Touchy Feely 

The Cuddle Party phenomenon snuggles its way into the East Bay.

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Perhaps, then, an intense session of strictly regulated snuddling, even if inferior in quality, would at least give the cuddle-hungry more than their typical daily dose. Not that we newcomers would know, since an hour had already passed with no actual cuddling going down.

At this point, participants were offered the chance to leave with a refund. The woman who had deemed herself a cuddle slut wasn't feeling well, so she accepted the offer. The lifeguards asked those remaining to stand, and to meet and hug three new people. Participants were then invited to get on all fours, moo like cows, and fall over onto each other. Then the facilitators put on some soft choral music, and, finally, the cuddle was on.

In the "deep end," bathed in sunlight, three people spooned; one giggled loudly. I sat with Kira and Violet Burleson, a co-lifeguard, in the shallow end. Zoidberg joined us soon after. Half a dozen people hovered over snacks and drinks in the small kitchen, and filtered out over the next ten or fifteen minutes. By then, the center of the room was a locus of canoodling.

Violet explained that she'd gotten involved via Samzy, who first experienced organized group cuddling at Burning Man's Snuggletown camp. He found Suz through Snuggletown's parent Web site, LoveTribe.org -- which does its own volunteer-based "snuggle parties" in Portland. Suz was looking for Bay Area folks to help her bring Cuddle Party to the West. About a dozen people showed up to the first official planning meeting in Emeryville early this year, Samzy said later: "I got home and I e-mailed Suz, and I said, 'I absolutely adore you. Any energy resources that I can give to you for this, you've got. Just tell me what you want and what you need.'"


The Cuddle Gene

Suz Strasburger, 52, was born and raised in Baltimore. She recalls, sometime during her teens or her twenties, having asked her parents, "Is there a cuddle gene?" She'd noticed that her family was willing to have her snuggle in when she was upset or when they were watching a movie, and other families weren't like that, it seemed to her. It was sort of a joke, she says, but "nobody shamed me for being a cuddler, which was a great beginning."

Suz moved to the Bay Area in 1976 to obtain a master's degree in dance from Mills College. From there, she went on to teach dance and become a physical therapist, but soon moved into the field of interpersonal communications. By the late 1980s Suz found herself working as a corporate facilitator and diversity coach. This was back in the days when co-workers could exchange neck rubs or hold wrists as part of communication and trust exercises, before sexual-harassment litigation made physical affection and expression in the workplace a risky proposition. To break the ice at cuddle parties, she frequently jokes that in her day job she teaches "the kind of things that we'll be practicing here, but in corporate America, there's not a lot of cuddling."

Last year, Suz started questioning whether softening the edges of corporate office space was enough for her. Friends who knew her as the woman who was always giving someone a neck massage at a dull cocktail party reminded her of her love of body-mind wellness work. "We joked one day about how maybe I could be a cuddle coach," she laughs, "working with people who weren't comfortable with cuddling." Then somebody sent her a link to CuddleParty.com in November of last year, and she wrote to Mihalko and Baczynski, saying, "I kind of do this anyway, just not as a facilitator of a large group." They responded that they were about to start training people, and this past January, she became one of the first.

To date, Mihalko and Baczynski have trained forty people as cuddle-party facilitators. They've come from Orange County; Seattle; Toronto; Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama; New Jersey; even Australia. But only eight others, including lifeguards Violet and Samzy, are in the process of being certified as hosts. Some come to Mihalko's training -- which costs $700 plus application fee -- just to experience it, not to be cuddle kings or queens. Many don't even know what they're getting into, having never attended a cuddle party themselves. And some, Suz says, don't realize just how much work it is.

"I say this with tongue in cheek, but cuddling is serious business," she notes. "It takes some responsibility and responsiveness, and personally I think it takes community, which is why I think Reid and Marcia are so brilliant at creating the facilitators' boards [online discussion groups] and why the Bay Area is going to be, and already is, such a strong cuddle party community, because there are people who are really willing to chip in and support the endeavor. Because I would have burnt out by now if I hadn't had Samzy and Violet and other lifeguards rooting me on, because it really is the equivalent of only a couple of dollars an hour, if that much, with all the expenses and stuff. I'm just barely making a couple of dollars an hour."


Snakes in the Puppy Pile

Michelle arrived on the kiddie side of the pool after about a half-hour of cuddling. She'd bravely taken a newbie-in-the-deep-end position (lying down, in fact), and now she instigated a massage train with Amelia and Daniel, a young are-they-or-aren't-they-a-couple who'd been sitting side by side since the start. Since it's hard to witness this much affection and not be tempted to at least get in on a little of the action, I offered my services as the engine. Daniel had good hands, so I allowed myself to participate for about ten minutes. At some point Zoidberg returned to the shallow end, and I invited him to sit in front of me. But just then, Suz came by and began to facilitate the train, calling it a "toboggan" and suggesting we switch directions. Sadly, Zoidberg had no clue how to rub shoulders, which, as any pro-am masseur connoisseur will tell you, made him worse than handless. I politely thanked him, as recommended in such situations by our overseers, and crawled across the room to talk to David and his lady friend Nora, who wore a smaller version of David's marine-tooth necklace and spoke with a European accent.

Fortysomething with a hangdog look, David kept his arm around his partner as we talked -- he says Nora, who looks about ten years his junior, is giving him a new way of looking at things. He frequently touched her as he talked about how much she'd changed his life. It turns out he's a professional bodyguard, and in return is trying to teach Nora to watch out for people's motives more. This was her second cuddle party, and he came along to make sure her boundaries weren't being compromised. He mentioned how Dane had, only moments before, come up to them on all fours and used a roundabout way of asking to touch Nora's hand. David made a snake movement with his own hand, and said his first impulse was to cut off the snake's head.

Later on, Suz refers to this as being this particular party's "biggest hiccup." But no party rules were broken, she insists. "It was just that this guy didn't like this other guy's style."

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