Sometimes the smallest and most mundane details capture a writer’s attention and reveal important aspects of humanity. Take for example the hotly contested social and cross-cultural issue: Which way should the toilet tissue unfurl?
The issue first came to my attention when I was around eight or nine years old. After using my grandparents’ bathroom, I happened to notice that their toilet tissue was set so that it would unroll from the front, over the top. My parents’ toilet tissue unrolled from behind, underneath. As I thought about it, I also remembered that my grandparents’ toilet tissue did not always unroll from the front — it sometimes matched my parents’ way and unrolled from behind. So I asked my grandfather, who I revered as the most intelligent man I knew, why their toilet tissue was unrolling from the front. He answered, matter-of-factly, that that was the Irish way. His answer puzzled me. I couldn’t fathom why Irish people would prefer that method, but then again, I was old enough to know that some people did things for no more meaningful reason than that it was the way their ethnic ancestors did things. “And what’s the other way?” I asked. “Oh, that’s the German way.” The answer made no more sense to me than that the Irish preferred their toilet tissue to unspool from the top front, but, again, I accepted that it might be yet another meaningless cultural difference.
Several years later, as a teenager, after my grandfather had passed away, it occurred to me as I was setting a toilet tissue roll to unspool from behind that my grandmother was Irish and my grandfather was German. I suddenly saw his joke, so flatly delivered, and had a good chuckle at my own naïveté. From that point onward, in his honor, I always set the toilet tissue to unspool from behind and underneath, the German way.
When Lila and I moved in together a few years ago, we quickly discovered that one of our differences was that she always set the toilet tissue roll to unfurl from the top front. Moreover, it annoyed her immensely that I did the opposite. After explaining the joke that my grandfather had made, I chalked up the difference to mere preference and said that I saw no logic behind either method being more correct than the other was. Lila, however, believes very strongly that most things have a right, logical way of doing them, and a wrong, illogical way of doing them. As time passed and the toilet tissue flipped orientation depending upon which of us had the honor of changing the roll, her annoyance with my method grew and she sought to find a reason to explain why one method, hers, would be better than another, mine.
Her first attempt was to argue that it was the way that hotels and fine restaurants do it and that it must be based on some principle of etiquette. I, however, do not buy any argument based on the principle of “one or more people do it that way, therefore it must be right.” Emily Post could do it that way; it would not matter to me. Ten million hotel rooms could have it that way; it would not matter to me. I will only buy an argument based on the merits of the thing itself, independent of other people.
We tangented through a debate on etiquette. I also happen to firmly believe that etiquette is nothing more than taking what comes naturally and making it prohibited. We all get gas and we all need to expel it, yet belching and flatulence are socially taboo. Our arms get tired and we feel the need to rest our elbows, but doing so at the dinner table is considered vulgar. Deny everything natural about humans and our comfort and you have etiquette.
Finally, Lila got to the root of things and made this irrefutable logical argument: The toilet tissue should unspool from the top front because that puts it closer at reach, even if only by a few inches. That argument, I could not deny. Yes, if seated on a toilet where the tissue was just at arm’s length, it would be preferable to have it unspool off the top front to keep it in reach. Lila was right — the Irish/Arabic way of setting toilet tissue was the logical way.
Nevertheless, I still sometimes set it the German way, just to tease Lila and to honor of my grandfather.