Shit Happens

by jkatejohnston

22 October 2018

Dear Max,

We have a tiny bathroom off the laundry room. It doesn’t even have a sink, just a toilet and a door that closes, and that’s really all you need. The light is a bare bulb screwed into a socket on the ceiling, and you pull a chain to turn it on and off.

So, after one of her D-Day nights, Teresa used that bathroom, and when it came time to flush, instead of pressing the toilet lever, she pulled the chain. The light turned off, and the toilet didn’t flush, and she sat there in the dark for a moment, confused.

I was going to attribute this misfire to lack of sleep, but Teresa seems to think it was just a general erosion of faculties, along the lines of trying to open the front door by pressing the button on your car keys.

I’ve always made that kind of mistake, so you can forget about erosion. My favorite is stopping at a stop sign and then sitting there waiting for the light to turn green. Or—as my big sister once did—looking for your shoes in the freezer. (I figure as long as you don’t find your shoes there, you’re still okay.)

24 October 2018

Dear Max,

The only thing wrong with airport bathrooms is that the self-flushing toilets don’t give me time to inspect my production. They whisk it away without so much as a goodbye.

Speaking of my shit, when Enzo and I went to get our flu shots, the young people in scrubs who checked us in gave me a discrete white envelope to take home. I asked what it was, and one of them said something like, “It’s a health welcome packet.”

“A what?”

“It’s a routine screening.”

“Is this the thing where I send in my—”


“Oh! Because I turned 50, right?”


So, somebody was finally proposing to give my shit the attention it deserved. Happy Birthday to me.

I collected my sample at work. With D-Day underfoot at home, it just seemed like the easiest place to do it. I hasten to add that I didn’t send it out through the mailroom, but messengered it myself, by bike, to a pillar box.

And a few days ago, I got the results. They were everything Kaiser or I could have wished, but the language of healthcare is so bland and anti-communicative..

Occult blood, stool, immunoassay: NEGATIVE.

I don’t have any problem with Occult blood, which at least raises your interest, but it’s all downhill from there.

Negative. Where’s the fun in that? And it’s confusing. A lot of people might take that as bad news.

In fact, it’s a nice illustration of the false precision of abstract words.

Like in police reports you’ll often read about a “positive ID.” Does that mean that the person who identified the defendant is certain that’s the guy, as in “I’m positive”? Or does it mean that the person who identified the defendant picked the correct person (in the cops’ eyes) out of a photo-line-up?

And what exactly is a negative ID? I don’t think even the cops know the answer.

26 October 2018

Dear Max,

I’m in Riverside for work, and yesterday on my very early flight, I saw the sun rise over the Sierras, a red dot along the jagged outline, getting bigger quickly so that soon you couldn’t look at it. I made some notes on the back of my boarding pass. One says Enzo listening to my diary. Well. Poor me. Teresa read my puppy diary aloud to him. I was in the other room, and I stood still and listened, thinking I’d finally written something that he found interesting. And then I heard Teresa say, “Just wait,” and a few moments later, “Hang on, I’m almost done.” She made him listen all the way to the end, and then he escaped.

Another note says, Difference in ability. Pilots?

I was thinking of the almost incredible difference in ability among people doing the same jobs with the same pay and the same credentials. In fact with lawyers, it’s often the biggest money makers who are the worst. The two lawyers I know who’ve been disbarred were both private criminal defense attorneys who charged super-high fees. One was disbarred for incompetence, the other was disbarred for stealing, but he was incompetent too. And from the public’s point of view (at least until there was a record of bar discipline) these two guys had to be great, because they charged so much. Meanwhile, every lawyer in town knew they were terrible.

And this vast and invisible difference in ability must occur among surgeons and accountants and dentists, and—it occurred to me as we began our descent—pilots. In all these areas, you pretty much have to deliver yourself into the hands of a professional and hope for the best.

I think one of the nicest things you can say about art is that even if it’s done badly, it doesn’t really hurt anyone. That doesn’t mean it’s trivial. Not at all. It just means it can’t kill you.