How I Learned to Relax at a Spa — With My Mom

Armed with herbal iced tea, I help my mother celebrate her 65th birthday and learn the secrets of spa life

  • Illustration by Joshua Ueland for TIME

    My mom is not a master of subtlety. So when she said, five different times, that the only thing she really wanted for her 65th birthday was to go away to a spa for her first time, I was able to riddle out that she wanted to go away to a spa. So I got us a reservation at the Lake Austin Spa Resort, one of the top U.S. spas, according to Condé Nast Traveler. But when I called to tell her about her present, she paused and said, "Just the two of us?" I did not know it was possible to creep your own mother out. Panicked since I had already made the arrangements, I offered to bring my sister Lisa. Then Lisa, who is an out-of-work lawyer, started making a spreadsheet of all the activities we would do. At the spa. If you've never seen a spreadsheet filled over and over with the words spa appointment and yoga, then you don't know how desperately we need to turn this economy around.

    I had figured that, being a guy who likes musicals and a nice tea service, I'd fit in fine at a spa. I was wrong. From the moment I arrived, I felt more masculine than I ever had. All around the beautiful grounds, women my mom's age floated about in robes, smiling blankly and sipping from glasses of herbal iced tea. During our three days there, I would walk up to four of these women, thinking they were my mom. It's not that all 60-ish women look the same in a robe and flip-flops; it's just that they do to everyone else. Weirder still, despite all the open grass and the huge clear lake, no one was using any of it to compete against one another.

    I learned that when women relax, they get way too open to new ideas. When our tour of the hotel ended with an explanation that we needed to sign up for certain events, like that night's watercolor class, Lisa said, "Yeah, let's sign up for that." She had forgotten that a spa is a giant sarcasm vacuum. We took the class. It turns out you can actually convey anger through watercolor. Though kicking your sister under the table works better.

    At dinner, I learned that, as I'd always suspected, women hate themselves. Because in the perfect world they have set up, the menu comes with calories listed next to every item. And those counts were dangerously low. I, however, found that it was actually plenty of food if I simply kept ordering things until I was full. I interpreted the phrase "85 calories" to mean "order three."

    As I headed toward my huge, soft bed, I discovered on the pillow not a mint or a chocolate but a weird little coaster with a painting of a woman with short hair, long earrings, two suitcases and the words, "I am safe; it's only change." This helps women sleep? It freaked me out. I couldn't figure out what it meant. That women all secretly want to run away from their husbands? Worse yet, do women want to cut off their hair?

    The next day, my mom and my sister woke me at 8 so we could get started on our spreadsheet. This was when I began to realize how unfair the place was. My mom and sister went off to do stuff like essential rose body wraps and Japanese adzuki-bean treatments. I didn't want any spa treatments since I can't understand the point of having someone touch me and then not having sex with them. If there were an equivalent place where men could wear robes and do all the stuff they wanted, it would be shut down by the police and sprinkled with holy water.

    Later, my mom took us to an aromatherapy class. I learned quite a bit during the hour-long session. Did you know that you could make your own body lotions with olive oil and essential oils? Or that inhaling lavender essential oil directly, against the advice of your instructor, will not cause you to pass out and escape the rest of the class?

    That night, my pillow offered a painting of a guy on a horse and the mantra, "Life is simple and easy." Which freaked me out even more. Because what it was really saying is that life is hard and complicated and then you die, possibly on a horse.

    The next day, while my mom and sister got their eyebrows shaped and their makeup advised, I gingerly approached the spa. I walked into the men's side and spent two hours rotating between the sauna, hot tub and steam room. At some point during all that, I saw the first two men that I had seen in three days. And I saw a lot of them. The three of us said "Hi!" in fake, deep tones, each wondering, to varying degrees of accuracy, if the other ones were gay. And I didn't care. My mind blanked; my body relaxed; I momentarily understood why women come to places like this. Then I realized I was just dehydrated.

    Still, I slept well that night. Partly because my pillow placard said, "I listen with love to my body's messages." Which was to drive four miles to get a rack of baby back ribs.