Tag Archives: victory

Mind over matter

“The ruins at Panduwasnuwara are from this ancient city that ran on shit,” Josh told me.

“Then we have to go see it,” I said.

So we found ourselves exploring the crumbling brick walls of the utterly abandoned archaeological site with our two wives and two three-year olds. With very few signs telling us what we were looking at, Josh played tour guide, relaying to us what monks had told him on a previous visit: Panduwasnuwara is remarkable for its system of sewers that drained to a central holding tank. When this tank filled, the residents would dry the waste and make fuel out of it.

We wandered the site almost alone, joined by a few Sri Lankan couples more interested in canoodling in the tall grass than in archaeology. When it comes to ancient ruins, Panduwasnuwara isn’t at the top of Sri Lanka’s must-see list. My son and Josh’s daughter were playing together on the walls. Josh’s wife was taking pictures, and Josh was telling my wife and me the little he knew about Shit City as we wandered the ruins.

All this talk of poop alerted me that I needed to make a deposit in the National Bank of Panduwasnuwara. There were no bathrooms around, not even a Port-a-Potty. We were in the middle of the jungle, so clearly I was going to have to pinch one al fresco.

There’s no holding it; if I don’t do it now, I will surely pay the price in thirty seconds when things spiral out of control. My fuse shortens exponentially with each passing year; I am pretty sure I’ll be carrying a just-in-case Big Gulp cup and a pack of baby wipes with my AARP card. I was wise enough to have a sweat-soaked handkerchief in my back pocket. I was wearing light-colored khakis (CUE: foreshadowing music), and we all know that khakis have a narrow margin of error.

I spotted a nice big tree next to the ruins – plenty of privacy. I trotted toward it and began unzipping. My sphincter has ears, and the sound of an unzipped zipper is the equivalent of “Taps” – time to put a few soldiers in their grave.

The bad news: while my sphincter ears were hearing a sweet siren song, my real ears heard the sounds of a young couple making out on the other side of the tree. People within earshot and noseshot made it an automatic no-dumping zone.

The good news: it was a large, empty complex, and I could find another spot for privacy.

I zipped up, shouted at my sphincter to have a smoke and relax, and searched for another spot. An inviting cluster of trees was not too far off, so I headed toward them. The Oompa Loompas were screaming to make chocolate, and I told them to get ready.

That’s when I heard the high, shrill scream of a child’s agony.

I ran toward the wail, now punctuated with sobs. Josh and my wife ran in the same direction, the three of us shouting and running blindly, following the crying child sound to a spot at the far corner of the ruins.

I arrived shortly after Josh’s wife. My son stood on a crumbling brick wall, looking down. Four feet below him, Josh’s daughter lay on the dirt, shrieking and holding her visibly broken forearm which jutted at an awful angle. My son’s face was awash in panic.

“We were just playing on the wall and she fell,” he whispered.

Josh came barreling onto the scene, taking in the sight of his wife comforting his daughter, taking in her broken arm. This normally calm man completely lost his shit at the sight of his broken child. He reached down and scooped up his tiny, sobbing daughter.

“What did you do to her?” he roared at my son.

“Josh!” his wife shouted.

My son froze.

I took a deep breath to keep calm; getting in a fight with Josh about mistreating my son wasn’t going to do anything but make the situation worse. My wife came and wrapped her arms around our son, and Josh cradled his daughter in his arms.

Clearly, we needed to get her to a doctor. We got in our rented van, Josh driving and his daughter sitting on her mother’s lap in front, me and my wife sitting on either side of our silent son in back. We sped to a nearby small town not ten minutes away. Josh stopped the van outside of some sort of backwoods medical facility; I couldn’t read the signs in Sinhala script. He tapped the wheel a few moments and then shook his head. He announced that he couldn’t take her to a village doctor; who knows what kind of treatment she’d get? Josh had significantly more Sri Lanka experience than anyone else in the van, so we bowed to his knowledge.

“We have to go to Kurunegala,” he declared, throwing the van into gear and speeding off down the dirt road.

“But that’s an hour away!” his wife exclaimed.

“We can’t take her to a village doctor,” Josh muttered. He was in a crazed state, and there was no reasoning with him. He glared at my son in the rear view mirror, and I pressed my boy closer to me.

My son whispered to me and my wife, “We were playing. She ran past me and fell off.” I believed him, and he maintained his innocence in the years since.

Josh drove through the jungle like a madman, tearing around buses and cars and three-wheeled tuk-tuks, slamming the brakes for every goat and python in the road. Each time he jerked the van, his daughter cried out and his wife yelled at him to slow down.

That’s when I remembered how badly I had to shit. An hour to Kurunegala! What the fuck was I going to do?

I knew Josh wouldn’t stop, and I sensed that if I did ask him to stop, he was going to unleash a fountain of unpleasant that was going to end with my family abandoned roadside in the middle of the jungle, with no ride home and paternal khakis full of hot jungle shit.

I don’t trust my sphincter. For years, it has promised farts and delivered mudslides. It doesn’t wait for the actual toilet seat to go down; it starts releasing at the first song of unzip. So I couldn’t just clench, not with Benedict Anus on duty. I needed something else. It was time to get a little Zen on my ass. Or in my ass.

This was time for serious visualization exercises. I closed my eyes and took control. What the mind can believe, the colon can achieve. Rather than squeeze my sphincter desperately, I pictured a fist closed firmly around my colon like the neck of an upside-down paper lunch bag. No matter how full that bag gets, ain’t nothing coming out. Road closed, and there is no detour: you’ll just have to wait.

We drove on. Josh’s insanity showed no sign of abating, and as we tore through the jungle at breakneck speed, I kept my mind on the prize. It was working. The pain was still there, but none of the urgency. My wife tried to whisper something to me, and I cut her off: I am trying not to shit my pants and I can’t talk right now. It is a testament to her that she understood and took on comforting our son solo.

Josh’s daughter was coming in and out of an exhausted, pain-drenched fugue state, half-sleeping, half crying. It was easier to concentrate on the Zen fist when she wasn’t crying, and each time the van jerked, I had to redouble my efforts to close the fist. I considered praying for Josh to drive better, but that used precious mental energy.

An excruciating hour later, we were tearing through the streets of Kurunegala, Josh stopping at each intersection to get directions to the hospital. When we arrived on the hospital grounds, we left the van in front of the main entrance, and Josh and I both ran in. He went to the front desk to find out about getting his daughter admitted; I started looking for the toilet. A woman in a habit – either a nurse or a nun or both – directed me to another building.

No toilet in the hospital? You’re shitting me!

This was getting dangerous. Running and nun-critiquing and thinking meant less mental effort expended on my magical clutching fist. Things were churning, and it wasn’t good. I ran to the next building; it was nearly deserted. There were no signs for a toilet. Running was not good, either, so I slowed to a waddle.

Nothing. No toilet. As I exited the building, I was nearly run over by Josh in the van.

“Hop in! This place is a nightmare! It’s filthy. We’re going to Kandy,” he said. Kandy was home, another hour away.

I looked at the maniacal glint in his eye, the child wailing in her mother’s arms. I had no choice: I got in the van.

My wife smiled at me. “Feel better?”

“There was no toilet,” I whispered.

The sympathy and horror on her face were enough to void my bowels right then and there. As we’d traveled together over the years, I’d abandoned enough underwear in fast-food restaurants and train station bathrooms that she knew I was beyond my abilities here.

I sat back and regained my concentration on the fist. It wasn’t working, though. It was a struggle now. I had lost ground while running about the hospital. I pictured the Zen fist, but my colon was having none of it. Vesuvius was about to blow.

But what of the poor people of Pompeii and Herculaneum? What of them?

I had to keep trying, so I added a second fist. Two fists are better than one, right? My mind’s eye stacked them end to end the way you’d hold a baseball bat. I made and remade the fists, one finger at a time, like playing a scale on the piano. Reverse peristalsis. Exorcism. In my mind’s eye, both fists squeezed, working the toothpaste back up into the tube.

And suddenly, I was back in control. I was in the moment. I ignored everything around me, focused within, and found inner peace in the form of two fists clenched around a bag of turbulent shit. Transcendence in the back of a van lurching through the hill country of Sri Lanka: I don’t remember that ride. Everything was blacked out.

We got to Kandy, pulled up to the front door of the hospital, and Josh and family rushed inside. Here’s the thing: Lakeside Adventist Hospital was a five-minute walk from my house. My house was right there. So close. Toilet and shower right there in the same spot. A perfect denouement for the Greek tragedy brewing below.

But I had to face facts, and I had the presence of mind to know that I couldn’t walk that far without my house of cards tumbling in disaster. As soon as I stepped out of the van, the fists disappeared. The siren song began its call, and I started clenching as though my life depended on it. Are you there, God? It’s me, John. Please let there be a fucking toilet in the lobby.

I looked around the main entrance and saw a sign for toilets. I walked very slowly and deliberately toward the men’s room. I have to be gentle with my sphincter in this hair-trigger state: I have been known to crap myself right outside the bathroom door. My sphincter is an excitable, piddling puppy.

I got to the bathroom. The good news is that it was unoccupied. The bad news is that it was a squat toilet, a tiny closet of a room with a sopping wet tile floor and two footrests astride a hole. I don’t mind squat toilets, but I had enough experience with them to know one thing: the minute I bent to squat, I would shit all over my khakis.

The only way to make this work was to step completely out of my pants without releasing the Kraken. My concentration was shot, and I relied on SuperSphincter to do me right. I unzipped. I couldn’t let the khakis fall to the floor, or they’d be soaked in the rinse water of everyone who’d pissed and shat in there before me. I clenchedclenchedclenched and, balancing on one leg, worked one foot free of the pants leg – thank God for yoga – stepping expertly out of and back into my flip-flop. I performed the same feat with the other foot, then clutched my khakis in a ball to my chest as I squatted, now naked from the waist down, above that black hole. A Kodak moment.

While shit poured from me, I sobbed. Really, I did. My head on my forearms on my knees, crumpled in despair and victory and relief: never have I been so victorious over my irrational, disobedient sphincter. I shat and I cried and I held my khakis high as I released the Black Plague all over the floor and my feet and my flip-flops.

It took me a good half hour to empty my oil tank and then clean up the Exxon Valdez oil spill. But that’s okay: that’s how squat toilets are designed. There was a spigot near the door which flooded the tile, and it all ran into the squatter, Black Death and drowned cormorants and all. It all washed away.

By the way: if you find yourself in the Kandy Lakeside Adventist Hospital men’s room, here’s a word of warning — there’s no soap.

I walked back out to the lobby a good twelve pounds lighter and learned that Josh’s daughter was with a doctor. (Her arm was set in a fetching, hot pink cast; six months later, she re-broke it in the U.S. because they set it badly.) We were free to go home, so we did. I’m pretty sure my wife had some new-found respect for me that day.

I’ll end this tale of victory, of mind over matter, of man vs. sphincter, with a word of warning: if you picture two fists wrapped around your colon, it has the same physical effect as having two real fists wrapped around your colon. I might have been victorious in the van, but it took two weeks before my off-ramp was working properly. Be careful how you use your powers.

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The Ugly American

I hopped the pond to visit a friend who was going to school in Scotland. We met in London.

The four days prior to my UK trip, I was away from home for a work conference. At the conference I shared a hotel room with a co-worker. During the day, the only bathrooms around me were public bathrooms. I get a bit gun-shy in those circumstances. The time between returning home from the conference and the red-eye flight to London was about 5 hours. There was no time to fool around. I had laundry to do, packing, litter box cleaning, etc. Not a lot of time to take care of a bunch of crap, including crap.

By the time I got to London, there was much I had to express.  Also, I was joined by cousin Flo as I hopped the Atlantic. At this point, I knew my reluctance to use a public toilet for releasing the hounds was diminishing. I could not do it on the plane. The chaos of the airport was enough diversion to make me forget there was a storm a-brewin’.

After all the car rental bit and figuring our way out of Heathrow and into London, my urgent business became top priority. And there it was: an unsuspecting public restroom near Westminster Abbey. Embarrassed, I warned my friend as we went in that she might not want to stick around, and I offered to wait until she was a safe distance away from the scene of the crime.

Being the good, old friend she was, she said not to hold back and she understood.

It was a lot. A lot. And cousin Flo’s luggage.

As it’s happening, my friend and I talk about it, at one point joking that I’m going to clog up the toilet and how awful it’d be if this spilled over or didn’t flush.

I finish up and reach to flush. This is not a normal toilet; it’s one of those cool, wall tank thingamajigs. This was right up there with seeing a red phone booth. Excitedly, I yank the chain. Nothing happened. Yank again. Nothing. My friend is still in the bathroom so I ask if there’s some trick to this? Not really, just yank and hold for a little bit. I keep trying and no go.

Panic starts. I cannot possibly leave this for some unsuspecting stranger. I’ve seen a lot of assaulted, abandoned public toilets and am always horrified that someone would leave it. I am that person who, in most cases, mans up and flushes vandalized toilets to get rid of a stranger’s mess. Admittedly, there have been a handful of times when it was too heinous for me stomach. Because I am so disgusted that people do this, I never want to be the culprit.

This toilet did not care at all that I’ve set this standard in my life. It was not cooperative.

Despite my friend’s best efforts to talk me through the process, we were both convinced I was, at that point, incapable of figuring out how to flush this toilet.

Then she said it: let me in, I’ll do it. I was horrified.. but I saw no other option. Leave it behind and step all over my principles or accept my friend’s help? It took her a few minutes to talk me out of the stall so that she could come in.

She promised she wouldn’t look at the bowl. She did anyway. I can’t remember if it was “Jesus” or something more British like “for fuck’s sake,” but something came out of her mouth to indicate she’d seen IT.

It turned out the toilet must have been broken before my rearward assault. For the short period of time she could stay in the small space, my friend couldn’t get the toilet to flush.

We were defeated. We washed our hands very quickly and as we were leaving, the first other visitor came walking in. I imagine all blood drained from my face right then. My friend and I looked at each other and walked out as quickly and quietly as we could, until we were outside. Then we burst into giggles.

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Venetian Bathroom

I had the fantastic opportunity to take a cooking course in Tuscany, a glorious week filled with amazing foods, fabulous classmates, a little sight-seeing, and copious amounts of really good wine. It was the best of times for sure.

After the course was over, my little party boarded the train to Venice for a week of culture, shopping, and some basic, unapologetic tourism. Shortly into the trip, I felt the rumble. I knew that rumble. The non-stop copious amounts of wine were taking their toll. It was time for a cleanse.

I passed the time ignoring the rumble by chatting with one of my classmates — a Brazilian and about the most stunningly exotic creature I have ever met. She got off somewhere along the way to catch a connecting train to Milan, and we continued on to Venice.

The urge to purge was getting to be intense, but having experienced this before, I was determined to not use the public restroom in the train station. I was likely going to be in there for a while, so the privacy and comfort of my own private hotel room was what I wanted. It’s what I needed.

When the train came to a stop in Venice, I grabbed my luggage and bolted. I got a cab and made a bee-line for the Marriott, checked in mercifully fast, and received the card key to my room.

My room. The room was lovely and well appointed. At least I think so; I only caught a passing glimpse as I dashed to the bathroom and set about taking care of some simmering, long-overdue business. Once the gates were opened, there was no stopping it. Nothing to do but relax and let the cleanse progress. I checked out the facilities: bidet, sink, glass shower with a chain hanging down that said “Emergency,” TP on the wall to the left, big walnut door —

And then it happened: the lights went out. The air cut off. It was dead dark and calm in there. I felt the wall for the door handle to crack the door for some light. Found it. Turned it. Nothing. Try as I might, the door would not budge.

I started fiddling with the lock, thinking maybe it had auto-locked. Still nothing. It got more and more still in there and hotter and hotter. That’s when I knew I was going to die in a Venetian hotel bathroom without ever seeing Venice, that most beautiful city of canals and gondolas. Nope, not for me. A Marriott bathroom: that is Venice to me.

I made a concerted effort to leave the toilet and cleaned up as best as I could. This seemed an inappropriate time to try to master a bidet, though it could prove useful in the cleanliness department. In the pitch dark, how do you know if you are fully fresh down there? Still, not the time to learn a bidet.

The room was now stifling hot. I wondered if perhaps my group would come looking for me. I deemed myself clean, and I felt my way along the wall to wash my hands. What would happen if I pulled the emergency cord? Did I want to risk finding out? Would it be better to just die in here and let housekeeping find me the next day?

I returned to the throne and made an effort to get out of that hellhole. After about 20 more minutes of tinkering, I learned that there was a fine art to turning the lock halfway while lifting the handle at the same time and pulling. One hour in there — cleanse, clean, and panic totaled — and I was out.

The bathroom door was never shut again the rest of the week.

It turns out I didn’t know the most basic of facts: European hotels are fond of an energy-saving feature where you put your room key in a power slot in the wall to enable lights and air. Leave for the day to tour about, and it eliminates your ability to leave the lights on and the air blasting. Nice feature, but I was unaware.

I was grateful I got out of the bathroom and discovered the power slot, but not grateful enough to tell the others in my group about it. I let them figure it out their own damn selves.

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The Guardian of the Gate

by Guy Petzall

Bolivia, November 1994

During the past few days, I’ve been visited by that all-too-common traveler’s companion, intestinal bacteria — you know, the ones that turn otherwise perfectly healthy stool into noxious, primordial ooze. The little scoundrels are everywhere, in the vegetables, the water, and everyone I know down here has, at one time or another, gotten got. It is easy to throw blame around, to cast aspersion upon that suspicious pasta salad, or perhaps it was the ice cream (I thought it tasted a little funny), but to do so is of no use. The bug is, sooner or later, without fail or evitability, sure to arrive and nest in your bowel. And the cure is simple, really. Just go into any pharmacy, make a sad face, and pat your belly, and they’ll take care of you right quick, usually selling you an unlabeled antibiotic of questionable origin, but which works nonetheless. And, I suppose, in a very general way, the advent of antibiotic pharmacology is the hero in this instance. But, from a more personal aspect, I revere a hero which is in my view far greater, far stronger, and far worthier of praise. For while antibiotics may be capable of killing the little buggers in my bowel on a strictly cell-by-cell basis (and believe me, I’m taking my pills), my hero accomplishes a much greater feat; my hero controls the whole of the problem; my hero is capable of stemming the black tide for unbelievable quantities of time. I speak of none other that the mighty sphincter, guardian of the gate, keeper of the peace.

My first hint that all was not strictly firm in the nether organs came in that proverbial and much recounted of situations, the beginning of an 18-hour bus ride from La Paz, Bolivia to Santa Cruz, a city of 800,000 across the Andes and down into the Amazon Basin, a journey from high altitude to low, from brilliantly cold to blazingly hot. And, like ice melting in the sun, I could feel the once firmly established material in my intestines begin increasingly to gurgle about, assuming a more and more liquid form. Great. I began to rationally assess my circumstances. The bus, as they say, no tiene baño. Two stops were scheduled, six hours apart, but already, only 45 minutes into the trip, I could feel the internal pressure mounting. Pressure to expel. To bow to it would have been catastrophic. So, with no other recourse, I simply resolved to batten down the hatch, clinch up real tight, and wait. The pain was spectacular. Like the tides of the river Styx, it ebbed and resurged cyclically, as the assorted fluids and gasses rearranged themselves in my gut. BUT — my anus held true. Its ringed clamp, in accordance with my determined will, braved the no doubt tempestuous storm within without so much as a pucker, and the first leg of the trip, although no joy, remained leak-free.

Finally we arrived at Cochabamba, our first scheduled stop. With a one-hour hiatus before the continuation of our journey, I headed for the bus station bathroom. 50 centavos. 10 cents U.S., and ten of the best cents I ever shelled out. If only they had known what they could have charged me, I’d be a poor man today. I entered the stall, placed my feet on the designated footprints, and, squatting into position, muttered quietly, “OK, my friend, time to open up.” I was actually speaking to my butt-hole — and politely, because I knew that my happiness depended upon its future cooperation. And, like the obedient little muscle that it is, or perhaps more like an iris widening to accept the light in a dim situation, it opened, and unleashed the waters of hell which it had kept so successfully at bay.

I shall refrain from the fullest description of the fiery carnage which ensued, in complete audiolfactory Sensurround™, for the next half-hour or thereabouts. Just trust me, it was truly something to behold, and 10 cents shouldn’t have been able to even begin to cover it, regardless of what country I was in. It was spectacular, but eventually I had to once again restrain myself and return to the bus.

The second part of the trip went off much like the first, except that my anus, having acquired my thorough respect during the initial portion of the journey, seemed to want to expand — not its aperture, so much, as its range of sensitivity. It seemed to feel itself capable of distinguishing between the varieties of that which it was incarcerating, and I let it, allowing it to release only the gaseous inmates from its pestilential prison. I trusted my friend my anus, it was worthy of my faith, and as a result the remainder of the drive to Santa Cruz became so much more bearable.

And now that I have turned the problem over to the products of medical science, I feel the need to commemorate my faithful friend and trusted ally, to acknowledge its loyal service and unwavering tenacity in the face of grave adversity. If I could, I’d throw it a party or something, because I still have a few weeks left in South America, and you never know where those pesky bacteria are lurking, waiting for the chance to spring again. But when they do, I’ll be ready. In this regard, I am not traveling alone. I have a friend. Hail Sphincter!

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