August 14, 2009
Once, when I was in college, I almost allowed someone to take a shit on my foot for seventy five dollars. It was my right foot and this person was my roommate and we had been sitting together on our back porch and getting high and chewing the fat (literally–I think I was eating jerky, as I often was in those days). It was a lovely morning in April, dewy and fresh, liquid light dripping through the leaves of the trees and dappling the overgrown grass and crushed beer cans in our white trash backyard with beautiful and complicated patterns of sheen. It was humid out but not yet hot; there was a soft breeze blowing and breaking up the clouds of smoke around us into tiny invisible particles. I remember watching a small bird land on the rim of an overturned trashcan just before my roommate squatted over my leg, his sweatpants sagging down around his waist and exposing the edge of his boxers as he tried to “feel it out,” to see what it would be like to shit on my foot, if he really wanted to, if it was going to be worth the seventy five dollars. I don’t recall exactly how we got on the topic of him shitting on my foot but we got there somehow and then we couldn’t get off of it, it seemed that there was nowhere else to go for quite some time.
It all started out as a joke, I’m pretty sure, but then I changed it into something else, somehow, probably because of the state that I was in. The state that I was in that almost led me to allow another human being to cover my foot with his own hot personal waste for fifty dollars, besides my perpetually poor finances (living off of scholarships and student loans, etc.), was that I had just been rejected from every single one of the graduate schools that I had applied to in the fall — the writing that I thought was good enough to prolong my relatively charmed life in the shady groves of academe was not, in fact, good enough; wise people behind large desks at various schools around the country had decided that this was true, it was not good enough, I was not good enough, for a variety of reasons, and because of these decisions and these reasons all of my plans for the future were now off and cancelled, and because they were now off and cancelled very soon I was going to have to go out into the darkness of the world alone and find some kind of life and work for myself with a liberal arts degree, no internships, no skills, no contacts, very little work experience, and no idea what I wanted to do. I hadn’t gone to the trouble of getting or doing any of those things, see, because I thought all that I really needed was my amazing and powerful ability to put certain words in a certain order in order to create certain feelings and/or thoughts, a skill I soon found that you can not exactly put on your resume after “Strong Leadership Abilities.” All of this was happening to me in the spring of 2007, even before the economy fell off a cliff and exploded into flames, spreading shrapnel everywhere, but it still seemed like a pretty big deal then, to me at least, though I understand of course that mine was a bourgeois problem and I am and was so lucky in so many ways and, god, I’m already tired of listening to myself go on about it when I should be talking about the the shit and my foot, which is what you’re really interested in, right?
Anyway, this is all to say that when my roommate offered to pay me fifty dollars to shit on my foot, I didn’t just turn it down out of hand, I thought about it. Like I said, though, the idea at this point wasn’t even really something “to turn down,” it wasn’t an “offer,” I don’t think, it was just a joke, I’m sure that’s what my roommate intended it to be, a little bit of verbal hyperbole, a funny punchline to some riff of mine about sadness and poverty and humiliation. I’m pretty sure my roommate intended it be a joke because how could it not be a joke, because what rational middle class adult person would ever agree to such a humiliating and awful thing for such a (relatively) small amount of money? As we laughed at the absurdity of the statement, though, at the joke, my mind seized on what he had said, somehow, for some reason, probably because of the state I was in, either the aforementioned emotional/financial issues I was having or just that I was pretty fucking stoned at the time, you know, whatever, and then I heard myself saying that I would let him do it for a hundred dollars, would let him shit on my foot, and suddenly it had changed, it wasn’t a joke anymore, it was an idea, it was an event which might well occur at some point in the very near future.
We sat there and smoked and ate jerky, we watched the highlights dance across the crushed beer cans and the single serve foil bags of chips that littered the yard, the gnats and bees and butterflies fluttering and buzzing about, and as we sat there we went back and forth on the money, on how much money I deserved to be paid to allow him to shit on my foot, not theoretically or hypothetically but in the real world, real shit and real money for it. My roommate was a business and accounting major and so he probably had the upper hand in these negotiations but I didn’t particularly feel taken advantage of because of his skills. Eventually, we settled on a price of seventy five dollars, a number that we both found reasonable and worthwhile enough. The money taken care of, it was then time to figure out the particulars of the event, of which there were many, including which foot he would shit on (I settled arbitrarily on the right foot, he allowed me the choice), where the foot shitting would take place (the back porch was as a good as place as any, we decided), whether I would be forced to watch as he shit on my foot (initially I wanted to be able to cover my face with a towel so I didn’t have to watch (or smell) what was going on but he said that was against the spirit of the thing, that it wouldn’t have the same effect, and eventually I came around to this point of view), how long I would have to sit there with his shit on my foot before being able to wash it off (two minutes), who would have to clean up the shit afterward (at first I balked at the idea of cleaning it up myself, but there seemed like no other way, really, who was going to do it?), and so on and so forth.
I know it all sounds ridiculous but I just thought, like, how bad could it possibly be? I mean, obviously the physical fact of it was completely disgusting to me, sure, and that the idea behind it felt even worse, since it said some very demeaning things about money and power relationships and my relationship in relation to those things. What will a person do for money, what kind of humiliation will he suffer, how much will he debase himself? I didn’t like those questions or their answers or what the answers said about me, about the power I had in the world and the people who held it over me, but I did like the idea of seventy five dollars and the food and beer and/or beer and food that I could buy with them. I also didn’t think that my roommate, who was a good guy, was really doing it all do to demean me or put me in my place or make some point about Foucauldian power relationships, I think he just saw it as a scatalogical bit of College Humor style college humor, some (literally) funny shit. Also, physically, I just didn’t think it would be that unbearable, I mean, I had walked my dog and picked up her shit hundreds of times and that was with my hands, which I ate with (!), whereas this shit was just going to be on my foot, albeit my bare foot, without the protection of a plastic baggie. I did find myself getting a little nauseated as my rooommate described the various disgusting things (burritos, corn, prunes, Indian food) that he was going to eat in order to make his shit grosser and more voluminous. “I’m going to save that shit up for days, boy” he said, “I’m going to fucking explode all over your foot.” This troubled me, of course, but hey, there were apparently whole groups of people on the Internet who found the experience of being shit on to be sexually arousing; they made movies of shitting on each other and being shit on and playing with the shit and rolling in the shit. Being shit on not only didn’t disgust or humiliate them, it gave them pleasure. I didn’t think it would give me any pleasure, I was pretty sure of that, but I thought that at the very least that it was an interesting experience I could have, something about which I could write a thoughtful personal essay someday.
The negotiations between the two of us were going along pretty well until my roommate introduced the idea of recording the event. Up until then, the biggest point of contention between us had been how many people would be allowed to be present when he shit on my foot. I had initially said that no one should be present besides the two of us, that this thing we were doing wasn’t about an audience, it was about the experience of him shitting on my foot, how that would make him feel and how it would make me feel and what it would mean, and that anything exterior to that shouldn’t be included, that that wasn’t part of the deal. For personal reasons which I didn’t say out loud, I also wanted it to be a private event, since the kind of girl who would be attracted to someone who let people shit on his foot for money, if she existed, was probably not the kind of girl I was interested in and I wanted to have plausible deniability over the event, which I was pretty sure would be brought up over and over at many social occasions for some time. My roommate insisted, though, on two things: 1. That if he was going to shit on my foot, this had to be a public truth, I couldn’t deny it or lie about it, I had to admit it and own up to it, this was part of the experience that he was paying for, and 2. That there had to be some kind of audience; he said if he was going to shell out seventy five dollars to shit on my foot, he wanted some people to see it, it couldn’t just be the two of us. He proposed throwing a party (he would even pay for the kegs) and shitting on my foot there, in the middle of things, as some sort of sideshow main event. I quickly shot this down and asked for a counter-offer. We eventually settled on a group of 5 close friends of ours, all men, who would be allowed to present at the foot shitting. He wanted to charge them an admission fee in order to recoup his investment, but I told him that was wrong, that he was paying me his money to put his shit on my foot, this was not some kind of Pay Per View event.
“Okay, fine,” he said, “Well, before we do this shit for real I want to go see if I can find the cable for my camcorder.”
“Fuck no, you can’t tape it,” I told him.
“What?” he said.
We argued about recording the event for some time. My roommate was vehement about wanting a video document of the event; he assured me that he wouldn’t put it on Facebook or Youtube or in any public place, that he wouldn’t show it to too many people, that it was just a private record that as someone buying something he should be entitled to have. I told him, though, that documenting the experience was a non-negotiable thing, that I couldn’t allow it and it was a deal-breaker. I think this was slightly before the concept of viral media became such a major part of our mainstream consciousness, but I still knew that somehow the video would get out, would be released, and that once it had gotten out and been released it would keep moving and growing and becoming more powerful and I would lose control of the story and the event, I would lose whatever small amount of power I had left. If there was no video, I felt like I would be okay. I knew that because of my ability with words and putting them in order that if there wasn’t a document of the event, I could describe the shitting in the best possible light, in a way that would make it seem not so gross and humiliating and awful but instead funny and daring and interesting. I knew I could do this, could tell this story with charm and elan, could spin a tale that would be about more than shit and feet, that might even make me seem brave or strong or cool. There would be other accounts, of course, from my roommate and those five people present at the shitting, but I felt that because of my skills with rhetoric and composition that I could make my point of view the dominant one, that I could control the narrative and use it to my advantage.
If there was a document of the event, though, if there was a video, I knew that suddenly my words would no longer have any real value, no matter how carefully I crafted them. I knew that each frame of the video would be worth a thousand of my words and that I couldn’t complete with that, no matter how good of a writer I thought I was, and so in the end I knew that I couldn’t allow a video of a person shitting on my foot, however much I wanted to get paid. It would just be too embarrassing. The talks broke down over this issue and soon the thing was over and forgotten, an ephemeral idea that had died and faded like smoke in the breeze or shit spiraling down a toilet into pipes hidden below the surface.
I’m telling this story because I got this e-mail recently from someone named Sarah at a company called Whooga, offering me a hundred dollars to advertise her company’s products on my blog, right here in the space that your eyes are moving through now. Whooga is an Australian company which makes sheepskin-lined Ugg boots in a variety of colors and styles. After I read the e-mail a couple of times and realized that it wasn’t actually spam (“Whooga” seemed like some sort of randomly generated captcha word at first), I went to the website and looked at the boots, to see if I wanted to advertise them. The website was kind of ugly, but in the pictures there, the boots seemed warm and soft and nicely made. They looked like perfectly lovely boots. I wrote this first thing in my reply message to Sarah at Whooga, I wrote, “Dear Sarah, the boots look lovely.” A lot of people think Uggs are ugly and/or cliche but I have to say that there’s something I find oddly attractive about them, especially the ones that have a thick fur cuff on top. You might think that this is weird or perverse or whatever but then as we’ve discussed there are people who enjoy being shit on and playing with that shit, so I think my Ugg thing is pretty vanilla, at least comparably. When I was in college, the spring of my junior year, all the sorority girls seemed to decide that the most fashionable everyday outfit of the season was to wear both Uggs and gauchos together at the same time (often with a sorority tee or oversized sweatshirt on top) and for whatever reason I found this combination ridiculously and irresistably arousing. I knew that each item was on its own an affront to fashion and style and that together they were even worse and yet somehow they both turned me on so much and seemed to make their wearers that much more lovely and beautiful. Anyway, this is all to say in an overshare-y kind of way that I have no problem with Uggs in general or the Uggs that are sold by Whooga in particular.
Before I decided whether to accept the ad, though, I looked on Google Blog Search to see if there were other sites that were doing advertising for Whooga, to make sure that the thing was legit and also to see how it was done; I had never had any advertising before and knew nothing about the process. As it turned out, there were many sites that were advertising Whooga Uggs, in fact; most of them were, of course, fashion blogs or women’s blogs. I clicked around to see what was out there. The ads that I saw on the blogs mostly took the form of testimonials in which the blogger regurgitated the Whooga ad copy to some degree or another and then let their readers know that Whooga had made an “exclusive” personal discount offer available only to readers of the blog, that if they used a certain customized coupon code (usually the name of the blog) that they would be able to buy their boots for less than the list price. None of the blogs I read disclosed that their owners had been paid for these posts; maybe they had and were purposefully omitting this information, maybe they hadn’t and weren’t, I don’t know.
I felt uncomfortable about all this, though, either way. Of course I wanted to take the ad and take the money; even though this was a relatively small amount of money that would make no difference in the general state of my life, it wasn’t nothing, it was still a hundred dollars, and besides, I would be paid for my writing and wasn’t this the blogger’s goal, to monetize, to turn words into gold? I felt uncomfortable taking the money, though, for a couple of reasons. I felt uncomfortable first of all because of course I can’t write a testimonial for a product that I haven’t used, because that would be immoral, a lie, false advertising, and I wouldn’t do that. If I have anything with my readers, it’s a certain level of trust and connection and if I blew that on an ad for fur-lined boots, I would have nothing at all anymore. I also felt uncomfortable taking the money for another reason and this was because I thought that to put an ad on my blog would be a complete waste of Whooga’s advertising dollars, that they would probably have a better chance of a return on their investment from many, many other sites. In my e-mail, I actually started to describe my abysmal traffic stats and low posting numbers to show why Whooga would not want to advertise with me, but I eventually took out the sentence because I felt it was just too TMI and emo and unecessary.
Part of me just wanted to say “fuck it” and take the money, of course; if they were offering me money to advertise here, why should I care if I wasn’t the best platform for their product, that wasn’t my decision, that was theirs, and they had decided to offer me money for an ad; all I had to decide was whether I was going to take it. Telling them things about why they shouldn’t advertise with me wasn’t my responsibility, I knew, and yet somehow I felt wrong about not telling them, guilty. I mean, to complete and totally oversimplify the global financial crisis, the reason that we have such problems in the world today is that people are very greedy and that in order to get more money to satisfy their greed, they lie or misrepresent things at the expense of other people. If I took this advertising money knowing that there were much better places for it, would I in any way be participating in similar actions? I mean, t wasn’t like Whooga were a big and evil corporation with tons of money to burn, this was a small, “proudly Australian” company that sold boots made from the fleece of sheep, they were a small business just trying to make it. I wasn’t talking to some faceless corporate automaton; in her e-mail, the Whooga spokeswoman used cute and endearing Australian expressions like “keen” and “sort out.” What if she placed her ads and spent her money incorrectly and because of this the boots didn’t sell and because of this she lost her job or the company went bankrupt? That would be sad and bad and wrong and I would be in whatever tiny way responsible, because I was greedy. After wrestling with these issues for a while, I sent back this e-mail, which never received a reply:
So now that story is over and I don’t have an ad and I don’t have a hundred dollars, all I have is me and this and you. Big deal. I am not telling you this to be self righteous or anything, because I am proud of what I did, because I think it is a good thing to not be a “sell-out” or whatever kind of punk rock bullshit that is. I do not think this is a good thing I did, I do not think I should be proud of it, I think it’s a problem with me personally, inside, a problem with myself that I don’t know how to fix, that I don’t know if I even can fix, ever. When I sent back the e-mail, I told myself that I wasn’t going to accept the ad for the moral reasons I described above, that was the justification I gave myself, but deep down inside of me I know that’s not actually the truth at all, I know that the real reason that I didn’t take the ad was not because I had any moral problems or anything like that, it was because I knew that if I refused the offer and didn’t take the ad that I could tell this story about the situation, I could write about it and share it with people and have them read what I wrote. For me, it was so much more important and valuable to have something to write about and share than to have a hundred dollars and this is wrong and bad and I don’t want to feel like this or think like this because I think it’s just one of the main reasons that my life is so fucked up right now, that I privilege this simple activity of being able to put certain words in a certain order above all other things, that I make this abstract and solipsistic act more important than money and life and the world, more important than everything. I don’t want to feel like this, I don’t want to be like this, but I don’t know any other way to feel or be, this is just how I am.
I’ve been having a whole lot of trouble writing lately and I’m not sure exactly why and I can’t seem to do anything about it. It’s not for lack of trying; I have probably 25 or 30 thousand words worth of stuff in drafts from the last month or so alone but I just can’t seem to make any of them into anything I’m proud of or anything that seems important or worth sharing with other people. I look at things I wrote and shared with other people before, in the recent past, and I don’t understand in any way how these things could have come out of me, where they came from, what person wrote them and how he did it. The words and their arrangement seem foreign, alien, disconnected from me, like I’m a snake and the sentences are old skins I shed and left in the grass. The feeling that I’m having a lot of the the time now is the feeling like when you’re in the middle of being really, really sick and you think that if you could just throw up, it would make you feel completely better and normal, but no matter how hard you try and how long you stick your head into the toilet, you just can’t make yourself throw up, nothing comes out. You try and you try and nothing comes out, it’s like your body is empty, but you know that’s a lie, that it’s not empty, because you can still feel the waves of stuff pulsing through your body, in your blood and bowels and bones, the stuff inside you that’s making you sick, and you know that if you could just get it all out of you then everything would be okay again.
Then, somehow, by some technique or other, you do it, you finally manage to make yourself throw up and you get it all out of you but even though you’ve done it and gotten it all out of you, you find that you don’t feel any better than you did before and, now, in addition to feeling so bad, you also have to clean up this vomit that you’ve gotten all over the floor and there’s nobody in the world that can clean it up but you and you’re still sick. It’s a pretty awful feeling that I’m having but I guess it would be even worse if I let somebody shit on my foot, metaphorically or otherwise, so that’s something, at least.