Departure & arrival (Day 0)

1.31.2015


There's that agonizing gap between dreaming up an adventure and actually being in it, a waiting period that arises just a few days before departure and consumes the mind for the duration. The excitement wanes and the anxiety grows and it's too late to turn back, and you're left with nothing but a scooter or a train ticket or a tiny backpack, and the crushing inevitability of the discomfort you're in for.

I could have been comfortable. I could have stayed in my cozy little house in Washington, or I could have spent the month basking in the sun and tranquility of my cozy little island in the Keys, or hell, I could have gone back to Ireland and watched the snow turn those great green hills into open expanses of pure, peaceful white.

Instead, I was sending myself to India.

The day-long plane ride from the States gave me a lot to think about: how I didn't really want the heat of Mumbai, or the crowds of Mumbai, or the endless honk-honk-honk of Mumbai. I did some reading on the plane, and I learned that more people live on the island of Bombay than on the entire continent of Australia, and that Mumbai is fifteen times more densely populated than Berlin, Europe's most densely populated city, and that these twenty-to-thirty million people aren't even evenly distributed, that two-thirds of Mumbai's citizens live on just five percent of its land.

I'm an introvert, so crowds drain me. I'm a cyclist, so cars anger me. Trapped in a tight seat and sealed in a steel winged tube and hurtling toward India at five hundred miles per hour, I was beginning to regret my decision. I regretted it Thursday night as the plane took off, and Friday morning as the Boeing chased the sun across the globe to Amsterdam, and all day long as our packed plane drew ever closer to busy Bombay. And then we landed, and the dread evaporated instantly, and the resting adventurer within me awoke. I was in India!

***

And fifty-two minutes later, I was on the back of a shiny yellow Honda motorcycle racing through the back alleys of Mumbai's outer slums. I gripped tightly onto the shoulders of the man in front of me, a savior of sorts, Bombay's balmy breeze feeling just wonderful on my bare head. As we bounced over potholes and careened around traffic and turned tightly into a narrow avenue, I really wished I had a helmet, but I suppose I hadn't expected to be needing one. Neither of us had.

Every time I travel, I maybe hope or maybe fear or perhaps just think that I've grown up, that I've become a responsible adult who makes responsible decisions and has reasonable, relaxing vacations. I imagine that I've outgrown my inner adventurer and the anecdotes I recount will be nothing more than courteous commentary on this monument or that museum. Every time I travel, I think that, and then something else happens.

Here's the thing: I had just arrived in a new city, a new country, a new part of the world, and that adventurer inside me had been hibernating since Europe. He needed to stretch his legs, and what better way to stretch one's legs than to walk? It had been nearly five months since I last enjoyed a warm night, the kind in which you can stroll with sleeves rolled up and top button undone and arms just pendulating with the stride, not jammed into gloves or pockets to protect freezing fingers. It was new city, and it was warm, and the hostel I had booked was just two miles away, and the fact that it was midnight or that I was on the outskirts of an unknown airport seemed unimportant, and so I pointed my sneakers north and off I went.

***

The autorickshaw drivers didn't walk me to walk. From the airport doors to the end of its access road they followed me, some on foot and others pulling alongside, all big smiles and hearty hellos. They asked where I was going and if I wanted a ride and I waved and shook my head and said no thank you, that I was just a little further, and they said to hop in and they would take me for free, "no charge, no charge!"

It wasn't about the charge, of course: the rickshaw ride would have cost pennies. It was about the speed. Life, Rebecca Solnit once said, is best experienced at three miles per hour, the speed of walking, and if that's true, then the lives of others should be experienced just as deliberately.

And it really is something, those lives. Mumbai is infamous for its slums, densely packed urban villages scattered all about the city. I knew of them, and I'd read of them, and even seen photos and footage of them, but it didn't take long on my walk from the airport to see them for myself, growing up like flowers from the cracks in the concrete. In just a few short miles I passed dozens of colonies, as they were called: some big and some small, some stacked and some single-story, some dwellings looking sturdy and stationed and some like the next rainstorm would do them in.

It was late, and so the doors were all closed and their residents asleep inside, the flaps of the tarps in the tent cities and all drawn tightly to keep out the mosquitoes. The dogs were still up, solemn strays roaming forlorn in the rubbish. They looked gentle. I gave them the sidewalk and trudged along the side of the road, occasionally pulling out my phone to see how much closer my blue dot had gotten to the red dot of the hostel. I passed a few people now and then, offered a smile, nodded to the group of men or gang of kids hanging out under the smoggy sky. I neared my turnoff, but couldn't seem to actually find it; I turned around and retraced my steps.

A few kids eyed me on my return with curious glances. I said hello, and to explain myself and why I was walking through their neighborhood so late, I asked if they knew where I could find the Anjali Homestay. The shrugged, the words not ringing any bells. I thanked them and moved on. A little further down the road, I repeated the name and the address to a man sitting on a stool, and he tossed it back and forth in his head for a moment, then pointed back the way I'd come. So again I turned around, and again I passed the kids, and again I made my way up the street.

About a minute later, one of the kids shouted toward me. I turned and waited for him to near. "Hostel, it's this way," he said, pointing the way I was headed. "Okay, thanks," I replied, "is it much further?"

"No."

"Okay, so maybe like a few minutes?"

"Yes," he said blankly, a slight grin reaching his lips.

Not really confident in his directions, but not in a position to question them either, I turned and continued up the road. He followed; so did his friends.

I glanced back once or twice, not trying to seem alarmed, but I was growing a little alarmed. I trust in the goodness of humanity, and I wanted to trust the kids, but it wasn't adding up: how they suddenly figured out where the homestay was, why he would catch up to me to tell me I was going the right way, why he and his six peers were trailing me through the dark.

They kept their distance, but matched their pace with mine. I couldn't turn around and come back the way I'd come without passing right by them, nor did it seem a wise idea to make a turn into an even darker, less-traveled alley. Though the streets were empty, a slow stream of rickshaws was heading toward me, and so I kept myself in the light of the headlamps and marched toward them, determined to appear casual to the boys behind.

The rickshaws neared, and I sidestepped, and they flew by with their little horns aflurry. The street ahead was now pitch black, and the kids behind seemed to be closing in. I felt a rare moment of trepidation.

And then, like a knight in shining Honda, the dull din of an old two-stroke engine. A motorcycle zipped around the pack, slowed, pulled to a stop ten feet ahead. Its rider removed his helmet and glanced back. "Excuse me!" I rushed over, seizing the opportunity he had offered. "I'm looking for the Anjali Homestay. Do you know where it is?" I thrust my phone and the poor set of directions on its screen in his direction. He looked at it, puzzled, but spied a phone number at the bottom of the confirmation email. "I can call them if you'd like."

"Ah, yes, please," I said, "that would be great."

The kids behind had edged up to us by this point; they stood awkwardly around the motorcycle as the driver punched the phone number into his device. He looked at the kids sternly and they moved on, grunting. The phone rang and someone answered and the two Indians spent a few minutes chatting back and forth in hurried Hindi. "Okay," he said when the call had ended, "it's just about a kilometer away."

"Just up here?" I pointed the way we were facing.

"Yes. Come, I will give you a ride."

I felt grateful, but didn't want to inconvenience him after all the help he'd been, so I said I didn't mind walking. Yet he insisted, and he showed me where to put my feet and how to sit and then, with a turn of the key, the Honda sprung to life.

***

As someone who drives a bike, I'm always amazed by how easily people will get on the back of one. "Oh, let me give you a ride home," I'll say to a good friend or near stranger, and, either way, they'll just climb right on like it's not an object capable of rocketing forth at lethal speeds that they don't have any control over. Sure, I have experience and a clean driving record, but they usually don't know that.

I always found it strange, maybe even careless, but now I suppose I was one of those passengers, clutching to a pair of strange shoulders and entrusting the safety of my skull to someone I had met four minutes earlier. Ricky was his name, I learned as we drove—Ricky, though his Indian name was Prabhat. He had spent his whole life in Bombay, from back when it was still called Bombay, and he liked it alright, and as we turned into a narrow alley and emerged onto a great big highway, Ricky asked me if I was Muslim.

Shit. I had worried about this, cursed this moderate ethnic ambiguity of mine. It always flared up when I traveled: Puerto Ricans thinking me Puerto Rican, Spaniards peppering me with Spanish, Italians rightly guessing and roundly criticizing me for not speaking my mother tongue. Usually it was no big deal, but on occasion—being mistaken for Croatian in Bosnia, for instance—it was something I'd rather avoid. And now I had come to India, and I had come with a shaved head and a black beard, and though I didn't look ethnically Muslim, I sure didn't look ethnically Hindu, either. Mistaking me as a convert to the former wasn't too wild a guess.

Hours earlier I'd been reading about the Bombay riots of the early nineties, when Hindus would douse their Muslim neighbors in petroleum and set them on fire. Whether one was Hindu or Muslim was a serious question with serious consequences in these parts, and though I was presently trusting Ricky with my life, I didn't really want to give him a reason to question his generosity. "Uh, neither," I said. "In the States, many people are nonreligious." I didn't use the word atheist, because everybody hates atheists, but nonreligious felt both light and correct, and he accepted it with a shrug. Onto another street we turned, and there was my hostel.

I'd only been in India an hour, and already I had found adventure—and good people, too. I couldn't wait to see what the next thirty-five days would bring.

Reflections from a tiny house move

1.28.2015

Three years ago, I built a small house. Three days ago, that small house moved.

Last Sunday, the Matchbox set sail on its debut voyage. It didn't move far—just a few miles up the street, into a cozy, quiet yard in Brookland. And it won't be there long—just a few months, until we find a new permanent site for Boneyard Studios, our little tiny house community-in-exile. But as I prepared for the move, I found myself burdened by all sorts of doubts and fears, questioning whether this small mobile house was even really mobile. The roads, they had bumps(!) and potholes(!) and little hills and big hills and tight turns and crazy drivers and low-hanging power cables; and then there was the house, stuffed with jars and frames and gear and appliances—it all just seemed like so much work, so much that could bump or bend or break.

Stress kept me from packing, and not packing left me stressed, and after a few weeks of this silly cycle and the inevitability of a Sunday morning move looming, I finally got to it Saturday evening. And to my surprise, it was so easy, perhaps just an hour of putting jars and candles in a big garbage bag on the floor. I jacked my floating table up with a few books resting on adjustable stools, and I taped up the cabinets and took a look around and, well, that was it. There was a little more work on the outside: detaching the rainwater tank, moving rocking chairs and planters inside, clipping together the rain chains and, of course, lifting the whole thing with four bottle jacks. But two hours of packing isn't bad for a move, and early the next morning, my friend Robin of Build Tiny arrived in her shiny red Ford to haul the house to a happier home.

A few cranks of the hitch handle and we were on our way, crawling cautiously through the alleyways of Stronghold. A journalist from the BBC and a crew from Offload Labs came out to document the move, so we had something of a parade marching down the block, directing Robin and moving windswept rubbish bins out of the way. And then we hit Michigan Avenue, and the crews hopped in the car and I hopped on my bicycle and we all turned east for a straight shot to Brookland.

Lifting power cables out of the way (Photo courtesy Offload Labs, offloadlabs.com)


It's funny, watching people react to a tiny house on the road. Some stop and stare and point and photograph; others look over with an uninterested glance and go back to what they were doing. Cars pull in dangerously close to take a peek, or honk endlessly in the hopes their noise will speed the house along (which it won't). Not that it was a slow tow, I should say. Robin's a pretty expert tiny house mover—she hauled Lee's just a few months earlier—and within twenty minutes, we were pulling into the Brookland alley. All told, the move could have taken a half-hour.

The Matchbox driving by the National Basilica
It didn't. Though the first three miles were easy hauling, the last twenty-five feet were a tad trickier. The fence I had hoped the house could squeeze through was a tad too tight, and so we had to take the house around the long way, removing another fence, manually trimming a number of branches in the way, and putting those bottle jacks to use in raising a bench that was more than a little difficult to move out of the Matchbox's path. It was muddy, too, and so the heavy house sunk a good foot into the mud, limiting just how much we could fine-tune the Matchbox's position in the yard.

Robin and her amazing crew, accompanied by Colm from the BBC
Robin and her crew, nonetheless, were nothing short of fantastic, and after another two or three hours prepping the site, my house was finally settled in its new temporary home. Unpacking took, perhaps, another hour, and the interior turned out remarkably undisturbed: picture frames still hanging, a deck of playing cards on the shelf still right where I'd left it, a tiny bottle of eye drops on the counter still, unbelievably, standing proud. Despite a bumpy ride and a near-thirty-degree tilt getting the home around a tight alley corner, not a bit of plaster was cracked, nor a single throw pillow disturbed. Move: complete.

***

Almost. There's still a bit of an electricity glitch to figure out, and that rainwater tank to reinstall, and then the requisite leveling and stabilizing underneath the house. The porch will need a set of stairs for the flat yard, and the deep grooves left by the tires will have to be filled in—stuff like that.

But most of the adjustments will be internal. I had a dizzying moment after unpacking when I stood up and felt positively shaken by the windows just not looking right—that is, the house looked the same as it always had, but the scene outside the windows was different: the surroundings of a different place, a different vista. Three days later, I'm just starting to get used to it.

There's the obvious compass-resetting, too, where I head home from a friend's and point my bicycle to North Capitol, forgetting that, well, I don't live there anymore. And, most happily, there are the emotional adjustments, the good fortune and warm realization that my new landlords are kind, gentle, generous people. There's a slow dissipation of the deeply pervasive fear I've harbored these past six months that I'd come home and find my house ticketed, or chained up, or towed away by Brian, my next-door-neighbor-turned-tiny-house-tyrant. There's the feeling that I've escaped something dangerous, and abusive, and harmful to mind, body, spirit, and community.

There's that, and then there's hope, and possibility: my home can move, and tiny house communities can work, and though Boneyard Studios may be physically separated at the moment, there are a whole lot of people that I feel so fortunate to create something wonderful with in 2015, and I can't wait to get that started very, very soon.

But first: I need to go to India.

Following the Matchbox on its way to Brookland (Photo courtesy Offload Labs, offloadlabs.com)

Game of thrones:A head-to-head comparison of tiny house toilets

1.24.2015


Cross-posted from boneyardstudios.org, and published here with the acknowledgement that this blog once used to be about tiny houses.

Let’s talk about toilets.

It’s a taboo subject, I know. We’re not supposed to talk about it at dinner, or on first dates, or even with close friends or lifelong partners or twin siblings. But everyone does it, as they say, and every house needs one, or just about, so let’s just set the queasiness aside for a moment and jump right into it (the topic, not the toilet)—a personal journey through, and head-to-head comparison of, types of toilets for tiny houses.

Incinerator

One thing you can do with waste is burn it. Incinerating toilets offer a neat, nearly-instant solution: do your business, push a button, and boil your bowel movements away, leaving nothing more than a sterile pile of ash in its chambers. And having used two of these Back to the Future-looking steel appliances in the early days of Boneyard Studios, I can confirm that, yeah, they get the job done. Basically, you open the lid, drop a paper liner atop a pair of closed metal jaws, and fill that liner with liquid or solid waste. When you’re done, you push a foot pedal, and those jaws open wide, and the paper package plummets to the bottom of the incinerator, which heats to 1,200 degrees for ninety minutes and incinerates whatever it can.

Cool, but shortcomings abound. For one, those jaws can sometimes get stuck, and loosening the hinges requires carefully reaching your hand into a container of, well, now-burning crap. Also, heating a small pan to 1,200 degrees for an hour and a half takes a lot of electricity—about 1.5kW per “flush,” to be exact. And that pan is small, meaning it must be heated after every use, liquid or solid, and then left alone for the better part of an hour. Incinerators work well for an individual, but during a Boneyard Studios party, it wasn’t uncommon for that pan to be filled more quickly than it could empty, leaving the floor of the bathroom covered with spilled, steaming piss. Gross.

They’re noisy, too: a grinding hum that fills small spaces quickly. And the exhaust, of course, must be vented out. I’ll admit, the smell of burning human waste isn’t as bad as you might think, but there definitely is a smell, and it’s one that’ll fill your house and then waft into the open windows of neighbors without their welcome—not the best for respecting boundaries in an urban neighborhood.

Finally, Incinolets create an intensely hot fire in your home everyday. They seem safe, and are pretty well put together in sealed-up steel, but there is an unavoidable fire risk, and in small spaces, fire is a big no-no.

So when you have to go-go, incinerators are probably not the best bet. Despite all their shortcomings, incinerators cost about $2,000 new (a shortcoming in itself), and thus aren’t really recommended for the small house dweller on a budget (or anyone, for that matter).

  • Effectiveness (how well it gets rid of waste): 5/5
  • Odorlessness (how good it smells): 3/5
  • Quietness (how quiet it is): 2/5
  • Cleanliness (how much it stays, or feels, clean): 4/5
  • Affordability (how reasonably priced it is): 1/5
  • Ease (how easy it is to use, maintain, and provide to guests): 4/5
  • Total: 19/30

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Honeybucket

After a few unpleasant months trying out the Incinolets of Brian and Lee (Lee has since upgraded to a Separett, discussed later), I punted my decision-making down the road by picking up a five-gallon bucket from the hardware store, building what many affectionately refer to as the “honeybucket.” It works like this: there’s a bucket. You open the lid and do your thing. When you’re done doing your thing, you cover everything with sawdust and close the lid.

My sister and brother, who live out on an intentional community in Missouri, use these everywhere. They call them Fillmores, ’cause President Fillmore was the last president to have a non-plumbed toilet in the White House, and I was always impressed by how odorless they were in their outhouses. The innards of honeybuckets are typically composted as well—a great benefit over using electricity to burn away rich future soil. They’re cheap to build (about $6 for a bucket, and $7 for a top-of-the-line airtight lid), obviously totally noiseless, and they don’t take up much space. The dimensions and contours of a five-gallon bucket (with aforementioned airtight lid) provide a pretty decent seat. All in all, not a bad functioning toilet for $13.

But not great, either. For one, you need to find something to do with the bucket when it’s full. That’s easy if you live on a farm, but a little more tricky if you’re tethered to a city. They require sawdust (or a substitute) to absorb moisture and neutralize odors. When building a house, sawdust is plentiful; afterwards, rummaging through Home Depot’s dustpails becomes a necessity. And undoubtedly, that sawdust will get everywhere, leaving the bathroom with an inescapably “unclean” feeling. The toilet itself never really feels clean: it is, after all, a bucket full of soggy waste, and we humans have evolved to feel a natural squeamishness around such piles. In the warmer months, a few gnats might hang around the lid, or start a whole colony in your bathroom if the lid isn’t airtight. I didn’t find it too difficult to use the honeybucket on my own, but I always felt a little self-conscious having friends over: a tutorial is needed, and they’re looking at your last bowel movement, and you’re later looking at theirs, and it’s just, well, not ideal. Ultimately, in the words of one Matchbox YouTube commenter: “I love this innovative space but can’t help but think of when he brings home a partner and tells them they have to shit in a bucket.”

  • Effectiveness (how well it gets rid of waste): 3/5
  • Odorlessness (how good it smells): 3/5
  • Quietness (how quiet it is): 5/5
  • Cleanliness (how much it stays, or feels, clean): 1/5
  • Affordability (how reasonably priced it is): 5/5
  • Ease (how easy it is to use, maintain, and provide to guests): 3/5
  • Total: 20/30

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Honeybucket 2.0

After months of using a standard honeybucket, I opted for a few upgrades. Like many do, I had a little chest built around the bucket, and screwed a seat to that chest, so it looked a bit more like a latrine than a bright orange pail. I started lining the bucket with a black garbage bag, making it much easier to empty the bucket when it was full. And most importantly, I turned a wide-mouthed funnel into a urine diverter, separating liquids and solids.


If there were a documentary of Boneyard Studios, this would undoubtedly be the scene of comic relief after a tense build setback or dramatic plot twist: me and Tony, my builder, crammed in the darkness of the Matchbox bathroom, holding a funnel centered over a bucket, and then slowly moving it closer to the front, and then back again, eyeing each other, asking “does that look right?”, trying to figure out, crudely, approximately where women pee from when seated on a toilet. Thankfully, we placed the funnel correctly, and the next day the Matchbox was sporting a totally functional and totally unisex honeybucket 2.0. By separating solids and diverting liquids into the ground, smells were improved, the toilet had to be emptied far less frequently (most waste, of course, is liquid), and sawdust wasn’t needed after every pee. Plus, it just looked better.

Nonetheless, swapping out an airtight seal for a standard lid welcomed gnats in the summer months, and the urine diverter had to be plumbed through the floor, adding time and cost to an otherwise $13 toilet. The chest took work and wood, and it almost became more difficult to instruct people on how to use the thing. It went from “just dump sawdust on top of everything” to “if you’re a guy, aim into the funnel; if you’re a girl, act natural; but either way, make sure no sawdust gets in the funnel,” and undoubtedly, sawdust got in the funnel. Sawdust got in the funnel, and clogged the pipes, and after spending three hours after a Boneyard Studios party snaking through clogs of urine-drenched sawdust, I decided the upgraded honeybucket wasn’t much of an upgrade at all.

Effectiveness (how well it gets rid of waste): 4/5
Odorlessness (how good it smells): 3/5
Quietness (how quiet it is): 5/5
Cleanliness (how much it stays, or feels, clean): 1/5
Affordability (how reasonably priced it is): 4/5
Ease (how easy it is to use, maintain, and provide to guests): 2/5
Total: 19/30

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Composter

With the honeybucket part of my life over, I considered what was next. A composting toilet seemed a worthy solution—it’s still just a plastic container, more or less, but it looks like a toilet, and diverts urine in a much more streamlined way, and with a little fan and a little turning rod, it actually begins composting waste while it’s in use.

The key word, here, is begin. Their price (around $1,000) would be justifiable if they really got the job done, but they don’t: they just start it. What that means is that they just don’t have enough room to really keep waste for a full composting cycle (about two years left alone, or at least three months if assisted), so even with the substantial room they do take up (typically the entire footprint of a tiny bathroom), they must be emptied every month or so. Sometimes there’s a shovel involved, and still that problem of disposal. And unfortunately, one-month-composted crap is just about as gross as zero-month-composted crap; at the end of the day, you’re shoveling shit.

I should note, though, that I never actually owned a composting toilet—just used a few and read more reviews than I’d ever imagined I would—so consider these (already subjective) ratings with a grain of sawdust:


  • Effectiveness (how well it gets rid of waste): 2/5
  • Odorlessness (how good it smells): 4/5
  • Quietness (how quiet it is): 4/5
  • Cleanliness (how much it stays, or feels, clean): 4/5
  • Affordability (how reasonably priced it is): 2/5
  • Ease (how easy it is to use, maintain, and provide to guests): 1/5
  • Total: 19/30
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Composting toilet, meet honeybucket

I was in the throes of despair about what to do with my waste when Lee arrived on the lot one day with a big white box. It contained a Separett 9200 (I wasn’t asked or paid to plug the Separett; I just think it’s the most magical thing in the whole world), a toilet that’s something of a hybrid between a composter and a honeybucket. On the outside, it looks like a composting toilet: uninspired white plastic, a proper urine diverter toward the front and a hole for solids toward the back. There was a fan, and it required venting outside, and a tiny bit of electricity to make the fan go. Yet on the inside, it was nothing more than a honeybucket: a wide, shallow tub lined with a composting bag. But where the Separett really shone was in the barrier between the two, a simple blue spring-loaded plastic plate that sealed off the bucket when not in use and opened when weight (like, a butt) was put on the seat. That simple little barrier ensured the contents of the bucket were hidden from sight or smell, opening just for the moments of use and snapping shut before the Separett’s user even returned to her feet. Odors and pests are nonexistent thanks to the fan, sawdust isn’t even needed, and wrapping up one’s business almost feels too easy, as though one’s forgetting to flush, or put back a lid, or heap some neutralizer over their waste.


Is it perfect? Of course not. It requires a tiny bit of electricity, and it makes a tiny noise (though not enough to be heard outside the bathroom through a 3/8″ plywood door), and it takes up more room than a honeybucket, and that fan does have to run 24/7 or the odors emerge. Its use is fairly self-explanatory, but those who stand up before discarding their toilet paper will get a bit confused with what to do with it. And meanwhile, those who pee standing up will have to aim well or the surrounding area will get a little splatter. The plastic, though well-made, does feel a bit cheap, and the toilet, so well-made, definitely isn’t. At about $1,400, the Separett is a pricey investment, but after three-plus months of use, I’m certain it’ll be the last toilet the Matchbox ever needs.

  • Effectiveness (how well it gets rid of waste): 4/5
  • Odorlessness (how good it smells): 5/5
  • Quietness (how quiet it is): 4/5
  • Cleanliness (how much it stays, or feels, clean): 4/5
  • Affordability (how reasonably priced it is): 3/5
  • Ease (how easy it is to use, maintain, and provide to guests): 4/5
  • Total: 24/30

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Rethinking the default: the flush toilet

I suppose this game of thrones wouldn’t really be complete without the reigning king of the toilet world: the iconic porcelain commode first popularized by Thomas Crapper. An unavoidable staple of industrialized nations (and now, sadly, industrializing ones as well), the standard flush toilet would undoubtedly score the highest in effectiveness, odorlessness, and ease, and do pretty well in the realms of quietness and affordability and cleanliness as well. Which leaves one to ask: why not just do what we’ve been doing, and outfit a small house with a regular flusher?

The simple answer is that flush toilets create blackwater (while urine can be safely diverted into the ground and diluted with nine parts greywater, solid waste cannot), and blackwater must be plumbed, and installing septic systems on unplumbed property is expensive, and when small houses are built on wheels, limiting where those wheels can travel to just specific places with existing pipes is totally unfortunate.


The not-so-simple answer, meanwhile, is that flush toilets are destroying our waters. Over a quarter of all water consumed in the home is used to flush waste down pipes. Older toilets typically average about 3.5 gallons of freshwater per flush; some use 5 or as many as 7 gallons. So when a guy needs to take a leak—the average leak being about 0.15 gallons—at a regular toilet, he’s flushing 23 parts freshwater and one part urine down the drain (why urine needs any help traveling down a drain is another question altogether). Low-flush toilets are better (they use about 1.6 gallons per flush), but still soil about 2,900 gallons of freshwater per person per year. And we’re just talking freshwater.

Remember, all that water has to go somewhere. We can treat it, and we sometimes do, and it’ takes massive resources to do so, and sometimes the chemicals we use to treat wastewater are harmless and sometimes we find out they’re actually pretty harmful after it’s way too late. But either way, we’re just flushing too much. When it rains in DC, and the stormdrains fill with rainwater, and a citydweller flushes the toilet, the overtaxed wastewater treatment plant simply can’t manage the volume, and it gets diverted to Rock Creek. And so, the urine and the bacteria-ridden excrement of an entire city flows into our once-pristine waterways, and the city tells us it is no longer safe to swim in the Creek, or even the greater Potomac River.

Shit flows downstream, as they say, and while we may be fine with ours piling up in our waterways, it isn’t really fair for us to make that decision for others down the river. I once had the privilege of speaking to a young man of Taos, a stunning pueblo village that had existed in what eventually came to be called New Mexico for over 1,300 years. It was the oldest continually-inhabited town in North America, and for over a millennium, its First Nations inhabitants had used the tiny creek running through it for everything: water to drink, to cook, to bathe and swim and play. And ten years ago, they stopped. Americans upstream had started dumping pollutants into it: the chemicals of waste treatment plants, the raw sewage of towns who couldn’t afford to treat their waste. Everything we flush goes somewhere, and affects something, and so in the quest for a safe, sustainable toilet, it’s probably best we don’t flush at all. Water’s a terrible thing to waste—especially when we’re wasting it for our waste.

Island, deferred (India, booked!)

1.05.2015


Almost a year ago, I made this plan to go live on this island for this long-but-not-too-long stretch of time, and it was going to be fun and maybe a little boring but most definitely educational and instructional and rewarding in an isolated, introspective, existential sort of way.

That was the plan, and that remained the plan all throughout Europe and after my return and even until early last week, when I was tying up the logistics of getting myself, a yet-unowned kayak, some thirty gallons of water, and a pack containing ungodly amounts of trail mix and an unwieldy machete to a remote shore of the Florida Keys.

I was stressed, 'cause it all seemed a lot to haul around, and there was this lingering question of how I'd manage to cram it all into a kayak and paddle at least ten miles with my gear. And then there was the greater lingering question, the one that had been rattling around in the back of my mind recently—was an island adventure really even necessary at this point?

The island, after all, was supposed to be a reprieve from distraction, a reexamination of what was important, an imperative to focus. Yet for months, I have been making small, perhaps less extreme forays in removing myself from the clutter and chaos of modern life. I turned off push notifications on my phone; I left my phone in my bag or stopped carrying it around altogether. I got rid of my television, and I became much more deliberate about how long I was using my computer, and what for, and I stopped distracting myself with what was easy and began occupying myself with what was fulfilling. When great masses of friends left DC for the holidays in mid-December, I stuck around, and I spent nearly two weeks of tranquility holed up in my humble abode, just cooking and reading and reflecting and simply living—or living simply—on my little island by the cemetery. In the words of Rilke, "I shall move into a quiet and simple room ... I shall live there the whole winter and rejoice in the great quietness, from which I am hoping for the gift of good and profitable hours."

The hours were, indeed, profitable—so profitable I've decided that the island would no longer be the adventure I'd dreamed it, at least not right now. I won't say it's aborted; let's just called it a dream deferred, and toss it back into the maybe-next-time pile with El Camino de Santiago de Compostela.

But for now: new plan. I still don't like the idea of being in DC for February, because it's cold and dreary and all the little amber strings of light have been boxed up and stowed away for reasons unknown. I still want to be somewhere warm, and I still want to have an adventure. Same time, same duration, just a difference place.

India.

I've always said if I had a month I'd go to India, and I have a month, so I'm going to India. Sorry: I'm going to India! India and Nepal, actually—four weeks in the former and a week in the latter, or something like that. Flights are already booked: DC to Mumbai on January 30; Delhi to DC on March 6. What'll happen between those dates is beautifully uncertain: I'll have a pack, and I'll have the Himalayas, and I'll the buses and the trains and the planes and the roads, and the towns and the villages and the great big cities of the Indian subcontinent. I might even have a little accompaniment.

I'm excited. I'm, like, totally excited. As with Europe, I'll be packing crazy-light, just a little messenger bag, a few changes of clothes, a camera, and a few basics. As always, I'll be writing. And as always, thanks for reading.

Happy 2015!

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