“Five Attempts to Derive Meaning from a Sucky Situation”
by Brian Anderson
Whenever I imagined myself in any future endeavor—playing a gig, autographing basketballs after a game, being the kind of person who could unselfconsciously use the word “gig”—I imagined myself in my khakis. Those pants just fit who I was in high school: somewhere in between the uptight wrangler-butt and the JNCO overloaded diaper look[ref]Readers in the future might not know about the great stuff we had when I was in high school at the turn of the century. JNCOs were x-treemely baggy jeans whose popularity was finally beginning to fade by this point. If you don’t know about them, go look them up on WebCrawler or Lycos. You can look WebCrawler and Lycos up on Google[/ref]. I only had two pairs of pants in 2003, the khakis and a pair of jeans because I knew I would just end up wearing the khakis unless they were being washed.
The concession stand, where I was purchasing a banana Laffy Taffy in my confident yet relaxed khakis, was just down the hall from the gym entrance to the student section bleachers, where I’d been sitting and watching my girlfriend, Nattiel, play volleyball. The first game of the match had ended, and while the teams were switching sides, the cheerleaders bounced onto the floor. I’d never understood why cheerleaders were at volleyball games when there were taller, less-mean girls in fewer clothes already on the court, so I went for a snack. On the walk from the concession stand back to the gym, I stopped off at the bathroom. The volleyball team was good that year, state-bound. The music from the band bounced around the cinderblock walls of the bathroom which meant the second game had yet to begin. I clenched the still wrapped Laffy Taffy between my teeth for safe keeping as I approached a urinal and relieved myself.
I backed away from the urinal to notice that the urinal cake had splashed a good portion of my urine back onto my khakis. I took the Laffy Taffy from my teeth and held it, contemplating my predicament. Perhaps if I’d been wearing my pair of jeans it wouldn’t have been as noticeable, but the splatter of liquid was stark against the tan canvas pants.
A drop or two of splatter isn’t unheard of, but I’d never seen such blowback happen before; I looked like I’d dropped a water balloon on my knees. Perhaps, I thought, this is common and the reason I’ve never seen anyone else leave a bathroom with urine all down their front is because when this happens to other people, they also enter the nearest handicap stall until the fight song signals the end of the game. Nattiel didn’t see me in the stands for the rest of the night and she didn’t come out of the locker room smelling of Lucky You for Her to find me waiting[ref]Lucky You for Her was fruity and floral and named with complete disregard to pronoun referent conventions. Also, as I understand it, Lucky You for Her was worn by every high school girl in the country in 2003. [/ref]. So instead of leaving with me, as she usually did, she left with a guy from Pueblo and made out with him that night.
But before anyone left the game, I sat on the toilet in the handicap stall, waiting for my pants to dry. After twenty minutes or so, my legs fell asleep. I’d wanted to sneak it out to one of the hand blowers. While not terribly busy; the bathroom was only briefly ever empty so I stayed put on the toilet. I’d been sitting down on the toilet because at 6’8” I can easily, almost unavoidably, make eye contact with strangers over stall partitions. Because I’m so used to this phenomenon, it’s more awkward for the strangers who tend to avert their eyes and stare unblinkingly at walls than for me, but I find that being soaked in urine changes the power dynamics in pretty much any social situation.
The dampness on my pants had lightened somewhat, but it was still clearly piss. I stood to stretch my legs during a brief lull in bathroom traffic. Whenever people ask, I tell them that I am 6’8” and 6’9” when I play basketball. Anyone who has any experience playing basketball at almost any level knows that there is a significant amount of exaggeration that goes on for each basketball player when listing height on a roster. Recognizing the contrivance of a basketball persona so straightforwardly is slightly humorous to other basketball players, but that’s the way it works. You tell yourself you’re 6’9” and 220 lbs. and that’s how you begin to understand yourself on the court. You learn to act 6’9” 220. You play 6’9” 220.
The oldest patent I could find online for a urinal cake was issued to George A. Sleight in 1922. This was a week or two after I doused myself with pee in 2003 and I’d been thinking about it a lot. I learned that the first urinal cakes, like Sleight’s, were made only to freshen the air, not to disinfect or clean, so they were made from naphthalene and/or para-dichlorobenzene. They looked like pink hockey pucks which sit in the bottom of urinals. Generally there is a cage which keeps the cake from going down the drain. And while not much has changed in appearance, these original formulas were not meant to dissolve as they came into contact with urine as are more contemporary designs. Rather they evaporated directly from a solid state to a gaseous state in a process called sublimation releasing the sweet mothball scented chemicals into the air.
As I researched, I learned that the pungent pink disk in that gym bathroom where I befouled my khakis was the more modern formula. Water soluble, it was made from disinfectants and surfactants—which decrease the surface tension of water and urine, causing these liquids to bond more readily with dirt, oil, and buildup and wash it all down the drain. The contemporary urinal cake was designed to melt slowly at the touch of my urine, to dissolve into a urine-based cleaning solution, sanitizing and battling odors as it swirled in the bowl before descending to eliminate buildup in the pipes. As I read about the urinal cakes I thought about how every man and boy who had entered that public restroom had improved the state of that restroom and the pipes and the smell. Whether you live on the north side of the tracks in Lamar or on the south side of the tracks, all of our urine had been involved in the slow and collaborative process to disappear a urinal cake. Peeing on a urinal cake seemed like it was perhaps the most multi-ethnic, multi-class public service alliance in history. And being a part of that collaboration, making the imperceptible difference in wearing a urinal cake down is so deeply satisfying. It’s like the benefits of recycling with the fun of shooting stuff. I thought of Mrs. Henderson’s civics class, and though I didn’t have the language to express it at the time, I felt like the Greeks had founded western civilization on conceptions of citizenship less moving and feasible than this. This all seemed to make so much sense. It seemed like someone should be getting a Nobel Prize for these urinal cakes.
The problem, I discovered, with the early models was that the principle ingredients, naphthalene and para-dichlorobenzene, are both carcinogens. As they sublimate, they make people sick and cause cancer in lab mice.
Being seventeen and recently heartbroken, I came to some conclusions as I learned the history of the pungent pink catalyst. Like: I didn’t know it as I saturated the urinal cake at the volleyball game that my relationship was sublimating just like a spicy old-fashioned urinal puck that night. And: She spent Saturday sublimating her odiferous chemicals on the guy from Pueblo and probably giving him all cancer[ref]I looked to see if there was a link between old formula urinal cakes and heart cancer, because that would have really made a lot of sense here but it ended up being stupid lung cancer or nose cancer or something which didn’t
make any sense.[/ref] instead of on me like she has for the last two years. If only I could have dissolved her with my urine…[ref]This is about the point at which my second attempt at meaning making kind of imploded. And because Nattiel is a
real person who—if this essay becomes as successful as I think it will—will one day be surprised to learn that her
book club has selected a book by me which contains this essay and thus will be discussing the intricacies of this
essay with several of her close friends, I should make it quite clear that no one ever got peed on. It’s a metaphor.
But while I’ve got you here—Book Club Discussion Question: of what use is metaphor in a truth-telling genre like
Genesis of a Fifth Attempt
After graduation, we went to different colleges in different states. And though we hadn’t spoken in over two years we both happened to be home from college for a high school football game. We decided to go to the game together as friends. I knocked on her door, the door to her mom’s house, where she’d lived in high school. From outside the smells of the house I’d spent so much time in during high school were already wafting out: leather couches and Tide and Lucky You for Her.
As soon as she opened the door I kissed her. I hadn’t planned on kissing her. She could have been dating the guy from Pueblo for all I knew, but none of that crossed my mind. I saw her, I smelled the wafty couch and the Lucky You for Her, and I kissed her. She invited me in and we caught up on her wafty couches; I think we ended up making it over to the game in the fourth quarter. We had a song and it came on the radio. She said, “I swear. If this relationship had anymore weird coincidences.” I wondered how I could go about making her fall in love with me again when we didn’t even live in the same state.
I’ve thought about the piss on my khakis a lot in the 12 years since it originally speckled my pants, but it was only this year, in what I have come to call the fifth attempt, that I thought that maybe the reconciliatory football game kiss might be part of the same story. They’d always been discrete memories in different parts of my brain before. The uriney khakis and pueblo guy had been filed under “Heart, Things that broke my” and then relocated to “Love, Puppy” whereas the football game kiss was originally filed under “Reconciliation” and has since been refiled under, “Novel, Ideas for a crappy Nicholas Sparks.”
In the year or so after the reconciliation football kiss—probably 2006 or 2007—I again approached an investigation of the falling urine.
This time I was less interested in the history of urine splashing cleaning products and more interested in the history of the significance of falling in general. The word “fall” is one of the most influential words in the history of western civilization. I looked it up and found it is derived from the Old English word, “feallan.” In old English “feallan” meant “fall” too. But I also discovered that the same “feal” root also produced a medieval word “fealty” which means something closer to “faithful” than to our word “fall.”
What a paradigm shift for someone like me who grew up in a pretty conservative Christian tradition. Thanks to hundreds of years of theopolitical ramrodding, the “fallen state of man” had taken on a darker coloring than the potential meaning of the phrase using the “faithful” root which I theorized could have been something closer to, “the faithful state of man” or “the condition of walking by faith.” I thought of The Fall. I thought of my urine and of the volleyball game: the way the volleyball had fallen and arced and bounced back and forth across the court like a moth around a light in that first game, each girl on the team only hitting it once, then letting go and trusting that it would end up where she wanted it to. No wonder they call it “falling in love,” I realized.
And it was only shortly after these important realizations that I realized how to determine the root origin in the dictionary I was using. Gmc. versus L. “Feallen” does indeed mean fall from the Germanic root in Old English and “feal” does mean “faithful” but that “feal” comes from the Latin root, “fidelis.” They are completely different words from completely different languages with unrelated meanings. It was simply a coincidence that the spellings are kind of similar.
Flying and falling don’t have a similar linguistic root, but if someone told me they did, I’d believe it[ref]Book Club Discussion Question: Why would a similar linguistic root even matter? Why would the author care?[/ref].
Fifth Attempt (Continued)
My wife, who is not Nattiel, fears moths because they are so unpredictable and spastic that she fears one might accidently fly into her mouth. While this I find this quirk adorable, I tease her about it because I believe it is irrational and silly, even though I once saw an unpredictable spastic moth fly into my brother’s ear canal.
Out of instinct, my brother sent his pinky in after the itch the moth was causing in his outer ear and ended up cramming it further down his ear canal. We had to go the emergency room to get it plucked out with some long curvy pliers.
I, on the other hand, have what my wife considers to be an irrational fear of splattering myself with urine and of my teeth shattering from switching too quickly between hot and cold drinks. And a moth can probably look back and find utter coherence and purpose in a flight pattern that led into my brother’s ear canal or my wife’s mouth or even Nattiel’s mouth.
I’ve been told that when I play basketball, I talk differently than when I’m doing other things. That I talk— not to put too fine a point on it—Black.
Three months after I kissed Nattiel on her mom’s doorstep—the majority of those three months having been spent on late night phone calls and incessant text messaging—she said she loved me and would marry me if I asked. A week after that I told her I didn’t want to continue our long distance whatever it was.
So attempt five is the process of refiling the Nattiel/Pueblo Guy kiss together with the reconciliation football kiss with its subsequent rejection. Even putting all those events in the same sentence changes how I am able to feel about myself now compared to a week ago before I’d made the connection. I didn’t mean to be cruel. I just felt one way until I didn’t.
What if I’d been wearing my jeans and the urine hadn’t been so apparently visible?
The relationship isn’t even important. Even if I could piss my way back through time to that moment in the men’s room I wouldn’t want to put right what once went wrong. We were high school kids, I think I even knew that then, but I’ve spent so much time over the last decade thinking about urine on my pants. How much of who I am is shaped, not by the girl or the piss, but by the process of trying to understand the piss?
I liked attempting to understand this story a lot better when it was a silly investigation of an anomalistic urine splash.
My research into the history of the urinal cake and into imaginary etymological significance didn’t satisfy my curiosity about how no one else had urine on their pants at the volleyball game in 2003. Three years ago, still before I’d made any connection between the smell of urinal cakes at a volleyball game and the smell of Lucky You for Her on Nattiel’s porch, I realized that being nearly a foot taller (10 or 11 inches, depending on whether I’m playing basketball or not) than the average American male, my urine has several inches further to travel before it contacts any urinal cake. While searching for the answer to how much more my urine could accelerate and thus how much faster it could travel because of the increased free-fall distance, I clicked on a blog that promised to answer how fast urine typically comes out of the penis. This blogger spent three paragraphs explaining that it would be the same speed as urine would come out of a vagina[ref]Here is a direct quote: “I mean, force inside a human’s body is as equal in any gender, so just because a man has a penis doesn’t mean urine should come out any faster or slower.”[/ref]. Now I’m all for equality and feminism, but this seemed like she was forcing a point where one didn’t need to be made.[ref]Among the links to the many other blog posts by the equal rights blogger—including, “How much masturbation is too much?” and “how much will my penis grow?”—was a link that I thought sounded interesting coming from a feminist/penis expert. It said, “How much does a gallon of milf weigh?” I was sad to see that it was a typo; the article examined how much a gallon of milk weighs (about eight pounds, a little more for skim and a little less for whole)[/ref]
As I continued my search to other websites, I was surprised by the vast proportion of the internet devoted to this question: hundreds of blogs and Yahoo! answers. What I learned from these websites and from my own stopwatch experiments, is that there were too many variables for me, or any of the fourteen year-old boys on the internet, to calculate an adequate answer to this question. How bad do you have to go? Are you tense or relaxed? How hard are you pushing? Strength of the urethra[ref]I never thought I would be writing essays about the strength of the urethra. That’s actually why I switched majors from pre-med sophomore year. [/ref]. Matt W. came up with a pretty firm estimate in his Yahoo! answer: 7MPH. He cited his physics class as the source, but he didn’t show his work so he only got partial credit[ref].It’s probably safe to assume that his physics teacher would have been arrested if Matt W. had shown his work. Then he wouldn’t have gotten any credit at all. Catch 22.[/ref].
I think I read somewhere that Newton switched to apples after he got frustrated by trying to time his own urine. But here are some variables I could account for: In Colorado, where I peed on myself, the acceleration of gravity is 9.796 meters/second/second so if my urine traveled in the air for even a tenth of a second longer than the average person’s, it would be traveling a meter/second faster when it hits that urinal cake. Thus making my splash bigger than most. But the Newtonian physics entry on Wikipedia was just the tip of the iceberg. I clicked a link to Einstein’s theory of relativity which argues that the gravity and velocity of a given object can actually speed or slow time for that object. The closer the speed of an object (like a space shuttle for instance) approaches the speed of light, the slower a clock ticks inside of that object compared to a clock at rest through a phenomena called time dilation. For example: the space station moves very fast in its orbit of the earth. Because the space station moves so fast, every six months astronauts on the International Space Station age .007 seconds less than people living on earth. If their speed were to increase drastically, the differences could be years.
Wikipedia explained time dilation through this equation:
Where t=how relaxed you are, γ=size of the prostate, Δ=a triangle for some reason, and v=the strength of the urethra. Theoretically it should be possible to pee back through time[ref] Onto the guy who invented those bumper stickers with Calvin peeing on Chevy Truck logos or whatever. If time travel movies have taught me nothing else, it’s that this is just the kind of circular poetic justice time travel is meant for.[/ref]. Of course I knew that no one has a urethra that strong[ref] v =1.21 gigawatts[/ref].
I thought back to the volleyball game and came to some more conclusions. We were moving different speeds and our clocks just started ticking at different rates. While I was at rest, with my legs going to sleep on a toilet, Nattiel was out on the court moving like a space station in spandex shorts, looking as good as about 15 gallons of whole milf.[ref]Skim? Whole? Which kind of milk is less offensive? Maybe 2%. She looked like a 2% Milf. Also, it’s probably important to mention that she wasn’t a mother. But I’ve never been able to tell the difference between a milf and regular non-mother that I’d like to ilf so I think the term still applies. An ilf is an ilf, as far as I’m concerned.[/ref]
The bottom line is that I learned that my pee travels too fast to allow for a soft landing on a urinal cake but not fast enough to take me back in time. This is about as much as I had known before my pseudoscience experiment.
Fifth Attempt (continued)
Thinking back to high school, to the day after I peed on myself, when she told me that she’s made out with a guy from Pueblo, my response seems inconceivable to me now. I laughed and smiled and said “so what.” I kissed her and said I’d pick her up for a movie later that evening. And I wasn’t pretending or putting on a brave face. I remember wondering at the time why she seemed so nervous to tell me. It wasn’t until hours later that I started to feel self-pity and all the other things a seventeen year old might feel in this situation. That response scares me to this day. But not as much as the eleven years it took me to place myself in this story. After the football game reconciliation I called and texted her every day. We both made road trips to see each other, and I sent her flowers when she was having a bad week at midterms. I thought that when summer came one of us would probably transfer and we’d probably elope. She was more aloof than I, referring to our relationship as friendship rather than a romance, but she still called me every day too.
I didn’t get to go home to Colorado for Thanksgiving because of basketball practice. On the day before Thanksgiving I had lunch with a girl I’d just met who half-seriously mentioned a fear of moths. On Thanksgiving Day, I got a text from Nattiel that said, “I have three words to tell you.” As soon as I read that text I knew that I didn’t want to hear or read anymore. When I told her as much she said, “This is so stupid, Brian.”
And she was right.
Or maybe there are too many variables to ever know exactly what the hell is happening in my life or to be able to derive any meaning from life except through the selection and arrangement of memoires; self-delusion as self-construction?
Since learning how to use my dictionary, I’ve discovered that the Old English word “mænan” is the etymologic root for both the English word “meaning” and the Irish word “mian” which means “to desire or wish.”
After I heard the band signal the end of the volleyball game, I looked down at my pants. It had probably been forty minutes that I sat in the corner stall; I still had the aftertaste of the banana Laffy Taffy in my mouth. There were still some residual markings across my front, but it was very light. Nothing that couldn’t be explained away as hand washing splashes. I left the stall, the bathroom, and building without talking to anyone.
When the khakis came out of the wash, I made them into cutoffs. That’s always seemed significant.