For a proper bath, a big claw-footed tub and plenty of hot water are needed.

As we get older there are, we hope, some ways we get smarter. One, I think, is in understanding what we like, what we need, and what we can and can’t get along without. I’ve just had a good lesson in this.

For the last couple weeks I’ve been snow-birding in Arizona where I expected to find warm days from sunup to sundown and calm clear nights. Instead this year, we’ve had rain, storms, winds, freezing nights, and snow on Mt. Lemmon. I know I sound whiny, but, heck, I could have stayed home and gotten most of that weather!

Anyway, for part of this southwest sojourn I was staying in an abode with no bathtub; and, after several days, I just cracked. I guess I had no idea how addicted I was to a hot bath until it wasn’t available. The evening of my fourth bathless day and after a chilly after-dinner nap on the couch, I got up and said aloud to no one, “That’s it — I’ve had it!” Impulsively (I might even say desperately — OK, I’m wimp), I called a (startled) neighbor and asked if I could use her bathtub. She was surprised but accommodating, so off I went with a towel over my shoulders.

I can barely describe to you how delicious it was to slip out of my clothes, piled in a hasty heap, and slip into a steaming tub of water. As I simmered there, lights on low, I rather spontaneously began to think back on my history with hot baths.

Not about soap

I’m not sure when it all started (can you say “womb”?), but I do know that there are family photos of my sis and I — in our low single digits — splashing around in the tub together. It seems to me that most kids hate taking baths, but I don’t think that was ever the case for me. Though being in hot water was never about the soap. It was about fun. It was about warmth. It was about a safe place to think things over.

A shower won’t suffice. Showers are about getting clean, washing one’s hair. They are mostly efficacious and workaday (though sometimes I might feel like just standing in the shower dreamily). A bath is different — in fact, you don’t want to sit in your own dirty bathwater — for me, a bath is about relaxation and contemplation.

Maybe this started in earnest on the Big Island where I had my first teaching job after grad school. First I lived in a shack by a stream and then in a little house on five acres of macadamia nuts — in both places I had a traditional Japanese ofuro: a small copper-bottomed wooden tub with water heated by fire. The whole process is a ritual: gathering the wood, lighting the fire, feeding it, and, finally, at just the right temperature, letting one’s body down into the steaming wood-framed box. Best is an ofuro that’s outside, open to the stars. There one can sit looking at the night’s splendor with just the whiff of wood smoke in the air. And when one gets too hot — I prefer a very hot tub of around 105 degrees — one simply gets out and dumps a cold bucket of water over one’s head, or maybe rolls in the grass, before slipping back in again for that luscious tingle of heat.

When I traveled later in life, I always searched out hot baths, some unofficial. In Greece one night I crept into a large marbled and abandoned bath and quietly disrobed to enjoy the tubs, imagining I was in a time-machine. At Wilbur Hot Spring, outside of Williams, California, there’s a lodge with pools of varying degrees from cooler to hotter — but, on a tip, I hiked over the hills behind the main building and found the source: I sank into a rocky, sulfur-edged pool in the great outdoors.

Hot baths I have known

After grandma died and discussions began about selling her home, I made it clear that there was only one thing I requested — I wanted to keep her enormous claw-footed bathtub where I had spent many hours as a kid with grandma’s special piney bath oil: a thick green scrumptiously unctuous stuff that when poured into the bathwater infused the entire bathroom with the scent of the woods.

Of course no one took me seriously, and the house sold with its tub in place. Which was perhaps why when I had the chance to buy one of my own pieces of real estate, I purchased an enormous used footed bathtub to replace the little measly shower stall. Workmen had to take out the door and door jam to get it into the bathroom.

The Middle Eastern cultures understand the importance of ritual bathing. Hammams are places where women and men, separate from each other, can enjoy a steamy bath and a hard scrub or gommage, generally followed by mint tea. One of my favorites is in Paris — Hammam El Baraka — a run-down iffy looking place near Gare du Nord. It’s not a spot for tourists. (If you want a tourist experience, you head for the Grand Hammam in central Paris.) One of life’s most exquisite delights, in my humble opinion, is receiving a good hard scrub-down from the women at Hammam El Baraka. A lot of sign language is involved as most of the scrubbers speak only Arabic. But the delight of feeling like a kid again while every inch of your body — behind your ears and between your toes — is rubbed with a bristly cloth, then rinsed with clear hot water is nearly indescribable.

Closer to home, Olympus Spa in Tacoma ( delivers the same kinds of pleasures: a scrub, a massage, or just a bath and steam — afterwards you can lie in the hot sand room; or, when you’re nearly a noodle yourself, you can wander into the small café and have a Korean-style lunch with tea.

Cate’s cure-all

Our fast-paced lives don’t seem to properly accommodate bathing. Or maybe it’s simply a lost art. I strongly recommend soaking in a hot bath for all sorts of ills — mulling over real estate deals, thinking about one’s future, untangling relationship knots. Sitting in hot water doing nothing is not only a great transition from one phase of the day to another, it’s also a good way to catalyze an attitude adjustment. I think if more people took long hot baths more often the world would be a kinder place.

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