Thursday, January 19

James Lileks in the Amazing Battery-Powered Foaming Bowl-a-Rama

Y'know, I will gladly leave the analysis of James Lileks' Third-Chair-Trombone-With-Asperations-To-First-Chair-By-Senior-Year political and cultural observations in the capable hands of Pepper and TBogg, but this was too good to pass up:
I picked up a cartridge for the Clorox Foamy Wand, or whatever it’s called – it’s a toilet brush that spews bowl cleaner at the touch of a button. I bought the item under the impression that the brush revolved. It did not. My disappointment was keen. Sharper than a daughter’s tooth, it was. But a few months ago I made my peace with the device and restocked the foamy tubes. Today I saw the unit on “CLEARANCE,” which is distinct from “SALE.” If it’s on CLEARANCE it’s on the way out. Do I stock up on foamy tubes and hold out, or just buy one and deal with the product’s end when the day comes?

TBogg's commenters had had plenty of fun psychoanalyzing Lileks need for a battery-operated foamy wand, so we don't have to go there. At least not directly. Instead I recalled the first time I'd seen that thing advertised, and how I immediately wondered what sort of maroon would get conned into buying an electric toothbrush for his toilet.

Now I've got my answer.

I'm not claiming any prescience about that gizmo; I gave up imagining I could point to the moment when the cultural/commercial auger struck the bedrock of stupidity many moons ago. Had it become the One Item on Everyone's Christmas List I wouldn't have been surprised. But what exactly was going on behind that fivehead of Jimmy's that caused him to shell out money to be a beta tester for the thing?

I think Camus said somewhere that America was the only culture which tries to prove that Life is not ultimately a tragedy. To which should to be added that we're the only one that routinely tries to cover the existential stench of death that hovers over every moment with a Glade Plug-In County Potpourri air freshener.

This is not just something that suddenly dawned on me. I remember back in 10th grade the audible gasp of my classmates when a Psych 1 & 2 student giving a report noted that prior to 1950 most Americans had no idea what deodorant was. I think they had visions of people dropping down dead on the sidewalks from B.O. I'm pretty sure I was the only one in class whose immediate reaction was "Cool!" I attend to the daily requirements of American hygiene standards. I do. That has never included aftershave or cologne. I buy my wife expensive perfume because she knows a drop is better than a half-cup. I have no idea what goes on in the heads of people so drenched in smelly stuff you can't breathe within five yards of 'em. Sexual asphyxia? Gangrene?

And the toilet thing. Toilet mints on a little wire hanger, which I think must have gone the way of rotary phones, okay. You have to clean a toilet, like anything else. Blue water never disturbed me, though I never found the Tidy-Bol man quite the font of hilarity they did on the Carson show. It was with the sudden nation-wide concern over Getting Under the Rim when I began to feel the national psyche had taken an unfortunate and possibly dangerous turn for something already so fragile. A few years ago, at the urging of commercial hucksters the, well, odd psycho-sexual obsession with excretory functions and their aftermath suddenly, um, exploded in a frenzy of ergonomically correct, uh, rim fixation. Suddenly every container of toilet bowl cleanser was shaped like a novelty Chianti bottle, and any new toilet brush came with a greenstick neck fracture. Get Under There! The Rim! You never noticed the Rim before? Your Family is at risk because of You! What exactly was lurking under there that was so important? That couldn't be eradicated with conventional weapons? How were you coming into contact with it, exactly? It reminded me of a bit by the late, lamented Dennis Wolfberg, that weird and wonderful hybrid of Robert Klein and Gilbert Gottfried (whose voice and inflections so matched Gottfried's that the first time I heard him, before I realized how funny he was, I thought he was a bad impressionist). Speaking of teaching sixth grade sex ed in the Bronx, he said he was told to answer all student questions truthfully and in detail. One of them was, "Is it true you can catch VD from kissing a toilet seat?" "Kissing a toilet seat? Young man, if you go around kissing toilet seats, getting VD is the last thing you should be worried about."

Rest in Peace, Dennis.

I don't know how to put this delicately. I shit there. It's how I was taught. All this time I've assumed everybody else did too. As such I expect the thing to be a toilet. If I was that concerned about it I'd put a cut flower arrangement in the bowl and build an outhouse.

This really came to a head (sorry) in the aftermath of 9/11. Remember in the months that followed all the Norman Rockwell advertisements, four generations in lambent light sitting down to some tomato soup? Soviet-heroic pans of cops and firemen doing nice, normal things, followed by Old Glory and a wholesome message like "Velveeta. We're Proud To Be Part of the American Grilled Cheese Experience."? The culture gurus and advertising swamis who told us that this was the face of the new, post WTC, irony-free environment? (They were, if I'm not mistaken, the same people who insisted that Silverado would usher in a rebirth of the Western, or Chicago presaged the return of the Big Movie Musical.) My personal favorite was the T.G.I. Friday's clone chain O'Charley's, which added the tag line, "The American Grill with the Irish Name," like they were afraid of losing business in some 9/12 IRA backlash.

Well, sometime after the Iraqi cakewalk got left out in the rain, I noticed a new trend in bathroom advertising: Daddy had made a big stinky mess. Call for mom, bring out the air freshener or the scented toilet paper or whatever. There were at least three of them. I wasn't quite convinced there was a semiotic message at work, at least not a conscious one, and I didn't want to make too much of it. But then these were the very people who eighteen months earlier had shown pictures of Dad breathing freedom air on a small but friendly and regular Maple Street. Who could say for sure?

As I thought back on it I became convinced of one thing: over the past couple decades it's become clear that America's collective subconscious is now more trustworthy than the things it blurts out in public conversation.

Back to that toilet brush thing: if Lileks had just said he bought the damn thing, maybe with an appropriate What Was I Thinking?, I'd have just chuckled at him. Winguts like Lileks are now stuck defending the second coming of the Robber Barons and the Panglossification of American commercial culture as if they can't see it any other way, as if they're not allowed to recognize that the one thing we're really good at these days is finding attractive, up-to-date packaging for the Same Old Useless Shit. That's doubly inexplicable in Lileks, with his flair for comically anachronistic advertisements. But it's that "I thought it rotated!" that really floored me. For what reason, exactly? So you wouldn't have to apply any arm strength? Or even look Down There? Just release the Hounds of Hygiene? From a man who's made a few shekles ridiculing the poshlost tastes of days gone by, how strongly does this resonate with leftover 50s Mass Futurism? It's like the atomic can-opener of the war on toilet terror.


Anonymous said...

...release the Hounds of Hygiene

Ok, I have to learn guitar now if for no other reason than to start a garage band named The Hounds of Hygiene. Oooo, I could get a custom-built Fender Strat with a toilet brush whammy bar!

Anonymous said...

When I saw the ads I thought it rotated as well. At least I thought "what a dumb idea" instead of "keen" or whatever it was Lileks thought...

Anonymous said...

Okay, I have some sympathy for Lileks here, since I own one of the plastic sticks that holds a degradable paper brush.

I got it because we have two bathrooms, and I'm the only one who ever cleans them, and after spending a decade and a half as a motel maid, I've stuck my hands into enough damned toilets.
It also seems like it uses a reasonable amount of cleaner, rather than just dumping a whole bunch into the bowl, and the papery things are made of recycled paper.

When they discontinued it, because apparently people like the nylon sponges and the brushes better, I bought out the clearance rack of the replacement heads.
Once I run out, I'm going back to the germy cellulose sponges, because I'm not using a disposable product that isn't even biodegradable. But it will annoy me, because, as I've said, I've hit my quota of my hands in other peoples' toilets.

However, Lileks is a freaking moron who would put a damned battery into a toilet bowl brush and probably doesn't even recycle it afterwards.

As to under-the-rim, if you never cleaned there before the mid eighties, your wife did, or you have incredibly soft water.
Believe me, it's always been a problem, and no one wants me to elaborate on the whole subject of toilet cleaning.

I don't buy into this crap about your worth as a person is based on how clean your home is, and I don't buy into the paranoid mindset that an unscrubbed toilet will kill us all. But after spending eight or more hours a day cleaning motel rooms, the last thing I ever wanted to do was come home and clean my own house. I *know* how hard cleaning is on your muscles and joints and lungs, and I've always looked for ways to make it easier, within limits.
(Rags have cat fur on them in my house, even right out of the dryer, but I still can't bring myself to use the disposable wipes, for example, so I end up doing extra work.)

If that all makes me a nitwit, I'm willing to live with the fact that at least I'm a more sustainable type of nitwit than James Lileks.

Anonymous said...

"I don't know how to put this delicately. I shit there."

Ex-freaking-zactly! I never cease to be amazed at the numerous cleaners and tools that continue to be invented and re-invented for the purposes of turning our environment into one of utter anti-bacterialness. I mean, what was soap before it became "anti-bacterial" - a joke? People are too lazy to clean regularly and possibly break a sweat doing it, so they're hoping for a product that will work twice as good in half the time. And, as you said, it is a toilet. How clean do people expect it to get? Nobody in my house is drinking out of it exept maybe my cats; and, they clean their butts with that same tongue so I'm doubting my toilet water is going to make them sick. Hot water, ammonia, and a sponge will clean pretty much anything as good as it's ever going to get. Get used to it.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, Dennis Wolfsberg—patron funny saint of teachers everywhere. Wolfsberg was to wit what Lileks is to ennui. Thanks for the reminder of a great one.

I wonder if Lileks was as keen on the Ronco In-The-Egg Scrambler. You'll recall the commercial for it was a kind of archtype for infomercials generally—showing people beating eggs the "old" unautomated way which as we all know spatters yolks and albumen from floor to ceiling, causes serious injury, muscle pain, facial grimaces and tics, and produces unacceptable, runny breakfasts. The "cheffadafuture" way then solves all these problems by umm.... well I forget how but it did.

Fearguth said...

How many degrees of separation are there between some fussy twit's lament about a non-revolving toilet brush and the real meaning of shit?

Anonymous said...

Scathingly brilliant as always.

That's why I keep my comments limited to Lileks' screed. There's more than enough poop there to go around.

PS - how many bloody columns does Lileks write, anyway? I think of three off the top of my head, plus the books.

Jaye Ramsey Sutter said...

"I gave up imagining I could point to the moment when the cultural/commercial auger struck the bedrock of stupidity many moons ago."

I dunno, I kinda keep a fluid list of just such moments.

It was the beginning of the end when we started calling school libraries "Learning Resouce Centers."

Or when little towns starting calling their town halls "Civic Centres." Note the "re" spelling rather than "er." That goes for little towns spelling theater "theatre."

I had thought we peaked with the election of Richard Nixon as our nation's low point, but I see daily how that just isn't low enough, is it?

Honors programs at community colleges?

Mail carriers who won't get out of their little mail carts to put mail in your box when your trash can blocks their path.

Anonymous said...

lileks makes me proud to be a white man.

Anonymous said...

I have some sympathy here, because the last such product to come out was the Swiffer auto-mop, which really is easier to deal with then the string or sponge types.

Of course, it uses disposable wipes, so I compensate for the extra harm on the environment by only mopping twice a year.

Anonymous said...

Very amusing, love the strat with a bog brush for a whammy bar!

Elliott Broidy said...

Great story