Is This the Key to Winter Socializing?

Photo: Home Depot

For something I thought might change my life, my personal sauna arrived without fanfare, just a few days after I ordered it from Home Depot.

Unpacked, the silvan sauna popped up easily, like one of those tents that come in one piece and suddenly bloom open; plugged in, it would deliver infrared heat from its panels. I was supposed to sit inside, on the little stool it came with, zipped in with my head and arms sticking out. Then I was supposed to sweat.

I had high hopes for this $188 shed of dreams. Seeing friends outside, that tiny glimmer of pandemic-safe interaction, was rapidly becoming less practical as temperatures dropped. Our teeth were chattering as we gulped vats of hot toddies; long underwear and jeans were feeling very tight on the legs. People had been discussing heated blankets, heat lamps — that was kid stuff. “Why not slip into a personal sauna?” a colleague asked, sharing a link to a Home Depot listing in which a woman sits serenely in her sauna, gazing down at its remote control.

I liked that, the idea of leaning into a weather hack to the extreme, sous-vide-ing my entire body to hang out throughout the year.

Apparently, portable personal saunas have been around since the mid-20th century, when people mistakenly thought they could help users lose weight. Sauna purveyors will tell you that the concept of heating yourself for health dates back far longer, to ancient Finland, when people dug saunas right into the earth. My sauna made a series of wellness-related promises in its literature, including: “weight loss, improved skin tone, joint pain relief, increased blood circulation, enhanced immune system, reduced stress and fatigue, and increased overall energy levels.” I could already see a calm, healthy, Nordic version of myself, emerging from the zippered sac like a gorgeous Finnish butterfly, even as the sauna cautioned that it is “not a medical device” and is “intended for relaxation and recreational purposes.”

Just in time for my big “night out” of the week, my sauna arrived. A friend, Emma, was coming over to eat dinner outside on my balcony, which has ample space for two people to sit six feet apart and overlooks two abandoned unfinished luxury condominiums and a gas station. In the summer, the balcony was utopian, blissful: Giant weeds in the condo backyards waved in the breeze, and you could just glimpse a giant Corona ad on the empty warehouse across the street. I hoped the sauna might turn this little Mad Max wasteland into a kind of fucked-up winter Esalen. The idea was to test it during my dinner with Emma and spawn a movement, wherein she got a sauna, and another friend got a sauna, and on and on.

When Emma arrived, I took her out to the balcony to show her my new contraption. She was delighted by the experiment, as I knew she would be — Emma does things like bake with Yacon syrup and once paid a reiki master to cure her herniated disk. The temperature had crept up slightly, but it was still a windy 52 degrees outside and chilly. After settling Emma in with a jacket, I disrobed to a sports bra and bike shorts, and entered the chamber of my future.

The full-size sauna at my old gym was usually set to around 180 degrees Fahrenheit. The personal sauna, on the other hand, goes from 130 to 150, and you control it via a remote that sits in a handy pouch next to one of the two armholes. All I had to do, once the personal sauna was unfolded, was plug it in, zip it up, set a timer for 30 minutes, and wait for the warmth. It didn’t take long.

At first, left on the middle setting of 140, the heat was extremely pleasant. I basked in it and in Emma’s company. But, delightfully warm on my tiny stool, as I baked in the hut, I was also a helpless baby, a tiny kangaroo in my mother’s pouch. Because I was ensconced in my sauna, Emma, a good friend, had to bring me my beer and bring me my dinner, which was butternut squash soup. My arms stuck out from the sauna’s arm holes like the wings of a sweet, injured hummingbird sipping her sugar water, or the arms of a T-Rex.

After the initial elation, however, things took a turn. The first issue was the soup — a terrible, terrible choice I had made because I thought it would be warming for both of us. But inside the sauna, I was becoming a kind of person-soup. That meant that I was a soup eating soup, a disturbing textural equilibrium, in which everything was hot and wet. I didn’t know where I ended and the soup began. And with Emma having to do everything for me, the experience became isolating — instead of feeling closer to my friend, I was alone, shvitzing in the dark.

I climbed out, wet and sticky, before the 30-minute timer went off, feeling no more rejuvenated. Emma said I “glowed,” but I think she was just being nice. I dried myself off, put on some sweatpants, and shivered through dessert, cold but free.

The sauna was a failure, though not because it didn’t do exactly what it was supposed to do. It definitely works, and if you like sweating in a sauna, but the gym where you once did it has been closed, I even recommend it. I have used the sauna since in my room, watching Bravo TV. But the personal sauna won’t re-create the temporarily lost environment of sitting inside somewhere warm with a friend. A novelty household item from the Home Depot cannot, in fact, change your life when life is this messed up. I know I must accept this, for the time being. We can’t all climb into saunas we ordered from the internet and pretend everything is normal. There is a quiet dignity, I now realize, in suffering through the freezing cold to eat soup with a person you love.

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Is This the Key to Winter Socializing?