Book Broads: Alyssa Harad

16 Jul

“There will never be enough money. There will never be enough time. There will always be more work to do. But every now and then we find a small extra thing, a necessary sweetness, that keeps us from believing we know everything and all the news is bad. The wild card that leads to one of those hairpin turns in a life story when the grim facts shake themselves loose and we find ourselves in a new and unexpected place. The utterly unlikely thing. The beautiful surprise.

And that, more than anything else, is what perfume has been for me. For many years, I thought the answer to my troubles–and maybe the troubles of the world, too–was vigilance and hard work. I thought I understood frivolous treacherous things like perfume and the kind of people who loved them. I thought I knew who I was, what I had to do, and what was coming next. But I was wrong about all of it–wonderfully, gloriously wrong.”

Alyssa Harad’s debut memoir, Coming to My Senses: A Story of Perfume, Pleasure and an Unlikely Bride is a lush, lyrical, almost obscenely juicy journey into a new sense of self.

Describing herself as having “fought off sweetness, in all its many varieties, for a long time,” Harad was a former academic who shunned mindless accumulation of stuff–and even marriage to her boyfriend to avoid the shopping–when her “torrid affair” with perfume began.

Late one night, while taking a break in a middle of a freelance deadline, she stumbled across a perfume blog. She got hooked on the stories, the wild, gorgeous and sometimes florid descriptions featured in the sub-culture, and “a lovely dreamworld populated by gentle, scent-mad sophisticates unfurled before me.”

She read in secret for months, smelling the perfumes “only in my mind” until a blogger’s description of Paloma Picasso’s Mon Parfum sent her to a decaying mall near her house to experience it in real life.

Harad’s transformation at the hands of scent from a sharp, serious bookish academic who wouldn’t allow herself giggles, or pink, to a woman about to be married to the man she truly loves, fully aware of her sensual powers, makes for a marvelous story. She explores what the feminine means, and how scent and its memory jogging powers can lead us to a more authentic place, whether that’s on a cloud of rose and jasmine or a puff of leather and oakmoss.

Alyssa Harad’s writing has appeared in O: The Oprah Magazine, Marie Claire, and the perfume blogs Now Smell This and Perfume Smellin’ Things. She lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, three cats, one dog and a closet full of perfume (which she has barely ever dared to count). Find her at alyssaharad.com

To Serve Woman

25 Jun

Given the vast number of females either fully in or about to reach menopause, and the extraordinary hardship they saddle onto a society already beset with strife of every stripe, I set forth this very modest proposal which, if followed, will alleviate some, if not most of the encumbrances that these aging females occasion.

The Problem
According to the 2010 census, there are approximately 41,745,928 American women between the ages of 45 and 64. You can see these ubiquitous unfortunates fanning themselves on public transportation, finding themselves at Eat, Pray, Love book clubs, and rummaging through the Not Your Daughter’s Jeans section of the local Lord and Taylor. Clearly, it is an empty existence bereft of meaning; for how purposeful can the life of a middle-aged American female be when both the steamy nights of scheming and seduction, and the heady days of pregnancy and child rearing are behind her? Even her aging parents, whose care infused her life with a modicum of meaning, will soon be dead, if they are not in the ground already.

Aside from the obvious existential nightmare in which these women find themselves, there are also the very real quality of life concerns for the rest of society who are forced to live among them. While it may not be fashionable to say so in certain circles, the truth is that these, shall we say women of a certain age, are unsightly and quite hard on the eye. Wrinkled elbows, crow’s feet, swinging upper arms and a sagging visage are things that are best kept in a darkened basement.

The Solution
Given the misery of these women, and the misery that they thrust upon the citizenry, I now will set forth my proposal, the sole intention of which is to increase the happiness of everyone involved. I have been assured by a high-ranking research scientist that a middle-aged woman is a most delicious, nourishing, wholesome food whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.

I propose that 25% (about 10 million) females who have not achieved menses for a full calendar year be harvested and offered at supper tables. According to my calculations, an average middle-aged woman weighs about 155 pounds. Simple mathematics reveals the enormous boon for the U.S. meat packing industry! Millions upon millions of pounds of protein rich womeat produced and sold fresh, frozen, or vacuumed packed to insure a longer shelf life. The tax revenue generated by its exportation, along with the net decrease in U.S. population, alleviating Social Security and Medicare costs, guarantees a robust American economy for years to come.

Of course, our beloved country, beacon to the world, can never concern itself solely with the marketplace. Didn’t I say my modest proposal sought the happiness of us all? Imagine then the delight at which a middle-aged woman will receive my plan! The rush of pride and deep sense of purpose she will feel as she returns to her role as nurturer, and the surprise she will undergo when she discovers that just when she thought the party was over, society has found another way in which she can be used.

With compliments to Mr. Jonathan Swift

Book Broads: Face It

25 Jun

Gray hairs must now cover at least 60% of my head, but I keep asking people I barely know, “It’s not 50% yet, right?” I was stunned when I looked in a full-length mirror one day and instead of my familiar voluptuous hourglass, I saw a pudgy apple with full face, heavy jiggly arms and compressed vertebrae that shortened me a good inch and a half, throwing me into the petite section–and lowering my already measly daily Weight Watchers points.

But if looks are not supposed to matter as much as intelligence, accomplishments and happiness, why do so many women panic as their appearance changes? According to Vivian Diller, Ph.D., co-author of Face It: What Women Really Feel as Their Looks Change, many women take their looks–ordinary, cute or mind-blowingly gorgeous–for granted. When our physical selves start to change, how we used to move through the world evaporates, along with our familiar self-image. Dr. Diller is a former dancer and model who became a psychotherapist who specializes in these issues, and knows firsthand how they feel in a culture hyper-focused on youth and beauty.

We talk about why these changes are so difficult for women in many cultures (she informs me that China actually has one of the highest rates of plastic surgery in the world) and why turning 50 feels a whole lot like being back at high school prom, and how women can develop a healthy, accepting attitude toward age that doesn’t involve Botoxing the hell out of it. Find her at www.faceitthebook.com

Cougar Sex Can Kill You

24 Jun

Remains of 27 year-old Matt Conroy

When Lucy and Jim Conroy hadn’t heard from their 27 year-old son, Matt in over three weeks they began to worry.
“It wasn’t like him to not call,” Mrs. Conroy said. “We knew something was wrong.”
And something was wrong indeed. When the police entered Matt’s Brooklyn Heights apartment in late May they encountered a macabre crime scene that unfortunately was not altogether unfamiliar. Lieutenant Rossi led the investigation.
“It was pretty obvious that Matt had not been there in weeks. The place reeked of rotten food and there was a pile of mail just inside of the front door. We thought maybe he took off, you know got sick of the 9 to 5. That was until we got a look at the bedroom.”
What they found not only helped to explain Matt’s disappearance, but the disappearance of three other men, also in their twenties.
Rossi explained that Matt’s bed was unmade, covered in rumpled sheets and pillows.
“At first we didn’t see it,” Rossi said. “The sheets were white and so were the underpants…I mean, what was left of the underpants.”
In the middle of the bed was a pair of white Hanes briefs. But when crime scene investigaters attempted to pick them up with a pair of tweezers, they simply disintegrated; fell apart like a puff of dandelion spores. A quick thinking detective scooped some of the floating particles up in a jar.
“We thought they were joke underpants, like it was some kind of a prank,” Rossi said. “But then we found the nail.”
At the bottom of Matt’s bed, police found a single toe nail; the nail of the right big toe.
“We’re not talking about a toe nail clipping,” Rossi stressed. We’re talking the entire nail of the big toe.”
The disintegrated men’s briefs along with the big toe nail were enough for the police to suspect foul play.
A thorough forensic analysis positively identified Matt’s DNA and the DNA of another person, an unknown female who police call Cougar X. Her DNA has been located at three other similar crimes scenes all involving the disappearance of men in their twenties.
Rossi explained the similarities between Matt’s case and that of the other men referred to here as John Doe 1, John Doe 2, and John Doe 3.
“We know who they are,” Rossi explained, “but their families asked that we not use their real names for obvious reasons. These men are presumed dead. At this point, the coroner isn’t even sure what to put on the death certificate.”
Police interviews revealed that Matt, and the three John Doe’s all frequented so-called cougar bars.
“They were young men who just wanted to have a good time without the burden of a relationship,” Rossi explained. “They sought out older women, women in their forties mostly, even though we’ve been warning young men in the community that if they get with an older woman they risk never being seen or heard from again.”
And so it is with Matt and the three John Doe’s. Their disappearances can not be fully explained, yet they are all presumed dead. Some medical examiners now theorize that during contact with Cougar X, the men spontaneously vaporized leaving little to no physical remains.
“All of the crime scenes are spookily the same,” Rossi said. “There’s a rumpled bed on which there is some physical evidence. On one bed we found an earlobe and a pizza crust. On another, a black sock and a molar. And on a third there was nothing left but a thumb. A thumb!” Rossi said, shaking his head as if trying to dislodge an explanation for what really happened to these men.
I was surprised that Matt’s parents were willing to sit down and speak with me, on the record, about their son.
“We don’t’ want this to happen to other young men,” said a sobbing Mrs. Conroy. Our son is dead,” she continued, through clenched teeth, “dead from insatiability!”
“Do you have a message for Cougar X or any other older women who seek out the company of younger men, men your son’s age?” I asked.
“Yes, she screamed. “You are all filthy whores! I’m 48 years old! Don’t you think I’d like to go out and get a…”
Mr. Conroy ended the interview and helped his wife to her feet.
“That will do,” he said, although I wasn’t quite sure if he was speaking to me or to his wife.
As I made my way to the front door I heard Mrs. Conroy screaming, “I’ve nothing left but a toe nail! A fucking toe nail!”
The Conroy’s had a miniature casket made for their son’s remains. Matt Conroy will be interred in his parent’s backyard next Saturday.

Book Broads: Mara Altman

13 Jun

Freelance journalist and author Mara Altman is one funny and brave broad. Her work includes Bearded Lady, a Kindle Single chronicling her battle with body hair, and Sparkle, her exploration of the cultural meaning behind engagement rings, which became a 2011 top 10 Kindle Single. Her first book, Thanks For Coming: One Young Woman’s Quest for an Orgasm was published by Harper Collins in 2009. It is currently being turned into a play by Daniel Goldstein, a director/playwright in New York who most recently revived Godspell on Broadway.

Altman was a staff writer for the Village Voice and has written for New York Magazine, The New York Times and daily newspapers in India and Thailand. Her article, “The Pleasure Lab,” about her donation of an orgasm to science, was awarded a bronze Eddie Award.

She is currently working on a novel, and adjuncts at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Visit her at www.maraaltman.com

Book Broads: Suzanne Weber

27 May

To What Miserable Wretches Have I Been Born? Revenge Poetry for Babies and Toddlers is the latest book by writer, comedienne and performance artist Suzanne Weber.

A native New Yorker, Weber became known for creating the character Anita Liberty, a performance poet who achieves notoriety when her boyfriend, Mitchell, dumps her for a woman named Heather and–to get even–she decides to devote her entire career to humiliating him in public.

During these one-woman shows, Weber would read her own poems “collected in anthologies” and mentioned other works such as her book How to Heal the Hurt by Hating, none of which actually existed. After audience members and publishers started asking where they could find these books, Weber decided to write one.

Her first book, How to Heal the Hurt by Hating (Villard, 2006), was featured in the film Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason. Her other books include How to Stay Bitter Through the Happiest Times of Your Life (Villard, 2006) and the YA title, The Center of the Universe (Yep, That Would be Me) (Simon Pulse, 2008). To What Miserable Wretches Have I Been Born? Revenge Poetry for Babies and Toddlers completes the trilogy started by Anita Liberty and finished by her alter ego Weber, as she finds love and relative contentment and leaves the Mitchells of her life in the rear view.

Weber has performed several one-person shows as Anita Liberty in New York, Los Angeles, Aspen and San Francisco. Not Thinking About You, her one-person show directed by R.J. Cutler (The September Issue, The War Room), had its debut at the HBO Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen. Her short film, Anita Liberty, which was co-written by Weber and Cutler, was produced by the Independent Film Channel and shown on Bravo. It was also an official selection at Sundance.

Weber spoke to us in her pajamas from her home in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband and daughter, and where she writes books, television pilots, Facebook status updates and the occasional tweet.

Note: Weber is proud to say she was censored by MTV’s Standards and Practices for using the word “vagina” when she performed on their Spoken Word: Unplugged program. This podcast contains adult language — and we like to think non-gratuitous, too.

Some Things I Know & Some Things I Feel: Embodiment, Selfhood & Size

18 Apr

These are some things I know and some things I feel:
My clothes don’t fit anymore.

I have replaced my wardrobe–twice.

My knowledge of how humans interact has changed, because I now interact differently with them.

My knowledge of how men treat women has changed, because they treat me differently. I am 30%-of-myself different.

My sense of belonging in society has changed, though less than I would have expected, if for no other reason than that mainstream stores (i.e. society) now recognizes and validates me by offering my size and being willing to sell me their shit.

My furniture feels bigger. I am smaller. I am big. “I” is exhaustingly relative to you or her or him.

I am more visible as a human. I am especially more visible as a female. People are seen through the lens of their usefulness to the looker.

There is no goal, no size, and no shape that cannot be invalidated or Othered. There is no pinnacle.

Your relationship to your body is overwhelmingly mental and emotional, not physical. Your relationship to the world and other people is overwhelmingly rooted in your physicality.

Everything about your body can change, physically. Everything you feel about your body can change, daily.
Every battle with my body has been a greater battle with my mind, and the efforts of those battles are primarily defensive.

Your body as you know it is what self-knowledge you retain after society defines it for you. Your sense of self is awfully porous, malleable and reflective.

The meanings, visual or otherwise, that you attach to the adjectives used to describe human physicality is far less defined and stagnant than other words in our language. These meanings can be easily altered, changed, or redefined by you, but especially for you, by others.
Size will never determine one’s satisfaction. It can exist in a causal or catalytic relationship with many other factors such as societal and familial approval and acceptance, sexuality, validation, self-worth and so on, but it will never be a singularly determining factor. Thus, making a specific size a goal is futile.

Your body exists primarily as a screen upon which ideas, image, and identity is projected. If not by you, by someone else. There is no negative space or allowance for it to be without meaning.

Your body will never be free of meaning. It is always a symbol, a word, that someone must judge or attach something to.
Physicality is a commerce. It’s recognized almost as much as money. Physicality is not containment of the self, but instead selfhood is the experience of embodiment.
The intimacy and synonymity of emotional and physical states is essential to the self. There is no bisection.
I have never known the same self for more than a few days in my whole life. And since writing this, I know things have changed.

Tara K. is an Appalachian-cum-urbanite who teaches university American language studies and writes about the experiences of embodiment, social delinquency, and other made-up things.

No shame, no glory

28 Mar

“Brows” by Alyssa Harad

13 Mar

Alyssa Harad is an Austin-based freelance writer. Her debut book, Coming to My Senses: A Story of Perfume, Pleasure and an Unlikely Bride will be published by Viking on July 2, 2012. Look for our interview with her later this spring. Meanwhile, here is her contribution to our latest topic, Beauty:

From Coquette to Baguette

6 Mar

The middle-aged face is like a party crasher who arrives at three in the morning, just as you’re emptying ashtrays and feeding the cat for the last time before calling it a night. You don’t want to let her in. You try to make excuses by saying things like,“Oh…hello…everyone’s just gone,” or, “I wasn’t expecting you,” as you wedge her foot out of the crack of the door and attempt to push it closed. But it is late and you are tired. So she barges in, kicks off her comfortable shoes and says, “Vodka Martini…dry.”

And there’s no denying the middle-age face. It’s like a dwarf or a three-legged dog. It can’t be confused with anything else. First, the jaw line softens and the flesh beneath the chin begins to droop. Face front things seem in order, but take a look at that profile. See what I mean? Your youthful contour has taken a detour…south. Gone is the sharp 90 degree angle of 1985, only to be replaced by something a bit more 21st century.  Then, of course, there are the crow’s feet, the marionette lines, and the scrunch lines that transverse your forehead like the tracks of the Union Pacific.

When I first started to notice the certain southward migration of my skin, I investigated ways to stave off the inevitable. I began to do facial exercises which were supposed to keep the face firm and taut.  One of my favorites was for toning the jaw line. To do this you take your index, middle and ring fingers and place them on the cutting edge of your bottom teeth. As you press your fingers down, you push your bottom jaw up creating tension. There was a time when I became obsessed with this particular exercise. Whenever I was alone, I’d stick my three fingers in my mouth and start pressing down on my teeth and pushing up with my jaw. I pressed and pushed so much that I wound up with semi-permanent teeth marks on the pads of my fingers.

Ironically, the exercise itself makes you look like circus freak. Aside from the fact that you have your fingers in your mouth, the action stretches and pulls the bottom part of your face back toward the ears so that you resemble a frilled lizard, without the frill. Once, while riding the packed 8:22 Chestnut Hill West, I mindlessly began to do this exercise with such ferventness that I nearly severed the tips of my fingers. The woman sitting next to me, hitherto engrossed in her New York Times, gasped.

“What?” I said, turning to her without removing my fingers. “It tightens the jaw.”

Jaw is tighter, but fingers are bleeding

I soon realized that facial exercises weren’t going to cut it and began to  investigate other options, things that involved needles, knives and lasers.  I discovered a procedure called Active FX. This is a fractional laser. It has a twofold purpose. One, it tightens the skin and two; it removes sun damage and fine lines. It works by burning off the first few layers of your face, and it only requires four days of recovery.

On the day of the procedure the first thing I did was pay two thousand dollars. Surprisingly, this in and of itself tightened my skin as my face was pulled back in horror.

The dermatologist and her assistant, both smooth, clad in lab coats, and wearing huge plastic goggles, began their work. They rubbed numbing cream all over my face and neck. Then, they took me to the laser room and directed me to lay on a table.  Strange opaque goggles, which looked like props from Forbidden Planet, were placed over my eyes.

The dermatologist took up her laser wand and began zapping tiny pulses of CO2 onto my face. She started with my forehead, and then slowly worked her way around my eyes, nose, chin, cheeks and neck. While these tiny pulses of singeing CO2 were being blasted onto the tender tissue of my visage, the assistant, wielding a device that looked like a thick, plastic straw, blew incredibly icy cold air over the areas which had been burned away. This blower was so powerful that it whipped my skin around, the way the wind flips and flaps the ears and face of a dog when it has its head hanging out of the window of a car going 60 miles an hour. The procedure stings and within minutes the room stinks of burning flesh.

Afterwards, my face was covered in tiny little brown dots…thousands of them. I rubbed a product called Aquaphor, which is really just fancy Vaseline, all over my face and off I went.

Now, one of the tricky things about this procedure is how to get out of the office, into your car and home without anyone seeing you because, frankly, you look like the Sea Hag from Popeye.  But the fates were not with me on the day that I decided to get my face burned off. When I left the office, slick and singed, I noticed that one of my front tires was really low. I was at least 25 miles from home, so I would have to stop and fill it regardless of how I looked.

I drove to the nearest gas station, which of course was on the busiest road at the busiest time of the day. I hadn’t filled my tires with air myself in years and I tried to remember if people hung out around the air pumps. It turns out they do. I pulled up, got out, and walked briskly to the air hose, past a couple of youths. You know you look bad when somebody sees your face for the first time and exclaims “Oh, shit!”

By the time I pulled into my street, my face was on fire. I was told this would be the case, and was instructed to apply bags of frozen vegetables onto my burned flesh at 20 minute intervals, and strangely, not to open the door of a hot oven. I anticipated the relief that icy hard bags of frozen peas, corn, and Brussels sprouts would bring. But a group of my dog walking neighbors decided to congregate on the sidewalk in front of my house and have an intense conversation about something other than frozen vegetables. I parked the car down the street and immediately thrust myself across the passenger side. The crumbs of ten thousand ancient Cheeze-Its stuck to my viscous skin as the hot July sun beat through the windshield punishing me for being so vain.

Eventually, I raised myself up just enough to peek out of the back window and watch my neighbors and their canines amble away. As soon as the coast was clear I hopped out of the car and into my house. As instructed, I spent the next two days applying frozen vegetables to my face. On the third day I had the Brussels sprouts for lunch. By the fourth, I looked like my old self again.