What towel-snapping taboos taught me about pushing your luck

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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Chapter 1 — The coin flip: What a cancer diagnosis taught me about life exploding into a bazillion pieces

Chapter 2 — The slip-up: What a puddle of puke taught me about asking for help

Chapter 3 — The Great Burning: What a million paper monsters taught me about things going up in smoke

Chapter 4 — The crayon candle: What the lamest science project ever taught me about putting in the extra effort

Chapter 5 — The Christmas concert: What starring as a tree taught me about finding my voice

Chapter 6 — The “Super Something:” What blood and glue fumes taught me about vulnerability

Chapter 7 — The dare: What wearing a clay helmet taught me about bad habits

Chapter 8 — The cannonball: What Meghan in the mud taught me about letting go

Chapter 9 — The fireball: What a flaming tennis ball taught me about nurturing imagination

Chapter 10 — The frying pan: What towel-snapping taboos taught me about pushing your luck

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

Chapter 12 — The babysitting gig: What banshee babies and buttered butts taught me about failing forward

Chapter 13 — The sledgehammer: What a construction job taught me about using the right tools

Chapter 14 — The cement truck: What a misguided act of heroism taught me about good intentions

Chapter 15 — The valet: What a parking disaster taught me about overconfidence

Chapter 16 — The growl: What a wolf in the woods taught me about knowledge and responsibility

Chapter 17 — The shortcut: What a hike through stinging nettles taught me about cutting corners

Chapter 18 — The backpack: What a giant duffel bag taught me about band-aid solutions

Chapter 19 — The big freeze: What camping in a snowstorm taught me about knowing when to quit

Chapter 20 — The snowy gauntlet: What an idiotic bet taught me about redefining success

Chapter 21 — The Christmas tree: What a holiday hunt taught me about overkill

Chapter 22 — The BB gun: What my dad getting shot in the eye taught me about owning up to our mistakes

Chapter 23 — The toboggan hill: What sledding battles taught me about approaching problems from different angles

Chapter 24 — The train: What a trip to the big city taught me about self-sabotage

Chapter 25 — The mushy cauliflower: What dinner in France taught me about the power of words

Chapter 26 — The shopping cart: What an unusual ride to the bar taught me about control

Chapter 27 — The butt clay: What a muddy gully battle taught me about karma

Chapter 28 — The president: What Bill Clinton getting in my way taught me about adaptability

Chapter 29 — The Taipei middle way: What a hostile hostel taught me about moderation

Chapter 30 — The refugee camp: What volunteering in Ghana taught me about digging deeper

Chapter 31 — The bus ride: What a long drive through the mountains taught me about patience

Chapter 32 — The barn: What a Christmas sleepover taught me about keeping your fires stoked

Chapter 33 — The list: What farts and sandwiches taught me about gratitude

Chapter 34 — The birthday: What a surprise celebration in the hospital taught me about self-care

Chapter 35 — The goodbye: What a man named Frank taught me about luck

Chapter 36 — The bloody transformation: What going from negative to positive taught me about change

Chapter 37 — The school of hard knocks: What life’s misadventures taught me about blunderful resilience