Structure & Strangeness


The Toilet Paper
(grade school writing assignment, 1996)

When I think of the word 'bathroom', a small nondescript white room comes to mind. Within this room, I see a sink, a toilet, a towel rack, a bathtub with perhaps a showerhead, maybe even some cupboards for toiletries. The word doesn't evoke any kind of awe or wonderment, after all, it's just a bathroom. But this inane room is more than just an after-thought to a house, it's more a pivotal element of our lives than you might believe. Contrary to popular conception, this mild-mannered room is more than merely a place to wash hands or relieve stress in the highly-modified-stratified-sqaumous epithelial tissue (popularly known as the 'bladder'). It's more a kind of un-acknowledged sun around which our lives orbit.

The story of the bathroom revolves around its center piece : the toilet. Its story begins back in the year 1775, when the first true toilet was invented by a London watchmaker named Alexander Cumming. One hundred years later, the ceramic bowl became standard and the modern-day toilet was flushed into the market. Soon afterwards, in 1915, the elevated water tank was lowered to its present position, and toilets have basically been little improved since (unless you want to consider drink holders and fuzzy seats improvements). Today, the toilet serves primarily as a means for disposing of unwanted wastes of all sorts, as well as a never-ending water bowl for dogs, and even the occasional daring cat. The toilet, the dominant fixture in the bathroom, is only a small piece of the larger picture, however, as the sink, the bath, the towel rack, various personal affects and, most importantly, the mirror all make up the true 'bathroom.'

With young children, the bathroom is often viewed as a terrible place of many unspeakable punishments. I remember as a small child being threatened with exile to the bathroom for throwing food at my brother over dinner. I must have been barely four years old, and despite my frequent visits, the bathroom still seemed as dreadful as ever. Unfortunately, my parents decided that sending me to my room was far too humane as although I would be alone, I had plenty of toys to keep my entertained. In the bathroom, however, I had no such luxuries, and playing the sink is only entertaining for so long. Another more frequent use of the bathroom as torture device is the bath. Think back to your younger days. Remember how the bath always signaled bedtime? The small time of fun splashing water on mommy's clothes was just a preamble to the true purpose : putting you to sleep. But, as any four year old will tell you, therein lies the deception. The moment those lights go out, the adults stay up late into the night playing all the fun games they don't play while you're around. The young mind reels with the possibilities of what adults do once the lights go out. It seems that by day, the bathroom remains a place of business, yet at night, beginning with dinner, the bathroom takes on a sinister element as the implement of torture.

But I'm not a child, you might say, the bathroom doesn't really mean much to me. Sadly, you would be mistaken. To a child, the bathroom is a method of cruel and unusual punishment, but to an adult, it is all important; a man's bathroom is his castle, and his toilet the throne. The bigger the bathroom, the bigger the castle. Take a simple idea such as the number of bathrooms in a house.What possible significance can the number of bathrooms hold? When you walk into a house that's nicely furnished, and you casually wander around. You note the furniture: nice. You peak in the kitchen: adequate. You ask about the bedrooms: suitable. But what really gets your attention is the number of bathrooms. No one thinks much of a house that has two 'dens,' but when you hear about the five bathrooms, you're impressed. Some houses have so many bathrooms that one has the title of 'reading study,' denoted by the veritable library of magazines stacked precariously on the back of the toilet (sometimes the magazines live in a specially designed basket, another supposed 'improvement'). While the bedroom may be the place of sleep, for some people, the bathroom is the place of everything else: equipped with television, stereo, telephone, cup holder, fuzzy toilet seat, etc. just to make the time spent there as comfortable as possible (after all, you're going to spend two years of your life there, and they might as well be a comfortable two years). In most houses grand enough to have multiple bathrooms, one is often declared the 'public' bathroom. This icon of prestige is kept as clean as possible and you'll never spot any of the those personal affects like the glow-in-the-dark toothbrush or that fuzzy seat there. The truly intimate objects are kept safely hidden in the 'private' bathrooms. It always amuses me the ends some people will go through to keep guests out of the 'private' bathrooms. Excuses like "that's just a closet," "let me show you to the right bathroom," and the stubborn "member's only, sorry!" Truthfully, the bathroom is one of the most sacred rooms in the house.

Yet another frequent use of bathrooms, although few might admit it, is as an escape. The unassailable privacy created by a closed bathroom door is sacred. Phone calls will be ignored, left to the mechanical answering machine; guests will be forced to wait; and pets left scratching at the door to be let out (or in), all rather than betray the peaceful solitude created only in the Shrine of the Toilet. In order to secure this privacy, the first impulse is to hastily lock the door, insuring that nothing short of a national emergency will intrude. Another example of the bathroom as an escape, as every man has experienced, is for women to 'excuse' themselves, needing to 'freshen up,' when they're really fleeing a tense seen, desperately seeking to regain composure. Every woman knows that inside the impregnable walls of a bathroom, the healing process of relaxation and recovery can begin. When I was young, I remember enviously watching as a group of girls would migrate to the bathroom, as that was the only truly safe place where they could gossip and discuss boys, without fear of being overheard. Not being overheard isn't the only use of a bathroom; sometimes it's quite the opposite. Think back to the last time you had a yelling match through the medium of a bathroom door. The defender remains safely locked inside, while the aggressor (usually the one who has to leave for work first) futility verbally besieging the other from outside. Inevitably, the defender wins out, as who can really argue with a locked door?

Truly, the bathroom is not just "a room equipped with facilities for taking a bath or shower and usually also containing a sink and toilet," but really a tiny unassuming room around which our entire lives orbit. The importance of the bathroom cannot be underestimated; after all, what would we do without such a convenient location for so many necessary activities. This importance isn't just confined to our culture either; one of the most useful phrases in any language to know is "Where is the bathroom?"

© 1996, Aaron Clauset

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updated 7.16.01