve tinkered with the recipe, so I’m including my version (which also appeared in the December 2002 issue of Sunset magazine, which was cool, except they came up with a calorie count for a dish and for all those years, I’d convinced myself it didn’t have any). I usually serve it on Christmas Eve, as is the tradition in Scandinavian countries. It’s also traditional to hide a lucky almond in one serving, which I used to do until the winter I met my future husband and I was so blissed out I couldn’t bear for just one person to have good luck, I wanted everyone to be happy. So I snuck an almond into all the bowls, and that’s become a new tradition.

So, here it is, my rice pudding recipe. It’s the best. Enjoy! I want everyone to be happy.

The Best Rice Pudding in the World (6 servings)

1/2 cup water
1/2 cup rice
2 Tablespoon butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 cups milk (2% works okay)
1/2 envelope gelatin
2/3 cup sugar
2 Tablespoons rum
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup cream, whipped

Bring 1/2 cup water to a boil in a heavy pan (this burns easily). Add rice and butter. Cook uncovered over medium heat until water disappears, stirring frequently. Add salt and milk. Cover and simmer over lowest heat until rice is tender and milk is absorbed, about 40-45 minutes. Dissolve gelatin in 2 T. cold water. Stir into hot rice. Add sugar and cool. Add rum and vanilla. Fold in 1 cup whipped cream. Chill an hour.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Penthouse, pt. 2: What turns women on?

Okay, so I'm back, much relieved I've wrapped all the presents (jeez, it takes a long time to do that!) and sent off all the Christmas boxes. The line at the post office wasn't even all that bad! My next installment in the saga of my lost Penthouse interview is the answers to the first question--what turns you on?

Looking over this, I can see why the first answers might be more appropriate to Glamour--although that magazine has gotten much racier since I read it regularly in college--but I'm sure you'll agree as you go down the list, the turnons turn into more what you'd expect from a woman who writes erotica (ah, but not often enough with all these holiday preparations). So, here they are, my "general turnons":

  • That little flicker in his eyes that tells me he likes what he sees
  • A warm smile (yes, cliched, but it works)
  • Genuine interest in me, asking questions and really listening to the answers and following up, making me feel like a desirable, interesting person
  • Nice, solid-looking, thick-fingered male hands (an aside here-apparently some guys are concerned about penis size. For me, unless it's too tiny to feel or too huge, which has actually been more of a problem for me because it hurts, the penis is so much less important than hands with sensitivity and stamina. His hands will make the difference between lame sex and great sex. Hand action, the way he uses them, is important, too. I find watching a man typing at a keyboard and clicking a mouse or playing a video game kind of suggestive!)
  • a sense the guy is good at what he does-this doesn't have to mean hugely rich and powerful and famous along those stereotypical terms. It could simply mean his passion is jazz and he knows a lot about the music, artists, etc. Again, this kind of passion and dedication can translate to good-in-bed
  • A guy with a good sense of humor (that is, one that matches mine, although I'm pretty open); if you can laugh together, you can have good sex!
  • IN BED, taking his time, the sense he sees this as a leisurely feast of the senses, not something to score as quickly as possible. Some guys are so hurried, sort of diving for the good stuff, you think they're afraid you'll get out of bed and walk out the door (which I've done, but I'll get to that later)
  • I'd say again, a genuine interest in the moment and a sense he's glad it's ME there in bed with him, more compliments about how lovely and sexy and desirable I am is a real turn-on. I like dirty talk but that really has to be saved for later in the relationship. If used too early-the first few times-it is threatening. But a deep sexy voice engages my mind and it seems women do need a fuller engagement of their heads to have really good sex.
  • A guy who shows some appreciation of what I do for him, don't go overboard into theatrics, but some genuine murmurs of pleasure, a couple of moans and gasps of appreciation are a turn-on and make me feel like a contributor. Guys don't have to be strong and silent in bed. I'm pretty vocal about what I like and my partners always seem to enjoy that, but I enjoy positive feedback, too.
  • Guys who say-and show-that the woman's pleasure is the biggest turn-on for them. Sadly there is still so much anti-sex feeling and teaching in our society, especially with a new partner, a woman usually feels she has to hold back. We carry a lot of baggage about our sexuality STILL, alas, so to be accepted and appreciated for that, not judged, is a turn-on and will lead to more and better sex.
  • Especially the first time, it is so sexy when a guy asks what gives me pleasure. Usually with the breasts and neck and deep kissing you can go as you feel, it's the clitoris that needs operating instructions. The request is better if it is slightly indirect "show me how you like to be touched/show me how you like it/what feels good" rather than "I want to watch you masturbate" (a first time line that really gave me a jolt). On the other hand, too much asking disturbs the mood. But really, it shouldn't be expected that a man just KNOWS about that very individual part of my body-yet so few men did ask for a proper introduction!
  • I like being on top, it is the quickest way for me to come. Early on, especially when I was in college, etc. I needed encouragement to try this and to take over with rhythm and pacing, so a guy who is comfortable with lying back and sharing the director's job is a turn-on.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Penthouse, pt. 1: Threesomes Trump Turnons?

Before I get to my Penthouse interview, I wanted to give you a little background on how a mild-mannered housewife such as myself would be included in a “men’s entertainment” magazine for her opinions on sex. No big deal, really. I usually keep track of calls for submission for erotica on various sites and one such bulletin board posted a call for interviewees for an article on women’s turnons and turnoffs for Penthouse. My initial reaction was, “Hah, they don’t mean a fortysomething housewife, even if she does write erotica. Penthouse readers only care about the opinion of twenty-year-olds with large breasts who don’t much like wearing clothes.” But then another voice rose up inside me: “Perhaps,” it said, “but age has given me wisdom and a better perspective on these matters. Besides, they aren’t going to publish a picture of you naked.” It just so happens I was in a slow period of my writing life, so I decided to give it a try and if they turned me down for wearing too many clothes, so be it. Clothes and breasts or the lack thereof were never an issue, as it happened. A very nice woman, whose name I will protect, emailed me a list of questions and I responded with the gusto and wordiness of your typical writer-type. The freelance journalist thanked me warmly for the feedback, said my name would be changed to “Darlene” in the article, and promised to contact me when the article ran. She never did, which I assume meant, it never did.

Fast forward two years and an erotica-writing friend of mine mentioned that she’d responded to a call for a Penthouse interview on another topic: women who fantasize about having threesomes with their male partner and another woman. I was impressed with my friend’s broadmindedness. I knew that if I walked in on my husband in bed with another woman, I most definitely would not peel my clothes off and jump in to join them. Even as a fantasy, it didn’t work. And if I were to experiment with another woman, why would I want a man inserting himself in the proceedings? But lo and behold, the threesome article was picked up mere months after the interview. Rushed to the presses! I was mildly miffed, but not surprised. The one guy/two girl threesome fantasy is reportedly very common among men. A guide to women’s turnons and turnoffs might even go counter to the magazine’s very reason for being by causing a man to put down the magazine and try his luck with a real woman? (Ah yes, but where would American sexual fantasy be without Penthouse letters?)

The article on threesomes got me thinking about sexual fantasy and its purposes, a question erotica writers often pose to themselves on some level, even if only unconsciously in the writing process. What is it about the threesome that appeals to men? I read somewhere that abundance is part of it, you get two of everything, and indeed I’d say abundance, lack of consequences, and a banishment of real world barriers to sexual intimacy lie at the heart of male sexual fantasy. But then I began to wonder if acceptance isn’t part of it, too (that plays a big role in my fantasies). And a woman who would accept a man’s desire for another woman, even celebrate it, would fulfill a fantasy in a different way. Or perhaps, given the dreamlike nature of fantasy, as if it is a foreign language to be decoded, the accepting female partner is also accepting a certain female side of her lover. In other words, she is making love to his male and female sides, hence a threesome.

Oh, this is getting too deep for me now. I will be posting my answers to the interview soon. I'm busy right now getting my Christmas packages ready to send to family and far-flung friends. I’m also planning to do a list of my favorite books on “how to write good fiction” and “how to navigate the writing life.” (I’m a bit of an addict of these things, I confess).

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Best Women's Erotica 2006 has Arrived!

I just got my copy of Best Women's Erotica 2006--from Amazon, the comp copies haven't shown up yet--and it looks great! My story is called "Therapy" (more on that later), but I see a lot of familiar names in the TOC and I'm looking forward to digging in to some hot, juicy erotica. I have a teaser up on my web site, and yes, a lot can happen in fifty minutes. Til later!

Friday, December 02, 2005

Why my Christmas cookies are like sex

See, it didn’t take me long to start talking about sex at all, now did it? But I won’t jump right in yet, I always prefer to take a leisurely route to the main event. Getting warmed up first makes for a more satisfying conclusion, I’m sure you’ll agree. I’d like to start by talking about the month of December. I was born in December, the 31st, but that’s not why I like December because New Year’s Eve isn’t really the best time to have a birthday. (It sucks, actually.) What I like about December is the light, the quick-fading afternoon sunset, dying the horizon in fiery orange. The purple and blue shadows of dusk, the crisp, chilled stars of Orion that fill the night sky over my house. I love Christmas lights displays, although I don’t put up any myself, but if you do, I’m out there oohing and ahing and thanking you for your efforts to chase back the early winter shadows. Old-fashioned colored lights enchant me more than the supposedly classier white fairy lights. I don’t want designer good taste, I want to feel eight years old, wide-eyed, transported to Aladdin’s Cave of jeweled trees. Maybe December is so rich, the air somehow thicker, because it’s the place where cyclical time and linear time collide. Thoughts of a new year meld with the physical urge to burrow into a warm place and feed body and soul.

Ah, yes, here’s my segway to the other reason I love December. Christmas cookies! To bake them at any other time of the year just wouldn’t be right. But when December comes, I stock up on the butter and brown sugar, buy a big box of luscious fresh walnuts and pecans from Sunnyland Farms and good almond paste from King Arthur flour, and start stirring. Last year I made five different kinds of layered cookies to give to my kids’ teachers and it took about three days of concerted kitchen duty. I included a written guide to the different sweets, because for me, reading about a food whets my appetite and adds tremendously to the pleasure of eating (not unlike erotica and the satisfaction of other appetites). I thought I’d include the official insert and hope it makes you hungry!

The Twelve Layers of Christmas:

  • Venetians—Italian flag-tinted cake layers with apricot jam and bittersweet chocolate
  • Gevulde Speculaas—Dutch spice bar cookies with marzipan filling
  • Yin-yang Cookies—vanilla cookie dough with chocolate chips marries chocolate cookie dough with white chocolate chips
  • Chewy Pecan Squares—pecan caramel filling on a shortbread crust
  • Ribbon Cookies—layers of cherry, pistachio and chocolate cookie dough

So, hey, if you leave a lot of friendly posts, buy the anthologies with my stories, and tell your friends about my blog and I just might send you a box next year!

Okay, okay, I’m getting to the sex part soon. Really. Of all the cookies I make, the Venetians are the most challenging. You have to mix up almond paste, butter, sugar, egg yolks and almond extract, stir in some flour and beaten egg whites and divide the batter evenly among three 9” x 13” pans to make three very thin layers. Oh, and you have to tint one pan’s worth of batter pink and another green, stirring in the coloring carefully so there are no streaks. After they bake and cool, you layer them with strained apricot jam, let them sit overnight and apply a final coating of melted bittersweet chocolate. When the chocolate sets, you carefully cut them into tiny squares to be savored with tea or coffee.

I was mulling over the topic of sweet things and sex and as my annual rendezvous with the Venetians is coming up in a few weeks, I was reminded of the different elements involved in the process. The ritual and routine. A certain confidence that I’ve done this many times before with good results and knowledge that I’ve assembled a few tricks to make success more likely than when I first began. There is a bit of worry that things might not turn out this time for one reason or another, although even if a layer breaks coming out of the pan, it can be patched fairly easily. The final result is worth all the worry and effort, though, no question about that. The pleasure itself is layered—the almost unbelievably intricate ribbons of the moist, tricolored almond cakes, the hint of sweet jam, the faintly bitter richness of the chocolate. It’s not unlike making love to a partner with whom you have a long, rich history or writing a story you care about enough to labor over for weeks, months, years. Not sure exactly how this will play out, but I’m going to try to put my Venetians in an erotic story this month. I'll be paying careful attention to all the sensual details when I make them this year.

For my next post, I’m thinking of digging up an unpublished interview I did for Penthouse a few years ago. But don’t worry “writing” and “food” folks. There will always be something for you.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

A Good Reason to Start Blogging

Why am I starting my own blog? Well, it just so happens I have a story coming out in Best American Erotica 2006 and the editor, sexpert and expert on many other publishing-related things, Susie Bright, suggested we contributors do some blogging to help promote the book and our own writing in general. It seemed like a good idea for the likes of me (John Updike and Steve Almond hardly need more publicity) although I did wonder if I had anything all that interesting to say on a regular basis. Then again, does anyone? But then I realized there are a few topics that get me going any time or place, hence the title of my blog: sex, food, and writing. Each of my posts will have something to do with one or more of the three. I write fiction whenever I can carve the time out of my busy mom schedule—not often enough, alas--and many of my stories have to do with sexual relationships, even if they’re not erotica by the strictest definition (although the majority of my published work is). And food, well, just put me in front of Gourmet or Bon Appetit or any of Ruth Reichl’s memoirs, and the juices are definitely flowing. One of my favorite parts of “Ukiyo,” the story that appears in BAE 2006, is the opening description of the kaiseki meal at the fancy restaurant overlooking Kyoto’s Kamo River—based on an actual, and equally magical, meal I enjoyed at a place called Chimoto back in 1984. Over the months to come, I’ll be posting some favorite recipes, as well as luscious, semi-pornographic descriptions of my favorite meals and treats. I’ll also be sharing my ideas about the creative process and the publishing business and all the sweet and painful lessons I’ve learned in the past eight years since I started writing seriously. My hope is to encourage other writers, especially beginners, because I know how daunting it is to squeak out your first words and send them off to be tossed in the circular file by heartless editors. (Although, eventually some of them turned out to be quite nice). I’ll talk about sex, too. Stick around long enough and I always do. Til later then!