I’m a decadent man writing in a decadent place. My own bodily decline is reflected in the original meaning of the word from the early 15th century: to deteriorate from a more vital state. That’s what happens after 60 years of living. But 30-somethings shouldn’t feel smug because memory peaks at 22 years, strength at 25, and endurance at 28, so unless you’re an adolescent, it’s all downhill. I’ve used bifocals for years, and sometimes I’m dubious of my hearing. These changes reflect impairment of the two noble senses according to philosophers, given that aesthetic appreciation is classically manifest in the visual and auditory arts with the sorts of experiences one has at galleries and symphonies. Contrary to conventional wisdom, as a person ages, seeing and hearing hang in there. This is probably a good thing given the number of graying donors who support art museums and concert halls. However, their wine and cheese receptions may be of diminishing enjoyment given that taste and smell fall off more quickly. But the sense that deteriorates most precipitously is touch. Maybe Pink Floyd (my favorite rock band in the 70s) saw what was coming with their song “Comfortably Numb” considering that the founding members are now both 77 years old.
The other meaning of decadence pertains to the place where I’m writing: Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas. Typically, the National Parks are places of visual grandeur, as exemplified by postcard racks at the visitor centers. How can one fail to be awed by a view of the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone’s Old Faithful, or the massive summit of Denali? The Parks also provide the auditory enchantment of bird songs, thundering waterfalls, and bugling elk—sounds that allow an earful escape from the cacophony of cities. And then there’s Hot Springs National Park, a testament to decadent, tactile experience.
Being morally suspect, pleasures of the flesh are embarrassing to the puritanical legacy of America and the conservative morays of the South (if a park devoted to preserving sensuality was in California, nobody would be surprised). Of course, visitors are told that the sumptuous waters were therapeutic and that health, rather than hedonism, was the draw, despite Bathhouse Row having been described as a spa resort for the leisure class. While safeguarding the bodily bliss of the early 20th century, this Park unapologetically celebrates the sensuous—maybe even the sensual, should one find a tinge of carnal delight in the warm wetness. In addition, there are some enticing trails in the hills above the city where hikers can immerse themselves in nature, if not indulge in naturism.
The architecture of Bathhouse Row—a series of opulent buildings, only two of which retain their original function—takes one back to the heyday of Hot Springs, Arkansas. The Roaring ‘20s saw the rise of dance clubs and speakeasies along with a decline of sexual inhibitions and social norms. Then came the Great Depression followed by a series of depressing wars. When greed returned with a flourish in the 1970s and 80s, self-indulgence was directed elsewhere (cocaine rather than moonshine, call girls rather than flappers)—and the bathhouses began to close.
Today, Hot Springs seduces visitors into both feeling in the moment and musing about history, whether contemplating the rubbery colonies of 4 billion year-old cyanobacteria colonizing the steaming cascades or the scalding 4,400 year-old water heating the bathhouse pools. So it was that during my time there, I defiantly committed to feeling this place and reconnecting with the past, despite the decline in tactile sensitivity and memory that come with age. In this way, I came to sense the truth of Søren Kierkegaard’s admonition that life must be lived forward, but understood backwards (notwithstanding that Kierkegaard would be among the least likely philosophers to indulge in the sensuality of a luxurious spa).
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I took the plunge—actually two cycles of four sequential, 12-minute plunges into pools maintained at 102, 104, 98, and 95℉. The attendant at the Quapaw Bathhouse said the first soak would open my pores, the next would cause me to release impurities, the penultimate would begin to cool my body, and the final would return me to normal. My favorite was the 98℉ pool which provided soothing warmth synergized by the circulating jets. At higher temperatures, the jets were like thermal nagging mitigated only by the ice water-soaked towel on my neck. The lower temperature pool was thermal white bread. As a scientist-turned-philosopher, I’m dubious of whether we “sweat out toxins.” I’m likewise skeptical of reports that an hour of soaking burns as many calories as 30-minutes of walking. But perhaps bodily pleasure should trump mental analysis, at least sometimes. Maybe I should doubt the value of the Protestant work ethic as much as the virtue of a hot bath. At least when I was a kid, I didn’t worry much about working beyond hit-and-miss summer jobs. When the air temperature hit 98℉ in New Mexico, I just shed my hair (crew cut), shirt (no sunscreen), and shoes (orthopedic).
During the school year, I had to wear corrective shoes for reasons that a well-meaning pediatrician deemed necessary. However, the doctor was also of the opinion that being barefoot was somehow orthopedically beneficial. To this day, I’m suspicious of his medical advice, but I relished the chance to build callouses on my feet until they were as tough as leather. The occasional “goat head” (our term for the ruthless, barbed seed of puncturevine) made it past my calloused defenses, but the real challenge was excessive heat. The tackier the asphalt, the faster the dash, and the final leap across the blistering sidewalk onto the cool, green lawn felt as good as prepubescent physiology allowed. Until one summer, when I began to develop an interest in a neighborhood girl. My mother, surely as well-intentioned as the pediatrician, warned me about the wiles of women. She evidently figured that I’d learn my own painful lessons about botanical stickers and hot tar, but the pleasures of the fairer sex required parental remonstration. The grounds for motherly concern involved something about “getting too close” and the hazards of intimacy (in a family where touching was not much practiced).
To experience intimacy with the land, I’ve found that few approaches foster greater attentiveness than removing one’s shoes—even as an adult. While Robert Frost’s woods were lovely, dark, and deep, he was undoubtedly well shod to avoid frostbite on the “darkest evening of the year.” My summer experience on the West Mountain Trail above Hot Springs made evident that the forest can be deceptive, harsh and uncaring. Mother Nature didn’t provide a soft lap or a tender bosom. On the hillside above the trail, the spongy leaves disguised sharp rocks; the cushiony grasses camouflaged thorny plants; and the bed of pine needles concealed pine cone shards. In my experience with podiatric naturism, I’ve found that one should avoid a heedless rush, as haste often results in pain. There is much to recommend a languid, even graceful, movement in nature—as in life. First, thoughtfully choose a patch, slowly swing your foot, and make tentative, gentle contact. Then begin to commit, gingerly pressing your vulnerable self into the exposed surface. Finally, place your full weight onto your sole, for this is the moment of greatest risk and reward, trusting that you have chosen well and your commitment was true to that which lies beneath. Sometimes, you will be hurt. If so, wince. If not, smile. In either case, learn and move forward.
Pausing along the trail to pluck a thorn from between my toes, I thought about what I’d learned when it comes to baring my soul—and other, private parts. I’ve discovered that I’m abnormal (so much for the promise of returning me to ‘normal’ in the 95℉ pool), having made love to exactly one woman in my six decades. Nearly 90% of men have had more than one lover by this age, with my fellow male boomers averaging 13 partners. We should be wary of this count, considering that more than 40% of men admit to lying about their sexual history (primarily in the direction of exaggeration). However, only a quarter of married men at my age have cheated on their wives. In that regard, at least, I’m in the majority. On the other hand, the average marriage lasts 8 years, while I’m into my 39th. We were married after graduating from college in 1982, although we first dated in the fall of 1977. That was a time of intense feelings, when tactility tended to trump rationality, when love felt like the 102℉ pool—or maybe even the sweatiness of 104℉. That was high school.
As I sat on a park bench near the Hot Water Cascade, a gaggle of high school boys on their senior trip (as they informed me upon politely asking that I take their group photo) gathered alongside the raised pools of steaming water. Adolescent males are not known for being excessively endowed with good judgment, and these guys decided to begin their aqueous encounter by timing how long each could keep a hand fully immersed. According to the National Park Service, water flows out of the hot springs at an average of 143℉, while according to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, serious burns can happen in 6 seconds at 140℉. To their cautionary credit, the Park Service website warns about lightning strikes, falling trees, breaking bones, feeding wildlife, acquiring ticks and chiggers, and encountering centipedes, spiders, black bears and five species of venomous snakes. But there’s nothing in the safety section about parboiling. Maybe the government figures that people are smart enough to take their hands out of scalding water—a reasonable assumption except, perhaps, for adolescent males (their record was 5.1 seconds). As for high temperatures, the Park’s website included a warning about heat exhaustion which makes sense in the sultry South.
My new wife and I attended graduate school at Louisiana State University, where summer is a sauna, particularly if a young couple is saving money by running the window air conditioner only when planning a romantic romp. Otherwise, we tried not to drape an arm over a sweaty, sleeping spouse. Our platonically tactile life was dominated by the itchiness of heat rashes, impetigo bouts, and flea bites thanks to a lovable indoor-outdoor cat. Although mugginess was pervasive, humans can’t directly sense humidity (some insects can, as I learned in my doctoral studies of entomology). Rather, we infer high humidity because of the sweat soaking our shirts. But a tickling drop of sweat can feel exactly like a cockroach scampering across your leg in the middle of the night, yielding a frantic swatting that wakes your lover who’s not interested in canoodling when the bedroom temperature and humidity are both in the 80s. After one such night, we snuck into the pool at a nearby apartment complex in anticipation of a soothing dip, only to discover that the water was tepid and upon exiting, the evaporative cooling that raised goosebumps back in New Mexico raised only futile hopes in Louisiana. Summer in the South just doesn’t feel good unless you’re a tropical fungus, kudzu vine, or fire ant.
After graduation, I took a faculty position in entomology at the University of Wyoming where rangeland grasshoppers became the subjects of my research, but certain insect encounters in Louisiana still smolder. And so, when I returned to Dixie and came across a distinctively loamy mound, I knew that the softness belied a fierce interior: the red imported fire ant, the insectan heat of Hot Springs. Committed to feeling this place—for better or worse—I nudged the airy soil with my foot and incited a six-legged riot. Well experienced in their shock-and-awe strategy, I stepped back, bent down, and let just one militant crawl onto my index finger. At an eighth of an inch and 0.00004 ounces, she was undetectable on my hairless knuckle—until she stung. First came the sudden, intense burning sensation utterly disproportionate to her size, which spread into a diffuse ache down my finger before giving way to itchiness and skin tightness as the flesh swelled and a pustule formed after twenty minutes and persisted for a week. All this from less than a millionth of a teaspoon of venom that burned in my memory after 35 years. Sometimes appearances are deceiving.
My wife is, by any physical measure, a small person, standing a smidge over five feet and weighing a bit over a hundred pounds. But the woman is deceptively tough, being recognized throughout Laramie for her long runs around the town. Her knees are starting to cause trouble these days, so she’s doing more power walks, along with a half hour in the basement on the rowing machine. On our mountain hikes (anything under eight miles being classified as a mere walk), she leads because I know that her pace will provide serious exercise. I lead on our strolls through nature, although I feel that she’d approve of my tempo on the trails above Hot Springs. But I also feel that an ibuprofen before a long hike is sensible as old injuries reminisce about my body’s younger days via tender tendons, crunching cartilage, nagging nerves, and janky joints. I also feel that the pace of a good hike converges with that of a good life—pushing hard enough to feel alive, to work up a sweat, to breathe deeply, and to relish the journey whether physical, emotional or spiritual. So, while my body might be decadent, my fidelity has never wavered. Until maybe this week…
Okay, I didn’t cheat on my wife, but there was a kind of prudish angst when I indulged in my first-ever professional massage. The history of Bathhouse Row leans heavily on the respectable practices of hydrotherapy, steam cabinets, cooling rooms, and Zander machines. Insisting on the adequacy of baths (including those juiced with reportedly non-lethal electricity), a puritanical federal government only reluctantly allowed manual massage. As the artist-in-residence, I was committed to understanding the indoor settings, as well as the outdoor environments, of Hot Springs National Park—and that meant a professional rub down. My next major decision came when the receptionist handed me a locker key, slippers and robe, while directing me to a changing room and saying, “Remove as much clothing as makes you comfortable.” Not wanting to convey a straitlaced sense of bodily discomfort, I opted for naked. I was sure that my sexagenarian (a most unfortunate term) masseuse had kneaded thousands of decadent bodies just as my female physician has surely poked and prodded plenty of flabby male flesh. To my neophyte surprise, the massage wasn’t particularly pleasing in a shallow, skin-level sense. Her touch was more about depth.
In January of 2016, I held my daughter’s hand in the knave of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston, Illinois. It was a brutally cold day with snow flurries, although the holiday trappings of a winter wedding were very romantic. She was simply beautiful. And her hand was like ice. I thought back to a photo showing a little girl wearing fuzzy mittens (my wife is also an avid knitter) caked with snow. Today, my daughter suffers from Raynauld’s Syndrome, the medical term for the rapid onset of a numbing paleness in one’s fingers and toes when they touch something cold. Maybe that’s the tactile cost of growing up on the high plains of Wyoming. For myself, having had frostbite on my right hand as a kid, I am prone to deadened fingertips which doesn’t keep me from cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. While we waited at the back of the church for the organist to play our cue, I squeezed her hand four times, wondering if she’d remember the secret code that she’d taught me 20 years earlier: four squeezes from one of us (= do you love me?), three squeezes from the other (= yes I do), then two squeezes (= how much?), and finally one long squeeze to convey the depth of love. She remembered, of course—evoking a tearful moment of heart-swelling, heart-breaking sublimity.
The sublime is a complicated and powerful aesthetic state balanced on the knife-edge between positivity and negativity, between attraction and repulsion. One might feel overwhelmed by both the loss of childhood innocence and the hope for a young woman’s future, or the pleasurable pain on the massage table as one waffles between wanting less and more pressure, as well as the more conventional moments of unspeakable beauty and indescribable terror during a storm, the push-and-pull at a cliff’s edge, or the soulful wonder and existential diminution of looking into the Milky Way. But where in the body does one feel the sublime? In physiological terms, somatic sensations arises from skin and muscle, so holding hands and massaging shoulders evoke this kind of feeling. However, sublimity seems to come from an internal organ in what the physiologists call visceral feeling. A deep sigh in response to the sublime originates in my diaphragm and rises into my chest—a strange place for aesthetic feeling to be located. Perhaps intense emotions are like referred pain. A ruptured spleen causes pain in the shoulder blade and a heart attack is associated with pain in the jaw and shoulders. Maybe vision and hearing aren’t the sensory origins of genuine aesthetic appreciation. Without tactility, the mind would merely know the terrible beauty at the rim of the Grand Canyon and the roar at the base of the Yellowstone River Falls, but the body would not feel the sublimity.
A long, hard hike in the mountains above Hot Springs generated earned sweat (unlike that produced in Bathhouse Row’s famed steam cave), with the next morning’s soreness being a sublime blend of pleasure and pain. The pleasure arises from the satisfaction of physical achievement, the pain from microscopic damage to muscle fibers (not lactic acid as once thought). Relief is supposed to come from stretching (fine), massage (yes!), and eating watermelon, pineapple, leafy greens, turmeric, almonds, potatoes, eggs, and salmon (imagine a “sore muscle smoothie” with all of these dumped into a blender). My achiest day-after came following one of America’s ten hardest day-hikes with my wife and son a few years ago. He is even tougher than his mother, having done five of the hardest, theoretically 1-day hikes for a total of 133 miles and 55,000 feet of elevation change. Together, we did the Paintbrush Canyon-Cascade Canyon Loop at Grand Teton National Park, a trek that cost me a toenail. As a child, my son favored fleecy clothes, but as a man he’s tough-as-nails. With age, I’ve grown more soft and honest about my body. After our hike, I could’ve pretended to be pain-free, but my wife would’ve noticed the stiff gait and muffled groans.
As a self-appointed anthropologist of tactility at Hot Springs National Park, I observed that guys do their best to “man up” when it comes to acute discomfort. This scientific non-breakthrough came during my surreptitious observations of human behavior at the Hot Water Cascade, where visitors are tempted to feel the raw, aqueous heat. I tallied 51 people approaching the raised pools, with 78% of them experiencing the temperature first-hand, so to speak (Note: my favorite response by a teenager was, “That water is literally hot!”). Why the other 22% bothered to approach and stand next to the water without venturing even a brief touch was perplexing, but most were middle-aged men. One 20-something guy offered his buddy $100 on the spot if he would skinny dip, which seemed like a terrible idea in so many ways. When it came to couples, the man’s watery contact was typically followed by silent stoicism, unconvincingly dismissing the capacity of really hot water to inflict pain. A man pretending not to be hurt seems like donning a sensual-emotional toupee, covering up vulnerability and fooling nobody.
Women often touched the scalding water briefly but repeatedly with expressions of wonder and delight, exhibiting a blend of toughness and vulnerability not unlike the nearby magnolia trees. Everyone in the southeastern United States knows what magnolias look like, but I wonder how many have bothered to feel these trees. The rock-solid trunk has either scabby bark or botanical stubble—more beast than beauty. After I plucked a leaf and a flower petal and brought them back to my lodgings, the leaf defiantly retained its original, stiff waxiness reminiscent of an artificial plant in a hotel lobby. The snow-white petal, however, browned to a suppleness that felt like a cross between well-worn linen and paper-thin canvas. Gradually, it took on the feel of mouseskin leather, if such a thing existed. There’s an allure to tender toughness, to the southern ideal of a Steel Magnolia exemplified by women like Gal Gadot. She’s the Miss Universe contestant who was a combat trainer for the Israel Defense Forces and was cast as Wonder Woman. And then there’s my wife, who was a social worker providing child protective services in the Baton Rouge housing projects and conducting case management for special education in the Laramie public schools. She is tough and tender with people, including me as I’ve stumbled through life’s changes.
Change was the name of the thermal game in the golden years of Hot Springs, when bathhouse staff shepherded clients from steaming vapor cabinets to the relief of cooling rooms. Likewise, one of the pleasantries known to modern-day hikers is the fever-and-chills experience, such as I enjoyed during a jaunt along the Peak-Hot Springs Mountain-Gulpha Gorge-Goat Rock-Oertel Trail system. Through an opening in the forest canopy, the sun created a sultry spa that generated a cleansing sweat. Nature’s version of a steam cabinet was mercifully followed by a walk beneath the overhanging oaks where a soft breeze pressed the damp shirt against my back and provided thermal respite, if not goosebumping relief (in the early afternoon, the humidity fell markedly, allowing the possibility of evaporative cooling). Feeling almost a chill, I delighted in a stretch of dappled sun, where the air was thermally speckled. Why it feels so good to change temperatures is a mystery to me, but perhaps it is a tactile allegory of our desire to feel—and live—anew. Humans are perennially restless beings, seeking the heat of emotion and the coldness of rationality.
I became increasingly restive after 15 years as an insect ecologist at the University of Wyoming. Having developed a new method for the control of rangeland grasshopper outbreaks that dramatically reduced the use of insecticide, I should’ve felt satisfied that my scientific work had made the world a little bit better. But I was emotionally, dare I say spiritually, unsettled. I sensed that while science was a necessary part of my life, it was no longer sufficient. I pondered the ministry (a smarter head prevailed during this phase, namely my wife). Then an opportunity arose for a metamorphosis within the university. When an insect molts, it sheds its rigid cuticle, exposing a new softness to the world. This fresh covering hardens in due course, but there’s a period when I imagine that it must experience soft, cooling breezes like never before. I grew from being a faculty member in entomology to being a professor of natural sciences and humanities with a joint appointment between the departments of philosophy and creative writing. This change provided a new sense of possibilities, a transfer of my energy from intellectually icy reductionism to emotionally steamy expansionism.
At the Fordyce Bathhouse’s historical exhibits, I reached over the barrier (don’t tattle!) in the Ladies’ Cooling Room and felt the surface of a porcelain enameled chaise lounge—an Anglicization of the French chaise longue or ‘long chair’ that happened with the rapid transfer of stylistic energy to America in the late 1700s. Physics told me that the furniture had to be the same temperature as both the air and the wooden door frame against which I braced myself during the surreptitious tactile experiment. However, physiology told me that the smooth, hard surface was surprisingly chilled, which was surely the same sensation that the women loosely wrapped in sheets enjoyed a century ago. That’s because bodies aren’t thermometers; we don’t feel temperature. Rather, we perceive the transfer of energy to or from our skin. And porcelain enamel has a thermal conductivity two thousand-times greater than air and twenty-times greater than wood, effectively drawing heat from our bodies. If heat transfer is the biophysics of our perceiving thermal conditions, I wonder if the metaphysics of fear is the transfer of danger, and joy is the transfer of vitality.
Perhaps the perception of love is the transfer of oneself — at least that is how it feels when I hold my granddaughter. This experience was as emotionally unexpected as the sensory surprise of porcelain enamel. From my aging friends, I had heard endless paeans to grandparentage and endured tedious cell-phone galleries of darling grandchildren. But these little bundles of joy weren’t the products of the greying patriarchs; they couldn’t take credit for their children’s labor. Isn’t infantile infatuation insulated by generational time? Evidently not. Now I regale my friends with accounts and photos, while insincerely apologizing for—and still rather amazed by—my grandfatherly mushiness. The feel of tiny fingers grasping my hulking hand (or my beard or my chest hair, which are less tactilely enjoyable but no less emotionally endearing) is like having a little being flow into myself. I am warmed by seeing my daughter nurse her baby, literally transferring a mother’s body into her child. Or, for a biologist, the suckling of a lovable little parasite.
Damn that reasonable ranger and my parasite paranoia. I was sitting in the shade trying to rest during a break on a guided hike but feeling every tickling sensation on my leg hairs, which made me brush at imaginary invaders and then scratch to relieve the residual sensation. Did the ranger have to begin the afternoon by reminding everyone about ticks? As an entomologist, one might suppose that I’m inured to insects and their kin (ticks being arachnids and more closely related to spiders than insects). But I know too much about tick-borne diseases to dismiss these villainous vectors. The little bastards had infested my mind, and I was anxiously swiping at harmless flies and clueless ants. In the phenomenon called “illusory parasitosis,” an individual experiences a genuine stimulus such as the itchiness of a stray hair, but the sensation is mistakenly attributed to a parasitic insect—or a damnable tick. Psychologists have found that just having experimental subjects think about multi-legged, blood-sucking, disease-carrying arthropods causes people to start scratching. Until I took a shower that evening, every tingle elicited an anxious response. And then in the steamy mirror, I experienced another, even more disturbing, illusion.
While rubbing a towel over the sandpapery razor stubble on my sagging, sinewy throat, I felt—and then saw—my father. He died in an automobile accident twelve years ago, but he sometimes appears in the mirror. Surely this experience is a kind of perceptual error, however momentarily vivid. The very real sensory stimuli are mistakenly ascribed to the visage of a man who is gone. Nevertheless, I feel him in the smoothness of my forehead chasing a receding hairline, and I see him in my droopy eyelids, thin arms and fine wrists. While ghosts are just so much silliness (my father was a no-nonsense physicist), there are lingering connections beyond what can be seen. I remember the feel of his hugs which didn’t happen much until years after I’d left home. When reuniting, my mom offered delicate, ladylike embraces, but my dad’s demonstrative physicality felt as if he was making up for years of manly reserve as was expected of fathers in the era of television’s Ward Cleaver, Rob Petrie, and Mike Brady. While he is forever in his 70s to me, I continue to age and with each passing year I am converging on the feel of his last prolonged squeeze as if he didn’t ever want to part from his son. And rationality be damned, sometimes I sense his presence even though I know that feelings can’t be trusted—whether emotional or sensory.
Back in the soaking pools as the Quapaw Bathhouse, the unreliability of sensations was empirically evident to a scientifically inclined guest with biophysical curiosity. The smallest change in temperature was in going from the 102℉ pool to the 104℉ water. The former was notably warm but the latter was strikingly hot—not searing by any means but feverishly uncomfortable after a few minutes. Humans can perceive much smaller changes, as little as 1/10th of a degree, but if I’d been asked which two pools were most different when encountered in the prescribed sequence without being told the actual temperatures (102, 104, 98, and 95℉), I’d have readily chosen the first transition when, in fact, the second transition was much greater. My point is that we are prone to thermal errors; even the direct and intimate sense of touch can be mistaken. But sometimes we shouldn’t worry about the untrustworthiness of feelings, we should simply relish them. I wouldn’t have thought that the 98℉ pool merely mimicked my internal body temperature, but it felt unmistakably good.
“Feeling” as a term for physical touch is deeply rooted in proto Indo-European language. Over the course of nearly a thousand years, tactile sensation linguistically and conceptually converged with emotional awareness. The connecting notion might have been that some powerful sensory experiences could not be linked to any specialized organ, such as the eye, ear, nose or tongue. Tactility was diffused across the skin and within the viscera, and humans surely felt fear, sadness, joy, and love before out language caught up. But modern psychobiology shows that the body-mind connection can produce mistaken feelings, as with the famous experiment in which men who crossed a fear-arousing suspension bridge and met a woman on the other side judged her to be more attractive than men who crossed a sturdy bridge; the former fellows misattributed their elevated pulse and respiration to the woman rather than the scary crossing. Maybe I’d had a jolt of caffeine when I first met the woman who became my wife, and since then we’ve crossed some wobbly bridges. But after 44 years, I’m not worrying about the dependability of tactile signals. Maybe I don’t feel the tingly, sweaty, hot-flushed thrill of youthful kisses and silk negligees, but I’ve never felt more in love.
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When I was young, my friends and I used to conduct the thought experiment in which we imagined having to choose one of our senses to lose. Would we prefer to be blind or deaf? We excluded the possibility of relinquishing smell or taste because everyone agreed that these would be a bummer to forego but vastly preferable to vision or hearing. For some reason, nobody ever came up with touch. Maybe we’d never heard of congenital analgesia in which a person cannot feel pain, but that’s only one of the tactile senses. Presumably, a truly touchless individual would also give up the ability to sense temperature, pressure, texture, vibration, hunger, breathlessness, and heartbreak. What if one could never again feel the grasp of a tiny hand, the muscular hug of a son, the tender touch of a daughter, or the warmth of a wife on a winter night (the arc of love is long but it bends toward flannel)? It would be like living in a Zoom room forever—seeing and hearing without feeling. Maybe COVID and Hot Springs National Park provide unexpected lessons about the value of sensuousness. Perhaps strange times and unusual places teach us that when we say, “Let’s stay in touch,” we are saying something profoundly important.
Jeffrey A. Lockwood has published more than 150 scientific papers (he has a PhD in entomology and worked for 15 years in insect ecology before metamorphosing into a Professor of Natural Sciences & Humanities, where he enjoys a joint appointment between the department of philosophy and the program in creative writing at the University of Wyoming). He has authored seven books of creative non-fiction, including: Grasshopper Dreaming: Reflections on Killing and Loving, Skinner House, 2002; Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier, Basic, 2004; Prairie Soul: Finding Grace in the Earth Beneath My Feet, Skinner House, 2004; The Infested Mind: Why Humans Fear, Loathe, and Love Insects, Oxford, 2013; Behind the Carbon Curtain: The Energy Industry, Political Censorship and Free Speech, University of New Mexico, 2017. These books were written to make science available to the general public through evocative storytelling.