Monday, January 27, 2014

Remember the Phantom Naked Guy!

This post is SFW, I swear.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been working on agent queries for The Resurrectionist’s Song. I have no news on that front, obviously, but a random conversation about something completely unrelated reminded me of a lesson I’d learned long ago, and that I’d probably do well to remember more regularly as I wade through agent listings and try not to be intimidated by inanimate web pages.

Why am I intimidated by inanimate web pages? Because they’re owned by people who might reject me. Who probably will reject me, in fact, according to the law of averages. And rejection is scary. But here’s why I’m doing it anyway.

I give you now the tale, and the lesson, of the Phantom Naked Guy.

During my misspent youth, I misspent a single semester at an extremely conservative Catholic college that happened to be located near a national forest. By “extremely conservative”, I mean that the Mass was still in Latin and somebody suggested that I be burned at the stake for not being Catholic. That traditional outlook had major effects on the female population there; most of the girls in the dorm where I lived seemed to be planning to marry a nice Catholic boy and settle down in the middle of nowhere to home-school their twelve kids. A significant number of them had a never before attended classes with people who weren’t related to them (apparently there are a few Catholic communes out there that funnel their girls directly into this college). They had had next to no contact with men or boys who weren’t their fathers, brothers, cousins, and so on.

And then the Phantom Naked Guy burst onto the scene like a nudist in a nunnery.

I never saw him personally, but I talked to a few people who did, and a typical encounter would go like this: two or more girls would be hiking one of the forest trails near the campus, either for exercise (the school had no gym, and most athletic activities were men-only) or for pleasure. Suddenly, around a bend in the trail would come a man about 30 or 40 years old, about five foot ten and Caucasian, wearing absolutely nothing. Not a stitch. Not even shoes. He wouldn’t scream or jump out at anybody, mind you. The most offensive thing I ever heard of him doing, aside from being naked in a national forest, was wave cheerily to the girls. While naked, of course. Search parties never found him after these encounters, earning him the nickname of Phantom Naked Guy.

Naturally, the entire female population of the school collectively lost their minds.

Casual hikes ended. Now expeditions into the forest had to be planned like the Normandy invasion. Young women, terrified that the Phantom Naked Guy would leap out of the bushes and assault them, went into the woods in large groups, or (more often) not at all. Male escorts were suddenly in high demand, which perked up a lot of lovelorn Catholic boys considerably, but since many of the male students were planning to become priests, the girls didn’t get as many takers as they would have liked. The college staunchly refused to lend out either of the campus’s two sheepdogs (long story) as protection. And so, as a last resort, a nervous coed stopped me on my way into the dorm one night and asked me if I’d be willing to go along as a bodyguard. With my knife, of course.

The short explanation for my knife is this: when I showed up on campus in August, I had brought with me a small folding hunting knife with a 3.5-inch blade, covered in black enamel. My dormmates discovered this fact when they sneaked into my dorm room in September (they were throwing glitter around because it was my birthday) and discovered the knife lying on my pillow. (I had been opening a birthday package, then realized I was late for class, so I dropped knife, package, and contents on the bed and ran for it.) Even though I only used the knife for opening stubborn envelopes and cutting up fruit, I soon had a reputation as the campus blade fiend. And so it came to pass that when girl gangs, obliging college boys, and sheepdogs had all failed, my knife and I were called to action. And I had an interesting insight.

The conversation went like this.

Girl: “Hey, would you like to go on a hike this weekend with me and [name redacted]?”
Me: “Uh … why?” (We weren’t friends. I’m not sure we even spoke outside of class.)
Girl: “Because you have a knife.”
Me: “What?”
Girl: “We’re scared of the Phantom Naked Guy.”
Me: “And you want me to … stab him?”
Girl: “If necessary.”
Me: “To protect you.”
Girl: “Yes.”
Me: [Pause for thought] “Why are you worried about a naked guy?”
Girl: “Well, he’s naked. There’s got to be a reason for that.”
Me: “Right. So why don’t you just throw a rock?”
Girl: “Huh?”
Me: “He’s naked. He’s all target area. Throw rocks and pinecones if you want him to go away.”
Girl: “That’s gross.”
Me: “Grosser than stabbing him?”

Needless to say, I did not get that bodyguard job.

But I learned a valuable lesson from the Phantom Naked Guy. Until that moment, I hadn’t really thought about what I’d do if I met him and needed to get him to leave. (As an old theatre geek, I was more comfortable with nudity than the average Catholic schoolgirl.) But to most girls who had heard of him, he was a figure of terror. The Phantom Naked Guy, rapist extraordinaire (at least in potentia.) Except only an idiot would go hiking in that forest alone—there were mountain lions out there—so he was always outnumbered. And the guy was stark naked. Not actually that threatening, or even odd, once you got past the fact that typical hikers weren’t naked. And as I pointed out, he was pretty vulnerable to rocks and pinecones. It was a coniferous forest in earthquake country. It was practically made of rocks and pinecones. The proper solution was probably to just wave back, but if you were really that scared of the Phantom Naked Guy and/or he was really that threatening, you could theoretically drive him off with a handful of gravel.

Now, I know that indecent exposure can sometimes be tied up with a number of other, more problematic behaviors. I’m not saying the Phantom Naked Guy, who apparently enjoyed walking naked past Catholic schoolgirls, wasn’t going to be real trouble someday. But he might have been just a lone nudist; California has a few of those. And at least at the time, the problem wasn’t sexual assault, or any attempts thereat. The problem was a naked guy in the pine woods freaking people out. And pinecones are naked-guy Kryptonite.

So where’s the lesson in all this?

Sometimes your problem is a naked guy in the pine woods. Sometimes the thing you think is absolutely terrifying is actually quite vulnerable to pinecones. As I’m typing up query letters, trying to find the perfect combination of words that will persuade some agent to rescue Teh Novel from the slush pile, I need to remember the Phantom Naked Guy. This task looks scary. I don’t like being rejected any more than anyone else does. But I’ve been on the other side of this equation, too, and I know that the fear of missing out on a great piece of writing is sometimes almost as great as the fear of rejection. I am venturing out into the woods, expecting to do battle with Bigfoot … and I need to remember that sometimes it’s just the Phantom Naked Guy.

So as you go about your business this week, take a good, hard look at the things that scare you. There are scary things out there, true. Those woods had far more mountain lions than nudists. But sometimes your problem isn’t much of a problem at all. Not if you’re willing to wave back.

Or, at worst, chuck a pinecone.

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