Dim Idea
From the Oct. 18, 2010, issue of NR.


Rob Long

Arriving late one night into Tokyo, I checked into my hotel room to discover the world’s most complicated toilet.

There were hoses and nozzles where hoses and nozzles probably shouldn’t be, and along the side there was an alarming set of buttons and switches, which made the entire contraption look like a neat freak’s electric chair.

But, you know, when in Rome, right?

It’s difficult to convey, in a magazine dedicated to the higher pursuits of political philosophy and national renewal, just how fantastic the Japanese toilet was. It’s impossible, especially, within the civilized parameters set by the editors and their assistants, to describe what a revelation it was — after a few eye-popping mishaps with the electric controls and one of the smaller nozzles — to discover that there were still things to perfect about an act we’ve all come to take for granted, still improvements to be made on the entire system, and that the Japanese had done it.

On the other hand, it uses an awful lot of water, at least the way I adjusted the settings. In addition to the water in the toilet itself, there’s the additional water for all of those clever nozzles — you can set the pressure for each of them, but I learned the hard way that it’s best not to be a hero.

By the end of my trip to Japan, I had already located an American dealer. It’s an expensive unit, but I like to think I’m worth it. Also, it took me the entire week to make it through the user’s manual, and once I’ve put in that kind of time on a gadget, I like to get my money’s worth.

So, my beloved Japanese toilet now finds itself ensconced in my bathroom — look, this is going to get personal, okay? — near my shower, which sports a sunflower-sized showerhead, which rains buckets and buckets of soothing water onto the bather, the entire room lit by hot-burning incandescent bulbs with 100 watts apiece of wake-up brightness.

My bathroom, in other words — which to me represents the pinnacle of easy livin’, the perfect intersection of raw technological innovation and empathetic human understanding — is an environmentalist’s nightmare. My dazzling and profuse showerhead, which turns a morning ritual into a moment of Zen, and my complex, computer-chipped, nozzled toilet, and the bright bulbs that give it all a clarity and visual snap — all of them are in the crosshairs of the eco-police. All of them are doomed.

The light bulbs are the first to go. The last major incandescent-light-bulb factory in America, in Winchester, Va., is closing. When you remember that light bulbs are also the symbol of great ideas, sudden inspiration, entrepreneurial Aha! moments, the fact that the country of Thomas Edison no longer produces light bulbs is a sad metaphor. Maybe we no longer produce light-bulb moments, either. A compact-fluorescent bulb flickering to life above the head of a cartoon character doesn’t feel the same.