Soothed by a Long Sybaritic Soak

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IT was the third week of below-freezing-without-a-break temperatures. Ice in the alley was inches thick. Late on a Saturday night, and there wasn't even dessert to tame my cabin fever. I craved something indulgent. What could I find in this old house that would feel luxurious?

A flash of inspiration led me to the cold third-floor bathroom, where sat an old cast-iron footed tub. I began to see some possibilities amid the cobwebs. The plumbing was still sound, but it would take a heater-full of water even to warm this big thing up.

But here came another idea: Put the electric heater next to the tub. So I did, and soon that heat sink became a heat source.

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I wiped out all the dust and grit, rummaged around in the closet for some fancy soap brought home from a forgotten stay in a bed and breakfast, filled the tub to the brim with hot water, and immersed myself to the neck.

My lifestyle doesn't often let me apply the word ``Sybaritic'' to my own activities, but this time it really fit! When I crawled in under my down comforter that night, I was already feeling relaxed and cozy.

That got me to thinking about other tubs, other times. I lived in France after World War II in the late 1950s, in the town of Orleans.

My apartment was a fourth-floor walk-up in a new building constructed in what had been a bombed-out lot. It was nice in lots of ways: parquet floors and a good view of the cathedral, but a bit strange, too.

There were no rooms with right angles between the walls. The living room was a pentagon, and the bathroom was a long narrow trapezoid. On the wall was a ``demand'' water heater that came on with a whoosh when you called for hot water, and it delivered pronto!

Right next to it was the tub, which was about 28 inches wide (just wide enough for some fairly modest hips), but only three feet long and three feet high. You had to climb up and over to get in. And then you sat down on a little shelf, so that you immersed yourself sitting upright, not stretched out.

The tub used a whole lot less water than the more traditional body-length type, just a few inches around your folded-up self.

In the early 1970s, I went on a week-long backpacking trip in the canyon country of southeast Utah. Our trip leader had been over this route 14 times before; being a senior marathoner, he loved to ``cut off'' the trail, run up side routes to the top of the cliffs, and explore.

At the end of one long day's hike, when everyone else dropped their packs and began to make camp, Frank came up quietly to two of us and suggested that we go with him. I felt honored to have been selected for a private excursion and quickly accepted the invitation.

Off we went, up a boulder-strewn notch, through the strangely curved layers of the Navaho sandstone, eventually to break out onto a small flat shelf completely hidden from view from below.

Right in the middle of the shelf was a perfectly round ``pothole'' some six feet across and a few feet deep, filled with cool, clear water.

It didn't take much persuading to have all three of us strip off and jump in. The combination of the blazing hot sun, that completely out-of-place and unexpected cool water, and the looming cliffs was stunning.

As we luxuriated there, feeling only slightly sorry for those who were not with us, we looked up along the cross-bedded lines of the sandstone, and could just make out, tucked under the cliff, what looked like a tiny stone doll house.

This was an Anasazi granary, built by the ancient people to protect their precious crops from mice and other depredation. We deeply felt the privilege of being there.

There have been lots of other baths of note: And somehow all of them seem to be special punctuation marks in our lives - exclamation points, commas, or periods. Sometimes solitary, sometimes with company, but almost always Sybaritic.

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