Sometimes it helps to be a little deaf
How regularly talking about a very taboo subject can teach you to sniff out bullshit in every day life.
I turn the ignition in my car off and look out the window at the lone seagull swooping above the majestically calm Tasman Sea sprawling out in front of me in all directions. Eternal gratitude floods my mind as the butterflies begin to exit their little cocoons in my stomach and I start getting that lovely feeling of nervousness that I get before every ocean swim. Even after the thousandth time doing it, the feeling never ceases to enthral me. The air is cool for late winter and so I decide to “double swim cap” my scalp as the head is usually the part that makes you disembark the water before you are done. Yes, I view my swims like I was baking a sweet batch of chocolate chip cookies, the timing for entry and exit have to be perfect, otherwise you are too soft or too baked for comfort. I pull the bottom part of my wetsuits up over my shoulders and stretch my way into my seal suit. After pulling cord up in the back and fastening the velcro across my neck I do a couple of loose stretches and arm swings to get the juices flowing. I walk waist deep into the water feeling the comforting protection of the suit as the freezing temperature feels just fine against my naked skin, like a lukewarm shower, not annoying but not lazy warm either. Just right for a swim. I gaze out over the calm green blue water shimmering in the rising light of the post dawn sun. I look out for any fins traversing the 1.3 km path I am set to take out to Tata Island, not for spotting danger or out of fear, but more out of this childlike sense of awe and wonder. My dream has always been to swim alongside a large orca or shark in one of my ocean swims, alas never been so lucky. Yet. I have had people tell me that they have seen fins following me on some of my swims, but I’ve never been conscious of them. I adjust my swim goggles, take three deep breaths in and out followed by 5 successive short breaths and then one super long one and dive headfirst into the water, the sharp temperature difference takes me aback, flooding my body with much needed adrenaline, enough adrenaline so as to tackle this long swim. The water is so quiet and empty, I love the feeling of being connected to the whole world when in the ocean. Even though we call them the “7 seas,” they really are just one giant sea connected over the whole planet, from the Antarctic in the south to the Arctic in the north, one giant pond. The beach I love to swim at is my favourite, because you can swim there at any tide. The place I call my home, Golden Bay is a large and very tidal bay that is nestled snugly in between two large sand spit outcrops to the west and northeast. The western one is called Farewell Spit and is one of the largest sand spits in the world, famously visible from the International Space Station, the other one is the start of the Abel Tasman National park, one of the most beautiful nature walks in the whole world. On my first dive under water I always try to swim out far enough on one single breath so that I cannot see the bottom any more, which is about 30m out, where a cliff wedge drops to about 20m and the bottom becomes indistinguishable to the surrounding water. I then take one big swoop upwards and dive out of the water headfirst drawing a deep breath of fresh air back into my lungs and settling into my rhythm. Most people like the front crawl when they do longer ocean swims, but not me, I have always loved the breaststroke because if you do it right, your body mimics that of a seal or dolphin - both of which I have encountered to my delight on my swims before. Forward dive in, hands curled, arms pulling equally to the side like a duck and pull both hands along the inside of the torso from belly button to the throat forwards, briefly out of the water and then the superman glide. 2,3. Repeat. Forward dive in, hands curled, arms pulling.., wait a minute what was that splashing noise, I pause my swim and propel myself up by kicking my legs underneath, look up, expecting to see either a kayaker or surf board, but nothing. I resume my swim. Forward dive in, hands curled, arms pulling equally to the side like a duck and pull both hands along the inside of the torso…. splash.. there it was again? This time I didn't pause my swim, but instead kept going whilst poking my eye out of the water, skimming the horizon. There it was, a dark object about 30m in front. My mind starts working out scenarios, is it spearfisherman, gosh I hope he doesn’t spear me? A seal? A dolphin? I keep swimming. The thing about ocean swimming that you learn pretty early on is that panic zaps your energy, and when you are 700m in the open water, energy is your best friend. So you train your mind to not panic. Still, in theory that sounds awesome, but now I realise there is something swimming ahead of me, and it looks like it’s getting close. I eye up the island in front of me, about 500m off in the not too near distance. I look back to the beach, too far out. I get on my back and start doing the backstroke to calm my mind, that’s when I feel the first bump, on my right calf, something hits me hard enough so that my right ankle jumps out of the water and flipping me back, my head briefly submerges and water uncomfortably goes up my nostrils. Alright, that’s not a dolphin, but maybe I can talk to it? Your brain starts telling you strange things in situations like these, like I honestly believed I could communicate with whatever I was sharing these waters with. Shaking that thought, I turn, get my bearings and start eyeing the water around me, to the left, the right, down, yes, there it is, swimming about 10m below me. I return to my swim. I wish I could go and inspect it, but I first need to get to the island in case panic sets in. One stroke, one breath. Two strokes, one breath. Three stro.. - bang - a sudden sharp bump on my pelvis sends my whole body out of the water for a brief second, winding me. Keep your calm, keep swimming..
<to be continued…>
The other day I was being lambasted by a client who hadn’t paid my outstanding 3 month old invoice and I thought to myself “why do I need to be eating all this shit from this woman, I’ve done my work and she hasn’t paid.” Just in that moment a dear friend of mine called and I reiterated the story of how pedantic this woman was being about the work I had delivered to her on time, essentially for free, and he just said all stoically:
“Well Chris, sometimes you just gotta let assholes be assholes!”
This got me thinking about my shit eating and how it was what came out of assholes and how fitting this whole metaphor was. It also got me thinking back to a time in my life where everything revolved quite intimately around shit, poop, faeces, poo, stool, kaka, scheisse whatever you want to call it, what our body makes of the food that we originally ingest to sustain our life. As a side note, it must be pointed out here that poo is actually mostly old dead bacteria and cells and not processed food. Did you know that your poop is actually brown because of dead red blood cells and bile that your body is shedding. Bile is mostly yellow and red blood cells are…, well it’s kind of obvious. But what do yellow and red make? Well, if you paid attention in art class you would know that they make brown.
Let’s talk about shit, baby
We need to talk more about shit in society. Way more. If shit weren’t as taboo a subject as it is and we would discuss it as free and easily as the weather, perhaps we would take less of it in our society as a whole. In fact, in this article I will argue that nearly all of the shortcomings of capitalism can in some way be traced back to shit and our inability to talk about it in any form whatsoever in mainstream society. And I realise that this topic can make people feel uncomfortable, but my point is it really shouldn’t as it is such a normal routine for humans. Everyone does it, like eating or sleeping. You ask people “How was your dinner, what did you have?” or “How did you sleep, did you dream?” - When was the last time you asked someone “How was your stool? Did it feel good and natural or was it more of a strain?” You probably have never asked or been asked that unless you are married to a gastroenterologist. But by the end of this piece of writing, my aim will have been to make you reevaluate stool and appreciate its significance in our everyday lives.
Has this piqued your interest even more than my swimming encounter above? Probably not, but it should do, as the story you are about to read is going to be at least as exciting as that aquatic shake-up. And don’t you worry, I will describe the conclusion to that particularly unsettling and unexpected liaison before this article is done. Promised!
So, here are my ponderings on faeces. A shit treatise if you will. Bear with, there shall be some nuggets in here as I have quite a lot of expertise on the subject.
But more to that in a bit and I swear I will come back to the ocean swimming scenario as well, all in good time.
The writing is on the wall
In the 20th century around the time of Sigmund Freud there lived a German American psychologist called Erik Erikson. He was fascinated by the psychosexual developments of young humans. The second stage of this development he termed the “anal stage” where a child becomes fascinated with faeces and “going potty” - it occurs between the ages of 18 months and 3 years. Erikson was particularly interested in individuals who had gotten fixated on this stage in early life as they (according to his theories) became either too rigid and pedantic or chaotic and disordered, depending on how well or not they adapted to toilet training in their youth.
Well, according to the strained recollections (she had 4 children) of my lovely mother, I was fairly good at toilet training but I also had phases where I forgot to aim or even go on the potty altogether. What was quite fascinating about my younger years, as my parents recall, was that by the time I could read at 6, I exhibited a tremendous fascination with public toilets.
Everywhere we would go, whether restaurants, train stations, airports or beaches, the first place I wanted to see was the toilet. I even started a little diary about the toilets I had visited. I ranked many things, the interior design, the cleanliness and lastly the information that was written on the wall, both by official authorities as well as local graffiti artists. I even went so far as to copy many of the sayings (and a lot of telephone numbers) into my little black book.
On top of being obsessed with public toilets, I became intrigued as to how people wiped their bottoms after doing the business, do you stand up? And if you stand up, how do you stand? Do you bend forward? How do you fold the toilet paper? Neatly into rectangles or triangles? Or do you scrunch it up? Do you look at the paper after wiping? If so, for how long? It didn’t take long before I was banned from asking these types of questions, especially at dinner parties that my parents would host and eventually, I forgot about this passion altogether.
Though it must be said here that to this day, I still have a fascination with public toilets and must say that my two favorite public lavatories are the toilets at the international departure terminal at John F Kennedy airport and the beautiful colourful mosaic toilets designed by the Austrian painter Hundertwasser at Kawakawa in the north of the North Island of New Zealand.
Yeah a shame really that this passion didn’t grow into something more substantial with which I could earn a living but wait until you hear about my next encounter with shit, it happened in the German military of all places.
Back when I was 18, Germany still had mandatory 12 month military conscription. One way a lot of us boys would get out of it was to enrol in university outside of the country, hoping the authorities would eventually forget about us. I decided to study biology in the UK and spent three great years learning about the wonders of botany and zoology at Bristol University in the south west of the country. After graduating I received a letter from the military and was asked to come in and do a physical.
Being a sworn pacifist and generally a pretty staunch opponent of violence and guns, this was a nightmare for me. I did my best to try and avoid getting asked to join by smoking copious amounts of cannabis the night before my physical as well as pretending to not be able to do any pushups whatsoever and also claiming every allergy under the sun on my conscription form. Not to matter, I was given a Tauglichkeitsstufe (loosely translated as usefulness scale) of 7 out of 7 - which excluded me from any military duties, but opened the path to either kitchen duty or medical aid. I chose the latter and joined the air force.
After 3 grueling months of boot camp replete with the superior officers checking how well we had shaved by running a piece of paper along our faces and if it made a sound, it was off to the lavatories with your toothbrush to clean all the toilets - nonsense. And no, this is not where the story is leading. It gets worse.
“Military justice is to justice what military music is to music.”
Oh brother Groucho Marx, how right you were
By the end of these 3 nightmare months came the time when all of us recruits had to join the military anywhere in Germany to complete 9 months of active duty. None of us knew what was going to happen, where we were going to end up or what our duty was going to entail. On one of our last days at the boot camp I was asked into the Oberleutnant’s office for a briefing. Now this guy really hated me. He hated everything about me, the fact I had lived and studied in the UK, the fact my mother was from New Zealand and the fact I was so good at running and sports. The one thing in the military is that you get a free pass if you excel at sports, even if the commanding officers take a dislike to you. Luckily enough I was a good runner and a good basketball and football player, so even though this officer’s dislike of me was palpable, he could never really act on it and punish me. No, he saved all that disdain up to the last moment.
In the name of stool, I salute you
“Flieger von Roy, Sie sind doch trainierter Biologe, hab ich das richtig verstanden?”
“Jawohl Herr Oberleutnant.”
I said perhaps a little too proudly.
“Moegen Sie arbeit hinter einem Mikroskop?”
“Ja Herr Oberleutnant, das ist interessant fuer mich!”
Why was he grinning so much during this whole interaction?
“Na gut dann. Sie haben sich am Zentralen Institut der Sanitaetsdienste der Bundeswehr Deutschland in Muenchen am Donnerstag zu melden. Haben Sie das verstanden Flieger von Roy?”
Essentially my nemesis officer had just asked me if I was a trained biologist and if I enjoyed work behind a microscope. I had happily replied yes, to which he said I was to report to the Centre for Disease Control of the German Military in Munich.
I was happy because most of my friends lived in Munich and as such, these 9 months were not going to be as tough as I had initially wagered.
After having traveled back to Munich, I walked into a large grey cement building housing nearly 14 separate laboratories the following Thursday in full military fatigues ready to report to duty. I walked up to the reception area and was cheerily greeted by a tall, grey haired man with a slightly wonky face, extending his hand out hastily. I grabbed that wet flounder of a handshake and immediately felt a chill run down my spine. What on Earth was this place? He took me to the fourth floor and that’s where the smell hit me. It was like vomit, urine, saliva, semen and faeces all mixed into one cocktail, the fragrance diabolique - I would refer to it from this day onwards.
Walking along the brightly lit dark green corridor, dry retching
“An den Geruch gewoehnen Sie sich. Sie werden ihr eigenes Labor bekommen”
Beamed wonky face at me. Sweet I’ll get my own lab and I will get used to the smell eventually? Yeah thanks, I don’t think so.
We walk past the first lab on the left:
The second on the right this time:
The third on the left, where the door was slightly ajar and it smelt like a train station at midnight:
Then the smell really hit me and I saw the sign, the light bulb in the sign must have not been screwed in properly, because the sign was switching on and off, like one of those dodgy Hickville gas station signs in B horror movies. On off on off on off on..
“This is your lab for the next 9 months, Private von Roy. You will be analysing between 200 and 300 samples of faeces a day from the entire German military kitchen staff as well as sick patients.”
“Lunch will be at 12:30 in the canteen. Don’t be late.”
Yep. That was my fate. Over the course of the next 9 months, I analysed nearly 100 000 samples of stool. And yes, I did get used to the smell and developed an intensely close relationship with sterile solution. I used it so much, the skin lining of my hands would peel at least once a week.
I tested for the presence of Salmonella, Clostridia, Staphylococcus, tape worms, parasites and other exotic beings of the microscopic netherland. I did manage to discover a strain of Salmonella that had never been seen outside the North American subcontinent, which got me pretty famous in academic stool sample realms (yes, that is a thing.)
How does it all work? You get the sample and spread it on 12 differently filled agar plates. Open the tube, gasp at how much the patient has managed to stuff in there, pray it hasn’t been subjected to too high a temperature on the way to the lab and then brace yourself when you open it, both for the smell and the explosive tendencies. Shit is actually a pretty good explosive, for starters it expands when exposed to heat or shaking, it’s those dead bacteria that we spoke about before, they can still expel methane even after being technically dead, mixing this with the iron in the methane again causes the concoction to expand. So when poor old me would open a sample tube filled up to the wazoo with shit, that had traveled 500km in 30 degree celsius heat, the resulting revelation was nothing short of spectacular, a faecal Guy Fawkes or pooey 4th of July. Shit Fireworks. Luckily they supplied me with a nigh’ on full hazmat suit for the work, including, most importantly, a head visor, which I had to change periodically.
I also got this big, old, wooden stamp that had 4 categories imprinted on the bottom of it which read: “porridge”, “corn”, “soup” and “tough” - after visually inspecting the sample, I had to stamp the corresponding personalised diagnostic sheet, - STAMP -and then circle one of those 4 options to capture the consistency of the respective stool.
I hope you’re laughing by now.
One tip for all you future, prospective stool sample providers out there, you know that little spoon that’s in the tube? That’s not just fancy decoration, that’s literally where your shit is supposed to go. We don’t need more than a pea sized sample. For real! Some of the samples I received were so jam packed that I couldn’t unscrew the cap and had to break the middle of the tube. Which would leave me wondering how on earth these people managed to fill it so tightly, were they using a knife to butter it in? How was this even physically possible?
Selective hearing is your friend
Anyway, yes so that experience was pretty intense to say the least. Two amazing feats I managed to take away from this experience, was an ability to tell if a person was sick just from smelling their poop and I was able to identify gender from the smell. My superior officer said it had something to do with hormonal imbalances between genders.
There you go, now you know a bonafide shit expert. To succeed in life you need a doctor friend, a lawyer friend, a police officer friend and shit expert, those 4 essentials.
Going through this ordeal was a humbling experience for me. The only conversations at lunchtime with my colleagues were about shit, my friends and family tolerated the discussions for a while and then put a forced moratorium on them. Too much of a good thing right?
It was during this exercise in personal humiliation during my military days that I learned to tone out other people and their voices. As Ruth Bader Ginsburg said - in reference to her marriage:
“It helps sometimes to be a little deaf”
I fully agree, not only in marriage, but in all of your life. Working with shit, taught me that most of what people say is not so much different to shit. Most people just say things to hear their own voice and all you have to do is go along with it and nod and you’ll be happy for the rest of your life. In essence treat other people’s opinions like you would their poop, because the two are essentially, philosophically the same thing.
Since germs are transmissible by contact, it is not surprising that something that touches a yucky substance is itself forever yucky
Says famed American author and psychologist Steven Pinker. He goes further to suggest that our distaste and real disgust for faeces is a direct reflection of our own evolutionary intuition about the existence of a microbiological realm that could potentially harm us.
Like germs, opinions can be infectious as well, so this is why I was arguing for us as a species to talk about things that disgust us more, because then we may be less likely to fall for shit in real life. Whether that is tolerating the existence of a supremely rich upper class and their pathetic space exploratory indulgences at the behest of their slave workers and taxpayers, or whether that is tolerating batshit crazy ideologies like flat earth, antivax, scientology or any form of religious extremism.
Next time you see someone in the morning, instead of asking them how they slept, ask them how their morning ablutions went and then really pay attention to the answer.
By listening to the real shit, you will be less likely to fall for the fake shit. Trust me, I've been there and i have a spectacular bullshit (and human shit) radar.
Thanks for reading, please share and have a good week.
And peace be upon Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
And don't worry the swimming episode will conclude in next week's installment, yeah I lied, sorry.
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Thank you very much.
“It takes generosity to discover the whole through others. If you realize you are only a violin, you can open yourself up to the world by playing your role in the concert.”
The legend himself, Jacques Yves Cousteau.