(Graphic: Helen Jane Hearn/TueNight.com)
When we chatted on the phone today, my mother reported that, thanks to Governor Jerry Brown’s stipulation, she and other California residents must reduce their water consumption by 25%. She now feels guilty about even letting the water in her shower run until it’s warm enough to stand beneath (though she catches the cold water in a bucket and uses it to revive her drought-flattened garden). I chuckled in sympathy and offered to bring a suitcase full of New York City tap water when I visit her later this summer. Then I went for a jog and cooled down in my second shower of the day, at one in the afternoon. It’s possible that I’ll take another when I get home tonight, if I walk home in the rain and need warming up (a cold front is sweeping through the city this week). I also might take one if I have trouble falling asleep—it’s so much nicer to go to bed when my hair is wet and my skin is a little damp.
I am, as you’ve probably gathered, extremely fond of bathing.
I’m not fixated on cleanliness, mind you. I love living on the Lower East Side, one of the grimiest old neighborhoods in one of the grimiest old cities in the country. I’ll happily splash through suspiciously warm gutters while wearing sandals, and I lose bottles of hand sanitizer within hours of purchasing them. I don’t have to harbor secret guilt about convincing my husband to murder his way to the Scottish throne, à la poor handwashin’ Lady Macbeth, and I feel reasonably sure I don’t have obsessive-compulsive disorder—or at least not the sort that compels me to scrub myself raw. I’ve simply come to the realization that baths and showers are two of the quickest, cheapest ways to improve my situation, and I enjoy them immensely. That Old Spice commercial from a few years ago in which a guy’s shower follows him through his day isn’t just advertising; it’s my dream.
I might sound like an outlier, but bathing as recreation has been all the rage for, well, forever. Jane Austen and her 19th-century contemporaries knew what they were doing when they centered their high-stakes social events on the ancient spas at Bath (Austen set both “Persuasion” and “Northanger Abbey” there, and she lived there herself from 1801 to 1806). “She was come to be happy,” Austen wrote of “Northanger Abbey’s” Catherine Morland upon her arrival at Bath, “and she felt happy already.”
That Old Spice commercial from a few years ago in which a guy’s shower follows him through his day isn’t just advertising; it’s my dream.
Jón Gnarr, the celebrated former mayor of Reykjavík, added the concept of free towels at Iceland’s geothermally heated public baths to the Best Party’s campaign platform back in 2010 and enjoyed a smashing success at the polls. Cities all over the world boast gorgeous, ages-old subterranean stonework in hammams, or Turkish baths. If you find yourself in Madrid, I strongly recommend spending a lazy afternoon at the Hammam al Andalus. Russian banyas, Japanese ofuroya, Korean jjimjilbangs—public baths are everywhere. Or almost everywhere. Ahem.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that America is completely without bathhouse culture; some American cities have made their own (rather memorable) contributions to cleanliness. That said, even in parts of the country where clean water isn’t yet in short supply, it seems we’ve moved away from a daily soak. Instead, it’s become trendy to talk about how little we bathe, a boast I find nonsensical. (Do what you do, long-haired types who avoid traditional shampoos and have personal bonsai situations on your heads, but I won’t pretend to understand you.)
I’ve played my fondness for bathing pretty close to the vest for most of my life; it sounds wasteful, even though my showers are short and my baths (comparatively) infrequent. It also sounds ridiculous—I cringe when I think of the “Calgon, take me away!” ladies of the ‘80s, and I’d rather not think about the Cialis tubs at all, thanks. Then, two months ago, I stepped out on a balcony at Sandals LaSource in Grenada.
Can a tub be unapologetic? This one rose to meet the Caribbean with something like nobility. I walked past it to the wrought-iron railing and watched couples scamper between pools and double loungers on the resort grounds below me like honeymooning ants. I peered across the property to where penthouse residents on beachside balconies peered back at me, and I contemplated the privacy curtains that stood ready to conceal my romantic shenanigans. Then I left them open and took a long-ass bath in the sunshine.