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chaleur.

I do not remember my first sauna.

I may have been a newborn, or perhaps it was months later; I know only that I was young. Before I was born my father built saunas–peculiar, coopered structures that resembled iron-hooped winebarrels–in the Adirondacks, so their occurrence and use was normal not only for our family, but for our relatives and neighbors as well. Saunas were a staple of my childhood, and more. They served as substitute baths, excuses for gatherings, and especially as buttresses against the cruelty of bitter upstate winters. I remember crouching on the floor to stay cool while the sweat seeped from the grim and glistening dimly-lit adults above me, and I remember jealously guarding the wooden pail of melting snow (the result was meant to be poured on the hot stones atop the cast-iron stove, an event I hated, as it would turn the air inside to scalding steam), and I remember the extremes of intolerable cold and intolerable heat and the happy thrill of shrieking naked through the night between them.

I do not own a sauna–and these days realize how still-unusual they are in this country–but I love them with that sweet familiar love that comes from a memory writ large in a body much smaller than the one I have now.

But this is all merely to introduce the Russian bath house within walking distance of our apartment here, a bath house which, until today, the summer had conspired to dissuade from me. I’d last been there this spring, when, possessed of hacking cough and lacking then health insurance, I huddled in the steam room until I could breath freely again. At the time, anticipating a lengthy recuperation, I bought a half-dozen visits. I ended up needing only one.

Today I remembered my remaining passes, and wandered over in the early afternoon. The interior–chambered and stony and still–was empty save for a trio of heavily tattooed Russians, muscled and paunchy and clad in battered swimsuits and felted Soviet sauna caps. (They had seen fit–in the absence of any objection–to stoke the sauna to a comfortable 240° F, something I didn’t realize until the skin on my extremities started mottling into peculiar red-and-white leopard patterns. The air was so hot I ended up soaking my towel so I could breath through it occasionally; the air was so hot that deep inhalations were otherwise painful. I was grateful for the cold plunge outside.)

I spent the next few hours sweating in the dark, all the while being subjected to a bizarrely interrogative still-birth of a conversation. The three men spoke Russian between each other, but every so often one would bark a question–in affectless and heavily accented English–in my direction:

YOU. DO YOU DREAM. YES? OKAY. DO YOU CRY IN YOUR DREAMS? HOW OFTEN. HOW OFTEN DO YOU CRY IN YOUR DREAMS?

ARE YOU PAINTER. YOU PAINT? NO? YOU PHOTOGRAPH? OKAY. WHAT WAS LAST IMAGE YOU MAKE?

YOU. DO YOU KNOW THE DIFFERENCE IN BURNS FROM HEAT AND BURNS FROM THE ACID? IS THERE DIFFERENCE. YOU THINK YES? WHAT DO YOU THINK IS DIFFERENCE?

YOU HAVE NO TATTOOS. ARE YOU HAPPY? IN YOUR LIFE, ARE YOU HAPPY. WHY DO YOU HAVE NO TATTOOS?

I imagine they were trying, lazily, to include me in their conversation, or, more likely–given that my answers would result in their returning to a quieter Russian murmur–merely supplementing the boredom of their own familiar conversation with some foreign material. Still, given the flickering darkness of the room, my heat-dazed state, and the spit of their rough accents, the experience was one of a surreal purgatory. I am definitely going back next week.

lire.

This week saw the end of a quarter, which meant I had two substantial final papers to complete. This, perhaps unsurprisingly, had consequences.

My too-familiar paper-writing process runs thusly: I’ll construct an argument (or, more often, one will strike me), start early, vomit out a gross (and it is gross; my first drafts resemble the symptoms of methamphetamanic hypergraphia) extravagance of text, and put off revisions until the excruciating end, as if the excise of a single word were akin to the cutting of my own flesh. Inevitably I’ll turn in something bordering on flabby: a plump, self-satisfied thing that threatens to rupture the page limit, if not the good graces of its reader. Obviously, I hate editing.

I hate editing, so much that I justify my procrastination as preparation. To edit, I need first to overwhelm myself with literature, and to be so bathed in and so satisfied by the written word that I don’t mind carving down a paper to something more spare. This week–due both to the papers and, perhaps, to a certain end-of-summer panic–had me plowing through a near-record number of otherwise irrelevant pages.

To whit: over the past few days, I’ve finished Jeanette Winterson’s Art Objects, a collection of critical essays on literature and art so sensually erotic as to nearly surpass the works under consideration; Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, a readable-if-mostly-due-to-its-subject chronicling of journalists’ David Lipsky’s week-long road trip / interview with David Foster Wallace; G.M. Holder’s cruel and beautiful The Introduction to the World; Geoff Dyer’s two latest collections (I love essayists and Dyer is one of my favorites, despite the fact that his new New York Times column has proved cringingly disappointing); The Shadow of the Sun, a book that by all rights I should have hated–cue white male journalist pontificating on the entire continent of Africa–but which was painful and shattering in its poetic human complexity; a random assortment of chapbooks; Knut Hamsun’s melodious Growth of the Soil, my mother’s favorite book, yet one I’d until now–despite my love of Hunger–not read; and the bulk of The Letters of DH Lawrence (a far, far more entertaining compendium than the Freud / Jung correspondence, the last epistolary set I read). Only the first had the remotest bearing on my finals; the rest were all books I’d been dutifully putting off in favor of assigned texts. Apparently my gift for delayed gratification has rather violent limits.

(An aside: I wrote that I read these over the past few days. “Over the past few nights” would be more precise. Why do so many mythologies feature a god of dreams–Morpheus for the Greeks; Angus, for the Celts; Zhou Gong in Ancient China; even the Basques had Ignuma– but none a god of insomnia? The latter unnamed brute seems to have become utterly besotted with me: the majority of the pages above I read between the hours of two and eight in the morning.)

The comfort of this literary deluge helped, or seemed to, at least in that I turned in everything on time and in conformation; if nothing else the escape was sweet and sublime. Now it is Sunday, and past midnight, and I am not sure whether to I ought shelve the rest of my leisure reading for the end of next quarter–and to take advantage of the holiday tomorrow to explore my increasingly aggravating immediate terrain–or to continue, happily, lapping up words. I have a feeling I’ll end up the latter. I have no excuse. Should I need one? Summer is fading, my papers are over, and I want only, and ever, to read.