Most people think they have the basics of hygiene down, but odds are some of us don’t. That’s why you occasionally run into public-health information such as this sign, posted in a community college rest room, to alert us to sound hand-washing technique. This sign was carefully designed to account for people’s different learning styles. We don’t all take in information in the same way. Some people are visual learners, some are auditory learners, and some need both plus a whack on the head. So this sign, showing how to wash one’s hands, included both text and a hand mock-up with helpful arrows pointing to the germane washable portions. It probably does the trick, although a small percentage of people reading the “back of hands ” arrow, which flips back on itself, will turn themselves away from the sign and then walk away puzzled, without washing.

This is the sort of thing that gets some people all riled up about government overstepping, but those sorts of people, unlike myself, have yet to suffer the crushing humiliation of being told they have been wiping their butts wrong all their lives. Me, I still figure there’s always more to learn. In the case of this sign, I did note that I may be coming up short. For instance, I haven’t deliberately washed my wrists since the lambing fiasco.

The bulletin about the shortcomings of my butt-wiping technique came during my early twenties, considered by people in their early twenties to be well into adulthood. And it came courtesy of another adult who was in a position to care, and who I may later have married. It is the sort of news you have to take sitting down. I reacted in the typical fashion: denial, anger, bargaining, and blaming my mother. The bargaining stage did not last long, because the accusing adult was threatening to withhold certain privileges I had grown fond of if I did not refine my protocol.

I refined my protocol. It wasn’t easy. If you’ve spent a lifetime getting your butt going the wrong way, it’s like trying to retrain a cowlick. Nothing about it felt right, but I persevered, and soon enough the approved method of tidying up felt quite natural.

It had to be my mother’s fault because the entire zone was once her bailiwick; my father didn’t give any instruction either, but in the fifties this sort of thing wasn’t in his parental portfolio. He was just supposed to disappear every single dadgum (I’m told) day to a job he despised and bring home enough dough to see his kids through college and out the door. So it was definitely Mom’s fault. In my only direct recollection, I was at an age I was already taking care of this butt issue myself. One day things got a little unruly and I felt the need for Mommy to come in and bat cleanup. I hollered out the second-floor window to the back yard, where Mommy was putting out the lemonade pitcher and aluminum tumblers and clothes-pinning the plastic tablecloth to the picnic table in preparation for a cookout. Other adults were present. Mommy stared up at my pleading face in the window for a moment, and then directed my sister Bobbie to go take care of me. Bobbie never disobeyed a direct order, but she didn’t look too fervent about this one. And my sister was not at all who I had in mind. Somehow I managed to clean myself up before she trudged all the way upstairs, and I was officially on my own from then on.

So I’m thinking that whatever method I’d come up with was just fine with Mom; if it no longer involved her, that was the main thing. Truth be told, our family hygiene standards were not the highest. I think we looked respectable enough, our clothes clean and our hair combed, but we kids were only required to take a bath on Saturday nights, with mid-week touch-ups provided by Mom with a scrubby washcloth–you can dang near take a kid’s face off with one of those–and running through the sprinkler. It was probably a legacy of her early years on the farm without indoor plumbing, when immersion baths in a metal washtub were problematic and only undertaken on special occasions and before checking in with the Lord. I was a teenager before I began taking daily showers, long and hot enough to steam the sorrow out of adolescence.

Dave is horrified by this, having come from a much cleaner family. He has always had good and strenuous hygiene habits, although they’re wasted on him. Constitutionally, for some reason, he couldn’t manufacture a b.o. stink molecule if he was given a vial of flop sweat, a box of pit hair and a manual. He had to develop flatulence skills just so that blind people would be able to tell he was passing by. But if he, or the government, wants to tell me what I’m doing wrong, I’m willing to listen.