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By Michelle Malkin  •  August 29, 2004 09:56 AM

The subtitle of Michael Barone’s useful book, Hard America, Soft America, is “Competition Vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation’s Future.”

I thought of the book yesterday while reading yesterday’s Washington Post article on the latest trend in Soft America: Cuddling parties. Here’s an excerpt (caution – read with an empty stomach):

If Reid Mihalko is right, nearly all of us are desperate for someone, anyone, even someone we’ve just met, to hold us, rub our feet, stroke our hair. And because this is about healing, this someone might give us a long, soul-baring kiss. Then, our needs fulfilled, we might venture back into the real world, boasting that we’d been to a cuddle party, the grandest social experiment since the 1970s brought us primal screams and group rebirthings.

If Reid Mihalko is wrong, then the scores of people who’ve been paying him for the privilege of letting strangers spoon with them are really, really weird.

But let’s take the optimistic view. Let’s celebrate the cuddle party, a six-month-old trend that started in Manhattan but feels decidedly West Coast. It hit Washington recently for the first time. It is run by Mihalko and his business partner — two self-proclaimed (that is, uncredentialed) sex and romance coaches.

Everybody needs their “daily recommended allowance of touch,” says Mihalko, standing in a suite in the Hotel George on Capitol Hill last Saturday with the blissed-out expression common among gurus. “We live in a very touch-deprived society.”

Mihalko is a strapping blond fellow with big teeth and a superhero jaw. Today he is wearing a Superman T-shirt stretched across his muscled chest and a pair of orange flannel pajama bottoms. He keeps invoking his favorite word, “touch.” He says that his mission is to encourage “touch-positive” behavior. He says things like “everybody has concerns regarding touch” and “affectionate touch doesn’t need to lead to sex.” He also likes the word “confronting,” as in, “intimacy can be really confronting for people.”

Thirteen people arrive, mostly in twos and fours, at 1 p.m. They change into pajamas and put on name tags. World music and jazz soften the mood. Mihalko asks them to gather in a “welcome circle” on the blankets arranged on the floor. He calls himself “your cuddle lifeguard” and introduces the other organizer, Marcia Baczynski, who wears thick-rimmed hipster glasses and pajama bottoms printed with a Froot Loops design.

Mihalko tells people to discuss their “cuddle boundaries” and turns them loose. Within minutes, he is bundled up with three women, his legs intertwined with theirs, his expression beatific. Elsewhere in the room, there is foot stroking and a four-person back-massage chain. An exotic dancer, Jade Patten, 25, massages the hand of a 28-year-old Web site developer named Robbe Richman. There is discussion about society’s cuddling hang-ups, and someone makes reference to Plato being “touch-negative…”

Adult men and women groping each other in Froot Loops pajamas, moaning about being “touch-deprived” and testing their “cuddle boundaries” while calypso music plays softly in the background.

Have you heard of anything so self-indulgently 9/10? What will it take for these people to grow up?

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