Monday, July 16, 2007

THE BACK DEPT

“Do you Ceragem?”

On a recent first date, the attractive LadyD across from me asked, “Do you ceragem?” “Do I what?” I said. “Ceragem,” she said, “you know, the free massage.” I didn’t know, but my ears perked up; I liked where she was going with this.

Soon we were walking down Wilshire Blvd to the Ceragem Center in Santa Monica. I was immediately struck by the peaceful quiet that filled the room, and the odd mixture of people in the beds. There were young, new-age types – the “aware” ones as LadyD told me (counting us among them), lying right next to elderly couples, the occasional businessman in a cuffed shirt, high society women from neighboring Beverly Hills, and more than a couple of homeless people, their bulging shopping carts waiting patiently outside on the sidewalk. I asked where all the masseuses were and LadyD simply laughed, “It’s a mechanized massage table, silly.”

Elan, the Ceragem representative, greeted us lightly, handing me a short form to fill out as I was a first-timer. We were directed to the waiting area to the left, where we sat alone surrounded by thirty empty chairs. Soon, we were brought bed sheets by another rep, Joni, who invited us to join her at the front of the room for a short demonstration.

Joni positioned LadyD and me near a Ceragem bed, partially deconstructed to reveal the inner workings of this dream machine first introduced in Korea many years ago. Standing directly beside us, Joni suddenly pulled out a microphone and turned slightly toward the empty seats in back. “Who here has back trouble,” Joni asked, her voice echoing through a killer surround-sound system. Enthralled by her excitement, I found myself waving my hand high, as if I were in the back row of the Price is Right. Joni seemed not to notice as she went on to point out the special “far infra-red” coilers and jade rollers that would soon move slowly up and down my spine, bringing 130 degree heat and strong pressure to soothe my back’s distress signals. The jade was chosen for its fine retention of heat, and its Qi-like qualities. The far infra-red coilers were intended to emulate the warmth of the sun, without all the harmful UV rays. Together, they worked to increase circulation, relaxation, and life force. Personally, I didn’t quite understand her – the far infra-red and UV talk brought images of some futuristic military tanning salon to my brain, complete with darkened rooms and camouflaged beds. I blame the microphone.

For a taste of what I was to experience, Joni had me sit on a special Ceragem seat, known as the Three Ball. A curious plastic piece in the middle shined with a far infra-red glow – this was the source of heat and vitality. The warmth immediately enveloped my groin, and I thought, for the first time in years, about an old college course where we had learned about the inverse relationship between heat and sperm count. I did the polite thing and offered my seat to LadyD.

By the time Joni finished her demo, half the seats were filled with a mix of America – blacks and whites, Hispanics and Asians, skinny and fat, young and old, rich and poor – all waiting eagerly for their 40 minute Ceragem fix for the day. LadyD told me of her friend who has come everyday for 4 months, and “she’s never been pressured to buy,” she said with a smile. No price lists, no pushy sales people, no buy-one-get-one-free discount – just a free massage in a room full of strangers where Ceragem’s motto – Love, Service, Kindness – rules the roost. To be sure, the wealthier clients would probably soon buy their own for use in their home, but there was absolutely no hint of commerce in the room. As we walked toward our beds to start our session, my mind returned to the silent mantra that often pushes me forward in such situations: “People actually do this... Everyday!?”

I took off my shoes and belt, emptied my pockets in a small basket and settled onto the bed, struggling to position my neck in just the right place in relation to the rollers. Elan appeared and spread a sheet over me, tucking my feet in and covering my eyes with a small towel. Thinking immediately of the gray beard on the person before me, I was afraid to ask if the sheets were clean. Yes, I’m a germ-a-phobe, but sometimes it’s better to be an amnesiac. The rollers interrupted just then, starting their slow march, raising sections of my spine to heights they’d never seen. It wasn’t entirely comfortable, but the warmth of the bed was inviting, and soon my thoughts settled on my breath. The overweight gentleman to my left began snoring, however, and my attention invariably shifted to a keen focus on his breath.

After five minutes spent kneading the spine, the rollers stop at strategic points on the back and rest for 2 minute intervals. When the rollers halted at T4 in my thoracic region, I knew I was in trouble. A sharp spike suddenly stabbed me in the back. I froze, grimacing and grabbing the sides of the bed, trying desperately to adjust myself. Pain is such a rush. Elan was there with a hand on my arm, “Breathe deeply,” she instructed, and to my surprise, my back began to soften as the far infra-red heat worked its magic. It was then that I heard Joni, once again on the microphone, this time playing to a larger crowd. “How does Ceragem make you feel?” she asked those waiting in the chairs. Gentle voices whispered back through the microphone, “Great,” “Relaxed.” Joni must have run to them in their seats as Phil Donahue once did, giving them each a chance to speak their truth. This was more than a talk-show though; it was a real live infomercial, without the hard sale. One man insisted on taking the microphone himself, wanting to share a piece he’d recently read on “The Transformation of Healing.” It reached me in a Dylan-like mumble; I didn’t quite catch the words, but it sounded soulful. Others followed with gifts of their own.

I suddenly realized the possibilities. Just add some cameras and we have a hit reality show, seducing the masses with our Ceragem-induced tranquility. But seriously, where else in the world could I get a free massage and the chance to improve my public speaking? There was no pressure, no judgment; the audience was captive after all, and peaceful. Most of them were actually asleep. I could share my latest poems, trade Marianne Williamson quotes on the power of the self, and speak of the “mighty kindness” that Rumi envisioned for us all. This was a world I could join everyday, for free. And who knows, it might even lead to a side business as a Life-Whisperer, a secret ambition I’ve harbored for sometime. I was definitely dreaming. In forty minutes, Ceragem had transported me back to the nap-time of my youth. There we were – the pretty blond girl to my right and the chubby fellow snoring to my left – sleeping sweetly again in kindergarten as the teacher silently patrolled the narrow pathways to our dreams.

The massage ended with a gentle pat on my shoulder from Elan. I was in a daze and quickly put a hand over my mouth, remembering both LadyD and my tendency to drool when in deep sleep. LadyD looked sexy despite her bedhead. We folded our sheets and walked past the next group, smiling eagerly as they waited for their massage. I asked Elan if Mr. or Mrs. Ceragem ever came by the store, hoping to get an inside track on the mysteries behind the massage. Elan smiled, “There is no one named Ceragem.” I pressed further, but she resisted. Perhaps I was too new for the secrets to be revealed, but you must also know that I’m one of those rare individuals with whom even Mormons refuse to speak in their daily meet-and-greets, despite my friendly attempts on occasion to attract them for a light spiritual chat.

I walked out entranced with LadyD at my side. She grabbed my hand and kissed me lightly on the cheek, suggesting we meet tomorrow for another Ceragem. Now this was my kind of date. Perhaps it was all a dream, but I’ll take it any day of the week. At Ceragem, even if you snooze, you don’t necessarily lose.

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