Sunday, November 23, 2008

Paper Moon

Today we consider the age-old philosophical question: how much toilet paper is enough?

On the one hand, we have the conservationists, who believe every sheet beyond the bare minimum constitutes a crime against nature. On the other, the hygienists, who consider that thin ribbon of paper to be all that stands between mankind and germ terrorists.

My husband, like my father before him, belongs to the first group. He feels that toilet tissue should be treated as a precious resource. Based on a tip he heard on TV, he squashes the toilet paper rolls before he mounts them on the dispenser, so that they don’t roll freely, but bump along, a square at a time, until you give up in disgust and take what you’re given.

And he’s by no means the most extreme. Growing up, I had a girlfriend whose father decreed that four squares were sufficient. And he knew that, given 200 sheets to a roll, if his four daughters used the toilet an average of three times per day (five on the weekends), a roll should last two to three days.

All I can say is, this is clearly the viewpoint of someone who shakes and dabs, as opposed to owning real estate that actually needs to be de-moisturized. Sara was my best friend from age 6, when we met in first grade, to 12, when she moved away, so I don’t know if he adjusted his formula in response to the demands of puberty, but if not, there was some really unpleasant drippage in that house.

My step-daughter, on the other hand, leans to the hygienist ilk.

The term “cheapskate” has sometimes been bandied about among my husband’s offspring, though he prefers to think of himself as prudent. His tightfistedness is second, however, to his reticence. This is a man who, when he goes to buy underwear, checks to see who’s working the register. If the clerk is female, he puts his purchase back on the shelf and returns another day. So, when the amount of toilet paper we were buying doubled soon after his youngest daughter came to live with us, he found himself caught between the Scylla of shyness and the Charybdis of cheap.

One day when she was in the bathroom, he motioned me over to the door.

“Listen,” he hissed.

Concerned that she might be in pain, I joined him, but it was not an organic noise, but a sort of rattling “wheeeee” sound, like a cardboard spool performing rhythmic gymnastics.

“You need to talk to her about this,” he said.

I shook my head. I’ve done enough step-parenting to know that my input should be limited to, “Thank you,” “Nice job!” and “Are you sure you have enough money for lunch?”

“She’s your daughter,” I said.

He stewed about it for a while and, as I could have predicted, chose not to address it.

He got his revenge, however, when she called a while back, complaining that her 4-year-old had fed the end of a roll of toilet paper into the bowl and then pulled the handle.

Because today’s hygienists are tomorrow’s cheapskates.

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