Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Saga of a Smelly Dog

Before becoming a parent, one has a different perspective on many things. Babies are cute fashion accessories, misbehaving toddlers are evidence of bad parenting, and "farting" is the best term – clear, to the point, neither coy nor unnecessarily crude – to describe what happens when we break wind, pass gas, or let one rip.

As a child, I was raised to include "fart" in the same category as "hell," "crap," and "stupid." Toot was the term used in our house, a word that invariably submerged me in a sense of impotent shame. Simultaneously nerdy and embarrassingly onomatopoeic, "toot" (or, worse, "tooted," "tooter," or – my Dad’s favourite – "rooter tooter") was a word best left unsaid. That, I now perceive, was the parenting genius that motivated its selection in the first place.

My adult life affords few occasions for the use of the major euphemisms for flatulence (stink bomb, Dutch oven, butt trumpet … I was going to add "cutting the cheese," but actually, there are so many opportunities to use that one). Don’t get me wrong – I do not claim to be immune to the phenomenon, which occurs an average of 10-15 times per day for a normal adult human. I just find that in most cases, the event is better left unacknowledged. Even the courtesies of marriage can usually be met with a casual, "You might want to stay away from the danger zone here." The word "fart" now exists roughly in the same category as "snot" and "barf" – not a word I use every day, but no longer a subversively thrilling swear-word either. So when one of my children’s-lit students recommended Walter the Farting Dog for our class on picture books, I was sufficiently impressed to purchase a copy.

This was, needless to say, before I had children. I thought the book was funny and child-centered, following in the scatological tradition of Jonathan Swift, Roald Dahl, and Robert Munsch. As an instructor of children’s literature, I was steeped in the idea that children’s books are the product of adult imperialism. The grown-ups who write, publish, and buy children’s books co-opt the representation of childhood, indoctrinating children with stories that serve adult interests (lullabies! forcing children to sleep! – alphabets! forcing children to learn!).

Then I became a parent. And suddenly sleeping and learning didn’t seem like such bad things. Socialization and moral indoctrination seemed less like brainwashing and more like good parenting. Walter the Farting Dog languished on a little-used bookshelf while Bub and Pie explored books about letters and colours and pleasant piggies who would invariably fall into peaceful slumber on the last page. And then one day, the Pie unearthed Walter and I realized: This is a terrible book.

The illustrations are hideous. It is full of double-entendres, most of them aimed at adults. Each page features a graphic rendering of the puffs of air emanating from Walter’s rear while he plays with the children, gets blamed for the surreptitious emissions of Uncle Irv, and scares away a pair of stereotypically-rendered burglars who are making off with the family’s VCR.

The book is terrible because it is exactly what I thought it wasn’t: imperialistic. The whole point of scatological humour is that it breaks taboos. The parent’s role is to forbid – and reading bedtime stories about farting does little other than rob children of the fundamental joy of taboo-breaking. It is the child’s job to joke about farting, and the adult’s job to conceal all amusement. If the grown-ups start cracking scatological jokes, what’s left for a child to do?

(This, by the way, is what is meant by boundaries. Unless I am very much mistaken in my reading of the introductory chapters of Boundaries with Kids, boundaries are not about requirements and prohibitions so much as they are about a clear division of labour. Farting jokes and maniacal laughter = the kids’ side of the boundary. Stern looks and embarrassing euphemisms = the adults’ side.)

To be sure, farting need not be forbidden to be funny. It has its own inherent comic potential. Bub’s diet these days consists almost entirely of broccoli and chick peas, so our lives are accompanied by a constant rumbling soundtrack. Mostly these pops and rat-a-tats go unnoticed, but the other day one of them occurred at bath-time and Bub turned to me with a grin of delight. "Mama, did you hear that?" he asked, and you could just see the wheels turning as he realized, I did that with my bum!

There is a kind of natural pleasure in making ridiculous sounds with ridiculous parts of one’s body. Nevertheless, it is (or ought to be) an inviolable part of the child-adult contract that the child makes the farting jokes while the adult looks on with well-feigned disapproval.

Unfortunately, the Pie did not get the memo. So every night, now, she pulls out the book, gleefully exclaiming, "Farting Dog? Farting Dog?" and hubby and I respond with the following story:

Billy and Betty brought Walter home from the dog pound. "Nobody wanted him," said Billy. "But we love him!" said Betty. Their mother made them give Walter a bath. "His stomach must be upset!" she said. Then Father said it was time for him to go to the vet. The veterinarian examined him and put him on a special diet: he ate carrots, corn on the cob, french fries, and cat food. Then Uncle Irv came over.
("Uncle Irv!" Pie shrieks ecstatically at this point. "Uncle Irv!")

One day, Father said Walter had to go back to the dog pound. "No, no!" exclaimed Betty and Billy. But Father had made up his mind. That night, Walter ate a whole box of dog biscuits and then fell asleep on the couch. Some burglars came, and Walter …um …scared them away.
("Burglars! Run away!" Pie shrieks.)

"You saved us!" cried Mother and Father when they got up the next morning. "You saved the silverware! You saved our VCR!" And they all lived happily ever after.


Terri B. said...

I've often wondered about the intended audience of some "childrens" books as they seem to fall into the same category as some cartoons -- really meant for adults. I can see a paper coming out of this topic: intended audience, primary intention (to teach? entertain? both? other?), etc.

Mouse said...

Funny to think about the euphemisms. We use both toot and fart in our household and are obviously boundary-less since Trillian and I share our boy's sense of potty humor.

The power of euphemisms is interesting. I have been careful to use the correct anatomical terms with my son, but then I find myself, when we're being silly about the night-time pull-up, using "winkle." And I can't decide about that habit. For me this comes from my upbringing with a family that stayed with very clinical language and I still felt like it was something shameful and not to be discussed with parents.

We don't have that book, though, and I'm thinking we may keep it that way.

metro mama said...

"farting jokes and maniacal laughter = the kids’ side of the boundary. Stern looks and embarrassing euphemisms = the adults’ side"


mayberry said...

I was amazed to find myself unable to use the word "fart" around my kids once they were born. I fell back on your old friend "toot." And felt like the world's biggest fuddy-duddy.

Mary-LUE said...

Growing up, I might as well have said the other "F" word, fart was that bad. Now, Nickelodeon has a whole PSA on why we fart. Times change.

This post found me giggling, not at the fart references, but at how well you describe you POV before becoming a parent and then after. What a hoot! I think it is a universal experience. (At least, I think it is good for us to have that before and after experience. I sometimes find those who don't adjust their thinking after becoming mamas and papas to be somewhat off-putting.)

Jenifer said...

I took a Walter book from the library not that long ago thinking hmmm might be different. I was not impressed and I think the main reason was the girls just didn't enjoy it, the story did not entertain or enlighten them. I thought the whole topic of farting would really appeal to them, but it didn't at all.

We usually say "toot" in our house, but fart has crept in as well. My rule is that if you are doing it you can say it, so if you are farting you say it, then excuse yourself. The potty talk phase has waned and the idea if you are doing it you can say it or if you in the bathroom you can say it seemed to curb the attraction.

I like your version of the story!

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

We say "fart" in this house but otherwise I agree with you on the boundaries. So often I find myself saying, "Because that's what civilized people do!" We eat with silverware; we wear clothes during the day and pjs at night; we do not pee in people's yards; etc. All lines my kids would liketo cross & really there's no good reason why they shouldn't except -- civilized people refrain.

One can only blaspheme that which is sacred. Sacredness = boundaries for adults, to my mind.

Bon said...

my mother still cannot bring herself to say "fart", or even "toot." she can muster a very proper "pass gas" if she isn't forced to make eye contact while saying the words...

Slavoj Zizek goes on at length about the boundary-breaking purposes of humour, and how it is absolutely vital to have transgression in order to have real belonging to a group. in other words, 'real' members of a particular group can be identified by how they transgress the formal rules of that group. i wonder if "Walter" then makes kids part of the parent group, or parents part of the kid group?

Mad Hatter said...

More later but a semi-wine drunk me must assert my love of all things flatulence to say, "Funny, that. Talking about farts on the 2nd day of her period. No news here."

Mary G said...

Like Bon, my parents said 'pass gas' if they had to say anything. Mostly such events were ignored. And my pet name for my genitals caused my little classmates much laughter. On the other hand, my daughter's MIL, who is as proper a lady as you could imagine and 86 years old to boot, brought the kids a copy of this book and proceeded to read it to them. One of her relatives, it seems, had done the illustrations.
Sadly, there is another book in the series and so I guess it was a success.
BTW I used 'genitals' for elder daughter who promptly transmuted the word into 'gentles'. You can't win.

Beck said...

"Socialization and moral indoctrination seemed less like brainwashing and more like good parenting."
EXACTLY. Oh, pre-motherhood Beck. You were such a moron.
I wrote about the farting vulgarian at my daughter's birthday party, this odiferous red flag labelled YOU DO NOT WANT YOUR CHILD TO PLAY WITH ME.

kittenpie said...

I hate Walter, too. Because, much as kids love the illicit thrill of *giggle* talking about farts in the library!, you're right - The Book Sucks.

NotSoSage said...

Oh, my dad so broke that rule about the boundaries, but then I suppose my mom upheld it, so we kids still felt like we were bad while feeling like we were in cahoots with my father.

During my parents' recent visit, my mother expressed shock at my use of the word "fart" and Joe, who had until then never expressed any distaste for the word, agreed!(Benedict Arnold!) I couldn't believe their suggestion that I use "toot" instead. No, thank you.

Mad Hatter said...

OK, a tired devil's advocate here. I don't think it is the parent's job to stay mum on words like "fart" so that the kids can laugh maniacally. I think it is the job of kids to carve out their communal and individual identities against the grain of their parents no matter how the parents situate themselves. It's the Alex P. Keaton effect. If your parents are hippies, you may well rebel by being conservative. God knows this is what happened to my niece. She became increasingly refined b/c she felt her mother was too liberal, too vulgar, too pot-in-the-basement.

I know this is nothing more than a simple reverse psycology argument but at some level it gets at the heart of what Zizek is about (if the foggy memory serves). I remember him talking at U of A in my grad days. He talked about how Frank Burns is the true counter-culture figure on MASH because his perversity is what enables the alliances formed by the other characters and the audience.

Who knows, I may just be (say it with me) "talkin' outta my ass." Sorry, I can't help myself. You can tell a good menstrual joke and, well, farts are my stock and trade.

As for dear Walter, I have to plead the 5th. I know the author--it's a Sleepy Town book and the author's son was one of my husband's favourite students.

c4cara said...

I didn't like that book much either. We have the 'boundries' here too, but I ramp it up a little with a loud 'WHO did that!?' when one of the girls farts and they giggle conspiritorily amongst themselves and then one of them says 'it was Papa' and I shrug and say 'oh well then' and go on with what I'm doing. Eventually they fall about and 'confess' and I am all disbelieving. It's a riot.
Excellent subject. *grin*

bubandpie said...

Mad - That's the thing, isn't it? I carve out my individual identity against that of my tooting parents, and then find myself suddenly inhabiting theirs. It's an eerie feeling.

V-Grrrl said...

When my children were small, I toed the line as Mother and made no fart jokes. Now they're 9 and 11 and the older one (my son) LOVES my fart jokes, rolls on the floor laughing, and is not-so-secretly thrilled that his mother, his MOTHER, said that. Makes it all the funnier for him.

Luisa Perkins said...

The euphemism in my house of origin was 'fluff.' There was a town we'd pass on the way to go camping called Red Bluff. We, of course, called it 'Red Fluff,' a joke that never got old.

I feel the publishers and movie makers who include the double entendres are doing it very deliberately. They know who is paying for the stuff, and they are trying to appeal directly to the wallet-holder. It really bugs me.

Lawyer Mama said...

Between this post & OTJ's Mighty Wind, it's been a fartastic posting day.

"Nevertheless, it is (or ought to be) an inviolable part of the child-adult contract that the child makes the farting jokes while the adult looks on with well-feigned disapproval."

Where's the fun in that? LOL! I usually look on disapprovingly, but I must admit I find it hillarious and adorable when H announces "I POOTED, Mommy!" I love a good fart joke. Hmmm...not many boundaries here.

Ruth Dynamite said...

We have our very own smelly dog, live and flatulent, to tell stories about. (Though we have that book, too.)