Rules for dating my daughter

Some time ago this t-shirt made the rounds of Facebook and Twitter, and met with general approval from the wild-eyed feminists I tend to hang out with:

feminist dad t-shirt















I certainly approved of it as an antidote to some other much more macho versions I’ve seen, like this one:

rules for dating my daughter -- macho version

Via Anna Eaton on Pinterest


Talk about being hostile and possessive. (Though I totally agree with the doorbell thing.) It all seems to amount to this, really:

Rules for dating my daughter you can't

Via Anna Eaton on Pinterest
















And that’s just about as patriarchal as it gets. Also, I’m the mother of a teenage son, and I don’t really appreciate these sentiments being directed at him. It’s as if these guys were all such sleazes in their own dating days that they expect the worst from every other young man.

Not that I’m going to suggest typical young men — and quite a few older men — are not highly, highly motivated to get some.

Which is, of course why there are risks out here for young women who are dating (or just trying to get a meeting with Bill Cosby). And my novel The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire demonstrates at least one of those risks fairly dramatically.

But how many people would really be willing to apply “She makes the rules. Her body, her rules” to their own teenage daughters?

The heroine’s arguably wacko feminist mother in The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire DOES hold this philosophy and actually puts it into practice at a key moment …. and plenty of women I consider feminists react to that moment by saying “WHAT? She said WHAT?”

Not without reason. The 17-year-old may be legally of age (in Massachusetts) and unusually mature, but she’s recently survived a harrowing ordeal. And the fellow she wants to make her own rules with is a much older man who is messed up in his own way, though I don’t consider him a predator.

And perhaps it’s easy for me to try to support the idea that SHE makes the rules, because I don’t have a biological daughter, and my stepdaughter is now safely grown up (though we had plenty of nail-biting moments), and I myself avoided most of the dangers of immature sexual experimentation by being a total nerd for a long, long time.

But I was a daughter. And while my childhood was thankfully not much like Molly’s, I do remember how I felt about being protected from my own opportunities to grow up: I resented it.

My old Clearwater High School friend Gayle recently posted on Facebook about how I had a “purity of purpose” in high school, whereas she was obsessed with boys. The reality was that I just kept my obsessions quieter. Yes, I campaigned for Jimmy Carter at age sixteen. And yes, I was enthralled by him (a Southern liberal! It was such a refreshing concept!). But a lot of that effort had to do with the fact that I was canvassing with the lovely young Michael Billiris. (He never laid a finger on me, I’m sad to say, though I’m not sure I would have had the slightest idea what to do if he had.)

When Carter won, Michael and I were of course invited to the local campaign party to celebrate, and that was when my dad said no. My father was a local journalist and he knew what those parties were like — probably not at all a safe place for a naive 16-year-old. Even though I know this now, that “no” still rankles all these decades later. I worked on that campaign, damn it! And Michael Billiris was going to that party!

Maybe Dad saved me from some horrible trauma. But as far as I was concerned, when it came to all that stuff I was always waaaaay behind my peers.

The thing is, learning how to handle sex is part of growing up. For girls as well as boys. There’s fumbling around and figuring out what the deal is, especially since everybody has been trying so hard to keep you from learning it.

There’s learning how to cope with people who want it from you — perhaps especially if you don’t want it with them — or to cope with people who don’t want it with you when you desperately want it with them.

There’s crappy beginner sex, getting-better-with-practice sex, and, hopefully, some really great sex. Maybe you’re lucky and it’s all with the one great love of your life. Most of us aren’t that lucky. (And do people that lucky actually know how lucky they are?)

The thing is, you can’t ever just check sex off your bucket list as something you’ve done. All your life, you’ll be affected by your own and your partner’s (or partners’) libido. You are going to have to cope with the sometimes heartbreaking difference between sex and love, between sex and actual emotional intimacy, between sex and commitment. You may be faced with betrayal or boredom or disability. You may be one of those sad people who compulsively pursue sex even against your own best interest (see Bill Clinton, or Arthur in The Awful Mess).

As parents, we’d love to make sure this area of life always goes well for our kids, along with everything else. Hopefully, we teach our sons and daughters to respect themselves enough that they won’t do things they don’t really want to do just to be accepted. Hopefully, we teach them to respect others enough that they won’t wreak horror on someone just because they can.

And perhaps fortunately, there’s a sort of natural limit after which it becomes creepy to the rest of the world if we don’t let go and let our children make their own decisions about it.

Their bodies. Their rules.

But, oh Lord, please help them get them through it safely.

As I told a reader at the Sand Lake Town Library this weekend, if reading The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire keeps just one young woman (or young man, for that matter) from getting drunk at a party and paying the price for it, it will have been worth everything I put into it.

And if it prevents even one person from judging someone harshly for a youthful misstep in this area, that will make me happy, too.

What about you? When do you think “her body, her rules” kicks in?

More excerpts from The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire

The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire -- showing a (dressed) teenage girl on a bed, looking rather pensive.(Which is still coming out December 9 and can be pre-ordered here. Outside the US, try this. I’m still waiting for a link to the paperback edition.)

Foul language warning on this one!

Her shelves were filling up again with other books, like those John Jakes Bicentennial paperbacks in which people experienced all the important events of American history between simultaneous orgasms. There was also Anne Frank’s diary and a bunch of depressing Holocaust novels. Sometimes she wondered if she liked to read those because no matter how difficult her life got, she could always think well, at least I’m not in a concentration camp.

The crash was still his downfall. As he’d explained to his psychiatrist, if the plane was a black box in which he might or might not have done all that he could to save his family, all those realities had existed at the same time until the moment someone found him lying unconscious in a field of shade tobacco. He had to live with the version of reality in which they were dead and, at the very least, he was the one who’d put them in that box to begin with. Schrodinger had designed his experiment specifically to either kill the cat or not, and luckily for him it wasn’t a real cat, because if it had been, he’d probably be the most notorious man in the history of physics. But David’s family had been real.

“I’m sorry, what?” the doctor had said. “I’m not following you at all.”

“It’s theoretical physics,” David had said. “Schrodinger’s cat? Very basic stuff I’d expect any college graduate to know. But never mind.”

“Is this level of arrogance normal for you?” the doctor had asked. “If so, I believe you may really be improving.”

“What I don’t understand about this holiday is the football part of it. Not that what you lot play is what I would consider football.”

Colin had already said some variation on this to him at least once a week since he’d met him. “Are you watching the game?” he asked hopefully. He had no actual interest in the day’s games, but having a television on would reduce the pressure to have conversation.

“Good Lord, no,” Colin said. “I did watch some of that parade, though. A bizarre tribal custom if I ever saw one. Huge inflated totems, dizzying drumbeats, virgins displayed like offerings to appease the gods!”

“So where’s Molly?” he asked Cassandra, who looked as if she’d had just about enough of Colin.

MOLLY WISHED Farrah Fawcett would stop smiling. She was clearly out of touch with what was going on in this room. Or maybe she wasn’t – her smile had a kind of gritting-her-teeth quality to it, as if the actress was just possibly being forced to hold that smile under the threat of death. It reminded Molly of the huge, helpless grin on the skeleton in her biology class; she could practically see the white, bleached skull waiting to be revealed under all that perfect hair and skin. But she didn’t want to think about that, anymore than she wanted to be where she was.

If she really insisted on going through with this, it was going to be like making love to a pill bug. One touch in the wrong spot, and she’d curl up into a little ball. Hell, he might, too. How did two pill bugs ever mate? He guessed they had to possess a basic level of pill bug trust, or just be too fucking horny to care.

I think that’s it for free excerpts, except that I might do a couple of future posts with locations and paintings that show up in the book. If you’re on my mailing list, you already got Chapter 3, and you’ll get Chapter 4 and then 5 soon. Also, you’ll get a prequel chapter from The Awful Mess sometime early next month. If you tried to join and didn’t get anything, try again and remember to confirm your subscription.

The Awful Mess ebook will be on sale Oct. 28 – Nov. 4. It’s that title’s first time out through BookBub with the newer cover, and also the first time promoting to multiple retailers rather than just Amazon. I’m very curious to see how it does …  and hopeful it might goose pre-orders on this one.


Short excerpts from The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire (Part 1)

I need to build a page of these for the site, so I figure I’ll try to pique your curiosity over the next couple of weeks at the same time. If you want to read Chapters 1 and 2, you can begin here. To peek at Chapters 3, 4, and 5, sign up for my email list here.


As with the book, there’s a “bad language and adult themes” warning. There’s nothing explicit here, though.

Molly was not always enthusiastic about her father’s new life, but at least she was part of it. This was more than many kids with divorced parents could say. Besides, she blamed her mother for everything, although she was not above despising her stepmother for things like loving The Six Million Dollar Man and wanting all her bathroom accessories to match.

He watched the hemlock boughs sway overhead and flicked the occasional ant away from his thighs. Would there be grief in the ant hill tonight? Or would the ants just keep doing their ant business, oblivious to their losses? Did ants ever try to lay guilt trips on each other: Hey, asshole, I took a hell of a lot better care of the Queen than you ever did!

Molly gulped down the rest of her punch. She liked the peculiar sensation of warmth it was giving her, the odd little swoop of something like going over a bump in the road and becoming airborne.

“It’s okay to use the phone here, isn’t it?” She had decided it was time to call her dad and bail out of this situation.

“No need, we’re moving on, too,” Kim said. “Gina’s going to take us back, right, Gina?”

“Sure,” Gina said.

“How soon?”

“Soon as we finish Gina’s face. Hey, let’s do yours, too!”

“No, that’s all right,” Molly said quickly. Kim was even less judicious with make-up than she was with criticism of her parents. Gina’s heavily-penciled eyes made her look like a raccoon on the make.

She handed him his mug and sat down next to him.

“Decided to give it a try?” he asked.

She nodded and took a tentative sip – and screwed up her face in disgust. It was so much worse than she’d expected! How could something that smelled so good taste so bad? Still, she took another sip. It wasn’t quite as bad when she knew what to expect.

“A lot of people take it with cream and sugar.”

Why even bother with it in the first place, she wondered? But perhaps it was one of those things adults were just expected to develop a taste for, like Brussels sprouts and oral sex.

David stared at his knees, trying to come up with something that might sound a little more plausible. “My housekeeper has the most wonderful ass,” he blurted, then thought oh fuck. He certainly hadn’t meant to say that.

The other patients sat up, suddenly interested.

“Your housekeeper?” Rob’s eyes glittered.

His face was burning, which wasn’t going to help at all. “I didn’t mean that.”

“Oh yes you did,” Rob said. “Tell us about this housekeeper.”

“There was nothing to tell. I didn’t mean it. She’s only sixteen, for God’s sake.”

Breaths got sucked in all around the circle. “Fucking A,” Arnold said, clearly approving.

“How’d you end up with a sixteen-year-old housekeeper?” another guy from across the circle asked. He sounded envious. “You use a service or something?”

“She was my daughter’s babysitter.”

“Holy crap,” Arnold said. “You want to fuck your dead daughter’s babysitter?”

“I do not! Shut the fuck up!”

Arnold gave him a toothy grin. “Hey, I’m not blaming ya, buddy.”

Timothy sniffed. “You can get thrown in jail for that kind of thing.”

“I would never lay a finger on her,” David said.

“Yet her ass makes life worth living,” Rob said.

Pre-order the book for only $2.99!

A note to friends and fans: If you’re planning to order it someday, your pre-order is absolutely the best way to give this book a good shot at success. All those pre-orders are counted on the day of release, which gives the book a shot at real visibility on Amazon. On the other hand, with purchases trickling in after release, the general public will never know it’s there.

(Also, I will probably increase the price to $3.99 after a time. And this one I don’t dare offer for free, so don’t hold out any hope for that. I’d get too many indignant condemnations from people who download every free book without reading the warnings in the product description.)

For those of you who only read paper, I should have a pre-ordering link up in the next few weeks.



Chapter Two of The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire

Continuing on from Chapter One

The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire -- showing a (dressed) teenage girl on a bed, looking rather pensive.MOLLY HAD BEEN to exactly four funerals before, one for each grandparent. She didn’t know if that was a lot of funerals for a girl of sixteen. But she knew this one was different. Emily and Elaine had already been dead for over three weeks, and there was no hint at all of their earthly remains, assuming there were any left. And, of course, Emily and Elaine had not been old people at the end of full lives, but a young girl and her mother.

“Such a tragedy,” everyone kept saying. It had been repeated so often that Molly now heard the words as if they were capitalized: Such a Tragedy. She had expected to hear plenty of that today and had steeled herself against it, hoping not to become a bawling wreck. What she hadn’t expected was what people were saying about Emily and Elaine once they got past the Such a Tragedy part.

“We’ll never see her learn to ride a bike!” Emily’s grandmother sniffed, then started sobbing outright and hid her face in a handkerchief before someone helped her back to her pew. Molly sat there thinking that Emily had already learned to ride a bike the previous summer. It had been the Bicentennial so they’d purchased red, white, and blue “Spirit of 76!” tassels for Emily’s bike handles. Didn’t this woman ever talk to her granddaughter on the phone? But then she felt mean. After all, Mrs. DeRochemont not only didn’t get to see her granddaughter learn to ride a bike, she would never get to see her ride a bike, ever.

Probably they’d missed so much because they lived all the way over in California, which had to be a very expensive long-distance call. And who was she to judge? All her grandparents were dead. They had excuses.

But her sense that things were off just got worse when they started talking about Elaine. They kept referring to her amazing talent, to her great promise as a poet and painter. Molly had worked for Elaine Asken as a babysitter and mother’s helper for four years, but she’d had no idea she ever wrote poetry, and she’d never seen her paint anything other than the bathroom – a nice sky blue.

Her mother looked as perplexed as she was. Their small town did not lack for artists. Molly’s mother was one herself (the infamous Cassandra Carmichael – yes, that one). She wasn’t shy about bringing it up, either. So how could something like this have never come up in neighborly conversation?

Back at the Asken house, now crowded with mourners trying not to chat too cheerfully over the food, Molly caught her mother examining pale David Asken with suspicion. Her mother had always seemed to like this young family across the street, to consider them the right sort of people, not too old-fashioned or Republican or anything. She particularly approved of the fact that Elaine had a job, teaching English at the local public high school. Now, however, Molly could tell that she suspected Dr. Asken of oppressing all the art out of his wife.

Molly thought it was more likely that her mother had oppressed any mention of art out of Elaine. Cassandra had hit the big time with an installation called Puberty, which had included a life-sized sculpture of Molly, twelve at the time, constructed entirely of tampons and feminine napkins – unused, thank God. This had been such a big hit that her mother had moved on to a series of papier-mâché portraits of women’s private parts she called Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. Worse, her mother always made sure the local media knew about her new shows, and they delighted in giving full coverage to her exploits.

All this had often made Molly want to curl up in the fetal position in her bed rather than go to school. People assumed Shadbrook was an enlightened town because it was so close to UMass and the other colleges – and plenty of academics did live there. But the other people, the locals – farmers and factory workers and custodians and groundskeepers – wouldn’t be caught dead pretending to like contemporary art. At Shadbrook High School the kids had saluted her mother’s first show by passing her sanitary supplies in class and calling her Tampon Girl. She was grateful when her father took pity and got her transferred into a local boarding school as a day student. At Shadbrook Academy the rich kids thought it was cool to have a mom who was so open-minded about, like, sex, and Molly tried to act as if she thought so, too. She’d already learned the hard way that betraying embarrassment in high school was like jumping into a shark frenzy with a vein open.

But Molly was not particularly open-minded about sex. She was still only sixteen, and she had never felt an overwhelming urge to exchange bodily fluids with any of the boys she knew, even the ones she considered cute. And she didn’t appreciate it when someone assumed she must be hot to trot just because her mother had a bunch of giant vulvas lined up on a shelf in her studio.

Today, though, she was less the crazy feminist artist’s daughter than she was the bereaved babysitter of the dead girl. People were giving her the same watery smiles they were giving Dr. Asken – in her case, probably because her eyes were still red-rimmed with tears from the service (so much for not bawling), or perhaps because she was helping out at the house and therefore seemed to hold some kind of official family status.

Mr. and Mrs. Pizarelli from next door tapped on the glass door off the deck and began to slide it open. Although the Asken house faced busy Federal Street, the driveway was off quiet Brinkley Street, facing Molly’s mother’s house. Only salesmen and Jehovah’s Witnesses walked all the way around. Mr. Pizarelli bore a huge pan wrapped in aluminum foil while his wife carried a homemade layer cake high up before her like a sacred offering. Molly knew they were going to want more recognition for their efforts than they could get from her, so she quickly went into the living room and pointed Dr. Asken’s sister, Denise, toward the new arrivals.

In the living room, two women she didn’t know were examining the large oils hanging there and Molly suddenly realized that they must be Elaine’s, since they were signed EDR. The two largest paintings were color studies more than anything, but a few were more representational – impressionist scenes of shells or sea oats and dunes. It was the kind of stuff her mother would dismiss as too conventional – sofa art, she might call it, with a sniff.

Molly jumped when Denise grabbed her elbow and steered her towards the kitchen. Although she lived in Minneapolis, Denise had been staying here at the house since shortly after the crash, watching over her brother while he recuperated from his injuries. She leaned in towards Molly’s ear and murmured, “How do you think it’s going?”

What made Denise think she was any judge? “Fine, I guess.”

“I was hoping David would get more involved, but I’m afraid he still has a long way to go.” She sighed unhappily.

After three weeks in the hospital, Dr. Asken still had one arm bandaged all the way from the hand to the elbow and hanging in a sling. The other hand wasn’t bandaged anymore, but it was scarred with pale, puckered trails like birthday cake icing. At rest it curled in on itself like a claw. Except for those injuries it was not really obvious from looking that he had survived a terrible plane crash. There had been fourteen survivors out of eighty-three passengers – or eleven, really, since three had since died from their injuries.

Molly assumed Dr. Asken was suffering – how could he not be? But today, when she’d dared to look, she was mostly struck by how he seemed to not really be there at all.

“Do you think you could stay for a while this afternoon and help me clean up? I’ll pay you, of course.” Denise’s plump face had managed to take on a hollow look, and she had a fine sheen of perspiration over her upper lip. She’d been shepherding people to and away from her brother, putting out food, refreshing drinks and supplying gory details to people who surely already knew what had happened but wanted to hear it all over again from a more authoritative source.

“Yes, I can stay. You don’t have to pay me.”

“Oh, aren’t you sweet.”

Molly sensed a faint touch of contempt there. Did Denise think she was some kind of provincial idiot? But although Molly could use the money, it hadn’t been her primary motivation in her relationship with the Askens for a long time.

This house had been her refuge from the general chaos at home as well as impassioned monologues about the beauty of the female body and the political importance of the female orgasm and other things she just didn’t think a girl should have to discuss with her mother. She had loved Emily because she was a sweet little girl who worshiped her, and she had loved Elaine because she was predictable and steady and kind. She’d loved coming over here into the tranquility of Elaine’s blues and greens, the houseplants that didn’t die from neglect, the sense of order and peace. Just stepping in the door was soothing.

But it was not Elaine and Emily’s house anymore; it was just Dr. Asken’s. And Dr. Asken – Dr. because he had a Ph.D. and taught science at one of the local women’s colleges – had never been anything more to Molly than a tall man with hair just long enough to make her father frown, a man who occasionally appeared, looked mildly embarrassed, and paid her.

In truth, she was not really entirely comfortable that she had been hired to work as Dr. Asken’s housekeeper for the rest of the summer.

She quietly dodged around people in the living room, collecting glasses and dishes, doing her job. But when she was loading the dishwasher and recognized Emily’s favorite juice glass, the one with Cookie Monster on it, she felt tears rise again. She dashed out the door to the front porch, where she could slip down onto the old wicker sofa behind the lilacs and try to get a grip.

Moments later, her mother stuck her head out of the front door. “Oh, there you are,” she said. “Are you all right?”

Molly nodded and gave her a surly pout, desperate to head off any serious attempt at comfort. It would only make her cry.

Cassandra sat down next to her and took out a cigarette. “I wonder why she stopped painting,” she said. She took a drag and blew out smoke in a long stream.

Molly coughed. “I wonder why you started smoking.”

Her mom blew out another long stream, and Molly wondered if maybe that was why she had started smoking – the opportunity it provided for dramatic pauses.

“I used to smoke before I got pregnant with you.”

“So you won’t mind if I start now, either?”

Her mother cocked an eyebrow at her and offered her a cigarette.

Molly recoiled.

Her mom smiled. “I didn’t think so.” Another stream. “What do you think of Elaine’s paintings?”

“I didn’t realize they were hers. I like the colors.”

“I see indications of real talent.”

Molly frowned. There was no way would her mother would have said that if Elaine were still alive. Her mother generally dismissed all but most the radical of her contemporaries as “bourgeois hacks,” and there was nothing in Elaine’s work that suggested revolutionary tendencies. Molly said, “Elaine was the warmest, kindest woman I’ve ever known.”

Her mother stubbed out her cigarette and tossed the butt into the lilac.

Molly thought it took a lot of nerve to toss a butt into a grieving man’s front garden, but then she realized there were no ashtrays on the front porch. Elaine would have thought to put some around. “Let me get an ashtray for you,” she said, and stood up.

“Don’t bother, I’m going home. Are you coming?”

“Denise asked me to help clean up.”

Her mother snorted. She’d taken an instant dislike to Denise. “Well, good luck with that.” She went back through the house, no doubt to do another round of condolences on her way out.

Molly twisted around to peer through the living room window, curious to see how Dr. Asken would react to the second, parting handshake from her mother. People in the room stopped what they were doing to watch her. Molly’s mother was not a beauty – she was a tiny woman, with unusually short, spiky hair and a face that was more interesting than it was pretty – but people did watch her, even people who didn’t know how notorious she was.

But Cassandra Carmichael didn’t get even a flicker of recognition from Dr. Asken. It was the same as the first time he’d shaken their hands, after the service – like someone going through motions he didn’t even know he was making.

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