We went to the beach last weekend and while I managed to remember our emergency first-aid kit, our portable DVD player with Bob the Builder DVD set on continuous play, and Nathan's inflatable boat, I completely forgot to pack my bathing suit. This proved to be a real dilemma. Several of the little mom and pop stores carried western style bathing suits, but not in western sizes. I know I am not a perfect eight by any means, but in the States I'm somewhere around average. In Vietnam, not so. The lady at the first shop gave me three or four of her biggest one-piece suits and I managed to wriggle into one that had XXXXL marked on the tag. I was feeling pretty satisfied with myself until I looked in the foggy mirror she had hanging on the garage wall. The suit was the right width, but not the right length. I was dismayed to discover that pulling the straps over my shoulders resulted in a very unattractive shortage on the other end. With no other solution in sight, I asked to look at the bikinis she had on display.
You all know me well enough to give the previous sentence it's due gasp without further explanation, but it has been a long time since we've seen each other. I should clarify that the last time I wore a bikini I was four years old and running through a sprinkler in my parents' backyard. Said bikini was a hand-me-down from my cousin.
As I huddled half-naked behind a piece of gauzy polyester fabric that separated the “dressing room” from the rest of the garage-turned-souvenir shop, I began to ponder this question: What is the fundamental difference between being a person of moral character and being a prude? And, practically speaking, do I feel completely embarrassed by this hot pink, strappy bikini because I am in the former category or the latter?
To further complicate matters, you may remember that I was reading The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins on our trip to the beach. Have you ever read a book and found yourself identifying much too closely with one of the unsympathetic characters? Well, Miss Clack and I hit it off from the start. She was earnest, upright, sensible, principled, committed, and a complete and utter prude. She lacked all ability to show compassion or to identify true goodness in others. Unfortunately, she got under my skin. For several days prior to my moment behind the gauze curtain, I had been scratching my head, trying to figure out the difference between goodness and prudery, and hoping that I didn't land in the Miss Clack camp. The bikini became my moment to shine—to prove once and for all that I wasn't a prude.
I handed over 130,000 dong (about eight dollars) and left with my pink bikini in a very small plastic bag. When I got back to the hotel room I immediately reeled Daniel into the situation. Poor guy. He was pleasantly surprised by the bikini within four walls, but was not so sure about its effect in the light of day. Thus ensued a very long conversation about character and wisdom and whether any action is morally neutral. I will spare you the details. In the end, Daniel said something about not gratifying even innocent impulses at the expense of others, and the mental lights finally flickered on for me. The way forward was written in neon at dusk.
The problem with Miss Clack was precisely the problem with the pink bikini. Miss Clack was so preoccupied with her own moral stature and her code of conduct that she couldn't respond genuinely and compassionately to the needs of others around her. Ditto for me and the bikini. I was so concerned with proving my own daring and my own moral perspicuity that I suddenly forgot to be concerned with the affect of my decision upon others. A prude is ultimately more committed to preserving or proving her moral identity than to loving and serving others. Therefore, only a prude would wear the pink bikini!
Phew, problem solved...except that I still had three days left at the beach, no bathing suit, and a toddler clamoring for me to go swimming with him. In the end, I managed to find a one-piece, jumbo-sized swimsuit that bore an unfortunate resemblance to a wrestling uniform. At least I could be confident that I was not remotely in danger of inspiring any lustful thoughts. This was confirmed later in the day when we happened upon a group of Vietnamese men covertly snapping cell phone pictures of all the foreign women in bikinis. I, on the other hand, flew safely under the radar in my wrestling uniform. Thank you, Miss Clack.