I’m fascinated by how cultures handle the unavoidable daily needs of human beings; where did they sleep, how did they eat, and how did they pee. We’ll skip straight to the peeing, though where they slept and how they ate is also fascinating The photograph comes from California, where they have a sense of humor. In Maine, in the 1950s, I was ushered to a little cabin which sported a wooden board with a hole in it over a very deep hole in the ground. Even today, friends maintain an Adirondack camp on a lake where they have no running water and no electricity, though they do have a big house. The outhouse is a twin holer with a smooth wooden board, much fancier than the one in Maine, situated on a hill above the lake, with a wide picture window and ample reading matter. On a replica of an ancient ship in Roanoke, Virginia, I learned the meaning of the word “poop deck.” Very practical. Older American homes had a water closet – I had one in my apartment in Greenwich Village in the 1960s, though by the time I lived it had been converted to a cramped modernish bathroom. When it was a simple water closet, somebody had to remove the vessels and dump them somewhere, and that was the same for everyone from King Louis the XVI to the lowliest peasant. In the villages of Greece I was told that everyone had their favorite tree which they fertilized daily. The facilities in the ancient palace of Knossos on the island of Crete were stone benches with a steady stream of water flowing through a cleft in the stone. The water came from a source above the palace, so gravity kept it running all the time. There was no privacy, but there was good hygiene, even a couple of millennia b.c. It puzzled me that this simple engineering was not used elsewhere. We think we are so advanced, but it took us a few millennia to match the ancient Minoans for cleanliness. In the British Court, the “Groom of the Stool” helped the king in this most intimate of functions. He obviously needed continuous and unimpeded access to the monarch, and was a powerful member of the Court. In Vienna this year, my friends and I attended a concert in a gorgeous old church. Before the concert began I asked my Austrian friend where the bathroom was. “Churches don’t have bathrooms,” she said, “you only go there for mass, and that takes an hour.” “But what about choir practice and all the people who work here?” I asked. “There are toilets for them but in the back of the church.” An usher told me, “There are toilets in the university across the street.” Where in the university? The performance was so exceptional that it was no problem.The Austrians must be evolving into a race with large bladders. Broadway theatres were notorious for their paucity of toilets, with long lines causing many people to miss the opening of the second act. Now there are dozens of stalls, and I am wondering what people did in the old days. They must have felt the need to relieve themselves as frequently as modern people do, or have our bladders lost their mojo? Perhaps they carried little containers. The recent tv series about spies during the revolutionary war, Turn, had a party scene where servants stood at either side of a stairway in the hall with urinals in their hands. The guests would take a urinal and go find a corner somewhere to lift their skirts, or pull down their pants, to pee. I said to myself, “Aaaah, that’s how it was done” when the coiffed and gowned beauty, Mrs. Benedict Arnold, lifted her many skirts to relieve herself, then turned in the urinal to the servant in the hallway. I appreciated their including this scene. There are fortress toilets everywhere – places where you need a key, or a password to get in. One such was at the MacDonald’s on the Graben in Vienna – baffled people wandered back and forth, sharing the secret – a pass code -- to get in. One woman who had the code pulled me in behind her. One public pissoir in Europe had a door that closed after every use to allow an automatic cleansing spray, followed by a noisy drying process. It only takes a minute. That was a good idea, but I was apprehensive about entering. What if I pressed the wrong button and got sprayed myself, or got caught inside – I couldn’t even figure out how to access the toilet – did I just step in, would the door close behind me automatically? A passing pedestrian explained it to me. The bidet is one of mankind’s more compassionate inventions. I didn’t know what it was the first time I saw it and tinkered or a while without understanding its purpose. An American friend in Greece told me that the first time he saw one, he pooped in it, then he and the French ambassador stood at the door of the stall regarding his handiwork, trying to figure out how to remove it. The bidet in Venice was a bowl with a faucet that ran like water in a sink. What good is that? It was excellent for washing one’s feet. The French kind has an upward-spreading spray which performs more efficiently. I understand that the cosmopolitan Jackie Kennedy insisted on having one installed in her New York apartment, though that may be a rumor. In the Zurich airport, there is a sign “rest room” but behind the door is stairway, then another stairway. Three flights up is the toilet. This is a challenge for people with baggage; my husband and I went separately so one could stay behind to guard the luggage. I didn’t locate a handicap toilet, though surely there was one. In the ladies room of the super luxurious restaurant, La Terrazza del Casino, in Madrid, you will find not only soft music and lovely décor, but also a toothbrush and toothpaste and a sweet little towel. I stole an extra toothbrush and toothpaste because they were cleverly designed – something you could pop into your purse. It is people like me who cause restaurants to discontinue such amenities. We have advanced past the days in renaissance England where a person in a hurry would go into a tavern and find a dark corner in the basement to relieve himself. Imagine what those places smelled like. Imagine what the streets smelled like with horse poop on the cobblestones and human waste flowing in the streetside sewers. Sometimes it is hard to figure out how to flush. Airplanes have a plaque you push and there is a little explosion of water. Europeans have round flushers, divided into two parts – two-thirds of the plaque is the place you push for large deposits, the smaller luna is for little stuff. In the mountains of Vermont I heard, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.” There are chains to pull, handles to pull upward or push downward, buttons on various parts of the toilet, and I haven’t yet visited Japan, where there is a whole set of instructions to use the toilet, or so I am told. The champion toilet name is “The Great Niagara,” the name of my toilet in Athens, Greece in the 1960s. The award for the most beautiful rest room (Americans are so puritanical – they say “rest room” or “ladies/men’s room” or “bathroom,” as if anyone took a bath there. Elsewhere, they are inclined to say “toilet,” or “toilette” or whatever) goes to the restaurant Boulez in New York City. That restaurant is closed now, and I have deleted my photographs of the ladies room. It will live on in my imagination.
For a bookstore, location is important, as I discovered in Point Reyes, California yesterday. I love to visit because they have wonderful oysters and the Cowgirl Creamery. I was shopping in the market there when I saw a bookstore across the street and stopped in. If it had been squirreled away in a side street, I would never have known it was there. Point Reyes Books has been there for fourteen years, and has fulfilled its original intention to enrich the local community. One of the owners if Kate Dawson, Ph.D., herself the author of a book, Emotional Currency, is proud of the literary journal that they publish, the West Marin Review, which accepts fiction, non-fiction, art, and music submissions. The store also sponsors a conference every March, the last one themed Women and the Land. The 200+ attendees go on field trips, have dinners, and hear writers and poets speak. The most recent one featured environmental activists. The main speaker was Diana Beresford-Kroeger, who inspired an environmental movement called Call of the Forest: The Forgotten Wisdom of Trees. Her book, The Global Forest, aims to educate the world about the importance of trees. See how a bookstore can bring together local communities with some of the most influential voices in the world!!!! Kate says that over the years, they have raised $550,000 for local non-profits. I was interested to find that the number of readings and other events is going down. It takes energy and time to organize these events and the payoff is not significant enough to warrant their continuation at the same rate. From my own experience, and that of my author friends, I have found that bookstore readings often don’t pay off. They must be well advertised and supported, and it is rare that this happens. There is a tug-of-war between author and bookstore owner in this regard. The author is looking to increase sales of her book by reading to the bookstore’s clientele, and the bookstore is looking to increase its clientele by bringing in fans of the author. A well advertised and well attended bookstore reading benefits both author and bookstore, but they usually turn out to be poorly attended because the author is not familiar enough with the local territory to bring out a large number of attendees, and the bookstore is too busy with its everyday activities to publicize the event widely enough. The store doesn't want to expend precious funds on paid advertising which is not likely to pay off in sales. The good news from Point Reyes Books is that their business is stable and growing, reflecting a national trend. It seems that those data crunchers who warned that reading would soon be virtual or electronic were wrong – people like to read books, to hold them in their hands, and to talk about them with knowledgeable, bookstore staff. There’s plenty of knowledge and enthusiasm at Point Reyes Books. They are assisted in their success by the 2.3 million people who visit nearby parks throughout the year, but I also noticed a couple of shelves of books labeled for local customers who had ordered them through the bookstore. When these customers come to pick up their books they’re likely to have a conversation about other books they might be interested in reading in the future. Reading is not a solitary experience; sharing our preferences with others is part of its joy and stimulates further interest in books. If you’re ever among those 2.3 million tourists, you might like to include Point Reyes Books in your itinerary. You could eat at one of the oyster restaurants along Tomales Bay, or at the Osteria Stellina right down the street from the bookstore. What better combination -- a delicious meal and some great conversation about books.
It’s midnight in an apartment we have rented for the week in the very heart of Rome, and it is quiet. Not a sound. Maybe this is one reason why the Romans say it’s “crazy great” to be a Roman. My sleep in Hoboken is disrupted by sounds from police cars, traffic sounds, and partiers. Rome is the city where I have sensed most fully the ancient ways. There are cities like Ephesus where one can walk down the reconstructed city streets of an ancient city, but those are archaeological sites. Rome’s streets are narrow, cobblestoned, with multi-story buildings closing them in. The houses were erected upon some logic that no longer exists – no orderly development for them. Though my windows are only steps away from the neighboring houses, nobody can see me because the angles are staggered. It is as if each house was put up without regard to the houses around it – or perhaps the staggering was on purpose. Modern housing projects, with their orderly squareness, invite peeks into neighbors’ lives. The Romans don’t have all that many dogs, at least not around here. There is no place for them to pee, etc. The pedestrian traffic is so persistent, and weaves so unpredictably among the moving vehicles and parked cars, that managing a pooping pooch would be dicey. So there are no dogs barking at night. Every once in a while a disembodied voice will say something near enough to a window to have the sound float in our window, but it is like a cloud sighing. During the day, the clattering of dishes and the hammering of carpenters is loud and intrusive, and fortunately we did not live near any quarreling couples, but at night the center of Rome is as still as the middle of a remote lake at midnight.
I would be just as pleased to be remembered in the kitchen. Oh dear. That sounds like I am caught in the sexist roles I was accustomed to as a child, when women were raised to get married and have babies, contribute to the public good through charitable works, support their husbands in the mens' careers, and to do no harm. It would be impossible to tease my upbringing out of my present points of view, but you couldn't say a person who has done all I have done had no aspirations above being barefoot and pregnant. I'm a well-traveled person -- in fact, I'm writing this in Rome. I've lived in many places for long enough to know them well -- Israel, Austria, Germany, Italy, Greece, and Spain, to name a few. I'm also a well-educated person: Two MA's; in English in 1964, and in Linguistics in 2006. I'm an accomplished home cook, play the piano and sing. I'm in good shape for my advancing age, and just retired (at least temporarily) from a successful eight years teaching freshman writing at Montclair State University. A lot of my writing has been published, and my memoir, DARING TO DATE AGAIN: A MEMOIR comes out in November. The point is that after all of this, I find myself most proud of my role as a mother, and a grandmother. I had a job and was not able to be there after school with milk and cookies, yet somehow my children grew up strong. Oh, how I would have loved to be home for them. If I learn on my deathbed that my children remember Christmas dinners, or me doing the laundry, I will not be upset. That is grist for another post..... I am freer now to be there for them, though they are in their 30s. It's still important. Public and private lives are sharply demarcated. Knowing that one's mother or father was a famous movie star or a beloved politician can be harmful to family relationships. Can you imagine being Marilyn Monroe's child? We all have to choose where to lay our sacrifices, and I have lain mine at the feet of my children. The greatest sacrifice was going to work every day, thus missing important events in their lives. The household had to keep functioning, and that was the only way to do it. I was a pretty good secretary, and made a fair amount of money doing it, but my public life really began after my children were grown and I left my daily commute to a lackluster job for pursuits that earned me less but pleased me more. Writing has been nothing but pleasure to me, and teaching writing was an inspiring challenge. I was once asked to write my own epitaph, and came up with "Zestfully done." I'm sticking with that one, but I will be happy if some people remember me being zestful in the laundry room.