2006.07.18: July 18, 2006: Headlines: Plumbing: Humor: Enter Stage Right: RPCV W. Hodding Carter writes Flushed: How the Plumber Saved Civilization

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Library: Peace Corps: Humor : Humor and the Peace Corps: 2006.07.18: July 18, 2006: Headlines: Plumbing: Humor: Enter Stage Right: RPCV W. Hodding Carter writes Flushed: How the Plumber Saved Civilization

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RPCV W. Hodding Carter writes Flushed: How the Plumber Saved Civilization

RPCV W. Hodding Carter writes Flushed: How the Plumber Saved Civilization

"I write on a computer. I've been doing so since I got out of the Peace Corps in 1987. It seemed like such a luxury and I love the way I can move things around using it. I wear out the lettering on my keys every 6 months or so. "N" and "A" seem to be my most popular. "

RPCV W. Hodding Carter writes Flushed: How the Plumber Saved Civilization

Flushed: Brothers Judd interview of W. Hodding Carter

By Orrin Judd
web posted July 17, 2006

W. Hodding CarterIn his new book, Flushed: How the Plumber Saved Civilization, W. Hodding Carter plunges into the reality and history of sewage and plumbing with all the zeal of a missionary. His message for modern man is that we need to face up to the fetid facts about our own body functions and the technological marvels by which we process them. The book is as funny as it is fascinating and we recently had the honor of an e-mail interview with the author.

Congratulations on a fine book and thank you for agreeing to answer some questions.

Before we get going, I take it you're not a former spokesman for the Carter Administration?

Given that my dad used to banish me from the dining room table for my bathroom talk, I'd say I'm definitely not him. So, yes, HC III is my dad and he's teaching public policy and leadership at UNC Chapel Hill. I'm thinking he and I should go on the lecture circuit together, Poop 'n Politics--they always go hand-in-hand.

What got you interested in plumbing and why do you believe that the plumber has saved civilization?

Whoa, wait a minute. That took me a whole book to answer.

Honestly, I became interested in writing about plumbing because I thought it would be amusing. So, let this be a lesson for me and everyone else: Never, ever, decide to write something because you think it might be "amusing." It took me three years just to research my version of the history of plumbing. And I certainly didn't begin with the the thesis that plumbers had ever saved civilization but I did start by thinking it was an essential; part of our daily lives that hardly any of us understand. Richard Trethewey, the plumber for the TV show, This Old House, calls plumbing the "dark art" of home construction and repair. It's the one aspect of their home that most people have no concept of and they don't want to because of the waste management side of things.

So, that sort of answers why I got interested in writing a book on plumbing but to find the answer as to why I got interested in plumbing itself, you'd have to ask my therapist.

The one thing all great, successful societies have in common is good plumbing--from the Harrappan of the Indus Valley 5000 years ago to the Romans to the Victorian Brits to the US in the present day. In some cases, good plumbing essentially created these societies, as in the case of the Romans, and in others, it afforded the fledgling state to blossom, as in the US. Having a constant water supply and a system that removed waste from the residents' neighborhoods, afforded people a level of health and leisure time that allowed these civilizations to prosper.

I do my own plumbing but came across a problem with my well pump just yesterday that had me thinking it might be best to call a professional. There's a good reason why they have to put in 2000 hours before they can become a journeyman plumber--mid-level in the plumbing world.

Can you describe the Washlet you bought for your house for those of us who may still be suffering on a mere toilet?

It's sort of hard to describe love at first sight, know what I mean? Put simply, the washlet is a super-modern toilet seat functioning as a bidet--or is it the other way around. See? I still can't think straight when I talk about Jasmin --the washlet's given name. Anyway, the seat is constantly warmed to a soothing 100-plus degrees. No recoil when you sit down on Jasmin. Registering your arrival, a deoderizer that acts more like a catalytic converter kicks on and so there's no stink in Jasminland. You do your business, press a button on the remote control and a wand comes out to wash you. Hard, soft, oscillating, pulsating, forward, back--whatever you desire. You can then hit the drier button but since that takes about 5 1/2 minutes to work, you might want to skip that function, and instead, hit stop and use toilet paper, like the common folk. The thing cost about $1000 but I think it's worth every penny. But, then, I'm a bit biased, being in love and all.

In the book you discuss how public body functions have been throughout history and still remain in many cultures, but that they've become quite private in ours. What benefit would there be to making them public once again?

I think you can have open toilet habits and still have sanitation. When I spoke about this on the Diane Rehm Show, many people wrote in fondly remembering their experiences in the army, sitting in an open latrine sharing jokes and gossip. They were pitying modern soldiers with their private porta-potties.

I just believe that we make using the toilet an unnecessary hang-up. It starts in childhood and never lets up. And my own empirical evidence suggests when we first start out, we don't even mind the smell of human waste. I have seen countless kids (mine and my friends) not find their waste smelly. It's only after we go "Ewww. Yech." over and over again that they too learn to think it's smelly. If you start with that knowledge then you realize it's a conditioned response and one that's led to there being way too many anal people in the world. Sure, you want to clean the waste up and not get it on your food or in your mouth but it doesn't have to be reviled.

And I'd have to say that the ways we've chosen to separate ourselves from our waste--the sewage system--has been more harmful than helpful. Wastewater has ruined more harbors than any other single contaminant. We're addressing that in many cities now but we still have a long way to go--treatment plants are far from perfect. We were probably better off when we had nightmen, as they were called (human waste was called nightsoil), carting the stuff off to local farms to use as fertilizer. And I hate to break it to everybody but that's what the best sewage treatment plants are doing today--killing harmful bacteria and creating fertilizer.

Along the same lines, you and your editor(s) faced an unusual challenge in this book, finding a way to speak frequently about fecal matter and the like. How did you decide what terms to use? In my review I was critical of your choice of s**t and poop, because the first seems needlessly profane and the latter somewhat juvenile. Were these things you considered or are those just the terms you feel most comfortable with personally?

Well, I like both those terms but I intentionally used s**t (spelled out) early on to make it clear that I wasn't going to be beating around the bush when talking about this subject. And, having four kids, we use the word poop very, very often. As a matter of fact, my son just pooped in his diaper. Wouldn't that have sounded odd if I'd said, He just scatted in his diaper" or "he just had a bowel movement in his diaper"--that's not the way we, or at least I, talk.

Does your family share your enthusiasm for plumbing, newfangled toilets and greater openness about body functions?

My wife humors me, except when it becomes an added expense--like when it takes me 3 tries to sweat a couple of fixtures and I spend as much money as it would've cost to higher a plumber. My 8-year-old daughter shares my sensibilities and will talk about poop and plumbing all day long with me. My 3-year-old son loves bathroom talk and my 10-year-old twins hate all of it.

You mention that you've taken to leaving the bathroom door open and talking to people as you see a man about a dog, or whatever... Biographers suggest that this was a tool that LBJ used to dominate his staff and colleagues. Presumably you're pursuing different purposes?

Well, as much as I'd like to dominate my family, it isn't in the picture so I'm definitely doing it for different purposes. Again, it's about not being freakish about bodily functions. We all poop. Why try to pretend otherwise. People go to great lengths to hide it--turning on showers, blowdriers, singing loudly. It's insane.

Now that you're immersed yourself in and revealed some of the mysteries of the bathroom, do folks want to talk to you about it or is plumbing something they just don't even want to think about?

People always, always want to talk about it. It appears to be cathartic which goes to my point about the need to open up about all this pooping and peeing.

On to some more general questions about writing: Brian Lamb of Booknotes (C-SPAN) always asks a question that I find interesting. How do you go about the physical task of writing?

I write on a computer. I've been doing so since I got out of the Peace Corps in 1987. It seemed like such a luxury and I love the way I can move things around using it. I wear out the lettering on my keys every 6 months or so. "N" and "A" seem to be my most popular.

I keep a journal that I, oddly enough, write by hand, and my journals are usually much, much longer than my books. While I love computers, there's something about pausing over a page in your journal, pen in hand, thinking about how best describe deciding not to take a chart with you while trying to sail from Portland to Boston.

Whether I'm writing a book or magazine article, I take along a tape recorder, spiral "reporter" notebooks, and journals. I use the tape recorder for catching quotes I do not want to get wrong, the notebook to jot down hard bits of info (like the smell of the ocean) and I use my journal to tell a story from the day and record how I'm feeling, what I'm thinking, what I want.

At one point in the book you note that many plumbers are not necessarily plumbers by conscious choice, but followed in their father's footsteps. Is journalism sort of the plumbing of the Carter family?

My family was shocked when I announced at 22 that I wanted to write but I'd known it for years and years. I'd just been too afraid to say it aloud. So, while I had other choices work-wise, there really wasn't anything else to do. It almost didn't seem like a choice. I did have second thoughts, though, when both my grandmother and my father said on more than one occasion, "Don't you want to be a teacher instead?"

My grandfather was, and my father is, an incredibly talented writer, but I felt my approach was different (entertaining versus informative). There was room for one more Carter voice. A couple of my daughters already write better than I did at their age so I'm guessing there will be a few more generations of us Carter writers to come.

In past books you've written about following the trail of Lewis and Clark and sailing a Viking ship and in this one you both travel widely and describe hands-on plumbing experiences -- how would you describe what you do?

I'd call myself an experientialist.

I feel like the only way I can learn about a people or an event or even a place--learn about a noun, I guess--is by going and doing. I need to be hit in the head with a 2 by 4 to really appreciate carpentry or sail a wooden tub through packs of ice to appreciate the hazards of the arctic. I guess I'm a little dim. I just think when people read about this average guy fumbling his way through a situation they can relate and become more engaged.

I loved going to India for this plumbing book to learn about this amazing man, Dr. Pathak of Sulabh International, building these extraordinary public washing facilites that are powered by human waste. India was so overwhelming but his organization gave me a focus and a chance to see all of India's craziness through his goal--no more Untouchables.

In some ways, though, trekking through the Maine woods with my friend, the writer Will Blythe, in a hopeless attempt to retrace Thoreau's trail was my favorite trip of all. We didn't know a thing about canoeing or the outdoors but somehow, we lived to tell the tale. To me, that's what it is all about.

Finally, are there other projects you're working on -- another book you have on tap or a trip in the works?

I write somewhat irregularly for Outside magazine (I'm some kind of correspondent for them), and an article that I have coming out in Outside's August issue discusses my current project--trying to swim as fast now at age 43 as I did in college. Sadly, most evidence suggests that it's possible to do so; if I don't, I have no excuse.

Thanks again for your time, Mr. Carter, and all the best with the book

Orrin Judd is co-proprietor of Brothers Judd, one of the most popular book and movie review web sites on the web, and Brothers Judd Blog.

When this story was posted in July 2006, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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Changing the Face of Hunger Date: June 28 2006 No: 915 Changing the Face of Hunger
In his new book, Former Congressman Tony Hall (RPCV Thailand) says humanitarian aid is the most potent weapon the United States can deploy against terrorism. An evangelical Christian, he is a big believer in faith-based organizations in the fight against hunger. Members of Congress have recently recommended that Hall be appointed special envoy to Sudan to focus on ending the genocide in Darfur.

PC will not return to East Timor in 2006 Date: June 8 2006 No: 913 PC will not return to East Timor in 2006
Volunteers serving in East Timor have safely left the country as a result of the recent civil unrest and government instability. Latest: The Peace Corps has informed us that at this time, the Peace Corps has no plans to re-enter the country in 2006. The Peace Corps recently sent a letter offering eligible volunteers the opportunity to reinstate their service in another country.

Chris Dodd considers run for the White House Date: June 3 2006 No: 903 Chris Dodd considers run for the White House
Senator Chris Dodd plans to spend the next six to eight months raising money and reaching out to Democrats around the country to gauge his viability as a candidate. Just how far Dodd can go depends largely on his ability to reach Democrats looking for an alternative to Hillary Clinton. PCOL Comment: Dodd served as a Volunteer in the Dominican Republic and has been one of the strongest supporters of the Peace Corps in Congress.

The RPCV who wrote about Ben Hogan Date: June 6 2006 No: 912 The RPCV who wrote about Ben Hogan
Probably no RPCV has done more to further the Third Goal of the Peace Corps than John Coyne with the Peace Corps Writers web site and newsletter that he and Marian Haley Beil have produced since 1989. Now John returns to writing about his first love - golf in "The Caddie who knew Ben Hogan." Read an excerpt from his novel, an interview with the author and a schedule of his book readings in Maryland and DC this week.

Vasquez testifies before Senate Committee Date: June 3 2006 No: 905 Vasquez testifies before Senate Committee
Director Vasquez testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on his nomination as the new Representative to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture replacing Tony Hall. He has been the third longest serving Peace Corps Director after Loret Ruppe Miller and Sargent Shriver. PCOL Comment: Read our thanks to Director Vasquez for his service to the Peace Corps.

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Interview with a Hit Man Date: April 25 2006 No: 880 Interview with a Hit Man
RPCV John Perkins says that for many years he was an "economic hit man" in the world of international finance whose primary job was to convince less developed countries to accept multibillion dollar loans for infrastructure projects that left the recipient countries wallowing in debt and highly vulnerable to outside political and commercial interests. In this exclusive interview for "Peace Corps Online," Colombia RPCV Joanne Roll, author of Remember with Honor, talks to Perkins about his Peace Corps service, his relation with the NSA, "colonization" in Ecuador, the consequences of his work, why he decided to speak out, and what his hopes are for change.

PC Program in Chad temporarily suspended Date: April 14 2006 No: 872 PC Program in Chad temporarily suspended
Director Vasquez announced the temporary suspension of the Peace Corps program in Chad on April 14 and that all 29 Peace Corps volunteers have left the country. With a program dating back forty years (See Page 4 of the April 1966 "Peace Corps Volunteer"), RPCVs hope that volunteers can return to Chad as soon as the situation has stabilized. Congratulations to the Peace Corps for handling the suspension quickly and professionally.

Peace Corps stonewalls on FOIA request Date: April 12 2006 No: 869 Peace Corps stonewalls on FOIA request
The Ashland Daily Tidings reports that Peace Corps has blocked their request for information on the Volkart case. "After the Tidings requested information pertaining to why Volkart was denied the position on March 2 the newspaper received a letter from the Peace Corps FOIA officer stating the requested information was protected under an exemption of the act." The Dayton Daily News had similar problems with FOIA requests for their award winning series on Volunteer Safety and Security.

PCOL readership increases 100% Date: April 3 2006 No: 853 PCOL readership increases 100%
Monthly readership on "Peace Corps Online" has increased in the past twelve months to 350,000 visitors - over eleven thousand every day - a 100% increase since this time last year. Thanks again, RPCVs and Friends of the Peace Corps, for making PCOL your source of information for the Peace Corps community. And thanks for supporting the Peace Corps Library and History of the Peace Corps. Stay tuned, the best is yet to come.

History of the Peace Corps Date: March 18 2006 No: 834 History of the Peace Corps
PCOL is proud to announce that Phase One of the "History of the Peace Corps" is now available online. This installment includes over 5,000 pages of primary source documents from the archives of the Peace Corps including every issue of "Peace Corps News," "Peace Corps Times," "Peace Corps Volunteer," "Action Update," and every annual report of the Peace Corps to Congress since 1961. "Ask Not" is an ongoing project. Read how you can help.

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Timothy Ronald Obert has pleaded guilty to sexually abusing a minor in Costa Rica while serving there as a Peace Corps volunteer. "The Peace Corps has a zero tolerance policy for misconduct that violates the law or standards of conduct established by the Peace Corps," said Peace Corps Director Gaddi H. Vasquez. Could inadequate screening have been partly to blame? Mr. Obert's resume, which he had submitted to the Peace Corps in support of his application to become a Peace Corps Volunteer, showed that he had repeatedly sought and obtained positions working with underprivileged children. Read what RPCVs have to say about this case.

Military Option sparks concerns Date: January 3 2006 No: 773 Military Option sparks concerns
The U.S. military, struggling to fill its voluntary ranks, is allowing recruits to meet part of their reserve military obligations after active duty by serving in the Peace Corps. Read why there is opposition to the program among RPCVs. Director Vasquez says the agency has a long history of accepting qualified applicants who are in inactive military status. John Coyne says "Not only no, but hell no!" and RPCV Chris Matthews leads the debate on "Hardball." Avi Spiegel says Peace Corps is not the place for soldiers while Coleman McCarthy says to Welcome Soldiers to the Peace Corps. Read our poll results. Latest: Congress passed a bill on December 22 including language to remove Peace Corps from the National Call to Service (NCS) military recruitment program

Why blurring the lines puts PCVs in danger Date: October 22 2005 No: 738 Why blurring the lines puts PCVs in danger
When the National Call to Service legislation was amended to include Peace Corps in December of 2002, this country had not yet invaded Iraq and was not in prolonged military engagement in the Middle East, as it is now. Read the story of how one volunteer spent three years in captivity from 1976 to 1980 as the hostage of a insurrection group in Colombia in Joanne Marie Roll's op-ed on why this legislation may put soldier/PCVs in the same kind of danger. Latest: Read the ongoing dialog on the subject.

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Story Source: Enter Stage Right

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