Kramer vs. Kramer was my first hint that my marriage was ending.
I watched Joanna Kramer standing in the elevator for the last time, telling her husband Ted that she was abandoning him and her child: “I’m not taking him with me. I’m no good for him. I’m terrible with him. I have no patience. He’s better off without me.” And I started to cry.
I cried all the way through Ted losing his job and having to beg for another one, and I cried all through that awful, ridiculous, harrowing scene in which Ted and his son Billy face off in a battle of wills over a dish of ice cream and Ted realizes how powerless parenthood can actually feel: “You go right back and put that right back until you finish your dinner… I’m warning you, you take one bite out of that and you are in big trouble. Don’t… Hey! Don’t you dare… Don’t you dare do that. You hear me? Hold it right there! You put that ice cream in your mouth and you are in very, very, very big trouble. Don’t you dare go anywhere beyond that… Put it down right now. I am not going to say it again. I am not going to say it again.” (By this point I was sobbing convulsively, and Frank, seated on my right, was glancing at me with some alarm.)
When Ted lets his attention wander for a moment, and in a shattering heartbeat Billy tumbles from a jungle gym and the blood flows and the child screams and Ted runs for help with his child in his arms and that child’s blood spilling down his shirt, I cried so hard that people rows away looked back to see what the commotion was about. And I cried to the point of choking when the doctors told Ted that his moment of inattention was going to leave a permanent scar on his son’s face.
I cried, in fact, for the full 105-minute runtime of the film and off and on for several days afterwards. And at the time, I didn’t really know why.
Now, thirty-plus years later, I think I was crying tears of recognition. Recognition of the crushing burdens marriage is asked to carry: friendship and partnership, intimacy and lust, collaboration and compromise and the creation of a shelter from the world. Recognition that childrearing is an endless task with no set goal and no prize, and that all of that crazy impossible improvisational infuriating effort could fizzle to nothing in one unlucky second. Recognition of the unbreakable bond of a decade’s shared experience – sleepless nights, car trips, illnesses, orgasms and tears and dinners and breakfasts – that tied me to the worried, harried, hanky-proffering man beside me. Recognition that that bond just wasn’t enough.
In 1979, when Kramer vs. Kramer was released, it was accused of being antifeminist, because of Joanna’s choice to leave her husband and child for less-than-ironclad reasons. In fact, I think, it is the most feminist of films, and still the clearest statement ever that it is the work of childrearing, and not biology or culture, that creates the workplace issues people attribute to gender. There is nothing gendered about the radical goofy selflessness of subordinating your life to a newer and more important life, nor in the hair-tearing frustration of knowing that however hard you try you’ll never get it as right as you think you should, nor in how impossible a task it is to leave your doting obsessive parent-self at home when you step across the threshold of your workplace every day. (Nor in how boring it makes you. Ted, having lunch with his boss: “So the other morning, I’m at the refrigerator… you know, getting Billy ready for school… and he says ‘Daddy, you’ve really lost a lot of weight’, he looks up at me and he says ‘And it’s all gone to your nose.’ He was so cute. You know?”)
I hesitate to talk about Kramer vs. Kramer, because I’m a little afraid that it has fallen into the dusty quaintness of other films of its era (spent a lot of time watching Starting Over lately? How about The Blue Lagoon, or Any Which Way You Can?). But when I read its user reviews, I discovered that it still speaks clearly to viewers a generation later. I suspect that parents in every era always have, and always will, struggle with the same indissoluble bonds and the same elemental love – and, most of all, with the same intrinsic, inescapable powerlessness over the unmappable stories of our children’s lives.
As I’ve mentioned a couple of times already, I’m at the threshold of something that I don’t yet feel quite okay about calling “old age.” But what the hell: For the lack of a gentler term, it is old age. (The Social Security system has gotten us accustomed to seeing sixty-five as our exit from “working adult” status in the same way that the Selective Service schooled us to thinking of eighteen as its entry. And, well, I’m over sixty-five, so there you are.)
I see an athletic trainer every week to work on strength and balance and the other stuff you need to live in a body that’s nearing its best-by date. When we were first getting to know each other, he saw me struggling with an exercise, and said sympathetically, “I look at you and I can see that you’re used to being strong and competent, and you’ve always been able to do the things you want to do. And now you can’t, always. That must be really hard for you.” By the time he finished, I was blinking back tears, because yes, goddammit, I am strong and capable, and I usually can do whatever needs doing, and, yes, I hate with the heat of a thousand supernovas the fact that now, sometimes, I can’t.
The shadow of the Grim Reaper passed over me for the first time earlier this year, and now I have a shiny new stent in my crusty old heart.
And my friends my own age have started to die. The first woman with whom I ever fell in love, one year older than me, died last week after a coronary bypass – not her first. Another old friend and play partner is fighting prostate cancer as I write this.
Edward recently started looking into what might be involved in moving to a retirement community. My feelings about this are so mixed that you could drink them as a smoothie.
As I look back over my life, though, I see a pattern: I’ve always been in such a hurry, and I don’t know why. If I were a cop, I’d pull me over and ask, “Hey, lady, where’s the fire?”
I was never much good at being a child. I was one of those pudgy, bookish children who enjoys the company of adults more than that of other kids, because adults talk about more interesting stuff. I have a clear memory from eighth grade of a group of teachers on smoke break calling, “Hey, Janet, come up here and amuse us for a while!” Even then I thought this odd (though flattering); now I consider it downright weird and kind of creepy. But I joined them and amused them for a while, and got a small, desperately desired taste of adulthood.
By high school I was charging forward as fast as my stubby legs would carry me. Of course, a teenager who longs for the trappings of adulthood is pretty much a redundancy – but I look back now and for the life of me I’m not sure what I was trying to accomplish. A lot of it, I think, had to do with sussing out the limits of my ability to control my environment: sexy clothes, for example, give their wearer a kind of power that to a sixteen-year-old is intoxicating.
(At my twentieth high school reunion, I chatted for a while with a man who had been in several of my classes but whom I’d never known well. “I’ve always wanted to ask you something,” he said. “Back then, when you didn’t wear a bra and people could see your nipples through your shirt, did you know what you were doing?”
And I couldn’t answer him. Did I wake up that day and think, “Today is my day to torture a bunch of horny teenaged boys?” No. But did I notice that wearing that shirt got me attention? Yeah, probably. And that’s being a teenaged girl in a nutshell.)
Of course, what I wanted most desperately of all was a boyfriend.
I can’t remember actually ever feeling what I now know to be sexual attraction toward a boy, or for that matter a girl, my own age. I was having near-constant fantasies about spanking and discipline, but they never included genital sex – so I didn’t recognize them as sex fantasies, and thus made no attempt to reconcile those impossible desires with what I thought was “normal” sexuality. Wanting to kiss, to make out, to have intercourse – I don’t think I ever once got turned on by those thoughts, although the desire to do those things was urgent and real.
My major high school crush was an amazing Chinese-American overachiever, who simultaneously maintained the school’s highest GPA, was a starter – at 5’6” – on the basketball team, and played the piano beautifully. I often imagined kissing him, but when I tried to find a turn-on in the fantasy, I came up, well, dry. The crush was real and hopeless and painful, and half a century later I have no idea what it was I wanted so badly.
I can guess, though. In high school I skated between cliques – not pretty (or, let’s face it, normal) enough to be popular, too socially awkward to be a slut (I would have been if anybody had thought to ask, but nobody did), too mouthy to be one of the quiet kids who wander like Hollywood extras through the halls of every high school, not science-y enough to hang out with the geeks, too much of a good girl to be welcome among the stoners. But having such an exemplary boyfriend would have cemented me a place in the social hierarchy. It would have gotten me seen. And god, did I yearn to be seen.
As things stood, though, I had no solid place in the social life of a high school student.
I figured everything would be better once I was in college. So I went to summer school, did some independent study, and graduated a year early.
And there it is again, the huge rush forward. The question is: What wisdom did I miss in my frantic stampede toward my future? Some things people learn in high school – quadratic equations, the Bill of Rights, what a topic sentence is – are easy. But then there’s the harder stuff: How do you take care of yourself? Is altering your consciousness a good idea, and, if so, how do you want to do it, and how often should you do it, and what accommodations should you make to ensure that it causes as little harm as possible to the rest of your life? What kind of adult do you intend to be? Is sex something that you want in and of itself, or are you trying to gain status, build your reputation, avoid teasing or bullying, get a boyfriend or girlfriend, attain power? How will you find friends in an environment where you aren’t seeing the same people five days a week for nine months?
I missed all that, and I paid for it, and still sometimes do.
The detail I’d left out of my headlong rush into the future was that most people go to college to learn things. I think I’d imagined skimming along on a frothy mixture of Cliff’s Notes and bullshit, which had worked fine till then – but the professors at UC Santa Cruz were not so easily dazzled. Much of the campus was accessible only on foot, by bike, or via a system of trams I never really got the hang of. I hated long walks, especially on hills, and hadn’t ridden a bicycle since I was twelve. Hence, I missed more classes than I attended. I also found myself unable to perform many of the functions of adulthood – things like keeping my room in a manageable state (I drove away my roommate and nobody else wanted me, so I had a double room to myself), finding new friends, or managing the small allowance my folks sent me every month.
It’s easier to figure out what I missed from college: everything. I was attending an excellent school at its academic peak. William Everson, Tom Lehrer, Norman O. Brown, Tim Hunter and George Hitchcock were just a few of the brilliant individuals who were teaching at UC Santa Cruz during my tenancy there. I, of course, had nothing to learn from them, or from anyone: I was in college because going to college was what smart people did, and I was quite sure I was too smart to learn anything from anyone else. I wrote reams of mediocre poetry (and ignored any input from instructors or workshop members – I’m not sure I ever wrote a second draft of anything), took a few art classes, barely finished the required courses for humanities majors, moped around, and smoked a lot of weed.
Thinking back to those days makes me want to kick my college self squarely in her perky young ass.
I didn’t actually flunk out, although I should have. But when I realized that more of my energy and social life were going into my part-time job as a movie usher than into all my classes put together, I began to think about better uses of my time.
By that point I’d met Frank and lived with him for a year, so when he moved back to Davis, his hometown, I followed him. I asked him to marry me, and we did, when I was twenty and he was twenty-one.
I was a fucking adult, goddammit, and getting married was what adults did.
I did eventually go back to school, at UC Davis – taking the bare minimum of courses necessary to finish my bachelor’s degree. But then I had a few days when I felt kind of queasy, and then my boobs got tender, and, well, I think you can guess the rest of that story.
It was actually Frank’s and my second pregnancy – the first one had been when we were still at Santa Cruz. But even my desire to race forward toward whatever came next was not enough to convince me that a baby at nineteen was a good idea. With my folks’ help, I’d had an abortion (this was in the days when they were only legal if you could get a doctor to say that it would be dangerous to your mental or physical health to have a baby) and got on with my life.
But two years later I was pregnant again – I guess some people just shouldn’t have IUDs – and by then we were married, so, what the hell, we had Miles, and I was a mom at twenty-two. That’s not all that old by the standards of the generation before mine (my mom had me at twenty), but it’s still pretty damn young.
For most of human history, having a first child in your early twenties meant that there was something wrong with you – that you were too unattractive to get a husband, or that something was stopping you from conceiving. But the world these days is complicated enough that it takes at least a couple of decades to get the hang of it. At twenty-two, I could hold down a minimum-wage job (setting type for the local paper), prepare an edible meal, do laundry as long as nobody was too picky about getting it folded and put away, and keep house well enough that nobody was going to die of toxic fumes or spoiled food. Frank was at about the same level, so between the two of us we maintained a rathole apartment, took care of our pets, and ate something besides ramen and peanut butter.
Having a child, though, required a whole different level of functioning. Miles was the easiest of babies, but even an easy baby is a little tornado of needs requiring everything you have to offer: your boobs and your lap and your sleep and your budget and your tear ducts. But I was determined to live an unchanged life, as women did before concepts like “confinement” entered the language. If I’d been a hunter/gatherer, I told myself, I’d have given birth, gotten up with my newborn baby in my arms, left the placenta for predators, and kept on hunting and gathering.
At six weeks postpartum, my cesarean scar was barely healed. But I was ready to take on hunter/gatherer status, so I loaded Miles in the car and drove to Southern California to see my parents and friends.
On the last night of our visit, my sister and dad and Miles and I went out to dinner with friends, who had us over for a drink afterward. It was a pleasant and relaxed evening and we all felt reluctant to end it, but it was late. And then, headed down the flight of steep wooden stairs that led out of their apartment, I overstepped and, my arms full of baby, couldn’t catch myself with the banister. I had (thank god) enough reflexes to throw him clear of my body – but the descent fractured his skull, and I sustained deep bruising all the way down my front.
The intake form at the hospital read “Mother claims she fell down stairs,” which infuriated me then and still does – but can I honestly claim that my blithe hubris did not qualify me for the title of “abusive parent”? Looking forty-plus years back, I’m not sure I like answering that question.
Frank, terrified and helpless, flew down on the first available plane. We drove back together the next day.
I suppose every new parent feels trapped to some degree – but I wonder whether some of the wisdom I’d blithely avoided acquiring, about being a single woman in a fast-changing world, might have made things a little easier.
When Miles was about three, Frank and I decided to order takeout pizza for dinner, because neither of us had the energy to cook. I picked up my bag and keys to go to the car. “I wanna go!” Miles whined.
“I need some time by myself,” I told him. “I’ll just be gone for a little while.”
His enormous brown eyes welled up. “If you want to be by yourself, why do you have a Miles? Why do you have a Frank?”
That conversation took place more than forty years ago, and it still pierces me to the heart.
By the time I was thirty, I’d figured out that my spanking and discipline fantasies were in fact sex fantasies. (I’m very smart in a lot of ways, but kind of slow in others.) And Miles’s question – “Why do you have a Miles? Why do you have a Frank?” was echoing in my brain, along with its later codicil, “Why do you have a Ben?” And I didn’t have an answer except that I loved them all immeasurably.
But the obvious next step – “How do I get to have a Frank and a Miles and a Ben, but still go out in search of the ecstatic intensity my life is so profoundly lacking?” – was not so simple. I tried it with Frank, but his obvious disinterest was a buzzkill for both of us. I tried it with other guys I’d met through their personal ads, trying to figure out whether sadomasochism was an itch that would heal after a couple of cathartic scratches.
In the end, I lost my Frank but kept my Miles and my Ben. Many newly-minted perverts are not so fortunate.
And now, in my late sixties, I’m being offered the chance to charge forward once again. Although Edward is only five years older than I, his disabilities add a decade or so to his functional age: living in a seniors’ community makes perfect sense for him. Because I want to keep my Edward, it seems I’ll have to figure out how to have it make sense for me, too.
As my trainer aptly noted, I’m used to being strong and competent. But just yesterday, I had to ask Ben to tighten the screws holding down the toilet seat, because my hands were simply not strong enough. The last major household task I performed, installing some new faucets in the bathroom, left me limping pathetically for several days. I may be competent, but I’m not so strong anymore. What’s more, I’ve become fragile – everyday bumps and dings leave big bruises, everyday movements lead to angry tendons and restless muscles, and healing takes weeks or months, not days.
So maybe this move isn’t really rushing forward. Maybe it’s exactly what I need for the next couple of decades. But I need to spend some time thinking about what wisdom I’m leaving behind as I move on.
There’s a dish, or a family of dishes, that every busy parent recognizes. From what I’ve heard, some families call it slumgullion, and some call it American goulash or firefighter’s goulash or any number of other adjectives modifying the name of a dish with which it has little in common. But in our household, it’s always been glop.
It’s hard to delineate the criteria that constitute glop. There’s hamburger glop, tuna glop, ham glop, sausage glop, chicken glop and, I suppose, tofu glop, although you couldn’t prove that by me. The things that all glops have in common is that they contain protein and vegetables in some kind of sauce, they’re usually served with some kind of starch either underneath or cooked in, and they constitute a full meal. They are properly eaten from bowls (with either a fork or a spoon, depending on how gloppy your glop is), they’re filling and comforting, and a harried parent can throw them together in an hour or less.
Glop often uses canned soup or premade sauces, which keep indefinitely and are only a can-opener away. 1950s cookbooks were full of this kind of thing.
The hamburger stroganoff that was a godsend to beleaguered housewives of that era is classic glop. Spaghetti sauce can be glop if it has meat and veggies in it and you don’t take it too seriously. Mac and cheese with meat and vegetables stirred in is such classic glop that every parent depends on it as a way to use up all that semi-wilted stuff in the bottom of the crisper drawer, and that kids will nonetheless eat and enjoy. A tamale pie – leftover meat with spicy tomatoes, veggies and some shredded cheese at the bottom, a cornbread crust on top – is upside-down glop.
Several of the frozen meals you can find in any supermarket are classic glop, only they cost more. Stouffer’s turkey tetrazzini, which I secretly adore and still buy as the occasional treat, is a perfect example, as are the Swanson’s pot pies every kid loves. (The crust counts as starch.)
I’ve heard from the Dudes that glop was a frequent meal at their dad’s house – I’m quite sure he never learned that from his mother, who did all her cooking from the recipes on her well-thumbed bookshelf, so glop is contagious rather than hereditary. You know that you’ve successfully preached the gospel of glop when your thirteen-year-old son strolls through the kitchen, notices that you have butter and milk and flour out on the counter, and remarks casually, “Oh, white sauce.”
In case you have never had to do improvisational dinner for a table of hungry kids, here’s how you make hamburger stroganoff. Like all glops, it is infinitely variable based on what you have in the fridge and what your kids are willing to eat.
If you have bacon, chop a few slices roughly and fry it till it’s crisp and the fat is rendered. If you don’t, just pour a little oil into a large straight-sided pan.
Add some chopped onion and/or celery and/or garlic and/or green pepper. Cook till it starts to soften.
Break up some ground meat – if you have two teenage boys and you intend to eat some too, you’ll need a pound. Classic hamburger stroganoff uses ground beef, but it ought to be good with ground lamb or ground pork or ground turkey, and you could probably even get away with tofu or seitan. One of my favorite vegetarian restaurants in Santa Cruz served cashew stroganoff.
Throw it in the pan and push it around till it’s mostly brown.
If you feel like it, add a splat of tomato paste. Push it around until it starts to darken and smell nice.
Add as many sliced mushrooms as your supply and appetite permit. (I like criminis, but you do you.) Cook them till they’re not raw anymore – it won’t take long.
Add seasonings to taste: some oregano is nice, and so is smoked paprika if you like it (I love it). A dash or two of Worcestershire sauce is good too.
Add a can of condensed cream of mushroom soup and stir in thoroughly. Taste for seasoning; it will probably need a little bit of salt and a lot of black pepper, and a dash of hot sauce might not go amiss either.
Simmer, stirring occasionally, over low heat until it’s hot through.
Just before serving, stir in a cup or more of sour cream.
Serve over egg noodles. Or mashed potatoes. Or rice. Or toast. It’s yummy and soul-satisfying any way you fix it.
 That particular dish wound up as leftover ham and peas with a lot of Swiss cheese incorporated into the sauce, served over egg noodles. It was delicious.
 You can add a glug of dry sherry too, although then you have to spell the dish “gloppe.”
I don’t like to refer to myself as having been a “single mom” – Frank and I had joint custody, which meant that nearly all the duties of parenting were shared. But from the point of our breakup onward, I was a solo mom, and trying to support our little household on the income of a freelance writer.
If you’ve ever been a freelance anything, you’ll know that both your time and your income are wildly unpredictable. Which means that there will be days when there isn’t much money, which tend to be the same days that you take on too much work in order to get more money. Which in turn means that you’re always on the lookout for cheap meals that can be thrown together quickly, and that are tasty and filling enough to satisfy a couple of fast-growing, ravenous boys.
The Dudes never developed a taste for Purina Mom Chow (my experience is that few kids appreciate cottage cheese in any form). But a couple of similarly improvised dishes were in regular rotation chez Hardy/Taber.
We often ate Potatoes á les Dudes:
Bake one potato or sweet potato per person – in the oven is best, but if you’re pressed for time, the microwave works okay too
Slit the top of the potato and squeeze it so the inside pops partly out. Butter the inside with as much butter as your budget and waistline will permit.
Poach one egg per person and drop it into the opened potato.
Spread a handful of shredded cheese on top – we liked pepper jack, but any meltable cheese will do.
Microwave the potatoes till the cheese melts a little – 30-60 seconds, depending on how many potatoes you’re doing – and serve.
Some salsa on top makes the dish a bit more interesting for adult palates, but it’s good without it too.
Another infinitely variable dinner we ate often was Green Bean Tuna Melts:
Heat up enough frozen French-cut green beans to feed your group, and divide them into individual bowls.
Flake half a can of water-pack tuna over each bowl.
Drizzle a little olive oil and a little vinegar – use something with some flavor, like real cider vinegar – over the top.
Top with a handful of shredded pepper jack (are you sensing a theme here?).
Microwave till cheese is slightly melted and tuna is warm.
This dish lends itself to dozens of easy substitutions and additions – I’ve been eating it lately with a frozen roasted vegetable mix instead of the beans, and it would work fine with something like zucchini if that’s what you have on hand. You can also substitute canned salmon for the tuna, and I think canned chicken would work fine, as would meat shredded off a rotisserie chicken.
We also ate a lot of Velveeta mac and cheese – I won’t give you the recipe for that because I’m pretty sure it’s right there on the Velveeta box. I will, however, note that you can add chopped ham, Spam, hot dogs or cooked ground meat, and almost any kind of vegetables (peas are a natural, but diced cooked carrots would be nice too) to make it a tiny bit less junk-food-y. The one time I went all out and made proper, from-scratch mac and cheese, the Dudes wouldn’t eat it. That, in my experience, is the usual response of kids to fancy cooking. The good news is that they eventually get over it.
Something you do not want to do is get them into sushi at an early age. There’s a certain amount of amusement to be had by taking them to an all-you-can-eat sushi bar and watching the owner’s face fall, but that’s pretty expensive entertainment. If they have to get hooked on something, peanut butter and jelly works fine.
 We didn’t have those in my solo-mom days, more’s the pity.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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 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 – 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. 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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, it wasn’t our problem.
 The kind of binding you see on nearly all paperback books, with a flat, printed spine.
 Another Jay contribution: I was going to call it A Workbook for Eager Beginners. He was right.
 Too much to explain here. Look them up; they’re fascinating.
 He decided not to stay, but at least I’d made the offer.
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.
(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, 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.
 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.
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,” 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.)
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 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 – 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.
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. 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, 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, 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, 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 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 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.
 A kinky iteration of Penthouse Lettters, which published (ostensibly) true letters submitted by readers.
 As always, I was way better at talking than I was at shutting up.
 They would go on to marry, and are still together twenty-plus years later.
 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.
 An enormous celebration of leather, BDSM and fetish culture that draws tens of thousands of people to San Francisco every year.
 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?”
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, 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.
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.
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.