Friday, January 1, 2010

That Resolution Thing

People have been asking: Do you resolve?  And yes I do.  Here were my resolutions for 2009:
1. Eat better (e.g., less fat, less white flour, less sugar, more vegetables)
2. Lose weight
3. More exercise (thanks to Coffee Jones and Dino Burger for the Wii Fit we received last month -- it's really increased the exercise for these chilly days)
4. Make four quilts
5. Be a better quilt guild member
6. Get organized with my legal work: more filing, more scheduling and use of the calendar, and more preparation for specific issues.

It goes without saying that I should blog more!
Okay, so how did I do?  Well, #1 is an ongoing process, but I definitely eat better than I did a year ago, so I'll give myself a check for that one.  #2 is also an ongoing process, but I weigh 12 pounds less today than a year ago, and 20 pounds less than my high point for the year.  Importantly, I've lost 10 pounds of the 45 I want to lose by next October 1.  That's almost on track, but I can do better!

Exercise -- yes and no.  Definitely can do better on that!

Quilting.  Well, *sigh* this is continues to be my Achilles' heel.  No, I was not a better guild member, and no, I didn't complete 4 quilts.  I'm going to drop the guild member thing (I could whine about how far away the meetings are, but who am I kidding? I just don't want to), but I should still be able to make four quilts in a year.  That resolution stays put until, damn it, I complete four quilts in a year!

Finally, I won't say my organizational skills improved over the year, but here's why I'm still going to give myself a check for #6:  I used to be deficient in my brief writing, a vital skill for a litigator.  Well, not this year!  As a result of the tragic appeal (for which I wrote three complete briefs in six months) I improved several times over (even if I did lose the case).  Ironically, I'm ending my legal career, but it's nice to know I actually tackled that demon to the ground.

Okay, how about for 2010?

Let's keep the first four in place:
  1. Eat better (e.g., less fat, less white flour, less sugar, more vegetables)
  2. Lose weight
  3. More exercise
  4. Make four quilts

    And here are the new ones for 2010:

  5. Complete, revise & polish two complete romance novels (not as daunting as it sounds; both are well underway)
  6. Do all that I can do to get published.  (See how I didn't resolve to get published?  But I play a large part in that, and I resolve to do everything within my power to market myself as a writer and my novels as publishable.)
  7. Be more confident
Okay, so that last one might seem like a ringer, seeing as how I don't come across as shy, awkward, or lacking in self-assurance.  But I've been in some situations recently where my first instinct was to run and hide.  Well, y'know what?  I ended up handling myself just fine, and I'm actually proud of myself for the way I got on.  It's not my actions that need adjusting, it's my attitude about myself.  

So: scorecard for 2009?  Three thumbs up, two thumbs down, and one thumb sideways.  Which, frankly, is not too bad.  The only resolutions I "broke" were the quilting ones, and while that's disappointing, it's not the end of the world.

P.S.  Oh, and did you notice that unnumbered resolution, about blogging more?  Well, here -- no, I did NOT blog more here at Narrow End.  Nor on the quilt or knitting blogs.  (Bad Magdalen)  But at my new blog, Promantica?  I kick ass.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Elephant in the Room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Back When I Worked in an Office...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 12, 2009

My Erstwhile BFF, the Beauty Queen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, cattiness over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Who's YOUR Hero?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because that's who I married.  Twice!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

My Winsor List

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

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

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

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

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

3. Pretty much anything by Jane Feather

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

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

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

5. Cassandra by Chance Betty Neels

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

6. Imprudent Lady Joan Smith

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

7. High Garth – Mira Stables

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

8. Her Man of Affairs -- Elizabeth Mansfield

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

9. His Lordship’s Mistress – Joan Wolf

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

10. These Old Shades – Georgette Heyer

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

11. Sweet Everlasting – Patricia Gaffney

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

12. Kiss an Angel – Susan Elizabeth Phillips

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

13. Dream a Little Dream – SEP

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

14 Daddy Long-Legs -- Jean Webster

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

15a. Maddie’s Justice – Leslie LaFoy

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

15b. Lynn Kerstan

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

16. The Rainbow Season – Candace Camp aka Lisa Gregory

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