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The Comfort, Solitude and Ritual Ah-h-h of a Hot Bath

Whether there are candles, music, wine and a companion or just a book, the calming water is heaven.

May 27, 2000|MARK CHALON SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This guy I'm talking to, a burly guy who was just connecting with me a moment ago over the Lakers' chances in the NBA playoffs, now won't even use his real name. Wouldn't be good for the image.

He'll fess up but only if I call him Bob in this story. So, Bob it is, as in "Hey, Bob, just what is it about sitting in a bath for hours that you like so much?"

Bob looks defensive, clearly not as comfortable as he was talking about Kobe Bryant's air game. But soon enough he spills, saying his workday as an Irvine contractor is tough and sometimes he needs time to unwind, needs a bunch of "me" moments to get back to the Bob everyone loves.

"I don't use bubbles or anything like that," he points out.

But what about the candles? You've been known to light a candle or two, right Bob?

"No, no candles either," he says. "I just like to relax, maybe read a book or magazine with some low music going. The water just feels good, that's all."

OK, Bob, take it easy. And consider this: There are plenty of people just like you, men and women, who crave a good soak--and not only for washing. If you need convincing, check out a new book, "Hot Water" ($30, Soma Books, 2000). It's partly about the design of baths and bathrooms, but a large part is the history and cultural significance of tub time.

Author Jane Withers notes right off that we douse a lot. "It has been estimated that the average person spends 23 years of their lifetime sleeping, four and a half years eating and two years in the bath, although I suspect that for avid bathers one could multiply this at least four or five times," she writes.

"Given the time we spend, why shouldn't it be enjoyable? The bathroom has an intense psychological dimension and carries an emotional and erotic charge. It may be the only place in which we have time to relax, reflect, confront ourselves naked in the mirror or indulge in sybaritic rituals."

Sybaritic rituals? Leslie Dickey of Huntington Beach isn't exactly sure what that means, but she can recall fun moments sharing a dip with her husband, Eddie, while candles flickered from the basin and incense mingled with steam. But that's a different kind of sensuality than she usually associates with a bath.

For Dickey, who raises her tension working as an assistant in a busy Newport Beach office, the bathroom is a place of quiet isolation where she re-energizes and "basically zone out [and] just go 'ah-h-h-h-h. . . ' " Her husband watches their two kids while Dickey shuts down.

"Sometimes I think about what I need to do the next day. It allows me space to prioritize," she says, "but mostly I almost sleep."

That solitude is what Bob goes for too. Bob, who was one of several people interviewed for their bathing habits, explains that his contracting job requires much interaction with clients and co-workers. He's a social guy who enjoys hanging out with friends, usually at local sports bars for a game.

But letting all his responsibilities eventually go down the drain is bliss. "Hey, I really like time in the whirlpool [at his gym], because I can be blank there," Bob says. "The only problem with that [is] there's usually somebody who wants to talk."

Taking a bath is nearly a ritual for Michelle Larkin of Garden Grove. In fact, she enjoys the preparation almost as much as the execution. Larkin lights aromatherapy candles, tosses in oils, puts on an appropriate CD (classical music has been a favorite lately) and pours some wine. The wine is always red, usually a cabernet.

"I know it's sort of funny but taking all those steps [in always the same order] sort of composes me," Larkin says. "I think I'm a little compulsive anyway. The actual bath is like the last step. I live by myself, so I can do it without thinking--like the candles are always in the same spot in the bathroom.

"And the wine has to be a red. I tried chardonnay once and it didn't taste right. All the associations have to be right."

*

What the three have in common is a need for privacy, which Withers notes has not always been the way history has considered the bath. Once you get past basic hygiene needs, some cultures have seen bathing primarily as a social experience.

Everyone knows of the infamous Roman bathhouses. "[They] were hydro-pleasure domes incorporating exercise grounds and debating chambers and places to partake of food and sex," writes Withers. But she also takes time to focus on the more spiritual and introspective aspects of Japanese and Muslim bathing.

Arabs approach the Turkish bath, or hamam, as a reflection "of the quiet and repose of Muslim culture. . . . While the Roman baths were flooded with daylight, the hamam is a muted world of steam and shadows." In other words, a sympathetic environment to practice "Islamic laws of ritual purification."

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