The Third Child – 07/14/2021

I can’t write about Miles and Ben and me without writing about the third child – the one that made me famous and cost me some important relationships, that led me up to the edge of a nervous breakdown and made me friends all over the world, the one with whom we all shared our lives.

The ovum of that child was released, I guess, when I wrote an article distilling my three whole years of experience into a few thousand words, called it “How to Be a Sexually Dominant Woman,” and fired it off to Cosmopolitan.[1]

The sperm was the owner of a local erotic boutique. She’d invited me to teach a workshop for novice dommes and their partners. She asked me what name I wanted to use, and, more or less at random, I said “Lady Green.” I showed her my article, and she said, “This is great – can we use it as a handout?”

“I’ve already submitted it to Cosmo, so that won’t work,” I said. “But I could rewrite it and we can use that instead.”

And the zygote – I promise I’ll stop belaboring this metaphor now – began to form. The article grew and grew, and Jay said, “You know, that’s enough words for a small book” – and, well, things kind of took off from there.

But at the same time that Greenery Press was being born, my career in advertising was dying.

I was working as a copywriter at a small Silicon Valley agency specializing in high-tech clients. I’d been their cherished darling when they first hired me – the skills that later gave me a career in explaining weird sex to the masses served me well in talking to engineers, figuring out what they were trying to say, and translating that into fun, benefit-oriented prose that an executive or purchasing agent could understand.[2]

I was having fun, I was making more money than I ever had before, I adored my coworkers and they adored me. Until, gradually, they didn’t.

Having just joined the actual kink community, I was newly in love with being able to speak what had formerly seemed unspeakable. Like many newbies, I wasn’t being terribly careful about the boundaries between my erotic self and all my other selves. The kind of issues that would have been unexceptionable if I’d been putting energy into the PTA or my bowling team were a problem when they were about scheduling a play party or mediating a community conflict – and although I tried to be careful to keep my personal business personal, it seeped through.

Things came to a head at a mandatory company retreat. I loathe, as a matter of principle, such exercises in forced bonding (I already have friends, and the reason they’re my friends is that I chose them), but at this one we were being encouraged to drink. A lot.

By this point in the book, you have probably figured out that I am not very inhibited when I’m sober. So you can just imagine what I get up to with four or five drinks in me.

The weekend is kind of a blur, but I have a patchy memory of a series of skits in which we were asked to pretend we were one of our coworkers. Which somehow led to my bright idea that acting my part involved grabbing the assistant media buyer by the crotch.

In short, the weekend was the end of any illusions the company might have had that they had hired a nice girl.

What happened next, quite quickly:

  • A companywide memo went out forbidding personal calls on company time. It was summertime, the Dudes were in day camp[3] but home with Jay in the afternoons, and I had been checking in with them once or twice a day to forestall mayhem – but I obeyed the rule and stopped making those calls.
  • Jay began complaining that his work was being interrupted by six or seven hang-up calls a day.
  • I was called into the boss’s office, shown a phone bill that included six or seven calls a day to my home number, and fired on the spot.

I suppose I could have applied for other copywriting jobs, but I was too shocked and dispirited to try – plus, I’d only been in the Bay Area for a year, and I had no career support network there.

I already had the Sexually Dominant Woman piece drafted. Jay had a manuscript he called SM 101: A Realistic Introduction that he’d been working on for years, and had submitted to several mainstream publishers to no avail.

With my salary gone (and no hope of receiving unemployment, as I’d been “fired with cause”), we were staring bankruptcy in the face.

For his first book, The Bay Area Sexuality Resources Guidebook, Jay had already figured out a strategy that presaged today’s “print-on-demand” system: he’d get an order from an erotic boutique or leather store, then call the copy shop to order that many copies of the book, photocopied and comb-bound. We’d pick up the books, deliver them to the retailer, and rush the resulting check to the bank quickly, before our check to the copy shop[4] bounced.

So we had three books, and we had a (funky but functional) distribution system. I’d spent my decade in advertising looking over the shoulders of excellent graphic designers, so I had a smidgen of understanding of basic layout principles and techniques. I spent money we didn’t have on a copy of Quark XPress layout software and got to work – and within six weeks of my expulsion, we had camera-ready art on both Jay’s and my books.

We started out as two separate companies – Jay Wiseman Books and Greenery Press. It didn’t take long for Jay to realize that he had no ability or desire to be a publisher, so we combined the two companies under the Greenery Press banner, and I got busy.

Within a year or two, I was hearing from mainstream bookstores saying they’d like to carry our books, but couldn’t accept the comb binding – they needed books to be perfect-bound[5].

If Jay’s precognitive contribution to Greenery was print-on-demand, mine was crowd-funding. I found folks who were willing to front us money for a print run, in exchange for a credit in the book and repayment of the loan out of book sales.

The Sexually Dominant Woman: A Workbook for Nervous[6] Beginners was our first “real” book, followed in short order by The Bottoming Book and The Topping Book. Our next big step was publishing a book that neither Jay nor I had played any part in writing, Miss Abernathy’s Concise Slave Training Manual. (All four books are still in print in some form.) By then, we were well and truly launched.

This was about the time that the world, especially the Bay Area, got wildly excited about a buzzy new concept called the World Wide Web. Huge amounts of money were getting invested in startups, and I wanted some of it.

I’d met a man – a former member of the Kerista family[7] ­­– at a polyamory conference, where he’d announced himself as a financial consultant specializing in publishers. With his help, I crafted a (wildly overoptimistic) business plan, incorporated the business, found some investors, hired some employees, and committed to a minimum of four books a year.

The odd thing is that in that couple of years, I published more books that would go on selling well for years than I ever did afterwards – but it still wasn’t enough. Greenery Press made itself an ironic name by running constantly in the red. I got incredibly lucky in the folks assigned to our tax accounts – the guy from the IRS collected vintage Chinese erotica, and the guy from the California Board of Equalization was the biological son of a publisher whose obscenity case had gone to the Supreme Court – and they truly did want to help me. But the fact was that we were hugely, terrifyingly in debt, and likely to go on getting more so. I owed money to printers, to authors, to suppliers, to back payroll. (The authors were a particular source of tension, as many of them were personal friends. I started to avoid scene events because of the likelihood of running into people to whom I owed hundreds or thousands of dollars.)

The constant financial and emotional stress (this was also happening concurrently with Miles’s illness) spelled the end of my relationship with Jay. But the company owed him a lot of money that we couldn’t repay, and I couldn’t see any way to separate without putting him out on the street.

Then, I woke up one morning with an epiphany: If I rented an industrial loft and moved into it, I could lose the monthly cost of the office Greenery was subletting, and Jay could have our place[8]. I let go all but one employee and cut that one back to part-time, and started in on the next chunk of my life.

That was a very bad few months. I am not by nature an anxious person, but I’d been pushed far beyond the amount of stress I could manage. The breakup was the only really acrimonious one I’ve ever had; Miles was in and out of the hospital; I was drowning in debt; my closest friends were angry with me over the royalties situation. But slowly, aided by a lot of medication and the support of the friends to whom I didn’t owe money (and the few, god bless them, who were able to compartmentalize our friendship away from our finances), I gradually began to craft a new life. I sold my place in San Francisco, signed the proceeds over to the company, and paid off one debt at a time – first the printers, then the tax guys, and then the authors. Bit by bit, I clawed my way back from the brink.

I’d reached the point where I wasn’t living in a state of constant panic, but the company wasn’t in the black, or likely to get there anytime soon. After a couple of years of brinkmanship, I cut a deal with our distributor for them to buy the company from me over a five-year period. The proceeds were enough to get us caught up with the authors, and SCB took over all the company finances. They kept me on board as an editorial consultant, and we went on producing a book or two a year.

But the tide, inevitably, turned. We’d been very lucky to have caught the wave of kink culture just as it was cresting, and we rode that sucker for a couple of decades (with a huge boost, I regret to say, following the publication of 50 Shades of Grey). The Ethical Slut, which was our biggest title, had been sold to Ten Speed/Random House some years before, and the handful of other polyamory books we published never came close. Sales of all the kink books ebbed as BDSM stopped being a hot new trend (and as kink education became increasingly available on-line).

It was time. In 2019, I resigned my consultancy and Greenery stopped publishing new books.

There was, of course, the small issue of all the infinitely patient shareholders who had invested in us back during the halcyon days of the dot-com boom. I did eventually get them paid off too – I actually, no shit Sherlock, had a maiden aunt who died and left me some money. So that final debt was paid, and I was free to move forward into whatever comes next.

So, that’s how I raised Greenery to the ripe old age of twenty-seven. It’s still out in the world making a living off the backlist. Greenery made me famous (in my own odd way), and it supplied me with as much joy and as much misery as any human child could provide. It was a great run – but, honestly, I am so glad it’s over.

[1] Fat fucking chance. Cosmo accepts that kind of material now, but in 1992 its fare was more along the lines of “How to Make Him Like You as Much as You Like Him,” “Cover Girl Meets Rocker and… It’s Magic,” and “For That Fantasy Romance Among the Too Rich, Read Ivana Trump’s ‘For Love Alone’.” You can’t make this stuff up.

[2] This sector of the advertising industry is called “business-to-business,” and is looked down on as more workmanlike and less glamorous than consumer advertising. My talents have never been a great fit for consumer advertising. I was, however, a very, very good business-to-business writer.

[3] It may be relevant to note that only one other person in the company had kids, and he had a stay-at-home wife to take care of them.

[4] There was a small disturbance when the copy shop found that their practice of binding discarded pages into scratch pads for distribution at local schools had suddenly become a problem. Fortunately, that wasn’t our problem.

[5] The kind of binding you see on nearly all paperback books, with a flat, printed spine.

[6] Another Jay contribution: I was going to call it A Workbook for Eager Beginners. He was right.

[7] Too much to explain here. Look them up; they’re fascinating.

[8] He decided not to stay, but at least I’d made the offer.

What We Ate #2 – 05/26/2021

I’ve learned better now. But for the first few decades of my adult life, in an attempt to sculpt my naturally stocky figure into something svelte and alluring, I attempted various diets, of various stringencies and justifications.

Joanne, in the musical Company, sings, “It’s not so hard to be married/I’ve done it three or four times,” and that’s what I’ve learned about dieting. Getting thin is easy;  staying thin is nearly impossible.[1]

(A story that may or may not be relevant here: When my mother, from whom I inherited my sturdy short-limbed build, was dying slowly of COPD[2], one of her medications killed her appetite. Gleefully, she reduced her daily food consumption to one Skinny Cow diet ice cream bar and a few bites of whatever she had cooked for her husband’s dinner. When I expressed concern, she explained matter-of-factly, “I intend to die at my goal weight.” And she did, possibly losing several months of her life to the muscle wasting caused by a starvation diet. I’m still not sure whether this story makes me furious or sad.)

My most extreme attempt was a medically supervised modified fast, during which I drank innumerable glasses of nasty artificial crap and ate one small meal daily. The weight melted away like snow in April. By the end, I was the lightest I’d been since high school. And I was the star student at the post-diet lessons – as an experienced planner and cook of family meals, I did and do have a firm grasp both of basic nutrition and of eyeballing food quantities.

The guidelines we received after the fast included target amounts of protein, produce and whole grains to be included in our daily diet, as well as a caloric intake we were not to exceed. I immediately set to work trying to game the system by squeezing as many nutritional requirements into as few calories as possible, in order to have as many as possible left over for chocolate chip cookies.

The result of my inspiration looked extremely unappetizing, like the aftermath of a potent norovirus, but it was and is surprisingly tasty and filling. When I explained its purpose to the Dudes, Miles promptly dubbed it “Purina Mom Chow.”

I still eat Purina Mom Chow from time to time – if I ever, god forbid, have a regular office job again, I’ll pack it for my lunch a couple of times a week – it’s satisfying, fast to eat, and can be consumed at one’s desk. However, the fact of its existence is an excellent indicator of why I’ve given up on diets – if you give me any constraint at all, my first and strongest reaction will always be to try to game it.

Thus, I have no intention of dying at my goal weight. I will, however, do my best to die with my mouth full of Häagen Dazs coffee ice cream.

Purina Mom Chow

1 c. nonfat cottage cheese (if you’re not worried about calories, the full-fat kind is much better)

1 can drained juice-pack crushed pineapple (go ahead, drink the juice, I’ll never tell)

1/3 c. Grape Nuts

Stir together and Chow down. If you’re packing a lunch, stir the cottage cheese and pineapple together and carry the Grape Nuts in a baggie to stir in when you’re ready to eat.

Variation: Use chopped avocado instead of pineapple, and salsa instead of Grape Nuts. It looks even worse that standard Chow, but is even more delicious.

[1] There’s plenty of research to back this up, but it’s easier to think of everyone you know who has lost a significant amount of weight. How many are still thin? Out of my circle of several hundred acquaintances, I can think of between five and ten. Not great odds.

[2] Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.

The book will include a bunch of these short vignettes, because we all love food, and what we cooked and ate in those days is part of our story. Most of them will have recipes, although this one doesn’t. – JH

What We Ate #1 – 05/06/2021

Jay was one of the pickiest eaters I’ve ever encountered: no onions, nothing spicy, nothing exotic – if it hadn’t been on his family’s table in 1950s Indiana, he wasn’t interested. Mostly, when the Dudes weren’t around, we ate separately – frozen dinners for him, eggs or a sandwich or a salad for me. On weekends, when Miles and Ben were with us, I’d cook something simple that everyone enjoyed. But that was in the period when Jay and I were becoming known on the national scene, so we traveled both together and individually – and when he was away, all bets were off. We had “Eat Food Jay Hates” weekends, full of sushi and Thai and curry.

On one such weekend, a friend had gifted me with a sweatshirt that said “PAIN IS GOOD,”[1] illustrated with a photo of a man gasping. It came with a bottle of Pain Is Good jerk sauce. Jerk chicken was high on the Food Jay Would Hate list, what with being spicier than a TV dinner, so I set forth to cook some.

I’d marinated the chicken in the sauce all day. As I stood at the stovetop grilling it, I sneezed. Then I sneezed again. Then I started coughing, and then my eyes started streaming. And then the Dudes emerged from their room down the hall, also sneezing and coughing, and helped me throw open all the windows and doors. I took the pan off the heat and we went outside until we could breathe again. When we were pretty sure the place was habitable, we went back inside and I finished cooking dinner with a box of Kleenex on the counter beside me.

Turns out there’s a reason jerk chicken is usually cooked outdoors – if you cook it indoors, its proper name is “tear gas.”

(The chicken, served over lots of rice, was delicious.)

[1] I wore it until it fell apart, years later.


If a parent raising teenaged boys never has to address the subject of porn, it’s because they aren’t paying close attention.

If that parent makes her living as a creator and publisher of explicitly sexual material, willful blindness is not an option.

The day I took a deep breath and nosedived into this particular aspect of raising kids in a sex-positive environment was the day I was gathering dirty bedding from the Dudes’ room and discovered a copy of Penthouse Variations[1] under Miles’s mattress.

A copy he had filched from my nightstand.

I could have left it there – it was fairly tame, with no explicit photos and no nonconsent. (I feel for today’s parents who have to contend with an Internet full of every imaginable kind of raunch.) And had it not been my magazine, I’d probably have done just that. But when I thought about it, what bothered me was not the porn, but the theft.

There was no way to confront the situation without embarrassing Miles, but I did my best to keep it short and direct, to the tune of “Read what you want, dude, but stay the fuck out of my nightstand.”

What he didn’t know, and is probably reading here for the first time, is that the reason I had the magazine in my nightstand was that it featured my very first published article, under an editor-assigned pen name. Talking about that would have been not just a bridge too far, but a bridge on the other side of the planet.

I think Ben was twelve or thirteen when I found a folder full of hentai on my hard drive. My reaction, after a few minutes to cool down, was pretty much the same one I’d used with Miles, only updated for the electronic era: “I’m not dumb enough to think I can prevent a teenaged boy from looking at porn, but this is my computer and there was a box of floppy disks in your Christmas stocking. Use them.” Not too long afterward, he got his own computer and I stopped worrying about his viewing, as it was no longer my business.

Jay and I had decided to be extremely careful to protect the Dudes from our various goings-on – not so much because we thought they’d be harmed by anything we were up to, as because at that point in our lives we were becoming public figures, and the last thing we needed was to be attacked for contributing for the delinquency of a couple of minors.

That was great in theory. In practice, however, I remember chatting to Ben one day and then noticing that he was standing in my office, on a floor where I’d scattered numerous pieces of line art for Greenery’s upcoming A Hand in the Bush: The Fine Art of Vaginal Fisting.

Needless to say, when I formally came out to each of the Dudes on their eighteenth birthdays, they were not flabbergasted by the news.

(When parents in my workshops ask me about coming out to their teenagers, I assure them that they should not kid themselves – the spawn already know. They may, however, get things wrong, so that’s why you still need to talk to them.)

In general, my approach to the Dudes’ sex education was to be as straightforward as possible without embarrassing any of us too much. I did a basic birds and the bees talk – which I have since been informed was way too much information for a single sitting[2] – and made a habit of keeping an open box of condoms in the medicine cabinet of their bathroom, with an assurance that I would keep it filled and available. As far as I know, none of the condoms were ever used, but I hoped that putting them there was an implicit message that I was supportive of whatever consensual sexual choices the two of them made.

I completed the basics on my sex-ed obligations by suggesting several male friends who could answer questions that they didn’t feel right asking their mother (and notifying those friends that they were to feel free to answer such questions), and providing the telephone number to the San Francisco Sex Information hot line. Later, I bought them a copy of The Guide to Getting It On, which was at the time – maybe still is; I don’t follow that market anymore – the best sexuality guide for adolescents.  

That was all I had for them. Except whatever they picked up from their environment, which was plenty.

During the Jay years, I lived in several different places: first, a two-bedroom townhouse (one bedroom for Jay and me, the other for Miles and Ben); then, a suburban house that Jay and I shared with my play partner Tim; then, a big pink house near the ocean in San Francisco; and finally, a duplex that I bought with Tim’s partner Kathy.

It was the big pink house that shaped our lives for the future. On the main floor, Tim had a bedroom at the end of the hall, with a second room beyond it that started out as my office – but after a couple of months of tiptoeing past him while he was napping or masturbating, we decided it would be better for me to work from the dining room. Sharing a wall with Tim’s room at the end of the hall was the Dudes’ room. Upstairs, in what we called the Crow’s Nest, lay a small bedroom surrounded by windows, where Jay and I slept and played.

Under the house was a two-bedroom mother-in-law unit. When we first moved in, it was occupied by a Brazilian dancer and her boyfriend, pleasant people who kept out of our way. Then, however, our insane Russian landlady lost her living situation and moved in with them, without their consent and to their vast annoyance. Needless to say, that didn’t last long, and within a few months all three of them were gone. Tim, Jay and I stretched our budget beyond the max and took on what became known as the Lifeboat as part of our household. Over the several years of our residence, the Lifeboat was occupied nearly constantly by friends, friends of friends, lovers, family members, and other folks who needed short-term lodging.

Our record for total number of people under our roof at a time maxed out at seventeen. So we had this enormous, busy house that was fully pervert-occupied, except for my kids[3].

That worked out pretty much exactly the way you’d expect.

The first big change came when Tim, who had been playing the field, met Kathy, his dream sadist.[4] Kathy moved in, which meant that my kids were awakened many mornings by her breathless soprano orgasm-voice – ah, the joys of new love – through the shared wall. I figured that for most of human history, young humans had been exposed to the sounds of adult lovemaking, with no serious harm done. And as far as I know, no serious harm came from Tim and Kathy’s concert performances either, although I guess you’d have to ask Miles and Ben to find out for sure.

And once the two were adult or near-adult, the gloves were off. Miles came with me to BookExpo America when he was nineteen, the year we premiered the first edition of The Ethical Slut[5], to help stock our booth and act as a general dogsbody. It turned out that he did us the most good by putting on an Ethical Slut t-shirt a size too small with our booth number in big Sharpie letters on the back, and walking his handsome young self around the show. We couldn’t afford the mascots or other showy stuff that established publishers take to BookExpo, but putting my DNA to work as a booth babe turned out to be a good strategy for all concerned.

The year Ben got pressed into service helping with Greenery Press outreach, we had a booth at Folsom Street Fair[6], but my employee was down with the flu and I couldn’t manage the booth by myself (I had a two-hour block marked out to sign copies of Radical Ecstasy, Dossie’s and my latest book). I asked Ben if he would like to earn some dough by keeping the shelves and table stocked with books all day, and he was delighted to help. What I didn’t account for was the Greenery author I’d drafted to cover my shift during my signing, who decided to attract booth traffic by stripping out of her shirt and bra and selling books tits, and tats[7], to the wind. Ben, barely past his age of majority, dealt with it pretty well, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that it was his first encounter with boobs in the wild.

A lot of events that would probably have gotten us looked at with some concern simply got chalked up to “Mom’s weird friends.” For many years, we hosted an informal potluck on Christmas afternoon for all our Christmas orphan friends (as in all queer-flavored communities, many of our beloveds were not on speaking terms with their families of origin). Miles and Ben enjoyed mingling with the group and helping perform party-host functions like making sure empty dishes were whisked away and keeping little bowls of nuts and M&Ms filled, but I can’t vouch for the conversations they must have overheard. I do remember the year Tim gave Kathy fancy lingerie for Christmas, and she debuted it by doing a striptease for the assorted guests: the Dudes, as far as I could tell, watched with the same tangle of enjoyment and embarrassment as everyone else at the party.

Our dedicated moviegoing let us in for a few inappropriate experiences as well. I’d been brought up with the dictum that if I was interested enough to explore sexy material, I was mature enough to read it, and that was pretty much my attitude toward the Dudes. But the world seemed to have gotten a lot smuttier in the quarter century between my adolescence and theirs. The day I took them to a matinee of “adult cartoons” at the Red Vic[8] I was expecting something pretty racy, along the lines of some of the less inhibited Betty Boop cartoons – and there were plenty of those, and we enjoyed them. As the afternoon’s program went on, though, it got more and more graphic, to the point that even I was a bit shocked. I couldn’t see much point in storming out, so I white-knuckled our way through explicit animated penetration of various orifices. As we left the theater, though, all three of us we were uncharacteristically silent.

Even if I’d been stricter in our viewing choices, mistakes would have been made. I rented The Grifters one afternoon, remembering only that it was a movie about con men, and who doesn’t love con men movies? Somehow the mother/son incest theme had escaped my memory. Once again, by the time I realized my error, it was too late.

And yet, somehow, both Dudes seem to have grown up to be mature, feminist, nonviolent men. Their boundaries are arguably better than mine, in that I know very little about either of their sexuality: they keep that private, which is both understandable[9] and appropriate. But I’ve heard no complaints so far.

And, no, I’m not putting myself up as any exemplar of sex-positive parenting. All I can say is that this is the way I did it, and everything seems to have turned out pretty much okay. The moral to this story, if it has one, is that watching or reading sexual material is not inherently damaging to kids. So don’t panic when you discover your adolescent with his hand in his or her pants and a skin flick on the computer.

Because someday you will. I promise.

[1] A kinky iteration of Penthouse Lettters, which published (ostensibly) true letters submitted by readers.

[2] As always, I was way better at talking than I was at shutting up.

[3] As far as I know.

[4] They would go on to marry, and are still together twenty-plus years later.

[5] Just in case you’ve read this far and still don’t know about this book, it’s Dossie’s and my book about polyamory. Coming up on its quarter century mark and its third edition, it outsells all our other books put together, by a large margin.

[6] An enormous celebration of leather, BDSM and fetish culture that draws tens of thousands of people to San Francisco every year.

[7] The first time this author came to our house, I wasn’t going to be able to be there when she arrived. I asked Ben and Miles to please let her in and get her something to drink. “She’s nearly six feet tall with a whole lot of black hair, and everything that isn’t tattooed is pierced,” I told them. Ben’s response, utterly deadpan: “Okay, but how will we recognize her?”

[8] An old hippie movie theater in the Haight.

[9] In the British show Sex Education, Gillian Anderson plays a famous sex-author mom. I actually find her slightly reassuring: at least my boundaries are better than someone’s.

drawings of the three principals at various points in their lives

Us: An Introduction – 4/4/2021

Given that you’re about to read a whole book about Miles, Ben and me, you’ll probably want to start with some sense of who the hell we are.

I’ll go first, because my name is on the cover. I turned 66 this year. Most folks who have ever heard of me associate me with a book I coauthored, The Ethical Slut[1], which has been in print for nearly thirty years and has been translated into more than a dozen languages. But I’ve actually written a lot of books, mostly about kink/BDSM – including three memoirs, of which this is the latest.

I grew up in suburban Philadelphia, but my family moved to California when I was thirteen, where I spent my life till my spouse Edward and I moved to Oregon in 2009. If I had to choose the place that felt most like home to me, it’d be Oakland, CA, but who can afford to live in the Bay Area forever?

I’m bisexual, but tend to nest with men. You’ll read here about all three of the men I’ve lived with – Frank, with whom I raised our kids; Jay, who was an inextricable part of my rise to prominence as a kink and polyamory author; and Edward, to whom I am now married, and with whom I’m braving the imminent experience of old age. You’ll also meet several women who have been dear to me as lovers and friends, including Dossie, my coauthor, co-collaborator, sometime lover and longtime dear friend, as well as a host of other lovers, play partners and sweeties both long-term and incidental.

Miles, my older son, was born on Christmas Eve, 1977. He was the kind of easy baby that makes parents cocky about having more kids. (You think it’s because you’re such a remarkable parent that you’ve conquered all the usual parenting woes. Hah.) He slept through the night on our first night home from the hospital, and taught himself how to read at three by watching Sesame Street. The closest we ever came to disciplining him was counting to three, and we never reached three.[2]

Miles’s career ambitions started in his early teens, when our family’s frequent attendance at plays and movies crystallized into a desire to act. That desire multiplied through the years into a cluster of theater-adjacent skills and experiences: these days he’s an actor/puppeteer/writer/cartoonist/stagehand/mask-builder/filmmaker/merch guy, and I suspect I’ve forgotten to include six or seven more slashes.

Right about when I was abandoning all hopes of grandparenthood – he’d had several steady girlfriends, but none who shared his desire to start a family – Miles met and married Destiny. The two of them are beautifully in love; I suspect that they’re that rarest of phenomena, a true couple. (I’m cynical enough that I’d like to believe such things don’t exist, but I’ve met a few of them. I’ve never counted myself among their number, though.) Early this year, after a couple of false starts, they welcomed Felix, who appears to be following in his dad’s perfect-baby footsteps – or so I’m told, as COVID-19 has so far prevented me from meeting him in person. They live in Southern California, although I nurture a small bright hope of getting them to move up here one of these days. Keep your fingers crossed.

Ben came along five and a half years after Miles, mostly because I find preschoolers trying enough that it took that long before I was ready for a second round. Ben was the pint-sized antidote to parental hubris: all the first-child ease I’d thought was due to our excellent parenting – well, apparently it wasn’t.

I think if I were raising Ben now, he’d probably meet the criteria for Asperger’s – but of course that diagnosis didn’t exist then, so mostly I spent those early years pushing back against doctors and teachers who wanted him put on Ritalin. I maintained (and still do) that except in the most extreme cases, rather than drugging a kid into conforming with the schoolroom, we should find schoolrooms that adapt to the kid.

When he was in fourth grade, bringing home complaint after complaint from a rigidly unsympathetic teacher, I went to observe him one day. From my place behind the door, I watched the rest of the class doing flash cards on “rough” vs. “smooth,” while Ben was nose-deep in a fat fantasy novel he’d picked off his father’s bookshelves.

Frank and I were separated by then, but we were a lean mean team for the project of getting Ben out of there. After surveying various schools to find the right combination of a sympathetic philosophy, a manageable location and an affordable tuition, we agreed on Sacramento Valley School, an “unschooling” environment based on the famous Sudbury School. There, Ben could read to his heart’s content, experiment with making art and music, and form a few lifelong friendships with other oddball public-school refugees.

From the day Ben learned that there were people who made a living creating video games, he’d never wanted to do anything else. While SVS offered plenty of scope for research and experimentation with the arts, he knew he wasn’t getting the necessary grounding in math and science – so at fourteen he started attending community college to fill in the gaps, and got his GED at sixteen. He went on to get a bachelor’s in game design (from, unfortunately, a for-profit school which has since lost its certification), and has been following that career path ever since.

After a year programming for an animation-and-custom-games studio, he took off on his own, and has been working on an enormous solo game project (he’s doing the art, the music, the writing, the programming – the whole shebang) for years now. His discipline is fearsome and I don’t know where he inherited it: not from me, anyway.

Ben has never had a girlfriend (yet), mostly because he very rarely does anything that involves going to a place where women are. Like many geeks in his age bracket, his social life takes place almost entirely on-line, but it’s a busy one, with correspondents all over the world. He also does a weekly blog about gaming and the creative life, and creates custom illustrations as a side gig.

Ben lives less than a mile from me, and we see each other a few times a week for shopping, for him helping out with household stuff I’m not strong enough or willing enough to do anymore, and for our regular weekly writing/art-making get-together. We travel together easily and often (or did pre-quarantine, anyway), and he’s my regular moviegoing companion (ditto).

So, that’s us: three weirdos, leading our weird lives, together and separately. You can spend the rest of the book getting to know us better.

[1] Hence the title of this book.

[2] Which was fortunate, because we had no idea of what we’d do if the dreaded “three” ever crossed our lips.


      I don’t do well without pets. Even as a college freshman, I had an illicit pet rat in my dorm room, named Prufrock1 and subsisting on smuggled cafeteria food.

      Why do we have pets, anyway? To someone who doesn’t feel the itch to tie their life to someone of a different species, pets make no sense at all – they’re noisy, smelly, destructive and/or dirty, and they arrive laden with the expectation of a future full of responsibility, expense, and eventual heartbreak.

      To some of us, though, all these downsides feel like upsides – our lives feel incomplete when they’re not weighted with the need to care for, and be cared for by, another creature or two (or five, or twelve…)

      A therapist friend told me about a theory of family dynamics that holds that we marry the person our family of origin needs to be complete. I’m not sure about that when it comes to partner choice (although I must concede that it took Miles’s wedding to bring an honest-to-god extrovert into our clan), but I think there’s something to be said for it when it comes to pets.

I got Prufrock at a time when I was intensely lonely. College was a strange, unwelcoming environment, where none of the skills I’d developed over seventeen years of life worked at all: not for making friends, not for passing classes, not even for maintaining basic hygiene for my body and my environment. If you’re too weird for UC Santa Cruz, you are very weird indeed, so I guess I was. Prufrock was someone who genuinely liked me, who I could take care of without being taken advantage of. He rode in my pocket or up my sleeve to classes and errands, so I didn’t have to be by myself. By the time he died – I smuggled him onto an airplane in my purse, and he ate the lining and was dead when we landed – I was feeling a little more able to get on with my life, so I was petless for the rest of that term.

By my sophomore year, though, Frank and I had moved in together, and we were both people who were used to having pets. He got Phoebe, a calico cat he had for many years after, and I got Mac, who acted out all the resistance I could not afford to let myself feel: against being half of a couple, against having our own place, and a few years later against becoming a parent – against getting older, really.

My reasons for choosing Mac had less to do with any particular knowledge of his breed than they did with Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley, a favorite book: Mac was a big white Standard Poodle pup that I got for a few bucks from a backyard breeder.

 I know now that a wuss like me is not a good fit for an alpha puppy, and that feeding an animal that size was not actually practical on my student budget – but when Mac clambered over a squirming white cloud of littermates to lick my face, I knew he was my dog.

Mac and I did as well as could be expected, given that I had next to no experience in puppy training and that he was a big, high-energy dog who needed a whole lot more exercise and attention than I could give him. He was the charming homewrecker every girl falls in love with once, and he wrecked several homes in the years of our association. Fortunately, he loved baby Miles and was gentle with him…

… with the occasional hiccup. One afternoon, I was having a friend over for dinner, and didn’t have time to make dessert. So two-year-old Miles, who was just learning his letter sounds, and I stopped at the bakery to buy a small cake. The nice bakery lady even handed a free cookie to the cute little boy, and he was nibbling it slowly to make it last – until we stepped in the front door, and Mac inhaled it out of his hand in a single gulp.

You can imagine the wailing. And I didn’t blame him. I picked him up and tried to soothe him. “Is there anything that would make you feel better?” I asked.

The tears stopped like he’d found a shutoff valve. He looked me straight in the eye, then looked at the pink bakery box I’d placed on top of the refrigerator, and announced, firmly: “It begins with the letter K.”

In the course of Mac’s life with us, he:

  • Appeared out of nowhere to bite a cop (who we’d called to investigate someone camped out in our basement) on the inner thigh, an inch from his scrotum. The cop did not have a sense of humor, and Mac did two weeks of hard time in the Sacramento County Pound.
  • During a family gathering, disappeared every crumb of a large platter of sandwiches from a china plate atop a four-foot-high pass-through, without moving the plate an inch or making a sound that could be heard by the dozen people ten feet away.
  • Vaulted effortlessly over every fence we installed, including an eight-foot one with a jagged wooden top.
  • During the pre-Independence Day fireworks in our predominantly Latino neighborhood, tore an entire second-story window out of the frame with his teeth, and disappeared for two weeks. He eventually showed up in an industrial office just a few blocks away. The place had no open windows, and all its doors were locked. Nobody ever figured out how he had gotten in.

The last straw was when he began applying his formidable intelligence and dentition to the brand-new townhouse that Frank and I had stretched our budget to the max to purchase. We gave him away. I hope he landed with someone who had the knowledge and patience to bring out the good dog that was hiding somewhere in that curly, chaotic head.

After Mac, I was cautious about acquiring another dog. But then a friend told me about a couple who were relinquishing a female Basset Hound. I grew up with a basset, and I have a weakness for their gentle, loyal thickheadedness, so we adopted Gert.

I’m not sure about some of what was wrong about Gert, or what issue in our family dynamic she served. I think she must have been raised in a puppy mill – she showed no signs of affection, happiness, excitement – not even fear or hostility: she was a long, low blank slate that none of us could find a way to love. (The fact that the cracks in our marriage were beginning to show around then might have been part of it, but, honestly, I think nobody could really connect to Gert, including the couple who gave her to us.)

One thing I do know was wrong with her was that she had the most virulent flea allergy I’ve ever seen. Just one little black bloodsucker turned her into a frantic, scratching, balding, sleepless sausage stuffed with misery. This was long before today’s miraculous systemic flea prevention; we tried everything from professional flea baths to every brand of flea collar on the market to putting garlic oil in her food. Nothing helped. By the time she had no hair left from shoulderblades to tail and couldn’t sleep at all, we gave up and had her euthanized – to her relief and ours.

I think one of the reasons we have pets is that they’re practice for losing people. With the exception of parrots and tortoises, pets tend to have lifespans a great deal shorter than people do; to love a dog or cat or reptile or rodent is to recognize that you will grieve it someday.

The decision to euthanize a suffering animal is the biggest and hardest promise we make to our pets. They give us affection, entertainment, touch and love; we give them a painless and loving death. (“Painless” for them. Not so much for us.)

During both of my parents’ deaths, both chosen to the degree that the law made possible for each of them, I was forcefully reminded of the dogs and cats I’ve said goodbye to through the years. Human euthanasia can take as much as twenty-four hours between the moment the fatal draft is swallowed and the moment the body gives up its futile effort to keep functioning. With a pet, the same process takes seconds or maybe minutes.

I will never understand how we can be more generous to our pets in their time of greatest need than we are to the humans we love.

My dad’s wife Mona had to euthanize her dearly loved cat Scarlett, and was so distraught that she chose never to have another pet. That choice, to reject love because loss always lies at the end of it, is the saddest choice I can imagine. Love is a muscle that gets stronger with exercise, and there is no more demanding exercise than letting go.

After Gert, I gave up on dogs for most of a decade, although we had a series of unmemorable cats (Frank’s cat Phoebe went to live at his folks’ house after we adopted Jane, who we discovered had feline leukemia and was dangerously contagious). I tried having a canary – I love the happy sound of a canary singing; it brings sunshine into the household – but I knew nothing about birdkeeping, plus having an ornithophobic mother had rubbed off: I had a very hard time handling Zack2 at all, much less catching him during his numerous escape attempts. I walked in one day and found him dead in his cage, and that was that.

Then came Maynard, the first pet since Mac to become an integral part of my life. We got Maynard when he was a half-grown kitten and Miles was just starting to toddle, so they grew up together: Miles’s first word was “kitty.”

Maynard (named for the proto-hippie Maynard G. Krebs of Dobie Gillis fame, a longtime crush object/role model) was a handsome cream tabby with one of the strongest personalities I’ve ever encountered in a cat: if he did something he shouldn’t, I would correct him with a hiss or light swat, after which he refused to speak to me for several days – but he would never do that thing again, and would in fact completely and permanently ignore the existence of whatever temptation had gotten him into trouble.

Maynard was far better suited to life in suburbia than I was. He spent most nights out hunting, and unlike most of the cats I’ve had, did not bring his prizes home – later, I’d find a few scraps of mouse or bird in a vegetable bed. On one occasion, I looked out the window to see him carrying a dead rat in his mouth. He paused, glared at me with an unmistakable air of “mind your own business, bitch,” and disappeared over the fence.

The only time one of the Dudes wanted a pet of their own was when Miles asked for a pet rat for his tenth birthday, so we got Rocky3. The first time I saw Maynard go into a predator crouch near Rocky, I hissed at him and he ran out of the room. From then on, Rocky did not exist as far as Maynard was concerned.

Sadly, Miles shortly discovered what all rat fanciers learn too soon: they are smart, affectionate, terrific pets, and they don’t last long. He wept for Rocky but did not ask for another pet.

More than the kids or Frank or me, Maynard hated our breakup. I’d moved to the top floor of a funky old downtown Victorian; I was fairly sure he could manage the traffic, but not at all convinced that he could find his way back if he got out (I suspected that he’d head straight back to our old place, several city miles away; cats are often more attached to homes than they are to the people in them). The kids and I agreed he needed to stay indoors for a couple of months.

He was miserable. I’d found my independence but cost him his. He complained, he sulked, he tried to dart between our feet anytime we opened a door. Nevertheless, we remained obdurate, for most of the three months we’d agreed on…

… and here the narrative reaches a fork. My recollection is that one day when we were just back from taking Maynard to the vet, the cumulative misery of his behavior at home and his utter hysteria in the carrier finally got to me, and I said, “Okay, let’s let him out now,” and Miles opened the cage.

I learned when I started working on this book that Miles does not remember me giving him the order to open the cage; he thinks he did it under his own initiative.

The truth is lost in time (Ben, the only other person present, doesn’t remember). Two facts are certain: Miles and I have each spent three decades feeling hugely responsible and guilty, without either of us knowing that the other felt that way. And we never saw Maynard again.

I didn’t last long without animal hair on my furniture, of course. I adopted a pair of identical orange kittens, Biff and Happy4 . Shortly thereafter I met Jay, and the cats, particularly Biff, became more his than mine. Jay was inconsolable when Biff met his end at the fender of a passing car; we heard from a neighbor who claimed to have seen the car swerve to hit him, which added rage to Jay’s grief.

Both cats turned out to be diabetic (I don’t know for sure that orange cats are more susceptible to diabetes, but it does seem as though I’ve seen the disease more often in orange cats than other colors). Biff was gone before the disease got more than “special food” serious, but Happy – who one of our friends dubbed “the world’s least aptly named pet”; he was a sulker and a kvetch – lived on: we went through the special food, the insulin injections, the multiple vet trips for blood tests. Then, like many diabetic cats, he developed kidney issues necessitating a multi-thousand-dollar surgery, and that turned into one of the bitterest fights Jay and I ever had.

Jay, a former ambulance crewman, had “do not let things die” as his prime directive – he was appalled by the fact that many of our acquaintances with AIDS had chosen to end their lives on their own terms, and disgusted by the people who participated in helping that happen. I believed that keeping Happy alive would do little for his feline quality of life and would, as a secondary consideration, cost more than we could afford. Jay won, as usual, and Happy lived to grouse another day – but after Jay and I split up, I watched Happy get unhappier with each passing day, until he was no longer grooming himself or asking for affection, at which point I drove him to the vet and said, weeping, “End this.” I never told Jay; he may be learning it for the first time as he reads this book.

And then there was Amy, another character who really merits a whole book of her own. I’d said for years that if I ever got to design my own dog, I’d breed a Standard Poodle with a Labrador, imagining Mac’s intelligence and high spirits modulated by the phlegmatic lab personality. (This was long before “labradoodles” and other popular crossbreeds were a thing in the US, although Australia had discovered this particular combination years before.) And one day I happened to open a copy of the Penny Saver5, to find an ad for a litter of poodle/lab pups just a few blocks from our house.

Our lease firmly excluded any pets other than Happy, to whom the landlady had agreed reluctantly. But we figured we weren’t going to get our cleaning or security deposits back anyway, so we might as well get a puppy.

Amy was a scrap of black fur about the size of my two fists when we got her; when the vet estimated she’d top out at about 100 lbs., we snorted. (She actually maxed out at 120, but that was well above her fighting weight, which was indeed around 100.) After a couple of the usual loud sad nights with a crated new pup, she settled in nicely, sleeping in her crate and hanging out in the kitchen during the day while we figured out the whole housebreaking thing.

If Mac had been the dog of my young-adult years and Maynard the cat of my new-mom years, Amy was the dog of my becoming-a-famous-perv years. She was joyously friendly and welcoming to the more or less constant stream of friends and family visiting or occupying our house – years later, when I was recovering from surgery and Jay asked for a guideline about who I wanted to visit me during my recovery, I thought about it for a few seconds and responded, “Anyone for whom Amy makes the Wookiee noise.” (The “Wookiee noise,” a warbling moan of joy, was reserved for the folks she considered family; everyone else got an ordinary someone’s-here bark.)

Because I had Amy before people started being doctrinaire about leaving dogs alone in cars6, she went almost everywhere with me. She considered my car to be her apartment, and welcomed the opportunity for a ride even if it meant waiting patiently for me for a few hours while I shopped or visited.

Like all of us, Amy had a few gaps in her otherwise very high intelligence: to her dying day, she never figured out why it was a bad idea to walk on the other side of a telephone pole from the person holding her leash. But she intuitively understood a vast range of human language and customs.

  • She got very excited at one point when she overheard me telling someone that I was going to yoga. Yoga, yogurt – who can tell the difference? Similarly, she heard a dinner table conversation about a half barrel of fish we kept in the yard, and immediately came to the table to get her share of fish, a favorite treat.
  •  She figured out on her own that if she’d been scolded, a handshake was a détente. She’d sidle up, sit at your feet, cast a pleading look from under her shaggy mop, and lift one paw, until you relented and gave her a shake.
  • After raiding the garbage on a pouring miserable day, she was sent into the yard for a time-out. Now, the yard had a small porch with an eave that sheltered it from the rain, and we assumed that she’d huddle there for the twenty minutes or so of her disgrace. But when we looked out the window she was sitting in the pouring rain, head down, fur streaming with water, abjection in every line of her body: a posture that said quite clearly, “I’m the worst dog in the world and I wouldn’t blame you if you never let me back in.”

A question I often ponder about Amy is: “Does someone have to do BDSM to be part of the kink community?” (Given that I’ve done maybe three scenes in the last decade, this question is more than academic for me.)

  • Amy was known and beloved by a vast number of Bay Area pervs. She attended play parties (perpetual doorkeeper Brandie once said, “If that dog ever figures out how to work a doorknob, I’m out of a job”), salons, private play dates, and pretty much every other kind of gathering the kink community has created.
  • One of the tests Jay used to confirm that someone had been to our house was the question, “Name the submissive who sleeps at the foot of Jay and Janet’s bed.”
  • If Amy was at a party and a scene was being too loud or violent for her, she would calmly leave the room, returning when things were more comfortable: in other words, she had better party etiquette than many of the humans in our circle of acquaintances.
  • Jay and I were at the time giving biweekly salons in our home, offering a mini-workshop, demonstration or game for the first hour and then breaking into a freeform social. In one such demonstration – Jay had devised a new way to tie someone in a spreadeagle – our sweetie Lynn was playing victim, and several attendees were acting as bedposts. Amy wandered into the room and saw her beloved Aunt Lynn, who took care of her when we were traveling, spreadeagled on the floor and getting a lot of attention. She pushed through the crowd of onlookers, flopped onto her back next to Lynn, and spread all four of her legs as far apart as her anatomy would allow. The room, of course, dissolved into hysterics (Lynn sat up, rubbing her wrists indignantly and sputtering “Upstaged by a fucking dog!”). In other words, Amy even had some volunteer experience as a demo model.

So you tell me: kink community member, or not? I’m inclined to vote for the former.

When I left Jay’s and my relationship, he refused to see Amy again, saying it made him too sad. Of all the things that came up during that long and contentious breakup, this is the one I found hardest to forgive. She mourned him for months.

But a year later, when Edward came home with me after a date, she took one look at him and fell instantly in love. That got my attention (Amy had excellent taste in people), and our next date cemented the impression: that was the date during which Edward helped me clip away several little balls of shit that had formed in the place that dog groomers, with nowhere near enough irony, call the “sanitary area.” Not every potential sweetie is up for that, but Edward was.

Amy, perhaps even more than Jay or Edward, was an inextricable part of my life for thirteen years – from the rental house I shared with Jay and two friends/occasional lovers, to the duplex I bought with the same folks, to the industrial loft where I tried to salvage Greenery when it was trying very hard to circle the drain, to the little house in Oakland where Edward and I lived for the first phase of our relationship. When I was sad, Amy let me cry into her shaggy back; when I was cold, she let me shove my blue feet under her warm belly; when I was confused, she was a patient and dedicated listener; when I was busy, she’d curl up with a sigh and keep me company while I worked frantically on the save-my-company project.

But Amy had not been intentionally bred, the way the best of today’s Labradoodles are. Her mother was a championship Standard Poodle, but her dad was a rogue fence-climbing Lab who apparently suffered from hip dysplasia. By the time she’d been part of my life for more than a decade, she was starting to show signs of being in pain most of the time: the long walks that had once delighted her turned into geriatric shuffles. Edward and I decided that we’d know her time had come when she was unable to climb the stairs to sleep next to my bed, as she’d done since puppyhood.

That day came far too soon. We called a vet who could come to the house. The vet, who was our age, arrived, and we remembered just in time that none of us would be able to lift 100 lbs. of inert dog – so instead, we took her out to her beloved car, helped her into the back, and got her comfortably settled in the environment she knew so well. We presented her with the unbelievable bounty of three – three! – pig ears, and while she was trying to choose which one to munch, the vet slipped the needle into her leg and she was gone.

We buried her ashes under a bush in the front yard, and when we moved to Oregon a few years later, we disinterred her and buried her under a hazelnut sapling here.

There have been other dogs and cats since Amy, and I’ve loved them all and I still do. But she was my heart dog, and she was my loyal companion during the most kaleidoscopic, wonderful, awful years of my life, and nobody, dog or cat or human, will ever really take her place.

As I write this, we have Willow (graying Border Collie/Lab mix), Augie (Australian Shepherd/something with very short legs – Corgi perhaps, or caterpillar), Pearl (matronly gray tabby), and Nick (gangly cream tabby). So these are the pets that have found me for this part of my life, to support me as I retire from the publishing business, as I try to figure out my goals for my final decades, as I experience the inevitable aches and twinges of aging, as I gradually withdraw from the active travel and teaching that were so much a part of my existence for several decades. They cuddle, they amuse, they provide skin contact (well, fur contact, but still), they demand that I stay busy and aware. It is at least possible that one or both of the younger ones, Augie and Nick, may be the last pets I have; if things don’t get quite that bad, those two are well-suited to living in a senior complex, or in assisted living.

None of them have ever attended a play party, or withdrawn from a room where the smacking noises hurt their ears. They’ve never raised a baby, survived a breakup, kept me company when I was single and lonely. They are, in short, pets that belong to someone who is in the process of becoming an elderly person, and they are really, really good at it.

1 Yes, I was indeed that pretentious.

2 Short for “Muzak.”

3 I swear I never told him about Prufrock – the name resemblance was, as far as I know, pure coincidence.

4 I am pleased to report that I no longer give my pets pretentious literary names. On the other hand, I’ve always wanted a pet named Smee, and if I can ever talk Edward into it, I intend to have one, because every pirate needs a Smee.

5 A free weekly paper containing nothing but classified ads – kind of like Craigslist, but in print. God, you’re young.

6 Not that overheating was ordinarily a serious problem in cool gray San Francisco; on the rare occasions the temperature got above 80, I left her home.

Distributed Mean – 02/05/2021

I actually drafted this piece nearly a decade ago, as an assignment when I was earning my MFA. I’m glad I did, as neither the details nor the sense of betrayal and anger are still with me. And this story is definitely part of my story – I hope never to be any closer to what people call a “nervous breakdown.” – JH

Here is the way a small sex book publisher works. You have something you want to say about sex. You want to turn someone else on with the fantasy that’s been bedeviling you for years. You want to teach someone how to tie the perfect bondage harness. You want to explain your amazing insights into sex as a form of meditation or radicalization or dieting. You send your manuscript off to Knopf, and get back a form rejection letter with coffee rings on it. So you buy a copy of InDesign for Dummies, do a clumsy but legible layout, pay someone the money you were saving for rent to print it for you, clear away enough space in your garage to stash fifty cases of twenty books each, and voila, you’re a publisher.

Here is the way a book distributor works. You have sold forty copies of your book and, encouraged by the trickle of money, sweet-talked the landlord into waiting another month or two, published your best friend’s sex book and your ex-boyfriend’s sex book, and now you’ve got a “line.” You are noticed.

You are taken out to an expense-account lunch, which is the first time you’ve seen cloth napkins in months. You sign a contract: your distributor will warehouse all your books (at last, room to park your bike again), represent them to chain bookstores and independent bookstores and on-line bookstores, and send you a report every month on what you’ve sold. In exchange, they will charge a percentage of sales over and above the enormous bite the bookstore’s discount has already taken from your profit margin.

And, you know, it can work. Stories like this one are the reason you can walk into Barnes & Noble and buy a copy of Doc and Fluff or The Good Vibrations Guide to Sex alongside hoary big-publisher classics like The New Joy of Sex or The Story of O. Chain buyers are not interested in small publishers: they have 500 new books from Simon & Schuster to peruse; they simply don’t have time to look at your fabulous release of The Compleat Spanker. But if you team up with a bunch of others like you, there’s a fat four-color catalog and a sales rep in a non-thrift-shop suit, and someone will actually pay attention.

This story is my story. I began self-publishing my own books in quick-printed, spiral-bound editions in 1992. After a few years of that, I borrowed from friends to print 1500 “real”[1] copies of my first book, The Sexually Dominant Woman: A Workbook for Nervous Beginners. The book sold well enough that I was able to pay back the loan and repeat the strategy with several other books by other authors. And then, somehow, without much volition or planning, I was a reasonably successful, struggling, frustrated, perpetually broke small sex publisher (every adjective in this sentence is redundant, except “successful”).

And I was approached. The approacher was one Mr. W, president of a small distributor specializing in “edgy” topics: sex, radical politics, underground comics, that sort of thing. He wore a tidy ponytail and a diamond earring, so I knew he was dedicated to the counterculture, and he smiled a lot, so I knew he liked me. He bought me a very nice lunch indeed, and, dazzled by visions of A Hand in the Bush: The Fine Art of Vaginal Fisting on the shelves at Borders[2], I signed.

Flying on the strength of that contract and a big hit of dot-com-boom optimism, I incorporated the company, sold shares to friends, signed an expensive lease on an office sublet, hired three employees, and churned out six to eight new books a year.

And at the end of four years it was falling apart. All around us the economy was gracelessly collapsing, like a hot-air balloon over a dying fire. I was taking several different psychoactive drugs for anxiety, depression, near-daily crying jags. Something was wrong at Mr. W’s company: stories were not matching up, calls were not being returned, checks were showing up late or for the wrong amount, books that ought to have sold brilliantly were gathering dust.

One day, on vacation in Oregon, I got a call from my office. The latest check from Mr. W was shy about $7,000, a third of its total. Nobody would explain why. I called Mr. W and told him I wanted out, and he let me break our contract and go. Less than a month later, the distributor filed for bankruptcy.

Apparently Mr. W had tried to save his company by opening a line of credit using “his” inventory as security. But here’s the thing: distributors don’t own their inventory – they warehouse it, and sell it on consignment. When the bank found out and called the loan, seizing hundreds of thousands of dollars that were supposed to be in escrow for publisher payments, the company folded.

Because I’d ended the contract before the bankruptcy, I was able to get our inventory back, and at least some of the money we were owed. I let the staff go, moved into a loft where I could keep warehouse shelving, and got to work trying to save my little company. Another distributor made me another offer, which included fronting us some money to keep us going[3]. I sold my condo in San Francisco, lent the proceeds to the company, cried a lot, took a lot of Klonopin, hosted fundraising events, wheedled my printer into extending unconscionable amounts of credit, and slowly, agonizingly, brought my little press back from the brink.

Several of my fellow publishers were not so fortunate, and if you want to do some homework you can make a list of the fierce, talented, innovative companies that didn’t survive the crunch. But small sex publishing soldiered on, sort of­­­­. Until 2007, when the same story happened on a much larger scale.

Publishers Group West was the distributor we all lusted after: you knew you’d made the big time when PGW offered you a contract. They distributed indy heavyweights like McSweeney, Cleis and Seal, as well as edgy attention-getters like Soft Skull and one-book wonders like Goofy Foot Press (publishers of The Guide to Getting It On, arguably the best young-adult sex title ever published and certainly one of the top sellers in its category). They were high-visibility, high-credibility, financially responsible.

Nobody worried much when they were purchased by AMS, a San Diego-based firm that specialized in large-volume sales to discount outlets like Costco. That’s the way of corporate America these days, little fish get digested by big fish, so what else is new, and when’s some rich outfit gonna buy me?

And then in 2007, AMS folded – apparently their finances had been shaky for some time. And PGW went down with it. And suddenly there was no mechanism left for getting The Leather Daddy and the Femme or Public Sex onto the shelves. And because PGW was the Titanic, suddenly everybody was paying attention.

An editorial in an indy-publishing trade magazine called for an industrywide system of legal protection for independent publishers whose distributors have failed them, including insurance and a voluntary code of practice for financial accountability[4]. These would certainly have been excellent barn doors, but horses had been getting stolen all over independent publishing for decades. PGW was purchased by Perseus Books in 2007, and Perseus was purchased by Ingram, the publishing industry’s 500-pound gorilla, in 2016.

Of course, Amazon came along, making it possible for many niche publishers to stay in business, and for many more to start publishing in ebook formats, whose barrier to entry is a day or two at the keyboard and a decent (or sometimes not) cover design. But I worry about these Amazon-dependent publishers: Amazon makes no secret of its desire to monopolize publishing, particularly ebook publishing. Does anyone out there think that they will continue to offer respectable terms to micropublishers once they’ve achieved that goal? I admire but do not emulate that optimism.

I have to wonder whether the commodification of sub-sub-cultures, so vital a part of our next-big-thing-seeking society, must create this story over and over again. When the desire for self-actualization, new modes of thought and really mindblowing orgasms rubs up against the cold hard realities of capitalism, it may be that any buffer placed between them must inevitably fray.

But I also know that I, and many other talented and dedicated publishers, fell victim to genuine dirty dealings. The opportunistic Mr. W was at the helm or behind the scenes at a significant percentage of the failed­ distributors, and I’m sure others of his ilk lurked in other book distributors, financing expense-account lunches and two-carat ear-bling with the sweat of the poor schmos who still cared about small publishing.

So: if you want to become a small sex publisher today, here’s my advice. Sell your books from your website, in articles you write for other people’s blogs and websites and zines, and at the workshops and events you set up. Sell on Amazon if you must – the discount’s a killer but a lot of people will only buy books there. Keep your day job. When it starts to be no fun any more, stop. And if you see someone coming toward you with a ponytail and a diamond earring, run like hell.

[1] e.g., “perfect-bound.” Perfect-bound books are the kind with flat spines that have the title printed on them. Most bookstores will not carry books that are not perfect-bound.

[2] Many of the business entities in this piece no longer exist, including this one.

[3] I later sold the company to this distributor. I went on serving as Editorial Director under contract for quite a few years, and retired early in 2020. Add it up: I spent 28 years running Greenery Press. That can’t be right, can it?

[4] As far as I know, no such thing ever happened.

2/1/2121: Alternate Reality #2

Jay and I have been dating for a year or so. I am head over heels with him and him with me. I’ve found a copywriting job in the Silicon Valley and moved from Sacramento to San Mateo.

Jay’s been living in a basement apartment, trading rent for his time caring for the owner’s elderly and demented mother and doing a few odd jobs around the house. However, that agreement has degenerated badly, and he’s about to get booted from his home.

He’s been putting all his time into the manuscript that will become his best-known book, and has no steady income. Yet somehow I manage to rein in my very powerful caretaking instinct: I do not offer to let him move in with me.

We go on dating and playing, as he drifts from one sketchy living situation to another. He self-publishes his book when it’s ready, which provides a bit of income – but he eventually decides he’s cut out to be a writer, not a publisher, and lets me take over that aspect of things.

The years go by. We play often, then occasionally, then rarely, then never. He loves several other women; I love several other people of all genders. Although we have a few battles in our roles as author and publisher, we remain friendly acquaintances, unburdened by the weight of sharing money, work and living space.


Miles had been looking kind of peaky for a couple of weeks, complaining of an upset stomach and pain in his abdomen. He’d always been the kind of person whose stress settled in his intestines – but I was starting to worry just a bit, because it wasn’t getting better. 

We went to the movies anyway, because we’ve always been the kind of people who try to solve any problem by going to the movies. As we were leaving the theater, Miles suddenly said, “I think I need to go to the hospital.”[1] Jay was out of town, and I was expecting a new Greenery Press author for dinner that night, but Miles’s pallor and the urgency in his voice were a red light and siren.

I dropped Ben at home, with directions on how to greet the author and explain the situation. This was a lot to ask of introverted, socially anxious Ben, who was all of sixteen at the time, but I learned later that he had managed the situation like a pro, arranging for takeout and making casual conversation. Meanwhile, I drove Miles to the hospital.

I looked at his chart while he was out getting X-rayed. “Bright but tired-looking 20-year-old man presenting with abdominal pain, fever, fatigue.” The doctor diagnosed appendicitis and the nurses began prepping him for emergency surgery. I settled in for a long uncomfortable wait.

Hours later, the surgeon found me. “It wasn’t appendicitis,” he said. “His large intestine was inflamed. Looks like it could be Crohn’s Disease or ulcerative colitis. We closed him back up. He needs to be here for a day or two, and then he’ll need to see a gastroenterologist for ongoing treatment.”

I didn’t know what Crohn’s Disease was (this was long before a medical encyclopedia was a couple of keystrokes away for anyone with a phone), but the doctor’s solemn demeanor made it clear that it was not a good thing.

Fortunately, I have a dear friend who is a doctor specializing in internal medicine, and I’d put him on Miles’s chart as his primary care doctor, since Miles’s regular doctor was two hours away in Sacramento. Charles arrived at the hospital early the next morning. After talking to the surgeon, he diagnosed Crohn’s and handed me a large box of Kleenex.

He gave me a quick rundown of what the disease was: an autoimmune reaction in which the body attacks the intestinal tissues. “Crohn’s is a bad disease,” he told me. (That moment still sticks in my mind, more than two decades later, in full multisensory detail: Charles’s Midwestern twang, the fluorescent lights at the nursing station, the smell of alcohol and ailing bodies.) “But we’re getting better treatments all the time. This is going to be okay.”

And it was, sort of. The next few years are a blur, with Miles in and out of the hospital as a series of doctors tried to stop the inflammatory process. First they tried various types of expensive and side-effect-laden medication. When that didn’t work, they hospitalized him for two weeks with a PICC line[2] feeding protein, fat, glucose, fluids and and vitamins into a vein, in what turned out to be an overly optimistic hope that his intestines would heal themselves if given a chance to rest.

Out of the blur, a few memories swim into focus. All are tinged with anxiety, with occasional spikes of blind terror.

  • … Sitting in his hospital room with his girlfriend Ashley, talking quietly as he slept. Dozing off to the gentle click-click-click of stones into cups as they played Mancala.
  • … Learning that I could no longer bear to read anything that included conflict, violence or death: P.G. Wodehouse and Don Marquis saved my sanity for a year or two.
  • … Stepping into the living room late one night, just in time to hear the front gate slamming: Prednisone had given usually calm Miles a hair-trigger temper, which had led to one of the few serious fights he and Ben have ever had. Ben had stomped out in a rage, and I paid for a new latch for the gate.
  • … Laughing with Miles as he announced that he was one of the few men in the world who knew what it was like to have a period[3]: the fistula that had opened along the original surgical site needed its dressing changed several times a day, plus the Prednisone made him pissy, puffy and miserable. The cramps, of course, were a given, as they are for any Crohn’s patient.
  • … Standing alone in the shower, the only place in the house with visual and sound privacy, doubled over and sobbing uncontrollably. He had lost thirty pounds in a few weeks, his muscles were wasting, and I was certain he was going to die.
  • … A call from Miles, who was well enough to be back in college, in the UC Irvine theater program. He was telling me about his current acting role. “I could have gotten the lead,” he said. “But I couldn’t, because there’s a nude scene and the fistula scar is still pretty gross.” Three thoughts flashing through my mind in millisecond succession: Oh, he could have gotten the lead, I’m so proud!, and Shit, he can’t because of his scar, that’s not fair!, and …A NUDE SCENE?!
  • … Getting caught in an utterly unforeseen April blizzard on our way to Ashland, Oregon, for a long weekend of theater at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Miles was newly out of the hospital after the surgery that excised chunks of both his large and small intestines, Ben had not yet learned to drive, and I was dressed in jeans, a t-shirt, a cardigan, and loafers with no socks. By some miracle, we managed to get through the fast-accumulating drifts to find an auto parts store – and by another miracle, they actually had chains for my car in stock. (Hey, I lived in San Francisco at the time. Who needs chains in San Francisco?) Somehow, between the three of us – the sick one, the underdressed one and the underskilled one – we got the chains on the car, drove through the deepening snow, and made it to Ashland, missing our matinee but unfrostbitten and in time for the rest of our shows.
  • … At Christmas dinner, handing all our sweet-potato-stuffed baked apples down the table to Miles, because he had a new lesion in his throat and the apples were the only part of the meal that were digestible and soft enough that he could eat them. I was scheduled to fly out in two days for a literary conference where I was hoping for a job interview or two, and he ended up back in the hospital: the only time through all this awfulness that I wasn’t there to be whatever small help or company I could offer. It nearly killed me.

  • … Leaving Jay in the car while I ran into the bank to deposit a check, and having him tell me later, “I wasn’t sure if you were coming back.” And thinking, ‘Hm, I wish I’d thought of that,” because I couldn’t fix anything and couldn’t bear the way things were.

I think Miles’s illness was the beginning of the end of Jay’s and my relationship. I was shouldering a burden that felt intolerable, and he didn’t know (or, maybe, care? – I wasn’t in any state to figure that out) how to help me. The next few years were a jangle of depression, frustration and logistical calculation as I tried to figure out how the finances of a breakup could work without leaving either of us homeless.

In a long life filled with relationships of all types, it was the only really ugly breakup I’ve ever had, although Jay and I eventually managed to pull something a bit like a friendship out of the chaos.

The moment of unbearable grief in the shower was the first, but not the last, time I discovered that all the parental clichés of wanting to take a child’s illness or sadness or trauma or, god forbid, death, for yourself, to save your kid from having to feel the hard truths of life – they’re all completely true. Even now, if I could have his Crohn’s for him, I would.

But until he got sick, Miles had led a charmed life: he was smart, handsome, emotionally on an even keel, and got on well at school and at home. Serious illness changed all that; he was no longer a golden boy. 

A few years after the surgery, one of his final projects in school was directing and starring in a production of Ionesco’s “Exit the King,” about a successful and arrogant monarch who learns that he is dying. I dashed out of the room during the curtain call to ugly-cry in the ladies’ room, but during the play I noticed that Miles was the only actor in the college-aged cast who understood what it felt like to confront one’s own mortality. 

Between when I started writing this essay and now, as I finish it, Miles has become a father. The day will come that Miles will wish he could take on Felix’s burdens for him, and I’ll wish I could take on Miles’s burden of unhappiness over whatever issues are troubling Felix. We can’t, though. 

That’s probably just as well, as sadness and travail are what make humans human. But it doesn’t stop parents from wishing: we don’t care if we’re costing our kids the chance to learn from experience, we just want them to be happy.

It’s not a reasonable wish, nor is it really for their own good. It just is.

[1]  We learned later that the tub of popcorn we’d shared was almost certainly the triggering factor that took him over into “this is serious” territory.

[2] Peripherally Inserted Central Catheter.

[3] This was years before any widespread understanding that trans men often have periods.

Dad Redux – 01/02/2021

Between the holidays and the struggle to write difficult material, I’m way behind right now. However, I want to share this expansion of the story of my father and his death. It’ll probably get more drawings later on. In the meantime, I’m also working on another chunk that will (I hope) be ready in a week or so. Thanks, and Happy New Year! – JH

When I’ve told people about Dad’s death, they’ve often assumed that I’m sad. I’m not, really, although I do miss him a lot.

Here’s what I am sad about. Dad was always the toughest person on my Christmas list; he didn’t want much, and when he did want something, he bought it. So I fell into a ritual: each year I packed up a box of jams, cookies, fruitcake and other homemade goodies (with extra gingersnaps, which he loved), and added a copy of whatever book I’d most enjoyed in the preceding year.

The book I most enjoyed in 2018 was George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo – but as a gift for a dying man, the story of the lost souls in the graveyard of Lincoln’s son Willie seemed a bit tactless. So instead, I bought him the ebook of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s wonderful Good Omens, because I couldn’t imagine anyone not loving Good Omens.

In the days after Dad’s death, I was packing up a few things to take home with me. I picked up his Kindle, thinking Miles or Ben might want it, and looked to see what he had been reading.

He was only a third of the way through Good Omens.

That’s sad.

Death interrupts such small pleasures: the end of Good Omens, the next episode of Masterpiece Theatre, the tickets to the big game. To choose death, as he did, means that these little expectations have been outweighed by a bigger consideration: for the depressed, the inability to take joy in such temporary pleasures; for the sick, the imminence of enough pain to outweigh the joy.

For Dad I think it was a little of each. His beloved wife Mona had died the previous summer – aside from a few short hospital stays, the two of them had never spent a night apart in their thirty-four years of marriage. Mona was ten years his junior, so he had never imagined outliving her, until she died of pancreatic cancer just a few weeks after her diagnosis.

There’s no way to describe what happened next without resorting to cliché: the spark went out of his eye, the lift out of his step, all the ways we try to describe the sudden shrinkage of a soul. When Mona died, Dad became old overnight. His Parkinson’s flared and overwhelmed the medicine that had controlled it, he stopped taking pleasure in food or books or television. I think receiving his own cancer diagnosis a few months later was almost a relief. The doctor said they’d caught it soon enough that chemo and surgery stood a pretty good chance of success, but Dad was old by then, and all that sounded like way too much trouble.

After it was all over and the guys from the mortuary had come and gone, my sister Leah[1] suddenly said, “Where’s his wallet?”

We looked everywhere: in the room downstairs he’d moved to, in his real bedroom upstairs, under the bed, in the closet, in the mudroom. No wallet.

“You don’t suppose… he had it in his pocket?” I asked dubiously.

And that’s exactly where it was. The lady from the mortuary called us back the next morning to say that there had been, not one, but two wallets in his pockets: one, with cash, in the front pocket; one, with credit cards, in the back.

And since you’ll never get to meet my dad, that’ll give you an idea of who we’re talking about here. He had awakened that Sunday morning, knowing he was going to die that afternoon, and dressed carefully in his uniform of khakis, a polo shirt, a v-necked merino sweater, and his wallets. Because God forbid he should die in his pajamas, or that someone could come to the door wanting to get paid for delivering the newspaper and he wouldn’t have his wallet on him. The largest concession he was willing to make was to remove his watch and leave it on the nightstand, and to take off his father’s handsome jade ring, which never left his finger, and hand it to my sister. Beyond that, Death found him neatly dressed, hair combed, beard trimmed, and with both wallets where they belonged. The law calls it “Death With Dignity,” which in his case was great marketing.

The house I grew up in was a mishmash of a midcentury rancher that my parents built on a street of century-old neocolonials on Philadelphia’s wealthy Main Line. Mom and Dad dreamed of Frank Lloyd Wright and Eichler, but compromised on an utterly generic exterior – which, inside its conservative front door, shocked the neighbors with floor-to-ceiling picture windows, exposed beams, and a stairstepped brick planter wall dividing the living and dining rooms. Several walls were decorated with the photographs my dad had once dreamed of a career taking; one, a portrait of a one-year-old me snapped in the moment of inverting a full tumbler of milk in order to see what the bottom looks like, hangs in my office as I write this.

The unremarkable façade extended to the house’s residents. Dad left early every morning, gray-suited and trudging, to commute into Philadelphia to work in the benefits department of a large insurance company. The darkroom he’d built in the basement gradually turned into a storage room. Mom knitted doll clothes for charity bazaars and chaired committees at the PTA. The two of them bowled on Tuesdays and played bridge on Saturdays.

The cracks, though, were there to be seen by any careful observer, and I’m sure they got us gossiped about. Instead of a portable turntable with a few albums of Perry Como and showtunes, Dad had a “hi-fi” with speakers bigger than me, and a well-stocked record cabinet containing folk songs, calypso, and, later, the Beatles. Instead of the stolidly mediocre American menu I encountered at my friends’ houses, Mom ground her own coffee and dabbled in ethnic cuisine. When I was in fourth grade and my sister in first, Mom, bored to catatonia by the PTA, took a part-time bookkeeping job, making her the only mother I knew who worked.

I was in sixth grade when a new family moved in next door and my folks formed a close friendship with them. When the Garfields were transferred to southern California, they invited us out for a week’s visit the next summer. Dad and Mom were so immediately captivated by California sunshine and West Coast freedom that Dad started sending out resumes to LA-based firms the moment we got home. We packed up and moved to Southern California in 1968…

That’s is the story we tell to strangers, and it’s at least partly true. But there’s more to the story than that.

There’s also the story of a man who had once dreamed of photography, sports car rallies and fine wines, and who woke up one morning living in the suburbs, married to a woman he’d never chosen, and father to two daughters. That story is set in a time and place rising from the ashes of 1950s sexual hypocrisy, in a world fumbling to understand what a liberated sexuality might look like.

The trip to visit the Garfields, it seems, was more in the nature of an assignation. Later, when our family was established in Southern California, I was occasionally drafted to babysit for my own sister and the two bratty Garfield children while the adults had a “party,” which at the time I vaguely associated with the evenings of bridge my folks had hosted back in Pennsylvania.

These days, I write books and run workshops for couples like this. I teach, and believe, that the person with whom you want to have a child and a joint checking account is not necessarily – is not, in fact, likely to be – the person with whom you’re going to have earthshaking sex. If my parents circa 1970 were to show up in one of my workshops, I’d try to help them figure out how to be honest about their desires and behaviors, how to offer each other support and reassurance during times of jealousy or insecurity, how to redefine their boundaries so that love doesn’t equal ownership. I’d offer my own life, imperfect as it is, as an example of how a person can maintain multiple relationships that respect and honor everyone involved. The workshop might not help keep their marriage together, but then again, it might.

In 1970, however, I was fifteen years old. I was one of the lucky kids, the ones with cool parents who said “fuck” and smoked pot. My mother had gone back to school: she’d originally planned to take accounting classes to follow up on her bookkeeping experience, but Psych 1 was a required course and she never looked back, first doing volunteer work in a student drop-in center, then pursuing coursework toward a Marriage and Family Therapist certification. I would often come home on a Saturday night to discover a marathon encounter group taking place in our living room; Dad was rarely home for these. I became adept at tiptoeing into the kitchen, quietly fixing myself a snack, and closing my bedroom door softly behind me so as not to interrupt the confessional whispers or sobbing or shouting.

Sometimes the Saturday night outing from which I was returning was babysitting Amy, the toddler whose family lived a few doors up from us. Amy’s dad was a doctor who spent long hours at the hospital; her mother, a pert brunette, often needed my services when she had a tennis game, a shopping excursion or a lunch date.

A few years later, when I got the call from Mom that my parents were divorcing and I learned that Dad’s longtime clandestine affair with Amy’s mother was the cause, I briefly wondered if I’d ever had a babysitting job that wasn’t in some way facilitating my parents’ sexual escapades.

My sister Leah is four years younger, six inches taller, and at least fifty pounds lighter than me. Nevertheless, I love her very much.

We don’t always like each other, though.

As is true in many families, each of us has had “our” parent, with whom communications are easy and non-fraught; each of our relationship with the other parent was… not.

Leah resembles Dad physically (tall, lanky, narrow-shouldered); I resemble Mom (stocky, short-legged, with a tendency toward sedentariness and a heartfelt love of pretty much all food). The similarities continue into our values. Leah, although a lesbian, is at heart a traditionalist: she has risen high in a sales-oriented job, speaks corporate-speak fluently and effortlessly, and has been with the same partner monogamously for at least twenty years. She loves working out at the gym, swimming laps, wearing designer clothing, and going with her wife on vacations with Olivia[2] twice a year, where they meet up with the same handful of women they consider their best friends (this is her entire social life; aside from family, she’s never had people over to their home).  She loves her two grown kids and four grandkids but is okay with them living on the other side of the country, dotes on her motley assortment of dogs, and eats sparingly, based on whichever diet is in the news that year.

Mom, on the other hand, was a marriage and family counselor who loved to entertain, ruled (not always benevolently) over her second husband, never met a dessert she didn’t like, and cared more than anything about freedom and happiness. She was proud of the work I do, stocking copies of my books in her therapy office to give out to clients who wanted to explore polyamory and/or kink, and inviting me down a couple of times to speak about alternative sexualities to her local humanist therapists’ chapter.  

Got the picture?

Leah and I don’t understand each other at all, and there are some topics we’ve learned to steer clear of. But we care about each other a lot. In contrast to many folks I know who have undergone nightmare scenarios when it’s been time to portion out their parents’ estates, Leah and I have yet to disagree even a little on ours.

Leah and her wife were dear friends with Mona; they talked about their exercise programs, their dietary experiments, their jobs, and laughed and laughed. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that Mona was a little scared of me: a conservatively raised Kentuckian English teacher and Weight Watchers instructor has very little context for the stepdaughter who makes her living writing kinky books, who eats what she wants, and who hasn’t bothered with monogamy in decades. Nevertheless, Mona was unfailingly kind and welcoming to me, until the cancer roared up in a matter of weeks and she didn’t want any visitors at all.

So, when it came time for Dad’s life to wind its way down the following year, Leah took the lead position, traveling up to Seattle to spend as much time with him as she could. I went up there too, of course, but not as often, because I knew having me around the house was stressful for Dad in a way Leah wasn’t. When Mom had died ten years previous, we had assumed the opposite roles, without needing to discuss it much. We made a pretty good team for both our parents, I think.

For his seventieth birthday, fifteen years previous, Dad had flown my sister and me up to Vashon Island, Washington, to celebrate with Mona and him in their home overlooking Puget Sound. He and I shared a bottle of wine that he’d been saving for a couple of decades for the occasion. I don’t drink much, so by the bottom of the bottle his eyes were sentimentally moist as he looked around the table at his wife, my sister and me.

I think that night he realized that Leah and I might not be the daughters he’d wished for, but we were the only ones he was going to get.

During a period when they both were single – Dad having broken up with Mom for a variety of reasons, which mostly boiled down to “they never should have been together in the first place,” and Leah being in her early twenties and living nearby – Dad and Leah had been inseparable. And yet, a few years, after Dad and Leah had both gotten married and Leah had a couple of kids, Leah separated from her husband and came out as lesbian. Their relationship got pretty chilly for a while.

I thawed the chill by coming out in rapid succession as a sadomasochist, a polyamorist and a bisexual.[3] By comparison, I think lesbianism looked pretty tame.

Dad and I had one massive fight about kink, in which he expressed the usual vanilla-person fears: I’d want more and more until I wound up maimed or dead; I’d be hanging out with people who had no scruples and no skills; I’d get AIDS. It was the kind of fight you can’t have twice, at least not if you want to continue to have a relationship. We were agonizingly careful with each other for some years after. The seventieth-birthday party was our détente.

A few years after that dinner, I called him up. “Hi. I’m going to be doing a reading up in Seattle and I was wondering if I could stay at you guys’ house. All I’ll need is a ride to the ferry terminal, and from there I can take a cab to the bookstore.”

“No, that’s okay, I’ll take you to the reading,” he said.

“I’m… not sure you’d enjoy it. It’s pretty graphic stuff.” (The essay in question, which had appeared in a collection of the best sex writing of the year, was an exploration of cunts and their relationship to gender ­– including a bit more information about my personal experience with fisting than most people would want their fathers to have.)

“No, I want to come. When will you arrive, and when is the reading?”

When the time came, we dined in Seattle beforehand and he drove me to the bookstore. I did the reading, not daring to look at him as I did.

Afterward, in a question-and-answer session, someone asked the question that someone always asks: “How does your family feel about the work you do?”

I briefly considered pointing out that a member of that family was sitting in the audience, but I wasn’t prepared to out him as my father in front of a crowd of strangers. I made a generic statement that my family knew about my work and was fine with it. Afterward, when I told him about my initial impulse, he said, “Oh, no, that would have been fine.”

Who was this man and what had he done with my father?!

After he died, I found a copy of the book in his library. I hadn’t given it to him.

Before Mona, when I’d stayed at Dad’s bachelor apartment in Santa Monica, I’d had to hang my clothing on the back of chairs, because his guest-room closet was occupied by a grow light and a few scraggly marijuana plants. He had visited Sandstone, the famous experimental sex community, with results that he wouldn’t talk about except to say that it was “disastrous.”

One of my visits to his apartment stands out in my mind still. We’d taken toddler Miles to Santa Monica Beach to splash in the surf. When we brought him home, he was sand-covered and squirmy.

Holding my grubby offspring at arm’s length, I ran up the stairs, shedding clothes as I went, and leapt into the shower. When I had most of the sand off, I handed Miles out to my dad, still nude from his own shower, to towel him off.

It was a supremely awkward moment. Both of us desired and believed in sexual freedom, both of us had had plenty of experience with social nudity… and yet, there it was, incontrovertible: we were naked, physically close to one another, and dizzy with the sense that some deep, irrational boundary, maybe inbred, maybe learned, had been breached. We remained fully clothed in each other’s presence after that.

Death found Dad appropriately memorialized. He had asked me beforehand to write his obituary, which seemed a very small contribution compared to the monolithic work he was doing – but when someone asks you to do such a thing, of course you do it. Really, writing it was easy. What was hard was handing it to him, during his last night on the planet, for corrections and line edits. As strange as that was for me, I can’t begin to imagine what it felt like to him.

Death also found him slightly tipsy. The typed instructions from the Compassionate Choices people suggested chasing the phenobarb cocktail with a shot or two of the good stuff, but that had very little to do with his state of inebriation. Quite simply, it was late afternoon, and that meant it was time for his glass of scotch.

It was time. The others in attendance – his dear friend Anne, whose credentials as a nurse meant we didn’t have to have a stranger in the room; Anne’s husband Tim, looking a bit queasy; and Leah – were planning a final toast with and to him, as he waited for the lethal draft to take hold.

I was not going to participate in the toast. Not because I loathe scotch, although I do. But I’d anticipated this moment, and when I’d left my home in Eugene to drive up to Dad’s place outside Seattle, I’d packed a bottle of excellent rum, specifically for this very moment.

However, the last stop I’d made here in Eugene was at our neighborhood cannabis dispensary. “I’d like some of the Siskiyou FECO[4],” I told the very young man behind the counter.

“Oh, I’m sorry, we’re out of the Siskiyou,” he told me. “But we have some other FECOs that are pretty similar.” He brought one out and showed it to me.

“Sure, that’ll be fine.” I paid for my purchase and hit the road.

Of course, because chronic pain is a contrary motherfucker, I felt okay that night, in spite of the long drive. Dad and I sat together at his counter, eating the spaghetti I’d thrown together out of what I’d been able to find in his pantry and freezer.

But the next afternoon, on the day Dad had chosen as his last, my back decided it was unhappy with the way I was handling tension, and staged a small rebellion. I squirted a tiny amount of the FECO onto a cracker and ate it.

Anne and Tim arrived shortly thereafter. As we chatted, I noticed an odd, warm, dry feeling in my eyeballs. Every time something moved, I saw it in jerky silent-movie-like bursts. My heart sank.

“Shit,” I hissed to Leah. “That stuff had a lot more THC than they told me. I am fucked up.”

She looked at me helplessly: the last thing this scene needed was one of its principals in a significantly altered state of consciousness. “Maybe if you had a drink, that would relax you?”

I shook my head. “That just makes it worse.” (I’d learned this the hard way the last time I’d had a glass of wine on top of my usual dosage.)

We looked at each other. Neither of us had a clue. “I’ll have a glass of milk,” I decided. I had no reason to suppose that milk would actually help, but I figured it couldn’t hurt.

Anne was in Dad’s room, “making the bed,” by which she meant putting down disposable underpads: Dad’s greatest fear about having Leah and me in the room was that it would be “messy.” We pointed out that we both had had babies, and that was pretty messy too, and he should decide what he wanted instead of trying to anticipate what we wanted. Amazingly enough, he believed us, and agreed that we could be there with him.

So we were standing there, fidgeting, waiting for things to start happening. The milk didn’t seem to be helping, but it tasted good so I drank it anyway.

You’ll have trouble believing this next part, though, because while Leah and I were waiting, I could have sworn I heard Taps.

“Whoa,” I said. “Do you hear that?”

She looked at me blankly, and I was just about ready to chalk it up to hallucination. Then she cocked her head. “Is that Taps?”

I edged into the room and saw the TV set, still on. Dad said, “I’ve never seen From Here to Eternity, but it seemed apropos.” I was stoned enough that I wasn’t sure whether he was actually making a joke about his own death (he was), so I muttered something unintelligible and backed out.

The law is very specific about how a chosen death should work. Two doctors must agree, two weeks apart, that the patient’s readiness to die is reasonable. They sign some paperwork, and then one of them orders a prescription for a powder[5] that is chemically very similar to the injection used in veterinary euthanasia. The patient himself must pour the powder into the glass, but someone else can add the water or juice into what is apparently a truly foul-tasting concoction. 

So the scene was this: Leah, Tim and I were sitting around the guest-room bed. Anne, for whom this was not her first rodeo, steadied Dad’s Parkinsonian hands so he could pour his powder, and topped it up with some orange juice. He chugged it down like a pro, and made a wry face while Anne was taking the glass of dregs away and replacing it with a squat tumbler of heavy crystal.

Leah poured everyone but me a hefty Scotch as I sat helplessly, waiting to toast him with the last inch of milk in my glass. I was uncharacteristically quiet, because I was afraid that anything I said would come out weird – or at least weirder than sitting in a corner nursing a glass of milk while the source of half my DNA was confronting his final journey.

We clinked glasses and drank. Leah poured a second round. By the time the level in his glass was near the bottom, Dad was fading out.

“Someone should take his glass away,” Anne said quietly. I was closest, so I went over and took it out of his hands – I had to pry his fingers gently away, one by one.

He opened his eyes briefly, smiled, and said, “Good idea.” Those were his last words. I was the last one to touch him.

And then we waited.

I thought longingly of the speed and finality that was euthanizing a pet. When someone dies in the movies, it goes one of two ways: either they close their eyes and that means they’re dead, or they slump over with their eyes wide open. This was a longer and less conclusive process by far.

I can’t speak for any other deaths (Dad’s was the only one I’ve ever attended; Mom, a decade previous, had waited till I was out of the room), but Dad’s eyelids fell till a new-moon crescent of milky white was all that showed. His mouth did something similar – with no muscle tension to pull it upward, his lower lip fell away from his bottom teeth. And perhaps if you’ve attended many deaths this is not news to you, but to me it was a revelation, the first of several.

I could not take my eyes away from him – my stoned soul was mesmerized by the process revealing itself to me.

As I watched, his face began to morph. First it was a skull. Then, the face of an ape. Then, the face of an angel. Then it was my dad, my Daddy, my father. And then a skull again… and the process repeated itself, around and around and around.

And then, during an angel phase, I saw a disturbance – a ripple in the air, like the ripples rising from a hot highway, over his left shoulder. The morphing stopped.

He was gone.

And I was so glad I knew it, because the next few hours started off excruciating and evolved into low comedy, as the rough involuntary breaths that novelists call the “death rattle” continued at longer and longer intervals.

Toward the end, we’d all be certain it was over, and Anne would be on her feet to take his pulse so she could declare the time of death, and the rest of us would rise to leave so she could do her job… and then his body would rattle like a Model T and we’d all sit back down.

Toward the end, we – three tipsy people and one stoned one – were finding it darkly hilarious; there were several fits of contagious giggles. But with a couple of years of hindsight, I don’t think that was inappropriate: the body’s determination to hang onto the spark of life in spite of its occupant’s desires is the oldest, darkest and funniest joke on earth.

The next time I saw my sister was a month later, at a small memorial gathering. In a moment of privacy, I said, “I’ve been thinking about Dad’s death.” (I’d already told her about my hallucinatory experiences.) “Was it transcendent for you too, or was it just because I was stoned?”

“It was perfect,” she said.

[1] The names in this piece have all been changed at the request of the participants.

[2] A lesbian travel company.

[3] Genderqueer came later.

[4] FECO, for those of you not fortunate enough to live in a state with liberal marijuana laws, stands for Full Extract Cannabis Oil. The one that seems to help the most with my back pain is almost entirely made of cannabinoids, with only a tiny amount of THC, the chemical that gets you high. THC and I were good friends in high school but have since come to a parting of the ways; these days it sends me down a rabbit hole of inescapable self-consciousness, of the “oh my god everybody thinks I’m being weird” variety. However, cannabis wisdom holds that a minuscule amount of THC helps activate the cannabinoids, which actually does seem to be true.

[5] I was shocked to hear its four-figure cost. Are poor people not allowed a dignified death?

[5b] What a stupid question.