smell my belly button

Recently I read Joshua Davis’ charming book “The Underdog” which details his dream of being best in the world at something. He competes in arm wrestling, bullfighting, sumo, backwards running and the Sauna World Championship

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“Would-be contestants had to submit a doctor’s letter months in advance.  The doctor’s letter was required because the competition sauna was hot enough to kill you. No American doctor in his right mind would have authorised us to essentially cook ourselves so we needed to find another way of getting the letter.

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John obtained letters for all of us from a Dr Ed Point (R.P.) of the Point Medical Clinic. The R.P. after Ed Point’s name signified that he was a board certified “Renaissance Physician”.The clinic’s other staff included a urologist named Peter Stickler, a dermatologist named Mark Wartly and a gynecologist named Seymour Lips.

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I picked up a copy of “Saunas: A Collection of Works” which contained an essay about “löyly“, the essential principle or essence of the sauna. The author, Giles Ekola, informed his readers that löyly could not be translated into any language and absolutely must not be translated as steam. He called it vaporized moisture that is in a process of drying which sounded a lot like steam to me. 

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However, he did help his readers to pronounce the word. He coached me to say “ler” and then “lew”. This exercise “makes it possible for the non-Finnish-speaking persons to lose their fear of the word, to accept it as a gentle friend and to pronounce and possess it as their own easily and readily.” It sounded like he wanted to have sex with the word.

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At dinner that night we went over the Finnish words we knew. John only remembered three phrases, one of which he warned us never to use.  “Smell my belly button” was, according to John, the single worst thing you could say to a Finnish person.

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From an interview Joshua did with Failure Magazine:

Of the five different competitions you recount in the book, which one was most frightening?

There’s the frightening you know and the frightening you don’t. Bullfighting was the frightening that you know. You can imagine a bull. You know it has horns and you have a sense that it’s very dangerous. That was scary because I had all sorts of assumptions and pre-established fears of what it was going to be like. But once I was in the ring I felt relatively comfortable. The process of dancing with a bull came to me intuitively.

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In terms of the fear I didn’t know it was definitely the sauna contest in Finland. I knew it was going to be hot but when I got in there I felt like I was going to die. If I stayed in that sauna another 30 seconds I would have passed out, and if they didn’t drag me out I would have expired. I had steam burns all over my body. When I was sitting in the sauna I was thinking, “This is really, really stupid.” The burns took two weeks to heal.

Are these unusual contests more commonplace in America or foreign countries?

In “The Underdog” I make the argument that these contests are idiosyncratic to America, but I’ve changed my mind. Since the book was released I’ve been getting email from people all over the world telling me about unusual competitions. At I have 50 or so contests listed and I am adding more every week. The Finns are particularly crazy. They have the Sauna World Championship, the cell phone chucking contest, bog soccer and ice swimming.

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Published in: on June 13, 2011 at 4:07 am  Comments (42)  
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youthful prodding of the bunions

In 1889 the New York Times published this article about shoe shining and steam.

The day has long since gone by when a man, to have his shoes made things of refulgent beauty, was forced to lean against a fence or balance himself on one foot and have a youth of tender years prod his bunions with a wellworn brush.

Now the shinee reposes in a luxurious armchair in a room cooled by revolving fans in summer and heated by a rotund whitewashed stove in winter while a man of mature years and good judgement coaxes his boots into ebony loveliness with an oiled cloth and a well kept brush.


The quality of the shine has wonderfully improved; the unaffected and funereal black polish that faded generally to a pale and mottled grey tint before the boot it covered had moved two blocks away has been succeeded by a glittering and attractive ebony lustre that lasts sometimes for two days.

image by Eric Kroll

It would seem as if in this line of trade “improvement could no further go” but an enterprising firm of coloured gentlemen in 6th Avenue went one better a few days ago when they flung to the winds in front of their parlour a sign reading “Shoes Shined by Steam While You Wait

In 1867, Sylvester Howard Roper was also harnessing the use of steam when he put together a boiler, a steam engine and a bicycle to form what he called a ‘motocycle’

Roper designed and built a wide range of products including sewing machines, guns, machine tools, furnaces, automatic fire escapes and eventually steam-powered carriages and bicycles. His steam-powered bike proved popular at exhibitions but his neighbors weren’t thrilled with the contraption due to it being noisy as well as smelly. The motocycle would often spook horses and tended to annoy those walking the streets. Roper was once arrested on one of his rides, but was released when no laws could be cited that he was breaking.

Roper’s last steam-powered bicycle included a one-gallon water reservoir and provided about 8 miles of travel on one filling. On test rides into town, Roper would remove the burning coals from the firebox and place them in a small covered bucket. This would keep steam from being generated and maintain the heat in the coals. When he was ready to leave, he would re-stoke the fire, get up steam, and return home.

The steam bicycle was perhaps never a practical means of transport. Problems of carrying enough water and fuel paled in comparison to the prospects of having a boiler, operating at nearly 300 degrees Fahrenheit, between the rider’s legs.

Published in: on May 19, 2010 at 8:12 am  Comments (41)  
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