Book review: Ill-Equipped for a Life of Sex

cover of ill-equipped for a life of sex & author jennifer lehr

For all of my public candor and truth-excavatin', there are areas I will not touch.

One of them, no pun intended, is sex.

Another, believe it or not, is relationships. I am a champion of privacy, wherever possible, and also a big, fat coward: I'm loathe to pull a Truman Capote and end up like Truman Capote (although the middle of his life, in between the gothic horror and lonely, alcoholic demise, does sound interesting.)

These are just two of the reasons I was floored by Jennifer Lehr's 2004 memoir, Ill-Equipped for a Life of Sex. In it, as you might expect from the title, she exposes her many and colorful sexual encounters (in vivid and fascinating detail), from her first kiss (or desire for one) through her mostly sexually-dysfunctional relationship with her eventual husband to her post-marital flirtations and fantasies. If Lehr left anything out, it was neglible: parts of the book read like letters to Penthouse Forum, only realistic. I was shocked not so much by what she did, but that she was writing about it so openly in the same book where she cheerfully and un-self-consciously outlines her relationships with many members of her family, with whom, it would appear, she is still close (and who definitely win the prize for most tolerant family around.)

This, though, is the trick of the book, and the second meaning of the title: it's as much a story of how she got here from there as it is a salacious recounting. What Lehr has done is to write a book, a shockingly intimate book, about intimacy itself, and the role it plays in keeping all kinds of relationships alive. To bare ourselves metaphorically  requires high levels of trust and commitment, often far higher than those required to strip down and get busy, not to mention a slavish devotion to truth.

And over and over, after each screw-up (so to speak), she throws herself once again headlong into the truth. There is her shink, and her next shrink, and her shrink after that. (Geographical and other factors outside of her control necessitate the moves.) There is his shrink, and AA, and their shrink. Shrinks. There is an art project in grad school that leaves her open and vulnerable and ultimately spurned for attempting to get at a truth, which (surprise, surprise) freaks everyone's shit right out. It is so painful at times, watching this earnest struggle to get at the truth, to learn what it is and then learn how to live in it, to communicate with it, one aches for this young woman and her crazy quest.

But this is the same thing that makes it compulsively readable. Well, besides the sex, which is pretty salacious, and the unselfconscious exposure of her very privileged life. (Lehr was financially supported by her family, and in fairly grand style, pretty much until her husband's ship came in.) Again and again, despite the crazy pain involved, she dives into the hard work of scrutinizing her screw-ups for clues as to their genesis, until finally, she comes up with the answers. They are both complex and simple, always boiling down to truth and communication, communication and truth. Many of the reviewers on Amazon say they saw their own life in Lehr's; the rest (and we're talking half and half), dismiss the book as an overly-long, poorly-written exercise in narcissism by a spoiled princess.

Could it be shorter? Yes, by about 100 pages, I reckon. Better-written? In parts, certainly. Hell, there are parts of every post I've ever written that I know could be better-written, usually as I'm writing them.

It's fearless, though, and earnest and heartfelt. And it's a startling expose of the real reasons we both turn away and towards sex in (and out of) relationship. It's about addiction of all kinds, and how it keeps us from true love and connection. It's about how unbe-fucking-lievably hard it is to communicate when the stakes are high. (The story of how John and Jennifer Lehr turn around their relationship is instructive and inspiring.)

So while I wish that maybe she'd had a little more experience with writing before she sat down to tell her story, or an editor who had leaned a little harder on her, I'm grateful to Lehr for sharing it. And very much looking forward to deepening my own commitment to rooting out fraud in my own life...


1She explicitly the details of life with her husband, comic actor John Lehr, or the lack thereof, when it comes to.

Photos: (l) ©ReganBooks, Cover design by Richard Ljoenes; (r) photo of author Jennifer Lehr ©Stephanie Howard

Yo! Disclosure! Links to the books in the post above are Amazon affiliate links. This means if you click on them and buy something, I receive an affiliate commission. Which I hope you do: it helps keep me in books to review. More on this disclosure stuff at publisher Michael Hyatt's excellent blog, from whence I lifted (and smooshed around a little) this boilerplate text.

The Wayback Machine: Advice to the lovelorn

Between coming off a lollapalooza of a trip and the crapload of work staring me in the face upon my return, I've been kind of overwhelmed and under-motivated. Happens.

But in a twin stroke of magic from the Serendipity Fairy, I got an infusion of inspiration on a trip to Ojai visiting a lady-homey, and another jolt while trying to clean out the Fibber McGee's closet that is the innards of communicatrix-dot-comâ„¢, official bloggity-blog of Colleen Wainwright and the communicatrix empire.

Specifically, at the tail end of my journey, I ended up talking about...tail: where one gets some and how to procure the quality version. (If you're a lady-homey, you already know how to procure quantity: walk into a bar and flash any portion of your ladyparts.) And tonight, I came across this unpublished bit which had been languishing at the bottom of a pile.

So for those nice ladies I got caffeinated with at Ojai Coffee Roasting Co. the other day, and for any of the rest of you who might be on the prowl, romantically-speaking, I offer the following. Mostly still sound, mostly not too poorly written. Some updates in brackets [like so]. It's more general than tactical, but I think it's no less useful for it. Maybe you'll confirm this; maybe you'll tell me otherwise.

Me, I'm going to enjoy some of the fruits of my own online labor of many years ago and head over to The BF's for Yeah. That's it.

Have a lovely "weekend," all y'all...

I'm not prone to giving advice, wait...yes, I am. Well, not unsolicited advice, shit, I do that, too.


Okay: I love giving advice. I've been addicted to advice columns since I found Dear Abby on the funnies page (her hipper twin, Ann Landers, was in the Sun-Times and we were a Trib household all the way).

I especially enjoy advice on matters of the heart since I find love fascinating, although as regular readers know, I spout off on pretty much anything within arm's reach. I loved Em & Lo, the erstwhile Nerve gals who write so well about sex, and subscribed to not so I could keep up with their excellent news coverage but because I got tired of reading the Daily Pass ad to get to my Cary Tennis. [Today, I'm an ardent (haha) fan of the magnificent Dan Savage, whose excellent sex/relationship advice column is widely syndicated in alternative papers and whose out-loud version of the column (a.k.a. The Savage Lovecast) is so true and funny it makes me snort things out my nose even as I pound the dashboard in assent with his uncanny insight.]

Ironically, though, ever since I actually have had some clue about How These Things Work, I have questioned my right to be an authority on (insert topic here). I'm definitely one of those women who suffers from Imposter Syndrome, as Jory Des Jardins describes it:

(Imposter Syndrome) is a fairly common condition that affects many women, particularly those who are achievement-oriented. It's a belief that one's accomplishments are not deserved, that one has somehow fooled the system and will inevitably be found out for the fake that she is.

As a well-under-30 pup selling ads to clients twice my age, I remember having frequent "When Will They Find Out We Are Frauds" discussions with my then-boss back in the go-go '80s.

But, as usual, I digress.

I think that my youthful zeal for offering advice had more to do with my needing to be seen and valued than with any selfless desire to share the wealth. These days, I find it easier to resist offering unsolicited advice one-on-one. I figure if someone wants my goddam opinion, they can goddam well ask for it; if, on the other hand, they're just jaw-flapping, as The Chief Atheist used to say, and I have an excuse to walk away and not waste my valuable time and energy.

As an avid reader of Craig's List, however, I used to find my advice-giving buttons pushed pretty frequently, and the lure was strong. Fortunately, they make you jump through so many hoops to reply to a post that often, my ardor cooled in advance at the prospect. In fact, I'm always shocked at how many people will jump on a lame thread in the Rants & Raves section; they must have really, really boring jobs.

But every once in a while, a post would cry out to me. The poster seemed to genuinely want an answer to a problem that spoke to my experience, and I'd have an extra ten or so minutes to devote to the issue. I always considered it another way of giving back; lord knows enough people have helped me through the dark and murky times.

I won't repost this guy's entire plea for help since I don't have his permission, but suffice it to say he was experiencing some bewilderment on the dating front and, having given up entirely on meeting people in real-life venues like bars, he had now come to the conclusion that even the people looking online weren't really looking for a relationship. Worse, I could sense he was on the precipice overhanging The Dark Place; one stiff wind and we might lose him to the other side.

Here's what I had to say:

You know what? You're absolutely right...and you're absolutely wrong.

I'm a fairly cool chick (or so I've been told by some fairly cool people who didn't stand to gain anything by saying it) and I've met some pretty great guys online. And in bars. And through friends. And even, one unusual time, standing in front of a burning bus.

I've also met some equally heinous guys in each of those places. (Well, I only met the one guy in front of the burning bus.)

Point being, there are asshat chicks *and* cool chicks *everywhere*. If you're really looking for a cool one, why close off any reasonable avenue? Two caveats, though. First, in my experience, you do better if you're open but not Looking. Cool chicks can get a little turned off by guys too much on the prowl. (And nobody likes a needy person.)

And second, if you are burning out on any part of the process or developing any kind of an attitude about a particular avenue, stay away from it until you can jump back in with a better attitude. Don't date angry!

Now, I know Em & Lo [or Dan Savage] would have been way funnier, and that Cary [or Dan Savage, can you tell I'm queer for the dude?] would have done a much more thoughtful job of dissecting the guy's modus operandi and even analyzing his intent. But sometimes, the best "advice" you can give is a little reassurance that this, too, shall pass, and that maybe it's a good idea to cool one's heels until one can approach the "problem" with an open mind and a fresh perspective. Especially when you don't really know the person asking the question. And as someone with extensive experience in online dating who had experienced burnout and the falling rate of return that accompanies it, I felt uniquely qualified, nay, compelled, to speak up. So I'm pretty sure I wasn't talking out of my ass.

Hopefully, I wasn't just flapping my jaw, either.

xxx c

Image by anniejean via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Cheering the Hell Up, Day 04: Making Breaking Up Less Hard To Do

mourning First off, for you alarmists out there: no, nothing's wrong in Paradise. The BF and I are still happily "The BF and I."

But I recently made a new friend who recently broke it off with a boyfriend and it got me to thinking about my own past breakups, oft necessary parts of Getting To Happy, but not always fun in their own right.

No advice is one-size-fits-all, so consider everything I'm going to say like a pile of stuff at an outdoor flea market that you can either pick through lazily out of interest or ignore wholesale for the smelly, superfluous pile of ca-ca it is.

Also, this advice is mainly for chicks because, despite all of my efforts to be very manly, I am a chick. If you're a dude...well, maybe #3 & #4 cross the gender line, but basically, I don't know. The best advice I can give is go seek out some dude advice. (Do dudes even give advice?)

For you ladies, read on...

1. Do more hanging out with women right now. GREAT women, who inspire you. Not "girls." And especially not catty girls. It is also fine to hang out with gay male friends who love you and will tell you how gorgeous/fabulous you are. It is even fine if they are catty, as long as it's about the right stuff and makes you laugh.

2. Avoid like the plague anything that makes you feel old/ugly/loser-esque/etc. For me, this means all women's magazines and other lifestyle porn (except maybe JANE and Oprah's magazine) and supertrendy L.A. hangout spots. It is also very good to avoid people who are at all unsupportive or even just well-meaning but have their heads up their asses. Keep your force field as clear as you can of human detritus.

3. Ditto news of anything that makes you feel depressed. This includes "important" but devastating coverage of Darfur, chimpy, peak oil, etc. Quickly skim headlines to make sure the world isn't coming to an end today, then move on.

4. Do lots more of what is unusual and fun for you, provided it is of a creative and inspiring and active nature, and not a passive, consumer nature. Consider spending less time (and money) at the store and more at sites like Inspire Me Thursday and 52 Projects. Be with friends (the good ones, the positive ones) but do as much of it alone as you can. Let yourself rock out aloud with the joy of it all.

5. If you haven't yet, consider reading He's Just Not That Into You. Yeah, it's annoying and cheesy and embarrassing for a variety of reasons, most unintentional. But you don't have to buy it; you can read it in about a half-hour standing up in the aisle at the bookstore (after my last breakup, I read it in a Borders I don't usually frequent because I am a gigantic pussy). And like it or not, it distills the truth about women taking crap off of men like nothing I've ever read.

Of course, nothing heals like time. But a bit of awareness during the healing time might prevent future repeats. Sticking your head into a tub of ice cream feels good in the moment, but doesn't do much to evolve you from emotional knuckle-dragging.

Besides, ice cream is off-limits if you're SCD...

xxx c

Image by scottwills via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

How to get the man of your dreams: make a list, check it twice

heartIt's been awhile since the c-trix blogged about dating. This is only natural, given that she has been blissfully, if somewhat surprisingly, ensconced in a monogamous relationship with The BF for the bulk of 2005. Plus it's the holidays and stuff, people have Black Friday and E-mail Monday and other important issues to wrestle to the ground. At the same time, the management is nothing if not sensitive to the fact that the holidays can be an especially difficult time for those who are single and wish not to be. Hell, the management has spent more than one holiday with nothing but a camera up its ass to keep it company. So when a recent check of the stats turned up an interesting dating-and-the-single-woman blog that's recently linked here (thank you, Dr. Annie), we here at communicatrix were impelled to action.

The post in question raises the question of "dealbreakers": must-have accessory of the self-actualized gal or blueprint for foolish pipe dream?

The post links to an entry on another blog written by a young Adventist Christian hussy (God bless the internets) who very much knows what she wants. In fact, she's enumerated it, in minute detail, for which I applaud her. It can be very scary asking for what you want, but also very, very powerful. I know; I myself wrote a series of these lists in the year before I met The BF. The way I see it, when I finally got the list right, bam! I got the guy who matched the list.


There are two caveats to keep in mind if you want the voodoo to work.

First, you can't be cavalier about the list. The list needs to be a distillation of the things that resonate in the deepest, darkest parts of you. That list needs to be s-e-r-i-o-u-s.

That doesn't mean things like "makes my heart thump from across the room" or "can pound me till the top of my head comes off" can't be on there; they should, if those things matter to you. Anything that really matters should be on the list. It just means you must not sully it with frivolous, superficial bullshit your frivolous, superficial ego has on its shopping list.

So, in this brave new dating universe, "attractive to me" replaces any specific trait you may have found hot in anyone to date (pun intended). "Gets it" replaces a specific level of schooling you think is the benchmark of smart. And be very judicious about your inclusion of lifestyle line items: unless you are a porpoise, best to leave "MUST love the water" off.

Part II of the love juju operation is what most people leave out, and the thing that generally insures against frivolous line items: you, the asker, must be ready for the askee. Not ready as in "I am so fed up with all these stupid mens who don't appreciate my fine self" but with the heightened state of readiness a martial arts master knows his instrument. You have read the books, shrunk with the shrink, risen from the ashes of devastion like a self-evolved phoenix. You have, most likely, spent months or even years at a stretch with naught but your loathesome self (and maybe a camera up your ass) to keep you company. You know humility from false modesty from self-loathing; you take shit off of no one because you have the deep confidence in your choices that comes with time and thought and meaningful action, not because you bad.

In a quick fix world, Part II seems cumbersome, inelegant and tedious. It lacks the can-do, Tools For Livingâ„¢ sexiness of listmaking.

But there is no substitute for knowing oneself, and the alternative, a world full of people with the extraordinary and unprecedented luxury of time for self-evolution who instead choose Doritosâ„¢ and trips to Cabo and other disposable bling of our modern era, is far more horrid to contemplate than even a lifetime alone.

So for the good of the planet, of the rest of us who share it, of the people you and your future love-monkey might put on it, before you make that list of everything you want in another person, make a list about everything you want in a best friend. Or a list of all the traits the most amazing teacher/family member/heroic figure you've ever met possesses.

Take a long time with that list: write, put aside, live your live, come back to it. Rinse, repeat. It is a lengthy process and yes, sometimes a tedious one. But it can also be a thrilling, challenging and even joyful process.

Become that list, and chances are the right person will fall right into your self-actualized lap.

xxx c

Wherein our heroine learns to avoid the damned street entirely

Leaf with holes My friend, Mary Ellen, and I go way back to my advertising days; she was one of the first people I met when I moved back to Chicago from New York, and I still make fun of how relentlessly and Midwesternly cheerful she was when she poked her head into my office for the first time to invite me to lunch.

She is still way too nice to remind me of what a dark and twisted troll I was, but 20 or so years later, she's simmered down, I've cheered up and we've met in a new middle ground. Our semi-/annual conversations have become important to both of us because we serve as touchstones for one another, showing how we've changed and where we might still need to. And, since Mary Ellen forsook advertising for psychotherapy instead of something idiotic like acting, it's basically like I get a 90-minute session free, or for the price of a phone call, which, since I switched to Vonage, is almost free. Ha, ha, Mary Ellen, I win!

Anyway, after the brief-but-requisite foray into the piteous state of national affairs, we launched into the more important topic of boys boys boys. Specifically, what we were doing with ours and how it all was going. (Mary Ellen and her husband have been together 15* years, during which timeI've divorced one guy and slagged around with a bunch of others, so there's always lots of touchstoning action there.)

I'm happy to report that things are tip-top back in Illinois; I'm guessing that by the way I natter on like a schoolgirl about The BF, everyone reading this knows things are hunky-dory here in sunny California. But it was not ever thus. Which got us to talking about two things: whether mileage logged**, solo or in tandem, is responsible for things going more smoothly or whether there really is a more-right-for-you type than those hilariously inappropriate jackasses you couldn't get enough of as a girl of 30 winters.

Here we sharply diverged, with Mary Ellen taking the highly uncharacteristic "life is short, life is shit/soon it will be over" viewpoint (i.e., there is no one type of person more right for us and relationships are, at their best, "a crucible, or cauldron, depending on the day" for personal development) and me staking out the cute boy – debilitating mental illness = reasonable shot at happiness position.

However, we both agreed on one thing: time do make the difference, both in knowing what is and is not tenable and speeding up the loosening of one's monkey-like grip on the latter. This is why I'm happy to be a craggy old crone of 44 rather than the juicy scoop of 20-something I once was. Also, I have excellent genes.

Mary Ellen even supplied the poem of the day: a lovely offering by one Portia Nelson, whom you may know better as Sister Berthe in the film version of The Sound of Music (or, for you 70's hipsters, the Law Office Receptionist in the only version Can't Stop the Music). I'm being glib, but I'm actually rather moved by Portia's story, having read up on her via her lovingly crafted website and read her poem, "Autobiography in Five (Short) Chapters" on the INS (yes, the INS) website. I guess self-actualization is a hot topic of discussion among potential immigrants to the U.S.

The poem is contained in There's A Hole In My Sidewalk: The Romance of Self-Discovery, and is, apparently, quite as famous as any Von Trapp in its own right. The book (and contents) are copyrighted, so I can't but excerpt a bit here, but it resonated deeply with me, and I must needs share a stanza here, the one I got stuck in for a good 15 years:

2. I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don't see it. I fall in again. I can't believe I am in the same place.

But it isn't my fault.

Yeah, right.

On the one hand, where else could you be from ages 18 - 40?

On the other hand, let's hear it for 44.

xxx c

*Mary Ellen says it's actually closer to 11, but my position is if you make it past 10 years together in this farkakte world, you might as well call it 20.

**Intelligent, aware and awake mileage, that is. Just making it to age 170 is no guarantee that you will be any smarter than the average 12-year-old, and probably less smart if that 12-year-old has learned things like "don't stick your hand in there unless you're sure that thing is unplugged".

Photo by novon, used under a Creative Commons License