COLUMN FORTY-FOUR, APRIL 1, 1999
(Copyright (c) 1999 Al Aronowitz)
PART 1: A METAPHYSICAL AND ANECDOTAL CONSIDERATION OF THE FART
[Gloria Klein says she was born in Berlin after the Second World War. She says her mother was English and her father German. She says she went to school in England, where she met and married a lieutenant in the Royal Air Force. She says he was killed in a training accident two years after their marriage. She says she spends her time writing and traveling between Berlin and Chicago, with occasional trips to New Orleans. She says she serves as a part-time editor for Alphabeta Press. Frankly, we think Gloria is Robert Klein Engler in drag. With COLUMN FORTY-FOUR, THE BLACKLISTED JOURNALIST begins a serialization of A Metaphysical and Anecdotal Consideration of the Fart, which also is available in book form, printed in limited number in 1995 by Alphabeta Press, Suite 1801, 901 South Plymouth Court, Chicago, Illinois.]
sed quamuis sibi caverit crepando, compressis natibus Iouem salutat.---Martial
What seems at first to be an innocent or inconspicuous remark, upon reflection, often lays bare the fabric of reality. Such was the case recently as I settled down to a lunch of cabbage and beans. I noticed the wind was picking up. Outside, the hot hours of an August afternoon in Chicago gave way to gusty thunderstorms. The stereo was playing the last few bars of Otmar Nussio's Divertimento for Contrabassoon. I couldn't help think, as a car backfired in the street below, of what I had just read in an advice column of the local newspaper. It was an article about farting and politeness. The more I think about that article, the more I believe the advice columnist had one of her rare lapses of judgment. She advised that it is not polite to fart in public.
Anyone who gives this advice a moment's thought realizes the obvious---most people fart nowhere else but in public. Since we fart in public, we ought to accept the public fart. As far back as the fourteenth century we can read such warnings as "Beware of thy hinder parts from gunblasting," but a more civilized approach is certainly to be found in ancient Rome. Need we be reminded the Roman emperor Claudius, being so alarmed at the prospect of someone dying while attempting to stifle a fart, considered issuing an imperial decree making it permissible to fart at the dinner table?
It is a sad commentary on our times, but modern man has not learned from the ancient Romans. We are still trying to stifle the fart. Chuck Shepherd reports in his column, News of the Weird, printed in the Chicago Reader for April, 1994, about efforts to prevent farting in professional sports. Professional soccer team manager Dan O'Riordan, defending his decision to levy fines against players for flatulence in the locker room, reportedly said, "It can get fairly oppressive when you've got 20 players in a tiny dressing room all suffering the effects of a Sunday night curry." Then there is the statement from the Swedish hockey team's coach Curt Lundmark. The coach was discussing why he didn't protest more vigorously a disallowed goal in a game between his team and Canada's in February at the 1994 Olympics.
"Sweden's influence in international hockey is like a duck fart in Africa," he said matter of factly.
If we can't stifle the fart, then we attempt to "cure" it. How many of these remedies have come and gone, been forgotten in time the way we have forgotten that bottle of Angostura Bitters many of us keep in our refrigerator for years. If one is troubled by too many farts, just read the recommendation in fine print found on the label: "For flatulence, one to four teaspoonfuls after meals."
This simple remedy may have been overlooked by Benjamin Franklin. In his Letter to the Royal Academy of Brussels, Franklin writes, "He that dines on stale Flesh, especially with much addition of Onions shall be able to afford a stink that no company can tolerate." It may be because of too much flesh and onions that Franklin proposed, "My prize question therefore should be: To discover some Drug, wholesome and not disagreeable, to be mixed with our common food, or sauce, that shall render the natural discharge of Wind from our bodies not only inoffensive, but agreeable as Perfumes."
If we had such a drug, no one would be bothered by holding a fart to let it go in private. Just the opposite, we would look forward to them as lovers look for roses.
And who is to say there is not already a remedy for farting? The other day a colleague of mine, well aware of the direction my research was taking, passed on to me a roll of Dr. Fozwanger's Anti-Fart Tablets. This product, manufactured by The Comic Relief Company of St. Louis, claims to "snuff out the stinkiest of those stinkers!" It is produced for chronic farters who, according to the label, find themselves trying to "squeeze one out quietly." Could this be what Mr. Franklin was looking for so many years ago in colonial America? Or would he say it was not worth a "FARThing."
Of more value is a product sold now at many drugstores. It is called "Beano" and could be a more reliable alternative to Franklin's drug. The ingredient in this little plastic squeeze bottle is supposed to solve the problem of farting. Just a few drops of this natural liquid on food such as beans or cabbage and embarrassed and suffering farters can eat to their hearts content. The manufacturer claims Beano helps dissolve the complex sugars that ferment into gas in the intestine. They describe it as a scientific and social breakthrough. Beano relieves the eater of the social and personal discomfort of too much intestinal gas. The only caution is that the product should not be used on food that is too warm. Let your plate of beans cool a little before baptizing it, but don't expect the smell of roses later. Certainly a product like Beano would be welcome "down under" in Sydney, Australia. There they like to eat pea pies made with a locally grown pea that is fondly referred to as a "blue blaster." Incidentally, the Australian government has also set aside money to study the effect of farting on the hole in the ozone layer.
An informant tells me the company making Beano is also going to market a product for preventing dog farts. It will be called Curtail and can be placed in the dog's food. By using Curtail, your dog can eat as many beans as it likes. You won't have to worry about it embarrassing you in front of the neighbors.
Modern Americans have not given up their questions about the fart and its cure just because there are products on the market that claim to deal with too much gas in the digestive track. Recently, a new 900 telephone number became available to offer medical advice. According to an article in the July 22, 1991, issue of Time magazine, one of the four most common questions asked by callers was, "Why do I always have gas?" For the answer, call 1-900-7DOCTOR.
Perhaps the help of medical science is too drastic a step. Perhaps you prefer a more natural solution to the problem of flatulence. The other day a "Gas Pass" came into my hands that permits you to have your wish. This red, white and blue card is the size of a credit card and is a farting permit officially signed by president G.U. Stink. The back of the card encourages the holder to "Keep this card handy and feel free to make use of the following types of excuses: Blame-It-On-The-Doggie-Fart, Lingering Limburger, Vapor Choke, or All of the Above." These excuses are not valid, however, until the card bearer signs with an authorized signature.
And if this is not enough, there is also a product called "Fart Powder," made in England by Bristol Novelty, Ltd., that does what its name implies. The directions read: "Put the powder into a hot drink and retreat to a safe distance. Not recommended for children under eight years." No telephone number is listed.
Holding in a fart
can be hazardous
to your health
What if you or someone you loved were a victim to such an unfortunate prank and actually consumed some "Fart Powder." Would they be encouraged to hold out as long as they could? I don't know many people who can hold a fart until they are in a private location. The amount of vapor along with the force of gas pressure in the bowels often renders the task impossible. Besides, at least one researcher, G. Waynne-Jones, writing in the medical journal Lancet (1975), has suggested that Flatus Retention is the Major Factor in Diverticular Disease. This agrees with advice from the medical school at Salerno in the eleventh century. The doctors there wrote: "Those who suppress farts risk dropsy, convulsions, vertigo, and frightful colics." Such advice was echoed in the eighteenth century as well. Writing in 1712, in his book A Cruising Voyage Round the World, Woodes Rogers tells us about the adventures of Alexander Selkirk. Selkirk was cast away on the isolated island of Juan Fernandez. "He found there also a black pepper called Malagita, which was very good to expel wind and against griping of the guts." Perhaps it was knowledge of this plant that got Charles Darwin in trouble. We learn from Janet Browne's Charles Darwin, A Biography, Volume One: Voyaging, that besides being a bad speller (writing Barrow Cooter - for barracuda) it was a problem with farting that led Darwin to leave social meals early.
Were these men granted insight into what research shows has been known for centuries, that holding your wind just isn't healthy? If so, why, then was a man like Darwin so squeamish, leaving meals early just because of a fart? Perhaps they were rock-shivering blasts instead of little putters, and the embarrassment was as great as the announcement. Nowadays the syndicated columnist Cecil Adams opines sane advice when he ignores old conventions and writes, "When in doubt, let it out." Furthermore, there just isn't enough time in our busy lives to wait to fart in private. Your average fart is the public fart. A moment's reflection on farting is enough to convince anyone that the commandment not to fart in public is too difficult to follow.
Perhaps one of the best courses of action to take when faced with an imminent fart, is to slide politely away from the truth, and dismiss yourself. Southern women used to speak of "having the vapors." When the vapors came upon them, they requested permission to retire to another room. In the humid south, with the odors of the swamp wafting through the doors of the big house, who would not grant them such?
"But wait," some resident liberal might interrupt, "this concern about how and where to fart is not a universal one."
The problem of holding a fart is not one of the worries several million people with illeostomies wring their hands over. They don't have to worry about farts, because their gas goes silently into a bag and is released in private. Before we dwell on those who worry about farting, let's take note of those who don't.
I have a friend with such an illeostomy. When she smells a fart she thinks that her bag is leaking. In reality, it is someone else who let a fart nearby, her bag being secure. Since she stopped farting, she can no longer tolerate the aromas of someone else's nature. Thus she warns her boyfriends not to drink beer when they come over. How much this lack of tolerance is related to the fact that her father used to torture her mother in bed by farting and holding the blankets over her head is difficult to determine.
Astronauts also do not fart in public---when they are sealed in their spacesuits, that is. It may come as a surprise to some, but NASA spent quite a lot of money trying to solve the problem of farts in space. A special diet was developed and a special design incorporated into the survival suits of astronauts because we humans do fart a lot. In outer space this must be kept to a minimum. Besides the odor, in zero gravity, a good fart is also a source of propulsion. Too many beans, and astronauts can send themselves into orbit.
Nevertheless, with the exception of those with illeostomies and those who fart in space suits, most of us fart in public all the time. This fact leads to the conclusion that the real etiquette of farting is that you must not fart loudly in public. That man on the L who bends down to pick up the umbrella he dropped and unintentionally emits a roll of thunder, as if Zeus had spoken, along with as noxious an odor as we would get at the rim of a sulfur pit, that man is rude and an embarrassment. If he could just let his fart slide out, all would be well.
We would still have to suffer the aroma, but we do that in silence all the time anyway. It is not the smell but the noise we must consider when we discuss the manners of farting. The polite fart is the quiet fart. Except, of course, in a public toilet, where often, in the stall next to you, you hear the rumble and splatter of the remains of some god-awful meal tumbling down to the watery depths, followed by a groan of satisfaction that makes you hurry up your own business and get out of there before the stink hits.
Farting loudly in public cannot only ruin one's social life, it can also ruin one's career. Take the case of the Argentinean ambassador to Great Britain, Juan Berger. In 1895 he was acquitted of murdering his doctor, Carlos Aguilar, by a jury that understood all too well the problems of loud farts in public. Though found innocent, he nevertheless had to give up his ambassadorship and his life in public. It seems that the ambassador went under the knife of the good doctor to have some hemorrhoids corrected. The knife slipped and the ambassador's rectum was injured. He recovered, but it was soon discovered that his sphincter muscle was damaged, and he no longer had control over it.
Farts would escape him at any time, often when the ambassador was in the most delicate and diplomatic situations. As he bowed before the queen, rose to toast the President of Argentina, bent over to pick up the dropped glove of a debutante, all of a sudden, a long drawn out announcement from the nether regions rolled forth. This being too much to take, he got a pistol and shot the doctor whose hand was the cause of his embarrassment and loss of station. After a long trial, which took its toll, he appeared in the courtroom flaco como pedito de vÝbora, "thin as a snake's fart," as they say in Argentina, to await the verdict. The jury agreed with his motives and freed him. I understand he was heard sputtering as he left the courthouse.
More recently, a loud fart actually contributed to another man's death. In this incident it was the farter and not the fartee, however. The police in Pueblo, Colorado, charged Daniel Serna, nineteen, with murdering Robert Vinci in June of 1990. Mr. Serna and a friend were standing in front of a 7-Eleven minimart when Vinci rode up on his bike and farted in front of the two. Vinci smiled and said, "I've been ripping them all day." Serna replied with, "Well, don't be ripping them in front of me." A fight ensued, and Serna allegedly pulled a gun and shot Vinci.
When breaking wind
is a campus
Perhaps this tragic incident might not have happened if the police had gotten to Vinci earlier. A few weeks later, the same newspaper column reported that a Baylor University freshman, Kyle Krebs, was ticketed by campus police in April of 1991 for breaking wind in violation of a campus ordinance prohibiting obnoxious odors. Krebs argued he was not directing his farts at the police, "They were so far away, and cars were driving by. I never thought the decibel level would be so high he would hear it." Thank God the officer did. If that behavior were permitted to continue, Kyle might have joined Vinci in the hereafter.
It seems the fart has been used as an insult throughout history. Josephus, in his Bellum Judaicum, relates an incident from the first century of such a fart. It occurred at the time when the Romans were occupying Jerusalem, just before the outbreak of the Jewish war. "The people had assembled in Jerusalem for the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the Roman cohort stood on guard over the Temple colonnade, armed men always being on duty at the feasts to forestall any rioting by the vast crowds. One of the soldiers pulled up his garment and bent over indecently, turning his backside towards the Jews and making a noise as indecent as his attitude. This infuriated the whole crowd, who noisily appealed to Cumanus to punish the soldier, while the less restrained of the young men and the naturally tumultuous section of the people rushed into battle, and snatching up stones, hurled them at the soldiers.... So violently did the dense mass struggle to escape that they trod on each other, and more than 30,000 were crushed. Thus the feast ended in distress to the whole nation and bereavement to every household." All this, because of a fart, which, if we are to take Josephus at face value, must have been quite a loud and rumbling one.
Then there is the case of the tell-tale fart. This fart was not so loud as that of a Roman soldier nor as destructive to human life, but it did tell more than it was supposed to. In October 1994, the New York Daily News reported on an incident where a man known as a "career criminal" was apprehended in the middle of a burglary at an upscale Fire Island home. The residents had been awakened by noises but found no one until they heard farts coming from behind a closet door. Hiding inside the closet was the burglar, who was detained by the residents until police arrived. We can only imagine the resident of this house as gay, but if they were gay, is this another good argument for not remaining in the closet?
Farts can disturb the equilibrium of the talented and educated as well. The general manager of the Kansas City Symphony reportedly suspended an oboe player after he made a "facetious response" to a complaint about him. The general manager had told him that a horn player complained that, during a rehearsal for The Nutcracker, the oboe player had passed gas in a loud manner, "creating an overpowering smell." To prevent this, the oboe player was suspended. This, no doubt, gave him more time to enjoy his favorite lunch of chili and beans, and the orchestra an opportunity to consider the relative value of wood winds over brass.
The cases above, and especially the one of Kyle and Vinci, might cause someone to ask if a person has ever died of a fart attack? In a recent novel by Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate, we find an answer to our question. A Mexican writer, familiar with the effects of beans and chilies, Esquivel has one of her characters, Rosaura, suffer an untimely fate. She first complains to her sister of bad breath and gas. "For some weeks now she was having serious digestive problems.... All these ills carried with them an infinity of problems, the worst being that every day Pedro (her husband) moved farther and farther away from her...even she couldn't stand the foul smell."
Eventually, the fateful day arrived. Pedro had gone upstairs to say good night to Rosaura before going to sleep (he now has his own room). "At first Pedro didn't find it odd that he could hear Rosaura breaking wind even with the door closed. He began to notice the unpleasant noise when one lasted so long it seemed it would never end. The floor was shaking, the light blinked off and on. Maybe it was the engine of one of the neighbor's motor cars. How strange that he could smell it even though he'd taken the precaution of walking all around the bedroom with a spoon containing a chunk of burning charcoal and a pinch of sugar." Worried, Pedro goes into Rosaura's bedroom and finds her dead. Included in Esquivel's book is a nice recipe for beans with chili, Tezcucana-style.
Farts heard in public seem to have a strange effect on some people. Consider a recent case in Chesterfield Township, Michigan. There a thirty-six year old man was charged with assault and battery after brandishing a rifle and barricading himself in his home with his wife and son and a family friend. What could be the cause of such extreme action? Police said the affair started when the ten year old son became flatulent while watching TV. The boy's father got angry, first at the boy, then at the wife and friend when they defended the child.
Besides the social disruption of farts documented in the above cases, the very gas from fart emissions can be dangerous in some situations. An incident in Perth, Australia, confirms this. In July of 1991, a man picked up by an ambulance eventually caused the evacuation of both the ambulance and two hospital emergency rooms. He was uncontrollably emitting poisonous fumes from his anus and other body openings due to industrial-strength pesticides he had swallowed. Talk about problems down under!
Of course the above examples are extreme. Most people are not killed by farts, they are just embarrassed. The popular TV sitcom Roseanne had an episode about the daughter of the family who found herself in an embarrassing situation brought on by a fart. She was humiliated at her high school when she farted in class while giving a speech. Her boyfriend, overcoming social pressures, nevertheless went to her house to keep the date he made with her, thus proving a fart would not keep them apart. The actual fart, however, which was the cause of much embarrassment, was not broadcast to a national TV audience. It was only related in dialogue with other members of the family. Too bad, for it would have been interesting to hear what kind of fart it was. ##
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