Life lessons from Bathrooms


The men’s bathrooms during my tenure at Berkeley tended to be very interesting places. At first I couldn’t figure out why the stalls made of marble or similar material tended to have holes carved in them. At some point it was explained to me that they were Glory holes . They were often plugged up with toilet paper, so it wasn’t intimidiating, but it seemed kind of crazy to me why were there. Then there was the one time a guy decided to leave the stall door open. I heard him sit down, but couldn’t figure out why he hadn’t closed the door until I went to wash my hands at the sinks opposite the stalls and saw that he was publicly masturbating. It was such an unexpected turn of events that I quickly left after washing my hands, but I was more amazed than anything else. It turns out this particular bathroom was a known anonymous sex spot. On the less steamy side, many bathrooms had sayings written in the grout between the tiles. The idea was usually to take a known saying and replace a word with “grout”. An example could be instead of Tears for Fears’ song lyrics “Shout, Shout, let it all out” they would have written “Grout, Grout, let it all out”. (Completely coincidental selection as an example, but very apropos for a bathroom setting!) They tended to make for interesting and entertaining reading and helped pass the time. I’m actually curious if grout writings have decreased with the rise of cell phones.

Despite the adventure and humor in many other bathrooms, my mind recently came back to the small bathroom, not used by the student population in general, that was in the lab where I worked. The building that housed the lab and bathroom was a bit older and consisted of concrete floors and walls with drywall making a few small office areas on the edges of the wide open floor plan. The bathroom itself was also antiquated and cramped, with the institutional metallic walls for the one stall(no point carving out glory holes there), a tiny window that let in a hint of light if anything, an old looking urinal and a matching old fashioned porcelain faucet and powdered soap dispenser.

The most memorable feature for me is the vent. Since the small window didn’t do too much for ventilation, most of the fresh air came out from vent, and it came out hard and fast. What made it memorable was that it was pointed directly at the single toilet. The urinal was no big deal, but using the toilet itself was a bit more complicated. For the 2 years that I worked there, I don’t think I ever managed to get a toilet seat cover to stay on. Invariably, when I had to use the toilet, I would squeeze my way into the stall, close the door, grab a toilet seat cover(or toilet paper if there were no more covers), lay it on the seat, turn around to sit and realize that the cover or paper had been blown off. This led to an awkward dance of laying one piece of toilet paper on one side, sitting down on that same side while lifting the other, trying to get a strip of paper on the other side of the seat and sitting on it before it blew off. These days I probably wouldn’t even bother with the paper, seeing as how it wasn’t a widely used bathroom, but back then it seems I was pretty adamant about having protection on the seat. What surprised me then and now, was that I always seemed to forget that the vent WAS going to blow any covering off the seat before I was able to sit. Perhaps it was because no other bathroom on campus gave me such problems, or maybe it was just some part of my brain that wouldn’t store that crucial bit of information.

I’ve been in some sort of therapy or another for years and years. Even though I’ve made substantial gains in a lot of areas in my life, when feeling down I often feel like I haven’t made any progress. As usual my ongoing issues with finding a better fit for my career is a trigger of sorts and an area in particular where I often feel that I am stuck, and not learning from my mistakes or at least not changing my behaviors enough to make a substantial difference. I tend to succumb to the same triggers and thought patterns again and again. The vent+stall+toilet paper scenario seems like a very good analogy to my situation. Here, rather than dealing with a vent blowing off my toilet seat cover, I have some sort of inner process which ends up blowing my confidence or energy to take on new projects or search out new careers right out from under me. It often seems I have an idea of something I might want to do, but as I am turning around and getting ready to pursue it, this inner process blows it away, then I am left trying to juggle my responsibilities and desires with an awkward dance (and some avoidance).

Coming back to the toilet analogy, while I writing this blog I started wondering what if instead of trying to remember an awkward process of holding down the paper in the line of a strong torrent of air, I changed where the air was flowing? In theory, I could have, temporarily at least, attached a piece of cardboard up near the vent to direct the air elsewhere. In reality it would have been taken down by custodial services, but I like the image; I could have fashioned some clip on device that I would place on the vent before trying to get the toilet ready. Then all I would have needed to remember was the deflector.

In my life the trick is finding out what the deflector for the negative thoughts and doubts are especially when it comes to feeling stuck around my career search. When it comes to depression in general I recently rediscovered, after forgetting for the millionth time perhaps, that doing some physical activity acts as a deflector for the depressive thoughts. Since my last post, I’ve had at least two instances where I realized I was feeling depressed and rather than go and lay in bed alone, in the dark, I went out and did some sort of exercise. When I got back, I felt better and had basically been able prevent the depression from taking a stronger hold.

While I’m not sure how to apply the “deflector” idea to my career quest, at least the image is very clear for me: if my career fears are the vent, and making progress is the act of getting to sit on a paper-protected toilet seat, it’s time to stop trying to remember what do when I’m the direct line of the air, and find some way to move it aside or divert it long enough for me to sit down. Either way, it’s probably better than whatever the life analogy is of unexpectedly finding out the person in the stall next to you wants to take advantage of the glory hole!