Written by Sam Woolf, Mechanical Engineering M.S. 2017
A university campus is a perfect place for ideas to evolve and and grow. I am drawn to the specific locations that enable this idea incubation, places that foster interactions with interesting people of varying backgrounds. A handful of of these places on campus come to mind; the small coffee shop (Brown and Brew), the president’s lawn on a beautiful day, sharing a table in the dining halls. Though, the most fruitful location is the Tufts Sauna.
There isn’t a strong sauna culture, in the US, and definitely not in California, where I grew up. So, I wasn’t fully convinced of the virtues of pure sweating, until the jolliest Swede you’ll ever meet dragged me in. The first few sessions were painful, hot humid air overwhelming my senses, reducing my conversation to a slow trickle. Though, as my mind and body adapted, I began to see the true magic of the place.
The Tufts Coed Sauna is a small cedar walled room in the heart of the gym. The brown walls, and benches are lit by a warm incandescent bulb, and by the light that trickles through the windowed door. A single heating unit keeps the room at a balmy 105 degrees Fahrenheit and humid. Each time a ladle of water is tossed on the rocks, a wave of even hotter air washes over the place, tingling nose celia and jolting the senses. Unless you were specifically seeking it out, you could easily trot by, completely missing the best place on campus.
It is here, throughout the day, that minds from across the university meet to share a 10 minute sweat. In the sauna, everyone is equal. Occupants embrace the fact that they are a sweaty mess, and all cloaks of social preconceptions fall away. Whereas in the external world, things like appearance, power dynamics, and new friend anxiety permeate. Here, they fall to the floor, encapsulated in that first drip of perspiration.
A simple, “How is your Tuesday going?”, opens the levee, and my favorite conversations pour through. People share their hearts, thoughts, and stories. In just the last few weeks, I’ve shared sweat with a wide population of people who have stretched my mind.
I chatted with a Fletcher student who is currently attempting to solve an impossible problem: looking at Arctic oil drilling, how do we balance the economic benefits with the inevitable social and environmental costs? A friendly and heated conversation ensued, as we discussed the fallibility numbers, and the poorly placed incentives of capitalistic businesses.
I sparked a conversation with a retired firefighter, who spent 45 years working for the Medford Fire Department. His eyes lit up as he described the old Davis Square, a cross roads containing a handful of Dive Bars and Sandwich joints. He reminisced about the long weekend nights spent waiting for his twin 6’4” sons to stumble in, and give him the full details of what ever brawl had occurred that evening. Though be warned, this gentleman likes his saunas quite hot, and I had to excuse myself to a cool shower before I caught the end of his story.
Another day, two chatty Seniors in the Psychology department joined me. The conversation whisked me back a few years to when I was considering my life after undergrad. Their words were laced with both excitement and anxiety as they pondered what a future could look like.
There is no other place in my life where I deeply connect with people from so many walks of life. Every person that enters the room has gems of wisdom stored in their mind, the sauna provides a safe place where these ideas can be shared and expanded. Each time I enter the room, I am reminded of the genuinely interesting and interested people who spend their time around this Somerville-Medford hill. All it takes is a few words shared in a humble place to feel connected to this community.