A Space that Occupies You: On Being in and Inspired by the Shower

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I am happiest when feeling the first pulses from the showerhead, and saddest when I have to shut off the water and leave. This sadness even beats that of having to depart the warm bed in the middle of winter for the cold kitchen floor because the baby is crying and hungry. Most important are the thoughts I have in the shower. They are free-­flowing, though not often wild or fantastical, and at least one of them almost always surprises. My mind seems to best synthesize information when my body is naked yet unexposed. And I imagine that I’m not unique in finding the morning shower the high point of the day. After I step out, it’s all downhill.

For all the tired clichés about singing in the shower, I have to admit that I’m never more inspired or humbled than when I stand in that solitary space. It’s not the being naked. It’s the fact of enjoying the hot, clean water for an unprescribed amount of time, or until the water heater is emptied. It’s the fact that I am allowed this hot shower once a day—more if I want—and that the vast majority of the people in the world—in fact, the vast majority of all who have ever lived—do not enjoy this seemingly banal event. And if I begin to masturbate in the shower (as occasionally a married man with toddlers may do), then I use more hot, clean water, and after ejaculation I feel as pathetic and solemn as if I were seated in church asking the good Lord for something I don’t deserve. Yet, I believe that it’s better to kneel in the shower to pray—for inspiration, for humility—than to do it Sunday morning at mass making a pretense out of reverence before others.

I sent those two above paragraphs to an editor at Poets & Writers magazine, who’d asked me to write a missive on “what inspires me as a writer.” In reply I was told, “[T]he physical details of the recommended practice—in this case a long shower—need to take a backseat to more specifics on how the act influences your writing…and please leave the masturbation part out. In this context, the subject isn’t going to sit well with the majority of the readers of our magazine.” I didn’t feel personally slighted by this response as much as I felt sorry for readers who don’t masturbate or won’t acknowledge masturbation as a fundamental human act. More importantly, I was disappointed that my point was missed: out of all the possible transcendental places in one’s house (e.g. fireplace, bedroom, rooftop), the shower—plain, homely, ephemeral—should take the top spot.

The history of the shower is brief. The word comes to us from Old English (“light fall of rain, hail, sleet, etc.”), and the mad geniuses who first installed in-house waterfalls were the Greeks and the Romans. The former invented indoor plumbing, and the latter bathhouses. When both empires bit the dust, sadly both inventions pretty much did as well. At least until the middle of the 19th century, when the French military began using communal showers to clean-­up prisoners (more efficient than providing individual baths). Soon thereafter, doctors and scientists began to realize that regular washing might help prevent the spread of disease. In the 20th century, indoor plumbing became a significant marker of modernity—no more pissing in the woods, or freezing while defecating in an outhouse, but also no more running with pail to the well. Post-World War II, shower arms and showerheads began popping up over bathtubs everywhere—or, if space was tight, it was simple to put in a shower stall.

One of the initial arguments for the shower was its water-saving potential. An average bath expends about 20 gallons of water while an average shower expends about 12 or 10 or 8 or…well, fewer…it all depends on how long your shower lasts and if your showerhead is low ­flow. Low=flow showerheads emit between .375 and 1.5 gallons per minute, whereas old­school showerheads emit between 3 and 8 gallons per minute. Low­flow doesn’t mean low-pressure, by the way. (Number one criterion for apartment hunting: Honey, did you check the water pressure in the shower?)

I recall once arguing over showers with a girlfriend who was doing a PhD in Environmental Studies. She’d decided we shouldn’t have children because doing so would take up too many natural resources. But when I suggested that maybe she could just cut down on her twice-a-day (morning and post-­gym) 20-­minute showers, she adamantly refused. If we truly want to conserve water and energy, we should take “navy” showers: turn the water on to get wet, turn it off to lather, and then turn it on again to rinse.

None of us was born shower ­obsessed. No child wants to take a shower instead of a bath (and many of us didn’t want the bath either). At some point, encouraged or demanded by our parents, each of us took that first step over the tub or shower stall sill by ourselves. I was about eight years old when I began showering every morning before school. My process of methodical scrubbing has gone practically unaltered for more than 30 years: I wash from the head downward, in a side-to-­side movement, until I reach the feet where the bar of soap rubs between each toe. The only change over the years has been in making double-sure that I never touch the genitalia again after washing the feet, for fear of transferring any potential foot fungus to the crotch. And every time I begin to wash, I am super self­conscious of what I am doing; the ritual feels as new and important as it did when, as a child, I was first admonished that the world is a dirty place, and I must get every last one of my surfaces and crannies clean!

The strange thing about showering is that it’s both utterly personal and highly universal. On the one hand, the details of my showering habits have never been shared with anyone until now, and I can imagine that those details—save perhaps my fungal phobia—are very similar to those of millions of others. On the other hand, my wife views the shower as her most-prized personal space, and her showering habits, aside from the products she uses, are completely unknown to me. The shower sex scene may appear idiosyncratically in our collective memories, but showering itself seems to be a routinized secret.

One might argue that I’m overstating the case. It’s just a fucking shower. Aren’t they all virtually the same? Showers are supremely low-­tech; even Thoreau in his cabin might have fashioned one by pouring a bucket of pond water over his head. And if we’re talking about the modern shower stall, it’s really simply an upright coffin with a hose on one end and a drain on the other. Low-tech, yes, but it’s unthinkable that we could do without them today.

Beyond the quotidian, I can measure my life by the showers in which I have scrubbed myself. The shower of childhood: 1970’s sea­green tiles with mint­green grouting. The shower of high school: communal—dirty yellow walls, white hot shower jets—where the goal wasn’t to get clean but to get wet enough so that the gym teacher would hand you a life­saving, genitalia-covering towel that smelled of burnt dryer lint. The shower of college: institutional, sterile, at the end of a carpeted hallway. The shower of graduate school: a patchouli-scented stall which could be transformed into a tantric love cube with the right partner. The shower of middle­-age: rife with accoutrements such as organic loofas, European shower gels, and an array shampoos and conditioners—the scent of each one a Proustian memory trigger. As for the shower of old age, I can only speculate that it’ll be emblematic of old age: in a place where I’ve always been happy and alone, suddenly someone will have to help me while pretending he or she is alone.

Which makes me think of the shower I most miss, which I began missing long before it was gone. For 17 years my mother-in-law, whom I loved deeply, battled colon cancer. Two years before she died she moved into her “dream home”—a one ­bedroom midtown Manhattan apartment where she had everything renovated to nearly her every wish. Although the view from that 19th floor was lovely, I was more enamored with the thousands of iridescent, mother-of-pearl, three-quarter-­inch square tiles that walled the apartment’s shower. When my wife, our son, and I visited, the apartment became chaotic and claustrophobic—the sole refuge was the shower. While behind its glass door, I would run a finger over the tiles and imagine the hands of the laborer who had laid and grouted each one, which was odd because I’d never contemplated who, for example, had put down the hardwood floors or hung all the doors or built the custom-made Japanese false wall that separated the living and dining areas.

I would take extra-long showers and try to fathom my mother-­in-­law’s death, as mediated by the shower: Will this be my final time in this space? Will she live another few months until we can visit again and I can admire this iridescence? The last shower, in fact, took place three months after she died when the apartment had sold. Without much thought, I gave myself a perfunctory wash and then dashed down and out to the front the building where a U-Haul, with items my wife wanted to take back home to New Orleans, was double-parked. What strikes me now is how those tiles are still with me—not as ceramic sheets that can be bought online, as I’ve discovered, at Walmart—but as a collective marker of my mother-in-law’s own iridescence.

This personal history, however, is of the place of the shower, not of the act of showering itself. Aside from that handful of sexcapades, who can conjure up the details of any particular moment in the shower? Analogous to Walter Benjamin’s insight about mass­produced artworks, each shower is repeatable, mechanized, and forgettable; to employ his term, no shower has a unique “aura.” But this is exactly why I believe all showers are special: none is memorable, but each in the moment of its occurring takes on a banal reverence. There is no better (or worse) time to inspect one’s body, with all its bizarre topographies (ankles, anyone?) and splendid imperfections (asymmetrical testicles, that juxtaposition of anal and vaginal openings, and childhood scars that reify our individual stories). The body is the object through which knowledge and memory of all other objects of the world has been collected—and they become hyper visible, glistening, in the shower. The genuine beauty is that as soon as one reaches for the towel and gets out, one forgets all about the experience—only to do it over again in day or less.

At once, the shower is familiar and strange. When I say “indoor waterfall,” for example, you may picture some kind of artificial nature scene in a contained space, like one of those faux backyard rock fountains. Like a waterfall, a shower isn’t there exactly to service us. It exists. You turn it on. It runs non­stop. It exists. You turn it off. You service the shower. In other words, the shower is as much there for you as you are there for it. This could sound a bit ludicrous, but when reconsidering my initial premise—that I find inspiration in the shower—the shower begins to take on a meaning I didn’t assign it. My missive to Poets & Writers was inappropriate not because it was offensive but because it was impractical. If it’s three in the afternoon and I’m stuck for an idea, I don’t go hop in the shower and make out with my muse. That’s not how muses or showers work.

Fundamentally, the shower is a mystery. It’s a room within a room within a room (home, bathroom, shower), and yet it’s full of nothing until you arrive. The paradox is that, like a cathedral, it’s not a space that you occupy as much as a space that occupies you. To reinspect the cliché, the interesting feature about singing in the shower may not be that nobody else is around to hear how terrible your song sounds. It’s that the song you sing in the shower doesn’t have to mean anything.

Image credit: Flickr/osseous.