Sex and Sensibility



“Qu’il est beau!” exclaimed the chambermaid at the small hotel on the left bank of Paris.   How handsome he is!

“N’est-ce pas?” I said.  It was early summer, 2004. We were looking at the photograph on the dust jacket of My Life, Bill Clinton’s autobiography just out in the U.S. and already for sale at The Village Voice, a small Anglo-American bookstore on the rue Princesse, where I’d bought the last copy.

A beautiful man, we agreed.  She and I were generations apart, cultures apart (she, French North-African, in her 20’s; me, New Yorker by way of Central Europe, already past 60) but we each felt the attraction, saw the humor playing on his features, responded to the startle of intimacy that made it seem we knew each other in a way having nothing at all to do with his wild celebrity.

A few months later back home, walking east along 53rd Street after my hairdresser appointment, I noticed a small crowd outside Chase Manhattan on Park Avenue and asked the closest bystander what was happening.  “Bill Clinton’s in there,” he said.  “A meeting.  They say he’s coming out soon.”

I had the time, nothing much on for that balmy Fall afternoon and even as I moved to join the throng, people started drifting away, their lunch hour over, the siren call of work thrumming in their ears.  Within a few minutes I was in the front row behind a white barrier and a moment later, he came out. smiling, striding towards me.   We shook hands.  In his astonishingly blue eyes the heavens opened.  I blushed, he held my gaze for another beat and then he was reaching past me to the right, toward the outstretched arm of the man behind me. My abandoned hand brushed against the sleeve of his jacket, a soft wool sleeve that I found myself stroking as I whispered to him, “Take me with you. . . take me with you,.”

Of course he didn’t, and of course I wouldn’t have. . . .(?)   In any case, it was over in seconds, he somehow dematerialized and I tripped home, still on air when I came into the lobby of our building and told everyone there that I had met, and actually touched the hand of Bill.

A slide captured in memory, a bit of fluff, a few seconds of flirting.  Of course his fame added to it, but the nut of the encounter was that split second of recognition, true or imagined, when my heart went out to him taking the rest of me with it.  The spice of life, the playfulness of desire, the lightness of being (thank you, Milan Kundera) that provide pleasure, optimism, energy.  In other words, sex.  Not mating, not dating, certainly not procreating.  Flirting is the added accessory, a gift of the gods to make us forget we are mortals and will die, forget how old we are or sick or lonely or how many bills we have to pay.  Simply a frivolous bit of excitement or arousal, with no past and no future, just a crowing NOW of pleasure.

I bring this up because in the spate of stories about sexual assault, campus rape, date rape, rape by politicians, child molestation and the terrifying rest of it (mostly brought on by a torrent of violence from the man in the orange dishrag who seems to equate sex with the violent appropriation of anything he wants, with “thing” expanded to mean humans, especially female), and since he is followed by hordes of angry citizens who also feel dispossessed and entitled to pillage anything they see, sex has become, in this election campaign and particularly in the last weeks, something that I fear young people may never again know as the loveliest thing on earth, along with babies, sunsets and chocolate soufflé.

Friends much younger than I tell me about their co-workers, employees and children who complain if they get whistled at (“It scared me”) or if road workers throw compliments at their feet as they pass.  This is without any contact at all, the kind of bouquet I used to relish as a young woman (and even more as I grew older), or a kind of dance, a form of play in a world too regulated and predictable, the sudden compliment that tells you someone thinks you’re pretty, or cute, or simply nice, and that there’s laughter on the breeze, sex is in the air and in the mind, and you move on to your meeting or your difficult times with a family member with a sense of leavening, legerity, lightness.

Flirting was, and still is part of the grand scheme of sex, which includes but is not limited to, love and friendship and desire.  Sex that has nothing whatever to do with issues of feminism or “women’s rights” (which is and should be recognized as a redundancy since women are humans and more humans are women than anything else) or with all the just causes (that should have been resolved a long time ago) like equal pay for equal work, which is so obvious I can’t understand how anyone could argue it.  You pay for the product or service and not according to the type of genitalia the producer or service person may or may not possess.

And of course I am not talking about criminal sexual behavior.  The violation of one person by another is against every moral precept in the world. And the orange dishrag and his mob of thugs should never be mentioned again in print, ether, air, or any other element; and trauma specialists around the world should be working day and night on a way to erase him & his violators from the minds and memories of anyone who has ever had to think about him and them for even a minute.


            Years ago I spent a summer month writing a novel in an Austrian farmhouse near a glacial lake where I took breaks on a small deck owned by a family I knew. There was always a medley of generations on those gray wooden planks, lowering themselves into the icy waters and then scrambling back for more sunning, more tanning lotion and the small barbequed fish on skewers brought around by local fishermen. A boy of maybe twelve or thirteen bantered with a woman who could have been his grandmother.  They laughed and teased each other, obviously enjoying themselves, the boy perhaps feeling what it was like to be a man, the woman happy to be regarded not only as a person, a grown up, but also as the woman she was.  I was about 23 then, raised in America, and it took me several minutes to puzzle out what was going on.  Finally I realized that what they were doing was flirting: amusing themselves a while along the journey through the human comedy of life. Everyone did it here, age no factor in that little country of snow-capped mountains and pastries heaped with whipped cream.

The French did it too, always have.  The Parisian or Lyonnais bus conductor reaches out his arm to give a pretty women a lift up onto the bus and is not thinking of grabbing her purse (double-entendre intended).  The woman smiles. She likes knowing that people find her pretty.  It’s all part of the culture, of enjoying each moment.  And it is no more related to sexual assault than a glass of Burgundy at dinner is to the sort of binges that regularly kill high school and college kids, or to the all-day drinking nurtured in gormless suburbs by desperate housewives hoping to kill the hours before night comes to blanket memory.

Sex is within us and part of us and makes up a strong portion of our interconnectedness.   We notice if our friends are good-looking and respond to that, and just as we depend on the exchange of ideas with others in order to more clearly define our own and be stimulated to new thoughts, so too we need the interchange (or call it intercourse) of appreciation, of being seen anew, becoming (if only for a moment) the object of someone else’s interest and desire, all of which is part of flirting and can lift us out of despair or impatience or the rut we’re stuck in.  A light touch, compliments, the evocation of laughter – all these are a part of it too, of feeling that you are a surprising and delightful person after all.  When men whistle at women, it doesn’t mean they want to hurt them or take them by force (except when those men are pathologically unable to think of anything in the world except as an object to be possessed), and I hope that for this new generation of women, if whistles or compliments are thrown in their direction, that what they hear in those sounds are angelic trumpets announcing that Beauty is passing by.

The orange menace threatens, and has already wrought, hatred, fear, suspiciousness, violence and every form of racist and misogynistic bigotry ever known.  He has taken away our innocence and beliefs and joy, as well as our personhood, whoever we are, of whatever sex or inclination.  Whatever happens in the election and its aftermath, we must apply ourselves to regaining our health individually and as a nation.  And before we can return to respect, morality, sexuality, kindness,  humor and appreciation of each other, we must rid ourselves of the man and the movement that have made destruction prevail, turned spontaneity into violence and twisted self-love into shame.

Terrible Men



In this time of Terrible Men, terrible in a way we’ve always known but never seen in such abundance, such confluence, every day more and still more until it has become a typhoon, maelstrom, churning and dragging us down to the baseness of all things; in this time of terror and men who are mad with fury at everything they don’t have and don’t deserve and who possess a blindness towards fellow creatures that is almost impossible to achieve in the natural course of things, humans having evolved the ability to see another as themselves to be able to work together in such essential tasks as getting food and protecting the young; in this terrible time I’m not sure how any of us can stay afloat, never mind sane, but last night, waking from a trumphitlerian nightmare, I was rescued by images that came unbidden, like good angels – images and wisps of remembrance from other times, of gentle men and gentlemen, of my father with his big hands and his love and generosity and magic.

He was a charmer, Tino (diminutive of Constantine), Viennese, handsome, tall and dark with a flair for languages who told jokes that were not jokes so much as encapsulated stories, miniature plays, often with a philosophical tail and they were always funny.  He adored women of any persuasion, childhood, adulthood and age.  My little girlfriends adored him back and when they grew older they had crushes on him.  He loved having fun  (his childhood in Vienna not having supplied a hell of a lot of that, especially when other boys would gang up on him and pull down his pants to see if he was circumcised) and was constantly inventive.  The summer we rented a house in Weston, Connecticut he and my mother and two friends set up a orange traffic sign on which my mother Dolly, an artist, had painted SLOW.  Beneath that she painted a black snail and below that the word CROSSING.   A few hundred yards beyond, on the opposite side of the road they put up a restaurant sign: Á l’Escargot Bienvenu.  (At the Welcome Snail.)

That was the summer of his chamber music festival, with young musicians from all around the area and a fat magician named Dr. Stanley Jaks, whom we had met on a ship sailing from New York to Buenos Aires in the winter of 1948-49 and he remained a friend, a refugee himself, like my parents. His pinky nail extended for several inches and he treated it with great respect.  He was a member of the Society of 13, the world’s greatest magicians.  He had performed in the White House for President Truman and General MacArthur, setting it up and finally laying out cards for the finale.  He offered the General a choice of bibelots from his collection, a metsuke perhaps, a tiny jade Buddha or a turquoise elephant and asked him to place the trinket on the card he’d first selected.  When MacArthur had done so Jaks asked him,  “Are you sure?  You wouldn’t prefer a different card?”

To which Douglas MacArthur, from the battlefields of Korea, replied, “A general never changes his mind!”

Harry Truman reached out for the trinket and moved it to another card. “But a president does,” he said.

At the music festival Stanley Jaks presided as King in a rented monarchial outfit, ermine tails and all and I, twelve or thirteen at the time, was outfitted as the court jester, bells on cap (“I AM the royal jester/ My name is Peter Chester./This glorious person THAT you see/ Is his Royal Majesty.”)  I led the way, the King behind me, followed by the rest of the procession which included my mother as a lion, a very perfect lion with a large mane (she was a Leo and prided herself on that), into the house where the music would be played, different groups in different rooms and on the porch and grounds of the rambling farmhouse.  That was the summer of the snails, and their friend Tom Hollyman, a well-known photographer who played the bagpipe with a vacuum cleaner and had a dog named Flugelhorn.

By then I was on the cusp of some form of incipient maturity that has never found a correct appellation because how this maturity happens and when depend on the society and circumstances a child grows up in, and I had developed a new self-consciousness with accompanying irony.  In other words, though magic was all around me I did not believe in magic.

But when I was younger, how could I help it?  Those very early memories came to me last night as my mind skittered away from the Terrible Men that are beyond the thinking of.  It was summer, we were at a place with a hill,  a tent, a car. .  .  I had trouble sifting through indistinct images and then realized that very early memories are not actually of place in the sense of rooms or settings or landscapes; they are much smaller than that, outlines or suggestions of something – a barn door, the edge of a table, the rumble seat in the old car where we kids (what kids?) sat squashed together.  It was probably New England – where else would we have gone?  Rumble seat!  Holding on and screaming in fear we’d fall out (though I don’t believe the car, rumbling on the dirt road, ever went faster than 5 miles an hour.)  One day my father put on a magic show for us, but the rain came splashing down, a storm was gathering and we all went into the tent. Though maybe not a tent.  Now I am writing this down new images are popping up, or most likely ancient nearly-obliterated images at last resurfacing in the developing fluid of my brain’s darkroom.  It was something more like a garage, roomy. My daddy performing hocus-pocus.  All of us enthralled.  And then came a flash of lightning and we screamed, huddling together as the thunder came crashing after, the garage no longer safe. And my father raised his hand (or wand or finger) and we all fell silent.  He called out to the rain and told it STOP! which it did instantly.  We all filed out, the sun was shining, the grass smelled fresh and green and on the hill there were horsies – I mean, horses – and maybe other animals too.

He was a magician who could make things turn out the way I wanted, my Zauber-König in a Mozartian vein (which was very much my father’s vein, Viennese vein, little Wolfgang Amadeus having come to the palace of Schönbrunn when he was 6, in the little gala outfit given him by the Empress and Emperor, still sitting there now among the royalty at the banquet table in the painting that hangs in a Rococo room where little cherubs climb out from the ceiling feet first.)

At night, on the rare nights when he was home and could put me to bed, he didn’t read to me. Instead he told me wonderful stories that he probably made up as he went along.  Lovely little animals, each of whom was a character, a personality (sometimes with an accent) – the oyster (called Oystraka) defending his pearl; the two sheep, Wooly, who was white, and Tar who was black, best friends.  But Wooly was a good student and Tar could never learn to count beyond 3.  This was because he was lame in one foot and when he walked he went thump-thump-hoppeta-thump, counting only the thumps. And so Tar couldn’t get promoted to the next grade.  But one day when Wooly was missing and no one could find him, Tar went looking everywhere, high and low, calling his name.  At last he came to a little patch of clover, and there was Wooly, and Tar bounded over so fast he didn’t even limp.  “I came for you!” he cried. “Wooly, I came for you!”

“Four!” said Wooly. “You just said four!”  The friends embraced, and soon they went back together and Tar made his way in school alongside Wooly and they were inseparable for the rest of their lives.

I loved all the stories, though admittedly my favorite was about a little girl called Kathy who had braids, just as I did, and who climbed up over the back of the armchair into a painting that hung on the wall above it. She took the little path through the high meadow and walked towards the house far in back.  Everything was beautiful.  She looked out the window at flowers blooming and birds flitting in the trees, and in the kitchen where there were wonderful things to eat.  When she had her fill Kathy walked out the door, back along the path, through the meadow and out by the frame, my daddy sitting on my bed, my head on my pillow, traveling thorough paintings..

But the most forceful magic happened during a hike. My parents were very fond of mountains, and though my mother didn’t share my father’s love of or ability in skiing, she did like to hike (“marschieren,” she called it). On Sundays they often went to Bear Mountain and I had to come along, though I hated exercise in any form at all, and especially having to climb up stupid, fall-down paths with grownups (their friends Pepik and Olga often came along) all talking in grown-up, sometimes even in Czech, and me feeling so sorry for myself that it became difficult to propel my body forward even a few inches.

My father would drop back every few minutes to encourage me, and though I complained and maybe even cried, I did finally make it to the very top. And when I got there I saw a perfect little conifer tree no bigger than I was and its branches were hung with chocolate.

I am now a long way from cynical youth and deep into furious age. But now I do believe in magic.  There are moments that simply arrive or descend, engulfing you with pleasure for no reason, making you see how good people can be and how beautiful, or catching up your breath when you notice the sun’s rays falling on the trees just before sundown on 17th Street, turning their green to gold; or the rush of gratitude when a doctor finally diagnoses what is ailing you, speaking to you with compassion and intelligence. Words of all shapes. The magic of friends – Eli, already near 80, flying in from Finland to visit me for a couple of days in my illness or the unexpected delivery of luxuriant food ordered by another darling; the flowers from David, reuniting with two Lindas; the kindness of Michaels.


I think of my father often these days. I have a loving husband and loving son and loving male friends but they are here with me now, in this toxic swill that seeps into every conversation.  I can’t understand anyone who can’t understand what is happening.  So I turn to the past (civilization) instead of the future (chaos) and try to believe there is something beyond the present madness where:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.

Yeats went on, in probably his most-quoted poem, “The Second Coming,” to ask:

What rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

“Rough beast” is good.  I take refuge in lost worlds and gardens of the mind where things can still grow. I hope every woman on earth can summon up in memory or at least imagination some gentle men she has known or loved, great good men like Pope Francis or an uncle, a neighbor, the mailman, someone with whom she felt happy and safe and who brought magic with him.  Of course it’s not only women who are suffering in all this, but we are the majority of people in the world and have been treated abominably by terrible men for a long time all over the globe. What we must do now is to recognize the clear and present danger of the most terrible man of all, heir to Hitler and Stalin, ally of Putin, racist, hater of women and everyone who doesn’t worship him; a man who steals from the poor, an ugly old fat man who attempts to shame others for one goal only: to crown himself god.  We must defeat him as surely as if the Black Death had returned that decimated most of Europe’s population before there was an America to which survivors (immigrants) came. Defeat him in the polls of course, but also by returning to our true concerns and values, to lightness, logic and imagination, reclaiming our country and our lives, ourselves.