27 July 2012

Erma Between Haboobs

I’m not sure how it happened.

 But, somewhere between ending my career as a steely-eyed Special Forces sergeant, and beginning a career in writing, I seem to have turned into Erma Bombeck.

 Maybe it’s the wife and kids — you know: family life. Our cats and kittens definitely figure in too. As does the cigar store where I work part-time, the kids in my Sunday school class, and my battle to coerce our front yard into growing grass instead of baked dirt. Each seems to conspire with the others, to beat me into the shape of a male-version Erma Bombeck. (Well, assuming ol’ Erma smoked large cigars, wore a beard and — If you can believe what my wife says about me! — scratched her crotch a lot.)

The late, great Erma Bombeck
 Now I'm sure Ms. Bombeck never did these things.  But, some days, even I seem to be inadvertently climbing on the Erma band wagon.

 Take last night, for instance.

 Well . . . actually, first I’ll have to explain about the “Cat Bathroom.” 

 We have three grown cats and two kittens in the house. Two of the grown cats are Frisky, my daughter’s cat, and James Bond Jr., my son’s cat. Frisky and James are sisters (that’s right—James Bond is a female cat). The other adult cat, a male named Sandman, is Frisky’s son from a previous litter, while the two kittens (male and female each) are the last hold-outs from her most recent litter.

 Now . . .  long ago, James Bond noticed that humans used the bathroom for certain non-washing functions. Consequently, she tried to follow suit. Since two attempts at using the toilet ended up getting her wet, she shifted fire and started doing her business in the bathtub. Not something we welcomed. Our house has three bathrooms in it, however. So, we learned to keep the doors to the master bath and hallway bathroom closed at all times, while leaving the door to the small half-bath at the back of the house wide open.

 Since this postage stamp sized bathroom has only a sink and commode, we closed the commode lid and added a cat box — and James was happy; he could do his business in a bathroom, just like a human, but didn’t have to chance falling into the toilet. After some discussion with my wife, I agreed (my wife claims “agreed” should be amended to “grudgingly admitted”) that balancing the sandbox atop the toilet was probably tantamount to tempting fate. Thus, the sandbox wound up on the floor. 

James did not resent this.

 The two new kittens have changed the dynamics of the cats’ ablution practices, however. And, this, James clearly does resent.

 The two adult sister cats haven’t been getting along very well since Frisky started having kittens. The kittens don’t seem to realize this, however, and they keep trying to play with their aunt – which makes her hiss and often earns the nearest kitten a set of boxed ears.

 This, of course, does not deter the kittens.

 Further, in their youthful exuberance, they evidently decided that Aunt James’ toilet setup was really cool. Consequently, they tended to do their business in her box. After a lot of cat screaming, and much struggle, and some quite ridiculous carting of kittens from James’ cat box, down the short hall to the utility room, where they could use Frisky’s much larger box, we finally surrendered to nature and installed additional boxes in what has now come to be called “The Cat Bathroom.”

 While James the dowager duchess still prefers to perform her daily constitutionals in private, the kittens also use the Cat Bathroom — when their aunt isn’t looking. (Trust me: you need to know this.)

 Steer Manure Between The Dust 

 So, last night, my 9-year-old son, Quentin, and I were spreading steer manure across the front lawn because the city would really like to see some grass out there.

 In fact, the city wrote me a letter to that effect, which I found most depressing, because — until my mom started going downhill, and I had to spend so much time at my parents’ house (now my dad’s house) — I’d actually had a pretty nice lawn going. All the bald spots were filled in, and nary a weed dared raise its head. The dark green grass was thick, soft against the bottoms of bare feet, and the trunk of our orange tree was painted bright white.

 Now, however, the city letter reminded me that “…bare dirt is not considered desert landscaping in the city of Scottsdale.” I know this fact, of course, and have never mentioned to city officials that — though I grew up here in the Sonoran Desert, and have hiked and camped throughout untold miles of its most remote terrain — I have never in my travels crossed a single patch of natural desert in which the scorched ground was covered with plastic sheeting beneath a thin layer of gravel (this being the city’s definition of “desert landscaping”). Nope! Not gonna mention it!

 So . . . Since Scott’s Turf Builder, grass seed and several 97¢ bags of steer manure are cheaper than plastic sheets and tons of gravel: Last night, my son and I were spreading steer manure across the lawn, between dust storms that blew in from the desert south of us.

 These dust storms, sometimes followed by rain, are blown up by the Monsoons, created when seasonal wind patterns change, which drags cool moist air across the hot desert. The result is high wind, high humidity (in desert terms), and often some flash flooding.  And — just a note! — though I was rated at an 8th Grade level in reading, writing and speaking Modern Standard Arabic, as well as the Egyptian Dialect, on multiple occasions in the past, I have yet to meet a native English speaker who calls our local dust storms “Haboobs” (which, technically, I believe, should probably be more correctly transliterated as: “Hibub”) — with the exception of newscasters who’ve never seen a dust storm before, and those who garner their vocabulary from such inexperienced sources. In fact, I asked one of my Arabic friends, who runs a local Indian Jewelry store here in town, what he thought of the term, and he responded: “What am I, an idiot? I call them dust storms. What do these people want? Next, we start calling eggs ‘beydah’ because that is what we call them in Egypt.”

 So . . . anyway . . . we’re spreading steer manure, which means my son, Quentin, is wearing a layer of manure from head to foot. And, naturally, he needs to go to the bathroom. I grab the hose and hit him with a high-pressure stream as he strips off his shirt and pants, still standing on the lawn because I paid 97¢ a bag for that stuff he’s wearing. Then I move him to the porch and hose off his underwear and shoes.

 All washed off, he drops his shoes, preparing to make a dash for the bathroom. And my 17-year-old daughter comes home from her boyfriend’s house.

 Enter My Daughter 

 Now, my daughter’s bladder is 17 years old, and that bladder has learned to detect its surroundings. If that bladder isn’t in a safe location, such as our home bathroom, or the bathroom of a girl friend’s house, it DOES NOT empty!

 And, over 17 years, that bladder has learned how STORE, buddy! Whenever she comes home, my daughter makes a mad dash for the bathroom. And she’s in there so long, we’re clearly talking multi-gallon-capacity. Contrary to what you may be envisioning, however, my daughter is very thin and quite petite. In fact, when I look at her, I sometimes think: Good Lord! That girl must be 90% bladder.

 And now, my daughter comes tearing up the front walk, repeatedly whispering her home-coming mantra: “Gotta pee, gotta pee, gotta pee.” She shoots past us and slams the front door behind her. 

And my 9-year-old son looks at me in horror. Because, his legs are crossed, but he knows: Our master bathroom has a plumbing problem that placed it off-limits until the plumber can get out the next day.

 I give his shoulder a fatherly squeeze. “It’s okay, little buddy. You can use the Cat Bathroom.”

 He shakes his head, eyes huge. “I’ll never make it past the cat boxes! There’s too many!” 

“You can do it. The boxes don’t touch each other; there’s a few inches between them. You can make it, if you stay on your tip-toes.”

 He shakes his head. “No way! I’ll never make it.”

 I hesitate for a moment, thinking I might need to go move cat boxes out of his path. But, the next dust storm is boiling in fast. I can see the black night sky to the south being eaten by a brown, amorphous shape glowing in reflected city lights. I’ve got to finish spreading the manure, and get everything watered in, before it gets here. Otherwise, 97¢ a bag, plus Scott’s Turf Builder and grass seed is going to get picked up and carried away, spread across 20 miles down-wind. But, my son needs assistance, guidance, leadership — outside the box problem-solving.

 Quickly stooping, I snatch up one of his hosed-off shoes. Shaking out as much water as I can, I hand it to him. “Here. If you can’t make it, and have to use a cat box, dig with the shoe instead of your bare hand.” 

He grabs it. “Great idea!” Then runs inside.

 And that’s when it hit me: I’ve turned into a cigar-smoking version of Erma Bombeck.

 See ya’ in two weeks! (Maybe with something to say about James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce.”

Quentin and me, after a dust storm in 2011 (He had a shower before the pic was taken.  I'm still covered in gray dust.)


  1. Good Lord! That girl must be 90% bladder.
    Dixon, for once LOL actually meant laughing out loud. Whew, for a second I was thinking "Oh, no, not in the shoe!" (There's some talk show diva who claimed she likes camping out in her yard because she gets to 'go' outdoors, more information than I wanted to know.)


    My Aunt Rae had four cats in her NYC apartment, three females and a male. For some reason, after a fearsome battle to trim claws, the standoffish female surrendered to my masculine charms and decided I was the object of her affections, i.e, the cat's pajamas.

    But the male… we didn't get along at all. He didn't like having another a Y-chromosome competitor (me) in the apartment and made his displeasure known at every opportunity.

    But he was a funny cat, picky beyond fastidiousness about his bathroom habits. He wouldn't set foot in the cat pan. Instead he balanced on three feet on the rim of the pan. My aunt claimed he used the fourth paw to hold his nose.

    Dixon, I love the title of the piece!

  2. Erma, this piece deserves to be a print publication, so I printed it out and added it to a collection of worth-while reading that I keep cluttered all over my desk.

    One of my sons (I won't specify which one to avoid his embarrassment)had the same bladder situation as your daughter. I don't think he ever used a bathroom away from home all the way up to college. We teased him when he was in the Navy, asking how he survived on a ship so far away from "Mama's bathroom."

    Did your daughter read this blog? If so, what was her reaction?

    Good luck with the lawn!

  3. PS for Leigh:

    "Oh, no, not in the shoe!"

    Some of the teachers in the elementary school I attended used to wear high heels to work, then change into--are you ready?--bedroom slippers for day. The school was old and each classroom had am adjacent large cloak room with about forty coat hooks around the walls. Teachers used those cloak rooms as "time out" spaces before "time out" was even named.
    The fifth-grade teacher also left her high heeled shoes in the cloak room when she changed into her slippers.

    At a family reunion not so long ago, my rock 'n roll musician cousin told me that when he and other boys in his class were sent to the cloak room for punishment, they used to urinate "just a little, not enough to soak them" in the teacher's high heeled shoes.

    Yep, in the shoes!

  4. That'll learn 'em, Fran!

    In our old classrooms, we had cloakrooms, too, but when the 'new' addition was built, the sensible Midwestern folks attached a unisex restroom as part of the 1st and 2nd grade classrooms. In part, this allowed small students to use the toilet in an emergency, but it had a secondary purpose, that little boys and girls could inspect one another without shame. I hate to imagine the parental hysteria in today's world.

  5. Dixon,

    That stuff comes to $1.05 with sales tax,at least here in Calif.

    When I was your son's age I used the nearest tree, a luxury not available to your daughter.

  6. Man, what fun you and your family have.

    My son and my daughter must have been 90% bladder because in elementary, middle, and high school, they would not use school rest rooms. They would come home and hurry through the house. The one who got in the house first used the down stairs bathroom; the late enterer had to make it up the stairs.

  7. My Brother's guest bathroom is separated by the door to the little laundry room where the catbox is. I've sat on the stool only to se a furry paw sneak under the closed door to bat at my toes! Erma would be proud of this column!

  8. Well, in a totally different vein from the other appreciative comments, I liked your pot-shots at the term "haboob" and the idea that a dirt lawn "doesn't count" as desert landscaping. As someone who moved to central Arizona in 1958, I have seen more than my share of dust storms -- some so thick they turned night into day, except with an eerie red glow that was sunlight shining dimly through the dust. And no one *EVER* called them anything but a dust storm. I'm thinking someone who wanted to sound fancy decided those storms "are called" haboobs, and all I can say I is the "boob" part sure fits the boob who got that bright idea. As to the dirt yards, back in those days the Yacqui Indians had a town of their own, before the city came in and literally took it from them in the early '70s and moved all those people to a nasty concrete apartment building. And the Yaqui had dirt yards. Every morning you would see the women out front carefully sweeping the hard-packed dirt all around their house, right to the road, to keep it tidy and neat. It was clean as a pin and sure didn't need watering! All of which is to say: "Good work! Sock it to 'em!"

  9. Um . . . that was supposed to say the dust storms turned day into night, not night into day.

    Maybe it's the latter type that deserve a new and fancy name. :-)


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