Yr. Faithful Blogger has been a little overcommitted of late: feature stories, a section to edit, a thesis to write. Plus a visit to Ohio, to take my 90-year-old father out to visit his 82-year-old brother and 87-year-old sister-in-law. My colleague Michael Anft called it Geezerpalooza 2011.
So an unseemly amount of time between posts has elapsed. Which makes me all the more grateful for what landed in my inbox this morning: a guest post from Jeff Lott, editor of the esteemed Swarthmore College Bulletin. Thank you, Mr. Lott. You have the floor. Actually, the bathroom floor.
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One of the great things about magazines is that you can take them anywhere. Throw a magazine in your backpack, read one in bed, even take it to the loo with you. Its battery won’t run out and it has far fewer distractions than your smartphone. It won’t ping or beep or bring you a depressing message from your boss. You can roll it up to discipline the dog or exterminate a stinkbug. And, when its useful life has ended, it can be recycled into something even more useful—like toilet paper.
At Swarthmore, the Bulletin staff bathroom—what a realtor would call a “half bath”—is where the best college and university magazines go to hang out together in the dark. There they stand atop the TP dispenser, cradled snugly by the grab-bar, their covers touching tenderly, with sensual scents of UV and ink mingling discreetly as they await the random reader who turns on the light and takes a seat.
University magazines find it glamorous and desirable to be in Swarthmore Bulletin bathroom, which sports a Van Gogh print, a blue vinyl floor, and a month’s supply of five-gallon carboys of water for the office cooler. The hottest magazines come and go, depending on their frequency and, frankly, on their covers. How a magazine dresses is a big factor at the rope line, and the doorman clearly has an eye for striking, sexy covers.
(Our doorman actually should be called “the bouncer,” for that’s what truly happens when the mail arrives—a lot of it bounces straight into the blue bin of oblivion. “From pulp they come and to pulp they will return, their ink scrubbed off unread,” the bouncer philosophizes as denies them a chance at bathroom fame.)
Some magazines, like Notre Dame and Duke and Portland, return to the TP dispenser time and again, like addicts for attention. They can’t get enough of the random reader’s eyes and hands, of having their pages riffled over and over, sometimes for weeks. Iowa and Carleton stop by, flaunting their white space; then haughty Sarah Lawrence shows up all smart and sophisticated. “Sarah’s got a lot of nerve,” Dartmouth whispers to Brown.
Occasionally the doorman takes pity on a new book that makes a show of itself. But after one turn in the bathroom, they usually disappear back into the crowd, painfully aware that their flashy covers can’t deliver the goods inside. There are lots of snappy dressers with designer pages who haven’t a word to say beyond “Look at me—I’m slick.” And ego-boosting books that remind the doorman of Donald Trump, all hair and attitude but cold, with no heart, no story to tell.
Steady customers have their own seats at the grab-bar. Oregon Quarterly, who enters quietly, sits in the corner reading Ken Kesey, talking modestly in delicious sentences about things that matter. The doorman has learned that a smart and literate magazine is always worth having at the party.
(What is it about Oregon? The doorman thinks Oregon Quarterly must have secretly dated Portland on and off for years. They’re both so smart and well read that a hookup might seem to be in order, but it could be that religious differences have kept them apart. Yet, the doorman speculates, perhaps when the light is off and their covers are touching. Could they be the ones who put up the handmade sign under the light switch: “Hey carbon bigfoot, turn out the light!”)
The crowd on the TP dispenser sometimes departs en masse, replaced by a whole new posse of pages approaching perfection. At times, one or two seem to slip away, perhaps in a reader’s backpack for a private tete-à-tete at home. This month, just as parkas are giving way to tank tops and sandals on campus, the late winter issues are being replaced by spring ones. The chatter in the bathroom is as lively as ever, undeterred by the arrival of a new issue of serious and studious Swarthmore, which must have slipped the doorman a twenty.
Mise en Place arrives with a bevy of beautiful food photos and Middlebury makes the random reader nostalgic for Vermont. Johns Hopkins sails in once again. Johns (what’s with the “s,” man?) isn’t much of a dancer and sticks close to the bar—but he’s got really great features that attract both Sarah and Carleton. Say, isn’t Carleton a guy? Does this mean Johnny goes both ways? We’ll have to leave the light on to find out, but Portland keeps switching it off, especially when that other magazine’s around.
Author’s note: If your magazine was not mentioned here, too bad. After all, it’s the bathroom. Get over it.