Thursday, October 20, 2016

World Toilet Day: What is it? And how to celebrate!

November 19th!

Every year World Toilet Day sneaks up on us. While we're already hanging out Christmas decorations in September many people forget there are some very important observances that come first, and this is one of them.

It's understandable... World Toilet Day is a fairly young holiday, started in 2001 at the first meeting of the World Toilet Association and only recognized by the UN in 2013. So most people don't know about it until it's happening or has passed, and then they only get the hallmark version of it: The humour without the substance.

Here are the ways a few people describe World Toilet Day:
The aim of World Toilet Day is to raise awareness about the people in the world who don’t have access to a toilet, despite the fact that it is a human right to have clean water and sanitation.“ (United Nations
World Toilet Day is THE day for action. It is the day to raise awareness about all the people who do not have access to a toilet, and the urgent need to end the sanitation crisis. And it is the day to stand up (or sit down or squat if you prefer) to do something about it. (World Toilet Organization) 
A campaign to motivate and mobilize millions around the world on issues of sanitation. (Wikipedia)
You don't have to dig far to learn that sanitation, and by extension toilets, is one of the major humanitarian crisis of our time, even if it doesn't always make the front pages. For the 2.4 billion people who lack access to good sanitation there is an increase of risk of malnutrition and disease. This problem exists not only in developing countries but refugee camps and many large cities (San Francisco for example is infamous for its 'poop problem' due to the high homeless population and the lack of access to basic facilities.') 

But I promised you I'd talk about celebrating and all of this is rather grim. Many consider the humour aspect of toilets to be an important part of the day because it gets people's attention in a way that facts and statistics don't. So here are some ideas for ways to make the most of the day at whatever level you wish to plunge to:

  1. Wish people a Happy World Toilet Day! When they ask why be prepared to tell them a little about the day and its history. It's a baby step, but you never know where simply getting a person thinking about a topic will lead!
  2. Throw a World Day Party! Whether you use it as an opportunity to raise money for a cause or just to reflect on the topic and talk to people about it it's a fun way to acknowledge the day. Topical (but not overly gross) foods include these super adorable Poo Emoji Meringues and lemonade... or rainbow ice cream in honor of the Squatty Potty unicorn. Create a toilet themed Quiz or play.
  3. Volunteer!  What sanitation initiatives are going on locally for you? In San Francisco I am a huge fan of Lava Mae which provides mobile shower units to the homeless population. Find out if your city has similar local programs!)
  4. Donate to a cause! There are many options both local in international, so find out what speaks to your interests. It might be one of the big global charities like WaterAid or something local to you. Get a group of friends together to Twin a Toilet!
  5. Do something fun and toilet related! I'm personally biased towards the London Loo Tour, but wherever you are there is likely to be something happening: visit the Paris Sewers or the Manchester Museum of Science (which has a great sewer exhibition).
  6. Share your celebrations! For the tweeters among you, previous years hashtags have included #wecantwait #worldtoiletday and #giveashit ... keep an eye out for others relating to your activities of choice!

Monday, September 12, 2016

A Sewer Love Story

Last year I looked forward with great anticipation to the Brighton Sewer tour, which had been on my bucket-list almost since I started out on my journey of toilet obsession. But alas, a month before the tour was to take place I got an e-mail saying all tours for the year had been canceled due to flooding. Determined to have a sewage adventure of some sort I searched and found the Paris Sewer Museum. I put out an open call to my facebook friends, and found a partner in crime, undeterred by the thought of a weekend of sewage, toilet hunting and eating snails. Despite my having a horrible hacking cough the whole time (arguably the authentic bohemian experience?) that trip turned out to be one of the best things that has ever happened to me.  I am now engaged to my patient, long suffering travel companion... and he even proposed with a sewer rat puppet.

Six months after getting engaged my fiancé and I finally managed to go down those Brighton Sewers, which are at least partially to thank for bringing us together. So with nearly three years of anticipation riding on them those sewers had a lot to live up to! They did not disappoint.

Our tour began at 9:30 and we waited on the wall outside the entrance with a group of other sewer enthusiasts. Mostly couples, a few families and a few lone travelers. We had a full group of 25, which is the maximum they take.

As we entered were issued with hard hats and rubber gloves and taken into a small room for an introduction. Four guides, all of whom have worked the sewers for many years took it in turns to give us health and safety and a bit of history.

The story parallels that of most large cities in the UK: Brighton's sewers were built in the 1860's in response to population growth and exciting diseases like cholera. Improvements have been made since then, but much of it is still the Victorian system.

Until fairly recently parts of the sewers were tidal... that is when there was not enough water from the household waste to keep things moving gates could be opened twice a day to let in the high tide and flush out the chambers. You can still see barnacles on the walls.

When they are flowing they flow fast! One tunnel we were taken to see moved at about 30 miles per hour... fast enough to knock you over if you stand in it (not recommended.) If you  are standing in sewage and feel yourself going down the first thing you should do is close your mouth. As our guide put it, "You've established you're going for a swim... you don't need to drink it as well."

Sewer men generally work between 2am and 6am as the safest time to go down is while everybody else is asleep (it used to be midnight and 4am, but night clubs have shifted that.) They clean out grit and grease that block up the sewers. Most of them remember when cleaning grit had an added bonus in the form of coins, rings, gold teeth, pocket watches and other treasures that made their way into the sewers. But these days instead of shoveling grit by hand they pump it into a truck.

We walked through the large overflow tunnel and climbed a ladder to emerge in a park a few blocks away from where we began. I wonder if people thought it was strange to see an army of people emerging from the sewers, or if by now the locals are used to it.

We hiked back to the start of the tour to wash our hands, collect our backs and receive goodies and pamphlets. Most of the gifts and indeed much had to do with keeping drains clean. As one guide explained it, the drains coming out of your home are usually only 4 inches thick... so if you let grease start piling up it doesn't take long to obstruct them. Actually most of the point of the tour seemed to be not to indulge curious lovebirds with a sanitation fixation, but to spread the gospel of clean drains. A worthy cause indeed!

I suppose the only appropriate way to end this post is to say that I hope that my marriage will be as enduring and the sewers. That we will treat our relationship with care and respect and not dump grease, wet wipes, ear cleaners or dead goldfish on it (metaphorically or literally.)  That though there may be grit to clean from time to time, we may find the gold and false teeth to make it worthwhile.

wedding vows: check!

Happy Family

One of our tour guides with Ratty

Saturday, May 21, 2016

No offense intended: slippery bathroom territory

I don't often manage to offend people, so it was interesting to re-post something I thought was reasonably innocent on Facebook and receive some fairly strong reactions to it.

Like many Americans I have been following recent Bathroom legislation in various states (North Carolina of course being the noisiest at the moment) and like most of my circle of friends I have been suitably embarrassed by my country. Toilets and gender have interested me for a long time, originally from a perspective of potty parity (which is very much a part of my life as a woman), and more recently from the trans perspective (which is something I cannot claim personal experience with, but I know affects a number of my friends.) This image caught my partly because it conflates the two issues:

Perhaps these things are inappropriately combined in some people's eyes. I would have to agree that my annoyance at having to wait in ladies' queues pales in comparison to the risk that a trans person takes using a public rest room. It's not unlike the way my frustration at having to pay for (or worse, not being able to find) public toilets seems negligible compared to the plight of the billions worldwide who have no access at all. But that doesn't mean we don't or shouldn't talk about all the issues... and much of my toilet-ing work has been built on the idea that a) sometimes looking at multiple things at once leads to stronger and more creative solutions and b) finding the humour in a potentially uncomfortable situation can make it easier to talk about.

Responses I got to the post included:
"It's really too soon to make jokes about things like this."  
"People are getting killed by the right wing-extremists. Stop it with the jokes." 

My first reaction was defensive: that I didn't see it as a joke. So I had to interrogate: If it's not a joke, what is it? A tongue in cheek statement of fact. Okay- so maybe it is a joke, but one that pokes fun at my own reality rather than being intended to demean anyone else's struggle. On closer reflection though it strikes me that offending language is probably the potential implication that people identify as something else are still 'actually' their biological gender (which, horror of horrors makes it not much better than Mike Huckabee joking "I wish that someone told me that when I was in high school that I could have 'felt like a woman' when it came time to take showers in PE.") I see it now, unintentional though it might have been.

In the end I took the post down, not because I don't still think it's interesting nor because I don't find a grain of amusing truth in it, but because if a picture is worth a thousand words this one is not very clear about what those words are and too open to misinterpretation without context. I think there is a more productive discussion to be had around the issue, and I'm grateful for a circle of acquaintances who can call it out when communication is not effective.

So here are some thoughts and questions off the back of that.

It has been written time and time again that toilets are, if not the last, then at least one of the most visible sites of gender segregation. A binary system that not only favours men over women in terms of provision, but forces a person to publicly declare "I am 'this' or 'that'"and then opens them up to the judgement of society if they do not fit neatly into the prescribed order.

I am generally for de-gendering toilets all together, though I know this in itself is a tricky issue, easier said than done. But it seems to me that in addition to the practicalities of equitable queuing and fluid gender roles (like tradition of providing baby change tables only in the ladies) it provides a more fluid view of gender identity, taking away the need to make a political statement through a simple bodily function. There will always be contexts where, for whatever reason, separate facilities are necessary, but what if these were to become the exception rather than the rule?

It occurs to me is probably safer for me as a cis-gendered woman to use the men's toilet in many places than it is for a transgender man. I have used men's toilets when the ladies was being cleaned, when the line was long, and when I just wanted to see what the inside was like as part of my research. I have occasionally been told off, but never have I felt endangered. It's not an experience I can easily imagine, nor one I would wish on anyone.

I'd be interested to hear feedback from my friends (of all orientations.) What can be done to make restrooms a safe and stress-free experience? What needs to be done (and is already happening) in terms of larger social change? And what can friends and allies do on a practical day to day level? And, if you are willing to share, what particularly good or bad experiences have you had?