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THE NATION | DISPATCH FROM SPOKANE, WASH.

Couple Work With a Touchy Subject

A husband and wife put massage on display in a museum and magazine. It's a therapy that's been growing in popularity.

June 21, 2004|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

SPOKANE, Wash. — It looks like something a thug could love: a gnarled hunk of jade shaped like the knuckles of a clenched fist. But it isn't a weapon.

A thousand years ago, in China, someone used this object to massage the soft ridges of muscle along the spine, all the way up to the tender flesh around the neck and shoulders.

This ancient "massage knuckle" sits in a glass display case. It's one of 4,000 objects in the World of Massage Museum, which unceremoniously opened its doors this spring in a drab commercial section of this rapidly growing eastern Washington city.

The museum, said to be the only one of its kind, pays homage to what some describe as the world's oldest healing art. Inside is 6,000 square feet of history and novelty, literature and art, and some of the weirdest looking contraptions devised to rub the human body.

The emphasis is on massage as therapy. Sexual devices, though part of the evolution of massage, are not included in the museum. "We don't get into that," says Robert Calvert, 58, a longtime Spokane masseur and the driving force behind the museum.

He is a respected figure in the world of therapeutic massage and the author of three books, including a history of massage. He and his wife, Judi, are co-founders of Massage magazine. The publication, aimed primarily at practitioners, has a circulation of about 54,000.

Calvert has watched his profession grow from an art enjoyed by a privileged few to a common pleasure used to ease the stresses of modern life. The American Massage Therapy Assn. estimates that Americans spend $4 billion to $6 billion a year on therapeutic massages.

Calvert is tall and trim, with serene blue eyes and a short white beard. His hands and arms are muscular and sinewy. He looks strong enough to be an ironworker, which is what he was before discovering massage in the 1970s.

Judi Calvert is 54, raven-haired with a petite, athletic build. She lets her husband do most of the talking. A former martial artist, she got involved with massage after years of aches and pains from gym combat. She became a client and then a practitioner.

The couple have more than 40 years of massage therapy experience between them. They are lifelong Northwesterners with deep roots in the Spokane area.

Financed by family savings and profit from the magazine, the museum is in a renovated industrial building on the eastern edge of downtown -- where, coincidentally, massage parlors, which were fronts for prostitution, once flourished.

The brick building doesn't look like much on the outside, but the inside is surprisingly stylish, and the museum unexpectedly comprehensive. Collected over two decades, the items are divided into 10 collections: images of massage in art, oils and liniments, massage chairs and tables, body rollers and so on.

The Chinese massage knuckle belongs to the body roller collection, which includes an array of round objects designed to glide over muscles and skinny objects meant to penetrate between them. One massager, from 1872, comes from Switzerland and looks like a large rolling pin with spikes.

The table collection shows the evolution of the massage station from its earliest versions, which were made of solid marble, to some of its funkier spinoffs, such as a music-powered table (which uses sound waves to cause vibration), to sleek modern tables and chairs that practitioners can fold up and take anywhere they want.

The most attention-grabbing collection is made up of vibrating massagers. The oldest one, a hand-cranked machine made in Germany in 1855, looks like an egg beater. There are vibrators that plug into light sockets, some that attach to rocking chairs and others that run on steam. An image of one vibrating massage table shows a car-sized Rube Goldberg-type contraption with arms that massage as many as five people at once.

Robert Calvert says the earliest known vibration therapy was done by the Romans: They'd put someone in a cart with an uneven wheel and ride them down a stone road, jostling the passenger.

Although no one knows for sure, the practice of massage, Calvert says, probably grew out of primate grooming behaviors: one monkey cleaning and combing another. The father of Western medicine, Hippocrates, was writing about massage four centuries before Christ.

"This is what I've been doing for the past 20 years, looking for evidence of massage in the world," says Calvert, who is working on a book about massage practice in indigenous cultures. "It's been my job."

Born into a family of ironworkers, Calvert lived and worked wherever dams and bridges were being built in the Northwest. "I was your typical drinking, cursing construction worker," he says.

Seeking a different way to live, he worked his way through the University of Idaho, where he trained to be a marriage and family counselor. Eventually, his counseling work convinced him that the body's well-being was connected to emotional health. A friend introduced him to the world of massage, and his life took a different course.

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