Friday, December 4, 2009

Crossing the Porcelain Rubicon

A line was crossed in my home this week, casting me adrift in an abyss from which, I fear, there is no return.

There was a time, in this civilization of ours, when a man was the master of his technology. He could sharpen his axe, hitch his wagon, fix his plow. Well into the 20th century, he could lift the hood of his car to do a tune-up and fix a carburetor. He could open the back panel of his TV or radio, pull out a tube, and go to the hardware store for a replacement (I remember shops equipped with self-service tube testers as late as the '80s). Many a mechanic or inventor was born tinkering in a garage or on a workbench spattered with silver drops of solder. Today? Everything comes hermetically sealed in black boxes, with dire warnings of electrocution--or worse, a voided warranty--if cracked open. These are sad times for a curious, mechanically minded person. You simply can't tell anymore how something works just by looking at it and fiddling around.

Which is to say, I no longer understand my toilet.

Because California is inconveniently a desert with chronic drought that people keep moving to anyway, our local water agency is running an incentive program to replace everyone's old water-guzzling toilets with modern low-flow models. Free! When we made the call, we didn't realize the offer was really a Trojan Horse meant to sneak the water cops through the door so they could also install low-flow aerators and showerheads on every outlet. So be it. They left us the old fixtures, and The Man will take away my right to a long, hot, gut-punching shower when he can pry my cold, dead body out of the stall.

The anxiety of installing a low-flow toilet comes from wondering if it'll take care of everything it's supposed to, if you know what I mean. The plumber reassured me with statistics about volumes and pressures versus how many grams of matter (if you still know what I mean) that people of different sexes, sizes, and dietary habits are apt to produce (yeah, I'm pretty sure you know what I mean). This guy really knew his poo, and I felt reassured that we were in the hands of a master, even if I didn't actually want to touch his hands.

Anyway, I was a quick convert. These toilets are amazing! With a light tap on the handle, the pressure-assist model we selected roars like a Space Shuttle at launch. WHOOOSH! Curtains flutter in distant rooms. In the backyard, autumn leaves cascade from our trees. Somewhere in Africa, a bull elephant recognizes the low lonesome call of a mate and looks longingly across the ocean. Curious to learn how such marvels were accomplished, I lifted the lid and eagerly gazed into the sacred heart of the porcelain ark.

A black box. Another featureless, seamless, impenetrable case, the mysteries of which a non-professional dare not plumb.

This sad fact renders me almost completely helpless in the face of the everyday technology that surrounds me. I can still confidently tackle minor electrical work--changing switches and installing light fixtures and such--and pound nails and patch holes and glue PVC. But I'm afraid that the humble toilet, whose elegant engineering I understood as previous generations once knew the engine block of a Ford or the coils of an old Philco radio, has evolved beyond my comprehension. The day I have to call a plumber to fix my toilet--and that day will come, my friends--will be the day a tiny piece of the manly pioneering spirit that made this country great withers in humiliation inside me.


Xtreme English said...

Oh, so TRUE!! it's horble...i can remember when i could not only tune the dual carbs on our first car, a TR3, but also zero out my mac, reinstall everything, and have it running like a top. (and btw, when was the last time you saw a kid actually playing with a TOP?) kids, even tiny ones, now play with those handheld gizmos. what does mssr. harrington have to say about this?? apparently his family patent has long expired.

Sherwood Harrington said...

I'd ask ol' John about it, but he's still smarting over the whole Thomas Crapper thing.

Speaking of great sounds, I loved the way TR3s sounded, m.e. -- almost as much as the sound of an Austin Healy 3000.

Low-flow shower heads -- while an abominable concept -- are actually pretty easy to foil, Brian. If they're still like the last couple that were foisted on me, all you've got to do is remove a little white constrictor washer.

Mike said...

It's not the having to call a plumber that is gonna hurt. It's the choosing between paying extra for the emergency visit or living without a functioning toilet until you come up in the plumber's regular rotation. Fortunately, you can still fill a wastebasket with water and pour it in to simulate actual flushing.

Though, in keeping with good green philosophy, you should probably use a tea cup.

ronnie said...

This post made me LOL. These low-flow toilets are the norm in Cuba and we are always astonished at the airplane-lavatory-like suction of the little buggers. We plan to remodel the master bath in the next couple of years and similar models are on the must-have list. Pity to learn we won't be able to fix - or jerry-rig - them ourselves as we've done with the traditional toilets in This Old House oh, so many times...

(The other bathroom addition we have come to consider a must-have in the remodel after traveling to the Caribbean is a bidet. Once you go bidet, baby, you never go back.)