Was It Good For You? My Love Affair with Romance Novels

Was It Good For You? My Love Affair with Romance Novels

What makes a book “good” or “bad?”

I was an English major in college, so technically I know the answer to that question, but when you really get right down to it, how does one determine whether a book is a worthy of someone’s time? Whether or not it is “good” for them to be reading it?

My 13-year-old daughter recently came home from school upset because her English teacher said she needed to bring a book with her to read during free reading time.

I was a perplexed by this. My daughter lives and breathes books. When she was in kindergarten her babysitter taught her how to hula hoop. Two days later, she figured out a way to hula hoop while holding a book. Reading has never been her problem. Reading too much? Maybe.

When I asked her why this upset her, she said she couldn’t read what she wanted to read.

“It has to be a ‘good’ book,” she said, eyes rolling.

I knew where her teacher was coming from. She wants to get her students out of their comfort zones and expose them to the vast possibilities that books hold.

But I also felt my daughter’s pain. In her mind, that meant no more books like Secrets of My Hollywood Life or Best Friends For Never. She felt like she had to toss all of those out in favor of Catcher in the Rye.

I knew all too well how it felt to want to read “bad” books. It started in junior high for me, too.

My mom had a shelf of books downstairs in our family room just to the left of our electric typewriter. Two rows of thin white spines with red-tipped pages….Harlequin Presents.

 The authors seemed to be the stars. Their names were bigger than the titles of the books, their glamour accentuated by an exotic font that brought to mind places like Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana.” That font promised things only known to mature, worldly women ‑ intrigue, opulence, sex ‑ things a 12-year-old girl growing up in the middle of a cornfield felt she would never fully understand. It was a powerful font.

Those books had been sitting on that shelf for years, mostly ignored by me. The covers had sketches of women with feathered hair and men with neckerchiefs and mustaches. I hated the mustaches. They made me think of Magnum P.I. and his hairy legs in those short shorts. I put the books back and returned to Little Women and Anne of Green Gables.

A few years later, my hormones arrived, and at just the right time in pop history, too. New Kids on the Block had just come on the scene. Kirk Cameron was gracing the covers of Teen Beat, and Patrick Swayze was making my little heart ga-gung all over the place. I was primed for romance.

Dog-eared copies of V.C. Andrews novels had been making the rounds in my junior high for a while. Some helpful eighth grader had even underlined the dirty passages for quick reference. I gave them a shot, but they weren’t for me. While the stories were definitely titillating, they were also completely terrifying. There was too much incest and rat poison.

My mom’s romance novels were just the right speed. They were a surefire way to get all the titillation I needed without any of the rat poison.

I don’t remember the first one I read. But it wasn’t long before I found myself going back to that bookshelf again and again.

Like any good aficionado, I developed a process. When selecting a book, I would methodically pull the books out one by one and study the covers to see if the main characters fit my stringent list of desirable physical characteristics (mainly no mustaches).

If those characteristics were met, I would flip them over and read the plot descriptions on the back like I was a connoisseur of fine wines. What was I in the mood for? A little light intrigue? A nurse in love with her doctor? A marriage of convenience? Oh, yes, that would do nicely.

Marriages of convenience were my favorites. The two main characters were bound to end up in bed together at some point. Even if it didn’t lead to sex, it might lead to a little French kissing (unless it was a red Silhouette Desire, then the couple would definitely be having sex, and in places that seemed unfathomable to my adolescent mind … like the shower).

The beauty of these books was that they were short. I could finish one in a day or two and move on to the next one. But soon my appetite had exceeded my supply. I had worked my way through all the facial-hair-free books in my mom’s collection. I needed to find a new source. But where?

Babysitting gigs usually turned out to be fruitful. Most of the moms had a stash somewhere, even if it was just one or two. The trick was to try and read them in one sitting. You didn’t know when you would be babysitting next and you definitely couldn’t ask the mom to borrow it. Then she would know you were rifling around her nightstand. So you put the kids to bed early and prayed the parents stayed out late.

Cutting short games of Candy Land so I could read erotic fiction didn’t go unnoticed by the kiddos. They ratted me out and my babysitting jobs dried up.

That left the library. Once I located the romance section, it was surprisingly easy. I would just slip one or two between a couple of Sweet Valley High or Babysitter’s Club books and then not make eye contact with the librarian while she was checking out my books.

For almost all of seventh grade, I spent every free moment wrapped up in a world where it was totally plausible for a man to fake a marriage with a woman he just met to prevent his dying mother from finding out his real marriage to a woman his mother never met didn’t work out.

I was having a love affair with reading, and it was exciting. It was the first time in my life I had stayed up until 2 a.m. to find out how a story ended, and it was the first time books made me cry. Beth dying in Little Women hadn’t even done that.

Things got a little sticky toward the end of the school year. Through an odd twist of fate, my oldest brother was my reading teacher, and one of the requirements for his class was to turn in book reports on any outside reading we had done. My plan had been to read one Babysitter’s Club or Sweet Valley High book for every romance novel I read and write reports on them.

This plan would have worked if I had actually read any Babysitters Club or Sweet Valley High books. I didn’t turn in a single book report for almost a whole year.

When my mom found out, she made me write book reports on every romance novel I had read. My cheeks burned with embarrassment as I wrote out character descriptions and plot points. It was like turning in a report on something you had read in Playgirl.

To my brother’s credit, he didn’t bat an eye. He gave me half credit for the reports since they were late and never said a word about it.

Looking back, I have to wonder, was it a “bad” thing for me to read these books? Maybe. Once, I was in a car with a boy I had a crush on. It was snowing and the car went into a shallow ditch. I thought “Ok, this is it. He will offer me his coat, he will take me into his arms…” That didn’t happen. He didn’t even ask if I was ok. He jumped out into the snow bank and started stomping around and getting really angry. Then he asked me to get out and help him push the car out of the ditch.

So, they might have set me up for some unrealistic expectations when it came to boys.

But the books weren’t altogether bad. For instance, I learned there are a variety of ways to describe the different stages of arousal, such as “heaving pillows of downy, white flesh” and “throbbing manhood.”  They also taught me new things about the world, like a man with a mustache is capable of love.

More importantly, I was reading something every day, and this is a habit that has stuck with me. Romance novels gave me a genuine love for reading. They paved the way for me to read books by Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen. Later it was other strong female voices like Shirley Jackson, Flannery O’Connor, Margaret Atwood, and Toni Morrison. Yet, even amidst all this “good” writing, I still snuck in a romance novel every once in a while. Because I think there is room for both.

Do I think kids should be challenged? Absolutely. But should we make reading feel like work? Should we shame kids for wanting to read something other than a Newbery Award winner? No. I think we forget that books can be fun. They don’t have to be serious, or even all that well written. If they entertain you, then they are doing their job.

Just Put Your Pickle On Everyone’s Plate, College Boy…

Just Put Your Pickle On Everyone’s Plate, College Boy…

“And leave the hard stuff to me.”

This is one of my favorite lines from Dirty Dancing. Johnny Castle says it to Robbie the Creep after Robbie insults him. Johnny fires this line back and then knocks a bunch of napkins off the table. I can totally see why Baby fell for him.

I try to work this line into conversation as much as I can, but its surprisingly hard. It really only works when I’m telling my kids to set the table and its veggie burger night. Then they get mad when I knock the napkins off the table.

Dirty Dancing has been on my mind a lot lately, mostly because Dirty Dancing: The Musical has come to Des Moines and I have to drive by the Civic Center’s billboard every day on my way home from work.

I feel like its everywhere. The electronic road sign they have over I-235 was flashing this message the other day: “Nobody puts baby in a car unless properly buckled.”

Given my love for the movie, you would think I would be dying to go. I hate to tell you, but the only way I would plunk down $113 to see it is if Jennifer Grey were up there on stage with her original nose and Patrick Swayze and Jerry Orbach were back from the dead to reprise their roles. Otherwise, it’s like watching Pretty in Beige instead of Pretty in Pink.

I want to keep my memories of the movie pristine. I don’t want to spoil it with a bunch of cheesy musical numbers involving the song “Hungry Eyes.” And I’m pretty sure the actress who plays “Baby” is wearing a wig.

Speaking of pickles….

My friend Nicole has a lighter with a pickle on it. Do you think that’s weird? We think its weird. What does a pickle have to do with smoking? Or lighting things on fire?

She said the cashier at Walgreen’s handed it to her, so she didn’t get a look at the other lighters available, but did wonder if it was a series. Maybe other condiments like mustard and ketchup? Or what about a series of lighters featuring all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese or onions? Maybe one with a sesame seed bun?

If you have any answers to this burning question, Nicole and I would really like to know.

P.S. Sorry for the random thoughts today but I’ve been working on another writing project and my brain is having trouble forming any further cohesive thoughts. You’re stuck with my pickle brain.

My In-Tents Fantasy Life

My In-Tents Fantasy Life

In my mind, I am amazing at all types of things – being a pioneer, a wedding DJ, a rock star. It doesn’t matter that I can barely sew a button or carry a tune. In my mind, I have a fabulous life. I am a legend.

I can romanticize almost anything to epic proportions. For instance, I make a decent vegan cream of broccoli soup. Vegans and non-vegans alike have told me it’s delicious. Maybe they are just being nice, but now every time I make it I let myself believe I am the most skilled soup chef there ever was. In the time it takes to chop the broccoli, I am convinced I should open a soup shop – a really cute soup shop, perhaps called “Soup Shop.” It will receive rave reviews, people will love it and I will happily make soup all the live-long day.

I have worked in food service. I know for a fact I would hate running a restaurant, and I know for a fact I would be terrible at it. My math skills are embarrassing. There’s no way I would be able to scale the cream of broccoli soup recipe to feed the 2,500 imaginary people I haved lined up outside my “Soup Shop” to eat my soup.

The nice thing is, I don’t really have to deal with these problems because it’s all happening in my head, and in my head my genius for business is equal to my talent for making delectable soups. I am also tall, skinny and blonde, but that’s neither here nor there.

The problem comes in when I convince myself I like something I really don’t because I like the idea of that thing more than the actual thing. I then try to make that romanticized idea a reality and end up disappointed and frustrated.

Confused? Let me explain it this way.

I like the idea of camping and being outdoorsy. In fact, I am in love with the idea of camping and being an outdoorsy person. But I am not sure I actually like camping or being outdoors.

Every year we plan one or two camping trips, and every year I spend the weeks prior to the trip fantasizing about how wonderful it will be.

The weather will be perfect, of course. All three days will be partly sunny (so we can have some shade) with zero humidity.

There aren’t any bugs at this campground, and if there are they most definitely will not be in the bathrooms.

I will wake up from a perfect night’s rest and step out from our tent to stretch in the early morning sunlight. Everything will be serene. I will breathe in the fresh morning air and stare in wonderment at nature’s bounty surrounding me.

The children will be well-behaved and will always want to go on whatever hiking trail or canoe trip I suggest. I will take pleasure in cooking my food over uneven heat sources and washing my dishes bent over a tub of lukewarm water sitting on my picnic table. I won’t be too tired after doing the dishes to start a fire and make smores. And when the smores are done, we will sit around the campfire looking up at the stars. Someone will pull out a guitar from behind a lawnchair and we will spend the evening singing campfire songs.

In my mind, we are a Scheel’s advertisement. We wear hiking boots, cargo shorts and flannel shirts. My (long, blonde) hair is pulled back into an effortless yet classy-looking ponytail and my face is as fresh as a Noxema girl’s.

In reality, my (short, brown) hair is frizzy from the humidity and my face is blotchy. My body has been washed hastily because there’s a pervy cricket eyeing me in the corner of the shower and I have to push the shower control every 30 seconds to keep the lukewarm water from shutting off halfway through my shampoo job.

There are gnats everywhere. The live ones follow me around in black cloud and the dead ones take up space in the bathroom sinks next to other people’s hair and toothpaste spit.

I have to poop next to strangers all weekend long.

I can’t step out for solitude in the early-morning sun because there’s a pack of kids tearing around on bikes and scooters beginning at sunrise. (Hey, that kid looks suspiciously like my 8-year-old!) I can’t see nature at all because the only things surrounding us are massive RVs.

Despite all of this, I tell myself that I love camping. It might be self-preservation. If I didn’t go camping, I would miss out on the few family vacations my whole family is able to take.

I have a huge family – brothers, sisters, in-laws, nieces, nephews, great-nieces and nephews – nearly 40 of us in total. It would be impossible for us all to take a family trip somewhere normal like Disenyland. We would need an entire hotel floor, and then we would be fighting over whose turn it is to sit in the hot tub.

Camping is a way for us all to be together. We eat good food, we take walks, we gossip. The kids tell ghost stories and there’s usually one adult who isn’t too tired to make the smores. And just when the bugs and humidity get to be too much, it’s time to go home.

We’ve made some great memories camping, even if they aren’t picture-perfect. Before I know it, those memories have overshadowed the unsettling bug-in-the-shower flashbacks and I’m looking forward to the next year’s trip.

Who knows? Maybe by then I will have my “Soup Shop” business plan worked out and I can hit up my sibilings to be investors.

Cherry Bombed: My Misadventures in Karaoke

Cherry Bombed: My Misadventures in Karaoke

As with all things good and holy, it started with Madonna.

The first time I did karaoke I sang “Papa Don’t Preach” with a German exchange student I knew in college named Claudia. Claudia was very tall. She looked like Uma Thurman and wore orange pants. I coveted her height, her good looks, and most of all those pants. If Claudia told me to dance , I danced. And if she told me to sing Madonna, I sang Madonna. It is possible I did these things because she ordered me to do them in a thick, authoratitive German accent, but I trusted her. She had the courage to wear orange pants. How could she lead me astray?

We did not sing the song very well, but we gave it all we had. It was the German way. And the crowd seemed to love it. Maybe because they thought Uma Thurman had made a stop at the Cedar Falls Diamond Dave’s. I don’t know. But I thought the cheers were for me. And I ate it up.

That was nearly 15 years ago. Since that time, I have devoted many a weekend to practicing the ancient art of karaoke. It is a delicate balance between talent and showmanship. I have made many missteps along the way.

To help guide me in my pursuit of bringing quality entertainment to the 20 or so people gathered in a particular bar on a particular evening, I have developed a list of rules. Hopefully you can glean something from them and find yourself on the road to becoming a karaoke star in your own right.

The first rule is Punch your weight.” This rule is also known as “Never, ever under any circumstances attempt Mariah Carey unless you are actually Mariah Carey. It doesn’t matter how many drinks you’ve had or how much you ” luuuv” the song. Just don’t. I mean it. Don’t.”

A lot of singers who do karaoke are there to showcase their vocal acrobatics. They’ve taken years of vocal lessons, or maybe they’ve spent years singing in front of their bedroom mirrors with a hairbrush for a microphone. Whatever their background, they pick songs that highlight their talents.

I have no vocal talents. My skills wouldn’t pass tumbling. I can only stay in tune if I am whisper-singing.

Yet, for some mind-boggling reason, I once thought it would be a good idea to sing Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby.” You read that right. I tried to take on the great human butterfly Mariah Carey and lost. Miserably. Because I’m not Mariah friggin’ Carey. I had no business being up there trying to do that song. Ever.

A couple of sorority girls in the corner were kind enough to cheer me on, but they knew and I knew that I wasn’t pulling it off. I just stopped singing, handed the DJ the microphone and walked off the stage.

You have to punch your weight. Know your vocal range. For me, that range is no range. Which is why I primarily stick to rap.

If you are going to rap, know the words.

I once boasted to a karaoke DJ that I could do “Regulate” by Warren G. He was excited and said he would do it with me since it’s a two-part song. I only knew 20 percent of the lyrics. Not even 20 percent. Mainly just the “Regulators….mount up!” part, which is at the very beginning. That DJ will no longer look me in the eye.

The song has to make my husband laugh.

My husband hates going to karaoke. He doesn’t sing, and honestly, karaoke is pretty boring to people who don’t really like to get up there and show off. Or who don’t like showtunes.

Fortunately for me, my husband loves ironically-sung power ballads like “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and hip-hop songs done by dorky white ladies. I feel like it’s my duty to accommodate that. If I throw in a couple of kicky dance moves or some side banter I am his karaoke hero.

I got a little carried away with this notion, and recently chose the song “Copacabana” because I think the lyrics are hilarious. My husband does not. He actually yelled, “Come on! Really?” when I got up on stage. I forgot he does not share my affection for Barry Manilow.

I also forgot about the 72-measure musical interlude in the middle. That’s like a whole other song. There were a couple of drunk people who got up to do a little disco while I was “singing” it, but even they got bored and gave up on me in the middle.

Which leads me to my next rule…

Entertain the crowd

Since I cannot sing, the only thing I can really bring to the table (besides mid-level rap skills) is my stage presence (i.e. kicky dance moves and side banter).

I have narrowed my repetoire down to two, maybe three songs I can do solo with a fair amount of confidence: “You Oughtta Know,” “Ice, Ice Baby,” and (if I’ve had enough to drink) a mash-up of George Michael and Limp Bizkit’s versions of “Faith.”

I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of those songs over the years. But every once in a while, I long for something different. It’s like asking Prince to only perform “Purple Rain” and “When Doves Cry.” (Yes, I just compared myself to Prince.) I need to find my “Raspberry Beret.” But not actually “Raspberry Beret.” I can’t sing it.

From time to time, I indulge in little karaoke fantasies, like “What would it be like if each song I chose was a selection from the ‘Footloose’ soundtrack?” or “Maybe I should do Taco’s ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’ and bring a top hat and cane.”

I seriously considered learning all the dance moves to Salt-n-Pepa’s “Push It” but had to abandon the plan when I learned it involved the Roger Rabbit, a dance move I have never been able to master.

I needed something that would leave the crowd whispering, “Who’s that girl?” But what?

I’m not entirely sure how “Cherry Bomb” floated into my head, but once it was there, it felt like the karaoke gods had delivered it to me like a gift on a little golden pillow.

“Go forth,” they trumpeted from behind that gigantic karaoke system in the sky, “And bequeath unto our flock the blessed word of our sisters Cherie Currie, Joan Jett, Lita Ford and the other two girls no one remembers. Praise be unto The Runaways!”

This was a song I could do! It met all my criteria! Cherie Currie didn’t so much sing “Hello, Daddy! Hello Mom!” as sneer it. I could sneer. My husband was a fan of the song, and it offered ample opportunity to ham it up on stage.

We were set to go to karaoke for a friend’s birthday, so I got to work practicing it. That’s right, I practiced it. I actually sat on my bed and sang my way through it like it was a totally serious thing. When my husband caught me, he said, “You’re thinking about this too hard.”

I wasn’t deterred because, in my head, I was already a legend. I was doing leg kicks, grinding my hips and spitting into the crowd. I was sassy and bold. I was a rock star.

Maybe it was all the practicing, but by the time it was my turn to get up and sing, the sass just leaked out of me.

I stood there gripping the microphone and staring at the teleprompter like an eighth-grader giving a speech for student council.

It was better than looking into the disinterested faces of my audience. They were either staring at me like I was a crazy person, staring down into the bottom of an empty beer glass, or ignoring me altogether. Not good.

I thought about throwing in a leg kick to grab their attention, but all I could will my body to do was a half-hearted pogo. I was bobbing up and down like I was singing “I’m a Little Teapot.”

I don’t think it would have mattered if I had set myself on fire while singing it. You see, the one big difference between me singing “Cherry Bomb” and Cherie Currie singing “Cherry Bomb” is that people wanted to hear her sing it. They paid to hear her sing it.

No one cared that I was singing it. They didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I don’t think anyone in that bar knew or cared who The Runaways were and I certainly wasn’t turning anyone on to their music.

When I sat down, one of my tablemates, who was clearly drunk, said, “That sounded like shit.”


So, there you have it… my iron-clad rules for karaoke success.

As you can see, I don’t always follow them. In fact, the whole story was about how I pretty much break them all. But that’s ok, right? It’s what rock stars are born to do.