Thursday, September 22, 2011

Top of the Third, Part II: Getting Back to Myself in Jamaica

"Miss, you come look at my shop?”

At my elbow was a very dark woman with a neon-pink headscarf, urging me up to a second row of shacks further into the beach. I allowed myself to be led along, even though I had no money on me, and told her so. After all, I was just out for a walk, not expecting to find myself on the other side of the cracked looking-glass.

"S’okay. You just look.”

Aboriginal Jamaicans meet Columbus,
and the beginning of the end for them.
Rushed up the little sandy hill, I saw that the parallel rows of makeshift shops formed a kind of village, much larger than had at first appeared. Activity was everywhere. Men were whittling figurines, making fires, pulling seaweed from empty lobster traps; a group of women sat together on tree-trunks near tables of jewelry; three children ran after a couple of brown dogs. Some people watched us as I walked alongside Pink Lady to her shack, and again, I felt self-conscious as the only white person around. Why did I have to be so very white? A big problem I always have with visiting Caribbean resorts (where I serve as companion to my 83-year-old father, who loves the places and treats me to trips with him a couple of times a year) is the feeling of being the Oppressor; of being the hated or mocked American; of being the tourist too stupid to know that, although these resorts do employ thousands of locals or in other ways provide livelihoods, they ultimately deplete resources and exploit people. I love traveling more than anything else, but only as a gracious participant, not a greedy consumer. Perhaps I'm too sensitive or totally off-base, but I often feel very uncomfortable when I'm visiting poor nations on "vacation" (which is itself purely a first-world concept; most of the Jamaicans I came to know during my trip had never left the island, let alone the Saint James Parish).

After perusing Pink Lady's standard wares and promising to come back with money, I walked back to the water, and made friends with the wet white dog that had greeted me earlier. She was so sweet.

"Dat is Xena, da Warrior Fisher Dog. She catches tirty feesh a day."*

A man who introduced himself as Chris leaned against his own shack and laughed as I bent down to hug the dog, who was generous with her kissing, wagging, and happy eyes. With pride in his voice, Chris told me about her puppies "back in America," taken home by a tourist last year -- as if every Caribbean dog dreamed of such an honor. I threatened to steal Xena, too.

"You steal dat dog, you break Ev-er-ee-bodee's heart on dis beach," was his solemn reply as he motioned up and down the rows. I had to laugh. With three large dogs and an untold number of cats already invading my house and porch in Philadelphia, smuggling a Jamaican fishing dog into the mix had only been my weak attempt at a joke. "I would never do that, Chris," I said as I tried to keep a straight face.

Some of my beach friends (left, Chris [Lakers shirt], Johnny
[straw hat], Smokey Joe [pink crocs], Ryan [far right]).*
Four or five guys who also worked on the beach walked by just then, and casually invited me to sit and have a drink with them. They look surprised but happy when I shrugged and said, "Sure, why not?" Really, what's the worst that could've happened? (I know, many of you are thinking, "Plenty!") Guiding me over to an empty shack usually occupied, they said, by a Rastafarian ("Rasta-Mon not worken' today"), they directed me to sit on a petrified tree stump (the best seat in the house) as they took their own places on rocks and other stumps under the roof tarp amid the empty shelves. For a moment, I was a tiny bit uneasy when eight to 10 men sat or stood near me inside the small space, but soon one of the guys rolled a joint, everybody laughed and smoked, and the conversation -- and what a conversation! -- was a-rolling.

* These photos are used with much appreciation through the gracious permission of Kristin Dewey, author of the blogs "Cokie the Cat: Hollywood Insider," and her brand new "Notes for My Next Life."

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Top of the Third, Part I: Getting Back to Myself in Jamaica

I wondered if they could smell me coming, because I certainly could smell them as soon as I crossed the little wooden pier and passed the guard stationed on the white plastic chair at the end of the hotel property. The ganja smoke seemed to start just where the sanitized beach stopped and the real one began: early-morning rake lines from tidying staff ended abruptly, and palm fronds and rocks and trash now crunched underfoot. I put my flip-flops back on.

Nodding to the bored guard in his starched uniform shirt and tie, I felt very white and very green. I sniffed myself -- odors of hotel bodywash on my skin and shampoo in my hair -- and thought, this is the scent of Iberostar. Of tourists. We all smell the same when we’re here. I hesitated. Can they smell the Hotel People before they see them? Yeah, it probably goes both ways.

I’d started out from my cool clean room about twenty minutes before, with the idea of a long beach walk, i-Pod in one hand, ice-cold bottled Wata in the other. Past the blare and spectacle of beach aerobics, past symmetrical rows of reddening sunbathers, past waiters bearing Red Stripe and pina coladas. And suddenly, the little all-inclusive universe just … ended. Never able to turn back, anytime or anywhere, I always need to discover what’s next, what’s Over There. Climbing over the pier planks, wading around a tight group of twisted trees, I finally saw the source of the smoke.


Rows of shacks like these line the beach
past Iberostar at Montego Bay
Shacks in various stages of falling down stood hard against each other; wood carvings, wet brushes and open jars of poster paint, shells, t-shirts, wind chimes, and hundreds of other handmade or mass-produced souvenirs buckled shelves and tables inside. Rough lobster traps lay at the water’s edge. A white mongrel with a black belly ran to me, tail wagging. Dark lean men, some without shirts and shoes, stood or sat among the shacks, talking with each other or painting or smoking joints. I lost my composure for a second; they were all simply beautiful. Some had short cornrows or dreads, others’ hair was cut close; some looked to be teenagers, others in their twenties, a few middle-aged -- but all were ripped and without an ounce of fat on them -- “good specimens,” as I often jokingly refer to well-built men.

“Miss, you come look at my shop?”

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bottom of the Second, Part III: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?

Lucky Pauline, surrounded by
a group of men with evil thoughts
on their minds
"When last we left our heroine..." With all these serial installments, I'm beginning to feel like a silent-movie actress, facing one dramatic crisis after another, leaving audiences breathless as the screen fades to black with me tied to the railroad track.

Isn't the Damsel in Distress one of our recurring female archetypes? The role certainly has held an irresistible appeal for me: from arousal as a kid watching made-for-TV movies in which women were kidnapped (or worse godforbid); to making my sister play a game called "Bad Man, Good Man, & Girl," where she was the first two title characters who respectively kidnapped then rescued the Girl (i.e., me); to my adult predilection for being bound and dominated (and worse godforbid) by strong men. Yeah, I know, I'm far from a passive person, but the theory goes that our sexual personae tend toward the opposite of our "real life" selves -- if strong-willed, we are relieved to surrender control; if timid, we crave erotic power over another. That's what "they" say, anyway.

So, where was I with the whole broken-heart thing? Oh right, my mother had cast me out because a found condom implied I was having sex (duh), and Sam's family opened their door to me until I could find my own place. (Hmmm, the phrase "cast out" just struck me. It brings to mind sentences like "Rebellious angels were cast out from heaven" or "The exorcist cast out possessing demons." Angels? Demons? Damn, I had good company.)

Ultimately, I think the stress of being homeless, not speaking to my parents, going to school, working two part-time jobs, and getting an apartment took its toll on me -- and on my relationship: feeling insecure and uncertain, I became insanely jealous of Sam's porn collection and other girls he always seemed to notice. Gifted with a deep voice and quick wit, he transformed himself from a tuxedo-ed mobile D.J. spinning weddings and bar mitzvahs into a sexy sidekick on a top-rated morning radio show -- and his public appearances as a station personality certainly attracted nubile groupies. Sam was like a kid in a candy store and I, a motherless child, felt like Lucifer in the picture.

Hating my new haircut at 19
Looking back, it seems so fucking crazy and out of character that I hated porn so intensely then, but I think it just became a symbol for me of being unloved and abandoned. I was desperate for attention and assurance and painfully unhappy with my body -- bad combination, especially with a boyfriend who was vocally appreciative of other women's assets. I started arguments and cried a lot and generally was a real drag to be around. I mean, seriously, what 22-year-old stud who ruled the world would have stuck with me? I even cried after sex, mourning the connection after he pulled out. I soon hid that reaction, but vividly remember lying on my back on the floor after he came, hot tears rolling silently into my hair.

Doorway, my apartment at 1126 Spruce
I was a mess, obviously, but to be fair to my younger self, Sam was kind of a dick, too. He didn't fight for me after his father banished me (cast out again!) because our late-night arguments supposedly interfered with Sam's schoolwork. He cheated and lied. He broke up with me over the phone after three years of being together. And after I hung up that day -- in my tiny apartment on Spruce Street where I shared a bathroom down the hall with a little old black hermit-man -- I just sat in the middle of the snot-green carpet and started wailing. No words, just a loud, long, sad sound coming from deep inside me. It lasted in some ways, I think, for years. The love of my life was gone, and it was all my fault. In fact, I was so unlovable even my own parents didn't want me. Inhaling was hard, exhaling impossible. My heart broke into a thousand pieces on the floor. How could anyone survive this?

At my thinnest (and a regular at the tanning salon) at 20
So I made up with my disturbed mother and went home for a few weeks. She was thrilled to once again be taking care of me -- and god knows I needed some kind of mommy and a place to go. I didn't leave the house. I wept for hours on end. I stopped eating. And the tiniest of bright spots appeared as a result: I lost weight. Never really more than ten or so pounds overweight, I had perceived myself as being huge and loathed my body. But, voila! Twelve pounds gone in a week!  Bad breakup = good diet plan. (This, despite my worried Jewish mother begging me to eat, following me around the house with a hard-boiled egg in her hand and a cigarette in her mouth.) I continued to severely limit my caloric intake and started long-distance running again -- the first time since cross-country in tenth grade. And  over the course of that summer, from the end of my romance in May to the beginning of the fall semester, I lost 60 pounds, "tipping" the scales at 5'9" at 106. My boobs rounded down from a hated D-cup to a cute little B. For the first time since probably I was a fetus, I was wearing a size four and felt great going bra-less and tucking snug t-shirts into skinny jeans. I went back to Temple in September feeling like hot shit, anxious to bump into Sam with my new body (literally and figuratively).

Sure enough, ironically at the same lunch-truck benches where we first met, Sam eventually caught sight of what was left of me, and literally dropped his plastic fork into his chef salad. I quivered in delight as he looked me up and down, shocked at my appearance but obviously pleased. (As a matter of fact, I got lots of positive feedback from friends and family -- but this was before anorexia, bulimia, and eating disorders in general became such a part of the American collective conscience.) I tried to do the friends-with-benefits thing with Sam -- and we did manage to fuck each other for a little while -- but I just couldn't deal with the agony that inevitably followed our encounters. Remarkably, considering my fucked-upness at that time, I was the one to finally end it -- maybe I just needed to have the last word.

I spent the next couple of years dealing with anorexia and then bulimia; a semester in Rome led to bingeing (minus purging) and I returned to the States weighing almost 200 pounds. Within a seven-month period, I had gained almost 100 pounds (extremely fast weight gain often follows anorexia because of the body's slowed metabolism in an effort to thwart starvation). Since I could never make myself vomit, I turned to laxatives (often 30 or more at a time) and running  again (yes, not a good combination back-to-back, as many a frenzied rush to a Burger King bathroom can attest). A bunch of weight came off, but my weight has gone up and down ever since. It's not uncommon for me to have three or four different sizes in my closet at once (currently wearing an 8 or 10 slacks). The eating disorder may not be in full bloom anymore, but disordered eating and skewed body image now seem to be a permanent part of my psyche.

I've given a lot of thought (along with endless discussion and years of therapy and personal research) to what triggers such self-destructive behavior  -- even now the origins of the illness are little understood. Was it punishment for chasing away Sam? Some experts believe anorexia is an attempt to return to a very small state -- i.e., a child -- when we were loved and cared for unconditionally. Others think anorexics morph themselves into human shrinky-dinks because they subconsciously believe they don't deserve to take up space in the universe. Researchers conjecture that eating disorders are inherent in certain people, and traumatic events can set them off. Perhaps it's none or all or completely different explanations. I just know that it often feels as if I'm in "remission," like alcoholics, rather than "cured." Our society certainly doesn't make recovering easy, but I also believe that being a highly emotional person doesn't help either.

To this day, I still wonder about Sam and follow him a bit on-line (he is a long-time Houston radio personality), occasionally sending him a message on Facebook (he ignored my friend request, the sonuvabitch bastard), even offering him a radio exclusive when my (alleged) sex-for-tix story broke last year, but never receiving an acknowledgment in return. Really, was I all that horrible? Any worse than any other overachieving, neurotic teenager from a dysfunctional family living in a strip-mall wasteland? I do wonder. Yep, sometimes I am a confident and unstoppable cougar taking on the world, but I can also be the self-doubting girl still trying to impress an ex-boyfriend -- along with about 20 other Susans as well. But as Edith Piaf, one of my favorite artists, sings, "Je ne regrette rien"; everything that has ever happened to me and everyone I have ever known make me who I am right now -- and I like that person a lot.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Bottom of the Second, Part II: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?

Jay and I, summer 1983.
Something shifted in me when I fell in love with Sam. My one steady, long-term boyfriend before him, Jay, had an 11-inch penis (I thought they were all that big, ha ha) and he once chased my father around a green VW Beetle wielding a billy club: those are probably the two most interesting things I can say about him. Inevitably, my relationship with Jay was doomed when I graduated high school and started Temple -- and the restraining order my mother got from the judge (maybe I will tell that story sometime) didn't help things. Plus, Jay's fatalism, depression, and deep sense of inferiority (all things I had in no short supply myself) repulsed me, and I started thinking of ways to avoid him.

A few inches of cock was really the only thing Jay could boast over Sam. It was a trade-off I could live with: Sam was dead smart, sarcastically hilarious, and remarkably self-assured for a 20-year-old. By late December 1983, when Sam and I first met, the Wild Sorority Girl I'd always wanted to be had all but replaced the Geeky Teachers' Pet I'd always been. Greek Night on Thursdays gave me the chance to drink like a fish (thank you, Doc Holliday's), make friends with popular girls, and fuck a different frat boy every week. Life had all of a sudden gotten a whole lot better.

Sam and I, early 1984.
I did curb my promiscuity when things got serious with Sam, excepting the occasional ZBT president or Italian exchange student. It was fine, though: the Warm & Fuzzies with Sam were perfectly balanced with the Hot & Steamies (at first anyway).  Smudgie-Wudgie (him) and Fudgie-Wudgie (me) were allowed to sleep in the same bed (i.e., shtup) at his house. (I remember so vividly the first time we had sex there: lying in my underwear on his twin boy-bed, I laughed until I cried, watching him run stark naked down the hallway, erection bobbing up and down in silhouette, in search of a rubber in his father's drawer.) His educated, liberal parents even took me in when my crazy mother banished me from the house one snowy night after finding a condom in Sam's jacket while snooping. Here's how nutty this was, in perspective: I was almost 19, an exceptional college student, and seriously involved with someone every good Jewish mother worth her weight in roast-beef brisket wants her daughter to "catch," but, as my therapist sister says, she couldn't bear the thought of me "individuating" and leaving her alone with her cigarettes, her anxiety disorders, and my father.

(Wait a minute. How did this become about Sophie? I didn't invite her to the party. But wasn't that always a problem for her, really? She perceived my dating and sexual coming-of-age as a betrayal, an abandonment -- and I haven't yet decided whether her sabotage of my early adult relationships was intentional or not. As slutty and horny as I always was, she was just as asexual and frigid: when I was little, she used to call for me to "rescue" her when my father tried to kiss or hold her; for forever, she slept on a couch in the basement, two floors removed from my father [who was no sexual dynamo either, trust me]; and when I was 16, she had a meltdown after catching me in the indecent act of shaving my legs and forbade me from leaving the house that night. A couple of years before, we had been watching baseball and playing catch, but my normal progression toward womanhood stirred some desperate dysfunction in Sophie, and my life was a living hell for the next four years or so.)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Bottom of the Second, Part I: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?

My 24-year-old niece is agonizing through the throes of her first heartbreak, and I don't know what to say to her. It's certainly not that I can't identify; I've typically suffered through profound despair when long-term relationships have ended. And at the risk of sounding too old or pedestrian by paraphrasing Rod Stewart, the first cut truly is the deepest, one that never entirely goes away. But what kind of comfort for my niece would sharing that be? Perhaps it's better to say nothing and let this painful rite of passage push her brusquely and irrevocably into adulthood. Once we experience the level of grief that accompanies first-love loss, we're never fully innocent again, are we?

Me at the tender age of 17
At 20, I was a bit younger when I kicked and screamed through my first excruciating broken heart. Three years earlier, in 1983, Sam and I had met at the lunch trucks at Temple University at the end of my first freshman semester. Actually, my four friends and I all immediately developed a big crush on him: confident, overtly sexual, and witty, Sam was a deadly flirt who looked you straight in the eye and touched your shoulder at just the right time to make your heart (and crotch) flutter.

SEPTA's Market-Frankford El
The six of us were from quasi-suburban Northeast Philadelphia, and the commute to Temple, in the wilds of North Philly, was difficult, especially since we all still lived at home. Some of us drove or occasionally had access to a car -- otherwise, we were relegated to the traumatic 90-minute ride via public transit (South Eastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority -- or SCHLEPTA, as we called it): first the 14 bus along Roosevelt Boulevard, then the El through Frankford, then the subway to Columbia Avenue (since renamed Cecil B. Moore Ave. for the African-American activist in Philly's 1960s race riots). Pretty serious stuff for sheltered, dorky Jewish white kids from quiet neighborhoods with above-ground pools and semi-detached houses.

So it was no surprise when my friends and I ended up squished into Sam's Malibu one day after classes when he so gallantly offered to take the five of us home. For him (for any 20-year-old guy, I'd think), driving a carful of passably cute, giggling freshman girls back to relative safety was a prospect too juicy and full of promise to pass up. I was the only girl who wasn't a virgin, so I was pretty good about riding gunshot and finagling to be the last one dropped off (a point of contention the whole way back).

After a quick hello to my mother (who adored Sam: Jewish, check; smart, check; handsome, check), we were off to the plywood-paneled basement, frantically kissing and dry-humping almost before we were down the steps. I knew fucking was out of the question in my house right then (my mom was seriously out of her mind when it came to sex), but as I walked Sam out to his car a little while later -- disheveled, flushed, horny -- I wondered aloud whether we would see each other again. "Are you kidding?" he laughed. "How could I turn down an animalistic blond?" I loved being called that! And as we hugged and kissed goodbye, I think I was already in love.

Coming up in Part II: More sexy stuff, a relationship develops, my over-the-top insecurities.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Conference on the Mound: A Word from the Coach

Once in a while, even when a pitcher is throwing pretty well overall, the manager has to trek out to the mound and do a little talking. Sometimes a voice from outside the playing field helps make sense inside the lines. That’s the deal with today’s blog post: Sue is not doing the writing today. As her husband and long-time fan, I am here to give her a quick break and to make a few critical points about baseball…and sex. Just consider this a conference on the mound, so to speak.

At the close of Sue’s legal proceedings, a reporter outside the courtroom asked me why I stay with her. I thought it was a stupid question and I told him so. You won’t read or see that exchange anywhere. But that question was a changeup: it looked like one thing, but was really something else entirely. What he really wanted to know is how I could stay married to someone who was as openly and overtly sexual as Sue. And hidden inside even that question is something a few people have asked me privately: what is it really like? The most baseball-friendly answer is this: life, and sex, with Sue is best understood as a big inning.

You know what I mean by a big inning. One hit is followed by another hit. Maybe a home run or two. Everything we do produces a run and the runs just keep coming, no matter what we do. The bat never breaks. Before we know it, Sue and I have batted around and we are starting over again. It’s one of the most satisfying and rewarding situations in baseball or sex. Everything we do produces the (ahem) “desired result.” So, what are we talking about? Exactly how many “runs” does one of Sue’s big innings produce?

Getting across the plate seven or eight times is the minimum in one of our innings. Most often we light it up 10 times or more. Sometimes 20. Sometimes we have three or four big innings in a weekend series. It’s not unheard of for us to rack up over a hundred in a weekend. And that is not an exaggeration. Here’s a blunt comparison. The average woman experiences about one orgasm per month, 12 in any given year. Being generous, a lifetime’s worth of successful conjugal experiences, for the average woman, amounts to 500 orgasms. Sue, on the other hand, probably hits one out of the park about 200 times a month. Maybe more. Just since she started her blog, she’s had more sexual success than most women have in their entire lives.

You see, when a player is as productive as Sue, every inning is a big inning. Success is contagious: everyone ends up feeling great. You do not put someone like Sue on the bench. Just because someone is a bit unorthodox, you do not sideline them. When someone is batting 1.000, you do not mess with their swing. You have to ride a hot hand, and Susan has been smoking for 17 years. Am I getting through to you here?

So when I walk away from the mound, I am a pretty confident guy. (Bragging just a bit.) I know I have the absolute best player in the history of the game, the real Crisco Russell (see her blog entry "The Phillies Kidnapped Me in 1980" if you're puzzled by that). And I know that when she finishes the game, she’ll be heading into the home locker room. And I can’t wait for the next big inning.

Monday, July 19, 2010

[interlude: nuclear winter]

Thought I'd post a poem written by an earlier version of me -- found the piece recently lurking in an old box of memories brought over by a friend (thanks, MM).

It Was the Season of Vampire Dogs!
Citizens and police inspectors alike
stocked up on soup bones and liva-snaps,
dim substitutes for those human ankles
so lately the snack of choice
of teacup poodles everywhere.

Rabid Possums Ravaging Freezers!
Elvis and Jim Morrison Picking Locks!
Trapped Cats the Strange Fruit of Local Trees!

This nuclear winter scandalized us all
in glowing freeze-frames,
reading end-of-the-world weeklies
bundled in the express lane.

Twenty-Two People Ripped to Shreds!
Their bloodless bodies
slump at awkward angles along the dumpsters
on kitty litter and broken wineglasses.

Dogs Reign of Terror Reaches Haddonfield!
Victorian mansions sprout "for sale" signs
in dormant parsley patches.
Masked firemen warn us to keep our boots on.

(Winking gratitude, I confess my secret place
to make love is the blue-line tracks --
cigarette wrappers whispering to the rats,

cockroaches scuttling a filthy dance,
vibrating rails hot with anticipation,
platform trenchcoats flapping a breeze --
as the oncoming train plows through city guts.
The ultimate big bang.)

Retarded Kitten Kept Alive!
Born with claws inverted like umbrellas blown inside-out,
its existence all slow-motion blinks.
Firemen don't rescue these warped ones,
whose dark lives barely span a year.
In early spring, before the buds burst,
I pluck their frozen little bodies,
relieved that the rotted fur shows no signs
of punctures.

And then there's us, stranger than (non)fiction,
tiptoed and swaddled, stringing our talks --
old christmas lights cracked and sooty --
on ten icy miles of wired poles,
carefully unwrapping the crumpled sheets
of eighty-five-cent headlines.

The chipped reds and greens --
some naked whites --
throb to life in our hands,
just in time for the mardi gras.
See, I knew there was a reason why
we saved them.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Top of the Second: Keep the Frogs Alive

I rubbed my hands together with glee when an editor recently asked me to write a piece about why baseball is sexy, eager to jump right in. Here's a topic I not only know a lot about, but one -- well, one that let's just say a lot of people know I know a lot about. I smiled at such an easy request as I poured a glass of cold white wine, turned on the fan, and prepared to polish off the task.

And yet, here I am, a good week later, with nothing to show for it. As it is well known that I eschew being obvious, I thought perhaps I should skip the part about well-muscled men in their primes donning tight uniforms to run, bend, stretch, sweat, or just stand there in the name of glory, fame, and love of the game (and, yeah, I know, buckets of money for the MLBers). A veterinarian once (once!) insulted both my dog Lulu and me when he deemed her -- a bow-legged, chunky black pitbull/Labrador mix -- "not a very good specimen." Conversely, these guys are very good specimens. So -- as you see -- I did not skip the physical element after all: to ignore its role in baseball's sexiness would be akin to denying that, although we adore our lovers for their humor and intelligence, we never noticed their strong arms or firm butts.

What about football, you ask. Their pants are tighter, their contact harder and more intense. And, as I reply to men who contact me on Adult FriendFinder with photos only of their penises: exceptional physical assets are definite turn-ons but really are a distant second to the Face -- maybe it's just how women are wired, or, then again, maybe it's just me. Thankfully, in baseball (unlike football) we not only get to see the players' faces during the game, but we get to look at them long and long: we can watch a pitcher's face for half of a three-hour game, and each individual hitter's changing expressions are visible as long as he can extend an at-bat, four or five times every night. It truly is a thing of beauty to get to know the features and idiosyncrasies of the faces of 25 men over the course of 162 games, sometimes for years.

(Last week, when Phillies back-up catcher Brian Schneider won the game in the bottom of the 12th with a walk-off homer, right-fielder Shane Victorino's face -- who we've all come to know, even in dull games, as boyishly enthusiastic -- looked downright maniacal as he and his teammates joyously greeted Schneider at the plate. Soon my grin was just as broad as Shane's and in that moment -- after almost five years of watching his animated face and now willingly infected with his contagious energy -- I loved him as if he were blood, as I have many a Phillie in the past 30 years.)

Burrell's butt and Victorino's joie de vivre aside, I do know players' physical attributes are only part of this crazy sexy knot I'm trying to untie. As a secret loner all my life, I've always envied and been excited by those who flourish as part of a group -- and what is sexier than dozens of strong people working their hardest together -- physically and emotionally -- through parts of every season of the year, in all weather, in places strewn across thousands of miles, and sometimes from absurdly diverse backgrounds and languages? For a team ultimately to survive, each player must sacrifice his own personal success for the group's; in short, playing together is sex, playing for your own stats is masturbation (if you're doing it right, the former is always preferable to the latter).

And, finally, I realize that so much of why I consider baseball sexy is personal, growing from thousands of experiences listening to, watching, and attending games: my first-ever view of the impossibly vivid green of the Veterans Stadium field, generating a sense of wonder that returns every time I enter a baseball concourse; the unrivaled camaraderie of Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn; the unique timing and rhythm that encourage discussions with friends or strangers at bars or games; the sound of a massive home run leaving a Phillie bat, and the sight of it landing in the second deck; post-season opportunities to scream at the top of my lungs with 50,000 others; pitchers and catchers "reporting" after a tough winter; a reliever tipping his cap to the crowd.

Still feeling as if I could keep defining and listing, though, I am reminded of one of my favorite Mark Twain quotes:
"Studying humor [or baseball's sexiness, if you will] is like dissecting a frog -- you may know a lot, but you end up with a dead frog."
I think it was actually that underlying sentiment that made it difficult for me to initially get started on this piece. Baseball is Sexy, always has been for me -- just like so many other magical elements in my life -- and maybe the mystery of "Why" is part of it all. Let's keep the frogs alive.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

[interlude: the dead duckling]

This afternoon we were talking about Custer's Last Stand at Little Bighorn, bottles of lukewarm water sloshing in our hands as we walked along the Schuylkill Banks. Our conversation relates to the title of this post in a way that surprised even me as I sat down to write this.

General George Armstrong Custer was a decorated veteran of the Civil War and the Indian Wars until he was killed in 1876 -- at age 36 -- during the Battle of Little Bighorn while trying to take Montana's Black Hills from Native Americans who refused to relocate to reservations. The details and aftermath of the battle are tragic and profoundly sad for both sides, and our exchange was thoughtful and poignant, as the talks between us -- two history buffs -- often are. But it was Custer's hair that made me weep over what I saw in the Schuylkill River as the sun was lowering over Boathouse Row today.

Custer's hair was yellow. Not blond, but yellow, from the stories of his contemporaries. And he wore it long, curled in ringlets and scented with cinnamon oil, with bushy yellow mustache and beard to boot. Whatever people said about the guy, he certainly wasn't boring -- and we were discussing just that when we caught sight of the otherwise-unnoticed drama playing out on the water before us.

The color of the duckling's soft belly -- "Custer yellow," you could say -- was startling against the brown back feathers of its mallard siblings and their mother, all right-side up, on the thick green of the river. At first, I thought the tiny duck had capsized, turtle-like, during its first swimming lessons and that mamma was trying to flip the clumsy baby over, hurriedly and annoyed, so that the group could continue. But something about the way she grabbed it by the neck and wildly thrashed it made my heart sink.

Still on its back, the hatchling's miniature feet air-paddled as its yellow chest fluttered and heaved, but then, after several violent shakes, it finally stopped moving. I watched, stricken, as the five other ducklings quickly imitated their mother's mercy killing: swimming to the scene, they surrounded their dead brother and alternately took quick nips to his still head and neck. My heart was breaking but I couldn't stop looking.

Mamma was near. She paddled slowly around the group and then started to swim away. The ducklings knew their cue and immediately broke behind her, diverging paddling lines streaming in the water behind them like ribbons. And then the mother stopped, invisible webbed feet turning her body halfway round, looking at the soggy patch of tiny feathers. Was she sad? Remorseful? Making sure it was dead? As she turned around again and continued with her brood out of my vision, I swear I could hear her thinking -- "he is gone the living must tend to the living" -- and the little yellow body slowly floated away downstream and sank out of view.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Bottom of the First, Part II: Roses Are Black, Bruises Are Blue

Among them were a young Baltimore police officer, a Wall Street exec with stockings and satin panties under his pinstriped suit, a pony-tailed I.T. guy, and a college instructor from a small Midwestern town. Six in all, the men silently slid the ropes attached to my wrist and ankle cuffs through the loops on opposite sides of the wooden frame. I kicked off the four-inch candy-red pumps to improve my leverage, to increase my "give" against sudden sharp motion. Mouthing the words to my favorite dark cabaret CD on the boombox behind us, I felt each brush of a muscled arm against my skin like a shock. My eyes shut tight.

A lifelong fan of roller-coasters, I'll ride one again and again until I can boast that I've kept my eyes open the whole time. Somehow I grew up thinking that if I watched the illusion of my own demise, I've conquered it; if I saw death coming head-on, it would slink away. And so it was in those few moments before the "scene" started. I forced my eyes open and consciously recorded every detail: other chessboard squares alive with their own dramas, cheap ballroom carpet and chandeliers, observers starting to gather around us in anticipation. Closer, the laying out of "toys" on a bench to my left: flogger, crop, dildo, violet wand, whip, and ... blindfold? Despite my protests, the last was gently placed over my eyes, hair lifted by one set of hands, strings tied by another. I could no longer say I was completely nude.

"It is always by way of pain one arrives at pleasure." So wrote Donatien Alphonse Fran├žois (a.k.a. Marquis de Sade)in the 18th century.(Personally I would substitute "sometimes" for "always," but who am I to edit a renowned libertine, writer, and revolutionary? Wikipedia -- of all places -- describes him with a line I really like: "He was a proponent of extreme freedom, unrestrained by morality, religion, or law.") All digressions aside, though, in the "Scene" (which defines either an individual play session or BDSM in general), I had the reputation as a "pain slut" and "uppity bottom" who shunned the use of safewords. I expected tops to hold nothing back, and would of course offer the same in return. Give me all you got, but you can bet I will fight you tooth and nail. This is not theater with expensive costumes and props -- for me, it is a real and raw exchange of power. Both Dominant and Submissive walk (or limp) away forever changed, even in some small way; bodies and minds exhausted for a time, but stronger and bigger for the collision.

I knew it was coming, but the first strike still made me stagger. A crop to the thighs instantly transported me into a state of adrenalized hyper-awareness stronger than any drug. For the next half-hour or so, I was pure anima; sensing each new contact and moving toward it; the impossible child of Psyche and Aphrodite; alternately gasping, laughing, smiling, and sobbing.

I've always envied those who believe in Something, and only in the first few post-scene moments, when I was untied or taken down or picked up, I had fleeting flashes of an all-loving Absolute. Too soon, always too soon, the vision would give way once again to agnosticism, the keepsake stripes and bruises would fade back into skin, and only the memory of both would remain.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Bottom of the First, Part I: Roses Are Black, Bruises Are Blue

Imagine a chessboard. Imagine a chessboard the size of a hotel-ballroom floor. Imagine a chessboard the size of a hotel-ballroom floor in a D.C. suburb. Imagine that each invisibly demarcated 10-foot square showcases a highly specialized fetish, a wonderland on paisley carpeting where even just observing classifies as its own kink. Hundreds of players meet each year on such a board, sustained physically by the hotel's sneeze-guarded buffet and nourished emotionally by moving onto a secret space -- free of workaday identities -- where their true selves reside: be they ponies or riders, puppies or trainers, coma patients, sissy maids, exhibitionists or voyeurs, the ravagers or the ravished, the old guard or the neophytes. If you willingly tumble down this rabbit hole, you'll awaken in a nondescript complex somewhere near a strip mall, embarking on a three-day adventure that shares its name with the group that organizes it: Black Rose.

For those [I assume most of you reading now] unfamiliar with BR, I quote from its Web site:

"Black Rose is a not-for-profit organization which provides a forum for the many different expressions of power in love and play. This can include dominance & submission, bondage & discipline, fetishism, cross-dressing, to name a few.
"Black Rose is a support, education, and social group for adults who share these interests in the context of caring relationships. Black Rose is a pan sexual group, open to those of any sexual orientation. It is our goal to provide a comfortable, safe, and discreet environment where one can meet others of like mind. We are not a swingers group or a sex club. We do not make referrals. We are not a chapter-based organization. We welcome the interested, the inquisitive, and the discerning to join us as we explain, explore, and enjoy."

Not knowing what to expect, I went to Black Rose once with a dominant male lover. Startlingly and beautifully, I suddenly was among hundreds of "my people" -- not necessarily due to any particular fetish represented there, but because I was transported at once to a dreamscape where pawns were equal to kings, to an alien world populated by those similarly deemed deviant, dangerous, or deranged. Donning a red-and-black embroidered corset and long lacy skirt, I imagined I had stepped out of a colorized erotic postcard viewed furtively by Victorian gentlemen. I was not judged. I did not hide or pretend. I learned so much about how others give and receive pleasure. And I advanced onto my own square on the board.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Top of the First: The Phillies Kidnapped Me in 1980

Even as a 14-year-old straight-A student, I fantasized about sex and baseball, all intertwined together in dark and wonderful ways. Nineteen-eighty was the first season of my love affair with the Philadelphia Phillies; the first full year of my period; the spring when my mother taught me all about baseball while ironing my pajamas in her bra, lit cigarette dangling from waxy red lips, over-processed blond hair frizzed around her face, eyebrows drawn on crooked, shvitzing through menopause for, like, the tenth straight year. Her mother Sarah, who had emigrated from Poland to Philadelphia with her family as a toddler, had learned baseball as a way to assimilate; taught her daughter Sophie the rules and love of the game; and in turn, Sophie and I watched baseball together all that summer with my best friend D. My mother, Harry Kalas, and Richie Ashburn -- as all good teachers do -- instilled in their students a love that lasted a lifetime.

At that time in Philadelphia, there were FIVE daily newspapers: the Inquirer, the Daily News, the Bulletin and the Evening Bulletin, and the Journal (only the first two survive). Every day, I diligently clipped Phillies articles and photographs from each one and taped them into scrapbooks, little knowing that year would be the year the first World Championship came to the city. There they lay in grainy black-and-white newsprint: the men with tight pants who would become the objects of my first real sexual fantasies.

In my very active fantasy world, I not only joined them in sex, but also in sport: I decided I would become (drum roll) the First Female Major League Baseball Player. I enrolled in a girls softball league (position: catcher) and, accompanied by the jeers of neighborhood kids, had my mother throw batting practice to me in a nearby field every afternoon. And in the bathtub each evening, using a technique cribbed from my sister's copy of The Sensuous Woman, I closed my eyes and masturbated by positioning myself under the running faucet, on my back with legs spread, thinking mainly about tall blond pitcher Larry "L.C." Christenson, although I believe most of them eventually got a turn.

During that magical summer, I was no longer "Susan Finkelstein"; because all good baseball players had nicknames, I re-created myself as "Crisco Russell" (right-fielder Bake McBride was known as "Shake and Bake," and a big tub of Crisco shortening in the kitchen cabinet inspired me similarly). Somehow, I had convinced D. to participate in my little fairy tale, and together we wrote a long and complicated saga where I (as Crisco) was actually a member of the 1980 Phillies team (and the First Female Major League Baseball Player), sparking resentment and rage among many of my teammates. Their hostility grew to such a point that they hatched a plan to kidnap me -- possibly even kill me, but not before doing deliciously terrible things -- in order to remove the blight that Woman had inflicted onto Baseball. (Of course, my golden boy L.C. was never in on it.) At night, as I lay in bed replaying the highlights of that day's game, my thoughts inevitably turned to the players "teaching me a lesson"; in the dark of my Northeast Philadelphia bedroom, the long pillow in the carefully ironed pillowcase was transformed into each Phillie, who, one by one, forced himself on me, rough and hard and smelling like Spray and Starch. I had a very active sex life (though still a virgin) with turn-ons even then that would be categorized as abnormal.

What I wouldn't give to have the "Crisco" notebooks and letters back now! Who knows what 30 years and household moves and my mother's death have done with them? The only souvenir that has survived was part of D.'s gift to me on my Sweet 16: a kind of keepsake album with sundry mementos of our childhood friendship separated by five houses on Nester Street. A crudely typewritten letter on onion-skin paper bears the return address of the Phillies Front Office and the date July 6, 1980 (I remember laughing hysterically as I wrote it, showed it to D., and added it to the "file"):

We are sending this letter to you because we know you are a close friend and confidante of Susan Iris Finkelstein (alias Crisco Russell). We received a letter from Russell for a Mr. L. Christenson, saying various things. Here is exactly what was in that letter:

Dear Larry, I got your telegram -- please don't get married yet. I can't come back and live for a very long time. They all hurt me badly , I was almost killed. My career is over. I still love you, Larry. Please wait for me as long as it takes. One day, it'll all be over. I hope that day is soon. Love, Crisco

We were thinking that maybe you could get into the Vet to explain this. The police, of course, are all looking for Ms. Russell and this letter could be the lead we all are waiting for. Please get in touch with your friend, Crisco. It could be the most important thing you will ever do. If she was indeed harmed, we will need her to help convict her attackers. We know who they are, but we are unable to punish them because of confidential reasons. A reward will be given to you if you can bring Crisco to us for further questioning . Your involvement, of course, will be kept in the strictest confidence. Also, if you and Crisco come to us, maximum security will be given to you at all times. If you don't know the whereabouts of Russell, please come anyway. The thing that you think is not important could be of great help to the police and us.

Thank you for your cooperation.


Ruly Carpenter
Philadelphia Phillies Owner

By winter of that year, I had divested myself of a career as any kind of athlete; after all, 15 is much more grown up than 14 (funny how a year's time can bring such developmental change in adolescence). Apparently, L.C. didn't sell out his teammates in the end, Crisco never did make it back, and it took 28 years for Philadelphia to win the World Series again. But some things from that summer have stayed constant: the Phillies continue to alternately win and break my heart, D. has a whimsical streak she hides from the world, and I still masturbate in the bathtub.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Pregame: Why Fifteen Minutes Isn't Long Enough

Some would say my turn at Andy Warhol's "15 Minutes of Fame" has long been over, and perhaps they are right. But I think Warhol would have amended his 1968 allotment in this, the so-called Internet Age, where time is warped in freaky and unpredictable ways: some people never grow old, while new wrinkles on other faces are daily scrutinized; news stories can last 10 seconds or 10 years; and a woman, when publicly declared a whore or a criminal, is branded such for a very long time, regardless of the truth of the charge.

And so, here we are: Finkelstein once again "drawing attention" to herself, with apologies to Warhol for re-calculating his prophecy. All pretensions aside, though, I do believe I have something more to say. I want to contribute freely to the ongoing conversation in the electronic town square; I want to shout in the voice I was forced to check during my persecution -- uh, prosecution; I want to declare my love for sex and baseball and the patchwork remains of everything else in the way that artists have always needed to. And, in an attempt once again to convince myself that English is a perfectly good subject to major in, I close this prologue with a quote from Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass":

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world.

Now, onto the good stuff!
(For those who need refreshing, back story can be found on my Web page.)