originally published August 5, 2014

This morning I am balanced upon rickety stilts at a creative crossroads. Do I unfold a tale of Vietnam War bravery and the enduring flame of the unsnuffable human spirit? Or do I write about toilets?

Those who know me are aware of my unflinching love of a powerful narrative. I have frequently slapped upon my little corner of the world-wide-windowpane stories of survival, of heroism and of triumph against gruesome odds. But they also know how much I love cheap laughs, and after yesterday’s gnarly story of necrophilia and cannibalism I feel it more appropriate to ruminate on flying poo-bags and assorted low-bar humor-jabs than to contemplate the nightmares of grizzly torture and starvation.

So poop it is, decorum and dignity be damned. Let’s start the turd-fest rolling with one of the more misunderstood gents of bathroom history, the infamous Mr. Thomas Crapper.

One of the most joyously jocular strips of fluttering trivia I learned upon the nefariously untrustworthy schoolyard at recess was that Thomas Crapper invented the toilet, and the defecatory euphemism known as ‘crap’ is derived from his name. What a glorious gem of lexicographical synergy that would be, were it even remotely true. While flush toilets have been bubbling through different incarnations since the Neolithic age, we owe a lot more credit to 16th century author John Harrington’s first commode, and to 18th century watchmaker Alexander Cummings’ s-shaped plumbing innovation than to Crapper’s later work.

But Crapper, a London-based plumber, was essential in popularizing the flushing devices around the modern world, and he did receive a few patents for improvements on the technology. Notable among these was the floating ballcock.

The word crap predates Thomas’s birth by several centuries. A blend of Dutch and French origin, it referred to chaff, weeds and other natural detritus. As another word for human poopery, it first showed up in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1846, when Thomas was only 12 years old. Crapper’s connection with crap is merely a wonky coincidence.

One thing Thomas Crapper never put up for debate was the question of posture. While more natural and socially groovy than any other position, the seated jettison of bodily jetsam is not necessarily the ideal, health-wise. For one thing, research has shown that “dispensing” of one’s “payload” through the “bombardier doors” in the sitting position requires at least three times as much physical strain as doing so in the squatting position. You don’t want to over-strain; forcing it can overload your cardiovascular system, induce fainting, or cause your retinas to detach. I have no evidence that this has ever happened, but why take the chance? Besides, no one wants their ultimate exit off the grand stage of life to be like Elvis’s.

Fortunately, there’s a product you can buy.

The Squatty Potty is a revolutionary new device that props your legs into a squatting position, which they claim leads to quicker, cleaner evacuation out your proverbial back door. Supposedly this is a benefit to hemorrhoid suffers, people with IBS and those unfortunate folks who have been diagnosed with spastic pelvic floor syndrome. What the Squatty Potty people don’t tell you is that their dynamic invention already existed, though it was known by the cryptic name “footstool”.

The decision to sit or squat is generally a cultural one though. The western world likes its seats; they’re sophisticated and traditional and they don’t involve the use of superfluous bathroom furniture. That said, germophobes should note that squatting involves less contact with the physical seat, or even no contact at all in the hole-in-the-floor facilities which are the norm in the Far East. There’s something to be said for that.

Minimized physical contact with the icky crawly citizens of unidentified crotch-zones is also embedded into the on-going search for the ultimate women’s urinal.

The Pollee female urinal system comes to us courtesy of the Denmark Roskilde Music Festival. Apparently women were blasting golden jets of reimagined beer all over the 2010 festival grounds. Organizers were looking for some method to provide a mostly touch-free, semi-private experience in which women could quickly dispose of the beverages they’d consumed a few hours earlier.

They came up with the Pollee: a four-station urinal that allows women to assume a semi-squat overtop of it with minimal effort (and just in case, balance-saving handles are provided). While I imagine there might be some confusion regarding clothing – it looks like all lower-half wardrobe choices would need to be bunched down below the Pollee – I applaud the attempt at equalizing the peeing field, in which guys have always had the anatomical advantage of ease.

While we’re hop-skipping through the weird history of loo-lore, I felt the Pittsburgh Toilet deserves a mention. These were fixtures of pre-WWII Steel City – basement thrones with no surrounding privacy walls, usually plopped next to a shower facility and big ol’ sink. These were restrooms with a strategy.

The idea behind the Pittsburgh toilet was to allow miners to return home, enter through the basement and clean themselves thoroughly before wandering upstairs to greet the family, free of soot and grime and internal waste. As this entire facility was intended for solitary use by one gunked-up breadwinner at a time, there was no need to construct a private enclosure for the toilet. If the house was sold to someone who didn’t toil underground for a living, hopefully a few architectural adjustments were made when they built their basement into a rec room.

Lastly, I’d like to reiterate how wonderful travel can be, provided one sticks to civilization. To wit, I present the flying toilet. This is a cutesy name for a practice that is very common in the slummier regions around Nairobi, Kenya, as well as around Haiti and other impoverished, non-toileted areas. In these areas, where even proper outhouse structures aren’t kicking around, people poop into plastic bags, which they then toss into ditches, or as far away from themselves as possible.

I can’t even list everything that’s wrong with this system. The bags end up in piles, attracting flies. Sometimes they burst open and splatter into water pipes, giving a gruesome new meaning to the concept of recycling. People can get thwacked with these bags. One conglomeration of flying toilet bags on a railroad track in Kibera caused a train to derail, killing two people. And the possibility for disease? Again – this is why I stay close to four-star hotels in nations that are not known for flying poop-bombs.

And so ends my sincere endeavor to enlighten the mood on this site. Flying poop-bombs. Some days I worry I’m learning too much about this world.

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