September 11, 2016

Another loss

Toward the sun

Blond Brother-in-law was only 19 when he married my oldest sister. He’s been part of my family for my entire adult life.

Everyone loved Blond Brother-in-law for his easy-going disposition. He was always calm and reassuring, and easy to please. He was happy with the simple things of life: a swim at camp, a well-cooked meal, or a movie he hadn’t seen yet. He loved our family trips to camp. Every evening, he stood at the grill, making food for everyone, never sitting down until everyone else had been fed. When we’d go out to the islands for a swim, he’d be the first in the water. He knew how to relax: he’d lie in the shallows when the water was warm, just letting the water rock him back and forth, or he’d climb to the top of the island and flop into the old wooden chair where he’d take a nap in the sun.

At holiday events at my house, Blond Brother-in-law always came to the kitchen to help with the food. That meant I could relax. I knew he’d refill the punch bowl, or rescue the rolls from burning, or check the potatoes, or clean the dirty dishes off the counter, or anything else that needed to be done. He loved to be helpful. If I mentioned to Blond Brother-in-law that I needed to buy something, he’d go online, do some research to see where the best place to get it would be, and then send me the link.

Blond Brother-in-law’s cheerful, easy-going nature remained, even when he had surgery on his spine that cost him the use of his right leg, even when he had to leave his job and go out on disability, even when he was diagnosed with cancer, even when his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, even when his wife died just three months after her diagnosis, even when his cancer returned, and even when the oncologists finally told him this summer that there was nothing more they could do. Through the last three years, his concern has been for his three daughters. He wanted to spare them any pain. He knew that even though the three daughters are grown-ups, losing two parents in less than two years is a lot to deal with.

The last couple of weeks of the summer, we took shifts to stay with Blond Brother-in-law around the clock. We had to keep upping his dosage of morphine to keep him out of pain, and soon he was sleeping most of the time. He died peacefully, slipping away mid-morning, just like Blonde Sister did almost two years ago.

He was 54 years old.

July 10, 2016

Cool, cool water

Swimming in the marsh

My parents' camp, where we all gather every year during the first week of July, is a peninsula of oak trees next to a big marsh. Their dock juts into a creek that winds through cattails. It's a lovely place to take a swim after you've just come back from a morning run in the hot sun. (That's my youngest sister in the photo -- I'm not a runner.)

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.