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.

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.


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.