Saturday, November 27, 2010

No Offense

Science is abuzz over the discovery of enormous bubbles of gas on either side of the Milky Way galaxy, presumed to have been emitted from a black hole in its center. It is considered a wonder that such a huge phenomenon has escaped their notice before, but I suspect it just means the Milky Way is related to my mother's side of the family.

NASA's finest couldn't have detected gas emanating from my Norwegian forebears. They were, to a person, extremely nice and polite people, and polite people do not foist their emanations on others. It was not possible to smell anything about them that did not come in on their shoes, even during lutefisk season. My mother and her three siblings grew up on a frigid farm in northern North Dakota. The only approved location for activities of elimination was an outhouse in the narrow copse of woods near, but not too near, the house. Every farm had such a copse, referred to for more than one reason as a "windbreak." It was a long, cold march to the biffy in wintertime, and those growing up using it developed sphincter control so exquisite they could have thwarted a sadistic proctologist. By the time I knew my mother, she had either perfected the ability to withhold gas altogether, or it had been somehow sanitized on its passage through a modest, sensible calico.

At least she had children, and thus had learned to contend with, and if necessary communicate about, the business of elimination. Aunt Selma was even more comfortable with the subject, having raised her children in free-spirited California. Uncle Cliff was a bachelor farmer and the nicest man on the planet, and had no immunity to the humiliation of the subject at all.

I was sitting with him during a party at my Aunt Selma's house when she bustled in and asked if he'd seen another guest of hers. He shrugged as vaguely as possible, and she left the room. But she soon came back, demanding to know if the guest had been seen. The shrug failed to fend her off this second time, and it finally leaked out of him that the guest was "indisposed." Aunt Selma frowned. "Do you mean she's in the bathroom?" she asked, and Uncle Cliff surrendered a slight, miserable nod. Aunt Selma left the room, and Uncle Cliff looked abject. "I can't believe she made me say that," he said in a tiny voice.

In North Dakota, snow drifted up to the second floor of the house, some winters. Humans coped using raccoon coats; the Holsteins were on their own. As is their wont, they produced globes of frozen methane all winter long, which thunked softly into the snow. So they were in on the deal, too. When global warming finally begins to thaw the accumulation of antique cow farts, we'll all be sorry. It's no coincidence that frozen methane is a chief component of the atmosphere of Uranus.

Hazel Brewster made it through her whole life without offending a single soul. Lest anyone feel compelled to speculate about bubbles emanating from this corner of the blogosphere, please note: I got only half my genes from her.

42 comments:

  1. My thoughts immediately went to the two-holer on my grandparents property in Oklahoma before they were more or less forced to move to town and contend with an indoor toilet. Every evening the two of 'em would stroll together to the outhouse and poop side by side. And they talked. They never particularly liked the convenience of being indoors. I suspect they missed the talks.

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  2. Thanks for the line, "Referred to for more than one reason as a windbreak." You made my day!

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  3. What a delightful post and loved the pictures. Shades of Garrison Keillor, one of my favorite writers.

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  4. Some humans have the enzyme to emit methane, delightfully enlivened by the addition of a Bic lighter. Owing to my occasional need to find a breezy spot, I suspect I may be one of the lucky ones. I haven't tried the Bic test.

    Just another lively fact learned from Mary Roach.

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  5. Mary Roach must have a book out I haven't read, from that last comment. What a delightful post! How can anyone write with such humor all the time? I'm so impressed.

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  6. I thought of you while watching a show about the last great extinction of the great land mammals--the saber toothed tigers, the giant sloths and the wooly mammoths etc. In a dusty museum somewhere, catalogued and examined to the nth degree, a scientist held up a gigantic petrified Giant Sloth Poop--the thing was as big as a loaf of bread and nicely tapered like soft serve ice cream. Perhaps you missed your true vocation?

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  7. I don't know, Elizabeth, but an awful lot of people tell me they're thinking of me when they see interesting poop.

    Jerry? Really? That is so sweet. Two-holers never made sense to me because I couldn't visualize what you're reporting. But it's so sweet. And a little pungent.

    unmitigated me, if you try the Bic trick you will be the first woman to do so. Let us know what happens, won't you?

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  8. I wonder if when chatting away, Norwegian Missuses use the one cheek sneak. I suspect they do, and that my mother did.

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  9. How exciting to come here to thank you for your visit and to indulge my senses with your reminiscences. You do have a way with words!

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  10. As usual, Murr, a hilarious as well as nostalgic piece, brilliantly written and with lovely photos.
    My own mother grew up on a series of tenant farms in west central Ohio, none of which had indoor plumbing. And like your family, hers always had impeccable manners in this sense. Whereas the Newlands, who were town and city folk who'd always had indoor facilities were notorious windbreakers who were even wont to have contests - with different virtual prizes: loudest, longest, highest, lowest, etc. (though none that I know of for 'fragrance'), all to the chagrin of my mother. Reba Mae (Mom) taught us kids to behave like her side of the family, much in the same way she and her siblings learned their manners. An accidental faux pas was punishable by being sent outside "to get the stink blown off you". And excuses like, "Well Dad does it," could also earn you a whack with the yardstick for talking back. One quickly discovered that with Reba Mae as the timekeeper, this process (the outdoor airing) could take a long time and in twenty-below western Ohio winters, discretion quickly became the better part of valor.
    Great piece, Murr.

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  11. I was fortunate to grow up in California, and San Francisco in particular where indoor plumbing was mandated by Federal Regulation.

    However, my mother, who hated to cook and hated even more to grocery shop, would frequently run out of toilet paper. As a child growing up, there were many things I feared: monsters under my bed, being drafted... but the worst was running out of toilet paper.

    So traumatized from this, to the very day as an aging adult, I still recon every public bathroom for sufficiently available tissue no matter how great the "need" might bear upon me.

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  12. it had been somehow sanitized on its passage through a modest, sensible calico
    I think this was my most favourite line.

    Scottish-Canadian women from the farmlands of Ontario used the same filtering device as Norwegian-Amurcan North Dakotans, Murr. An indispensable household appurtenance was the "thunder mug", tucked discretely in a cupboard and used gratefully in bitter, deep snow winters.

    We had a two-holer at the cottage. I always wondered why there had to be two holes as it wasn't a place I would ever want company...or a conversation. Your post sheds new light on the matter. Delightful as always, m'dear!

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  13. Susan, as an addendum to your one-cheek-sneak, have you noticed that you favor one cheek over the other? Most of us do.

    Dan, thank you, and I so approve of your mom's parenting style. Action: consequence.

    Robert. Our house never ran out of TP. Depression parents did not indulge themselves or us. But WWII instilled in my mom a deep fear of running out of TP and she stocked up whenever there was a sale. The entire linen closet was crammed full.

    Tiffin, I remember going to the farm and remarking on how pretty the bowl was, and how nice it would look on the table. Turns out no one else wanted to see the thunder mug on the table.

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  14. Murr, frozen cow bubbles. . . really???

    This is such an appropriate post from someone whose bear is named Pootie.

    I just finished reading Lee Child's 61 Hours. It has nothing to do with flatulence, but the South Dakota winter in it is almost a character in the story. Wish there had been a few cows...!

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  15. This suggests a couple of possible explanations for the phenomenon noted initially in the post:

    (1) The dominant core races of the galaxy have established a pair of outhouses "near, but not too near" either side of the majestic spiral. Given that the journey to these locations would take fifty thousand years even at light-speed, such beings must have developed levels not only of technology, but also of sphincter control, far beyond what we can imagine.

    (2) There exists a vast, hitherto-undetected cosmic Holstein, likely composed of dark matter, responsible for the bubbles of gas. If anyone gets near it with a Bic lighter, global warming might be the least of our problems.

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  16. We, too, in our central Indiana family of German decent, were instructed to go outside and "blow the stink off,"though it had more to do with getting exercise than a reference to flatulance, which was neither here nor there. My husband's family, also of German decent but of a decidedly Lutheran nature, never heard of so rude a term, being of a more discrete upbringing that never entertained so much as nose-blowing in public, heaven forbid emulations of gas bubbles. My German heritage of farm folk tilted toward the ornery, on the other hand. I think I came as somewhat of a shock to my in-laws.

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  17. Infidel753, you're on to something. Except I would note that the cosmic Holstein is composed of part dark and part light matter.

    And cowango, at this point, I think I would come as somewhat of a shock to both my parents. I miss them, but at least I'm not horrifying them.

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  18. Murrmurrs, you never fail to surprise me with your wit! I think my brother is related to you! But the best thing I ever heard was from a sweet little farmer's wife who I cared for when she was in her 90's. After giving her her bath she passed a little gas. Without skipping a beat this fine Christian woman giggled and said, "It had to come out. It wasn't paying rent!"

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  19. My mother is half Norwegian and was born in Wisconsin. However, she spent most of her life in California with my dad, who was notorious for his sneaky gaseous emissions. His favorite ploy was to blame the cat when one slipped out that was loud enough to be detected: "Here, kitty, kitty?"

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  20. Norwegians and the British must have something in common (other than their collective hatred for Nazis and Russians) because I can't remember ever once discussing poop or poop-related topics in my household growing up. And farting was right out of the question. I can't recall even being warned not to do it. It simply wasn't cricket, and never happened. Now that I'm free from my mother's reins, I feel free to break wind once in a while. But I always feel deeply ashamed about it.

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  21. No kidding, Michael. Although we had four acceptable terms for #1 and #2 (those being two of them), we had no vocabulary at all for the poot. As you said, it never happened. Now, however, I am not only not ashamed, but sometimes I'm button-bustin' proud. Of course, I'm in a competitive household.

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  22. Murr,

    Most follow this blog. My mother's side was Norwegian as well, they settled in Nebraska. My mom now lives in Minnesota. You had me at lutefisk.

    KarenG

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  23. The outhouse at my aunt's camp on Lake Champlain was only a 1 holer, but we kids were convinced that Aragog and his kin lurked just under the edge. Necessary trips were at the speed of light.

    Did you know in some regions of the US that hollyhocks were always planted near the outhouse so a lady did not need to ask where it was? She just looked for the hollyhocks blooming "out back".

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  24. Oh my....I think I shall go and unnecessarily flush my toilet just to celebrate the wonder that is indoor plumbing. So funny!

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  25. Now we know who to blame for global warming: your ancestors!

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  26. Hey, now.

    Caroline, I had to check. You're right. "Outhouse hollyhocks," so tall they camouflaged the biffy.

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  27. "...sphincter control so exquisite they could have thwarted a sadistic proctologist."

    My friends will be hearing this quotation from me. I can't absolutely promise I'll give credit; it's just so fabulous, I may have to abandon my ethics and steal your thunder...so to speak.

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  28. As I was reading this --at work-- one of the attorneys in my office (the one who handles the medical malpractice cases) was dictating to his secretary at her desk more or less outside my cubicle, and the words "rectal tone" drifted to my ear. I'm seriously spooked by this coincidence, and may have to go home, OK?

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  29. In Eastern Oregon I remember a one-holer that literally a river ran through.
    My brother and I would drop sticks down the hole then run out to see where they surfaced. No aroma and no need for paper. Of course, that was before the EPA was established.

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  30. You know, no matter what you dropped down that hole, you're going to want to run out and see where it lands. Aren't you?

    laytonwoman, you have my permission to go home. That is spooky, and it could be you're in danger of something dropping out of the sky on you. And you're not going to like it.

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  31. Wonderful. And I speak as someone who had no idea there were people who actually used the word 'fart' in polite society until I was well over 21. 'Indisposed' covered a whole range of contingencies in my family.

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  32. Wonderful. And I speak as someone who had no idea there were people who actually used the word 'fart' in polite society until I was well over 21. 'Indisposed' covered a whole range of contingencies in my family.

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  33. My mother is half Norwegian and was born in Wisconsin. However, she spent most of her life in California with my dad, who was notorious for his sneaky gaseous emissions. His favorite ploy was to blame the cat when one slipped out that was loud enough to be detected: "Here, kitty, kitty?"

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  34. Infidel753, you're on to something. Except I would note that the cosmic Holstein is composed of part dark and part light matter.

    And cowango, at this point, I think I would come as somewhat of a shock to both my parents. I miss them, but at least I'm not horrifying them.

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  35. it had been somehow sanitized on its passage through a modest, sensible calico
    I think this was my most favourite line.

    Scottish-Canadian women from the farmlands of Ontario used the same filtering device as Norwegian-Amurcan North Dakotans, Murr. An indispensable household appurtenance was the "thunder mug", tucked discretely in a cupboard and used gratefully in bitter, deep snow winters.

    We had a two-holer at the cottage. I always wondered why there had to be two holes as it wasn't a place I would ever want company...or a conversation. Your post sheds new light on the matter. Delightful as always, m'dear!

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  36. How exciting to come here to thank you for your visit and to indulge my senses with your reminiscences. You do have a way with words!

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  37. I wonder if when chatting away, Norwegian Missuses use the one cheek sneak. I suspect they do, and that my mother did.

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  38. Elizabeth BrewsterApril 5, 2011 at 3:32 PM

    I thought of you while watching a show about the last great extinction of the great land mammals--the saber toothed tigers, the giant sloths and the wooly mammoths etc. In a dusty museum somewhere, catalogued and examined to the nth degree, a scientist held up a gigantic petrified Giant Sloth Poop--the thing was as big as a loaf of bread and nicely tapered like soft serve ice cream. Perhaps you missed your true vocation?

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  39. What a delightful post and loved the pictures. Shades of Garrison Keillor, one of my favorite writers.

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  40. My thoughts immediately went to the two-holer on my grandparents property in Oklahoma before they were more or less forced to move to town and contend with an indoor toilet. Every evening the two of 'em would stroll together to the outhouse and poop side by side. And they talked. They never particularly liked the convenience of being indoors. I suspect they missed the talks.

    ReplyDelete