I want to discuss one of the most important and inevitable truths of our daily lives: I poop therefore I am. You laugh, but the simple fact of the matter is that if you do not poop, you will die. And so if this most primal and essential function, the one we all share with almost every living thing, the one that can give so much pleasure and pain, so much relief and stink, can be seen as religious, philosophical, defining on a daily basis, then the place the ceremony takes place must also take on a temple-like quality, the synagogue of shit, the church of chumba wumba, the Mecca of mess. I would like to be even more specific and talk about the actual place where the lamb is slaughtered, our porcelain friend, our comrade in the communion, a holy and intimate symbol, the toilet.
On a flat piece of plastic that defines one of our most intimate and essential functions as humans, there hinges an issue that, on the surface, seems as benign as white porcelain, but sinks to the very bottom of the trappings that define gender roles in these rapidly changing times. The toilet seat.
There is a battle being fought in our homes, a struggle. Every day men all over the world are having their noses rubbed in a mess that was created for them. It happens like this: everything is peaceful, when from the bathroom comes a shriek followed by cursing that fills every room. After a moment, there is the distinct sound of the toilet seat being rapped against the bowl, that hollow echo resounding like a gunshot. The following events vary, but inevitably include the silent treatment, curt responses or a general malcontent.
For many years, I assumed I was wrong, I took for granted that this was the way of things, that the true and unconditional position of the toilet seat was down. I never challenged this order and accepted my punishments with apologies. But, I began to wonder.
There seemed to be two main arguments as to why the seat should always remain down. If the first was ever refuted, the second one would surely hold firm. The first was the fact that if the seat was up, women would have to touch the seat to put it down, thus exposing themselves to the disgusting germs and bacteria that fester in this most unclean area. Of course, this makes perfect sense, no one wants to touch the toilet seat. But, as it turns out, if women feel they should be absolved from this small task, it means that men must always touch the seat, and before directly handling themselves as well. It also means that men must touch the seat twice, once to put it up and a second to put it back down. To me, this seems far less hygenic and not a balanced approach in the least. Besides, there is always soap and water at the end of the transaction and a more skilled user will have evolved a technique where the foot is used instead of the hand anyway. To me, this first argument doesn’t have a leg to stand on.
And if the first argument is successfully deconstructed, out come the heavy guns. With as much emotion, they will describe the horrifying, humiliating and freezing encounter that is bum to bowl. The awkward struggle to pull themselves out of that cold little pit, the sour water nipping at their hairs. The blood-curdling screams as they rip the handle off the shower door or the towel rack clean from its mounts. This seems to be what caused the whole problem to begin with.
Now, although I can sympathize with this ghastly experience, I cannot empathize with it. I cannot because in the more than thirty years I have been sitting down to shit, sometimes more than once a day, I have never, ever been even close to sitting down on the toilet without having first checked that the toilet seat was prepared for my landing. I could not even begin to understand how or why this could ever occur, except through such a strong belief in an order so well-constructed and enforced.
And so we’ve arrived to the point of this essay. We find ourselves in a time with women construction workers and CEO’s, where it is expected that all house-work be shared and that raising children is the responsibility of both parents, where equality and equity have not yet been reached, but is a constant goal towards which we are inching. In this time, it’s easy to wonder where chivalry fits any more. We are no longer medieval knights performing acts of heroism for fair damsels. Increasingly, for better or worse, men seem to be resentful of it and one might think women would find it patronizing.
Does this go to something even deeper, though, something about the waning of romance? As roles change, become equal, and in some cases, reverse, who is wooing who now? Who is riding on horseback wielding swords of security? Perhaps the answer is in removing the problem altogether.
I remember travelling through India on a train and talking with a young Indian man of the same age. I commented on how difficult I found it using the squat toilets and he asked me what the toilets were like in Canada. When I explained our shitting situation, he was confused. He didn’t understand how the toilet seat worked.
“In Canada, how do you go?” he said.
“Well,” I said. “There’s a a big bowl that sits above the floor and there’s a seat on the bowl where you sit, like on a chair.”
“Ah. You are sitting, touching the seat?”
“You are sitting on cloths?”
“No, it’s a plastic seat, like this,” I said, pointing to the plastic windowsill.
“Ah yes. And you take the seat, there is a new one each time?”
“No, there is only one seat.”
“I do not understand. How does the seat change for the next person?”
“I’m not sure I understand what you mean.”
“You are sitting, your, your skin, right? On the seat? Each person?”
“Yes, you sit on the seat and then the next person comes and sits on the seat.”
“But how does the seat change for the person? It cannot be the same seat, yes?”
“I don’t understand. There’s only one seat, everyone uses it.”
He looked at me and seemed very concerned.
“That,” he said, shaking his head and finger. “That would not happen in India.”
“Because it is, it is disgusting.”
“You are sitting with skin on the seat, the same seat, everyone?”
“Oh no. That is not good. How can you do this?”
The truth of it dropped on me, like the explosive New Delhi brown bomber I’d had that very morning. Suddenly it did seem very disgusting. Suddenly the key-hole toilet imbedded in the floor seemed perfect, more sanitary, the perfect bodily position for the stool to just slip out. It seemed ideal that I give myself a complete wash afterwards, instead of a paper wipe, the little bucket and water tap at knee-height beside me for rinsing and flushing. Combine this with thorough hand-washing, and you have the perfect, sanitary shitting experience.
To this day, if I use a public toilet or bathroom that looks unclean, I will kick up the toilet seat and stand on top of the bowl and squat over it. And if I ever build my own home, my own bathroom or do serious renovations, I will put a keyhole toilet into my floor with a plastic potty for those still left in the dark.