Lust et Veritas: Yale, WE tv, Piacere and B-Day Boola-la in the Castles of My Life
It’s late Spring, and the nostalgic barbequed aroma of college reunions is in the air. Last weekend, I enjoyed a sumptuous feast of intellectual hedonism at my 30th Yale reunion, the first I’ve ever attended and an especially sweet moment for me since last year at this very time, I was lying in a coma on life support, all my vital signs having fallen like the sky on Chicken Little’s head. But luck and pluck were with me, not to mention a dynamite USC-LAC medical team who raised me up like Lady Lazarus from the near-dead and threw me, gasping like a fish, back into the stream of life.
With the help of a little good sex and some great doctors, my recovery zipped along, and before I knew it, here I was, strolling among the neo-gothic fairy castles, ivory towers, stone turrets and snarling gargoyles of my alma mater. Yale trains its young to be leaders in their fields, and it treats its returning alumni like visiting dignitaries, shuttling us around New Haven in private white tour buses with blue-black windows, plying us with fine wines and other spirits as well as food as good as a four-star restaurant and plentiful as a cruise ship, seducing us with fascinating lectures, rousing panels and discussions that resurrected that sweet, stimulating feeling of being in college again.
Intellectual Hedonism at Yale
As an ethical hedonist, I believe in the pursuit and cultivation of pleasure. And one of life’s great pleasures is gaining knowledge. Of course, knowledge is also practical; an education can help us survive, compete and prosper. But there’s a pure pleasure to the pursuit and cultivation of knowledge that goes far beyond its practical functions. We humans love to learn, teach and share information, the better to ponder the meaning of things. And nobody cultivates the pleasures of education better than Yale.
Sure, old Eli has its dark side, especially for progressively-minded, sex-positive feminists like me. For centuries, it’s been a bastion of conservative tradition and wealthy white male privilege. My graduating class was only the third to include women. In current affairs, Yale is notorious for having provided educational cover and connections to the Bush Crime Family, most notoriously the current C-Student-in-Chief. Well, every barrel has a few bad apples, right?
And these are some finely carved old barrels. Yale’s undergraduate and graduate programs consistently rank among the best (the business school notwithstanding). And the place is no longer the Old Boys’ Club it used to be when I was a nervous freshwoman; even Skull & Bones has been forced to admit women. In terms of sex education, with Sex Week at Yale going strong since 2002, the place now ranks as one of the most sex-informative universities in the world. And then there’s the intensely stimulating Yale environment, buttressed by those neo-gothic fairy castles that you actually get to inhabit, like you’re an actor on the set of Camelot, Lord of the Rings or Monty Python’s Holy Grail. Of course, if you’re a student who’s just failed a test or been rejected by a club you wanted to join, all that gorgeous Eli architecture mocks you like so much sunshine on a bloody battlefield.
Yes, life as a student can be insanely stressful. But for the most part, Yale makes learning fun. Even sexy. As an ethical hedonist, I appreciate the intellectual hedonism that Yale fosters, the pure pleasure in academic investigation and discourse that sometimes is solitary (scholastic masturbation?) and often is shared, an academic love affair. It’s very seductive. And it’s no wonder I had to return…
Return to New Haven
We flew Jet Blue into JFK on the Wednesday night redeye. Despite the airline’s recent mishaps, or maybe because of them, our flight was smooth as a magic carpet ride. Fast skilled pilots that got us to New York ahead of schedule; comfy, roomy, leather seats; an assortment of TV channels for mindless entertainment, helpful flight attendants and delicious food that we brought ourselves — what more could we want? Aside from not feeding you (though they do give you decent snacks), flying Jet Blue is like flying business class for less than economy class prices. And no, Jet Blue is not (currently) a sponsor of The Dr. Susan Block Show.
My old friend Helene from my New England Commedia days picked us up and drove us to New Haven. First stop: Claire’s Corner Copia where I saw another old friend I hadn’t seen in a couple of decades: Claire! The Italian Earth Mama Claire Criscuolo looked just as adorable as I remember here when I was a freshly graduated Yalie writing my very first professional article for the New Haven Advocate about this delicious new dessert called “Frozen Yogurt.” I had “investigated” frozen yogurts all over New Haven and determined that Claire’s was by far the best. It was the first article to be written about her new organic vegetarian eatery, and we became friends. Now Claire is a successful restauranteur with a new place called Basta Trattoria in addition to the old, enhanced Corner Copia, being praised as a great culinary Eli tradition by none other than the Yale Alumni Magazine. We munched on some nutty vegetarian delicacy. Unfortunately, I was too tired to remember what we were munching; all I know is it was uniquely delicious, as I always remembered Claire’s cuisine to be.
After Claire’s, we checked into the Premiere Suites, a nice roomy residence hotel on the Long Island Sound, perfect for a hot spring weekend, had scrumptious fresh local fish at the Rusty Scupper down the road, then a little jet-lagged sex, and promptly fell asleep for nine hours.
Masters and Castles at Yale
We woke up early and shuttled over to Davies Hall, the elegant old Music School auditorium that makes you feel like you’re inside a giant wedding cake with great acoustics. Vincent Scully Professor of the History of Art Mary Miller gave a fascinating lecture on the art of the ancient Maya. Professor Miller hosted me during Sex Week at Yale ’04 when I spoke at a Master’s Tea in Saybrook where she is known as Master Miller. Of course, in the sex field, when people talk about a “Master,” they think of some big guy in leather wielding a whip. At Yale, a Master is the distinguished leader of one of the undergraduate school’s twelve residential “colleges,” each housing about 250 students, a dining hall, library, theater, seminar rooms and other amenities, modeled along the lines of Cambridge and Oxford. When I was a student, a Master was always a Mister. Nowadays, Yale has female Masters, and they don’t call them Mistresses (that would be too kinky); they call them Masters.
Titles are funny things, especially in a place like Yale that takes them relatively seriously. One of the other art history professors at Professor Miller’s lecture came up to Max, looked at his nametag, and addressed him as Prince Lobkowicz. Of course, Max is Prince Lobkowicz, though not the one that this professor thought he was. Yale does a lot of trips to Prague where the old Lobkowicz family owns almost a couple hundred castles that hold many valuable paintings and other works of art. The Lobkowiczes first lost these castles to the Nazis, then to the Commies. VÃ¡clav Havel‘s Velvet Revolution “gave back” the properties, and the question became what to do with them, as castles may be quite lovely and impressive, but they are very expensive to maintain. Max’s cousin Prince William Lobkowicz has turned some of the family castles into breweries of Lobkowicz Beer, a very good lager indeed, but alas, it’s not quite enough to heat all those castles in winter.
Suddenly, I realized that I had been in or around castles since I was 18, first going to Yale, then marrying a deposed prince with 200 castles he can’t afford to heat, let alone keep. And now here I am in the Speakeasy which, with its 24-foot ceilings and huge heavy doors, is a kind of urban castle. And in winter, it’s virtually impossible to heat.
After the lecture, we strolled through Cross Campus, then past the great phallic castles of Sterling Memorial Library (including its notorious Staxxx) and Harkness Tower, over to lunch at Pierson College, which isn’t like a castle at all. With its stately colonial architecture and the fabulous barbeque under the tent in bayou-style heat, tended by servers in white chef’s hats and navy blue Yale aprons, Pierson took on an eerie prebellum feel this reunion weekend afternoon. At least, the workers were of a variety of races, creeds and nationalities, including Yale student volunteers, plus they have a strong union and get decent pay and benefits. Still, it felt more than a bit like lunch with the aristocracy, served by the slaves, on the old Southern plantation. Even stranger: this aristocracy was made essentially of my own classmates.
Lust et Veritas
Making it all triply strange, at first, I didn’t recognize anyone. It wasn’t just that it’s been a while; it’s also because most of my friends at Yale were in the classes above and below me. I did have two significant boyfriends in my class, Steven van der Tak, the gorgeous Yale Crew team math genius who indirectly helped me have my very first orgasm in my sophomore year, and Phil Levin, the equally gorgeous, artistically gifted, chemical engineering gymnast, with whom I fell in love in junior year. Before we even graduated, Phil got himself an excellent job offer to be an engineer at Corning Glass. He accepted and asked me to move to Corning with him. I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do with my life after graduation, but I did fear that becoming a Corning Wife was something akin to being a Stepford Wife, so I declined. Phil told me I’d change my mind after a few weeks of post-graduate aimlessness, so having taken a single 6-month mime class in my senior year, I impulsively auditioned to be a “New Haven City Mime” working for the Mayor’s Office, and oddly enough, I got the job. This gave me a reasonably good excuse to hang around the beautiful architecture of Yale for another year or two and not follow Phil to the icy Finger Lakes of Corning Glass. Phil tried to be understanding about my sudden “career” as a mime, but when I refused to even stick a pinkie in the Finger Lakes to visit him, he smartly (and meanly; boohoo) broke up with me.
Neither Phil nor Steven were at the reunion, though I did see Ray Roginski who reminded me that I had turned him down when he asked me out sometime during my Phil period. Ray is now a happily married anesthesiologist at my parents’ alma mater, University of Pennsylvania. He showed me and my husband photos of his wife and kids as we sat in the gothic modern basement of the Davenport Buttery listening to our fellow classmate Phoebe Tree do stand-up. Then we bumped into internationally renowned author, political cartoonist and science historian M.G. Lord who, it turns out, lives right around the corner from me in the Soul of Downtown LA, kind of like we’re in the same residential college. Do we ever really graduate? It was all rather pleasantly surreal.
As was the whole weekend, in that intellectually hedonistic sort of way. The panels were heady discussions of politics, science, art and health. Considering how many wealthy people were in attendance, I was pleasantly surprised to hear a distinctly liberal slant to the panels and dinner conversations. Or maybe it’s just that the conservatives are so fed up with the current White House Bulldog that they sound like liberals these days. The sheer breadth of expertise was remarkable: The were New York Times editors and bar association presidents putting their Eli-educated, slightly inebriated heads together with Emmy-winning filmmakers and prize-winning scientists. And then there was me, the whacky sexologist with the wide-brimmed hats and kinky CV, a bit of a black sheep in the Yale family, but honored with an invitation to speak about sexual life changes on the “Yalies in Prime Time” panel, along with my distinguished fellow classmates, billion-dollar financial advisor Matt Gelfand, Yale School of Medicine Chief Dermatological Surgeon (who discovered the skin cancer gene in 1996) David Leffell, former Time Magazine London bureau chief Jef McAllister, with National Public Radio‘s “On Point” radio host Tom Ashbrook as our friendly moderator.
Sex in Prime Time
Here’s essentially what I said:
Usually, I’m here for Sex Week at Yale talking to the students about growing up. Today I’m here at our reunion talking about getting old. Ugh. Really old. Really fast. Too fast. But the fact is we’re in “Prime Time,” and Prime Time is a big turning point. The question is: What are we going to do at this point? Now that we’re On Point? Being a sex therapist, I wonder: Is Prime Time the time to close the door on sex in your life? Time to surrender to your migraines, your hernia, your stocks, your bondage, your briefs, your griefs, your family, your responsibilities, your tragedies? Is it time to give up on sex? This is what society generally encourages people our age to do.
Though some people do the opposite. Some people actually open that door and let the sun shine in. So, what about you? Are you ready to rediscover the joys of sex, and maybe some of the toys of sex, in Prime Time? Oh, you’ve got meetings, you’ve got deadlines, you’ve got gas, you’ve got bills to pay, kids to worry about and Nobel Peace Prizes to win. You’ve got no time for sex. Maybe you’ll get into it later, after the bills are paid, the kids are settled, that Nobel is safely ensconced on your mantel, and you wind up in the hospital with a stroke, then you’ll have time. And then, of course, you’re out of time. And there’s no going back.. But you don’t have to go back, because this is your Prime Time, and you could be having the time of your life. You could be “born again” as a sexual human being. Amen. And Awomen.
Of course, every individual is different. But Prime Time does tend to affect your sexuality in a big way, good and bad. You may feel like making some major personal changes, often to the great irritation of those around you who prefer to keep you nice and pigeonholed. You may decide it’s time to stop beating yourself up inside and start accepting yourself for who you really are, maybe doing things you’ve always wanted to do. The question is: How can you do this so it’s less of a Mid-Life Crisis and more of a Prime Time Breakthrough?
Because Prime Time also affects your love life. It’s not easy to keep love alive in a long-term monogamous relationship. It’s not easy to find love again after you’ve lost it. You may want to give it all up. Then again, you might be inspired to do things you were afraid to do when you were younger, to share things with your partner that you might have been embarrassed to share before. Or, you might be inspired to get a new partner. Or a new motorcycle. Prime Time is a tricky time…
Prime Time also affects your changing relationship with society. As parents, doctors, lawyers, journalists, businesspeople, policy makers and teachers, we are part of the sexual mores of our times, especially we Yalies. But which part? Are we part of the restraining forces within society, or part of the liberating spirit?
What about pleasure? In some ways, we are less capable of feeling pleasure as we get older. We get these physical problems. Ugh. With awful ugly names like Erectile Dysfunction. Menopause. Prostate problems. If you look at sex as a kind of sport, then it’s all downhill from here, and it pretty much has been since we lived on Old Campus. But sex is not just a sport. It’s also an art. In some ways, it’s a science. There’s also a spiritual element to sex. And then there’s romance. Sex is a game, like bridge — you either need a good partner or a good hand. Preferably both. Sex is also medicine, it’s a healing thing, brothers and sisters. Of course, sex can be dangerous, but all in all, sex heals a billion times more than it kills. Eros is the essence of life. We may or may not be Children of God, Jesus or Allah, but until we start cloning ourselves, we are all Children of Sex.
So will you embrace Eros or Thanatos? Pleasure or pain? Well, maybe a little pain. A little pain is like spice in your enchilada, though too much spoils the meat. It’s about balance. And it goes both ways — it’s great to receive pleasure, but it’s often even better to give it, and as we get older, we can get better at giving pleasure. At least, if we want to. We can learn to give pleasure in ways we couldn’t when we were young and full of ourselves. It’s a powerful thing. The Power to Give Pleasure is the Greatest Power We Have. It might sound like a come on, and it does involve coming. But you know the old saying: People give you power for two reasons: 1) because they fear you, or 2) because they love you. Giving pleasure is all about the second reason.
And it’s more than just about sex, though it certainly is that. It’s about giving food to a hungry child, giving your art to a gallery, giving your time to a clinic, giving your money to Yale, sending care packages to Iraq, instead of the bombs. Peace through Pleasure. It’s the Bonobo Way. And it’s my way, the way I try to be.
The 10 Commandments of Pleasure Revealed on Mount Eli
After the panel, we went over to the Yale Bookstore where I talked about The 10 Commandments of Pleasure, and signed books and audiobooks, and a few DVDs, including “Yale’s Whim â€˜n Rhythm Live at Dr. Suzy’s Speakeasy,” “Zorthian: Art & Times” and “Weimar Love: Hot Sex in Pre-Nazi Berlin.” Then we picked up a purple bonobo (at least it looks like a bonobo) weariing a “Hanging Around at Yale” T shirt and got some souvenirs for our own Bonobo Gang at the Boola-Boola Shop.
Then we zoomed back to the hotel where I changed into my boola-boola blue mini and stiletto heels as high as Harkness Tower, and Max put on his blue blazer with one of our notorious Yale thongs in his pocket instead of a hankerchief. We were late getting to the Class Dinner, so we hovered around the packed tables for a minute before a gracious lady in a flowing red dress motioned us over and made room for us at her table. It was a few moments before we realized that we were sitting at the central fundraising table for our Class. We also had a great seat for the Whiffenpoofs â€˜77 performance, led by our pitch-perfect classmate Mark Dollhopf who also happens to be Executive Director of the Yale Alumni Association. Boola-boola-la!
Yalies Gone Wild
Then dance music from the 70s filled up the tent and Yalies from ’77 and ’07, as well as some from years above, below and in between, got up on the portable floor to shake their educated booties.
In between dances, a steady stream of my fellow alumni sidled up to me (and with the help of a fine Argentinian Cabernet, I was now beginning to recognize them) in my role as the new off-the-record Yale Class Confessor, “confessiing” the sexual secrets they could not tell their spouses, close friends, therapists or even their accountants. Not that I would ever divulge their identities, though I might tell you a few of their stories. But that’s the subject of another bloggamy. Lust et Veritas, indeed. Goddess Bless Mother Yale. I will be back.
We’re on WE tv
While we were in New Haven, WE tv ran a five-part series on “Phone Sex,” including several segments on Telephone Sex Therapy with therapists from the Dr. Susan Block Institute was in all five parts, and their website is running this Phone Sex Q&A with me. We have received a huge response from the show, mostly from women who want to be telephone sex therapists. Of course, guys don’t tend to watch WE tv; well a few do, but they’re extremely closeted about it.
“10 Ordini di Piacere” in Italia!
Just got news from our European literary agent that we are selling the Italian rights to The 10 Commandments of Pleasure to Armenia Edizioni. They’re going to publish it in two books, The 10 Commandments of a Lady’s Pleasure and The 10 Commandments of a Gentleman’s Pleasure. I’m excited about going back to Italy where I can be Principessa Dottora Susan Block-Filangieri, Max’s mother having a member of one of Italy’s oldest noble families, dating back to the 1100s, including the great 18th century intellectual hedonist Prince Gaetano Filangieri whose political philosophy inspired Benjamin Franklin. Alas, but in the 20th century, due to gambling debt and other weaknesses of intellectual hedonism, the noble Filangieris lost all their castles.
Happy B-Day to Me
As if celebrating the first anniversary of my Near Death Experience and being on a distinguished Yale panel on aging was not sobering enough for me, my birthday is around the corner (June 10). No big wild orgies planned for this year. Just a small private dinner party after the radio show here at the castle.