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Davis, California

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Column: A beautiful toilet

It’s strange the things that come to mind when someone asks you to write about yourself. I remember first doing it in high school. Turning in what, at the time, I thought was the quintessential guide to the hopes and dreams I would forever nurture into fruition.

Though I had no idea where I might actually be in five years, I was undeterred from typing the generally uninformative “college”. I had even less of an idea where I’d find myself after 10 years, though that too did nothing to lessen my determination as I typed out j-o-b. And when I got to 20 years, I thought of the greasy food served in the cafeteria and wrote, “invent cure for fatness.”

Over time, I’ve found that most of my thoughts, hopes and dreams, have given way to ideas of actual value.

So when the opinion editor for The Aggie offered me this job and asked me to introduce myself in my first column, I knew that looking back at most of the rest of my life was exactly what I didn’t want to do.

The first thing I thought of is how I generally break the ice at gatherings of people I don’t know. I’ll usually start with some benign inquiry. “What is your name?” is a question I’ve found both becoming and useful in the long run. From there, I reference some strange thing I’ve seen or heard about.

The other day, for instance, I heard on NPR that a landlord somewhere dumped over a hundred pounds of live scorpions into the tenant building he oversaw. Something about that resonated with another proprietor somewhere, prompting him to release venomous snakes into his building.

When I say things like that, it usually gets the ball rolling in terms of engaging conversation. One really gets a sense of unity when a group asks in collective horror, “what is the best defense against an invasion of toxic animals!?”

My point is, I suppose, that I collect things. Not important things or valuable things. Not things that save time or money. But things that essentially prove how useless my eye for detail is.

The poorly translated writing on the wrapping of a pair of chopsticks, for instance, which reads, “Welcome to Chinese Restaurant. Please try your Nice Chinese Food With Chopsticks the traditions and typical of Chinese glonous history and cultual.”

Nothing about that is useful, or valuable. However, I’d be distraught if the paper wrapper I’ve laminated was suddenly gone from the frame I keep it in.

I’d be similarly hysterical if the black ashtray I stole from a Motel 6 in southern California because it has a No Smoking sticker on the bottom were to go missing.

Even the little paper vomit bag I recently took off an American Airlines jet that states in large, bold-faced font, “Do not place back in seat pouch once used,” holds a special place in my heart.

They’re like children to me, these worthless little trinkets of garbage. Each one is precious in its own unique way. And each one says a little bit about me. It’s why I collect them – it makes introducing myself easier.

People listen to me explain that I overheard a woman on a cell phone say, “You’re right, it is a beautiful toilet,” and think they don’t know any more about me. When really, I’d be at a loss to explain myself any better.

I’m that person who notices the woman wearing the dress that’s ridden so far up there’s nothing left to guess about. I’m also the person who would usually let that go. But when she walks by me again a few minutes later using a copy of Newsweek to hide the apparently irreparable wedgie, I become the person who writes it down in preparation for the next time I have guests over.

I’m mentioning all these things because when I sat down to write this, all the important details of my life seemed suddenly boring. It was surprising actually just how uninteresting everything I might’ve discussed became. As if typing all of it out here, for all of you, would still leave the burning question, “alright, but who are you?”

You’d be missing the interesting little things that can define a person, receiving instead a sense of vague, unspecific ideas. The sorts of things high school students write about when they try to define themselves. Things they think, in that moment, are the deepest and most genuine hopes and dreams a person could have. But things they one day grow to realize are so, so boring.

EVAN WHITE can be reached at emwhite@ucdavis.edu.

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