American butts are exceptional. They must be. It should be no surprise that during a national health emergency, we look so far inside ourselves, remain so deeply individualistic, that we discover our heads up our own derrieres. I certainly did.
At a time when spirits are stressed and panic is a button-push away, why is toilet paper the ticket item? Why not canned corn? Or sleeves of sardines? Continuous assurances from my mayor and local, trusted news outlets, reminded us that supply lines of food and household items were not in jeopardy. Pinto beans by the 20 pound bag remained stacked in produce sections; frozen and colorful Hawaiian pizzas stood dolefully aligned like remorseful clowns. I have compassion for household preparedness, especially when children, the elderly, or other vulnerable populations are in care, no matter the circumstances. (Especially in the land of capricious fault lines.) But the hoarding of toilet paper, and the brawls between shopping patrons and even family members over the lone package of Charmin Ultra, is insensate. It demonstrates a lack of community sense, or spirit.
To share resources equitably, consider the zipper approach to freeway merging. When an obstacle occupies one lane of traffic, cars are diverted into another — if every car merges into the free lane like the programmatic teeth of a zipper closing, the result is fewer delays and more consistent speed. And so with toilet paper, right? If we take just what we need, when we need it, don’t we allot for the needs of others, too, and ultimately our own? Bathroom traffic is smoother and more efficient. But this system relies on a community imaginary, not an individual one.
Many theories come to mind to explain our hygienic paper obsession: American exceptionalism, capitalism, all forms of American colonialism, past and present. The desire to protect and advance oneself and one’s family is innate, sure. When the government steps in to regulate such protections, there are rebukes to be had, feeling that rights to liberty and decision-making shall not be arrested. As Supreme Court chief justice Earl Warren noted, “Many people consider the things government does for them to be social progress but they regard the things government does for others as socialism.” In making suggestions or mandates regarding facial masks and social distancing for everyone’s well-being, there is a de facto assumption that we must care about one another. I wear a mask to protect you, not myself. In cultures where inter-generational living is common, including many communities right here in the US, there is a sense of group-self beyond what is immanently known. The preservation of the unit is prioritized and life longevity and happiness are thusly correlated. Individualism is rooted, here in the US, in capitalism and racism, and fueled by systems put in place to reward mega-conglomerates whose folks do their bidding on Capitol Hill. The more for me, the less for you, but(t) winning is most important.
Without our buying power, we just have our humanity. We strip the dross and we just get ourselves. And that’s scary. Who are we if not mountains of toilet paper rolls to prove our fitness? Our inner selves are laid bare.
Panic at Aisle 7.
In late February 2020, about a week before the US learned of its first confirmed deaths due to COVID-19, I experienced sharp abdominal pains in my iliac fossa (that crevasse between your hip bone and your bikini line) that sent me to the ER, twice in two days. Surgeons debated removing my appendix, it looking perplexingly odd on scans. The second visit resulted in my admittance overnight to monitor and treat the pain with drugs I don’t have civilian access to at home. I was discharged with a tepidly confident diagnosis of mesenteric lymphadenitis to be resolved on its own.
A month later near the first onset of California statewide “safer at home” orders, my 35th birthday surfaced. I treated myself to an outdoor extravagance: a solitary jog and, later, a sour beer from a neighborhood bar-turned-liquor pantry. That evening the pain resurfaced. The next day I fell off a Zoom call because my facial wincing went unshielded. By the weekend I was defecating blood and doubled over in fits of yelping, grasping at my own trunk, hot with energy, it feeling alien to my hand’s touch.
I did not go to the ER.
I was terrified of contracting COVID-19. Of unknowingly transmitting it, of sucking up already-dwindling hospital resources. I was and am consumed by fear. Now more than ever I take social responsibility seriously — I want desperately to avoid being part of the problem, this problem, in any matter of life or limb.
My doctor scheduled a colonoscopy.
Hoarding toilet paper isn’t so much about butts though, is it. It’s a demonstration of achievement. A simple way to siphon the haves from the have-nots is hygiene. Social anthropologist Mary Douglas is known for arguing that disease and “dirt,” — as understood by William James — that is, anything that doesn’t “belong,” gives rise to othering: the healthy separated from the ill, purity separated from distortion, what’s clean vs. what’s not. If I build caches of toilet paper I collimate my health, my wealth, my survival and I separate myself from those who are not like me.
Our obsession with keeping our bums clean can also be understood by Julia Kristeva’s abjection: something that is violently excluded, cast off, so much so that we so that collapse its meaning into something else entirely. That which is abject is fundamentally opposed to “I,” something that we desperately want to dissociate from, to discard. We want none of it. If it does not agree with the order by which we understand our society — but most importantly the order by which we understand ourselves — it feels like a loathsome uncanniness, and we spit it out. The novelty of the SARS-COVID-2 virus, both by its own etiology, but also the new social standards it now demands in order for Americans to control it and live through it, means we are experiencing abjection. It is a new world order that is unfamiliar and unpleasant. We do not want to be a part of it, nor it a part of us. Kristeva tells us that “it is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.” Toilet paper consumption as our knee-jerk response reflects our own inability to know how to rightly take care of our bodies and communities during a scarily ambiguous, border-razing historic moment.
One’s health during the COVID-19 crisis is not often solely controlled by the individual. We must rely on the responsibility of others to claim their own role in this history. How do we teach social responsibility, beyond measures of social distancing, when we don’t conceptualize our own position in the face of this abjection? In order to feel responsible to one another, first we need to actually know one another. Then we group those “anothers” and forge a community, grow it, learn it, and when the time comes, protect it. The pandemic demands that these intimacies of closeness and protection are now doled out in the form of distance and reclusion. We need the former to create the latter, an ethereal thing that that can remain untenable in the Southland.
In response to questions about the pandemic in conjunction with a sizable earthquake, Dr. Lucy Jones, seismologist, personal hero, and lead author of The Shakeout Report stated, “American society wants it to be individual. You can pretend with an earthquake that you can do it individually. The reality is you can’t…[The pandemic] just makes it more clear. What’s really true in all disasters, is what matters is how your community works together.”
And right now we need to be a community that acts together. A kind of togetherness, separately. My favorite kind of paradox.
In a time when the nation became obsessed with butt maintenance, I, too, turned toward my own to consider it more closely than ever. In the days before a colonoscopy one eats a nutrient-deficient diet: no nuts or fiber-rich foods like vegetables. Finally a medical reason to shovel in mac ‘n cheese with no thought to waistline growth.
The day before the procedure only clear liquids are allowed, plus the guzzling of a powerful laxative to clean you right the hell out: every 15 minutes, 8 oz of solution until ¾ of the gallon jug is drunk, the remainder to be consumed the next morning. I’m not good at math normally — and that includes assessing volume — but I draw a shaky line in blue Sharpie on the jug to tell me when to start and stop. As the evening progresses, my abdomen becomes so distended I’m quite sure I can see the contours of a Butterball turkey had I swallowed one whole. I read “The Happy Place” not-so-secretly jealous that David Sedaris will make even a colonoscopy sound like an inside joke filled with magic and dream drugs floating among French vineyards and effete cheese plates.
4:10AM comes early, I drink the remaining ¼ gallon of the liquid, and head to the hospital at 7:45AM.
“You’re young!” the nurse chirps, as we elbow-bump and make our way back to the procedure prep area of the gastroenterology clinic.
“Welp. It depends on who you ask. My gynecologist would say differently,” I squeak out beneath my mask. I’m nervous and dehydrated. Sass machine.
All the anesthesiologists are on the COVID unit, so I remain awake during the procedure. The doctor and attending nurses are surprised at my anxiety’s willfulness to keep me lucid even after a secondary dose of Versed is administered.
“Huh, you’re pretty awake!”
“These drugs don’t know who they’re dealing with.”
“But you’re only 31.”
“Ufff. I just turned 35.”
Drug-laced, I hand my glasses to the nurse (who I decidedly like because he called me a 31yo starlet queen with mermaid hair and golden eyes…listen I’m allowed to remember this part how I want. #drugs). I lie on my left side. I listen to Dr. Ko offer a lesson plan for the procedure: 20 minutes tops, air used to inflate colon, biopsies if needed. (It turns out she went to high school with one of my best friends here in LA. How’s that for local community.) The lubed colonoscope is inserted and I’m frightened…by how little discomfort I feel.
God I hope that’s the Fentanyl talking.
A fuzzy screen in my upper right periphery helps guide Dr. Ko in my inter-colon search and rescue. Fuzzy because my glasses are about 2 meters away on a ledge. My intractable anxiety is matched only by my deterministic curiosity; apparently my eyes are straining to watch this latest episode of the land down under. My favorite nurse asks if I want my glasses back.
“You seem like you want to watch, yeah?”
“Yes, I can tell.”
With renewed clarity I watch the camera snake through my bowel, occasionally trespassing a puddle of liquid which I can only imagine is some remainder of the world’s worst laxative. My colon walls look like the inside of one of those collapsible cat tunnels, this one is peach and quite flexible, and I wonder if I should get one for my kitty, although my apartment is so small, and he’s not really into exercise, oh I should exercise tomorrow…again, #drugs.
“Can I see my appendix?”
Dr. Ko bears with my curiosity and talks me through how healthy it looks. The over-achiever inside me—literally—feels very validated. My appendix does not look like the squiggly diacritical mark I remember from my middle school biology textbook. I was expecting something more prehistoric.
At this moment in time I have 2.75 rolls of toilet paper in my household. My small studio only consists of one human rear end, one that can take care of itself. The colonoscopy was unremarkable, thankfully.
After a deep look inside my guts and reflecting on the folks who supported me during my moment of need—nurses, doctors, friends to facilitate hospital transportation—community has started to feel like soap bubbles. Those bubbles you blow through a wand as a kid, floating through the air, carried by the wind, sometimes joining to double in size. They rise and fall and disappear. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t significant. During this emotional historical exception (I hope), we all participate in an infinite plume of bubbles that constitutes any number of communities, ebbing and flowing from one moment to the next. Let’s imagine ourselves to blow bubbles in all directions. You never know where they might land.
I am deeply and heartily encouraged by the coming-together of loved ones and strange ones, of neighbors playing porch bingo, new penpals, and DJ D-nice joining Michelle Obama, Selena Gomez, and yours truly in virtual dance. Communities exist in all shapes and sizes. Be the first bubble in yours.
Let’s cover each other’s butts. (Figuratively.)
Stephanie Malak is an LA-based editor working between the independent literary arts and academic publishing; recently she founded sound bite book review. She extends special thanks to JH Phrydas and Irene Yoon for their support during her colonoscopy.