This week, the web has been all about the Stanford rape. It’s not easy for me to write this, but I feel I have to bear witness. In 1958 I was an eighteen-year-old sophomore at the University of Michigan and became one more name on a predator’s list.
In high school, I had no dates until my senior prom. No girlfriends, no confidantes, and certainly nothing useful from a mom who was nearly 50 at the time I was adopted. She was unable to deal with the matter of sex.
I’d been programmed to believe that I was totally unattractive and should just accept that and go for a teaching career. My first kisses sort of unraveled that. I had a new world to enter, without the first clue.
My first year at college was a dog’s breakfast. I was in a fast-track honors program headed for pre-med, but suddenly men became a possibility. During that year, nothing particularly wonderful presented itself, as the freshmen guys were pretty clumsy, though divinely motivated.
Then I got into Martha Cook, the “honors dorm.” I got along OK with my roommate, but we weren’t close. I didn’t have the brains to look for buddies or girl-talk, and would have been mortally embarrassed to engage in any conversation about actual sex.
I don’t recall how I met this guy whose dad was a member of a famous string quartet, but mutual interest in music might have been a link. I accepted his invitation to a date, with no inkling about his reputation. He had a nifty sports car and a flask of chilled vodka. I had no idea.
He said let’s fool around, and we wound up at his apartment. I do know that when clothes started coming off, I told him I was a virgin and had to stay that way. Other guys had been willing to make do with fondling and digital play, and I assumed I could stay intact. But this wasn’t in a car or a dorm rec room, it was in bed behind a locked door.
The vodka had been effective. My protests didn’t matter. He got what he wanted. To add insult to injury, he gave me a review.
“You weren’t really that much of a virgin. Did you ride bikes a lot?”
The next morning in the dorm, I was crying in the group bathroom, and one of the older girls asked if I was OK. She knew the guy and his reputation for conquests. In fact, she’d seen him that morning and he’d bragged. I lied: I told her he was lying.
I hadn’t said NO effectively. Alcohol was involved, but I wasn’t unconscious. It all happened so fast. It was my first real sex, and it wasn’t fun, and it wasn’t part of a relationship. To be clear: force was not involved, but it wasn’t right. It put a strange caul over coming into my sexuality.
I don’t think I felt the full force of it until I learned that this was a career cocksman who boasted of his deflowerings. I was just a notch.
Two years later, when I met and bonded with my mate, there was a lot to learn and un-learn. I got past my shame and found delight.
I think it’s great that there is now actual discussion and education about consent, but it’s probably not happening in the places where it’s most needed. We need real change in the anything-you-can-get meme, where sex is just an extension of the marketplace. Nobody deserves being a notch on a braggart’s pistol.
Just home after an all-night drive from 5-1/2 days at the long-established, revered Santa Barbara Writers Conference, drawing people from far and wide. One of these things where you trudge among hotel conference rooms for workshops, panels, talks, with a couple of banquets thrown in and lots of happy hours.
Way better than I’d expected. Yes, the requisite number of sessions on “building your platform” and query letters to agents, but it’s unique in its heavy focus on *craft*. The workshops had general orientations (poetry, memoir, stories, something called “phantastic fiction,” etc.), but most were focused on reading your pages and getting feedback from participants and gurus—very surgical, merciless, and caring. Some participants were clumsy beginners, some were highly skilled and multi-published, but all were accorded the respect that every one of us loved the art of writing and were spending our time working to do it well.
In workshops and in the late-night 9pm-2am marathons, I read segments from two of our unpublished novels and three of our stories—all three subsequently nominated by staff members for the “best fiction.” And at the Friday night banquet, our story “Sleeves to Turkey” was awarded first place in fiction.
I was asked to read it to the assembled multitude. The response was electric.
So much reward. Many, many insights, little flashbulb moments. And greater was the satisfaction of response to a story that’s had twenty rejections and thus gathering courage to sustain the next twenty. Plus being in company of others on the same leaky boat paddling toward infinite aspirations; a sense of validation side-by-side with seeing how radically some of our “finished” work needs rewrites—not because someone told you so, but because you saw it “through a glass darkly, but now face to face.”
And even among people who’re writing spy thrillers, hoping to crack the best-seller list, a sense of comradeship. We may not share the same soul, but we share a reverence for our tools, and there’s a lot of soul in those tools.
—From the Fool—
My friend Ernest— Well, he used to be my friend, but he’s kinda cut off talk. With pretty much everyone, as far as I can tell. Too bad, he was a clever guy. That was his problem.
He hung out at this outdoor coffee stand, with some tables around. The young people were always lost watching the morning’s electrons doing the double shuffle, but the older guys would actually talk. Not that we were any smarter.
But we were gabbing one morning about the world, some new politician or war or other entertainment, and Ernest said, “Lotta people in this world whose ass isn’t on straight. Their shit comes out with a spin.”
He got a big laugh and Bertie spouted coffee and Mitch clapped him on the shoulder. Cleverest thing we’d ever heard him say. Ernest must have felt really good for the rest of the day. Couple days later, there were some new guys there, and he worked it in again. He didn’t get quite as big a laugh, maybe because it didn’t quite fit. We were talking about kids being hooked by Twitter, and that didn’t seem to be as high on the scale of stupid as war in the Middle East. Plus, Ralph had heard it before and just chuckled.
Somewhere I heard him give it another try, a variation to liven it up: “The world is really screwed up. Too many screwdrivers.” It fell flat. It just didn’t have that zing, or people took it literally. Then he was at a party to celebrate Dwayne’s leaving town—we were glad to see him go—and I heard Ernest pick up a chat with this lady in a big floppy hat. Instead of “shit” he said “Their turd comes out with a spin.” I guess he thought that was more genteel, but she didn’t seem to agree.
Benny was closer to him and filled me in on Ernest’s demise. “Dammit,” Ernest had said, “It’s a lot better than Fourscore and seven or Damn the torpedoes or old Woody Allen lines. For a while he took an online writing course, then tried alcoholism for a while, but he never achieved the success of that first big splash. He didn’t pick up a shotgun like Hemingway, but he put his cat outdoors and just seemed to pine away.
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