A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

It's not a Water Closet

                “At our school,” announced Lizzy, soon after starting preschool at the age of three, “we have flush potties.”
As opposed, she meant, to normal bathroom accommodations, such as the plywood privy that we have at home.
My amusement was mixed with foreboding.  Is this yet another way in which Jay and I are warping our kids? 
I questioned a lot of things as a small child, but indoor plumbing was not one of them.  In suburban New York, there was only one sanctioned type of receptacle for bodily functions, and it was made of porcelain and full of water.  Flush a handle, and whoosh, there it went, into the mysterious world of hidden pipes.  Walls were full of pipes.  The ground was full of pipes.  On the rare occasions when a wall was stripped open or a cesspool unearthed, the resulting view was a fascinating, illicit anomaly.  For the most part, all that water, paper, and poop just… disappeared.
I imagine my daughter, full-grown --but still a trace acned or gangly-- horrifying her brand-new college roommates with her lack of bathroom etiquette.  “You grew up using an outhouse?” they squeal, backing away slightly. 
What if we really aren’t being fair to our twins?  As Lizzy and Molly get older and more demanding, I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to turn a cold shoulder to pleas that “all the other kids” have a Playstation/cell phone/Posche/etc.  But “all the other kids have toilets!” sounds a bit more sympathy-evoking – even if, at least in our neighborhood, it isn’t true. 
I tell myself that my children are certainly not deprived.  They have so many toys that I spend half the day tripping over them.  We have electricity.  We have a nice cozy wood-pellet stove.  We have a car and a truck.  We have a microwave, a popcorn popper, a bread machine, and more computers than seems reasonable in our cabin.  We have wireless internet, for heaven’s sake.  Still, my friends and family outside Alaska always get hung up on the outhouse.
It’s just not normal, in twenty-first century America, to dig a hole in the icy ground, put a plywood shack on top, and use it as a toilet.  “Don’t you get… um… cold?”  The combination of forty below zero and incomplete pants-coverage throws people off.   In fact, it’s not too chilly -- the seat is Styrofoam, we wear parkas in the winter, and it’s not as if we hang out there for hours.   But I get the feeling that this is just a superficial concern, anyhow.  The real unspoken consensus seems to be that the whole concept is just… icky. 
But why?  We don’t leap down into the pit and wallow around.  The bygone Shakespearian era of dumping chamber pots out of windows to mix with the horse turds in the gutter didn’t work out too well for all those cholera and dysentery victims, but we don’t live in a densely populated area, and we have a self-contained pit.  Its contents are not as toxic as depleted uranium, or airplane glue, or Windex.  It isn’t even particularly smelly, since the permanently frozen ground keeps everything nicely chilled.  Sure, you can look down and see a lot of old poop, but it’s unlikely to leap out and bite you. 
The major difference, as far as I can tell, is not really convenience or sanitation, but awareness.  A lot of American houses have cesspools.  I grew up in a house with one.  A cesspool is bigger than an outhouse, and involves mixing waste with a lot of clean drinking water, but it does effectively the same thing, namely stick the poop underground a couple of dozen feet from your front door.  But if everything goes into a cesspool, you can pretend it is gone, gone gone.  You can pretend it never really existed.  On the other hand, if it’s in an outhouse, it’s still down there.  Anyone with a flashlight a too much spare time can take a good look at it. 
“Does it have an automatic flush?”  Now five years old, Lizzy is shrinking back from the toilet at the Pagoda restaurant, preemptively holding her hands over her ears.  The tiny motion sensor light on the wall is blinking at her like Hal the homicidal robot.
“It won’t flush until you’re done,” Molly declares bravely, but she has her hands over her ears, too, and she does not appear to be volunteering to go first. 
Motion sensors are remarkably poor at detecting the presence or absence of 40-pound bathroom users, meaning that such toilets often flush with unexpected vehemence while a startled child is precariously balanced above the vortex, legs dangling, mid-pee.  I don’t enjoy having to cram myself into a bathroom stall with my kids in order to hold one hand over the watchful red light, but sometimes it’s a necessary parental duty, like assisting with flossing.  Are other people’s offspring scared of restaurant bathrooms?  Again I worry that my kids aren’t normal.
And yet, another part of me protests: why do we need robotic toilets, anyhow?  Sure, the flush handle might not be terribly sanitary, but our next action is going to be hand washing anyhow.  It seems to me that it’s less about cleanliness than denial. We Americans like to pretend we don’t poop.  We like to pretend we don’t even think about pooping.  Auto-flushers help fulfill this cultural ideal.  Not only does everything disappear in a loud whoosh, but it does so without us even having to participate!
The kids are already being taught at preschool (the one with the flush toilets) that “potty talk” is not acceptable.  Ok, I’ll admit that this is necessary.   I don’t want my kids to go around calling people “doo-doo head.”  But it never occurred to them to do so until the subject was made taboo.  Molly and Lizzy haven’t yet become squeamish and phobic about excrement.  They still like to admire and comment upon their own output, especially if they’ve eaten a large amount of spinach, or carrots, or – best of all – beets.  The results can be shockingly --- dare I say gorgeously – purple. 
I suppose they’ll soon learn that this sort of thing doesn’t make for acceptable chit-chat at a potluck.  I guess I’ll have to help teach them this taboo, as a normal cultural progression, and as a way of lessening the impact of their integration in to the “real” world.
Molly is already more savvy to social cues than her sister is.  By age eighteen, she’ll probably have the good sense to adopt a new standard to fit a new situation.  Perhaps she’ll manage to make growing up in a cabin in Fairbanks Alaska seem fascinating rather than repugnant.  Maybe she’ll roll her eyes – she’s already got the preschool version of this perfected – and tell everyone that she couldn’t wait to get away from home. 
Maybe it will be the truth.  For now, though, the kids still think that the presence of a flush potty merits a news announcement.  And I don’t mind.


  1. I was terrified of public bathrooms and I grew up with indoor plumbing. The flushes always seemed ten times louder than the one at home and a little menacing. I still don't like them. My girl, on the other hand, is fascinated with public bathrooms and takes the opportunity to flush multiple times. I have spent so much time in the bathrooms at Fred Meyer that I am surprised they haven't assigned us our own stall.

  2. Re: auto flush -- the flaw in your reasoning is that you assume that 1. people are actually using the flush handle, and 2. they then wash their hands afterwards. The solution for parents is post-it notes over the light. At 3 years old Maggie was so scared of public restrooms, auto-flush or not, that she got through a 12 hour cross-country flight without peeing until we got to grandma's house. I once saw a teenager in clinic for constipation -- she was in a sleepaway summer program and waited until the weekends to poop rather than poop in her dorm bathroom. Unless Molly and Lizzy decide they *only* want to go in the outhouse, you're probably fine.

  3. Kate -- brilliant solution... I will have to add Post-Its to my bag of junk. I was in a bathroom with auto-flushers today with not two but FIVE small girls. The other parents on the play date were all daddies.