2006 - New book:
Unaccompanied Women - see it, here
Published May 18, 2003
A Round-Heeled Woman
By: Jane Juska. Publisher: Villard, 256 pages, $23.95.
Review: This story of a 60-something woman going on a sex spree is an amusing premise and well-written, but Juska's personal issues elicit more pity than pleasure.
Reviewed by Curt Schleier
Jane Juska placed the following ad in the New York Review of Books: "Before I turn 67 next March, I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like."
Juska had retired from her job as a high-school English teacher in Berkeley, Calif., taken another job as a college instructor, taught writing as a volunteer to prison inmates and sang in a chorale. But something was missing from her life.
The singles scene didn't work for her, and she became concerned: "What if I never have sex with a man again?" Faced with her mortality (and sagging body parts), she placed the ad as "my way of raging against all that."
How great is that? Here is a woman reaching for life with gusto, a beer commercial come to life. That she's heading out to play in AARP Stadium makes it even better. Or does it?
Juska received 63 replies and set about sorting and responding to them.
Some were funny. The young 68-year-old from Leisure World in Utah who was "sex hungry." The guy who said he could only be called in his office, not at home.
All is well until Juska begins to fill us in on her background -- and here's the rub. Juska brings a lot of issues to the table. She was raised in a small town "heavily populated with Mennonites, Amish and religious folk who did not allow dancing, movies, recorded music, television . . . " Her mother imbued her with more than her share of sexual taboos. Juska also was sexually abused by a handyman, something she repressed until it came out in therapy.
She endured an unhappy and largely sexless marriage. In 1983, at age 50 she stood 5 feet, 3 inches tall and weighed 234 pounds -- and her son was a runaway living on the streets of Berkeley. Juska was boozing it up every evening.
She also has unresolved issues with her dead father, who was, "in today's parlance, emotionally unavailable and more likely, alcoholic."
The one thing that saved her from a complete breakdown was that she was a good teacher. Otherwise, "I was bound for an early death."
Is this a story of redemption, of a woman who gets her act together, builds confidence in herself and grabs life by, well, whatever it is people grab life by?
Sadly not. Instead of being adventuresome, Juska is needy. Instead of being a hoot, the story is sad and at times embarrassing.
The major case in point is her experience with Robert, who has another girlfriend he constantly throws in her face. Juska admits, "I have no pride whatsoever."
Robert lives in New York City, and near the end of her visit, she asks -- "I beg" -- if she can visit again. "Will you let me know?"
He responds angrily: "You're writing a script for me. You want me to say things I don't want to say!"
There are other examples of how quickly she falls in love, how she grasps at any straw.
And there's also the matter of this book. Juska doesn't make clear when she set out to write it (or when it was commissioned). But at least one of her lovers, Graham (who is half her age) says: "I think your book just got a lot more interesting."
Was he with Juska because he wanted to be or because he wanted to be immortalized?
"A Round-Heeled Woman" is well written and at times great fun. But it left a bad taste in my mouth. In the end I felt sorry for Juska, sorry that she couldn't find redemption in a more dignified way.
Curt Schleier also reviews for the New York Post and the Kansas City Star. He lives in New Jersey.
'Did I have
fun? Oh boy, did I'
What made author and grandmother Jane Juska decide to go in search of sexual fulfilment at the age of 66? Marcus Warren meets her
At an age when many of her contemporaries are searching for new hobbies to occupy their twilight years, Jane Juska decided to rediscover one of the pleasures of her youth. Granted, she was rather out of practice at it. And her success in that department had been limited even when she was in her prime.
Undaunted, she gave it a go anyway, choosing to broadcast, anonymously, her desire to change her life in the pages of the New York Review of Books. The small ad this retired English teacher and author of several scholarly papers placed in the magazine's "personal" section was her mainstream publishing debut. It was also, it is now clear, a miniature prose masterpiece.
"Before I turn 67 - next March - I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like," it read. "If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me."
Potential mates were invited to reply to a box number.
Juska still giggles at the thought of it. "The best piece of writing I have ever done and certainly the most effective," she confesses with a titter. She expected to receive one letter in response, perhaps two. In the end, she sorted the replies into piles of "yes", "no" and "maybe". There were 63.
Some included full frontal nude photos. One boasted: "Have Viagra, will travel." A few doltish readers of this, the house journal of America's intellectual class, missed the allusion to the 19th-century creator of the Barsetshire novels and thought talking "Trollope" meant talking dirty, like some Shakespearean bawd.
But a few letters hit the right button, thus beginning what Juska now calls "my amazing true life adventure". She bade farewell to a past that included a puritanical upbringing in the Midwest, a failed marriage, years of celibacy, drinking and a weight problem, and threw herself into a frenetic round of dating, carnal enjoyment and refined conversation with her new men friends. And she is still at it today.
"It has been an enormous amount of fun," she says, putting a rather mischievous emphasis on the word "enormous". "No one ever asks me that: 'Did you have fun?' But, if they did, my answer would be: 'Oh boy. Did I'."
To prove it, she has written a book about her adventures, which reveals that she is as polished a writer on the page as she is an entertaining raconteur in person. In the wrong hands, an account of her experiences could easily have degenerated into the trashiest kind of Californian New Age sermon or sordid sex manual for the over-sixties.
Instead, Juska's story is a moving meditation on the libido of the pre-baby-boomer, post-menopause generation. In case that sounds forbiddingly high minded, rest assured that it is also raunchy, with lots of descriptions of what she and her paramours refer to as "squish".
"I am in bed with a fucking genius," she reflects in the book in mid-coupling with the most youthful of her lovers, a David Duchovny lookalike, then 32 years old. They are still "seeing" each other.
"Yes, we're good friends. He's fine. He's well and we're good friends," she says, suddenly as coy as a Hollywood starlet. Then she gives voice to some good-humoured irritation. "Everyone wants to know about him because he's the youngest. I mean, honest to God!"
As it is, she is "huffy" (her word) at a (female) British poet who recently sent her a snotty e-mail. What did a man so young see in a woman old enough to be his mother?, was the gist of it.
"Am I supposed to apologise or say I will never do it again or what have you?" she snaps.
At the moment, she is juggling three different men. "Just three," she says. There is a slight pause. "Four - if you count one I've never met." They are not sending each other dirty e-mails, it seems, just indulging in some good old-fashioned phone sex. "He calls me on the telephone and we have a party."
Juska lives in Berkeley, California, and none of the suitors or lovers is near her. She often feels lonely in the early evening, when there is no one "in the other room", as she puts it; but then she never set herself the goal of ensnaring a husband. That would have meant sacrificing too many other delights. "I did get a proposal but I turned it down. I'd have to give up other people and other things."
All the comings and goings and frequent visits to New York to see her East Coast lovers are by now well-established parts of her life. But her search for Mr Right got off to a memorably comical start. For the first of her dates - the last one had been 42 years earlier - she went head to head with an Irishman called Danny whose sense of mischief involved pretending that he had left his medicine behind and threatening, in front of shocked waiters and diners, to jump out of the window. Juska walked out before the coffee came.
Over lunch at that same restaurant, the Zuni Cafe in San Francisco, she is great "fun" - one of her favourite words. At the high school where she taught English, lessons must have been a hoot.
"I'll tell you," she begins confidently, at one point. "Oh no, I shouldn't tell you, but I'm going to tell you anyway." Then she repeats a recent conversation between herself and her ex-husband - they divorced three decades ago - about his place in the book.
Him: "What's the worst thing you said about me?"
Her: "You withheld sex."
Him: "Oh, is that all?"
Her own punch line: "That kind of tells you what the marriage was like."
Her book is called A Round-Heeled Woman, a rather poetic image to describe a promiscuous woman which sounds as though it could have come from Trollope himself but is actually American slang.
"It means an easy lay, a tip over," she explains. "It's like a doll that you tip over and it pops back up again and then you pop it over one more time."
As the exchange with her former husband suggests, there is enough mileage in the Juska story for a sequel. But she is against the idea, just as she recoils from the thought that she should be seen as a role model for other women of a certain age, or senior citizens as a whole.
"I have one bit of advice: I don't think everyone should do this. I didn't go on a crusade to liberate women." The individuals who approach her after public readings with confessions or pleas for help are an embarrassment. "I'm not an expert. I'm not a guru and I'm going to resist anyone who tries to make me one."
However, one ground rule she does recommend to those minded to follow her example is: ponder the likely consequences for your nearest and dearest. In her case, that meant her grown-up son. He was unfazed by her plans. "Go for it, mom," he told her. "It's your turn."
But should more ladies (or gentlemen), afraid that they may never have sex again, try the Juska retirement plan for themselves? Would-be imitators should be aware that, despite her cuddly grandmotherly appearance, Juska is an unconventional type, as befits one who has spent almost half a century in San Francisco's Bay area, that nursery and hotbed of radical, right-on causes.
"How I love motorcycles!" she sighs, as a squad of bikers revs by on Market Street. This, after all, is a veteran of psychoanalysis who now suspects that the original small ad was a form of love letter to her analyst. And, not only did she teach in high school, she gave creative writing classes to inmates of the fearsome San Quentin prison and would escort women inside abortion clinics past pickets of pro-life demonstrators.
By now, the other women in her gym are wise to her secret life and completely unperturbed. "They think it's wonderful." People take an active sexual life in their stride: in these parts, it's the wrong sort of politics that provoke controversy. "If they found out that I was a Republican, say, I would be shunned immediately."
Soon, however, many more people outside the small circle of family, friends and gym will be experts on her intimate and emotional life, even her anatomy. Her fame - or notoriety - is still in its infancy but growing fast. One American newspaper wanted male models to pose with her as toy boys for its photo shoot. " 'To do what?' I asked," she says, putting on her best Queen Victoria voice.
This being the West Coast, I feel duty bound to inquire after the film rights and whom she would cast in the starring roles. Evidently, she has been posed this question a few times too often and my cautious suggestion of Judi Dench to play her meets only lukewarm approval.
"I've figured it out," she announces. "I have decided that I will play myself. And Daniel Day-Lewis will play all the men." There seem to be no American actors sensitive or intelligent enough to match the men that she encountered on her adventures.
The adventures continue to this day, not just the liaisons with the current three or four. Provoked by the book's imminent publication, new letters are arriving, too.
"I have gotten several in the past few days. I just can't believe this. 'Put me on top of the pile,' one said."
Whoa there, boys. Your fantasy mistress still enjoys a well-turned phrase in an elegantly written letter but romance by correspondence is no longer her thing. "I'm just not interested. I think the adventurous past, climbing the hill to see what's on the other side, is not as intriguing to me."
And there will be no more ads. Or will there? She pauses to reflect.
"Who knows? Maybe in 10 years. Well, let me see. That would get me to 80 Well, why not?"
9, 2003, 8:45 a.m.
No Plain Jane
This grandmother gets around.
By Frederica Mathewes-Green
Got big plans for Mother's Day? Candy and flowers, hugs and kisses? Maybe snapping some heartwarming photos of Grandma with the multiple generations of progeny gathered all around?
Boy, are you out of it. Didn't you know that playing with grandchildren is something women do just to keep themselves from thinking about how they've wasted their lives?
That was the message celebrated in the New York Times in a pre-Mother's Day Sunday edition. On the front of the "Styles" section was an interview with a retired schoolteacher named Jane Juska. Juska has produced a book based on some unusual research. A few years ago she placed an ad in the personals column of the New York Review of Books stating that, before her upcoming 67th birthday, she wanted to "have a lot of sex with a man I like." She invited readers to submit evidence of their likeability, and as the responses came in, she sorted them into piles of "yes," "no," and "maybe." Juska says that since then she's had sex with men aged from 84 to 32.
No, this wasn't in the National Enquirer, headlined "That's Why the Grandma is a Tramp." This story got prominent, admiring placement in the New York Times because of its philosophical underpinnings. (Though perhaps, after the preceding paragraph, you don't want to think about "underpinnings" for awhile.) Juska firmly believes that her adventuring makes other women jealous. She says they ask themselves, "What have I done with my life?" She says these women "Don't want to go back and look at it. That's why they're so nuts about their grandchildren. It keeps the focus off them."
Only inhabitants of the stratospheric reaches of trendy intellectualism can believe that women play with their grandchildren in a desperate attempt to kill the bitterness they feel over not having multiple sex partners at age 70. Only very sophisticated people could fall for such a self-evidently stupid idea. Only self-congratulatingly bohemian people could have such contempt for normal, healthy family life. It's an index of how much else is missing, how much has gone wrong, in their lives.
And that's the saddest part of the story. Juska has had a lot go wrong over the years. She was divorced and had a rocky relationship with her only child, who dropped out of school and ran away from home. She gained seventy pounds and drank heavily. (These problems are blamed on her "Puritanical small-town Ohio childhood." Oh, those vile Ohioans!) When Juska retired her life seemed empty, even though she was singing in a chorale and volunteering at Planned Parenthood. When she went home at night she was alone.
Juska didn't expect this ad to lead to anything good. She says, startlingly, "I expected to be murdered, or made sad at the very least." A long history of self-destructive acts had found a new expression. She is still alone most nights, because her playmates are all over the country and not in her backyard, tinkering with the lawnmower. They are emphatically not bound to her by chains of a lifetime of sleeping and rising together, doing the dishes together, watching movies, making love, and arguing together. There is really no substitute for that lifetime of daily experience; a few minutes in the sack with an octogenarian stranger can hardly be said to compete.
But she does have a book contract and an admiring spread in the New York Times, and a new celebrity as a crusader in the fight to turn the meaning of women's lives into all sex, all the time, without the dignity or wisdom or security of age. There may be rewards to this pointed rejection of what women throughout history have found sweet and fulfilling. But I bet they'll never set aside a day in May to celebrate it.
— Frederica Mathewes-Green is author, most recently, of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism.
Sure, there's lots of sex in Jane Juska's "A Round-Heeled Woman," but what's truly enchanting is the way this 70-year-old teacher writes about plain desire.
By Stephanie Zacharek
May 29, 2003 | The remarkable thing about Jane Juska's "A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance" isn't that it was written by a woman who sought great sex -- or at least just lots of sex -- toward the end of her 60s. It's that anyone, of any age or either sex, would have had the guts to write it at all. "A Round-Heeled Woman" is explicit in some places and downright titillating in others -- in other words, yes, there is sex in it, and plenty of it. But very few contemporary writers who have written about sex as an overt subject are as open about simple wanting as Juska is. It's easy to write about sex -- everybody does it. What's harder is laying your sexual hopes and disappointments on the table, not to feed an audience's prurience or to make oneself look sexy or noble or pitiable, but simply to connect, to capture the subtle glimmer of some very intimate experiences in as straightforward a manner as possible.
Our deepest, most complicated feelings often demand plainness, and yet few writers ever deliver it. Juska is different. After retiring from teaching high-school English -- she had been divorced for years, had raised a son on her own and had long ago convinced herself she wasn't particularly interested in sex -- she realized she was yearning for something. And she wasn't a bit coy about identifying what it was. Juska, who was living very modestly in a tiny rented cottage in Berkeley, Calif., scraped together the $4.55-per-word fee charged by the New York Review of Books personals section and put together this robustly succinct ad: "Before I turn 67 -- next March -- I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me."
Talk about cutting to the chase. The chapter in which Juska explains how she figured out how to word her ad to get the biggest, if you'll pardon the expression, bang for her buck, is a delight in itself. Should she mention the Trollope? Leaving it out would save a bundle. She scoffs at an ad that reads "SWF seeks that special idyll with a literate, caring ..." ("Nonsense," Juska writes indignantly. "That ad cost $154.70!"). It's no surprise, then, that Juska's ad is a kind of poetry unto itself, a marvel of economy. And it ought to be, seeing as Juska recognizes, with a great deal of compassion for everyone out there who ever seeks connection, that the erotic urge is necessary to life. "I liked my ad. The urge was there. I was open to all comers. And Trollope went in. What the hell, I didn't plan to spend this kind of money again."
Juska's ad launches her into an odyssey she wasn't quite prepared for. She does meet several men she likes, and she has sex with them. One of them steals her underwear; another one coaxes her into a cocoon of sexual intimacy only to ultimately back away, which breaks her heart. And one of them, the one with whom she seems to have the most comfortable sexual and intellectual rapport, is more than 30 years younger than she is -- which, to her surprise, causes dismay and disgust among some friends of hers, particularly her 30-ish niece, who sees something unnatural about the friendship. Apparently, it's all well and good for "old folks" to go out and have sex, provided they stick to their own kind. The bewilderment Juska feels about that attitude is palpable, and she might make you think twice about the rigid strictures we build for ourselves when, in reality, the possibilities life offers are endless and bountiful.
"A Round-Heeled Woman" is both a sexual and a sensual book. Juska is unapologetic about liking men's bodies: She freely admits to loving penises, and she's mad for men's legs, too. But Juska remembers that all sensual beings have to exist in the real world, too, and not just within the bubble of their own sexual thoughts and feelings. People have duties to their families, they have jobs, they have hobbies. So Juska includes carefully chosen details about her childhood and what she was like as a young woman, and there's a wonderful chapter in which she recounts her experiences teaching English to inmates of San Quentin Prison. Those interstitial chapters build a sturdy framework for the book, giving us a sense of what Juska is like as a person, a way of recognizing the way our private and our public selves blend to make us who we are.
"A Round-Heeled Woman" is filled with straightforward and often lovely writing. Sometimes Juska seems a little too taken with the wonders of the English language, as if she were -- well, an English teacher who's writing her first book. But as you read, you start to see that as a blessing and not a flaw. Juska is a real person first and a writer second, a valuable quality in any writer, especially when it comes to memoirs. Her book is flushed with good humor, and she's careful not to overdo her musings about her own insecurities. She gives us just enough so that we recognize the psychic risk she took in placing that ad, but not so much that we feel weighed down by her hang-ups.
Although she demurs when one of her new friends calls her an intellectual, she's clearly as turned-on by heated discussions about Chaucer and Bach (as well as, of course, Trollope) as she is by anything that goes on between the sheets. When her young companion asks her if her recent experiences have led her to any new conclusions about men, she responds, "'A great deal of pleasure has come my way, not just physical but intellectual, absolutely unexpected but as wonderful as any of the flesh, maybe more.' He does not look at all doubtful. He looks as if he is liking me, as if he finds me interesting. Even I am beginning to find me interesting."
Juska is interesting, but, like most truly interesting people, she doesn't really know it. And very often, she's just damn funny, as when she describes the photograph she receives from a prospective suitor:
"In the photograph, John stands in his kitchen, peering furtively over one shoulder, which appears to be somewhat higher than the other. His dark hair, the few strands that remain, falls greasily back over his head, revealing a brow that does not suggest a high intelligence or invite my confidence, let alone lust. He looks like someone in the witness protection program. Or Richard III."
As it turns out, the man in the photograph turns out to be much more handsome in real life, and Juska likes him very much, although their friendship is short-lived. "A Round-Heeled Woman" offers hope for anyone who fears that aging has to mean the end of sex, but in the end, I don't think it's really about hope at all. To get what you want out of life, at any age, you have to make demands of that life. Sometimes you have to be naked, physically, emotionally or both. And you also need to take chances, even when they cost $4.55 a word.
About the writer
Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.
Sex and the senior citizen
While bar-hopping, Jane Juska explains to Salon's increasingly envious reporter why she's getting so much action and why old people don't need soul mates.
By Sheerly Avni
May 29, 2003 | SAN FRANCISCO -- It's late afternoon at the Redwood Room, the bar at Ian Schrager's swank and remodeled Clift Hotel, and Jane Juska, 70, newly famous author of "Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Love and Romance," is matter-of-factly explaining why she has no desire to try out online dating.
"I don't need to be sleeping with any more men right now," she says.
And how many men would that be, right now?
"Just three," she answers, demurely sipping her sauvignon blanc. Despite the calm posture, her eyebrows rise and her eyes widen when she repeats the number, as if to say, "Yeah, can you believe my luck?"
Of course, three men in your bed has nothing to do with luck. In Juska's case it's the end result of an ad she placed a little over three years ago in the New York Review of Books:
Before I turn 67 -- next March -- I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me.
Within a few months of placing the ad, the life of Jane Juska, a divorced, formerly overweight, formerly alcoholic, retired schoolteacher living alone in a small cottage in Berkeley, Calif., was turned upside down. Those 32 words produced the tryst of a lifetime, and then another, and then another, and then a mostly inspiring personal memoir.
I say mostly inspiring, because though she certainly succeeds in meeting many men who know how to, er, talk Trollope, she falls for her fair share of chumps, skunks and pervs. As a young female reader, there were times when I wanted to chuck the book across the room in frustration, as Juska succumbed to the charms of scoundrel after scoundrel. There's the first man she sleeps with, an 84-year-old who makes off with both her born-again virginity and her underwear; a hot-and-cold curmudgeon named Robert, who blames her for his impotence; there's a fetishistic millionaire, who delights in grabbing her in corners and murmuring sweet nothings in public like "Touch it with your hand" and "Feel what you've done to me." I couldn't help wondering, shouldn't this woman be old enough to know better?
Before meeting Juska, I had imagined she would look decadent and glamorous, like Anne Bancroft's Miss Havisham, with a bit of Jeanne Moreau in "Dangerous Liaisons 1960," maybe even a dash of late Deneuve. If not glamorous, then I'd assumed she'd be ageless in a Cher sort of way, a hodgepodge of face-lifts and botox injections, salty and well-preserved, like a pickle.
But the woman who stands to greet me looks charming, intelligent, respectable. Not more than 5 feet tall, with a white-blond bob and bright blue eyes behind spectacles. My first thought is Mrs. Claus. No way Mrs. Claus gets more play than I do. She is wearing what in the book she calls her "stock first date uniform" -- a pair of black slacks and a long black sweater, cheerful cranberry red lipstick, and a matching red and white silk scarf around her neck.
Juska starts off by telling me about the recent changes in her life, since the publicity wheel for her book started spinning. She is holding in her hands a Nordstrom bag, because she has been shopping for a perfect dress, courtesy of her publicist, to wear on her upcoming trip to New York, complete with readings, press interviews and television appearances. "This is more money than I've ever spent on a dress!" she says, shaking her head and raising her eyebrows in a gesture that, rehearsed or not, is utterly charming and confident.
In fact, the woman before me seems much more confident than the woman in the book who worries about her weight, about having sex with the light on. She perches on the edge of her seat, eyes sharp behind the glasses, and takes in every detail around her -- oversize illuminated Klimts, restless-eyed stockbrokers from Duluth, the uncomfortably low couches, a hallmark of swank cocktail lounges. We order more wine. My plan is to get her drunk, or else to get myself drunk, so I can work up the nerve to ask her the questions that troubled me while reading the book. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to accuse a 70-year-old woman of being a doormat.
"When I first started dating, especially with Robert" (the book's most certifiable scumbag, and of course, the one who first broke Juska's heart), "I was still using my journal to cry into." But then, realizing she had some good material, she began taking notes on her adventures and bringing them to her writing workshop. When the episodes proved too steamy for the group, she decided to collect her stories into a memoir. One of her worst dates unknowingly gave her the juicy line she needed to kick it all off: "He asked me, 'Do you think you're a nymphomaniac?' and I thought, You're an asshole, but I got my first sentence. So I guess I owe him one."
At first glance, her would-be suitor's question seems quite reasonable. At the time, Juska was 67 years old, and most women her age don't just walk around saying that what they really want is "a lot of sex." Not even in the New York Review of Books. But Juska is clearly not most women. When I ask her about her current paramours, she mischievously tells me that they all "look wonderful naked." One is a charmer in his 70s, the other an 82-year-old on the rebound, and the third -- ah, the third is a fellow writer whom she will describe as her soul mate several times throughout the evening. He's 33.
As she continues to work on her wine, the twinkle in Juska's blue eyes is getting even brighter. She is licking raw fish off her tiny hand, grinning. This is what Mrs. Claus would look like if she were getting porked regularly, by Santa, an elf or two, and at least one of his reindeer.
"One person is dangerous. Three --" She reaches for more salmon. "Three spreads it all out. It's rare to find one person who can speak to all parts of you, and you can love more than one person at a time, you know."
I ask her to explain the difference between "love" and "sex with someone you like," since it was the latter she was claiming to be seeking in her ad. "Sex with someone you like is much, much more fun. I mean, with one of these men, we're great friends, but I'm not in love with him the way you think you're supposed to be in love with someone you have marathon sex with, but --"
"Wait -- you have marathon sex?"
"Oh yes, oh yes, it's amazing. We go all night."
I gulp down the rest of my wine, perhaps more quickly than would be prudent.
A true voyeur, Juska is easily distracted by the other people in the room. "What do you think of that man, walking in right now?" she asks me, pointing to a beefy, ex-football player in a too-small gray suit, with a thick neck and flat eyes.
Before I have a chance to respond, she answers her own question. "Now see, that's not what I want; I think that man looks feral. Who needs a guy who's on the hunt?" Her eyes light on a smiling man in his mid-20s, dressed casually. "But ooh, what about that one over there? Is he your type?"
I confess that my type generally doesn't frequent hotel bars, Ian Schrager-owned or not, and suggest that we move on to the Tunnel Top, a hip split-level former mah-jongg parlor, from which one never need go home alone.
Somewhere in the stumble from one bar to the next, I launch into a best-forgotten soliloquy on the meaning of fidelity, and the universal search for true love. I point to the times in the book when she seemed lonely. When men turned their backs on her, when she boarded planes back home, rejected.
We grab seats at the Tunnel Top, and halfway through the first Chimay, I have enough alcohol coursing through my veins to ask her my question: "Are you sure it's not really love you're looking for, not sex? Maybe you just want a soul mate?"
But Juska is distracted. Standing behind us is a fabulous young couple, the boy in large pink tinted sunglasses and the girl in blue ones, both wearing skintight slacks and huge velvet porkpie hats. Juska turns around and looks them both up and down, before she remembers my question. "Oh wait, I'm sorry, about soul mates?" She crosses, then recrosses her legs, smiles. "Look, I'm in a much different place than you are at your age. Maybe it's an evolutionary thing. I've done marriage and kids. I'm not into nesting. I don't have much time left. And I have these lovely interactions with these men -- maybe it's because for me, and for other people my age, there's a certain poignancy and sweetness that comes from being so close to the end."
Juska certainly doesn't look like she's anywhere near the end. Tipsy and giggling in the late afternoon light, she looks positively radiant. In fact, the 20-something bartender has been watching her from the corner of his eye since she came in, and I don't think it was because he wanted to card her.
"So casual sex has a different meaning for you?"
"Oh lord!" she exclaims, sounding shocked for the first time so far. "My dear, this is not casual sex at all! Sex is very intimate -- you come out of it changed. I don't care how free you think you are. Sex is not one bit casual. Wonderful, yes, and worth it."
"Even with Robert, the chump?" I ask.
"Well, yes. Even with Robert. I mean, I did get hurt in the course of writing this book. Because I took chances. If you live your life in order to protect yourself, then you're not going to live life."
It's early evening by now. She smiles at me. Her eyes dissolve into a thousand tiny wrinkles.
"What was the biggest risk you took?" I ask. She takes no notice of the bartender leaning in to hear her answer. "Well, I guess going to the airport to meet the first fella who answered my ad, the one who stole my underwear."
The round-heeled woman laughs, and lifts her glass for a toast. "And you know, even he had his high points. I mean, we had fun."
About the writer
Sheerly Avni is associate editor for the Life section of Salon.
Teacher Jane Juska has written interesting book on sex, literature and life
by Dave Wood
My wife and I moved to the Twin Cities 34 years ago, when she got a teaching job at a suburban high school. One of her new colleagues was Jane Juska, a brilliant teacher and a good friend, one of the few people we invited that year to our cheesy little wedding. The following year, Jane headed to California, never to be heard from again. Until last month. That’s when I picked up the Villard Books catalog to find that Jane, a retired California English teacher, had published her first book. It sounded to be more than a little bit interesting, so I ordered a review copy.
More than a little bit interesting proved to be gross understatement. I predict that Jane Juska’s “A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance” (Villard, $23.95) due out this month will get lots of attention in the media, especially from reporters and editors who are interested in sex, in literature, and in life.
Sex first. Jane reports that when she was 66 and lacking a male mate for many years, ran a classified ad in the New York Review of Books: “BEFORE I TURN 67--Next March--I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me.” Pretty gutsy, right? Trillope refers to Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, not the word for “loose woman,” which Jane Juska definitely is not, despite the brazenness of her ad. The response was overwhelming and part of the fun of this book--and it is fun--is how she eliminates the bad guys, which brings us to literature. Many of her rejections are based on the reading habits of her correspondents. And many of her acceptances have to do with literary remarks they make in their inquiries that impress her.
Jane Juska flies all over the country to meet a variety of men, most of whom turn out to be accomplished, gentlemanly and literate. There’s Robert and one-legged Walter and Sidney and Graham, as well as Matt, who lives in Northern Wisconsin. She falls in love with New Yorker, Robert, but he does not fall back. She describes these social and sexual encounters, sometimes clinically, sometimes poetically, with great skill.
This is not a book for everyone, only those that are interested in literature and in life. Those who are offended by vulgarisms for sexual organs or activities probably should stay away, for Juska has a disconcerting habit of speaking about the sex act with great delicacy, then dropping a word here and there that sort of makes the reader stand up and take notice. As a vulgarian, I was charmed. Some folks may not be.
Jane Juska has not lost the wit she often displayed those many years ago. In one of my favorite scenes, she and Sidney are getting pretty serious on the back porch of the Morgan Library in New York City. They’ve got their clothes on but it’s extremely erotic if not prurient. Just at the peak of their passion, she looks over at a huge apartment building: “All of those windows. . . all those people peering out from behind the blinds, the curtains, the shutters. My grandmother. . . is in there somewhere.”
Grandmother, dead these many years. Perfect.
Jane Juska is very good at sex, at literature, but the very best at living life--and commenting on it. When I first picked up the book I was frankly interested in her sex life having know her (not in the Biblical sense) all those years ago.
But what most interested me about this fascinating book was Juska’s take on life in general, this book being a serious memoir about her entire life and what made her what she is and not just a romp through a variety of bedrooms and back porches of museums. I loved reading about her parents, about her son andy who had some teenage problems, but is now a successful forester in California. I loved reading about her enthusiasm for pro sports, for literature, for J.S. Bach, for the city of New York, scene of romantic encounters. If you’re old, as I am, this is a book to be recommended for its treasure of wisdom. If you’re not old, you will be.
Actor/writer Carl Reiner, like Jane Juska, is a very funny person and so it’s a shame that his new book, “My Anecdotal Life” (St. Martin’s Press, $24.95) has so little humor. It’s merely a collection of anecdotes with little fun or wisdom to glue them together. An unknown like Juska could never get such a book published. A celebrity like Reiner obviously can and does so with little thought that being published is a privilege granted to the few.
Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and a former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
By Beth Gutcheon
Beth Gutcheon's most recent novel is "More Than You Know."
May 11, 2003
A ROUND-HEELED WOMAN: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance, by Jane Juska. Villard, 272 pp.,
Does it take a woman of a certain age even to recognize the phrase that lends Jane Juska's book its title? In Juska's girlhood, round-heeled meant easy; it meant "Do what we beg you to do, and we will hold you in contempt and spread the word."
The fact that a woman would choose it for herself speaks volumes about changing times. At 66, a single mother of a grown son, a retired high school English teacher, handsome but in no way cosmetically altered, Juska went to one too many excruciating parties in the perfectly reasonable hope of meeting a clean and healthy man who might like a civilized roll in the hay. And she began to wonder if it were possible she might never have sex again.
Then one night in 1999, after watching the Eric Roehmer film "Autumn Tale" at a Berkeley, Calif., movie theater, she finished her malted milk balls, walked home and wrote the following: "Before I turn 67 - next March - I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me." Then she sent it to the classified ad section of the New York Review of Books.
What follows is simply amazing. Juska is funny, brave, well-read and smart. She can really write, and this is definitely not a story you've read before. Her straitlaced upbringing in Ohio is not unfamiliar: "My mother had a horror of 'silly things girls do' ... She didn't like girls, thought them uninteresting, frivolous, useless." Nor is her early marriage, similarly quelling but shorter, to a man who assumed it was his right and his place to have all the ideas and do all the talking. But she's come a long way by the time of her first full-fledged tryst, after the responses to her ad pour in.
The scene is the fairly posh Clairmont Hotel in Berkeley; she can't really afford it, but after years of dignified tenantry, wouldn't it upset her landlady if a parade of strange men began trooping through the garden to her rental cottage? She packs a romantic picnic to avoid paying for room service. The swain, when he arrives, is 82 (he had sent an outdated photograph). He is capable of the act, but also of coarse cruelty, and when she unpacks at home she finds he's stolen her champagne flutes and her shorty pajama bottoms. Which is only the beginning. There's a world of good and bad sex, hurt feelings, tears, real friendship and even love to come. This is one emotionally and even physically courageous woman, and it turns out there are big rewards for bravery - even for little old ladies.
'Round-Heeled Woman' tracks a new sort of revolution
By J. PEDER ZANE
May 21, 2003
Jane Juska is a revolutionary. Her weapon of choice is not the Molotov cocktail but the personal ad. It goes like this: "Before I turn 67 - next March - I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me."
Juska, a semiretired schoolteacher from Berkeley, Calif., received 63 responses to the ad, which she placed in the New York Review of Books - from men much older than she and from a few young enough to be her son.
They gave her what she wanted and then some, as she explains in her wonderfully written and often graphic memoir, "A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late Life Adventures in Sex and Romance" (Villard, $23.95, 272 pages).
A cross between "Bridget Jones's Diary" and "Sex and the City" informed by seven decades of life experience, Juska's book is the vanguard of a literary revolution. These works, by and about senior citizens, will change the way Americans think about old age.
Older people aren't newcomers to literature. But older characters have tended to spend their time recalling their youths or coming to terms with their mortality. Now we are seeing the rise of books about sexto-, septo- and octogenarians who are seizing the here and now.
Philip Roth has allowed us to watch recurring characters such as Nathan Zuckerman ("American Pastoral") and David Kepesh ("The Dying Animal") go every way but gentle into their good nights. John Updike has produced several colorful books with gray protagonists, including "Toward the End of Time." Anita Brookner has published a novel about a 73-year-old man trying to find new meaning in his life, "Making Things Better"; Gail Godwin has written a heart-rending novel about a woman in her late 50s coming to grips with her husband's death, "Evenings at Five"; and Annette Sanford has penned a splendid story of a 69-year-old woman and a 70-year-old man who discover passionate, gently erotic love for the first time, "Eleanor & Abel."
Why are we seeing these books now? Certainly medicine has played a part, as we are now living longer, healthier lives. And as young people show less interest in books, older readers are becoming a vital market for publishers. But above all, what we are seeing is the last great change of the 1960s.
On the highest plane, members of the "silent generation" and baby boomers who struggled for gay rights, civil rights, women's lib and other causes that removed societal constraints are now battling the barriers imposed on the aged. On a lower plane, the most self-absorbed people in U.S. history are sticking by their narcissism till the bitter end - their favorite subject has been and always will be themselves.
Jane Juska tracks this history in "A Round-Heeled Woman" - a vintage term for a loose gal. In alternating chapters she vividly details her recent encounters with sexually charged men and recounts her sexually repressed youth in Ohio.
Her mother called menstruation "the Curse," and Juska was embarrassed by her large breasts, which she usually covered in extra-large sweat shirts.
Nevertheless, she liked drinking and smoking and loved the touch, feel and look of men .In 1955, fresh out of college, she had sex, got pregnant and married an unhappy alcoholic.
They separated four years later. She bundled her kid in the car and began a new life in Berkeley.
The next 30 years involved little sex but plenty of alcohol and unhappiness. Finally, after years of therapy, she righted her ship and began to wonder: "What if I never have sex with a man again?"
Hence the ad in the New York Review, which led to a series of stimulating dalliances in person and on the phone with a series of interesting men. They included "Danny the Priest, Jonah the Thief, Robert the Liar, Sidney the Peculiar and Graham the Younger."
Juska is a smart, clever and provocative writer - "My heels are very round," she writes. "I'm an easy lay. An easy sixty-seven-year-old lay. Twas not always so. As these pages will show."
Clearly she is not your grandmother's grandmother. Instead, Juska is giving us a first hint of how a generation that redefined youth and middle age plans on gilding the golden years.
As they take the wisdom of their poet laureate, Bob Dylan, to heart - "he not busy being born is busy dying" - senior moments of passion will become the norm, and not just between the covers of books. So long as my parents never read these works, I say, hurrah.
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com.)
Craving Sex At 60
NEW YORK, May 21, 2003
Talking about sex is an uncomfortable proposition for many, and talking about older people having sex is the ultimate taboo.
But now, one older American is putting her personal story of late-life romances and rendez-vous center stage, telling the whole world that senior citizens can be sexual.
Jane Juska, a former school teacher in her 60s, divorced, the mother of a grown son, and unattached at the time, suddenly realized that if she didn't take action soon, she might never have sex again.
She placed an ad in the New York Review of Books (home of the first personals section), and got 63 responses. Juska took a year off to meet some of the men who answered her ad. The result is "A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance."
She visited The Early Show to talk about her book and what she learned about herself.
"Before I turn 67 - next March - I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me," read the $136.50 ad Juska placed just four years ago.
The responses to Juska's ad varied greatly, from downright perverted to beautiful prose. Nevertheless, she plowed through the 63 responses, out to meet a man (or men) she could have lots of sex with.
The whole idea came after Juska went to see the French film, "An Autumn Tale." In the film, a woman decides to write a personal ad for a widowed, single girlfriend who cannot seem to meet a man. In the end, the craftiness of the friend works (or so Jaska likes to believe.) It has a typically French ending; the woman who wrote the ad finds the "perfect match" for her friend, they meet and seemingly hit it off, leaving viewers with the question of "will they or won't they?"). Cutting out the middleman, Juska decided to post her own personal ad.
Sunday, May 18, 2003
Adventures in a gray area of literature
By J. PEDER ZANE, Staff Writer
Jane Juska is a
revolutionary. Her weapon of choice is not the Molotov cocktail but the personal
ad. It goes like this:
"Before I turn 67 -- next March -- I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me."
Juska, a semiretired schoolteacher from Berkeley, Calif., received 63 responses to the ad, which she placed in the New York Review of Books -- from men much older than she and from a few young enough to be her son. They gave her what she wanted and then some, as she explains in her wonderfully written and often graphic memoir, "A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late Life Adventures in Sex and Romance" (Villard, $23.95, 272 pages).
A cross between "Bridget Jones's Diary" and "Sex and the City" informed by seven decades of life experience, Juska's book is the vanguard of a literary revolution. These works, by and about senior citizens, will change the way Americans think about old age.
Older people aren't newcomers to literature -- the finest book I've read on late life is the Nobel Prize-winning author Knut Hamsun's memoir, "On Overgrown Paths" (1949). But older characters have tended to spend their time recalling their youths or coming to terms with their mortality. Now we are seeing the rise of books about sexto-, septo- and octogenarians who are seizing the here and now.
Philip Roth has allowed us to watch recurring characters such as Nathan Zuckerman ("American Pastoral") and David Kepesh ("The Dying Animal") go every way but gentle into their good nights while John Updike has produced several colorful books with gray protagonists, including "Toward the End of Time." In recent weeks Anita Brookner has published a novel about a 73-year-old man trying to find new meaning in his life, "Making Things Better"; Gail Godwin has written a heart-rending, semiautobiographical novel about a woman in her late 50s coming to grips with her husband's death, "Evenings at Five"; and Annette Sanford has penned a splendid story of a 69-year-old woman and a 70-year-old man who discover passionate, gently erotic love for the first time, "Eleanor & Abel."
Why are we seeing these books now? Certainly medicine has played a part, as we are now living longer, healthier lives. And as young people show less interest in books, older readers are becoming a vital market for publishers. But above all, what we are seeing is the last great sea change of the 1960s.
On the highest plane, members of the "silent generation" and baby boomers who struggled for gay rights, civil rights, women's lib and other causes that removed societal constraints are now battling the barriers imposed on the aged. On a lower plane, the most self-absorbed people in U.S. history are sticking by their narcissism till the bitter end -- their favorite subject has been and always will be themselves. Americans who once vowed to never trust anyone over 30 and who spent their lives fashioning a youth-obsessed culture are refusing to act their age, with powerful results.
Jane Juska tracks this history in "A Round-Heeled Woman" -- a vintage term for a loose gal. In alternating chapters she vividly details her recent encounters with sexually charged men and recounts her sexually repressed youth in Ohio. (Did I mention there is a lot of sex in this book?) Her mother called menstruation "the Curse," and Juska was embarrassed by her large breasts, which she usually covered in extra-large sweat shirts.
Nevertheless, she liked drinking and smoking and loved the touch, feel and look of men -- especially their legs and buttocks. In 1955, fresh out of college, she had sex, got pregnant and married an unhappy alcoholic. They separated four years later. She bundled her kid in the car and began a new life in Berkeley.
The next 30 years involved little sex but plenty of alcohol and unhappiness. Finally, after years of therapy, she righted her ship and began to wonder: "What if I never have sex with a man again?"
Hence the ad in the New York Review, which led to a series of stimulating dalliances in person and on the phone with a series of, er, interesting men. They included "Danny the Priest, Jonah the Thief, Robert the Liar, Sidney the Peculiar and Graham the Younger," a 33-year-old Yale grad and aspiring novelist, who is "six feet, slim as a reed" and loves to discuss Kant's categorical imperative and quotes "The Canterbury Tales" in perfect Middle English.
Juska is a smart, clever and provocative writer -- "My heels are very round," she writes. "I'm an easy lay. An easy sixty-seven-year-old lay. 'Twas not always so. As these pages will show."
Clearly she is not your grandmother's grandmother. Instead, Juska is giving us a first hint of how a generation that redefined youth and middle age plans on gilding the golden years. As they take the wisdom of their poet laureate, Bob Dylan, to heart -- "he not busy being born is busy dying" -- senior moments of passion will become the norm, and not just between the covers of books. So long as my parents never read these works, I say, hurrah.
Sex and the single senior
May 21 2003
'Before I turn 67 - next March - I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me." Jane Juska placed this personal ad in The New York Review of Books in 1999. Over a month, she received 63 replies and spent nearly a year following them up, an experience she recounts in her first book, A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance.
It turns out that Juska, a 70-year-old Californian grandmother, did have a lot of sex with a lot of men she liked, and still does. Her latest man is 35. "I didn't want to think, 'What if I never had sex with a man again?"' Juska recalled of the ad. "I didn't want to just sit there and think, 'Wouldn't it be nice, if?"'
Juska seized the day but the reality is that sex and the single senior is buried deep by generations raised to remain silent on such issues and all but ignored by their children and grandchildren who think public confession is something done on Jerry Springer and who also believe youth is some sort of state of grace.
In popular culture, sexual activity for the over-60s wavers across the one-liners of Everybody Loves Raymond, the silly old codgers of the Grumpy Old Men films and the fatalistic backward looks of Burt Lancaster's padrone character in Bertolucci's 1900.
In fact, while everyone from pollsters to politicians want to know the thinking of young singles, young marrieds, married with two kids, thirtysomethings and fortysomethings, the over-60s are largely unheard from, largely unpolled. They are considered a demographic that has made up its mind and is incapable of change, so they are ignored as trendsetters - so much so that when the first Australian sex survey was published last month, researchers eschewed senior citizens, only bothering to tabulate responses from people aged between 16 and 59.
"It was basically a health survey," says Dr Chris Rissell, of the Australian Centre for Health Promotion at the University of Sydney. "We were mainly interested in cohorts of people who were risk-takers or actively engaged. Older people don't do that sort of thing. Or, at least, not very much."
The professor of health at the University of New England, Victor Minichielli, says the national health survey was unacceptably "ageist" in its approach.
"Older people are sexually aware. Their activity depends on self-perception of their health, the nature of the relationship with a partner, their gender and finally their age ... and they are living longer. Those in their 60s and 70s are marrying and re-dating. It's ridiculous to ignore them in a study that purports to be a national survey," he says.
Minichielli says a sex survey of older people attending a Sydney clinic found they usually had two partners a year, tended to have unprotected sex and were unaware of their HIV status.
However, one of the authors of last month's sex survey, Dr Juliet Richters, of the National Centre in HIV Social Research at the University of NSW, says there are some self-evident truths that stand out without research.
"Obviously older women whose partners have died find it difficult to embark on casual affairs. There is just not the ease of opportunity that exists for younger women," she says. "And for men, prostitutes can be too expensive, and if they want casual sex, the erection is not what it was and picking somebody up and taking them home only to suffer equipment failure is not worth the effort."
Peggy Hewitt, 76, of Randwick, has been at the other end of such failures and regards men of her own age with a mixture of resignation and sympathy. "Many of them aren't up to it. You have got to take into consideration the impotence - they would like to be involved, but they can't," she says.
A divorcee, Hewitt had a sexual liaison with a man 20 years her junior a decade back. "I felt so guilty about the age difference, and I was conscious of my body - all that sort of jazz - I just didn't feel good about myself, so I called it off, " she says.
But there are other ways to rekindle old desires. Juska, a retired high school English teacher, was moved to action after seeing Eric Rohmer's film Autumn Tale, in which a woman places a personal ad in a newspaper on her middle-aged friend's behalf.
"Before I got home I had written my ad in my head," Juska says. "But I did think, as if I were teaching a class and would ask my students, 'What harm might this decision cause other people?' The only person that would be is my son. So I asked him, and he said: 'Go get 'em, Mum. It's your turn.' The night I sent the ad in I felt so great."
Feeling great has become a hobby for Juska in the 10 years since her retirement. After her divorce in 1972, she raised her son, Andy, now 38, as a single mother. She went through a bleak period during which she gained weight, drank heavily and lived in constant turmoil when her son dropped out of school and ran away from home.
For 27 years, she dated only sporadically. "Except for a couple of unhappy skirmishes, my relationship with men was nonexistent," she says. "I had enough trouble making a living, bringing up a son. Romantic trouble? That was too much."
Her work, she says, was her salvation. "Teaching was a passion for me. And when I left it, I just wasn't tired enough." She smiles. "My grandmother used to say, 'Don't borrow trouble', but I think borrowing trouble is a good idea. If you live your life staying safe you're going to lose."
Some post-menopausal women feel a lessening of sexual desire, or at least are said to. That was apparently not her experience. "No," she says firmly. "I was probably even more interested because I wasn't as afraid as when I was younger of not doing it right or, well, being thought randy."
Juska describes her own imperfect body in exacting detail in her book. "Men didn't mind," she says. "It was always me pulling up the sheet and turning out the light. I never met a man who was afraid to take his clothes off. That's healthy, I think. They've forgiven themselves for sagging here and there."
Pat Simpson, 60, of Stanwell Park, agrees and says older people still appreciate the visuals of sexual attraction. "You can still be looking at a footballer's legs or bum and think, 'Well, well,' or look at some nice younger fellow and think, 'There's a nice hunk of man'," she says.
A volunteer with the Older Women's Network, Simpson is married and continues to have sex with her husband of 30 years "once or twice a week ... our sex is not as frequent but it's still regular".
She says medical conditions can complicate grey-power sex, but in her experience, none is insurmountable.
Juska still giggles at the thought of her ad. She expected to receive one letter in response, perhaps two. In the end, she sorted 63 replies into piles of "yes", "no" and "maybe".
Some included full-frontal nude photos. One boasted: "Have Viagra, will travel." A few doltish readers missed the allusion to the 19th-century creator of the Barchester chronicles and thought talking "Trollope" meant talking dirty, like some Shakespearean bawd.
"The other huge surprise," she says, "was finding intellectual partners, which is almost as exciting as the sex, in some cases more. To be able to talk to a really smart man, who says, 'I would value your opinion on this.' Where I grew up you had to bow and scrape to the nearest man and keep your mouth shut."
Asked whether she practised safe sex, she says: "Well, not getting pregnant was part of my popularity," though she adds: "Yes, we took the precautions we thought we needed to. After all, these men didn't know where I had been, either."
But it has been women whose responses to Juska's adventure have been the most harsh. "I did a reading in Berkeley for mostly women," Juska says.
"I said that the age range of the men in the book went from 84 to 32. One woman said about the 32-year-old, 'He must have been short and ugly.' I said, 'Actually, he's tall and handsome.' Another said, 'Then what would he want with you?' She shrugs.
"When women in particular hear about what I've done, the question which unbidden comes to them is, 'What have I done with my life?' And lots of people at my age don't want to go back and look at it. That's why they're so nuts about their grandchildren. It keeps the focus off them."
Juska says she knows other women her age or older who have tried their luck online.
"One woman I know is just infuriated because she met this very nice man online who turned out to be 84 and he hadn't told her. I said she was ageist and she said she was only mad that he lied. And I said, 'Come on, now.' But most of the women insist on asking me, 'Didn't you really do this because you wanted to get married?' The institution of marriage does not interest me. I did get a marriage proposal, but I said no. I'd have to give up the others, then. I'd have to give up too much."
May 2, 2003, 5:18PM
NEW YORK -- People smile at Jane Juska. There she is, on a rainy afternoon at the Gramercy Tavern in her cheerful red jacket, white hair tucked behind her ears, blue eyes bright behind her bifocals. At 70, she seems to be what she is, a proud new grandma enjoying a day on the town. Though she clutched her lower back periodically -- arthritis? -- she ordered some wine and chatted happily about her writing. Here's a sample:
"Before I turn 67 -- next March -- I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me."
Juska placed this personal ad in The New York Review of Books in the fall of 1999. Over the course of a month, she received 63 responses and spent the better part of a year following them up, an experience she recounts in her first book, A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance (Villard). It turns out that Juska did have a lot of sex with a lot of men she liked, and still does, having seen one of them as recently as that morning. He's 35.
Which might explain the lower-back problem.
"I didn't want to think, `What if I never had sex with a man again?' " Juska recalled of her decision to place the ad. "I didn't want to just sit there and think, `Wouldn't it be nice, if ... ?' "
Juska, a retired high school English teacher (round-heeled is an antiquated slang expression for a promiscuous woman), was moved to action after seeing Eric Rohmer's film Autumn Tale. Its plot involves a woman placing a personal ad in a newspaper on her middle-age friend's behalf.
"Before I got home I had written my ad in my head," Juska said. "But I did think, as if I were teaching a class and would ask my students, `What harm might this decision cause other people?' The only person that would be is my son. So I asked him, and he said: `Go get 'em, Mom. It's your turn.' The night I sent the ad in I felt so great."
Feeling great has become a new hobby for Juska in the 10 years since her retirement. She now lives in Berkeley and has lived in the Bay Area since the mid-1950s. After her divorce in 1972, she raised her son, Andy, now 38, as a single mother with no help from his father, she said.
She went through a bleak period during which she gained 70 pounds, drank heavily and lived in turmoil when her son dropped out of school and ran away from home. It took years of psychoanalysis, dieting and exercise to take control of herself, shaking off lingering effects of a Puritanical small-town Ohio childhood in the process.
For 27 years, she dated only sporadically. Her work, she said, was her salvation.
"Teaching was a passion for me," Juska said. "And when I left it, I just wasn't tired enough." She smiled. "My grandmother used to say, `Don't borrow trouble,' but I think borrowing trouble is a good idea. If you live your life staying safe you're going to lose."
Some postmenopausal women feel a lessening of sexual desire, or at least are said to. That was apparently not her experience. "No," she said firmly. "I was probably even more interested because I wasn't as afraid as when I was younger, of not doing it right or, well, being thought randy."
Juska describes her own imperfect body in exacting detail in her book. Was she not at all self-conscious?
She smiled, sort of. "Men didn't mind," she said. "It was always me pulling up the sheet and turning out the light. I never met a man who was afraid to take his clothes off. That's healthy, I think. They've forgiven themselves for sagging here and there."
She took a deep breath. "The other day, my publisher sent me for media coaching, where they tape you so you learn how to speak on television," she said. "I don't feel 70, but I look it. Television does not lie. I went home after that and cried."
She cried over a few of the men, too, one in particular, with whom she fell in love. "In the end, he was just lonely and wanted a friend," she said. "So he strung me along, and I let him, I guess."
When asked whether she practiced safe sex, she said, "Well, not getting pregnant was part of my popularity." She added, "Yes, we took the precautions we thought we needed to. After all, these men didn't know where I had been, either."
Although Juska has never published a book before, she has published articles on teaching, and for 20 years has been part of a writing group that meets monthly to read one another's work. It was when she was making piles of "yes," "no" and "maybe" with the responses to her ad that the idea of writing about it came to her. "I thought, `Jane, you don't want to forget this. It's too good to keep to yourself.' " she said. "I thought I'd write it as a novel because nobody would believe it. I took some vignettes to my group, and after I read them they were silent. I was terribly uncomfortable. Finally, there was a comment: `You changed point of view on Page 3.' They were just fumbling for things to say."
One of the men Juska met through the ad asked to see her pages. (In the book, all the men's names, occupations and home cities were changed to protect their identities, which Juska still refuses to divulge.) She recalled, "After he read what I had written, he said, `Get out of that writing group and write it as nonfiction.' He gave me permission just to go."
Without any connections in publishing, Juska sent out the manuscript on her own. At the William Morris Agency, Elyse Green, a 26-year-old assistant, fell in love with it. Green passed the book to Virginia Barber, who became Juska's agent.
"The best part of all this is that I have a writing life now," she said. She is working on a second book, about teaching. "The other huge surprise," she said, "was finding intellectual partners, which is almost as exciting as the sex, in some cases more. To be able to talk to a really smart man, who says, `I would value your opinion on this.' Where I grew up, you had to bow and scrape to the nearest man and keep your mouth shut."
But it has been women, not men, whose responses to Juska's adventure have been the most harsh. "I did a reading in Berkeley for mostly women," Juska said. "I said that the age range of the men in the book went from 84 to 32. One woman said about the 32-year-old, `He must have been short and ugly.' I said, `Actually, he's tall and handsome.' "
For all her enterprise, on most days she still lives a solitary life. So does she feel cheated by her search, in the end? She hooted her no.
"I had no hope of it turning out to be anything like this," she said. "True, I've met some men who are not kind or thoughtful, but I've also met men who are kind and thoughtful and funny and true." Her smile was wry.
"Which is to say, I guess, I found out that men are people.
"They're just the kind of people I like better naked."
Lust among the rusty
Reviewed by Susan Parker
Sunday, May 18, 2003
A Round-Heeled Woman
My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance
By Jane Juska
VILLARD; 272 Pages; $23.95
"Before I turn 67, next March, I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me."
Retired and divorced, Jane Juska placed this personal ad in the New York Review of Books after consuming a bag of malt balls while watching Eric Rohmer's "Autumn Tale" at a movie theater in Berkeley. It had been a long time since she had been with a man and before she grew "too old" Jane wanted to play. She also wanted to talk, touch, love and be loved. She received 63 responses to her ad and took a year off to meet some of the men who replied. The result, her memoir "A Round-Heeled Woman," is a hilarious, oftentimes poignant tale of late-life sex and romance with men ranging in age from 32 to 82.
In brief, zippy chapters, she explores her conservative Midwest upbringing, her experiences teaching creative writing to inmates at San Quentin and the difficulties of raising a stubborn, rowdy son as a single mother. She confesses the circumstances of her doomed marriage, her love-hate relationship with her body, her sexual fantasies about her psychiatrist. But Juska is at her very best when she recounts her trysts with the men she meets and beds. "His dark hair, the few strands that remain, falls greasily back over his head,
revealing a brow that does not suggest a high intelligence or invite my confidence, let alone lust. He looks like someone in the witness protection program."
Even when her prose is awkward, we can't help but root for her all the way to the bedroom and back. "John has given me directions to a small shopping center in the small village outside of which he lives in the woods in a house whose location, he says, is too complicated for me to find on my own. Ted Kaczynski had a house in the woods. . . . Listen, I say to myself, anybody who lives in this lovely, lovely place can't be a murderer or even a plain, ordinary degenerate. I am ready. Bring him on."
Jane Juska loves men even when they disappoint and hurt her, which they often do. Like most human beings, she's full of contradictions. She's honest, bold and frisky and also scared, vulnerable and needy. The candid, touching descriptions of desire and intimacy are endearing and heartbreaking. "He raises himself off me and begins anew, and I notice that the skin on his face is loose, it falls forward, it is freeing itself from the bone, just the way the skin on my upper arms and inner thighs is loose. Our bodies are dying. Soon we will be no flesh at all, just bones. I reach up for him, to pull him to me, to hold him against the dying of us both."
"A Round-Heeled Woman" is ultimately an inspirational, uplifting, life- affirming story, one that will make readers laugh, cry and cheer loudly and heartily for Juska, a woman with loads of candor, guts and chutzpah.
Berkeley writer Susan Parker is the author of the memoir "Tumbling After."
Life's full participant
Jane Juska, single as she approached 70, opened herself to romance. That labor of love has become the memoir 'A Round-Heeled Woman.'
By Suzanne Mantell
Special to The Times
June 10 2003
BERKELEY -- Growing old has a way of sneaking up on people, of leaving them behind as vital participants in life's passages. But Jane Juska, an astute observer of life's changes, wasn't going to let that happen to her.
Juska, a former high school English teacher, felt tripped up by the aging process. Though retired, her juices were still flowing and, more important, she felt like a young person trapped in an aged body. "I didn't want to grow old never sleeping with a man again," she confides, admitting at the same time that she hadn't seen a naked male body in more than 10 years.
Unfazed by practical considerations, Juska did what any ripe and ready person might do: She took out a personals ad declaring her availability. She chose as her venue the well-regarded New York Review of Books. She fielded responses, and she met men.
Her rousing memoir recounting her experiences, "A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance," is stirring up interest in every nook and cranny where boomers are quietly aging. And it looks as though Juska may end up a heroine not just to herself but to myriad older women — and men — who suppress desire in the name of propriety and accept society's view that growing older is if not ugly then unseemly and best done out of the public view.
Despite her systematic search for partners, and her public airing of same, first-time author Juska professes no interest in being a spokeswoman for senior sex or its pleasures. If you seek her advice, she deflects it. "I think you should ask someone else," she tells an older woman who has asked whether she should sleep with a man she has known for only a week. "I'm alone at home watching 'Law and Order.' "
A 32-year-old writer from the online journal Salon asks on behalf of her mother, a linguistics professor, whether a personals ad is a good idea. "The NYRB worked for me," she replies. Indeed, she got 63 responses to her posting.
Juska turned 70 in March. She didn't set out to flaunt her bold adventures in print, though she shows real talent in describing her foray into the world of first dates and first kisses and caresses that go all the way. The book is unabashed in its honesty, forthright about her experiences, probing, funny and sad. It doesn't take many pages to get the reader rooting for her, hoping she finds someone who will appreciate her.
Young writers plow this territory, but who dares do it when they are past their prime, when intimations of mortality are all about and, worse, "what once was firm is loose, what once went up goes down"?
Editor Susanna Porter, who bought the book for Random House's Villard imprint, says Juska's first draft had terribly unflattering physical descriptions, which got softened in the editing process. "Jane looks like a woman who looks her age but she is really good-looking," Porter says. "I thought the descriptions were too brutal. It was better to leave it to the reader's imagination."
Assistance from Trollope
Why did Juska want to sleep around? And why did she go public in "A Round-Heeled Woman"? Juska, who married and divorced early in life and raised a son on her own, discovered, after retiring from 33 years of high school teaching, that she no longer felt touched by the world, was no longer part of its sexual dynamics, and she missed it.
"Retirement is a terribly serious step for anybody," she says. "There's high drama in high school. It takes all your energy and passion and then asks for more. So when that's over, it's like a death. So what are you going to do?"
Spurred on by the Eric Rohmer film "Autumn Tale," in which a mature woman advertises for a man for her friend, Juska concocted an ad ("Before I turn 67— next March — I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me"), placed it in a publication noted for its relentless intellectualism and set in motion a saga that, from all outward signs, has only just begun.
Just a few weeks after publication, the book is in its fourth printing. At one point, it jumped to No. 15 in the Amazon sales ranking. There's interest in doing a stage adaptation, and a couple of TV producers are sniffing around the rights.
"There's a lot of excitement out there in Hollywood," says Juska's literary agent, Virginia Barber, at the William Morris Agency in New York, where a young assistant found the book in the slush pile, that vast, never-ending influx of unsolicited book submissions. "We don't yet have the offer we want." A big fan of the author, Barber says, "No one opened the door for her. She did it with cleverness and wit."
Of the men Juska met, she is still in active relationships with at least three, including half-her-age Graham, an "old soul in a young body" who offered her great sex and wonderful companionship.
At Cody's Bookstore in Berkeley, where Juska did a reading and signed books, a woman whispered to her, "Do you still see Graham?"
"I told her yes," Juska says. "It made her day. I guess I would have said yes even if it wasn't true." Young Graham is a very romantic part of the story.
Since the flurry of media attention, another wave of letters from suitors has come in, but the author says she's "not taking on anyone new." A man from Roslyn, N.Y., got in touch, saying he wasn't fond of being taken care of or taking care of. Juska wrote back, "I could really use a person who irons."
The author — white hair, blue eyes, bare of makeup and shoes, with a suppleness to her gestures that makes the age question irrelevant — is comfortably draped on a cushy white couch in the small living room of her tiny Berkeley cottage, remembering one of her first assignations. It was a leisurely weekend in a romantic setting with Jonah, eightysomething (all names and professions were assiduously changed in the book).
The meeting didn't end well, and to top it off, Juska discovered the champagne flutes she had brought along for their sybaritic enjoyment were missing, as well as a pair of silk pajama shorts. And so the book was born. "When the guy stole my underpants at the Claremont Hotel, I knew I would have to write about it all," she says. The notes she had been jotting down "for the record" were hammered into a full-fledged story.
To set the record straight, the book is not all about sex; it's not even mostly about sex. There are nine pages devoted to finding a way into the Berg collection at the New York Public Library to see the manuscript of Anthony Trollope's novel "Miss MacKenzie" (it made her weep), and much about her Ohio childhood, her father the doctor, her disastrous marriage, her periods of self-loathing, her wayward son who finally builds himself a good life, her inmate students in the writing class she now teaches at San Quentin prison.
'I have been hungry'
One of her men, John, who resurfaced when the book appeared — not dead of colon cancer as she had feared, ill as he was at their last meeting — was enamored of the 19th century intellectual and writer Margaret Fuller. When Juska writes, "People like this must not go unattended; they are rare and getting rarer. I have been hungry for people like John for so long, people who would talk to me about what I hold near and dear," it's clear that her search was broader and wider than she let on in the beginning.
"Participating in art and in sex allows us to transcend the certainty of our own death and the destruction of all that is beautiful and good," she writes. "Art compensates for life."
At the reading here, someone asked how it was possible for her to sleep with strangers. "The audience was, by this time, with me," Juska says. "And they shouted out, 'She didn't sleep with strangers.' This book is making a lot of people smile. I'm happy about that. It's funny. It has a happy ending."
The real-life ending is happy too. With a new book in progress and another one beginning to coalesce, she rejoices that she has a writing life ahead of her, no matter what happens to her social calendar.
Sitting in her tiny cottage, surrounded by a lively selection of reading matter that includes Nancy Milford's "Savage Beauty" and Michel Faber's "The Crimson Petal and the White," Juska says that a washing machine has become a huge symbol to her.
"If I get enough money for a washing machine, I'll have to find a place to put it. I'll have to move. A little hint of money and already I'm beginning to think about what I want. People ask me if my life has changed. Right now I say I still go to the Laundromat."
Among the many surprising benefits of aging, writes JANE JUSKA, is the chance to
fall in love anew with books
By JANE JUSKA
Saturday, September 13, 2003 - Page D27
I turned 70 this year, so I suppose I am old. Nobody has told me I am old, not to my face, anyway. Instead, they say, "You don't look it," or, "I'd never have guessed." As an old person, I read about myself mostly by way of numbers: "The number of Americans age 65 and older will double by 2030, and rise from the current 12 per cent of the population to 20 per cent." "If you are a woman over 50 or a man over 65, aim for 1,200 to 1,500 milligrams [of calcium]." "[Drivers] over 75 have the highest fatality rate, per mile driven, of all drivers." Add to that the flight from one's mind of all proper nouns, and it's enough to make a person go sit on the porch and wait for Carolyn Heilbrun's prediction to come true: "70 does terrible things to a woman's face."
While waiting, let me say that there is much to be said for sitting on the porch, especially if you happen to own a rocking chair — although, since I have neither a porch nor a rocking chair, the contentment that arises from not having to be at work, not having to prepare a meal, not needing to do a damn thing, comes to me in a different form. I can read what I like. That is a benefit of aging. Reading allows us to ignore arthritic joints, how many milligrams we forgot to take of what and how soon some nephew we never liked is going to come and take our car keys away. It also lets us spend time with people who fascinate us, unlike some of the real-life folks we're forced to put up with, the older ones who call us ornery, the younger ones who whisper, "She needs anti-depressants." "Shhh," I say back, "Grandma's reading."
There are no statistics in Willa Cather's The Professor's House (1925); instead, she gives us Napoleon Godfrey St. Peter (a name we could worry to death, but let's not), a distinguished professor of history nearing the end of his career in an undistinguished Midwestern college, a man of integrity and vitality who in his youth exclaimed, "I will do this dazzling, this beautiful, this impossible thing!" Descended from French Canadians and American farmers, moved by his parents to Kansas, he rid himself of the Napoleon, a family name for generations, his wife the only one privy to what he thinks of as his "darkest secret." The professor is good company: He changes and not unhappily; he becomes stubborn, then wise as he realizes "that life is possible, may be even pleasant, without joy, without passionate griefs." By the end of the book, he has grown into his name, his whole name: He has become a large figure, like Napoleon, both victor and vanquished, a North American Lear, stubborn and grand, as he chooses the old over the new, the past over the future, Elba over Versailles.
In her clear, calm prose, uncluttered with sentimentality or judgment, Cather is as profound as Tolstoy and as a clean a stylist as ever took up pen. At 257 pages, this book is a miracle.
During my approach to old age, about when I hit 60, I fell in love with poetry. When I went to school, way back in the "olden days," I learned that poetry was difficult, obscure and intelligible only to those of high intelligence and exalted degrees. To illustrate: in my Collected Poems of T..S. Eliot, purchased in 1952 as a text for American Literature I, these lines from The Wasteland appear: "Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop/ But there is no water." In the margin, I have painstakingly printed, "ill., cf. mod.cult.rebirth ill."
Did this nonsense mean anything ever? Now, on our porch, the university far behind us, we can open a book of poems and breathe free; nobody's going to tell us what they mean, and there won't be any tests, just every so often a pang of recognition, a Yes, that's the way it is or an Oh! I never thought of that! .
Amazingly, not all poets have been ground dead beneath the wheels of commerce. Wislawa Szymborska, born in Poland in 1923, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996 — but don't let that scare you; do not say, oh, she must be way beyond me. Like all good poems, Szymborska's surprise and delight. They illuminate. From The End and the Beginning, (from View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems, Harvest Books, 1995) she offers what we already knew, just hadn't thought of in quite this way: "After every war/ someone has to tidy up."
In Some People Like Poetry, she writes, "Poetry — / but what is poetry anyway?/ More than one rickety answer/ has tumbled since that question first was raised./ But I just keep on not knowing, and I cling to that/ like a redemptive handrail." And, good poet that she is, she is contrary: "I believe in the refusal to take part./ I believe in the ruined career./ I believe in the wasted years of work./ I believe in the secret taken to the grave." There it is again, that stubbornness. Besides all that, her poems are short, friendly and happy to be read again and again.
Letters, as we all know, disappeared in the eighties, maybe earlier. E-mail has its uses, I suppose, but the saving and storing of e-mail messages seems to derive its chief value from the evidence it will provide in litigations, not, as letters do, in the preserving of the minds and spirits of their originators. Run, then, do not walk, to your bookstore; if you can't, get that nephew to go for you. Somehow, get The Thurber Letters: The Wit, Wisdom, and Surprising Life of James Thurber (Simon & Schuster, 2002), the most delightful mind and spirit from one of the orneriest men ever born in Columbus, Ohio, or anywhere else you can remember. The letters begin in 1918 and end in 1961. They are written to his friends, women he loved, for the most part unhappily, his editors, other writers. Their subjects are love, politics, writing, gossip, fame and money. He wrote them in ill health, in frustration over love and marriage, in his eventual blindness.
Now, all of us over 60 have no doubt written letters on such topics, but only Thurber could have written these; they are witty, brilliant, affectionate, wistful, self-deprecating and inspired in their silliness: "Helen says Honey's face has become kindly and this is almost too much for me. I've always dreamed of hitting her with a heavy glass ashtray in my seventies and here she is on her way to becoming sainted." When he suffers writer's block, he turns to giving advice: "Tell her to tattoo the baby on its hips, not its forearms."
About age and illness: "I have been reduced to nothing. I sit down to shave, can't tie both shoes at the same time, and sometimes have to forgo brushing my teeth at night."
Near the end of his life (he would die young at 68): "I know six guys my own age who are still alive, but a third of them are spooky."
About all his problems: "My only solution is a high heart and a brave spirit, however hard these flags may be to flaunt in the stormy weather of today."
Words to live by. Shivers of delight.
Jane Juska is the author of A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance.
Sex after 40
A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance by Jane Juska. New York: Villard, 2003. 273 pp., $23.95 hardcover.
Sexual Healing by Jill Nelson. Chicago: Agate Publishing, 2003, 320 pp., $23.95 hardcover.
Reviewed by Emily Toth
IT'S RARE TO READ ABOUT women over 40, and over 60, running around trying to get laid. But it's delicious.
As Jane Juska and Jill Nelson show in their new books, midlife women don't necessarily lose the urge to merge. More often, we lose our inhibitions, and we don't need any pretense of romance. Mature women can be as horny as teenaged boys--and a lot funnier.
Juska, in her memoir, and Nelson, in her novel, both describe women who wake up one day wanting the sex without strings that men have always (supposedly) craved. (In fact, nowadays men are more often the ones who push for marriage and family--but that's another story.) Thirty years ago, Erica Jong in Fear of Flying claimed that (straight) women wanted the uncomplicated sexual experience she called "the zipless fuck." Now some of us really do.
Juska, a recently retired high school English teacher, hadn't had sex with anyone but herself since her divorce 30 years earlier, and she hadn't had a date for 42 years. Five years of psychoanalysis taught her that "pleasure was not bad"; and volunteer teaching at San Quentin prison, singing, and exercising a lot weren't enough. She wanted to be the center of her own drama. And so she staked $136.50 on a personal ad in the New York Review of Books: "Before I turn 67--next March--I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me."
Twelve men responded immediately, and eventually 63 did. She sorted them, developing criteria as she went along: no kinky sex, no married men, no Republicans--and she broke all of those rules. Also--because I know you, the reader, can't wait to know--she did have sex with at least half a dozen men, ranging in age from thirtyish to eightyish. And she lived to tell the tale, with humor, poignancy, compassion, and charm. Hers is a book you have to love.
One of Juska's most lovable qualities is her oscillation between seriousness--she had a repressed childhood in a small northern Ohio town--and flat-out I-don't-give-a-shitness: The hymn "He Walks With Me," she writes, is "a soppily sexual love song to Jesus." It's clear that her mother, an "ironing fool" and a thorough Victorian, nevertheless loved sports and hated "girldom"--the world of frills and weakness.
Juska escaped these mixed messages when she was thirtyish and pregnant, ran from hubby a few years later, and wound up in Berkeley. One day, while watching a sophisticated French movie, she thought up her ad. She worried about the money and then decided to splurge ($36.50) to include the mention of Trollope. It was a pun she enjoyed, and not lost on her swains, one of whom wouldn't meet her in person but directed her to the New York Public Library to see Anthony Trollope's manuscripts.
Juska was enthralled, and much of the book is a love letter to New York City, where she met many of her men and fell in love--with the city. Her book is a bit of a tease--as is this review--in that she alternates chapters on her past with ones on her current sexual adventures. She also writes about how her teaching skills, honed on children, were challenged by the San Quentin inmates who immediately decided that Emily Dickinson is a sexy writer ("That Emily, she something," said one lifer.)
Yet it all fits together, because A Round-Heeled Woman is about the lifelong education of a Midwestern girl, a portrait of the artist as a woman still growing at an age when many give up. "Why is it that aging is so often accompanied by a loss of curiosity?" she wonders at one point. (One online reviewer says he doesn't want his parents to read Juska's book, lest they get ideas.)
But what about the sex? And by the way, I read the book in linear order. I did not skip ahead to the good parts.
Well, the men aren't perfect lovers, and some are bunglers. "Jonah," who won't admit to being in his 80s, has trouble keeping it up, and blames Juska (some things never change). He also absconds with her pajamas. "Robert," an elegant e-mail writer and retired professor, has another lady friend to whom he whispers sweet nothings on the phone in his closet.
Juska eventually hides in the same closet when she calls "Sidney" for a consoling date. They meet at the J. P. Morgan Library and feel each other up.
The sex is titillating, melodramatic, comical, and biographical: We learn about Juska's history with blow jobs. Her son, now over 30, told her not to worry about discretion: "Go get 'em, Mom. It's your turn." She may have held back some graphic details because she's still seeing three different men from her project--though not "Jonah the Thief" or "Robert the Liar" or "Sidney the Peculiar." Thirtyish, cuddly, wildly effervescent "Graham the Younger" sounds like he's a keeper.
Does Jane Juska worry about what people think? Well, her women friends love what she's done (as does every woman who's heard about it from me, including my 20-something students). One of Jane's friends yells at her about condoms in the middle of Berkeley traffic, delighting all eavesdroppers. Another Berkeley friend buys her a couple of nights at a fancy hotel to do the deed, and a Michigan friend mails her "the most gorgeous nightgown I had ever seen."
Does Juska regret being a "round-heeled woman" (the archaic term for "easy lay")? Not at all. Her book is a treat and a gift for intrepid women who want to Do It--not just sex, but all those scary and wonderful things we may not have gotten around to doing yet. Juska tells us it's not too late.
ACEY, ONE OF THE TWO FRIENDS in Jill Nelson's wonderful Sexual Healing, thinks it may be too late for her. She's fortyish, African American, the daughter of a preacher, and she still grieves for Earl, the beloved husband who went sailing some 12 years earlier and never returned. She's dated some, but Acey is still tied to the past.
Not so her lifelong best friend Lydia, an irrepressible loud-mouth who's finally dumped a useless, parasitic husband (who later steals her money to get a sex change--but it's kinda funny, it really is). Lydia doesn't want to have a relationship with another needy or greedy man. Lydia wants pretty much the same thing Jane Juska advertised for: "fabulous, regular, safe sex with a man who doesn't hurt my eyes."
One sunny afternoon in Oakland--what is it about the Bay area?--Lydia and Acey realize that most of the sisters they know hate "all the work dating requires for the usually low returns." Why go through all that only to wind up with mediocre sex anyway? they wonder. But Lydia and Acey aren't just horny. They're also middle-class go-getters, skilled in entrepreneurship and public relations. And so they hatch a business plan for "A Sister's Spa," a full-service spa with facials, pedicures, manicures--and great sex from willing, well-trained men whose job it is to give pleasure. (One new hire who demands fellatio is immediately fired.)
Their brothel for women has to be in Nevada, of course, and a lot of the novel (this is definitely fiction) is about how they pull it off. Odell, a UPS delivery man and great lover, pleases both women so much that they hire him to train others. LaShaWanda, a disaffected former Wall Street broker now working as a secretary, turns out to have the financial acumen they need. Lydia's mother, a librarian, checks out the history of Nevada brothels on the Net and says the world needs one for women. Earl, in moments of magical realism, turns up in Acey's pantry to reassure his widow, who's been wondering "if there's a conflict in simultaneously loving the dead Earl, being a good Christian, and wanting, really wanting, to get well fucked."
The major funding for the spa comes from one Dick Dixmoor and his wife Muffin, a white do-gooder who immediately bonds with the black women. Dick Dixmoor is a white supremacist who's pledged millions to get "black superpredators" off the streets--and if 30-some black men are in Nevada copulating all day and all night, he thinks his money's well-spent.
Sexual Healing--yes, of course, the title's from Marvin Gaye's song--is an exuberant story, almost a fairy tale, in which everything falls into place: long-lost children, secrets, good people who win, and bad ones who lose. There are characters who are a lot like Florynce Kennedy and Al Sharpton. Parts are laugh-out-loud funny, such as the multiple-choice questionnaire for male job applicants. Question 9, for instance:
I go down on a woman because:
* I like it
* She likes it
* Because most women's orgasms are clitorally, not vaginally, stimulated
* Because I understand a man's gotta eat that pie
Sexual Healing has lots of great chummy, non-clinical sex scenes that are inventive and hilarious. With Odell, Lydia reports: "My legs wrap around his head like a nutcracker attacking a Christmas walnut."
As a white reader, I particularly enjoy the ways Lydia and Acey talk to each other. They use uninhibited, funky expressions I've never heard--but I know exactly what they mean, and they make me laugh.
Nelson also pokes fun at those endless quizzes in Cosmo, such as "Are You Pleasuring your Man?" Acey scores high as a "giver" and Lydia scores low as "a sexually selfish bitch," but neither one does well in relationships-"more proof that test scores don't tell much about how you'll function in the real world."
Jane Juska and Jill Nelson are both writing about how they'd like women to function in the real world. They're praising more than great sex, though: They also cherish women's friendships, gossip, and laughter. These books are celebrations. They would be perfect gifts to any friend in her perimenopausal doldrums, and I could easily imagine reading them aloud at midlife pajama parties. (Does anyone have such things? Well, we should.)
Except for some ménages in Sexual Healing, all the sex in both books is heterosexual. Would lesbian or bisexual writers tell different stories of midlife desires and adventure? The success of these two books should goose authors and publishers to, um, put out more on the subject. I hope they lay it all out on the table, and soon.
You're as young as the one you
Jenny McCartney reviews A Round-Heeled Woman by Jane Juska
Jane Juska, you might remember, was the woman who set the normally sedate columns of The New York Review of Books ablaze a few years ago with her unusually frank personal ad. It read: "Before I turn 67 - next March - I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me."
Juska's senior-citizen status, and her blunt admission that she was after something rather more earthy than an afternoon ambling round an art gallery, excited a lot of attention - and not just from the press. There were so many replies to the advertisement that Juska took a sabbatical from teaching literature to meet the more promising respondents. A Round-Heeled Woman is her account of what happened next, interwoven with autobiography.
I found this book endearing and often excruciating. Scorchingly honest revelation is Juska's stock-in-trade, right down to the gritty details of precisely what she gets up to with Jonah, Robert, Sydney et al in restaurants, cabs, wood cabins, motel rooms and - in one case - an apartment overlooking Central Park. She spares us no post-menopausal hot flush, or churning of the large intestine, and - although I appreciate that a couple of such details can lend a story guts, so to speak - at times I felt that I knew more about Juska's interior life than was strictly necessary.
When she eventually strikes up with Graham, a red-headed 33-year-old gaspingly described as "prodigiously affixed", the author muses, with a certain amount of reheated glee: "My cervix was in for it this time." You almost brace yourself for the latest bulletin from her fallopian tubes.
Still, there is no doubting that Juska is a trouper. She managed to survive childhood molestation by Werner, the retarded family help, with her interest in sex fully intact, if wide-ranging. The usual boundaries never quite applied to Juska: after her mother died, she took her elderly father along to strip shows to cheer him up, and gave bug-eyed students in her Women in Literature class Hustler magazine for the purpose of cultural analysis.
Somewhere in her psyche, Juska has an endless font of tolerance for errant male behaviour: she seems much more interested in simply recording her experiences than passing any character judgments. This is fortunate, because it bolsters her against the fact that many of the men she becomes entangled with behave in a weird and even cruel fashion.
Jonah, an 82-year-old lover who pilfers things from hotel rooms, suddenly says: "I don't desire you" and they part on sour terms. Robert, a 72-year-old retired professor, turns tetchy and pushes her away with the (possibly prophetic) words: "You're writing a script for me!". By the time I got to Matt, who screeches "Just leave me alone!" down the phone when Juska announces she is coming to visit - she replies: "I'm coming anyway" - part of me was screaming "Why?"
The author plainly decided that angst with the chance of happiness was preferable to boredom with the certainty of none: "I suppose I had felt a little dying happening to me for too long." And indeed, the robust Juska has emerged rather buoyantly from territory rich in potential humiliation. It will no doubt cheer older women, if not their husbands, to hear that she is still dallying with the intrepid 33-year-old Graham at the end of the book.
Sex may have been the selling-point of A Round-Heeled Woman, yet Juska shines brightest as a writer when dealing with scenes that draw her away from lengthy self-examinations. The chapter in which she describes the motley class of prisoners to whom she teaches literature is her best: beautifully delineated, funny and moving. Literature has been the real, abiding love of her life. Perhaps, after this book, she should consider giving authorship a second walk around the park.
25 November 2003
Like all great ideas, Jane Juska's had the virtue of simplicity. A divorced California schoolteacher with a grown-up son, semi-retired and tired of passing her afternoons at cinemas with pensioners, she placed a lonely-hearts ad. Hating euphemisms and conceits, she bluntly announced in The New York Review of Books what she was looking for. "Before I turn 67 - next March - I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like." If her respondent wished to talk first, she added, "Trollope works for me".
This is a memoir that sings with passion not just of the physical kind, which Juska eventually finds, but with her profound desire to taste every sensual delight before going into the dark night. It is a story about growing old with grace and fire, fulfilling pent-up longings and being able to slay dragons even in your dotage. But it is also about a woman becoming a writer, and this conceit is the only jarring note in an otherwise seamlessly wonderful read.
Did Juska set out to write about her experiences with these men? Was each one asked if he minded being included, and where did she draw the line about identification? Walter seems particularly vulnerable to spotting. A professor of sociology in New York, he was among the dozens who wrote in. They meet in his office on the ground floor of his college, Juska wearing a baggy sweater and hiking books. They chat across Walter's desk before he commands her to take off her sweater, explaining: "I'm a voyeur". The encounter doesn't go well and Juska kills off any potential when Walter grabs his crutch and she gasps, "Wow! What happened to your leg?"
Juska reveals herself as an utterly distinctive character within the first few pages. Her affairs are interwoven with passages about her childhood in a small mid-Western town, her disastrous first marriage, and her teaching at San Quentin prison. She's wise, funny and widely-read, so you wince for her at some of the guys she finds. At a cafe in San Francisco she meets Danny, a former maths lecturer forced to resign after allegations of sexual harassment. A reformed alcoholic, he livens up their date by pretending to be a psychiatric patient who has forgotten his medication and is threatening to throw himself out of the window. Juska demands he leave a big tip for the horrified waiters.
There are men who lie about their age, marital status and health (one of her lovers is dying of terminal cancer). There is also Robert, another reformed alcoholic, but also a retired doctor who has become a successful novelist and lives in New York. Juska falls in love with him by e-mail and, when it ends badly, she moves on to greener pastures in rural New England with John. Eventually she meets Graham, aged 33, who jokes about their "substantial age gap", and who appears to be the real thing. Throughout, Juska writes with an eviscerating honesty and such clarity of vision that one hopes this book is a debut rather than a swansong.