Ralph Gardner Jr: The Beauty Of Baths

Dec 30, 2017

Emmett Kelly in a bubble bath,Sarasota, FLA.
Credit Florida Memory / Wikimedia Commons

With temperatures dipping into the single digits -- and the minus single digits -- and the New Year fast approaching, the moment may be right to sing the praises of an institution that transcends time. That unites us in reverence. That puts us in direct communion with the forces of nature, as few indoor activities do.

I’m speaking, of course, about a good, hot winter bath.

By the way, do you feel, as I do, that the wind chill factor isn’t a totally legitimate measurement? That the cold shouldn’t require additional assistance? That our forbears would have thumbed their frostbitten noses at a stiff arctic breeze?

But back to the bath. It would be an exaggeration to suggest that my day centers around bath time. Indeed, when I’m in the city I rarely take baths. But in the country, from mid-fall through March and April I do my best to orchestrate a bath into my schedule.

What could be cozier than the contrast between how cold it is outside yet how warm and womb-like your experience at that moment.

It would be easy enough to trace this desire to our distant ancestors slithering from the sea, or that our bodies are composed of sixty percent water. But I don’t think one needs to resort to science or anthropology to explain the splendor of bath time.

Leave it to the wisdom of nerve endings. Is there really any better sensation that comes without cost or emotional complications than lowering oneself into a steamy bath on a cold winter night? I realize not everyone feels this way. My wife, for instance. She can’t imagine anything more exhausting than having to rouse herself to activity once she’s taken a bath.

I, on the other hand, find it invigorating. It serves as a coda to the day and the kickoff to evening -- an invitation to embark upon the pleasures of drinks, dinner and bed.

It probably also sparks some synapses, formed in early childhood, if not infancy, that associates a warm bath with a mother’s loving hand.

My daughter claims to have read somewhere that the effect of a bath on one’s muscles is the equivalent of doing vigorous exercise. I’d have to see a lot more science before I buy that.

I agree that it’s a form of therapy, though I’m not sure it’s physical therapy. Part of its genius is that it’s elemental. It focuses the body and mind on abject sensation. For that brief interlude, particularly during that ecstatic moment when one lowers oneself into the brine, when skin meets water, and ones’ concerns seem to be carried away on the rising steam, it’s hard to think of being more purely in the moment.

That’s not to say that my bath come free of decision-making. The first of several is finding the right temperature.

One wants it hot, but not too hot. You don’t want to scald yourself. On the other hand, a bath isn’t worth its salt – and I’ll get to bath salts momentarily – unless it changes the conversation.

If a bath presents any angst – besides slipping and falling on the way in or out, or falling asleep and drowning – it comes in maintaining the proper temperature. And also a suitably full tub.

I find myself in a constant struggle against the drain, one I surmount, and also succeed at the same time in keeping the bath toasty by running a small amount of hot water throughout the ritual.

The next decision is what bubble bath to use or whether to use any at all.

I take great pride in owning perhaps a dozen different kinds of bubble bath.

I’m rather skeptical about whether they have any medicinal or therapeutic value. My only requirement is that they smell great.

My default treatment is called Vita Bath and comes with the scent of pine forests. It’s made in Europe and sold there and the United States under the name Badedas and for some puzzling reason is substantially cheaper in that bottle.

But money is no object when it comes to a stellar bubble bath. Actually it is. My limit is somewhere around twenty bucks. Though I recently bought a fifty-dollar bottle of Hermes Eau d’orange verte using a Saks gift card.

For Christmas one of my daughters bought me a pricy bottle of Jo Malone Orange Blossom body wash. However, her purchase was apparently motivated at least partially by guilt. She confessed that she was the culprit behind the rapid, mysterious depletion of my Hermes bubble bath.

That’s the other thing, I use bubble bath sparingly. I’m not going for the movie starlet buried in mountains of foam effect. A single bottle can last me a year or two, certainly in rotation.

My other daughter bought me a bottle of lavender bubble bath. It’s really hard to go wrong with anything involving lavender.

I also own bath salts. But I’m not sure what I think of them. They smell fine, certainly. But they lack bubbles. And bubbles create their own reality.

They abet the bathing experience. They help create a magical, all encompassing landscape that one gets lost in, sort of like Dorothy did in Oz.

I also bring reading material, preferring the local paper. The New York Times, and the national news these days seriously undermines the escapist, stop-the-world-I-want-to-get-off impulse of bath time at its best.

The only true hardship of taking a bath is leaving it. Having to towel off in the cold air.

But the bath has also turned your body into the equivalent of a hot water bottle, radiating heat for hours to come.

And, of course, there’s a simple solution if you find yourself feeling chilly again. Take another bath.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.