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Back in 1963 the novelist John Updike wrote a short essay for The New Yorker that began with this sentence: “We live in an era of gratuitous inventions and negative improvements.”
He directed his anger at the new-fangled beer can, the one that could now be opened by an ugly tab we call the “pop top.” Updike preferred the old model, the one that required a type of can opener euphemistically nicknamed the “church key.”
Folks of my age will remember the crack/snap from making two “triangular punctures” in the top of the can, creating a release of foam that the novelist found thrilling. (Updike’s concern means nothing to me. I prefer my suds on tap or out of a bottle.)
That does not mean that I do not have my own complaints about new gizmos. I admit to an old school sensibility. There are many things that I miss as a result of quarantine. I miss getting my car washed, playing a round of golf, getting a pedicure, listening to live music, browsing through Haslam’s bookstore, watching Sunday games at the Trop, holding hands in the movie show when all the lights are low. All this I miss. What I do not miss is a devilish innovation that falls into Updike’s category of “gratuitous inventions and negative improvements.”
Consider the electronic toilet flusher.
What was wrong with the old way? What could be more lovely and efficient than that comfortable combination of porcelain and aluminum? What wonderful words: porcelain for sparkling white cleanliness, and aluminum for that light power touch. Even a child learning to potty comes to cherish that onomatopoetic sound – flluussssh — and that clockwise (in the Northern Hemisphere) vortex that makes the nasty go away.
Now instead we are given a little red light. When we stand before it, it looks like a bloodshot eye, staring at us where we should not be observed. When we sit, it turns what once was a throne into a bidet, splashing us where we should not be splashed. Over-tuned, it suffers from a form of anal retention. We shift a little to the right: flush. To the left: flush. We sneeze achoo: flush.
The first time I used it in my workplace, it flushed six times while I sat, but when I stood – finished – it did nothing. I wanted to poke its little eye out.
One day I was conducting a writing workshop in front of 1,500 public school teachers at a vast theater called Ruth Eckerd Hall in the appropriately named – for this essay – Clearwater, Florida. It stormed outside, knocking out the power. What should we do until the power returned? “Let’s give them a break now,” I offered sensibly. “Can’t do it,” said the manager. “The restrooms all have electronic flushers. You can’t flush the toilet when the power is out.”
Now there’s a how-do-you-doodoo. What we need is a return to a more noble time. Every man a king. Every woman a queen. Every toilet a throne.
So I say this to the man elected as president: First, get us a vaccine. Second, ban the electronic toilet flusher. We’ll flush the old way, then wash our hands – we promise – for 20 seconds.
Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at the Poynter Institute. He has written many books on writing and language. His latest is Murder Your Darlings. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.