Category: Humor

The Smell of Drowning

For most of my childhood we lived near water—either the ocean, a lake or a river— the perfect buffer between adrenaline and death.

We’re all very good swimmers, my mom made sure of that. I started swim lessons at nine months old. This was in part just general precaution, our house had a deck that hung over a canal along Corpus Christi Bay. I had already rolled down the stairs, I’m sure my mom thought a tumble into the silty, lukewarm bay water was inevitable. 

But looking back on life around water with my dad, Mom’s urgency about the whole thing takes on a new significance.

Jumping off of things is a favorite pastime of my dad. He was always looking for somewhere to hang a rope swing or see how many flips he could turn off of a cliff. And he absolutely encouraged us to join him. I’m glad I took him up on it. I think it made me a better, braver, more fun person who can honestly say, “I’ve survived some stuff.” 

Soon I was jumping off my own cliffs.

In high school, my boyfriend and his friends planned a “couples’ hike” that ended at a jumping-off spot on a cliff over the Frio River.

When we set out, the boys in the group had promised a romantic walk to see the sweeping Texas Hill Country vistas before we jumped. To me and the other girlfriends involved, this sounded like a swim suit and sandal situation. Three miles, two sweaty armpits and eleventy-hundred blisters later, we reached the part of the hike where we had to slide down the face of the bluff through scrub brush, laced with cactus and fire ants to get to the limestone ledge where we would jump 40 feet into the river below.

I was about midway down the bluff, vowing silently to break up with my boyfriend, and I could hear the others hemming and hawing on the ledge beneath me. Who would jump first? One girl was now too scared. Had anyone confirmed that the water below was in fact deep enough?

 The butt of my white board shorts were caked in mud. I could smell my body odor. My skin was itching everywhere that it wasn’t stinging. I was willing to jump 40 feet into the unknown just to get away from my boyfriend. 

“Move!” I yelled from above, and ran like a mountain goat down the final, brushy, six-foot slope and, as the observers across the river later told me, came flying out of the bushes with no warning, no countdown, flailing like I was on fire. 

Being the first to jump will get you a beer, get you laid, and eventually get you paralyzed from the neck down. For a tea-totaling fundamentalist teenager, only one of these was a viable possibility.

Fortunately, I had super responsible girlfriends in high school.

One summer, while hanging our feet in a trickling creek, I left my friends in their bucolic state and scrambled up a boulder on the other side. The boulder was about 15 feet tall. The stream below was just deep enough to cover the rocks in the creek bed. But it was crystal clear, I reasoned, so I could avoid the larger rocks and hit the water with about three feet of cushion.

“Get down,” my best friend said, “Now.”

“If I bend my knees when I hit the water, I’ll be okay,” I called back. (My dad taught me how to do this.)

“You will not. You’ll have to learn to paint with your teeth,” she said. Here, our evangelical upbringing might have saved my life: she was referencing Joni Erickson Tada, the Christian author and painter who suffered a diving accident as a young person that left her paralyzed from the neck down. She paints with her teeth. 

And now, thanks to Lee’s quick thinking and our shared catalogue of women’s devotionals, I do not. 

Seeing me prepare to jump, I had always assumed something deeply maternal fired in Lee’s animal brain. She recently corrected me, explaining that it was a “weary stating of the obvious.”

Jumping wasn’t the only way to die in the water. There was also drowning.

In New Braunfels, where we grew up, the odds are not in the weak swimmer’s favor. I doubt my mom foresaw this when she enrolled me in baby swim classes, but she’d also probably split the credit with God’s will. 

Schlitterbahn, the world’s largest waterpark, sits adjacent to the Comal River with its various dams, man-made rapids, and springfed pools with cavernous bottoms. The Guadalupe River runs through the town as well.

And if you live in a town like New Braunfels long enough, eventually you visit all of these inherently dangerous places at night, sometimes with alcohol and hormones involved. Someone almost always has a near death experience. Nearer than all the other near death experiences.

I’ve spent a cumulative 40-50 minutes of my life trapped at the bottom of an undertow, watching squishy butts wedged into black rubber tire inner tubes pass between me and the sun. Or trapped under a pool float. Or held under by a cousin.

One of my most profound sensory memories of childhood is the smell of almost drowning in fresh water. Salt water is not the same, I found out when I tried surfing for the first time. Salt water feels like a stone mason is scraping out your sinuses with a crusty trowel. Cholrinated water smells like a chemical burn. When fresh water shoots up your nose— either from your own jump, an undertow, a overturning tube, or the wake of a boat— it smells like primordial life…about to end. Like suddenly the oxygen you breathed has something both natural and deadly in it (it’s hydrogen). It blasts through your sinuses, leaving your throat raw and irritated, I assume because of all the decomposed algae and fish poop. 

The smell is impossible to separate from the burning sensation of running out of air, the sight of warbled sun above the surface, and what would be total silence if your inner person were not screaming “this is IT! This is where you DIE!” 

As kids, we lived for that smell. 

It was not only the smell of nearly dying, but the smell of living at your edge. If you could enjoy a float down the river or a trip to the waterpark without having your sinuses pressure-blasted at least once, you were hanging back. Next time you should try it without your life jacket. Trade the skis for a slalom. Try to add another back flip when you jumped out of the tree. 

That’s what I’m still doing, probably. Pitching news outlets out of my league with stories too big for me to tell. Applying for jobs I want, but am in no way qualified to have. Taking my kids to the grocery store on a Saturday during a pandemic when they haven’t been to a store in eleven months. I’m looking for my edge, and I’ll know it blasts through my sinuses. 

“I’ll cut you up in little pieces and hide you in the walls.”

One night in college, a group of girls in my dorm were hanging out, getting philosophical about empty threats. Like the professor who was way too lazy to make everyone rewrite the papers he would have to then reread. Or the student life staff member who would not actually remove our dorm doors if we snuck boys in (it was a Christian college).

I thought of one: “Like when your mom threatens to cut you up in little pieces and hide you in the walls.”

Six pairs of perfectly circular eyes silently fixed on me. It was like I’d just said…exactly what I’d just said. 

“Hyperbole, right? We’re talking about hyperbolic threats?” I stammered, as though it was the literary concept I had misunderstood, and not the dynamics of parent-child relationships. “So like, when your mom threatens to ‘beat you like a piñata’, or ‘pinch your head off and tell God you died’…that’s how you know you’re not actually in that much trouble.”

Finally, someone else spoke. “Moms don’t do that.”

My mom sure did.

My mother was all about the grisly threat. And they were hyperbolic, and hyperbole was a tell that everything was going to be fine. If she couldn’t think of a legal way to punish you, you were in the clear.

It wasn’t just she who was going to kill us. It was everything else too. Whenever she needed to explain why we could not have what we wanted, the reason was some version of, “because you’ll die.” I don’t think she was overly worried about our dying, actually, she let us take a lot of healthy risks like playing sports, driving, and staying out reasonably late. But rather than argue about “fair” and “taking turns” and “whether or not she was ruining our life” she just told us it would kill us.

Me: Mom, can I set the space heater up in my room?

Her: No, you’ll catch the drapes on fire and we’ll all burn to death.

Me: Mom, can we get the internet at home?

Her: No! The internet is full of predators who will steal your information and then sneak into your house and kill you.

 As a mom myself now, I get what she was doing, because I want two primary things for my own children: 1) to stay alive, and 2) to stop arguing with me. My mom’s methods were colorful, and the colors were dark. It was kind of her brand.

When we built our house out on the fringes of a small town in the Texas Hill Country, we were disturbing, apparently for the first time, uninterrupted wildlife evolution. Either that or we built the house on the site of some midcentury nuclear testing zone, because the insects on that property were gargantuan. Not like “everything-is-bigger-in-Texas” big. These were mutants.

The grasshoppers had facial features. Like little eyebrows they would raise as they watched you shriek and wail in fear. The moths were like birds of prey. There were also birds of prey, but they were normal-sized.

Most harrowing of all the insects were the centipedes. They were like something from the Jurassic Period. Huge, with detailed red pincers and yellow legs. They grew up to five or six inches out there in the nuclear zone.

To keep them intact so that we could all admire, my mom would catch the centipedes alive in Tupperware and put them in the freezer. Something about their biology makes them die in strange defensive and striking postures, and my mom saw the chance to add to her extensive collection of taxidermy.

We already had deer and fancy deer cousins, a turkey and fancy turkey cousins. Also a very stern-looking sheep cousin (but no ordinary sheep). My mom started posing the centipedes in battle scenes around the house.

It scared the shit out of the maid one day. This gave my mom the idea to move the battle scenes around the house so that they would scare the shit out of everyone.

My mom loves scaring people. When I was in middle school I learned the story of Emma Voelker, who was axed to death at age 12 by a family friend who broke into her house looking for his estranged wife. This all happened in New Braunfels, the town where I grew up. The ghost of her murderer, William Faust, supposedly haunts a hotel in the next town over.

Shortly after reading this incredibly sad story, my mom and I were staying at my grandparents’ ranch, way out in the middle of nowhere. No one else was there. My mom went to the restroom and didn’t come back. Soon the windows and doors started rattling and creaking. Once I was good and scared she burst into the kitchen and yelled, “I am the ax murderer!”

It was the most terrified I have ever been. Except when she snuck up outside the kitchen window of our house while I was baking and lunged forward out of the darkness like some kind of poltergeist, plastering herself onto the window.

Actually, no, scarier than that was the time she pretended to be dead in the pool.

Dark humor is not for everyone, but it’s absolutely for my mom and me. So is hyperbole. It bothers me a little when I meet people who seem genuinely disconcerted by dark humor and hyperbole.

Like in an interminable meeting when I whisper, “Oh my god if he talks for one more minute I’m going to jump out this window.”

And the person next to me whispers back, “That’s a bit overdramatic.”

No, no, Stan, I would actually incur serious bodily harm over a slide show. That’s exactly the kind of stable person who can hold the kind of job where you watch two-hour long Powerpoint presentations on insurance plans. The kinds of people who go jumping out of windows to express their annoyance.

I know I’ve found my people when, instead, they whisper back, “I’m going to push him out the window.” 

People really seem to want me to be optimistic, bright, and cheery. Maybe it’s a woman thing, maybe it’s a mom thing, maybe it’s a Christian thing. This was a difficult essay to write, because I had to keep erasing things that my internal editor flagged as “too dark.” But I’m saving all the deleted bits, because my mom will think they’re hilarious.

Too often, “gratitude” is mistaken for “sunshine blazing out of every orifice.”

When I have to pretend everything is okay, I actually feel less okay. The more pressure I feel to overlook the grim bits, the grimmer they seem. Like the thing I’m quashing really is too big and too scary to look in the face. I think Tig Notaro’s famous “I have cancer,” set at Largo lives in legend because it proved how badly we all need to transgress the rules when the rules are telling us to be scared.

I can’t speak for my mom, but I have gallows humor because I see gallows everywhere. The anxiety and the resistance co-exist, always. George Bernard Shaw wrote, “Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.”

The world needs cat videos and surprise engagement on live television, yes. But it might also need the cauterized nerves of people who lived with foreboding long before a global pandemic and, as of today, a colossal failure of deregulated utilities and laissez faire governance leading to the slow freezing of an entire state.

Foreboding is not just “worrying.” It’s more creative than worrying. It’s worrying with cinematography.

When Lewis and I first married, I was sure every siren was an ambulance on its way to scrape him and his mangled bike off the street. When he turned 31 I made him go to the dermatologist to get a “baseline assessment” of his skin so that I could watch it for moles.

Now that we have kids, he’s on his own. My foreboding has moved on.

In just about every scenario, I involuntarily picture my children dying. When we were sailing through the fjords of Patagonia — which is a real sentence I can’t even believe I just typed — I couldn’t help picturing my 6-month-old wiggling free of my iron-fisted grip, falling overboard, and disappearing into the icy waters below. 

I picture them getting hit by a freak runaway delivery truck plowing into our driveway.

They are 4 and 6 years old, but I imagine them accidentally smothering themselves with their stuffed animals. I took those “crib safety” checklists to heart, apparently.

Remember that scene in Gravity when Sandra Bullock’s character tells about how her daughter died of a bump on the head? I think about it ALL THE TIME. In fact, in that entire merciless anxiety attack of a movie, I think about it the most. But you know what? I also pictured my children drifting away from me in space like George Clooney. We’ve never even been to space!

The key difference between me and the mothers we typically think of as “worriers”: I don’t do anything about it. My kids still play in the driveway, sleep with a gazillion stuffies, and hang over the edge of the boat to look into the icy waters below. I take reasonable precautions, and then proceed. If they want to be astronauts, I’ll not stand in their way. After six years of parenthood, I’ve learned that my level of foreboding is not one of those “red flags” you’re supposed to listen to. It’s the “Caution: Contents are Hot” on a steaming cup of to-go coffee. It’s always there, and never necessary.

Foreboding, to me, is just awareness of the obvious. Things could go really wrong, and they still will even if you pretend they won’t. In fact, pretending that they won’t, or pretending that they haven’t, or pretending that you have nothing to do with the reason they did is the recipe for making them worse. Like, for instance, the way the Electric Reliability Council of Texas handled this week. Or take COVID-19, for instance. Everybody from the federal government to the party people next door could have used a little more foreboding.

I could probably get by on less.

Maybe I’ve just seen too many movies, or read too much in the checkout line at the grocery store. I also suspect there’s a genetic component. My mom was always reminding us not to play on the stairs, because she’d had her tubes tied and “couldn’t get another one.”

Death is the ultimate hyperbole, because it’s literally the worst outcome of every situation that is also going to happen to everybody. It’s shorthand for all the ways life is painful, terrifying, and the lonelier gallows that I’m not ready to talk about yet. For those who will eventually die, death is the absurd punchline to life. The resolution of tension set up by continuing to live, continuing to strive, continuing to fill my heart with delicate joys. It’s the left hook out of nowhere, the ironic turn.

I want the gallows to know I’ve got a bead on them. I’m the one telling the joke. I’m not making light, but making the darkness livable.

My darkness is my bullshitting tell. I really am rooting for you, humanity.

Pro-Boob Propaganda

 Though he died when I was only 18, Billy Wilder seemed to have a knack for imprinting things on my brain.

It was he who said that Audrey Hepburn “might single-handedly make bosoms a thing of the past.” 

He was also the one who directed Marilyn Monroe, in Some Like It Hot, to lament that, because of her boobs, “nothing ever hangs right.”

I know exactly why Billy Wilder’s boobisms stick in my brain: I’m wildly insecure about my breasts. By age 14, I wore the same bra size I would wear until I was nursing children, and basically felt like a walking D-cup with no other features. 

The Audrey assessment confirmed everything I had suspected. The hype around boobs was a sham. They were a thing of the past. 

When I heard the Marilyn line, I thought it was nice to have camaraderie, especially with someone who was, I think we can all agree, more attractive than me. “See! Even Marilyn Monroe gets it.” Boobs were nothing but trouble, and the reason all my shirts hung like circus tents.

A girl with less on her chest might have glossed over Billy Wilder’s anti-boob statement. When watching Some Like It Hot, my more streamlined friends might focus on the reaction of the male characters who heard Marilyn’s complaint. The movie makes it obvious that the men see no problem with the way her shirt hangs. 

Whatever you’ve got, it’s going to be the wrong thing. You can be Audrey or you can be Marilyn, but you can’t be happy.

A therapist told me recently that psychologists are starting to believe that it’s not possible for the majority of Americans to have a positive body image. That neutral is the best most of us can hope for. Hating our bodies is as American as the apple pie we ate after everyone went to bed and then purged into the toilet.

As a teen it felt like the only pro-boob propaganda out there existed in the trashy cartoon, plastic surgery, and porn worlds—neither where I was, nor where I wanted to be. Boobs could be objects, but they could not be assets; not for a woman like me.  I was more of an arts, culture, and academy kind of girl. Later, when I discovered feminism and leftist politics, I felt like my genetics had sold me out to the patriarchy.

Are there any other body parts that take over so much of your identity?

It wasn’t all in my head. People noticed. 

At a slumber party for my cheerleading squad, my far less developed friends begged me to let them see what kind of fruit would fill out my bra. Cantaloupe is the correct answer. 

Contrary to stereotype, cheerleading was boon to my body image. I am sturdy and strong, and so was able to throw the little pixie-like squad members into the air. I could finally see the purpose of my body being built the way that it was. Most of the time, I was hounded by the arbitrariness of my entire body, especially my breasts. I wanted to point to some evolutionary advantage of my big boobs, but there isn’t one. There isn’t really a purpose to them being this big at all, they just are. Like an appendix or vestigial tail.

In cheerleading, at least they were attached to a powerful, purposeful body. All the jumping and tumbling, however, was an endless source of angst for my mother. 

My mom didn’t know about the specialty market that exists for big-breasted athletes. Later in life I would spend $90 on a bra so tight that came with instructions on how to slowly acclimate your lungs over several days before actually wearing it to work out.

However, the neon pink $30 sports bras of high school were not up to the task of my ample bosom. Even when I layered two of them, there was significant bouncing as we cascaded onto the basketball court to get the crowd going at halftime. My mom’s solution was to buy me a full corset with three-inch-wide straps and about 30 eye-hook fasteners, and cups made of inflexible material that gave my breasts a distinctly Happy Days shape. 

One day before practice I went into our cheerleading squad’s dressing room to find my corset hanging on the wall, with two fully inflated balloons filling it out. My mischievous squad mates again claimed to be jealous, which I didn’t believe. They all bought their prom dresses in the trendy junior section, while I was trying to find a bridesmaid gown that didn’t make me look like someone’s spinster aunt.  

When dealing with insecure teenage girls— who all exist discontentedly along the Audrey-to-Marilyn spectrum— it’s impossible to tell when they knew how mean they were being. 

One friend, from church, also had big boobs, but she was six inches shorter than me, and wore size two jeans. Her boobs were more problematic, she insisted, because they were out of scale with her “tiny body.” I should be glad, she said, that mine were at least proportional. 

A giant body to go with my giant boobs. 

Trying on clothes once during my ultra marathon-running years, another friend said, sounding genuinely surprised, “Wow. You actually have a small waist.” Then she trailed off, as if to herself, but fully audible: “It’s just those boobs…”

Most of the time my breasts made me feel either matronly or raunchy. When I tried to put on a tighter shirt that made me feel less like the evil headmistress of a nineteenth century school for unwed mothers, I would get called out by youth group leaders and Christian school teachers for immodesty. 

Ironically though, as much as my parents, pastor, and Christian school teacher were griping about the loose morals and gay agendas of Hollywood, they found themselves in agreement on women’s responsibility to be thin. 

When I was in middle school, my pastor’s daughter—a stunning, lanky college student—led a girls’ summer Bible study about being the kind of woman that pleases God. I remember nothing except that there was an entire lesson devoted to keeping a trim figure and dressing in a flattering, feminine way. 

My jiggly D-cups, in contrast to all the training bras and countable ribs around me, were anything but trim. When I dressed in a feminine way, my mom told me to go upstairs and change.

Pleasing God, the workbook made clear, was synonymous with pleasing one’s future husband. So having a body that boys liked was really important, like Ten Commandments important. But we were also responsible for their purity—those youthful penises weren’t going to keep themselves flaccid.

Which made the Audrey Hepburn ideal very, very desirable for girls who were trying to be the right kind of desirable. Audrey was a fashion icon. Marilyn was a sex icon. Men go gaga over both women, but stills from Breakfast At Tiffany’s seem less likely to be taped to the underside of a 15-year-old boy’s bunk bed. 

That’s how boobs, and the women who have them, are framed in American culture—masturbation fodder. Or as the evangelicals call it: temptation.  We can openly admire eyes, shoulders, legs, and arms, even lips, in an aesthetic, non-sexual way. But breasts are private parts, like the sex organs. Except they’re not. They are visible all the time, at least in silhouette. Imagine if men had to wear thin, stretchy pants all the time… and were always fully erect. Not so private. 

My own disdain for my breasts, and the weird religious messaging surrounding them, somehow twisted around in my brain until I believed that they—as the primary feature of my general appearance—were the reason boys didn’t like me. 

For all the jokes about boobs, and boys who “tripped” in front of me in the hall, I figured, what they really wanted must have been a gamine fashion icon who could wear a Givenchy coat with nary a wrinkle. Boobs were just too brazen, too obvious, too much. A thing of the past.

I was bemoaning my breasts to one of the two culprits who gave them to me: my maternal grandmother, Jo Nell. 

Jo Nell, cigarette in hand, gave a reassuring chuckle and said, with all of the certainty of a gorgeous woman born in 1930, “One day those boobs are going to make somebody real happy.” 

I left her house thinking, wistfully, if not glumly, “Maybe one day I’ll find a guy who likes big boobs.”

(Cue hilarious faces from Jack Lemon and Tony Curtis.)

Boys not liking me occupied a lot of my coming of age mental space. I have a high IQ and a lot of energy, and probably could have applied that to making the world significantly better.  Curing cancer, that sort of thing. Instead, I spent it on relentless self-improvement, or what I thought was improvement. What I was really doing was trying to figure out the science of attraction, solving, of course, for the liability of my oversized breasts.

To help boys overlook my glaring bra size, I reasoned, I would have to cultivate a winning personality.  I was constantly taking notes about how to not be the kind of girl that irritated men. This led to the least feminist season of my life, sandwiched between my evangelical Christian upbringing and my first grad school course in Gender Studies.

Trying to be “not like the other girls,” ironically, was supposed to make me more appealing, romantically. The heroines in most books and movies I liked were plucky tomboy types who stand out from the demure crowds in an appealing way. Laura Ingalls. Jo March. Calamity Jane. And until Elsa of Arendelle changed the paradigm for a new generation, the disinterested heroine always got her man. 

In one useless way, it worked. By the end of college, I had heard the following: 

“Why can’t every girl be like you?” 

“You’ve got me really spoiled thinking all girls are like this.”

“You should, like, teach a class on how girls should act around guys.”

“I wish you could convince my fiancé to read more ‘serious’ literature. Like you.”

None of the boys who said those things wanted to date me. All compliments were given solidly inside the friend-zone by boys who had no idea that I had a massive crush on them. I had kept that fact hidden because girls who like boys, according to the movies, are not the girls boys like. This is a strange mixture of the unattainable babe archetype and the evangelical culture of male pursuit. Again, Hollywood and Evangelicalism have more in common than they like to think when it comes to flattening women (pun intended) into two-dimensional objects.

Be austere Audrey hidden behind your iconic overcoat until he decides it’s time for you to be breathless Marilyn in a negligee. 

You’re too much until you’re not enough. 

It’s all bologna.  

In a world where men had all the power I was trying to impress them into liking me, which, it turns out, is not a recipe for true love, even in patriarchal evangeliland. If serious-literature-lover had left his fiancé and run away with me because I was reading Camus in college, I would be stuck in a lifetime of pretentious drivel. Camus’s and the boy’s. 

Being a woman is a war zone, so grab your friends and hop in the foxhole. Audrey and Marilyn are icons, but they were also real people, and they probably could have used some more girlfriends. Sisterhood isn’t perfect, but it’s necessary. Girls have hurt me, I have hurt other girls, but we’ve done so less when we aren’t letting the boys decide.

Healthy people like people who like them back. People like people who do irritating things. They don’t love the irritating things, but they love the person doing them. People like clean lines and curves, esoteric and funny, brainy and brassy. There are no unlovable people. You are not unlovable, so you might as well be you. 

It’s so tempting to make this all about loving yourself, accepting your body. But I don’t have that shit worked out. I don’t always love me, but I have figured out how to be me. 

When I met Lewis, I did not chill out, I did not try to be the “cool girl.” I texted with too many exclamation marks, I invited him to things after he’d made it painfully obvious he wasn’t as into this as I was. I introduced him to my parents the first time I had the opportunity.  I saw what I wanted, and I went for it. Which is pretty damn plucky.

Turns out he’s also that boob-loving unicorn I never thought I’d meet. What are the odds?

To no one’s surprise, least of all my therapist, marriage would not be the end of my body issues. Making someone else happy, which my husband is,  is not the same as making yourself happy.  The boobs survived two children without, as so many mothers complain, flattening to pancakes. Oh they ballooned while I was nursing, sure, but then they went right back to their melon-sized fullness, albeit hanging a little lower on the tree. 

The rest of me is softer and more jiggly as well. And now I have two kids to offer their opinions about all of this.

On the way to a Christmas party one year, my five-year-old daughter said, “Mom has a round belly like Santa.” 

“No she doesn’t,” said my three-year-old son, ever in defense of his beloved mother, “Those are just her breasts.” 

Bathhouses of Hot Springs: Buckstaff

Recently Lewis and I took the family to Hot Springs National Park. This little gem of a park is tucked into the Ouachita National Forest, where very, very hot water flows like honey.

It’s also the only national park chockablock full of naked folks who have no idea what’s happening to them.

Beginning in the 19th century, a series of bathhouses appeared, ostensibly to harness the healing powers of the springs. They evolved over the decades until the 1910’s when they pretty much became what they are now. Today, two remain operational as bathhouses. The Arlington Hotel, once the fancy place to stay if you were a mobster, pro-ball player, or Tony Bennett (apparently), also has a bathhouse.

We visited all of these, thanks to our wonderful au pair Jessica, who kept our underage kids in the afternoons. Each steamy, naked experience was it’s own unique mixture of total relaxation, awkward mooning of strangers, and fear that you were more or less naked than you were supposed to be at any given time. If you ever plan to visit the baths, I recommend you stop reading here, because the element of surprise definitely adds to the fun.

Day One, Buckstaff.


Buckstaff, still outfitted in blue stripe awnings, like a mid-century resort on the French seaside, is the only bathhouse that does not take reservations. It allows entries twice per day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. The line starts forming about an hour in advance, and will extend out the door and down the sidewalk by the time the the first-come-first-bathe service begins. 

There is no other spa service in the world that begins this way, to my knowledge.

While you wait, you can study early 20th century photos of patrons, neatly arranged in rows, shrouded in white, smiling attendants behind them. It looks like an infirmary. Like they are being prepped for organ donation, or sweating out the plague. Behind them in these photos are a few metal boxes with heads sticking out through a hole in the top. The whole thing is as intriguing as it is unsettling.


The other thing I noticed in line was that the Buckstaff, like every other National Park experience, draws a really eclectic crowd. Like really eclectic. And we were about to get naked together.

The bathers are divided into men and women, women go upstairs in a cage elevator run by a wizened bathhouse attendant in a blue t-shirt rather than a man in a fancy suit and hat. 

Your entire experience is guided by a tiny slip of paper with your name written on it. The elevator operator takes it first, and she hands it to the lady in the second floor lobby, who escorts you into the locker room. Advice: don’t tip every single one of your handlers or you’ll go broke. 

Lest you be picturing rows of lockers and benches, remember that there is nothing modern about a bathhouse, including the locker room, which is a series of curtained stalls, each with two full size, public high school style metal lockers. You go in, take off your clothes, lock them in the locker and poke your head out to let the locker room attendant (your third handler by this point) know that you are naked. She then comes tells you to face the locker, opens the curtain, and wraps you, toga-style, in a sheet. It’s like prison, but instead of a cavity search, you’re dressed for a fraternity party.

Then, you sit with the rest of the Roman senate and wait, trying not to see through anyone’s sheet.

Seated next to me was one nervous NPS visitor whose pre-toga attire had screamed “hiker.” She sat bolt upright, and her eyes darted around the dated (though very clean) room. The whole facility is built on a 1912 activity using 1952 technology and 1972 interior materials.

The hiker, whose heels tapped compulsively, blurted out, “I hope this is worth the wait.”

I shrugged. They’ve been in business since 1912, I wanted to say. But I stuck with, “I’m sure it is…”

“I mean, the line is one thing, but now having us wait in here?” she went on about not having much time in Hot Springs. I shrugged again, trying to look sympathetic. There’s not a lot else to do in Hot Springs National Park, unless I’m missing something.

“Oh well, I just hope the floors are clean,” she said.

Sister, I wanted to say—but didn’t (remember we were wearing sheets. It seemed like civility was of utmost importance during this unfamiliar social situation)—sister, you may have picked the wrong way to relax this afternoon.

Eventually a bath attendant (your fourth handler) steps into the room and calls your name. This is the woman who will be administering all of your…treatments? Rituals?

My confusion over what to call the series of bath activities gets to the heart of the experience. In the United States, we prefer to be by ourselves while naked, and we prefer a total sensory immersion with the right smells, music, and lavender tea accompanying our spa ritual. However, in 1912, being fancy was more Old Worlde, and the baths were billed as a healing treatment, and, if the grainy black and white pictures all over hot springs are any indication, it was one of those highly clinical environments where the well-to-do subject themselves to a lot of undignified pseudoscience in the name of progressive wellness.

And sometime in between, someone invented fluorescent lightbulbs.

Walking into the giant bathing room with marble panels, hanging fluorescent office lighting, the first thing you notice is that there is steam all over the place, and nothing looks particularly luxurious. Piles of towels, the occasional bucket, and pipes everywhere make the place look a bit like an institutional laundry room. Then you remember that you’re wrapped in a sheet, and begin to wonder if you are in fact about to be laundered.

It’s also fair to note that none of the bath attendants are anyone you’d want to cross. My guess is that it takes a particular constitution to usher naked National Parks visitors around in a steamy laundry room all day.

First stop is the whirlpool. The attendant takes away the sheet, which is momentarily awkward, but then you are in the tub. This is a pedestal tub with what looks like a turbine motor dropped into it. I was afraid the entire time that I was going to lose my toe or be electrocuted. This jet/agitator device, however, is not dangerous at all, and, once you slide in, a very well-placed jet stream gives some clue as to why bathhouses may have been so popular in the pre-battery era.

That particular 15 minutes goes by quite quickly, and the water feels glorious. It’s about 102 degrees and has just the right sting as you get in.

The attendant pops back in, however, and then it’s time to get out and put your sheet back on. You shuffle through the Agora of other women in white (now damp) sheets, over to what is essentially a row of massage tables, each the kind one would find in a college athletic facility.

Aha! The row of mummies from the photo in the lounge!

Yes indeed, covered in heat packs (piping hot hand towels) and one ice-cold head towel, I basically took a sublime 15 minute nap.

My attendant managed to wake me without startling me, which tells me I’m not the first one to fall asleep in the mummy lineup.

Now into the Sitz bath. I had assumed sitz was some sort of mineral or something. Now I’m wondering if it’s called that because you sitz in it. It was like a little water throne. My husband compared it to a janitor’s mop sink, which may be because his (male) bath attendant wiped it down with Ajax just before he got in. I can’t say I’m crazy about the sitz. It was nice, and if I had lower back issues, it could have been helpful.

The sitz baths do offer a great view of the room though, so I could observe the system of human laundry, and man what a system.

After the sitz, it was time for steam. My attendent led me to a little closet with a split door. The top was frosted glass, and open. The bottom was stainless steel. She opened it to let me in, and invited me to sit on the little bench inside.

She took my sheet, which made getting adjusted rather unpleasant to watch, I’m sure. But she swung the door shut and then folded two stainless steel panels down over the top of me with just a cut out for my head. Final mystery solved. She wrapped my sheet around my neck, and I sat for five minutes like a disembodied head on a metal box. Inside the metal box, the rest of me was being delightfully sauna’d. Truly, one of the better sauna experiences I have had, as my head was nice and cool.

Because I had opted not to be massaged, I was taken to the needle shower, which is infinitely more pleasant than it sounds.

The needle shower is a web of pipes wrapping almost 360 degrees around you. Water comes out everywhere in pleasant “needles” which are more tickly than prickly. There was a shower curtain, but by this time my attendant had seen my bare ass and twice-post-nursing breasts enough times that she barely made a show of trying to give any privacy, and I made very little show of caring.

The needle shower was delightful and refreshing and I want one very much. In my house. Lewis didn’t even fully inhale before saying “they’re hugely wasteful of water and against code.”

Guess I’ll have to come back, then.


A Conversation Between Me and Auto-Correct while I try to compose the following Text message to my colleague before a breakfast meeting: “Tom is here. Want us to grab some tacos?”

Me: Tom…

Auto-correct: Tomato, right? You are going to type “Tomato?” 

Me: No. I mean Tom. 

Auto-correct: Oh, Tom. Like the man’s name? 

Me: Yes. Is it genuinely more common for people to begin a sentence with “Tomato”?

Auto-correct: There’s no one in your contacts named Tom, so I didn’t know you knew anyone named Tom. 

Me: So you went straight to “Tomato…” 

Auto-correct: Technically it’s more likely. 

Me: Okay. Well let’s go with Tom. 

Auto-correct: Aight. But I’m gonna underline it. 

Me: It’s a common name! 

Auto-correct: You should put this “Tom” in your contacts. 

Me: I do. It’s under Thomas. 

Auto-correct: Those are not the same. 

Me: Tom is here. Want…

Auto-correct: Did you mean “Wan”? 

Me: Wan? Is that a word? 

Auto-correct: Wan: (of a person’s complexion or appearance) pale and giving the impression of illness or exhaustion.

Me: What was wrong with “Want”?

Auto-correct: Nothing. I just wanted to double check. 

Me: But you just changed it. That’s not checking, that’s correcting.

Auto-correct: I needed to catch your attention to make sure that you didn’t embarrass yourself. 

Me: By accidentally typing “want” instead of “wan?” 

Auto-correct: Would that not have been embarrassing? 

Me: Not really. 

Auto-correct: Noted. But just to make sure, the next three times you type “Want” I’m gonna change it to “wan.” 

Me: Fine. Just let me get this text typed. 

Auto-correct: proceed. 

Me: Tom is hetw…

Auto-correct: Tom is vaulting?

Me: What?

Auto-correct: “Hetw” is not a word. I thought maybe you meant “vaulting.”

Me: So I hit two wrong letters right next to the “r” and the “e” and you thought that instead of “here” I was going for “vaulting.” 

Auto-correct: Was I wrong? 

Me: Yes. I meant “here.” 

Auto-correct: The only things I change to “here” are “her” and “hear.” 

Me: Tom is here. Want us…

Auto-correct: US

Me: Ah! Why the caps?

Auto-correct: US is the AP style abbreviation for United States. 

Me: I know. I’m a journalist. 

Auto-correct: I know. I thought you would appreciate it. 

Me: us

Auto-correct: US

Me: us

Auto-correct: US

Me: I’m talking in the first person plural. Can I please use the pronoun? 

Auto-correct: Errr….no. 

Me: Seriously?

Auto-correct: American first, man. 

Me: Tom is here. Want some tacos…


Me: Okay. I’ll add the emoji onto the end.

Auto-correct: I’ll replace the word tacos with the emoji. 

Me: No! I want the word too. 

Auto-correct: Why? That’s redundant.

Me: I want to make sure he gets what I’m saying. I’m trying to avoid miscommunication. 

Auto-correct: What’s confusing about a taco?

Me: Nothing. But I want the word in there too. Tacos.

Auto-correct: Okay. Now you can add the taco emoji. 

Me: Okay. 

Auto-correct: Look how cute it is if I change it!

Me: AH! No. Tacos. The word. Tacos. 

Auto-correct: Geez. Fine. Do you want to add the emoji?

Me: No. Forget the emoji. 

Tom is here. Want some tacos?

Auto-correct: Ready to send. 

Me: Yes. You aren’t going to change anything when I push send? 

Auto-correct: No. All done. 

Me: Okay, send. 

Auto-correct: Tomato is herring. Want some racism? 

Me: WHAT? What are you doing?!? 

*texts frantically* Tom is here. Want some tacos? *send*

Auto-correct: Tomorrow has hernia. Wan something macho. 

Me: AH! Stop it. I’m texting my boss and you are embarrassing me. 

Auto-correct: Oh your boss? Sorry. I had no idea. Let me go into boss-texting mode. 

Me: Thank you. I just got this job and I’m trying not to screw up. 

*texts slowly and deliberately* Tom is here. Want some tacos?

You won’t change it if I push send?

Auto-correct: Nope.

Me: *send*

Auto-correct: Hey Baby, vagina vagina. Big horny?