Posture? I Hardly Know Her!

Around the beginning of the year, a reader wrote in and asked how I felt about New Year’s resolutions.  I said I thought they were a good thing - though it doesn’t matter if it’s because a new year has begun, a psychic told you to do it, or if a goat looked at you sideways and you took it as a sign from God.  If you want to improve your life in some way, anytime is a good time.

Psychics and goats aside, there is something about the New Year specifically that inspires us.  Yet, the tricky thing about it is that somehow this “New Year” doesn’t do a great job of holding us accountable.  I have never been able to put my finger on why this happens; therefore, I’ve remained in the middle of the road about making my own resolutions.  

Photo by Rob Kavalek

Photo by Rob Kavalek

I decided I wouldn’t ever just do a resolution just to simply have one.  I needed to have an authentic craving for whatever it was I wanted to change, or I wouldn’t bother with it.  It just felt like a better option than feeling disappointed with myself in three months or less.

This year, however, I decided to make not one, not two, but THREE New Year’s Resolutions.  The previous couple of years of my life (my writing journey) have been a bit sloppy. As we have come to learn, I don’t do well in unstructured environments and so things kind of became a mess.  

The first resolution was to get my book published by spring.  I originally had March in mind and now it is coming up on May.  So, clearly, the struggle still stayed real. But it’s happening regardless.  

The second resolution was to have more of a social life.  I know it looked like I had an incredible social life on social media the last two years, but that’s because I was using travel benefits and flying around to meet up with folks.  Because of this travel, I had no time to nurture any friendships in my own city as I had to make up for lost writing time.

The third resolution was to work on my posture.  It had been conveyed to me three times (as they say, all things come in threes) this last year that I would be more attractive if I didn’t slouch.  This often came in the form of a backhanded compliment, so I never knew if I wanted to thank the person or give them a good old-fashioned kick in the shins for saying it.

I’m not sure if I have always had bad posture or if it has just come about over the recent years.  Either way, I suspect this problem is a result of my massive chest. Now, before you say “oh, boohoo.  That’s so terrible your big chest makes you slouch,” I have to clarify something about my chest.

The reason my chest is so big is because I have an extended sternum.  I talk about this a bit in Breaking Glass Balloons (the upcoming book) and how this fun little fact was/is the root of my body dysmorphia.  I began working out to put on muscle to hide this and it worked. People began giving me chest-compliments rather than ask why it looked weird (yes, people literally asked this).  This change really boosted my confidence.

However, getting told I should fix my posture slaps that confidence around in the face a little bit.  I fully admit that I totally sulked whenever someone said it. But I had two choices in the matter: either continue to sulk and feel self-conscious, or I can take charge and do something about it.

I think the challenge in fixing my posture might be somewhat more difficult than the average bear.  That extended sternum not only sticks out, but it pulls on that developed muscle, which then pulls my shoulders forward with it.  So, I suspected the journey would be a tough one.

I began the process of working on it last year and, after doing some research, I found out that the best place to start would be with a physical therapist.  They help pinpoint the problem, work on it, and give you exercises to do at home.

But who has time to be gallivanting off to physical therapists?!  I was writing a book, dammit. I had no other choice but to do the next laziest thing: search YouTube videos so I could figure out the exercises on my own.

Some good resources popped up, and it didn’t hurt that they were done by some very attractive men.  Supposedly all it would take was ten minutes a day, every day. I started off strong and could feel a difference.  But between the book, the blog, social media, the gym, quality time at home, oh and don’t forget those friendships I wanted to nurture, AND my severe case of ADD, it all fell to the wayside.  

I had a dozen excuses and just decided this was not the right time and that 2019 would be the year to work on it.  HELLO, THIRD RESOLUTION!!!! But why did I think the year of 2019 would be any less busy? If anything, it was getting worse with the book publishing timelines.  At this rate, I was never going to lock down a physical therapist.

In the meantime, I’d go about other routes to help fix my posture.  Fortunately, since the internet spies the shit out of you, ads for posture products began popping up on my Instagram feed.  As creepy as this is, I also caved and clicked on an ad to buy one of those braces that are supposed to pull your shoulders back.

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The brace did what it said, but it also done made me extra fidgety.  Instead of focusing on my work, I would sit there, trying to test it - purposely rounding my shoulders to see how good it worked.  Then it started itching my back. Then it started hurting my armpits. Then I threw it under the bed where the only thing it would “pull back” were the dust bunnies.

What I really wanted was one of those little electronic devices that you attach to your back and it vibrates when it senses you slouching.   They call it a “posture trainer” and lord knows I got a ton of Insta-ads for those too. But they were expensive - starting at a hundred bucks.  Once they sensed that I kept looking at it but not buying it, they sent an extra coupon my way. Nothing baits me better than a coupon. And, by dropping the price to $73, I decided to splurge.

When the device arrived, I figured the best place to start with it was at my new office job since that’s where I slouch the most these days.  The moment I attached it and it lit up underneath my shirt, my boss saw and called me Robocop. I acted offended, but secretly I liked it.

You have to calibrate the device by “setting the posture.”  Once I got that done, I sat at the computer with perfect posture, hoping I could be disciplined enough so it wouldn’t yell (aka vibrate) at me.  But also, I kind of wanted to make sure it would yell at me. Like the brace, I began testing its limits. What I discovered was not encouraging.

If I leaned forward, but had perfect posture, it would buzz.  Yet, if I slouched and leaned backwards, it wouldn’t buzz. If I calibrated it well (which was not always easy) and stopped sitting like a lazy-ass, it would do a decent job reminding me to sit upright.

But then came the sad fact that it only lasts for four or five hours.  At this point, I had to take it off and recharge it. If I wanted to use it again later, I would have to use another adhesive strip.  This didn’t seem like such a huge deal until I went to buy more adhesives. They cost a dollar each.

If this does not sound like much to you, let me walk you through the math (because who doesn’t love it when guys talk math to them?).  If I were to use the device for five days a week, two times a day, that would be $520 a year. If I thought the $73 purchase was pricey, then this felt ludicrous.

I’d also like to point out that sometimes the adhesive failed to stick.  If you attached the device incorrectly along your spin (which is hard to do by yourself) and have to reattach it, then it would not last more than an hour.  When Luke and I took a trip to Austin, I busted a light sweat one warm afternoon and this also made the adhesive fail. Then a couple of times it failed to stick for no reason at all.  This meant I would need to buy even more adhesives.

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The name of this product is “Upright Go.”  At first, I wasn’t going to share the name in this essay for the fact that I was writing such lousy things about it.  I also didn’t want people to think this was going to be some sponsored post if I dropped the name right off the bat. But in the end, I didn’t want other people to waste their money on this thing like I did (I can’t get reimbursed for those failed adhesives).

Thank God the company offered a 30-day, money back guarantee and so I could at least guy my $73 back (minus S&H).  If this sucker wasn’t so glitchy, it might be worth the cost of the upkeep. But alas, this was not the case. Sending it back hurt me more than it hurt them, though.  I truly thought this was going to be my golden ticket to good posture. Now, I felt hopeless.

Then I immediately felt stupid.  If I was going to be really honest with myself (which is what this whole transparency thing is about), then I had to admit that the problem wasn’t the brace or the glitchy “posture trainer.”  The problem was that I was not taking charge of my posture as I had proclaimed earlier. I was taking shortcuts.

I expected these things to do the work and solve the problem for me.  And I’ve learned before that the less we have a hands-on approach, the less we have a handle on the situation.    Even if the brace or the Upright Go device had worked well, I think I would have only become dependent on them for good posture.  As one guy described the Upright Go in a review, “it was more of a ‘reminder’ than a ‘trainer’.” I would have remained a slouchy mess for the times I left them in my drawer or under the bed.

I don’t want to call my third New Year’s resolution an “epic failure,” but it certainly hasn’t been a success. This reminded me that I need to get back to my original plan of going to a physical therapist who won’t catch a fish to feed me for the day but teach me how to fish to feed me for life.  Fish = Success.

And wouldn’t you know it that I am somehow busier than ever.  The publishing process is far more chaotic than writing the book itself.  I have come to accept this for the time being and revoked my posture plan as a New Year’s resolution and renamed it a gift to myself when the book is done.  Because, like I said at the start, anytime is a good time to make a change.

Landlord Seeks Renter

I’ve written once or twice or one hundred times before that Luke and I own a rental property.  Without this resource, I would have ended up a hobo within one year into my writing journey.  Just me, though.  I won’t allow Luke to be a hobo.

Since we bought it ten years ago, this rental property tripled in value which means it not only helped keep me afloat, but it also served as my retirement plan.  Currently I only put $25 a month in my Roth IRA (whatever that is) and thus, be rolling in dough at age 70 I will not.

Around the same time we started our venture into landlordism, a friend was getting ready to sell his rental property.  He was sick of it.  He didn’t want to deal with it anymore.  I thought he was nuts.  Didn’t he see the value in having other people pay into his investment while simultaneously making a monthly profit?!   So many people don’t get to have the good fortune of something like this.  It’s worth it for a little heartache.

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Then, at the beginning of this year, our renters told us they were moving out and my heartache turned into a heart attack (not literally though).  I couldn’t do this again.  And by “again,” I meant a second time.  We only had renters move out on us one previous time.

But that one time was more than enough.  Those previous renters had trashed the place and we sunk nearly five-grand back into it.  Needless to say, they didn’t get any of their $500 deposit back. 

Luke gently reminded me that our current renters weren’t like those previous asstwats.  In all fairness, he was right.  I started to write about why they were asstwats, but realized their asstwatiness had been so overly-asstwatted that a story like that should warrant its own essay.  Sidenote: Luke does not say words like “asstwat.”  That one is my classy tongue all the way.

These current tenants, on the other hand, had been awesome.  They were a gay couple who had good hygiene, acted kind, and paid rent on time.  A landlord couldn’t ask for more.  But when one of their dad’s got sick with cancer, they decided the time had come to move to Phoenix for his treatments.  

First I thought, Oh, that’s so sad his father has cancer.  Next I thought, But what about meeee?!  Fortunately, I did not think that exact thing.  I just began ruminating about all the problems we could face again after two short years with these guys.  

“Let’s sell it,” I blurted all over Luke.  “I can’t do this again.  It’s too much trouble.”

I sounded like our friend who I once dubbed as “crazy” from before.  Luke tried to talk some sense into me, but I don’t accept sense when I am pissy.

“It’s worth three times what we paid for it,” I continued to rant.  “If we sell it, we can use the interest.”

As it turned out, interest doesn’t quite work like I thought.  Even if we did this, it wouldn’t have matched our profits and it’d ruin the long term investment.  Therefore we made the decision to go ahead and seek new renters.  The good news was that we would at least not have to do much work on it with our great gay renters.

Working on the house.

Working on the house.

The bad news was that I was wrong about this good news.  As it turned out, “kindness and good hygiene” doesn’t translate into “renters who won’t trash a house.”  These guys said it would be cleaned to a professional level per the agreement in the lease.  They left it a disgusting mess.   

The new carpet we put in the basement had a large black stain on it - as if they had been working on cars down there.  The carpet in the master bedroom had a big pink stain - as if they were [can’t think of anything that spews pink] up there.  There was a giant crack in the master bedroom door and the entire house smelled of cigarettes (smoking wasn’t allowed).  Oh, and they lost the garage door opener.

Once again, the five-hundred dollar deposit didn’t quite cover the near two-thousand dollars we had to sink back into the place.  On top of that, the place would go unrented for the whole month which meant more money out of our own pockets.  

But now came the part I REALLY dreaded: seeking new renters.  The first time we searched for tenants, a group of three potentials handed me the five-hundred dollar cash deposit on the spot.  It caught me so off guard that I just instantly took it.  When their background checks came back a little sketchy, I had to sheepishly give it back.  Actually, I had our friend (a former cop) give it to them because I was too chicken-shit.

The second time we searched for tenants, a group of three guys, who worked in the marijuana industry, wanted to move in immediately and also whipped out a wad of cash.  Why couldn’t this be like the movies where they’d whip out something else?  Thankfully, I was smart enough to turn down the cash this time.

When their background checks came back “meh,” and the great gay couple swooped in for the kill, I had to go with the gay couple instead.  When I told the marijuana guys that we would not be renting to them, one of them went off - proceeding to say things like “grow some balls motherfucker” and “you lied to us fuckboy.”

But you can’t rent a home without renters.  So, I typed up the craigslist ad (which was somehow longer than most of the essays on this blog) and the inquiries began to roll in.  

The first folks we met with were a young group of three - one gay guy, his bestie, and her boyfriend.  Their weird haircuts and piercings didn’t bother us at all.  It was the fact that none of them had lived together before and that, in total, they would have five cats in the house.

We got especially concerned when they were filling out their applications and the girl leaned over her boyfriend’s shoulder to look and said, “Oh, I didn’t know that’s what you did for work!”  He responded with the same thing to her.  They’re moving in together and they don’t even know what each other does for work?!

The next potential didn’t seem hopeful either.  It was a single mom with three kids.    I have absolutely no judgments about single mothers as divorce has become such the norm these days.  More so, I put children on the same level as five cats and couples who don’t fully know the person they’re dating.

I don’t hate children.  I just don’t understand them.  They make me feel awkward.  Perhaps I don’t have any paternal instincts.  Or maybe it’s a result of my sisters not having kids until later in life, or even the fact that I was the baby of the family (which would also explain my unfortunate tendency to first and foremost think about myself - like a child).

I absolutely love my three nieces along with my bestie’s two kids.  And if you are someone else I personally know with a child, then I love your kid too.  But if someone tries to hand me a baby, I immediately break a small sweat.  If left alone with a child, the only small talk I can think of is to ask them how they like school.  Don’t even get me started on teenagers.

Me trying to connect with a child is like a blind person trying to do a Rubik’s cube (which I also cannot do).  And when it comes to dealing with the rental property, I didn’t have the energy for anymore Rubik’s cubes.  Besides, the one thing I did know about children is that they destroy things.  This could mean having to dump thousands of dollars back into the property when THESE people move out.  

Steuben on the lookout for new renters.

Steuben on the lookout for new renters.

As the single mom walked up, I was surprised to see that she had brought the kids with her.  Was that normal?  She had two sons, ages six and eight, and one daughter, age… umm… something else.  Actually, the eight year-old son might have been eleven and the daughter might have been thirteen.  I don’t know.  Either way, when they all walked in, I got discombobulated.

Rachel, the mother, introduced them all.  How are you supposed to greet kids?  Did this mean I was supposed to shake their hands?  They were all very polite.  

A microsecond after meeting the thirteen year-old daughter, she pulled up her sleeve and enthusiastically said, “LOOK!”

She revealed one of those homemade bracelet things that said the word “GAY” in rainbow colors.  Both Luke and I laughed and possibly even gasped.  We didn’t understand if this meant she was gay or if she supported the gays.  It didn’t matter.  I immediately wanted to hug her.  But I didn’t.  Because she was a child.  Is it okay to hug children you’ve just met?

As we gave the tour, the six year-old son (who I now realized was eight years-old) started to get lively.  Each room we entered, he’d scream, “THIS IS MY ROOM!”  Then he’d run in the closets and scream “No! THIS is my room!”  It sounds annoying but it was very adorable.  Oddly enough, the one room that would be his room, he didn’t scream that in.

The middle son (officially eleven years-old… I checked) was quiet and didn’t act dynamic like the other two.  But he was well-behaved and kept saying all the wonderful things he loved about the house.  By the end of the tour, we absolutely fell in love with these kids.  We weren’t even thinking of Rachel anymore.  We were just like, Let’s rent this house to the children!

Of course, Rachel was great too.  Her father showed up to take a look and he got almost choked up at how perfect the place was for his daughter and grandchildren.  They seemed like a loving and stable family.  Not to mention that, after she left and I looked at her application, she made a hell of a lot more than we did with her child support.

Luke and I talked about this idea.  The kids seemed old enough to not hurt themselves on the modern banisters.  And even though the young boys would for sure trash their rooms in the basement, adults didn’t have great track record for this anyway.  Plus, with the house being so close to their new school, the chances of them renting for many, many years would be high.

After running her background check, I texted Rachel and asked her if she and her family would like to rent the home.  Her text back was a video of the kids popping up from behind the couch and singing a little thank you song.  She said it was their idea.  We couldn’t believe how lucky we were to find these people.  And I couldn’t believe how much I started to appreciate children.  

And then I immediately felt like an asstwat myself (or at least somewhere on the “asstwat spectrum”).  I had written off Rachel and her kids before we even met them and they ended up being our dream tenants.  Reflecting on this also had me thinking about the high expectations for the gay tenants who left the house a gross, stinky mess.  I underestimated one set of people while overestimating the other.  

I wish we lived in a world where we never assume anything about anyone ever.  But, to a degree, being able to make assumptions is somewhat necessary for being human.  We collect data on the encounters we have so that we could have a better prediction of what to expect for similar encounters in the future.  

I’m thinking that it’s not whether assumptions are good or bad, it's how we can unintentionally let our bias skew them that matters.  Just because I am a nice gay guy who likes to be clean doesn’t mean all nice gay guys will keep things pristine.  And just because I find kids to be awkward doesn’t mean kids will be terrible tenants.  

I collected the data wrong.  Instead of approaching things based on truly objective experiences, I led with my own personal biases.  And doing this up made me feel like a fool/jerk.  It also made me aware of how volatile assumptions are and that, when it comes to assuming, it’s best to head the warning “proceed with caution.”

In this most recent journey of landlords seeking renters, our experience with Rachel and the kids has been our most seamless one yet.  For that, I am incredibly grateful.  It made me glad that we didn’t sell the property and it gave me the reminder to fine-tune my assumptional tools.  Now, I can only hope that it continues this way for years to come - hope, not assume.

Taking The Plunge

Guest Post by Scott Miller

I’ve never been comfortable in my own skin.  I hated what I saw when I looked in the mirror.  I was embarrassed to be seen with my shirt off… let alone with my pants off.  Or, at least, that used to be me. 

Something changed about 5-years ago and now, well… now I’m a nudist.  Still the same me.  Still the same body.  But these days I think nothing of hanging out with my husband, my friends, or even total strangers while nude.  So, what changed?

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A bit of background on me: I’m ~6-ft and weigh a sprightly 275-lbs on a good day.  If you wish to flatter me, you might say I have a “football player’s build,” but I’ve always just thought of myself as a big guy.  I’m pretty darn hairy (yes, back included).  I have stretch marks.  It is what it is. 

Oh, and I’ve finally crested my 40’s and I hate those strategically placed surveillance cameras at 7-11 that seem to focus in on the shiniest, baldest spot of the back of my head.  Translation: Playgirl is not going to be calling me to be their next centerfold.

I remember back to a summer in Wisconsin, maybe 8 years ago, when I was camping with my boyfriend and we were the only two people at a secluded campsite.  Nobody was around, just him and me, so we decided we’d strip down and get some sun on our cheeks.  We made a campfire, roasted some weenies, tossed the frisbee around and tried out naked time. 

It was all going well until I had to bend down and pick up a missed frisbee.  He cat-called me as I was bent over, letting me know he appreciated my backside as I reached for the errant disc.  And what did I do?  I YELLED AT HIM.  I got so upset that he checked me out when I was in such a vulnerable position.  I mean how dare he, right? 

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This man had seen me naked before.  We’d had sex.  We were close.  But I was not comfortable with my body and I couldn’t take the good-hearted compliment he intended.  In my head he was making fun of me.  How could someone possibly enjoy the sight of my bare, pasty-white ass?  That’s how self-conscious I was.

But now I love being nude.  It’s comfortable, it’s freeing, it’s liberating, and it’s healthy.  And all the credit for flipping the mental switch goes to my high school buddy Anna who casually mentioned that she went to a hot spring while visiting Colorado.  It was a *whisper* clothing optional */whisper* hot springs at that.  My partner and I got to talking about it, and our interest was piqued.  Let’s check this thing out!

We scoped out the options in Colorado, and there are way more than one might expect.  Dakota Hot Springs, Orvis, Strawberry Hot Springs, Idaho Springs… just to name a few.  We ended up picking a place down near Salida where we could spend an extended weekend camping, soaking, hiking and just seeing what this whole “clothing optional thing” was all about.  It was an experience that changed my life for the better.

After checking in, I was a bit appalled to see people just walking around the park wearing nothing but a hat and hiking shoes.  They had dark, leathery, tanned bodies.  These were true nudists - folks without a fuck to give about who was watching. 

There were families – men, women, and children frolicking and drinking in the summer sun.  There were couples, singles, and then there was us: two unsure homosexuals wondering if we were going to accidentally “pitch a tent” and get ourselves kicked out before we even set up camp.

We started slowly - losing our shirts while we fiddled with tent poles, air mattresses and coolers.  For me, even this was still a huge hurdle – I was the guy who still wore an Under Armour shirt when venturing into a water park after all.  Baby steps, though.  This was allowed.  It was encouraged.  I could do this.

Once we were set up for the night, it was time to check out the springs.  I actually undressed inside of our tent and put on my robe before making the trek to the first pond.  (Sidebar: even today - as a weathered nudist – there’s something about undressing in front of people as opposed to just being socially naked.  Images of strip teases and dollar bills tucked in G-strings still creep into my head.  But I digress… back to camping!) 

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Once we got to the pool, I had to muster up the courage to drop the robe and make the harrowing 2-ft journey from the exposed water’s edge to the submerged, simmering, safety of the springs.  Oh, and there’s moss everywhere and That.  Shit.  Is.  Slippery.  I’m sure my initial plunge was about as graceful as a walrus doing an arabesque.  At least, that’s what it was from my perspective.

Suddenly there I was – nude in a public space and surrounded by a handful of strangers.  They didn’t point.  They didn’t laugh.  Heck, I’m not even sure they looked.  This huge step for me was nothing more than a yawn for those already in the pool. 

Time passed, and I began to relax and enjoy the experience.  The birds were chirping, the sun was setting, and the warm water began to wash away 35 years of pent up self-esteem issues.  I slowly came to realize that this wasn’t a big deal. 

As I became more and more comfortable, I let myself enjoy the random bubbles as they playfully danced across my bare skin on their way to the surface.  If I had known baptisms could be so much fun, I would’ve converted years ago!

People came and went.  I soaked, I chatted with strangers, I stayed hydrated, and I evolved.  By the time the sun started to set I was much more confident as I climbed out of the springs and in the twilight.  Sure, I still quickly bundled back up in the robe, but something had changed.  A seed was planted, and it just needed to be watered to make it grow.

The next day I was a bit bolder.  I still wore the robe, but not tied tightly across my waist.  Then it was draped over my shoulder as I went from pond to pond.  Then it was stuffed in my backpack.  And then it was just… left behind… in a neat little pile in the tent next to my insecurities, my hang-ups and my self-depreciation.

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Who needs all that in the summer, right?  Not this guy!  We even ended up taking a 4-mile round-trip hike completely nude.  It was so liberating.  I was now the careless nudist that the newly arriving campers aspired to be.

A few weeks after that trip, my partner and I got to talking about the experience.  He suggested we investigate other nude events and I LOVED the idea.  I didn’t acquiesce, I didn’t resist… I steered into the skid and got to looking for options.  We found a nudist group on Meetup, applied and the rest, as they say, is history. 

Perhaps that oversimplifies my journey, as I didn’t go from being swaddled in a burqa one day to running around in my birthday suit the next.  We started with smaller events – just a handful of people – to see what nudism felt like in a social situation.  It’s led me on a wonderful journey.  Now I host events with dozens of attendees.  

Clothes are a barrier we hide behind.  Being a snappy dresser can make up for an imperfect body.  Funny T-shirts can draw attention to your wit as opposed to those flaws you’re trying to hide.  And then there’s our cell phones… another barrier to social interaction that, when nude, you simply cannot rely upon.  

At nude events, cell phones get left behind with clothing most of the time.  Why?  1) Photos are pretty much frowned upon; and 2) No pockets! (unless you count your “prison purse” – but who really wants to keep their cell phone in a plastic bag?)  

All that’s left is you.  Nothing to distract, nothing to deflect, nothing to defend.  Conversation is easier when nude, because you make intense eye contact.  Sure, you’ll find some time to check out and be checked out, but when it comes to one-on-one interactions, they’re incredibly real.  You’re vulnerable.  He’s vulnerable.  What a great time to open up and share!  What a great time to listen and learn!  It’s beautiful.  It’s nudism.  And it’s great.

My self confidence and self esteem have skyrocketed in recent years as I’ve embraced nudism.  I’ve never been so happy with who I am as a person.  I’ve never been so proud.  And yet, I feel I’ve been humbled too.   It’s all about the journey.

So, if you’re worried about getting your feet wet: stop.  Stop worrying.  You’ll psyche yourself out.  Make the plunge.  Take that first step and come on in… the water’s fine!

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Published by The Bare InkSlinger, Courtesy of Scott Miller.  
Copyright © 2019 Scott Miller, All rights reserved.

Embracing Burlesque

You can bet that if I can’t finish a meal due to being scared, then I have so much fear it’s seeping out of every orifice of my body.  I had never been this scared before - that I couldn’t take one more bite of a pretty damn good chicken wrap.  But in less than two hours… I would be on a stage… in front of an entire crowd… dancing… and taking my clothes off.

This all started a year before when I attended an old-school, vaudeville style variety show called “Fuck The Back Row.”  I had just landed my first major gig in social work and didn’t have many friends at the time.  So, when I found this swanky event, I knew I’d be going alone.  

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After a band finished their set, a duo of scantily clad ladies took the stage to perform some burlesque.  I had never seen an actual burlesque act before.  The movie featuring Christina and Cher hadn’t come out yet (this is an older story if you couldn’t tell) and it was just as well.  From what I hear, the movie had hardly anything to do with actual burlesque.

For those who aren’t familiar, burlesque is the old-fashioned form of striptease that brewed up in the 1930s.  It wasn’t like the strippers of today who love to polish poles with boob sweat.  These were more the kind of women who danced while guiding fans along their bodies to tease their male viewers and keep them on the edge of their seat for more.

It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly, but burlesque began making a resurgence a couple decades ago.  This old-fashioned sexy art-form somehow offered the modern era something unique and exciting.  Acts could range from classy and elegant to campy and hilarious.  Anyone could participate regarding body type or gender.

Seeing it at the vaudeville show blew my mind.  Granted, I had never been to an actual strip-bar, but I had seen enough portrayals in movies to know this was totally different.  And yet, it was far more entertaining - their outfits, the ways they danced, the playfulness.  

Then it hit me.  Oh my god!  I thought.  I THINK I WORK WITH HER!!!  One of the girls on stage looked exactly like a girl at my new job.  They both had short hair dyed as bright red as a fire truck.  And with the way she popped her hips, she could certainly set the place up in flames.

The moment their act was done, I ran from my seat to go find this mystery woman and see if I did, in fact, work with her.  As soon as we locked eyes, I yelled in her face, “I work with you!!!”

“Oh, yes!” she got just as excited.  “You’re that new guy!”

I met her at work as Casey.  But on this night, I got to meet her again as Honey Touché.  I told her how impressed I was that she did this.  She was also pretty impressed that I was the type to attend such an event.  Although I had long since left my hipster days behind me, shit like this still made me feel pretty cool.

Honey and I developed a solid friendship and after Luke and I started dating, we began going to their burlesque shows at a cabaret downtown.  At our second show, a guy had performed that night and we learned that, during the resurgence of burlesque, they welcomed boys to romp around on stage too - dubbing it as “boylesque.”

“I wanna do this!” I told Luke after we left that show.  

Luke did not like this idea.  “I don’t feel comfortable telling people that my boyfriend is a stripper,” he said.

In his defense, he had lived quite the button down life.  Things were still new for us and he was still getting used to my thirst for the more curiously fringe things in life.  And to be honest, it didn’t really make sense for me anyway.  I had zero stage experience.

Once, when I was a kid, a friend and I tried out for a play at the local community theatre.  As part of the tryouts, we had to stand in a big circle and introduce ourselves in creative and animated ways.  Kids would leap forth and swirl their hands around and say things like, “My name is Gary and I loooooove to be scary!”

When it came my turn, I stepped forward and said, “My name is Scott!”  That’s it.  The end.  I might have tried to do jazz hands.  But if I did, I kept them low at my side so hardly anyone could see.  After that, I never tried out for anything ever again.

About a year after the burlesque discovery, Honey asked if I would ever be interested in performing an act with her.  She’d been developing some fun duo ideas with a male performer in mind.  I kindly told her that I had no background in stage or dance.  Honey didn’t care.  According to her, “burlesque is for everyone.”  She’d teach me everything I needed to know.  

My insides became a battleground of fear versus excitement.  Sure, I said I wanted to do it.  But now push came to shove and, with that brief childhood memory, the fear won the battle.  I didn't want to do something like this unless I could be GREAT at it.  Besides, as I told told Honey, Luke wouldn’t be comfortable with me doing it anyway.

“I think you should do it!” he said when I told him about Honey’s request.

Whaaaaat?!  “But you said you didn’t want a stripper for a boyfriend.”

By this time we had gone to numerous shows and Luke fell in love with it all too.  He fully understood that this was different from modern stripping.  Most of the act is spent slowly removing the layers.  And even in the final reveal, the girls wear pasties on their nipples.  So, technically, by law, they don’t even get naked.  

I wouldn’t have to wear pasties, but I would be covered by a g-string.  By this time in our relationship, Luke had gotten used to me running off to enough nudist events that a g-string would be child’s play.  (Note to self: maybe don’t put the words “g-string” and “child” in the same sentence ever again).

But now that I had his support I no longer had any excuses.  When I got my HIV diagnosis a few years prior, I declared that I would live a life of transparency and facing fears.  If I said “no,” I would be going back on the new person I wanted to be.  So, I had no other choice but to tell Honey “yes,” I would try performing with her.

A video still from the “Tarzan and Jane” act.

A video still from the “Tarzan and Jane” act.

Her first idea was to do a parody of the “Nutcracker” for the holiday show coming up in a few months.  So, not only did I have to do dance, but now I had to do one of the most difficult art-forms of dance.  Honey told me to relax and that she’d make it as easy for me as possible.

For months, we practiced like crazy.  I listened to the “Dance Of The Sugar Plum Fairies” hundreds of times hoping I’d get it memorized (it was only two minutes and fifteen seconds).  I tried learning how to count music - something I still wouldn’t be able to get the hang of for another couple of years.

When the night of the show came, I had the act down.  But I was so damn scared I couldn’t eat my food.  The second we stepped out on stage, my guts nearly exploded all over the audience.  I COULD SEE THEIR FACES LOOKING AT ME!!

The music started and we began doing our cute little dancing.  I could not stop trembling and felt faint nearly the entire time.  My moves were stiff and totally unanimated.  I was definitely still that little boy who couldn’t properly do jazz hands and wanted it to end.

Then, before I knew it, the song was ending and we were about to do our final moves.  I yanked down the rest of my unitard and revealed my feathered g-string to the entire cabaret (Honey had matching feathered pasties).  The audience erupted in applause and the lights went out.

We hurried off stage with the unitard still around my ankles.  When we got to the green room, I was filled with so much adrenaline that my heart wanted to pound its way right out of my chest.  I gasped for air and my mouth was as dry as a turtle.  I know this because I have a terrible habit of licking turtles.  Once you start licking turtles, you really can’t stop.

But turtles were the last thing on my mind.  All I could think was… I want to do that again!  Sure, it had been terrifying and my performance was mediocre at best, but I had gotten the biggest rush I had quite possibly ever felt.  It must be the kind of feeling people get who love going on roller coasters.  

Fortunately, there were holiday shows the whole month of December and we were slotted for all of them.  The same thing would happen for every performance.  I’d get so anxious I’d wanna barf and then afterwards I’d salivate to do it all over again.  When the holiday show came to a close, I was sad to leave the stage behind.

When Honey had more ideas for acts, this meant I had to actually come up with a stage name. Because of my lack of experience, I didn’t know how to choose a name with any kind of character or persona. I just wanted something kinda clever, kinda sexy, kinda funny, and kinda ridiculous. I came up with the name “Circum Simon.”  

Honey would go on to develop a “Dirty Dancing” parody where Luke actually joined us in the act.  Although he didn’t strip, he was a stage natural (of course).  The man I loved joined me in this new thing I loved.  I wanted his stage name to be Randy Gentile which, if translated right, means “horny non-jew” (a shining example of my terrible sense of humor). We tried it out a few times and it confused people more than anything else. After that, Luke decided to just not have a stage name.

We befriended more of the girls and much of the group came to feel like a tight-knit family of love and support and glitter.  Eventually, they urged me to try and develop a solo act.  When they announced an eighties themed show, I knew this would be the time as this was my favorite decade of music.

I auditioned an act to Olivia Newton John’s “Physical” - calling it “Gym Bag Time Machine.”  The idea was that I would come out as a modern workout guy (imagine Rocky) with a gym bag and, since the gym bag was a time machine, I would pull eighties fitness wear out of the bag and slide these pieces on as I slowly stripped out of my modern clothes right up until the final reveal of a jockstrap.  

It was as stupid as it sounds and that’s what I loved about it.  If I was going to do this, I’d rather make myself comical than take it too seriously (something I had done for a majority of my life).  The act made the cut and audiences actually liked it (probably because nobody can ever hate that song - not even Saddam Hussein).

The thing that once scared me so much became my new most favorite life pleasure - something so few people would ever dare step their toes in.  Moving past my fear of taking the stage and dancing in front of people gave me the good fortunate of experiencing the rush and joy of performance.  

The more I took to the stage, the better I got at performing.  I would never go on to become some dynamic performer, but that was okay.  It made me happy, audiences enjoyed what I had come up with, and, as Honey said, “burlesque is for everyone.”  The whole thing taught me that you don’t have to necessarily be great at something in order to enjoy it.  

Unfortunately, once I took up the writer’s lifestyle, burlesque had to take a backseat.  There was just no time to do both and I wouldn’t get much stage time over these last couple years.  However, it has been announced that the eighties show will return in August of 2019.  By then, my book will be out and I won’t worry about writing another for a good while.  Perhaps it’ll be the perfect time for Circus Simon to go back and get his fear-facing-fix.  

A video still from the “Physical” act.

A video still from the “Physical” act.

 

Edited by Glen Trupp
Copyright © 2018 The Bare InkSlinger, All rights reserved.
Photo Copyrights to
Andrea Flanagan and La Photographie as noted.
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Part III: Water Under The Bridge

Since the dawn of humankind, there have been quarrels.  Archeologists had proven this by digging up several skeletal remains in the shape of wagging their fingers at one another.  And when the cavemen (and don’t forget the cave ladies) sat down to settle these quarrels, they had to ask the age old question: who goes first?

This was the question that Brad and I now faced as we tensely sat across from each other at lunch.  He and I had two years of a really close friendship.  Now, who in the hell first shares their side of the story about what we had been through over the last six months?!

I told him I didn’t care, which was really code for I can’t freakin’ decide.  Finally, he decided for me and suggested that I go first.  The moment had come.  I could finally tell him what it was like to suddenly have your closest friend stop talking to you without knowing why.

I went through everything I had previously written in Part I and Part II of this essay: him pulling away from our friendship even after I told him I was lonely and needed him, the way he left me out in favor of his new friends on New Year’s eve, the fact that I never heard from him again when I stopped making all the effort, and finally the bullshit excuse he gave me when I tried to tell him goodbye via text months later.

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“You’re right,” he said when it finally came his time to talk.  “My excuse was bullshit.  I didn’t realize it until I after I wrote it, but I knew it wasn’t the truth.  The reason I distanced myself from you is because you had become so fake.”

What… the… fuck?!  I was fake?  The moment I heard those words, I immediately wanted to scratch some eyes out - preferably his.  But when you’re in a blinding ape rage, any eyes will do. I am happy to say that no eyes were gouged and instead, I asked him to clarify.

“I don’t understand,” I said.  “How was I at all fake?”

“You had just become Instagram plastic,” he told me.  “You became one of those guys who kept posting shirtless or naked photos of yourself.”

“YOU’RE THE ONE WHO TOLD ME TO DO THAT!!!”  I tried to not lose my shit.  “You’re the one who helped me brand myself as a ‘naked writer.’”

“I know.  It just didn’t seem like the Scott I knew.  And part of it was me too.  I kept following all of these hot guys and I thought, what value does this bring to my life?  So, I unfollowed all of them… including you.”

“But Brad, you know me.  You know that I have no fucking clue what I am doing on social media.  And I came to you and told you I was lonely and needed your friendship.  How could you think I had become plastic?”

“Yeah, after you told me that, I invited you to come out with us to the bar for that calendar release party.  But you spent the whole night talking to other people.  It just felt like all Scott cared about was wanting to be seen and recognized.  It was the same thing on New Year’s Eve.  We almost got to the bar and suddenly I get this text from you that you’re leaving to go somewhere else.  It was like, Oh, Scott’s not getting enough attention again.

I couldn’t believe my ears - most likely because they were filling up with blood from hearing all of this (not literally though).  I first went back to the initial bar night before I got to New Year’s Eve.

“Brad, all those people at the calendar release party were my old bar patrons.  Because of them, I was able to pay my bills.  They also support the blog.  If I didn’t go say hello to them, I would have looked like a total dick.  And I WAS super bummed we didn’t get to really hang out that night.  That’s why, after that, I kept suggesting to hang out outside of gay bars.  I invited you to dinner.  I invited you to that concert.  I invited you to come with me to that drawing group.”

He couldn’t argue any of this which made me feel like I was on the right track.

I continued.  “And about New Year’s Eve...Do you know how hard it was for me that day?  I practically begged you to make plans with me and you wouldn’t.  Meanwhile, I go on Instagram and watch you and your friends wearing silly “Fuck2017” glasses.  That was shitty.”

Brad fell silent.  So, I took this as an opportunity to berate him some more.

“We left the bar on New Year’s Eve because YOU left me hanging.  Yeah, I didn’t know anyone there, but it wasn’t for attention.  Luke and I were just standing by ourselves with no one to talk to - waiting to see if you guys MIGHT show up after the dinner you didn’t invite us to.  I felt like a stupid teenager waiting for you and I didn’t want to do it anymore.”

By this time, Brad’s eyes were more focused on the ground than at me - perhaps a sign that hearing all of this was hard for him to digest and he could no longer look me in the face.

“Besides,” I told him.  “The other bar was a bust too.  I ended up going home and fucking crying like an idiot.”

His head popped back up.  “You cried.”

I nodded.

“Scottie, I didn’t know that you were hurting that badly.  If I had known you had cried, I would have left my friends and would have come been with you guys.”

Hearing him say had helped to cool off the flames that had fired up inside me.  This was the friend I had known and loved.  I stopped coming down on him like a hammer and allowed myself to talk from a more vulnerable place - a side of me that felt more weak, than angry.

“Brad, I told you I had been lonely and you responded by pulling away from me.  And for what?  All because you made this assumption that I had become fake?  If you had even bothered to hang out with me, you would have known I was the same Scott.”

At one point, I decided to tell Brad how, after he stopped talking to me completely, I legitimately thought about spitting in his face if I had seen him out.  To be THAT transparent with someone, to tell them something that makes you look like a fucking psycho, was intense.

He laughed, but not out of finding it humorous.  It seemed more like shock.  Most likely due to the fact that, in all of our deep conversations together, he never heard me say something so intense about anyone.  Brad now knew the gravity of his actions.

Suddenly, Brad offered me what so many people in this situation don’t get: an apology.

“Jesus, Scott,” he said.  “I really fucked up.  I feel terrible.  I am so sorry.”

The whole conversation, of course, did not play out this quickly.  If I tried to write a more detailed and accurate version of the two hours we spent talking, it would most likely be a small screenplay that would get thrown in the trash.  What I have written here is the highlights.  And as these highlights came to wrap his apology, there was still one more thing I had to address.

Just a month before this lunch, I had been traveling in California.  In LA, I stayed with this guy, Chris, who I had met at Folsom the previous year.  Chris was kind and genuine and somehow we got into a conversation about a friend of his who similarly slipped away from him.  He said, “I just had to come to terms with the fact that the friendship just didn’t mean as much to him as it did to me.”

This had been a really powerful thing for me to hear and ever since, I wondered if the same thing was true for us.  Had it all just been a matter of the friendship meaning more to me than it did for Brad?  I wanted to say this to Brad and see how he responded.

“In the end,” I told him.  “I think the friendship just meant more to me than it did to you.”

Brad nodded.  “I think that’s true about a lot of the relationships in my life.”

We talked about this for a bit and I began to see a side of my friend that I hadn’t seen before - probably because I chose to ignore it.  Brad didn’t view friendship the same way I did.  Yet, here he was, apologizing for what he had done and asking for a second chance.  I felt more confused than ever.

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By the time he apologized for every stone I refused to leave unturned, it no longer made sense to keep talking about it.  There was no point in beating any dead horses.  We switched to small chit-chat as we waited to pay for the check.  I was slightly annoyed when he didn’t offer to pay for the whole thing.

When we got up from the table and made our way to the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, Brad said, “How about we get lunch again next week?”

“No,” I said at the drop of a hat.  This surprised me just as much as it did him.
“Why not?” he asked.

“I’m sorry, Brad.  If we just immediately put this behind us and go back to the way things were, then I don’t think we will learn anything from all of this.”

This was true too.  Every time I find myself at a disjuncture in life, I try to own my part in it as much as possible so that I could learn a lesson.  Now, I wanted him to do the same.  Though, I will fully admit, it felt pretty damn good to be the one turning him down this time.

“Let’s just take some time to heal and grow.  When either of us gets to a better place and figured out what we needed to learn, we can reach out then.”

And with that, we gave each other a big farewell hug.

           Over the next few months, I had to face the next classic caveman question: where do I go from here?  Since writing Part I and Part II of this story, I have been flooded with heartfelt messages from people who have gone through the same thing.  It makes me sad to know that this is normal and it makes me happy to know that I am not alone.

           I imagine that the “where do I go from here” question is something we all face when a friend lets us down.  And this question is so deeply personal for our own unique situations.  With Brad wanting reconciliation and to continue our friendship, my question didn’t just involve a “me,” it involved a “we.”

           I didn’t know what in the hell to do.  Did I still want this friendship or not?  And if I didn’t, did that just mean I was holding on to my anger?  Would I be failing to find the grace in order to forgive and forget?  If I didn’t take his olive branch, would I never actually let this whole thing be water under the bridge?

           By the time five months rolled by, neither Brad or I had contacted each other.  And these thoughts continued to weigh on my mind as I still missed him.  It wasn’t until this last fall, when I went to visit my friend, Sinead, in Philadelphia, that I began to think differently about Brad.

Sinead and I have known each other since college and she is truly the only person I could refer to as a “best friend.”  She has always seemed to do well with friends and rarely had quarrels.  During the trip, I asked her how she did this.

“I just meet people where they’re at,” she said.

Sinead then told me a recent story where she felt frustrated with a friend who regularly wasn’t following through with their plans.  By her motto, she realized this woman didn’t offer friendship in the same way that Sinead did.  So, instead of letting it be a source of stress and conflict, she met the friend where the friend was at by not investing as much energy into her.

In Amy Poehler’s book (which has practically become my bible), she does an essay on the awesomeness of getting older.  She talks a bit about friendships and says, “Now that you are starting to have a sense of who you are, you know better what kind of friend you want and need.”

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As Chris in L.A. said, the friendship simply didn’t mean as much to Brad as it did to me.  And although he wanted friendship again, this wasn’t the kind of friendship I wanted or needed.  The time had come for me to meet Brad where he was at.  Like all of us in the situation, my energy could best be spent elsewhere.  I officially made the decision.  I wanted to let Brad go.

But in order to find peace by letting him go, I would have to start by honoring what our friendship once was.  If I let go with all this hurt in my heart, then I wouldn’t truly be letting him go.  I would simply be doing what he did to me: pushing him away via some distorted lens of what he did wrong rather than what he did right. 

The fact of the matter is, Brad was a great friend.  He helped me brand the blog and wrestle with social media (even if I still fucked it up).  When I bartended, he frequently visited me on my shifts.  Whenever I did a burlesque show, he always came even if he had seen the act before.  On a couple occasions, he even helped me record the acts.  And Brad always provided me a safe space to tell some of my deeper secrets.

There is a saying that goes something like “Friends are in our lives for a reason, a season, or a lifetime.”  Brad had been in my life for so many reasons - all of which I am so grateful for.  But things changed for him.  Thus, our season had come to an end.  He wasn’t meant to be along my side for a lifetime.

One day, not long after my visit with Sinead, I took my laptop to the park and worked on my book at a picnic table.  After a while, I looked up and saw Brad with a couple of guys.  They were laughing together while they walked their dogs.  Judging by the distance, they would have had to pass fairly close behind me.  Brad didn’t stop to say hello.

Perhaps he felt too awkward to do so.  Or perhaps he didn’t even notice me.  It didn’t matter.  While seeing this made me feel a bit lonely, it reminded me of one simple fact: feeling lonely when you’re with someone is far lonelier than when you are actually alone.

At that moment, my heart gave a tiny smile as I thought, Goodbye my friend.  Brad was a wonderful person.  I loved him very much.  And I hoped he would be well.  The water had finally gone under the bridge.  It just flowed in a different direction than I thought it needed to.

 

Edited by George Paraskeva

Copyright © 2019 The Bare InkSlinger, All rights reserved.