The Good Eye: Oh Buoyancy

Visions (or lack thereof) in the void

The view from Zen Blend's floatation tank
The view from Zen Blend's floatation tank (by Amy Gentry)

The beginning of 2015 has felt a lot like the end of 2014, in that baths are still my only downtime.

Our bathtub is comically small, and the hot water supply could be better, but I'm not in it for a luxury experience. I'm there because you can't take a computer, phone, or indeed any electronics into the bathtub. Believe me, I've been desperate enough to try it; but setting up a work station on a flipped-over laundry basket next to the bathtub did not yield the surge of Winston-Churchill-esque brilliance I was hoping for. Churchill, it turns out, dictated his bathtub letters through the bathroom door.

In fact, the only work I can do in the bathtub is reading actual books. Since my other job is reviewing contemporary fiction, I always have a stack of review copies five or six deep and a deadline just around the corner, so nobody can accuse me of slacking if I pick up the next one in the stack and take it for a swim.

But there are times when you just want a zipless soak. I'm sure even Churchill just wanted to be left alone sometimes to go pruney under a layer of soap scum. During a recent busy spell, I came to consciousness lying with my head almost submerged in lukewarm water, staring straight up at the ceiling, legs propped akimbo on the tiled wall and starting to cramp. It was the best sleep I'd had in weeks.

That's when I decided it was time to start floating like a pro: in a floatation tank.

A floatation tank is a giant enclosed bathtub where you go to hide from your enemies. Painted black on the inside, it's half filled with a solution of tepid water and Epsom salt atop which even the zaftig will bob like a cork. It was invented in the Fifties by John C. Lilly, a researcher of altered states of consciousness who also studied LSD and dolphin communication ("sometimes in combination," Wikipedia intriguingly claims).

Unsurprisingly, Austin is chock-a-block with floatation options. Go check – you probably have one in your house. But I don't, so I decided to go to a South Austin spa called Zen Blend. The sole factor in my decision, besides an attractive $165 three-hour floating package that included a hot-stone massage, was Zen Blend's location: an ordinary two-story house in a residential neighborhood, whose address is only disclosed upon request. You call and leave a message, then they call you back to set up the appointment, and then they send you an email with the directions. All that top-secret Bond stuff sounded great to me. After double-checking the Yelp reviews to make sure nobody said they'd been serial-murdered there, I booked my appointment.

Now, I'm pretty accustomed to visions. I have them during almost every massage of more than adequate quality. They take the form of little cartoon characters that pop out of various parts of my anatomy, vaguely resembling people I went to grad school with, or my mother-in-law, or characters from The Last Unicorn, and whisper home truths like "You're too critical of yourself" or "You shouldn't have dropped out of dance class in high school" or "You think you're just a little bit better than most people because you've never liked soft drinks." Then they vanish with a shriek, just as the massage therapist jabs her thumb into a knot the size of a ping pong ball under my left shoulder blade.

I know that sounds crazy, because it is absolutely, definitely, 100% crazy. I have no explanation. Chalk it up to my own experiments with altered states of consciousness, conducted rigorously and scientifically in various college co-ops. At any rate, my hot stone massage called up the usual parade of imaginary friends, and I prepared myself for the hallucinatory visuals many claim to experience in the tank.

One's first five minutes in a floatation tank are occupied with wondering if you're going to freak out. It's a weird combination of stuffy and slimy in there; the water is slippery and thick with salt, and there's not a lot of air movement. The tank door seals but doesn't latch, not even from the outside, so nobody's going to sneak up and Edgar Allen Poe you or anything. But once you close that door, you're completely alone in a private world. You're like Sandra Bullock in the Shenzhou capsule, hours after George Clooney's dimples have drifted into the fathomless beyond. There's a moment when you feel your heart thud against the top of your ribcage, and because it sounds louder than it's ever sounded before, you think maybe it's going to explode.

Then you open your eyes and see the most beautiful sight you have ever seen.

Not a technicolor spirit animal, not rainbows and dancing narwhals and laser light shows. You see total darkness. Real darkness. A beautiful, soft, depthless, unshimmering black in which the only way to tell whether your eyes are open or closed is to blink and listen for the scratchy flutter of your eyelashes like dry wings. All day we move from screen to screen, taking in words and images, judging, discerning, analyzing, appreciating. I'd hoped for visions, but instead found that my eyes were craving vision's absence. I thought I wanted to hide from the world, but what I wanted was to hide the world from me.

When I got back, it was all still there, waiting to be seen. My editor emailed; the publication date of Get in Trouble by Kelly Link had been moved up; could I turn it around fast? I settled into a hot bath with my review copy and a pencil. Within a few pages, I forgot I was in the bathtub. I almost forgot what a bathtub was. I'm not sure what happened to the pencil. A new Kelly Link book happens once a decade. If I had to pay $165 to read her next one, I'd do it in a heartbeat.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin style and fashion, floatation tanks, flotation tanks, Zen Blend, solitude, blank, black, darkness, unplugging, visions, Kelly Link

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