This is a story I’ve rarely told anyone, the reason for which will become readily apparent.
I spent my formative years in essentially a village in Iowa in the 1960s. The events, such as they were, occurred in the 1966/1967. LBJ was president, and no human had ever been to the moon, yet.
I was a boy on the cusp of both potty training and learning the value of personal hygiene after bowel movements. In Dallas Center, it was an easy walk to a little half-block of businesses that included a laundry-mat, the town bowling alley, the post office, and Mitch’s barber-shop. I found myself near the laundry mat one day, and without prior warning, I needed to unload.
Childhood holds many surprises. The on-coming need to poop is one of those surprises. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but there you are. Many experiences are new, and being self-aware of one’s digestive processes is on that list.
I had been out of the house on some adventure. Now, quite suddenly, adventure of a different sort had found me. I went into emergency mode. Being a big boy who strode the earth without benefit of diapering of any kind and one who no longer crapped his pants, my way forward was clear – find bathroom facilities immediately. No problem. The laundry mat had two w.c.’s – one for the gents and another for the ladies. I had been there with my mother, so I was familiar with location and available equipment. I quickly found my way to the facilities and found relief and respite.
Unfortunately, disaster awaited without warning of any kind.
No toilet paper.
My guess is that in my rush to accomplish the most important task to me at the time – not going in my pants – I had not taken a second to notice if the bathroom was stocked. And it was possible that toilet paper was available in a way that my little self could not have figured out. In those long-ago days, was there a little cabinet under the sink? I don’t know and can’t recall.
But having emptied my innards, I recalled that almost every big person had given me strong and important directives to wipe. I suppose it was wearying for my mother, who did the laundry, to have to deal with the tire track that resulted from a lack of wiping. Being a good boy, I remembered that I was supposed to wipe, but had not the proper equipment to accomplish the task.
What to do?
I can’t perfectly recall what had happened. Either I had started a little before I got to the bathroom, or had previously made a small deposit. In any case, the underpants were done for. Into the waste basket they went.
The only question was putting on my little boy pants without underpants. And I had been instructed not to put on my pants without underpants.
Being a good boy. I didn’t put on my pants.
All of this lead up is fairly pedestrian. The most striking thing for me now is that with four older siblings, I evidently escaped out of the house without a single one of them while still at the age of three going on four years old.
I knew we had toilet paper at home, of course. To get there, I walked the two and a half blocks without any pants on. In that two and a half blocks, I passed by most of the businesses in town – the Perkins’ little grocery store, the drug store, the town bank, the Ford dealership, the John Deere lot. I recall very clearly the dilemma of showing off my little boy penis or my bare butt. On the journey home I would hold my pants in differing locations as I worked through whether it was worse to see one or the other. I’d go a ways covering my butt showing to people in the stores, but exposing my front to the street, shifting my pants and realizing now my butt was exposed and shifting my pants again.
I evidently caused a bit of a sensation in town. But I returned home safely.
That story has been a source of some shame and embarrassment for many years. I got teased about doing that by parents and siblings. Other towns-people were mostly respectful. I don’t recall many comments from classmates years later when I started school, for example.
Shame and embarrassment are interesting parts of the human experience. Some cultures have very deeply engrained sets of criteria that determine shame and traditions of etiquette in working through shame.
No one – not a single person – ever gets up in the morning, hoping or even expecting to do something shameful or embarrassing that day. Not a single person awakes from their slumber and thinks, “Ah, today I shall do something shameful.” But that does not prevent us from achieving shame and embarrassment. It is the normal plight of us all. It’s the admission price for being human.
Nevertheless, the shameful and embarrassing parts of our lives are not things we spend a lot of time shining a light on. I have close friends, some of whom I’ve known for several decades. I have had moments of intimacy. And yet, I don’t spend a lot of time telling them stories about the shameful things in my life, and they don’t tell me theirs. We’re very close, but not much time is spent in the realm of shame.
I don’t know you, but my guess is that there are some things about you that you have never told anyone about --- even your nearest and dearest.
And that silence is probably appropriate.
Except as actors.
The stories we enact often involve – and sometimes center on – acts of shame and embarrassment.
Going back to Oedipus or earlier, the characters in stories react to and work through shame. Oedipus is naturally ashamed that despite his best efforts, he has still slept with his mother. That shame leads to Jocasta’s off-stage suicide, and Oedipus’s tearing out of his eyes. Hamlet is not ashamed at his part in the murders of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but he is ashamed at the murder of Polonius.
And in comedy, shame also plays a part. I don’t know how many times I’ve acted roles in which a man does something embarrassing and gets caught. I did quite well as an actor who could show having “egg on my face.” Sometimes the egg was dripping off. I was in a mundane comedy called Accommodations. I played a husband whose wife and left him to share an apartment with a woman and, ho ho, a man. My character did several shenanigans to keep an eye on my estranged wife. The capper was spending the night in the apartment’s bath-tub and getting a bucket of water thrown on me. My entrance looking like a drowned rat never failed to inspire laughter.
Even though we shy away from shame in our lives, we run towards it as actors. Well, we should run towards it.
In working with beginning actors over the course of several years, many people have a difficult time playing actions that show this side of themselves. We do not enjoy the experience of feeling shame as humans. And when it comes to working through a character’s shame, many people fall into the default setting of avoiding appearing in shame in public. For some people, I think it would be far easier for them to strip off all of their clothes and act naked than it would be to appear shameful.
In our culture today, anger is easy. Everyone seems to have several barrels of anger ready to fill up the stock any time we come close to being depleted. And our culture can do lust well enough.
But shame. Embarrassment. Here are some touchstones that can allow us to see into the real center of the human experience. We carry around our shames in a mostly silent vault. The opportunity to laugh at shame in comedy or experience the drama of shame, allows an audience to find their way to human – to find relief in knowing that they’re not alone. And then, maybe, releasing a little of that crap they carry around with them.
Like a little boy, surprised by the sudden need to poop.
And the great thing about being an actor is that you can enact these stories, without ever truly revealing your own shames. Because, with a story, is it true?