The importance of family and potty talk

You Are What You Habituate

Content warning: Graphic fecal content and immature language

Every morning at 7:45 a.m., I poop. My anal alarm clock always rings before my iPhone’s marimba. When I squeeze out the carcass of last night’s dinner, I am reminded of my family. Pooping has always been a large part of my family’s culture. No trait is more definitive of the Chamberlin legacy than our fecal fixation. Whenever nearing heavy traffic, which happens daily in Los Angeles, I can always depend on my dad’s classic but hackneyed joke, “This traffic is jammed up like my colon.”

I think my family finds poop so funny because it is a cultural taboo. My relatives get off on deliberately breaking conversational faux pas and flirting with the indecent. Among my very hyperactive relatives, it can prove quite challenging to hook anyone’s attention with the racquetball-like chatter. This is where poop talk finds its value. In the midst of circular stories, directionless jabbering and repetitive commentary, jokes about poop slip in between phrases with the stealth of an untimely shart as a desperate attempt to be heard over the rest of the family members. It’s a familiar conversational cue that we all recognize, and amid the cacophony of delocalized chatter, it recenters our focus. If someone has an extra expendable breath, an utterance of the family motto, “Poop, fart, tit, weiner,” might be an appropriate way to reinvigorate the lull in the conversation.

As much as I love my ridiculous family, I have found great shelter in the more complex humor of my UC Berkeley classmates after years of being subjected to aunts’ and uncles’ caca-flinging of jokes at each other. Not viewing my family as the most academic of role models, I used Berkeley as an intellectual escape, a voyage into something I thought family could not offer. Each time I came home from school, I found myself blockading familial advice and opinions and overvaluing those of my peers. My family members’ potty talk had become the validation that I was smarter and wiser than they were.

But as I tweaked my opinions to fit an intellectual mold and played humor like an exotic instrument, I noticed the character of my humor becoming less true as I mimicked that of my peers. Making jokes to make people think is impressive but not always relaxing. And poop humor, I learned, if deployed correctly, can be just as strategic as it is silly.

One night last year when I first moved into Stebbins Hall, I was invited by a new friend to study in her room. I remember being so excited by this invitation because it meant she thought of me as more than just a housemate. I was so nervous studying next to these senior, and very attractive, house members that I could hardly focus on my schoolwork. My elder housemates battered around witty, clever inside jokes with a velocity that I did not have the confidence to match.

Itching for a way to settle my comedic anxiousness, I excused myself to the restroom. As I sat on the toilet, I plunged my brain for something funny to say to footstep myself into their conversation. When I returned to my quietly studying new friends, I sat down, paused for a moment and then said, “I just pooped.” A meatcakey boy across the circle from me looked up at me with a proud grin and then in the same paused breath said, “I am pooping … right now!” He then made a squished-up face and a deep groan as if birthing an overdue food baby. It was in that moment that I realized I had something unique to add to the intellectual poise of my classmates. Although my family was not there to squirt out defecate-scented banter with me, I was there to represent what the Chamberlin lineage had taught me: Don’t overthink it. I had been Mr. Miyagi-ed by my elderly relatives’ butt dances and mock fart noises.

At a private art installation and social experiment in Hollywood that I crashed, our therapeutic guide asked us, “Do you ever find yourself not knowing what to say in conversation?” I, the youngest individual there, said, “If you ever run out of things to say, you can always give a fun fact, make up a rhyme or engage in potty talk.” The esteemed adults at the event all turned at me with a look that seemed to disdain naiveté, but I still stand by my statement. Overthinking can be as mentally constipating as a low-fiber diet. Humor, advice and just plain conversation don’t need to be complicated; they can be as simple as potty talk. The beauty of bathroom humor is that it reminds us that society’s rules for words and culture are usually ostensible. We all are human, and we all poop. Maybe just not all of us do at quarter of 8 every morning.

Layla Chamberlin writes the Friday column on how routines create character and delineate personal politics.