All Things Spa-like

Beer baths, bird dung facials, snake massages, the secret life of a massage therapist

Milestoned: 13 Years as a Massage Therapist

“Your hands must be soooo tired at the end of the day,” comments yet another anonymous massage client.

Three minutes later: “But would you mind going deeper?”

It’s been 13 years. The body count must be at 56,000. I’ve been patiently waiting for a gold pen to recognize my years of service, but may have to settle for gold shots instead. Goldschlager shots would be better yet.

Two of my current co-workers keep me semi-buoyed with enthusiasm. Suzanne has been a well-oiled massage machine for 19 years, casting hope and future into what seems like a quagmire of a career that sometimes rubs me the wrong way. Linda (whose name I should probably change, but won’t, just to make her squirm), is entering the massage industry at age 60. Imagine! So, why am I beefing and moaning at age 37?

Mostly I feel slightly doomed to wearing clip-on costume jewellery in my golden years. I’ll be partial to Mr.T –esque necklaces, mostly for their large clasp quality. I will definitely be the blue hair in the third row of the cinema wrestling with a Werther’s wrapper a good hour into the movie. At least I’ll be able to open twist-off beers with my teeth.

It’s been a love-hate relationship of sorts (with my career, not Suzanne and Linda). I’ve had career affairs and nearly committed career hara-kiri (Japanese ritual suicide by disembowelment with a sword when disgraced or under sentence of death). I took off to Africa, twice, on sojourns/sabbaticals/aka: exasperated-retreats-from-boredom, that allowed me to pursue a wildly different life that stirred my stagnating creativity and restored my restless self.

Editor’s note: I’d recommend a solid dose of the Congo and time with chimpanzees to anyone feeling like they are playing the role of a sleepy extra in Groundhog Day.

What I’ve known for sure, then and now, is that I never wanted a job that interrupted the larger, balancing part of my life that falls into categories like love, recreational reading, extensive travel, excessive holiday time, general loafing around, writing post-midnight, writing post 3 a.m., heavy socializing, mass movie intake, realistic search time for Toronto’s best Americano (and burger, pork belly banh mi, butter chicken, etc.), supine-on-the-beach time, sleeping 10 hours and the like.

I shudder, a lot, when I digest glimpses of other lives. Lives spent commuting. Three hours in gridlock, bleary-eyed hours zoned out in front of a computer, Blackberry operating in tandem with heart beat and blood pressure. A nose-dive of a sex life due to work fatigue. A steady diet of sterile coffee and garbage snacks to help fuel meeting a deadline. Twelve hour shifts. One week of vacation time. Eight a.m. meetings.

I don’t work a 40 hour work week.  I can’t. I would drop dead of instrumental music overload before anything else.

I remember (not even wistfully) days of scheming, so young and naive in massage college, calculators pulled out, tabulating our awesome future salaries. At $80 an hour, six hours a day, our payload was going to be $480 bucks a day. Five days a week? We’d be raking in $2,400. That math meant that we’d be earning an easy $9,600 a month. I’m choking on my Beck’s beer as I type this now (which I bought in a can that I can still open).

I can’t even do calculations that high, but, if my long hand multiplication is right, we would have estimated a yearly salary of $115,200.

Which is way less than what I’m actually earning.


In my 13th year I am working more and making less than I ever have. Math was never my strength, but this I know to be true.

Body Blitz Spa, Toronto

Life as a massage therapist is not exactly lucrative. I suppose if you expanded into other hand-friendly modalities like acupuncture, or subjected yourself to

Practicing what I preach and subjecting my body to a Thai treatment at The Owl & Pussycat in Victoria, BC.

additional schooling in an osteopath program (the very words “Five year curriculum” make me want to collapse and/or barf), there might be more dollars. But, when you are physically unable to cushion an income with overtime, you hit a glass ceiling early on. The ladder of success in the massage industry is more like a treadmill. Get on, pretty much at warp speed, and operate at a speed that will reasonably carry you the number of years you plan to work. But do so with caution and for every 25 bodies you massage, make sure you get one in return.

I have repeated myself at least 6,000 times in assuring clients that every job has its sacrifice. Though we appear to have a romantic career (the smoke and mirrors of dim lights, lavender and *&$^% Solitudes soundtracks), we have our limits. Massage therapy sacrifices: standing all day long, above-mentioned instrumental music, fear of sharp knives, inability to pursue activities that promise broken wrists like snowboarding and, poor performance post-work in crokinole tournaments or arm-wrestling matches.

Even worse? The party situation and admitting that you are a massage therapist. This tidbit suddenly becomes an invite for story time: motor vehicle accidents, broken leg stories, brushes with carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis here and there, bursitis here and there and, “feel this. No, really. What do you think it is? Can you fix that?”

My girlfriend gets off lucky in party conversations. She’s a steel quality specialist. Most people don’t have steel stories. My brother is even luckier. As a genome sequencer who looks for genetic disease markers, most people come to a dead halt in conversing. What the hell is a genome sequencer? “How about another beer?”

Truth be told? Most true friends know that my days of giving out free massages dwindled about a year after I finished school. Oh, those were the keen, shiny days of wearing a magic cape, so eager to save the world, one rub at a time.

Not that I’m disenchanted or jaded now. I still find elements of the career remarkably rewarding.

1. Everyone looks forward to seeing you

2. Workplace stress level is at a sub-zero level

3. At the risk of sounding schmaltzy, we provide a sanctuary for weary bodies and minds. Perfect strangers place their trust in our hands and are reliably relieved, rejuvenated and lightened of a life load in 60 minutes. No pressure!

My twin & I in front of a mural I painted in my biz, “The Upper Hand” in Dunnville, Ontario. I’m about 12 in this pic. Brand new massage therapist.

I’ve been spoiled with working in ambience-laden atmospheres. I’ve worked poolside at the Sheraton (that was a great tanning summer) and schmoozed at the Fairmont Royal York and King Edward hotel. I’ve worked with Olympians, cancer survivors and horses. (Yes, real live horses). I’ve had my own biz and was content to hand over the sheet-folding and hectic mess of scheduling for a percentage to work in some posh spas like the Wild Orange in BC and currently, Body Blitz in downtown Toronto.

What’s best? It’s always changing. Can I honestly answer and say my time in the Congo? Or four months in Uganda NOT massaging? That was the best. Drawing monkeys for a colouring book and feeding rescued chimps overshadows a lot.

But. Being a massage therapist has allowed me to do everything I’ve wanted. And, as you know, that means Egypt, Belize, Honduras,  Amsterdam, Venezuela, the Ice Hotel, the Galapagos, nights at the Gladstone and Queen’s Landing, Puma sneakers, fancy cheeses and fancier beers and a whole lot of life in between.

When my high school counsellor said I needed to research a vocation, I thought she said vacation. Largely and luckily, it’s been a lot of that, which is exactly the kind of symbiotic career I need.

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Beer Baths, Barbie Spa and Biblical Snakes

I’ve always had a near-fatal attraction towards weird things: Venus flytraps, naked mole rats, the steamy sex lives of chimps, Salvador Dali, Grapples (apples infused with a grape scent to make them more appealing to kids), Bjork, Inuit throat singers, Anthony Bourdain’s lunch box of bovine penis and wildebeest entrails—these things tickle my fancy.

Alternative to the Czech beer bath

Alternative to the Czech beer bath

Imagine my thrill when I came across the adverts for bird dropping facials and cat crap coffee.  My thrill meter reached roller coaster ride-levels when I read this “Beer: It’s not just for drinking.” I was skimming Healing Lifestyles and Spas magazine, when I felt my testosterone spike. A beer spa? The Chodovar Brewery in Czechoslovakia has become every man’s wet dream. In the vaulted cellars of Chodovar, you can indulge in a beer bath of live yeast and steep in the molasses-coloured depths. The one-two punch of Vitamin B and crushed hops helps nourish neglected skin, hair, nails and even aids in battling anxiety. Iron and carbon dioxide bubbles increase the skin’s circulation as the beer brew boils your joints at an intense 34 degrees. Fan club members boast that the beer bubble bath soothes psoriasis, acne and joint pain.

Rules are that while soaking you must sip a pint of beer to aid digestion. When you and your liver reach a prune-like state, the spa attendants wrap you in sheepskin and let you snooze on a bed of barley hay. When you regain consciousness you can stumble to the onsite Ve Skale restaurant for a smoked beef tongue with horseradish and mustard. I’ve already decided on the fried carp and knuckle of pork. However, I’d be willing to share a bowl of the tripe soup and another pint of non-bath water with my fellow spa-goers to discuss whether the “overall modulation of dermatic problems and mental disharmonies” (as advertised on the Chodovar website) were resolved.

If the beer bath proved to be all talk no action and I still suffered from dermatic problems and mental disharmony, I’d have to check out the Channings Day Spa in Chicago. My friend Jules lives there—and I’m certain she’d be game for a caviar facial after a catch-up over a Chicago-style deep dish pizza. The freeze-dried caviar is imported from Switzerland, and for $185 US, the 90-minute treatment promises to combat wrinkles. Because caviar has the same composition as human skin (70% amino acids and trace minerals), this somehow works. While $185 might seem outrageous, a top of the foot wax at Channings is only $3.

While visiting Channings, it would only make sense that Jules and I opt for one of the special spa services catering to “the young woman just starting out with make-up.” Here we could “learn the fundamentals of proper skin care and how to coordinate wardrobe selection with make-up colour for a stunning effect!” Sixty dollars is a small price to pay to learn which eye shadow to pair with camo cargos and Haviana flip flops.

After fishing for compliments on my caviar complexion, the Euphoria Spa in Detroit would be my next pit stop to buff my bum for the leather chaps-wearing season. Booking the “Sweet Cheeks Derriere Facial” would probably make me the butt of every joke, but  this cheeky facial is seriously technical. After a cleanse and exfoliation, a masque is applied and the grand finale comes in the form of a butt wax with warm paraffin. Like a nice bum candle.

Maybe I’d skip the hot cross buns for a soak in green tea or sake at the Hakone Kowakien Yunessun Spa in Japan, which is oddly a spa and amusement park. After a day at the Rodeo Mountain heated waterslides, guests can choose from a variety of soaks.  The coffee spa is intended to revive fatigued muscles (real coffee made with hot spring water). Word has it that the Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra, preferred a red wine bath. Obviously she never looked in the mirror after a night of drinking merlot. If a nice bottle of red can turn your teeth clay grey and your tongue as black as a Chow dog’s after a single glass—what would a half-hour soak result in? The green tea spa treatment sounds safest with the promise of powerful anti-oxidant and tumor-fighting catechin, which is also good for one’s complexion.

Anti-bowling shoe but pro-Barbie pedi feet

Anti-bowling shoe but pro-Barbie pedi feet

At Yunnesun, the Mori No Yu zone is a tranquil bathing space where you can experience onsen Japanese-style. The website advises “you can enjoy the bathing experience without a bathing suit. Remember, the bathing experience in Japan means enjoying in Japanese-style for relaxation and pleasure and is not a place to wash your body with soap.” Swimsuits are available for rent at 1,000 yen. I wonder what I’d rather subject myself to—bowling alley bowling shoes or a rental swimsuit that’s probably seen more pee than green tea.

For those wanting to channel Cleopatra beyond the wine bath, rumour has it that the vain dame also liked to sleep with a gold mask on every night. At Yunnesun you can have 24 karat gold sheets applied to your face which will undoubtedly leave your skin feeling like a piñata.

Bently, wishing he was having a ramen noodle bath instead

Bently, wishing he was having a ramen noodle bath instead

A seasonal treat, much like pumpkin pie, Christmas cake and a June strawberry social is Yunnesun’s Ramen Soup bath. Bathers can share “a steaming broth of pepper, garlic extract and collagen to help boost metabolism and nourish the skin.”  Men sweating in a bowl of soup makes me lean towards prettier and pinker options like the Barbie Spa in Shanghai where it’s sugar and spice and everything nice. Barbie must have sold her mobile home and snazzy pink Corvette to afford this splashy Shanghai spa.  There’s a posh hair salon where you can no doubt get Barbie bangs, estheticians offer Barbie manis & pedis (did she even have fingernails and toenails on that smooth, supple body?) and you can also take in an afternoon tea if you aren’t worried about keeping Barbie doll dimensions.

Even sweeter is the list of treatments available at the Hotel Hershey in Hershey, Pennsylvania. The spa packages read like the very best food porn: exfoliations of cocoa bean husks and walnut shells, foaming chocolate milk baths, chocolate sugar scrubs and a chocolate fondue wrap of warmed Moor mud and essence of cocoa.

When Willy Wonka’s arch enemy, Milton Hershey, travelled to Cuba in 1916, he was so smitten that he bought several sugar plantations and mills there so he could refine sugar for his chocolate factory in the states. The Hershey spa pays tribute to Milton’s Cuban love affair by offering equally sumptuous indulgences like the Mojito Sugar Scrub and a Coffee Body Polish with Dead Sea Salts and Arabic coffee.

If, like me, you find yourself torn between the ramen noodle hot tub and the Cleopatra lifestyle, there’s one more option that will split your decision. Ada Barak, who owns the Carnivorous Plant Farm and Barak Snake Spa in Northern Israel, has become a media darling. The introduction of snakes as a therapeutic treatment was only natural to her, even “biblical” as Barak explained to Reuters. Women and snakes came together in the Garden of Eden, ‘nuff said. When an elderly woman told her that the snake coiled around her felt like a cold compress, the idea for opening a snake spa instantly slithered into Barak’s mind.

So, tell me. Will it be an hour with the biblical snakes, caviar in your crack or a beer bath followed by a beef tongue with horseradish?

Chodovar Beer Spa:

Caviar at Channings:

Wine soaks at Yunessun:

Barbie Bangs and Barbie-tinis:

The Hotel Hershey:

Ada Barak talkin’ about her biblical snakes:

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Cat Crap Coffee, Bird Dung Facials and Nibbling Fish Therapy

Tess, dreaming of cat shit coffee

Tess, dreaming of cat shit coffee

If you missed the cat shit coffee craze of five years ago, it’s back, and better than before. Even Dr. Jane Goodall is backing the Vancouver-based Doi Chaang Coffee Co.’s newest product because it’s organic and sustainably collected from the wild. At $500 a pound though, it may be cheaper to fly to the Doi Chaang village in Northern Thailand to scavenge for your own.

The cat crap brew that is the cat’s meow again is a product of the civet cat. When someone put two and two together, meaning civets & coffee and barf & poop, a beautiful thing was discovered. Civets eat the beans and pass them, creating lucrative stooping and scooping for the entrepreneurial Akha Hill tribe of Doi Chaang. Even regurgitated beans (cat barf) are collected and marketed as “spat” coffee as opposed to “passed” coffee.

Unfortunately, the Western popularity of civet crap coffee resulted in many of the wild civets being captured and caged to maximize profits. Apparently the civet-passed coffee has been around for decades, but only appreciated in Asian markets.  As reported in “Brother, can you spare $500 for coffee?” (The Vancouver Sun, May 23, 2009) hunky Toronto chef Jamie Kennedy detected “honey notes and a deeply mellow chocolately earthiness.”  Online food sites suggest bright and fruity flavour profiles for the litter box coffee. Deeply mellow chocolately earthiness? Really?

The civet coffee buzz can only lead to one thing: a really expensive crappacinno.

It seems like everyone is cashing in on shit lately. The swanky Shikuza Spa in New York is promoting a Geisha Facial which uses traditional and natural Japanese ingredients, like dried bird droppings, or uguisu no fun (and I didn’t even make that up). This spa treatment gives a new meaning to “getting shit-faced.” Somehow, some Geisha with waterproof mascara discovered that nightingale droppings could be used to remove make-up (I would love to know how exactly this discovery came about. Hmm, this soap and water just isn’t working. I know, that big pile of bird droppings on my window sill, I bet that’ll do the trick!). The Shizuka Spa website even suggests that this same Geisha noticed that the droppings helped “to brighten, heal and retexturize the skin due to natural enzymes and guanine, which imparts a pearly luster to the skin.” After all those years of dedicated Clearasil and Oxy Medicated Cleansing Pads use.

Pearly luster? I say save your $180 for the 60 minute facial, side-step the $500 pound of coffee and buy a flight to Mexico. Blast that potentially pearly porcelain luster with UV rays and H1N1. More than 20 coastal Mexican hotels have launched a “flu-free guarantee” this month in response to the Swine Flu that has drastically reduced the number of tourists tanked on tequila. With this guarantee, if you catch the H1N1 virus while vacationing (and obtain a blood test to prove it), you can get your next three vacations for free. As of May 17th, the virus had infected nearly 6,500 people worldwide, so odds are good. Besides, Mexico is generally associated with diarrhea anyway, what ‘s a little touch of the Swine Flu?

Real Resorts, AMResorts and Karisma’s El Dorado and Azul hotels (Cancun and Mayan Riviera) are participating in this promo for travel until December 20, 2009. If you are a winner and test positive for H1N1 within five days of departure you will be magically granted three return stays (valid for one traveler and one companion), one per  year.  This is an exceptional deal, provided you don’t die.


A Tang in my brother Dax's aquarium, not involved in any spa treatments

A safer bet that doesn’t involve cat or bird droppings would be a visit to Malaysia’s Sampuoton Spa. Flipping through a copy of Elle at lunch last week, I was sucked into the “ELLE HOT 100 List” that suggested an alternative beauty fix for dry, winter skin. Branding itself as the first “fish-therapy designer concept spa,” Garra Rufa fish from Turkey will nibble at your dead skin cells. The fish are intelligent too—they will only eat the dead and infected skin cells. Kindly, while snacking, the fish emit an enzyme that “prevents the fast development of cells on the skin.” The hour long treatment is inviting. Who wouldn’t want to slip into a thermal pool filled with Garra Rufa fish? I’m thinking NIGHTMARE, but the Sampuoton suggests that the treatment is relaxing, and you will only feel a mild tickling sensation.

When I visited the site to read more about this seemingly horrifying treatment I clicked on “The Fish” page. Here I learned that the Turkish Garra Rufa fish is actually from the carp family, is known as the “Doctor Fish” by working professors (not sure who they are referring to in that statement), and outside medical circles, the fish is better known as the Reddish Log Sucker. I can see why they decided to incorporate the more exotic Latin fish reference. Who would want a Reddish Log Sucker to eat their dead skin cells? The Garra Rufa Doctor fish, well, that fish has credentials and sounds smart.

The site wisely appeals to those searching for Zen and balance. “Recreation and Nature return. People may realize harmony between human and nature while playing with the fish in the pool while reaching the goal of promoting health recreation.” Who plays with fish? I had Sea Monkeys as a kid, and they were a scam. The comic book adverts said you could teach the smiling Sea Monkeys to play baseball. Yeah, right. This alone discourages me from playing with Reddish Log Suckers who have been eating  the garbage off people I haven’t even met. And, if these Doctor fish are so awesome, shouldn’t they be in every public pool and hot tub? Imagine the dead skin available to those hungry nibblers. What a fantastic surprise for unsuspecting YMCA swimmers too as they feel the odd tickle while doing laps and later learn that the Suckers are providing a beauty treatment while they exercise.  Sampuoton Spa goes even further—“after an hour of the fish nibbling session the skin becomes elastic, smooth and gives a healthy shine and a feeling of freshness.”

Civet crappacinno?

Civet crappacinno?

For feelings of freshness I use Dove green tea and cucumber deodorant and give my skin a healthy shine with eight glasses of water and a daily bowl of oatmeal. But, maybe I’ve fooled myself all these years by not trying to achieve the pearly luster of a Geisha by smearing bird shit on my cheeks. I willingly drank and ate fecal matter when I was in Africa which was just foolish. Now I know that a refined palate only chooses spat and shat civet coffee beans.

I guess the spa I work at has a long way to go. We thought clients enjoyed aromatic blends of citrus, lavender and eucalyptus. Tomorrow I’m going to submit a proposal to my boss about creating a Canada Goose Dung Facial and a Coast Mountain Crow Crap body wrap. If that goes successfully, I’m going to gather wild scat in the ravine behind my house and see what shit works best for removing tomato sauce and red wine stains. If the nightingale droppings helped the Geisha with her make-up removal, I bet bear poop studded with blueberries is good for something.

Tall, skim spat coffee

Tall, skim spat coffee

Categories: All Things Spa-like, Things with Fur and Feathers | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ten Years, Not Tenure

A  decade. Over 13,456 bodies served.

I promised myself that I would work as a massage therapist until I paid off my student loan. That took eight years of bitter monthly payments that seemed imaginary when I looked at the percentage that was clawed off in yearly interest.

It’s been 10 years this month, and last week I had a wake up fall. That’s right, fall, not call. I had a 45 minute break in my day that I thought I would fill with a foamy latte and biscotti at Tamaringo’s. What I hadn’t planned on doing was hydroplaning off the very first wooden stair behind the spa and landing not-so-gracefully on my hip and forearm. Monsoon rains fell from the sky and made my jeans wet so quickly, I wondered if I had wet myself.

My pride was hurt the most, and in my fear of being seen flat out on the stairs I fought off the crocodile tears, jumped up and ran to my vehicle. I had three heartbeats in my body, but the one in my arm was the biggest. Everything on my left side seized. Now what? Was this my career-ender? Just like that, for a stupid latte and biscotti? I was glad I wasn’t over the age of 60, with bones like biscotti, because I would have had a hip fracture for sure. I checked my radius and ulna for the dreaded “dinner fork fracture” which splits both bones at the wrist. I felt my ribs and thought I should eat more ribs. I thought of the last massage I had scheduled for the day and wondered if I could scrounge up any strength to do it.

As I lost myself in the routine that I know best (massaging, not the latte and biscotti, but I do know that routine well too), I thought of what I could do the day my body rejected any further future as a massage therapist.

My dream job has been taken by a determined 12-year-old. And no, I don’t mean that I want a paper route so I can buy a new, shiny bike at the end of summer. I’m referring to Le Petit Gourmet, David Fishman of New York. The kid is lunching with veteran GQ food writer Alan Richman.

Last November, Fishman’s mother sent him out to eat by himself. He walked into Salumeria Rosi without a reservation and agreed to give up his table by 8 p.m. As he was taking notes and chatting up customers, Fishman was spotted by a woman whose friend worked at the New York Times. She gave the boy her card which was passed on to his mother, and the headline ran shortly after—“12-year-old’s a Food Critic, and the Chef Loves It.”

Fishman has even had dinner with Tim Zagat and his story is being gobbled up by Paramount. He told GQ (March 2009), “I didn’t want a movie, if this was an adult aspiring to be a food critic, nobody would care.” Charmed, Alan Richman invited him out to three more meals, and Fishman wrote reviews of each to be printed as excerpts.

“Appearing like a schoolboy doing homework while he ate” Richman thought his approach was “more sensible than what we professionals do, which is to try desperately to conceal our spiral-bound notebooks under the table while we blindly scribble notes we can’t decipher when we get home.”

The kid can eat, Dungeness crab and sushi even, but can he write? The excerpt in GQ on their visit to Kouzan reads: “The sushi for two loomed in front of us, looking like a dish prepared for a TV show, almost fake. One bite and it tasted it too. This restaurant has a far way to come in my opinion to even reach traditional Japanese standards, and something tells me it isn’t even going to try.” The 12-year-old food critic gave the food at Kouzan an 11 out of 25.  

When I was 12 I thought having Oreos for breakfast was close to living like royalty. Kraft Dinner with ketchup was de rigeur and cold straweberry frosted Pop Tarts were considered haute cuisine. Regardless, I was beginning to generate career possibilities even then, but I didn’t think of being a full-time food critic (only when my mother made pork hocks and lima beans).

I scribbled down financial windfalls like Kentucky Fried Turkey. KFC had mastered fried chicken, imagine the crowds at Thanksgiving and Christmas if they offered Kentucky Fried Turkey! Unable to find a reliable KFC contact who would allow me to copyright the turkey money-maker, I moved on to a more tangible idea. In Brantford, Ontario, where I grew up, a landmark location was “The Bookworm,” a used bookstore that smelled like Noxema and hair. This was in the heyday of cassette tapes and I told my mother that I needed to buy the space beside The Bookworm. I wanted to open a music store which would be called “The Tapeworm.” But then cassette tapes were pushed into medieval practice with CD marketing. “The CD Worm” sucked as a store name and my brilliant idea went into the ether.

Eating that banana slug would have given me a tapeworm…

My highschool yearbook is a testament to my ongoing fulfilling job search. In 1993 I was quoted as saying that I would like “to be a maxi pad commercial hand model.” Ambitious, yes. But how does one break into that scene?

Still in love with Kraft Dinner at that point, I thought a Kraft Dinner Cafe (not Kafe, because that would be too tacky) would win the hearts and guts of malnourished university students. The menu would offer KD with chopped wieners, salsa, ketchup, sides of fried bologna and retro desserts like chewy Jell-o cubes with Cool Whip. But then I had gnocchi and gave up KD for good.

This is when my letter carrier fantasies began to take a firm hold, but much like the fate of the cassette tape, the future of posties is delicate. I might have the career lifespan of a hamster if I sign up with Canada Post today. Will they even exist in two years? Regardless, I am envious of their bulging calves and the solitary nature of their work. Plus, I’ve had four really good dog bites which would give me a fearless edge.

So now what? All the good jobs are obviously gone. I am patiently waiting for a copy of Alpaca Farming For Dummies to learn where to begin with that enterprise. Who knows, maybe I’ll have a Susan Boyle moment and discover that I have the vocal chords designed for an Inuit throat singer.

I read the Classifieds like a good Catholic does the Bible–but where does one apply to be a Paint Chip Colour Namer? I know exactly how my curriculm vitae would appear for that position. An 8.5′ by 11′ sheet of paper—not white. No, it would be cottage cheese, July clouds, Tom Sawyer fence, French manicure, goat’s milk…and I would put my name on the bottom and decorate the border with Wite-out correction fluid. I’ll be a shoo-in.

If the Paint Chip Colour Namer gig doesn’t pan out, I’m thinking a street cart on Granville selling toasted marshmallows on summer nights would appeal to the urban crowd. Or, if I could just get my foot in the door at Thomas Haas Fine Chocolates, then I could share with him my very best truffle ideas. Like a dark chocolate truffle with cotton candy inside. Or, a charred marshmallow with graham cracker bits, which could be marketed as a reconstructed S’mores.

Drinking pedestrian wine, god, is that Arbor Mist?

If my Toronto neighbour, Claire, wasn’t such a snooty oenophile, I may have looked into becoming a wine critic. You know, talking about the legs and nose of a wine, describing it like a lover. Raw, notes of leather, lingering finish, soft on the palate. But Claire, she destroyed me with her glares at my “pedestrian wine choices.” That is, until she was already drunk, sleepless and wanting more wine after her shift at the bar. Then my pedestrain wine choices were tops on her list.

I could go on, really. Surely a distance education course will become available so I can become a hot air balloon pilot from the comfort of my own home. Wanda still says no to my beekeeping interests due to the allergy=death thing. The bed and breakfast (which I’ve already decided will be called the Bread & Bekfast for simplicity reasons—try saying it 10 times, you’ll get what I mean) is promising. And the Dog-Eared Bookstore? Well, I could just start selling off my heaving shelves.


Ngamba Island Chimp Sanctuary 10th Anniversary Cake–not made by me, but I could do that!

And then there’s cake decorating like the icing wizards on Ace of Cakes. I could do that! Or travelling on a camel across Ethiopia to Morocco delivering books to African kids like that woman did in the The Camel Bookmobile. Surely that’s a franchise!

For the time being I will continue with the hairy back industry. But I’m feeling the years of rubbing everyone the right way. What I know for sure is that I won’t be able to work at Tiffany’s helping customers with dainty necklace clasps. And making tiny little swans out of origami? Nope. All my fine motor movement will be gone after another decade of massaging. At that point I will be found cracking open jars and bottles much like hard-boiled eggs on countertops to get at the pickles or wine inside.

Any further ideas are always appreciated. As you can see, I will consider anything, within reason of course.

Another option, getting into the lucrative Live Bait market

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Massage Therapy: Galloping In a New Direction

horse-massage-3Massage therapy for animals is not a recent phenomenon. Historians have traced roots back thousands of years to Greeks who would massage both warriors and horses before battle.

Equine (horse) sports massage therapy in the United States emerged most prominently in the early ’70s. Jack Meagher, a highly respected human physical and sports massage therapist for the National Football League adapted his techniques to be used on horses. “The Meagher Method” is still the classic standard today.

Meagher joined the U.S. Equestrian Team in 1976, and his pioneering work recognizing horses as athletes in need of bodywork established massage therapy as a mainstay of the U.S. Olympic equestrian teams and the horse racing industry. Even amateur horse show competitors began to embrace the field.

Unfortunately, animal massage is not a regulated industry. There is no governing body, no minimum requirements, or standardized testing. A Google search for animal/equine massage therapy schools pulls up several pages of listings advertising various online courses, diplomas and certificates.

The D’Arcy Lane Institute in London, Ontario offers the only registered equine massage therapy program in North America. Students enrolled in the 2,200 hour program are taught to consider themselves as an extension of veterinary health care. The challenging curriculum addresses equine behaviour, anatomy, pathology, kinesiology, hydrotherapy and research.

Anthony Guglielmo, a New York state licensed Massage Therapist and Equine Massage Practitioner, was easily coaxed into the field of animal massage. A patient’s mother called Guglielmo and asked, “Will you massage my horse?” She had bought the horse unaware of the history of abuse that Champ had suffered. The previous owner had tied Champ up and beat him before competitions.

With little exposure to horses in his life, Guglielmo was hesitant, but his love of animals made the decision easy. He soon found himself driving to Synergy Farms in Ohio, to adapt his palpation skills for human muscles to a horse. Intimidated initially by his horse-friendly classmates, Guglielmo’s confidence was boosted by his solid knowledge of massage techniques and anatomy.

After successful sessions with Champ, implementing what he had learned at Synergy Farms, other horses followed. Then there were calls from the nations best zoos and aquariums asking Guglielmo to treat two senior dolphins (40 years old) known affectionately as the Golden Girls. Guglielmo’s burgeoning reputation led him to working on a 2,000 pound walrus named Nuka who could no longer swim as she had lost the use of her rear flippers.

Guglielmo wrote The Walrus on My Table, Touching True Stories of Animal Healing in 2000 with Cari Lynn. He colourfully outlined his years of practice treating not only humans, but a penguin with kyphosis, a shark with scoliosis, and one of the oldest beluga whales living in captivity.

There is still a fierce battle for acceptance of the merits of massage therapy and other non-traditional healing methods for animals by veterinarians. Horse owners recognized the needs of their horses long ago. They understood that their horses suffered the same stress and muscle soreness as human athletes post-competition. Horses have physically demanding roles as jumpers, in polo matches, racetrack competition and even trail riding.

workshop participant performing lumbar traction

workshop participant performing lumbar traction

By nature, horses are stoic about pain. A vicious pain and fear cycle can easily be created when a horse suffers an injury. When the horse resists the painful movement and the rider’s commands, the rider often adds more tack. This increases the pain the horse experiences, and as the rider takes the horse on longer, harsher, corrective rides, the horse begins to associate work with pain. It is only natural that the horse would also become fearful of being ridden as it exacerbates their pain.

Anne Turner, an Equine Therapist at Wit’s End Farms near Vancouver, British Columbia has spent over 30 years working intimately with horses. She has been involved with rehabilitating retired racetrack horses who had lost perception of their hind ends and how to use them. The racetrack horses had become accustomed to a bit holding them back from falling forward in a race. The weight of a rider on their back was new experience as well, as the racetrack horse is only familiar with the weight and positioning of a jockey.

Turner, during the years she lived in Jamaica, was exposed to horses hooked on heroin an cocaine. The horses had learned to eat their own feces to get high again. They attacked anything that moved in their anxious state. Turner tells troubling stories of horses in withdrawal, galloping non-stop in circles around the barn as she hosed them with cold water to calm them down. She expresses deep sadness and teeth-clenching anger for the people responsible for introducing the horses to such addictive substances. A poor diet and reliance on drugs results in minimal nutrient absorption, bacterial infections, dehydration, skin hypersensitivity, and for some, near liver failure.

Racetrack horses are routinely fed high carb diets of corn and beet pulp, which is a sugar byproduct reprocessed with added molasses. Equine diabetes is a common diagnosis. Turner’s detox program involved using iridescent green marijuana pestled and steeped in hot water. Methadone, and the amount a horse would require would be an exorbitant cost. She fed the horses apple flavoured electrolytes, yogurt, iron-rich Guinness and flax to help leach out heavy metals and decrease lactic acid levels. Oats and barley, with their high fiber content helped sweep the guts. Turner also incorporated homeopathic remedies like dandelion (for kidney detox), and white willow bark (a natural pain killer). Proper nutrition is essential for horses as their stomachs are only slightly bigger than humans, and they are susceptible to ulcers as well.

The anatomy of a horse is surprisingly parallel to a human, however, a horse carries 55% of its weight forehand, and 44% in the hind. Their brain is similar in size to ours, they have seven cervical vertebrae, and a nuchal ligament that stretches to allow feeding and lowering. The 18 dorsal vertebrae mirror our thoracic spine, but the horse has 18 ribs as opposed to 12. The lumbosacral joint, comprised of 5 to 6 vertebrae is often referred to as the “coupling transmission” that permits pelvic flexion and the engagement of the hind quarters to jump or gallop. The sacrum is identified as the “croup”, and the tail has an additional 18-20 vertebrae.

Despite having scapulae, horses have no collarbones. The true horse knee is posterior, and a unique locking system of the stiple joint/patella allows the horse to sleep standing up.

The shoulder sling (serratus anterior, scalenes) extends from C4-C7 to the ribs, and the rhomboids are actually found on the posterior neck of the horse.

The “withers” is the top of the horse’s back, and it can be easily stretched by a therapist using a carrot to entice the horse to move its head in certain directions. Carrot stretches are effective for the pectoralis group, posterior neck muscles and the latissimus.

The unique anatomy of the horse is most evident in its skin. A horse can feel a fly land on its back, and the skin twitches in response to messages from a nervous system that independently controls the skin. The knowledge that a horse can feel the weight of a fly suggests that a lot of force isn’t necessary when applying techniques.

Similar to human client assessment, a therapist can observe wear patterns on the horse’s shoes. Poor shoeing and a hoof imbalance can lead directly to incorrect weight-bearing and altered gait.

As Guglielmo discovered, massage techniques are interchangeable between humans and animals. Easier yet, a horse’s face and whorls can indicate a lot of information. If the profile is straight (as opposed to a Roman nose with the comic slant and hook), the horse is uncomplicated; long nostrils indicate intelligence and more than one swirl or whorl can serve as a warning of temperament.

Changes in a horse that indicate a need for massage therapy include weight loss, bucking under the saddle, rearing, aggressiveness, biting while being ridden, fatigue and depression. If the horse suddenly dislikes grooming, flinches, or can’t hold up its feet for a farrier, bodywork is recommended.

The use of tie-downs and side reins can cause temporo-mandibular joint dysfunction and atlas problems. A common lumbo-sacral joint hyper-extension strain is called a “hunter’s bump”. This strain can lead to overuse of hamstrings and inner thigh muscles compensating with added weight.

Lack of musculature in the horse’s top line can be a sign of back pain which in turn affects the horse’s digestive system. The nerves controlling the gut can increase or decrease gut action, resulting in excessive gas and colic risk.

Head trauma to a young horse can lead to a distortion of proprioception that can affect them for life. The birthing process can sometimes result in a head trauma if the horse is dropped. Skittish, highly reactive or spaced-out horses may be displaying signs of central nervous system damage. With an over-firing sympathetic nervous system, the horses react with instant flight to stimulus like noise.

A horse’s immediate environment can also leave them susceptible to injury: trailering accidents, falls in muddy fields and paddocks, ill-fitting saddles and a rider’s hard hands. Riding a horse hard causes increased muscle contraction in their necks and poll (between their ears). Dressage horses who spend so much time tucking their chins love to have their polls massaged.

Horses will naturally lean into you during a massage if they want you to stay in a particular area. If you move your hands they will step forward or back to relocate you back to that sweet spot. In this way, non-verbal communication with a horse is simple. Horses groom each other as a sign of affection. They will nibble, nuzzle, yawn and pass gas in appreciation of a massage.


The massage treatment for a horse is identical to the structure of a human’s. The massage begins with effleurage and progresses to petrissage, tapotment, trigger point work and thorough stretching. The benefits are the same: increased lymphatic circulation, nervous system stimulation, increased digestion, elimination, and improved heart function. Most importantly, the horse can experience a decrease in stress from hard work, competitions or an uptight personality. Massage can also be linked to helping the horse gain weight. Improved circulation helps promote hoof growth which in turn improves weight-bearing issues responsible for altering gait.

Following a massage treatment, the therapist needs to ride the horse to assess the difference in gait. Detecting problems while riding the horse is the most effective method. Successive treatments will allow for muscle and strength training which will become evident in the horse’s rhythm, hind-end engagement and “travel in a frame”.

For riders and horse owners, education is necessary to help determine the cause of repetitive injuries. Ground mounting can cause spinal torsion in the horse if the mounts are always on the same side. Unbalanced riders can cause horses to compensate for the uneven load, as can riders weighting on one hip.

Turner, nicknamed the “Florence Nightingale of the horse world” is currently working on a novel that will address the spiritual, mind and body connection of horses and their owners. She wants to share the healing power of horses with women who have been abused. Her priority is to ensure horses and their riders grow closer together through a relationship of mutual respect and trust. Certainly, introducing horses to bodywork is one of the essential methods.

Gulglielmo and Turner’s work proves the scope of massage therapy is expanding in all directions. As Guglielmo points out in his book, “the great divide between humans and the animal kingdom isn’t all that great.” Animals have emotions, intuitions and “they respond to and crave the same things we do, namely personal contact and interaction.”

Visit for information on upcoming workshops.

Categories: All Things Spa-like, Things with Fur and Feathers | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

Lady of the Daytime: Life as a Massage Therapist

Behind closed doors, the life of a massage therapist is not all sunshine and lollipops. Yes, we are bathed in candlelight, our hands are supple from silky, aromatic oils and the atmosphere is designed to be like a warm hug. Clients are genuinely thrilled to see us, dream of us most hours of the day and praise our work on an hourly basis. What’s not to like?
The dark side of massage comes in many forms, the most dominant being the instrumental music that makes me want to put Enya in a chokehold (and if I could get my hands on that Pachebel guy…).
The antibacterial soap that is efficient in removing above-mentioned silky, aromatic oils makes my skin itch like I have rolled around in poison ivy. My dog looks at me questionably. “You? You have fleas? I thought I was the only one.”
Like any profession, there are horror stories that are exchanged between wide-eyed colleagues over shaken-not-stirred martinis in dim-lighting. Client confidentiality is utmost, but, we have to unload on someone about the warts, farts, black sock lint and moles that make up a large part of our career. We have job hazards too.
The warts, they are always a surprise. In that buttery light, the naked eye doesn’t notice the familiar cauliflower-form on the sole of the foot. No, it is the unsuspecting hand that glides over it first. The sensation is one that will never be confused with anything else. A wart is a wart, and I have touched far too many.
Some days I think that I may never eat finger food again. I see the estheticians licking their fingers at lunch, enjoying bags of salty chips or hand-held ham sandwiches. I need to eat everything with a spoon or fork after what I have seen and touched.Wanda worries about the moles in our backyard. I worry about the moles under my fingertips. If one every rolled off a body, I’d be done.
And the farters. In ten years, there have been a select few. One woman was consistent, and she consistently scared me as well. Just as I would lean in to do a stroke up her hamstrings she would let out a cracker of a fart. I always jumped, my hands flying off her body in fear. There was no recovery, and in those awful, dreaded minutes that followed, I couldn’t think of a thing to say. I should have reassured her—hell, she should have reassured me! Then, it was too late for either of us to say anything at all. I remember being generally relieved that I didn’t fall to the ground thinking I had been shot (and this is why I’m not a cop, because loud farts make me shake).
  In a decade I have seen more bodies than McDonald’s has served greasy Big Mac’s. From antsy six-year-old’s toting stuffed animals to war vets with concentration camp tattoos on their forearms. My lucky hands have marvelled over Olympian gastrocs and size 19 feet belonging to leggy basketball stars. Feet as long as my arm, swear to god. And a beefy NHL player with quads so big that he had to have his pants custom made.
Of course, in working with people so intimately, I hear hushed secrets and see tattoos that only their lovers and proctologists have seen. I am whispered confessions about affairs by the wife, and then by the husband in a later session (and sometimes by the mistress herself). This is what happens when you run a clinic in a town of 5,000. (i.e.: George, a pony-tailed guy who had been shot by his ex-wife in the leg when caught in bed with the Other Woman. “Hell, she almost took my nuts off with the second shot!”).
The cosmopolitan city of Toronto and the splashy hotel environment introduced me to a clientele unafraid of asking for what they wanted. Like the Spanish model who insisted that I massage his anus “because it makes me feel gooooooood.” If I didn’t want to do his anus during the treatment time he invited me up to his hotel room where I could finish the “job” properly and he’d slip me another fifty. “Oh, gee, could I?” He was a model asshole to me.
There was only one other occasion where I was asked if I was a “Lady of the Evening,” in broad daylight in Dunnville, Ontario. It was 11 a.m., and I couldn’t wrap my head around somebody actively searching for Lady of the Evening services that far from Amsterdam. Dunnville, Red Light District? And, at this hour?
Then there was Bob who asked politely if I would tickle him for the last ten minutes of every treatment. He had curly Chia Pet hair on his back, and only wanted the hair touched“gingerly,” and not the skin. If I wanted to, I could tickle his feet too. I should have hooked him up with the Spanish model.
The moment that made me want to spit daggers was when a beligerent Turkish client insisted on disrobing infront of me (and there is nothing worse than something mauve and floppy in your face, and then watching that mauve and floppy-something wobble and flop as a client ungracefully mounts himself on the massage table). He insisted he was too hot for a sheet and kept throwing it on to the floor. When I finished, an unbearable hour later, he told me I wasn’t done. “You are finished when I tell you you are finished.” I surprised myself by telling him that “no, I am telling you that you are finished.” Then I ran like hell out of the room. He was not a Turkish delight.
I massaged a man at that same hotel who openly told me he had so much money that he would never be able to spend it all in his lifetime. He would book weekly for two hours at a time and begged to extend it to three. Another client at that hotel had two life coaches that he had to communicate with every night for 45 minutes to remain stable. His body was covered in weeping hives, but he was one of the richest in Canada. Rich in what? I often wondered…
Many clients have left a deep impression on me. I think Don could feel my tears dropping on his back when he told me that he had end stage lung cancer. He said the doctor gave him a month, and he died a few days short of it. I reminded myself that I was able to offer him a temporary sanctuary when the rest of his life slid sideways. Don’s brother had dropped dead of a heart attack when he was running just before his 50th birthday. Don didn’t think it was fair that he was allowed to live so much longer (20 years longer) than his fit brother by smoking two packs a day, but he did.
For the woman who wept openly on my massage table for her father, I will always remember her story. She had been a regular client for over a year, and then she disappeared. Months later she phoned to book with me again. Immediately, she felt the need to explain her absence. Her father had died during the last massage she had with me, and she couldn’t forgive herself, knowing that he had died alone. One bright winter morning, she sat at her kitchen island as she always did, and a bright yellow bird came to the feeder. It came closer, and hopped along the window sill, looking inside at her in the kitchen. She knew it was her father. “He always wore these god-awful yellow pants when he went golfing. My mother couldn’t stand the sight of them!” The bird had a big beak, and her dad had a big nose—it was him. She said the bird came to the window every morning while she drank coffee for a month, and then simply went away. It was time. She was ready. She couldn’t help but cry telling me the story, and she had me sniffing and bleary-eyed too.
In a day of treating five or six clients, the emotions, stories and scars change rapidly. I will never forget the client who told me about making bread in his underwear. He was the sort of guy who liked to use my name three times in the same sentence, and he had a bit of a Tweedle Dum (or Dee) look to him. It went something like this:

“Jules, I gotta tell ya, as a health professional and all. No, Jules, lemme ask you this first. Now, Jules, have you ever had a hemmorhoid? Actually, Jules, don’t answer that one(as if I was about to! But just to clarify, I haven’t). So, Jules, I read or heard something about putting cornstarch on the ‘roids. I don’t know where I read it, but Jules, I was desperate. So, the wife was out shoppin’ or something, and Jules, I can’t find the cornstarch! What I did find, Jules, was flour. And, I said to myself, hey, can’t be too far off the mark you know. Cornstarch-flour, what’s the big difference? Well, Jules, I put some flour in my underwear to take the edge of this hemmorhoid, and I gotta tell ya, it’s a hot day. I’m sitting there with my underwear full of flour and I start feeling somethin’. I goes to the bathroom Jules, and I feel things rolling in my underwear—hell, Jules! I was making bread in my underwear! The flour and my sweat I guess, it was making bread. Can ya believe it?”

An unfortunately true story.
An elderly woman gave me an equally big laugh recently. When I asked her to turn over so I could massage her neck, she said, “I know, dear. God put me in the wrong line up. I should write ‘front’ and ‘back’ on me so you would know which is which.”
What I have come to realize is that the farts and warts get balanced out by clients who bring such light into a room. There are clients desperate for mere escapist zen, those battling cancer and bigger battlegrounds, and sad souls craving the basic connection of human touch.
My hands have seen a lot, and I am grateful to be able to offer such an oasis of calm and relief. But, just so you know, most spas offer waxing services and wearing navy or black socks will always leave sweaty lint between your toes.
And making bread in your underwear is a story for a Lady of the Evening, not a Lady of the Daytime like myself.

by the artist formerly known as Jules Torti
Categories: All Things Spa-like | Tags: , | 9 Comments

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