Monthly Archives: August 2013

Grace under pressure (or not)

Janet and Juno at Star Island, 2013

Juno the Dog and I have just returned from the annual family endurance test on Star Island and, after several nights in a clean, bug-free environment with hot and cold running water, I am ready to face the threat of continuing existence. Juno is snoring.

Actually as endurance tests go, it was pretty smooth sailing this year. Smooth, that is, if you overlook the vision of my nephew-in-law Ian standing on his bed in the middle of the night and vigorously defending himself from bats with a tennis racquet. I wasn’t in the room, to my infinite regret, but I am told that he was quite a sight. There were ten bats to begin with, but only nine bats made it back to base. My family will be returning to Star Island next year, but the bats will probably decide to rent other accommodation.

You know the old saw about “grace under pressure.” Well, Ian has it (as well as a formidable backhand). We’re not sure about the bats, but the only thing that pressure produces in me is language unbecoming to a gentleman. The strange case of the blocked toilet springs to mind. Now, there’s a topic you probably don’t want to touch with a ten-foot plunger and – though this year went well – toilets did rather dominate the summer holidays last year, and the memory is raw. I was too shattered to tell you about it at the time, but time heals all. Read on, if you have the strength.

Have you ever reflected that, inadequate as it is in many ways, the 21st century is utterly redeemed by its plumbing? We have the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age and – wait for it – the Age of Flush Toilets. Fascinated as I am by history, two things make me grateful for the timing that landed me here, not there. These are public executions – and, frankly, even “private” executions strike me with something of a dull thud – and plumbing.

Star Island is a case in point. The island is actually a large lump of rock in the Big Rideau, which means that sewage disposal is something you don’t want to think about, any more than I want to describe it. Suffice it to say that my father was right: “Get an education,” he intoned, and he might well have added “or you may find yourself pumping sewage out of holding tanks on the Big Rideau.”

I pass lightly over the details. The important thing to note – and, sadly, not everyone has noted it – is that there is a protocol to using a toilet on Star Island. It is based on the idea of moderation. Unless you have been incredibly lucky, you have probably heard the disgusting old ditty: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.” That’s the regime in a nutshell. To educate newcomers to the island, the wall of the bathroom bears several large, hand-stencilled signs featuring some good advice and a bit of really unfortunate grammar:


Only when necessary

And then, in pen to one side, the depressing ancillary message appears: “Put paper in the pail.”

These then are the ugly facts, and we adults – who have seen life in the raw and know that it is not a bed of roses – obey the law and think of other, higher things while we’re doing it. However, to navigate your way through the poor grammar and the handwriting on these signs requires a sophistication that your average four- to five-year-old does not possess.

Let us draw a veil over the sordid scene. The important thing to know is that with an increasing number of youngsters in the family – children who have abandoned diapers without adopting full literacy – there was a record number of plumbing problems last year.

Not to worry. We have an unwritten law in our family that my sister Claire does all the unpleasant and difficult things requiring character and intelligence, while the rest of us retire to the hammock with a stiff drink. It’s a sad day, I can tell you, when emergency strikes, and I find myself the ranking adult, officer in charge of being calm in a crisis. You see, I am the youngest child in my family. My sisters were brought up to take care of me, not the other way round. When I have a problem, I appeal to them – tearfully or in a rage, as the case may be – and they fix it. That is the way things are in my family. That is the universe that God ordained, and I don’t think we should mess with an arrangement that clearly works.

There have been moments, however, when Claire and Meg go AWOL, and I am forced to solve a problem on my own. These crises may range from figuring out how to assemble and install a ceiling fan all the way to dealing with a phone call from the hospital at 3 a.m. in the morning. Let me expound.

My nephew Steven lived with me during one long, LONG year when he was 19 going on 12. Summer rolled round, and he went out to celebrate on July 1. Some celebration. Having been foolish enough to express disapproval of a young man who happened to be holding a lead pipe in his hand, Steven ended up with a concussed head en route to the hospital. Years have passed, and I still remember my horror when the phone rang, I pressed a groggy ear to the instrument, and realized that we were in trouble, Steven and I. My sisters were both out of town. My nephew was in emergency, and I was the only one around to go and “deal with things”. I pulled myself together, called a cab and rallied round the recumbent body, which was undergoing a bit of sewing at the time. Steven was anesthetized by a high level of alcohol in the veins, an advantage I lacked. As I recall, the doctor told me to put my head between my knees.
Oh well, we all survived. It wasn’t as though I actually had to wield the needle myself. In fact, it was a useful incident. In childhood, a favourite book of mine was called Cherry Ames, Probationer, and my ambition was to become either a nurse or a horse trainer. Or was it a horse? I forget, though I did love running around the neighbourhood with a dog leash in my mouth, neighing: a very strange child).  

Back to the matter of sisters. This sibling hierarchy explains why, many years later, when the Star Island toilet overflowed the first time, it didn’t worry me much. I just mentioned to Claire that she’d better get cracking. The second time I saw Claire going for the mop, I averted my eyes and went for a stroll. The third time was different. Claire had left the island, and I was the ranking adult. Yikes.

I was out on the verandah reading. In fact, I was lost somewhere in 9th-century Britain – that summer’s current reading was historical fiction – when I became aware of running feet. The screen door slammed, and Juno and I realized with certain misgivings that seven-year-old Peter was among us. “Auntie Janet!” he said, with an inappropriate note of joy in his voice. “The toilet’s blocked!”

“F—k!” I said, summing up the situation in a word. Peter’s eyes widened with a mixture of delight and horror. “Auntie Janet,” he exclaimed. “You said….”

“Never mind what I said,” I cried, springing to my feet. “Who put paper down the toilet?”

I arrived at the scene of the crime in time to see five-year-old Maddy heading for the hills. A sensible child who will live to see another day. I took a deep breath and stiffened the sinews as I prepared to take calm, intelligent control of the situation. All of a sudden, there came a great crash and a cry of dismay from the kitchen. A second theatre of war!

I bolted in to find six-year-old Charlotte, frozen to the ground, eyes wide with horror. She had just dropped an entire quart of chocolate milk on the floor. It seemed to me that a theme was developing – brown stuff flowing through every room.

“Out!” I shouted. “Everyone out. Everyone go home!” (You see, there are two cottages on Star Island, and we rent both: roughly speaking, there is one house for me, and one for everyone else, or at least that is the ideal to which I aspire.)

Children are not stupid. They fled, all except Juno the Dog, who was trotting excitedly through the milk. I yelled at her too. She responded by fleeing the jurisdiction and, thundering milky-pawed into the living room, she leapt excitedly up on the couch. I pursued, seized her by the collar and threw her bodily out the screen door in the kitchen. I had completely forgotten that, while the kitchen door pushes out (thereby preventing an outer dog from becoming inner), the living room door pushes in (allowing the outer dog to be inner with a simple thrust of the nose). The exiled Juno, thrown out the “out” door, streaked along the verandah to the “in” door and was back in a minute, anxiously volunteering to help.

I tied a vociferously complaining Juno to the banister, squared my shoulders and sought out the mop and bucket and a bottle of disinfectant. You’re probably impressed – I know I was – at this demonstration of savoir faire. It’s amazing how much I had absorbed while pretending not to look at Claire being competent in every crisis. I draw a veil (my second veil in a single report) over the next hour or so, except to say that what doesn’t kill us makes us strong. Next morning, I sought out young Peter.

“Peter,” I said. “Yesterday, when the toilet blocked, I used inappropriate language. I apologize.”

Peter giggled. “Yes, you did. You said….”

“Never mind what I said!” (God, I hate apologizing to children.) I gave up and headed back to the 9th century, where my hero was facing all kinds of catastrophes with invading Danes – very moody people indeed, holding very large, sharp weapons. But in a seven-book series, there is not one toilet, functioning or otherwise. Maybe the 9th century knew a thing or two.

The end of the Star Island saga does not mean a return to real life in any meaningful way. It means coming back to Ottawa and getting ready for the annual Linden House Theatre play (October 22 to November 2). And this year, we have a humdinger – Lloyd George Knew My Father by William Douglas-Home. It is a hilarious tale about suicide. No, really. This is a very funny play, I promise. The only sad thing is that I shall be playing an 80-year-old. I had hoped that another 20 years or so would pass before I could make that believable. I blame Star Island. It has aged me.

If you want to order tickets, you know what to do – visit the website (, Books on Beechwood (35 Beechwood Avenue) or call 813-842-4913.