Does Crusoe Shit in the Woods?

That’s the title of the paper I’m giving at SLSA ’13—and the paper is done, a full two months before the conference. That’s miraculous, for me. Usually I’m about 75% finished when I head to the airport, and still tweaking almost until the last minute. Not the best way to do it, I know.

As you might have guessed from the title, the paper is about where Robinson Crusoe shits. This is more important than you think it is: Crusoe is not just some castaway, he’s the “King and Lord” of his island, and he spends the entirety of his twenty-eight shipwrecked years turning his desert ( = uncultivated) island into a colony. He even leaves behind colonists! Two sets of them, who don’t get along, as recounted in the sequel!

Colonizing the island means imposing order on it: he fences in parcels of land, he grows grain, he husbands goats, he tends the wild grapevines, he builds houses (three of them, plus a converted cave). And he tells the reader about all this stuff, and everything else besides——except about where he shits. And why is that? Because he never shits, that’s why. And why doesn’t he shit? Because he’s the King, that’s why, and the King can’t shit. Shitting is for savages, not kings!

So that’s the teaser, and if it sounds intriguing, you can read the whole thing. Keep in mind that it was written to be read aloud: there are lots of dashes, and several premeditated digressions in square brackets (time and audience interest permitting). Feedback is most welcome, especially pointed questions (so that I’ll have answers for them prepared).

And the next time you shit into a flushing toilet, say a word of thanks.

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Day 200: Send a message in a bottle

I was awoken by bright sunlight on my face and a pressing need to urinate. I stumbled to the bathroom, knocking over bottles with each step, the noise like rubber mallets on my skull.

It was sunny outside; flowers were starting to bloom in the yard outside my cottage. Flowers? Wasn’t everything covered in snow just a few days ago? What month is this? It wasn’t important, at least right then: I needed food, water, aspirin, maybe a small glass of wine…

The quarter-gallon of milk in the refrigerator was a solid, and the bread on the counter was moldy. Breakfast was eggs and bacon—things that never go bad, right? While I was cooking, I reached for a bottle of wine—just a little, to tide me over until I could make coffee——there was no wine in the bottle, but there was a piece of paper. Paper? How the fuck did that get in there?

I scanned the kitchen: bottles everywhere, all of them with scraps of paper inside. I finally spotted an unopened bottle—a cheap, vile red, but it was better than nothing—poured a glass, drank it with my breakfast, and tried to reconstruct the last few months.

It was a blank.

I was sitting back in my chair after breakfast, drinking a third glass of wine, casting my eyes contemplatively around the cottage—most of which was one large room—when it finally occurred to me that, perhaps, the pieces of paper in the bottles might be messages from my excessively-drunk self to my mostly-sober self.

I grabbed the nearest bottle—and then realized that I was going to have to break the bottle to get the paper out. All of the bottles: dozens, maybe hundreds of bottles, all with scraps of paper in them. What to do with all that glass?

I grabbed an armful and carried them outside, to the fire-pit. I found a few logs, threw them into the pit, and broke the first bottle on one of them. The writing on the paper—well, it wasn’t really “writing,” it was indecipherable squiggling. I tried a second, a third, a fourth: all the same. A word was decipherable on the fifth scrap: “cold.” On the sixth was something that looked like “found corkscrew.”

I went in for more bottles.

Several dozen broken bottles later, all I had was a small handful of words: “wine,” “bread,” “piss,” “snow”—and a lot of squiggles. I was ready to give up, to throw the rest of the bottles in the pile and burn the lot of them—to consign the rest of the scraps to destruction, unread.

I couldn’t do it, though: surely the messages from the early days of the lost months would be readable, at least mostly? I had to keep breaking bottles. And so I did.

There were, I think, a dozen dozens. I’m amazed that I didn’t cut my hands more than I did, breaking all that glass. It wasn’t worth it: the squiggles got harder to read, not easier—some were just lines across the paper, like small children make.

On the last scrap—although who knows when I drew it, because I didn’t date any of them—as if I would have known what the date was——I didn’t know then, mostly-sober and smashing bottles…

…on the last scrap was a drawing of male genitalia. A hairy cock and balls.

I burned the cottage down, walked down the mountain back into civilization, and never drank again.


Day 212: Put the Book under your pillow, and record your dreams.

I have this thing: I don’t remember my dreams.

I’m sure I have dreams, and they’re probably interesting; there are plenty of times when, in that groggy state between waking and sleeping, my conscious mind watches the last pieces of some dream or other drift away, and they always seem awesome in that moment, but then they’re lost forever.

If I didn’t like sleep so much, then I could probably make myself jot down notes in the middle of the night about whatever odd dream I’d just woken up from — I’ve even kept a pen and paper on my bedside table in the past — but really, I’m lazy and lack any sort of self-discipline. So most of my dreams are lost forever: most, but not all, because every once in a while one sticks with me long enough that my conscious mind can process and reconstruct it.

A few weeks ago, I had one of those dreams that stuck with me.

In it, I was in an elevator — one that was fairly large and actually kind of nice, as elevators go — carpet that had been recently cleaned, nice wood panelling, good lighting —— and I think there were a few people in the elevator with me, but I don’t remember who. So far, pretty exciting, am I right? Nothing more exciting than being in an elevator.

Three of the elevator’s walls — minus the door, of course — were lined with urinals, maybe three or five per wall: an odd number, anyway. The first thing I remember happening is the center urinal on the back wall exploding: well, it didn’t explode in a blaze of glory and porcelain, or I don’t think it did, but the metal hardware at the top burst, and water geysered out, and it was less than pleasant for all involved. At least it was water, and not piss.

We opened the doors, and exited the elevator. I think the water must have stopped, though, because then I was sweeping the water out of the elevator and into the gap between the elevator and whatever room the elevator had stopped at. I looked down into the gap, and caught a glimpse of some sort of subterranean cavern below us — and then I saw giant lobsters scuttling back and forth in that cavern, lobsters big enough that they could have eaten me.

Then I woke up, got up to piss, and tried not to think about the giant lobsters.


Day 202: Pregnancy test day.

Originally scheduled for Thursday, July 21.

The Book wants me to piss on it. Seriously. To see if I’m pregnant.

When I was in high school, one of the local (and by “local” I mean “Dallas”) radio stations — 97.1 “The Eagle” — had a pair of late-evening DJs: Kramer and Twitch.

I didn’t listen to the Eagle much — it was a “hard rock” station at the time, and that wasn’t/isn’t really my thing — but I listened to Kramer and Twitch’s show at least once, because I remember a prank call they made on the air.

I don’t remember all the details — I remember almost none of the details, actually, about the call or about where I was driving from or towards at the time — so I can’t give the joke a proper setup. The punchline, though, is that they got some random dude to piss all over his dining room table.

Seriously. I think they pretended to be from the CDC, or some such place, and convinced the guy that he might have contracted some disease or other; they needed him to piss on a flat surface, like a table, I think so that they could ask him questions about color and consistency? Like I said, the details are fuzzy. The punchline, though, that’s gold.

I don’t know why that bit of radio tomfoolery has stuck with me so long — crazy dudes call a guy on the air and talk him into pissing all over his own table — but it has, and it was the first thing that came into my mind when I saw this task. So I knew, you see, that when someone or something asks you to piss in a nonstandard place — a place you’re not comfortable pissing — you’re probably being trolled.

I pissed on the Book anyway, obviously. Why the hell not?


Day 187: Pick up litter today.

Imagine yourself in early 18th century London. You’re a domestic servant in some inn or other, and one of your duties is emptying the chamberpots. Where are you going to empty them? Into the streets, down the centers of which ran open gutters.

In 1710, Jonathan Swift published a poem — titled “A Description of a City Shower” — which describes the “Filth of all Hues and Odours” that rainwater running down a gutter carries with it: “Dung, Guts, and Blood, / Drown’d Puppies, stinking Sprats, all drench’d in Mud, / Dead Cats and Turnip-Tops come tumbling down the Flood.”

As filthy as all this is — and it’s definitely filthy, and a paradise for infectious diseases of all sorts — it’s preferable to littering.

Shit, piss, vomit, blood, guts, kitchen scraps, dead animals: all of this is organic, part of the enormous and perpetual process of decay and growth that we call life. Shit in the open sewer is going to be eaten by whatever it is that eats shit, and eventually that shit is going to end up in some sort of plant, which will be eaten by some sort of animal, and at least some of it will — after a long and transformative journey — end up eaten by a human being.

(As an aside: anytime you smile while eating, you have a shit-eating grin on your face.)

Think about the litter you’ve seen recently: what was it? Piles of excrement, dead animals, discarded entrails? Probably not. Rather: beer cans, glass bottles, wrappers of various food-shaped substances, styrofoam, cigarette butts. Diapers. Pieces of tire on the highway. Plastic. Rusted metal. Things that aren’t food for anything.

The fact that we throw away so much that isn’t edible — so much that, being inedible, just accumulates — is only part of the problem with littering. I’m not sure I can go in to the rest of the problem, though, because — at least as I look at it — littering is a synecdoche for everything (or most things, anyway) that are wrong with this country.

Laziness. Apathy. Disrespect. Self-centeredness. Vapidity. Stupidity. Cupidity. A total lack of concern for one’s fellow humans, and — worse — a complete and fundamental failure to realize that there are things on this planet other than human beings that have as much right to live and thrive as we do. People who litter are the same people that kick puppies. People who litter urinate on babies. People who litter are like Stalin or Pol Pot, except worse. People who litter should be forced to eat the shit they throw on the ground, and then they should be forced to eat actual shit.

In all seriousness: I don’t like people who litter. I especially don’t like people who litter deliberately. They are bad people.

And, for the record, I did actually pick up some litter today, in addition to writing this tirade.


Day 183: Sense-less day.

“Go through today with out your sense of smell.”

Let me tell you how well my sense of smell works on a normal day: not well.

Once upon a time, by which I mean last April 1st — and despite the fact that April 1st is a day on which people say things that aren’t true, this story I’m about to unfold for you is entirely true — I went down to campus. It was a Friday, and I taught at noon. I got there early, for some reason I no longer remember, but I was in the office shortly after nine, which means I left the house no later than seven — I have 45-mile drive to the train station, which can take upwards of an hour during rush hour, then a thirty-minute train ride, then a ten-minute walk. If I left the house at seven, the children were probably not yet awake, and I probably didn’t make myself an espresso, because the grinder and the espresso machine are loud, and would have woken them up. Not having had coffee doesn’t excuse explain what happened, but it was certainly a contributing factor.

I wore a pair of Doc Martens, the soles of which look like this (and you really have to click that “this” to understand the rest of the story. I’ll wait).

I got to the office. I sat down. I started working. I smelled a smell, though I was not sure what it was that I smelled. I ignored it, thinking it was a transient smell. I smelled it again, several minutes later. I began looking for the source of the smell.

You see where this is going, right?

I must have stepped in the dog shit as I was getting into my car — because it’s sidewalks all the way down all the way from the train station to my office — which means it was on my shoe for hours before I finally smelled it.

I repeat: dog shit — dog shit — on my shoe, for hours before I noticed it.

That’s how well my sense of smell works.


Day 172: No sleep day.

I love sleep. It’s not my Most Favorite Thing, but it’s certainly in my top ten of Favorite Things.

There was a brief, glorious period of time, when Elanor was very small and still slept a lot, during which I would come home from working the opening shift at Starbucks and nap from 2:30 or so until 6:00, and then get up, have some dinner, spend some time with my wife, and go to bed around midnight (and then get up at four the next morning and do it all again). It seems glorious in retrospect, anyway.

I don’t get to sleep as much as I’d like to, but that comes with being a parent. And I’m not a morning person, but that doesn’t mean I’m not up earlier than I want to be most days. Frustratingly, at least for me, all those years working the early shift at Starbucks — getting up at 4:00 or 4:15, getting to work at 4:45 or 5:00 — trained me to think that I ought to have a fair amount done by 8:00, and by 11:00 the workday was close to being over. These days, I’m usually still on my first espresso at 8:00, and not really running at full capacity until 10:00 or so — which works out alright, but it also means I always feel like I’ve gotten far less done on a given day than I ought to have gotten done, and so I always feel behind schedule. I usually am behind schedule, in an objective sense, which doesn’t help with feeling behind schedule…

Where am I going with this? I’m not sure. Maybe I’m just trying to say that I’m no stranger to no sleep.

I have a fair amount of reading to do over the summer, and I haven’t done much of it thus far: it’s time for me to get serious, though, now that I’ve frittered away a month, and so today’s task is conveniently placed for me. I’m going to stay up — probably not all night, but later than is good for me — and get some reading done.

I will probably fall asleep on the couch at some point, wake up some time later, attempt to continue reading, give up, and go to bed: that is, at least, the pattern I established last semester. I’m not as young as I used to be, and my body often reminds me of that fact.

I’ll post a running commentary on twitter, though it probably won’t get rolling until after eleven, and it’ll be after midnight before I start posting ridiculous, delirium-induced nonsense, so it might make sense to just check it tomorrow morning. Until then, I leave you with this: