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Sunday, March 01, 2009

Arthur, King of the Sauna

"G'day!" the cheery old man called out as he joined me in the sauna, now doubling its current population.

"How are ya?" I replied, American aphorisms still being the default greeting responses hard-wired into my brain. Maybe after a few more years of Kiwi seasoning, I'll begin to reply with my own "G'day!" in kind.

I had been in the sauna for only two minutes but it felt more like twenty as I'd only recently begun doing the sauna with any regularity.

I've found that one way to keep your mind off of the fact that you are sitting in a boiling-hot room, slowly melting to become one with the humidity, is to strike up a conversation with the other masochistic denizens of the sauna (if there are any). The subject of said conversation is immaterial, as no matter how banal it is, its sole purpose is to try and get you to last as long as possible while your brain keeps firing increasingly shrill messages at you.

These messages start out as, "Boy, it's awfully muggy in here," from when you first cross the threshold into the boggy environs.

They then progress to, "OK I know the Wikipedia entry on saunas talked about how beneficial they were for your health, but you're now in serious danger of passing out. You can't even take a deep breath!"

Next comes, "You idiot! Unless you have an intravenous catheter and a bag of crystalloids handy, you are not lasting one more minute in this place! Initiating blackout mode."

Finally, it's just a never-ending repetition of the phrase, "Get out!" which increases in both volume and frequency with every second you remain inside that hot wooden box.

But, boy, what a great feeling you have when you do emerge! My personal best in a sauna is twenty minutes, but this pales in comparison to the times I have seen some people spend in there. They must have an iguana somewhere in their family tree in order to have survived in there for as long as they did.

Or maybe they've just mastered the art of small talk, which brings me back to my original point (/tangent).

This gentleman and I turned to that infallible staple of small talk, The Weather. He brought it up, but after a moment he became self-aware and started questioning the point of ever discussing the weather.

"I mean, unless you're a farmer or a fisherman, why should it matter to you? It won't change anything for you and there's nothing you can do about it anyway!" he said.

Seeing the wisdom in this, I had to agree.

Interrupting our discourse on the unpredictability of Wellington's weather were two older women who threw open the door to the sauna and, in quite a demanding fashion, gestured for the old man to quit the sauna.

"Come on, get out of there!" they each said to the man, more or less in unison.

I made a half-step to go as well, they had such a commanding air. I figured they might not want any men in the sauna with them, but then I remembered it was a 'co-ed' sauna after all. I then saw that they were just having him on a bit.

Well, sort of. Turns out this gentleman (whose name is Arthur, as I came to find out) had not five months ago survived a life-threatening bout of heart failure. He was telling me about how great the health care workers were at the Wellington and Hutt Hospitals. His condition had deteriorated to the point where his doctor called his family to the hospital ASAP as Arthur had taken a sudden turn for the worse and didn't seem to have very long at all.

His one son, now living in Australia, had already come home to be by his side during his time in hospital, but his daughter lived in Scotland and was still in the process of getting underway. So, the family reasoned, at least she'd be here for Arthur's funeral if she couldn't be there to see him before he passed.

Apparently the doctor tried one last desperate treatment, not expecting it to work. Very clearly it did, or I would not have had the chance to meet Arthur that morning in the sauna.

This recent experience of Arthur cheating death is also why his two friends came and tried to roust him out of the sauna. Apparently it has long been one of his favourite things to do but, since his bout of heart failure, he has lower blood pressure than normal. So sitting for any length of time in a sauna, which dilates all of the blood vessels in your skin thus lowering your blood pressure, is a potential recipe for disaster for Arthur.

But it was I who eventually rousted us out of the sauna. The women gave up and Arthur continued to spin his tale, seeming quite content to stay in the sauna indefinitely. For a moment I half expected his two vigilant friends to return and haul him out of there bodily, but they were nowhere to be seen now.

I was rapidly approaching my limit of sauna tolerance. Secretly, I yearned for the elderly women to return and redouble their efforts to extract Arthur from the sauna.

"...getoutgetoutgetoutgetoutGETOUT...." my brain was now yammering at me.

I'm pretty sure my body took over at this point, as I suddenly found myself bolting upright and lurching for the door. Yes, an elderly man who has a heart condition and had recently cheated death outlasted me in the sauna!

Graciously, Arthur could see that I had had enough (of the sauna, not his story) and he came through with me. We stood and chatted for a few more moments. He said he felt bad for his daughter, who eventually got here but not until a couple of days after Arthur had turned the corner and been transferred back to Hutt Hospital. The reason Arthur felt bad, he says, was that when his daughter left she was told he was not going to be alive when she got to New Zealand. Yet there he was, grinning up at her from his hospital bed. So he told her he was sorry to disappoint her that there would be no funeral!

I had to laugh as I really enjoy the Kiwi senses of humility and self-deprecation. I told him I was sure his daughter saw it differently and that he looked great, which he truly did.

Anyways I'm sure I'll be seeing Arthur again, now that I'm swimming regularly and following that up with a brief session in the sauna. We'll see if I can outlast him in there next time, though, as it was I who was in danger of low blood pressure on that day and not him!

I must practice my small talk skills about the weather, that is the secret.

So, a bit muggy out today, wasn't it?


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