Toilet Tales, 4-6 of 9: Expect the Unexpected

Toilet Tales, Pt. 4: Slovenia, Border Checkpoint   Do My Eyes Deceive Me?

Climbing the mountain via steep, tight switchbacks in a Passat we’d rented in Munich, we crossed the border from Austria to Slovenia and stopped for border control at the top where passports and visas would be checked. While we were there, we took advantage of their on-site restrooms as we didn’t know how long it would take us to get to Lake Bled where we had reservations at the Hotel Toplice.

I was told to go to the end of the room and turn left down a hallway where I’d find the ladies room at the end. As I reached the turn I was facing an open door where I noticed a man standing in profile emptying his bladder into a urinal. He looked at me in the same instant I saw him, but nonchalantly continued his business as if this kind of thing happened every day. The door had been left open and I wondered why. Was that conventional here?

Bill assured me that was likely the case. It’s an accepted practice in many places. Compared to many peoples in other parts of the world, Americans are prudish and uptight about everything, but here, and in most parts of Europe, this is a “so what’s all the fuss about” kind of thing. Why not leave the door open in plain view of the office area where what few people, who seemed to cross the border at this junction, came? Everyone does this, and to most, it’s as natural as breathing – and we don’t hyperventilate over breathing in other people’s presence, do we?

Granted, this was quasi-public, sort of, but in Amsterdam they have “pissoirs” on sidewalks in the cities and they come in different forms, the most common is made of metal. If a towel is wrapped around a man’s waist when he goes in there – a towel made of metal, sometimes with cutout designs, sometimes not – anyone walking down the street will see everything but the toweled area. And some pissoirs are wide open and circular. Four individuals, all standing in a circle can take advantage of it at the same time – a public urinal that’s public in every sense of the word. I never saw one of those for women, but I’d have to be absolutely dying before I’d do that on a public street. And the likelihood of my being able to be successful, even if I tried, would be zero, just like at the castle at Heidelberg.

“Checkpoint Charlie” was totally unfazed. I was, well, just beginning to see that things were going to be different from here on out.

Toilet Tales, Pt. 5: Slovenia, Erasmus’ Castle   Balance is Everything

First encounter with a Turkish Toilet…

A couple of days later, we hiked up to the site of Erasmus’ castle, aka Predjama Castle (Predjamski Grad), carved partly out of a high cliff on a mountain of stone in the 12th century. Most of what can be seen today was built outwardly from the stone in the 16th century. On the way up, one finds concessions. They are common here, like they are in the states, but unlike in the states, seem so out of place in this setting.

People selling things to make money off tourists – people are the same everywhere you go. The first person to confront me was a man holding a plate upon which sat a pig’s head. A small one. A piglet. Eyes and all. It was staring at me with its mouth open, its teeth stuck in an apple. A kind of taxidermy at its best. I declined, heading for a restroom I was told I’d find in a little shack – “over there.”

It reminded me of the outhouse of my childhood, but opening the door, I found a ceramic square on the floor and a chain hanging from the ceiling. I presumed, for flushing. No toilet, no seat. It took a bit of figuring out how to approach this task but I managed, albeit with some degree of difficulty. I’ll spare you the details here, but suffice it to say, I don’t know how people manage this without getting into some amount of trouble. You know, with clothes and all. And water gushes out from holes in the porcelain square on the floor when the chain is pulled. The first time you’re caught off guard because you’re not expecting a geyser to erupt, but it does and your gut reaction is to jump up and out of the way. Your second reaction is to catch yourself, somehow, so you don’t slip and, uh, fall onto the square itself.

I never thought I’d be thanking the powers that be for the “normal” toilets we have at home.

Toilet Tales, Pt. 6 Albertville:  All One Can Do is Laugh

Second Encounter with a Turkish Toilet…

Travels, especially those in another country, are replete with strange things you don’t find here. Travel also, I believe, carries with it the responsibility to learn, and with two ceramic squares now to my credit, I have learned some interesting things. The Turkish toilet goes by several names, one of which is the “squat toilet.” I’ll spare you the other names used. You can find them on the internet if you really want to know what they are. And there are several different kinds; the ones I’ve encountered are the “older models,” meaning they are flush (no pun intended) with the floor – they don’t have a raised seat like the toilets we have in the states, and this one didn’t have a “hood” as you will see in pictures. You do not sit; you squat – hence, the name squat toilet.

Laura and I have traveled together in Europe a number of times. One of those being to Albertville in the French Alps, south of Geneva. We took a bus from Lake Annecy, near the small village of Faverges where she lived for a time, and stopped at different towns before arriving there. Albertville is picturesque, quaint, and was the setting for the Winter Olympic games in 1992. We walked through the streets taking everything in, but finding a bathroom became urgent, and Laura suggested we use one in a bar. People do that all the time, she said, and they’re not required to buy anything, either. I was hesitant, but when ya gotta go…so in we went.

We found it, and she went in first. I waited by the sink. Behind the curtain that separated the sink from the room’s reason for being, I found – yes – that infamous ceramic square, aka “The Turkish Toilet” inside what looked like a small, and confining, shower stall with a chain hanging from the ceiling. This little dandy was new to her but not to me. Both were the “older models,” maybe circa 17th century (a wild guess), and this one looked like it hadn’t been cleaned since then either. She’d have to place her feet on the ceramic “pads” on either side and squat, then pull the cord to “flush.” Only the flushing part was like a tidal wave of rushing water when it came. Worse than my geyser had been. That’s when she yelled. It sounded like she’d fallen – and that would have been disastrous indeed.

“What Happened?”

“I slipped,” she said, “and all I could think was, I’m goin’ down!” In an automatic response to impending disaster, she slammed her hands against the walls on either side to keep herself on her feet – testimony to how small an area we’re talking about here. It wasn’t easy, and I grabbed her hand to pull her back up because the entire floor was wet and slippery.

It only took a minute for one of us to break down, and we were soon laughing so hard I could hardly make out what she was saying. “I slipped and almost went down completely,” she said, whereupon we broke out in another round of uncontrollable laughing. She had managed to stay on her feet, thank goodness, but tears of hilarity were streaming down our cheeks.

We knew those walls were paper thin and that those old men sitting on the other side of it could surely hear us and were wondering what we were doing in there – and that seemed even funnier. What if she had fallen? We didn’t have extra clothing she could have changed into. And if she’d fallen at the wrong moment, the water she’d have been soaked with would, well, not have been clean. Would they have even let us back on the bus? This incident, so incongruous, so ridiculous, so incredibly funny when you could stand back and separate it from all its possible consequences, was an absolutely hysterical event.

But only one of so many we have had over the years. Life with Laura – one hysterical event after the other.

We were still trying to get ourselves under control as we walked out of the restroom and, as fast as we could, made our way outside – with every single of those men watching, their eyes trained on us as we walked past them and out the door.

What else can one do in a situation like this, but laugh? Without a sense of humor, we’d all be doomed.


Toilet Tales: Never Count on Something Not Happening

Toilet Tales, Training – Pt. 1 – 3 of 9: Accustomed Usage

I’ve encountered some strange things in my time, but few have made impressions as indelible as those I shall recount here. “Toilet Tales” will be meted out in four parts over the next few weeks, beginning here with “Accustomed Usage.”

The varied world of restroom experiences I’ve encountered begins in the mid-seventies. My comfort zone was rattled, bound as it was by a myopic view of facility-sharing as something only families did, and of public facilities that always entailed being separated by gender.

Call me naïve if you want, but I grew up poor and had never gotten out much before, and on those one or two occasions when my parents took us to visit family in Kentucky or Miami, we slept in the car and “went in the woods” or in tall grass on the side of the road.

In 1975 Dick and I and our children were in one of California’s national parks where, for the comfort of its visitors, the park service provided “port-a-potties,” as they were then known, for use as “comfort facilities.” Glorified outhouses is all they really were, but far better than the kind I’d been accustomed to as a child. But instead of being labeled separately for “Men” and “Women,” they sported the label of “Unisex,” indicating one size now fitting all.

What took some getting used to was standing in a line with men and women waiting to use the same one. It felt like a forbidden zone. Like a misunderstanding of the protocol involved here. And I’ve simply never become fully acclimated to that – my traveling on planes, notwithstanding.

And with regard to plane “facilities,” I am reminded of an interview with Matt Lauer I saw a few years ago where he recounted an incident he’d recently experienced on a plane. The person who’d used the toilet before he did (and Lauer said he did not know who that had been or he would have confronted that person directly) had left urine splashed all over but failed to clean up after him/herself. He didn’t know which, but we all know it could have been either. That’s an experience I’m sure every one of us has had, and probably more than once in all kinds of public restrooms. The interviewer asked Lauer, “What did you do?” “Well,” Lauer admitted, “What could I do?” He cleaned up the mess not just so he could use it, but so whoever came in after him “wouldn’t think I was the one who’d left it that way.”

Been there. Done that.

Toilet Tales, Pt. 2: Tijuana: Hiding In Plain Sight

Bill and I passed through customs and approached the cement walkway, a pedestrian bridge, leading to the town of Tijuana. This bridge was peopled with women sitting cross-legged on the cement. Some had small children; others were leaning against the cement wall in some world of their own. A few had placed colorful blankets in front of them where bits of change had been tossed by tourists. A few men coming from, and others headed toward, the town were urinating along the edges of the walkway in plain view of any and all passersby. It was so commonplace, no one paid them any mind or even seemed to care.

It was much the same when we reached the town itself but more concentrated in the alleys and behind some of the small stores and cafes. The odor that prevailed, however, was unmistakable. If Tijuana (at least at that time) could be described by its smell, it was not the smell of food people were eating at outdoor cafes. It was urine, making it impossible to enjoy eating a nice lunch.

Some years ago, Laura and I spent a week in Playa del Carmen – some 40 miles from Cancun. Playa del Carmen was just getting started in the tourist industry and had only one Hacienda-style hotel – actually, one hotel, period, but it was magnificent. It’s bathroom had a walk-in, sit down, and take a load off your feet kind of shower that was beautiful. And clean. Normal. But the area surrounding the hotel was depressed and reminiscent of Tijuana. We were cautioned not to venture more than two blocks in either direction from the hotel as safety was an issue at this time. The other issue was suspect, involving the quaint souvenir-oriented establishments and “cafes” that elicited the memory, and almost the scent, of urine. The only restroom we used that trip was the one  in our hotel room.

Hence, our initiation to the larger world of restrooms and the habits of those who use them. That initiation reached greater heights – or lows, given your point of view – once we began traveling in Europe.

Toilet Tales, Pt. 3: Heidelberg    There Must Be Some Mistake

It was a bit of a trek getting to the castle on top of the steep hill that overlooked the Neckar River Valley in Germany. Ancient castle, fabulous view. The tour would be a long one, so before we began, we made a pit stop at the restrooms.

The restroom was quite large and modernized enough to make it more acceptable to visitors. It was one of the few places that took the enormity of the visiting crowds into consideration. Walking in through an ancient set of immense wooden doors, I entered this bare-bones room with numerous individual stalls lined up along the walls on either side and was heading for one when I heard a voice yell “Kommt Sie hier!” (Come here!) The voice was quite gruff, almost scary in a way, and turning in its direction, I saw a small booth with a glass window, like that you’d find at the movie theater. Behind the glass was a man, sitting there, pointing at me. With his arm extended, he motioned toward the booth.

I was stunned. Hadn’t the sign said “Damen”? Now I wasn’t sure. What was a man doing sitting in the middle of the restroom? I must have walked into the one marked “Herren” by mistake! I uttered an embarrassed “Entschuldigen Sie, Bitte!” (I’m sorry) and turned to get out the door as fast as I could, but he yelled after me, “Nein! Kommt Sie zuruck!” (No, Come back here) so bruskly, I wondered what German handcuffs were going to feel like on my wrists. He was sitting where, were I in the right place, I’d expect a woman to hand me a hot towel. But this man wanted money – in return for which he would unlock a stall door of his choosing for me to use.

I wondered if the men’s room had a woman performing that same function, but Bill said no,  which made the whole thing even worse in some perverted kind of way.

The Problem? In this instance the doors did not go from ceiling to floor. He could see my feet; he could watch me. I was so unmoored by then, I couldn’t even go.

Productive Duct Cleaning

Several years ago a horrific smell came up from the basement and seeped into the garage. After an extensive search, we discovered a dead mouse. Who knows how he’d gotten down there, but he’d been separated from his kin, that was certain, and couldn’t find his way out. He could have been female – which I mention here as a nod to political correctness.

Once you’ve smelled something that’s been dead a while, you never forget it. It’s the worst thing ever, except for possibly the temporarily permanent (oxymoron, I know) residence that that distinctive odor takes up in your nose.

Dead Thing Duty is Bill’s job. No, he wasn’t elected in any democratic way, nor did we draw straws to see who would get stuck with cleanup duty. It was a dead thing – and I do the laundry –so that particular task was delegated to him.

A couple of years after this necrophobic incident, I started hearing noises in the wall behind the bed at night. It was intermittent, and at first I couldn’t be sure I wasn’t suffering from auditory hallucinations. This went on for a few days and then all was silent again. I thought nothing more of it until some weeks later when I began to smell another something I didn’t like all that much once again.

The air contained a slight tinge of a disagreeable odor I couldn’t quite identify because it seemed to come and go. I couldn’t get a solid whiff of it until one day it took up permanent residence in the bedroom.

I duct-taped the vents and moved to the sofa in the family room. At least I could breathe there. It was summertime, so I left the door to the porch open at night. Bill, of course, was not happy about this, given the nature of his “This-is-a-security-issue” complex. If you’re married to anyone in law enforcement, leaving first floor doors or windows open and unlocked any time of day or night is a huge deal. The bigger deal in my mind was the odor I could not abide. The car in the garage was starting to look like a good place to prop up a pillow and spread some blankets.

If that didn’t work, the Sheraton Suites would do nicely.

The odor deepened, and the air was so thick with it, I thought I’d puke. I was worried about it getting into the fibers of the bedding or the clothes in the closet. Would I have to burn all our clothes? Purchase a new wardrobe? (This last option, not a problem at all.)

It morphed into other areas, soaked into crevices, spilled over behind the furniture, and spread across the carpet like a morning fog. I knew what it was now – a dead thing – like the mouse in the basement. And I remembered the sound in the wall and thought it must have been an animal that got trapped in the wall’s duct-work.

I sprayed the rooms. It didn’t help. Bill said it wasn’t that bad and would dissipate soon anyway. He couldn’t smell anything downstairs, but his nose has always been, shall we say, insensitive. It didn’t matter, though, because I could smell it– and I was not happy.

Bill could hardly smell it at all after a while. Defective olfactory equipment. No more, no less. I considered moving from the family room sofa to sleeping on the back porch. I would have done so had I not been worried about spiders. If it’s not one thing it’s another.

I called a duct cleaning company.

Here’s what I learned –

The “Why” of residual smells after duct cleaning: Sometimes the rodent will be sucked out by the company’s vacuum “but occasionally pieces of the animal, due to the bodily fluids, will be left, (not to gross you out) stuck to the duct-work.” No odor will dissipate until its time has come.

Containment Strategies: “The cold air return will suck the smell back through the furnace and filter it through the rest of the house. That’s why there are pockets of odor in different places in the house.” I sealed off the cold air return with duct tape.

Why weather matters: “With a small animal, heat and air will dry the dead thing out faster, so the smell dissipates sooner, especially if it’s in the ducts. But if it’s in the wall, it reeks for the duration.” Which seems like years.

They looked everywhere – even in the attic – sometimes the smaller animals get in the walls, get trapped, and die up there – and then there’s really nothing you can do but wait it out.

Isn’t that good news?

I toyed with the idea of burning the house down, but that was an action I’m certain the insurance company would likely not have condoned. Nor subsidized.

The duct company’s total “catch” can be summed up this way – one small skeletal remains of “something” that once upon a time might have been a mouse. No meat on them there bones. How could it have devolved to this extent in only three months? The smell was so vile, you’d have thought an entire cow had died on the upstairs landing and been left there to decompose.

Mr. Duct Cleaner continued: “Six or seven times a year, we have ‘vermin’ issues: mice, rats, snakes…” I made him stop there. I already had enough nightmares to last a lifetime.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. Neither Gone Nor Forgotten.

Mom at 22.

My mother died in the early morning hours of May 6, 2017 after a long, hard-fought battle will illness, injury, and a life that, beginning in reduced circumstances, was filled with hardship and pain. She never had it easy. Never got a break. Not even for one day.

Today’s post is one I posted some time ago and feel is particularly fitting now.

She was weak before the accident and more severely weakened after it. The orthopedic surgeon said her arm was shattered and because she was high risk for surgery, he chose Option #2 – putting her under for the 10 minutes it would take to reshape her arm and hold it in place while they cast it. It would not afford her the mobility she would otherwise have had, but she would have some use of it even if it didn’t work quite as it once did.

There was a time when her hands did what she wanted them to do. When we were kids, Mom didn’t have a lot of free time, but on Sundays she played games with us. Our favorites were Sorry, which we played over and over again, and Monopoly, one game sometimes taking an entire afternoon, and a card game called War – so fast-paced we played it even more times than Sorry. Sometimes Mom made popcorn on the stove, put it in a big bowl, and we’d eat it as we sat around the game board on the floor in our tiny living room. When she was able to set aside a few extra dollars, she would walk us downtown to the Park or Lake theaters to see a movie and by us milkshakes at Isaly’s across the street. Sometimes we’d go to Edgewood Park to play and swim.

She was always busy: cooking, cleaning, making our clothes, washing and ironing, keeping the shack we lived in as clean as possible. She made curtains to cover the scarred window panes so it looked more like a real home.

When my sister came home from school with lice in her hair, Sunday game time was put on hold, and Mom spent the entire afternoon and evening going through my sister’s long, thick, black hair, one strand at a time, picking out the nits. It was a painstaking process, but her fingers were deft then. They could do anything.

But those same fingers that once pushed our clothes through a hand-wringer washing machine, now struggled to push the buttons through the buttonholes on her blouse.

Her hands ironed my father’s work shirts for his shift at B&W, and later, after he left us with nothing, they ironed a bushel basket full of white dress shirts each week for the men of other wives with easier lives. Each bushel basket contained 20 damp shirts rolled up like newspapers. Twenty white dress shirts had to be starched and wrinkle-free. A pristine job earned her $5 for the basketful. If the owner was dissatisfied with even one shirt, no remuneration was forthcoming for Mom’s efforts.

Those same hands that made most of our clothes using material selected from the pile of remnants on the bargain basement table at Marshall’s in Barberton, now have difficulty pushing a button on the tv’s remote control because the arthritis in them is so painful.

Mom’s hands have wallpapered, cooked, sewn, crocheted, and knitted for far more years than they haven’t. There is a picture of a flower-patterned, intricately crocheted tablecloth on top of a drop-leaf table in front of which my sister and I are sitting when we were about 4 and 6 years old. Mom had placed a small Christmas tree on top of it, and Christmas icicles were dangling from its branches creating a prism of sparkles behind our heads as the photo is taken. Mom made that decorative piece the year before I was born. Now it graces my own dining-room table.

Those hands that took care of us and once did so many things with such ease falter now trying to push the nurse call button. They can no long push her up from her chair or pull a blanket over her in bed. She’s a little better after all the physical therapy, but not enough.

She tries to lift her left arm so she can use her fingers to utilize the utensils she needs to cut and pick up her food, but it proves difficult. She tries again and it’s hard to watch her struggle and not jump in to help, but we are told not to. It is something she must do herself. The fiberglass cast stretching from her shoulder to just below the first knuckles of her fingers is too heavy to lift with her good arm, which isn’t strong either. The fingers on her good hand shake as she attempts to grab those on her other hand, semi-contained by her cast. I want to cry.

Her entire life has always been a struggle.

For a long while Mom worked hard to get strong enough to go home, and she finally made it. But she threw some clots a few months later and suffered several TIAs. She spends her final five months in Hospice.

I feed her dinner. She cries because her hands and feet ache so badly; most of the time she can’t hold a spoon in her hand. All she wants to do is go home, unable to accept the fact that she isn’t going to make it back.

She doesn’t always recall who I am and sometimes refers to me as “the nice lady who comes to see me every day.” One day she says she hasn’t seen that lady in awhile and wonders where she is, what’s happened to her. She cries because she likes her so much and says “that lady was so nice to me.” She couldn’t make the connection between me and “that lady” and it made me so sad. For her and for me.

But during those five months together, we carved out a mother-daughter relationship I will treasure the rest of my life. I love my mother and have a deeper understanding of her and all she’d been through. I know she had to die; we all do. But I didn’t want her to die alone and spent the last week of her life sleeping beside her – she in her bed, I in the recliner pushed up against it.

I will miss our talks, Mom. Our playful banter, even the tears we shared. I know you’ll miss my dancing (a private joke between us). I hope I brought you a measure of happiness and helped you make the peaceful transition to a better life with Grandma and Aunt Toni who have been waiting for you for so long. And I hope you know, now, how much I have always loved you.

Now I know, for certain, that she loved me, too.

She had to do the dying herself, but I wasn’t going to let her be by herself when she did it. I was there. I kissed her, telling her it was okay to let go. She would be all right, and we would all be okay. She chose to leave this earthy plane later that night as I slept by her side.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. You will always be in my heart.

Your loving daughter, Linda.

“If you can remember me, I will be with you always.” – Isabel Allende

Cinderfella and the Leather Slippers

Bill is very particular about the slippers he wears, and he wears them religiously, especially when we are traveling – dirty floors and carpets full of germs and all that. And never, ever, would he allow someone else to wear them. That would be tantamount to asking rain not to fall. Bill can be so Howard Hughes-ian at times, I could swear he’s at least a distant relative. Even I had better think twice about putting his slippers on and flopping around the house in them, as I’m wont to do at times.

Soooo, when he stepped into the shower after a week filled with sight-seeing and morning to evening side-trips in southern France, he was so exhausted he didn’t realize for the first couple of minutes that he’d done so without removing his leather slippers – the ones with the shearing wool lining. The only kind worthy of adorning his feet. By then, it was too late. They were soaked inside and out. Needless to say, when reality set in a split second later, I couldn’t keep from laughing. I mean, really, how could you not see the humor in it.

Mr. Bill, nit-picky in the extreme about certain aspects of daily life, stepping into the shower with expensive slippers like that – talk about a Priceless Moment! And it wasn’t as if we could go shopping for another pair just like them right then, either. Pretty exhausted by this time myself, I was unable to maintain my composure, and the staid, reserved manner I would normally turn on for a situation like this just wasn’t working for me. It was just too much. The slippers were soaked clear through and squished with the least hint of pressure. Sopping wet – what can I say? I couldn’t help myself.

I left Bill stuffing his slippers with dry washcloths and met Mary Jane and Joe for breakfast that morning, relaying the details of this calamity, engendering another raucous round of laughter as Bill arrived at the table. I’m sure the other diners were wondering what on earth we found that hilarious at such an early hour.

Before we left for the day, Bill was uncharacteristically calm. So calm I couldn’t be sure he wasn’t channeling some stranger. A monk in a secluded mountain-top retreat or Buddhist guru bent on serious meditation perhaps – peaceful men who use words sparingly (or in the monk’s case, not at all). Asking me if I thought a hair dryer might help – I said it couldn’t hurt – Bill un-stuffed the moccasin look-alikes, removing the soaked washcloths, and pointed the hair dryer down their throats.

I hadn’t told him I didn’t think the hair dryer idea would actually work, but it became a moot point anyway as, after a few minutes on high heat, the hair dryer died. Its wire had burned through. Obviously, one non-industrial strength hair drier was not able to manage a big job like this. There was nothing else we could do right then as we were momentarily leaving for the villages of Beaune and Cluny. So Bill re-stuffed the slippers with dry washcloths and placed them in front of the sliding glass door to catch the heat from the sun in the hope that would facilitate the drying process.

Shortly afterward, we boarded a bus to visit some wineries – we could have used a big glass of wine at that moment  – and to soak up the local history on an all-day tour. On the way Joe, reading a copy of the ship’s newspaper, turned to me pointing to a story about Jerry Brown (then governor of California) and his proposal to impose new restrictions on Californians, which Brown deemed necessary due to the drought. He rattled off what they were and said there was one in particular that he thought would interest Bill. It was the one banning individuals from stepping into showers wearing their slippers because they soak up too much water. Too much water, a valuable resource currently in short supply, was being wasted on slippers in need of a washing.

You know how it is when something is set in motion (Newton’s law and all that) – once I started laughing, I couldn’t stop. Tears were streaming down my cheeks and Mary Jane and Joe were also making the most of this moment of levity. When I turned to see how Bill was handling being the brunt of the joke, I found him laughing, too. People were looking at us liked we’d lost our minds, but we didn’t care. We were enjoying the moment we were in to the fullest. Too many people don’t, and look at all the fun they miss.

The real test would come this evening, though, when Bill’s slippers, hopefully, would be dry. Would Cinderfella’s soaked slippers still fit?

Just Another Bitch on the Bus

When students came to my classes on the first day of the semester, they were not assigned seats, and over the years, I had ample opportunity to observe them as they filtered into the room looking for familiar faces and sat with other students they knew. Some sat apart from the others until they latched on to someone with whom they shared something in common. For the first week they tended to sit in those same seats they sat in on the first day, tacitly claiming them as “theirs.” Pretty much all the students followed suit in that same implicit way.

By week two, it was less likely that anyone was going to move into ”someone else’s” seat, even when that person didn’t show up for class.

By week three, you couldn’t pry students from their unassigned seats with a crowbar.

I was reminded of my former students three years ago when Bill and I went overseas with our good friends, Joe and Mary Jane. We traveled part of the time on a bus going from place to place, and it occurred to me that bus riders behaved the same way. Even when they were stuck in seats they didn’t particularly like, they were loathe to encroach on what they perceived as another person’s territory.

Most of the time, but not always.

To ensure you’d get your proper seat back upon returning to the bus, individuals used water bottles, sweaters, town maps, anything they had handy to mark their territory – unlike other creatures of the natural world that use urine for that same purpose.

If you’ve ever watched sheep in the fields, you know they take their cue from the sheep in the lead. The first one to turn in any direction is followed by one, then another, until the whole flock is moving in the same direction. Cartoons depict actions like this as groups of animated characters blindly following their leader across a cliff, but this happens in real life, too. Remember Jim Jones, Charles Manson, Hitler, any number of leaders of religious cults?

Students coming to class the first week or two.

Our last stop of the day before returning to the riverboat was an ancient village some distance from the river where we were docked. After our tour, we had free time to roam around on our own, then wend our way back to the bus on the edge of town for our return. Bill and I arrived before Joe and Mary Jane and attempted to save the seats they’d sat in all day and which were across the aisle from ours. As there were no assigned seats, seats were technically up for grabs any time we disembarked and returned, though our guide said we could leave our things on the seats because the bus would be locked. Like the students in my class, everyone tended to return to the same seats each time they got back on the bus. If there was a mistake made regarding possession, the person who’d had the seat previously got it back.

It was going to be a long return trip to the riverboat, and we tried to save our friends’ seats, putting our jackets on them. When a couple of interlopers tried to sit in the seats we laid claim to, Bill said in a friendly way that they were taken, as the woman had never even asked. Responding to Bill’s attempt to save the seats with a venomous tone Bill generally does not take well from anyone, the wife became demanding, insistent, and rude. Her docile husband never opened his mouth. We’d seen these people off and on all week long; they were always on their own and seemed not to have made friends with anyone. Frankly, it was not difficult to imagine why.

I was amazed Bill didn’t tell her off – or rather, shove her off the bus. Bill’s request to save those seats for our friends, who would have to move several seats away, was met with pure disdain. However, Bill proved to be a model of self-restraint, the likes of which are rarely seen. When we told our traveling companions what happened, Mary Jane’s only comment was “Just another bitch on the bus.”

Classic Mary Jane: honest and direct. Funny, too – she’s knows how to lighten up a moment and deaden a fuse.

Like Nathaniel Benchley once said, most people are sheep. They do what everyone else does and they are not amenable to, or perhaps leery of, change of any kind. But occasionally you’ll run across that “bitch on the bus” and best to tread with care when you do.

The Earth Beneath Our Feet

Laura and I have done some house-sitting in both California’s exclusive enclave of Montecito, known for the celebrities who live there, and Santa Barbara with its beautiful harbor, the Channel Islands off the coast, and the Pacific Ocean beyond. The city’s backdrop is formed by the Santa Ynez Mountains and its foothills, lit at night by lights from isolated homes dotting their landscape.

Other homes can be seen from the vantage point we occupy on top of one of these foothills, but they are well below the house we are currently minding. Save for the insects, the coyotes, and the sporadic warning of a hissing rattler poised to strike, we are out of easy reach in a realm of total silence.

A few minutes past midnight our first night there, we are awakened by a chorus of frenzied coyotes howling and barking. Within a few seconds everything begins to roll and shake.

It’s a minor earthquake, a tremor. A presentiment of possibly something more, something bigger to come.

Like the earth beneath our feet, relationships are similarly subject to tremors, warning signs that something might be amiss. And it doesn’t always take much to cause that rolling, shaking feeling. Sometimes we are subjected to little “digs” that ordinarily engender a halfhearted laugh, and we move on. But when these become more pointed, too frequent, or are delivered at the wrong time, the brief, deflective chuckle morphs into something less chuckle-worthy and more disturbing. One’s disappointment over this seemingly innocuous form of what feels like bullying should be enough to discourage a repeat of this offense.

And if it doesn’t? If the pattern of bullying or neglect continues, despite one’s pleas for reform? What message does that kind of disregard, and the tremors it causes, send? The underlying problems take on weight and begin feeling more like earthquakes shaking the solid foundations on which one thought they had been standing.

A bit rattled initially, you manage to dismiss it. But it’s disheartening to be summarily dismissed or not taken seriously. To feel that what you want, or you yourself, isn’t important. That your feelings don’t matter at all. Bullies will tell you it’s all “in good fun,” but when they push you to the point of anger, it doesn’t seem very funny, does it? It’s not a punch in the stomach or a derogatory remark, necessarily, but it’s bullying just the same.

If you’re doing or saying something that is clearly not appreciated, why keep doing it?

Disappointment becomes frustration, then anger, and causes a disengagement that takes on a permanence you failed to anticipate. The message you send says 1) you don’t take this seriously, and 2) how the recipient feels about your message isn’t important. That message conveyed may be unintended, but that is the message just the same.

We can’t play with people’s feelings, then say we didn’t mean it.

A tremor is a warning that puts us on notice. Worse things may come if we don’t heed the message it sends. The next time might be one too many. Consecutive incidents chip away at the foundation of your relationship, and each nick requires more effort to overcome the pain it inflicts. The crack becomes a chasm, and you perch on its edge watching everything get sucked into its black hole from which nothing is any longer salvageable. When we fail to heed the warning signs, when we become inattentive to our surroundings and the individuals in them, bad things can – and will – happen.

Last night’s tremor was a reminder that things could have been, and might still get, worse should we fail to do all we can to obviate problems that might arise from our disregard or complacency.

There’s a reason they’re called warning signs.