I love books. I have two favorite female writers from this century. Pam Houston and Lily Burana. My favorite Pam Houston quote, from the short story collection, Cowboys Are My Weakness, is “I was addicted to him like cough syrup, and I didn’t respect his mind.” I read that book in the early 1990’s, and I still think of that quote at least once a week.
Lily Burana wrote my all-time favorite book, Strip City. Obviously, if you know me, you understand why. Burana combines all the things I love: strippers, memoir, psychological understanding, and just a little bit of religion. I’ve recommended Strip City to every Star Light volunteer, to all the women I’ve talked to about starting their own stripper ministry, and to every dancer I’ve ever met. I loved that book so much, at one point, I had 30 copies about my house, to give out to folks I loved. Now I have only my original two copies around, both of which are marked up with underlining, folded pages, and exclamation points. I’ve given all the others away.
So it was with great joy and anticipation that I started Burana’s new book, I Love a Man in Uniform. There was some trepidation, too. Strip City is a pair of big stilettos to fill. (That really didn’t work, did it? But you know what I mean).
And before I get too much into I Love a Man in Uniform, you should know a bit of my own bias: I am a pacifist, I have protested our current wars, and yet, some of my dear friends are service people. My father served in Vietnam, I served a church in Metro DC with several service people (and got in trouble for a sermon about Abu Ghraib), and I’ve worked with sex workers and former sex workers for 8 years.
On with the review:
I loved it. Loved it, loved it, loved it. Burana has a way of saying things that makes me lean back, smile, and say, “Yep. That’s it.” I literally cried when I read this passage:
The stripping. The arrest. None of it fazed Mike. In fact, he had reservations about whether he was good for me. He worried that I’d see him as helplessly boring and square, illustrating his point by making an “L7” with his hands. But if I needed something, he was there, and by the end of September, I found myself wanting to see him more and more. It became impossible to get him off my mind.
When Mike came up to visit me in New York in October, he walked around my little cottage in the woods, checking out the furniture and the books. “Wow, you’re pretty squared away.” At the time, I didn’t fully realize what a compliment that was. “Squared away” is high praise from a soldier. From there, it’s a short trip to “I love you.” Squared away means You have your shit together; I think I can rely on you—and to a soldier, that is everything. At first, I had my doubts that we’d make it past the superficial stunt-dating stage, but by now, I was feeling quite different.
I left Mike at my house during a quick trip to Chicago for a writing assignment, and when I came home, I found him outside in the sunshine, carefully cleaning out brushes and rollers. While I was gone, he’d painted my chipped and peeling front porch. My heart soared. I love the traditional niceties of romance—dinners, cards, a pretty bouquet—but nothing compares to the gift of sweat equity, which I view as the he-man’s true statement of intent. Far better than spending money on me, he’d spent some of his precious free time. Bring me flowers and I’m charmed; swing a hammer and I’m yours.
I’ve never experienced exactly what Burana is talking about, but DAMN! I want to!
The story of their romance gets real later in the book. Burana deals honestly and, sometimes brutally, with her own depression, her own demonette, who seeks perfection from her at every turn, and both her and Mike’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She writes:
It occurred to me that stripping, for me, and the whole adventure of those years may have been the ultimate game of Survivor: Trauma Edition. Already dissociated and cynical about humanity, I undertook stripping as the female equivalent of a kind of Special Forces training—the physical discipline, the focus on en pointe performance, the thrill-seeking, the playing with fire and going into dark or taboo places most “civilians” don’t go. The exaggerated gender typing, the special outfits or uniforms that mark, again, a defined break from civilian life, the pervasive sense of danger or limit crossing.
The book was surprising to me, because, having been a fan girl of Burana’s, I really expected a “happily-ever-after” memoir. I wanted that for Burana. She is an amazingly fierce woman and a wonderful writer and I’d like for her to be happy. I wanted a happy book. I Love a Man in Uniform is not a happy book. Near the end of the book, Burana expresses her gratitude for Mike, “Thank you for your commitment to serving our country. Thank you for picking me to be your wife. Thank you for being man enough to get help when you needed it. Thank you for fighting for our marriage as valiantly as you fought any war. Thank you for being both my husband and my hero.”
But the book reminded me. Life isn’t always happy. But it can be good.