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Toilet handiwork offers pride, shows diversity of skills

I flushed the toilet today, and boy, I wish you could have been there.

It would have brought tears to your eyes to see how perfectly the water swirled and choomed. "Look at 'er fly!" I cried, and clapped my hands while the whole family danced, dogs on their hind legs, people on theirs. You see, it was the first time I had fixed any household device without having to summon a plumber, carpenter, electrician or fireman.

I had spent a whole weekend lying on our bathroom floor, gazing upwards. When the going got tough, I reminded myself that a professional would have charged me $65 an hour, and we would have felt obligated to mop more thoroughly. Still, it's a question not of money but of manhood-one of those things women never understand, like the refusal to ask directions. There's nothing like the satisfaction of using your Inner Resources to solve a problem.

The instructions had seemed clear enough. A series of photographs on the outside of the box proved that the procedure would be incredibly easy: A hairy arm reaches into a toilet tank to pull out the old ball and thingy; it inserts the new mechanism with a gentle push; it turns the water back on; and lastly, it lifts a fragrant cup of tea while a spouse swoons with admiration.

The process works, in fact, differently. For one thing, when you turn the water on (step 3) it spurts out of the supply hose and quickly covers the floor, which the instructions do not mention. In step 3a, you bang your head on the tank while piling up old towels to sop up water. After attempting to make the leak permanent by overtightening caps and locks (step 3b), you may begin to sense some danger of ever getting to the admiring spouse stage.

Finally you explicitly violate the instructions by inserting a cone washer around the feeder tube, which they warn you in green boldfaced Helvetica type not to do; and at last the toilet fills, the gods smile, the party can begin.

It's not that I'm a klutz, you understand. True, as a little leaguer, I was the one in left field who fell down whenever they hit a ball my way; and in high school marching band I became the drum major so everyone would have to follow me, since I couldn't manage to keep in step with them.

At bottom, there's a great divide between those who make or fix things, who can drive and talk, who can pound a nail or boil water; and those whose intelligence, like mine, is more theoretical. My mind works quite well on a flat surface such as a sheet of paper, where I am unlikely to cause a major leak or to injure myself. But with the addition of the third dimension, I acquire an additional thumb to match and can be counted on to strike it.

As for toilets, though they are a fine example of the joys of the Industrial Revolution, I cannot believe they have been optimally designed.

Compare cars. When you forget some trivial detail like putting oil in your engine for a few thousand miles, before it starts firing shards of steel into the passenger cabin like a crazed ninja, a red light goes on with the ominous message, "service." Yet when your toilet jams up, you are at the utter mercy of your karma. Why couldn't manufacturers include idiot lights on toilets, too, to indicate that they're clogged, or leaking or need a good scrub?

Furthermore, couldn't instructions be written by someone who had tried them on an actual toilet instead of just comparing them to CAD/CAM diagrams that show how engineers think toilets work? The documentation could even include an appendix with answers to common questions: "What should I do if I open the package and the little rubber gizmo falls down the toilet bowl?" or "What if my dog won't stop licking my face while I'm lying on the bathroom floor?"

I'm not letting this latest success go to my head, although a great sense of well being has settled on me. I feel I've turned over a new leaf, entered a phase of my life where my relationship with three-dimensional objects is a non-lethal one. For now, I'm content to rest on my laurels, though I look forward to future challenges such as changing light bulbs and making tea.

Meanwhile, drop by anytime and we'll watch the toilet together.

Paul Baerman, Fuqua '90, is a former University employee.

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