First Pee, Now Poo!

Portland, Oregon is apparently having a difficult time protecting its water reservoirs. A few short weeks ago Portland Water Bureau personnel got their shorts in a wad (Should I say that? It’s not polite.) about the kid who purportedly peed in or near one of the reservoirs.

In May 2013, Portlanders rejected a plan to fluoridate city water for the fourth time since 1956. A scant year later, the city is divided over whether or not Portland teenager Dallas Swonger should be held accountable for the Water Bureau’s decision to divert 38 million gallons of water when the 18-year-old allegedly urinated into the reservoir. Water Bureau Administrator David Shaff called Swonger a “yahoo” to the Associated Press, and issued a challenge when he referenced the size of the youth’s genitals, stating, “He has to get his little wee wee right up to the iron bars…” (Teen Accused of Peeing in Reservoir ‘Didn’t Piss In The Fu—ing Water’ Huffington Post, April 18, 2014).

Maybe I’m missing something—I admit that I don’t have a penis—but it seems like this has turned into a classic pissing match. For all I know, peeing in public could be some kind of male developmental milestone. I’m reminded of a situation at Oregon City High School where a senior was written up for intentionally urinating on the bathroom wall. He was a student who couldn’t afford a suspension, so I asked the vice principal to let me talk to him and come up with a suitable alternative consequence. Turns out, there was no ill intent: the student had been dared by another to try to pee his name in cursive. He agreed to scrub the bathroom walls, and the situation was resolved.

A couple years before that, my son was attending Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He and his roommates—all students in the engineering and pilot degree programs—flew to Sedona, Arizona where they landed the aircraft and went for lunch. By the time they got back to the plane, the sun was beginning to set and there was frost on the wings. The students scraped the wings with their debit cards, a tedious task. One of them got the kind of bright idea that only third year engineering students who understand fluid mechanics would get: They unzipped their pants and peed on the wing thinking it would melt the frost. Instead they had to scrape off one another’s frozen urine.

Fifty years earlier, my not yet husband Dennis and his friend Don were driving back from the Oregon coast in a red 1950 Ford convertible. They were nearly out of gas, coasting down the hills hoping they would make it to the flatland where there would be a gas station. Suddenly, Dennis had to pee. “I was being efficient,” he says now of the situation that occurred when he was nineteen. “I didn’t want to waste the gas it would take to pull over and then start the car again.” He climbed over the back seat while Don coasted down the hill, unzipped his blue jeans, and peed out the back of the convertible. A Greyhound bus full of passengers pulled up behind the car. Shortly thereafter, a police car pulled them over. Dennis was arrested and hauled to jail. He paid a $55 fine.

I can’t be the only woman in the world that knows men who’ve engaged in such antics. Swonger has a point: with all the dead bugs, vermin, and bird waste that must fall into an open-air reservoir, a couple ounces of human urine can’t possibly be a significant health risk. Maybe we need to sit Swonger and Shaff at a table with somebody’s mother. Mom can remind Swonger it’s not nice to pee in public. Then, she can remind Shaff that commenting on the size of another person’s genitals is always in bad taste. And now that e-coli has been found in three separate tests, all of Portland is boiling its water. Nothing like that to make Swonger’s point hit home.

Essay Questions the Efficacy of Foster Care

I have new essay up in STIR Journal about foster care.

In rural Oregon, an 11-year-old girl wearing a pair of plastic sandals walked 13 miles to a local tavern and convinced a man she didn’t know to drive her two and a half hours north to Long Beach, Wash. She was sick of foster care. She wanted to go home.

A 2011 survey reported that 13 percent of all foster children run away at least once, and another 9 percent abandon their foster homes to live with friends. When 22 percent of any child population flees the system which adults have provided to keep them safe, something is wrong. These youth may have insights the rest of us fail to see. Studies show foster care is a highway to health problems, homelessness, early pregnancy, arrest, incarceration, and sex trafficking. And those are the lucky kids. Foster care alumni are five times more likely to commit suicide and eight times more likely to be hospitalized for a serious psychiatric disorder.

Then again, decades of research show that childhood maltreatment interrupts healthy emotional, behavioral, and cognitive development, so we can chalk up the poor outcomes to abuse that occurred before these children were rescued, right?

Click the title to read the rest of the article:U.S. FOSTER CARE: A FLAWED SOLUTION THAT LEADS TO MORE LONG-TERM PROBLEMS?

“Listen to Your Mother” PDX Wowed the Crowd!

LTYM Selfie of cast

I never would have believed that getting up on a stage in front of 300 people and reading “The Secret Life of Mr. Potato Head” about a child masturbating with a vibrating toy would have flown. But it did.

And the stories of the other thirteen women who shared the stage with me, one at a time, flew too. We rocked the role of motherhood right off that stage and into the hearts and minds of those who listened. We talked about poo, and pee, and puke (requisites, all) and flight attendant voices when we wanted to scream. Our stories pondered our own mothers having sex (ew!), the need for the term neo-mom, the secrets that mothers and daughters keep from one another, and the elation when a mother’s gay children finally have the right to marry. We talked about how sad we were when our bodies tired from years of starving ourselves to be thin, refused to concieve, the grief of divorce burning into a flame bright and hot enough to forge gold with our ex in order to create a new way of being with our child. We raved about exhaustion and how we need to stop being mean to other women and trust we are goddesses all, and how losing a birthmother and finding her again is a gift that is worth the journey. We refused to accept “Your hands are full” as anything but the beauty of “My heart is full, too.” We shared our fears about post-partum anxiety, and the relief of discovering one isn’t alone; the messy beauty of finding out one is pregnant and the love of a stepfather who hugs us and says, “I’ll go tell your mom,” and we laughed, and the crowd laughed with us over the humor of teaching our children to swear, only to have them shouting “HUCK!” while trying to pull a tooth from their mouth in the middle of Fred Meyers.

Motherhood has been forever. Our stories lit up the stage for one fine day. It was beautiful.

LTYM stage bow

Love and Loss Entwined

For nineteen years, I’ve been a Court Appointed Special Advocate, a CASA. My role has been to be the eyes and ears of the court, the voice of the child. It’s an awesome responsibility to speak for a child: their hopes and dreams, their need for loving days and safe nights. In one of my early cases, I recommended a little girl in foster care return to live with her mom. State workers disagreed. The judge ordered Children’s Services to return the child home.

Three months later, just before her second birthday, she was dead. Drowned or strangled, medical examiners could not agree. Buried in a fancy dress, white lace panties, and a gold cross her mother was too poor to afford.

CASA contacted an attorney to protect me from making statements in my grief that could insinuate civil liability. My attorney was the kindest hero, but he did the cruelest thing: he forbade me to talk. For a CASA empowered to be “the voice of the child”, silence is a terrible thing. Nights were intolerable. When I tried to sleep, I dreamt of her fair skin slipping off tiny bones. One night, unable to sleep, I wrote a letter to the judge asking where he found the courage to go on.

“We are not God…” he replied.

Many nights, I read his letter over and over, waiting for sleep to come: “It is appropriate to feel sad. It is wrong to feel guilty. It is truly inappropriate to speak of blame.”

Caseworkers and attorneys went on to other cases. The mother was sentenced. The judge retired. I took a leave of absence. Walking through Nordstrom that Christmas, a pair of small red patent leather shoes caught my eye. “She will never get to wear red shoes…”

That spring, a friend invited me to a writing retreat at Sylvia Beach. Cynthia Whitcomb was discussing how to sustain your spirit as a writer. My spirit was broken. I couldn’t sleep. Couldn’t write.

“Find a consistent time to write,” Cynthia said. “Whenever you can, even if it’s 3am.”

“No way,” I thought. “I barely get through the days.” Ironically, the Thursday before I’d gone to the retreat, a caseworker from the state called. Would I take in a foster baby?

“I don’t do babies,” I said.

“We need you to work with the mom,” she said. “She’s seventeen…and he’s a drug-affected baby.”

97180006Two hours later, I held a five pound, twice-resuscitated baby in my arms. His name was Jonathan. His first and last names were the same as the judge who had shared my heart-wrenching case. The name coincidence felt like an omen. I called Children’s Services back. “Come get him,” I said. I was terrified he would die.

As I waited for them to come, I held him close. Rocking. Whispering. Finding my mother-legs again. Hours passed. I called Children’s Services back. “Never mind,” I said.

Jonathan woke me at 2:00 a.m.. Tiny lips too weak to seal on the nipple, he gasped for air between choking swallows. By the time I fed him and changed his diaper–raw where the drugs coming through his system made his skin peel and bleed– it was 3:00am. I stood over his crib, wide awake.

I sat at my computer and stared at the blank screen. Sometime during that first night, I typed FADE IN.

In those first three months–with my deceased CASA child’s skin slipping in my dreams and Jonathan’s peeling in the day– I typed. Every night, Jonathan woke me about 2 a.m. We struck a silent bargain. I’d be his mother. He’d be my muse. By the time I hit page 103, Jonathan was sleeping through the night. A few nights later, I typed FADE OUT.

It’s years later now. After finishing the screenplay, I’ve struggled to process the loss in poetry and prose. A dozen years later, in Karen Karbo’s classes, I found the courage to write the story as memoir. I’ve finished writing and editing the story that reveals these dark days, and the gift of Jonathan’s arrival.

This Sunday, Jonathan turns sixteen. I’m so grateful I get to be his mom.

Two Women Who Pointed My Way

prince charming play


In sixth grade, I scribbled my first play, “Prince Charming and the Seven Widows.” This was not an innovative or complex story. It had no real educational value. It wasn’t the original lyrics or dance numbers that prompted my teacher Mrs. Shrauger to ask me to produce and direct it using our class as cast and crew. Perhaps it was my enthusiasm. Perhaps it was her heart.

Phyllis Shrauger

Phyllis Shrauger was a member of the Hoquiam City Council when I was in her sixth grade classroom. She was an advocate for the arts, and civic responsibility, and took our class to a city council meeting. The choir she led sang Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” and “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music in nursing homes. She was the first teacher I ever witnessed providing differentiated instruction–before I’d ever heard such a term–for students who were differently abled. She partnered me with a student who had just moved to the country from Southeast Asia (I don’t remember where) and gave us each a hall pass to wander the school grounds whenever we liked, naming objects in English. Another student in class had a toy telephone in his desk that he called the Tigger Phone. She would pause whenever he pretended it rang.

Mrs. Shrauger treated my manuscript as if it weren’t derivative. She encouraged me to select a cast and let me lead  a dozen students from class to the stage each day to practice our play, then convinced the principal to let us stage it for the entire school.



A few years later, I went to a small high school in a rural town. Marsha West, an English teacher, encouraged us to make radio plays of Greek and Roman mythology, and newspapers accounts of those decadent gods. Some of my favorite early passages in literature were from those we studied in her classes. Two years in a row, she took several of us to Port Townsend to polish and publish our stories as part of a statewide literary magazine called Crosscut.

I was a logger’s daughter without financial resources for college, so I moved to Edmonds, Washington with a friend, and went to work at Jack in the Box after high school graduation. I cleaned the morgue and pathology labs at a Seattle hospital.  In my twenties, I worked for an army recruiter briefly, and later, processed overpayments for Social Security. After ten years of facing people’s death and disability, I took a good look around and knew I didn’t want to be there. I quit my government job to become an electrician’s apprentice. Then I quit that to caretake three children whose parent sexually abused and neglected them. Through the next two decades  children I parented over thirty children, many with special needs.

Even mothers get a few solitary moments to pee. I hung a magnetic board on the inside of my bathroom door. For three minutes, several times a day, I could steal away and manipulate words while my world held steady. Oh sure, somebody was yelling “Mom!” right outside the door. Bolstered by bits of type, I’d reply, “Just a minute, I’m…busy.” As tired as I was, I followed Cynthia Whitcomb’s advise and lengthened my day by rising at 3 a.m. to write.

While I was busy patching lives and purging demons, I found new dreams: helping a young man be the first in his family to graduate high school. Seeing an elementary child’s rage at her rapist transform into powerful art. Seeing a mentally ill mother who killed her child get a fair trial. Witnessing my twin sons earn scholarships: One to Georgetown University, the other to Embry Riddle. Seeing each of my children grow up and seize life on their own terms.

Life will give you dreams if you are willing to see them.

In the midst of all that, I wrote a half dozen screenplays. One did pretty well in the Austin and Sundance contests, resulting in a story meeting in Los Angeles. The producer and I chatted before the meeting. He asked how many kids I had.

“A lot,” I said.

“How many is a lot?”

I hesitated, but what’s a mother to do?

“More than you can count on one hand,” I said.

He loved the script and agreed to shop it. But as we parted, he said, “You have so many children, I’m not sure you have the commitment to be a writer.”

Parenting is about commitment. Staying for the long haul. Relinquishing self-indulgence except in stolen moments that come between other people’s needs. I didn’t sell the screenplay although Lifetime held it for six months, passed, and requested it again a year later.

“Does the baby have to die?” they asked me, as if in telling a true story, I could change the outcome.

Despite some terrible days on which I failed as a mother and an advocate, I’m proud of what I have accomplished on behalf of people who needed me when their lives were darkest. So many changes in me as a result of caring deeply and taking a stand. I was led by these two extraordinary teachers and forged by fire. From that fire, I now write.

* * *

Marsha West is alive and well, and still writing and loving life. You can read her blog at Marsha’s Musings.

Phyllis Shrauger passed away in 2009. You can read more about her here.


This is the best video I’ve seen to capture the many issues in removing a child from his or her home and placing the child in foster care. It illustrates the child’s anger, fear, loss, and conflicted feelings about wanting to be with their birth family. It captures the devastating affect of multiple moves. The film also helps portray why it can be so challenging to foster a child whose history creates seemingly inexplicable behavior.

“Following a sound, an image, a formal structure, repetition, or any poetic device, can help to keep the mind occupied so that the emotions are held at bay, or so that the emotion can be subsumed in the device, the image, the metaphor, so as to not bleed out onto the page as cliche or sentimentality.  You want the rawness of the experience, but not the actual gaping wound. It’s a delicate thing to write about trauma,”

~Dorianne Laux