Although our antics outside the home may suggest otherwise, our lives were far from lawless. Like most households, we were governed by a variety of rules — from strict bedtimes and cookie limits to the schedule of chores taped to the door of the kitchen pantry.

The fart chair was another law of the land. The rule was simple: the couch in the den was a flatulence-free zone. If you had to let one rip, you left the room. No exceptions.

Failure to comply resulted in a 30-minute exile from the comfy couch to a hard wooden chair in the corner of the room. As soon as a sibling caught whiff of an olfactory offence, they’d declare, “Fart chair!” and send the perpetrator away to atone for his or her crime. For exceptionally egregious emissions, the thin cushions from the chair were also removed to inflict maximum discomfort.

Like all my siblings, I’d occasionally attempt to sneak a squeak, hoping no one would notice. Sometimes, I’d get away with it, which would motivate me to attempt another secret toot. However, my fortunes would inevitably change. And what I was confident was going to be a silent, odourless release turned into a rancid shotgun blast that could shatter windows and peel paint from the walls. 

On the chores front, before we were allowed to watch TV, we had to clean up after dinner. As you might imagine, a family with eight kids produces mountains of dirty dishes, which we washed and dried by hand. Regularly, those time-consuming tasks devolved into heated battles as we transformed our wet dish towels into welt-producing whips.

But it wasn’t total anarchy. Like the den, the kitchen had its own codes of conduct. And one of the biggest stipulations was that the person washing the dishes was off limits and not to be snapped — owing to the fact that he was unarmed and up to his elbows in soapy water.

Diplomatic immunity or not, the temptation to give the dish washer a little snap in the butt was sometimes too much to resist. Usually, violations were met with scolding and empty threats of violence.

Usually. 

One evening, my brother Damien pushed his luck, snapping dishwasher Dan one too many times.

Enter the Rage-osaurus Rex.

In what has to be one of the greatest overreactions of all time, Dan grabbed a greasy cast iron frying pan from the pile of unwashed dishes, wound up and cracked Damien in the kneecap with it. Damien dropped to the ground like a sack of potatoes.

And the rest of us? We got busy drying plates and bowls, avoiding eye contact with our sudsy sociopath of a brother.

Like too many farts or towel snaps, don’t push your luck. Missing the odd workout might not derail your weight-loss efforts, but skip the gym too often and you’ll soon wonder why your pants don’t fit. Taking the occasional long lunch at work might not raise any flags, but don’t be surprised if HR wants to talk to you if you make a habit of it. And going for a walk after spraining your ankle might not do any damage, but going for a big run before it’s fully healed could make things way worse.

I learned that lesson the hard way in 2008 as well. My initial month-long chemo protocol at the hospital included carefully considered meals the doctors knew I could stomach. Unfortunately, that usually meant very bland food. 

So when my friend Norm told me he wanted to come for a visit, I had him pick me up a giant burger on the way. I inhaled it. And then promptly expelled it in a spray of vomit. 

Bottom line? Don’t push it.

When in Rome … 

To be clear, we rarely banished guests to the fart chair or forced them to participate in our barbaric towel-snapping traditions. Still, there were always house rules that visitors followed, whether it was taking their shoes off at the door or eating whatever was served at supper.

Likewise, Mom always insisted we show the same respect whenever we were hanging out at a friend’s place. Everybody starts with an extra $100 in Monopoly? Okey-dokey. Aunt Maureen’s spaghetti sauce tastes different from what you’re used to? Suck it up, buttercup. Your buddy has to finish chores in the barn before watching TV? Get your boots on and pitch in.

That idea of respecting house rules carries over to travelling to other countries as well. Culture shock can be a challenging obstacle, but embracing different traditions can really enrich your experience. It’s a meaningful way to show respect and appreciation to your hosts. What’s more, it allows you to connect with them on a very personal level and fosters camaraderie.

Sure, that pot of mystery mush bubbling on the stove may freak you out a little. But try it anyway. Immersing yourself in local customs is one of the most rewarding parts of travelling. 

Finally, it’s an opportunity for personal growth. It pushes you outside your comfort zone and challenges you to try new things. It shakes up your assumptions about how things should be done and lets you see the world from different angles. It encourages you to celebrate diversity and different cultures.

Like anybody, I have my limits and am okay politely refusing to participate in customs I find too extreme or morally objectionable. But for the most part, I say giddy-up.

So whether you’re travelling to the other side of the world or marrying into a family that allows the word “ZA” in Scrabble, keep an open mind. See different traditions and house rules as opportunities to show respect, try something new and broaden your horizons. And if you’re ever unsure about how exactly a custom works, don’t be afraid to ask.

Because I’d hate to see you take a frying pan to the knee for making an honest mistake.


Next: Chapter 11 — The haybale: What a tough day in the barn taught me about having someone to watch your back

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