That Trickster, Time

Time is a squishy and elusive thing, I think. Being a massage therapist has proven this not-so-scientific theory of mine again and again. During the last few minutes of the session I often find myself working on my client’s head while narrowing my eyes at the clock, mentally threatening it to click over to the next minute. For some reason, that’s usually when time decides to slow all the way down. I think the minutes at that point in the session have at least twice the normal amount of seconds, just for funsies.

Meanwhile, as the clients feel themselves reanimating toward the end of the session, I think the clock runs at high speed to catch them back up to the present. As they hear the massage therapist inform them that the session is over, they inwardly beg for a little more time on the table, time to just be. In general, I think time has a rather cruel sense of humor and the undeniable power to somehow work against us both, despite our threats and pleas, during the session.

Time is a big deal for massage therapists. I’m currently working at a franchise location that offers 50-minute massages. We book on the hour, so in the first five minutes we have to pick up the client, get their health background and session objectives, let them undress and get situated, then work on them for 50 minutes. In the last five minutes we let them wake up and redress as we exit and quickly get ourselves cleaned up, get their glass of water and then give them self-care tips while walking them toward the front of the building. Then it’s a race to flip the room and get ready for the next client by the time that next hour begins.

That may sound pretty straightforward, but it rarely is. For one thing, we’re dealing with human people with human-created schedules and human-driven traffic outside the ethereal spa world. As many of us can attest to, time out there and time in a spa are completely different beasts. For another, the clients usually agree that yes, they do need to use the restroom…and inevitably, this decision is made during the walk to their treatment room. That’s a guaranteed three minutes lost, and it’s not really an option to tell them that since they didn’t think ahead, those lost minutes won’t be added to the end of the session. So that cushy five minutes between sessions…well, it just isn’t. Amazingly, we usually make it work, though.

And during that period between the minute they’re on the table and the minute we end the session…that’s where time really gets weird. A coworker recently said that he could have sworn the clock clicked backward by a good six minutes in the blink of an eye. Those of us listening protested, insisting that it must have been the dim lighting fooling him, but he stood by his story. I didn’t believe it…but I’ve started to keep an eye on the clock with guarded suspicion, just in case it tries to pull a stunt like that on me.

But slow isn’t the only way time can play with us. Several seasoned therapists recently told me that time just got away from them; they simply found so much to work on that the session ended before they could finish their progression the way they would have liked. These people are so experienced and so specific with their work, they likely feel like they don’t want certain muscles to feel left out…so they assess a majority of them and then end up working on most of those.

Being a newer massage therapist, I’m nervous about the notion of getting lost in a client’s hamstrings. Of course, I tailor the sessions according to the clients’ needs and preferences and get specific when the need arises, but overall I keep time on close watch from the shallow end of my kiddie pool. I calculate my “minute math” and allocate time for regions of the body. Overall it runs like, well, clockwork. I congratulated myself the other day when a client’s legs took a bit longer than expected but I still somehow managed to catch things up toward the end without leaving anything out or feeling rushed. I felt I’d learned how to manage time and better yet, make it work for me.

But today blew all of that out of the water.

Maybe I should back up a little. The other day I had my first weekend off in months. I was completely out of the realm of massage for two blessed days, a chance to let my body, mind and spirit recover a bit from working as a full-time MT. The spa I work at has been busy, so I was on my grind, if that’s actually a thing, pushing myself hard.

I came back to work yesterday and had a 2-hour session followed by an 80-minute session later that day. (Having different-length sessions can alter an MT’s rhythm, I’ve learned.) The 2-hour client had quite a laundry list of areas to focus on. I was kept busy, and the time went fast. To my surprise, that same man returned today and requested me again, this time for a 50-minute. He said that he was surprised by how sore he was from yesterday’s massage, so he wanted me to smooth things out today.

This seemed easy enough. I already had his body’s hotspots in my mind’s eye; after all, it had been just one day since I’d worked on them. He had a few new issues from a fall in the morning, which I also accounted for. I started him face-down and got working on his back. That timed out nicely, so I spent some time on his glutes, which I remembered had been tight the day prior. As I transitioned to his first leg I glanced at the clock. I had just 10 minutes left in the session. Stunned, I worked on his legs and finished the session with him still face-down, the front of his body unaddressed, something I previously would never have thought of doing unless specifically requested. (To my surprise, he was happy with the session. Thank goodness all of his trouble areas were on the posterior side of his body; I was able to pull it off and act like I’d meant to end things that way.)

How did this happen? I later wondered, bewildered. Okay, so his glutes needed attention, but how long was I there — a week? Honestly, I’d somehow lost about 15 minutes. Gone. In retrospect, I wonder if I’d unwittingly allocated too much time on his back in an unconscious decision to repeat the previous day’s 2-hour experience. Maybe having two consecutive days off was too much of a break, downright breaking my rhythm. That’s the only logical explanation I could come up with.

By day’s end I concluded that yes, I need to keep time on a tighter leash. But as a small consolation, I guess I, too, can get lost in the muscles of a client’s body. Or at least that’s what I can tell myself when recalling the session. Truth is, time plays tricks on all of us in this field, and today the joke was on me.