06/14/15

I’ll Have The Snippy French Waiter, S’il Vous Plaît!

Waiter at Marly, Sultanette fave Paris haunt, Zoetnet.

Waiter at Marly, Sultanette fave Paris haunt, Zoetnet.

Since when did it become impossible to enjoy lewd verbal foreplay at lunch, or a nooner if you’re getting technical? At a snazzy New York watering hole with The Impresario one afternoon, you couldn’t get a smutty word in edgewise between the fanfare required to introduce each course and the endless queries to see if everything was okay.

Like a virgin who has memorized the sex manual, our waiter – or “server” –  had all the right moves and all the wrong timing. I began to feel that I was responsible for his happiness rather than he for mine. Might he plunge into despair if I reported a soggy cheese croquette? He obviously hadn’t picked up on the cue that this lunch was but a snack before the main event – a detail any French waiter would not have failed to miss.

Oysters Aphrodisiac, Javier Lastras via Wikimedia Commons.

Oysters Aphrodisiac, Javier Lastras via Wikimedia Commons.

So why does the French waiter get such a bad rap? Instead of bemoaning his arrogance and snippy indifference, The Sultanette suggests that he could teach us a thing or two about sex.

EXHIBIT A: Christina Nehring’s WSJ piece, “In Defense of the Notoriously Arrogant French Waiter” (February 21-22, 2015). Below the prickly exterior of these maligned maestros, Nehring writes, is “their oddly expressed eagerness to please; their expertise; their agility, and the beauty of what they provide and the way they provide it.” Now that’s a good lover!

Bemelman’s waiter, NY Historical Society.

Bemelman’s waiter, NY Historical Society.

No worries about performance anxiety among these garcons de café! One evening, ex-pat Nehring observes the waiter at her local brasserie “balancing eight wine goblets, a dozen stacked dinner plates and two water pitchers on his barbell-heavy silver tray” while stopping at one table and “plunging his free hand into his pocket to count out change, and at another table to crack open and pour a bottle of beer, his tray still perched on his upturned palm.” When she asks him how he pulled off this “virtuoso performance” he replies, “Il faut le faire amoureusement.” You’ve got to do it with love.

Like seasoned paramours, the French waiter and I want to please each other. I will appreciate his acute sensibility to my preferences and his experience in serving things up hot. He will enjoy my appetite for each new course, the way I sometimes defer to his suggestions du jour and other times demand extra sauce.

His notorious arrogance? My insolent requests? If dining – or sex – doesn’t come with a little power play, some experimenting, and a few luscious surprises – it can become as banal as pornography or as boring as eating the same meal every night. Where is the desire?

My loyal followers have previously been introduced to Christina Nehring on this blog. (See The Male Harem post, In Praise Of Being A Loser In Love.) In her book referenced there, Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-first Century, Nehring celebrates the  shift of power between lovers. “This liaison in which power is constantly being renegotiated,” she writes, “is a force field alive as the ocean tides.”

Theater of Operations, Photo CourtneyPrice.

Theater of Operations, Photo Courtney Price.

Are we denying the tides of erotic tension when we tick off a checklist for a lover as if we’re choosing an apartment? (Sunny. Comfy. Safe. Lots of closet space for the baggage.) Whether it’s a one-night stand, a romantic fling or a lifetime lease, a liaison that isn’t open to the precarious thrill of uncertainty is a wet blanket between the sheets. “My French waiter and I? We keep each other guessing.

I was weaned on the art of it. Yolanda the Sultana, (RIP feisty mum) was forever baffled by my father’s inability to follow the script. Yet beyond the occasional tiffs until death they parted, I remember the sense of mischief that prevailed between these strong-minded souls to the last breath of their five-decade marriage. At the end of the day,” writes Nehring, “few of us want to feel that our passion is simply fair exchange.”

Read my lipstick, Photo Tiffany Bailey via Wikimedia commons.

Read my lipstick, Photo Tiffany Bailey via Wikimedia commons.

When the Good Ex and I were living in Paris, he hosted a business dinner one night at a culinary shrine along a grand avenue in Paris. The occasion was to celebrate the launching of the latest campaign featuring the latest New York super model selling the latest lipstick so girls in Lyon could get laid. I was the only woman among a cadre of bigwig businessmen who all looked like Francois Mitterrand. No doubt their wives were off with their lovers.

The Sultanette Serviette, Photo & Design, Courtney Price

The Sultanette Serviette, Photo & Design, Courtney Price

Feeling adventurous, I ordered the baby pigeon. (Leave it to the French to turn an air rat into a delicacy.) When the waiter who looked like Charles de Gaulle triumphantly presented the petit oiseau crowned like a little Caesar in a wreath of rosemary, I panicked. What was the proper method to jump its precious bones?

The men politely waited for me to take the first thrust. As I assessed the arsenal of cutlery at my place, our waiter, who had played his haughty role to the hilt, leaned over and discreetly whispered in my ear, “You may eat it with your fingers, Madame.” I don’t know that The Sultanette has ever gotten a better offer. Service compris.

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05/19/15

Vienna In The Nude

Photo: TheSultanette

“A place of pleasure for body and soul.” Mozarthaus

They still dress up in Vienna! At the Musikverein, the gilded Neoclassic Greek temple to sound inaugurated in 1870, The Sultanette was put to shame among the goddesses that showed up on a random Thursday night for Mozart, Verdi and Puccini.

I was in Vienna last week on a fact-finding tour solely for your benefit, worldly followers. So join me as The Male Harem achieves what the Ottoman Empire and TripAdvisor could not – invade and conquer this illusive town of lusty charms. Now back to the threads at the temple! …

There was a Doris Day matching dress and coat ensemble, a Tina Turner-worthy number in a symphony of black leather strips falling from neck to stilettos – and lots of black lace in between. Lipstick was red. Bling was rampant. Making an entrance with museum shop bags after a day of  tourist schlepping, I went straight to my seat fearing the peacocks would have me banished for wearing ballet flats.

The Imperial Napkin Fold.

The Imperial Napkin Fold.

Quelle relief I wasn’t invited to a state dinner at the Chancellery where I would have been outdone by the napkins. Since the Hapsburgs ruled over Austria-Hungary, the Imperial Napkin Fold has been accessorizing the royal plate like a fascinator at Ascot. And if you learn the secret they’ll have to kill you because only two people know the technique which they pass on when they die.

I observed the Imperial Fold at the Sisi Museum, enshrined in a glass case surrounded by acres of silver, porcelain, and crystal for every courtly occasion. Sisi is the nickname of the Empress Elizabeth whose trademark diamond star jewelry, I snatched up in Swarovski at the gift shop for a less imperial price.

Photo: TheSultanette

“Sisi, can I come in?” The bell the emperor rang for entry in SIsi’s chamber privé..

Known as Austria’s Lady Di, Sisi was a captivating beauty and fearless horsewoman. Or was she the defiant wife who deplored her evil mother-in-law, ignored her husband the Emperor, and neglected her royal duties after the murder-suicide of her son the Crown Prince? Or was she the obsessive narcissist who favored a uniquely bodice-strangling “tight-laced” corset that constricted breath and blood flow.

Like Sisi, the beauty of Vienna is exquisite and asphyxiating. Voluptuous and haughty. Resplendent and sad. But just when you feel constricted in the tight-laced manners, officious smiles, and patronizing gentility, all the clothes come off.

"Hold Me Anyway" Tracy Emin at the Leopold.

“Hold Me Anyway” Tracey Emin at the Leopold.

There are nudes galore at the Leopold Museum – embracing, fucking and full frontal. At the exhibition “Where I Want To Go” (April 24-September 14) artist Tracey Emin, referred in an FT review as the “new generation of feminists” credits her inspiration to brilliant bad boy Egon Schiele, who exposes himself on the walls in self-portrait.

Though separated by one-hundred years, Emin shares Schiele’s “fondness for the spontaneous moment” and his “fragility of being.” A series of her black and white sketches titled “Hold Me Anyway” throb with the tentative thrill of the erotic present. Schiele’s semi-clothed portrait of a woman suggests a caught interlude of passion on the run.

Photo: TheSultanette

Love on the run? Egon Schiele at the Leopold.

The Viennese pretend it’s easy to find where you want to go.  “Just take a left and two rights and you’re there,” they assure. What they don’t remind you is that the city is a circle, so there is really no left or right, only tacking and jibing. When the kindly maître d’ at Purstner, home of the ultimate Weiner schnitzel, pointed this out I was especially grateful since The Sultanette had just consumed a slice of breaded veal the size of a Frisbee and was preparing to waddle back to the hotel.

Photo: TheSultanette

Bed check, Hotel Imperial.

For the rest of my stay, I tossed the map and applied a life lesson: If you go in enough circles you eventually get to your destination. So when the concierge at the Hotel Daniel told me that the Belvedere Palace was just out the door to the right, I was dubious. How could that ponderous edifice share the same hood as my hotel, a cheery slice of eccentric chic and global goodwill? Travel Tip: Unless you’re lucky enough to have a night of sin at the sumptuous Hotel Imperial (The Sultanette cannot live on schnitzel alone!) there is no smarter spot than the Daniel for its friendly vibe, cheeky atmosphere and comfy digs.

The Kiss, 1909, Gustav Klimt, Osterreichische Galerie Belvedere.

The Kiss, 1909, Gustav Klimt, Osterreichische Galerie Belvedere.

But on to the Belvedere which appeared just around the corner as predicted. I fired up the museum’s audio device and began the trek along its gilded walls, cavorting putti, and marble halls documenting Napoleon’s treachery and demise. (Speaking of dressing up, the Austrians love their armor, on display at the Bibliotek.) Nearly numbed by military regalia and missing the unembellished passion of entangled flesh at the Leopold, I wandered into the next gallery and there it was. Man embracing woman. The primal swoon. “The Kiss” by Gustav Klimt.

Photo: TheSultanette

Sigmund at the MAK Museum.

I joined the crowd gathered around it like the Mona Lisa at the Louvre and punched in the audio device for some edifying art speak. But this city where Freud, Kafka and Wittgenstein parsed the meaning of sex and life in cafés that celebrate them to this day, was not about to spoonfeed predictable romantic pablum into a museum recording.

This Kiss, said the voice, represents sexual ambiguity. The woman’s face is turned away from her lover, not in ecstasy, but in conflict between submission and rejection. Say what? How could this love icon reproduced on notepads, tote bags, refrigerator magnets, scarves and umbrellas symbolize rejection! It wasn’t just a painting, it was a brand. And forget about the rest of the world, we Americans don’t like our brands tampered with.

Even the French treat us better in their City of Love! Unlike the Paris café where you are left alone to people-watch or read the Herald Tribune, the Viennese café demands due diligence. Choosing one begs a knowledge of which philosophers, writers, artists or profligates hung out where. A degree in military history is helpful when selecting your pastry, as in the Sacher Torte, created by Franz Sacher for Prince Metternich in 1832. And ordering coffee – brown or strong, milk steamed or frothed, cream on top, bottom or side –  requires cracking a Napoleonic code.

On my last afternoon, tired and hungry after taking in the ruins of Ephesus and four centuries of harmoniums at the Bibliothek, I limped past a shop window filled with fancy pastries. It was the Gerstner, appointed imperial court confectioner in 1873. While I yearned for Yankee comfort food that didn’t have a 200 year pedigree, I needed a sugar fix.

Photo: TheSultanette

See, Hear, Taste, Touch, Smell. FIve Nudes, Hans Makart, Belvedere Palace.

I entered the polished marble and varnished interior and took in a confounding display of museum-quality confections in a glass case. Too exhausted to discriminate, I chose a pink petit four for the price of Sisi’s crown jewels. Back out on the street, I peeled away its pleated paper doily and bit into the marzipan shell. The sensation was immediate and astounding. Between my fingers was a mini-wedding cake. Three tender layers of vanilla separated by three layers of creamy sweetness crafted to sensorial perfection for an emperor’s royal palate.

Vienna’s rigidity rankles. Its elegance intimidates. Its stunning beauty is always just out of reach. I had pursued it with cognoscenti, paramour, and incognito. I had invaded its concert halls, churches, castles, cafés, galleries and museums. Yet it had remained maddeningly unyielding. And then in one spontaneous moment of desire satisfied, I found Vienna melting in my mouth.

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04/3/15

The Things We Do For Love

Cruel Mrs Tyrants Bondage School, Eric,Stanton,1962.

Cruel Mrs Tyrants Bondage School, Eric,Stanton,1962.

Pretzels anyone? Or have you already twisted yourself into one over that romance you can’t live without? Relax and unwind. In case you missed Jo Ellison’s FT Fashion piece a few Sunday’s ago, “intimate is so last season.”

Okay so she was referring to the selfie-snapping rabble at the parties privé for the Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty spectacular at the Victoria and Albert. Nothing to do with our subject. But The Sultanette will never shy from gratuitously poaching popular culture to trick you into dealing with life’s important themes. Are you with me?

I was reminded of intimacy’s underbelly while dining the other night with a long-married couple at a trendy New York aerie overlooking Columbus Circle. As hubby ate his pricey burger, she treated me to a sotto voce serving of his shortcomings. It wasn’t so much the critique that surprised me but her angry resignation.

Perils of Pauline (and male harems), 1914.

Perils of Pauline (and male harems), 1914.

After my breakup with One&Only, this friend had firmly advised me against establishing The Male Harem on the grounds that it would lead to heartbreak, shame, and the company of feckless creeps. To that, I offer a three year harem-in-progress report. Heart: Whole. Dignity: Reasonably intact given unspeakable sexual conduct. Creeps: Need not apply.

Sure I have my lost and pissy days. I’m not parting with my existential angst as easily as I did my virginity. But why is it assumed that long-suffering couples are doing the noble work of polishing their unhappiness and regret to a fulfilling luster while we loners are living tarnished half-lives doomed to pain and shame?

Chinese boats, Lai Afong, circa 1880.

Chinese boats, Lai Afong, circa 1880.

In my tireless research for the sole purpose of improving the quality of your lives, devoted followers, I’ve just read from cover to cover, Dangerous Women: Warriors, Grannies and Geishas of the Ming. This meaty book by Victoria Cass, who holds a Berkeley PhD in Chinese language and literature, was even worth missing a few rapturous nights with the male harem to share timeless relationship advice I dare you to get from Oprah.

So come back with me a few hundred years to Suzhou of the Ming Dynasty, Venice of the south, a lattice of canals built along the Yangtze Delta from which flat boats delivered silks to northern Beijing via interlocking rivers and even a Grand Canal. A buzzing metropolis where commerce, art, theater, architecture and publishing flourished. Their “women were more beautiful, geishas more noble, and men more artistic.”

Couple spied on in a tumble, Wellcome Trust website, UK.

Couple spied on in a tumble, Wellcome Trust website, UK.

Both more cultured and frivolous than the fusty, pragmatic northerners, its citizens enjoyed poetry gatherings and social clubs, raucous festivals, and a robust salon society where radical ideas and indelicate rumors festered. Cass tells of a scandalous manuscript of sexual intrigue that circulated in Suzhou long before its publication, no doubt fifty shades more licentious than grey.

They were sophisticated urbanites like you and me but without smartphones. Yet along with their elaborate social network of lavish entertainments and passionate liaisons they were after something more. Or less. They practiced, as Cass puts it, “a cult of solitude.”

These gadabouts, bachelors, geishas, and power couples weren’t packing up for the Hamptons on weekends. They were heading for caves, huts and mountain retreats. Some created urban sanctuaries called shi yin or “in the city, hide away” – fashioning gardens with “miniature mountain ranges, small forests, watercourses, lakes, caverns and grottoes.” More than escapists, says Cass, “these urban recluses were iconoclasts who had a corrosive disdain for the common.”

Home alone, Yashima Gakutei, circa 1820, bequest Cora Timken Burnett.

Home alone, Yashima Gakutei, circa 1820, bequest Cora Timken Burnett.

Solitude-seeking couples became known as “mates in excellence.” Pursuing their particular artistic passions alone together, “they altered the connotations of intimacy,” says Cass. “I close my gate,” the poet Lu Qingzi wrote (before “setting boundaries” was de rigueur) from the mountain retreat she shared with her husband, “I rely on suiting myself.”

The prosperous southern milieu allowed more bandwidth for single women to cultivate private worlds. Some swore off marriage and escaped to write, paint and practice magic. Some were geishas who traveled solo and published their adventures in popular anthologies. Many were immortalized in folklore as poets, artists, warriors and mystics. “Where feminine solitude in the West often suggests abandonment,” says Cass, “in the Ming it suggested an acquisition of vividly sensed space.”

Isadora Duncan, Abraham Walkowitz circa 1915, Brooklyn Museum.

Isadora Duncan, Abraham Walkowitz circa 1915, Brooklyn Museum.

I’ve learned something about intimate spaces from my Male Harem, take it or leave it: Men have a private place where wives, children, girlfriends and even Sultanettes can’t find them. They want love and companionship. But sometimes they just want to be left alone.

With all the clamor for intimacy, I’ve come to know more about them from respecting their privacy than invading it. And when I’m not traipsing off with one I spend time, like my Ming sisters, discovering the unsung pleasures of cultivating my own shi yin. “Reclusiveness of the Ming,” Cass concludes, “was a grand passion.”

I’m not suggesting you can import mores from one culture to the next like shipping silks to Beijing. Nor do I now claim to be a Ming aficionado. But what if we took just a page from the playbook of those southern swells? What if we devoted as much attention to cultivating the art of solitude as the things we do for love? Maybe if we were better loners, we’d be better lovers.

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03/5/15

Fifty Shades of Spooning.

Martyrdom of St. Agatha, after Sebastiano del Plombo, Welcome Images Trust website.

St. Agatha martyred, engraving attribute A. Van Dyck, House of Gall, circa 1650, Welcome ImagesTrust website.

The Sultanette has bent over backwards and in a million other positions to convey her open-mindedness to your sexual preferences, adventurous readers. Handcuffed, tied down, double dipped, saddled up, one-legged, four-legged – whatever your cup of tea or the Queen of England’s or any of her randy offspring is tolerated on this blog.

But I’m drawing the line with the newest craze sweeping the nation: cuddling-for-hire. According to a 9 January Wall Street Journal piece by Stephanie Armour, “Just Want to Cuddle? Now you Can, for $80 an Hour”, platonic nirvana awaits you if you’re willing to pony up. “I felt transformed,” reported Melissa Duclos-Yourdon of Vancouver, Washington after hearing about it at her book club.

Kamasutra, Welcome Trust Images website.

Kamasutra, Welcome Trust Images website.

Those seeking a career in canoodling have a hotbed of opportunity. In Highland, New York, Kimberly Kilbride banishes her pit bulls to the mud room to bear hug clients in flannels at $400 a night. In Madison, Wisconsin, The Snuggle House had so much traffic the police were called in, though it seems nothing incriminating was found except a pair of Dr. Denton’s.

At the Cuddle Connection in Roseville, California, you can crank back on a La-Z-Boy with a specialist in a velour leisure suit. Samantha Hess got a few marriage proposals through her storefront shop, Cuddle Up To Me, in Portland, Oregon, where she offers 50 cuddle positions at $1 a minute. Even the Kama Sutra has been updated. According to the WSJ, professional cuddlers can consult “The Cuddle Sutra” for positions like Cheek to Cheek, Come to Papa and Sardines.

Les sirenes visitees par les muses, Adolphe Lalyre.

Les sirenes visitees par les muses, Adolphe Lalyre.

Looking for a cuddle around the corner? There’s an app for that! The location-based Cuddlr, launched last September with 240,000 downloads will let you know who needs a squeeze in proximity. According to founder Charlie Williams, between 7,000 and 10,000 subscribers respond daily to its siren song, “Ever just want a cuddle?”

Cat Hug, Léon Perrault.

Cat Hug, Léon Perrault.

Don’t get me wrong, The Sultanette is a sucker for a good squeeze. The Good Ex and I could cuddle all night long. At a bargain $15 for a case of Turkey and Giblet dinners, I bought my way to years of orgiastic snuggling, purring included, with my Persian, Oscar Wilde. Even emotional Neanderthal One&Only nuzzled up.

But is our American compulsion to quantify, categorize, and commercialize squeezing out the natural urge for fleshy pleasures? The couples’ counseling industry loves to sanitize sex with psychobabble. Want to get banged by your husband? You’re really seeking “intimacy.” (“Yes, Doctor, I know it’s important for Bill and I to channel our sexual energy through tantric communication but is it okay to get a sweaty, messy, sticky pounding once in awhile?)

After twelve years of being rightsized by the good Sisters of Sinsinawa, The Sultanette has no excuse to ascribe to the above. Sex was for procreation and saved for a husband. Aside from frustrating the hell out of a few Sigma Chi’s in college, I was ok with that. Then there was The Pill. After graduation, I moved to Chicago, signed up for estrogen liberation and waited to see what happened.

1280px-200508-DSCN0310One night, a guy who was none to willing to guide me along this course looked me in the eye and said, “You like this.” (His exact words censored.) And I realized, well yes I did! I liked it because it felt good. I liked it because it was more fun than going to the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. Most of all I liked it because it transported my constricted, restricted, up-tight, prudish, controlling nature to a place only sex could take me. The state of abandonment.

There are rules for a due diligent snuggle. You must be 18 years or older. Touchy but no feely. At the world’s first cuddle convention, Cuddle Con, launched on Valentine’s Day (along with the world premiere of 50 Shades of Grey) a 30-minute Consent Class was required “to teach people how to communicate their needs … How to say No and Yes.” In an interview with the Oregonian, founder Samantha Hess told Kasia Hall that along with classes and seminars her “open snuggle” and “puppy piles” would offer enough cuddle-love for “singles, couples, and everything in between” but would include “only stuff that is appropriate to do in front of your grandma.”

Study of Hands, circa 1715, Nicolas de Largilliere, Louvre.

Study of Hands, circa 1715, Nicolas de Largilliere, Louvre.

Curious to see if the convention got off better than Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey (described by one reviewer as “an emotionally crippled narcissist no one could love”) I checked OregonLive for a follow-up report. There was a G-rated slide show. Along with somebody wearing a bear suit who bore a striking resemblance to the Badger mascot at University of Wisconsin football games there were lots of inanimate bodies lying intimately all over the floor with lots of hands stroking, rubbing, tickling, squeezing and massaging them. One hand petted a man’s semi-bald head.

Da_Vinci_Vitruve_Luc_ViatourIn The Male Harem, acquainting myself with a man’s anatomy is no longer based on dating or mating, family or friends. Pressing flesh is more instinctive than obligatory. But it’s never arbitrary.

One evening over a needlessly expensive bottle of wine at  Gramercy Tavern, a new harem member looked at me with mischief in his eyes and asked, “What do you like?” I thought about this for a minute. I like exploring where two bodies take each other. I like the snap and crackle of intelligence. I like a man who knows what he wants and surprises me. I like not having a check list. And I wouldn’t let just anybody pet my head.

Then again … what if The Snuggle House gave such good cuddle you’d no longer be able to get off on it unless you paid?

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01/26/15

Venice Anyone? A Foolproof Guide To Getting Lost And Loving It.

unnamed-1Like a skillful lover, Dream of Venice stirs the imagination, exposes irresistible eye candy and cultivated charms, then leaves you chomping at the bit for a go at it. So before you pack up your masks, lacey underthings and unmentionable paraphernalia (TMI!) for a caper in the Serenissima, BETWEEN THE COVERS recommends you take a ramble through this guide to getting lost in love – of an entrancing city, yourself, and/or the one you’re with. Trust The Sultanette! The only other itinerary you need is your fantasies.

By now worldly reader, you’ve correctly deduced that this is no Travel Guide 101. It is Venice experienced at its best – aimlessly, sensually, and open to enigma. A true cognoscente, editor JoAnn Locktov offers no table of contents or page numbers to mark your way. Just excellent companions like Peggy Guggenheim, Marcella Hazan, Woody Allen, Claire Bloom, Julie Christie, Patricia Highsmith, and Erica Jong.

Writers and poets, architects and anthropologists, sommeliers, sopranos, and glass masters share personal experiences of Venice. Each literary nugget, provocatively paired with photographer, Charles Christopher’s luscious images, creates a visceral flash of déjà vu.

unnamed-3Open the book to a random couplet: Christopher’s image looks up from a gondola through the windows of a façade dulled by centuries, to a patch of luscious, painted ceiling where putti dance bathed in golden light. “I looked up at these rooms illuminated by enormous chandeliers made centuries earlier in this very city,” says interior designer, Matthew White. “They didn’t sparkle like the crystal chandeliers of Paris – the Venetian chandeliers glimmered with a dim luster like the inky water that held us aloft … “

I was there! A not-so-blushing young bride, not yet The Sultanette. I was in that gondola, looking up into those rooms, wondering what plot was unfolding there. A cabal of ancestral Venetians sipping Grappa? A clandestine interlude between two desperate lovers? Surely there could be no normal in these monuments to exquisite decadence.

unnamed-2We had just moved to Paris – brand new husband, the Good Ex, and I. No one was more in love. He’d had the brilliant scheme of spending our first Christmas in Venice at the Hotel Danieli. Looking back on the crooked line of impressions and images – there is no straight and narrow in Venice – the memories vibrate: A late afternoon lunch at Harry’s Bar – the woman at the table in the window wraps herself in a mink-lined trench before making her dramatic exit. The trickery of passages ending in reward – a fresco encrusted scuola, a plate of freshly cut pasta, a tiny shop of handmade soaps. Every moment shared in the glow of togetherness, like putti dancing in the glimmer of romance.

“Many people consider [Venice] the city of love,” says Alberto Toso Fei, descendent of an ancient family of Murano glass masters, “for others it represents a place of mystery and magic. His words in Dream, accompany an image that teases the wanderer to stray to a place that “becomes visible only as it moves into another dimension, free of constraints of space and time … “

unnamedI returned to Venice a lifetime later – after the Good Ex and I had gone back to New York, gone our separate ways, and One&Only had stepped in to fill the togetherness gap. A woman I’d met through a couple we double-dated with had invited me to visit her there – just us girls. I jumped at the chance to revisit heady memories.

Fuzzy from the all-night flight, I managed to find my way to her door through an ancient stone archway at the end of a narrow calle, past a neglected garden, down a dark passage and up a steep flight of stairs that opened into a vast room of sprawling couches and curtained windows looking out on the Grand Canal.

unnamed-4Every morning I woke up to the gentle slosh-slosh of Venice outside my shuttered bedroom. Every day, armed with my friend’s crib notes, I invaded a new corner of hidden pleasures. Every night I took my place at her dining room table. We talked of my day’s discoveries, our past marriages, and life in New York City, as her smiling housegirl served tortellini and her cats looked on.

I was on the other side of the windows now but what I found was a side of Venice that couldn’t have touched me with the Good Ex when I was intoxicated in romance. There was a melancholy I sensed now, more shrewd than sad. A bittersweet understanding that it’s not love but surviving life gracefully that gives a city, and a woman, her poetry. When I returned to New York I began to know that the fifteen-year love with One&Only was over. I also knew the singular pleasure of losing myself, alone in Venice.

unnamed-9“The ghosts are restless,” murmurs Erica Jong’s poem Dream of Venice where Lord Byron and Tintoretto make appearances along with the pickpockets dancing at San Marco. “It is all a stage set for our dreams as we wheel and turn thrashing up our pasts.”

On one of my last mornings in Venice, I stepped out onto my friend’s veranda to dry my hair. Leaving the hushed, dim interior, I was met with a feast of sound and light. The grumble of boat engines and ripples of laughter mixed with the bright haze deflected from a million tangled streets of water. As a gondola drifted by, the couple in it looked up and smiled. Leaning over the veranda, wet-haired in the sun, I waved back at them.

“… I am laying bets on love again,” Jong’s poem concludes, “at least for now. Temporary, permanent, Who can say? I cast my dice for life. & the ghosts reel backward – & are gone.”

unnamed-6I continue to love men – my male harem. I revel in their attentions and am seduced by their deceptions. I learn from their intelligence, take joy in their wit, strength in their mettle, and am beguiled by their mercenary charms. But I don’t want to belong to one. And I still dream of Venice – the city that cloaks its mist around you yet remains always just beyond reach.

Dream of Venice, photography by Charles Christopher, edited by JoAnn Locktov. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to Save Venice Inc. to support vital art and architecture restorations in Venice.

This is one in a series of book reviews for BETWEEN THE COVERS. For the true tale of an 18C Venetian love affair see The Male Harem post, What Happens In Venice Stays in Venice.

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01/5/15

DICK OF THE WEEK Says Yes To Dr. No.

The Vortex. In or Out?

The Vortex. In or Out?

Reality or illusion? Good or evil? Choose. Or better yet, don’t. Since The Male Harem is all about the illusion of certainty and the reality of ambiguity, you’ll be in good company.

And who better to launch The Sultanette’s DICK OF THE WEEK series than a conjurer of that space between our better selves and the fascinating underbelly than production design auteur, Sir Ken Adam. (He’s a knight besides!)

Volcano lair, Ken Adam, wikia.

Volcano lair, Ken Adam, wikia.

If you weren’t too distracted by movie date booty, you’ve been aware of Sir Ken’s sleight of hand setting the stage for the clash of intrepid hero and unscrupulous villain in James Bond flicks from Dr. No to Moonraker. Before the age of computer-generated images, the worlds he concocted neatly captured the tension between reality and fantasy, like the million dollar fiberglass volcano that swallowed up helicopters and space rockets, built on a backlot for You Only Live Twice.

How can you not adore a man who bemoans the passing of the good old days when a villain was an unadulterated cad? “I think in the last Bond film I saw … they lost the importance of the villain,” Adam told The Guardian in 2002. “To me, designing the villains’ bases was a combination of tongue-in-cheek and showing the power of these megalomaniacs. I think the villain is just as important as Bond. Someone who simply wants to destroy an oil pipeline to me is just not sufficiently important as a villain.”

Connery & Andress getting behind their own scene, Dr. No, 1962.

Connery & Andress getting behind their own scene, Dr. No, 1962.

Adam’s brilliance occurred behind the scenes but Male Harem experience suggests that might be the most intriguing place to enjoy it. And now you can view the method to Sir Ken’s mad designs from his 40-foot high bullion-lined Fort Knox (Goldfinger) to the uber-creepy war room in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove through his drawings, photographs and films in the exhibition “Bigger Than Life” at Berlin’s Deutsche Kinemathek until 17 May.

Dr. Strangelove war room, 1964, wikicommons.

Dr. Strangelove war room, 1964, wikicommons.

Ever had the urge to push EJECT on your boss at the annual review? Revisit Adam’s user-friendly conference room in Thunderball. “I had these chairs with individual control consoles facing each other … then I had the idea of one of the chairs disappearing under the floor with a man who had betrayed Spectre and coming up empty.” (Hasta la vista, baby!)

Or how about suggesting an off-site meeting, say, in the Tarantula Room of Dr. No, a set thrown together as an afterthought according to Adam. “There was nothing in it except a chair, the door, and in the foreground a table with a tarantula cage. And so you got this surrealistic, very simple set with an incredible effect.”

Can you make this stuff up? “The Bond scenes which Sir Ken designed betray an insight into (his) personal struggle … between good and evil, albeit in the make-believe world of James Bond,” says Helen Fry, author of Churchill’s Secret Soldiers.

Flapper in smoke, circa 1920, Russell Patterson (1893-1977).

Flapper in smoke, circa 1920, Russell Patterson (1893-1977).

Adam grew up in the Berlin of the “golden twenties” in an upper-middle-class Jewish family who owned a high-fashion clothing store and summered on the Baltic. After the Nazi Party came to power in 1933, the shop was forced into bankruptcy and his father, a former officer in the Prussian cavalry, was arrested.

A shop-employee who had become a leader in the SS arranged for his release and the family left for England in 1934. “My father went out with a little suitcase to sell gloves,” he tells Steven Karras at web2carz. “It really destroyed him, there was no question about that.” He died in 1936.

Hawker Typhoon Operation Overlord, 1944.

Hawker Typhoon Operation Overlord, 1944.

Adam’s architectural training got him an apprenticeship at a firm designing bomb shelters and he enlisted in the Pioneer Corps, a unit for trusted German nationals, before transferring into the Royal Air Force as one of three German-nationality fighter pilots in the RAF during WWII. He flew the powerful Hawker Typhoon armed with rockets and cannons to support the advancing British army. After attacking the Falaise Gap in Normandy he visited the battlefield with his commanding officer, a scene of death and stench he tells Karras that was “a shock to the system” he never forgot.

After the war, a draughtsman position at a film studio lead to work on movies like Ben Hur, Around the World in 80 Days, and the first Bond film, Dr. No. “But nothing could have prepared him,” Karras writes, “for the tornado that was Stanley Kubrick.”

Self-portrait Stanley Kubrick with Leica III, 1949, wikicom.

Self-portrait Stanley Kubrick with Leica III, 1949, wikicom.

“I used to drive him to Shepperton Studio in my E-Type Jaguar and he didn’t allow me to drive faster than 30mph,” Adam tells Karras. “And while it was a close relationship, at the same time I felt that it was fatal for me to be that close to someone like Kubrick … He was the most possessive director I’d ever worked with and at the time I swore [Dr. Strangelove] was the last picture I’d work with him.”

Adam won his first Academy Award in 1975 for his work on Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. He was knighted in 2003 for contributions to Anglo-German relations and gave his work to the Deutsche Kinemathek in 2012.

Thomas Mann the Adlon, 1929, German Federal Archives.

Thomas Mann the Adlon, 1929, German Federal Archives.

Jet-setting schmoozer that I am, The Sultanette spent a week in Berlin several years ago, as guest of The Antiques Diva and her charming hubby. Beyond trolling the flea market with indefatigable Diva Toma, strolling across the site of Hitler’s bunker, or taking in le jazz hot at the Badenscher Hof, I can offer no better preparation for Sir Ken’s ingenious fabrications than an aperitif in the swank lobby of the Hotel Adlon.

There you will feel the ghosts of former guests Einstein, Edison, FDR, and Thomas Mann, Chaplin, Caruso, Dietrich and Josephine Baker. In 2002 Michael Jackson dangled infant son, Blanket, out the window of the legendary Adlon … CUT! … Or is that the ersatz Adlon!

The original Adlon was built in 1907 across from the Brandenburg Gate on real estate so prime it took the intercession of Kaiser Wilhelm II to raze the fusty landmark Neo-Renaissance palais cluttering the site. It was all but destroyed by fire in 1945 during the last days of the war when celebratory Red Army officers went incendiary in the wine cellar. A remaining wing served as the Hotel Adlon, East Germany until it was entirely demolished in1984. … TAKE TWO! …

Detail Hotel Adlon II, Paul Hanninen.

Detail Hotel Adlon II, Paul Hanninen.

When The Wall came down the Adlon went back up. Bought by a West German investment firm and designed by Rainer Michael Klotz, the reincarnation, inspired by and re-built exactly on the site of the original, opened as the Hotel Adlon Kempinksi Berlin in 1997.

Historical illusion or reality du jour? As Sir Ken told the Guardian about his design of Fort Knox after seeing the lackluster original, “The inside of Fort Knox in Goldfinger is completely unreal. There’s no place like that, any more than the war room I designed for Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove exists.”

Who says the artful duplicate isn’t as tantalizing as the real thing? Or the mise en scène can’t be savored, bigger than life?

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12/11/14

CULTURE SNATCH Visits Mme. Cézanne

SultanetteSeatingChart1Verboten in The Male Harem is the query, “Where have you been?” It smacks of time squandered obsessing over another’s absence that might be better spent doing twenty pushups or slowly sipping a very dry martini.

That said, if you still dare to ask where I’ve been, you obviously haven’t visited CourtneyPrice.com where The Sultanette, along with unveiling juicy tidbits on male maintenance (Inspired by The Sultanette), threw a fantasy dinner featuring infamous rogues alive and dead, as depicted here by the artful Ms. Price.

Frivolous socializing, you say? Think it’s easy to make small talk with Machiavelli or out-snark Roger Sterling? Then there’s The Male Harem risk factor of committing to the companionship of exquisite transients. In that sense, a romantic dinner is not unlike a love affair – or a marriage for that matter. When the stimulating conversation peters out and the clothes that were tossed off in the heat of passion are untangled, we retreat to our separate worlds.

The Sultanette Saturday Night at the Met.Living solo in the company of The Male Harem continues to nourish. But like any behavior not endorsed by the cabal it requires the occasional psychological selfie: How ‘my doing? Does this float? Is it still safe out here? Has the park closed? So when I learned of the exhibit on the portraits of Madame Cézanne, a lifelong intimate outsider in the artist’s world, I hightailed it to The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Sultanette revels in the privacy of the Met.On a Saturday night, naturally. The Met is open until 9pm on weekends allowing visitors to actually see what’s on the walls and feel its vastness. Where else in New York City on a Saturday night could you escape cell phones and long lines and see and be seen by no one? After years of this practice, I’m amazed at what a City insider’s treat it remains. I always love spotting the tweeded-out Upper Eastside septuagenarian couple on their Met date, help off for the night.

The Sultanette views the Met holiday tree.Admittedly on this Thanksgiving Saturday there were holiday ogglers at the tree to negotiate. But devoid of schmaltzy canned Christmas tunes the spirit of the season prevailed at the nativity. And speaking of women living outside the line, if the Blessed Virgin couldn’t find more acceptable amenities than a lean-to with manger plus shepherds and three dusty kings for paparazzi, Mother of God!

Photo of Young Woman with Loosened Hair by The Sultanette.Which brings us back to the portraits of Hortense Fiquet, aka Madame Cézanne. The first was painted two years after they met in 1869 when she was nineteen and he was thirty. There is a nubile innocence in this “Young Woman with Loosened Hair” that never reappears.

Between that portrait and the solid gaze in “Portrait of Madame Cézanne in the Conservatory” painted twenty years later she has been his most painted subject. She has also birthed his child, there have been acrimonious separations, a secret marriage, and upon learning of the liaison, Cézanne’s banker father has threatened to disinherit.

The exhibition neatly sums up this “lifelong attachment” in a single sentence, describing the woman who “profoundly influenced [Cézanne’s] portrait practice for more than two decades” as being “not well received by either his family or his friends.” Yet over those twenty years she sat before him, still for hours, letting him pour over her every angle and inflection. Watched. Composed. Made art of.

Photo of Cezanne Red Dress series by The Sultanette.Referring to his red dress paintings from the 1880’s, the show quotes Cézanne, “Only I know how to paint a red.” But Hortense is no Madame X. She neither flirts nor defers to the man who commands her presence. For all the silent and not so silent indignities she must have absorbed, she appears neither broken, self-righteous, nor embittered. Unscathed by the rancor of petty minds she sits, hands folded, eyes fixed on a distant place.

Cezanne sketch book, photo The SultanetteWhat anchored her? Was it knowing that unlike the domineering father and dismissive friends, she had a piece of the artist no one else could touch? That only she had felt those silent hours of undivided attention when Cézanne reached for his deepest passion? With all our clamor for lasting connections, it was enough to immortalize.

Madame Cézanne can be seen at the Robert Lehman Collection, first floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art through March 15, 2015.

CULTURE SNATCH is a series on The Sultanette’s ramble among the arts. Watch for BETWEEN THE COVERS book reviews and DICK OF THE WEEK commentaries on notable or notorious males in the news.

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10/29/14

Save The Date For The Sultanette Dinner

Dinner at the schlass, Jorge Royan.

Dinner at the schlass, Jorge Royan.

Except it won’t be dinnertime (the most wicked fun happens in the afternoon) and it won’t be a “date”  because that term is stricken from The Male Harem lexicon due to its fostering of bazaar expectations and sex-by-numbers. (Third date? You snooze, you lose.)

Minor details aside, stay tuned for The Sultanette’s fantasy dinner hosted by Courtney Price Design. If you’re not following Ms. Price’s tasty blog on culture, fashion, interior design and the best martini in San Francisco, you’re missing critical factoids on the art of living with style and heart. What better venue to  treat The Male Harem in the manner they’re accustomed than @courtneymprice where Emily Post meets C.Z Guest and Madame de Pompadour pops by for an aperitif?

Mae West,1936.

Mae West,1936.

So I’m presently assembling a guest list of philosophers and soldiers, miscreants, roués, and a rock star – alive and consigned to posterity (with respect to Mae West’s advice that the best husband is rich and dead). As with Male Harem membership, relationship status is irrelevant. Married, single, sig other, all that’s required is an informed love of women, high intellect, good manners, and a penchant for raw sex.

And just in time to pre-empt those tedious holiday dinners with Uncle Dick and Aunt Muffie! So be prepared for a feast of the mind and senses with this contrarian curation along with some penetrating remarks from The Sultanette on life, liberty and the pursuit of sex. Finger food only.

“She was astonished to see how her grandmother looked”, Gustave Dore.

“She was astonished to see how her grandmother looked”, Gustave Dore.

By now, you must be starved for more rousing tales of The Male Harem, and they’ve been collecting faster than The Sultanette can say “Trick or Treat!”. I hope you appreciate that unlike somnambulant marriage, The Male Harem requires constant field work. And that when I’m out there tirelessly testing the waters, allowing myself to be indulged, and cajoled by people with penises, I do it all, loyal followers, for your inspiration and edification.

And just when I wondered if this mad scheme might be climaxing, it’s gotten vigorous new insertions. On a recent Harem Event (no “dates” allowed, see above) Ivy League, Esq., exhibited the full spectrum of his privileged education. He was engaging, gallant, droll, insightful, and adept with hooks and zippers. Another new recruit Sky Walker and I are carrying on a tantalizing digital affair covering everything from Paris in January, Wittgenstein in Vienna, eyeliner in India, neurotic bankers, Norman Cousins, and the orthography of “Yuk!”.

Also a shout out to ongoing member Young Preppie, whose subtly bawdy propriety and impeccable Southern breeding played my +1 to the hilt at last weekend’s New Hampshire wedding. And to Nom de Plume, who just procured tickets to Chrissie Hynde’s New York concert at the Beacon.

"We have an excellent table for you in Novia Scotia, sir." Ericbodden.

“We have an excellent table for you in Novia Scotia, sir, just next to the lavatory.” Ericbodden.

Politically incorrect confession: I revel in the attention of men with the chops to genuinely appreciate the opposite sex. Before you pass this off as the frivolous indulgence of a horny woman, I paid a good price to get here – sixteen years with One&Only who could ignore me better than a waiter at a four-star restaurant when you’ve been seated in Nova Scotia. Confrontation-phobic? Once when I’d managed to wheedle him into a “talk” he jumped up, announced it was time to go to dinner, turned out the lights and bound for the door, leaving me per usual, in the dark.

No need for more examples, you know the drill. The countless incidents you gloss over until what you’re left with is so highly polished there’s not a groove for a toehold. On that night of no return with One&Only, the end of us was the least of it. Staggering away from the expectation that I’d ever be cared for the way everybody says you’ll one day be, was the seminal moment.

Ophelia, Henrietta Rae, oil on cavnas,1890, Walker Art Gallery.

Ophelia, Henrietta Rae, oil on cavnas,1890, Walker Art Gallery.

The sex part of The Male Harem was initiated a few months later in the back stairwell of an Upper Eastside apartment building. Crass? Crude? Tawdry? Yes! After being true to an illusion for sixteen years, that hot, furtive, dangerous body slam was just what Dr. Feelgood ordered.

I started practicing being alone. One birthday, I passed on dinner with friends and took myself to a play about Shakespeare’s women, appropriately called Women of Will. It was performed in a church basement in the Village. When I resurfaced, Washington Square Park was laced with a fairy dusting of snow. I snagged a spot for dinner at the bar of Minetta Tavern and ordered a flaming desert.

I didn’t want to do this long enough to become a habit. Just long enough to know I’d never again be tempted to sublet in someone else’s life. Along with going solitaire, I began cultivating The Male Harem. Nearly three years later members continue to appear like the magi, bearing gifts of cleverness, candor and desire. As for the emotional intimacy bit, I prefer to get that from girlfriends who are always better at it.

Banquet of the Gods, Frans Floris, oil on panel c. 1550, Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp.

Banquet of the Gods, Frans Floris, oil on panel c. 1550, Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp.

For my birthday this year I accepted the offer of Abdul, the cook at my neighborhood café, to cater a dinner party. A dozen friends showed up – half longtime loyal chums, half new harem members. We sat on a mound of pillows on my living room floor around the low table Abdul provided and drank copious liters of wine haphazardly paired with an unending parade of Yemeni perfections. There were soups and stews. Meats and birds roasted, spiced, marinated and sauced. For dessert, Abdul’s wife had prepared a multi-layered pie soaked in honey that, like sex, you could only partake of with your hands and totally surrender to sticky fingers.

Now that’s what I call a real Male Harem dinner. Imagine what happens at the fantasy version. See you there?

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10/1/14

Let’s Stay Together

Wife hands husband her chastity belt key, Neinrich Wirrich, c1590, British Museum.

Wife hands husband her chastity belt key, Neinrich Wirrich, c1590, British Museum.

Sure they had their marital snags – the usual irreconcilable differences – but was it worth splitting up over? Creating a rift that would upset the world order?

No, The Sultanette isn’t talking about Jay Z and Beyoncé. The Male Harem has weightier issues to mull over than the fate of JayBey (though I’d trade these pins for Beyoncé’s thighs faster than you could say “booty call”). The marriage in question united Scotland and England in 1707. The question now was whether to call it quits after three-hundred-seven years or stay together. YES or NO. Black or white. No surprise, NO won.

So why is breaking up so hard to do? Why are we so easily seduced into thinking we’ve found true love and so resistant to admitting it’s over? Is love blind or the end of it?

Take a Leap, Eron Main, '06.

Take a Leap, Eron Main, ’06.

There’s a thing about walking away: the unknown. It’s always a leap. Yet conventional wisdom tells us that taking a ride on the bungee is sheer folly unless we’re able to know exactly how we’ll feel diving towards an unpredictable bottom before defying gravity to meet up with terra firma again.

Just look at how the rhetoric, collected from the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, played to both sides of the Scottish Independence Referendum. The We’re Outta Here side was fed a diet of dire warnings about market uncertainty, volatility, sensitive interest rates, currency suffering a fall, and the prognosis of UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s broken heart.

On the Better Together side, wafted words like stability, relief and recovery, buttressed by wisdom, rationale and safety. Finally, as in all cases when the kids are rough-housing, mom was called in. As reported by the FT, the Queen’s media advisors orchestrated a “chance remark to a churchgoer near Balmoral that Scottish voters should ‘think very carefully about the future’”.

Who was that masked man?, 1956.

Who was that masked man?, 1956.

Though The Sultanette has never been invited to Balmoral, I’m no stranger to Scottish castles – or taking a dip into the unknown. The summer after my freshman year at the University of Wisconsin, I worked on Princes Street in the shadow of Edinburgh castle selling tartans to Germans. I had never been that close to a castle or so far from home. Never before understood that there was an entire other world that didn’t look, feel, dress, eat, talk, or think like people in the Midwest. It was thrilling.

My college roommate Ellie’s father, a University of Wisconsin professor, had arranged the trip through an exchange student of his. Neither of us had seen the other side of Madison’s Lake Mendota let alone the Atlantic. Except for a trip to California when I was five, documented in volumes of photo albums, the only escape I knew was holiday visits to aunts and uncles in Milwaukee. So when Ellie asked me if I was up to sending resumes to The Tartan Gift Shop and living in University of Edinburgh student housing, my answer was an unequivocal YES.

Edinburgh_Ale_by_Hill_&_Adamson_c1844

Edinburgh Ale, “a potent fluid, which almost glued the lips of the drinker together” c1844, Met Museum.

We joined the flock of shop girls watched over by the roaming eye of the store’s supervisor, Mr. Wood, who would fetchingly lift his kilt above his knee when anyone asked what was under it – a question he wholeheartedly encouraged. On the way home we’d pick up fish and chips wrapped in newspaper and dine in the crackling warmth of our coin-operated space heater – Scottish currency only. For exercise, there were pub crawls featuring beer that had no resemblance to the Pabst back home.

One Saturday we hiked up to Edinburgh’s famous outlook. I no longer remember its name, the climb, or the friends who joined us. I only remember the clouds. Not the distant ethereal shapes that floated above my hedge-lined backyard in Wisconsin but magnificent billowing masses that scudded in from the sea like separate continents.

Wild_Haggis

Wild haggis, Loch Lomond, StaraBlazkova.

At lunchtime we’d head for kippers on High Street where everyone shared tables before communal dining was chic, and the proprietor burst into arias above the clatter and conversation. It was there that I met Alistair, a lawyer from Aberdeen, red-haired, tweeded-out and fully adult. Alistair introduced me to the finer themes of Scottish lore – single malts, the Firth of Forth (the name alone could have existed nowhere else) and haggis, a dish rumored to be made of sheep innards but sworn by the Scots to be stewed from a furry, four-legged creature that was a Highland delicacy.

Proof of Alistair’s hardy resilience was that he put up with my last gasp of virginity. I was at the ALMOST stage then. Almost convinced I could toy with a man’s sex without penetration. Almost sure I didn’t have to save myself for my husband. Almost stupid enough to believe it was worth it. Alistair, if you’re reading this now, The Sultanette is ready to make it all up to you!

Undaunted, he invited me to the family home in Aberdeen. I have no idea the impression I made on his uppercrust parents. Maybe they saw me as a charming bumpkin. Hopefully, coming from the American hinterlands, I was forgiven everything.

I believe I concealed my amazement at their country club the first night when an entire dairy department of cheese rolled up on a trolley. I know I kept my mouth shut at a family dinner when Mother, suddenly rankled over something Father had said, rose up as if to fetch more tea, and instead, pitched her shoe in a perfect arch at him across a half-mile of fancy porcelain to the opposite end of the table.

Francis Humberston Mackenzie, 78th Highlanders Regiment, Wm. Dyce, c1840.

Francis Humberston Mackenzie, 78th Highlanders Regiment, Wm. Dyce, c1840.

Who were these people, so properly defiant, whose national dish was the stew of a mythical badger? Who distinguished their fierce, warring clans by variations on plaid pleated skirts, and dangled tasseled purses over their packages? An FT piece on the referendum quoted George Bernard Shaw as saying, “God help England if she had no Scots to think for her.” So in not flying the coop, was Scotland merely being kind to its bloviating cousins? Or prudently resisting the unknown? Anybody who’s been in a relationship that overstayed its welcome has considered the maxim, better the devil you know than the one you don’t.

In September, I kissed Alistair good-bye, sold my last tartan, and headed back to Wisconsin. We continued to correspond and one day a package arrived – an ivory cameo with a note attached in his lawyerly hand. Would I come back and consider a life with him? I was taken aback. There was still school, piano lessons, football games, losing my virginity. Still so much to sort out. My souvenirs of that Edinburgh summer weren’t of an enduring love but clouds with a bigger imagination than me. And so to a Scottish union, I said, NO.

What if …? Arun Kulshreshtha, 2006.

What if …? Arun Kulshreshtha, 2006.

Years later, after a marriage and move to Paris had segued back to single life in New York City, I came upon the cameo among collected keepsakes. Was the college co-ed too fickle to appreciate the finer points of a singular man? Was Alistair mad to think he could import a novice, unseasoned by experience, into his clubby world? Would we now be sipping single malt together by the fire? Would I have become adept at hurling shoes across fine china? Does life have a way of sorting out who we are?

There are times to stay and times to go. Times to make peace with the familiar and times to make a mad dash for the unknown. You can always say NO and stay put. But you’ll never escape WHAT IF.

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09/4/14

Looking For Mr. Wrong

B-25_Wolf_Bait_Nose_Art

Wolf Bait, WWII B-25 Mitchell bomber, Ed Uthman.

“I’m a very difficult person,” Jeremy Irons.

Untwist your knickers, scandalmongers! The Sultanette is not looking to add Jeremy Irons, aka “serial snogger” aka “the thinking woman’s pin-up” to The Male Harem. Yet. He does however, share one thing in common with each and every harem member along with wicked charm, a shameless love of the feminine form, artful duplicity, and the basic requirement for membership, a penis. They are all difficult men.

I may have denied this last feature even to myself before reading Cristina Nehring’s A Vindication of Love. Women who are drawn to rascals must “secretly believe they don’t really deserve a ‘good’ boy,” writes Nehring. ”It’s chalked up to low self-worth.” But when men pursue women who cause them “trouble and turmoil” Nehring contends, it’s credited to their “high spirits, predatorial adrenaline, to chutzpah, competition, and courage.”

As you know, I hold the harem in the highest regard for their intelligence, sophistication, and cultivated manners. But that doesn’t rule out the fact that they are rascals. So emboldened by Nehring’s revelation, I hereby confess that I have a history of men who behave badly beginning with the kid who tied me to a tree in grade school.

Cannabis sativa, print, 1887, Hermann Adolf Kohler.

Cannabis sativa, print, 1887, Hermann Adolf Kohler.

I met my first gut-wrenching kick-in-the-teeth heartbreaker fresh out of college after moving to Chicago to work as an advertising copywriter on Oscar Mayer Bologna at J. Walter Thompson. Forget the ex-frat boys with rich futures on the Options Exchange who packed the singles’ bars on Rush Street. (Their life expectancy may have been short but I would have been a rich, young widow.) My sights were set on Bad Boy, the mop-haired director of the agency’s research department who had dropped his PhD thesis at Northwestern to major in cannabis.

Grand Central Commuters, 1936, Jim Pickerell.

Grand Central Commuters, 1936, Jim Pickerell.

Coming from my cracker-barrel Wisconsin roots, I was awed by his lineage. He’d grown up in a John Cheever short story in Connecticut. His father, a bona fide Mad Man, had commuted everyday between Y&R and their Frank Lloyd Wright home in Westport where Bad Boy had actually mowed Paul Newman’s lawn for extra change. That’s when he wasn’t getting thrown in jail with his buddies after raiding the wet bars of the Eastern aristocracy. (His mother finally tossed his books into the cell and told him to study for a change.)

Bad Boy’s other exotic credential was a motorcycle. I was soon on the back of his black BMW cruiser heading for the local bike races – testosterone-fueled events starring teenage daredevils who catapulted around the track creating clouds of Castrol that hung heavy in those sultry Midwestern watermelon nights. Dinner on the way back was the insiders’ wiener treat at the Tastee Hastee stand in Gladstone Park where, awash in red and yellow fluorescence, your dog rolled down a mini-gauge metal conveyer getting heaped with the works.

Desert lightning, Arizona, Shredex.

Desert lightning, Arizona, Shredex.

Then Bad Boy started packing the BMW into his Ford van and unloading it for camping tours in the Rockies and the Four Corners. I bought my first sleeping bag, threw jeans and vintage silk blouses in a backpack, and found my inner biker chick: tucking into a nest of pine trees off a mountain road or under the flat starry sky of Monument Valley to bed down for the night; breathing in the desert after a rain – the smell of a vast damp basement; passing through abandoned mining towns and stopping at roadside diners where sullen rednecks hunched over Formica counters; huddling under a shelter of lashed-together windbreakers at the timberline when black clouds marbled with lightning blew in; experiencing a psychedelic sunset that filled the biggest sky I’d even seen while streaking down a ribbon of road at a hundred miles an hour.

Third-Rail-Danger-SignI loved the peril Bad Boy exposed me to, with him it all seemed safe. I could even overlook his fierce and unpredictable temper. His steely anger was never directed at me but existed in a place that was off-limits for my affectionate groping to make us whole. Though it kept a part of him beyond reach, after three years I was in thrall.

One day Bad Boy said, “Why don’t you ride your own motorcycle?” Who me? Yes! That Christmas I found a tricked-out café-racer under the tree, a white Honda to his BMW black. Given my 5’2” height it was no hog but I was ready to burn rubber. Bad Boy took me out to a parking lot and showed me the basics. I started off falteringly. The bike felt ungainly powerful under me. Filled with sudden doubt and real fear, I was tremulously making my way across the lot when I heard him shout, “You’re riding like a girl!” Who me? Fuck you! I took off. Nobody was going to challenge my moxie.

She called one day when I was cooking dinner – the lawyer he’d met on those business trips he was taking for focus groups in San Francisco. I had not a clue. Sheepishly for a change, he told me he was moving there. It’s the only time my legs crumpled under me. When I called his mother to tell him we were finished she said, “He’s a dog.”

A month later, still staggering from the body blow, I remembered that the motorcycle race we’d planned to go to was coming up. As the day approached, I knew what I had to do. The freeway seemed bigger that night but my café racer slipped easily between the eighteen-wheelers. I parked in the surrounding field along rows of bikes and found a spot on the bleachers. Watching the race from this vantage point was different than the one I had borrowed – more vivid and personal, sadder but somehow cinematic. It was my movie now, no leading man.

Bikers at night, 2008, Chris Heald.

Bikers at night, 2008, Chris Heald.

After the race, I blended into the thick crowd heading for the parking lot in a litter of crushed beer cans and the sweet smell of pot. It was late and the ride back to the city felt long. First one, then another biker began revving up around me, filling the night with grumbling engines and the surreal blaze of headlights. How would I make it out of here? Find my way back home on the freeway? Suddenly out of the cacophony, I heard Bad Boy’s indictment, “You ride like a girl!” I kicked my engine to a start and navigated my way across the rutted ground. When I hit the entrance ramp of the freeway, I revved the gas handle hard and blended into the trucker traffic with a surge of grace.

“Could it be that the feistier members of both sexes actually go for bad boys and bad girls,” Nehring asks, “not by accident but on purpose, not because they have been traumatized in their childhoods but because they have been emboldened and have courage and enterprise to spare? Could it be that the choice of a challenging love object signals strengths and resourcefulness rather than insecurity and psychological damage, as we so often hear?”

Manhattan Rush Hour, 2011, Alex Proimos.

Manhattan Rush Hour, 2011, Alex Proimos.

Some men soothe our souls, coddle our insecurities, allay our fears, and protect our feelings. Some kick up our mettle, challenge our doubts, fuel our daring, and trample on our sacred ground. Who says which one is good or bad? Right or wrong? You?

I most likely would have found my nerve without Bad Boy’s help but I wouldn’t have learned how to ride a motorcycle. The following year, I sold the bike and took off for New York City.

 

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