Poo, of the Non-Winnie Variety

I’ve really grown a lot, since turning 40. Particularly in relationship to my willingness to talk about poop.

Let me back up. (Have you noticed how, when you lead with poo, everything that follows becomes a double-entendre?) Anyway. Up until my late 30s, it was a well-known and oft-ridiculed fact that all things concerning defecation made me wildly, morbidly uncomfortable. I knew it was a natural, essential, healthy bodily function. I also realized that everyone (including me, heaven forgive me) did it. But it was so disgusting, so private and feral and ghastly, that I could not acknowledge it in anyone else’s company.

I did a lot of very silly things to avoid mutual recognition of poop situations.

I famously repaired a toilet while pregnant to avoid calling anyone else into the vestibule, lest they deduce what might have caused the trouble in the first place. For five full years, I used a restroom in a gas station next door to the building in which I worked because the bathroom at my job was right next to the lunchroom, and that was monstrous. I have had entire business trips in which my body mysteriously began apparently absorbing my waste, rather than eliminating it, until I returned home, lest I be forced to do any pooping on an airplane, or, for the love of all that remains holy, in a stall next to a client. I have left a lover’s house and driven home and back again, under the ruse of requiring medicine I did not need, take or have in my possession to avoid any implication of my defecatory habits.

I have never understood how some people are so nonchalant about pooping. Until recently, I assumed anyone who would openly, willingly discuss their own bathroom habits was either a sociopath or a lunatic. I did once work with a man who proudly sought out the morning paper or a magazine from any desk to accompany him to the staff restroom. He would nod and smile at anyone he met en route, as if to aver, “I’m on my way to poop, peers and direct-reports! Pooping! I’m taking this magazine with me because it will keep me company while I produce feces. Hold my calls!” On several occasions, he retrieved industry publications from my desk, saying, “Can I borrow that for a few minutes? I’m headed into the bathroom,” after which he would knowingly nod at me, with a twinkle in his eye and a hint of a smirk, quirking at the corners of his mouth. My God. He made me party to his pooping, against my very will.

I’ve also worked with people who announced in the break room that they needed to hit the head for some heavy lifting, and marveled at their evident desire for everyone in the break room to know that not only did they need to poop, but for the remaining five minutes of shared break time from which they would be absent, they would actually be somewhere nearby, pooping. Just 20 feet away. Pooping.

Why didn’t they keep it a secret? Why weren’t they ashamed? It was like I was from another planet.

Once, I walked into a restroom in bar and there was a significant line to the two stalls. A woman in one stall called out, “I’m sorry everybody. I’m going to be in here a while. I’m pooping.” After which the entire room full of strangers stood silently together, listening to her complete her bowel movement. I wish, when she finally emerged from the stall, that we’d had a chance to talk through what became a traumatic event for me. It seemed too intimate for her to simply emerge, fluff her hair and wash her hands, and disappear into the crowd.

During my late 20s, I shared a staff restroom with a woman who used to discuss potential dinner selections with her boyfriend while pooping. Why would she do that? How busy, how painfully overscheduled could she be that she would be forced to multi-task that most private and revolting of personal jobs? I vividly recall her asking her boyfriend if he still wanted fish sticks, or if she should pick up some ground beef for burgers. I remember thinking that if I had to do all my menu planning while in the bathroom, we would never eat again.

So, up until the age of 40, if I walked into the bathroom and the room was clearly heavily in use, I would leave like it was a fire drill. I would wait to do whatever I needed to do until I got home. Ten hours later. If I was in the washroom and someone entered a neighboring stall and got right to work, I would pee like it was my job and get the hell out of there so fast any reasonable observer would think Superman was changing in my stall. And if you told me about your own poo situation, or worse, asked me to examine a poo you made (oh, beloved hippie friends, with your colon cleanses and sawdust granola) I would never speak to you again. And when people asked me why we no longer hung out, I would tell them you’d changed. Which in my mind would be true, because now you’d be disgusting.

Moreover, my bathroom rules extend beyond just the necessity of absolute poop secrecy to conversational guidelines. For example, there is no talking during evacuation of any form. Once those doors are closed, and unless there is a fire, it’s business time. When we are done with that business, we can catch up on all the fun stuff happening in the office, our lives, Top Chef, whatever. But while I’m actually midstream? Quiet.

Once, my poo-hangup (which sounds like the worst closet accessory ever) forced me to violate my own ethical code.

I was out to dinner with a friend, and she had brought a friend of hers along to join us. I had never met this friend before this dinner adventure, although I had heard a lot about her. Conversation was lively, and the food was franchise faire — we ordered cheesy appetizers, and settled into our 16 oz. beers. I got up to take a call from home in the restaurant’s foyer. After I finished the call, I decided I should take the opportunity to use the restroom.

At the time I had a sixteen-year-old son, and via hard-won experience I’d learned some lessons in bathroom re-con. My son occasionally left the seat up, used the last of the toilet paper, and generally boobie trapped the bathroom seven out of eight times he used it. (In his teen years, particularly, it crossed my mind to build him a small outhouse in the backyard, so that in February’s 20-below weather I could gleefully shout out the window at him, “who’s butt is chilly now, my little friend!” but I did not. ‘Cause it’d be me that had to empty the receptacle, like an enormous human litter box, and I will do no such thing unless it will save lives.)

So, courtesy of my son, I always checked that the seat was down, and free of liquid adornment. I always checked to make sure there was TP at the ready (because I have walked, plastic army guy-style, to fetch a roll of TP from the hall closet more times than I care to recount). When I entered one of the two bathroom stalls in the restaurant washroom, I immediately ascertained that the situation was untenable — no TP at all. Shreds on a naked roll. I went for the second stall, and got busy.

I was mid-pee when I saw the shoes of my friend’s friend enter the neighboring stall, and thought, “There’s no toilet paper in there!” But what I said was nothing. Because it wasn’t talky time yet. And then a terrible thing happened.

In the approximately 15 seconds since her arrival in the stall, sounds of havoc and destruction emanated from her body. I don’t know what might have caused it, but bad, bad things were happening, and happening fast. It sounded like a hundred angry ninjas, fighting their way out of her butt.

Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh noooooooooooooooooooo. Now I was in an awful position. I knew something she didn’t know — there was no toilet paper in that stall. And she definitely needed some toilet paper (plastic gloves, tarp, etc.). I stood there in my stall, wringing my hands and shaking my head. What could I do? If I gave her toilet paper, she would know that it was me over here, and that I had aurally witnessed what she just did. And if I didn’t, I would abandon her to somehow get toilet paper from my stall, and I couldn’t even imagine how she would accomplish that task without another set of clothes, or one of those claw-things they sell on late night TV. I’m no abandoner! I’m a sister! Yes, I have a tampon you can borrow! Yes, I will check if you have any pee on your white pants! Yes, I will tell you if you have spinach in your teeth, your bra shows through your shirt, and if your butt looks strangely coniferous in those jeans. But I was frozen.

I fled.

I practically ran to the table. I hurriedly sat down, bright red and sweaty. Then I scrubbed hand sanitizer all over my hands and forearms, and sat there holding my arms away from my body to dry, like a surgeon.

My friend’s friend came from the restroom almost immediately. She seemed like she was feeling great, which honestly was confounding to me. I spent the entire meal silently asking forgiveness for failing her in her moment of need.

I want you to know this now: you can talk to me while you’re pooping, although I’d continue to appreciate it if that was only a last resort. Don’t seek it out. And if you settle into the stall next to me and terrible, cataclysmic things happen to your toilet bowl and your heinie, I’m here. I’ll hand you toilet paper, hand sanitizer, or the number of a great service that friends of mine have used to clean up flood damage. You can still keep the magazine.

Frog Circus

Dear Mrs. Harleminn,

I realize it’s been quite a long time since we spoke. I’m sorry I haven’t kept in touch, but there is a relatively good reason for that. See, I have a confession. In 1982, I placed that four-pound coffee can full of tiny, lifeless frogs, covered in a thin layer of grape jelly, on your porch.

If you’ll indulge it, I’d like to explain.

I’ll start at the beginning. Eddy Griffenbackher and I were going to create a frog circus, wherein frogs would do short, but elegant gymnastic routines. You undoubtedly remember Eddy — he was basically notorious. I have a lot of Eddy stories myself. One time Eddy convinced me to ball up the fresh tar they used to seal cracks in the asphalt and hurl it at the backs of passing cars. Never satisfied with mere mischief, Eddy upped the ante to offer me ten extra points if I could hit Officer Cramer, who was on duty at the time. (That’s how my mom met Officer Cramer, actually. He’s a really forgiving man, and that uniform was a lot more expensive than you’d imagine. My mom knows how to get a lot of stains out of a lot of things, but gooey tar and trooper uniform are unfortunately not in that impressive number, and she owns at least one trooper uniform to prove it.)

Eddy was notably the one who tricked me into jumping out a second story window while playing Dukes of Hazzard. He was also the one who told me I got shot by a 22-pistol, when Ben and JP shot me in the hindquarters with a BB Gun. (That was an interesting story to Officer Cramer, too, and he spent a not inconsiderable amount of time investigating it, much to the delight of Ben and JP’s moms. You can likely imagine the ways this improved our relationships, as well, after the fact.)

Eddy was also the one who insisted that I was so good at cartwheels I could definitely do one across the top of the swing set. It was a 4×4 on top, as big as a balance beam. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t do a cartwheel on a balance beam, he said. What I lacked, Eddy said, was confidence, not experience. So I did it. I think you saw that one, or at least the ambulance.

Before you judge him too harshly, you should know that when I missed the beam and dove, head-first like a portly little flesh-dart, into the packed snow beneath the set, it was Eddy who ran to get my mom, like Lassie summoning grownups to the well. And it was Eddy who sat next to me while the ambulance came, promising that I would eventually be able to move my arms and legs again, and if I didn’t I could be Bo Duke the next time we played Dukes of Hazzard.

I’m not trying to make excuses. I mention all of this so that you’ll understand that there were special rules when it was me and Eddy “playing” together. It’s fairly remarkable that we both survived our relationship.

Back to the frogs on your porch.

We gathered all of those frogs from the muskeg behind our houses. It took most of the morning. We started early because Eddy said they were slowest at dawn, when they were first waking up. I’ll tell you, Eddy was wrong about a lot of things, but he was certainly right about that. We meant to get 30 or so of them, you know, selectively snatch the best, the real frog impresarios — but there were so many, and they were so easy to catch, we got carried away. After filling both our yogurt containers to absolute capacity, we still wanted more. I ran home and emptied the coffee can my mom used for second-tier utensils (potato mashers, that giant fork thing, etc.) and we dumped the yogurt cups into there. We were dizzy with frog acquisition and increasingly audacious in our plan. As we threw frog after frog into the can, we rhapsodized about trapeze frogs, frog gymnasts, and even a special musical number with frogs riding other frogs to Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.” It was going to be magnificent.

Admittedly, mistakes were made.

First of all, we should never have taken a lunch break. Our furious frenzy of frog gathering took us much further into the day than we intended, and Eddy’s grandma started bellowing Eddy home for lunch. As you know, Eddy lived with his grandmother, who had openly dedicated her life to three very discrete pursuits: growing marijuana, smoking marijuana, and drinking gin and tonics. All legal at that time in Alaska, but making her sort of a postmodern Tom Waits-y grandmother. So you know as well as anyone else on our block that ignoring Grandma Griff was as dangerous and ill-advised as ignoring an overflowing toilet. In a rush to comply, we attempted to secure our frog supply for a short break.

We cut a hole in the lid of the coffee can we’d been tossing the frogs in, but Eddy, evidently inspired to uncharacteristic sentimentality by our impressive, squirming brood, was adamant that the frogs needed lunch, too. He suggested we bring them flies, which were the only thing we were certain frogs liked to eat. A quick reconnaissance of our respective windowsills yielded derisory results, so Eddy and I began to explore other fly-getting stratagem. This brings me to the grape jelly. (We voted for poop first, of course, but rejected it on the grounds that: a) neither of us had to, and b) it would take our friendship in a direction neither of us was sure of, for reasons we couldn’t really elucidate.)

We knew that flies loved grape jelly, based on our experience with church picnics at Sandy Beach. You could hardly eat your own sandwich, for the flies circling anticipatorily around your head. And we’d all seen what happened, should some poor provincial child leave their PB&J unattended — it was like fly bacchanalia. Grape jelly would bring us flies. We were delirious with the perfection of our solution. The only problem was how tightly the frogs were packed in the can. After smearing grape jelly on the lid of our coffee can, we postulated that only the strongest of the frogs would be able to get access to the flies licking the jelly on the lid. We solved our problem by putting the grape jelly directly into the can. That way, we thought, the flies would fly right in.

I’m aware that this conclusion was specious, but there’s a reason the phrase “hindsight is 20/20” is cliché. It’s because so many people have left their own coffee cans full of grape-jelly-frog-corpses on their neighbor’s porches.

Maybe not exactly that, but you get the idea.

Our second big mistake was caused by Eddy’s failing to return from lunch. In fairness to Eddy, his grandma was pretty unpredictable. Midday was usually a sweet spot in her ascension to weed and gin nirvana, and her lunches were more epic than an Up in Smoke, Pineapple Express, Top Chef montage. I personally witnessed one Dali-esque cornucopia that included taco dip, Swedish meatballs, and stacks of frozen burritos. Before you get too worked up about this, remember that Grandma Griff also thought the bus driver deliberately lingered in front of her house trying to catch a glimpse of her in her nightie, and would not be convinced it was because she lived on a bus-stop corner. It’s pretty likely Eddy was forced to play protracted rounds of UNO, or had been sent on some weird surveillance mission (see “Bus Driver,” above). I’m not trying to point fingers. Regardless, we should’ve checked the frogs much, much sooner. Much sooner.

Our last, and definitely biggest, mistake was that we morbidly miscalculated the viscosity of grape jelly.

Generally, Eddy and I relied more on inspiration than research in making our plans. If we had read even a little bit about frog physiology, we’d certainly have learned that frogs breathe through their skin. Which we can all agree is pretty hard to do if your skin is covered by a non-porous, sticky, grape layer of death — regardless of the size of the hole you cut in a coffee can lid. I feel badly about it now, but what’s done is done. It literally sealed the deal.

I waited for Eddy forever. Long after I ate my own sandwich, watched back-to-back episodes of The Addams Family and The Munsters, and got into a slap-fight with my little sister, I realized Eddy was likely out for the day. After laboring over my loyalty to him and my general fear of successive noogies (the typical penalty for insubordination), I decided he would want me to forge ahead with our endeavor, rationalizing my plan with a fantastic idea: I would surprise Eddy the next morning with a small but impressive troupe, performing some basic tricks on a popsicle-stick balance-beam I would construct.

Naturally, I built the balance-beam first, thinking that the glue could dry while I trained the frogs. I giggled like a lunatic at the thought of Eddy’s shock and delight when he angled his head into the sheet tent we’d built and saw what I’d already accomplished. He’d be so proud of me. This last, albeit short, construction project extended the window of frog-jelly immersion well beyond the survivable duration. Whatever hope remained for, say, the top layer of frogs was categorically eliminated while I lovingly placed those popsicle sticks on the lateral supports. By the time I finally opened the lid to the frog can it was clear the final circus curtain had fallen, long before it ever was raised, for all of the can’s occupants. I pulled lifeless frog after lifeless frog from the can, finally dumping the lot of them on the grass next to the now irrelevant tent and tiny balance beam.

They were goners.

In a cataclysmic fit of desperation (and a testament to the utility of offering the class to fourth graders) I actually attempted CPR on one frog, but our disproportionate lip size kept causing me to essentially insert the frog’s entire head in my mouth, and after several attempts I realized I was only desecrating and disrespecting the dead with my efforts. Also, the likelihood of me vomiting was progressively and exponentially increasing, which would have worsened an already deep transgression. Unfortunately, I found my attempts at chest compressions equally futile, being either too firm, which was messy and vivid, or too slight, which was like giving the world’s smallest and most irrelevant massage.

In my anguish and panic, I thought that if anyone could save them, it would have been you, Mrs. Harleminn. I don’t know if you were aware of this, but at the time you were something of a neighborhood hero. You were the one who told us the worms Ben and JP cut in half to freak us out would ultimately become two worms. You were the one who told us that puppies and kittens would never get carried off by eagles because eagles just ate fish. You were the one with a greenhouse in your backyard. You were the most scientific neighbor I knew. So I left the coffee can on your porch and rang the bell.

I’m writing to say that I’m ashamed I didn’t stay to explain. Please understand my mother had very firmly informed me that if Officer Cramer came to our house even one more time that summer she was going to send me home with him. And, based on his thoroughness in the BB-gun incident, Officer Cramer was certainly going to investigate the death and unceremonious gifting of 300 tiny frogs. So, I split. I watched you from my porch window, though, which is why I’m finally compelled to write this letter.

I want you to know I am sincerely, truly sorry, and deeply regret the pain I caused you. I just wouldn’t feel right if you died and I never told you the truth. Not that you’re going to die or anything, although my mom did used to say your soprano solo in the church choir made her think you were.

Sincerely,

Your Neighbor
Anna Tennis

P.S. I smacked your giant dog in the face with my alto saxophone case every school day for probably five years. He was trying to eat my cat’s food, and growled, lunged and nipped at me as I attempted to disembark the porch, so I did what I had to do. That dog was an asshole.

Cats and Dogs

My old neighbor — we’ll call her Tonya — verbally abused her pets. It was like living next door to a David Lynch biopic of Joan Crawford.

One summer, I was digging a fire pit in my back yard. It was the middle of a nice, warm day, probably in June. Suddenly, over the fence that encloses my back yard, I heard a woman’s voice talking reasonably to what sounded, inferring from what she was saying, like a small child: “Autumn, remember what we talked about? You promised to play on this side of the yard, away from Callie’s sandbox. If you don’t do what you promised, we’ll have to go inside.” Huh. I must have neighbor kids. Cool. I kept digging my fire pit. Three feet in diameter? Four? I tabulated the number of edging stones I would need. The voice from over the fence started up again. “Autumn! You stay away from Callie’s sandbox, like we talked about!” I had hardly dumped my shovelful of dirt before she started up again, this time plaintively, “Autumn! You are ruining this for both of us! I said NO!” And not even five seconds later, crazy time. Full scream. “AUTUMN! Come back here right now! I told you to stay away from that fence! I TOLD YOU TO STAY!! AWAY!! FROM!!! THE!!! F#*KING!!! FENCE!!!” She was almost roaring now, she was screaming so hard.

“AUTUMN! YOU NEVER LET ME DO ANYTHING! YOU RUIN EVERYTHING! WE CAN’T EVEN BE OUT IN THE G%$DAMMED YARD FOR FIVE G%$DAMMED MINUTES BEFORE YOU F#*K  IT ALL UP! WE’RE GOING INSIDE! INSIDE AUTUMN! ARE YOU HAPPY NOW? ARE YOU? ARE YOU HAPPY NOW???!!!???”

I called 911. The dispatcher asked for my address and said, “ohhhhhh. That’s Tonya. Those aren’t kids. She’s got some kind of pets over there. We see a lot of her.” I was relieved. Although I don’t think it’s right to derogate your animals, I was hopeful they understood more about their owner’s relative emotional state than, well, English.

I should cop to something right away: I am not a huge animal person. I don’t understand them. I think they are interesting and other, which is nice, but not critical to my experience as me on the planet. I’m happy to see them but not anxious to. That said, if you leave an animal in my care, I will eventually come to love the creature. But I will never spontaneously take pictures of it, or celebrate its birthday. I’m sorry about this, but it’s the truth about me.

I inherited a cat (who my neighbor rescued but was too allergic to care for) about 15 years ago. We named her Bella. Bad things had happened to her — she had half as many teeth as she should have had, all broken in half on one side of her mouth. The vet thought it was an abuse injury, since a car couldn’t have done damage so precise, but a boot could’ve.

Perhaps because of that injury, Bella got what I affectionately referred to as “the tax return infection,” or “TRI,” every single year around tax time, forcing me to spend all that hard-earned money I had loaned to my government on boring things like life-saving feline antibiotics, for which she thanked me by removing most of the skin on my forearms when I administered them. (I went through one pair of oven mitts a year, for exactly that reason.) Every year I owned her, the vet said, “I don’t know if she’s going to make it,” when she’d get the TRI. She’d stop eating, lose so much weight that we called her the Karen Carpenter kitty, and lay around, looking like the kitty embodiment of Morrisey lyrics. And every year she’d rally, responding to the antibiotics as though they were dehydrated capsules from the river of life, flipping the Grim Reaper the bird while sock-hunting and packing on the old lb’s, until she blew past Karen Carpenter and most resembled Marlon Brando. She would get so fat she would lean back on the couch and, with her little stick arms out to either side, lick her upper belly area. She got so fat she bounced off the radiator, trying to leap up and enjoy the afternoon sun.

But one year, she didn’t respond to the antibiotics. She got thinner and slower, and finally just lay in the corner, crooning and mewing. We did everything we could to save her — most of it crap our parents, friends, or other animal enthusiasts recommended. We gave her ice cream. We gave her lard. We gave her olive oil in a dropper, and in a last fit of desperation, we even put olive oil in her kitty butt. Finally, we realized our efforts were bordering on things they did at Guantanemo Bay. So we called and scheduled an appointment with the vet to end her life.

That turned out to be a really, really big deal. I had no idea.

When we got to the vet, we had a long conversation about what we would or wouldn’t be willing to do to save or extend her life. The conversation, while sympathetic and compassionate, was pretty brass tacks. Would we want to run $3,000 worth of biopsies and diagnostics, knowing there was a 50/50 chance she wouldn’t live through the tests? No? Would we want to do $500 worth of blood work, knowing the results would probably indicate the $3,000 worth of biopsies and tests were necessary? Before I had this cat, I scoffed at people discussing vast, expensive medical procedures they had done on their pets. Spleen transplants? Hip replacement? Really? If you had told me then that you were going to spend $3,000 trying to figure out what was wrong with your cat, I would have been replaying Jackie Kashian’s opinion of designer pets, “You know what you can get for three thousand dollars? Three thousand cats.” But now, standing in the vet’s office over Bella’s shivering body, I was mentally calculating how much space was on each of my credit cards.

I didn’t know I would feel like that. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do — what Bella would want me to do, if she was capable of “wanting” anything in the way I thought of it. What was the value of her pain? What did her life, her death mean to her? Was I taking something away from her by ending her life before she did? I needed to know these things to make the right decision, and there was no one to ask but Bella. And she couldn’t tell me. It was kind of like every other critical decision I’ve ever made in my life — decisions in which no matter what I choose I’ll always wonder, always revisit the whole situation and make the decision over and over again, because it never feels right, never settles itself. And, in those situations, every phone call I make to get advice, counsel, or reassurance just rings and rings. Nobody ever picks up. I kept looking into Bella’s eyes, and the phone just kept ringing.

We went ’round and ’round with the vet, asking a hundred different versions of, “will that save her?” and getting a hundred different versions of “probably not for long” until we all kind of arrived at the answer we knew in the first place. We knew she was going to die — now, or very soon.

And in the absence of any new information, we would do what we could to make that suck as little as possible. “We have to let her go.” My sister said.

She was so skinny by then that her body felt like one of those rabbit’s foot keychains, all whispery-furred and hollow. We held her paws, touched her face as the medicine began to work. Her body relaxed, her chest stopped rising and she was gone. It was almost immediate.

All those things — her love of my socks, her wild-eyed destruction of our couch, her fat belly rebounding off the radiator like a bad layup, the years of purring and warm fur against my feet — gone. That’s what we get to know about death — that it removes all of those connections, all of those threads tying that being to the world, and pulls them through the eye of a needle, the other side of which is beyond our vision. It seems impossible for so many threads to just vanish, but they do.

We stood there with her body, crying and petting her, and then her body became her “body” — not her at all. It wasn’t hard to leave her there, because she was already gone.

So, I loved that cat.

I told you this story, because I don’t want you to think I’m a monster when I tell you the rest of the story. Or at least, I don’t want you to think I’m that kind of monster.

The vet called me two weeks later to come pick up her boxed ashes, assumedly to bury them in some shady corner of my yard, with pomp, circumstance, an acoustic version of “In My Life” by the Beatles, and somber prayers to Rascal, the kitty version of Jesus. (Duh, God would send his only cat to die in place of billions of cats so they could live forever.)

But, I didn’t do any of that stuff.

Instead, I put the box in my trunk. It made the most sense. The box was clearly marked, “BELLA O. REMAINS.” What was I supposed to do, buckle it into the front seat? I just kept having visions of getting into an accident on the way home and the box exploding all over the inside of my car, like Mt. St. Helens. There I’d be, with ash outlines of my sunglasses, coughing and sneezing Bella dust while I exchanged insurance information. (“No, my car’s not on fire. These are just my cat’s ashes. No! She was already dead.) The trunk was a better idea. It was February at the time, and the ground was frozen solid. So, when I got home, I left it in the car. Not her, the box of ashes. And then I forgot all about them.

I will be the first person to admit that this is horrible.

I didn’t mean to do it, but I just kept forgetting they were in there until I needed to put something in the trunk. Which was usually groceries. I would open the trunk, see the telltale black box, and say, “Sh*t! Bella’s ashes! I have to remember to bring those inside!” And then I’d angle the Totino’s Party Pizzas between the box and the jumper cables. I’m not proud of myself. And anyway, it was winter and the ground was frozen, so I couldn’t bury her even if I did remember the box, although I didn’t, so it doesn’t really matter. And then we cleaned out our basement, and I began driving around with every soccer item my son had used from 1998 to today in my trunk, piled on top of the box. So, I put my groceries in the back seat of my car, and Bella’s ashes became a distant memory.

As a result, I drove that cat’s ashes around for three years.

One day, my son and I dropped the trunk stuff off at Goodwill, and he spotted the box. “What is this, mom? Does it go in the bin?” I want to point out at this point in the story that I could have said, “yep,” and been done with it, no shame, no ‘splaining, but I am better than that. Not bury-my-beloved-cat-in-a-timely-fashion better than that, but don’t-donate-my-beloved-cat’s-ashes-to-Goodwill-to-avoid-telling-my-son-they’ve-remained-in-my-trunk-for-three-years better than that.

“Those are Bella’s ashes.” I said.

“MOM!!!!!” My son said, in a combination of horror and disgust. “Are you kidding?” I was not kidding.

“It was winter, and the ground was frozen!” I pleaded.

“For THREE years?” he asked, incredulously.

“For part of the three years …” I said, finally.

He held the box of ashes on his lap on the way home from Goodwill.

“Aren’t you worried if we crash, the box will explode all over you?” I asked.

“The ashes are in a plastic BAG, Mom!” he said.

“Really?” I asked

“YEAH,” he said.

“Ah. I see. We should bury them,” I said.

“You think?”

My son went out and buried her ashes in the corner of the vegetable garden, which I said nothing about (even though now I feel like the zucchini is going to taste like cat ashes or make us all get mad cat disease or something) because I had lost all ground to offer direction when I took the cat’s ashes on a three-year road trip. Sigh. In a way, Bella got the longest funeral procession of any cat, ever, including those Egyptian asshole cats, who were buried with live humans to protect them from evil and bring them whatever the Egyptian version of catnip and Meow Mix were.

I want you to know that I had and continue to have the very best intentions. And, although it may come as not inconsiderable reassurance and no surprise to you, no pets.

Flackers and Kombucha

I’ve been eating pretty conscientiously lately. I have good reasons, so don’t get douchey. (Although, now that I think of it, when do people eat conscientiously for bad reasons? “Eff it. I’m gonna cut back on meat and sugar to really stick it to my mom. That’ll show her.”)

Some of the stuff has been pretty revelatory. For instance: spaghetti squash is better than pasta for pesto, in my opinion, and while pinto beans can still go straight to hell, cannellini beans are like little butter bombs full of protein and velvety goodness. I could drink olive oil, and 36 percent of my adipose tissue is actually guacamole. (My love handles are deeeeeeelicious.) Parsley is a vegetable and makes everything better, and although I respect you, vegetarians, grass-fed, farm-fresh ground beef is probably a good enough reason to at least seriously consider killing a cow. (Although, I’m not sure I could do that—they are really tall. Much taller than you’d think.) Kale chips are mouth-watering, Swiss chard wants to kiss your face (yes, with tongue) and don’t even get me started on what eggs can do. Don’t even.

However.

Have you ever had “Flackers?” or “kombucha?” Both are very strange.

Let’s start with Flackers. Flackers are a trademarked brand of crackers made of flax seed. Think of them as cracker facsimiles or “cracksimiles” for those who enjoy the occasional serial portmanteau. They are sprouted and blessed and prayed for by endangered owls or whatever. But mostly, they are flax seeds. Google “Flackers” for a picture of them, in case you’ve never been compelled to eat them. I can see why you might never be compelled to eat them. I would likely have passed them by, too, were it not for the ultra-restrictive “cleanse” diet my husband and I were on. While we had ventured back into dairy, we still were not eating wheat, and wanted a snack vehicle. I spied Flackers as possible diet-friendly vehicles for cracker accoutrements. So we got them, along with some squishy marvelous cheeses.

I want you to know that I will continue to eat them, even after this discussion, but not because they, in and of themselves, are yummy. They are suitable, nutritious vehicles for cheese and other tasty cracker riders. Their flavor is savory and earthy, and they are salty enough to do the job. But their texture is soooooooo weird. It’s something akin to eating an entire mouthful of tiny insect carapaces. Like, maybe weevils or cigarette beetles? They are cemented together with some kind of clear, edible netting substance. It looks like maybe the teeny beetles had even teenier glue guns and just glued together all the corpses around them. (I don’t know why the teeny beetle craft enthusiasts were surrounded by corpses. I have only made up a little bit about their society.)

The flax weevils are stacked, with some relative uniformity, about three deep and 37,189,750,708,715,807 long. When you bite into a plain, unencumbered cracker, the flax weevils are spontaneously released from the glue web, and immediately dissipate into your mouth, most of which end up nestling gently into the space between your teeth and gums. This is fun for a magnificently long time afterward. The ovoid shape of the flax seeds makes them nigh impossible to dislodge with floss, and while you can absolutely brush them out, they just slide right back in. There’s probably a military application for this, but I haven’t thought of it yet because I already stopped thinking about it as soon as I said the sentence. The balance of the flax weevils become very slimy and slippery and seem to literally flit about your tongue, which is terrific if you’ve always wondered what it would feel like to eat 37,189,750,708,715,807 live weevils all at once, but not great if you haven’t.

The only reasonable way to consume them is with cheese. The cheese absorbs all wayward flax weevils and escorts them with a firm, creamy hand to the sharp, chewing parts of your teeth (rather than the cave-like, must-be-extricated-by-a-dentist parts of your teeth and/or gumline) and then, in a rich, speckled blob, down your throat and into your Omega 3 processing lab, where all of the Chicken in a Biscuit crackers you previously consumed are destroyed and replaced by four extra minutes of life or a more lustrous, manageable cerebral cortex—whichever you wish for.

So, I keep eating them. And every single time, I try one without cheese, just to see if I’m mistaken. I’m not.

Worst case scenario, I know I could survive on a bug and cheese diet. I am having some trouble imaging the scenario that would necessitate such a diet, but should it materialize, I’m ready.

The second weirdest thing I continue to consume on purpose is kombucha. Kombucha, according to Wikipedia, is “a variety of fermented, lightly effervescent sweetened black or green tea drinks that are commonly intended as functional beverages for their supposed health benefits.” Fermenting things is all the rage. You can buy fermented anything at Trader Joe’s, which has really helped me out, buying wedding gifts for people I don’t really like. (Enjoy the box of lacto-fermented Mike and Ike’s, Paul and Tammy.)

On the whole, fermented stuff is yummy. Sauerkraut, beets, kimchi … yummy. Plus, it’s supposed to heal your guts, or, in layperson’s terms, “make you poop appropriately.” Who doesn’t want an appropriate pooping life? So, as a consummate fan of fermented goods, I started my relationship with kombucha already sold on the idea. Everybody kept telling me about it. “Ermaglerb, kermbercher …” etc., etc. So I finally picked some up.

First, after minutes of careful examination, I realized all of the kombuchas were rotten, each with a gigantic, 1/4-cup snot glob lurking along the bottom of the bottle. I’m as interested in disturbing gustatory experiences as the next person (see “37,189,750,708,715,807 live weevils,” above), but 1/4-cup of snot is just too much snot. (I’m not actually sure what my snot ceiling is, but I am certain one-fourth of a cup exceeds it. And here’s to never having a more precise answer to this question.)

I asked the staffer nearest the kombucha whether this snot stuff was supposed to be in there. He averred, explaining that this gelatinous, goo-blob was called a SCOBY, or “symbiotic ‘colony’ of bacteria and yeast,” which is the cutest acronym for the grossest thing I’ve ever heard, beating MRSA and C-Diff by a landslide. This SCOBY, he explained, was largely responsible for the health benefits of the kombucha. Because I wasn’t about to spend all this time trying to buy unrotten kombucha, only to go home and do a bunch of research about science, I resigned myself to somehow imbibing it. I chose what sounded like a delicious but unlikely flavor for a fermented item, something like guava kiwi, or strawberry fripple, and cracked the seal. Upon air exposure, the kombucha facsimilated an eighth-grade science volcano experiment, and powerfully overflowed the bottle. I was immediately doused in what smelled like someone had somehow distilled a burp into a concentrated perfume.

I cautiously took a sip of the 2/3 liquid that remained in the bottle. I want to say I’ve been fooled by olfactory hallucinations and subterfuge before. You know how cheese smells revolting, but the flavor is plum delicious? Or how liverwurst smells scrumptious, but tastes like lukewarm assholes? Not my first rodeo. But kombucha? Kombucha tastes just exactly like it smells. It tastes like a distillation of manifold burps. Dessert burps, banana burps, cheeseburger with mayo and Dijon mustard—all in one, like some horrible Willy Wonka gumball catastrophe. Kombucha tastes like what your burps would taste like if you could eat burps.

Because I already owned the entire bottle of kombucha, I took another sip. Same. Then another. Yuck. And another. Why was I still drinking this? Pretty soon, wholly without explanation, I had consumed the entire bottle. Huh. I regarded the nutrition label: one bottle, two servings. Twice as healthy, right?

A feeling of warmth and well-being washed over me. The people walking by my car in the parking lot were more attractive. The sun came out, the ice melted off my windshield, and my favorite song came on the radio. My ex-boyfriends all missed me, my sister gave me that one sweater I love, and my mom and dad got back together. Just kidding. My mom and dad would never get back together. But I did feel really good. For a while.

About an hour later, my guts began to rumble. I didn’t worry too much about it until the sound was audible to people adjacent to me. I was at the mall at the time, and knew I was in trouble when the cashier at Old Navy offered me her granola bar. I began to locate the exits. When the grumbling and groaning in my guts was producing visible tectonic changes in the flesh of my abdomen, I drove home like a bat out of hell. (On a related note, one time I gave my toddlers Fiber One bars. AS PROMISED FIBER ONE. As promised.) I literally bolted up the stairs to my bathroom, at which point kombucha taught me a lesson in moderation that tequila, Natty Ice, Totino’s Party Pizza, and marinated artichoke hearts had been unable to teach. Respect the kombucha. Or the kombucha will fetch a pound of flesh.

Here’s the kicker: I still drink it. It tastes horrible, explodes all over me, and then occasionally shaves my dignity down to a kind of dignity flattop. High and tight. But between the glugging and the regrets, there is the glowly postprandial elation that only SCOBY-juice can provide.

And there you have it. I’ve succumbed to the hippie rhetoric. I’ve drunk the fermented Kool-Aid and partaken in the flax-seed wafers offered by the church of erudite but dietarily responsible snacking. I feel like a traitor.

Between you and me, Chicken in a Biscuit crackers and cheesy garlic bread potato chips are no less inexplicable.

Pornography, or, “Worst First Dates”

In 1999, my ex-husband gave me a computer. I was pretty glad to get it. I had mastered emailing, and was ready to move on to the really exciting things, like AOL and internet porn.

Let’s get this clear right away: I’m not a huge porn fan. My porn experience at that point was limited to the following:

1. A couple of magazines unearthed by a 13-year-old me, in ~1985 in my mom’s friend’s attic. They were evidently from the 1970s. My suspicion was based largely on the unusual prevalence of mustaches and floppy boobies. (Throw in a headshot of Spiro Agnew and my argument is airtight.) They were disturbingly graphic and unaltered. Sans digital enhancement, the naked people all looked like slabs of pork tenderloin. With mustaches and floppy boobies.

2. A porn movie a boyfriend rented to watch with me. Everyone seemed really, really angry in it. With the volume down, their sexing faces all looked like they were watching Newt Gingrich pole dance in assless chaps and an American flag tank top. (He has bootstraps tattooed on his inner thighs, by the way. Interesting tidbit.)

3. My parents’ copy of The Joy of Sex, which was hidden under some sweaters in my dad’s closet. Finding that book in that spot was the single best abstinence education any parent could possibly provide. The idea of my disgusting parents contorting their old disgusting bodies into those disgusting and inexplicable configurations was enough to keep me from so much as holding hands until I was 16 years old.

So, my experience, such as it was, seemed anemic. But now I had a computer, so I needn’t remain so provincial. I was ready to be educated.

It took a long time. There’s a lot of porn. At first, me and a couple girlfriends searched for the basics: “boobs,” then “big boobs,” and eventually, “colossal boobs.” Rapidly boring ourselves with women hosting breasts as round and tight as giant tan boils posted on their chests, we started to search for things we’d always heard about but disbelieved: “Crazy fetishes,” “LITERAL horse lovers,” and “Diapered and 40-Plus.” All there. In plenitude! We had to choose which sites we looked at, there were so many results. So, we got even crazier. “Blindfolded sex with big nosed ladies on the hoods of Le Car, model years 1984-1986” and “llama mustard fetish.” Still there. The results got increasingly disturbing, and, in spite of the wine we’d consumed, less funny. There is a guy out there, pining away for one other soul who is only aroused by a woman riding a llama covered in spicy mustard. He wants to talk. He wants to relate. He made a webpage. And that is too much for me to worry about. So we wrapped up with high-fives (universal hand gesture of the morbidly uncomfortable) and the uneasy feelings that accompany a large-scale porn investigation.

It was like The X-Files, only instead of Area 51 we found a secret warehouse of sexual deviants so weird that Area 51 seemed like a Gap Outlet in comparison. Seriously, those people don’t want to know what genetic secrets the alien corpse is keeping. They want to have sex with it. And a donkey wearing fishnet stockings and a fez.

Anyway.

Well, over the course of the next few months, my computer starting behaving strangely — opening up windows full of gobbledygook, refusing to shut down, and generally acting like I had shoved a PB&J sandwich into its floppy drive (which existed, and was approximately the size of a carport — it was 1999). At about the same time, I began dating a man who specialized in computer coding. He was one of the HTML front runners, schooling himself in the dark recesses of his apartment, fascinated by ASCII. He came over one night during our initial courtship to watch movies. For the purposes of this narrative, let’s call him Stu.

At this point in our datinghood, we hadn’t even kissed each other. We were in preliminary nest-circling mode, evaluating what things the other found important enough to incorporate into the infrastructure. Stu was a quiet guy. He was not a particularly overt fellow, and generally preferred the company of computers to humans. But he thought I was nice, safe — a good person to joke around, listen to music, and discuss computer things with.

While we were watching our movie, I mentioned that my computer was behaving strangely. He offered to look at it, and I gratefully agreed.

If you were planning to stop reading before the story inevitably degenerated into me burning everyone and everything to the ground while standing in front of my eighth-grade English class naked and clutching a picture of Andrew McCarthy, this is your chance to jump off.

Stu started up my computer, brows furrowed and finger tapping as the initial “Safe Mode” message flashed on and off the screen. “Weird,” he said. “Yeah! It just started doing that!” I replied, enthusiastically. Stu hit “Escape” a number of times, and evaluated the resulting screen of green text carefully. “Something has corrupted your DOS kernel,” he said. “We might have to re-stage your machine.” Or something like that.

“Great!” I said. “You can do whatever you want to that kernel. Stage it, re-stage it, whatever.” Stu laughed. (Wasn’t I cute? And innocent? So uncultured I don’t even know what a DOS kernel is? Tee hee.)

Stu downloaded some things from a disk he had with him in his bag, and a black box with a large green progress bar began rapidly listing files, directories … and then it started. One after another, internet browser windows began popping up, filling the screen with a high-speed montage of the most disturbing pornographic images I had ever seen (which, at this point, was really saying something). Hundreds of screens, one after the other — a lady riding a donkey in a non-classical equestrian pose; a guy and a donkey, similarly engaged; two donkeys, a goat and a fat lady with a pinwheel, perhaps celebrating?; a lady with a stiletto shoe in a place which indicated a particularly vigorous disagreement with someone who had, until the disagreement, been wearing at least one stiletto shoe; two men in enormous diapers, hands on their hips, staring sultrily at the camera; and a bunch of guys in black leather porketta-roast-looking get-ups, eating what appeared to be, well, poo.

Stu sat, hands frozen over the keys like claws, his eyes wide, watching the seizure-inducing procession of horrors. I sat behind him, hand clamped over my mouth, cryogenically frozen somewhere between mortified and fascinated.

“Whoa.” I said.

Stu said 10,000 years of icy silence. A conversational glacier. He turned to look at me, and he was suddenly looking at me the same way he had been evaluating the computer. Did I expect … this?

There was no way to really explain. I could tell him that my porn exploration had been 90 percent ironic, or that I hadn’t been the only one at the helm when “donkey SEIKO farmer handjob” was typed into the search bar. Here are the things I thought of saying: “We were drunk!” = not better. “We were curious!” = the same could be said about the farmer. “We didn’t know it would do this!” = ditto. “Haven’t you ever looked at porn?” = inappropriate timing. Like asking the Ted Bundy investigators, “Haven’t you ever had that urge to just freak out on somebody?”

What I said was, “Can you fix my computer?”

“Not right now.” Stu said. “I need to figure some stuff out.” I’ll bet he did. I don’t blame him. That’s a whole lotta first date.

Now, I limit my porn exploration to what I accidentally read on my cable guide. Teaser: if you are looking for gooey encounters with human life preservers, get into plumbing or DJ-ing.

Bug Ear

One time, I got a bug stuck in my ear. Which is a funny coincidence, since I have always wanted to never have a bug in my ear.

It happened in early summer, and I was fast asleep. At some point around 4 a.m., I was awakened by the sound of a helicopter crash-landing inside my head. I, like all humans on the planet, have experienced bug fly-bys of my ears on many occasions. Bees, for example, seem to really like my ears. They enjoy repeatedly buzzing up behind me, like fat, airborne playground bullies, chasing me around the swingset. Their dumptrucky buzzing is a nice reminder that a bee is almost in my ear. I like to run around my yard, waving my hands around my head and saying, “You won’t even fit in there! And I’ll probably kill you if you try, which I really don’t want to do because you’re the future! You’re the future!” I bet this is pretty funny to my neighbors.

Generally, I dislike flying insects. It seems like they get an unfair advantage. They are already bitey and stingy and too-many-leggy and wearing chitinous exoskeletal armor over their loathsome, malevolent silhouettes. If any bug were as big as a person, we would all freak the fuck out, even if it had a lovely personality. It would take a lot of paradigm adjustment and acceptance, not to mention furniture and undergarment redesign. Twenty percent of all meditation would be to gain control of involuntary shuddering.

So, adding “airborne” to the list of pernicious insect characteristics is unfair on the same scale as granting Donald Trump the ability to make women pregnant with his mind.

Wasps, hornets, and occasionally dragonflies are all creatures I respect and enjoy, unless they are attempting to go inside my ear. I particularly dislike lurking insects, with earwigs firmly in control of the top of the chart. Earwigs are ghastly creatures, some abominable hybrid of a lobster, a scorpion, and that Wrath of Khan Ceti Eel. And they are called “earwigs,” clearly indicating their intentions. I think, if Khan had spent more time on Earth before that whole hostage situation, he would have used earwigs. Fear, struck.

I don’t know what kind of bug went into my ear, because I was asleep when it went in, and while I can identify a short list of bird calls, I am unable to identify the type of insect in question from the sound of its various crunchy bits thropping against my ear canal. It’s a skill I wish to leave unhoned.
So, I woke at 4 a.m. and shot out of bed like, well, like a woman with a bug in her ear. I jumped around, flailing my arms and tipping my head dramatically to one side, pounding my head like a swimmer with water in her ear.

Before this happened, if I was writing a screenplay of me getting a bug in my ear, I would have written me screaming like a sorority girl under a chainsaw. But in the real scene, I sort of fluffily moaned, like a fat ghost. This makes me think I need to practice what I will do if my sister becomes a vampire or my neighbor becomes a zombie, just in case my response to those nightmare scenarios is equally unexpected.

I jumped around, flapping and pounding, for just a few seconds, while the bug did a similar sounding routine in my ear. Then, I heard a sort of wet, squunching sound, followed by frantic buzzing, more squelchy squenchy sounds, then a glurch, then, silence. I rapidly deduced that the insect had struggled itself into my ear wax, and was now ensconced. This thought was equally reassuring and repellant.

I woke up my husband, who was sleep-delirious, but sympathetic, and he shone a flashlight into my ear canal to investigate. “I can’t see anything. But there’s a kind of corner there, in your ear.” He only had one eye open. “You should just go back to sleep. It will work itself out,” he said, which was a terrific suggestion for someone completely different than me in every way.

I stood in the bathroom, stock-still and waiting, for an hour, listening intently to my own ear (as a side note, I’m pretty sure this is how Frank Zappa wrote his songs). I heard nothing. Maybe my husband was right. Just wait until some errant Q-Tip swipe retrieved the unfortunate soul’s remains. You know, in a month or something. I lay down. I reasoned with myself that searching the internet was a terrible idea. I have seen those pictures already, I told myself. All I would get out of the experience was a montage of worst-case scenarios from the National Geographic storyboard team: botflies and maggots and worms, emerging triumphantly like little pioneers from every conceivable part of human anatomy.

While I could no longer hear my ear guest, I could occasionally feel it, a kind of fluttery, tickly sensation, as though my ear was haunted. National Geographic botfly nightmare in mind, I bravely ignored it for as long as I could — which was about fifteen minutes.

I Googled, “Bug in my ear: what should I do?” with a not inconsiderable amount of trepidation. (As promised, image carousel.) Many helpful souls had posted message board accounts of their own harrowing bug invasions, and I read them voraciously. They all sort of agreed on the best approach: pour warm — not hot! — oil into the ear canal, and wait for the bug to drown. The viscosity of the oil was important, since it would need to completely fill the ear and glut the bug’s exoskeletal respiration. Which, while unimaginable not even an hour previously, had become my most passionate desire.

I heated some coconut oil by running hot water over the jar until it liquefied, and then, like a frat boy with a shot of Jaeger, I raised my little glass at my own reflection in the mirror, and dumped the whole thing into my ear. The oil filled my ear canal with a gurgle, and I definitely felt squiggling motion in the deepest part of my ear. I had to keep my head keened to the side to keep the oil in there for 3-5 minutes, which is the universally-accepted bug-drowning time. I cannot overstate to you how very profoundly, entirely yucky this was to me.

What I did not do was read about the proper technique for evacuating the coconut slurry/bug remains from my ear. I think I just assumed I would lean over the sink and it would glop out into the sink bowl, whereupon I would shout triumphantly, weep, then vomit. So when the timer went off (six minutes, just in case this bug was some kind of insect Michael Phelps) I jerkily leaned over and the coconut oil sort of seeped more than poured out of my ear.

Panicked, I lurched awkwardly over the sink, bent sideways in a modified windmill stretch, to stop the oil from just running down my shirt. It came out quickly then, but in my contorted human-staple position, I could not simultaneously watch the oil and extract it. In my haste, I had also neglected to stopper the sink. I realized this as the oil poured out and disappeared. I stood there for a long time, hoping with electric intensity for the bug’s complete expulsion. “I can always do it again,” I reassured myself, picturing the bug clinging to my cochlea like a tiny Kong on the Empire State building.

Careful examination of the sink bowl revealed a small clump of buggy things, including one discernable wing, and what looked like embrangled legs. No torso. No bug head, on which assumedly one would find pinchery bug monster fangs. Here were the things I was hoping, in the order I was hoping them:

1. The whole bug was out, but its heavy pincher/torso area had slipped down the drain.

2. If the bug or any bug detritus remained in my ear, it was dead.

3. If any part of the bug was still alive, it was small, and male.

4. If the living bug torso was alive and female, it was barren.

My doctor’s office would not open for another full two hours, and since the bug ear crisis had not been an emergency when the bug was certainly alive and in my ear, it was logically not an emergency now. I would wait. There was just one little problem: it was nearly 6 a.m., and I knew I needed to get ready, because, in the round, magical world of perfectly inverted miracles, I had a job interview at 8:30 a.m.

I went through my morning ablutions, cleaning and adorning myself. As I carefully applied makeup, it occurred to me that while my life had suddenly become some facsimile of the movie Brazil, I was handling it pretty well. I congratulated myself while I ironed my pants. “I’m unexpectedly good at this,” I said to my business-clad reflection. I called the doctor, and made my appointment for 10:30.

I arrived at the job interview, and was ushered into a huge conference room with a sprawling, lovely wooden table. Within ten minutes, five different managers were all sitting around the table, with copies of my résumé and lists of questions. I was focused enough on the interview to ignore the possible plus one for quite a while, but felt something trickling down my neck. I reached my hand up, and discovered a line of coconut oil, running down my neck from my ear. I quickly wiped it away, and cleaned my hand on my pants leg. Unfortunately, it seemed that some kind of fluid tension had broken in my ear, releasing a small trove of oil to the whims of gravity. I began a furtive campaign to wipe the now steady stream of oil every few seconds, nervous that the oil would puddle around my collar, or saturate the front of my blouse like a gunshot wound, or the weirdest sweat pattern ever seen. My various clandestine, now spastic wiping techniques were relentless, and while I was explaining the ways I was intrinsically a team player, I was staring lustily and fixedly at the clean, dry napkin under my coffee mug, willing it into my ear canal. I simply could not understand how so much more oil was still in my ear.

The interviewers came to the end of their questions. The big boss asked me what it would take for me to join their team. After discussing that, the conversation veered off into ideas for improvement, previous experiences, best practices, and more coffee. Also, 13,796 covert oil wipes. The clock on the wall approached 10:20, and the looming specter of missing the doctor’s appointment and spending another day with my bug passenger was more than I could handle. Finally, I said, “I hate to do this, but I have to tell you guys something. I have a bug in my ear. I have an appointment to have it removed in ten minutes, so I really have to go.” The entire table stood up simultaneously, and I started to giggle uncontrollably. “It’s such a relief to tell you that!” I giggled. “I’ve been really trying to keep it together!” We shook hands, and I literally ran to the doctor’s office, where the doctor verified that the only thing left in my ear was ear wax, coconut oil (how was that possible?!) and tiny bits of what must have been bug detritus.

I’ll be honest with you: having a bug in your ear is horrible, but not as bad as I thought it would be. Especially since it was in there a while. After a couple hours, I couldn’t panic about it anymore. It was kind of like one of those Wile E. Coyote falling scenes where he falls for a really, really, really long time. It turns out, you only scream for the first thousand feet or so. Then you might occasionally scream, but after an hour, hour and a half, you just get used to your new life of falling, or mopping bug-infused oil from your cleavage while discussing benchmarking in a competitive sales environment.

And for the record — all hyperbole aside — if it was an earwig I would have yowled like a lunatic-banshee, and then punched myself in the face until I passed out.

Abortion Contest

In 2003, George W. Bush was running for re-election. (I don’t want to talk about whether or not this was a re-election campaign or an election campaign, after the Florida funny business. I’m just glad he’s not the president now.) The campaign was ugly. The issues were suddenly intensely divisive and personal — particularly where Roe v. Wade was concerned. You couldn’t turn the radio on without hearing ferocious, fervent diatribes surrounding the issue of legal abortion. I was accustomed to avoiding the conversation, and, hopefully, allowing each person to reconcile their own reproductive decisions between themselves and God or whomever they like to reconcile themselves to.

But it was all over the radio and television, in conversation overheard in bank teller lines and grocery stores, and, it turns out, on the playground. My son was only 9 years old. I’m not sure how the political pogwank wove itself into playground diatribe — perhaps between games of four-square and soggy rectangle pizza slices, the little ones polarized and debated the benefits and disadvantages of prison reform and estate tax in hissed, lispy whispers. Anyway. I think it was sometime around October? The campaign rhetoric was bitter, loud, and everywhere. I fielded ten kabillion questions from my son about everything from homosexuality to terrorism, providing spanky PBS answers, neatly avoiding genitals, hate, and murder. Then, one day, as I drove us to the grocery store, my son piped up, “Mom, what’s an abortion?”

There are moments, as a mother, when you feel a cold heaviness descend around you, when time briefly stops and birds are frozen mid-air, and you feel the heavy hand of God on your shoulder. “Hey,” says God. “Don’t fuck this up.”

“Well,” I said to my son, “an abortion is when a woman decides to end a pregnancy.” Not bad, right? Even-handed.

My son had obviously been told another definition (see “playground diatribe,” above). “Is it when a mom kills her baby?”

I knew I was on very fragile soil. I didn’t want to sound off on my own political views, but I also didn’t want to leave him with the impression he had. I wanted to leave his mind open, so he could make it himself when he had the maturity and information with which to do so. When he turns 36.

“Some people think it’s murder,” I told him. “Some people think it’s more important for the woman to be able to choose when she becomes a mom. When a woman ends a pregnancy, it’s because she isn’t ready or able to be a mom.”

“Why wouldn’t someone want to be a mom?” (This is a hard question to answer from your own child, because all the answers boil down to, “because you and your kind are megalomaniacal assholes an astonishing percentage of the time, and the rest of the time, the love we feel is so catastrophic, it’s hard to even survive. It’s like living with a giant bacterium, or seeing the face of God, by turns.”) I measured my response carefully. “Well, sometimes a woman doesn’t get to choose if she gets pregnant or not. And, sometimes a woman knows her body can’t make a healthy baby. And sometimes a young woman gets pregnant and knows she’s too young to be a mom.”

My son scrunched his face. “But you were young, Mom.”

Now, I was 21 when he was born, and that was young, for me. What I had meant was young young. But I didn’t want to say, “I mean like, 14, honey” because my son would’ve freaked out. I also didn’t know yet what he’d be like at 14, and didn’t want to inadvertently give him any ideas. So, I said, “Yes, I was young.” He said, “So, why didn’t you have an abortion of me?”

I knew I needed to be particularly careful how I responded. So, I said, “Well, when I found out I was pregnant, I thought hard about all the possibilities, and I just knew I wanted to be your mom.” My son smiled. “Oh.” Then we talked about what he was like when he was a baby, and the time he almost killed the daycare lady. (I’ll tell you that one later.)

So, good conversation, right? Way to field a series of very sticky subjects with finesse and love, right? Those Mother of the Year people are waiting for me on line three, right?

Wrong. So, so wrong.

Flash forward, to around May. I was driving my son to school. We were chatting about random items of preparedness (the location and status of his lunch, mittens, and homework) and dinner plans (chicken spaghetti, no cheese). At the light that precedes his school by some five blocks, my son smiled at me and said, “Mom! I forgot to tell you! I wrote a story about you.”

“Really?” I said, smiling into the rear-view mirror.

“Yes!”

I was touched. My heart was warmed. I smiled my way through the recently greened light.”That’s so nice, honey! What’s it about?”

“It’s called ‘The Light of Love.’ Everybody had to write one. It’s supposed to be about the person who did the nicest thing for you ever. I wrote mine about you.”

“What did I do that was so great? Is it about how you never have any clean underpants?” He laughed.

If you have an ominous soundtrack on hand, this is when to cue it up.

“I wrote my essay about you because you did the nicest thing for me. I wrote about how you almost had an abortion of me, but you didn’t.”

I slammed on the brakes, whipping over the car to the side of the road. “You what????!!!!” I hissed. “You WHAT???!!! YOU WHAT????” My son had gone invisible, his skin had changed to the color of the backseat, and he had stopped breathing to avoid detection. “You wrote an essay telling everyone that I almost aborted you? Why would you do that? WHERE IN THE HELL DID YOU EVER GET THAT IDEA?”

“From you! You said you found out you were pregnant with me, you thought about all the options, but then you had me.”

And this is why, children of the world, your mother won’t answer the question, “Why would anyone not want to be a mom?” I buried my face in my hands, too simultaneously furious and mortified (mortifurious — a sort of Mom form of Zen) to do anything. “Did you turn the essay in?” I asked.

“Yes.” My son replied, his face stricken. After verifying that my son did not actually believe I almost aborted him, I found myself faced with a very unpleasant task. I would have to sit down with his teacher, a lovely woman I knew very little about save her excellence in the classroom, and discuss several very intimate and delicate matters. I walked my son into the classroom and waved her over to me. “Can I talk to you for a minute?” I asked.

“Sure,” she said, stepping into the hall. “What’s up?”

There was no gentle way to do it. I ramble-ranted. I babble ramble-ranted. “I don’t know you, and I promise I would never put you in this position if there was any other alternative and before I go any further, please understand that I am not asking for your position on this issue, or asking you to agree with mine but my son wrote some essay for you called, ‘The Light of Love?’” She looked thoroughly perplexed.

“Yes?” She said.

“About the nicest thing anybody ever did for the kids?” I asked.

“Yes?” she said.

“Well, my son wrote his essay about how I did the nicest thing for him because I didn’t abort him.”

Her hands flew up to cover her mouth.

“I have to explain. I didn’t almost have an abortion. Although, if I had considered an abortion, that would have been fine with me because I think that’s my right to do. But in any event, I sure as hell wouldn’t have told him about it! He talked about it like I sat him down and was like, ‘You’re one lucky, kid. That was a close one.’” I dragged my finger across my throat. “I didn’t almost have an abortion, although I am pro-choice and think it was my choice to make but I wouldn’t tell him that, either. I wouldn’t talk to him about any of this!” I was rattling away like a crazy person.

She stood, stock-still, hands over her mouth.

“I’m sorry to have to tell you all this, and like I said, I don’t expect you to tell me how you feel about it. But I needed you to know I’m not some monster who tells her kid he almost didn’t make the cut,” I said. “And I’m sorry I said it that way,” I said.

She held up her hand. “It’s not that.” She said. “It’s fine, of course you didn’t tell him that. It’s just that those essays aren’t here.”

Do you still have that ominous track cued up? Just put it on continuous play.

“What do you mean, they’re not here?” I hissed.

“They’re not here. We sent them away. They’re for a writing contest.”

“A writing contest?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, moving her palm to her forehead. “Ugh. This is bad. They’re being judged by local residents of long-term care facilities.”

Perfection! But of course they are. I could see it now; frail, shaking, blue-veined hands manipulating old-timey letter openers, cooing and clucking as they read the adorable missives contained therein: “Agnes! Listen to this! ‘The nicest thing that anyone ever did for me was bring me to church, where I learned about Jesus.’ What a precious angel.”

“Marjory, did you read the one about the little boy who says his puppy did the nicest thing for him ever when he licked his face after his dad had been killed in the line of duty, saving an entire orphanage? Just beautiful.”

Meanwhile, in the corner of the room, poor Margaret held my son’s hideous homage in tiny, arthritic, clenched fists. “What kind of monster would tell their sweet boy he was almost an abortion? What has happened to the world I knew? You know what? I’m changing my living will to ‘Do Not Resuscitate.’” Not only did we not win, we might have killed people. I briefly contemplated going to the long-term care facility and explaining this whole thing to them, but just couldn’t imagine how I could do it and not seem bonkers or offensive, or both.

This is the real reason I won’t allow my mom to ever end up in one of those places. I don’t know if any of those residents are still there, and I can’t be certain they won’t recognize my name.