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Disgust–The Emotion We’d Rather Not Talk About

There’s six of us, Marilyn and Sherrie and Tizi, Rob and Bob and me. It’s New Year’s Eve. We’ve talked about the virus and vaccine and testing, about flights canceled and where we think our kids might be tonight. We’ve opened wine and taken pictures in front of the Christmas tree, first the boys, then the girls. It’s three years since we stayed up until midnight. A couple New Years Eves ago Bob and I faked a drunk pic. Later tonight, at the table, we will raise our glasses to toast Tizi and her squash and sweet potato soup.

“‘Vellutata,’ they call a soup like this in Italy.”

“It’s so velvety.”

“That’s what it means, velutata.  Do you taste the thyme?”

“Thyme reminds me of the Guess Who. No time! No time!” 

“So guys, my sister’s walking with a cane now.”

“Yes, the broken hip.”

“When was that?”

“It’s been a month.”

“I was outside this morning. We have to be careful. Snow on ice. It’s easy to fall.”

“How old is your sister?”


“Is that an actual nutmeg? A nut of nutmeg?”

“Grind a little into your soup. And try a couple drops of this sherry.”

“My brother knows a guy who fell in his kitchen, hit his head, and died. Tizi’s sister’s husband’s cousin fell in the bathroom. Slipped on some water on the floor. He was in the hospital for a week. I’m careful coming down the stairs now. I used to pull a t-shirt on, pull it over my head while I was coming down the stairs in the morning. In the dark.” 

“How old? The dead guy.”


“I wondered how long it would take, before all this old people talk started.”

“We’re old!”

“We’re not old!”

“Look mom, no hands. I’m walking down the stairs with a shirt pulled over my head. I don’t do that anymore. And I count the steps.”

“We’ll never make it to midnight tonight.”

“Shut up.”

“Always count the steps.”

“We don’t even try anymore.”

“I just can’t drink the way I used to. Does my hair look thinner?”

“I’ve been constipated for three days.”

What? Around the table, a moment of silence. The silence lengthens. Whoever said this had gall. Had balls. Whoever said this might as well have said they had VD. Under the Christmas tree the wheels on the train squeak as it makes its transit around the tree. A wine bottle gurgles through a pour. Years past we would hear the TV in the other room, Dick Clark commenting on the crowd at Times Square. Dick is no more.


“Sorry,” they say. “Too much information.”

It is a universally accepted fact that no one wants to talk about poop. Not at the dinner table. Not in polite company. Not anywhere. 

The first person of my generation I knew who became a parent was Doug Haynes. The father of a newborn, he said to me one day, “Did you know a baby’s shit is green?” The remark was briefly interesting, but it also went nowhere. What was there to say? When our children were babies, my mother-in-law tended them while my wife and I were at work. I dropped off and picked up. Every day at pickup, she reported on how long the baby slept, what the baby ate for lunch, and the quality of its poop.  “Ha fatto la cacca,” she would say–with an air of satisfaction, with an air of something like vicarious accomplishment. “Cosi,” she would add, holding out her hand, palm down, measuring from her fingertips to above her wrist. “Era bella,” she would say. Well, she was the outlier. 

I read recently there are six human emotions: anger, surprise, fear, enjoyment, sadness, and disgust. Until recently, disgust was the poor cousin, almost totally neglected. Psychologist Peter Rozin has contributed greatly to our understanding of disgust. He has put it on the map.

Rozin speaks of input and output. Input is what triggers the disgust response. A heavy wet stinky diaper, for example.

On a daily basis you’ll experience disgust. Molly Young writes in the New York Times, ““If you manage to complete a single day without experiencing any form of disgust, you are either a baby or in a coma.”

I removed the remnants of a pumpkin pie from our refrigerator a few days ago, a last generous piece of it mouldering in the tin. In the middle of that last piece, right on the shiny brown surface, was a luminous round green spot the size of a poker chip. Ick.

Mornings around that time I was reading Patrick DeWitt’s delightful novel, Under Majordomo Minor. In that novel the main character, a man curiously named Lucy, comes upon a person hunched over, eating something. “His face was covered in blood, and he held in his hands the remains of a small animal, its middle section eaten away save for a ribbon of black fur connecting its halves. A smile crept across his face as he stood; fur and red-purple flecks of meat and entrails clung to his emaciated body.” 

Disgusting. Worse yet, the small animal was a rat.  

My response was instantaneous: a shriveling sense of horror. This, for Rozin, is output, how we show or present our disgust. In disgust literature, the technical term for the reaction is gape face–“a lowered jaw and often an extended tongue; sometimes a wrinkled nose and a retraction of the upper lip.” (Try it, you’ll affirm the look.) 

Disgust, Rozin and other disgust scholars suggest, has an evolutionary explanation. Don’t eat that. They see disgust as “a piece of evolutionary hardware designed to protect our stomachs. . . All forms of disgust grew from our revulsion at the prospect of ingesting substances that we shouldn’t, like worms or feces.” Think of small children at the dinner table, all the things they won’t eat. There’s something about the look of meat or a green bean or broccoli or asparagus that turns them off. It’s as if they’re hardwired–don’t eat that–and indeed they probably are. On an occasional Sunday my parents used to take us to a restaurant called the Highlife Inn. On a salad bar you found something they called liver paste. It was brown, it was a mound, it was not a block of paté. They spread it on a cracker. Neither my brother nor I would eat it. 

Slimy things? Forget about it. 

When I was a kid I fished with my father out of a twelve-foot boat, in a small inland lake. We caught pan fish, perch, walleye. One day a man from town, Russell Strayer, fished with us. Back in camp, scaling and gutting and filleting the fish, Russell extracted a couple egg sacks, roughly the size of an eyeball or a large olive. He breaded them, fried them, and ate them with visible relish. When he held out a slice–did I want to try some–I shuddered at the thought.

At the seashore in Italy my wife’s cousins are crazy about something called squill, a crawly-looking creature that’s steamed or baked. It’s about three inches long, with a shell on its back and a lot of legs. You roll it on its back and eat the delicate white meat below the head, along its flanks and belly. The cousins take to squill with knife and fork, with surgical precision. My wife and I raise them to our mouths, biting and gnawing, slobbering and inhaling. One time I got a squill that was full of roe. I would describe the mouthfeel as, well, phlegmy, with bits of egg. It was disgusting. It took me a while before I could man up to squill again.

Eventually we do man up. How many times have you heard an adult say, “I can’t believe I never used to eat this!” Broccoli, asparagus. A raw oyster. Then again, there are those who take pride in what they’ll dare to eat, the more disgusting the better. A while back I read about a frat guy in Australia who ate a slug. He got sick, was paralyzed, and after suffering a few years, he died. A Florida man who died in a roach-eating contest. A Korean woman who died eating a live octopus. Disgust, Rozin believes, “operates as a foreshadowing of our own deaths.” It has its place.

But to the poop . . . No matter how old, no one wants to talk about that, much less regard it. We do not man up. Three days constipated.  Three days! You might think the conversation would turn to remedies. 

Herewith, should whoever said that–or any person–be in urgent need of succor, a brief list of avenues of relief; that is to say, output:

Psyllium husk, of course. Prunes, naturally. But also colocyhth. Also cumin, goose fat, and milk boiled, strained and taken before bed. And triphala, a powerful herbal remedy consisting of haritaki, bibhitaki and amla, for treating constipation and also certain dental issues. Two peeled kiwis a day. Mangoes, castor oil, raisins, hempseed pill, acupuncture, moxibustion, dried mugwort, the bark extract of buckthorn tree. Rhubarb, senna, slippery elm (contains the sticky substance mucilage, which coats the GI tract), peppermint essential oil, ginger. Drink water from a copper pot. Eat lunch and dinner sitting on the ground. Avoid excessive masturbation.

Good luck. Just don’t talk about it. You’re on your own. We’re still young enough to be disgusted.

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