How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Balm

Strange—occasionally embarrassing—confessions of a first-time male spa-goer.

Everyone has problems. That’s why spas exist. A place to shed your worries, your pounds, your stress. Or so I’ve heard.

But here’s my problem: I’m what you might call an in-spa-niac. Some people can’t fall asleep. Me, I can’t relax. Period. Worse, I can’t imagine paying people to touch me. I mean, I live in New York City after all—I have spent my life paying people not to touch me.

In other words, I’ve never been to a spa.

Okay, I’ve had one spa experience before. But I blocked it out because it was like losing one’s virginity: unplanned and filled with awkwardness. This happened during a wedding weekend in Sonoma, California. Someone suggested that our group get peat baths at a local spa. Next thing I know, I’m naked in a cinder-block room that had all the charm of a Chernobyl scrub room. I lay down in a bathtub full of peat—thick as overcooked oatmeal and black as sludge. I did not sink. A bald man put his hands on my chest and forced me into the muck. "It must be a hassle to empty this after each guest," I said to the him. He grunted. "We clean once a week." It was at that moment that I lost interest in spas.

But recently I met a woman. And as you may know, women live for spas. And since I live for this woman, I agreed to her desire that we "enjoy" a spa weekend as a couple. Well, next thing I knew, she and I were on a flight to California, to the legendary Ojai Valley Inn & Spa.

And so I found myself at Ojai—a breathtaking place 35 miles south of Santa Barbara nestled in the soft hills of California’s central coast—which just underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation. Every need seems to be anticipated here. From the moment my girlfriend and I arrived, I felt that Ojai is what the afterlife might be like: polite young people dressed in white, driving golf carts and whisking me around the citrus-scented grounds; a place where everyone is un-medicatedly happy and all the food is fresh and little birds chirp hello. Oh, and it never rains till after sundown, too. "Camelot…Camelot…."

When my girlfriend and I got to our suite, she started devouring the brochures to plan out the weekend of lotions and potions and whatnots for us.

"Isn’t this place amazing?" she nearly screamed.

Then she noticed something was wrong. Maybe it was my silence. Maybe the look on my face. I think the word she used was "catatonic." Maybe it was because I was sitting on the edge of the bed, staring at my shoes.

"You’re freaking out, aren’t you?"

I was silent.

"Blink once for yes, two for no."

I blinked once.

"Honey, there’s nothing to worry about. Some nice people will take care of you."

She led me off the bed, out the door, and toward the spa experience.

Here, seven lessons from my inaugural spa weekend—including one or two unanswerable questions and undoubtedly another embarrassing confession—in no particular order.

1. Let’s start with the language of spas. I am referring to the "menu" of "treatments." I’ll be honest: Tell me I’m about to get a "treatment" as I’m standing in a locker room wearing nothing but a short bathrobe and rubber slippers and I get only one image in my head—Jack Nicholson shuffling back to his bed at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, all better courtesy of a "treatment" from Nurse Ratched and co. Still, I agreed to my first treatment of the weekend: a facial. And I have to say, it was pretty damn great. It was like one long barbershop experience. Except a barber doesn’t squeeze blackheads for you.

2. I’m not comfortable with people asking me about my level of comfort. After I had changed into my robe, I was led to my treatment room by my…treater? He pushed opened the door. There before us was The Table, with a thin sheet folded back. Some welcome this moment like the sight of a warm bath. Me, all I could think was, I ain’t got nothing on under this robe. And how in hell do I get from point A to point B with this guy here?

That’s when the attendant would touch me on the elbow ever so gently—because in spas everything is always ever so gently—and say, "I’m going to leave and you can disrobe down to your own level of comfort. Then slide under the sheet. I’ll knock before I reenter."

Hey, pal, here’s my level of comfort: underwear, pants, a shirt. And the only thing I’m lying down on is a flat-seat recliner in business class.

3. Spas are for people who want to feel their skin. Too often I’m trying to jump out of my skin.

4. A man’s mind can wander in 80 minutes. I know a lot of people live for 80 minutes of treatment. Someone touching them, rubbing them, and whatever-ing them. But 80 minutes is just too much time for me to think. Especially when my face is in a leather doughnut and I’m staring at the floor.

I had this insight 40 minutes into my Shangri-La treatment—what was a truly incomprehensible amount of pampering that included a full-body exfoliating rub, a shea butter application, and a scalp massage. And by the time the very nice guy had marinated me in ointments, wrapped me in a blanket, and placed me under a heat lamp, the sensory indulgence of this spa stuff was really beginning to sink in. I was starting to feel positively pharaonic. The trouble was that I also started to think that at any moment the door would open and some guy wearing an oversize ankh, jackel-head mask, and other vestments of an Egyptian priest would enter, loom over me, and say, "Now we will remove all your vital organs, place them in these ceremonial clay urns, and prepare you for entombment in the pyramid…."

5. Whoever invented the face doughnut is a very rich man. And very twisted.

6. Remember when Manuel Noriega was holed up in Panama and U.S. troops cranked up the music of AC/DC and other heavy-metal bands to get him to surrender? They should have played spa music. Really. Who ever decided that Tibetan chants, Peruvian flutes, and whale burps are relaxing? During my craniosacral massage—why does my head need so much rubbing?—all I could think was, How about a little Burt Bacharach? Maybe the cast recording from Annie? Isn’t there anything I can sing along to?

7. It was halfway through a couples massage—my girlfriend and I were getting side-by-side rubdowns—that I had my breakthrough. I was on my back, hands folded on my chest, while a stern woman kneaded my feet like they were horsemeat that she was trying to tenderize into edibility. I was concentrating so hard on relaxing that I was getting tense. Stressed, you might say. I didn’t want to blow this for my girlfriend.

I looked over. There she was, my girlfriend, eyes closed, lost in serenity. I stared at her. She opened her eyes. She smiled at me. "Honey, stop worrying," she said. "Close your eyes. Relax. You deserve this." It sounds simple. But actually it was a moment of clarity. I started to feel myself drift off. I felt relief. I felt different. I felt the power of the spa. When our time was up, my girlfriend looked at me. I was, I guess, looking happy.

"Did someone find their level of comfort?" she asked me, laughing.