Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Elephant in the Room

My brothers called me "Ten-Ton Twinkletoes" when I was a child.  I was fat then.  I'm fat now.  About once a decade I would lose a significant amount of weight, then gain it back -- not exactly the traditional format of yo-yo dieting, but also not evidence that I ever really wanted to be thinner.

But some things have changed in my life, and today (Starman and I weigh ourselves and the dog -- yes, the dog! -- on the first of every month) my weight is just below a really (really) round number.  I weigh less today than I have in 15 years.

Excuse me while I stop to answer some FAQs.  Yes, it is all about nutrition and exercise.  Yes, portion control is key.  Yes, it is a lifestyle change, not a diet.  Yes, I'm taking it slowly: about 4 pounds/month.  Yes, I have a specific goal: to lose 45 pounds by next October.  Oh, and one more thing:  I'm not taking any "herbal supplements" or the like, but I was put on an antidepressant earlier in the year that specifically helps with controlling urges.  That's helped a lot.  Talk to your doctor before beginning any weight loss or exercise program...

Okay, where was I?  Right: weigh less now than I have since 1994.  Here's what happened with my weight loss in the 90s.  I was in law school at a relatively old age (36 when I matriculated) and I got it in my head that I needed to lose weight before interviewing.  Now, I want to make clear that with every single one of my Weight Loss of the Decade experiences, at most I was going from "fatter" to "less fat."  I have never, in my memory, been anywhere near "thin" or even "normal."  The weird part of that being that my parents were "normal" as children and young adults, and their parents were as well.  My aunts and uncles: normal, and their children: normal.  So it's a familial thing, but just my immediate family.  (I'm clearly the "morbidly obese" one among my siblings; the other three are, at most, overweight.)

Anyway, in the 90s I devised an eating plan I could stick with (low fat, but with lots of white-flour pasta, as I recall) and got down to around 20 pounds lighter than I am right now.  Then my brother got married, and as I'm really quite allergic (i.e., I have an involuntary but negative reaction) to my siblings, that scuttled my weight loss.  I can actually remember the Dunkin' Donuts "Boston Kreme" doughnut that signaled the change from weight loss to weight gain.

I've known for a long, long time that my weight is connected to my damaging childhood.  Not only is overeating "feeding the hungry heart," as Geneen Roth put it, but being fat was like an instant invisibility cloak.  I know: weird, hunh.  As a very large woman (not only fat but tall as well), I'm hard to miss but easy to look past.  That's always suited me pretty well.  I didn't much want people looking at me, or perhaps a better way to express that is to say that I was used to people not seeing me.  In the manner of damaged children everywhere, I've been able to continue my childhood experiences into adulthood with a few additions.  In my case, a whole lot of fat.

I lost weight in the 80s, then had an affair with a married man (where the punch line was him cheating on both his wife and his "regular" girlfriend by sleeping with me), and regained the weight.  I lost weight in the 70s, had a family friend say, "Wow, I never knew you had breasts," and regained the weight.  I even lost weight in the 60s, when my parents sent me to a diet camp at age 10.  I lost 28 pounds (but still not "thin" even at that age), and when my older sister saw me she said, "Jesus Christ," to which our uncle, an Episcopal priest, replied, "No, that's your sister."  I regained the weight.

Other than the weight loss at age 10, where frankly my parents could (and should) have done a better job of learning how to manage the family's nutrition (to be fair, I would probably have still found a way to regain the weight, but I wouldn't have had so much help), I take full responsibility for every failed diet and every weight gain.  As the bumper sticker says:  I AM A VOLUNTEER NO ONE FORCES ME TO OVEREAT.

What's different now?  Maturity, I guess.  My body can't handle the extra weight now; at my last doctor's visit, I was pre-diabetic, which is an actual diagnosis.  Taking the weight off -- and it doesn't have to be all the weight; studies show that even a 10% drop can make a huge difference in one's health -- may well reverse that trend.  So I watch my sugar intake, try to eat more whole grains but less of everything else, and walk the dog daily.  At least I try to walk the dog daily; I probably succeed 4-5 times a week.

About that really (really) round number I dropped below today?  I remember the first time I weighed that really (really) round number.  I was 17, I think, and still in high school.  I've weighed less and I've weighed more, but until today I never thought, "Not seeing that number again."  And today I know I won't see it again.  Because whatever kept me fat is being dismantled.  I've found the antidote for my allergy to my siblings (I just don't contact them -- and they've never contacted me to ask why), I'm feeding my heart with stuff other than food, and I allowing people to see me.  I will have to continue the trend; it's not like my anxieties won't recur.  But it's a good start.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Back When I Worked in an Office...

A long, long time ago, I had a job in a governmental agency.  There was a single men's room and a single ladies' room on that floor, and roughly 50 employees.  Now, I have no idea if gender politics have improved in the past 20 years, but back then it was possible for a man in the workplace to treat other men differently than how he treated his female co-workers.

[I'll post another day about how women can treat women in the workplace -- gender politics are different but not necessarily better when only women are involved.]

Now I share the fascination with urinals.  Keep in mind that indoor plumbing is a relatively modern innovation and wasn't widely available until the late 19th century or early 20th century.  The urinal was invented (or at least patented) in 1866.  That's smack in the middle of the Victorian era -- weren't they supposed to be all uptight, sexually?  So why don't urinals have more modesty?  Whether men look at each other's equipment is a completely separate question from why they even have the option.

Back to my agency office.  I finally arrived at a theory of gender politics.  In a stable office place, meaning one with a low turnover of personnel, it stands to reason that all the men have at some time peed next to each other.  I figure the subconscious is a fascinating force of nature, so combined with the powers of peripheral vision, it stands to reason that while men may think they're not checking out whether the guy at the next urinal is bigger or smaller, after a while, they probably have some subconscious notions of where they rank in the (cough) pecking order.

And then it hit me:  the man who has a good idea that his is the smallest? -- that's the guy most likely to treat his female colleagues with contempt and condescension.  Because even if it's the smallest, at least he's got one!  By extension, the guy who is particularly fair and treats women with appropriate equality and respect?  He's got the biggest.  Stands to reason -- he's got no reason to make some fallacious argument (even subconsciously) about the value in the workplace of having an external male member.

I've posited this theory on a few occasions.  I worked one summer at the local energy company in an office where the women were mostly support staff.  When I explained my theory, they knew immediately who had the largest equipment and who had the smallest!  They were quite happy with that insight into the office politics, as it explained a lot of otherwise mysterious behavior.

Elsewhere, I've been met with disbelief and resistance.  And I'll admit, my theory is entirely theoretical.  But now I have the advantage of some investigation, albeit highly anecdotal.  Check out Christine Kelly's piece in Vice:  Men & Urinals: An Investigation.  In addition to being delightfully funny, it answers some questions.  I did not know, for example, that men instinctively leave an empty urinal between them and the next guy down.  (Akin to the empty movie theater seat maneuver, thus avoiding the awkward competition with a stranger for the shared armrest.)  On the other hand, nothing in this article disproves my theory that men subconsciously check size and relativity.

Now I just need Ms. Kelly to investigate another pet theory of mine.  Supposedly 5% of all adult men have some non-standard sexual predilection.  So, in an office with 100 men, can you figure out which one likes to wear women's underwear, which one likes to be dominated, etc. on the basis of how they behave in the workplace?  (It's a statistical fallacy to assume any group of 100 men will include precisely one practitioner of each predilection, but then it would be an equal fallacy to assume it includes none.  They can't all work someplace else!)

And yes, there is a reason why I don't work in an office anymore.  But no, it didn't involve any allegations that I promoted a hostile workplace.  I just like to make sense of my environment.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

My Erstwhile BFF, the Beauty Queen

Katiebabs wrote a lovely post about why she writes, and her reminiscences about adolescence reminded me of a great story from my junior & senior high school life.  [I should note that Katiebabs has blogged about how intensely abusive and difficult a specific adolescent relationship was for her.  I don't want to dishonor her honesty by not acknowledging that it's an act of bravery to write about it.  Nothing in my story is meant to diminish what she has survived.]

Anyway, I wrote a comment to her writing post that was probably way too much information, which may be why Blogger ate it.  At least I think Blogger ate it, because it hasn't shown up.  (She might have her comments set as reserved for administrative review, which is fine.)

But then I thought -- Hey, that's actually a great story, and so precisely right for a blog about being Narrow End!  Because, I'm telling you, everything and everyone in this story is Narrow End.

When I went from elementary school to junior high school (it's a middle school now, but in 1967 it was a junior high school), I was a tall, fat, smart, lonely girl.  Oh, and young; I must have been 11 in 7th grade.  I have almost no memory of who my teachers were, or what I studied.  But I remember Susan.  She was in my homeroom, and she was very pretty.  And had lots of clothes.  No, I mean LOTS of clothes.

From the first day of school, Susan wore a different outfit -- a completely different outfit, not mix-and-match -- every single day for eight weeks.  I believe I counted 42 different outfits before she had to repeat one.  I remember only one of them: a skirt & vest in pinwale corduroy trimmed with embroidered ribbons, vaguely Tyrolean or maybe Scandinavian.  (Susan was big on her Swedish heritage.)  Perhaps because I was brimming over with admiration for this unique creature, we became friends.  Best friends.  Sleep-over friends.  I can remember her bedroom, with its two twin beds decked out in pale pink nylon ruffles, her brothers Wayne and Fippy (Philip, but as the "baby" in the family he had special baby-talk nickname, including, poor kid, "Fipper-doo"), and her mother.  (Tellingly, Susan's father has left no impression on me.  I suspect he wasn't home much; his wife made it a very kid-centric household.)

Susan took lessons at the local modeling school.  She was pretty in her way; she looked a lot like Susan Dey in her Partridge Family days.  At some point, Susan told me that the woman who ran the modeling school had an in with some guy (she mentioned his name, which was of those three-first-names names, like John Robert Benjamin, or something) who was going to be able to help Susan to win the Miss USA beauty pageant.

Now, I might have been the worshipful acolyte, but even I took that bit of "I know a guy who knows a guy . . . " with a grain of salt.  After all, Susan was 13 or 14 at the time -- way too young to be that connected.  Right?

As I recall, we were best friends until mid-way through 8th grade when she dumped me and took up with some other acolyte, and then the two of them were mean to me.  I actually don't remember the meanness, and I suspect it made very little impression on me.  (An ironic benefit of having a very very unpleasant family of origin: no one else can really measure up.)  After that, I didn't see much of Susan.  We were in different classes in high school.

Well, I should be clear:  I didn't see much of her in person.  But, as fate should have it (and sometimes fate is a very odd duck), I just happened to be watching television late on a Saturday night in 1973 when the local NBC affiliate ran the Miss New York State pageant.  (In case anyone doesn't know or has forgotten: Miss America is the older beauty pageant and has a talent portion; Vanessa Williams won Miss America but had to forfeit her crown when it was discovered that she'd posed for nude photos.  Interestingly, she was the first black woman to be Miss America, and the first runner up who replaced her was also black.  Miss USA -- the pageant my erstwhile friend was trying for -- didn't have a talent portion.  The reigning Miss USA was our entrant in the Miss Universe pageant.  I believe Donald Trump now owns the rights to Miss USA and Miss Universe.)

So I'm watching this rather low-tech videotape of the state pageant, and there's Susan, in the ubiquitous bathing suit & sash.  How surreal, and yet -- when the credit crawl ran after she'd won -- how easily explained.  Because John David Henry (or whatever) was listed as the Executive Producer of the pageant.

(As a lawyer, and just to be fair here, I need to say that I don't know that a) the fix was in for Susan, or b) that she wasn't winning fair and square, or c) that John William Bennett was pulling any strings.  I just know that she mentioned the name in 1968 and he was the state pageant's executive producer in 1973.  Any conclusion you wish to infer is entirely voluntary.)

Okay, so she's Miss New York State, and that means she's going to be a real live contestant in the Miss USA pageant.  This was a big deal in my household because, although no one else watched beauty pageants (we were all good women's libbers in my home), even my parents and brother watched this one because they actually knew Susan.  And, let me tell you, explaining to my parents what was going on was totally other-worldly.  (I have no idea why I watched beauty pageants, but I did.  Probably stemmed from my interest in paper-dolls...)

I must now apologize, because I'm about to be a little bit catty.  All the young women who participated in that pageant, and in every one I ever watched, were very pretty.  But I happened to know -- because I'd seen her in the halls of our high school -- that Susan was wearing a fall.  (Anyone else remember them?  The predecessors to hair extensions: fake hair attached to a comb that went at the crown of the head and then your hair would be teased and smoothed over the top of the fall and blended in to look like it was all natural.)  I did think that was a bit cheesy -- and I didn't even know about the spray adhesive and other gizmos pageant girls used back then.

Okay, cattiness over.

So first all 50 girls come out in state-themed costumes.  I suspect Susan's was the Statue of Liberty (because what else?), but I do recall that Miss Illinois was dressed like a Chicago gangster from the Prohibition era.  Think pin-striped suit jacket with wide lapels and show-girl stockings in place of trousers.  (In my memory of the parade of states, she was carrying a fake tommy-gun, but I suspect that's just my personal embellishment.)  We were charmed by that bit of whimsy.

If you've ever watched a beauty pageant, you know that all 50 girls come out once or twice, but for most of them, their fate is sealed by the time the show starts.  Bob Barker was the MC for that pageant, and he announced the 12 semi-finalists, who then wore relatively decorous one-piece bathing suits and then, later, pouffy gowns.  (In the 70s, it was all chiffon; sequins came later.)  Lo and behold, Susan was one of the 12 semi-finalists!  That meant my dad had to keep watching.  (Seriously, if she'd been knocked out early, he was so outta there.)

More beauty pageantry, and then we had five finalists, and lo! Susan was among their number.  So was Amanda Jones, Miss Illinois, the gangster we liked.  They got stuffed into a soundproof booth and pulled out one at a time for the Big Question that would elicit the answers upon which the judges would decide who should win.  The stage had an apron of sorts: a semi-circular walkway with the judges and audience in front and the orchestra in a pit between the walkway and the main stage.  It was on this walkway that Bob Barker had each finalist stand to answer the question.  After her answer, she then went back to those individual round disks they had to stand on.

The question was:  If you had to go forward or backward in time, which era would you pick and why?

Contestant 1 came out and said she would pick the Civil War because there was such a great sense of brotherhood then.

Contestant 2 said she would go into the future because America was getting better and better.

Contestant 3 (Amanda Jones) said she would pick the Renaissance because there was such an explosion of artistic and intellectual accomplishment.  (We all cheered that answer!)

Contestant 4 was Susan.  She joined Bob on the walkway, and he asked her the question, "If you had to go forward or backward in time, which era would you pick and why?"  She paused, and then replied that she'd stay in the present because America was so wonderful.  Bob laughed, reminded her that the question required her to go forward or backward, but not to go too far backward or she'd fall into the orchestra pit!  So she regrouped and answered that she would go forward because America was just getting better and better.

Contestant 5 said she would go back to the 1940s because the clothes were so interesting.

Here's the video of who won.  (Sorry for the crappy quality, but it's worth watching it for the wonderful reaction of Amanda Jones.)  Susan was interviewed on local radio the next day and when asked about losing, she said she knew Amanda was going to win because Amanda was on the middle disk, and the girl in the middle always wins.

Guys, I couldn't make this stuff up, but you can see why it is I remember all this even 36 years later.

I was fascinated by Amanda Jones (my heroine!) for a while.  Supposedly, she'd entered the pageant on a dare from her boyfriend, and because there might be scholarship money.

As for Susan, I saw her on the day of our high school graduation.  She was snippy, and I may have been snippy back.  (Sorry, Susan.)  She did enter the Miss New York State pageant for Miss America, but her lack of a talent may have hurt her.  She also entered something connected to Miss World, I believe, and also didn't win.  I think I learned later that one of her prizes from one of these pageants was a cruise on a Greek liner, and that she married the captain in a cave somewhere in the Greek islands.

Here's the thing, though -- she was just as narrow-end as I am.  I mean, really:  42 completely distinct outfits for a 12-year-old?  That's some weird parenting going on.  I suspect if I could talk to her now, she might well have some stories of how difficult she found it to fit in.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

What I Was Thinking About While I Was Mowing . . .

We live on 24 acres; half is wooded, half isn't.  Of the 12 acres that's not woods, the house, barn, garden & lawn occupy two acres.  The other ten are meadows, mostly, and mowing them is my responsibility.  I have a Ford New Holland 1620 tractor and two mowers: a flail mower that does a slightly finer job (for the south meadow, which is between the house and the main road), and a brush hog for the rough cut that the middle and north meadows get.

The south meadow (pictured at left -- the tiny strip of gold between our lawn and the trees & cow barn in the distance) gets mowed every year, although we're trying the approach of mowing it only once in the autumn, after a killing frost, to encourage wildflowers.  The middle and north meadows are bigger, aren't seen by passers-by, and don't always get mown.  I know I last mowed the whole property in 2005, but some bits might have gotten done since then.

When not mown, of course, things grow -- predominantly goldenrod and milk weed.  We also have a lot of wild roses, which are a poor excuse for the genus Rosa: gangly foliage with more stems than leaves, very prickly, and negligible flowers for about a day & a half in the spring.  Blink and you've missed them blooming for the year.  Admittedly they can have pretty colored stalks -- reds and even purple! -- but that's far too little value for the pain, literally, they can inflict.  (On the plus side, they make a lovely crunchy noise when the brush hog goes over them -- very visceral and satisfying!)  If left long enough, the meadows would give way to brush, and then to small bushes and trees (hawthorn and buckthorn, for example) and then to larger trees.  Just like we learned in 8th grade science.

Okay, all of that description is to provide the context for what I was thinking about on the tractor this morning, as I did the last bit of the north meadow.  Because I hadn't mowed that bit for a while, various small mammals had made burrows and warrens amid the plant life.  I know because I can see the holes and even watch as the animals scurry away from the tractor.  During a previous mowing of the north meadow, I watched a wild turkey think that if it flew into the stuff I hadn't mowed yet, I wouldn't see it.  Silly turkey.  On that same occasion, I was working in a particularly lush bit where the plants were almost as tall as I was on the tractor when a buck -- with points and everything! -- leaped out of the brush and with two bounds was over the fence and gone.  Incredibly dramatic and just a little bit unnerving.

I don't want to kill any of these animals, although I recognize that by destroying the foliage, I'm effectively destroying their habitat.  But I get to do this because -- well, because I can.  In human terms, I own the land and that ownership gives me the right to do with the land pretty much what I want.  But until I do mow it, that meadow belongs to the animals, and they can do what they want with it.  So the real reason I can mow down their habitat is because there's nothing living there that is big enough or scary enough to stop me.  Not the deer, and certainly not the bunnies.  There is a bear that wanders through our neck of the woods, so to speak; our neighbors have seen it and even taken its picture.  I thought about that bear while I was mowing.  It might be big enough to scare me if I was just standing around, but on the tractor, I'm sure to be even bigger and scarier to it.  Particularly if I raise up the front-end loader!

In effect, the tractor makes me big & scary enough to face down any animal I might encounter.  Which is what guns do, isn't it?  And suddenly I understood a bit better the reason why the rationale for gun control is difficult to argue to gun owners.  Their guns make them feel bigger & scarier, even if they are never likely to face anything particularly threatening.  That feeling of safety and security is part of our reptile brains, and thus less susceptible to reason and logic.  If I thought my tractor was the only thing that kept me safe from bears, I wouldn't want to give it up either -- and no amount of logic would convince me to.

Here's the thing: all this tells us is that we're animals.  And we are.  This instinct to be big & scary, and to own the equipment to accomplish that, is not a rationally defensible position.  It's not rationally defensible when we humans buy SUVs, which have poor safety ratings but make the driver feel bigger & scarier.  It's not rationally defensible when the issue is owning guns.  Most of us don't need a gun to defend us against predators, but gun owners really think they do.  Our day-to-day lives don't include encounters with scary animals -- including scary humans -- to justify rationally owning a gun.  And if you think actually need to kill a deer to survive, then I would suggest you take the money you spent on that rifle and plant a subsistence garden in your backyard.

I actually feel more sympathy with gun owners.  Not that does me much good.  I doubt there's a card-carrying member of the NRA (and I'm sure I know a few) who would admit that the only reason he or she owns a gun is because it makes them feel like a bigger & scarier animal in a world with big & scary animals. So the argument continues.  Maybe they're right and I'm wrong.  But my tractor tells me otherwise.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Who's YOUR Hero?

(And is he anything like the man (men?) in your life?)

I participated in Jessica's envigorating discussion about Anne Stuart's Black Ice.  Most commenters like or love the book, and many specifically like Bastien, the rather morally dubious hero.  (He's a Jason Bourne type, trained to go undercover, killing as necessary.  He's also got extraordinary control over his physical reactions -- all his physical reactions...!)  There were a few dissenters, and as one of their number, I'd like to think we joined in the exchange with the right spirit of respect and debate.

Something the wonderful Sherry Thomas wrote got me thinking.  She praised the hero in E.M. Hull's classic, The Sheik and said that she (Sherry, this is) would love to shag the Sheik.  Interesting.  I love that book, which I've owned for decades.  I haven't re-read it for a long time, but I know what I loved about it 20 years ago was the despair the heroine experiences when she thinks she will have to spend the rest of her life away from this compelling but difficult man she's fallen in love with.  (According to Wikipedia, Hull may have written the book while her husband was serving in WWI.  I wonder if her fears fueled the feelings in the book.)  Of course, there's an HEA.  That's what makes the despair emotional porn, and not just excruciating.

But would I want to shag the Sheik?  Um, nope.  I pretty sure I wouldn't.  (I'm suspending completely the question of whether the Sheik would want to shag me.  It's safe to say the answer to that question is No.)

So who would I want to shag?  Which is to say, which fictional hero would I want to fall in love with, have a lasting relationship with and, okay, shag -- ?

The Beast.  From almost any of the Beauty and the Beast versions.  (Except for Judith Ivory's version, where it was more a case of disguise than actual disfigurement.)  And most specifically, the Beast of Belleterre, Mary Jo Putney's titular hero from her novella, which I have in A Victorian Christmas. (I think it's been published elsewhere as well.)

The Beast, as a hero, is someone hiding from life, strong and vital but convinced that he's right to keep out of society.  The heroine is thrust into his well-ordered and limited life and changes everything.  The experience is catalytic for both of them: she falls in love at the same time she's struggling with the isolation surrounding her beloved, and he's given his first glimpse of a life with another human being in it -- a vision that is as seductive as it seems impossible.

In the fairy tale, the beast is hideous because of a spell cast by a wicked something or other.  But if you like the Disney animated version, chances are you've thought as I have that the Beast is so much more interesting than the rather bland, generic prince he's restored to at the end.  Okay, so that Beast is perhaps more bestial than one could comfortably accommodate (and it only now occurs to me that Bastian is more than a bit bestial in some portions of Black Ice), but he's charming in his diffidence in ways you just know that Prince Charming isn't.  And he needs Belle -- and isn't that a wonderful feeling, to be needed?

In The Beast of Belleterre, the hero is scarred from a childhood fire.  He's made a life for himself (and some equally scarred animals) but he never expects to marry, have children, or enjoy any companionship beyond that which he's paid for in the past.  He does marry as an act of mercy, but he's convinced himself that he must not let his bride see him as he really is.  (He hides in a voluminous cloak.)  But his bride, while grateful and biddable, isn't as scared of him as he imagines.  Their conflict grows in perhaps too extreme a manner, but it's a fairy tale -- and for emotional porn, I couldn't ask for a better HEA.  I cry every time!

Back to Sherry and her Sheik.  I was thinking about this issue of what sort of hero we're attracted to -- the dark & twisty undercover operative, the dashing & dangerous pirate, the saintly/good/smart guy who turns out to be surprisingly uninhibited in bed, the millionaire needing only the love he can't buy, etc., etc. -- when I realized that there was something significant in my pick as the ONE I would want to love.

Because that's who I married.  Twice!

My first husband, pictured below on the left, had been living a relatively quiet life in Hampstead Heath, part of North London, when I swept back into his life.  We'd known each other for over 25 years (we met as teenagers when I was sent at age 15 to care for an epileptic great aunt in nearby St. John's Wood) and neither of us had married.  I'd fallen in love with him when we were 24 but there was no way either of us could have sustained a relationship back then.  (We both come from a long line of late-bloomers.)  Hub 1.0 was then, and still is, the family of my heart; I love him today precisely the way I loved him on the day we go married, and I probably always will. 

So why two husbands?  Well, that is part of the magic of my first marriage -- it made each of us stronger, better, healthier people.  And Hub 1.0 was ready to lead his own life, make his own choices, etc.  (I like to think I'm not too oppressively dominating a personality, but I'll admit that it was frequently easier for both of us to let me take the lead in life.  Understandable, but not optimal.)  Coincidentally, I was getting friendly with Starman, pictured on the right.

(For newbies to this blog, my husband is easily identified elsewhere, particularly as "Crosswordman," but I started calling him Starman because his pseudonyms for the cryptic crosswords he created were the names of stars, e.g., Arcturus and Mira, and since marriage we've set puzzles together as a twin star, Aldebaran.  Also, we love the Karen Allen/Jeff Bridges movie.  At least one of my friends was convinced she'd have trouble thinking of him as anything but Starman...)

Starman is truly a Beast-style hero.  He lived alone, didn't get out much, and had even retired from the computer consulting work he'd done in London so that he didn't have to mingle with people.  All of a sudden, this American woman was telephoning him, chatting about Woody Allen movies and music.  (I was looking for a best friend -- but that's a very long story for another blog post.)  I suspect some part of me recognized some part of him, and once he'd satisfied himself that I wasn't going to be a stalker/serial killer, he was eager to have someone to talk to.

Of course he doesn't look like a Beast.  Neither of them do.  But the Beast conflict is all in the head, anyway -- that belief that he's better off keeping himself to himself.  And both my English husbands had that going on.  What I brought to them, other than sufficient smarts to do learn how to do British-style cryptic crosswords, was a loving heart and the ability to show them another way of living.  It doesn't seem to be enough to make either one of them love me, but it clearly worked.  And in the case of Starman, I clearly have the magic woo-woo he was looking for.  Go figure.

So, here are the questions:  If you had to pick a single hero or hero type, who or what would it be?  And is that type anything like the man (men) in your life?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

My Winsor List

Jessica at Racy Romance Reviews invited us all to post our top 16 romance novels in honor of Kathleen Winsor, author of Forever Amber. Here are mine, in no particular order. I've provided a little commentary on each one, partly because I love them all so much, and also because not everyone likes the same things, but it's always fun to learn about new books. And because I'm old, so some of my choices are way before everyone's time! Oh, and one more thing. Sarah at MonkeyBearReviews had a quiz asking which was better, the 90s or the 2000s for romances. Well, I don't "do" paranormals, so you'll see a distinct bias for books published in the 70s, 80s and 90s. No werewolves or vamps here!

1. The Beast of Belleterre (short story by Mary Jo Putney)

I know MJP isn't everyone's favorite author, but I really think this might be *the* book I'd clutch to my bosom as the fire department made me leave the house. It's a novella based on Beauty & the Beast (my favorite fairy tale) in which the hero is so disfigured he hides from everyone. He reluctantly marries the delicate and talented heroine to save her from her brutish father but then can't bring himself even to let her see him. It's not flawless; it's basically backstory, interior monologues and damned little actual interaction between the characters before the end, but it is emotional porn at its finest. Neither of these people thinks that life should be very good to them, and so their expectations are so low that it's hard to see how they'll work their way out of the sadness. But they do.

2. To Love and to Cherish (the first of the Wyckerly trilogy by Patricia Gaffney)

More emotional porn (a theme with me, I'll admit) but done so well and so beautifully written that I actually lent it to my non-romance reading mother. I re-read it recently, and was impressed all over again. It comes the closest, I think, of conveying to the reader that effervescence of falling in love -- passing messages, seeing the beloved unexpectantly and feeling your breath catch, etc. Then it's sad, then scary, then difficult, and by the time they end up together, they -- and we -- are exhausted.

3. Pretty much anything by Jane Feather

I know, this is a cop out -- pick a book, already! But she's so consistently good that no one of her books rises inexorably to the surface. I like Vixen (from her V series) because of a particularly exquisite sex scene (go read it yourself; your results might differ), but is it her best romance? On the other hand, I like the Bride trilogy, set in Edwardian England. She does a great job of conveying that interplay of stuffy Victorian restrictions and taboos with the nascent feminist movement. So those books make you think: how can women consciously trying to make lives for themselves fall in love and still maintain the ideals they set out with? Chances are, if I reread all of JF's books from the beginning, I'd find one that excels, but that's not happening tonight.

4. Any of Julia Spencer-Fleming – or better yet, the single romance you’d get by cutting & splicing all the scenes of Russ and Clare together and their relationship's evolution.

No, not a cop out this time. I like the mysteries just fine, but what I had to re-read immediately was the romance that develops over time in the so-far-seven books in the series. If you don't know these books, start with In the Bleak Midwinter and work through all seven. They are that good, both technically (I think she does the best job with point-of-view) and emotionally. There's not much romance in each book, but what's there, to quote Spencer Tracy, is cherce.

5. Cassandra by Chance Betty Neels

A Mills & Boon/Harlequin series romance from the early 70s, and my favorite of all the Betty Neels books. Hers was a very limited format: Dutch doctor hero (much later in her career, some English heros were permitted), virginal English nurse/dogsbody heroine. Heroine was more likely than not plain ("mousy") but always a lovely spirit. Look, I can't defend these to anyone; you either like them or you don't. But if you like one, you'll like them all, and there are LOTS of them! Runner-up from her backlist is Fate is Remarkable, which has a very satisfying denouement. (Warning: really hackney plot devices at work here: The Other Woman, Misunderstandings, Lack of Communication. You wouldn't want to BE these characters, but *sigh* I love visiting them.)

6. Imprudent Lady Joan Smith

I haven't re-read this one in a long time, but I remember it as being LOL funny. (See, also, Talk of the Town) Regencies, no sex (now, isn't it extraordinary that we have to specify that for a historical period where chastity was so important even the appearance of impropriety was fatal?), but wonderful characters and stories. And seriously funny bits.

7. High Garth – Mira Stables

Vaguely Early Victorian; there's a minor bit about the railroads being built, but it's mostly a domestic romance about a man struggling to make a small holding in Yorkshire (or thereabouts) profitable. After the hothouse bouquets that are today's historical romances, this is like a buttercup: simple and simply perfect. Honorable mention: Miss Mouse (or maybe Lissa, or Honey Pot -- ?). Oh, I don't think she wrote a bad book.

8. Her Man of Affairs -- Elizabeth Mansfield

There's a real class issue here, and for once the hero isn't magically discovered to be the long-lost Duke of Whatevershire. The titular hero is the Scottish clerk who's charged with straightening out the heroine's finances. Lots of lovely Scottish words -- it's hard not to want to use a couple when you've finished the book -- and a genuine conflict that isn't very easily resolved.

9. His Lordship’s Mistress – Joan Wolf

More Emo-Porn. I'll acknowledge that the world is rather sanitized and perfect in Wolf's universe: the heroine is the most courageous person ever, the hero is beautiful, yadda yadda. But oh, my word, when the problems arise, they feel very real. Which of course makes the resolution all the more satisfying.

10. These Old Shades – Georgette Heyer

Probably the grandmother of romances that ask the question, "What happens when the most exalted and self-composed, not to mention powerful, hero meets his match?!" Here it's the Duke of Avon and a French waif/gamine named Leonie. There's a lot of complicated stuff in 18th Century England and France and some rather over-the-top secondary characters but a charming HEA, and yes, some emo-porn. Don't miss the sequel, Devil's Cub, where the heir to Avon meets his match! A very different dynamic; you can't say Heyer was pulling a Betty Neels with the same characters in mildly different books...

11. Sweet Everlasting – Patricia Gaffney

I had to look this one up on Amazon to be sure I knew the title, and I noticed someone commenting that the heroine's extreme other-worldliness and innocence made parts of this romance seem a tad pedophilic. Odd, I'd not thought of that (I'd have indicted These Old Shades or Jane Feather's Vixen before this book), but seeing it written out gave me a moment's pause. At some point, I have to admit that my personal backstory does affect how I feel about it, so sure -- the extraordinarily young-in-spirit heroine is perhaps not wise enough to the world to fall for the hero, but she does and that's really the basis of the challenge they need to meet. Can I say every one should love it? No. Do I love it? Yes.

12. Kiss an Angel – Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Here's another one I'm not sure I can defend. Spoiled heroine gets her comeuppence at the hands of a seemingly cruel "husband." In the wrong hands, that set up never gets out of the "get a protective order" range, but Phillips presents the heroine as needing some tough love. I love a lot of SEP's books, but this one vibrates in a way that others don't.

13. Dream a Little Dream – SEP

My favorite of her Chicago Stars (a fictional football team) books; this one has the heroine really, really down on her luck but refusing to accept charity. Again, in real life her son should be in foster care and the county agencies should be getting her some housing and a job just until she can get it together to get her son back, but in Rom County, all is well -- the hero is emotionally wounded and so they can just about tolerate being in each other's company. I do like it when people rescue themselves by loving others. (One of my favorite movies: Pretty Woman. Say no more.)

14 Daddy Long-Legs -- Jean Webster

This was written almost 100 years ago, but it's a wonderful book. It would be labeled YA now; it's about an orphan with red hair (no, not Anne of Green Gables, but close) who gets to go to college because a trustee provides her with an anonymous scholarship. It's an epistolary novel but I like reading people's letters, and the device pretty much works until the very end, when -- face it, we shouldn't have to read about a kissy-kissy love scene in a letter. It's also a fascinating portrait of an American girls' college like Smith or Vassar back when educating women was not considered entirely respectable.

15a. Maddie’s Justice – Leslie LaFoy

Someone recently asked for suggestions for Western romances. Here's my pick (if anyone's still interested), and I don't think anyone else suggested LaFoy. Her novels run the gamut from hockey-themed contemporary to a range of historicals. This one is particularly good with a beleagured heroine (convicted of murder, wrongly of course) and hero (charged with transporting her until he discovers someone's trying to kill them both) and the slow way they learn to trust each other.

15b. Lynn Kerstan

This isn't meant to be a cheat, although it will look that way. I can't pick any specific one of Kerstan's early Regencies, but they're all good. And I think of her and LaFoy as being in the same boat. Sure, I have favorite LaVyrle Spencer romances, and Linda Howard, and so forth, but those are the big names. I want to recommend authors like Kerstan and LaFoy -- both names that I still instinctively look for in the big box bookstore even if their very best work is already been published.

16. The Rainbow Season – Candace Camp aka Lisa Gregory

I have a soft spot for Camp; she's a lawyer too (or, if she's let her license lapse, then technically she's "trained as a lawyer") and I've enjoyed her contemporaries (as Kristin James), her historicals (as Lisa Gregory) and her more recent books as herself. But this one stands alone -- a book I've reread so many times I could almost quote entire passages. Hero and Heroine get married (forget why, but it hardly matters) and he's on hard times. But he works really hard to be a good farmer and husband; these people enjoy what seems to be a relatively happy married life. Which means the conflict is a bit strained, but who cares -- they triumph over the harsh weather conditions, the drought, and what little misunderstanding there was between them. And live happily ever after. You just know it!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Cranky Reader's Manifesto

{But first a word from our sponsor: You know, amazingly Blogger does not actually close down a blog for inadequate postage. Really. But I feel bad about this blog in particular because Sarah T. of Monkey Bear Reviews actually has it up on her blog list, and that's got to feel like a swiz if someone clicks on it and sees that I post once a month. So I'll try to do better. Honest. With the accent on the word "try."}

My backstory.

I was reading romances back before they were sold conveniently in drug stores and the like. I remember reading horrible romances out of the library as a child, books with titles like, "Cherry Stone, Career Nurse." When I discovered Anne of Green Gables, I read the entire series, but I reread the volume where Anne finally falls in love -- or rather, finally acknowledges that she's in love -- with Gilbert Blythe. Never mind that Anne was a much more interesting character as a rambunctious ten-year-old with better intentions than common sense; I only cared that she and Gilbert finally declare their love for each other. *sigh*

Somehow I discovered Harlequin Romances, which back then -- and we really are back in the Middle Ages here, people: 1967? 1969? Let's call it A Long Time Ago and get back to the point -- were all reprints of Mills & Boon romances published in England. As such, all the authors were from the British Empire: English, Scottish, South African, or Australian. I knew all their names, and while some of the books were forgettable, some were the opposite. I recently used Amazon.com's awesome used-book facility to get a copy of Roumelia Lane's Terminus Tehran, a book so memorable that I can recite the plot elements even now, more than 35 years after the last time I read it. (What? No, I haven't read the used copy I bought. I just like knowing that I can!)

In high school, I once got the only A in a history class because a romance novel had some discussion of a Praxiteles sculpture of Aphrodite, and I was the only one in the class who knew that. In college, I majored in Philosophy. My aunt (who had been a Philosophy major as well) commented that I was the only person she knew who had Emanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason on the same book shelf as a Barbara Cartland romance.

No surprise, therefore, that I eventually thought I wanted to write romances. Never mind that I'd never taken an English class beyond high school. Never mind that I knew nothing about plot structure, point-of-view, story arcs, character development, or even what made a romance good. I don't recall thinking, "How hard can it be?" but if I had, I soon learned: it was hard. When I heard of a friend's mother, who'd made lampshades out of her rejection letters, I was empathetic. My mother told me that her father described it as "ordeal by market." What a wonderful phrase.

Okay, so I burned my first romance. I suspect I threw away at least one more. I might have a full-length manuscript on 3.5" floppy disks someplace, but I'm hardly going to tear the house apart looking for them. Bad is bad, people, and I wrote some pretty bad stuff.

All of that is to humble myself before I write what I am about to write. I am a cranky romance reader. It's not just that I dislike paranormals, although I do (I'm sorry, but how does fur & claws = hot & happy romance?). It's not even that I know enough about England to make virtually every Regency-era historical romance published today seem like a Sci-Fi/Fantasy in which history is rewritten with the help of time travel, and the Revolutionary War somehow got flipped around, so that 20th Century Americans ended up occupying 19th Century London.

(Don't get me started on the excessive over-use of the word "bloody," which to us here in the States is a colorful and quaint British exclamation, like "botheration," but which in England as recently as 1971 was a Very Bad Word. So, if no woman of refinement and breeding would have been caught dead uttering That Word in 1971, you can be assured that no heroine would have uttered it, or even thought it, in 1815. Try this the next time you see it in a Regency romance novel: substitute the word "f---ing" every time you see "bloody" and consider whether it seems anachronistic. Yes, it really was that bad a word.)

But still I loved reading romances all the way through law school, which I attended at an advanced age in the early 90s. At some point, though, I lost track of who was good. I had a select number of authors I liked, but they were aging out, or switching to more mainstream fiction. I deeply mourned the loss of Patricia Gaffney to mainstream fiction. Her romances are wonderful even today. ("To Love & Cherish," which I re-read a couple days ago, is close to a perfect romance, I think.) I had no trouble packing up hundreds of paperback romances everytime I moved. After all, I just know I'll want to re-read them.

At some point in the last ten years I stopped buying new authors, so eventually the number of romances I bought -- and thus the number of romances I read -- dwindled. Worse yet, even if I found an author I liked among the ones I did read, her work would often lack sufficient originality to stay clear in my mind. The next time I was in Barnes & Noble, I'd look at the scads of titles and authors and struggle to remember, "Now is it Stephanie Laurens that I like, or Liz Carlyle? Or is it both? Or neither?"

To the rescue: The Internet. I love the Internet. I love Epicurious.com, where I can trust dozens of cooks' recommendations and ratings when picking out a recipe. I love the power to plan a trip, make the reservations & buy the tickets all myself. I love Amazon (although I don't love their ratings -- too many gushing reviews, and the "I hated this book" ratings are even less reliable). I love blogging, although I clearly don't love it on a daily basis. (Sorry.) And now I love the romance-reader review sites.

I'd had no idea of their existence until I heard the piece on NPR's Sunday All Things Considered about Smart Bitches Trashy Books. The fact that the host, Rebecca Roberts, seemed the very exemplar of the sceptic helped make the interview loads of fun. (Plus, Candy & Sarah actually used the word "heteronormativity" with what sounded like straight faces.) Better yet, their website has some reviews. I started reading books that they gave As. That led me someplace else, which led me to Sarah T. at Monkey Bear -- now a daily read -- which led me to Dear Author and eventually to All About Romance. I've bought over 20 books (mostly used; I'm sorry to deprive the authors of royalties I know they richly deserve) because they got top marks from some reviewer or other and I've been reading roughly a book a day ever since. (This could help to explain the absence of blog posts, but you and I both know I have no excuse.)

Have you ever noticed that when you first learn of something it's suddenly ubiquitous? Well, it seems as though the mainstream media (not as monolithic as all that, but still lumpable into some sort of generic blob) has recently Discovered Romances. I won't post links to all of it; here's a link to Sarah T.'s discussion on the media's love affair with what I'll call the Ivy League Connection, and one to her post on the larger question of how the media has been covering romances. (If by some odd chance my post here isn't long enough for you, I left a lo-o-ong comment on the latter of those two Monkey Bear posts, and an implausibly -- for me! -- short comment on the former.)

So, here's what I make of all this. The problem with romances isn't that they're stigmatized (although it's undeniable that they are; the only genre I can think of that is denigrated more is porn), it's that the people who love romances haven't wielded enough power to fight back against the stigma. Here are some thoughts about why that might be the case.
  1. It's a closed set (to use a mathematical term). Romance readers read romances, and some of them write romances. Virtually no one who doesn't self-identify as a reader of romances reads them or writes them. Yes, that sounds circular, but think about it. I've read mysteries, thrillers, science fiction, chick-lit, fantasy, young adult, literary fiction, and memoirs. But I don't identify myself as a big fan of any of those genres, in the sense that I'll read a so-so mystery just because I like whodunits. I read specific authors in those genres, or specific books, because I think I'll like them. I don't think that's happening with romances, meaning people who don't consider themselves romance readers don't read romances. Sure Nora Roberts sells a gazillion books every year, but how many non-romance readers are reading her books? And what about Susan Elizabeth Philips or Jennifer Crusie (both of whom write funny, literate, charming romances)? While it's true I think some of their books are better than others, all of them should have cross-over appeal. But do they? (That's a genuine question, by the way. If anyone knows, leave a comment, please.) And if they don't, does anyone?

  2. Hollywood doesn't make films from romance novels. And for people whose reading list is sparked by the cultural zeitgeist, that's a huge hit. Now, I have to tell you that I cringe when I think about Harlequin romances adapted for TV movies. Maybe the resulting show is good, maybe not. But for me, there's something structurally wrong with a literal adaptation of a story that is best understood as a fairy tale. There are two things I think are true of every single romance: A happy ending, and a distinct lack of realism. The happy ending is pretty obvious. But the lack of realism is just as key. We (I think I speak for at least one other romance reader, even if I don't know who that person might be) read romances to escape money troubles, broken relationships (hell, broken toilets!), dead-end jobs, etc. Even people with great marriages, homes & lives still read romances because the jolt of emotion feels good. Trust me, I've had two storybook romances (unlikely but true) and I know all too well that when it's time to pay the property tax bill, the fluttering of one's heart and/or loins dims a bit.

    So back to the point about film & TV adaptations. Take a contemporary romance, like any of Nora Roberts' books. The plot is filled with things that could happen in real life, only in the book those situations and activities are suffused with a fairy-dust quality. The heroine is trudging through her life, but we read about how she feels about the hero and we're transported. In a movie, we'd just see her trudging. Even a voice-over isn't going to convey the fairy dust. So after 90 minutes of trudging, the happy ending seems fake, or forced, or ludicrous.

    Hollywood does make great romances. (I personally saw Pretty Woman dozens of times in the movie theater; it got so bad that my friends and family would duck my calls if they thought they'd have to see it with me one more time.) They have tons of fairy dust, and their happy endings are just as aww-inducing as romances. They just do it differently. (Case in point: Pretty Woman. Imagine that story as a romance novel. Bet you can't get past the first chapter, where the heroine is revealed to be a hooker. Just too raw for a romance...)

  3. Historical accident. Ask yourself this: Why didn't Jane Austen start an entire trend of literary romances that are studied and lauded as much as her work is? I think it's because Austen's novels aren't in the direct line of the evolution of the romance novel. Her books are richly detailed characters studies with a happy ending (or several happy endings, depending on how you look at it). You could probably trace Austen to Dickens to Grace Matalious (Peyton Place) or Margaret Mitchell (Gone with the Wind) or even Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird). I would argue that today's romance evolved from the Gothic romances of the late 18th and early 19th Century -- wildly unrealistic while also being fun and emotionally satisfying. (Think how much better a happy ending is after a delicious bit of a character's anxiety or desperation. Not too much unhappiness, and not mundane anxieties like in real life, but that moment where you can shed a tear for the unlucky-in-love heroine before she discovers that he is alive!/does love her!/can marry her!, etc.)

    But if I'm right, not much in the past 200 years has given romances legitimacy. When I first went to England in 1971, I was shocked (shocked I tell you!) to see that my very well-educated and slightly snobby English cousins had a complete set of Georgette Heyer's Regency romances on their bookshelves. (The cousins otherwise read mysteries, including relatively obscure American authors like Phoebe Atwood Taylor's Asey Mayo mysteries, set on Cape Cod.) When I worked up enough courage to ask them about Heyer, I got a characteristic haughty look and something opaque about Heyer's books being quite good. Which she is. (Her Regency romances are meticulously researched, by the way, and I'll give a prize to anyone who can cite me a page where a heroine -- other than Faro's Daughter, perhaps -- uses or thinks the word "bloody." A nice prize. Just give me some time to think of one...)

    And other than Heyer? Anyone? Any other names of romance authors who were deemed suitable for snobby cousins' bookshelves? Look, I'm not denigrating romance authors here -- I have my favorites that I'll grab at the first sign of smoke, and I'll defend them to anyone. What I'm talking about is mainstream legitimacy. I don't know why there was an evolutionary parting of the more detailed happy ending stories (Austen, et al.) from the faster-paced, emotionally charged Gothic romance such that Bel Canto (by Ann Patchett) is in one class and To Love & To Cherish (Gaffney, again) is in another. I just think it happened, and it's why our beloved romances are now the third-class citizens in the publishing world.

  4. Which brings me to my final point. Publishers. We've been reading recently about how romances are a $1.5 billion industry. But what are publishers doing to fuel that industry? Potato chip-thinking. The assumption, as far as I can tell, is that the reader doesn't really care that much who she's reading, just that she's reading. Sure, sub-genres flourish or not based on sales (if paranormals didn't sell, they wouldn't get published), but specific authors are pretty fungible, even the great ones (barring the record-busting authors, like Roberts; she's not fungible, per se). I'm sure Avon is happy that Eloise James is getting great press, but they probably aren't pushing that coverage the way Atria (a publisher I've not heard of before) is pushing Jennifer Weiner's latest novel, Best Friends Forever.

    [A momentary digression: I've alluded to an evolution of romance novels. So, let's say that Jennifer Crusie's books evolved from the classic contemporary romance novel -- where she got her start, as it happens -- and Jennifer Weiner's work evolved from smart, snappy journalism -- where she got her start, as it happens. Different paths, but their books end up pretty close together if you're visualizing the respective family trees: funny, descriptive, nice story arcs and cheery characters. I suspect you can be certain with a J.Cru book that there will be a heroine, a hero, some sex & lots of laughs; with a J.Wein book, I'd bet on a heroine, some trouble, but lots of laughs, and a life lesson or two. Not really that far apart. But look at how differently they're marketed. I've not seen Jennifer Crusie's closet pictured in Entertainment Weekly, for example. I'm just saying.]

    And where do publishers get the notion that we, romance readers, will read anything with a pulse? Because we read anything with a pulse. Okay, maybe not you or me -- we're discriminating readers. But those other romance readers -- you know, the ones we assume are lined up every month to buy all of the series romances regardless of author, or every Regency romance with a ripped bodice on the cover. No, really -- one of those articles recently had a publisher swearing blind that they tried non-lurid covers and they didn't sell as well. Um, Pavlov, anyone? They use lurid covers for 25 years and are surprised when a non-lurid cover doesn't evoke the same response.

    And why don't they try making more authors into brands, like Nora Roberts now is? (By the way, how many romances has Roberts written? Do you really have to write in the three figures before you're a brand name? Compare that thinking to Stephen King/Dan Brown/John Grisham/Sue Grafton -- they were all brands before they'd hit double digits.) Because (and here's my manifesto) for once I don't think I'm in the narrow end of the bell-shaped curve. I think that cliche generic romance reader (see what I did with the double meaning of generic? -- and it's after 5 in the morning, people; I'm writing on fumes here) is the narrow-end. I don't think that many readers are that oblivious to who the author is, and whether she's any good, or even whether the book is any good. The problem seems to be that because publishers expect a certain result, they're reluctant to view the data in a contrary perspective. And I bet they're super-reluctant to gather new data. I know they do some market-research, but I suspect it's narrowly tailored to answer questions at the margins of what they think they already know.

    In the end, I believe romance readers are punished for their loyalty. (And authors are really punished -- I read a recent blog post on the amounts of money romance authors can expect to earn, and it's slave wages for sure. It does not seem as though a lot of that $1.5 billion is trickling down to the authors!) Because we love romance, and love romance novels, we're expected to read pretty much anything that fits the mold. I'm all for accepting that people's tastes differ, but as the websites like Dear Author & All About Romance suggest, there are good romances, great romances, and not-so-good romances. But they're all marketed the same (other than some blurbs and "New York Times Bestselling Author" tags), and publishers probably think they sell the same.

    We have to start proving them wrong.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Coming Out of the Darkness

Have you ever gone to the movies alone and gotten so caught up in the story, the setting & the characters that when you leave the theater, blinking in the daylight, you're disoriented for a while, unsure where you parked the car?

I feel that way, and I've not been to the movies like that in a while. (We went to see Up! the other day, though -- it was lovely, but it didn't transport me the way I'm talking about.) But it's not the movies that have done it to me this time -- it's a series of books. Six of `em, and I've read them in order twice over, mostly in the last ten days. Frankly, it's been tough to leave Miller's Kill, NY and get on with my life in Kingsley, PA.

The books are by Julia Spencer-Fleming:

In the Bleak Midwinter
A Fountain Filled With Blood
Out of the Deep I Cry
To Darkness and To Death
All Mortal Flesh
I Shall Not Want

There's no law that says you can't read them out of order, but I wouldn't recommend it.

Okay, so why have these books captured my heart in a way no other series has? (And, incidentally, this series has some stiff competition: the Mary Russell books by Laurie R. King, the Jack Reacher thrillers by Lee Smith, the Chicago Stars series by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, and several more. This isn't my first bout of "reader's OCD.") It has to be the relationship between the two protagonists, the Reverend Clare Fergusson and Chief Russ van Alstyne. Oh, I've enjoyed the mysteries, and there are some other characters I enjoy, but these two people are captivating.

[And I'm not alone -- Sarah of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books admitted she's read In the Bleak Midwinter three times, and A Fountain Full of Blood twice.
At this point, I’ve become a hyperventilating freakshow about this series. I read all six in a marathon of reading and staying up late, and I’ve passed the name of the author on to anyone who stands still long enough. I’ve read the first one three times, and am re-reading the second.
I can't tell you what a relief it was to read that! If they do cart me away to the padded cell, I'll have a fun roommate...]

Clare is a former Army helicopter pilot, Russ is (like Jack Reacher) a former Army MP, so they have that much in common. But that's about it for similarities: he's now the chief of police of a small town in upstate NY (I gather it's based on Hudson Falls, a town I'll admit I know almost nothing about, despite growing up in nearby Schenectady and Albany), and she's the new rector of St. Alban's, the Episcopal church in town. He's fourteen years older than her. She's a woman of faith, he's a nonbeliever. They don't actually discuss politics, but it wouldn't be too hard to imagine that he's a Republican and she's a Democrat. (There is a brief moment when Russ taunts Clare, "And I bet you vote for universal health care every time.")

When they meet each other, though, they are each meeting their other half, the person that completes one's soul. This is, to put it mildly, extremely awkward -- he's happily married and she's celibate as befits a single priest in a religion that doesn't approve of sex outside of a committed long-term relationship. There can be no question of an affair, and neither of them wants to destroy Russ's marriage. But life without each other is inconceivable.

There's a lot in there I can relate to. I too was happily married when Starman and I got to know each other. I was committed to that marriage; it was what I knew and what I wanted. Luckily for me, Hub 1.0 was ready to "graduate" from our marriage to his own life on his own terms. I realize it seems impossible to imagine a marriage ending without bloodshed and recriminations and some disparity in the effect on each spouse, but I'm pretty sure we pulled it off.

But I can't help thinking it might have gone very differently. If Hub 1.0 had said he wanted to stay married, or if my relationship with Starman had blossomed earlier, I'd have had precisely Russ's problem. In one book, he contemplates what life will be like if Clare leaves Miller's Kill.
He was happy before she came.
Happy like the dead in their well-loved graves. Unknowing, unseeing, unfeeling.
[T]he words were stopped in his thoat by the realization that she would be going away. In a year or less. And he would never see her again.
He would get back into his coffin. He would pull the lid down himself. He supposed, after a few years, he might even grow to like it again.
It's not that his wife is a terrible person. In fact, when she does finally show up, she's lovely. She's just not connected to him in the same way that Clare is.

I won't say how all that gets resolved, but I was reading an interview that Spencer-Fleming gave relatively recently about the challenge of balancing the mysteries (murder-misdirection-detection-logic-solution) with the development of the relationship. She said that when she starts writing the dialogue between Clare and Russ she can hum along quite happily, having them trade sassy comebacks, but it's not getting the crime solved. And my thought was, I want to read those discarded scenes! Write a book that's just about Clare and Russ! Of course it doesn't work that way, but it's what I wanted.

What's been so shocking has been the sheer emotional power these books have for me. It's not the depiction of the Episcopal church; I was baptised and confirmed in that faith, but I never went to church (just how the family situation worked out, I guess) and I don't think I was ever touched with any sense of the divine while I was in church -- mostly just interested in the architecture, music, and congregants' hats. Of course, if the local Episcopal church (I say local, the nearest one must be 30 miles away at least) had Clare Fergusson as its rector, I'd be lining up at the door; she's remarkable palatable to nonbelievers like me and Russ!

Then I remembered something. Back in January 1998 I was reading a Susan Elizabeth Phillips romance (don't remember which one, sorry) when something in it, some internal dialogue by the heroine, made me suddenly sit up and think, "So that's how I feel about him!" I'd just come back from England, where I'd met up with Hub 1.0 again after several years. Until that moment, until I read that particular passage in that particular book, I had not consciously acknowledged that I'd fallen back in love with H. (For those who don't know, we'd had a summer together in 1980, and thereafter he was the "what if" guy -- you know, "what if we met again? what if he suddenly showed up after all these years?" -- that guy.) How is it I didn't know my own feelings until I saw them on the printed page?

And another time, back when I was dating a guy from college. We'd broken up in the summer after college and before grad school. I was on the bus back home, and I knew I was supposed to be all heartbroken and so forth, but I just wasn't feeling it. I had to put some sad music on my tape player (remember them, with the headphones?) just to muster up some tears.

It's a symptom of dissociation. I'll know what's going on in my life, but I don't have immediate access to the emotions. Then I'll hear some music, or see a sad movie, or read some book, and I'll be flooded with emotions -- all rather floaty and detached from the situation. It's a survival mechanism left over from my childhood, but honestly until this week I hadn't put it all together: the long drives to Maine back when I was single when I would listen to various tapes and cry the entire way up, despite my genuine pleasure at visiting my parents; seeing particularly powerful movies multiple times because of the disconnected emotions they exorcised; rereading some books over and over and over.

With the Spencer-Fleming books, it's a powerful template of my feelings for both Hub 1.0 and Starman. Oh, everyone's happy now, but I'd forgotten how it felt back in 2006 when that was no a foregone conclusion. I had a bad moment early on that year. Starman and I were just getting to know each other on the phone (after he had satisfied himself I wasn't an axe murderer because, you know, strange American women calling one on the phone were mostly likely axe murderers) and I had that vertigo you get standing on the edge: you're not falling but you could be and you can feel it, the ground rushing up to meet you. I was reading something -- I have no idea now what it was -- and I just started to sob. I cried for hours (I'm not exaggerating this) but I really wasn't sure why.

But Clare and Russ knew, and if I'd had the first few books to read then, I might have seen it in myself. You haven't a care in the world, your marriage is happy, you have no complaints, and then you meet someone who opens an entire dimension you'd not known was there. But you can't have both the safe marriage and the powerful new connection, so you cry. And then you just get on with the day to day.

It worked out well for me; three years later I'm so solidly on terra firma, I can't recreate the vertigo. But those emotions aren't gone, and releasing them as I read and reread and rereread Clare and Russ's story -- well, it's disorienting in a heady way. And blatantly addictive.

Spencer-Fleming has said that she only intended to write five novels with Clare and Russ. The number's up to seven (due out in October; don't expect me to answer the phone after I get my copy) and she's said she's thought of a basis for number eight. Good thing. I don't believe I would be alone in complaining if Miller's Kill disappeared off the Upstate NY map.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

I'm SO Over Dr. Phil (and other news)

I actually deleted my DVR season pass to record all of Dr. Phil's new shows. I think the Octomom killed it, but really I was getting fed up already with his trend toward more sensationalistic programming. Sure, he was doing more Hollywood Babylon pieces (what's up with Britney/Lindsay/Rihanna) and he was doing tabloid crime pieces (who killed Caylee Anthony, etc.) but even his more normal, mainstream folks were running off the rails. All the domestic drama had to be Bigger! Scarier!! More Out of Control!!! than our lives.

I'll admit this -- no matter what the sensational topic, Dr. Phil himself had good common sense advice about it. It's just that his advice to the Octomom has absolutely nothing to do with my life. At least when it was money problems, I could take some nuggets and apply them to other aspects of my life. ("You don't solve money problems with money.")

Also, there are now programs that do what Dr. Phil does, better than Dr. Phil. Intervention, that wonderful program on A&E, does a better job documenting and dealing with drug and other addictions. The Biggest Loser, which I don't watch, must do a better job of dealing with weight loss issues because Dr. Phil adopted that format for his weight loss series. And we personally love Supernanny for her common sense approach to household issues -- and we don't have kids!

It is evidence of something (I'm still trying to work out what) that Dr. Phil rates a blog post after more than a month of no posts at all. My life is both so boring that it really doesn't generate a lot of great stories, and so complicated that it would be nearly impossible to explain. In the boring category we have our recent trip to the Lodge at Woodloch (a destination spa) for some R&R to celebrate our one-year anniversary. Very restful, but not terribly blog-worthy.

In the complicated category, my work in therapy continues. It's very scary, powerful, painful, productive, and nearly impossible to explain. I want to present the efforts of therapy in a positive way, but I need to respect the obvious fact that not everything that goes on in my life is suitable for publication.

So there you have it -- Dr. Phil rates a mention because pretty much everything else is too boring or too complicated to write about.

And you wondered why it had been five weeks. Silly reader.

Friday, March 27, 2009

One Morning in North Yorkshire

I love it here -- we're in Naburn, a little village on the outskirts of York. Starman is working on his blog posts on the New York Times crossword, I'm writing this, then we'll have breakfast, and eventually we'll be off to York for wandering around time and lunch at Bettys. Bettys is so English that you know the mind behind it is Swiss: a tea room/lunch spot where the wait staff (almost all women) are dressed in a variation of a parlor room maid from an Edwardian costume drama. Like, say, Atonement. The food is divine--don't-tell-your-nutritionist fare: Rosti potatoes, Welsh rarebit, cakes, biscuits, and lashings of tea. You don't want to leave, until you pay the bill and then you're a bit queasy and not sure you want to come back, but that's not a problem for us: It's been over six months, so we've forgotten (or rationalized) the costs. Besides, we're travelling -- it's all Monopoly money!

The most amazing thing happened at the Manchester airport -- I got through the Immigration queue faster than Starman! Last fall, it was the worst -- I went through his EU-passport-holders line with him, only to be told off by the Man for having an American passport, albeit one with a Marriage Visa in it and accompanied by my Brit husband. So back I went to the end of the Non-EU queue, while Starman went off to collect the bags. Yesterday, all the planes that landed just before ours were returning from known-holiday spots -- Jamaica, etc. -- so the queue for EU-passport holders was enormous. My queue? Two people ahead of me. Only one immigrations officer (and she was a trainee with her supervisor behind her, so super slow) but still. I got chatting with the couple behind me. They live near Kennett Square -- in the heart of duPont estate country -- and they were there to visit their son who lives in Wetherby. That's right in the general vicinity of Harrowgate, where Starman and I got married last year. Only I was stunned when this rather soignee American woman announced, "He lives in York-shyer." Um, really? Are you sure he doesn't live in York-sure?

Don't worry I didn't say anything. I don't think I even rolled my eyes. I've been there. I know to say "skahns" instead of "skowns" for those yummy clotted cream receptacles. But I can remember one occasion when I'd been away for almost ten years and, in front my my former mother in law, I told myself to say "skahns" and what came out of my mouth was "skowns." I don't think that's why, years later, she wasn't happy that I married her son, but it didn't help.

I thought about that as we drove southeast to Oxford to see Starman's mother. Fiona is in her late 70s. She has Parkinson's and some form of dementia; three years ago she had a bad fall, and since then she's needed full time care. She's been lucky to be able to stay at home. But she's not who she was before the fall, and certainly not who she was before the Parkinson's. In a sense, I never really met her -- the first time Starman brought me to see her, she was in a nursing home following her fall, and although she was more mobile than she is now, she wasn't a lot more - - well, herself.

If I were a lot younger, this might bother me. Who a beloved's parents are is important. But at our age (Starman is almost in the same age range as me), the identity and significance of the parents-in-law is blunted. His dad died over 25 years ago; I know a lot about Roger, but he's been gone for a long time. My parents died in 1997 and 2000, so they've not been factors for a while. And Fiona, well, there may be a connection between Starman's readiness to be in a committed relationship and her deterioration but I rather doubt it. He'd been on his own for a long, long time -- he was ready.

What matters is this house I'm in at the moment -- Starman's brother and sister-in-law are so wonderful, so charming and friendly, so welcoming and accommodating. We're thrilled to be here, and they sensibly don't allow their lives to be disrupted by our visits. That way, we're welcome any time. And believe me, this is a damn fine place to be. I'm looking out at milky sunshine in the front garden. Daffodils are up, the grass is green, birds are singing -- what's not to love?

Come to Yorkshire -- there are gorgeous place all through England, but this place is special. Just be sure to pronounce the name correctly!

Monday, March 23, 2009

About Those Paper Dolls

A few weeks ago, I volunteered to teach some local peeps how to knit. (Oh, and I have a knitting blog now -- another blog to kill through slow starvation!) At the end of the morning, Hope (a loyal reader -- Hi, Hope!) handed me a present. How sweet, and when I unwrapped it at home, it turned out to be a beautifully elaborate set of paper dolls.

First of all, thank you very much. I can't recall where I mentioned that I love paper dolls, but it's all true, and even at my advanced age, it's nice to get such a great present.

But then something weird happened, and I found out why I like paper dolls. Here's that story.

But first, if you haven't read this post yet, I'd suggest starting there. That way, when I tell you that Mr. Big told me something in a dream, you won't call the men in the white jackets -- you'll know I already have them on speed dial.

But yeah, he did. I was having some dream about solving a puzzle -- gee, I wonder where that comes from? -- and kept thinking, "I have to anagram 'hypnotism' or 'hypnotist' to get the answer," even though that made no sense at all. (I just checked, using the Starman's #1 software TEA, and the only words that anagram to 'hypnotism' and 'hypnotist' are 'pythonism' and 'pythonist.' I don't even like snakes.) When I woke up, of course, I understood exactly what that dream meant.

When I started law school, I had finished up with a therapist in the Albany, NY area, Mike Nichols. Great guy, very bright. I got to be completely precocious with him, like a bratty kid who thinks being "gifted" is license to behave badly. He was very patient with me. Anyway, off I went to law school, assuming I could just get on in life. I didn't make it through the first year before I knew I was crazier than was comfortable, and I needed a new therapist. I assumed it had something to do with not remembering my childhood (kind of a clue, you know?), and I naively assumed that a few sessions of hypno-therapy would do the trick.

Well, someone sent me along to a psychologist at the University health center for an evaluation. I told him everything and at the end of the hour, he said, "You need psychoanalytic psychotherapy," which is what I'd been doing with Mike up in Albany. I promptly burst into tears, which was NOT the reaction this guy was expecting. He hastily looked at the clock, told me to come back for another hour the following week, and bustled me out the door.

In the second session, I basically told him, "If talking about my problems was all it took, I'd be fixed by now. My deal is I don't have the raw material available to talk about . . ."

Now, I need to digress at this point. There was a famous day in early 1997 when I followed directions to a small storefront in South Philly, parked the car, got out, looked around and said to myself, "Who the hell lives here?!" Eighteen months later, I owned a house not a half-block from where I had parked that day. Be careful what absolutist statements you make, is all I'm saying. Fate has a way of getting the last laugh...

What I was trying to tell this guy at the University health center was that I was convinced that hypnotism had to be involved, because otherwise I was going to be talking about what I could remember, and no work would ever get done on the stuff I couldn't remember. My tears convinced the guy -- not that I was right, but that I really believed what I was saying. So he gave me the name of the super famous psychiatrist in Philadelphia who did hypnosis with people with dissociative disorders. Luckily for me, Dr. Famous wasn't taking new patients, and of the two names he gave me, my own delightful therapist ("the Queen Quiche") was the one who called me back.

When I started with QQ (so named because my sessions with Mike Nichols were on Wednesdays, aka "Prince Spaghetti Day," making him the Prince Spaghetti. A friend had a therapist she dubbed "the Czar" or, later, "the Zar" in solidarity. Royalty begets royalty, and as my current therapist is French, she's the Queen Quiche), we tried hypnotherapy. I went into the trance well enough, but once there, nuzzink. No hidden stuff, nothing I didn't already know, no unexplained emotional reactions. Within six months, QQ and I were doing . . . psychoanalytic psychotherapy. For 15 years . . . ! I mean, it's all been good, and I'm a whole lot less crazy than I was back in 1993, so I really can't complain, but -- geez. I had really pinned my hopes on rooting around in my subconscious, pulling up juicy nuggets of significance, talking about them for a while, then pulling up the next one. *sigh* Not to be, I guess.

I'd actually pretty much forgotten about hypnotherapy until my recent dream. But clearly Mr. Big knew better than me (a fairly standard situation) and I passed the word along to QQ that Mr. Big thought it was time to try again.

Which is how I came to find out about the paper dolls. When I go back to my hometown in one of these hypnotic states (not trances, really -- more deep relaxation), it's empty. The school is empty, the streets are empty, and my childhood home is empty. In fact, I'm in the house all alone. I can walk through the rooms -- there's one I don't want to go in, but it's no big deal -- but there's nothing much I want to do. Except for one thing: I want to be on my bed, playing with stuffed animals, or even better, with paper dolls.

Now, I know that I lived in a house with other humans, but this part of myself, the little girl whose memories I can access, lived alone. Presumably, if another member of my family came home, this little girl was swapped out for some other part of myself I haven't met yet. What's so chilling about this sense memory is the vividness of my isolation. I was deeply lonely, of course, but I was being protected from something deemed worse than loneliness. Still, lonely is sad.

And that's why I loved paper dolls. I had a set where the dolls were cardboard and had holes punched in their torsos such that when a dress was put on, it could be laced up like some Tyrolean dirndl. I really loved those dolls, and something happened to them (maybe nothing ominous, maybe they just got thrown away in a routine clean-up) that constituted a loss I still mourn. A few years later, there was a series of comic books about Millie The Model. Interleaved with the stories of three mid-60s models were pages of clothes that could be cut out and used to dress a cartoon model. I meticulously cut those out and kept them in a box under my bed.

It's such a pedestrian activity, getting dressed, but it must speak volumes to the juvenile mind, particularly for girls. I had Barbies (later), and invested a lot of energy into clothing them (literally -- on one occasion I walked ten miles to the shopping mall where my mother worked, so I could spend my allowance on a new Barbie outfit; if I'd taken the bus, I wouldn't have had the amount I needed for the outfit), but the paper dolls were even more primal and powerful, possibly because they took up so little space. (Losing that third dimension will do that to a body.) I still crave that connection, even though at 53 it's a bit hard to justify the actual activity.

So, thank you Hope, for giving me some paper dolls. Now all I need is a little girl who's sufficiently age-appropriate to justify playing with the paper dolls, just helping you know . . .

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Me & The Starman

I got this meme from Dooce, but it looked like fun. In that way that answering questions can be fun. Like, the Bar Exam, talking to a state trooper who's just pulled you over, etc.

What are your middle names?

My middle name is Stuart, his is Ross. (You can imagine the teasing I got when I was confirmed in the Episcopal church. All the other girls could not contain their mirth that I had a BOY'S name as a middle name. It's a family name; I got it from my great-grandmother. In fact, there have been four or five women named Magdalen.)

How long have you been together?
Two and a half years.

How long did you know each other before you started dating?
Hub 1.0 introduced us in London in 1998, when Hub and I were first engaged. I was in awe to meet this famous guy who'd been all-correct for so long that they made him the editor of the world's hardest crossword puzzle. Starman had funny hair back then -- longer and kind of poufy in the front. Not unattractive, just unrecognizable from today. He didn't say much. We met again in 2000 when we sat at the same table at a crossword dinner in Paris. He stared at Hub 1.0 and me throughout the meal, which seemed very un-British. Still wasn't saying much. I saw him twice more before 2006; after the second time, I was genuinely worried that he was ill, which is why I allowed myself to be the Overly Familiar American and email him in late 2005 when we learned he'd quit the editorship. The emails turned to phone calls, and then to visits, but we were Just Friends for over six months before it became romantic.

Who asked whom out?
N/A. There were no dates. I have been on precisely one date in my entire life, and it was with someone I was not romantically interested in, at a restaurant where someone had a heart attack, and the whole experience was excruciatingly awkward. How I've married not one but two Englishmen without dating is just part of my awesome unusualness.

How old are each of you?
I have just turned 53, he's 49. But of course we're both really 6 years old...

Whose siblings do you see the most?
His, despite the fact that they all live in the U.K.

Which situation is the hardest on you as a couple?
He's much better at dealing with my emotional roller coaster maneuvers than I have a right to expect. He's less volatile, but when he is having a bad day, I'm pretty good about it. Thus we avoid most of the pitfalls that I can imagine. It's been a while, but I have in the past had a problem when we're trying to fix something and all of a sudden my Oxford University-educated genius husband loses 50 IQ points and adopts the Blank Stare as a defense.

Did you go to the same school?
Hardly. He went to public (i.e., private) schools followed by University College [doncha just love the contradictions in English education?] at Oxford University. I went to two small liberal arts colleges in the Northeast, then got a master's from a PAC-10 university, and years later got a law degree from an Ivy League law school.

Are you from the same home town?
Again, not even remotely close. I grew up in Schenectady, NY; he grew up in Oxford, England.

Who is smarter?
Hard to say. He's book smart, better read, quicker (except when trying to fix things; see above), and more analytical. I'm more intuitive, better at understanding people, and can make certain deductions more easily. But here's an absolute fact: Hub 1.0 can think rings around us both, and that's saying a LOT.

Who is the most sensitive?
Depends what you mean by sensitive. He bruises easier, but I cry at cotton commercials...

Where do you eat out most as a couple?
We're in a bit of a backwater here in Northeast Pennsylvania, but there's a Mexican restaurant ten minutes away that's run by an actual Mexican guy. His is a great story: a local couple traveled to Mexico, met this kid who had just been orphaned, brought him back to our county and sent him to the local school. After he graduated, the restaurant is what he wanted to do. The menu hasn't changed since I first went there 5 years ago, but it's all good food.

Where is the furthest you two have traveled together as a couple?
Alaska, with Hub 1.0 as our wedding present. Worked out well, and we'd love to travel with him again.

Who has the craziest exes?
N/A. I just have Hub 1.0, and Starman has no exes that I know about, so I'd win except that Hub 1.0 isn't crazy, and we're all good friends. Maybe that makes us all crazy...

Who has the worst temper?
I do. Hands down.

Who does the cooking?
Me. When he was dating, he taught himself to cook, and his chocolate mousse is damn fine, but he doesn't enjoy it, and I do.

Who is the neat-freak?
I expected him to be; his house in Twyford was immaculate. But no, we're pretty evenly matched as mildly untidy. My office gets untidier and then tidier, as does my side of the bed, but I'm not sure that's not just a difference in periodicity.

Who is more stubborn?
It's not a character flaw either of us has in great amounts, but I'll own it.

Who hogs the bed?
Hmmm. I suspect I do, but Starman is too nice to tell me.

Who wakes up earlier?
I do unless he's not been sleeping well. The real answer is the cats, who've been working hard on their devices and schemes to wake us up. They've taken to throwing their furry bodies at the bedroom doors in the hopes that the door might open and allow them access to the bed. A cat purring loudly and walking over us is a very effective alarm clock.

Where was your first date?
N/A; see above.

Who is more jealous?
Look, this is a guy who understood that my nearly 40-year connection to Hub 1.0 was important to me, so all props to Starman for being wise and gracious and open-minded.

How long did it take to get serious?
Six months? Seven? There was the more pressing issue of resolving the status of my first marriage first, but it all worked out pretty efficiently.

Who eats more?
In terms of volume, he does. In terms of surplus to requirements, I do.

Who does the laundry?
I do. If you'd asked who puts the clothes away, we could cue the crickets...

Who's better with the computer?
::cough cough:: Let's put it this way -- one of us is a software programmer, and one us is a lawyer.

Who drives when you are together?
I do. I like it. He doesn't seem to mind. However, if we're in the UK and the hire car has a stick shift, he does. I can manage the roundabouts, but not then also shift with the wrong hand while driving on the wrong side of the road.