The Right Coast

April 23, 2004
Why I love the New York Times or Lifestyles of the Rich and Tasteless or American Civilization may suck, but at least it's funny
By Tom Smith

A truly outstanding morning for the New York Times. As usual, the best stuff is in the supplemental sections, where instead of undermining the national defense, which is not always a sure bet for humor, the Times is merely gnawing at the pillars of culture.

First, in the Escapes section, Gretchen Reynolds samples "eco-spas":

It is this mix of expensive coddling and environmental thoughtfulness that, ultimately, is at the heart of the eco-spa movement. "Sometimes, I just need to get away from materialism and celebrate the earth," said Beverly Hosokawa of Delray Beach, Fla. Ms. Hosokawa, who is 53, taut, convivial and married to a retired Internet company chief executive, has been to El Monte Sagrado four times in the last 10 months.

"Florida is all about who has the biggest house and the most expensive car," she said. "Here, it's all about serenity and the spirit." Her favorite activity, she said, is not the vitalizing formula facial ($158 for 90 minutes) or the reflexology massage ($105 for an hour), although such indulgences are wonderful. "I adore the sacred circle," she said, referring to a large, round and empty plot of grass at the center of the resort. "It's so nice that they didn't put a big swimming pool there. I can go out and practice yoga and reconnect with the spirit of the earth."

I don't know about you, but the absence of sacred circles has always bothered me about Florida.

Eco-spas make easy targets for the cynical. They celebrate self-indulgence and expense where a more dogmatic environmentalism demands looking outward and thinking small, making do with less. But, Mr. Worrell pointed out: "Luxury accommodations bring in the kind of people who can make policy. Get them thinking about the earth and good things can happen."

Ms. Szekely of Rancho la Puerta agrees. "The other day, all of our guests were sitting around the table talking and arguing about George Bush and air pollution," she said. "Those are the kind of people who come to spas like ours, and when they leave, they take some of our consciousness with them."

"Easy targets for the cynical"? I think that's rather harsh. As for me, I'm really sorry I missed that conversation about air pollution.

My own tour of [the] El Monte Sagrado [spa] ends with a 90-minute, demi-painful treatment from Ed Moffett, a tall, calm, deceptively powerful therapist (who also works part of the year at the Miraval resort). Mr. Moffett's deep-tissue, "bone-cleaning" massage promises to release energy and dissipate stress, and in fact, during my next morning's run, I feel fleeter and lighter than I have in years.

But as with so much that is good for you, the process involves sacrifice. As Mr. Moffett presses deeper, I wince. Finishing, he pats the sheet around me and says, sotto voce, "Get up when you're ready." I nod but don't move, my body now scoured and pure. I'm feeling benevolent toward all life, lying there, listening to the tumbrel of running water inside and outside the room, and the whoomp of my own pulse.

Unfornately, they don't seem to offer brain-cleaning massage. Still, the sacrifice Ms Reynolds endures not just for her own sake, but for the planet itself, it rather moving. For those of you who like to feel fleeter and lighter during your next run, an alternative to $1000 per weekend eco-spa-ing might be to run further and faster for a few weeks, thereby losing weight and getting stronger. Many athletes of all kinds use this method. It's called "training." But getting your bones cleaned sounds promising too. I'm glad her deceptively powerful therapist didn't tell her to get on the floor and bark like a dog. Maybe that's extra.

But now it's time for the world of art, and The Meaning, Beauty and Humor of Ordinary Things. Sometimes all one can do is quote:

It has been said that Mr. Koons lost his way after the 1988 show, and the current show does not dispell that suspicion. The early 1990's foray into explicit, participatory pornography still looks like bad judgment, as in the oversize ink-jet-printed photograph of the artist and his wife at that time, a porn star and member of the Italian parliament, both smeared with mud, making love. But the snowy, Renaissance-style marble sculpture of the couple tenderly embracing is a delightful fusion of the sacred and the profane.

Or this:

Consider, for example, the basketball hanging motionless in a water-filled aquarium, neither sinking nor rising. (The secret: it's partly filled with mercury.) This canny intersection of Minimalism and Pop might be a comment on the institutionalization of sports as a national religion and the deification of athletes like Dr. J, whose signature graces this ball. There is also the critique of what Marxist theorists like to call consumer fetishism: the erotic love of products like aquariums and shiny vacuum cleaners and souvenir liquor containers.

Yet the sculpture casts a mystical spell. The orange sphere hovering miraculously in the middle of the square tank becomes a kind of three-dimensional mandala, a symbol of spiritual unity and equanimity. It has a stillness that is weirdly soothing to stand before.

Or it might be a comment on the utter vacuity of the art world. However, that it might be a comment on the erotic love of aquariums is a provocative suggestion. I shall have to ponder that. No doubt it is mystical, even downright spiritual. For spiritual, though, you can't beat those "Praying Hands" sculptures for sale on the back pages of Parade magazine.

And finally, this little foray in the culture of Hip Hop. I read it, and feel less white already. And now I know what spinners are.