May 31, 2016

View from my kayak

View from my kayak

For Memorial Day weekend we went, as we have for decades, to my parents' camp up on the river. The weather was so warm this year that it felt like summer. Remember how cold the nights can be in May, I'd brought a fleece, but luckily I had my bathing suit as well. It was swimming weather!

One of the things I love about camp is getting to spend time with my extended family. But I also like to slip away by myself in my little red kayak. Camp is on a peninsula of oak trees that pushes into a huge marsh, and I like to paddle down the little creeks.

This weekend, as I glided along, I could hear noisy splashes on either side of me. The carp were spawning. The carp are, by far, the biggest fish that I ever see in the river. They weigh 10 to 30 pounds (The state record is 50 pounds, 4 ounces), and I'm pretty sure that they could tip my little kayak over if they tried. As I watched them swim under the kayak, their dark shapes gliding through the muddy water, I could hear the music from Jaws in my head, which added a little excitement to my paddle.

The noisy carp helped camouflage the sound of my paddling, which meant that I could glide right up to a great blue heron who was standing on the edge of the marsh. When I was within fifteen feet, I stopped paddling and just watched. The great blue heron always looks to me like it came out of some other time period, long before cell phones, laptops, or even the industrial revolution. The heron took no notice of me until I drifted even closer, and then she rose into the air with almost no effort and flew off to a different part of the marsh.

  Great Blue Heron

May 27, 2016

Who doesn't get naked in a cemetery?

Cemetery

We met at the grave of Susan B. Anthony. And within ten minutes, he had agreed to pose naked for my blog. I love cooperative strangers.

The latest Project Naked adventure began when a couple of friends discovered that Frederick Douglass was buried in a cemetery just a few miles away from the campus where we were attending a conference. We agreed to slip away from the conference for a couple of hours so that we could take a walk in the sunshine and visit the gravesite. “We will be back by the 3 pm session,” Scrivener promised as he slid behind the wheel of the car.

“Hey, I’m bringing my camera, just in case any of you want to pose,” I said. Scrivener and Allistelling looked at each other. I knew what they were thinking: no way in hell. It’s a weird thing about my male friends. They love to talk about the naked photo project, but when it comes to actually taking off their clothes, they balk.

“It’s BECAUSE we’re friends,” Scrivener explained. “That makes it weird.” I rolled my eyes at this extremely lame explanation. Allistelling didn’t feel the need to give an excuse, but it was clear he had no intention of posing.

Candy Corn, the fourth person in the car, was curious about the project. We’d met just that morning, but somehow my naked photo project had already come up in conversation. “How do you get people to pose?” she asked.

I shrugged. “Mostly, I ask, and people say yes.” She looked incredulous at that explanation.

The cemetery was a lovely place for an afternoon walk. It was May in Camera City, which meant that lilacs were blooming, and green was bursting forth on trees everywhere. We easily found the grave of Federick Douglass. Then, with Scrivener consulting his phone, we wandered off to look for Susan B. Anthony. We passed a lawn of bluebells, some huge old trees, rows of grey tombstones, and a woodchuck who darted out of his hole to watch us walk by.

The tombstone for Susan B. Anthony was small and grey. We were sitting in the shade near the grave, talking quietly, when two young men walked over. They were carrying a sheet of white paper, which I recognized immediately. They were going to do a tombstone rubbing. I couldn’t resist snapping some pictures as they worked, and then I gave them my card.

“Send me an email, and I’ll send you the photos,” I said. That’s when we started talking. Cemetery Guy One said that the rubbing was for a friend’s project. It’s called the Gay Rub.

“Whenever I travel, he sends me to a cemetery where a famous LGBT person is buried, and I do a rubbing,” he said.

Yes. Every time he travels, he takes a couple of hours to make a rubbing for his friend’s project. That’s the cooperative spirit I like to see.

So of course, I told him about my naked photo project. And of course, I asked him to pose.

“Naked?” he said, laughing. “I don’t know if I want to pose with my dick hanging out.”

“Not that kind of photo,” I said. "And you get veto power, of course." I would have pulled some images up on my phone, but there was no wifi in this sprawling cemetery.

Cemetery Guy Two jumped into the conversation. “I posed naked for a friend last week,” he said helpfully. He gave Cemetery Guy One a look of encouragement. That’s really all it took.

“This will just take five minutes, I promise,” I said to my friends. We left them sitting, fully clothed, in the shade while I walked with Cemetery Guy One and Cemetery Guy Two over to the next section of the cemetery. We talked fast as we walked — about nudity, about body image, about gender. 

“We’ll have to finish this conversation over skype,” Cemetery Guy One said as he stripped off his clothes.

“For sure,” I said. “The conversations are the best part of this project. Um – can you turn that way a bit more?”

Cemetery Guy One was a natural. He turned to look at his reflection in a tombstone, and I snapped the photo. Then I called for him to jump up and down, and I took some ridiculous shots of him in midair.

By the time we rejoined my friends, they were laughing. “We saw you jumping up and down,” Candy Corn said. “I love how comfortable and free you seem to be.”

I wanted to stay and talk for longer, but we had a 3 pm session to get to. “I want to look at your friend’s project,” I said to Cemetery Guy One. “I guess I can just google Gay Rub?”

“Um, no,” Cemetery Guy Two said. “I wouldn’t do that."

"Really,” said Cemetery Guy One. They both laughed.

“I’ll send you the link,” Cemetery Guy One said. “And we’ll skype one of these days.”

My friends were already walking toward the car. So we hugged goodbye. “Oh, and you get to pick your own pseudonym,” I said as I walked away. "Send it to me in an email."

“What?” Cemetery Guy One teased me. “I’ve got homework?”

We had to part ways — my conference was calling — but we’ve since exchanged a flurry of emails. He told me that he and his husband are going to ride their bikes from San Francisco to Los Angeles in a seven-day 545-mile charity bike ride called the AIDS/Lifecycle. It’s an event that includes more than 2000 cyclists and will likely raise millions of dollars. I think that’s how he chose his pseudonym. “I can be Queer LA Cyclist,” he said.

And so it was decided. Cemetery Guy One is now Queer LA Cyclist. Next time, I'll get a picture of him with his bike.

Read more about the history of 
the naked blogging project and check out the gallery of photos

May 24, 2016

It's a digital world

My college-age son, With-a-Why, leaves tomorrow morning for a summer abroad. On his facebook page, he posted a message to let friends that he wouldn't be getting text messages: "My phone will not be in service over there, so if you want to contact me, it will have to be via email, Snapchat, Whatsapp, Facebook message, or carrier pigeon."

Immediately, everyone began posting silly ways they might get in touch with him. Urban Sophisticate Sister said she was going to send smoke signals from the eastern most point of Long Island. Sparkly Eyes said, "I'll make sure Film Guy sends a raven should a king be deposed or the like." Someone else said, "I'm buying an owl."

Then Shy Smile, his longtime girlfriend, left a comment saying that she might send him some snail mail. Yes, something in an envelope with an address and a stamp on it. The ridiculous thing is that I had not even considered that option.

May 16, 2016

Spring day at camp

Trilliums

When we had a couple days of sunny weather last week, I drove up to camp with my parents. Their camp is just about a hundred miles north, a peninsula of oak trees set in a marsh on the Big River That Runs Between Two Countries.

Usually camp is in the deep shade of oak trees so it’s funny to be there in early spring when the trees are still bare. The sun shone down on the picnic tables, the firepit, the outhouse, and the empty dock. The trilliums, those lovely spring wildflowers, were still in bloom, growing in clumps amidst the dead oak leaves.

We took out one of the canoes — with my father in the bow, my mother sitting in the middle, and me at the stern — and paddled about the bay. The summer camps we passed were still boarded up for the winter. When I reached my hand into the water, it was icy cold. But the sun, beating down on our bare heads, felt warm. Summer will be here soon.

  Camp in May

May 13, 2016

My little turtle nieces

Babies on the beach

Even though I raised four kids myself, I forget how fast babies change. My sister’s twins are crawling already! When she came for a week-long visit, the whole family was excited to spend time with these adorable little girls.

My parents’ lawn was still pretty wet and muddy. Parts of my yard were still under water. Yes, that’s what spring is like here. But we took the babies to Pretty Colour Lakes, where the sandy beach had dried nicely in the sun. When we set the babies down, they both took off immediately, scurrying on hands and knees towards the water, like speedy little turtles.

April 27, 2016

Naked amidst the mud pots

Strong

“I’m your top model,” Maine Writer said to me. We were standing on the balcony of our hotel, and she was naked, of course. Conference roommates have to pose naked for my project: it’s a tradition. Maine Writer looked strong as she leaned against the balcony, ready to take on the world. I hated to burst her bubble, but it had to be done.

“Not exactly,” I said. “You’re tied with Quilt Artist and Dancing Woman.” Maine Writer looked at me, horrified.

“They’re hometown friends. We go on retreat every year,” I explained. “They’ve each posed for me seven times.” Actually, I was being kind. What I didn’t tell her is that Quilt Artist and Dancing Woman both posed in an eighth shot, a group picture that I called “Them Naked Women.” That was back in my days of innocence, before I realized that how I labelled photos on Flickr mattered. I’ve since discovered that all kinds of folks go searching the internet for naked women, often without the best intentions. Who knew? But it was a good learning experience. I learned how to block people on Flickr.

I had underestimated how competitive Maine Writer is. She pulled a dress over her naked body, not even bothering with the panties or bra she’d flung aside. “Come on,” she said, pulling on a pair of boots. “This photo shoot isn’t over.”

Luckily, we had rented a car. We spent the day driving along an earthquake fault. Whenever I saw a scene that I loved, we’d stop the car, and Maine Writer would strip off her dress. Like the hay bales we saw, for instance. It seemed incredible that anyone would be growing hay in the desert. So of course, we took a photo, with Maine Writer dashing behind the stack of a hay when we noticed how slowly the cars were going by.

  Haystack

We stopped a park to take a hike and noticed a bench conveniently placed on the trail, just in case anyone might want to pose for a naked picture without getting their butt dirty.

  Salty lake

By then Maine Writer was fully into the spirit of the project. She kept pointing out spots. “See that green water? The only color in this landscape.” She yanked off her dress and scrambled down the embankment, clouds of dust rising as she went.

  Green

The scenery was pretty fantastic. We climbed up a huge pile of dirt that Maine Writer said was a mud pot, formed from boiling water pushing mud up. At the top we looked down into a vast inland salt lake.

  Above the salt lake

 By the time we got back into the car, my face was red from the heat. I took a cloth from my camera bag, soaked it with water, and draped it on my head. I knew it looked ridiculous, but I didn’t care. Besides, we hadn’t seen anyone in hours.

By the Maine Writer was obsessed with finding weird geological features. She was following some kind of obscure road map, which she held in her lap as she drove. “It says there’s a field of mud pots,” she said excitedly.

We pulled off to the side of the road. I looked across at the mud puts. They seemed pretty unremarkable. They were, literally, just piles of mud. They weren’t even very tall. Where I come from, snowplows make piles of snow that are higher. But Maine Writer jumped from the car and went striding ahead, so I followed. The late afternoon light would be great for a photo, I thought.

As we approached the piles of mud, I started hearing sounds. First a bubbling noise, like the sound spaghetti sauce makes as it begins splattering all over the stove. Then hissing like a tea kettle. And a weird glumph like a small monster or sock puppet. I saw puddles crusted with salt, bubbles breaking through. These were active mud pots.

As I knelt on the ground to take a close-up photo, the mud was warm beneath my knees. “This would be a bad time for this crust of earth to collapse,” I thought to myself. I pictured myself falling into a pit of boiling mud. I’ve had nightmares like that. I moved away hurriedly, but it didn’t stop me from asking Maine Writer to pose on the edge. If you’re going to be my number one model, I explained, you have to be prepared to take some risk.

  Hissing mud

We survived the mud pots. And it was almost time for us to drive back into civilization. Maine Writer had already scoped out a Mexican restaurant for dinner, our last meal together before flying home to our respective homes. But we did make one last stop. Maine Writer wanted to take her photo at the very end of the fault line. And so we did.

Fault line

Read more about the history of the naked blogging project and check out the gallery of photos.

April 14, 2016

Naked in the snow

Naked Despite the Snow

When a long-time blogging friend sent me an email about a nature writing workshop within driving distance of my house, I decided to join her for the workshop. “You can come visit me,” I told LovesBooks. “And if the weather is warm, we can take a naked photo for my blog!” I just always assume that blogging friends are eager to pose. Who doesn’t love a good tradition?

The visit went as planned. LovesBooks flew to my part of the country and arrived in a rental car. Right away, we sat down to drink hot tea and talk non-stop. The next morning, I took her to Pretty Colour Lakes. I wanted her to see one of the places that I love.

“My Dad used to come here when he was a kid,” I told her as we walked the cedar-lined paths. “He rode in the rumble seat of a Model T Ford, and he’d fall asleep on the way home.” LovesBooks understands the way stories get embedded in a landscape. So I knew she’d appreciate this lake where I’ve been walking since before I was born. It was the perfect place for her to pose for my blog. There was just one problem.

It was snowing. Yes, snow in April! Such is the climate I live in. We both muttered darkly as we walked around the lake. I had already packed away my mittens, and my hands were cold. We stopped near Dead Man’s Point, the place where local teenagers go skinny dipping even though the sign strictly forbids swimming.

“I love the roots of the cedar trees,” LovesBooks said. She walked out to the edge of the lake and looked across at the snow falling into the blue-green water. Then she shrugged. “Oh, okay.” And she began stripping off her clothes. Honestly, I hadn’t even asked. It was all her idea. Within minutes, she was naked, even down to the bare feet.

With cold fingers, I fumbled with my camera. I clicked a few photos and called out, “Just move a little to your right. I want your silhouette against the water.” That’s when we heard chatter and footsteps. A whole group of people, dressed warmly in winter coats, came tramping along the trail. LovesBooks looked startled. She quickly stepped to the edge of the water and crouched near a tree, laughing. I kept taking photos.

“It’s a little cold for swimming,” a man called out to me, grinning. “But don’t worry, we’re going right on by.”

“It’s .... an art project,” I said lamely. I was still fully dressed, of course. But LovesBooks had started to shiver. Time to put her clothes back on, go home for some tea, and then drive to the nature writers’ workshop, where I’d talk about Project Naked with a bunch of strangers because really, if writing about the naked body isn’t nature writing, than I don’t know what is.

Read more about the history of the naked blogging project and check out the gallery of photos.

April 07, 2016

Skater Girl poses

Skater Girl

I’m at conference party where everyone is jammed into a hotel suite drinking booze and squinting at each other’s name tags in the dim light. Several male friends start making promises about how they are going to pose naked for my blog. They are going to pose together, a male buddy naked scene, preferably with fishing poles. Their banter gets ridiculous as they start inviting everyone at the party to pose with them. Of course, the guys know they’re safe because it’s night time — no natural light for a photo — and I’ve got this rule that anyone posing for a photo has to be sober.

A young woman stands next to Tall Editor. I noticed her right away when she came in because she was carrying a skateboard, not a typical mode of transportation at an academic conference. While the men are conversing loudly about whose turn it is to pose, Skater Girl says quietly, “I’ll do it.”

That’s how these naked photo sessions come about. Often I’ve got any number of drunken friends PROMISING to pose for me. But their plans are always too unrealistic. “I’ll get up at dawn and we can take the picture at the hotel pool,” a certain red-haired editor said to me. I know he meant it too. But I wasn’t surprised to wake up in the morning and find a text that he’d sent at 4 am, admitting that the dawn time slot was a bit ambitious as he hadn’t yet gone to bed.

I knew that a photo of Skater Girl was my best bet. When I met her at the book fair in the cold light of day, she was still willing to pose. The only problem was finding a secluded spot. We were too far from my hotel, and the warm sunshine meant that every outdoor place was crowded. I turned to Tall Editor, who was staying at the hotel close by. “Hey, can we borrow the key to your room?” He handed it over without a word.

A naked photo shoot always leads to conversations about body image. As we walked over to the hotel, we talked about the ways that women are pressured to wear clothes that are uncomfortable and shoes that are crippling. When I mentioned high heels, a pet peeve, Skater Girl laughed. “Yeah, I need shoes I can jump onto a skateboard with.”

The hotel room itself was pretty unremarkable. The little loveseat next to the window was the only spot with any kind of natural light. Skater Girl pointed to this funny little stuffed animal balanced on the cushion, and I speculated as to which of the two men sharing the room might have brought him along. They are both fathers so it could have been either.

Talking about our bodies led, as if often does, to a conversation about place. Skater Girl grew up in a dry, arid climate. But she’d visited the northeast, where I’m from. “All those lakes,” she said. “All that water. It feels like rolling in money.”

As we walked back to the conference bookfair, she told me about a raft trip she’d taken through the Grand Canyon. “That’s where I learned to be comfortable with nudity.” As we talked, I kept thinking about how good my body feels when I'm swimming in icy cold water or lying on a sun-warmed rock to get warm, how great those outdoor experiences make my body feel. Then we walked back into the frenetic conference scene, where thousands of attendees were racing about under artificial light, checking their phones for text messages.

Read more about the history of the naked blogging project and check out the gallery of photos.

March 20, 2016

The times they are a-changin’

Phonebanking

Long-time readers have heard many stories about my oldest son Boy-in-Black. They might remember the time he rewrote the lyrics of a Bob Dylan song and played it as his valedictory speech. The time he rescued the stray kitten. The time he was in charge of cleaning the kitchen and made up crazy rules to go with his chore. The time he memorized all the Q words in the dictionary so that he could beat me in a game of Scrabble.

Ten years ago, Boy-in-Black declared his career goal: he wanted to get a PhD in Physics and then become a hobo who hung out on the street corner with a guitar. He figured people would walk past and say, “See that hobo? He’s mad good at physics.” The career hasn’t turned out exactly as he planned. Oh, he’s got a PhD in Physics, and he still pretty much dresses like a hobo, but he’s got a full-time job doing research. He’s a respectable grown-up and all that.

I don’t think Boy-in-Black’s approach to the upcoming election will surprise anyone. Like the research scientist he is, he first spent hours looking up facts and statistics, reading widely and checking his sources carefully. He went especially to primary sources, actual footage of the candidates. “You don’t have to watch much Trump footage to see what he’s about,” he said to me, grinning.

Once Boy-in-Black found a candidate he felt strongly about, he threw his whole self into the campaign. He’s been phonebanking and facebanking, signing up for events, donating time and money and emotional energy. He’s passionate about getting young people to the polls for the primaries. “If just every person between the age of 18 and 30 voted,” he said, “we could make a difference.”

In the past, Boy-in-Black has been willing to sit on the sidelines while everyone else argued about politics. "That's because normally, I feel like I can't make any real change," he explained. "This is the first time there's been an honest candidate that I genuinely agree with."

It’s been fun for me to talk politics with my grown-up sons. Yes, that’s plural because With-a-Why has been just as adamant as Boy-in-Black. They keep presenting rational arguments in favor of their candidate. It’s funny, really, that all the young people I know are so obsessed with a candidate who is 74 years old. With-a-Why’s girlfriend, Shy Smile, said that Bernie Sanders is “like a cool grandpa.”

“I want to get that shirt that says Talk Bernie to me,” With-a-Why said.

“I love how the Bernie’s campaign has pretty much been a kickstarter project,” Boy-in-Black said. “I think the average donation has been $27. He’s crushing the internet.”

I’ve long been a supporter of Clinton, but my sons are pulling me into the Sanders camp. They know how to sway me. Boy-in-Black was quick to point out that Sanders has a good record when it comes to feminist issues. And of course, he knows that I am appalled by the idea that someone as sexist and racist as Trump could ever become president.

“Bernie Sanders beats Trump and all the other Republican candidates by a sizeable margin,” Boy-in-Black pointed out. “Clinton barely beats Trump, and loses to the others, according to all the polls so far.”

They know that environmental issues are my other major concern. “Well, if you’re gonna vote based on just one issue, that issue should be climate change,” Boy-in-Black said. “If the earth is destroyed, none of the other stuff really matters.”

“You can’t have meaningful action on climate change when you’re funded by the fossil fuel industry,” With-a-Why said. (Yes, With-a-Why is all grown up now, a young man in his twenties who gets into political debates. I know!) It says something about the sway of the Bernie Sanders campaign that With-a-Why has been phonebanking: he's an introvert who HATES making phone calls.

This will, in fact, be With-a-Why’s second time voting in a national election. He turned eighteen just a month before the election four years ago. And he’s done his research. “People say Bernie won’t be able to get anything done with a Republican Congress, but he’s known as the Amendment King for passing amendments tacked onto other bills,” said With-a-Why. “Look at this quote here,” he motioned to his computer screen. “A Republican senator praising Bernie’s willingness to compromise to get things done.”

Once Boy-in-Black and With-a-Why get on a roll, they begin spouting statistics and facts like crazy. Here is a typical sentence from Boy-in-Black: “Bernie Sanders has the highest approval rating of any sitting U.S. senator – 83 %. The average approval rating of U.S. senators is 14% and their average re-election rate is 95%. Because no one votes in local elections.” He's obsessed with facts, numbers, and statistics. That's what happens with a physicist gets into politics.

Whenever I go onto the internet and see some of the downright nasty conversations going on, I’m heartened by the young people I know who have figured out how to talk about politics in a way that’s a calm and rational sharing of facts. I don’t know how this election will play out, but the process has given me faith in the next generation.

The photo above: Boy-in-Black and With-a-Why phonebanking together.

March 18, 2016

Monks, sheep, and quiet

Walking down to the chapel

The route we take is familiar to us by now. We drive along the crest of a hill that gives us a view of cornfields and stands of pine trees. We drive past farms with silos and red barns. We drive though little towns where the gas stations sell both firewood and ice. And last, we take the long road that curves up through the woods, higher and higher, until we come to the edge of the sheep fields and the big monastery barn, with its white cross, comes into sight.

I’ve been going to this Benedictine monastery on retreat for a couple of decades now. As soon as I step out of the car, I can feel myself relax.

My friends and I stayed in the old farmhouse that serves as the women’s guesthouse. I took the bedroom at the top of the stairs, the one with the big wooden desk. I do love to spread my journals and books out on a desk. I hung my clothes in the closet, set my camera on the bookshelf, and then went down into the kitchen for a cup of tea.

A monastic retreat gives me time to think, to pray, to meditate. I took a long walk Saturday morning, going to all my favourite places: the sheep barn, the pasture behind the sheep barn, the bookstore, and the crypt below the chapel where the votive candles are. I spent a lazy afternoon in my cozy room, writing.

Monastery barnyard

Compline is the last service of the day. The monks wear their black robes for this service, and Brother Tractor plays the harp in the candlelit chapel. After compline, my friends and I gathered in the living room of the guesthouse, and I built a fire. The crackling flames kept us company as we chatted, catching up with family news, drinking hot tea. When the fire died down, I said good night to my friends, heated a cornbag up in the microwave, and went up to bed. I fell asleep listening to the winds blowing through the tree outside my window.>