City Brights Blog

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In the Beginning... (about me)

The Oxford Union Debate About Promiscuity (my thoughts on promiscuity: is it good or bad?)

Know Thy Neighbor (cohousing)

Our Decades of Terror at Home (Dr. George Tiller's murder)

Humorous Interview With Me...circa 1999 (just what it sounds like)

Was That You in the Paper, Joani? (on giving)

Books By My Bed (the books by my bed)

In the Beginning... (Wednesday, April 16 2009)

Hello, dear readers. I’m more than a little surprised, but genuinely delighted to have been invited to be a City Brights blogger. I may get a slow start as I look forward to seven weekend (or longer) trips away from home between now and the end of June. But comments and questions from you will undoubtedly inspire me to post entries more frequently, so do bring them on.

Many of you will be familiar with Good Vibrations and lots of you will have shopped there at least once, occasionally or frequently. But you may know little of the woman behind Good Vibrations (that would be me). I opened the store and my daughter Amika was born in the same year, 1977, making both of them over thirty years old now. The first store was in a one-car-garage-sized space on 22nd Street just west of Guerrero. Fast forward 15 years to the time when I converted the business into a worker-cooperative, and went from being the sole owner to being one of 13 equal worker-owners. A couple of years later, I ceased being a worker-owner, and I haven’t been formally associated with Good Vibrations since that time. However, I’m still very much a part of the sex positive community here in the Bay Area, and plan never to “retire” from that position.

Seventeen years ago I moved into Emeryville’s Doyle Street Cohousing, the second cohousing community to be established in North America. (The first was Muir Commons in Davis, est., 1991). Since 1995, I have been very involved with the cohousing movement, having served on the board of the Cohousing Association of the United States for eight years, run one national conference and several regional gatherings, and developed cohousing bus tours here in Northern California. I was also a founding member of the group that built Swan’s Market Cohousing in downtown Oakland where we have lived since 2000. Almost as much fun as living in cohousing is visiting other cohousing communities. As of last month I’ve had the privilege of seeing 67 of the over 100 completed communities in the US and four out of the six or seven in British Columbia.

From time to time, these days, I get a phone message or email from a reporter who wants to interview me but doesn’t let me know about what. So I call to ask if he or she wants to talk with me about sex or cohousing? The response is almost always either an astonished “Sex?” or a puzzled “What is cohousing?” though occasionally I just hear a hearty laugh.

I have a lot of other interests as well that I’m likely to sound off on from time to time on this blog: choral singing, small-time philanthropy, socially responsible investing, open adoption, worker-owned business, the Unitarian-Universalist church and HAI (Human Awareness Institute) workshops.

My next post will be about my February trip to the Oxford Union (UK) where, along with Carol Queen and Shere Hite, I debated in favor of the proposition “Promiscuity Is a Virtue, Not a Vice.” I said that it is neither, and you’ll see what I did say in the debate on your next visit here.

p.s. I’m an ask-me-anything kind of person and welcome your comments and questions here in public or by private email.

The Oxford Union Debate About Promiscuity (Thursday, April 16 2009)

In February I participated in a debate at the Oxford Union. (You’ll enjoy the video on their home page where you will meet some of the world leaders who have spoken at the Union and you’ll see the hall where the debate was held….sans amplification…unchanged since its beginnings in 1823).

Two student debaters, City Brights Blogger Carol Queen, Shere Hite (author of The Hite Report: A National Study of Female Sexuality, 1976), and I (for the proposition), and three outside speakers, including a British archbishop (for the opposition) were featured. And the proposition was (drum roll, please): This House Believes Promiscuity Is a Virtue, Not a Vice. No, none of us had anything to do with framing this proposition, and hardly any of us on either side really spoke directly to it. Using provocative and judgmental language in debate propositions is apparently an Oxford Union tradition. In this case, it garnered a large audience of about 250.

Although I’ve traveled a lot in my adult life, I’d never been to England, so for the two days I was in Oxford, and three I spent in London staying with relatives, I was pretty wide-eyed, and continually amazed to be looking at buildings and touching walls that had been standing since the early sixteenth century and one wall two centuries older than that!

The debate was preceded by a reception and an elegant formal dinner for about 35 people: the Union officers (the males dressed in tuxes), the eight debaters for the evening and everyone’s guests. We then proceeded to the Union Library for a formal portrait, thence to the hallowed halls of the debate chamber where the audience was awaiting our arrival. When it was my turn to speak, here’s (most of) what I said:

I’m told this debate will be considering three specific questions. I’ll respond to these questions very briefly, and after I do, you can indicate if you want me to continue or sit down and shut up. Here are the three questions from my email invitation:

First, should women reclaim the legitimacy of female sexuality and stand proud of their sex lives? I say, absolutely. casual sex between many partners yet another example of the subjugation of women by men?

I say, Sometimes, but by no means always, and never, I may add, when both partners are women or when both partners are men.

Finally the question, is sexual promiscuity an expression of liberation that should be celebrated or is it an immorality that should continue to be scorned and vilified?

I say, it is neither, and that is the crux of my stance on the proposition.

[At this point, no one was boo-ing or signaling me to sit down so I continued...]

I trust you will allow me to re-frame the proposition so that I can tell you what I really think about the moral status of people who “have or are characterized by many transient sexual relationships” (This is the OED definition of “promiscuous”…..OED is American for the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language). American dictionaries use the adjective “casual” which I prefer to “transient” but otherwise have almost identical definitions of promiscuity.

Most definitions of “promiscuous” do not suggest that promiscuity is necessarily naughty, wicked, bad or immoral. The definition doesn’t even suggest that promiscuous behavior is necessarily unwise, risky or unhealthy. (By the way, naughty and wicked in particular, sound like way too much fun to be implied by a word that typically has such negative connotations).

I have had many sexual partners, some of them casual or transient. So I guess I’m declaring that I am promiscuous. And since promiscuity virtually always has negative connotations, some of you might now think that by declaring my promiscuity, I have told you that I engage in, at the least, “a bad habit” (that is one OED definition of the word “vice’), or at the worst, that immorality and wickedness are personal characteristics of mine (you guessed it….another OED definition of “vice”).

You’ve just heard me say that I have had many sexual partners, some of them casual, and now I’ve said it once again. This time I’m going following the declaration of my promiscuity, with a list of the conditions, the only conditions under which I ever engage in casual sexual encounters.

After hearing this list of conditions or criteria, perhaps you will be somewhat less likely to automatically write “promiscuous” on my name tag.

You may not say, after I read you this list that I am virtuous, but at least I hope that I will have escaped, if only narrowly, being an immoral or wicked person in your eyes.

Here are my conditions for engaging in casual sex: (Incidentally, although I am bisexual, I’ll speak here only of my conditions for casual sex with male partners):

I will have casual sex with a man ONLY:

  1. If I really like him...
  2. If I trust him to treat me respectfully...
  3. If he is willing to have a conversation with me about what we are planning to do together before we do it
  4. If I am reasonably confident that he is an honest person, at least that he is giving honest responses to my questions in the moment...
  5. If it is equally likely that either one of us has initiated the sexual interaction...
  6. If he wants to avoid getting a sexually transmitted infection from me as much as I want to avoid getting one from him
  7. If he agrees, without protest, to use a condom for intercourse in the event that our sexual activity is going to include intercourse...
  8. If I feel confident that he is not cheating on his wife or any partner with whom he has agreed to be monogamous by having sex with me...
  9. If I feel confident that he is not breaking any agreement with his spouse or any other intimate partner by having sex with me in particular at this particular time (for example, if he would be breaking an agreement he has with his wife that he won”t have sex with other partners in his home, or if he’s agreed not to have sex with his wife”s close friends or relatives, and I happen to be her sister)
  10. And finally...If I’m not breaking a monogamy agreement or any agreement that I have with a primary partner.

In addition to these specifics, before I have sex with a casual partner, it has to seem very likely that we will both feel as good about one another after we have had sex, as we did before that.

Since the word “moral” (or “immoral”) appears in the definitions of both “virtue” and “vice” I couldn’t help but look it up in the OED as well Here’s what I found:

Moral: concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior and the goodness or badness of human character.

Hmmm, when you first found out that I am a promiscuous person, that is, “a person who has had sex with many casual partners,’ it might well have occurred to you that I am, therefore, a person who engages in “wrong behavior” and/or is of “bad character.”

Then, after I told you my criteria for having sex with a casual partner, perhaps some of you you felt the scowl on your foreheads softening. Perhaps you started to let go of the idea that I am a bad person with a weak or poor moral character. Perhaps you found your level of tolerance, even acceptance, rising. Maybe a few of you realized that you might actually be able to have more sexual pleasure and deeper intimacies in your own life with, heaven help us, more than one partner, assuming, of course, that you are not currently in a monogamous relationship.

Please notice that I didn’t use the adjective “virtuous” to describe my sexual choices or how I go about making those choices. The fact that I ask myself and the person I’m considering having sex with certain questions doesn’t necessarily make me more moral than the person who enters into casual sex thoughtlessly or carelessly. But I do believe that the way I go about making those choices is both self affirming, and respectful of the other, and my experience over many years is that my honesty and straight talk usually engender honesty and straight talk in my sexual partners, and in those who are considering sharing a sexual experience with me.

I’m proud to say that in the thirty five plus years I’ve been in the sex field, I’ve virtually never used the words good, bad, right, wrong, moral or immoral, to describe any adult’s consensual sexual activity. Certainly, before, during or after a consensual sexual encounter, a person can (either incidentally or intentionally) annoy, disappoint, neglect, disparage, anger, dismiss, hurt or frighten his or her sexual partner. But this can happen whether that partner is is his or her one and only, one of several, or one of many. And these painful emotions can and do show up at least from time in every sexual relationship, whether it be a long-term deeply intimate committed one, a casual one-night stand, or something in between.

What I want for myself, and everyone else on the planet, are sexual experiences that, way more often than not, bring joy, affection, intimacy, pleasure, loving communication and touch, warmth, laughter, perhaps an orgasm or two, contentment, bliss, and maybe even a few moments of ecstasy into our lives. I want these experiences, these feelings, for any man I’m fortunate to be with, and the person he’s fortunate to be with (that would be me), whether our relationship lasts for a few hours, for a decade or for a lifetime.

There you have it. To your way of thinking, dear reader, is promiscuity ever or always a virtue, ever or always a vice? Is it sometimes a virtue, sometimes a vice and what makes it one or the other? Or does the old adage, “A promiscuous person is someone who is getting more [sex] than I am,” say it all for you? In the end, perhaps the response, “It depends...” always fits these kinds of questions best!

Know Thy Neighbor (Wednesday, May 6 2009)

I have lived in two cohousing communities (one in Emeryville, one in Oakland) for a total of 17 years. It won’t surprise you to learn that the two questions most frequently asked of cohousers (that’s what we call ourselves) are: “What is cohousing?” and “How does cohousing differ from other kinds of collaborative or community or communal housing?”

The Cohousing Association of the United States, a small but spunky national non-profit organization that supports the development and sustenance of cohousing communities in this country, has pretty darned good answers to these questions on their content-rich website. So if you are not already familiar with cohousing, and you want to find out what it is, please go here. And if you want to learn how cohousing differs from other kinds of collaborative housing, go here.

If you learn best from experience, and don’t already have plans for Saturday, May 16, you may want to participate in one of the Cohousing Association’s four annual cohousing bus tours that will take place on that day. This traveling cohousing workshop, which starts and ends in downtown Oakland, will take you to visit three communities in Sonoma County (in Sebastopol, Santa Rosa and Cotati), and three in the East Bay (in Pleasant Hill, Emeryville and downtown Oakland). To learn more and to register for the tour go here.

When I’m asked what is the best thing about living in cohousing, I usually say, “knowing my neighbors well.” And it may not surprise you that I give the same answer to the question about what is most challenging about living in cohousing. So I want to spend the rest of this post exploring what it means to me to know my neighbors.

In the next post I do on cohousing, I plan to talk about the variety of thoughts and feelings that people, both in and outside of cohousing, have about privacy, since we often tell people that cohousing provides an excellent balance of privacy and community. And I expect that there are as many meanings for each of those concepts as there are people who hold opinions about them.

When we ask inquirers what drew them to learn more about cohousing, they almost universally respond that where they currently live (whether it be in an urban, suburban or rural “neighborhood”), they know very few, if even a single one, of their neighbors. In fact, the vast majority of Americans don’t know their neighbors.

Mind you, there are people who like it that way. They feel that no aspect of their lives is any of their neighbors’ business, and they don’t care to know even one of their neighbors (never mind several or all of them) any better Their comfort with living in their neighborhood is significantly dependent on others respecting their privacy, and they probably believe that in not initiating contact with even their nice neighbors, they are respecting the privacy of others. Unless they are extremely reclusive, they most likely do feel a part of at least one community, such as their workplace community, their church community or their extended family, and/or they may have a group of friends with whom they socialize and share interests and activities which fully satisfies their desire for connection outside their nuclear family.

Many folks (whether or not they have lots of other community in their lives) want to have more of a sense of community with their neighbors, the people who live physically close to them (on the same block, or in the same apartment or condo building or housing complex). If you live in a conventional neighborhood, it is a given that each neighbor came to live there for his/her/its own reasons and has lived there for a different length of time. Even if someone moved to your neighborhood because they knew and wanted to live close to you, it is almost unimaginable that every neighbor bought or rented his/her/their dwelling because they already knew all the immediate neighbors well. So it’s no surprise, is it, that the neighbors do not know one another.

For more than two centuries in this country, homes have built one at a time by or for a single household, or developers have built multiple single family homes or multi-household apartments or condos, and sold or rented them one by one to a households who wanted live in that dwelling, each for their own reasons, and each at different a times.

Well before the mid-eighties when the book Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves--the book that brought Danish cohousing to our shores--was published, groups of people, most of them very small, had made attempts to make community with their neighbors by finding a piece of raw land, almost always in a rural area, and moving there with people they already knew.

When these communities did grow, it was because individuals or families who first and foremost wanted to be neighbors of the people who already lived there, moved there. New folks typically did not join the community, for instance, because of the particular amenities of the house they were moving into, or because of the quality of the public schools in that area, or because of the proximity of the home to their work, or even because of how scenic the area was. Also it was frequently the case that those who lived in that community, also shared some level of social, economic, political, religious (or more recently, environmental sustainability) ideology.

In contrast, some of us in cohousing have used the term “intentional neighborhood” to describe the community we live in or are planning to create, and early on, many of us claimed that we were most assuredly not driven by or committed to any ideology. I never quite felt that way, as I could readily observe that only a strong commitment to wanting to live “in community” with the soon-to-be-neighbors in our group (and with those whom we were encouraging to join us), could possibly have gotten us past all the obstacles that loomed ahead. To my mind, our commitment to building communities of true neighbors was as surely an ideology as any other belief system that carries that label. Of course we’re not all close friends, not extended family, not co-religionists, or people with identical or even very similar politics. But almost all of us are good, cooperative and close—for better or for worse–neighbors.

Let’s say that you, dear reader, think that you do know many of your neighbors fairly well (even those whose kids don’t go to the same school that yours do). I ask you to think for a moment of your most immediate neighborhood as all of the homes on both sides of your block (if you live in an area of mostly single family homes), or all the apartments or condos in your building, or the 20 or so units closest to yours if you reside in a large complex.

Now, for how many of the people living in your “immediate neighborhood” do you know the answers to the following questions: What is her occupation, where does she work and does she love or hate her job? What are his hobbies? Where do they usually go on vacation and why there?

Or the more personal and immediate: Which fifth grader got all A’s on his report card this week? Who got a promotion at work yesterday...or is threatened with a lay-off? Who just had a crappy day...or an extremely productive work. And whose elderly mom or dad who lives back East is in ill health?

You will probably realize that if you knew the answers to these kinds of question about all or almost all of those in your immediate neighborhood, you would indeed truly know your neighbors. Of course there are many things about them that you still don’t know, but I think you’ll agree that you’d know them much better than you do now.

Because in cohousing, most of us sit down to share a common meal two or three times a week most weeks, this level of knowledge that we have about one another. I may not know these specifics, and I do not know nearly this much much about certain of my more reserved neighbors, but certainly I know enough about each and every one so that it’s safe to say that all of my neighbors (even those with whom I sometimes have important differences) are good neighbors to me, and I to them.

I’m quite fond of a slogan I saw once on a t-shirt at a cohousing conference: “How can thou love thy neighbor if thou doest not know thy neighbor?” And when I am feeling out of sorts about how an individual cohousing neighbor or the whole community is behaving, I take a deep breath, say this slogan to myself, and think about how much more unhappy or frustrated I’d be if I were experiencing similar grumpiness while living almost anywhere but here.

Our Decades of Terror at Home (Monday, June 9 2009)

I’ve been plodding along for a couple of weeks toward my next entry here which will probably be titled My Bedside Book Pile. In that forthcoming entry, I plan to tell you, briefly, how and/or why it came to pass that each of the dozen or so books in my “reading” pile ended up there. It’s taking longer than I’d hoped...

Then yesterday, Dr. George Tiller was murdered in Kansas.

Dazed by the news, I surfed around for a couple of hours reading news accounts, editorials, and blog entries about the murder, what led up to it, and what might be expected to follow. This story is so much bigger than the man who killed Dr. Teller, so much bigger than the hundreds of women and couples whom Dr. Teller so courageously helped, so much bigger than the extraordinary man himself.

I was still reeling from learning of Dr. Teller’s murder when I received an email from my good friend Bill Noble with the subject heading, “Our Decades of Terror At Home,” that started with the following words:

Legendary Speaker of the House, Texan Sam Rayburn, once famously said, “When two people agree about everything, only one of ‘em’s thinking.” So I was startled to read these words below today; they feel like my own. It’s time we find the political will to name–and end–the decades of domestic terror that have haunted our country. If Randall Terry had uttered the vile words he spoke today from a mouth with Middle Eastern ancestry, the FBI would have swept him off the streets within hours to face heavy charges. It’s time to publicly avow that people like Terry are direct advocates of murder and terror, and deal with them. Enough.

As soon as I finished reading the essay from yesterday’s HUFFINGTON POST that Bill attached, I knew that I had to do my part in sharing it with those who populate my little world. So I forwarded it to a couple of listserves I participate in, and now here it is for you.


Mary Mapes, THE HUFFINGTON POST, May 31, 2009

I was in Wichita, Kansas in 1991 covering Operation Rescue’s cruelly misnamed “Summer of Mercy,” a six-week ordeal when thousands of anti-abortion protesters descended on Dr. George Tiller.

These “rescuers” -- sweaty mobs of zombie-like true believers -- swarmed across the street in front of the clinic like angry ants. They crawled over the hot asphalt toward his office on their hands and knees. They collapsed onto the stairs, chained themselves to the fence, shrieked prayers and threats and bellowed the Biblical equivalent of evil spells at anyone who approached the place. They fell lifelessly to the ground, some of them swooning and crashing spectacularly to earth.

When I went to Wichita to cover this, I thought I would be assigned there for a day or two. But this became more than a single protest. It turned out to be the birthplace of heartland civil disobedience against abortion and it went on and on and on.

Like the protesters, news people at the siege had a regular daily schedule. Every day we rose early and raced to the clinic, set up our cameras in the hot Midwestern sun and waited for the anti-abortion performance art to begin.

Like clockwork, Operation Rescue’s fleet of air-conditioned buses would pull up an hour before the office opened. Out would pour hundreds and hundreds of protesters eager to lay their lives and their bodies on the line for the “babies.”

Wichita police were overpowered and overworked. The protesters were over-excited and overweight. Day after day, weary local cops had to pick up and drag away protesters by the ton, literally. By the end, all the officers were wearing wide leather lifting belts in an attempt to protect their backs as they struggled to hoist and carry off so much dead weight. Police complained to us bitterly about colleagues who had seriously damaged their backs.

I remember one cop telling me he was praying the protests would stop before he ruined his back and his career.

Every night in the hotel that Operation Rescue designated as its home base, the organization sponsored a “worship service” that featured singing, prayer, sermonizing and a whole lotta snake oil.

Operation Rescue leader Randall Terry, an egotistical, self-aggrandizing super-nerd, commanded the room like a rock star. Women fainted and lay trembling on the ground when he entered to thundering applause and the screams of people who love Jesus so much they act like they’re crazy.

The chemistry in the room was unlike anything I’ve been around, before or since.

In just a few weeks in Wichita, Operation Rescue forged an unholy alliance of sexually repressed super Christians, men who hate women and women who hate themselves and turned them into a supercharged army of bullies for Jesus.

And they were bullies.

In 1991 and until his murder, Dr. Tiller was one of the few doctors in this country who performed late-term abortions. Despite what Operation Rescue claimed, none of his clients were ending pregnancies on a whim. None of them wanted to be there.

Each case was a tragedy -- a much anticipated child discovered to have only a partially formed head, a baby that was dying in the womb and had to be delivered, a child with medical problems so profound as to be unimaginable, a diagnosis that meant a child’s life outside its mother’s body would be both brief and brutal.

Tiller’s clients often included couples who had been hoping to become parents but had their hearts broken late in pregnancy when they received horrifying medical news about their much-wanted babies.

These people got no mercy from Operation Rescue.

They were hounded and harassed, shoved and shouted at on the most heart-breaking day of their lives. In order for patients to make it to their appointments, clinic supporters had to coordinate each woman’s arrival with walkie-talkies. They shielded the patient by forming a flying wedge of bodies that rushed through the crowd to escort her into the building.

I watched one woman sobbing as she and her husband were helped into the clinic. Her tears went unnoticed by the hundreds of protestors surrounding her who shrieked and wailed and tried to trip the people escorting her to the door.

It was horrible.

And now, finally, after all the heavy breathing about heaven and God, evil and innocence, Operation Rescue by all appearances has goaded someone into killing George Tiller.

He was shot to death as he worked as an usher at his longtime church. His wife was close by in her regular place in the choir. The circumstances of his murder highlight precisely how hypocritical and grotesque this brand of “morality” is.

The zealots are already feigning shock that something like this could happen. Their partners in crime will soon be doing the same.

I can already envision the backpedaling and rationalizing that we’ll hear from longtime Tiller critic Bill O’Reilly. Dr. James Dobson, who hosted the triumphant closing “Summer of Mercy” event that summer in Wichita, will undoubtedly declare himself deeply saddened.

I keep going back to Operation Rescue’s catchy slogan for the “Summer of Mercy.” They yelled it at everyone within earshot.

“If you believe abortion is murder, act like it’s murder.” Maybe they have a point.

After this country’s seemingly endless assaults and murders of clinic doctors and staff, the explosions and fire bombings, the vandalism and harassment, it’s clear that this violent behavior is not a natural outgrowth of religious belief or moral concerns.

This is not part of a disagreement over when life begins.

This is terrorism.

And if we believe this is terrorism, we need to act like it’s terrorism.

No mercy.

Mary Mapes is a veteran TV reporter who was on the team that broke the Abu Ghraib scandal.

Humorous Interview With Me...circa 1999 (Wednesday, July 1 2009)

Way back in 1999 I was interviewed by a man variously called Wyyrd and Chris Bridges. The interview appeared on his sex and humor website Hoot Island: Silly Sex for Silly People. For some time I had a link to this interview on my personal website. Then, a couple of years ago, the site disappeared, my interview along with it.

But in May I stumbled on the interview saved on my hard drive. And when I checked for the Hoot Island site once more, I was delighted to find it up and running again. Chris will apparently be putting a lot of the archival material back up on his site eventually, but in the meantime, I thought it’d be fun to share it with you.

The Hoot Island Interview

She’s got degrees in Public Health and Asian Studies, she’s traveled the world, she’s sung in Carnegie Hall, she founded the first and one of the best sex-positive shops (Good Vibrations) and a sex-positive publishing company (Down There Press), she’s taught sexuality workshops and community college courses and volunteered for San Francisco Sex Information, written or edited 9 books, made 2 videos, and in her spare time she invented Intimate Art Tattoos and the butterfly vibrator. She’s Joani Blank, and that appears to be a full-time job.

HI: You worked as a sex therapist, taught sexuality classes at a community college, wrote books and opened a sex shop in San Francisco to have someplace to sell them. What’s a nice girl like you...?

JB: ...doing trying to do all these things at the same time? Who said nice girls can’t do more than one thing at a time? Or more to the point, if I were all that nice it wouldn’t have even occurred to me to do all these naughty things, right? But seriously (do I have to be serious?), the world was just crying out for a “clean well-lighted” place to get this stuff, and I heeded the call.

HI: You’ve edited a couple of books containing stories and photographs of people pleasuring themselves. You get off on this, or what?

JB: I’d say that getting off on pictures was a “guy” thing, but that would be so trite, and undoubtedly it’s as true for some women as it is untrue for some men. To be brutally honest, I find the pictures fascinating, and beautiful, but the stories turn me on more.

HI: If you’re born again, which astrological sign applies? Your original one, or the new one?

JB: I wish I knew enough about signs to give a good answer to this. I do know that in the last six decades of my life--that’s about all of my life--no one has ever guessed my sun sign (it’s Cancer), and only rarely has anyone guessed my rising sign (Aquarius). I had my chart done years ago and the woman who did it said that what puts me squarely into the sex field is that I have several planets in Taurus, most notably Venus. What’s more important to my way of thinking, is that I was born on the Fourth of July, the night my parents went to see the movie It Happened One Night. starring Claudette Colbert. You old movie buffs will know what year that was.

HI: If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, what does that make us Earthlings?

JB: Coming from two such different planets, it’s astonishing that men and women can get together at all, sexually or any other way. No wonder hetero sex is so weird sometimes.

HI: You opened Good Vibrations 22 years ago. What were you thinking?

JB: I probably wasn’t--thinking, that is. I did it because I thought it would be so much fun and it has been! I sure as hell didn’t do it because I thought it would make money, and for many years it didn’t. But who cares? I was paying only $125 rent, bringing home about $75 a week and sending out Down There Press books from a little trailer in my back yard.

HI: How has the sex industry changed since then?

JB: I don’t know that it has changed all that much, at least the part involved in buying and selling sex toys. Men who shop in so-called “adult” stores--I always thought they were kinda’ adolescent--still often buy stuff for women to wear or use because it turns them (the men) on, or because they often measure their self-worth by how many orgasms they can produce in their partners. And the merchants can still count on an abundance of testosterone available for turning into gold.

HI: Does anyone ever really buy those blow-up dolls? I mean really?

JB: You can be damned sure that blow-up dolls wouldn’t be available at all if there weren’t a market for them. Now whether anyone actually uses them beyond one trial time, no one knows. One contributor to my book First Person Sexual wrote a wonderful short story about his relationship with a blow-up doll, and his great sadness when she sprung an irreparable leak. I know this story to be true because the author is a personal friend.

HI: And it teaches the vital importance of vinyl patches. Down There Press has published a lot of excellent works on sexuality from some very down-to-earth writers: yourself, Cathy Winks, Anne Semens, Carol Queen, David Steinberg, Susie Bright. And I know you are friends with these folks. So, what do sex experts talk about amongst themselves? New positions? IPOs?

JB: Thanks for the plug. Well, we do talk about sex sometimes. But we’re much more likely to be up on our high horses discussing erotic theory or gender differences or the oppression of transgendered people than we are to be talking about new positions. Occasionally we get kinda jaded about sex itself. Sex sometimes can be so ordinary to us that we’d rather talk about something really stimulating like the color we’re painting our bathroom or the newspaper boy falling off his bike, or our kid’s most recent illness, or whom we will be voting for in the next planning commission election. IPOs? What makes you think any of us has enough spare change to invest two nickels in the stock market?

HI: Oh my god. The newspaper boy fell off his bike? That’s, sorry. Last summer we ran a contest asking people to describe the oddest thing they’ve ever been intimate with. Care to share?

JB: Let’s see, I’ve been intimate with men. And I’ve been intimate with women. Is that odd enough?

HI: Depends on the men and women. You’ve written and published a couple of books teaching children about sex for pleasure (A Kid’s First Book About Sex, for ages 5-9, and The Playbook for Kids About Sex for ages 6-11). Would you say the public response has been more positive or negative?

JB: The kids who get their hands on these books invariably have a positive response. A few adults and a few children’s librarians are hell bent on being sure that kids never see the book(s). Hmmmm, is that a negative attitude toward the books or toward the kids? In Hammond, Indiana some years back, the city’s Library Board received an Intellectual Freedom Award from the Indiana Library Association because they fought back when a group of outraged parents tried to get A Kid’s First Book About Sex off the shelves.

HI: What can kids teach us about sex?

JB: I think that kids can go a long way to teaching their parents and other adults what is important--about sex and about everything else. They do this just by being themselves and asserting their individuality.

HI: So how should I explain handcuff marks on my ankles to my kids?

JB: Those were ankle cuffs, silly. If your top used little bitty handcuffs on your substantial ankles, no wonder you have marks. Send him or her back to domination school for a refresher course, so s/he knows which restraints to use where. As for your kids, don’t risk embarrassment. Choose your tops carefully and only play with those who can give you what you crave without leaving marks. Tops who are themselves (or have been) parents of small children are the best.

HI: It seems that one can publish almost anything these days. Is censorship still alive? Has it bitten you recently?

JB: Censorship is most certainly still alive. Although it hasn’t bitten me personally very recently, I’m still smarting from a plethora of old injuries.

HI: You’ve just received a bizarre but sizeable donation for the purposes of mailing one sexual aid to every woman in America. What would you ship?

JB: Either a Hitachi Magic Wand, or a potion that will give her the courage to ask for exactly what she wants every time she has sex with someone else. Is it okay if I ship straight men something too? Good. I think I’d send them a bottle of pills formulated to reduce homophobia.

HI: Now there’s a needed product. “New anti-queer fear pills, now in chewable form. Try Gay/Okay!” How old should your parents be before you can teach them about sex?

JB: No age is too young or too old. Just in case readers of this feel that they may not be the very best people to be teaching their parents about sex, they could at least buy Still Doing It: Men and Women Over 60 Write About Their Sexuality--out later this spring--and give it to those old codgers. On second thought, maybe it’d be better just to get the book and casually leave it on the coffee table so that your parents can take a peek at it when you are not looking.

HI: What would you say is the most dangerous of the widespread sexual beliefs?

JB: The belief that my partner would never, ever even want to have sex with anyone but me.

HI: Last year the FDA approved Plan B, an emergency contraception that’s reputed to be more reliable than current “morning-after” kits while causing fewer side effects. As women get closer and closer to complete control over their reproductive systems, do you foresee social changes to match?

JB: The really big change came in the 60's and 70's when effective contraception first became widely available, enabling women to move into the workforce in droves. It’s now known from research in the third world, that when women receive just two to three years of the most basic education, and learn only the rudiments of reading, writing and arithmetic, they start having only two or three children, even in the absence of modern birth control.

HI: The public impression of writers who deal with sexual issues is that they deal with nothing else. That was certainly always my impression...What else are you interested in?

JB: I’ve recently put up a personal web page that will invite you into a number of other corners of my life. My friends are giving it great reviews so far.

HI: What’s in your future? More books? More lectures? A sudden reversal of career to become the oil rigger you always thought you could be?

JB: More books, another video, workshops, time with my grandchildren, travel...and I could use some support for just resting on my laurels, too.

Was That You In the Paper, Joani? (Tuesday, July 28 2009)

A week ago Friday, Bapu woke me barking at someone who had knocked at my front door. Glancing at the clock, I noticed it was almost 8:00am, and realized that I’d forgotten to set my alarm for 6:45, thereby missing my yoga class. I jumped up and peered down out of my loft to see one of my cohousing neighbors with a newspaper in his hand. I stumbled down the stairs and sleepily opened the door, all the time shushing my noisy dog. George handed me the paper which I quickly saw had a really big picture of me (and Bapu) on it.

A week earlier I had been interviewed by the Chronicle for a story about bold charitable giving along with Mike Hannigan, the owner of Give Something Back, an office supply company that gives 80% of its profits to non-profit organizations. I was pleased with the article (read it here), and I really like the picture, though frankly I was a bit embarrassed by its size–almost 6? x 9?! (What explanation could there be for that other than the fact that the Chron has gotten increasingly short on writers and on ads. Even though I’ve never in my adult life read a daily newspaper, I still feel really sad about The Chron becoming a shadow of its former self. Sigh.)

In the first few days after the article came out, friends and acquaintances, and a couple of strangers, called or emailed to say they appreciated the article and especially liked the picture. A couple of them also volunteered that reading the article had inspired them to thinking about their own giving. This really pleased me...even more, I might say, than compliments about my generosity or mine or Bapu’s good looks, or raves about the swan bench that graces our garden here at Swan’s Market Cohousing in downtown Oakland.

There were a couple of statements in the article that generated further questions, and I want to use this forum to speak to those questions now.

The first question has a very short answer; that question is, “Joani, if your income is $60,000 a year and you give away half of that, that means you have $30,000 a year to live on. How do you live as well as you do on $30,000 a year?”

And the short answer? Less than six weeks after I moved to the Bay Area in March of 1971, I bought a single family three-bedroom house in Burlingame for under $40,000, So I have no mortgage. Oh, and I’m on Medicare too; that helps.

The statement of my income in the Chron article also raised questions in the mind of some readers, especially those who know that I’ve not been employed by Good Vibrations for many years. How is it, they wondered, that I was still getting $60,000 a year from the business? Here’s the back story.

The first Good Vibrations store opened in 1977. Fifteen years later, I converted the business into a worker cooperative, selling the store and publishing company to the workers. Including me there were 13 of us at the time, and after the conversion each of us owned an equal share. We, the worker-owners, did not borrow money from a bank or other financial institution to pay me the $462,000 I asked for. Instead, the buy-out was structured as a 20-year installment note.

At the beginning,the coop only paid me $2000 a month (interest-only would have been closer to $3500 a month), roughly equivalent to my salary at the time. After about a year and a half I ceased being an employee of Good Vibrations and Down There Press, and therefore was no longer an owner of any kind. The monthly payments on the note escalated, going up by $500/month every couple of years until they reached $5000/month, therefore the $60,000 a year mentioned in the article.

Those payments would have continued for another five years had Good Vibrations not been sold to another company. The new owners decided to pay the balance all at once in 2007. Because the payments had been so low at the beginning of the note’s term the company still owed me $246,000.

Very shortly after receiving that big check, I loaned almost all of those dollars to another small business before realizing that I’d have a whopping capital gain tax bill to pay in April of 2008. For this reason, my giving was significantly curtailed in 2008. However, I’m gratified that I will be able to return to my previous level of giving this year.

There are those who wonder why, after 15 years in business, in a year when the store grossed $1.5 million, I sold it to the coop for such a low price, without any claim on future profits. This is a story for another day that I may or may not tell in this blog. But if you are curious about that, or further curious about anything I’ve written above, please do not hesitate to email me, and ask. There’s an extremely good chance that I will respond.

[Books by My Bed coming next, I promise.]

Books By My Bed (Tuesday, August 25 2009)

This week, just ten days before the Labor Day weekend, I heard a radio program touting certain perfect-for-summertime-reading books. Hurry up, I thought, and strap on your speed-reading boots. The summer is damn near over. Sadly, I’m not a summer, winter spring or fall reader….of books anyway. I read thousands of words every day on a lit screen at my desk, a magazine or newspaper article here and there and almost always a few paragraphs, sometimes even as much as four or five pages, at bedtime before my eyes close and the book or magazine falls from my hands.

Book reviews abound of course, on the radio, on the internet, and in newspapers and magazines. Friends often recommend (and sometimes loan us) books they’ve read and liked. We browse in bookstores and often leave with one or two of the dozen we’ve perused. Friends and relatives gift us with books, and we acquire some as thank you gifts for our pledges to KPFA.

So like most of you, I have a pile of books by my bed. Since I sleep in my loft where the low ceiling allows for only a mattress on the floor, my pile of books isn’t a pile at all, but a row of books “shelved” on the carpet against the wall. So it’s easy to get at any one of them without knocking over or scattering the others.

Nevertheless, I’ve not read most of the books on my book pile. I can’t tell you how I feel about many of them nor can I give any of them a personal review here or anywhere else for that matter. I put each book on the pile because I really wanted to read it, and I still want to read every one, but the truth is, I’m not going to do it.

As soon as I’ve finished this blog entry, I plan to either remove these books from sight or put them in a box to donate to the Bookmark, a great store here in downtown Oakland operated by and for the benefit of Friends of the Oakland Library. But before I move them away so they’ll stop shouting “READ ME” every time I look their way, it occurred to me that you might enjoy hearing how they ended up in the pile by my bed. Perhaps after reading this, you’ll think about sharing your own list with my readers. I probably will not read any of the books you list, but I do promise to read your lists.

When You Eat at the Refrigerator Pull up a Chair. Some will know Geneen Roth by her most well-known Feeding the Hungry Heart (which I’ve never read). I went to one of her workshops years ago and was very impressed with her approach to losing weight by making sure that you both eat and truly enjoy the foods that you really want. This little book is full of very short and humorous “things to do” in creating a new relationship to food. This is the third copy I’ve bought. So I must have given the first two away to people to whom I was singing the book’s praises.

Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now. I am deeply inspired by just about everything that the Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, president of the Starr King School for the Ministry says when I hear her speak. Every time she lectures or preaches or lifts her pen to write, pearls of wisdom appear in the air or on the page. This book is full of those pearls, and they are in short essay form, so I have no excuse for not reading at least a few pages every week.

Simple Prosperity Finding Real Wealth in a Sustainable Lifestyle. I really want to read this book written by my friend David Wann. David was on the Board of the Cohousing Association with me for a few years, and is a consummate cohouser. He wrote the book Reinventing Community: Stories from the Walkways of Cohousing, which I recommend all the time to folks wanting to learn what it is really like to live in a cohousing community.

In a Sunburned Country. was recommended to me thus before I took my first-ever trip to Australia a couple of years ago: “If you are only going to read one book about Australia make it this one,” said my friend. Though I’ve done a lot of traveling, I’d never before read a single travel book. I actually read more than half of this one….darned close to a record for me (getting past the halfway mark in any book, that is). Even though I didn’t finish this book, Bill Bryson’s wonderful writing propelled me to obtain a copy of his much more well-known...

Short History of Nearly Everything. If I’d seen or felt how fat this book with its truly audacious title was, I might never have bought it (used, via the internet). I might have let it be, with the full knowledge that I’d probably never get around to reading it. Sure enough, after reading the first few pages and learning the short history of hardly anything, I stopped, feeling like I had climbed just a few steps up a beautiful but steep and long mountain trail without my hiking boots. I’ve got to get my reading muscles a lot more toned before tackling this one again.

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking and Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Malcolm Gladwell and Mary Roach respectively. Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point gave me a whole new understanding of the way social change really works. Blink is his treatise on intuition. I had one of those (an intuition) that I would like this book, and I do. As a result of reading about two thirds of it it, I trust my intuition a good deal more than I have in the past.

I heard Mary Roach read a chapter from Bonk at San Francisco’s Center for Sex and Culture about a year ago, then was fortunate to score a ride home to the East Bay with her (she and I are fellow Oaklanders). I read every page of his book, not just because I’d met and enjoyed a conversation with the author, but because it takes a fresh and hilariously critical look at something I already know quite a lot about. That would be sex research.

Everything you know about Sex is Wrong: The Disinformation Guide to The Extremes of Human Sexuality (and Everything in Between) (another audacious title) edited by Russ Kick, is a large size book containing 67 essays about a dazzling array of human sexual activities, some of which most of you have heard little or nothing about. I guess that the publisher or editor of this book sent me two...count ‘em, copies because a couple of the essays are mine, slightly edited versions of the introductions to my books First Person Sexual: Women and Men Write About Their Sexuality and Still Doing It: Women and Men over Sixty Write About Their Sexuality.

Still Doing It: The Intimate Lives of Women Over 60. Same title, different subtitle. But it’s fine, really. The author of this one, Dierdre Fishel and I are friends. Last year we presented together our respective same-title books at the Berkeley Good Vibrations store. Dierdre started her work in this field with a film that has, you guessed it, also the same title. I love her film, and recommend it frequently. (You can rent or buy Dierdre’s film or purchase her book at any Good Vibrations store, including their internet store)

Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go with the Flow. I read Jim Hightower’s newsletter, and love his political perspectives and sassy humor almost as much as I used to love the writings of Molly Ivins. These two Texans are about all of Texas I can take. And I felt that way even before the Shrub was elected to the highest office in the land. (Remind me, please, how on earth we ever let that happen!) Oh, and this book’s title, especially its subtitle is an inspiration to anyone with a single activist bone in his or her body.

The Sun. Of the several monthly, bimonthly or quarterly magazines and newsletters that come to my snail mailbox, only three almost always are on my reading pile. I thoroughly skim (is that an oxymoron) and read an article or two all the way through in two of them, The Oberlin Alumni Magazine and The (Unitarian Universalist) World . But I usually read all of The Sun and have been doing so for many years. Had you asked me when I was, say, in my thirties or forties if I would ever read any literary magazine, I would have said, “You’ve got to be kidding!” But now I read this one almost cover to cover (yes,even the poetry) almost every month.

Perhaps I’ll tell you about the following books, also prominently featured in the pile by my bed in another blog entry. Then again, maybe I won’t...

A Bell Ringing in the Empty Sky: The Best of The Sun, Sy Safransky, Editor

Everyday Sacred: A Woman’s Journey Home by Sue Bender

Standing up to the Madness: Ordinary Heroes in Extraordinary Times by my hero Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman and her brother, David

Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs by Caroline Knapp

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan

Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World by Paul Stamets

Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith by Annie Lamott

Unaccompanied Woman: Late Life Adventures in Love, Sex and Real Estate by Jane Juska



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