THE DIARY OF A RETIRED COLLEGE PROFESSOR


Today it became evident, at about nine thirty in the morning, that something was going to have to be done. The toilet hadn't flushed for days, it seemed to work for a while, and then everything regurgitated with a chocolaty brown color and a much less pleasing odor. My wife said we just couldn't go on, and it was clear that this was the day to do something about it.

9:30: Called the septic tank people, they had a truck over within the hour, probably speeded on by the high cost of the operation which cost over a hundred dollars for fifteen minutes work. With the tank empty, it became clear that water from the sink was flowing through at over five gallons a minute, so why in the world wasn't the toilet working? It filled up lazily, almost to the brim, then stayed that way a long time before the water level started to drop. It did drop, at the rate of an inch every five minutes, yet an inspection hole under the sink showed that there was no backup in the drain pipe from the tank. A veritable mystery.

The eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica dates from l9l0, but is an invaluable source of information about most of the traditional problems which beset humanity. Under Sanitary Systems I found a remarkably lucid description of the immensely clever inner design of the flush toilet, which not only retains a pond of water which effectively prevents the gases which arise in a sewer from burbling back up into the house, but features a weir at the far end of a little pond, which responds by its volume to the the inflowing flushwater. The pond slurps up and over the dam, carrying away excrement deftly, and replacing it with a basin of clean enough water to entice a meticulous dog to for a thirst quenching lap. No mechanical aids, no electronic monitoring and metering, nothing but the lovely and simple water-technology of an older stage of physics, which still works. The Ether Theory has vanished without a trace, atoms have divided into myriad subatomic arrays, but the flush toilet still flushes. Hurrah for the toilet!

Why would my toilet not flush the way the Britannica said? The first level of enlightenment came from Arnold, a technologue with thirty years of experience in all kinds of water milieus, who thought the little holes around the rim which distribute water at a twenty degree angle to cleanse the bowl sides, might be plugged with carbonate deposits. Other than that the toilet should flush. I cleaned the holes with a #28 drill, to no avail, but began to think about the way calcium carbonate deposits itself out of hard water sources, and after lunch (ugh!) began to consider some major problem lurking in the back section of the toilet itself, possibly connected with such deposits. A hooked wire flaked off something which looked like a wash of caked cement, and I knew I had the rascal on the run.

One usually doesn't think of having to take a toilet off its mount periodically for inspection, but it was becoming increasingly clear that that was the next step. Water turned off and drained, bolts loosened and cautiously removed, toilet pried and wrenched off the wall where the seal had encausted itself into a solid mass, and the whole ugly mechanism was off on the bathroom floor. From there on its was chipping at big deposits of carbonate, which had partly dislodged from the walls of the inner pond and weir, and were huddled up together, nervously clogging the exit.

The rest was easy, cleaning up the ineffable desposits of ancient excrement mixed with calcifying stone, washing it all clean enough to eat out of, and putting it back in place, assembling the waterpipe, and trying it out. Of course it worked fine, the first and second and twentieth time, as each member of the family gave it a couple of performance tests.

The feeling of tired elation as the sun went down in the rosy-fingered evening, was indescribable. None of us ate our dinner of coldcuts that evening with our fingers, for obvious reasons, but we all felt the elation which comes from doing well something which one is not at all qualified to do. If I were a plumber, it would have been just be another day's work, or if I were true to the characteristics of my academic calling, I would have called the plumber, and paid him ruefully his two hundred dollars, with the thought that at least I didn't have to get into it myself.

There are few jobs less pleasing than scraping stuff out of a clogged toilet pipe, but as it was, I rejoiced doing the job myself. I discovered that in the twenty years since I had installed the bathroom, the deposits of carbonate can reach a maximum thickness of nearly half an inch. This is a function of the "hardness" of the water, plotted against flow, frequency of flush and time. I now knew something I had never been prepared to know before, and considered the incredibly long eons which would be required to lay down a twenty foot bed of deposit in a prehistoric, animal sheltering cave. Or the time it would take to construct millimeter by millimeter a hundred feet of limestone in an Italian quarry which we have been emptying out a marble for a few centuries now.

Doing something outside your training is the only way of finding out whether your training was any good. If I study math well enough to become a fair mathematician, but find my studies didn't teach me anything about human psychology, it would have been as sounding brass and a ringing cymbal after all. Everyone who applies himself can become proficient at what he is taught, but learning beyond what is taught is what makes a person valuable to others and worthwhile in his own view. I was talking to a Professor of Chemistry a few years back, and asked why he didn't let his majors take a term to work at some insurmountable problem, preferably one which they weren't prepared for, and possibly one which had no available solution. I thought this would be the best test of their previous training, but he remarked that the field was broad enough and there was so much learning to be done, that a venture of this sort would simply detract from their knowledge. I, on the other hand, felt that without a venture into the unknown, the student wouldn't know whether he had knowledge at all, or just stores of information.

So today's venture was a small triumph, a micrological proof of something which I have been doing for years. I figured out some simple unknowns, and drew from their solution information about problem-solving in small, along with a feeling of personal satisfaction. Thoreau said a century and a half ago that nobody should be be deprived of the inestimable pleasure of building his own house. I today experienced the inestimable pleasure of repairing my own toilet system, and next month will start the more ambitious project of building my next house, on Thoreau's advice. One thing has a way of leading to another.

When I was in college, I admired the style of Hippias the Elean whom Plato rcords as a man who made his own sandals, ran and won his race and Olympic contest, and topped it off by reciting an ode of his own making to music which he had composed. I know that is not the manner of our world, but I have always felt Hippias was on the right track. When I finish my next house, the first thing I will do is flush the toilet and be sure it works. Then I will select some pieces of my old poems, and set them to my own musical score. It may not turn out the be the most wonderful house, or the most wonderful music, but for all the time and trouble involved, it will be worthwhile to me. It will be all that I can ask --- it will be a wonderful venture.

(Update: The above was written some time ago; the new house of my own design and largely built with my own hands is now complete now, and it is a finer construction than an architectural amateur can expect to complete. In addition to its location on a high rocky outcrop where earthquake, flood and other un-natural disasters can't bother it, it has a toilet which flushes willingly and unfailingly.)

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris