Monday Earworm: Ben Harper

This song doesn’t really need an explanation, does it? It’s criminal that this plight is still so relevant. Doing better starts with individual actions and builds up to societal change.

You can read this post from last summer for a list of resources and ways you can effect positive change. Or just go straight to Black Lives Matter and find out how to get involved.

For Debbie

In the mid-1990s, in my twenties, I decided to begin a series of formal dance lessons that would help me connect more deeply with my Lebanese heritage. Raqs sharqi — bellydance — was not a difficult thing to find in Houston, and I easily found a school — Sirrom — where I could take lessons.

My mother seemed…skeptical. Perhaps because I’d dropped out of ballet and tap at the age of seven so I could start playing the piano? Perhaps because I had neither balance nor grace? Perhaps because the prevailing opinion was that I was probably afraid of my own shadow? “I don’t recommend it,” my mother said.

“I’m pretty sure this is something I want to do,” I said.

A couple of days later, she added, “You know, if you bellydance, you’ll actually make your stomach bigger from all that exercising of your abdominal muscles.”

That didn’t really track with me. “I’m doing it,” I said. “I’ve already found a school. The classes won’t be expensive, and I can do it around my teaching schedule.”

Mom wasn’t thrilled, but she got over it in time for my first recital, a performance which was…okay. Enthusiastic, though, definitely that. (I got better over time.)

One of my first bellydance teachers, or “dance mamas” as we often called them, was a woman named Debbie Scheel. In the dance community, she also went by Shakira Massood-Ali. Shakira was her dance name, Massood was her mother’s last name, and Ali was the name of Debbie’s own dance teacher. Debbie was Syrian and Lebanese and American, and she had the biggest personality I had ever encountered up to that point in my life. It’s a cliché to say a person is always smiling, but in her case, it was true. She was a veritable repository of good humor and a good sense of humor. She wasn’t afraid to crack herself up, and we all learned how to embrace being funny with her.

Debbie was one of the most brilliant choreographers I have ever known, and that’s saying something. She could nimbly execute even the most difficult combinations that my body, even after my eventual years of experience in the dance, would just stare at in wonder and despair. Debbie was also the first person I knew who really demonstrated body positivity before I even knew what the phrase meant. She made it clear that bellydance was empowering rather than objectifying. Debbie wasn’t the teacher who said to me: “When a woman can control her body, she can control her space, and when she can control her space, she can control her life.” But she damn well demonstrated it in real time better than almost anyone I knew. And she taught dozens, if not actual hundreds, of women the same.

In Debbie’s eyes, you did not have to be a super model to look glamorous in a bellydance costume. You didn’t have to be a Bellydance Superstar to be excellent in the dance. You did not have to be young and nubile and whatever else the dominant culture would have you believe is the right thing for a woman to be, to be worthy of notice. Every woman, every girl, every person of any age and size and ability was all of those wonderful things as far as she was concerned, or so she made us believe.

I have rarely seen anyone who displayed a more intense and genuine joy to be dancing. She cut an intimidating figure, and her elaborate costumes and up-to-eleven exuberance did nothing to tamp this down. Nor would we have wanted that. She was her own force of nature, and she taught us that we were good enough, we were beautiful, we were elegant and fun and smart and worth every minute of anyone’s attention. She instructed us not only in how to be really good dancers, but also that we were goddesses, each in our own amazing ways. Some of us even believed it sometimes, especially after a really vigorous performance.

photo by Ron Mailloux

I had trouble making it to class and performances consistently after my children were born. I remember ending my enrollment at the studio, tearfully, telling Debbie that I just couldn’t manage the time right then, between teaching full-time, caring for two babies, and writing a novel. She took my face in her hands and said, “Habibti, you can have it all. Just not all at the same time. We will always be here for you when you come back.” And she was.

I retired from bellydance (performance) over a decade ago, but I often miss the dance. I’m still close friends with some of the women I danced with the most, some of whom were my classmates and troupemates and some of whom were my own dance students. I’ve always meant to get back into it, even just doing it at home as part of my regular exercise routine.

But inertia is a bitch. It’s just been easy not to, especially during the pandemic. I know that I’ve never been physically healthier than when I was dancing regularly. My chiropractor and physical therapist reminds me frequently that quitting dance was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done for my body. He’s right, of course. I’ve always put it off, though, because of course I’ll get to it later, when I’m not so busy.

Last week, amidst all the other absolute craziness, Debbie suffered a massive heart attack and couldn’t recover from it. Her sudden death, a shock that quaked through the bellydance community, had all of us calling and texting each other the next morning, regardless of whatever classes or meetings or anything else we were supposed to be doing. We couldn’t believe it. How could this have happened? How was there not more time? We can’t even all get together for a funeral. Now what?

If there is anything I learned from Debbie, it’s that verve and enthusiasm and doing what’s right for you should be on every woman’s to-do list. Maybe that means I’m going to start dancing again after all. It definitely means that tonight I’m going to be editing one of my novels. I’m so grateful to her for teaching me to prioritize myself, even when I’ve failed to do so.

photographer unknown

Tim O’Brien wrote, it’s easy to get sentimental about the dead. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to posture that Debbie was more or less than she was, to me or to anyone or all on her own. But somehow just knowing she’s not out there cracking jokes and ululating and intimidating — maybe (for the more timid) frightening — the hell out of every man in the room with her incredible presence makes the world a little less musical place.

If you’d like to see Debbie’s obituary, click here. You can watch the memorial video on the site and see a lot of wonderful pictures of her that will give you a taste of her vibrant spirit. Enjoy.

2020 Romance Titles Ranked By Heat Level

Last year after I posted my 2019 Reading Year in Review, I got requests to rank the romances I’d read over that year by heat level, which I happily did, and that request has been made again this year regarding my 2020 Reading Year in Review by a few people. I’m very pleased to oblige. (And if this becomes another annual tradition, I’m good with that.)

Here is a quick guide to what heat levels are in category romance: it essentially refers to the sensuality level or raciness of the story. While there are several different explanations for how to rate such things, I’m going to use this one here, which is really interesting and worth reading. (It will also explain with further context the rankings which follow.)

Here are the five levels of heat, in order, with very brief descriptions:

*  MILD — Sweet like a Hallmark Christmas movie, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them to my adolescent children or even mature middle schoolers who were genuinely interested in the genre. In many examples of this heat level, the most titillating thing that happens might be kissing and the occasional cute innuendo.

*  MEDIUM — Generally equivalent to a PG-13 movie in that intimate situations or scenes are there, but they aren’t graphically described and won’t likely make people (who like the concept of kissing books) uncomfortable; I wouldn’t feel awkward recommending books like these to high school students who liked YA romance.

*  HOT — Sometimes called steamy, sexy, or spicy, this level includes most category romance books and offers a wide range of description of intimate activity and the language used to describe it; the titles I’ve included here also represent a wide range within this heat level.

*  NUCLEAR — Expect graphic descriptions and possible forays beyond vanilla.

*  EROTIC (ROMANCE) — This heat level pushes boundaries, most definitely; the characters’ emotional journeys are lived through explicit sexual activity, but (unlike in erotica) the emotional journey and the external story still retain primacy — as does the all-important happy story ending.

My reading diet is fairly inclusive, and I’m trying to make it broader every year. Representation matters, and so does buying and reading books which have it. Really diving into my lists over the years will net you quite a range.

I’m going to rank titles I read over the last year which are category romance, meaning they are in the romance genre and would not likely be shelved in a bookstore as something else (such as fantasy or science fiction or realistic fiction), even though some of the books I read in those other genres do have strong romantic subplots. (As always, if you want a review of any of the titles I’ve read over the last year, just leave me a note in the comments.)

And so here are the category romance titles I read last year, ranked by me:

MILD:
Charles Bewitched (Doyle)

MEDIUM:
Courtship and Curses (Doyle)
Sweetest in the Gale (Dade)* — This title goes into two sections because it is a short story collection, and different stories within it have different heat levels.

HOT:
Slippery Creatures (Charles)
Teach Me (Dade)
Office Hours (Jackson)
40-Love (Dade)
Salt Magic, Skin Magic (Welch)
Royally Bad (Flite)
Red, White & Royal Blue (McQuiston)
The Rogue King (Owens)
On the Edge (Sahin)
The Duke and I (Quinn)
Sweetest in the Gale (Dade)* — This title goes into two sections because it is a short story collection, and different stories have different heat levels.
The Blood King (Owens)* — This novel almost qualified for the medium level because it contains actually very few scenes of intimacy, but at least one of them is fully written, and not particularly euphemistic, right there on the page.

NUCLEAR:
Blaze (Tomlinson)

EROTIC:
All Together (Harper)

I’ve begun a list of titles people have requested reviews for, which I’ll be posting here on the blog in the weeks to come. Pile on in the comments if you want to know more about any of these books or any of the others from my general 2020 list. Happy reading!

2020 Reading Year in Review

A few years ago I began keeping a list of all the books I read in a given year. My hope was that I would do more reading for pleasure.

Reading. You know, that thing I’ve been doing since I was four, that activity which makes me happier than most other things, that reason (probably) I became a writer in the first place? Good grief, I love books so much.

But I was at a point in my life where I wasn’t doing a lot of reading for pleasure. I was reading a lot of students’ papers to grade them. (Spoiler alert: that is often not the same thing, even when I do enjoy reading some of those papers.) I was reading a lot of emails. (There was little to no pleasure in that.) I was reading for utility and purpose and requirement and work, but I was not taking time to read for fun. That had a very adverse effect on my entire life.

Being a list maker by nature, I thought if I kept a list of books I read, at the end of the year I would see that I’d done more reading than I thought I had, and it would boost my mood. Deciding to do this is one of the better choices I’ve made.

That first year I logged probably a dozen books, and my reading diet was very focused on fantasy, which is one of the main genres I write in. In the years since, as I continue keeping my list, the number of books I read in a year has steadily increased, and so has my reading diet. I try to read much more widely now, which has been very good for me, too.

2020 was, as you know, a challenging year. At midnight on New Year’s Eve, we opened the door to let the old year out and the new year in. (This is an old tradition.) We actually opened multiple doors. We thought about opening the windows and taking off the roof too, but it was pretty freaking cold outside. Still, I commanded the old year to “get the hell out,” and Fabulous Offspring #1 actually grabbed a broom and swept our entry hall onto the front porch to really make sure 2020 took a hike. (We are nothing if not committed to our metaphors.)

During the pandemic, particularly in the spring and early summer, I saw a lot of people online lamenting about not being able to sustain enough focus even to read. I felt that. It hit me, too. But then — even though doing actual creative work, such as writing, and actual teaching work, such as grading papers, felt nigh impossible for a while — I did manage to get back into reading. For fun. For stress relief. For calming my mind before bed. This even helped me start writing again.

And wow, did I read a lot.

This year I enjoyed my way through a whopping 41 books, possibly the most I’ve ever accomplished in my adult life, and definitely the most in a single year since I began teaching. So without further ado, here is my list — with some caveats:
* This year, I am including titles that I re-read. I didn’t use to but think it has value now. However, if I read a book on here more than once this year (and that did happen in at least a couple of cases), I am listing it just the once.
* I am not listing any books I began but did not finish.
* This list also does not include manuscripts I’ve read but which are not yet published. There were several of those (because critique groups, yo).

Texts from Jane Eyre by Mallory Ortberg
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Circe by Madeline Miller
Limit Theory by Ronald E. Holtman
Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon
Courtship and Curses by Marissa Doyle
Slippery Creatures by KJ Charles
Adulthood is a Myth by Sarah Anderson
Teach Me by Olivia Dade
Charles Bewitched by Marissa Doyle
Office Hours by Katrina Jackson
Blaze by Christa Tomlinson
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
40-Love by Olivia Dade
A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas
Salt Magic, Skin Magic by Lee Welch
Royally Bad by Nora Flite
Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
F in Exams: Pop Quiz by Richard Benson
The Kontrabida by Mia Alvar
Catacombs by Jason Zencka
The Rogue King by Abigail Owen
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The Blood King by Abigail Owen
Once Two Sisters by Sarah Warburton
Midnight Sun by Stephenie Meyer
On the Edge by Brittney Sahin
Your Book, Your Brand by Dana Kaye
Story Genius by Lisa Cron
White Fragility by Robin Diangelo
Sweetest in the Gale: A Marysburg Story Collection by Olivia Dade
Feng Shaun (Wallace and Grommet)
Dog Songs by Mary Oliver
Wow, No Thank You. by Samantha Irby
All Together by Brill Harper
World’s End by Clare Beams
A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik
The Evil Garden by Edward Gorey
The Duke and I by Julia Quinn

If you would like a review of any of these books, please tell me in the comments, and I’ll do my best for you! Similarly, last year it was requested that I rank the romance titles I’d read by heat level, so if you want those for this year as well, I’m happy to do it. Just drop me a note in the comments.

2020 Blog Year in Review

Happy New Year! (May it not suck!)

As I generally do annually around this time, I’d like to present a few factoids about how things went on Sappho’s Torque this past year. I wrote 111 new posts on the blog in 2020. Many of those posts were part of ongoing series, which are always both fun for me and hugely popular among my readers.

Almost 5,000 people visited the blog this past year, and while the vast majority are in North America, we had a very strong showing from UK, too, as well as India, Germany, and Australia.

I had hoped to boost my blog subscriber count up over 1,000 this year, though I didn’t quite make that. But all the writing goals I made for 2020 were well before we knew a pandemic was going to to interrupt our lives, so I’m not going to beat myself up about all the posts I meant to write but didn’t quite get around to yet. (They’re still on the docket for the future, though, so my guess is you’ll see some of them in 2021.)

There was also the matter of my releasing a new book this fall, and that took up quite a bit more time than expected, especially what with myriad covid-related delays of one sort or another. I did, however, write about a dozen flash fiction pieces this year, which is a new form for me, and which did not appear on the blog because they are on submission elsewhere first. (Writers have to make a living, too, and this blog doesn’t pay very well at all.  😉  So those pieces are hopefully destined for paying markets. Don’t worry, when they get published, you’ll hear about it!)

I like to look over my stats to see which posts are popular among the readers here. Many of the most popular ones are series-based pieces, such as during April’s Poem-a-Day series or the various earworms I like to share. But aside from those, here is a list of popular posts I wrote that saw a fair bit of traffic. Not surprisingly, many of them are related to our current zeitgeist or other current events we experienced throughout the year. And then a few of my older essays, which are perennial favorites, made the list again. (And as always, you can see a full list of popular posts here on the blog over all its years by clicking on this page.)

A Few Thoughts on This Whole Pandemic Thing and Why I’m Actually Not, Surprisingly, Freaking Out Right Now

Relief Efforts for Beirut

2019 Romance Titles Ranked By Heat Level

Kissing Barbie

Thoughts and Slayers: The Grendel Essay

Achievement Unlocked: Camp NaNoWriMo

Action Dispels Anxiety

Apokalyptein

Later this weekend I will post my 2020 Reading Year in Review as well; I’m pleased to report that I read way more books over the past twelve months than I have before during my professional life! I look forward to telling you about them very soon.

Thank you, always, for reading Sappho’s Torque. It’s a fond little project, and it means a lot to me that people continue to read and enjoy it. I hope to bring you more literary and auditory delight here on the blog in the coming year!