I had heard of this peculiar and, I think, uniquely male quirk before I first experienced it. When I finally did experience it, before I even realized it was happening, it was already too late. I was trapped in its paralyzing inertia and I couldn’t escape.
It was the summer of 2001, the summer that terror forgot. In those hyacinth days before we knew who or what to fear, I was in Montreal for my first ever Fringe Festival and I was on my first ever Fringe tour, which had been hastily arranged when The Root of All Squares, a play I co-wrote with Sam Varteniuk, won the Best New Play Contest for the Toronto Fringe Festival.
The prime directive of touring is “keep costs down” and, after a few days in Montreal, I was on the hunt for some healthy(ish) low-cost fast food. I sought out a Burger King, which, at the time, had a tasty and relatively inexpensive veggie burger. After a tasty but uneventful meal, I headed to the public washroom with the naïve expectation of a normal and routine visit. It was in that washroom that my life changed forever.
In retrospect, I now realize, the timing had to have been perfect. Had I arrived a second earlier or a second later, my transformative experience might never have taken place. The proximity of the urinals had to be perfect too. Had they been even a little closer together, I would have headed demurely to the toilet stall. Had the urinals been a little further apart, I would never have noticed the dilemma of the man next to me.
Of that man who changed my life forever, unfortunately, I know almost nothing — such is the etiquette of the urinal. I don’t even know what he looks like because my eyes were, as custom demands, always respectfully locked straight ahead. All I know of him is that, at the very moment I was ready to pee, he seemed unable to pee.
And then it struck me! I had once heard it said that, yes, sometimes, some men, when they are standing next to another man, they can’t pee at all or only when the other man pees first. When I realized that the man next to me couldn’t pee because of me, some switch deep in my mammalian brain was thrown and, all of a sudden, I couldn’t pee either. It was, for me, an altogether alien experience. I had always been able to pee freely without inhibition regardless of who was nearby. Somehow, knowing that the man next to me couldn’t pee because of me, it prevented me from peeing too.
We were stuck he and I, in a profound standoff without recourse. There is, after all, only so much encouragement one can “self-administer” at a public urinal beside another man before the efforts seem suspicious. Time stood still and, after an interminable delay, the other man conceded defeat. He zipped up without peeing, and departed furtively. A moment later, whatever mammalian switch that had locked nature’s gates firmly shut was flicked and nature flooded freely once more.
My life was never the same, after that fateful moment in the Burger King washroom. Once learned, some habits, as is well known, can never be unlearned. Ever since, the close proximity of another inhibited peer (ha!) has always thrown a switch that locks nature’s gates firmly shut. No amount of coaxing can break the spell. Only one’s man pee or his departure can crack it.
Or so I thought.
The other day, I was reminded of my primordial watershed(less) experience in that Burger King washroom, when I found myself in yet another inhibited standoff. This time, thanks to some unknown, but surely divine inspiration, I decided not to coax open nature’s gates, but instead took a deep breath and let nature take its course — come what may.
And come it did, freely and flowingly. A relaxed patience, I learned, like Ali Baba’s magic words, can move mountains. A lesson from the urinal, which may ultimately prove useful in life — mine and yours.