01/24/17

Intimacy With Strangers

Beijing Chaoyang Park, 2008, drnan tu.

Open on woman alone in cozy living room. A sudden shattering of glass breaks the stillness as a man bursts through French doors behind her. He is hooded, all in black. He throws her to the ground. She thrashes back. Vases crash. He takes her violently and disappears.

I almost left Elle after Isabelle Huppert’s first rape scene, already skittish at the thought of returning to my New York apartment, alone with the image. Yes, I did say “first rape scene” and yes, I’m glad I stayed. Because after its brutal introduction the film, this year’s Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Film, takes an even more kinky but intriguing turn.

Crime of Passion, Yumi Kimura.

To tiptoe around full disclosure (if you have a low spoiler threshold, continue at own risk) the woman Michele, played with icy reserve by Isabelle Huppert (Golden Globe Best Actress in a Drama) has a compromised past which keeps her from reporting the incident. When the attacker returns, she rips off his hood. She knows him. Previous casual encounters have been sexually charged. And now the games begin. Rather than repulsion, violence fuels their attraction.

CAVEAT: The Sultanette does not endorse the above. Though I’m all for sampling the next course on the sexual tasting menu, violence is not my cup of tea. But the film suggests (without presenting solutions, as the French have mastered over centuries) a more nuanced story.

The Fisherman & the Siren, Frederic Leighton, c.1857.

Directed by Paul Verhoeven of Basic Instinct, Elle is a sly exploration of the implicit understanding between two beings. It toys with who we sense behind the masks (and if we need to rip them off). And shocks us into contemplating the psychological forces that trigger sexuality between two bodies.

As previously stated on this blog (to the disappointment of the horndogs among you) The Male Harem is not about sex. But intimacy? Call me an intimacy whore. An intimacy nympho. I can’t get enough of it. Not the tell-all brand of intimacy pushed by the couple’s counseling industry. In the harem, we are strangers of a sort. We don’t share to-do lists. We aren’t responsible for each other’s lives. We share precious time together but not vows to stay together for all time.

Nude Boy & Girl on Beach, c.1913, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.

What fills our time is the present. It might include good food, adult beverages, a movie, music, or play. It will not include conversation concerning the price of condos, celebrity scandals, Facebook, or Monday Night Football. (A girl just gets tired of talking about balls.)

If sex happens to be a component it’s not fuck-buddy sex. As anyone in holy wedlock knows, good sex doesn’t happen on a schedule. It rises from desire that’s not required. And the good kind satisfies the libido which curbs the need to settle for the boring kind. It’s like having “I don’t need to fuck you money” in the bank.

Amor & Psyche, William-Adolphe Bouguereau,1890.

Before The Male Harem I paid my dues: two committed couplings steeped in monogamy that added up to one-third of my life. I have no complaint with mutual bonding. I believe in loyalty, trust, and having somebody’s back. What confounds me is how proficient we are at inhabiting the same four walls and ignoring each other’s essence.

We’re wired to negotiate relationships by the jobs we have, the stuff we accumulate, the offspring we perpetrate. And while these are worthy tasks necessary for survival of the species, they’re hardly conducive to exploring the rich, sometimes contradictory, endlessly surprising subtleties of another human being.

Enter Under Your Own Risk

Self-indulgent? Impractical? Fantastical? Easy, really. You don’t have to borrow on the credit card, give up gluten, or spend an hour on the elliptical everyday. All that’s required is that you mute the mobile, dismantle preconceptions, douse expectations, and get your mitts off of shaping someone into your Fred or Ginger or Tonto or Trigger.

Online matchmaking has its merits. But it’s doped us into paying more attention to algorithms than instincts. What if all those carefully curated facts distract from the untidy mystery lurking behind them? In that sense, Isabelle Huppert and her masked intruder might be onto something.

05/11/16

Where Have All The Playboys Gone?

Giove seduces Olimpiade, fresco, Giulio Romano.

Giove seduces Olimpiade, fresco, Giulio Romano.

I remember the Playboy Mansion like it was yesterday. Gotcha, salacious followers! Okay, The Sultanette never wore Bunny ears and cottontail though I’ve been known to don the random, ribboned corset. And I did press my face against the wrought iron gate of Hugh Hefner’s Chicago chateau at 1340 North State Parkway in hopes of spotting a louche Leporidae.

Freshly graduated from Dairy State U, I was living up the street in a mansion that had been converted into apartments. On weekends, my roommates and I joined the throngs along Chicago’s Gold Coast single’s bars searching for Sex-in-the-Second-City.

Rush Street, ink, Scott Nazelrod.

Rush Street, ink, Scott Nazelrod.

When I found it on occasion, in a haze of marijuana-inspired gropings (The Sultanette never inhaled) it seemed hardly a match for the sybaritic antics at the mansion. Not that I had aspirations to serve cocktails in bunny drag to ogling James Bond wannabes. But Hefner’s televised series, Playboy After Dark, featuring girls with torpedo tits and perfect flips draped over Barcelona sofas enjoying laid-back flirtations with cool celebrities, seemed more compelling than suffering boilerplate come-on’s in the din of Rush Street’s beer palaces.

May ‘58 Playboy Playmate of the Month, Lari Laine & Ozzie Nelson on Ozzie & Harriet.

May ‘58 Playboy Playmate of the Month, Lari Laine & Ozzie Nelson on Ozzie & Harriet.

I was reminded of the Playboy heyday upon reading Christopher Turner’s review of the phenomenon’s recent interpretations, “If you don’t swing, don’t ring” in the London Review of Books. If the same publication that holds forth on Sartre, Freud and Descartes can spill ink on Hefner’s “Playboy Philosophy” it’s worth a shout-out from The Sultanette.

Full frontal disclosure, I do have insider’s info on the Playboy days from the first Bunny costume design meeting to eggs with Lenny Bruce in the mansion’s breakfast nook. Nothing you can’t find in a memoir I collaborated on (unless you count the unpublished bits I’ll never reveal) with the artist LeRoy Neiman, “Hef’s” lifelong friend and Playboy Magazine contributor.

Memories of rich conversation while working on All Told with LeRoy are as potent as the aroma of the Cuban he puffed on everyday after lunch, its precarious ash accumulating as each story unfolded. But that’s another story. If you want to know how a Depression kid went from WWII GI to partying with Salvador Dali, cavorting with Sinatra, and sketching Muhammad Ali, Amazon awaits your order. For now, it’s Playboy’s art of sex for seduction sake I invite you to consider.

At the Roulette Table in Monte Carlo, oil on canvas, 1892, Edvard Munch.

At the Roulette Table in Monte Carlo, oil on canvas, 1892, Edvard Munch.

When Hef conjured up the idea that LeRoy would set up studios in Paris and London and record his experiences in Man at his Leisure, the magazine’s column became his Playboy Philosophy writ large. From nude beaches to Ascot, Paris discos to the casino in Monte Carlo, the life of a jet-setting bon vivant embodied “The Man Who Reads Playboy.”

While LeRoy was gallivanting, Hef was playing lord of the bachelor pad in his pipe and silk pj’s. Turner writes that his third floor bedroom with its “circular rotating (and vibrating) bed” served as Playboy HQ. If he didn’t invent the man cave, he furnished it. Playboy’s first editorial declared, “We like our apartment. We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.”

Is there a sapiosexual in the house? Bookish Playboy.

Is there a sapiosexual in the house? Bookish Playboy.

Stop! When did the seduction playbook change? While The Sultanette may not require beluga or a discourse on Karl Marx to surrender her accouterments, how about a subject, a verb, and some savoir faire? And when did we become so authentic we lost our sense of irony? I would still prefer a tongue-in-cheek quip like, “I know a spot with some decent Bordeaux, good music, and rare filet mignon. My place?” to a “What’s up?” on WhatsApp, i.e., “Want to grab a drink and my dick?” Note to prospective Male Harem members: A text is not foreplay.

In Danger of Being Seduced, litho, 1855, Berlin.

In Danger of Being Seduced, litho, 1855, Berlin.

Once in the door, according to Playboy’s “25 Steps to the Perfect Seduction” a mandatory piece of furniture is the bar trolley which “permits the canny bachelor to remain in the room while mixing a cool one for his intended quarry … “. In that vein, while Canny Bachelor is fumbling to undo Intended Quarry’s bra strap after a libido-lubricating conversation about Kierkegaard, his couch flips to horizontal at the touch of a button. Brilliant solution to the hazards of martini spillage on the commute to the boudoir.

The last official Playboy Club (Manila) closed in 1991. The sixty-year-old Playboy centerfold was inevitably eclipsed by online porn. But where have all the playboys … and playgirls gone? In a world of multi-tasking is there no place for an intermezzo with a chéri(e) amour? A stylish caper with a sig other in the midst of life’s daily barbarism? The thrill of complicity between consenting adults seeking mutual plunder?

Allegorical Scene, oil on canvas, Konstantin Makovsky.

Allegorical Scene, oil on canvas, Konstantin Makovsky.

Curiously, non-American men, seem to more readily embrace the concept that sex is an event that occurs before penetration, and that seduction involves gamesmanship. (Due credit to The Impresario.) American men, like good capitalists, just want to get the job done so they can concentrate on boosting the GNP and watching baseball. In their befuddled efforts to treat women as equals like they’ve been told, they’ve gone from behaving like gentleman to jocks.

In 1967, Hef fitted out a black DC-9 jumbo jet with the Bunny logo on its tail and christened it the Big Bunny. “It was a penthouse on wings,” Turner writes, “with dance floor, screening room, wet bar, sleeping quarters for sixteen and an elliptical bed for Hefner covered in Tasmanian opossum skins.” The last time we saw anything close were the bar stools on the yacht of Aristotle Onassis, upholstered with the foreskin of the minke whale.

“The Flying Nun” Sister Aquinas,1943, DC.

“The Flying Nun” Sister Aquinas,1943, DC.

The plane, alias “Hare Force One” was sold in 1976. Its latest clone was the private jet of “King of Good Times” Vijay Mallya, who stamped his initials in gold on the wingtip. It was verified to me in droll conversation with a former passenger (don’t ask) that babes were frequent flyers. But recent news that the roué’s misspent lifestyle has landed the plane on the auction block by Indian tax authorities could mean the demise of flying the horny skies.

Is it the end of getting high on seduction? Turner writes that Hugh Hefner founded Playboy with a loan from his mother who had hoped he’d become a missionary. If instead, he became minister to the Church of The Glorious Chase, get me to the nunnery.

01/26/16

Do You Want Sex Or Düsseldorf?

Prostitutka, Boris Grigoriev, 1917.

Prostitutka, Boris Grigoriev, 1917.

The World Happiness Report is out! In its third survey since 2012, the United Nations reveals the happiest places on earth. Or so they say, reports John Kay in, “Why ‘happy’ is boring.”

I spotted Kay’s piece in the Financial Times Weekend last September, just as I was escaping New York City for three months in England. According to the UN, I had the wrong country. The winner was Switzerland. (We’re getting to Düsseldorf, intrepid globetrotters, restrain yourselves!)

As Kay assesses the findings, “Switzerland is rich, temperate and has some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. … You feel completely safe in the streets. And yes, the trains run on time.”

“You can have that, I have plenty.” Heidi, Jessie Wilcox Smith illus.

“You can have that, I have plenty.” Heidi, Jessie Wilcox Smith illus.

Security, consistency, and the goodness of nature. That would be enough to seduce any sentient being, right? Isn’t this why so many retirees flock to golf courses? Or babysit grandchildren? But Kay has another take on the Alpine paradise: “Boring.”

Kay’s recent book, Other People’s Money was named 2015 Book of the Year by the Economist, Bloomberg and the FT. In 2014, he was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) “for services to economics.” But what does a numbs and figs guy know about happiness? Everybody knows money can’t buy it, even though, like sex, we’d still prefer to have as much of it as possible.

Dusseldorf-Benrath, M Stephan.

Dusseldorf-Benrath, M Stephan.

This brings us to Düsseldorf. It comes up sixth in a study compiled by benefits consultants Mercer, and here Kay shows he can look beyond a spreadsheet. “There may be a surer way to end a promising relationship than to propose a romantic weekend in Düsseldorf,” he offers, “but it is hard to imagine one.”

Now we’re getting somewhere, Mr. Kay, or may I call you Johnnie? Do we want Düsseldorf or romance? Rational or sensational? Security or ecstasy? Are we after a livable life or a lived one?

Welcome to Peggy's place.

Welcome to Peggy’s place.

Casting aside polls for people, I invite you to Peggy Guggenheim’s eighteenth century Palazzo Venier in Venice, where her louche, eccentric spirit still lurks among one of the world’s most audacious art collections.

Was she a quirky socialite who slummed with creative types? A serious art connoisseur? A bag lady with a trust fund? A flighty romantic who chased from one lover’s bed to the next?

Peggy’s indomitable originality has always intrigued me, so I recently headed for the Film Society of Lincoln Center to see Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s documentary, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict.

I Know, Godromil, Venezia Biennale d’art 2007.

I Know, Godromil, Venezia Biennale d’art 2007.

If you are tempted to assign Peggy the role of Venetian vixen who flaunted her family fortune to play patron and pussy cat with the art crowd, prepare for disappointment.

The film, centered around a taped interview unearthed from a basement cache of books, brings the private Peggy out of her public persona with sympathetic detachment. The woman we see and hear suffered the death of her adored father when she fourteen (on the Titanic). Her certifiably narcissistic mother was no consolation. One of the “poor” Guggenheim’s, she endured the condescension of her posh and supercilious relatives, who disdained her taste in art.

Louise Nevelson and Neith.

Louise Nevelson and Neith.

She had an eye and she would follow her instincts. A young Lucien Freud made his first appearance in a children’s exhibition at her London gallery. In 1943, she organized the first show devoted exclusively to women that included Louise Nevelson and Frida Kahlo.

She was instrumental in the careers of Kandinsky and Motherwell. Not only did she take a chance on the work of undiscovered artists, she provided a stipend for the struggling Jackson Pollock so he could pursue his muse unfettered by the natty demands of survival.

During the war, she staged a brilliant scrimmage to prevent the German’s from appropriating her collection. She later helped put the Venice Biennale on the map. All of this while dealing with love, loss, and a botched nose job.

Peggy’s Palazzo, Jean-Pierre Dalbéra. Fondation Peggy Guggenheim "Torre: a Cor-Ten steel tower, with ogival windows, tracery and turrets in the International Gothic style, on the terrace of Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, overlooking the Grand Canal " http://www.guggenheim-venice.it/

Peggy’s Palazzo, Jean-Pierre Dalbéra.

But then the film asks the ultimate question: Did it make her happy?

Alas, Peggy never found lasting love. (To the question, how many husbands had she had, she was said to reply, “mine or other people’s?”) It’s been suggested that she was looking for too much love on all the wrong mattresses. That her serial romps were a desperate attempt to fill the vacuum left by childhood abandonment.

When the film’s director was asked in a Vanity Fair interview whether Peggy had pursued art as a safe harbor from the personal tragedy in her life, Vreeland responded, “[Peggy] identified with the art and the artists and found solace in all of it.”

Bill at the London Parliament,1995.

Bill at the London Parliament,1995.

A man’s happiness is seldom offered as a criterion of his accomplishments. His sexuality rarely shows up on the scorecard of a fulfilled life. While some may debate the merits of the Clinton presidency, few feel it necessary to analyze whether the skirt-chasing Bill was a happy guy. It is his long-suffering wife that we tsk at for putting up with his antics. It will probably dog her reputation even if she saves the free world.

“I’m a lone wolf,” Peggy says in the film. No apologies. You could say she was lousy at love and a shameless hussy. But must a lack of romantic closure deem her life unfulfilled? Or her sexual proclivity cast a shadow on her accomplishments?

To the growing minority who believe that art is important for life’s sake, perhaps Peggy Guggenheim’s singular passion for championing genius, supporting the unanointed, and risking a fortune on a new way of looking at things, might be enough to celebrate. That’s not about getting trains to run on time but a world that too easily rationalizes the banal might be unlivable without it.

Byron in Venice, Ivan Constantinovich Aivazovsky.

Byron in Venice, Ivan Constantinovich Aivazovsky.

Which brings us back to the United Nations Happiness Report. “Why do so many young people,” writes Kay, “go to London or New York in search of the excitement and creativity rather than the livable?” To answer, he takes us to the Floating City.

“Venice is crowded, hard to navigate, inadequately served by public transport, its public administration is hopeless and its commercial activities are corrupt,” he concludes, “but however often you have visited, the magic remains.”

No coincidence that Peggy Guggenheim made this uncooperative, impious, ineluctable city home. Düsseldorf anyone?

10/20/15

Are you dangling your participle, darling?

Lewis Carroll's cat of Alice & Oxford

Lewis Carroll’s cat of Alice & Oxford

It’s a chilly Sunday night in Oxford and I’m in heated conversation over the American elections with a boy at least half my age who has cat whiskers drawn all over his ruddy English cheeks. He seems oblivious to the impact this feline façade is having on our serious political debate and when I ask him about it he replies, vaguely embarrassed, “Oh yes, I’ve just been initiated into my college.”

It’s back-to-school at Oxford and the Scholars Anointed have begun to invade the hangouts along Cowley Road, the main drag on the “town” side of the Magdelan Bridge (pronounced “MAW-dlin” or you are pitifully exposed).

Photo: The Sultanette

Oxford flicks.

I’ve had an eventful week getting acclimated before the onslaught. I took in a flick at The Ultimate Picture Palace, parted the chain mail curtain at Quality Butchers to stock up on cooked ham and Taylors Original Prepared English Mustard, hung out for hours over a plate of broccoli at Beetroot Café, and befriended the owner of Millefeuille, with fingers sticky from honey-soaked sweets.

Tonight’s main event was a screening of Ex Machina at Café Tarifa a dive-slash-lounge offering Sunday night movies for free. But the Kasbar where I’ve met cat boy is a Cowley highlight. The music is World, the menu is tapas, a guitar suspended by a string attached to the front door rides up and down whenever someone enters or exits, and the manager (Italian) insists on a hug when you arrive with the admonition, “Don’t be afraid of touching!”

Dreaming spires at sunset.

Dreaming spires at sunset.

Have no doubt, this funky bar and bodega scene is Oxford. If you’re looking for the “dreaming spires” that etch the sky, the venerable pubs, English restraint, and accents cultivated behind hedgerows, just cross the Magdelan. But Cowley Road is no less a part of this rarified scene and the bipolar effect is intoxicating.

On one side of the bridge are students doing what college kids do – congregating in packs with cell phones and making noise. On the other side they are scholars flocking past Medieval halls in the black matriculating robes of their venerable colleges, ever reminding you that you’ve landed on one of history’s oldest and holiest turfs of learning.

Photo: The Sultanette

Museum of the History of Science, Oxford.

They won’t pin an exact date on Oxford’s founding but everyone seems to agree that 1096 is bloody close enough. That means for nearly a millennium this city’s sole industry has been mastering knowledge, its widget erudition, its main product, making people leave smarter than when they arrived, which was pretty smart to begin with.

Photo: The Sultanette

1000 years of talking. Phone booth, Parks Road, Oxford.

And somehow (hee, hee, hee) The Sultanette has snuck in under the radar. I’ve taken over the flat of fine friends off the Cowley Road to take non-credit courses in philosophy and history. I won’t enjoy matriculation, graduation or congratulations. But what better place to practice simulating conversation than the oldest English-speaking university in the freaking world? Which brings me to the window-washer.

Photo: The Sultanette

Heat, The Sultanette’s flat, Oxford.

It’s 8:30am and I’m stealing a few more minutes under the comforter in the flat’s second-floor bedroom before surrendering to the bracing morning air. Weather isn’t something that happens outside in England. It follows you into the house and scoffs at the space heater’s pretense to warm things up. Establish a temperate climate in the kitchen and a cold front awaits you in the parlor.

To feel cozy in an English home is positively unpatriotic. No doubt the Queen luxuriates in nipple-freezing Buckingham, Balmoral and Holyrood, it’s been inbred by centuries of royal coddling in those bone-chilling castles. But back to The Sultanette’s boudoir …

Romeo & Juliet, Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893), oil on canvas.

Romeo & Juliet, Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893), oil on canvas.

I’d left the curtains open the night before to be awakened by the first light of day. Now I was taking in the purposeful red brick flats across the way (yes, I’m still in Oxford!) when I heard … could it be the clatter of a metal ladder? And lo, a boy’s head appeared in the window before me. You’d think The Sultanette would be used to Romeo’s clambering up ladders to her bedroom but the boy hadn’t even introduced himself!

Luckily I was wearing my Victoria’s Secret night shirt (I reserve sleeping in the buff for The Male Harem). Eyes trained on the unexpected visitor, I got out of bed and slipped on a robe I’d picked up at an Oxford thrift shop – a purple acetate Chinoiserie number (£8) I cleverly fasten with a man’s necktie emblazoned with the Oxford University crest (£2) also procured at the thrift shop to fill in for the robe’s missing acetate belt.

Photo: The Sultanette

The Sultanette’s academic robe. Detail.

In this getup, I advanced towards the window, remembering that my flat friends had mentioned a neighborhood handyman in case of emergency. “Are you from next door?” I offered, as if he’d just popped by for a cup of tea. “I’m the window washer,” he responded, not very romantically. “Do you come here often?” I asked, or something to that effect. “Once a month,” he replied with equal charm. Awkward pause. No worries of this spiraling into a raunchy neo-Victorian porn scene. “If you don’t mind then,” I said, “I’m going to draw the curtains.” Attendez! When did The Sultanette become Lady Painswick?

Accuse me of becoming brainwashed by British decorum but one thing I’ve learned from their resolute sense of propriety is that you can ace any situation as long as you’re polite about it. In the House of Commons, they address their colleagues as “the Right Honorable Gentleman(or Lady)” before annihilating one another. This culture that calls panties “knickers” has a history of aristocratic scandals from prostitution rings to boffing little boys that rivals any prurience Americans could come up with.

Photo: The Sultanette

The spectacle bracelet, The Sultanette school supplies.

As a less salacious example than sex or politics, one day on the bus I noticed a proper English lady studying my hands. Realizing she’d been discovered, she leaned over and inquired, “By way of explaining why I have been so rudely staring at you, may I ask if your bracelet is in fact, a pair of spectacles?”

When I affirmed it was she forged ahead. “How very interesting! I’ve never seen anything like it! Now where did you get it and who, might I ask, makes it?” Now the whole bus was intent upon hearing that the provenance of my bracelet is Kate Spade in New York City. “I’ve been to the U.S.,” the woman replied, “though one could say to the more boring places … cities in the west and Boston. Oh dear, this is my stop!”

Etching, Welcome Images.

Etching, Welcome Images.

“You might enjoy New York then … or Chicago,” I offered as she gathered up her handbag and straightened her scarf. “Oh yes, I believe so!” she said enthusiastically. “My husband was invited to teach in Chicago. We’d have gone if he hadn’t died.” And she was off before I could offer my condolences.

Agent Provocateur, WestportWiki.

Agent Provocateur, WestportWiki.

Maybe it’s just that British accent that makes chatter sound clever and conversation scintillating. But in this breeding ground of Chaucer and Shakespeare, Austen, Woolf and Wodehouse, the play of words still appears to be an art and a sport. And since The Sultanette has yet to discover better foreplay than wordplay, I’ll be studying up on it here at Oxford. I may not earn a degree but I don’t promise to keep my knickers on either.

09/16/15

Space Travel: The Sultanette Guide To Wanderlust

Cocottes,1905, Axel Torneman, repro PD Posse Stryngford.

Cocottes,1905, Axel Torneman, repro PD Posse Stryngford.

The Sultanette has survived harrowing abandonment, deplorable betrayal, and world-class hangovers. Despite enough bad behavior to raise a nun’s eyebrow, I’ve managed to get home in the morning with keys, credit cards and lip gloss. To quote French tart and woman of letters, Colette, “What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I’d realized it sooner.”

But who has time to reminisce? Now that The Male Harem has fueled my wanderlust, I’ll be heading for Mars on SpaceX as soon as Elon Musk offers in-flight Wi-Fi. Meantime I’ve signed up for another X-related adventure this fall.

View of Oxford,19C, William Turner of Oxford.

View of Oxford,19C, William Turner of Oxford.

No, not porn flicks, you wicked people! It’s Oxford I’m heading for (the one in England, not Ohio) for a ten-week course in European history – sex not included! (Unless an unscrupulous tutor convinces me it’s required for an A+ on my paper.)

So how the hell, you ask, have I pulled off getting high on education in “the city of dreaming spires”? That would require a multiple-choice answer: (A) Smart-ass Male Harem members stoke me to keep learning stuff. (B) Immeasurably kind friends are letting me freeload in their flat. (C) A fortune cookie proverb wedged in a framed photo at my computer (I’m looking at it now) inspired it.

Leopard in the Eye, Vinaypyatimani.

Leopard in the Eye, Vinaypyatimani.

The photo shows me grinning at camera poolside in a leopard-spotted bikini the year of my fiftieth birthday. On a hotel-quality towel beside me is Natalie Angier’s Woman, An Intimate Geography, a gender-bending source book that predates Caitlyn Jenner’s genitalia celebrity status. The proverb reads, “In order to remain young, one must change.”

While The Sultanette chooses less dramatic tacks than Ms. Jenner, I’ve learned in life that nothing beats a leap into the unknown to flush the cheeks and refresh the libido. It certainly had an effect on Caitlyn. Yet the hoopla over channeling her inner pinup on the cover of Vanity Fair begs the question: Why are we so uncomfortable accepting the way a woman defines herself until we can assign her a stereotype?

Serena by Pascal Kirchmair (Own Work), 2014, WikiCommons.

Serena by Pascal Kirchmair (Own Work), 2014, WikiCommons.

Anomalies like Caitlin Jenner or the erotically ferocious Serena Williams must be properly classified. Who do they think they are? Thankfully, the problem is resolved once a woman passes into the neutered safety of old age. Once she is post-menopausal, she becomes unassailable. What was a bitchy Millennial is now an adorably feisty octogenarian. The smart aleck is anointed guru. Raunchy is cheeky. What a gal!

If you don’t believe me, try googlng an American matriarch and watch pages of quotes get top SEO billing. The culture that claims being too highly evolved to put a woman on a pedestal elevates these wizened wisenheimers to oracles.

Platform stiletto,Terry de Havilland, 2007, Electra7 (own work), WikiCommons.

Platform stiletto,Terry de Havilland, 2007, Electra7 (own work), WikiCommons.

Let those who rail that a woman is judged by her looks head for the salon when 90-something accessory queen, Iris Apfel declares, “If your hair is done properly and you’re wearing good shoes, you can get away with anything.”

Authenticity-seekers heed the words of legendary Diana Vreeland: “A lie to get out of something or take an advantage for oneself, that’s one thing; but a lie to make life more interesting – well, that’s entirely different.”

closed-for-businessUnlike the Jenner’s of the world who are questioned for making media sensations of jumpstarting their vaginas, once a woman unplugs from her erotica we celebrate her booty news. Does “85-Year-Old-Wonder” Amy Greene (a former Glamour Beauty Editor whose outré statement is mismatched socks) have a boyfriend? New York Magazine reports her spunky reply: “I have gentlemen callers but I’m out of the vagina business.” Mazel tov!

microphones2

Microfonos, Installation, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, 2008.

Why are American female role models required to be bastions of certitude? Has the clamor to claim “our voice” drowned out the notion that we can have our way in life without always having our say?

Don’t get me wrong. I admire the swagger of these accomplished dames. I only question why we feel the need to spin our role models into caricatures while other parts of the civilized world are satisfied with flesh-and-blood icons.

I offer the following quotes from virtuosos who have made their way with passion and purpose in less evolved feminist environments, yet are not above teasing out the answers:

“The more the years go by, the less I know. But if you give explanations and understand everything, then nothing can happen.” Anouk Aimée, “Goddess of Cinema Mythology” whose seventy films include A Man And A Woman, 8 ½, and La Dolce Vita. Eight-three years old.

Ready for your closeup? Alfred Cheney Johnston, c1920.

Ready for your closeup? Alfred Cheney Johnston, c1920.

“If you haven’t cried, your eyes can’t be beautiful.” At eighty, the new face of Dolce & Gabbana, Sophia Loren.

“As you get older, naked stuff gets easier.” British bombshell, Helen Mirren. Seventy.

Film director and Ingmar Bergman muse, Liv Ullmann, when asked what she’d like to say at the end of her life: “I loved and I was mystified. It was a joy sometimes, and I knew grief. And I would like to do it all again.”

Spacewalk, Astronaut Nicholas Patrick, 2/17/10, NASA.

Spacewalk, Astronaut Nicholas Patrick, 2/17/10, NASA.

Which brings me back to fortune cookies, dreaming spires, and space travel. While the next stop is Oxford, I don’t intend it to be the last. To quote a youngster of fifty-seven years, Madonna, from her song, Jump, “There’s only so much you can learn in one place.”

Call me a dilettante. Accuse me of being a louche adventuress. I’m off to experience events unforeseen far away from home and more important, from what I know. But I will have my ashes scattered over Mars before I think I have all the answers or forget it’s a multiple-choice question.

Golden Rule Girl, 1943, John Vachon.

Golden Rule Girl, 1943, John Vachon.

Maybe one day, I’ll learn how to accessorize like Iris or cultivate Sophia’s knowing eyes. Acquire the naked confidence of Helen, Amy’s moxie, and Diana’s artful deception. Anouk’s seductive uncertainty and Madonna’s restless defiance. Or maybe I’ll settle for sultanette-in-progress, destination unknown, satisfied, mystified, and like Liv, ready to do it all again.

I invite you to follow the next installments of The Sultanette on sabbatical at Oxford. No matter what they try to teach me, I intend to learn something.