Monday, March 17, 2008


A splash of color

This is a tale of modern medicine, marksmanship, and men's restrooms. It is a true story, spanning decades, full of angst and self-discovery. It is a sad story, suggesting that some of our most cherished goals may be out of reach.

When I was young, my parents would sometimes bundle me and my siblings into the car and whisk us off for a family outing into the Sierra Nevada. We'd visit places like Yosemite, Balch Park, or Camp Nelson (where some friends had a cabin). One evening we found ourselves gathered around a big bonfire outside the Camp Nelson lodge, where some impromptu entertainment had sprung up. Campers, cabin dwellers, and day-trippers sat at picnic tables and listened to a large-voiced woman with a guitar and a couple of accompanying percussionists. A cow-bell may have been involved, too. I don't recall. I do remember the woman's headgear: a peculiar assemblage of Budweiser cans that had been snipped apart with shears and woven together with yarn into a charming chapeau. She announced her next selection, which she said was a tribute to her husband: “The title of the song is Shorter than You Think or ... Tacky Toilet!” The crowd chuckled at her bathroom humor and settled in to listen to her country-western serenade to her spouse's poor marksmanship.

Now fast-forward about forty or forty-five years. The original urinal in the men's restroom of the college's new faculty building was a source of dismay and controversy. It was small and set low to the ground. The tile floor in front of it was always damp and smelly. The building was brand new, but some parts were aging fast. A few of the male faculty members embarked on a great quest to replace the inadequate plumbing fixture. As quests go, it was no Holy Grail, but at least it proved feasible. A new, more generously endowed urinal eventually replaced the deficient original. A new, more sanitary day was about to dawn.

Except it didn't, really. Although the new StraddleMaster 9000 seemed more user-friendly and offered a much more generous target, the Camp Nelson contralto could have sung its praises with the same song she had once dedicated to her husband. Our hopes had been raised for naught. What is it about urinals and male marksmanship? When were we infiltrated by the gang that couldn't shoot straight?

Then it came to pass that my eye doctor summoned me for a medical test. She was keeping an eye on a scar on my left retina, which she suspected might be the vestige of a small hemorrhage. For the sake of due diligence, although no bleeding was apparent, she ordered a fluorescein test. While the assistant keeps a camera focused on your retina (and blinds you with bright light), the doctor injects a fluorescein solution into a vein. Fluorescein is a bright dye that quickly makes its presence known as it works through the blood vessels throughout your body, including those in the back of your eye. The assistant takes multiple photographs, first of one eye, then the other, going back and forth at intervals until she's captured all the images the doctor wants.

I came through the process like a champ, merely blinded by the light and blinking at the purplish after-images that seemed to hover before my dilated pupils. When the doctor announced that the test was over and I was free to go, I strolled over to the restroom to check on one of the examination's known side-effects. Yes, indeed, my urine was now a brilliant yellow color. Shockingly bright. It would take many hours for the fluorescein to be flushed out of my system. In the meantime, my urine had become an intense yellow dye. Remember how your mother always wanted you to wear good underwear to the doctor's office? Well, if it's a fluorescein test, consider digging out your rattiest.

A few hours later, the dilation of my eyes having receded to the point where I felt competent to travel, I went into my office at school. After some time there, I had occasion to visit the men's restroom. This was a natural consequence of my elevated fluid intake, since I was motivated to drink copious amounts of liquid till the fluorescein was gone. At a minimum, however, the dye would remain in my body a full day, so it made its presence very conspicuous when I ambled up to the StraddleMaster 9000. It was a sobering experience. Even perfect aim could not prevent errant drops from ricocheting all over the porcelain fixture. The dye did not lie.

It was worse than I could have imagined. I remembered the remarks of a colleague who had scoffed at the crusade to replace the original urinal. He said it wouldn't do any good and commented that guys who regularly wore shorts would understand. As one who has favored long pants for fifty years, I shrugged it off at the time as merely a mildly repulsive remark. Now I knew it was true.

The horror.

It took more than a full day for matters to return to normal. I claim not to have been scarred by the experience. Nevertheless, I was not pleased to hear my eye doctor suggest it would be nice to do a follow-up fluorescein test in six months. Something to look forward to.

At least there's a happy ending. The ophthalmologist says she sees no major problems in my slightly scarred eye, so the occasional exam is all that is indicated at this time. Also, the brilliant yellow dye washes right out in the laundry. Nothing was destroyed except my self-respect.


Ian said...

You do know why you should put the lid down when you flush a toilet, right? Especially if it's at home in the same room as your toothbrush...

Rhoadan said...

Something about roughly 2 meters worth of splash radius, right?

niemand said...

Have you never had occasion to clean a bathroom used by at least one of the standing-while-urinating menfolk? Splish-splash all over the place, no surprises there. And two meters is nothing.

Anonymous said...

I seem to recall that Cecil Adams did a column related to this issue. Something about how a parabolic shape of the back of the urinal bowl minimizes splashing. It should be an interesting variational calculus problem.

Nessaz said...

Such untidy creatures. Not only the splashing, but the ritual Shaking Off Of The Last Drop. I used to complain to my ex about it. Where does it go? He shrugs. "The floor, the wall, my shorts- who cares?" Only those that clean the bathroom or do the wash. Worse yet is when he climbed back into bed and I would receive the offering on MY LEG. Hmmph. Any intelligent designer would have created a much more hygienic system.

Interrobang said...

My dad has a rather novel way of dealing with the splash problem, since he thinks urinals are disgusting and doesn't care what anyone thinks of his behaviour -- he goes into one of the stalls and (gasp!) sits down while taking a leak. My folks never have to clean pee-spots off their bathroom carpet (although why anyone carpets their bathroom is, frankly, beyond me).

Having actually been seated on the offending plumbing item while flushing (it's a long story) I sort of doubt that "2m splash radius" thing. It's not as bad as all that, especially if you have one of these nice modern low-flow toilets -- if it were, surely you'd see droplets condensing on the seat. To me, it sounds an awful lot like another canard perpetrated by the germophobes in the crowd (and there are a lot of them, some of whom, like Oprah Winfrey, swing a lot of weight). I don't recall ever getting a fecal e. coli infection from brushing my teeth, and no, I can't be arsed to shut the lid on my home toilet every time.