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.>

March 03, 2016

February travels

Morning walk

February, which is usually a month I dread (because it lasts FOREVER here in Snowstorm Region) zoomed by this year.

I began the month by flying to my niece’s wedding, which was on a humid, tropical island where I began each morning by walking the beach and spent every afternoon eating snacks by the pool. Forty family members and friends in all came to this destination wedding, and it seemed unreal to hang out under palm trees on a February day. The wedding was a very happy occasion: we all love Red-haired Niece’s new husband, who is a former student of mine. (Yes, that makes two former students who have married into the family. It’s become a trend.)

Palm Trees

Shortly after I returned from that trip, I flew to the hot, dry desert to go hiking with my husband. We spent our vacation walking through the blazing sunshine of the Sonoran Desert, admiring cacti and returning each day for a swim at the hotel pool.

Sonoran Desert

Of course, the reason I was able to get away twice during February was that I’m on sabbatical. So in between these excursions into the sunshine, I’ve been writing and thinking and doing research — all activities that I love. I’m firmly convinced that every job should include a sabbatical. Everyone needs some time off for rest and renewal.

January 25, 2016

Snowed in

Mailboxes during Hampton Snowstorm

The threat of a big snowstorm heading towards Very Long Island did not stop me from making the drive to visit my sister, brother-in-law, and their very cute twin babies. In fact, I was hoping to get snowed in. Any excuse to stay and play with my six-month-old nieces.

I wasn’t disappointed. The snowstorm dumped a whole bunch of snow on their little town. Inside the house, my sister built a fire in the fireplace and we played with the babies, who are just beginning to crawl. My sister had thought to buy wine and chocolate in anticipation of the blizzard. My brother-in-law, who loves to cook, made us a feast of Mediterranean food which we ate with warm pita bread. 

When the babies took their afternoon nap, I put on my winter clothes to take a walk in the storm (and to do a little freelance photography for the Hampton Bee). It was funny to see this little beach community all covered in snow. An emergency ban kept vehicles off the road, and I saw very few people as I trudged into a wind that stung my eyes with bits of sharp snow.

I did find one little store that had stayed open during the storm. That’s is where I encountered my first hardship of the big storm. They had sold out of chocolate chip cookies. I had to settle for oatmeal raisin. But I put the cookies inside my coat to protect them, and I trudged back along the snow-covered streets, feeling like Pa Ingalls carrying a bucket of wheat back to the claim shanty.

  On a winter's day

January 14, 2016

Winter

Backyard

We had barely any snow for the holiday season this year. I didn’t even have to worry about any of the family members who were traveling: the pavements were dry. For the last month, my house has been filled to the brim with family: eating, talking, and just hanging out. My youngest sister brought her six-month-old twins for a whole week, and we spent seven days just playing with the babies. My kids (all in their twenties now) and some of their friends (the ones we’ve always called “extras”) have gathered here in the evenings to play board games at the kitchen table or sometimes video games on their laptop computers. When the weather finally turned cold, I built a fire in the fireplace, and the house filled with all kinds of warmth.

This week is the first winter weather we’ve had. The holiday travelers have gone home. My kids are back at work and school. Outside my house, every tree branch is coated with heavy snow. And I’m sitting in a comfy chair in my home office, writing.

  SnowyBranches

December 14, 2015

Just another naked man

Hands on hips

“So who is going to pose naked for me?” I asked. I looked at my friends, who were holding wine glasses, balancing little plates of appetizers, and mostly ignoring my question. These friends have attended many conferences with me. They know the routine. I can’t go home without a naked photo. It’s a tradition – one that most of them choose to ignore. Artist Friend, for instance, just rolled his eyes and tried to change the subject.

But Medieval Woman caught my eye and smiled. Then she pointed quietly to her husband. “I think it’s his turn.”

That’s the advantage of being part of an academic couple. When someone at an academic conference asks you to pose naked, you can volunteer your husband.

I arrived at their hotel room with my camera bright and early the next morning. I knew I’d have to catch Darwin before the day began: conferences have this way of sucking my colleagues into sessions when they really should be doing more important stuff like posing naked for my blog. Medieval Woman greeted me with the cheerful demeanor of someone who has gotten out of posing. “Natural light!” she said enthusiastically, yanking opening the curtains. She and I began pushing the furniture out of the way.

“How do you want to pose?” I asked Darwin. He was sitting on the bed, wearing boxer shorts and socks, rubbing his eyes.

“Whatever,” he muttered. He’s not a morning person.

I’ve always thought that if I took a naked photo of Darwin, I’d ask him to pose with his guitar. He’s a terrific musician. But alas, he’d come to the conference by plane, which meant he’d left all musical instruments at home. “He can be a silhouette in front of the window,” Medieval Woman offered.

By then Darwin was beginning to wake up. Perhaps it was the cool morning air hitting his bare skin. “So am I going to be the object of the female gaze?” he said teasingly. “All these women who are going to be looking at me …. ”

“But you like that,” Medieval Woman said.

“Yeah, you’re right,” he said, grinning.

While his wife and I were still trying to figure out the best pose for him, he stripped off his boxer shorts and walked over to the window, hands on his hips, staring out at the landscape. The pose was so typically him that I snapped the photo.

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

November 30, 2015

Hiking just before the holiday

Slot Canyon

One of the advantages of the academic calendar is that I had a whole week off for Thanksgiving. Oh, there was a pile of work that I should have been doing, but instead my husband and I decided to take the first half of the week and fly off on a hiking adventure.

It turns out that November is a lovely time to visit Zion. The aspen trees had turned a brilliant yellow, the autumn sun glinted off the red rocks, and the cool temperatures meant that we could take strenuous hikes without worrying about heat exhaustion. Most of the other hikers we saw were young, mostly in their twenties and thirties. On the first hike we took, a long series of switchbacks that led to the highest point in the canyon, it quickly became apparent that my husband and I were the oldest people on the trail.

I liked being a trail elder. The younger hikers were so polite and accommodating. My long grey hair makes me pretty recognizable, which meant that by the second day, I got friendly hellos throughout the park. My husband kept offering the young people sunscreen, and whenever he met anyone who hadn't been to the park before, he happily gave them advice on which trails they should take.

Many of the young hikers were sleeping in tents in the canyon, but my husband and I decided that our status as elders meant we deserved a little pampering. So at the end of each day, we retreated to the little town outside the park, where we ate dinner in a restaurant, soaked our sore muscles in a hot tub under the starry night sky, and slept in a bed with clean sheets.

Perhaps it's good that we got some exercise in the first half of the week, because we spent the second half of the week doing what my family does at Thanksgiving: eating, talking, eating, playing games, and eating. I love it when all of my kids are home, even if we're just doing something as simple as playing a board game at the kitchen table. The whole week was lovely and relaxing, and now it feels like we're moving towards Christmas at a fast clip. Mountaintop