“Idiot!” spoken with humorous outrage became a staple around the house—for cutting-up laughter and good-natured teasing.
Because our kids had grown up in a conservative Muslim country, they simply had not been exposed to American sarcasm and satire (up to that point). In fact, they were sheltered from a lot. One day, my wife and I discussed our kids’ lack of exposure to bad language and wondered if they even knew any “rich” vocabulary words. Our middle child, about eight at the time, was asked, “What swear words do you know?”
“I know the ’s’ word,” he answered, grinning sheepishly.
“Which is…?” I persisted, doubting that he actually did.
His eyes nervously danced between his mother and I before he winced, answering, “stupid.” (An American reader might be skeptical, but he was being completely sincere and honest. That's all he knew.) Then, he put his head down, utterly remorseful and humiliated to have uttered such a vile word in the hearing of his parents. By the way, when he was younger and became really angry, his “swear” word was “diaper”—the nastiest thing he could think of to say. (He had seen/smelled one too many of his younger brother’s dirty diapers.)
Stupid. Idiot. Not nice labels. We tend to use them for other people, and tend to think of ourselves as not stupid—but rather, bright or intelligent—at least most of the time. “Stupid” and “idiot” are for the other guy—the other driver—never for “me.”
When first in Indonesia, I stayed with a pediatrician and his wife whose son I had befriended while attending the University of Washington. I bunked with the son in one room. Separating our living space from theirs was a two-part bathroom—the inner section with a shower and toilet, and the outer part, accessed by both bedrooms, with a sink and a mirrored medicine cabinet.
I was terribly allergic to Jakarta’s mosquitos, and bites on my feet sometimes swelled so badly, I couldn’t fit into my shoes. So, after a few days of watching my feet turn into pink balloons, I went in search of insect repellent. The only brand I could find was “Autan,” made by Bayer. That night, I put it all over my feet, legs—even up to my crotch. Those bugs, I had learned by experience, could find any loose-fitting legging, any gap between shorts and shirt, any loose sleeve. I was meticulous in the application of Autan—determined. No more mosquito bites!
The next morning, I was relieved to find I had escaped a new round of ugly red welts. So, I went into the common bathroom to relieve myself. When finished, I tried to stand up, but my legs were stuck to the toilet seat. I had to leverage myself and “peel” my skin away from the hard blue plastic ring—painful. My legs were now blue, and the toilet seat’s shiny finish had been stripped away, leaving a portrait of my behind as evidence of whodunnit.
I ran back to the bedroom, panicking over how to explain to my gracious hosts what had happened. But before I could think of an answer, my friend’s mother knocked on the door.
“Uh, Gerrit, do you know what happened to the toilet?”
Remember, “stupid” is for the other guy. Never for blue-bottomed me.
If that wasn’t enough, a few weeks later, I went to take a shower, locking the bathroom door from the inside. I was alone at the house. Having forgotten my towel, I went back to the bedroom to grab it. When the bathroom door clicked shut, locked from the inside—without me in it, a sense of doom tugged at my heart. Grabbing a broom, I climbed a chair, squeezed my skinny right arm through the narrow ventilation shafts above the door, and began poking at the locked doorknob with the wooden broom handle, hoping to unlock it. After twenty minutes of sweating in humid Jakarta, the sound of the front iron gate squeaking open filled the house. My host parents had returned. I stabbed at that door handle more fiercely—blindly—determined to get the job done before they reached the front door.
“You've got to do this, you've got to do this,” I muttered to myself, urging a victory.
The front door opened, and I heard footsteps clacking across the front lobby to their bedroom door. Time to extract the arm and get out of the ridiculous situation. But, I couldn’t free my arm. Stuck. The elbow wouldn’t squeeze back through. My host mother walked into the common bathroom and took stock of the situation.
“Gerrit, what on earth are you doing?”
“Oh, Mrs. Jahja, I’m so embarrassed, but I locked the bathroom door from within, and I’m so, so sorry.” This new red-faced college graduate was nearly in tears—utterly humiliated.
“Well, that’s no problem. Here.” She opened the medicine cabinet above the sink—right beside the door where I was standing—pulled out a key, and unlocked the bathroom door in less than two seconds.
“Stupid” is for the other guy. Never for me.