Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Want to Be a "Real" Writer Who Makes Book Trailers?

The October edition of the Erotica Readers and Writer's Association's wonderful newsletter, The Erotic Lure, is up today and, I have two red-h0t columns in its titillating pages.

This month's "Cooking Up a Storey" is entitled "Are You a “Real” Writer?:
Fiery Maestros, Spicy Thai Tofu, and the Writers’ Country Club
." Readers of my blog will be familiar with the recipe, but you may not know about my sure-fire way to determine if you have the talent it takes to be a real writer. So pop on over to find out the secret!

In October's Shameless Self-Promotion, I talk about how to make your own book trailer, with a special guest appearance by my technical advisor, Herr Doktor. The jury's still out on whether trailers sell lots of books, but they are fun to make and will improve your marriage, even if it's pretty darn good to begin with. So check out "Make Your Own Movie: Promoting Through Book Trailers." I hope it inspires you to make a movie of your own.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

I'm Seeing Eddie Izzard Live!

"Thank you pop-up ads, for making my life worthwhile!"

So quoth my younger son, because, for the first time in our lives, a pop-up ad has made a positive difference. Herr Doktor was checking out Raider news when a pop-up ad announced that Eddie Izzard would be appearing in Oakland in January 2010 as part of his "Big Intimacy: Stripped" tour.

"See if they still have tickets!" I screamed and sure enough, they did, we bought them, and suddenly Christmas is no longer the big upcoming event, Eddie is our present! We're all big fans in this household and my kids can do whole routines in charming British accents. Besides, seeing Weird Al was so fun (at the California State Fair in 2007), how could we resist the chance to see an icon in the flesh? And frankly, I thought Eddie was retired from stand-up--maybe he needs the money, but his loss, our gain.

I also love the title of his tour. A friend told me that David Tennant appeared at a manga conference and assured a large room of adoring fans, "I love each and every one of you in a very special way" or some such impossible promise, so Eddie clearly sees the absurdity of "big intimacy."

Plus, he looks great in eyeliner! I'm definitely taking along the binoculars.

Thank you, pop-up ads, indeed!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Fending off Vampires with Banana Ice Cream

My house (and mind) cleaning project continues, although at a slower pace. The main impetus was to open up some space in our house—so I could finally put away last December’s Christmas gifts, finally shelve the stacks of books that were lying on the floor, finally retire my Amorous Woman promo materials. And there is indeed more space in my life, although not as much as you might think given the bags of stuff tossed, donated and sold to second-hand stores ($80 for our LP’s and VHS tapes—who’d have thunk it?) That new, beautiful space is more than easier on the eye. I can breathe easier, a subtle—or not so subtle--weight is lifted.

Sifting through my stuff has brought some other benefits, too. For example, as I sorted through my cookbook collection, deciding which books to keep, I came across some recipes that leapt out grabbed me by the palate. One such recipe for Banana-Rum Ice Cream (from Bon Appetit’s Special Collector’s edition of May 1998 which also provided me with my well-loved carrot soup recipe) was waiting for ten long years for its rediscovery, which just happened to coincide with my putting away the “new” ice cream maker I’d bought six months ago and never got around to taking out of the box. Picture me standing in my slightly-less-messy kitchen, reading the simple recipe I’d marked with a post-it, glancing over at the big bunch of dark, spotted bananas on the counter, and remembering that I had my Cuisinart ice cream maker all frozen and ready to go.

What the hell, why not make Banana-Rum Ice Cream RIGHT NOW!

It’s wild, it’s impulsive, it’s not in the plan, but what the fuck?

So I dashed over to the grocery store for a small carton of organic Clover brand cream and got to work. Here’s the recipe:

Banana-Rum Ice Cream (makes 8 servings)

1 cup chilled whipping cream (would light cream work?)
3/4 cup sugar (try 2/3 cup next time)
3 Tablespoons dark rum
1 1/4 pounds small ripe bananas (about 5), peeled and chopped
(Consider adding walnuts and chocolate chips during last five minutes of freezing process or as a garnish)

Place cream, sugar and rum in blender or food processor. Add bananas and puree until smooth. Chill for a few hours. Transfer to ice cream maker and process according to manufacturer’s directions. Cover and freeze. Can be made 3 days ahead.

This is all exactly what I did.

Did I make a mistake following my impulse? Did the simplicity mean insipidness? Not at all. This ice cream was really delicious. It had none of that bite of imitation flavor some commercial banana ice creams rely on—nothing but pure, creamy, banana flavor. And with just one cup of cream, it’s not super-fatted either, although next time I might try light cream and a bit less sugar as I think it would still be good and even healthy. But Herr Doktor and I decided that a sprinkling of walnuts and chocolate chips (both very healthy) might liven up the dessert even more and sure enough that creative urge proved delightful as well.

I never thought cleaning my house would lead to this. Very cool indeed.

I also wanted to mention just quickly now (I plan to follow up with a longer post or a column later) another treasure I discovered buried in a bookshelf—Curtis White’s The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves. The book was published in 2003, and I’m not sure when or where I bought it, but I know I’m so very glad I’m reading it now at this moment, a crossroads in my writing life. Curtis is speaking to me at a time when I so need to hear his message. The book is full of fascinating points, but I’ll summarize the most pertinent one here. Curtis maintains our national collective imagination is in poverty.

“What does this poverty mean in practical terms? Well, it’s something we experience daily. Take our entertainment. Even when it’s clever (which I acknowledge that it is at times, in the full superficiality that term implies), does it help us to understand that the present world is not the only God-given, natural and inevitable world and that it could be different? Or does it stabilize the inevitability and naturalness of the present disposition of things? On the whole, our entertainment—movies, TV, music—is a testament to our ability and willingness to endure boredom…and pay for it.”

He goes on to discuss academia, and most chillingly, the military-industrial and political systems as well, but I’ll turn the focus to what is pertinent to the erotica-writing life. While what we call “the arts” (certainly on any national level) is tied to corporate interests as his hilarious analyses of Steven Spielberg and Terry Gross reveal, the vibrant imagination he champions thinks change. A healthy imagination challenges the status quo, rather than, say cynically aims to “create” for the sake of a record-breaking advance or a fifteen-minute run of fame in the fickle media’s spotlight.

Of course, as an English literature professor, Curtis himself is heavy-handed with the criticism of what is worthy and what isn’t, an old editorial voice I must quiet in myself to do any writing at all. But the truth is, I do want to be reaching for something more in my writing at this point, and Curtis is helping me articulate that goal. The other day my sister was urging me to write “a couple of vampire bodice-rippers” “under a pseudonym if you have to” all of course with the purpose of cleverly manipulating "True Blood" mania (so many say it's the "sexiest show on TV") to make money, which is as we know the final validation of my talent.

I reject every single element of her argument, and I could go on and on as to why. But the main reason I will never do this is because writing about vampires for these reasons will, appropriately, suck all the life out of my soul. Maybe I could do a ghost story, because I’ve always loved them, but that is a key difference—and lucky you, if you love vampires and this is your moment in the sun, so to speak.

Curtis helped me see the important quality every piece of creative work that I admire possesses. Whether novel, an essay, an erotic tale, an episode of "Mad Men," the experience of interacting with these creations sparks my curiosity, gets my mind leaping, opens up new space, makes me feel alive. And when I’m writing a story that makes me feel this way, my passion almost always conveys itself to my readers (or so it seems). Writing this way takes a lot of work, a lot of clearing out, and a great deal of courage. It may never tickle the fancy of an agent or the wallet of a publisher. It may never fit into a profitable niche. But it will make me—and hopefully my readers--see the world with new eyes and yes, feel more alive.

And that, my friends, is the best revenge against the corporate vampires that would suck the life out of our souls. So keep writing with all the passion in your hearts. We will change the world one dirty story at a time!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Into Amish Country: From Blue Ball to Paradise

Sorry for the delay in the continuing saga of my trip into the past--I'll try to make up for it with lots of pictures! Anyway, it took me a while to recover from even writing about that wild erotica writers’ dinner on the third day of our Gettysburg visit. Whew! Even the morning after, when I stumbled into Perkins Pancake House on Route 30 just outside of town for another smutters' meeting, wiping the decadent wages of sin from my sleepy eyes, I still couldn’t quite believe I was again part of an assemblage of some of the most creatively filthy minds our fine nation has produced. Everyone else looked a bit rumpled, too, I will admit, but that’s to be expected in this crowd. With a little breakfast, I knew we’d all be ready to start writing it all down for posterity!

After three days of “vacation breakfasts,” I decided to go healthy and ordered the oatmeal at Perkins rather than pancakes for which I assume the restaurant is famous. Actually, I’m very glad I veered from the well-worn path (and generally always have been happy I did). The generous bowl that arrived was really tasty, the perfect texture, too—not runny, but not gluey either. Unless it’s somehow spoiled by too much water and rendered into gruel, restaurant oatmeal is really the best. Something about being cooked up in big vats brings out the full grainy goodness of oatmeal, and so again, fine food and conversation went hand in hand, or hand in mouth, or hoof in mouth, or something like that, but it was all good.

The best part of the meal, however, was our “dessert,” the dill-icious dill hummus Jeremy Edwards described in his celebration of dill on our Summer Spicy Sunday blog tour. In keeping with the setting, our dippers for this truly tasty spread was a bag of locally made Herr’s potato chips. I don’t think I’ve eaten a potato chip in thirty years, but this utterly fresh, crispy sample made me remember why people would enjoy them. Or maybe it was the dill hummus that elevated it all to moan-and-crunch levels of sheer physical ecstasy? In any case, I recommend you invite Jeremy to all of your breakfast parties, with a gentle hint that dill hummus would be most welcome as a hostess gift.

When the eating was done, we all gathered to say good-bye, hugging, kissing, shoving our hands in what most people would call inappropriate places for a friendly squeeze (okay, I made the last part up). There was talk of doing it again sometime soon, and I’ll repeat my vote for Italy in 2012, but another east coast gathering or something here in the Bay Area would be lots of fun, too.
The Storey family then piled into our rental car for a day of sightseeing. Our first stop was a teddy bear emporium, Boyd’s Bear Country, situated in a huge red barn in the middle of a field. My younger son thought the advertisements papered all over Gettysburg were appealing, and as he’d been patient with all the history and family stuff, we thought we’d indulge him. Jeremy Edwards and Helia Brookes agreed to accompany us there, while the rest of the erotica gang was heading to the battlefield right after breakfast. We chatted and strolled through acres of stuffed animals, which is an oddly inspiring location for erotica shop talk. Let’s hope those glossy-eyed, innocent little creatures couldn’t understand what we were saying!

Our consumer fantasies thus surfeited with miles of plush animals from forest and veldt, we drove off into the summer heat to finish up the CD-narrated tour of the battlefield, which we’d started on Friday afternoon. We’d bought the “TravelBrains” audio tour narrated by Wayne Motts, and while I haven’t listened to the others, I’d recommend this one for his lively storytelling and the illustrated accompanying guidebook.

As we were sort of anxious to get to Amish Country, we didn’t do the full tour, but stopped at some highlights such as Little Round Top and The High Water Mark. Little Round Top is of special interest to me because of Union Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a college professor turned soldier, who used his smarts to keep the Confederates from taking this key high ground in a very challenging situation. I’m a big fan of professors who do surprising things, like say, writing erotica. I don’t think Chamberlain went that far (although who knows?), but he was fluent in nine languages and had a pretty cool head on the battlefield, too. After the war, he wrote things like: “In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women…shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream….”
Which is exactly what I was doing as I stood on top of Little Round Top, imagining what Chamberlain was seeing and thinking on July 2, 1863 as he watched the enemy swarm up the hill whooping the Rebel yell. A line of tourists rolling past on segways and the parked cars impinged a bit on my poetic musings, but the imagination can erase as well as create, so it worked out okay.

Later, when we paused at Devil’s Den, I looked up the hill with a Confederate soldier’s eyes, appreciating how daunting that climb must have looked to him, a rather gentle hill momentarily transformed into an unassailable, deadly height.

By the time we got to the High Water Mark, the northernmost point of Confederate penetration in Union territory, the kids were thoroughly immersed in their GameBoys, but Herr Doktor and I got out of the car to tour the monuments and see the location where General Armistead was mortally wounded. There is something awe-inspiring about that vista across the field to the forest where the Confederate charge began. A peaceful stretch of farmland was transformed on just one morning into a killing field of history. Waving grass and rolling earth went from ordinary land to something so invested with importance that thousands would die just to stand on a particular square foot of it. And now it is simple dirt again, anyone can walk here at any time, except of course during major re-enactments. I was in awe, not just of the history itself, but of how we instill meaning into the world around us and the consequences of that very human act.

Okay, well, back to the present now!

We’d “done” Gettysburg, now a different part of the past beckoned, a pacifist past. So, we headed east on Route 30 into the mistily nostalgic countryside with Amish Country as our destination.

We made one quick detour off the highway to the Haines Shoe House in my father’s hometown of York, which I’d visited once on rainy autumn day when I was about four (I'm judging this from the dog we owned at the time)—and had never forgotten. When I noticed the entry in my PA Dutch Country guidebook, I just had to stop by again to see if the magic was still there.

Built in 1948, the 48-foot long shoe house was closed on Mondays for “ice cream” tours, but I snapped a few photos, including the shoe doghouse and mailbox. I have vague recollections of touring the inside (I have an image of the lady tour guide standing by a window with yellow chintz curtains, remember breathing in a musty smell and thinking I wouldn’t really want to live here).

I also remember how excited my oldest sister was by the all-you-can-eat ice cream sundae buffet in the gift shop. Oddly, though, I only vaguely remember eating any ice cream myself—I guess it wasn't especially good ice cream? Anyway, I’d recommend "the big shoe" as a whimsical tourist stop if you're in the area (and let me know if the ice cream is any better), but thank heavens for Herr Doktor’s GPS-ready phone, because the place is not easy to find!

I thought I'd add one more somewhat darker memory from my past--on the way into Amish country we crossed the Susquehanna River, a surprisingly wide-ass river with an odd, musical, yet to me rather terrifying name. Looking over at a parallel bridge brought back a recurring nightmare from childhood of being stranded in a huge expanse of water on a narrow bridge. That image still terrifies me, to be honest, and I realized it came from precisely this scene. When I was little, I would dive down into the well of the back passenger's seat, so I wouldn't have to look at this bridge! I'm less skittish now, but I still felt a vague sense of unease....

Our next stop was the Julius Sturgis pretzel factory in Lititz, home of the very first hard pretzels in the world. The original Sturgis “invented” hard pretzels when he baked a batch of soft pretzels too long! So mistakes can be fruitful, as every writer knows. The kids had fun twisting their own pretzels and sampling the various types of pretzels (we bought a bag of the rustic-style extra-crunchy ones), but by this time we were all pretty exhausted by the heat and the driving. The mood was getting a little punchy as we toyed with the suggestive place names of Amish Country. “I had to go through Blue Ball to get to Intercourse but then—on to Paradise!” Or, as Herr Doktor quipped “I’m worried that by the time I get to Intercourse, I’ll be too tired to enjoy it.”

Tired as we were, we made a requisite stop at the tiny and rather unremarkable town of Blue Ball for a photo op, passing “Pleasure Road” as well, and then on to the Hershey Farm Inn, our lodging for the next few nights.

On the way we passed a number of Amish people driving buggies. I mean for real—this was not a gimmick! Real horses, real black closed buggies with day-glo safety triangles on the back. There were rolling hills and old farmhouses and the smell of manure in the air and bearded guys harvesting hay with horses. Indeed, the Amish world is not just an idyllic fancy or a scene from Witness. The past really does live on here, proudly enduring our curious gazes from the future.

Now the Hershey Farm Inn cost about as much as the Courtyard by Marriott in Gettysburg, but it definitely had a down-home country feel to it—a close, musty smell, thin towels, plastic cups, a tiny bathroom. Basically just like the motels I used to stay in when I was growing up because my Depression childhood parents naturally chose budget accommodations. (The Holiday Inn was a real splurge for us). Amish Country is the home of the all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant, with Miller’s being the acknowledged best of the buffets, but we were too cranky to drive anymore and opted for our motel’s restaurant. I’ll talk about that particular trip into the culinary past next time, but I will add we saved room for dessert and went into the charming little town of Strasburg (which is where Harrison Ford beats up the bullying “English” tourist in Witness while Viggo Mortensen looks on in his film debut) for some ice cream at the Strasburg Country Store and Creamery. I had a dish of black raspberry again, which had the same tangy intensity of flavor I’d enjoyed in Gettsyburg. They really know how to do raspberry ice cream in that part of the world! Butter brickle is another local specialty—it tastes like an ice cream version of butterscotch hard candy. I also eyed the toasted coconut fudge, but since I’d been eating dessert morning, noon and night every day, I decided not to indulge. This was a big mistake, it turned out, for I never had another chance and the idea of a piece of golden, toasted coconut fudge became more and more appealing with each passing moment.

I’m over it now, but next time, I will definitely take that leap to see if my fantasy is matched by reality.

Stay tuned next time for…a gallery of T-shirts from Intercourse and confessions from the most sensually self-indulgent day of the trip (oh, those Amish!)

Friday, September 18, 2009

Watch Me Take it All Off at the Erotic Woman!

Hey, not only is it Friday, but it's a very special Friday today because I have a new story up at The Erotic Woman--one of my very favorite erotica salons! It's called "All Eyes Upon Her" and includes some of my favorite steamy themes: the sexy superstar of the mid-twentieth century, Sally Rand; handsome historians in tuxedos; long, slow seductions and quick, wet finales.

It's always an especially delicious pleasure to appear at The Erotic Woman, not only because they publish all of my favorite writers such as Heidi Champa, Susan DiPlacido, Jeremy Edwards, Emerald, and Craig Sorensen, but they are a class act all the way. And the comments left so far have left me breathless with delight. So, if you're in the mood for the sweet ache of the tease, check out my story--and do leave a comment if you're so inspired.

(This story originally appeared in print only as part of the erotica-for-charity anthology, Ultimate Burlesque, which is full of many other sinuously sexy tales).

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Mmmm...Mexican Chocolate Brownies

I've been away from my computer for a few days--busy with soccer games, fall parties and our local street fair, as well as a trip into San Francisco yesterday. We had our first rain of the fall season, and fall is seeping into my skin and my sensibility in other ways, too.

The party we went to is an Annual "Games Party" open house where the guests hang out from mid-afternoon until after midnight playing various board games, video games, card games and so forth, while we all catch up on the past year. I used to have to chase my babies around, now they join in the games with the adults and often win! For many years now, I've brought the same thing to the potluck by popular request--Mexican Chocolate Brownies. (Thank you, Herr Doktor, for the food porn photo).

These treats are very rich, yet I'd say they fall on the cake end of the brownie scale. Rather like Kinsey has the sexual preference scale, there's also an official cakey versus fudgy brownie measurement...okay, I just made it up...but if 0 is basically unbaked batter and 10 is "could be pound cake," these brownies are about a bi-textural 6. I know fudgy brownies are cooler in culinary circles these days, a cookie version of flourless chocolate torte, but I have a secret fondness for the cakey kind mom used to make, and in fact I probably bake these a bit too long. Some day I'll have the courage to take them out of the oven when the toothpick is still slick with melted batter just to see if they're better fudgy. But they're pretty irresistible just the way I made them on Saturday.

Imagine you're holding in your fingers a tall, dense square of buttery chocolate confection, fragrant with teasing hints of almond extract and cinnamon. You'll be tempted to bite off the topping. I rarely resist the urge, but sometimes I open my mouth wide to taste the mixture of chocolate and topping. In any case these are best eaten slowly, as befits the first ritual food of autumn. Soon I'll be making the butternut squash-barley-black bean casserole, the chestnut risotto, pumpkin muffins, pancakes and pudding, then cranberry-Grand Marnier sauce for Thanksgiving. But it all starts with a slow, finger-licking affair with a couple of these little beauties.

Fearless home chef Susan DiPlacido, famous for her feasts that draw standing ovations, and I were talking about our mutual love of brownies and as usual Susan's humor and passion on the topic inspired me to surprising creative acts. I realized I love blondies, too, and concocted--in my mind, not yet on the plate--a new ice cream sundae which I'll call the "24th Street Sundae" in honor of the San Francisco street that runs from affluent Noe Valley to the Mission. This grand dessert would consist of a square of my signature Mexican chocolate brownie beside a rich blondie. Each would be twinned with a small scoop of homemade Mexican vanilla bean ice cream. The scoop beside the brownie would be drizzled in a golden praline sauce, the scoop beside the blondie would be adorned with cinnamon-spiked chocolate sauce. Softly whipped fresh cream optional.

Sound good? Maybe I should try this at my next dinner party? In the meantime, if you're a brownie fan, definitely try this south of the border version. But don't take it to a potluck, because you might find yourself baking them year after year....

Mexican Chocolate Brownies

Makes 48 small, rich brownies
Prep and cook time, 75 minutes

3/4 cup butter
8 oz. unsweetened chocolate finely chopped (about 2 cups, higher quality preferred)
1 1/2 cups firmly packed brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
5 large eggs at room temperature
1 Tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons vanilla (“Mexican” style preferred)
1 1/2 teaspoons almond extract
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
Mexican chocolate streusel (recipe follows)

In a large bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water, stir butter and unsweetened chocolate until melted and smooth. Remove from heat and whisk in brown sugar and granulated sugar. Add eggs one at a time, whisking well after each addition. Whisk in vanilla and almond extract. Stir in flour, cinnamon, baking powder and salt until well blended. (Do not beat with a mixer, it toughens the texture).

Spread batter level in a buttered and floured 9” x 13” baking pan. Squeeze handfuls of Mexican chocolate streusel until it sticks together, then crumble into chunks evenly over the surface of the batter. Press lightly into batter.

Bake brownies in a 325 degree oven until a wooden skewer inserted in the center comes out with moist crumbs attached, 30-35 minutes (my oven takes up to 45 minutes). Let cool in pan on a rack for at least 20 minutes, then cut into 48 squares. If making up to one day ahead cool completely then wrap uncut brownies airtight.

Mexican Chocolate Streusel Topping:

Chop two 2 oz. tablets of sweet Mexican chocolate with cinnamon (like Ibarra or Nestle) by hand into medium-fine pieces. In a medium bowl, mix 10 Tablespoons (1/2 cup plus 2 Tablespoons) all purpose flour and 5 Tablespoons firmly packed brown sugar until well blended. Add 6 Tablespoons butter and rub in with your fingers until mixture forms coarse crumbs, then mix in chopped chocolate. Or mix flour and sugar in food processor, add butter and pulse, then pour into bowl with chocolate and squeeze with hands until clumps form.

This recipe was adapted from Sunset Magazine 9/04--I cut down the chocolate from 9 oz. and added more streusel from the original. And I bake it longer. Cause I'm chicken!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Cosmic Joke?

The kids are back in school and I've been on a housecleaning rampage. My messy house finally got to be too much. Perhaps it's because we'll be celebrating our nineteenth year here on September 14, but suddenly it's all too clear that the things we haven't used in many years, but thought we might someday, were just taking up space. Once I got started, I was addicted. Addicted to lightening my load. Addicted to making each surface look different, less cluttered.

It's resulted in a decluttering of my imagination, too. Hopefully this will translate to lots of room to write new fiction.

In the meantime I'm still looking at each thing we own with new eyes--rediscovering some lost friends with excitement, tossing others in bags to throw away or donate. Our garbage can is suddenly bursting each week.

This morning, it was filled so high, the cover didn't quite close. I always feel guilty and anxious when that happens. Which is odd because the City of Berkeley trash collectors have never refused to take away the contents of an over-full can. This only happened once when I lived in Manhattan. I was punished by those guys for being greedy with the cans. They didn't take the trash for the whole building as revenge. So I'm always expecting the lid to fall.

Today I was out trying to sell some used books and when I returned the trash collectors had clearly come to our block based on the once neatly aligned containers of my neighbors standing at odd angles, some lids left open. I looked hopefully for evidence mine had been emptied, too.

But my trash can was gone.


Nowhere to be seen.

For the past few days I'd been thinking I couldn't wait until Thursday (today) when I could begin the sorting and discarding process in a new part of the house, gallons of new garbage space waiting to accept my offerings to the cause of a fresh, renewed, empty (in the good Buddhist sense) life. And now I can't--at least for a while. The City tells me sometimes people steal larger cans so they can throw away more without officially paying for the can. But that's sort of creepy, too. Was someone watching and noticed I was gone?

The nice lady claimed they'd deliver a new can this week. Until then, I'll have to sort and clean my life in other ways.

Was this a who-gives-a-fuck? blog post or what? Thanks for listening!

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Bitten: An Irresistible Anthology of Sex and Shadows

I’m going to jump ahead in my narrative for a wee bit today and tell you about a very happy surprise waiting in my mailbox when I returned from my Magical History Tour. In keeping with the theme of ghosts, demons and sexual mysteries of our nation’s past, my welcome home gift was a contributor’s copy of Bitten: Dark Erotic Stories, edited by American erotica’s guiding visionary, Susie Bright.

I’ve just finished reading the book to the very last sexy, unsettling story and it’s magnificent. It will definitely please readers with a taste for the supernatural, fans of "True Blood," and other cutting-edge cool readers, but, as with all Susie Bright anthologies, the depth and sophistication of the stories provides enjoyment beyond any particular theme. These are simply beautifully written and very sexy stories that show erotica can be multi-layered, complex, and thought-provoking. When a story excites my body and my mind, the combination is utterly bewitching.

I really did enjoy every story in the book, but I’ll mention a few personal favorites. Sera Gamble’s “The Devil’s Invisible Scissors” immediately drew me in with its provocative imagery. A literal femme fatale is charged by the devil with the task of snipping one “energy string” from her lover’s soul (and she has many victims) each time they join in carnal union. Without giving too much away, this story is definitely as seductive as its protagonist and the final erotic scene had me remembering all too viscerally what erotica is supposed to do to you when you're reading it in bed at night.


I also enjoyed Allison Lawless’ “The Unfamiliar,” about a neophyte witch who unwittingly conjures a lover who can take many forms. Especially loved that scene in the shower. Perhaps I should come clean myself at this point, but although I’m a fan of historical ghost stories—they feel like a bridge to the past for me--I’m pretty particular about my supernatural stories. They need to be smart, the images must rise above cliche, and this story definitely delivers the goodies. A nice follow-on was Tsaurah Litzky’s “The Witch of Jerome Avenue,” a bracing move from a witch’s shadowy spell room to the wry and all-too-real landscape of Brooklyn. Litzky’s sense of humor is marvelous as always and I found her throw-away descriptions of the father’s coupling with his mistress in the basement strangely compelling and sexy. A kind of alchemy in itself.

That’s the thing about Bitten—the magic is everywhere.

I have room for two more favorites: Shanna Germain’s “Smoke and Ashes” is full of foreboding, and the ghostly presence of the lover who "directs" the narrator's adventure in absentia is absolutely mesmerizing. “Nothing” happens and everything does. E.R. Stewart’s “Cross-Town Incubus” was another story that bewitched me totally with a sentence here, an image there, that linger still in my memory.

Really, they’re all good and they’re all “dark” in a way that will surprise you.

I also wanted to give a little background about my story, “The Legacy,” which is, admittedly one of the more subtly dark of the stories in the anthology. However, the genesis of the tale is as bloody and creepy as you could wish for. You see, this apparently ordinary tale of a book of explicit photographs was inspired by the murder of Bob Crane, the actor who played Colonel Hogan in that rather bizarre comedy about a German POW camp, “Hogan’s Heroes.” During seventh grade, I was a big fan of this show and watched it every afternoon after school, even then aware of what a strange premise this was. Of course, the good guys always won by guile and smarts over the bumbling Germans, so it was also immensely satisfying.

I never was attracted to Hogan himself. Obviously he had Fraulein Hilda (later his real-life wife) to keep him busy, and he struck me as kind of…oily, all the way down to the gleam on his flyboy’s jacket. Anglophile that I was, I liked Corporal Newkirk for his accent (little did I know what a huge womanizer Richard Dawson was in real life) and the African-American communications engineer James Kinchloe, who was so smart and always pulled off the fancy schemes thanks to his expertise in radio, telegraph and his fluency in French and German. I regularly fantasized about sneaking into the camp through the tunnel and offering comfort to my favorite prisoner of the moment. Said prisoner was always terribly in love with me and spent every waking hour dreaming of me and waiting for my midnight arrival.

My obsession with “Hogan’s Heroes” gradually faded, but I was still affected by the news of Bob Crane’s murder, a bloody affair apparently triggered by his huge collection of pictures of naked women, whom he’d personally photographed before and/or after having sex with them. Who knew Colonel Hogan really did lead a dark secret life behind his smiling exterior? When I first heard about this, the murderer was suspected to be the boyfriend or husband of one of Crane’s “models.” But later I saw a very interesting movie on the topic, Auto Focus, which suggested a different scenario. I recommend the movie merely for the bizarre sex scene in Colonel Klink’s office. Talk about an image that’s hard to get out of your mind…

Anyway, this idea of a secret collection of photographs of naked women—not commercial porn, but self-produced photographs that represented sexual conquests—really intrigued me. The idea simmered in my creative pot for years before I was finally ready to write it down. When I did, it came out fast. I finished the story in a week. This is the story that appears in Bitten, and I thank Susie for feeling the occult sense of doom bubbling away beneath the apparently sunny exterior—just like everyone’s favorite hero, Bob Crane.

So, if you’re a fan of the mysterious, the uncanny, the inexplicable, do pick up a copy of Bitten. Even if you think you aren’t, I’d say there’s a good chance you’ll be seduced by this gorgeous and beautifully written book.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Gettysburg, Day 3: Blood and Orgies

Ha, it’s hard to see the word “blood” or "orgy" these days without thinking of those ever-lucrative sexy vampire stories, but you won’t find much of that here at Sex, Food and Writing. Except maybe tomorrow. But for today my post title refers to the bonds of blood. As in my family reunion. As in a big huge Catholic one. As in enough bonds there to make for one hell of a bondage story… but I'll try to be clean-minded, as my Magical History Tour continues with a trip into my family past the afternoon of August 9. (And the photo above is just a teaser about the orgy, which really did happen--in a rhetorical sense.)

My oldest sister had attended several of these annual events which had been revived about five years ago, and she knew the drill. First we had to stop at the big old Giant supermarket on Route 30 to buy our lunch supplies—a veggie tray and sandwiches for us, takeout Chinese for the boys. Then we stopped at my cousin’s place along the way to see her amazingly whimsical house and garden. Her husband is a jack-of-all-trades artist and blacksmith and we got to see his old-fashioned forge and some of the beautifully crafted hinges he was making for a construction project, among other highlights. I mention this because these creative touches and magical spaces (especially the “bottle tree,” an iron rack decorated with colored bottles and glittering old CD’s) reminded me that we can add delight and art to our lives in all sorts of simple, but effective ways. I’m wondering if some of the beautiful places I visited on this vacation didn’t inspire my very dedicated bout of fall cleaning this year—my first step in bringing more serenity and space into my life! So far, the unburdening of stuff has been very liberating for body and mind, although I have a lot more to do.

But I digress.

Our next stop was the family reunion itself at the hall of a picturesque church situated on a winding country road. Corn fields all around, the sense of rural community—it was definitely a trip into the past. Family reunions of yore were usually at parks in the summer or church halls in the winter. I could go on and on about my extended family, but I’ll try to keep this brief. First, the food culture. Although aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins and all greeted each other warmly as we arrived, lunch was clearly serious business and all the families sat down with their own brood and shoveled down the chow with grim determination. Most of my relatives had brought homemade things—the Smith family traditional roasted chicken or baked beans in a crockpot or some such hot lunch dish. We sat in our corner eating the fontina and roasted veggie sandwiches, and I recalled that my cousin who arranged the event said we could probably share in the other relatives’ food since we were the official “traveled the farthest” attendees. But really, that would have involved circulating from family to family with an empty plate and a hungry smile, so if you’re ever invited to the Smith family reunion, I definitely recommend bringing your own lunch.

When we’d finished our savories, people started wandering over to the potluck dessert table and the visiting began. I was also interested to see about half of the offerings were store-bought and the other half—including my pecan cookies—were homemade. To my amusement and delight, the homemade items disappeared rapidly, while the packaged goods languished untouched. Clearly my extended family knows how to indulge in sweets! A real highlight was two big dishes of rice pudding baked from my grandmother’s recipe by my cousin, the organizer of the reunion. He’s taken this as his duty to preserve the iconic family dish, which I think is very cool. Grandma Annie’s rice pudding was served at every Sunday dinner, not as dessert but more as the sweet part of the Pennsylvania Dutch sweets and sours menu. I usually make a Danish-style rice pudding recipe with gelatin, rum and whipped cream, but this version is nostalgia itself—cooked rice mixed with eggs, milk, fake vanilla (if you want to do it like Grandma) and a bit of salt. Pour it in an enameled dish, dust with cinnamon and bake in the oven with the roast chicken. The result is a soft, mildly sweet rice layer with the thinnest band of yellow custard on top. It’s very good and very satisfying in a down-home way, and I’m thinking I have to make it myself sometime, for the sake of tradition. I think it would be great as a breakfast dish!

Anyway, as I said, I could go on and on with the family stories and maybe later I will tell you how my sense of myself as an outsider was clearly formed to some degree by my relationship with my extended family (who all still lived in the same town, while my mother couldn’t wait to get out!). Suffice to say now, I have a new heroine in terms of aging gracefully, my Aunt Betty who will be ninety in a few weeks. Not only is my aunt active, smiling and beautiful (you’d confuse her for 70), her mind is amazingly lively. She told me she’s starting to write her memoirs and I encouraged her strongly because I would love to read them!

The other interesting thing about the reunion was that everyone told me I looked just like my mother. This is actually a huge compliment, so it’s not that I minded, although of course we were all sad that she couldn’t be with us. Interesting though, that on a trip that was all about ghosts, I was suddenly a ghost myself.

Kind of uncanny. But as you know, such poignant, strange moments are very nourishing for my creative mind.

So, the afternoon went by quickly for the chatting, benevolently haunting adults and very slowly for my kids (who distracted themselves building Legos with some distant cousins), but finally we had to make our exit as we had an exciting event to attend in the evening. On the way back to our hotel, my sister drove us past my grandmother’s house at 113 Oxford Avenue in McSherrystown. Here’s a picture, but the house looks nothing like my grandmother’s place as I knew it beyond the same address and the same general arrangement of porch and windows. The red shingle siding is gone, as is the trellis on the front porch, the porch swing where I spent hours daydreaming and making up my earliest stories, the Victory garden in the back. I can only imagine that the inside with its steep staircase and dusty old-fashioned rooms was gutted. In this case, the past was not waiting unchanged for my fond return!

Okay, enough of the past.

Now we get to the good part: the grand gala erotic writers’ dinner at La Cucina in Hanover! First, a special thanks to local eroticist extraordinaire, Craig Sorensen, for choosing such a yummy restaurant and making the arrangements. Once Herr Doktor and I walked in and sat down at the long table, I felt as if the restaurant were our personal party joint—not that we read aloud from our most recent BDSM-themed stories or anything, but we talked freely as the BYOB wine flowed (thanks to Jeremy Edwards, Helia Brookes and Marina St. Clare for bringing some delicious fruits of the vine). In fact, this was another reunion with Jeremy, Helia Brookes, Heidi Champa and her husband, Emerald and Craig, DeDe and Cyn Sorensen (who took the photo at the top of this post), all of whom I’d met before. However, it was my first in the flesh encounter with Erobintica and Marina St. Clare, who’d driven down from die-hard Yankee country especially for this event.

Now, as I’m sure most readers of this blog are aware, getting to know someone in cyberspace is very different from the traditional way you had to do it before technology transformed human interactions forever. In the old days, you approached a new friend from the outside in, but in blogland it’s really from the inside out. I first “met” Erobintica and Marina through the progressive blog dinner, and I’d had the pleasure of reading their stories, blog posts and emails discussing the writing life. So I “knew” them in one sense and yet I’d be seeing them for the first time.

Not that I was nervous, just I was reminded what a novel situation this was in the course of human history. I mean, sure, you could befriend someone through letters in the old days, but this was different.

And yet, it’s also interesting that it took about one second to process the face and smile, link it with the internet relationship, and suddenly it’s as if I’d had coffee with Marina and Erobintica many times, as if we’d discussed the eroticist’s experiences in person instead of through emails. Yep, it was pretty much instantaneous—cool how the mind works. Also I have to say I’ve never liked a person in cyberspace and not slipped right into warm friendship when I’ve met them in person. It could be that erotica writers are just very cool people—which is certainly true! But there are so many cautionary tales of Internet persona not being what they seem--the most obvious being men who pose as women to lure unsuspecting males into cybersex. Yet for me, the cyber-café has always been a fairly trustworthy way to get to know someone.

So, having connected and reconciled the real people with the Internet personae quite effortlessly, we all proceeded to feast and make plans to bring enlightenment to the world through smart stories about sex. A kind of benevolent global warming campaign, if you will. In the meantime we dined heartily on focaccia, salad, and various pasta dishes. Jeremy recommended the gnocchi from his past lunch with Craig, and being a big fan, I ordered that dish and thoroughly enjoyed it. But dessert was the best part for me. Erobintica had brought down her famous homemade chocolate cake with tangy chocolate frosting (I hear the secret is using some of the extra buttermilk in the frosting), so we all got to sample a moist, chocolately slice along with another tin of my pecan cookies I’d kept away from my devouring relatives.

Yes, we were all delightfully sated on pasta and sweets, but as erotica writers, we were more than ready for another round of fun, so we headed back to Jeremy and Helia’s hotel room for an orgy—of conversation, you dirty-minded readers, please! I will admit the topic turned to hotel sex and wild adventures we’d had within the oddly liberating confines of a rented room. But the physical manifestation of our verbal pleasures, as we lounged about on the beds drinking wine from plastic cups, was not especially provocative, unless you count Emerald’s boots!

These are pretty wild, don’t you think? A hotel sex story in the making all by themselves!

To conclude this delightful evening, Herr Doktor came to collect me a little after 11 pm (he was checking on our boys who’d hardly noticed we were gone since they were given unlimited Game Boy time) and I bid my writer friends a temporary adieu as we’d be breakfasting together the next morning. I can’t vouch for what happened after I left, but it may show up, transformed into fiction of course, in some future story? I know I’ll be watching the erotic anthos for group sex romps on hotel beds involving plastic cups of red wine and a few pieces of chocolate cake….

I’ll conclude by saying it was real delight to gather with so many cool, creative people who share an open-minded sensibility about eroticism. I hope we can do it again sometime—I think we all felt the same way. Perhaps in Italy with Isabel Kerr in 2012?

Next time—are the Amish really clueless or just plain perverted?

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Gettysburg, Day 3: A Dark, Mysterious Corridor Through Time

Okay, so I lied. I just realized I’m not going to get to the Erotica Writers Bacchanalia in this post. The event looms large in my memory of my East Coast Magical History Tour, but I’d forgotten about some of the other trips into the past that preceded this celebration of my present, and since I took so many pictures, well, half the fun in life is getting there, right? And while frolicking with a happy group of writers who know no shame is my eventual dream destination in my travelblogue, the rest of my Sunday was a necessary purifying preparation for the piece de resistance.

And yes, it involved another trip or two into the past (said with sonorous, creepy voice).

Day 3 of the Battle of Gettysburg brought the brief “high water mark” of the Confederacy as General Armistead’s brigade momentarily broke through the Union lines, only to be quickly overwhelmed. Thus it is fitting that Sunday, August 9 was a whirlwind of highlights of my trip—the actual family reunion that brought me east and the erotica writers’ dinner. But first we had a whole morning to fill with adventure, and I’m serious about my adventures, so I assembled the troops early ,and we headed back to our “regular” joint, The Avenue. Unfortunately for my younger son, who requested a repeat revisit for his bowl of Special K, Sundays are very busy days at The Avenue. We’d walked right in before, but now a line stretched out onto the sidewalk, so we convinced him to blow off the lengthy wait and walk back towards the square to try out a French-style eatery that had caught my eye on our wanderings: Café St-Amand. The comparative lack of patronage in the place put me on guard, although the air-conditioning immediately raised my spirits. But in spite of its quiet atmosphere, the food was actually excellent. I had a mushroom-tomato-cheese omelet, which was much silkier, not to say more French, than The Avenue’s tougher country version, along with a café au lait slushie—just right for a hot summer morning. Herr Doktor tried one of the crepes, which got good reviews, and the boys chose French toast, possibly the best or second best in Gettysburg (wink). Although apparently, the locals weren’t aware of this!

After breakfast, I marched my men back down Steinwehr Avenue, where the line at the Avenue still snaked out the door, and on down to the American Civil War Museum for my own personal reunion with an important part of my childhood. Known back then as the “Civil War Wax Museum,” this trip back in time was always one of the highlights of a visit to the area. I’d guess my parents didn’t let me come every time, but certainly twice a year or as often as my begging could convince them. And, for those of you at all interested in the makings of an erotica writer’s mind, this museum probably did more to shape and feed my fantasies than any other place. When we’d last visited in 1996, I was happy to find a cousin (once-removed) working at the ticket booth—always fun, and as I said, I have about a million relatives in these parts.

However, this time I discovered the museum was much transformed in the intervening 13 years. First of all, they’d changed the name. Secondly, a group of living history reenactors was camped outside the entrance, making the once grand white columns seem more of a backdrop than the main event. Once inside, what I remembered as a mysteriously dark entrance with a wax figure displayed as a teaser and the ticket taker waiting at a special raised desk in the shadows, had now become a brightly lit gift shop. In fact, you had to make an effort to find the entrance to the museum off to the left through a turnstile. And the person at the cash register seemed surprised we wanted to buy tickets rather than just shop.

Yes, things had changed a lot in forty years. Wax museums had clearly lost their cache and I started feeling relieved this timeless landmark was still open for business at all. Had they perhaps changed around the museum itself with an eye to modern tastes as well? I was anxious to buy my ticket and find out.

It bears repeating that the entrance to the museum now looked more like a random doorway back to the restrooms. Very plain and unassuming. Still, determined to revisit the past, my past, we valiantly bought our tickets and pushed through the turnstile and the black curtains at the entrance.

All was dark. Holding my breath, I took a blind few steps and turned the corner. And, yes, suddenly I was back in time--in the Old South. It was just as I’d left it ten, twenty, thirty, forty years before, frozen. Wax slaves picked cotton, the master and his lady watching indolently, a civilization doomed to destruction. The next window gave me a glimpse of the antebellum North—industrious workers in a home sweatshop, all white. Next came the scene that as a child always shocked and impressed me with the violence of the time in some ineffable way: South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks attacking Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner with a cane for his provocative speech against slavery and its supporters. (Sumner was injured so badly, it took three years to recover his health enough to return to the Senate; South Carolinians sent Brooks dozens of new canes, as he’d broken his from the final blow to his victim’s body).

This window boasted one of the museum’s eeriest effects—lying on the floor under Brooks’ upraised cane, Sumner’s chest rises and falls as if he’s breathing under great stress (see photo above). It’s hypnotic—my younger son stared in fascination—perhaps because the wax figures do seem so dead, yet this one lives, although poised on the brink of a brutal, bloody beating. Just like America itself.

My family soon wandered on far ahead, but I lingered—first at the mesmerizing tableau for the Underground Railroad where you press a button to illuminate the runaways hiding in the basement of a “station master’s” cabin. Then there was Rose Greenhow, the famous Confederate lady spy, who’d always intrigued me with her wily feminine intrepidness. What was she whispering to the man at the door? And how could she do all that in a hoop skirt? And why were there no Union lady spies? (There were, they just didn't make it into the museum with Rose and Belle Boyd, the southern femmes fatales).

I felt these questions forty years ago, but now the same thoughts came to me more vividly, in words.

Of course, there was a window dedicated to Jennie Wade, and at this point, the fog of nostalgia cleared just enough for me to notice this figure was pretty darn ugly, not at all like the photograph of Gettyburg’s only civilian casualty. The real Jennie is quite pretty, but her doppelganger is balding and homely to a distressing degree. I supposed I’d been aware of this from the start, but now I viscerally understood why the wax museum had fallen into disfavor in our age of dazzling special effects. There was something undeniably crude and unglamorous about it. Yet this was the glamour and magic of my childhood, the means to transport me back into history. In a way I associate all trips to the past with this place—wandering through dark, mysterious corridors with moments of startling illumination. Darkness and light, me as voyeur. In fact, it’s been a long-standing fantasy of mine to have my own dark ride or wax museum secreted away in my house, the entrance to another world hidden behind a modest doorway. Kind of like Aladdin’s secret garden with the trees bearing rubies and emeralds instead of fruit.

I wandered on down the path, each scene triggering new memories. The crudeness of the male figures seemed somehow less sad, I decided. I snapped many pictures (choosing just a few for your viewing pleasure). For some reason I was drawn to take a close up of this man: Confederate General John Bell Hood. Indeed in the photos, he comes out relatively well, and I find myself studying him as if he were a real person. In putting together this blog, I checked out Hood’s Wikipedia page and discovered this observation from the ever-perceptive contemporary diarist Mary Chestnut:

“When Hood came with his sad Quixote face, the face of an old Crusader, who believed in his cause, his cross, and his crown, we were not prepared for such a man as a beau-ideal of the wild Texans. He is tall, thin, and shy; has blue eyes and light hair; a tawny beard, and a vast amount of it, covering the lower part of his face, the whole appearance that of awkward strength. Some one said that his great reserve of manner he carried only into the society of ladies. Major [Charles S.] Venable added that he had often heard of the light of battle shining in a man's eyes. He had seen it once — when he carried to Hood orders from Lee, and found in the hottest of the fight that the man was transfigured. The fierce light of Hood's eyes I can never forget.”

What struck me about this passage is that this same mysterious quality of veiled passion is captured in the wax face—perhaps the reason I was drawn to it? Here and throughout this vacation, it seemed to me I was seeing everything with new eyes, clearer eyes, that led me to unearth fascinating, if seemingly obscure discoveries, that made a tacky old museum into a bewitching adventure. The main difference of course, was that I had not yet started writing seriously in 1997. Now I was seeing this museum, and everything, as a writer.

I liked my new vision.

I was also more aware of the aspects of the Civil War the curators chose to bring to “life,” those they chose to skip over, thus shaping a huge, unruly story. But of course, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln had to be included, always a chilling scene, the moment just before. I also noticed that the paper on which the scene descriptions were written was now wrinkled—probably untouched in forty-some years (although the wax figures were scrupulously dusted at least).

The last part of the museum was still the same, too—the grand diorama. Back in the day, you used to have to wait, possibly through one whole performance, because it was so crowded. But this time the theatre was almost deserted with only my family of four and another man and his son in attendance. We had our choice of seating on the benches arranged in a semicircle around a sunken stage of wax figures. I realized that at one time this must have been state-of-the-art entertainment, but now, well—even so, it held up pretty well in my opinion. (I’m biased, though, as you might guess).

This grand finale is a kind of sound and light show describing highlights of the Battle of Gettysburg. The parts that stayed in my memory remain—feisty union General Daniel Sickles getting his leg amputated (the bloody saw was a haunting image), the mayhem of Pickett’s Charge that seemed to bring with it the smell of gunpowder. And then above it all Abraham Lincoln himself rising above the fray on an elevated platform to deliver the Gettysburg Address. The figure of Lincoln clearly got the most love from the engineers. His head moves, he gestures, holding a rolled up copy of his speech (which reminded me somehow of a half-eaten churro or a hot dog bun). But the words of the Address never fail to move, even after hearing/reading them a few times over the past two days. This part always gets me:

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here…

Because of course, Lincoln is very, very wrong about that. If you're looking for an example of deathless prose, this tops the list.

Anyhow, when we stumbled back out into the fluorescent-bright twenty-first century, I was immediately hankering to buy one of the accordion postcard collections of highlights of the museum as a momento. I’d kept one in my treasure box as a child, but it must have been discarded long ago. Yet, a thorough search yielded no such postcards of the wax figures, and when I asked at the desk, they told me they had none for sale. Only T-shirts and passport books for smashed pennies and Confederate-flag print bathing suits. It’s as if the gift shop were trying to forget the secret drama unfolding eternally in the depths.

Like the battle itself, part of my Gettysburg has passed forever into history. But at least for a while, the heart of it lingers behind an unassuming door, waiting for the right traveler to seek its magic.

Next time: Hey, I really will blog about the Erotica Writers' Dinner. Honest!

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Gettysburg, Day 2: An Historic (and Slightly Haunted) Dinner

So, believe it or not, there’s more to tell about Day 2 at Gettysburg. An action-packed day indeed, and perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the second day was long for the soldiers in the Civil War battle, too!

Following an afternoon playing my own great-grandmother before a nineteenth-century camera, evening brought yet another opportunity for time travel—we met the lovely Emerald and her partner in adventure, Rick Write, for dinner at the historic Farnsworth House. My oldest sister was also joining us as she was already in town for the family reunion the next day. It was indeed a thrill to see Emerald, and in a way it’s as if we’d just seen each other a month rather than almost a year before (at In the Flesh’s Oral Sex Night). Talk about tricks of time!

Because our reservation was at seven, we had some leisure to walk around the town, which was feeling very much like home to me now. When I first arrived, my mind was buzzing with hazy memories from my many visits, but it seemed as if they were coming into focus. I could really appreciate the place in a new way, and I wonder if my writer’s way of taking in the world had something to do with it? In any case, although I don’t live close anymore, Gettysburg felt more like “mine” than ever before in my life. Not quite sure why, but it was a good feeling.

Our first stop was a gallery of a Civil War-themed artist (whose name I forget, but it’s right there near the square). Apparently he was known for his historical accuracy in portraying battle scenes, although my fancy was taken with a very romantic and surely anachronistic tableau of a southern belle kissing her officer lover among the magnolias, while the rest of the couples at the ball looked on approvingly. Voyeurism, exhibitionism, a suggestive group-sex dynamic, and all in extravagant costume (how do you do it in the garden in a hoop skirt?)—there was much fodder for an erotic story, but then my eyes are always open to new material.

After a stop at a funky cafe for some iced tea, it was time to head over to the inn. I’m a sucker for historic dining experiences, although I know the food at such places is seldom tops in quality. It’s usually decent, however, and of course, a meal is more than just food. Add in some pewter, heavy silverware, candlelight, waitresses in long dresses, caps and frilly aprons, some hovering ghosts from the past (and of course charming contemporary company) and you’ve got a dining experience to transport you to another time.

There’s a lot of history (and plenty of ghosts) at the Farnsworth House. The oldest part of the house was built in 1810, and the brick structure where we dined was added in 1833. Original walls, floors and rafters remain intact—they don’t build ‘em like they used to, that’s for sure! A family named Sweney lived in the house during the battle, but some Confederate sharpshooters also took temporary residence in the summer of 1863. It’s believed one of them shot the bullet that killed teenager Jennie Wade, the only civilian to die in the battle. The south side of the house, facing the battlefield, is riddled with over 100 bullet holes from those bloody July days. The current owners began to restore it to its 1863 appearance in the early 1970s. They named it after Union Brigadier General Elon John Farnsworth who led an ill-fated charge against the right flank of Longstreet’s forces after Pickett’s Charge failed. I don’t think of the battle lasting beyond that debacle, because it doesn’t in the telling, but the Farnsworth Inn commemorates later seldom-heard casualties of the battle.

After dinner, the plan was to corral the party to attend a presentation of ghost stories in the inn’s basement “Mourning Theatre.” I definitely have an appetite for ghost stories and ghost tours, although, like a hot fudge and brownie ice cream sundae, I prefer them as occasional indulgences. When we’d visited with our older son in 1996 (the time we took the first picture), Herr Doktor and I went on one of the two lantern ghost tours offered at that time. Now you can find a ghost tour advertised on (almost) literally every block. It would be hard to choose, except with some local’s recommendation—or perhaps they’re all similar? While I’m comparing ghost tours to food--I seem to compare everything to food, don’t I?--I’d like to add that I like mine with a mildly creepy flavor rather than the grisly end of the spice rack. Actually, what I really enjoy about ghost stories is how they make me think about the way the human mind works. Urban legends are the same in this regard. Ghost stories have such a broad appeal because they tap into our deepest anxieties and even hopes, so that picking apart such a story is a way of digging deeper into the human psyche. Besides which, ghosts stories are usually good, suspenseful yarns in themselves and I’m always looking to steal good tricks!

I have a pretty bad memory for jokes and stories, but a few of the terrible tales we heard on that earlier ghost tour have stayed with me for over ten years. At the risk of going on and on, I’d like to share them here and see what you think.

The first ghostly visitation occurred in one of the historic houses along the main street in the town. The innocent resident bought some figures of famous officers who served at the battle and set them up on her mantel as decoration. The next morning she came down to find them rearranged. No problem if she had children who’d played with them, but—she lived alone! Confused, she rearranged the figures in her preferred order and went about her business. The next morning--to her surprise and growing horror--they were changed around yet again in exactly the same way. After doing a bit of research, the hapless Gettysburg homeowner discovered that her chosen way to display the figures was historically inaccurate and some unseen hand was fixing them to reflect the way things really happened during the battle. I believe the denouement was that she decided to leave things as they were and the ghost kept his peace.

Creepy, huh? I can just see that earnest, slightly annoyed ghost strategist putting things right just round about midnight.

The next story is a bit more grisly. Some years ago two men got into an elevator in a Gettysburg office building and pressed the button for the third floor. The elevator began to move, but not up. Instead it was going down. Again not a big deal except—there was no basement in this building! Exchanging worried glances, the men waited in silence as the elevator slowly descended and the door slid open. Their jaws dropped. Because suddenly they were gazing out at a horrible scene: wounded men groaning, severed limbs piled high beside the bloody surgical table, and a horrible stink of rotting flesh filling the air. The man with more wherewithal stabbed the “lobby” button and the door closed on the frightful tableau. When it opened again, they were back in the present day. Later they learned that the building was constructed on the same site that was used as a battle hospital by the Confederates.

Enough to send a shiver down anyone’s spine.

To tell the truth, this grim tale occasionally pops into my head when I’m riding an elevator. I’m not sure I have the perverse appeal all worked out in my own mind, but there is definitely something creepy about elevators (anxiety about technology is a common theme in urban legends and supernatural tales). You get into this little box, wait, the door opens and you walk out into a different place as if by magic.

But what if you walked out into a different time as well?

It’s surely a question for us all to ponder, but all of these ghost stories are making me hungry. So let’s get back to dinner. After a waiting a bit in the bustling entryway of the Farnsworth House, our party of seven was escorted to our long table in what was probably the original dining room of the house. The cups were pewter, nicely cool and heavy in the hand. Real candles flickered all around. Perusing the nineteenth-century menu was a great deal of the fun—in keeping with the time meat dishes were prevalent. Emerald and Rick stayed true to the times by ordering the house specialty, game pie, and steak, respectively, both of which were reportedly tasty. I had scallops—simply braised in butter and quite nice--and Herr Doktor tried for the chicken pot pie, but it was sold out and he got so-so crab-meat stuffed salmon instead. As is usual in such places (this is true of Williamsburg taverns as well), the side dishes are the most intriguing parts of the menu. I’d give highest marks to the custardy cornmeal spoon bread that was served in little cups, although the Sally Lunn bread was disappointingly dry. The green beans boiled in ham broth were as nostalgically limp and salty as my grandmother used to make, but the pumpkin fritters were delectably spiced with cinnamon and wouldn’t have been out of place with a side of ice cream. I left most of the beans and polished off my son’s fritters quite happily (cause he thought they were weird--I'm not that bad of a mother!).

But of course, conversation was the best condiment. Rick is a history buff and had lots of interesting stories to tell about the Civil War period, a topic very much on my mind. We also got to talking about food preferences, and Emerald and Rick shared their very intriguing idea for a restaurant catering to couples. Their menu would have three sections. On the left would be a list of dishes aimed at the traditional female preferences—salads, seafood, light meals. On the right would be the traditional meaty, manly fare. However, the middle panel would have the house specialties, which blended the two in a new marriage of flavors.

I thought this sounded really cool.

Having experienced this man food/woman food split on dates (although Herr Doktor and I have pretty similar likes and dislikes after 24 years together), I thought such a melding of gendered cuisines would certainly provoke interesting date-night discussion, and possibly encourage a satisfying meeting of the appetites in preparation for another sort of intimate encounter later. Food as foreplay indeed!

Although tempted by the shoofly pie on the dessert menu, I was full enough to pass this time, figuring there’d be plenty of opportunity to indulge in Amish Country (and boy was there ever…). The kids ordered ice cream, which arrived scooped high in pewter bowls, and the adults chatted on into the evening, thereby missing the ghost story presentation at the inn altogether. This was probably good since I was really the only one who was genuinely enthusiastic. My kids thought they might get scared and I suspect Emerald was just being polite when she agreed to come along. So, everyone was happy and unhaunted when we walked out into the night, dodging knots of tourists strolling by with their lantern-toting ghost tour guides.

We said a not-so-sad goodbye to Emerald, for we’d be seeing her again the next evening for the Erotica Writer’s Bacchanalia, which was sure to be the scandal of Hanover for decades to come (and hopefully inspire annual reenactments).

Stay tuned next time to discover what happens when a bunch of dirty story writers get together for a big bash!