Can't hear you, the rhetoric's running

We were soaking in the bathtub the other night, feeling mellow in our steamy solitude. The water had dropped to the ideal temperature - cozy, serenemaking. We only wish we knew what the temperature was so we could start there instead of parboiling our toes on the way to sheer bliss.

With the special contentment of a stationary body in a stable universe, we raised our chin above the water and looked about us. The knock-knock riddles that certain members of the family like to write on the mirror had begun to appear, outlined in the steam. We propped our neck on the back of the tub and looked up. To our relief, the crack in the ceiling - a line and a dot - had grown no wider and no longer, remaining just a friendly exclamation mark in our plaster sky.

Really, what more could anybody ask for? We felt like reciting the word for ''peace'' in a dozen languages, like those United Nations Christmas cards.

Then we made a mistake. A bathtub reader of more than riddles in mirrors, we flopped open a newspaper. And there, in smudgy black print, we learned awful things about our oasis of peace - the modern (well, fairly modern) bathroom. According to the very first soggy item we read, a Purdue University study shows that ''the bathroom seems to be one of the major issues that causes stress within families.''

We splashed a big toe and thought about that. We have a neighbor who gets a little ''fussed'' because his house is equipped with only a one-car garage - built for a Model T at that. A couple up the block find it irksome - we think ''irksome'' is their word - to live in a house with only crawl space for an attic.

But nobody in our crowd talks of ''stress'' in connection with the peccadilloes of their homes. ''Stress'' is a big word in our lexicon, especially when it appears in the same sentence as ''major.'' ''Stress'' suggests ''close to the breaking point.'' If you're talking bathrooms, the only thing we can imagine that might cause ''stress'' would be pipes bursting in the middle of January. At 3 o'clock in the morning.

And so we read on to see if we had misunderstood the professors from Purdue. Or perhaps some journalist got things mixed up. Some journalists do. Maybe this one shuffled his notes with another story he was writing about, say, the ''stress'' children feel when they think about World War III.

There had to be an explanation. We raised our chin again and looked around. ''Stress'' and ''major'' just didn't seem to go with the fuzzy rug, oversqueezed toothpaste tubes, and bath-towels-just-everywhere that made up our bathroom. Oh, there might be a little anxiety hovering above the scales - suspiciously set at minus-two pounds. But that was about it.

Alas, there was no explanation. The Purdue researchers, it seemed, had said what they said, and the journalist had reported it. We had 200 families here - count 'em - with dangerous ''stress levels'' because they had only one bathroom. Words like ''suffer'' got used to describe what happens when ''family members vie for the use of the bathroom.''

Was that a knock on our bathroom door now?

No. Just our well-steamed imagination. But we climbed out of the tub anyway. Somehow the bubbles in our bubble bath had burst. Even the sail on our bathtub boat seemed to droop.

Blame it on verbal inflation, we thought as we groped for a towel - anybody's towel. Economic inflation is bad enough. But verbal inflation can be worse. It confuses moral currency, cheapening everything into a ''crisis,'' if not a ''tragedy.''

The single-bathroom stress syndrome. Oh boy!

Maybe hot baths make our thoughts simple and obvious. But as we dried our pink, pampered toes, we could only wonder: What would the millions of people in the world say who have no bathroom at all?

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