Shit Happens

Just stop and think for a moment: how many times have you been to the bathroom today? Are you one of those people whose bowels move perfectly every morning, just like clockwork, or do you have to fret, coax and strain? In other words, are you conscious of your daily toilet habits, or do you just go blithely about your affairs, leaving your lower body to get on with its private business?

Most of us, I imagine, fall into the latter category, in that we don’t think about it: at least, not consciously. Personally, while I always know whether or not my bulldog’s taken his daily dump — and when he hasn’t been yet, (like today), I’m always a bit concerned until he has — I’m much less attuned to my own toilet tendencies. In fact, unless we’re faced with an emergency evacuation, or a troubling symptom like constipation or diarrhea, or the horrifying prospect of a colostomy bag, most of us pay very little attention to our toilet habits. Some of us find the very subject distasteful, and try not to think about it. Maybe you’re turning your nose up right now, as you read these words, like someone who’s caught the distant whiff of a foul smell.

If so, have no fear. You may not be paying attention to such matters, but somebody out there is, and that man is Dave Praeger, self-appointed custodian of The Poop Report (“Your #1 source for your #2 business”). The site was set up in 1999 as a place for people to share their funny stories about toilet-related experiences, and Praeger has been posting reader anecdotes on a daily basis ever since. So, yes, there are lots of sophomoric stories about shameful (and shameless) shits, most of which manage to be candid and coy at the same time, but the voyeuristic appeal of these tales quickly wears thin. After all, there’s not much variety in people’s fecal incidents and accidents, and the average pooper’s quest for metaphors and euphemisms to describe such events soon starts to seem (ahem) a little strained.

But poke around in the hidden corners of The Poop Report, and you’ll come to see there’s a lot more to it than tales about the trots. There’s a section about shit in the news, a toilet paper survey, a Captain’s Log, and a collection of poop-related scenes in cinema. It’s the serious side to The Poop Report that’s best reflected in Praeger’s first book, just out from Feral House, Poop Culture – How American is Shaped by its Grossest National Product. In this book, the author covers every imaginable angle of this touchy subject, from the biology of excrement to the social history of the toilet. Other chapters cover techniques and tools, shit in art, humor, satire and carnival, poop psychology, and, of course, the tao of poo. And if you’re wondering why Praeger prefers the infantile word “poop” over a more adult term like “shit”, the answer is simple; he wanted to write a book that his mother wouldn’t be embarrassed to read.

Praeger, it appears, has two main poop-related peeves, the most pressing of which is the environmental cost of the way we get rid of human waste: by flushing it into a toxic brew contaminated by all the other detritus that goes down the drain, including dangerous chemicals. He recently published an op-ed piece in the New York Times praising the new flushless toilets in the Bronz Zoo, which preserve their waste outside the sewer system, allowing it to be used as pollutant-free fertilizer.

Prager’s second (and related) poop peeve is the media’s inability to discuss any issues that deal with the subject except in tones of sniggering comedy or distanced disgust. No-one wants to talk seriously about toilets, claims Praeger, though people continue to be prosecuted for getting caught short and taking indiscreet dumps in semi-public places. According to Prager, this hypocrisy illustrates the negative correlation between private wealth and public pooping. Beijing, by contrast with the West, has 7,700 public toilets, not for tourists or travelers but for people who live in the neighborhood, where very few homes have their own facilities. In Westernized countries, it seems, we’ve relegated the toilet so deeply into the private home that we’ve forgotten that people can’t always hold it in long enough to make it there. Since we all have private crappers, goes the assumption, why waste money on public ones?

In The Poop Report, and even more strikingly in Poop Culture, Praeger goes where few have dared to go before: deep down into the undeniable connections between the body’s excretory system, and the way we’ve shaped our world to avoid it. And yet, as Praeger makes clear, the evidence we hide in the bathroom — however we might try to conceal it with porcelain lids, floral scents, pink tissues and blue liquids — is the smoking gun that links every living creature, from bigwigs to bulldogs, to the scene of the very same crime.