Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Guidelines

On the Fourth of July weekend, instead of hanging out in the city, slumped on the couch in front of our latest NetFlix, we decided to spend a couple of days in the country. A friend had told us about a place called Orr Hot Springs. It sounded perfect. By day we would swim in the freshwater swimming pool and catch up on back issues of The New Yorker. At night, we’d fall asleep in our little wood cabin listening to the crickets chirp. Our friend warned us that Orr was “clothing-optional” but I pointed out that at Burning Man we have seen people who have not only shed their clothes, but have daubed their genitals with gold paint and decked their nipples with clothes pins. Frankly, nothing can shock us at this point. In fact, I imagined that we might even make new friends, with whom we’d play board games, discuss our favorite Dylan albums, and prepare delicious healthful meals in the communal kitchen.

When we arrived, someone was strumming a guitar on the verandah of the main building. The reception desk was fashioned from a single glossy piece of redwood. An earnest, sandy-haired fellow called Leslie gave us the key to our cabin. At first he seemed a gentle soul who said “live” instead of “belong” (“the detergent lives under the sink”) and “share with” instead of “tell.” Yes, it all seemed idyllic at first. Then Leslie said, “I’d like to share our Guidelines with you.”

The Guidelines were set out in a leaflet, and we could have perused them on our own. But Leslie insisted on going through them with us, one by one. The Guidelines stressed the necessity of showering before entering the hot springs and cautioned guests never to address anyone wearing a “red silence bead” (available at the front desk). All guests had to keep their food in plastic bins, one for the pantry and one for the refrigerator, and all bins must be labeled with the owner’s name and the date. Guests were not to sit down to dinner without first washing their dishes. Most importantly, the Guidelines urged guests to report “inappropriate behavior” to the front desk immediately. Inappropriate behavior included “any action that creates an uneasy feeling, or that personally offends you, including persistent staring, [and] crowding of personal space.”
Feeling faintly stunned, we promised to abide by the Guidelines. I refrained from pointing out that since the Guidelines were compulsory, they were—strictly speaking—Rules.

The hot springs dampened our spirits further. They were small and tepid. Nearby, a stone crocodile spewed water into a murky swimming pool. On its concrete banks sprawled various people with abundant pubic hair. Some were deep in improving books such as Creative Visualization and The Scythe of Saturn. Others were busy doing plow pose or other elaborate exercises that showed they had no hang-ups about their bodies.

When we arrived on the scene, everyone seemed to turn and stare at us. I felt like the hero of an old Western, entering a saloon in a strange town. I knew why we were attracting attention. We were wearing bathing suits. (This was partly in deference to our friend Emily, who is from the East Coast and is not a fan of nudity.) Orr was supposed to be clothing-optional. But the hostile gazes we received made it clear that clothing was forbidden.

We didn’t make any new friends by the swimming pool. We didn’t make any friends in the kitchen either. The other guests had filled their neatly labeled food bins with quinoa and nutritional yeast. They looked supercilious when we unpacked our instant oatmeal and canned refried beans. “I’ve realized what’s weird about the kitchen,” Emily whispered to me as we struggled to locate the tequila we had brought with us. “Nobody is interacting with each other.” It was true. No one met anyone else’s eyes. But I felt as if they were secretly watching each other, waiting for someone to transgress the Guidelines. I told myself it was just paranoia from the pot I may or may not have smoked earlier in the day. Then a woman with free-flowing hair, an ample bosom, and Incan jewelry approached me as I was washing our dishes at the sink. I thought maybe she was going to offer me a homemade vegan cookie. Instead she said: “I like to rinse everything in water before I wash up—even if it just contained water.”

I was shocked. Why was she such a bitch? And why was no one looking at or speaking to us? Do nudists really hate the clothed that much? No, I realized, they were scarcely talking to each other either. The problem was Leslie’s Guidelines. They made you too scared to talk to anybody, in case they were sporting a silence bead you hadn’t noticed. They made you too scared to look at anybody, in case your behavior created an “uneasy feeling.” Most of what the Guidelines said was just common courtesy. Without them, everyone would have got along just fine. Instead, the Guidelines destroyed peace and love by making them compulsory. After dinner, I couldn’t help noticing that some departing guests had failed to scrub out their plastic bins and felt a strong urge to report them to the front desk.


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