Contrary to what you may have heard, our nation is completely unified on several key issues. The red traffic light, for example, means stop, while the green traffic light means go; there’s no controversy there. Door knobs turn to the right to open. Standard light switches go up for on and down for off. (Some of the newfangled ones operate differently. Nevertheless, each type is consistent unto itself.) Toasters: toast loads up top. Push down the lever. A few minutes later, voilà—toasty goodness.
But when it comes to the mechanics of showers, it’s anyone’s guess. Is it one knob or seven? Do you turn it, push it, pull it, spin it, twist it, crank it, wish it well, or mutter a secret password? And while yes, your average Home Depot plumbing arrangement will stay within certain confines, and while it’s possible to become a virtuoso with the quirks of the shower in your own home, if you travel, as I do (for my many speaking engagements at the invitation of those who enjoy being lambasted), you just never know what you’ll encounter.
What is it that makes these apparatuses so frustratingly diverse? The answer, in a word, is anarchy, or, in two words, utter anarchy. While makers of most run-of-the-mill household mechanisms adhere to at least some sort of tradition (see “toasters,” above), those who design shower knobs are a lawless bunch of freethinkers, doing whatever they like, with no loyalty whatsoever to anything that has gone before.
When staying at a hotel—or at a friend's home—you might have the mildly good fortune to find a shower with one of several possible traditional setups. In such cases, you more or less know what to do, though it will call upon your knowledge of three different systems. If there are three knobs, you’re usually safe in assuming the center one controls the water flow, directing it to either the tub faucet or the showerhead. The hot water will be controlled by the left knob, the cold by the right. (There’s a sensible reason for this comforting consistency. Early faucets were basically cold water pumps. Favoring the majority, their handles were located on the right. Later, when we got wild and added the hot water option, the logical place for it was on the left, since the right was already occupied. And so it has remained to this day.) If you find yourself in a shower with two knobs, you know that each turns on the flow of a different temperature of water. And if there’s only one? Well, as dumb as that system is, the single knob controls both water flow and temperature.
Having these three options would have provided more than enough confusion to satisfy even the most savage masochist’s cravings for agony. Would that the shower-knob-designing maniacs had stopped there. But no. They were out to boggle the minds of every poor traveler who yearns to wash. Imagine, if you will, a gleaming oblong loop extending from a single knob. Do you pull it? Push it? Oh no, that would be far too intuitive. You put your fingers in the loop and circle it around, past freezing, until you reach your desired temperature. The amount of water flow? That’s no longer up to you. A friend had just such a device in her home, and confused houseguests, mistaking it for a lever, kept yanking the damned thing off.
Or how about a single knob with a side-to-side sliding lever beneath it? I encountered this weird apparatus only recently during a three-day hotel stay during which I tried every possible combination of actions as I stood, fuming with frustration, waiting to just take a shower in water that wouldn’t harm me. Was the lever the temperature? Which direction was hot and which was cold? On the last day, I figured it out. The joke was on me. The lever did nothing. Maybe it had a former function. Maybe it was put there to allay shower-time boredom. Or maybe it was some sort of fiendish prank. That happens, you know. Consider these brain teasers:
What kind of a sick test is this?
Oh, those dirty bastards. Now what?
I’m not looking to check in for a flight. I just want some non-scalding water to fall on me.
When a hotel has to provide operating instructions, something is very wrong:
Pull down the spout ring? You mean the one
that's hidden under the tap? Sadists.
Here’s the worst of it. Most of us shower in the morning, some of us—poor souls—before drinking coffee. In that semiconscious state, the very last thing I want is a fascinating mental challenge. Even at my caffeinated best, I just want a damned shower. It’s a common daily event. It shouldn’t require the expert skills of a combination bartender/deejay/safecracker.
So I beseech you, designers of showers, take up sculpting modern art, or concocting impenetrable security systems, or, like the makers of toasters, just agree on a damned standard. A nation stands waiting in our towels.