Friday, March 6, 2009

Mud Bath

Why Get a Mud Bath?

For Erin’s birthday we went to Calistoga, in the Napa Valley, to the Indian Springs Spa. This posting is not a review of that spa, nor for that matter is it a review of Dr. Wilkenson’s Resort or the Calistoga Village Inn & Spa or Golden Haven Spa. I am naming these spas alongside the word “review” in an effort to attract some newcomers to my blog.

I highly recommend mud baths. To properly enjoy a mud bath, you must first watch the 1992 Robert Altman movie “The Player.” In this movie, a struggling studio executive, through some twist of fate, murders a screenwriter and becomes the subject of a police investigation. He’s this close to losing it completely and decides to get out of town for awhile, so he takes off to a faraway spa for a little vacation, the highlight of which is a mud bath. By the time he returns home, things have miraculously sorted themselves out: he’s off the hook for the murder, and even his career is looking up. That movie made a lasting impression on me. The decadence of a mud bath is strongly linked in my mind with escaping my troubles—not just for awhile, but for good. In this case, the ceaseless reminders of our global economic crisis made the spa getaway seem especially appropriate.

In case you haven’t had a mud bath, or even if you have, I’m going to walk you through the full treatment so you’ll know what to expect next time you kill a screenwriter or dread the prospect of foreclosing on your home.

First, a Soak

While Erin gets her spa treatments, I take the kids to the Olympic size magma-heated pool. I don’t know if it’s actually Olympic size, but that phrase just has a nice ring to it. I’m also not sure if “magma-heated” is entirely accurate, but I love the word magma. (Imagine Dr. Evil saying it.) This pool is really hot, like a hot tub, and there’s just enough of a sulfur smell that you know it’s heated by an authentic hot spring. There are little mattresses to float on, and patio chairs, and a carnival mirror, and the pool has been there for ages and summons the idea of some charming Old World resort (as opposed to an institutional modern American recreation center).

After the Tour of California racers suffered freezing rain all week in this region, we have lucked out and enjoy perfect weather for lounging in a well-heated outdoor pool. Now, don’t take this wrong, but perhaps the best thing about this pool is how few people are in it. Hoards of screaming kids never did it for me. No more than half a dozen other people share the pool with us, and they are all in a totally mellow, happy mood, probably because they’re rich. I know that sounds terrible, and we all like to assume that rich people are all miserable and nasty, but I really don’t think so. What’s to not be happy about, when you routinely get to hang out in a place like this?

After a couple of hours, Erin shows up, blissed out from her pampering, and takes over with the kids, who—though prune-y almost to the point of having the skin on their hands and feet completely dissolve—want to stay in the pool. I report to the spa to begin my indulgences.

The Ambiance

There seems to be an unspoken rule in spas that everybody whispers. The fact that this rule is unspoken is part of the charm: they don’t need signs saying, “For the relaxation of your fellow guests, please refrain from making loud utterances in the spa.” You’re just supposed to know, and the resulting mood suggests a rarified, practically enchanted place. After a short wait in the lobby, which I spend leafing through menus of area restaurants, I am summoned to the men’s side of the spa by Caesar, who will be my … what? Valet? Manservant? Something like that. He will guide me through my treatment and take care of my needs. I love this. For about an hour, I get to feel like a man of privilege, Stiva Oblonsky in Anna Karenina, perhaps, or Wooster in the Jeeves books.

For some reason the valet is always an ethnic minority. I don’t know if this is a simple matter of economics, or whether it’s calculated. Perhaps the management believes that a white guy serving in this role of doting servant simply couldn’t summon the right attitude. I think there’s a stereotype of the immigrant as a hard worker who’s happy to have a job, and a parallel stereotype of the white service sector employee who is bitter about having to work for low wages. (Often these stereotypes ring true: I had to eat at Chipotle once and the white dude making my burrito did the most half-assed job I’ve ever seen. I felt like punching him in the face.) Suffice to say, I highly approve of Caesar.

He leads me to a small room with wooden lockers and, in a soft voice, gives me some instructions. I hang up my clothes and put on a nice, warm white robe. Caesar will fetch me later. I change in like thirty seconds and then wait for several minutes. Where is he? Have I misunderstood the instructions? Am I supposed to go find him? My awkward uncertainty is, alas, all too predictable. But I let it go, and serve myself some cucumber/lemon water. (Is it the famous Calistoga water? Well, we’re in Calistoga, so even the tap water is, by definition, Calistoga water.)

Presently another guest arrives and changes into his robe. At that very moment, purely coincidentally, I am visited by a strong urge to commit flatulence. Naturally, I hold this back forcefully, as I’d do during a job interview or when dining with my in-laws. But then something occurs to me: what would happen if I just let one rip, loudly, right here on this bench in the presence of my fellow mud-bather? It would utterly ruin his entire spa experience, flushing his not insignificant expenditure right down the drain. And there would be no recourse. I mean, what’s he going to do—head back to the front desk and reschedule, based on the fact that “a guy farted in there”?

Of course I don’t do this. Neither do I engage in conversation with the guy. This is another great thing about a fancy spa: people just know not to bother each other with chatter. Not that I mind a little chitchat under normal circumstances, mind you. I swam at the Berkeley YMCA a couple years back and a dude in the sauna regaled me with a fascinating story about the rats living in his car, chewing up the electrical wires, shredding the upholstery, and leaving their feces all over the place. But on a special trip to a fancy spa I just want quiet, and I get it.

The Mud

Caesar appears and leads us into the mud room. Along with a sulfur smell there is a low roar of some machinery here; this place has the feel of both the spa’s main attraction and its boiler room. Our mud baths are waiting: two blockish concrete tubs, side by side, each large enough for Frankenstein’s monster, filled almost to the brim with dark, dark brown mud made from volcanic ash and mineral water, heated by—of course— magma. The mud is all stirred up for us; a third tub nearby hasn’t been stirred and its mud is literally boiling, a layer of water collected at its surface. This encourages me, seeing how they boil (if not replace) the mud between bathers. I want good clean mud for my bath.

A narrow board is leaned up against the head of the tub, extending down into the mud at a slant, to serve as a pillow. Per Caesar’s instructions I sit on the edge and swing my legs in, then sit down in the mud. Surely you’ve had the pleasant sensation of mud squishing in your toes; imagine that for your whole body. You don’t quite sink in it, and yet you don’t quite float. A magazine article I read once puts it best: you’re like a grape in Jell-O. Perhaps the most striking thing about the mud is that it’s hot. Really hot. Almost unbearably hot.

This, I think, is the real genius of the mud bath: your natural impulse, or at least mine (being claustrophobic to begin with), is to panic. The object here is to give in utterly and relax in the face of what at first seems like a crisis. As I suck my arms down into the mud and lean my head back, Caesar heaps more mud upon me, literally burying me alive. Every nerve in my body says, “This is too hot! You’re going to get scalded! Get out!” But the brain says, “No, I remember Mr. Wizard [Professor Taylor, who used to give science shows to kids] showing us how he can rinse his hand under plain old tap water and then plunge his thumb into molten iron without getting burned. This is also how people can walk barefoot over hot coals: fear makes them sweat, and the sweat forms an insulating barrier that prevents injury.” I don’t think this in words, of course. It’s simpler than that: a kind of faith. I relax, and sweat, and soon I’m quite comfortable. I can actually forget how hot it is, and so—just to relive the fear-into-faith experience again—I occasionally wiggle, disrupting the sweat membrane and getting a fresh shock of heat.

My neighboring mud bather is a first-timer. “What if I have to scratch my nose?” he asks Caesar. He is both joking and not. Just about the first sensation you have, once comfortably ensconced in the mud, when you no longer have use of your arms and hands, is of a tickle or itch on your face. This, too, you must let go. You experience the itch, ponder it, savor it even, and then feel it fade. (“If your face itches let me know and I’ll scratch it,” Caesar tells him. Just in case, I suppose.)

Eventually bubbles form on my skin. Are they beads of sweat, or air bubbles? I focus on the sensation of them, waiting, waiting, and there one goes, tickling me as it slides around my body before detaching and making its way to the surface of the mud. This happens several times, each bubble an absorbing sensual experience. When I’m not pondering these bubbles, I’m trying to figure out exactly what strange pseudo-buoyancy my body has in this mud. And so time drifts by.

Soon I sense that I’m near the end of the mud bath, and figure out a few last things to experience. First I contemplate the suspension of each part of my body, from my toes to my shoulders, one at a time. Then I wiggle my calves, rocking them back and forth, and to my delight they form slick, curved tunnels in the mud, and they slide effortlessly up and down the walls of these tunnels, like bobsleds in an icy track. How utterly peculiar and fun. A couple of minutes later, Caesar says it’s time to come out.

Hands braced on the sides of the tub, I lift my body out of the mud. This makes a sucking sound, like when you pull your boot out of a thick muddy bog. I sit on the edge of the tub and swing my legs out. Now comes what is perhaps the highlight of the whole experience: looking down at my body. It is utterly transformed—my skin is black, covered uniformly with a dark, dark, opaque brown coat of mud. I stand up and keep staring, transfixed. I look exactly like an Australian aborigine (at least, like the aborigine character in the 1971 Australian movie “Walkabout.”) Just add a makeshift snakeskin belt with a dead lizard or two stuck in it, and a spear, and I could pass for the real thing (from the neck down, anyway). You see, if I suck in my gut, I have the same physique as the aborigines do—the long, slender limbs and fine bones. I can’t help the feeling that this is what God actually intended me to look like, only he accidentally threw me into the load with the bleach. To make this mud bath perfect, Caesar would escort me to a set of three facing mirrors, and maybe do a photo shoot. Does this make me Narcissistic? No it does not, because I’m enchanted by an illusion, not by my real appearance.

Cleaning Up

Of course I can’t dawdle like this forever and must step into the shower. At least it’s a great shower: the shower head is a giant sunflower pointing straight down. It’s what a shower head should be, as opposed to the pathetic hotel room shower heads that come out of the wall around my chest and have eight shower head settings, from “Watts Riots” to “Gorillas In The Mist” (as my brother Max once described them), not one of which setting is actually enjoyable. There are no faucet handles on this shower: Caesar is somehow in control, and I just walk in, scrub the mud off, lather up, rinse, and step out. At home I turn on the spray just long enough to get wet, shut it off to lather up, and turn it back on to rinse, practically timing myself in the spirit of water rationing; here, the water is still running as I walk away. But hey, I’m on vacation, and I couldn’t conserve this water if I tried. Today, this is not my problem.

Of course a mere shower can’t remove all that mud, and now we’re led into a room with several bathtubs in a row, two of them all ready for us. And these aren’t just any tubs; these are the platonic ideal of bathtub. First of all, they’re huge. Second, they’re absolutely full right up to the brim. When I climb in, exactly the volume of my body in water is displaced, spilling right over the edge onto the floor, so I am completely submerged. Every tub I’ve ever used at any place I’ve ever lived is equipped with an automatic drain should the water level reach any useful depth. At home I try to cover this drain with Saran Wrap so I can fill the tub deeper, which means I spend my bath fighting with the plastic. If I straighten my legs in my tub at home I have to sit up, so most of my body is out of the water, or else I can bend my knees instead so they stick out like a grasshopper’s legs. In this tub, I can stretch out all the way and still have the water up to my chin. It’s so perfect. I wish this spa had a toaster: I’ll bet it would work, too. And if they sold CDs here, it wouldn’t take ten minutes to remove their cellophane packaging.

Caesar sets down a wooden tray across the top of the tub and brings over some icy lemon/cucumber water. Then he hands us little wooden picks and (in his hushed way) explains that they’re for scraping mud from beneath our fingernails. This is new since the last time I had a mud bath, and must have been the wives’ idea. We happily set to this simple task; it’s a novel one, since men very seldom devote much time or attention to such grooming. When I’m done I lean my head back against a little inflatable pillow that’s provided, and Caesar places a cool washcloth over my forehead.

Wrapping Up

After the bath and a five-minute bask in the steam room (very, very hot, the steam infused with some oil or liniment or something, perfect therapy after my bronchitis the week before), we are lead to separate rooms for our towel wraps. I lie on a little cot and Caesar wraps me in big warm towels. What is the point of this, you ask? Well, it’s late afternoon and I’m lying on my back and nobody is asking me to do anything. That alone is bliss. Plus, they’re playing special spa music. Spa music is unlike any other music. It’s more New-Age-y and vague than elevator music, and seems to favor a certain flute that somehow brings to mind Native Americans. I don’t know why it does; I have no reliable knowledge that Native Americans played this certain flute. But it’s pleasant music, in its when-in-Rome way.

As my mind drifts, the music brings back a certain episode of the 1960s “Star Trek” show, in which Captain Kirk falls into a trap-door in an obelisk on some Earthlike planet, hits his head, and suffers amnesia. He can’t even remember his name; the best he can do is “Kirok.” The locals, who strongly resemble 19th-century Native Americans in every way, mistake him for a god. He hooks up with a pretty young squaw, Miramanee. As I enjoy this reminiscence I realize for the first time that this episode must have been written to meet a clause in William Shatner’s contract specifying a minimum number of minutes per season he got to spend kissing a starlet. That’s practically all that happens for the first twenty minutes of the show: Kirk and Miramanee making out, with this New Age, flute-heavy music in the background.

Of course the show picks up after that, and eventually a rival suitor of Miramanee discovers that Kirk is not a god, at which point the whole village tries to stone Kirk to death. As I ruminate over this, for the first time in many years, I suddenly realize that it’s basically the same plot as the 1970s film “The Man Who Would Be King,” in which a worldly man who has traveled to a relatively primitive place is mistaken for a god and enjoys all kinds of privilege until a woman brings him down and he must run for his life. Could this movie have ripped off “Star Trek”? No, the movie was based on a Rudyard Kipling short story, which means … aha! It was the “Star Trek” episode that ripped off—or, rather, paid homage to—the same Rudyard Kipling story! I always knew “Star Trek” was the best-written network TV show in history, and now I have proof. See what epiphanies are possible when you’re left alone to lie on your back wrapped in towels?

Alas, eventually my time is up, and—my mind completely mushy—I get lost in the labyrinth (or so it seems) of massage rooms. By the time I finally find the lobby, Erin and the kids, under Spock’s command, have reached the deflection point and are patiently waiting for me so they can finally shoot down the asteroid that is at this moment heading for the spa. Such is my rocky re-entry to normal life after a blissful afternoon of glorious spa decadence.

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