Three Varieties of Bathtubs
Length: 1447 words (4.1 double-spaced pages)
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Past, present and future are the simplest ways in which humans perceive time. We recognize the past through our memories and our recall of events that already have happened. When looking into the future, we can only look at where we are now in order to guess what our fate might be in the future. Or else we only have our dreams and goals that we look forward to one- day accomplishing. When viewing the present, however, everything around us is not an idea or memory in our head, but a reality that we use our senses to see, feel, touch, smell or hear. We are using our body's functions to live and take in what is around us at the moment. When "living in the present" (as one would say to someone who is constantly aware of the moment and what is around them), there is less chance to miss what's in front of us rather than always looking behind or too far ahead. Jeffrey Harrison, in his poem "Bathtubs, Three Varieties," seems to feel the same way about living in the here and the now.
The three varieties of bathtubs Harrison writes about were separated into three stanzas according to their design and their purpose now, in the present. In the first stanza of the poem Harrison describes an old- fashioned bathtub, one that was raised off the floor by porcelain animal paws that extended off each corner. The particular bathtubs that he was describing were no longer serving their intended purpose, but rather were outside in a yard like an old car that was once one's hotrod, now scrap metal. These bathtubs, retired from their original purpose, now just sat through the seasons and let outside forces such as the weather and changes in other living things like the walnut tree carry on without regard to their presence. In the description of these bathtubs, Harrison shows something that although is still here, is part of the past and really does not have a life of its own anymore except just lying underneath the walnut tree. This is very much like a person whose thoughts are caught up in the past, because they, too, are still trying to live something that is over and then lose purpose in the present. Harrison also relates these bathtubs twice to sheep, which are commonly viewed as animals that follow each other, never really having a choice or idea of their own.
When living in the past, one is just following routines, like seasons, never really aware of their immediate surroundings to make good choices.
In the second stanza of the poem, Harrison describes modern bathtubs using imagery such as ancient tombs where it is "a kind of death we ask for." Looking at the infrequent number of baths taken and common trends in the modern bath, it is possible to understand what Harrison means by this kind of death. First, in our modern day, baths tend to be very uncommon because they consume many more minutes than the quick shower. Nowadays, when one has the opportunity or the time to take a bath it, becomes a time in which they attempt to separate themselves from all that is going on around them. Products such as scented oils, bubble mixtures with lotions and scented candles are all common in the modern bath to aid the therapeutic feeling one attempts to receive from their bath. This is much like a person who gets so caught up in their goals and plans for the future they easily forget or fail to notice what is going around them presently at the moment and then miss many things that they could have enjoyed. Another example is a person who is always thinking about what they should be doing later rather than what they should be doing now. By not taking hold of their present, nothing will be done for the future, and then this way of thought and living becomes the "sarcophagus of their dreams" as their dreams fail to take root by a lack of present action.
Harrison describes a much different bathtub than one familiar to an American in the third and final stanza. This bathtub is his own found in Japan rather than the old ones of his landlord's or the modern day ones of other people. In it, one sits upright, with a straight back and crossed legs. The water rises up to the neck and is described as a bit too hot to keep one "relaxed and yet attentive to the moment." Harrison relates the posture to one of a Zen, a follower of a religion based on Buddhism that strongly stresses the importance of being aware of the present and not drifting into the nonexistent worlds of the past and future. "Staring through a cloud of steam at the blank wall in front of you" is like a symbol of one who knows how to live entirely in the here and now. They are aware of the way things are constantly moving, forming and disappearing around them like steam, and always looking in front of them, yet at the blank wall of what is to come for they know that they alone cannot control their destinies.
In America this sort of tub would seem very strange. Not only do we feel that we should be lying down to reach complete relaxation, but we like to have things exactly how we want them, so we would want to adjust our temperature to fit our specific needs at the moment. This would be seen in the East as a way of being undisciplined. Along with the modern tubs of western civilization being compared to a lethargic example of escape from the present other things common with the western culture seem to support that idea too. For one, rather than the present day mind of a Buddhist, the popular beliefs of Christianity in western civilization tell us that our day is not now, but later after death is when we will experience true life. Also, many American youth, in our social structure spend their time waiting and counting the years to each birthday until they reach an age in which they receive more freedom and privileges, whether from their parents or government. It's not until they reach that age, though, that they wish they were younger again, never appreciating where they are now.
This poem uses similes, each falling on the second line of each stanza, to draw comparisons from the bathtub to the way Harrison feels about them and can relate them to another idea or object about which he feels the same. "Standing on paws, like a domesticated animal" and "nothing theatrical like Marat with his arm hanging out" show how he uses "like" to make his comparisons rather than metaphors, although each stanza and bathtub becomes a metaphor for a certain way of living with time.
The similes also gave a personification to the bathtubs. "Standing on paws, like a domesticated animal" not only helps the reader visualize that specific tub by comparing it to the stance of an animal, but they see details like the legs shaped as paws. That is a sort of observation about something you may have noticed as a child, making that bathtub more pleasant and interesting than the simple square tubs of today. Seeing that tub again could trigger old memories of your childhood and your past. As mentioned earlier, in the third stanza Harrison uses the simile "You sat cross legged like a Zen" not only to describe the awkward position for a bathtub, but to compare it to Eastern thought of relaxation.
Harrison chooses a lifestyle in which some of the key ideas are awareness and attention. When paying attention, one is opening themselves up to their surroundings and experiencing them as they occur, rather than trying to recall them from a memory which has now become an interpretation or summary of a past event with many forgotten details left out. It is often said that nobody looks into the past to remember the bad things and many people often force themselves to forget them and dispose of them into their subconscious. Harrison used examples of bathtubs to describe how he felt about those who live in the past and those who dread the present so much that their intent in the bath is to escape it. He then forms his poem to end with his bathtub, one where it is in full function and different from most other person's bathtubs where he can relax yet remain alert to the life that exists around him.