How to Overcome Naked Terror

(About an 11 minute read)

One morning, a few weeks after I’d met Becky, I decided to call her in the hopes of having a lively little phone chat.

“Hi Becky!  It’s Paul!  What a beautiful Saturday!”

“Hi Paul!  I’m good, but I can’t talk right now.  The kids and I are about to leave for Valley View Hot Springs.  Would you like to come along?”

I’d never heard of the hot springs, but I had a policy back then of accepting invitations.  Any kind of invitations, except — perhaps — to bank robbery.  Bank robbery was where I drew the line — usually.  So I told Becky I was in.

“Great, Paul!  But let me first make sure it’s alright with Aaron and Leah.”  Presently, I could hear her asking the kids, but I couldn’t hear their responses.  Then Becky came back on the line.

“They want you to come with us, but on one condition: You have to keep your clothes on.”

“My clothes on?  Why would I take them off?”  I thought the kids were joking.  I was about to say something goofy in response to the them when Becky said, “I forgot to tell you, Valley View is clothing optional.  I’m going nude, but you should bring a swimsuit or shorts.”

I had never in my life been to a clothing optional resort.  I hadn’t even gone skinny dipping in all my 38 years, and I certainly didn’t think of myself as the “type” to enjoy getting nude in public, whatever that “type” was.  So I was secretly glad the kids had given me an excuse to wear something, bless their little candy-begging hearts!

Valley View Hot Springs turned out to be a rural place, twenty-five miles distant from the nearest city, and purposely kept as close to its natural state as any resort could possibly be kept.  It wasn’t at all crowded the day we went, but there were enough people around that I noticed something rather peculiar:  About a third to perhaps a half of the people were speaking in low voices, nearly whispering, as if in a cathedral or some other sacred space.

When I asked Becky why people were whispering, she whispered back that she didn’t know, but that it was common there.  Then she speculated that it might be the natural beauty.  “I think the people whispering might be respecting the spirits that live here.” She added.

I myself didn’t believe in spirits, but I had learned by then that Becky uses such words to describe something real.  Maybe not real spirits, but something that’s nevertheless there, if you can only see it as well as she does.  Once, for example, she told me that a mutual acquaintance of ours was “possessed by a bad spirit today”.  I didn’t know what she meant until I ran into our acquaintance to discover she was in the pissiest mood I’d ever seen her.  So when Becky told me Valley View was inhabited by spirits that people respected, I wondered what it was that people were respecting?

Becky wanted to go soak in the Upper Pool, which was the pool furthest up the mountainside that the resort is located on.  We set out on a dirt trail to it, Becky in the lead, followed by Leah, then Aaron and I.  Aaron was seven that year, and rather short, even for his age.   About half way to our intended destination, we came to an obstacle.  The trail suddenly took a sheer leap upwards of about three feet — too much for Aaron!  After making several attempts to negotiate the slippery earth, he cried out after his mother and sister, “Go on!  The pioneers must go on! Some will fall behind to perish, but the wagon train must go on!  Remember me when you reach the promised land!”

I was quite impressed.  Only seven?  I hoisted him up on the ledge, both of us laughing.

The Upper Pool turned out to be occupied by a fair number of people.  Becky, who hates crowds, turned us back down the trail to a couple lower pools.  She then told the kids to go play in the lowest of them, while she and I would watch them from above.  “Quietly!  I don’t want to hear any noise!” She commanded.  I looked forward to a peaceful afternoon soaking in a naturally warm pool in the midst of nature — and in my shorts.

It was about then Becky said, “You can take your shorts off, if you want.  It doesn’t matter either way to me, but the kids won’t be bothered by it now — they’ve got their own pool.”

My younger brother says of me now and then that I am, “the calmest man under stress he’s ever known.”  He says that about me because he’s only ever seen me caught in quicksand, about to slam into the back of a semi-truck in an auto accident, or in the process of losing my home, wife, and business within the course of a few short months.  He’s never seen me under real stress. Unimaginable stress.  Mind crippling stress!  Had he seen me that day, moments after I took my shorts off, my brother would have taken back every good word he’s ever spoken about me and stress.

Why did I do it?  Honestly, I didn’t anticipate the degree of embarrassment involved.  Becky made it look easy, natural.  So easy and natural that she made it look in comparison hard and unnatural to stay dressed.  I thought, “It’s a little out of my comfort zone, but it looks fun.”   But just three or so minutes later, I was thinking, “OMG! I’m blushing!  I can feel my face on fire!  Jesus!  My arms are red!  I’ve never blushed like this in my life!  My chest is red!  My chest!  Do penises blush?  Oh, I am so going to die if Becky asks me why my penis is red!”

Becky, though, had pulled a book out of her backpack and was now laying in the pool, her head propped up on a bank, and engrossed in reading, totally ignoring me.  Mercifully, I might not have even been there so far as she was concerned.

Becky and I had met perhaps a month or six weeks before, and we were quite rapidly developing a brother/sister friendship.  Neither one of us seemed sexually interested in the other, a fact I found comforting because I was just two years out from my second marriage, which had been to an exceptionally cruel woman.  At the time, I tended to run faster than lightening from any woman who seriously hinted at our becoming sexually intimate.  I wanted no repeats of being pieced through my chest by the intense suffering and loneliness that only comes from making your bed with someone who fundamentally rejects you as a person.  But Becky was as reassuringly asexual towards me as she was free spirited towards life itself.

But for the next couple hours I wasn’t thinking of that, not even thinking about Becky so much as I was self-consciously thinking about myself.  I felt the eyes of everyone who came and went on the nearby trail.  I dreaded that someone — or, worse, some group — would arrive to share our pool.  And I poured over in my churning mind every detail of my body, questioning whether my body met the standards for being “acceptable”.

At some point though, it simply occurred to me that I was being an idiot.  That is, I had the sudden insight that all my present troubles came from my not accepting myself just as I was.

I don’t recall it was easy, but over the next few minutes I somehow managed to shift gears from feverishly judging myself to calmly accepting myself.  About then, I began noticing things, things that had escaped me while I’d been so concerned with me.  The breeze through the pines sounded like a river, insects were chirping, the sunlight dappled the pebbles on the floor of our pool, there were dust devils crossing the fields in the valley below us, and Becky was asleep.  When had she fallen asleep?  I didn’t know.  I only noticed it after I quit thinking so much about myself.

A couple weeks after that first trip, I was invited on another trip to Valley View by Joe (A quite remarkable eighteen year old friend whom I’ve written about here).  Soon after that, the invitations from Joe, or from others in his group, became fairly frequent.  I never asked to go along, but I didn’t need to.  For reasons of their own, that group of 15 to 22 year old men and women had adopted me, and had made it a habit to include me in many of their numerous road trips to Valley View, or to other destinations.  So, I became an old hand at going nude in public.  I learned that speaking in a low voice or even whispering at Valley View was just as common as Becky said it was.  And I also learned more about acceptance from those trips than I’d ever learned before in my life.

A few years ago, a friend of mine, a Christian minister, told me that she and her husband had visited a nudist resort.  It was a new experience for both of them, and she said the experience was a bit overwhelming.   “But not overwhelming for why you might think, Paul.  I never expected such acceptance from people.  The nudists at the resort were more accepting of themselves and each other than my congregation is on a Sunday after services.  Paul, it was as if they were practicing Christian love.  Practicing it!”

By the time she told me that I had already formed my own impression that nudists were remarkably accepting of both themselves and others.  I wasn’t quite ready to testify to it before Congress — and I still am not — but acceptance has usually seemed thick in the air at the resorts I’ve been to.   And most of the people I’ve gone with to those resorts have at one time or another mentioned it.  Naturally, I have cooked up an idea or two about it all.

As I see it, going nude in public is comfortable to the degree that you accept yourself as you are.  But so far as I can see, it’s not really possible to completely accept yourself while still being judgmental and non-accepting of others.  You can’t give up one without giving up both.  And if that’s true, then it might explain why nudists tend to be much more accepting of both themselves and others than, say, the typical congregation after a Sunday service.   Moreover, I’ve come to wonder whether it’s those feelings of acceptance and being accepted that make so many people at Valley View think to speak in whispers, as if in a sacred place.  Are those feelings of acceptance the spirits Becky talked about?  My guess is that’s what she was getting at.

But what do you think?  Am I sniffing down the right trail here, barking up the right tree, sticking my nose in the appropriate crotch?  Or should I get out my bong and indulge in more Colorado weed while re-thinking the whole thing?  Please feel free to offer your advice, guidance, opinions, observations, wisdom, and, of course, generous cash rewards!

Hat Tip to Quinn, who blogs at “When Do I Get the Manuel“, and who inspired this post with a post of her own, Stripping Off in Suwa, Japan.  If you are not familiar with Quinn’s writing, you would be doing yourself a favor to click over to her post and become acquainted with some of the best, most engaging writing that I’ve come across on a blog in the past ten years.  I know.  I know.  You’re thinking, “She’s not some decrepit old fart from Colorado telling us boring stories of his flaming embarrassments and shamelessly hounding us with his alarming theories about nudity, so how can she be that good?”  Trust me, she is:  She’s going to spoil you!

“Social Fretwork” by Dermott Hayes

(About a 1 minute read) 

Note to Readers from Paul Sunstone:  I am very pleased to republish with permission here a beautiful poem by Dermott Hayes, who blogs at “Postcard From a Pigeon”Among other things, Dermott is a distinguished journalist, novelist, poet, and, most recently, a film maker. Please enjoy Social Fretwork!

By the way, there is a video of Dermott reading another one of his poems, City of Thought,here.

I posted a thought,
it flew away
down through dark, cavernous
to bump and grind
with other lonesome thoughts
in the hotbeds of social fretworks.

And worried then
where it might go
unguided, misunderstood
to liaise, frolic and fret
argue, debate,
in a world of posts,
away from me,
gone, awaiting its return,

Late Night Thoughts: Love, Realism, Talents, Happiness, and More.

(About 7 minutes to read) 

Terri, who occasionally comments on this blog, pointed out the other day in a discussion about compassion that some feelings or emotions are as strikingly beautiful as anything physical.  Of course, that is true not only of compassion, but also of love.  And to me, one of the most beautiful things about love is how it so often creates in us both a desire to improve the lives of our beloved, and a sensitivity to ways that might genuinely improve their lives.

When I composed the following poem, I had in mind more the desire to improve, than the sensitivity to know what would improve.  Still, I think the poem works in its own way.

Love is an ancient thing
That travels back before gravity was born
And forward beyond the last gods.
I have wanted to sip your breast
In between the lights of night and day
And tell you how I’ve taken sides
Against a mammoth
To bring you his tusks
So that you, my woman, my love,
Will be happy now
For all the worlds
You have given to me.

Should love — any kind of love — really be thought of as a single emotion?  Is romantic love just one emotion?  Erotic love?  Mature or deeply attached love?

Perhaps erotic love is but a single emotion, lust, but how can you make the same case for the others?  Romantic, mature, and other kinds of love do seem to have many characteristics, rather than just one.  For instance, in addition to making us desire to improve someone’s life, don’t both romantic and mature love also make us feel greater tolerance for the differences that might exist between us and our beloved?

It’s a tricky question, I think, because perhaps they only make us overlook the differences, rather than actually make us willing to tolerate the differences.  Or are those the same thing?

Most people, I believe, stubbornly accept reality just as conscientiously as they accept their religion.  That is, only when it is convenient to do so, but then conscientiously.  Realism is not our main strength as a species.

Have you noticed that humans so seldom are what they want to be?  Yet so much of our happiness, I think, comes from accepting ourselves as we are.

All that striving to be what we are not seems to produce more unhappiness than anything else, because — while we can change ourselves around the edges — we have much greater difficulty changing our core nature.

But then, what is our core nature?

I don’t think I have the complete answer to that question, but surely part of the answer is that our core nature includes our talents.  By “talents” I do not mean our skills, but rather our raw predispositions to such things as athletics, mathematics, music, drawing, writing, dance, mechanics, etc.

A good way to tell if you have a talent for something is to ask yourself two questions.  First, “Do I like doing this?”  We usually like doing what we have a talent for doing.   Second, “Does it come comparatively easy to me?”  I think the key word here is “comparatively”.   If you don’t have a talent for, say, mathematics, but do have a talent for music, you will usually find that music comes a whole lot easier to you than math.   Answer those questions honestly, without wishful thinking, and you will most likely gain a pretty good idea of where your talents lie.  At least that’s been my experience.

In my view, pursuing one’s talents in life by working to turn them into actual skills is — all else being equal — not only conducive to happiness, but perhaps more important, conducive to a sense of meaning.

Now, all of this might seem commonsense, and so obvious it’s hardly worth mentioning, but I have met far too many people who were more or less clueless about their talents for myself think “it’s just commonsense to know your talents”.

Why have so many people been ignorant of their own talents, though?

I think the single most important reason is that, in this matter, most of us listen way too much to the advice of others.  They usually mean well, but they don’t know you nearly as well as you yourself could — if you took a dispassionate look at yourself — know you.  Most often, other people of good will want what’s best for you, but their idea of what’s best for you is very heavily colored by what they know about what’s best for them.

The worst evil that you can do, psychologically, is to laugh at yourself. That means spitting in your own face.  — Ayn Rand

The main reason I think of Rand in something less than an entirely negative light is because several of my female friends have told me over the years that Rand helped them psychologically liberate themselves from the oppressive expectations and indoctrinations of the religious cults they grew up in.

While I think there are better — much better — authors than Rand for helping with that, I’m glad she did indeed help my friends realize just how greatly they had been lied to about their worth and potential as women.

Having said that, my overall impression of her is that she is squarely in the buffoon class of philosophers and social critics.  Indeed, I even think it was pretentious of her to have called herself a “philosopher” at all.  She did very little to push the envelope of rational thought, such as the great philosophers have done.  But that’s a minor peeve of mine.  A greater reason for calling her a buffoon is that she could not laugh at herself.  Have you ever known a buffoon who genuinely could?

I am of the view that humor, in general, evolved as an adaptive mechanism.  To put it somewhat superficially here, it seems to me that humor greatly facilitates logical reasoning and attention to empirical evidence.   More specifically, it can play a key role in helping us to overcome our innate cognitive biases, egotistical attachments to our beliefs, and general intellectual inertia, in order to change our minds when we are wrong about something.  And changing our minds when we are wrong about something can have obvious benefits to our survival, albeit it is quite often extraordinarily difficult for us to do — and nearly impossible for those who lack any appreciable sense of humor at all.

In that regard, self-deprecatory humor is no different than humor in general.  So far as I can recall, I’ve not yet in my sixty years met a man or woman who “took themselves too seriously” and who greatly understood themselves.

There used to be a saying among fire fighters that, for all I know, might still be current.  “Never fight fire from ego”.  Both myself and the men I worked with in the few years that I fought fires profoundly distrusted anyone who “fought fire from ego”.  We knew they could too easily get themselves killed — or far worse, someone else killed.

Today, forty or so years later, I still haven’t found anyone — whose ego has such a firm grip on them that they can’t laugh at themselves — that I would trust at my side in even a moderately demanding situation, let alone where my life might be on the line.  Yes, I know, I’m only thinking of myself here, but so be it.

Of course, you might want to make up your own mind about all that, rather than simply swallow what I say.  I have, after all, been certified as crazy by a group of scientists.  Personally, I don’t think the space alien scientists who have contacted me through my microwave know what they’re talking about, but it might still be reasonable of you to take my words — or anyone’s words, for that matter — with a bit of reflective thought, rather than reflexively.

Fit Words For Birdie

Nevin worked up his courage for weeks,
Until the fated night came when his yearning hopes of love
Weighed a ton more than his fears of rejection
And so he found the guts to beg Birdie
For her wing in an unholy marriage
Between a free bird and a Scottish engineer.

Too shy to look Birdie in her eyes,
Nevin stuck his gaze firm on her glass of whiskey
With the instincts of a Scotsman for a fine single malt,
Then began with his well-rehearsed lines
Which never came out,
For love suddenly made his tongue that night
Spill words sweet as a poem of Robert Burns’.

Nevin found such words as no engineer commonly finds,
Save perhaps when admiring an efficiency report:
Words fit to match the fires in Birdie’s free heart,
Words fit to turn her knees to soup,
Words fit to tingle her from toe to neck,
Words true to Nevin’s love.

Once You Wanted to Give Yourself to Me

You wanted to give yourself to me,
You said, “On a bed of flowers.”
Which later in the same hour led directly
To that awkward moment
When we fell from the branches
Of that damn blossoming dogwood tree.

After six months in traction,
And still a virgin, I finally realized
You would not be my first, for by then
You who I loved had left me to marry
An improbably illiterate
Tasmanian mole rat rancher
In order to slake your two tragic lusts
Of bearing some man cross-eyed children,
And afterwards forever engaging him
In strange and stranger conversations.

Yet I wish you and yours well now
For I once loved you truly
And not with a false love
That turns to sour ash when love’s lost,
Or fails like a decrepit condom
That’s been too long kept in a wallet.

Who First Created the Gods?

Sitting at the bar last night,
I said the poets had created the gods.
But Panda, who quite obviously
Knew nothing about such matters,
Said the philosophers had created them
Hence bringing mankind the blessings
Of meaning in life.

Thus, we reached an impasse
That reduced us to an estranged silence
Of a quarter hour while we sat
Like twin sphinxes staring ahead
And all too aware of each other.

Presently one of us quietly sighed
Which was like a bomb going off.

So we began talking at once,
Our estrangement forgotten, buried
When we spoke over each other to resolve:
‘Twas the Scots who had blessed
Mankind with its meaning
By being first to create
The best single malts!

How One Poet Found His Muse

I recall now how the falling moonlight lit your face the night you confessed
You had suppressed for years the sharing of your most intimate emotions
With the ridiculous preacher man who’d once come knocking at your door
Clinging to his holy book to proselytize you while he wore a second-hand chicken outfit,
And whom you’d married out of pity once you discovered that his suit
Was his all-too-human idea of how to mask his shyness.

Then you said the stick figure drawings of my penis
That I’d painfully created over the years by ripping them from the deep reaches of my soul
And rendering them on museum-quality artist-grade papers
Had made your raw and honest emotions visible to you,
Made them concrete and tangible, so that you could touch them
Once again.

Within the silence of a single moment I felt you enter into my pounding heart
Complete and whole, thorns and all, as my fated friend, my found muse,
Until I felt a sacred wind rising inside of me, love, like a driving storm.