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Bathroom readers unite!

By Matt Keesan

I have a confession to make: I like to read on the toilet. I used to think that I was one of a mere handful of bathroom literature aficionados, a society so secret that its most fanatical members could not identify one another —and would not identify themselves. However, since my arrival at Penn in September, I have discovered that I am not alone.
    It all began my first night in the dorm. Move-in day had gone well; my family had provided a fairly pleasant mix of nostalgia, helpfulness and annoyance. I went into my floor’s co-ed bathroom to begin my nightly grooming process. I chose a stall, and settled in for the usual. At first, I felt only a slight, nagging sensation that something was amiss, but it grew into a horrifying realization: The stall walls were as smooth and clean and happily sparkling as a ward for the criminally insane. No graffiti. No labels. Not even a company logo on the toilet-paper dispenser.
    Back home I always had plenty of personal products around to read (I can still tell you that a canister of Gillette Shaving Gel Aloe Vera Enhanced lists palmitic acid as its second ingredient, after water), and I could always just take a book or a newspaper into the bathroom. But the stalls here just don’t lend themselves to perusing real literature, because they’re cramped and not very well lit—not to mention poorly ventilated.
    Not being one to abandon a passion without a struggle, I decided that something must be done, and since the Society of Defecation Literature Lovers was still a secret one—that is, no one on my floor volunteered the information that they missed reading in the bathroom, too—I decided it was up to me. And so I retired to my room, searched the Internet for a few hours, opened obscure books to random locations and produced a bathroom magazine of my own—a two-page compendium of useless information that I called phlush, in honor of the Perspectives in Humanities Floor, or Phloor, which is where I live. I printed enough copies to grace the inside of every stall door on my floor.
    This, I thought, was the true essence of college—to express oneself in any way possible, in an attempt to define a soul in a time of overwhelming flux. I don’t claim to have discovered myself in two pieces of paper (or even at all). But I do believe we all need a creative outlet for our energy to be truly healthy, and I didn’t fully understand this until I came to Penn. This part of my education is just as important as my linguistics class; not because putting together this bathroom reader I have learned what mellifluous and analemma meanor what the bird with the longest toe is called (the jacana bird, as I recall), but because I’ve actually learned something about myself.
    But I digress.
    Reactions to phlush …flowed in. I received many comments from people on how much improved their bathroom trips had become—like, “I stay in the stall longer just to read it,” and “Going to the bathroom has never been this much fun!”—and that’s when I knew that bathroom reading truly was a nearly universal habit. I started getting submissions. People from other floors began stealing copies. And then my printer’s black ink began to run low.
    I spoke to my program manager, who offered to have the humanities living-learning program support my evacuation-oriented endeavor. Having access to the King’s Court/English House photocopier, I decided to take the plunge and make enough copies of phlush for every stall in my house. On Oct. 5, 1999, a friend of mine and I spent an hour and a half taping it up in every stall. At first, response was slow. I would receive a word of encouragement or a submission every few days. But now at least one piece of phlush-related e-mail arrives every day.
    In my opinion, public response to a personal project is the best feeling in the world. People who didn’t even really know me were willing to take a few minutes of their day to say that they liked this little thing of mine. So it was only a matter of time before I e-mailed the other college houses and asked if their residents’ bathroom experiences were lacking a certain special something. And, in many cases, they said “Yes.” I now can touch the bathroom lives of students across the campus, and, with luck, bring a few minds closer together.
    But none of this really gets to the point: True, I have created a bathroom reader. Others have filled sketchbooks, created entire photo albums, or found their true passion in a sport. And I believe that in doing any of these, we all realized something. It’s one thing to be told, “Take responsibility for your own education,” in the Franklin tradition that is our legacy. However, it’s quite another thing indeed to believe it with your heart as well as your head. Perhaps this is hard to take seriously in these buzz-worded times. Perhaps it sounds insignificant. But I believe that it’s a truth that transcends age and place: Everything you’d ever desire is out there and within reach—all you have to do is get up off the toilet seat and go get it.

Matt Keesan has somehow arrived at the University of Pennsylvania after 18 years of stumbling around Rochester, N.Y., where he was notorious for his mastery of the art of procrastination. He’s currently trying to figure out why he is here and what time he should wake up. phlush is published twice a week, each Wednesday and Sunday.

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