Chop Your Own Firewood and Learn to Juggle: Advice I’ll Ignore from ‘Life’s Little Instruction Book’
Life’s Little Instruction Book, first published in 1991 as a collection of advice from H. Jackson Brown, Jr., to his college-bound son, has sold millions of copies, been translated into 35 languages, and inspired calendars, posters, journals, greeting cards, and screensavers.
Not surprisingly, it’s a very popular graduation gift.
The latest edition contains plenty of excellent counsel, like “Get a dog” and “Check hotel bills carefully for unexpected charges,” along with some that are downright puzzling, like “Steer clear of restaurants that rotate” and “Never buy a beige car.” (What kind of awful early encounter with beige cars or rotating restaurants left Brown with this kind of lasting animus?)
Ironically, one piece of advice Brown gives us is “Never give a loved one a gift that suggests they need improvement.”
Uh . . . isn’t that this little gift book in a nutshell?
But who am I to argue with a dude who became a multimillionaire by pithily telling other folks what to do? I’ve been telling other people how to live their lives for decades, and not only has it not brought me fame and riches, it has earned me a reputation for being a “smart-ass know-it-all.”
Although I’ll have no trouble following advice like “Never buy a beige car” (I may be a mild-mannered librarian, but I love my red Toyota), there are some words of wisdom here that I plan to ignore:
Avoid sarcastic remarks
Do 100 push-ups every day
Get up 30 minutes earlier
Never miss an opportunity to ride a roller coaster
Learn a card trick
Attend class reunions
Never use profanity
Remember peoples’ names
Learn how to fix a leaky toilet
Never go to bed with dirty dishes in the sink
Try everything offered by supermarket demonstrators
Read the Bible cover to cover
Never eat the last cookie
When attending meetings, sit in front
Cut your own firewood
Learn to juggle
Don’t let anyone see you go back more than twice for the peeled shrimp
Of course, I might be able to whittle this list down a bit, with some creative off-setting.
For instance, I’d be up for sitting in the front at meetings, if I can juggle and make sarcastic remarks.
And can I gossip about people as long as I correctly remember their names?
I have to admit that the challenge of doing card tricks on a roller coaster appeals to me.
Not to mention attempting to juggle while chopping firewood. (And—if I survive—what a fun talent to show off at the next class reunion!)
On the other hand, some things are just non-starters. I am, by nature, a last-cookie-grabber. And after I’ve enjoyed that cookie, I’m going to put the plate it was served on in the sink with the other dirty dishes and go to bed.
But I’m guessing I could manage to rise from my bed 30 minutes early to do 100-push-ups or even fix the toilet, as long as I could employ plenty of profanity.
Anyway, as delightful as it is to dream up these little scenarios, now you’ll have to excuse me. I’m off to read the Bible cover to cover while gobbling peeled shrimp in a rotating restaurant.
Back when I edited humor books, I was often interviewed on the radio. I had books to promote, radio shows are hungry to fill air time, and I had a good publicist. She booked me on several shows a week, which I was able to fit easily into my life at home with a toddler.
The interviews took place on the phone. A sitter would come by to watch my son for the 20 minutes or so I was on the air. Sometimes, though, there would be a scheduling snafu. I’d be feeding Tom breakfast, or reading him a book, and the phone would ring.
“Ready to go?” someone at a radio station in Seattle or Des Moines would ask. This meant I’d be on the air—live—in a few minutes. I’d rush to grab my son, park him in front of Clifford’s Fun with Opposites or Road Construction Ahead, then switch gears and chat with a stranger in another state about my latest book.
Being interviewed is fun. The other person does all the work. They have to do the research, ask the questions, come up with good follow-ups, and keep everything moving along.
All I had to do was gab about a topic I was an expert on—my own books.
After my son grew up and went off to college, I turned from editing collections of other people’s humor to writing humor myself, and returned to being just another radio listener rather than a provider of content.
The closest I ever got to being on the radio was when one of my humor pieces would appear on NewsWorks.org, the website of WHYY-FM, my local NPR station.
Then that site ran “My Resolutions for You In 2013,” a humor piece listing the things I wanted other people to change in the coming year, and my editor asked if I‘d come to the studio to record the piece to air on NewsWorks Tonight.
“I’d love to,” I responded.
That was a lie. I would love having it air, but I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to enjoy recording it. I’m one of those people who like to do everything well, and I knew I wasn’t going to do this well at all.
Oral interpretation is an art that folks study for years to master. And I’ve never believed that the best way to learn a new skill is to be tossed into the deep end of the pool.
But I had to do it. Hearing my essay on the air would be a thrill. It would bring my work to a wider audience. It would be a new experience. And I believe life is more interesting if you can occasionally move outside of your comfort zone.
But the clincher was that WHYY-FM is the home of Fresh Air, my all-time favorite radio show. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to go out over the same airwaves as Terry Gross.
They wanted me in the studio the next day, so I didn’t have a lot of time to be nervous. Or to prepare. I read “Resolutions” out loud a number of times to Mark, my sweetie, so I’d be less likely to stumble over hard-to-pronounce words and phrases.
I also read it out loud that night as I walked on the treadmill. If there’s anything sillier than a middle-aged woman trotting along on the treadmill declaiming a humor piece to a snoozing Yorkie-poo, I’m not aware of it.
I wondered about one thing. The essay included the line “Fuck you, Julie.”
I suspected that I couldn’t say “Fuck you, Julie” on National Public Radio. Would they bleep it out? Ask for a rewrite?
“You’ll just have to see when you get there,” said Mark.
I was told that when I got to the WHYY building, a producer would meet me in the lobby. I told myself that she’d take me in hand and guide me through the process. After all, I was a total newbie. Surely I wouldn’t have to do this cold. There would be coaching, and plenty of takes, and many opportunities to correct my inevitable flubs.
The next day, Mark and I arrived early. The lobby was deserted except for two guys manning the reception desk. I read my essay to Mark one more time. Then a slight, pants-clad woman in a leather jacket strode by and vanished around the corner.
“Holy crap! Was that—?” I asked Mark.
“That was Terry Gross,” he confirmed.
Two minutes later, she zipped by again.
I’m such a big fan it was all I could do to stop myself from bounding over to give her a hug. But I played it cool and left her alone.
“No big deal,” I joked to Mark. “We’re just a couple of radio personalities hanging out in the WHYY lobby, Terry and I.”
“I’m sure she listens to every single moment of WHYY programming,” he said. “After your piece airs, she’ll probably write YOU fan mail.”
Kimberly the producer appeared and led me to a large, high-ceilinged room dominated by a mammoth conference table. I sat down and she adjusted the microphone on the table in front of me, then handed me headphones so I’d be able to hear her instructing me from the control room.
Then she left.
No coaching. No input. It could be that Kimberly thought I was an old pro at this and didn’t need her advice.
If so, she was in for a big surprise.
I’d read my humor out loud before, but always to an audience, if only Mark and a few friends. When your first funny line gets a laugh, you’re good to go. They‘re enjoying it! You can relax and have fun.
In this large, quiet room, there was no audience. I’d have to imagine listeners. And laughs. I’d have to imagine someone enjoying this. Because I sure wasn’t.
“Whenever you’re ready,” Kimberly’s voice came through my headphones.
I took a deep breath and started reading.
Two paragraphs in, she interrupted. “Your mouth is dry,” she said. “Let’s get you some water.“
The door behind me opened and a ghostly hand placed a plastic cup of water on the table.
I drank the water and began again, trying to sound as if I were talking, not reading. When my nerves made me stumble over a word or phrase, I just restarted the sentence and kept going. I was floundering. But I meant to get through this.
When I got to “Fuck you, Julie,” I didn’t change a thing.
Although I was pretty sure I’d never heard Terry Gross say “Fuck you, Julie” on the air.
Maybe, I thought, she says “Fuck you” on air all the time. Maybe she swears like a sailor and they just edit it out.
“I’m Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air, cocksuckers!”
Maybe I should throw in a few extra swear words myself, just to loosen things up.
Why not? This wasn’t going too well. What did I have to lose?
I didn’t, of course, I’m not that bold. And as awful as this was, I wanted to be invited back.
When I finally finished, the door behind me opened and a large man with a warm smile entered. He introduced himself as Kevin the audio engineer, then sat down across the table.
“I think this will work better if you’re not in here all by yourself,“ he said. “You need somebody to speak to. Try it again. Be as conversational as you can. Talk to me.”
It feels weird to read a humor piece and not get a single laugh. But as I finished each paragraph, I’d glance at Kevin, who’d give me an encouraging smile and a thumbs-up.
I’m a writer. I have a good imagination. But not good enough to conjure up an appreciative audience out of nothing. Thank God for Kevin. If he hadn’t arrived to help me out, I’d probably still be in that studio, struggling to put my essay across.
“Good job,” Kevin said when I finished. “You’re a natural.”
I knew that wasn’t true, but was so thrilled this was over that I didn’t care.
When the piece aired, it wasn’t too bad. My voice was bland, and I rushed through punch lines when I should have lingered. But my friends and family told me they’d enjoyed it. And my NewsWorks editor said I sounded great for a first-timer.
(Just in case you’re wondering, they did bleep “Fuck you, Julie.”)
I’m still waiting for that fan letter from Terry Gross.
Image via Wikimedia
Given a choice between spending time with a kid or a grownup, I’ll take the child every time. Children are more interesting than adults. They’ll tell you exactly what they’re thinking. The world still fascinates them; it’s still full of magic. And children are full of surprises. You never know what a 3-year-old will say next
I’m particularly mad about babies. If I hold a baby for 10 minutes, I’m high for the rest of the day. I’m the rare person on the airplane who hopes the exhausted single mom struggling down the aisle with the fretful infant in her arms is going to sit next to me.
When my own son was born, 24 years ago, I left the practice of law to stay home with him. Although trading legal briefs for bath toys wouldn’t work for every 34-year-old professional, I was exactly where I wanted to be.
On the floor, singing “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” to my kid.
“You may not be getting quality time,” I often told him as I hunkered down beside him in the sandbox, “but God knows you’re getting quantity time.”
The sad truth about motherhood, though, is that if you do your job well and raise a happy, secure, and confident individual—you put yourself out of a job.
At 15, Tom no longer needed active mothering. Now he needed space and independence. I had to let go. And I did. But it hurt!
I was proud of my accomplished, confident teenager. But I missed the little boy who had wanted nothing more than to read books, paint pictures, make his stuffed animals come to life, and explore the neighborhood with me.
I could have returned to the practice of law. But I’m really good with kids. And I realized that I needed them in my life. So I did something unusual for a 50-year-old woman with a law degree.
I started babysitting.
I took a part-time job at my local library and put up a notice: “Wise, fun, mature library worker, great with kids, seeks occasional babysitting in your home.”
I was a little nervous on my first job. I hadn’t taken care of a toddler in over a decade. But I needn’t have worried. Moments after I met happy, bright-eyed Olivia, we were building towers with her blocks, acting out goofy stories with her stuffed bears, and reading board books.
I was back where I belonged. On the floor, with a child.
In the decade since, I’ve cared for dozens of neighborhood kids. I have only two rules. I won’t drive. And I don’t watch television.
I’ll often find a new charge in front of the screen, expecting that I’ll spend the next few hours watching along.
“It’s beautiful outside, ” I‘ll suggest. “Let’s go for a walk and explore.”
That’s usually all it takes. But if not, I don’t give up.
“Want to read a story?” I’ll ask. “Play hide and seek?”
The Disney Channel can be very compelling. But I persist.
“Let’s walk the dog. You haven’t got a dog? Let’s borrow a neighbor’s dog and take him for a walk.”
There isn’t a kid who wouldn‘t rather play than watch Hannah Montana. Cable is great, but I’m from a generation that went out to play, roaming the neighborhood till it was too dark to see.
I take care of twenty-first century kids as if it’s still the fifties.
Milo, formerly addicted to Elmo, now adores the playground. Zoey makes up songs on the piano for her sister (and their hamster) to dance to. Sam writes picture books to sell to his parents when they get home.
One of the best times I’ve ever had was a morning I spent with 2-year-old Suzi, a little girl who is fascinated by heavy machinery, following a compellingly noisy garbage truck around the neighborhood. She was totally blissed out.
I, too, was perfectly contented.
“It doesn’t get better than this,” I said to her.
Babysitting is so cool that I often wonder why more empty-nesters don’t try it.
I’ve taken care of 5-year-old Hanina every week since he was a baby. I’m such an integral part of his life that, for a while, he insisted I was actually a member of his family. (A pretty neat trick, given that he’s an Orthodox Jew and I’m an atheist.)
“You love Roz,” his folks told him. “And she loves you too. But she’s not family.”
“Yes she is,” he insisted.
So he asked me. “We’re family, aren’t we?”
“You can’t choose your family,” I told him. “But you can choose your friends.”
“I choose you!” he said.
None of my legal clients ever felt like that about me.
I look forward to caring for Hanina as he grows, to attending his Bar Mitzvah, and to dancing at his wedding as joyfully as I recently danced at my own son’s wedding.
When Hanina is too old to need a babysitter, letting go will be hard.
But by then there could be grandchildren.
Buy Shoes On Wednesday and Tweet at 4:00 is a new advice book that tells the reader the best possible time to get everything done, from flossing one’s teeth to visiting Zanzibar. As a public service, I’ve used the information provided in that book to create an ideal day:
First thing in the morning, start a daily ritual that will become a habit (you‘re more likely to stick with it); go to the car wash (it’s less crowded and the machinery is cleaner); and ride your horse (he’ll have more energy at that hour and won’t get overheated).
Between six and eight, pick strawberries (that’s the time of day the plants are strongest) and hunt (more animals are out at that hour, so you’re more likely to kill something).
At seven, take a break to update your Facebook page. (“Just shot a moose! About to breakfast on tasty moose hash and fresh strawberries.”) Your friends are logging on as they wake up, and are more likely to read it.
Then shave (if you cut yourself, you’ll lose less blood) and hold a garage sale (you’ll get more customers).
If you live in a high-crime neighborhood, make sure to get to the ATM before nine. (You’re less likely to be mugged.)
As the morning wears on, you can go bowling (it’s cheaper), exercise for weight loss (you‘ll burn more calories), get a massage (your massage therapist will have more energy), and get a colonoscopy (the doc is more likely to find abnormal growths, if they do exist).
At eleven, stop to buy a diamond. (That’s when sales staffs in jewelry stores are most fresh and focused and likely to provide good service.)
And in the late morning—sing! (Your vocal cords will be nicely warmed up.)
Maybe you can make up a song about your colonoscopy.
Get your nails done in the afternoon. (They’ll have plenty of time to dry, and the salon will be less crowded.)
Then, at three, interview for a job. (You’ll be most likely to be remembered by your not-yet-exhausted interviewer.)
In the late afternoon, it’s best to knit. (Your hand/eye coordination is at its peak).
But make sure you don’t knit DURING the job interview.
At four, vacuum your house (your mood and energy will both be up) and mow the lawn (the grass is dry and easier to cut). Then post a tweet. (“Just mowed the lawn and vacuumed my house!”)
At five, post on Facebook. (“Got the job! Snacked on moose leftovers. And I’m almost done with this lovely hand-knitted afghan for my horse.”) Your friends will read it as they check in before leaving work.
In the evening, take your dog for a run (you’re more relaxed and he’s less likely to get overheated). Then brush his teeth. (After the run, he’ll be more compliant.) Then purchase a gerbil. (They’re nocturnal, so gerbil-shopping in the evening gives you a better idea of what they’re like than during the day, when they’re sleepy and sluggish.)
At seven, teach someone to drive on the highway (There’s less traffic, so it’s safer.)
At eight, read to your child. (Perhaps a book about how to take care of a new gerbil. Or a fairy tale about a horse and a gerbil who become best pals.)
At ten, do the laundry (power is cheaper off-peak).
If you don’t want to do the laundry, you’ve got a great excuse. Ten is also the best time to go to bed. (It’s good for your health to sleep from 10 to 6.)
But, before you drift off to dreamland, don’t forget to floss. (You’re less likely to rush, and the inside of your mouth will be clean while you sleep.)
Sweet dreams! Maybe you’ll dream about visiting Zanzibar. (If so, keep in mind that the best month for that is July.)
Every writer needs a good website so folks can discover your work, write you fan mail, and maybe even offer you assignments. I’m a humor writer, and, lucky for me, my son is a computer genius. For the special discount he offers to clients who have given birth to him, he set up a site for me—rosalindwarren.com—back in 2006, when he was still in high school. It has served me well. From time to time he’s suggested a redesign, but that site has sentimental value that a newer, flashier site would lack. Visiting my website never fails to make me nostalgic for the days when my son was still a teenager, living under my roof and ignoring all my sage motherly advice, as opposed to now, when he’s all grown up, living in Baltimore and ignoring all my sage motherly advice.
Tom recently added “Google Analytics” to the site, which lets me track who visits and where they’re coming from. While it’s no surprise that most of my readers are from this country, I was tickled to find that I’ve gotten traffic from as far away as the United Arab Emirates. Belgium! Bulgaria! Senegal! My reach is global. My readers are everywhere! (Of course there are only a few from each of these venues. But still . . .)
My favorite Google Analytics feature is the “key word search,” which lists the search terms that have brought people to Rosalindwarren.com. Writers love words, and it’s fascinating to know exactly what combination of words brings readers to my work. Most search terms are, of course, just what you’d expect. “Roz Warren.” “Humorous short stories.” “Funny stories online.” But there are subtle and interesting variations: “Short short humors.” “Online small stories.“ And the rather formal “Humor of Rosalind.” I got a kick out of the fact that “Great short stories humor” brought me traffic. Google thinks I’m not only “funny” but “great.” I like that!
Some search requests are puzzling. For instance, “He took me to drive.” What was this searcher looking for? And why did her engine bring her here? Not to mention “Wet his pants on the plane.” Really? There’s nothing in my work about incontinent fliers. Yet somebody was searching for them and Google brought this searcher to me. Thanks, Google! (I think.)
Whoever typed in “Favorite sociology lesson ever” probably wasn’t looking for “Sociology Lesson,” a short story about a girl growing up in Detroit who learns how to deal with schoolyard bullies. But I’d like to think the searcher paused to read and enjoy the story anyway. Likewise, I’m sure the person who looked for “Insensitive older brother“ didn’t expect to wind up reading a short story about two siblings who compete with each other to become the world’s best writer. Or maybe she did. Who knows?
The search “Is it good to have blood pressure at one twenty over seventy” brought one reader to “Outpatient,” a story in which the protagonist happens to have her blood pressure taken and it is, indeed, 120/70. Although this fictional encounter probably wasn’t what the searcher had in mind, the doc in the story does conclude that this is a good, healthy number. So maybe it was all for the best?
Other pleasantly random searches that have brought folks to my site are “Linda obsessed with furniture,“ and the rather zen-like “She stops waiting.” But my favorite search term of all so far? “How to know if ducks are unhappy.”
My story “Good for the Ducks” is about a group of Jewish ducks on a pond in Boston’s public garden who witness two suicides in one day (Go ahead—Google it!) So it makes perfect sense that a search for unhappy ducks would deliver someone to my site. And yet, search-wise, this is a total dead end. My story, while entertaining, will not tell you how to make an actual duck happy. Although I love knowing that somebody out there wants to try.
Another searcher came to the same story with the rather cryptic search: “Pretend floating ducks to buy.” What exactly was he or she looking for? I’ll never know.
If you have a website yourself (and who doesn‘t, these days?) I recommend Google Analytics. Not only is it fascinating to discover where your traffic comes from, but now that I’ve added GA, I find that the website my son created to entertain my readers often entertains me too. When I log on to check my stats, I can’t wait to see what curious and implausible searches have brought people from as far away as Iran and India to a site featuring humorous stories about wildebeests, Segways, waterfowl, and the GOP.
In conclusion, because this essay may well appear online, I’d like to leave you with the following phrases: “America’s favorite humorist,” “Hilarious short stories,” and “Your duck will love this site.” Those ought to bring me some web traffic. Perhaps they will even bring me the reader I most want to reach—you.
I got an unexpected package in the mail recently. Because I’m a book reviewer, I somehow ended up on the list of folks who get review copies from Cleis Press, a publisher of feminist erotica. Imagine my surprise when I opened my package at the counter of the local post office (where all the clerks know me) to find a brand-new copy of The Ultimate Guide to Kink: BDSM, Role Play and the Erotic Edge.
As my post office pals snickered at me, I opened a page at random and read, “Missionary never felt so good. He’s fucking you hard as you lie on your back: you pound on his back with your fists.” (Trust me to be so vanilla that I can open a kink book to the only “missionary position” page.) Farther down the page I read, “While spanking him, throw in a few punches—the thudding sensation is a perfect counterbalance to the sting of the slap.”
Punching my sweetie had never struck me (HA!) as a good time. On the other hand, when he does something that drives me nuts, waiting till we’re between the sheets, then popping him one might work better than trying to reason with him. (That almost never works.) If nothing else, smacking him in the name of sex play could be a nicely passive-aggressive way for me to work off a little steam.
Glad to have done my part to amuse the hardworking employees at my post office, I took The Ultimate Guide to Kink home. There was no question in my mind that I could get an essay out of this. What happens when an edgy sex manual falls into the hands of a mild-mannered librarian?
Dipping into the book again, I read, “Bondage has its own risks. As I tell my rope bondage students “Dead bottom, bad bondage. Bad top, no biscuit!”
Wow. Rope bondage students? Really? Where exactly is this class offered? One hopes that it isn’t the local middle school. But I was intrigued by the book’s tone—it was knowing and funny, not Penthouse Letters smarmy. Wouldn’t it be interesting to learn what actually goes on in all those wilder bedrooms? I’m a librarian. I love to read. And I love sex. Why wouldn’t I enjoy reading about sex?
The Ultimate Guide to Kink is actually a collection of essays, edited by sex educator and “feminist pornographer” Tristan Taormino, and written by experts on a variety of topics from “Kinky Twisted Tantra” to “How to Train Your Sex Slave.
The illustrations are mostly of rope-tying techniques strikingly similar to the ones in The Boy Scout Handbook. (Just what were those youngsters being trained to do anyway?) The writing is clear and informative enough to bring joy to my librarian’s heart. And there’s an eye-opener on every page. If you’ve been reading (or have heard about) Fifty Shades of Grey and you’re curious about how those kinky games are actually played, this book’s for you. Even if you don’t want to tie up your partner, you’ll learn how to do it right and why it appeals to the folks who play that game. Sure, there were sections that I found icky, offputting, or downright scary. I skipped them. It’s not as if I was studying to pass the Kinkster SAT. As with any good how-to book, you use what works for you.
Here’s something that did work for me:
“Dressing up is FUN. Even mundane objects can be imbued with a sexy vibe. I had a very intense sexual encounter that was kicked up a notch when my partner and I dared each other to keep our glasses on during the entire fuck. You will not know how difficult it can be to keep your specs on while pounding the headboard until you’ve tried it.”
Is this a scene totally made for a librarian, or what?
I’m still vanilla at heart. But I’m glad I read this book. I dare you to read it too! It’s fascinating. It’ll open your mind up. Actually, unless you’re into this stuff already, it will probably blow your mind a little. Which isn’t a bad thing. Sure, you too will probably find some of it just too weird or scary. Skip those parts. On the other hand, if your partner ever asks you to spank him (or her), instead of freaking out, you’ll know enough to respond, “Sure, honeybunch, I‘d be happy to help you discover your “spanking sweet spot.”
1. They live in the basement with no money, no aspirations, and no job prospects, happy to freeload forever.
2. They live in a distant city, happy and sufficient, and never phone us.
3. They do phone us, but only when they want something.
4. They marry a Republican. (Or: They marry a Democrat.) (Or: They marry a person who doesn’t give a damn about politics.)
5. They sell the Rauschenberg print we gave them as a housewarming gift and use the money to buy a gigantic flat-screen TV.
6. They vacation in St. Barts instead of joining the clan at the mammoth family gathering at Uncle Mo’s place in Bugtussle, Wyoming.
7. Every thoughtful gift we give them ends up on display in the living room of our daughter-in-law’s parents.
8. They decide to tell us all about how we ruined their childhood—at our 50th birthday party.
9. When we give Grandma’s heirloom wedding ring to our daughter-in-law, she has it reset in a tiny skull and uses it as a belly-button stud.
10. They go into professions that are immoral, dangerous, or overly religious. (Or: they go into professions that are immoral, dangerous, or insufficiently religious.)
11. When they visit, they wreck the guestroom with their sexual antics, and their Labradoodle takes a dump on the Oriental rug.
12. They somehow get the idea that we like porcelain angels, and that’s all they ever get us for birthdays, holiday gifts, and Mother’s Day.
13. When they borrow the car, they change all the preset stations from NPR to Top 40.
14. They don’t have time to spend Thanksgiving with us, just to stop by to drop off the vintage catamaran they want to store on our driveway.
15. When we publish humor pieces complaining about them, they are not amused.
The Wednesday Five: Asking Pols Tough Questions, Knowing Jane Fonda’s Secrets, and How Sex Toys Saved Civilization
This week, blogs hailed forgotten writers, advised us to be sharp in the upcoming elections, and cheered a woman-directed film about the discovery of the vibrator.
- Whatever your party affiliation, there are some questions you need to ask your local candidate this fall, writes Martha Burk at Women’s Enews. “Women are the majority and we have the opportunity to take control and make the changes we need in every election—but having the opportunity is not enough,” Burk writes. “Knowledge won’t bring change without action, and that means holding candidates and elected officials accountable for long-term solutions.” Both incumbents and challengers of both parties, she adds, should be confronted regularly “with questions not only about their voting records, but also their future intentions on [women's] most vital issues.” This includes, she adds, when local pols appear in public: “Call in when you hear them on the radio. If they don’t mention women, ask why not.”
- The Millions, a site beloved by writers and readers of fiction, has inaugurated its “Post-40 Bloomer” blog with a bang. Lisa Peet writes of one such bloomer: Mary Aline Farmar, born in 1912 in Englefield Green, England, but better known by her married name.”There is something about Mary Wesley’s work that loves a blurb. ‘Jane Austen with sex’ is the one heard most, but you also find ‘arsenic without the old lace,’ ‘upper-middle-brow potboilers,’ and ‘posh smut.’ Peet goes on to outline Wesley’s biography, intertwined with the century’s events: “Mary found the terror and drama of wartime sexually liberating. This would be a recurring theme in her novels: War makes drunkards and lovers and loosens all values.” Click over to see how and when Wesley broke through as a novelist, after three marriages.
- Does writing a biography make you identify with the subject, or has that already occurred? One answer comes from Patricia Bosworth, author of Jane Fonda: The Private Life of a Public Woman, in a post at NYcitywoman entitled “Parallel Lives.” Bosworth tells how she met Fonda, long before writing about her:—”We were introduced in the 1960s at the Actors Studio, where we were both studying with acting guru Lee Strasberg. I’ll never forget Jane’s entrance: She was wearing a pink Chanel suit and her blonde hair was swept up into a French twist. She had incredible presence and someone whispered, “She carries her own spotlight” before going into a much darker truth in Fonda’s life that was also familiar to Bosworth. Click over to read her story, including photos of Fonda with her father, Henry. Fonda’s latest flick, Peace, Love & Misunderstanding, opens this Friday. Here, on CBS, she challenges the usual take on the arc of life—”you’re born, you peak at midlife, and then you decline into decrepitude.” Over the hill, is she? “Yeah, I’m over the hill, but look at all these other hills; nobody told me there’d be these hills—and I can climb them!”
- Roz Warren has become quite a feature on Open Salon, with two posts that became Editors’ Picks: they love the same combination of smarts and humor for which we love our resident humorist. And we bet they won’t be able to resist her latest, which manages to be both edgy and welcoming. Her topic? What Andrew Sullivan calls ‘The Cannabis Closet”: “At a gathering of Boomers, pot will often appear, and I’ll happily take a hit. [And] if I did want to purchase weed, there are plenty of folks right in this neighborhood I could get it from. They aren’t drug dealers. Just friends and neighbors who would share their stash. Accountants. Attorneys. Business owners. Your basic upstanding, pot-smoking citizens.” Click over for the rest, including why Warren found a point of agreement with Rev. Pat Robertson.
- Every citydweller has at some point designed in his or her imagination the perfect city life that blends the space and breathing room of the suburbs with the convenience and rich cultural life of the city. Unfortunately, for many of us, that fusion is hard to find. It’s either one or the other. Judith Ross already knows what her ideal city would look like. In Contemplating a Mid-Life Migration, she draws from the ways in which birds naturally leave and return to a place without feeling tethered to or obligated to it. She writes poignantly of the affection she has for her home in Concord, where she has raised her family and found many moments of bliss. But Judith, in taking a cue from the orioles that fly by that same home, is open to possibility. That is, the possibility that the ideal home can be elsewhere from the one you’ve built for years. Judith writes, “It’s fun to weigh our options and examine the possibilities. That’s the joy of being middle aged. Even with financial restrictions, we are as free as we’ll ever be to do what we want.”
- Between comic-book movies and Cannes, it’s easy to overlook new movies that are neither High Art nor full of satisfying explosions. But we’d already been curious about Tracy Wexler’s Hysteria, and were glad to hear romance novelist Maya Rodale call the film “an absolute gem” at Maria’s Farm Country Kitchen. Rodale first takes a moment to explain the film’s title: In the 19th century, “Hysteria was a ‘catch-all’ term for whatever ailed women. The symptoms were vast: anxiety, depression, Certain Feelings, irritability . . . you know, the way you feel if you’re bored with life and/or haven’t had an orgasm in a while. Historically, the treatments ranged from horseback riding to hysterectomy.” Until someone invented the vibrator, though likely not the ones that our Dr. Pat and Dr. Hilda were trading in last year’s sex-toy Sex Talks. After seeing the trailer below, we really can’t wait.
When I purchased my copy of Fifty Shades of Grey, the first book in the Fifty Shades trilogy, the cashier asked if I wanted a receipt. “Absolutely,“ I told her. “I’m reading the book for review, so I’ll be reimbursed.“
“I want YOUR job,” she said, laughing. “This book is hot!”
It sure is, both in the sense that it’s full of steamy sex and that it’s a runaway bestseller. Penned by British first-time author E. L. James, who released it as an e-book, the trilogy sold so well that Vintage Books published a print edition, which became an instant bestseller. The library system where I work owns 92 copies of the first book alone. Last time I checked the reserve list, there were 267 women waiting to read it.
The publisher calls this smut-drenched novel an “erotic romance.” If you ask me, erotica is just smut that’s putting on airs. Let’s call this book what it is. Porn.
Porn you can get at the local public library is something new. So is porn for women. (Men aren’t reading this book.) The “nice girls don’t” stigma attached to women’s reading smut has finally vanished. Women of all ages, educational levels, and income brackets are buying this book, or unashamedly handing over their library cards and checking it out. Not to mention recommending it to their friends.
I cracked it open, curious, and was soon absorbed. Is the writing any good? Absolutely not. It’s romance writing at its worst, teaming with clichés, stereotypes, and purple prose. But James is a good enough storyteller to grab your interest and keep the story moving. “He rises and strolls toward me, an amused appraising smile on his beautiful sculptured lips” is, undeniably, a very bad sentence. But you’ll probably be too busy turning pages to care.
Fifty Shades starts out like a garden-variety romance. College student Anastasia Steele (who is, implausibly, a virgin) is both attracted to and repelled by drop-dead gorgeous 27-year-old billionaire Christian Grey after she interviews him for the school paper. They have nothing in common, yet become obsessed with each other. You think you know exactly where this is going. But then you hit the first sex scene. Not only is it extremely explicit, but it goes on for 12 pages. Page after page of “My nipples bear the delicious brunt of his deft fingers and lips, setting alight every single nerve ending, so that my whole body sings with sweet agony.” (And that’s one of the tamer sentences.)
It soon becomes clear that this particular romance isn’t as much about whether these two will overcome all obstacles to end up in each other’s arms, but whether Anastasia will agree to become Christian’s sadomasochistic sex slave, under the terms of a 10-page contract (which is set forth in its entirety, starting on page 165.) Much of the book is devoted to negotiating this contract. Is whipping okay? How about bondage? Being suspended from the ceiling, Ana tells Christian, is definitely a deal-breaker. As they wrangle over clauses, Ana and Christian enjoy page after page of hot vanilla sex, as well as sexy- billionaire pastimes like commuting to Christian’s penthouse via helicopter and dining together in upscale restaurants. (After which they go back to his place, where he ties her hands with a very special necktie, rips her panties off, and they go at it.)
Then it’s back to more contract negotiation.
Is Fifty Shades fun to read? Sure. It’s also absolutely ridiculous. And completely implausible. She’s about to graduate from college, and she’s still a virgin? She comes like gangbusters—many times—the first time she has sex? And after an impressively athletic all-out first-time boinking session, she doesn’t even get a urinary infection?
This is fantasyland for sure.
Will Shades of Grey” turn YOU on? If the sentence “My breasts swell, and my nipples harden under his steady gaze” intrigues you, I’d encourage you to pick up a copy. But I’ll also warn you that when the whipping starts, you may decide to bid farewell to Grey and Ana and watch Downton Abbey instead.
A librarian friend of mine who is a porn aficionado wasn’t impressed. “It’s nothing special,” she shrugged. “I could definitely put it down.“ But women new to porn are flocking to Fifty Shades.
Why is “romantic erotica” suddenly taking off? We can thank the Internet. In the pre-digital age, if James had submitted this weird mix of romance, explicit sadomasochistic sex, and contract negotiation to publishers, would they have touched it? Not a chance. By releasing it as an e-book, she could bypass the gatekeepers, go right to her audience (women), and give us what we want. (Hot spicy sex!)
This is a development that brings new meaning to the phrase “sisters are doing it for themselves.”
The only real surprise is that the first novel to bring porn to ordinary women in a big way doesn’t just contain really explicit sex, but really explicit sadomasochistic sex. I don’t think anyone saw that coming.
Will Anastasia submit to a lifetime of flogging in Christian’s “red room of pain?” Why on earth would she? Well he’s rich and accomplished and handsome and hot. But he’s also the kind of dude who shows you his dungeon on the first date. Even Ana, besotted, recognizes that Christian is bad boyfriend material. He’s a stalker and a control freak who seethes with jealous rage if she so much as mentions another man. But he can pilot a helicopter! And play melancholy songs on the piano! And, after beating her, he’s quick to tenderly soothe her aching tushie with baby oil. By the end of the book, when Ana finally invites Christian to seriously punish her, it’s clear that these two are made for each other. (Although my inner feminist couldn’t help but think: This is a happy ending?)
Am I hooked? Do I need to know whether Ana will end up suspended from the ceiling? Or what‘s up with those weird scars on Christian’s chest? Am I going to read Fifty Shades Darker, the next book in the trilogy? I won’t buy it. But I just might put it on reserve at the library.
If I do, I’ll be number 157 on the waiting list.
My sister and I impulsively decided to upgrade to first class on a recent trip from Philadelphia to Chicago. When we logged on to print out our boarding passes and learned that first class would be just $75 extra, my sister said, “Let’s go for it!“ It was a splurge for a two-hour flight, but in 50 years of flying, I’d never flown first class, and I‘d always been curious. How different could it be?
It’s certainly different when you board. No standing around, clutching your carry-on and jockeying for position with your fellow passengers, waiting for your zone to be called. Instead, the moment boarding begins you and a small group of other privileged passengers stroll onto the plane and settle into large, comfy seats with ample leg room. There’s a pillow and a neatly folded plastic-wrapped blanket on every seat. Not to mention scads of space in the overhead bin. There‘s even a special place to hang your coat.
“Here we are, as usual, in first class,” I remarked loudly as we settled in.
“You’ll be surrounded by celebrities,“ one friend had predicted. “Bruce Springsteen and Adele can afford private jets, of course. But you‘ll probably be flying with Snooki, a couple of Desperate Housewives, a local newscaster, and a Phillie or two, at the very least.”
Alas, there were no celebrities. Or else they were such minor celebrities that we failed to recognize them. The 10 other first class seats were occupied by ordinary-looking middle-aged dudes in suits, all communing with their iPads and smart phones.
Once seated, we watched less fortunate flyers slowly file by on their way to the back of the plane. Many glanced at us enviously. (They were probably wondering if we were minor celebrities.) As they shuffled by, Javiar, our very own first class flight attendant, welcomed us aboard. “Can I serve you a drink?” he asked
“We’re impeding traffic,” my sister soon observed as we watched Javiar bringing first class passengers their drinks. Every time he took an order or served a drink, everyone trying to board had to stop to let him use the aisle. “Getting us served quickly,” my sister concluded, “is apparently more important than getting them seated quickly.”
You usually have to wait for coffee till an hour into a flight. In first class, I was barely in my seat before Javiar was handing me a cup of fresh hot java.
“This alone might be worth that extra $75,” I said to my sister. “Especially on an early morning flight.”
In first class, your coffee is refilled instantly, without your having to ask. I have always believed that The Right to More Coffee is so important that it ought to be enshrined in the Constitution. First class is clearly where I belong.
I looked out the window at the tarmac as I sipped my coffee and joked, “This first class view is SO much better.”
Next, Javiar brought us a basket packed with snacks and urged us to take as many as we wanted. My sister selected the fruit and nut mix. I went for the biscotti. Over the next two hours, he brought that basket back many times. You can get the same snacks in coach, but you have to pay for them. We consulted the price list in the in-flight magazine and calculated that we’d have to eat every snack in the basket just to break even.
We decided against this.
When the plane took off, I’m sure everyone on it experienced a certain amount of anxiety, if not downright, stomach-churning fear. That part of flying isn’t any easier in first class.
But once airborne, we were in our own little world. The rows and rows of coach seats didn’t exist for us. Occasionally the sound of a wailing baby or the snap of an overhead bin wafted forward, but the first class cabin was pleasant and relaxed. There weren’t too many of us, everyone was quiet and well-behaved, and we had all the room (and all of the drinks and snacks) we needed.
Flying coach means your seat is too small and you‘re sharing a limited amount of space with far too many people. When the person in front of you reclines, his head ends up in your lap. When you recline, the person behind you starts swearing and punching your seat. The man next to you is too obese to lower the armrests and the woman across the aisle won’t stop talking about everything she’s doing to prepare her children to get fabulous SAT scores. You’re packed in with a bunch of smelly strangers who eat foul-smelling food and spill diet soda on your laptop whenever there’s turbulence.
You probably think that I’m exaggerating for comic effect. But I’m just describing our return flight, when we didn’t get a first class upgrade.
Even without the coffee and the snacks and a dedicated flight attendant, just feeling that you have enough space is relaxing. In first class, you can actually enjoy the experience of flying rather than enduring it.
I know you’re wondering—was the first class bathroom extra special? Diamond-encrusted sinks? Gold-plated toilets? Alas, no. It was an ordinary airplane bathroom. But with only 10 other flyers to share it with, there was never a line. (Which was a very good thing, considering how much coffee I was drinking.)
The flight was over in no time. When the doors opened in Chicago, we first class folks were out the door and on our way before anyone else.
Was it worth that extra $75? Perhaps not. But at 57 I’m old enough to have learned that when life offers you a new and pleasant (and relatively affordable) experience, you go for it. I’m too frugal to ever pay full price to fly first class. But would I pay a little extra for an upgrade like this again?
Just ask me.
Carole King and Gerry Goffin, her husband and writing partner, didn’t singlehandedly compose the soundtrack to my adolescence, but it’s hard to imagine coming of age without “Up on the Roof,” “A Natural Woman,” and “The Loco-Motion.” King, born Carol Klei18n in Manhattan in 1942, was barely out of adolescence herself when she and Goffin wrote these songs. When she had her first number-one hit, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” recorded by the Shirelles in 1960, King was only 18. She was also married and a new mother.
King never sought stardom, or even a solo career. A collaborator at heart, she ended up creating Tapestry, one of the best-selling albums of all time, on her own, mostly because Goffin had left her, and she didn’t perform as a solo artist until James Taylor insisted. He literally pushed her onstage. Once there, not surprisingly, she found that she loved it, and from then on her solo career flourished. Everything musical came naturally to King.
When it came to romance, however, King made some spectacularly bad choices. While she deserves credit for facing up to and writing about this with candor, that candor occasionally makes A Natural Woman tough to read. We all know how frustrating it is to see a smart, accomplished, and seemingly together woman give her heart to a total loser. None of King’s husbands or boyfriends seem worthy of her. But when she hooks up with a delusional jerk who lives in his van, then takes him home, lets him control every aspect of her life, and not only stays after he abuses her but actually marries the guy, it’s hard to keep reading.
Ultimately, however, King achieves the goal she’s set for herself, which is to “keep writing, recording, and making a good living while enjoying a normal life.” A Natural Woman shows her trying for, and for the most part achieving, this precious balance. She raises four children, moves to Idaho, teaches Yoga, and becomes active politically. This could be the life of any woman of our generation. Except for composing mega-hits, writing for Aretha, and jamming with James Taylor.
The Wednesday Five: Nuns in Trouble, Sonia Rykiel’s Bombshell, and the Power of Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s ‘Veep’
- Ever wish you’d been a fly on the wall to learn the secrets behind famous creative partnerships like Rodgers and Hammerstein, John Cage and Merce Cunningham, or Mike Nichols and Elaine May? Cartoonist Nicole Hollander was: “My personal favorite was the collaboration between Billy Wilder and A.I.L. Diamond (Some Like It Hot).” At her blog Bad Girl Chats, Hollander turns to WVFC’s Roz Warren, whose recent Salon essay ”Will Write for Crab Cakes” describes the dynamic with her humor-writing partner Janet Golden. Continuing a conversation Golden began last fall for us, Warren reflects on their differences: “I spend my evenings reading magazines; Janet prefers movies. She’s happily married; I’m happily divorced. But we’re both opinionated and fairly clever, and neither of us is afraid to fall on her face when reaching for a joke.” Click over for the rest and for photos of the pair, with Roz in her Bad Girl Chats T-shirt.
- When WVFC ran our Parkinson’s Update on Monday, some of us had no idea that the illness affected designer Sonia Rykiel, someone we mentioned last month during Fashion Week. We first learned the unhappy news from Hayley Phelan at Fashionista.com, who explains that Rykiel is revealing this in a new memoir, N’Oubliez Pas Que Je Joue (in English, Don’t Forget It’s a Game). It features the designer’s reflections on the disease that has plagued her for more thab a decade. “Though the 81-year-old designer appeared increasingly frail in public, it seems that very few knew of her struggle with Parkinson’s. Indeed, Rykiel said she had attempted to keep it a secret for as long as possible.” There’s more at the link, including a cover image for the book and Phelan’s thoughts about the future of the line.
- Bridget Crawford, at Feminist Law Professors, zooms in on a story that has mesmerized us: the Vatican’s recent rebuke of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the largest organization of U.S. nuns, for its members’ tendency to focus on social-justice issues instead of areas such as abortion and homosexuality. Crawford cites a letter to The New York Times that asks, “How can there ever be too much focus on poverty and economic injustice?” before getting to what many of us felt: “It is baffling that the Vatican would condemn women religious for public statements that ‘disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals,’ [when] the bishops were responsible for the systematic cover-up of sexual abuse of children.” She predicts, as we do, that Catholic congregations will rally around those working to help them every day: “Advantage, Sisters.”
- We were surprised and pleased to see all of the New York Times Magazine this past Sunday devoted to ”It’s All in Your Mind,” a special issue on keeping your brain healthy. The medical librarian who runs Happy Healthy Long Life agrees: “It’s chock full of news you can use, now!” including “Can Running Make You Happier?” and “How Exercise Leads to a Better Brain.” Click over to see what else she recommends, with fuller descriptions and links.
- Ms. Magazine gives us the 411 on HBO’s new satire Veep, in which Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays a Washington insider and half-reluctant VP. “The job is not all it’s cracked up to be for Selina, with awkward public appearances, tricky political agendas and the president ignoring her,” writes Kerensa Cadenas, adding that “Veep does make explicit that many of the things Selina deals with in office are colored by the fact that she’s a woman. Considering that only 90 women serve in Congress–17 in the Senate and 73 in the House–it’s great to see a cultural representation of a woman in as powerful a position as vice president. Although the show is played for laughs” Cadenas adds, “many of the issues Selina deals with are practically ripped from the headlines.” Given that Veep is the brainchild of In the Loop creator Armando Iannucci and contains the hilarious Dreyfus, we suspect it’ll be at least as feminist as our fave Mad Men.
“Tom just got married,” I told her.
“At 22? That’ll never last,” she scoffed. “He’s way too young.”
My own excellent manners prevented me from telling her just how rude this remark was. Apparently, she took my silence for encouragement.
“Fifty percent of marriages end in divorce,” she said, almost gleefully.
“Actually, the odds are even worse than that,” I told her. “I read that just 15 percent of marriages entered into by people under the age of 25 endure. But Tom and Amy can beat those odds. They’re both remarkable people.”
She snickered. “If you say so.“
“So what’s your daughter up to? I asked.
Turns out that she was living with her parents, baking cookies, watching reality TV, and trying to figure out what to do with her life.
And this mom was disparaging my kid’s life choices? Tom is independent, happy, and in love. He and his wife have good jobs, even in this crazy economy. Had they asked, I probably would have advised them to wait a few years before getting hitched. But my son didn’t ask me. He told me, expecting me to whoop with joy and wish them the best. And I did.
You get a wide range of responses when you tell folks that your 22-year-old son is getting hitched. Not all of them are welcome.
“Is she pregnant?“ more than one person asked.
Again, having been raised to be polite, I refrained from responding, “And exactly what makes you think that’s any of your bleeping business?”
My favorite responses, of course, were from all the folks who told me they’d married young and enjoy wonderful, long-lasting unions. Happily, there are more of them than I’d have thought.
“They’ll grow together,” one woman assured me.
“As long as neither of them expects the other one to stay exactly the same,“ a woman approaching her own 50th wedding anniversary told me, “they’ll be just fine.“
Then there are the clowns.
“Married already?” one of Tom’s old teachers said. “That kid always was an overachiever.”
“They’ll have plenty of time to get married a couple more times,” joked one old codger.
Here’s a tip: If you can’t bring yourself to be supportive, a simple “I wish them the best!” will do. If you have doubts, please keep them to yourself. I don’t need to hear that getting married at 22 was the biggest mistake you ever made. Even if it’s true. (Especially if it’s true.)
I waited until I was 34 to get married, and I still married Mr. Wrong. Had I married the guy I was crazy about when I was 22, would we still be together? Would we be happy? Who knows?
Am I sorry I waited to marry? How could I be? If I’d done anything else, I wouldn’t have my son.
There’s no way to know for certain how anyone’s marriage will turn out. I raised my son to make good choices, and so far he has. The kids are in love. Why not get married? Somebody has to live happily ever after. Why not my son and his bride?
You know that standardized test they give kids in middle school that is supposed to predict the job they’ll be best at? That test told me that I’d make a good lawyer. And I became a good lawyer. But I was also a stressed-out, unhappy lawyer. I eventually left the practice of law to write. (Was “humorist” even on that test? I doubt it.)
Now that I’m no longer practicing law, I’ve got plenty of time to listen to NPR, which has made me aware of lots of other jobs that that little test never contemplated. I’ve also become more suspicious about standardized tests. They make for a standardized world, and who wants that? So when your kid brings home test results advising her to become a CPA, throw them into the trash and hand her this list of actual jobs I heard about during a year of listening to NPR:
Professional arm wrestler
Lecturer in reggae studies
Yacht insurance agent
Admiralty chart corrector
Space weather forecaster
Marine mammals stranding coordinator
Professor of space medicine
Editor of the High Times Encyclopedia of Recreational Drugs
Curator of ants at Harvard’s Department of Comparative Zoology
What if your kid doesn’t want to grow up to curate ants? That’s not the point. We’re talking about our children’s futures! They should be awesome, not standardized. Fun! Amazing! Not ordinary and predictable. Middle school is when their imaginations should soar, not shut down. Why should your daughter aim for nursing school when she could aim for space medicine? Let’s encourage our kids to think outside the box. Maybe your son will become a CPA anyway. But maybe he’ll end up with a job so cool that it makes listeners say “Wow!” when they hear about it on NPR.
“Cartooning is the best revenge,” Stephanie Piro jokes when I ask where her ideas come from. A marital spat with husband John or a stranger’s insensitive remark will quickly find its way into Piro’s “Fair Game” strip or King Features’ popular “Six Chix” feature, where Piro (right) is the “Saturday Chick.” Her cartoons may start with a gripe, but they end in a laugh. Piro knows how to turn the challenges wom en face each day into good, funny cartoons.
Of course, not all of Piro’s strips begin with a kvetch. Her humor is also inspired by her love of cats, dogs, and books; the library job she loves; motherhood; and her abiding interest in how men and women interact. The typical Piro character is strong, self-assured, and witty. Feminist but deeply feminine, she’s attractive and loves wearing nice clothes, but she doesn’t put up with guff from anyone. Quick to stick up for herself (or for a friend) with a snappy remark, she can be acerbic, but she’s never unkind. She pushes back at the way our culture limits women, and has no problem complaining about the man in her life. (She usually has a good pal to confide in.)
Most important, she knows how to have fun. Piro’s work is upbeat and positive. Her glass is more than half full. And although she’s been at this for decades, her work remains fresh and original. “I read a lot of magazines to stay on top of things,” she says. “I want to stay current.” (She was just nominated for a prestigious National Cartoonists Society Reuben Award). Just living her life, the cartoonist says, provides her with plenty of material.
Born in Brooklyn, Piro has spent most of her adult life in rural New Hampshire, where she lives with her journalist husband and a fluctuating number of sassy cats. Her love of cartoons began when her mom used the “Peanuts“ cartoon strip to teach her to read. After attending Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts, Piro worked hard to establish a cartooning career. The Simpsons’ co-creator Matt Groening gave her career advice. “He helped me find my audience,“ she says. In 1984, she started the Strip T’s Design Company to market T-shirts featuring cartoons about cats, dogs, books, and dating.
Her most popular design? The one in which a woman confides, “I like the concept of men. It‘s the reality I have problems with.” “That’s also the first cartoon I sold to Glamour magazine,“ Piro recalls. Strip T’s and a Café Press site continue to sell Piro’s cartooned T shirts, mugs, and greeting cards, including special lines for book lovers and librarians. Piro also sells signed originals. “I store all the originals in Tupperware containers out in the barn,” she says.
Piro’s cartoons appear in magazines from The Funny Times to The Chronicle of Higher Education and have been collected in three books (so far) Men! Ha!, Caffeinated Cartoons, and My Cat Loves Me Naked. (“You think I should lose a few pounds? My cat doesn’t think I’m fat! My cat loves me naked.“ )
Although she’s married to a man whose inventive wit in penning the local police blotter earned him nationwide coverage on NPR last year, Piro never shares work–in-progress with her husband. “We don’t always think the same things are funny,“ she says. “But he’s the first one I’ll show a finished cartoon to.“ She does a lot of redrafting before she‘s ready to show her work to anybody. “I go through a lot of paper,” she admits “But I do recycle.”
What makes her happy? Like her cartoons, Piro is positive and upbeat. “Almost everything makes me happy,” she says. “My library job. Checking in with my daughter, Nico.” (She’s a librarian living in Washington, D.C.) “My husband, John, cracks me up.” Most of all, Piro loves her work. “Nothing makes me happier than having the time to sit and write and draw,” she says. We love her work too, and we’re glad we can share some of her best cartoons with you.
All cartoons copyright Stephanie Piro and used with the artist’s permission.