LEISURE LETTER 71: SUR LA THERMODYNAMIQUE DU SAUNA

So it’s the New Year and everything has changed so much for me since last year and it’s all because of this wonderful thing called sauna . . .


The Finnish were the first people to utilize the sauna, so far as I am aware. But the story of how I came to sauna is much more interesting. Bear in mind, Finland is practically at the North Pole, which makes it very cold. A constant barrage of freezing Arctic wind. It follows that it was only natural, in the course of things, for the Finns to devise novel means to warm themselves up. And yet, as it turns out, going in the sauna isn’t really about getting warm. Allow me to expose the truth. 


In truth there are saunas everywhere – even at the equator where you might as well be in a sauna at all times, where you sweat two liters just walking to the tienda for a Coca Cola. For all I know there’s a sauna in the middle of the Gobi Desert . . .


 . . . I digress.


It just so happens my first encounter with a sauna transpired on a remote tropical island you can only reach by way of the latest Airbus 1000, flying deep, deep into the Pacific. On this island there is only one airstrip, one road, one market, and one restaurant – The Cantina Saloon. 


I was there on scholarship. At the time I was writing my thesis: Métaphysique Du Mango. I wrote it in French because I wanted it to be sexy and romantic, but that’s beside the point . . . if you really want to read it you can check out Oxford’s catalog of registered scientific journals. I’ll send you the link. 


Mangos aside, the real juice of this story gets its squeeze from what came next. We touched ground and I walked down the gangplank of the latest Airbus 1000 with my duffle bag and the university correspondent who was to be my liaison was waiting there with this big grin on his face. He was your typical Oxford man – firm handshake, waxed mustaches, sporting a black three-piece suit made from sheep's wool even though it was 108 Fahrenheit. His teeth were big and perfect and white as moonchalk. Even so, I had this funny feeling the teeth were fake. 


This liaison takes my duffle, that big blinding smile, says in greeting, Good day to you, Sir!  


It was a good day. But I was in for a shock when, rolling along in the limousine, this liaison informed me that I would no longer be staying at the Royal Sands Hotel . . . Nothing to worry about, he assured – You’ve been upgraded, Sir!


From then on I would stay at the private residence of a certain famous film actor who owned several acres of land on the island and who it turns out was a major patron of the arts. While this man has a name, and you would almost certainly recognize it, I will refer to him for the sake of privacy simply as El Comandante. He’s got three academy awards: best actor. 


When we finally arrived at this El Comandante’s house I found it charming, rather modest and perfectly conceived in dark native wood with tall arched ceilings and huge glass panels opening up to hypnotic visions of the South Pacific, shimmering there like some gaudy blue mirage.  


More than the house and the Pacific I was struck by something else . . . In the backyard . . . A sort of keg-shaped wooden structure perched on cinder blocks, a door built into its circular facade, and a small window framed inside the door. That’s not it – through the window a warm orange light burning calmly, just humming along in the darkness like some kind of splendid sentience and . . .


. . . I walked to the door and opened it, letting escape a devastating draft of hot air. 


Oh – you’ve found the sauna, Sir!  This liaison was just standing there with my duffle like he was still at Oxford. Well – I’ll leave you to it, Sir! He left me to it.


Accumulated on the sauna bench was a sad puddle of sweat – the last remnant of El Comandante – he must have just taken off, caught the last Airbus 1000 back to Los Angeles, the Oscars . . .


Thanks El,  I said to myself, fetching a bowl of water from the artesian well. Bowl in hand, I returned to the sauna, swung open the cedar door and stepped inside, securing the door carefully behind. I sat down, cranked the heat up to 180º. The rest is history.


I hardly ever left that sauna. When I wasn’t working on my thesis I was in the oven with the red hot rocks, sweating liters, ruminating on the metaphysics of tropical fruit. In one memorable stretch I lost 8 liters and shrank down to half my regular size. I was like a dried sponge. Like Spongebob Squarepants. When I finally got out I could barely stand. I just let the wind cast me like a dried leaf down to the shoreline at low tide, where I landed in a puddle at the edge of the exposed reef and immediately grew back to my normal self. 


A few months later I was at Art Basel, Miami. You’ll never guess who I ran into – it was El Comandante, far off in the corner chatting with Martin Scorcese and Harvey Keitel. In typical fashion he was wearing combat boots and dungarees and a navy blue beret. That handsome, brutal face. El Comandante – sauna lover and patron of the arts! El Comandante – champion of the people! . . . Winner of the academy award! I politely waited for Marty and Harv to beat it. Then I went up to El and shook his hand. He was drinking a vodka martini and he took the last sip and when he was finished he plucked up the olive and ate it, this whole time staring deep, deep into my soul. This guy was serious. 


We chatted for a while, a nice conversation, in the course of which I mentioned to El that it was me who wrote Métaphysique Du Mango. He loved it! Best piece he’s ever read!

Finally I plucked up the courage to ask a question I had been wanting to ask ever since I left that beautiful island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. 


El, I said,  I’ve got a question for you . . .


What is it, kid?


Well – you see El – I’m writing this thesis on the thermodynamics of sauna . . . And I’ve been dying to know – what is it about the sauna that keeps you coming back?


Listen kid, said El, spitting out the olive seed – of all the jungles I’ve ever been to, Hollywood is by far the most dangerous. That sauna of mine is the only thing that has kept me alive this long.


There you have it!




 

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