Friday, May 26, 2006

Reflections on toilets - essay

As usual there is very little more to say about the criminal behavior of the Bush/Cheney Administration. Nothing they do should surprise anyone anymore. They are an out of control criminal gang that so far no one seems willing to curb. Indeed, as near as I can tell, most of our elected representatives seem bent on supporting their criminal activities no matter how egregious. I am tired of having to dwell on the sewers of Republican politics so I intend to raise the discussion to a higher level. Thus I offer some comments on toilets.

When I was a boy, quite some time ago now, I spent every summer on my grandparent’s farm. There was no indoor plumbing in those days. We had an outhouse. It was about 50 yards from the house. A two-holer. It was very common for outhouses to have two, and sometimes even more places to rest your bottom. People were not shy or embarrassed about this and it seemed not to inhibit your bodily functions at all. For nightime, especially for wintertime needs, we had chamber pots. Once plumbing moved indoors you never saw this anymore. We just assumed that a bathroom was a private space with one toilet where you went to perform your daily tasks. I have never seen a bathroom in a home with more than one toilet in it. Somehow this became associated in my mind with modesty. Now I realize that modesty had nothing to do with it. It was all economics. It is just too expensive to have more than one toilet. But you still see multiple toilets in places like army barracks often with no separating partitions. But even this is growing more rare and single stalls are certainly the rule in public bathrooms. This is too bad in a way. My cousins and I used to sit in the outhouse for long periods of time, secretly smoking, and having conversations we would not want heard by adults. Ah, nostalgia.

Another interesting thing about toilets is the variation you find in them. In the United States toilets are pretty standard. Indeed, the common toilet is called the American Standard. Not so in the rest of the world. I won’t go into the horrors of toilets in parts of France, or even worse arrangements I have encountered in places like Tonga or New Guinea. Here I am interested only in the variation you can find in quite ordinary, perfectly respectable toilets. Consider flushing, for example. On a recent trip to Europe the first toilet I encountered was flushed by simply pushing a button on top of the water cabinet. The next toilet, however, flushed by pulling up on a button on top of the cabinet. You only had to lift the button about half an inch. But then I encountered a similar arrangement where you had to pull the button out a full five inches to make it work. Another one had a button installed in the wall next to the cabinet and still another had a highly polished chrome circle the size of a basketball on the wall above the cabinet. In the center of this was a button, easily the size of a softball, that you pushed. You wondered if what they really wanted was your fingerprints. I have also encountered toilets that you flushed by stepping on a pedal on the floor. Fortunately, (I guess its fortunate), the older toilets with the water cabinet high above and a chain to pull, are about as dead as the dodo bird.
This creativity in flushing methods pales in comparison with the problem of toilet paper. I am convinced that whoever it is that designs toilets pays no attention whatsoever to human anatomy when it comes to placing the toilet paper. They must think we are all contortionists of one kind or another. In many, if not most bathrooms, the toilet paper is held on a convenient kind of spool that is within easy reach of a normal human. However, sometimes they place the paper down low on the wall either some distance to the right or the left. To reach it you have to contort your body into a most uncomfortable position. In one bathroom the toilet paper was on a roll immediately in front of your eyes, except that it was so far away you could not easily reach it without arising from the throne. In another you had to remember to remove the paper before you showered or it would immediately become soaking wet (more about showers at some other time). One bathroom in a rather expensive hotel had no place for toilet paper at all except simply on the back of the water cabinet. So you had to reach back over your head and hope to encounter it when needed. Still another arrangement, that I am still pondering, had the toilet paper on a kind of metal hook-like thing mounted underneath a shelf. It was not stationary but moved so that if you tried to get it with one hand it would move back against the shelf and the paper would not unroll. It was mounted in such a place that using both hands was virtually impossible. I finally found a toilet that was a dream. There was one roll of paper on the wall to the left and within reach. There was another roll on the wall on the left within ten inches of your head and still a third roll on the right within eight inches of your head. A wonderful arrangement that was, in its way, every bit as ridiculous as all of the others, but highly functional.
I’m not one concerned much with standardization. I admire creativity wherever found. But when it comes to toilets and toilet paper I do wish they’d pay a little more attention to what they are supposed to be doing. They obviously build the bathroom, install the toilets and sinks, and only then consider the question as to where they might place the paper. This is all wrong. They should build the bathrooms around the paper.

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