Cold Shoulders

When the water heater in our building fell unconscious on a Monday morning, I had no idea that Google would produce over 12 million hits for “how to take a cold shower.” Already sick, I’d turned to Google in an effort to lessen what I knew would be water torture.

If I hadn’t been in such a rush to get the shower over with, I might have taken the time to appreciate the marketing might devoted to cold showers, which, I have since learned, are purported to boost masculinity. According to the Meditations on Manliness website, cold showers and baths have been endorsed by James Bond, and before him the Spartans, the Finns, ancient Russians, Shinto practitioners, and hydrotherapists – including, evidently, Charles Darwin. Everyone in this august history is now dead, so it is impossible to say whether their icy ablutions extended their lives or shortened them. Knowing that my shower would make me more manly, however, did not increase its appeal.

I was also unswayed by the supposed health benefits, which didn’t seem relevant to a shivering woman with a sinus infection and laryngitis. I am fairly sure I have no use for higher testosterone or more robust “little swimmers” (that’s Meditations on Manliness again). According to the Sikh Dharma International website, a cold shower approximates a dip in a sacred pool. Um. Right. But wait – this expert was female! Writes Bhai Sahiba Dr. Bibiji Inderjit Kaur: “When you take a cold shower in the morning, it is like the first battle of the day.”  To combat the cold, you should rub yourself with oil and shout “Wahe Guru!” if you shiver, so that you “come out victorious.”

I was more in the mood for a warm bed than a frigid sacred pool, but I kept the good doctor’s words in mind when I turned on the shower and stuck my hand in it. Instantly my hand froze. I poked a toe into the freezing spray – okay, I know the water wasn’t actually freezing, or it would be sleet – and my foot froze, too. I thought about the many countries in the world that have no running water, never mind hot running water. These countries include the U.S., I discovered – 1.7 million people, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. In fact, the World Water Organization reports that only 20% of the world population has access to running water, including one billion people who have to walk 3 or more miles to a water source.

Guilt did not warm me up, but it did strengthen my resolve. I thought about how I had succumbed to the American compulsion to wash one’s hair every day, and then I stuck my head in from behind, arching my back more than was probably prudent. I shivered, I writhed, I hyperventilated to the point that it was hard to breathe, and I thought about the billions of people for whom “the first battle of the day” was not a choice but a daily occurrence. (Yes, I really did, and I didn’t feel virtuous, either.)

I emerged a short time later – you didn’t actually think I was going to describe my own shower, did you? – unenlightened, telling myself I’d won the first battle of the day but not feeling particularly victorious. I felt even less victorious after a couple of hours of work, when I had to go home sick; and even less victorious two days later when I lost the ability to speak and then finally dragged myself in defeat to the doctor’s office. If my immune system was strengthened, it was so imperceptible that it felt just like weakness. And those “little swimmers” – maybe those were the bacteria in my sinuses? Or maybe the health benefits were only for men.

Whatever the reason, if there were ever any doubt, it seems that I’m no James Bond. And when our hot water returned, I celebrated. I guess that means I’m no Mother Teresa, either.