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Here Be Dragons

ART: Britton Sukys


On Washington State’s Peninsula, nestled deep in the Olympic National Park, the Sol Duc Hot Springs tempted me with warm waters and a fantastic origin story. An online blurb said:

Native American legend tells how the springs were created by dragons.

“Once there were two dragons. One lived in the Sol Duc Valley and the other lived in the Elwha Valley. Neither dragon knew of the other’s existence. One day they were both out exploring the forest when they came face to face on top of the ridge separating the Elwha and Sol Duc Valleys. They exploded with anger as each accused the other of invading its territory.

“The fight was brutal as the dragons thrashed and ripped at each other to win back their territory. After years of fighting and clawing at each other, they grew frustrated. Their strength was evenly matched and neither could win. The dragons both admitted defeat and crawled back to caves in their respective valleys and are still crying over being defeated. The dragons’ hot tears are the source of the hot springs in the Elwha and Sol Duc Valleys.”

I read this back in August, while we were on our annual family vacation to the Olympic Peninsula, and I decided we had to go there. Dragons are kind of our thing.

During our first visit to the Hoh River Valley, we started playing Dungeons & Dragons together.

ART: Britton Sukys

Fantasy plays a central role in the way we talk about the world with our kids.

03-07-14 Mommy Fantasy
My mother and my son’s 3rd grade art

I once suspected a dragon was responsible for a problem under our basement.

ART: Britton Sukys

My husband even summoned a dragon to watch over the alley retaining wall behind our house.

ART: Britton Sukys

The thought of bathing in dragon tears was irresistible to my overactive imagination.With a legend like that, it had to be a magic place. Surely, the waters would grant me some powerful vision.

As we drove to the Sol Duc Resort, I imagined there would be dragon relics everywhere. In my mind, I saw myself discovering a portal to the primordial wisdom of the forest.

We paid the $25 entrance fee to the National Park and another $48 for day passes to the pools, and I mentally budgeted for the dragon T-shirts and traditional dragon art I was sure would be in the gift shop. I wanted to document whatever epiphany I received.

But when I got there, I found nothing about the legend. In fact, I couldn’t find any information on the local tribes. I did find that lunch for four at the snack bar cost $78. Without any beer.

Despite the lack of dragon souvenirs, historic documentation, or a frosty mug, the hot spring pools still enchanted me with their heat and lingering scent of rotten eggs.

Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort
Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort, PHOTO: Britton Sukys

Soaking in the sulfur, I wondered about the deeper meaning of the legend. Stories, especially ancient myths, speak on many levels. Bathing in dragon tears, shed after bitter, endless battles, seemed like a powerful metaphor for dealing with an unwinnable feud.

The forest hot springs are now channeled into chlorinated, cement pools surrounded by a tall fence. The local tribes were forced off the land many years ago. I could only imagine how the original residents made use of the natural springs.

It occurred to me that the steaming, stinky waters and their accompanying legend may have been a way to cook out the inevitable violent frustration that comes with uneasy truces. Drown your hot rage, sacrifice it to the fantastic beast that also couldn’t vanquish those deplorable neighbors.

After further poaching in the pools, though, I began to think instead that the hot springs percolated warriors for another defense of sacred territory. Absorb the dragon’s rage and strength, fight for your terrible beast’s honor.

Depending on the day and situation, I could see either interpretation as good guidance. If I wanted to hard-boil my hunch, I’d need more context. I decided to track down the source story.

Back at our cabin, I couldn’t find mention of the tale on any of the Peninsula tribes’ websites. All the online references to the legend were on tourist sites and they all circled back on themselves. There were plenty of dragon tears hits, but I couldn’t find which tribe first shared the story – or to whom.

Something smelled fishy. The purported legend started to reek of marketing gimmick. I knew better than to seek enlightenment from a clever commercial.


Don’t be fooled by the vast forests and languid mists of the Olympic Peninsula. It’s not a serene wilderness. Much like the Elwha and Sol Duc dragons, people have been battling for control of its rich landscape for centuries. Since the 1880’s, Native tribes, non-Native settlers, tourists, timber companies, and the U.S. military have staked claims to it.

When we first drove along Highway 101 out to the most Northwest point of the contiguous United States, it looked like a 1960’s travel postcard. The overexposed light, the blankets of evergreens, and the isolation made it seem frozen in time.

Then I passed the lumber company clear cuts and ramshackle homesteader sites with crudely lettered signs protesting federal land grabs. The remote tribal reservations, clinging to the coastline, vulnerable to rising ocean waters, were a mix of extreme poverty and fierce cultural preservation. The illusion of the Olympic Peninsula as a pristine sanctuary dissolved.

Clearcut on Highway 101, PHOTO: Megan Sukys

radio story I edited back in 2009 first drew me to the Peninsula. The self-proclaimed “Sound Tracker” Gordon Hempton determined that deep in the Hoh Rain Forest he found the quietest One Square Inch in America.

I live on a busy city street, near a major Air Force/Army base, up the hill from train tracks and a shipping port. Noise is my life. So, I took my family out there to discover the balm of silence. For a few years we were heard the world as our ancestors did.

The serenity didn’t last. Recently, Navy Growler jets drowned out the frogs with sonic booms. The U.S. Forest Service granted “permission to the Navy to route its Boeing EA-18G Growler jets over Olympic National Park on electronic-warfare training exercises”. (Seattle Times, 4/17/16)

We listened to the jets fly for an hour at a time, twice a day. Then, we inhaled the peace that returned once the jets went back to their hangars.

While I searched the internet for the dragons of legend at my remote woodland vacation rental, the real-life, roaring, fire-breathing beasts of today flew circles overhead. My cursory Google inquiries only yielded dead ends, so I promised myself I’d do deeper research back at home.


With my magical Sol Duc dragon fantasy under review, and hoping to distract us from the military maneuvers overhead, I started reading “The Buried Giant” out loud to my husband. My mother-in-law gave it to me as a birthday present, and I knew very little about the plot when I started it.

I had to use my outside voice to be louder than Navy Growlers, but we were still drawn into Kazuo Ishiguro’s take on post-Arthurian Britain. It’s a story of a living under a fragile truce between deeply divided cultures. In the wake of wars between the Britons and the Saxons, Ishiguro follows an elderly couple searching for their estranged son through a mysterious mist causing amnesia across the land.

My husband and I noted the coincidence of the novel telling another story about territory disputes. Then we reached the part of the book where Ishiguro reveals the source of the mist. A creature named Querig. A dragon. We upgraded the coincidence to synchronicity.

ART: Britton Sukys

I reserved our cabin in the woods for six nights, but just before midnight on the fifth night Navy jets began nonstop exercises. The Growlers screeched across the sky for five minutes, then circled to the other side of Mt. Olympus, giving us five minutes of quiet, and then came howling back into our airspace. I didn’t sleep at all.

The maneuvers continued into the morning and stretched past noon. Five minutes of sonic shrieking, five tense minutes waiting for the war machines to return. Finally, I admitted defeat and packed the car to leave early, returning to my urban cave to cry hot tears over the money I spent on a rental I couldn’t use.

Back in Tacoma, I finished reading “The Buried Giant” and all of its resonant themes of mutually assured destruction, military occupation, wounds that won’t heal, cultural divides, and the challenge of forgiveness. Ishiguro’s dragon was not the same as the Sol Duc dragon, or the Navy Growlers, but they all told the same story. Beasts of battle die hard.


I expected that my further investigation into the Sol Duc dragon legend would reveal it as a modern fabrication. But, like all my other expectations, this turned out to be wrong.

I contacted the Olympic National Park, the Burke Museum, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, and the Quileute Nation. They were all incredibly helpful.

I found that the story being used by the National Park was originally in the book “Gods & Goblins” by Smitty Parratt. Smitty grew up with a National Park Ranger for a father. Smitty went on to work with the National Park Service himself. The dragon legend was one of many stories he catalogued from the Olympic National Park. However, Smitty wasn’t a tribal source. He re-told the story as he heard it.

Then, the Quileute Nation helped put me in touch with Larry Burtness, the tribe’s grant writer and planner. He sent me this link to a Quileute account of the Sol Duc legend by Chris Morganroth III. There I found the same story of evenly matched opponents and hot tears, but the beasts were not called dragons, just monsters.

And then, Larry put me in touch with Jay Powell, an anthropologist who, along with his partner Vickie Jensen, has helped preserve many of the languages, stories, and traditions of Washington and British Columbia tribe. Jay sent me this account, as told by Hal George. Hal’s telling gave me a much richer description of the weeping creatures beneath the hot springs:

Both monsters were fierce, like martens, and strong and wiry and real smart because they were old. They had big mouths full of teeth as big as a man and sharp toenails. And their breath was like a hot wind that could burn you if you stood close, and they cooked their meat by just blowing on it. They were real big; when they walk through the woods you can see their heads and backs above the trees. When they fight they whip their tails on this side and on this (other) side and roll around. Their tails break off trees. And when they roll they flatten the trees they roll over. And sometimes the hard breathin’ sets the woods on fire around the battlefield. So that’s why nothin’ grows on Boulder Peak.

Well, then. Those two monsters are just covered with scars. They have scars all over their bodies from fightin’ because they have been meetin’ to fight for a lon’ time. They have big scars where their skin was ripped and tore. Every time they fight, they fight until they are bloody and tired, all bit, bones broke, skin ripped and burned. They have scars on top of scars.

But, they are even matched so one of them can never kill the other one. Neither one can kill the other one. We say they have ¶ibiti taxîlit, real stron’ spirit power. If you are a good warrior, you need that power. Neither one can kill the other. But they cause real bad injuries to each other every time they fight. Often them fights went on all day until night and it got dark. Then, they stop and roar. Both of them roar and roar and sing a victory song. The Quileute monster sang his song: “¶ip•ll• abi/ ¶ib•ti ti/l. ¶qpitilawli. Ahii. Ahiii. ‘A’a’aaaa. (four times) He’s talkin’ about havin’ a strong power and that’s why he is always winnin’. The Elwha monster sings, too. And then they roar some more and go home. They go to their cave.

These were my dragons! Mouths full of teeth, huge tails, breath to ignite the forest, and “real stron’ spirit power”. And there was the message to the warriors, “If you are a good warrior, you need that power.” Spirit power.

This documentation of the story titles it “The Border Monsters”. Jay Powell says that this tale takes place, “in the liminal region of peaks and rain-forest riverine headwaters where Elwha and Quileute territories come together”. The world liminal jumped out at me.

Liminal” is used in anthropology, medicine, and literature. It refers to that confusing, slippery space of transformation between an old way and a new way. Terrible things can happen when we leave known territory and venture into wilderness. But, moving through that space is the only way to achieve lasting change.

In the 16th century, liminal space on a map was noted with the phrase, “Here be dragons“.


The idea of dragons as threshold guardians resonated. They have held that job in stories around the world, including Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Buried Giant”. But, border monsters didn’t set my imagination running. Soaking in their tears did.

I set up a makeshift hot spring in my tub at home, adding epsom salts, leaving out old eggs, and stewed on the matter. Wading deep into the realm of metaphor, I remembered that the phrase “take a bath” can also mean losing big on a major investment. Certainly, not being able to vanquish a perceived threat can feel like going broke.

In the Sol Duc legend as told by Hal George, though, “both of them roar and roar and sing a victory song”. The Quileute monster sings about having a strong power and “that’s why he is always winnin’. The Elwha monster sings, too.”

It’s only once the monsters go home from the fruitless battle that they move a rock over their holes, lick their wounds, and cry. “They cry and cry because they are hurt bad.”

The description of the monsters sounded a lot like what I know as dragons, but the Quileute don’t use that word. According to Hal George, the Sol Duc dragon was named “the monster who cries in the woods”. It wasn’t named, “the monster who lost”, or even “the monster who sets the woods on fire”. The monster was known for the sorrow it feels that its perceived enemy was so evenly matched.


As preface to the Sol Duc legend, Hal George tells how the mythic Quileute hero Q’wati, called “The Transformer” in English, established the border between the Elwha and the Quileute. Q’wati piled up boulders at the boundary because the two tribes fought over territory “until Stormking Mountain had enough of it and tore off a big stone from his head. He threw it down and killed the warriors…” That’s how Lake Crescent came to be.

Mount Storm King over Lake Crescent, WA PHOTO: Wikipedia

The dragons of the legend guard a border meant to keep human battles from fracturing the earth itself.


Stories, especially ancient myths, speak on many levels. They also speak different lessons to each person, depending on what the person needs to know.

The Sol Duc legend tells me that if I want to venture beyond the boundaries that fence me in, I will have to face the dragon at the divide. I cannot expect to defeat that dragon, not even if I have a dragon of my own.

Unable to eliminate my foe, I can soak my head in the sorrow of my limitations. But if I go too deep into those bitter tears, I could drown in despair. Or, I could steep myself for another painful, fruitless fight. Either way, those waters stink.

Instead, I’m going to let those tears wash away my fiery rage, a rage so powerful it could burn up the very land that nurtures me. If defeat is impossible, for either side, then I’ll make sure to wear only my human form, and to pack my real stron’ spirit power, as I venture once more into the liminal space that promises true transformation.

The Mother of All Jobs

photo by Britton Sukys
photo by Britton Sukys


“Not everyone has to become a mother, Megan. The world also needs good aunties.” If I could remember what prompted my mother to tell me that when I was a teenager, I might not harbor this suspicion that she thought I’d make a lousy mom. That, in turn, might make me feel a little less like a lousy mom.
Then again, I may just be a lousy mom.


My mother died before I had children. In her final years, she continued to downplay the importance of parenthood. “You really don’t have to have kids, Megan. It’s okay to focus on your career. You don’t have to try to do both.” I lived three-thousand miles away from her at the time, but we had money problems in common. She could barely afford to stay in an apartment and cover medical care with her disability payments. My husband and I were under a mountain of debt, barely making minimum payments and rent with our entry-level salaries. Her reassurances were a relief.

Less than a year after she died, though, I was pregnant. It seemed like an act of rebellion. “I’ll show her. I WILL do both. And I’ll like it!” Giving up my career was never an option. I might disregard my mother’s advice on kids, but her lessons about making a living were sacrosanct.


When I was in junior high I’d sit at the table with my mother every day after school. We’d drink ice tea and she’d lecture me about the importance of getting a college degree, earning my own money, never relying on a man, learning what it took to succeed in an industry and then doing whatever that was with passionate intensity.

05-07-16 BW Mommy Pointing Amigo-1

My mother would point out to me that it was only because she got Multiple Sclerosis that she was at home. “If I hadn’t gotten sick, I’d certainly still be working.” Before she had to take disability retirement, she earned her Masters in Education and considered moving from teaching into school administration to improve remedial instruction.

She fondly recalled the brief time when she worked and my father kept house, back when they lived in Chapel Hill and only had one child, just before I was born. “You know, that was the perfect situation for us. He was so good at homemaking, and I loved having a career.”

My mother in Chapel Hill, before I was born.
My mother in Chapel Hill, before I was born.


But then I was born, my father took a job at his father’s mattress plant, we moved to Hope Mills, and my mother was diagnosed with MS the first week in the new house. To her, the correlation implied causation. To me, it was a cautionary tale.

I concluded that all of the other factors that contributed to our family’s crises – my father’s bipolar disorder, alcoholism, and hereditary depression, my mother’s chronic, degenerative disease, the socio-economic shifts during the 80’s and 90’s – could have been avoided with better employment decisions. Specifically, NEVER LEAVE A CAREER FOR FAMILY.

Family is unreliable, marriage is vulnerable, love is blind, but a career gives you freedom. I hard-wired that into my brain and made professional success my priority.

At the start of my senior year in college, my boyfriend broke up with me, accusing me of wanting to trap him into a traditional married life. He thought I wanted him to work and take care of me so I could have babies. He said I’d stop him from pursuing his dreams.

Ending the relationship hurt me deeply for many months, but that accusation burned me for decades. There was no greater insult than to say I might be willing to just be a mom. I had dreams too, and they didn’t include staying at home with kids.


I went back to work full-time when my son was eight weeks old. After my daughter was born, I started working from home only four weeks postpartum. My husband cut down to part-time work: three days a week with the first baby, then just one day a week when I was pregnant the second time. He assumed the primary parent role so I could hold on to my career. I became the breadwinner.

Our situation echoed my mother’s best times. According to my teenage judgement, I should have been as happy as my mother remembered she was before I was born.

I wasn’t happy.
I also wasn’t healthy.

Even though I put my job first, the factors that contributed to my family’s crises still affected me. Professional success did not rewrite DNA nor avert socio-economic shifts.

Not only did I have less and less time to see my kids, the stresses of my job drained all my emotional capacity. I couldn’t offer them any support through the daily challenges of growing up. I couldn’t even offer my husband much. And no matter what, I didn’t have anything left over to take care of myself.

I started to crack. Then, I cracked. A debacle to call my own.

As much as I wanted to fulfill the dreams of my fourteen-year old self, and as much as I respected my mother’s experience, life didn’t turn out the way I planned. I broke up with my career. My husband went back to work full-time. I started part-time consulting. Our family budget took a huge hit, and our lifestyle is exactly what I feared most as a senior in college.

Ever since then I’ve had time to sit down at the table by myself, with a glass of ice tea, and re-examine what my mother told me. I am now the same age she was when she imprinted the primacy of a professional life. Rather than seeing her as an irrefutable authority – and she had an amazing authority about her – I have tried to see her as a fellow mom, as a peer.

photo by Britton Sukys
photo by Britton Sukys


My mother raised three girls while slowly losing the use of her body. She counseled us through school work, boyfriends, frenemies, lousy jobs, cruel teachers, car crashes, and most notably, our father. Despite his long decline, the drunken insults, the DUIs, the embarrassing public displays, the inconvenient absences, she believed in his better nature and told us not to hate him because it would only be hating ourselves.

I can clearly remember countless days of talking with her for hours. In my memories, I’m in a parade of different hairstyles, fashions from halter tops to floral dresses to vests and then overalls. And always, my mother is there, listening, asking questions, offering advice.

There was no way for her to know what I needed to do to have a secure future. She didn’t even know how to secure her own future. In fact, she didn’t know a lot of things. She didn’t know that I might marry a man very different than my father. She didn’t know that a good job is still no guarantee. She didn’t know that I’d take one thing she said one afternoon and try to build my whole life around it.

Most importantly, my mother had no idea what kind of a mother I might be. I know this because I have no clue how my kids will turn out. I’m still surprised they made it out of diapers. I dispense wisdom and warnings in equal measure, hoping that the right things will stick so they’ll make the best decision they can when they’re all on their own. Only now can I see that that’s what she did as well.

As a child, I listened to her words. As a mother, I look at her actions. Rather than saying the perfect thing or accurately predicting any future, her greatest gift was showing up day after day. If I still followed all of her advice, I’d be wearing patterned sweaters, oversize glasses, and have a smart, short haircut. If I follow her example, though, I give my kids my time.

Mothering is in the minutes.


I think my mother was right that not everyone has to be a mom (or dad). The world does need good aunties (and unkies) because kids require a tremendous amount of guidance and support. But whether or not my mom thought I might be good at it, I can’t back out of motherhood now. I have two kids and if I’m lousy the only thing I can do is try to get better.

That’s where all those years of institutional indoctrination and management training might help me gauge if I truly am a lousy mom. I need a personal performance review.

Since a performance review is based on a job description, I wrote one for myself. I put down what I think I’m supposed to be doing – not what I want to be doing or what I think would be ideal. My hope was to capture any illusions and unrealistic expectations as well as the daily tasks I expect of myself right now.


JOB TITLE: Queen Megan

Reports to: The Higher Power
Colleague: Captain Britton
Supervises: Young Padawans

Work Hours: All of The Hours

PURPOSE: This position manages the physical, emotional, and spiritual development of the family which is defined as the four humans and three cats currently living Chez Sukys, Tacoma, WA.


  • Physical Needs
    • NUTRITION: Provides food eating routines consistent with a healthy body, community, and planet.
      • RESPONSIBILITIES: grocery shopping, meal planning, meal preparation, school lunches, Receiving Complaints
    • SANITATION: Develops and maintains routines which inhibit noxious germs, odors, and clutter on people, in rooms, in the yard, and in cars.
      • RESPONSIBILITIES: dishes, laundry, garbage, recycling, compost, kitty litter, floor, dusting, pest control, disinfection, bathrooms, windows, filing, organization, winnowing, gardening, car maintenence, showers/baths, haircuts, handwashing, medicine cabinet, veterinary, doctor and dentist appointments, Lectures on the Black Plague
    • SUPPLIES: Evaluates and maintains stocks of necessary possessions.
      • RESPONSIBILITIES: food, cleaning supplies, clothes, shoes, school and office supplies, art supplies, games, entertainment, catnip, incense, cars, household items,  gifts, tools, luggage, garden supplies, bath products, appliances, Saying No
    • ENRICHMENT: Researches and schedules opportunities to enjoy and learn through physical, mental, and artistic experiences.
      • RESPONSIBILITIES: after-school clubs and sports, summer camps, family vacations, educational opportunities, screen time, library, home improvements, dining out, babysitting and child care, parties, playdates, movies, bikes, watching baseball, Judge of What’s Funny
    • BUDGET: Creates and maintains resources to accommodate all needs and duties.
      • RESPONSIBILITIES: contract consulting work, financial software, taxes, reconciling accounts: checking/savings/retirement, insurance: health/car/life, loans, budgeting, allowances, charity, debt collection, low balance warnings, Uncomfortable Family Finance Meetings
  •  Emotional Needs
    • SELF: Assesses and provides the care and treatment necessary to maintain a loving, compassionate, Cosmic view self and this incarnation.
    • COLLEAGUE: Communicates with and supports Captain Britton to maintain a loving, compassionate, cooperative, creative, Cosmic, sensual partnership and parenthood.
    • PADAWANS: Communicates with and nurtures children to help them recognize their unique needs and personalities, assists them in creating routines for self-care to maintain loving and compassionate Cosmic views of themselves in this incarnation, offers love, compassion and personal Cosmic views where they need it, allows them room to also practice their routines of self-care.
    • EXTENDED FAMILY: Maintains relationships, knowledge and communication with family members outside the house, as well as ancestors, to share and understand the care and treatment necessary to maintain a loving, compassionate, Cosmic view of self and this incarnation.
      • RESPONSIBILITIES: journaling, napping, sleep schedules, eating schedules, meditation, yoga, books, storytelling, family photos, character analysis, videos, letters, cards, ancestry, dates, holiday celebrations, visits, music, artistic expression, hugs, kisses, tickles, Apologies 
  • Spiritual Needs
    • SELF: Develops and maintains daily routines to connect to the timeless, Cosmic view and applies any lessons to daily activities.
      • RESPONSIBILITIES: journaling, meditation, research, classes, reading, rituals, oracles, retreats, fellowship, Being Alone
    • FAMILY: Shares insights and lessons from self-spiritual path when appropriate, encourages others to find their own connection to the timeless, Cosmic view. Listens and dialogues about others’ questions and insights, learns from others’ unique perspectives, offers fellowship and participation in spiritual seeking.
      • RESPONSIBILITIES: listening, inquiring, storytelling, artistic expression, rituals, wilderness trips, Fielding Questions about Santa and the Tooth Fairy
  • Continued Development: Recognizes that all listed duties are subject to change at any moment without notice, accepts continual evolution of physical, emotional, and spiritual bodies within the family, adapts assignments and delegates tasks as soon as possible, maintains health and energy reserves to handle any and all eventualities, including the ones that cause insomnia.
    • IMMINENT CHANGES: puberty, menopause, male-pattern baldness


  • Superior Communication Skills
  • Compassion
  • Humility
  • Ability to Clean Up Bodily Waste from Humans and Animals
  • Situational Focus
  • Internet Security
  • Conflict Resolution
  • Negotatiation
  • Selective Memory
  • Logic and Debate
  • Semantics
  • Photography
  • Eyes in Back of Head
  • Interrogation Techniques
  • Search and Rescue
  • Karaoke
  • Love

Elegy For The Dead Mouse In Our Wall

Art by Megan
Art by Megan


On this radiant May Day, full of flowers basking and leaves shimmering, I remember the sun was once a god.

Watching his blazing chariot high in the sky, I call Apollo’s attention to a tiny, deceased bod.


Way back when, the ancients sometimes called him Apollo Smintheus, because he was also Lord of the Mice.

Mice adorned his temples, served as his informants, and delivered his plagues, which wasn’t so nice.


Today, Apollo’s golden radiance can’t shine where one of his rodents lay dead and alone in the dark.

He expired behind the plaster walls with only a rank bouquet as his final resting mark.


Since I cannot locate his corpse, rotting in some unseen space, for proper sacramental burial,

may this kitchen table verse, its stinky rhymes written with wrinkled nose, be his soul’s carry-all.


I first saw you, up close, when I discovered your poops, scattered behind the pasta on my cabinet shelf.

How shocked we both were when I found you still hiding in the Santa cup, that sneaky old elf.


You scrambled from the plastic mug, your gray body only inches from my eyes, and I screamed.

With the smell of your passing now filling my head, I confess this is the ending I dreamed.


When the cats saw you on the back porch the next day, scurrying under the plants, I let them outside to find you.

My hope, I must say, was that they would stalk and pounce and be anything but kind to you.


The undoubtable confirmation of your permanent demise should be a joyful pest expulsion.

Alas, the lingering vapors of sulfur dioxide, methane, and benzene just fill me with revulsion.


O Mouse, wee mouse, house mouse, you’ve inspired some of the greatest cartoon characters.

Mickey and Jerry, Mighty and Fievel, I drank in their stories like ambrosia’s nectars.


Only you would be stirring, scampering deep in the night, while the rest of us lay sleeping.

Not even a clock striking or blindness or a farmer’s wife’s knifing could stop your creeping.


Long before the moving pictures, the poems, even the books, humans honored your small mousy ways.

Your presence meant an abundance of food, and you were a prophet back in the days.


Some believed that you gnawed through the weapons of the enemy on the evening before battle.

For all your good deeds and entertaining adventures, though, it’s time to skedaddle.


Mystics say your spirit shows small actions can achieve great goals, if you don’t get too picky.

As a totem mouse, you bring wisdom to my life, no matter how icky.


Despite the billowing fetor of your current state, you’re an orderly and fastidious creature.

Modest, resourceful, orderly and loyal, I should adopt some of your best features.


Once considered a carrier of souls, the incense now burns to carry you across the threshold.

For my wishing your death, let this sage smoke atone and release your odor’s stranglehold.


Experts say it may take weeks for the stench of your decomposition to finally dissipate.

Until then, remind me to smell life’s sweetness, before I reach the same fate.


The Care And Feeding Of Your Human Incarnation

Art by Megan
Art by Megan


Humans are incredibly resilient, considering their squishy makeup. However, you will want to provide your human incarnation with the best food and treatment if you want her to thrive, stay engaged and live as long a life as she possibly can in this chaotic, carbon-based, quantum-powered universal plane.

It can be hard to tell humans apart since they all have four limbs and walk upright. Upon closer inspection, you’ll discover your human is unique, with her own character, talents, and genetic variations.

Before you assume your human can be trained to behave in a certain way, or you expect her to fulfill complex commands, get to know her as an individual. Just because she can’t perform an action that may be popular among other humans, she may have her own strengths that will allow her to do any number of actions that only she can do.

Obviously, behavior, command and action are why you acquired a human incarnation. But, humans are not toys. You must address their basic care and feeding before all else. These are deceptively simple needs that can lead to the most chaotic, quantum-level disasters if they are not addressed every single day.


Perhaps the most challenging aspect of acquiring a human incarnation is that you must assume occupancy before you can provide your organism with these basic requirements by yourself. Thus, other humans must provide your needs. Some humans are better at this than others.

Unless your human carefully evaluates the care she learned from her first human contacts, she may simply perpetuate bad self-treatment, thinking it is the best for her. As a result, you may find yourself at a time in your existence where your human incarnation is in pretty lousy shape with no real clue how to take good care of herself.

This brief, modest Guide attempts to provide a few practical tips for daily maintenance and troubleshooting of your human existence. Remember, this life does not come with an extended warranty – or a money-back guarantee.



The very first skill your human incarnation must learn is sucking in and blowing out air. If mastered, this task will occupy every moment of your human’s life.

If you find something is amiss with your human, she isn’t responding well or is acting unusual, check with her breathing before all else. While there will be times when your human does not exchange air, that only happens when something is creating a significant challenge to your human, like swimming underwater, running from a tiger or carrying stinky garbage to the alley.

You may quickly resolve many, many issues with human incarnation by rebooting her breathing. Remember, breathing is sucking in and blowing out air. Often, the human neglects one or the other task. Take the time to guide your human slowly through each stage of the breath.

Refrain from mocking or judging your human for forgetting this most basic task. Occupying a mortal existence AND maintaining her constant function is a lot harder than it looks from the outside.


Humans live almost exclusively on dry land, but don’t be fooled. They are water-based organisms. Rather than swimming in the liquid so essential to their existence, they carry their ocean inside of them. This is terribly inefficient as every action humans take, including breathing, depletes their water reserves.

Humans must constantly replenish their cellular sea. The great challenge for watering a human incarnation is that, unlike breathing, this cannot be accomplished without a conscious effort.

She must seek out, procure, and consume water, often taking time away from far more entertaining and seemingly important tasks. And yet, if she does not monitor and maintain her water levels, all those far more entertaining and seemingly important tasks will take on the challenge level of running from a tiger – or carrying stinky garbage to the alley.

Do your human a favor, keep her interior ocean full of clean water. Since humans tend to resist their best care (hence the need for this Guide), you may find it easier to camouflage the delivery of this liquid life essence in an entertaining and changing mix of flavors, vessels and locations.


The most difficult and yet very first step to fulfill this basic need is identifying food. Your human incarnation encounters an infinite amount of matter on a daily basis, much of which can fit in her mouth, some of which can pass through her organism without causing death, and very little of which will actually  keep her existence operating at optimum levels.

To make the whole matter of identifying food matter more difficult, there are many other humans who produce matter that looks exactly like food, but is not, in fact, anything that should really pass through the biological engine that keeps your human alive. This category of matter includes things like rubber cheeseburgers, fast-food, and the Wienermobile.

The core challenge of identifying food is so great that some humans dedicate their lives to the answer, some build religious belief systems around it, and some spend great amounts of money to fool other humans into believing their definition of food. (Curiously, all of these apply to the Wienermobile.)

With this in mind, if your human incarnation wants to perform other actions beyond defining food, she might aim to acquire nutrition that has passed through as few human hands as possible. Food does not come from humans, it comes from the sun.

Plants, being far more grounded than humans, chose to keep solar energy transfer as simple as possible. They adopted photosynthesis. Humans, already being willing to walk around in their own personal ocean, chose to harvest their solar fuel from other organisms. It’s only incidental that this action allowed humans to get back at those smug plants.

Since plants are dependent on the up-again, down-again sun cycle, humans sometimes harvest their solar energy from other animals who store the energy they took from plants in the form of delicious meat hanging all over their bones. However, the topic of eating animals is an express ticket right back to the battle over defining food (and oddly back again to the Wienermobile).

To steer clear of the Wienermobile conundrum altogether, this Guide advocates a close examination of the way anything claiming to be food affects the operation of your human incarnation. If your human is performing poorly or malfunctioning, you may need to evaluate what she has identified as food and help her develop a definition that serves her biological engine better.


Once your human incarnation is comfortably breathing, hydrated and fed, she must face the unending awareness that her continued existence is under constant threat of attacks on a microscopic, biological, chemical, mental, cosmic, and even virtual level. Many humans complain loudly – and frequently – about their lot in such a chaotic universal plane, despite the perks of being carbon-based.

This Guide takes the attitude that it’s a little late to argue the contract of existence. Keep in mind that even stars explode. If they didn’t, you never would have all that squishy carbon to assemble into a body to occupy. The best thing is to make the most of the peaceful times between attacks on the microscopic, biological, chemical, mental, cosmic and even virtual levels.

Since there is simply no way to permanently secure your human incarnation, even though it is one of her most basic needs, it may be helpful to remind your human frequently about all the things that are secure in her life. If you’ve already addressed her breathing, water, and food, these are good things to point out to her.

Threats from tigers, stinky garbage that needs to be taken to the alley, or anything that compromises your human’s ability to pursue the next three basic needs, must be addressed. The action to be taken can span the widest range of human behavior: running away, shutting the door, making a witty retort, putting a foot in a delicate place on another human’s body, or even breaking a societal dependence on fossil fuels. Like with food, entire human civilizations have risen and fallen and been mocked for centuries afterward because of their approach to perceived threats.

With that in mind, take the time to understand the cultural context of your human incarnation to determine how her security could be compromised by forces beyond her control. Although it contradicts many powerful human empires, this Guide takes the stand that anything that violates your incarnation’s physical body and degrades her existence can most certainly be identified as a security threat that requires attention and correction.
(Even though the Weinermobile fits these parameters, please note that this Guide is referring as well to oppression that eclipses the visual and conceptual blight of mobile processed meats.)

Your human incarnation is limited in her ability to completely secure her existence, especially considering the constant threat of attacks on a microscopic, biological, chemical, mental, cosmic and even virtual level, but giving her a clear and compassionate assessment of her security level is an essential component of maintaining her well-being.


Having satisfied basic care up to this point, most human beings are ready for action. Paradoxically, action may be the last thing they need. With the possibilities of carbon-based activity before your human incarnation, she may ignore the most essential source of her lifelong energy: rest.

Human resilience enables all of them to function and perform commands even if they are desperately tired. In challenging situations, like tigers, stinky garbage, or fleeing the Weinermobile, your human can tap into reserves that give her the ability to get herself to safety. This is why it is helpful to address security before rest.

Once secure, though, your human incarnation may be reluctant to surrender the energy of emergency. She may avoid sleeping, reclining, even sitting down, simply because rest can feel like dying.

To be sure, sleep is a weird state for the human incarnation. She must deny herself the use of her four limbs, relinquish even her sight, and enter a state of suspended animation, unaware of her physical surroundings. Wired as they are for movement and command, it’s no wonder humans try to deny this basic need. It only reminds them of their limited existence.

This is why it is so very important that you provide your human incarnation with consistent, adequate periods of rest and deep sleep, even if she says she isn’t tired. What humans cannot see is that deep inside their organism, rest gives their operational systems time to both repair and build new networks of information and processing that will enable them to perform actions and commands in ever-better ways.

Regarding Dreams:
Perhaps the most vexing aspect of sleep for the human incarnation is dreams. Not only must she enter the dream world without her carbon-based body, she must confront bizarre, illogical, and frequently frightening distortions of her own life.
There is simply no way around this.
Your human will function best if you give her some positive, assuring explanation for these surreal mind movies. Only you can determine what will work best for her, but dreams could be anything from neural processing to astral visits to the spirit world.
Perhaps both.
Have fun with it.


The human incarnation provides you with a solid, yet squishy, carbon boundary. This makes it necessary to connect with other incarnations physically, as it is exceptionally difficult to simply drift into any other organism’s consciousness. In fact, companionship, the sharing of existential space with another being, is an essential element of your human’s care.

It may be helpful to remember that your human incarnation gained entry into this existence through the body of another human incarnation. Connection with another being gave her life and was necessary to sustain her life when very young. Companionship defines her experience of existence.

Depending of her developmental stage and unique characteristics, though, that companionship may take many different forms. Your human incarnation may crave close proximity with a single other human, or she may eagerly seek out connections with many, many different humans, or she may find companionship with animals, plants, even the Weinermobile. To point out a pattern, companionship can have many different definitions.

This Guide encourages you to allow your human incarnation a wide interpretation of companionship, depending on her current life situation and what allows her to thrive, stay engaged and live as long a life as she possibly can in this chaotic, carbon-based, quantum-powered universal plane.

Whatever definition suits her, provide your human with the experience of companionship every day.


At this point in your human incarnation’s care, she can effectively fulfill most any behavior, command or action that falls within her unique existential skill set. This is when it may be most tempting to set her to the tasks that drove you to occupy human existence in the first place. Indeed, it may be necessary for her to go straight to work. Keep in mind, though, that the importance of playing cannot be overlooked.

This carbon-based, quantum-powered universal plane, despite being chaotic, operates through systems. Any action or command given to your human must comply with concurrent systems of gravitational orbits, tectonic shifts, hormonal cycles, and even more terrifying forces like the touring schedule of the Wienermobile.

It is impossible for a human to know the most effective and successful way to accomplish anything without first knowing the system in which she operates. This is what play does for your human. Through playing, she gets the chance to explore and experiment with many different systems, understand similarities between systems, and learn more about her unique skills and talents. Those experiences are critical for her to be able to actually get anything really useful done.

Once again, the definition of play is something you must discover for your unique human incarnation. There are humans who find play in pushing tiny stones around a square board, others delight in pushing other humans around a square mat, and still others pursue games that having nothing whatsoever to do with pushing. (Some people even pursue play by writing Guides to Caring for Your Human Incarnation.)


We expect an awful lot of humans, considering they are such water-soaked, squishy, and needy organisms. It’s a testament to their stout nature that they will fulfill behavior, command and action even when their most basic care and feeding is woefully denied.

Too often, we fail to realize what our human incarnations might accomplish, the marvelous secrets they might unlock about this plane of existence, if treated with care and attention. However, it’s never too late to make life better for them.

No matter how busted-up or run-down your human incarnation may be when you find yourself in the position to consistently supply these basic needs, you’ll be amazed how she rises to the very fullest potential of the life remaining to her carbon-based body. What’s more, you may find that your human’s unique skills and characteristics will shine in new ways, enabling her to spread her life energy beyond the limits of her skin boundary, even improving the lives of other humans.

Life does not come with an extended warranty – or a money-back guarantee – so when it comes to existence on this universal plane, your human incarnation can use all the kindness she can get.


***UPDATE 7/31/2016***

My daughter and I discovered the Wienermobile parked at our regular grocery store.

The Wienermobile attempts to convert my daughter into its disciple. Good thing I was already on to its nefarious processed meat intentions.
The Wienermobile attempted to convert my daughter into its disciple. Good thing I was already aware of its nefarious processed meat proselytizing.

Lilacs Smell Sweet

Day 127: May 7, 2010

Lilacs smell sweet

on a still April night

as clouds drift past the waning moon

and the brightest stars shine

in spite of

the bank of billboards out my front door.

I never would have known the heady fragrance

if the 24-hour Mexican restaurant across the street

hadn’t cranked up the bass beat of its kitchen music

in time for the burrito rush

after the bars closed

at 2:30 a.m.

In my bathrobe

and bare feet,

I stomped down the sidewalk

intent on yelling across the Avenue,

but then the perfume

of the first blooms

made me pause.

Smelling deeply,

surprised at the warmth,

the way the city felt smaller

when most people are asleep,

I thought twice about my plan

to scream,

“Shut off the damn noise!”

I lingered at the lilac bush,

ran my fingers across the perky blossoms,

buried my nose in the purple,

and decided

to hurl my obscenities

into the telephone instead.

photo: Elizabeth Thomsen

2014 Top 10: #2 The Last Debacle

My father was a car salesman when I was a teenager.  And he was good.

He had a way of dismissing you into wanting whatever he had to sell.

“Yeah, I’ve got this one here.  But, I don’t know if this is the kind of thing you’d really want.  It doesn’t have such good gas mileage.  But, that’s what you get with a V12 engine.  I mean, it’s just impractical to have a car that can go from 0 to 60 in less than five seconds…”

(Long drag of cigarette.)

“Nah, this Jaguar’s probably not for you.”

As a salesman, he could drive one of the cars from the lot.  And that meant he’d often have a different car every day.

Jaguars were my dad’s favorite cars.  So they became my favorite car.  When he’d get one of those on his Sundays off, we’d sometimes go driving through the back roads of North Carolina – just to see the tobacco farms go by real fast.

He’d have Vivaldi blaring on the stereo.  We’d open the windows – and occasionally the sunroof. He’d have a cigarette in one hand and a Solo cup full of bourbon on ice in the other.  But, he’d still manage to conduct the orchestra while we barreled down the road – he steered with his knees.  He had been a fighter pilot – he thought that meant he could multi-task if he was going less than 500mph.

The cars gave us a chance to feel rich.  In reality, the family was in a long, slow decline.  By the end of my twenties, he was living in his mother’s house and working part-time at a pawn shop.

Still, he managed to scrape together enough to buy an old 80’s Jaguar: British racing green paint job, tan leather, sunroof.  It was about his only possession… and it was in the shop a lot of the time.  But when I went back to visit him in North Carolina, he would take me for a drive around the city, cruising the back roads… because the cops didn’t often patrol there for drunk driving.

We never could talk about what was actually going on.  We’d occasionally share a memory from a building we passed.  “Hey, remember the pancakes there?”  That was the sum of our visits.  But, when I’d hug him goodbye he would always say, “Sweetheart, when my ship comes in, I’ll give you whatever you want.  And, at the very least, I’ll give you my Jaguar when I die.”

When my dad did die, the subject of the #2 most-viewed post of 2014, my older sister told my younger sister and I that someone had stolen the Jaguar.  That’s what my dad told her, anyway.

I never expected that he’d be able to keep that promise; he didn’t keep many.  But, as my sisters and I were driving around after his funeral, we started joking about the bills he left unpaid.  And I said, “Yeah, well, he promised me his Jaguar.  And I’m not getting that.”

My older sister said, “Yeah, he promised the Jaguar to me too.”

My younger sister said, “Yeah, me too.”

And at that point, we all began to suspect that perhaps the Jaguar’s disappearance was intentional – just so he wouldn’t get caught.  And we could just hear him up in Heaven somewhere…

(Long drag of cigarette.)

“Nah, this Jaguar’s probably not for you.”


originally published February 5, 2014


My father’s autopsy was filed under “Birth Certificates” in my box of important papers. I ran across it accidentally during a start-of-the-year organization flurry a couple weeks ago. He died eleven years ago today.

photo collage of my father and his autopsy

There’s a post-it note on the autopsy from my sister telling me that “my veterinarian explained ‘lymphocytic myocarditis’. An inflammation of the lining around the heart, for some unknown reason, triggers an immune response against the heart itself.”

That’s the best medical explanation for why he died, but the summary and interpretation at the end of the report reveals why I never tell people my dad died from ‘lymphocytic myocarditis’.

Coroner's report of my father's death

“Alcohol use” is my usual response to, “How did your father die?” I also add, “Plus he was bipolar.”

He was drinking heavily in those last months before his death. Drinking heavily, and then stopping abruptly without the proper detox, drying out, and then drinking heavily again. While my father was in ICU in “an unconscious state”, a friend of his from Alcoholics Anonymous stopped my two sisters and me to tell us how bad things had been during that time. My father was despondent and no one was able to give him the help he wanted, and he wouldn’t take the help he needed.

At one point, my father drove his late model Jaguar down to Pensacola, Florida, where he went through flight school to be a fighter pilot. While he was there, the car got stolen, so the story goes, and he hitchhiked back to Fayetteville.

When my dad collapsed he was in line at the bank waiting to deposit a large check from his mother. He started having seizures in the bank and was rushed to the Emergency Room. Evidently, he wasn’t strapped to the bed in the E/R and got up to leave, fell, hit his head and died. The E/R staff spent twenty minutes resuscitating him. They got a heartbeat – he was technically alive – but he never regained consciousness.

My sister called me here in Tacoma to tell me what happened the same day the Space Shuttle Columbia exploded. She told me no one was certain whether he would ever wake up or if he might need to be put into a care facility in a vegetative state.

The one thing I knew for certain at that moment was that my father wanted to be dead. As his mental illness got worse, he would occasionally call me at work, frantic to speak to me “while my head is clear”. He’d tell me he loved me and then he would tell me over and over that if he should ever end up on life support, he wanted to be allowed to die. He told both my sisters and me that he had a living will and he expected us to enact it. However, with Daddy lying in limbo the living will was nowhere to be found.

My sister scoured his apartment. He lived a few blocks from his mother in a historic brick building. His family paid the rent. They even bought him a couch and lamps to decorate, but he never took the price tags off. It was immaculately clean and reeked of cigarette smoke.

Even though his behavior was erratic, he kept precise records of everything. When my sister checked his file cabinet for the living will, she found documents of his volatile relationships with banks, being fired from doctors, tirades with various companies about unfair treatment. Each encounter was in its own folder with handwritten labels that said “The Triangle Bank Disaster”, “The Fiasco with Dr. So-and-So”, “The Diamond Services Debacle”. Never fully understanding his illness, things like that always made me think he was faking, that he was playing some elaborate hoax.

The living will wasn’t in the file cabinet, though, and my sister couldn’t find it in the safe on the floor of his closet. Finally, she called me to talk over our options if we couldn’t find it. I said, “Well, I know he doesn’t want to be in that state. I mean, are we not allowed to kill our father?” Dark humor is a hallmark of our family and a gift I inherited from my dad.

In fact, we did have the right to make the call about leaving him on life support. My father’s mother and sisters supported us in making the decision. Talking to me on the phone, though, my sister said she’d feel a whole lot better if she had his official paperwork.

I suggested she sit at his desk and think like him, “He was so persistent in telling us about it, he had to put it somewhere obvious.” My sister sat in his rolling arm chair and spun around as we talked, then she said, “AHA!” From the angle where she was sitting, she could see that my dad’s closet safe had a thin shelf at the very top. It was the kind of thing you wouldn’t see if you were standing up and looking into it, but it was, indeed, obvious when you put yourself in my dad’s place.

Our family life had been on the decline for a while. I like to think it’s a William Faulkner kind of downfall, but it’s probably better suited for a Pat Conroy paperback. Before my parents got divorced in 1998, I would wait for the phone call to tell me they died in a murder-suicide. I could never decide who would do which part.

My dad, the bipolar alcoholic, and my mother, the three decade Multiple Sclerosis patient, had a relationship built on biting comments, sarcastic comebacks and tragic misunderstandings. Even though they got divorced, my mother and father could never let each other go. In those last five years of their lives, they still fought on the phone regularly and my dad would occasionally drive the three hours from his place to my mother’s apartment in Columbia, South Carolina, just to knock on her door, say something nasty, and drive back home again. I think that was how they loved each other.

I got a flight on Monday, February 3 and met my sisters in Fayetteville. My mother was too sick to make the trip, so we updated her by phone.

On Tuesday, we went to the hospital with the living will in hand and weren’t afraid to use it. In fact, I think our casual jokes about the whole situation disturbed one of his doctors, the one from India. The doctor from Fayetteville, though, the one who knew Daddy, gave us a compassionate smile when we laughed and said, “Good news! We’re gonna let him die!”

There was time for us to sit with my father, for his mother to sit with him, for his sisters to sit with him. One of his sisters recounted their father’s last days. He was a tyrant of a business man, successful, generous, but with a vicious temper. She said she asked him why he never told his children they did a good job at anything. My grandfather told her, “Because I thought that would make you stop trying.”

My grandmother sat in the room, but only by the door. I never saw her touch him. She looked down and said, “You think you’re doing the right thing…” It was the same day that President Bush spoke at the Space Shuttle Challenger memorial. She said she thought the President’s words were so kind – and then she started to cry. I went over to comfort her, which was the total wrong thing to do. She dried up, picked up her chin, and left.

It was Wednesday afternoon by the time we had everything cleared for my father to be taken off life support. The hospital set him up in a private room and let us know it might be hours, days, even weeks. There was no telling how long he’d live because at that time we weren’t even sure why he was dying. We had the account of his fall in the E/R, but no clear sense of what was really wrong. He had no brain function, but his reflexes remained strong. We hoped the final autopsy would answer the question.

Once he was off the ventilator, my father’s breathing got more labored. He had been a smoker since he was twelve, so it didn’t sound that different than usual.

My sisters and I planned on taking turns sitting by his side. We knew that he could hear us, if he was alive enough to understand it, so we tried talking to him even though it felt like we were just pretending he was listening.

My dad wasn’t always such a mess. He was wickedly smart, a Mensa member, a pilot, a businessman, a salesman, a City Councilman, a church choir member, an actor in community theatre and military training movies. He had a rich, booming voice and loved to dance and tell jokes. Looking at him in the bed I was mostly angry that we didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. So much of his life had been like a movie, but in the end we didn’t get the cinema farewell, the chance to make peace. It didn’t seem a fitting end for his life.

Before we even had the chance to take shifts, though, it became clear my father wasn’t going to live for days or even hours. His breathing got weaker and his breaths farther apart. My sisters and I held tight and one of his sisters showed up in the room. The four of us held hands and stood around his bed.

I timed his breaths by the sweeping second hand on the clock. Twenty seconds, thirty seconds, his breaths got farther apart. Then his chest was still. We waited, but he didn’t breathe again. It was so subtle, the transition from life to death. There was no dramatic moment, just a slow slipping into the ever after. He was gone.

The door to my dad’s room was open, but we didn’t think about closing it. We were too focused on him, shocked into stillness by what happened. So, it was a surprise when a woman walked past, stopped and poked her head in the doorway. She said, “I’m just down the hall visiting with a friend and the Lord called me to come and be with you ladies.” I think we all wanted to close the door, but this being the South we simply couldn’t. That would be rude. Even in death, hospitality rules.

We all gave her weak smiles, but couldn’t say anything. She stepped into our circle, took our hands, closed her eyes and began to pray with passion and no concern for her volume, “LORD, comfort these women at this time of sadness. Let them know that this is YOUR plan, that YOU know what we need and what is right. Don’t let them worry about this man who they love so much, let them know that YOU will take him now, that YOU are the ALMIGHTY and that YOU love every one of us…” She went on and on and mostly what I remember is peeking through the prayer and exchanging glances with my sisters, holding back giggles.

The woman went on for several minutes before concluding and giving each of us long, hard hugs. We barely hug each other in my family, we were not prepared for this stranger. She held our hands again before backing out the door, glancing down the hall and quickly walking in the other direction.

There was nothing left to do but alert the staff and get the final preparations started. As we filed out of the room, though, my younger sister said, “Wait. Just wait. Just stand here for a minute.” So we did. We stood, looking at each other, glancing back at my dad’s body, waiting for her to say something. After about ten seconds she said, “Okay. We can leave. I just didn’t want that woman to be my last memory of Daddy.”

If asked, we wouldn’t have chosen to have that woman’s prayer at my father’s final moment. However, I think it’s what he wanted. He loved the outrageous display, the dramatic flair. He had no problem making a scene. For him, bigger was always better.

We planned a fitting funeral for my dad with a bagpipe player and an organ rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In”. Friends who had witnessed his decline came to try to remember who he used to be. My mother’s mother came, even though he had been especially nasty to her, and told me, “I didn’t realize your father was so sick. I just didn’t know that he was really that sick.” She spoke the confusion that had been in the back of my mind as well. Mental illness is an illness, but it’s not always clear what that means until someone dies from it.

After the funeral, we waited more than two weeks for the autopsy, hoping it would reveal something about my father’s death, some hidden something that would explain everything. Perhaps the coroner would discover the reason he fell apart. Instead, we got the report that I quickly filed away in my important papers, a report I didn’t look at again  until a couple weeks ago.

Eleven years later, ‘lymphocytic myocarditis’ tells me nothing about what made such a gifted, big-hearted man spiral into such a mess. In all this time, I’ve looked at photos and remembered the good and bad times, but I’ve never been able to come up with a satisfying reason for why he had to die. So, today I dug deeper into the memories from that time that I locked away out of grief. I found the eulogy I gave for my dad.

I remember desperately wanting to be the one to give the eulogy. I didn’t want anyone else to get up there and apologize for him or lament everything he wasted or talk about how God would forgive him. I had been mourning the loss of my father for more than ten years by the time he died and I wanted to find something positive to say about his whole life.

I also remember feeling woefully under-equipped to put a positive spin on his death. Reading it now, I see how much my early training in speech and debate influenced my script. But, eleven years later, I think it may finally be time to take my own advice from 2003.

Here’s what I said:


























Fayetteville's Prince Charles Hotel, 1990

2014 Top 10: #3 The Injustice Of Cape Disappointment

As much as I want to avoid being a helicopter parent, the world doesn’t help me much. If I am supposed to let my kids take risks then someone needs to do something about sharp corners and dangerous strangers and gravity.

Things aren’t like they were in 70’s, when I grew up. We lived in a small town where I could bike around a little lake to the library and drugstore by myself, without a helmet. However, when I think back farther than childhood nostalgia, I recall how many kids in that town were paralyzed in accidents, were viciously attacked by dogs, and died in car crashes. The world wasn’t any less dangerous. I think we simply have a lower tolerance for tragic loss these days.

For all the times I have felt silly for being so protective, something like the #3 most-viewed post of 2014 happens.


originally posted July 18, 2014




A friend and I took our kids camping at Cape Disappointment, Washington in early July. The area clocks in about 106 days of fog every year, so our chances of enjoying a sunny beach trip were slim. Plus, we had three kids under 10 between two moms. We didn’t expect it to be relaxing, and I took the State Park name as a reminder to keep my expectations low.

When we arrived, everyone from the park ranger to the store clerk to fellow campers warned us, “Don’t turn your back on the ocean.” It may look inviting, but sneaker waves and rip tides make it treacherous.

From our campsite, we could hear the roar of the Pacific, sounding like an Interstate full of cars. Added to the usual camping hazards – fire, axes, climbing trees, strange dogs, mosquitos, molten marshmallows, etc. – I anticipated 48 hours of lifeguard duty. My mantra of the trip looked to be, “Stop, Don’t Do That, Watch Out!”

My friend is a seasoned camper. I am not. She brings all the gear and know-how. I bring extra food and complaining.

As we set up the tent and unloaded equipment and fielded a thousand requests for risky adventures, I groused about how much it cost – mentally, emotionally, physically and financially – to give our kids happy memories. Luckily, after fourteen years as friends, my companion knew how to deal with me.

“The first thing you have to do is get over the injustice of it all.” We were talking about dealing with intense kids, our kids, the kind of kids who fulfill the curses our own mothers put on us when we tried their patience.

She told me she had to let go of the fact that children will find every flaw in a system and exploit it to their fullest advantage. And, there’s no way to enforce every rule, all the time, with complete accountability. Following rules is not a natural state of being. So, kids demand eternal vigilance from parents. A moment of inattention can result in tragic loss.

Motherhood requires personal payments of blood and pain and humiliation for the public profit of well-adjusted, vibrant, creative and productive adults. If you expect huge personal returns, you might be unhappy with the balance sheet. It’s a sketchy investment, and my friend advised that mothering was more manageable when she made peace with that fact.

I listened to her. Then I poured us each a jelly jar of wine. Once my glass was half-full, I decided to give her crazy idea a shot. I told myself that for the next 45 hours I would let go of the injustice of it all.

07-04-14 Cape Disappointment-49

By this time, we had a campfire going and we had to negotiate the acceptable parameters for stick burning and log poking. It’s all too easy to go from a little stoking to wielding a torch. In exchange for temperance around the flames, the kids demanded a spooky story. I pointed to my now half-empty glass, “Y’all are big enough, why don’t you tell a story yourself?”

My friend and I were entertained as her son, 8, and my son and daughter, 9 and 6, respectively, struggled to scare one another.

“It all happened at an abandoned toy store,” the 8 year old had the best grip on pint-sized terror. “These kids found it and inside… hanging from the ceiling… was a Barbie doll… WITH ONE EYE. Only, she could hypnotize people. And she made them… STRANGLE THE OTHER TOYS! She was possessed by a ghost who made her do it.”

“That’s not really spooky. It’s more… gruesome,” the 9 year old assumed the role of critic. When pressed to make up his own tale, he suggested his sister should try first.

The 6 year old started talking low and whispery. But, it became clear she was just telling the same story as the 8 year old. The boys shouted her down and she threw her hands in the air, “What?? That voice was totally scary.”

Finally, they joined in a chorus to beg me to tell them a story. I didn’t have one. But, I figured kids without a television or tablet would be too desperate for entertainment to judge harshly.

So, I drained my jelly jar and  launched in with a seed of an idea, a classic story starter. “Do y’all know how Cape Disappointment got its name?” The kids sucked on their juice boxes and shook their heads. I didn’t know, either, but I thought I’d see what I could make up on the fly.

“It happened more than 100 years ago, back in 1889. A lot of people from back East were moving out here to start new lives. They walked across the country or they took a boat to get here. Either way, it was a loooooong journey.
On one of the boats, three kids traveled with their families. They were coming from… New Jersey.”

The 8 year old jumped in, “I’ve been to New Jersey. My mom’s from there. We went to the beach.”

I raised my eyebrows, “Interesting, because that’s the exact beach where the kids left on the boat.”

“From the boardwalk?”

“Yes, those three kids walked that exact boardwalk to get on the boat.” Sometimes kids make a great, gullible audience.

My 9 year old spoke up, “Hang on. WE’RE three kids. How old were they?” He threatened to bust my tale before it got started.

“I don’t know. I just know when they were born. Let’s see… one boy was born in 1881, another boy in 1880… and his sister in 1883. What would that make them?”

Much finger counting commenced and the 9 year old reported in awe, “Oh. My. Gosh. They were the same age as we are!”

The 8 year old came dangerously close to wising up, “Yeah, I’ve heard this story before. At the library. It will be all about us, really. That’s how the story’s told.”

I knew I was about to lose them. “Really? Huh. Well, I don’t know what story you heard, but all I know how to do is tell the story as I know it. It didn’t occur to me that the kids were like y’all. You may not think you’re all that similar once you hear what happened to them.”

Then, I stopped pulling punches and let my imagination entertain ideas that would even scare me.

“So, the kids boarded a boat in New Jersey and sailed down the East Coast, down along South America, around Cape Horn, back up along the West Coast, past Mexico, past California and they got as far as right off this beach, out in the ocean.
They were on their way to Seattle to start new lives, working and going to school and all that.”

The 8 year old jumped in again, “Hey! I live in Seattle!”

“They sailed along this Cape one night and a huge storm blew in. Black rain clouds blotted out the stars, the wind whipped the water to twenty-foot swells.
The ship rocked side to side. The sails almost dipped into the water. The weather threatened to sink the ship.
Everyone scrambled for the life boats, women and children first. It was chaos and the three kids got separated from their mothers. A sailor grabbed them by the collars and threw them into a life boat… all by themselves. He put oars in their hands and told them to row for shore, ‘JUST DON’T STOP PADDLING!’

And then, the kids were out on the water, all alone. They frantically paddled, but the storm waves knocked them so much that they didn’t even know which direction to go. One by one, the wind tore the oars out of their hands.
And then, they felt a BUMP on the bottom of their little boat. Then again. BUMP! All three children peered over the edge of the life boat and saw underneath them… a WHALE. It was pushing them to shore.
Somehow, the whale kept them from capsizing and got them as close to shore as the breakers. Any closer and the whale would have been stuck.
A wave lifted their boat toward the beach. And when it looked like they were almost safe, another wave, a SNEAKER WAVE, smashed into their little boat and they all spilled into the water.
The children tumbled in the breakers and gasped for air, but instead got mouthfuls of salt and wet sand. They thrashed and kicked, but the waves beat them back down.

The next thing any of them knew, they were sprawled out on the beach, soaking wet, clothes torn, bare feet. They managed to find one another and they huddled together, shivering, until the sun rose up out of the forest.
The morning was beautiful, warm, gentle.
The ocean’s roar fell to a whisper.

The three children were hungry and went searching in the woods. They found berries and mushrooms. Back at the beach, an eagle swooped low and dropped a fish – still wriggling – at their feet.
Since they had all seen their mothers prepare fish, they knew what to do with it. Only, they couldn’t build a fire. So they just ate the fish raw. And it was pretty good.

By late morning, the children were feeling… kind of good. Most of the time, they were treated like little kids. But, they saw they survived the worst, most scary night and lived to see the sun rise again. The animals seemed to help them, so maybe they weren’t totally alone.
Soon, they were making plans for new lives – all on their own.

They called it, ‘Kidtopia’. It would have a queen and two kings. They planned to climb the rocky cliffs and build a marvelous castle overlooking the ocean.
They started to even feel a little excited. Living on their own, by their own rules, no one to tell them what to do, meeting the animals and running free of clothes and chores.
And just as they started to sing the new National Anthem of Kidtopia, they heard someone yelling.

Then they heard two people yelling. Then, they could see two women, way in the distance, running toward them.
They recognized the coats and long dark hair of their mothers.

The children ran to meet their mothers and hugged them long and hard. Then, their mothers told them that, miraculously, everyone survived. Even the ship weathered the storm and would be ready to sail again in a day’s time.

And their mothers said, ‘Wonderful news, we can row back to the ship and still make it to Seattle in time for all of you to… START SCHOOL!’

And do you know how those children felt?”

My 9 year old said, “Pretty bad.” My 6 year old groaned. The 8 year old said, “NOOOOO!”

I said, “Yeah, they were DISAPPOINTED.”


The next day we did our best to fulfill the kids’ wishes and do everything the Park had to offer. Sand castles and scooter rides and meeting every other child in the campground. Having been admonished to only swim at the mouth of the Columbia River, never in the ocean, we let the kids jump the smallest waves at the very edge of the water on a beach called Waikiki. (It offers little competition to its Hawaiian namesake.) They claimed the land and renamed it, ‘Kidtopia’.

Through it all, my friend and I were hawk mothers. We called out when they climbed too high on the rocks, we swooped in when they got in water over their knees. We laid a blanket in the sand and barely sat on it because the kids kept finding some new danger, like climbing the creaky driftwood sculptures people built on the beach.

07-04-14 Cape Disappointment-4

During the five minutes we both happened to get off our feet, we each wondered if we were being too careful, if we should just lay off, not worry so much. Then, we watched a Coast Guard boat speed across the horizon, heading north, so fast that it caught air as it cut across the choppy waves.

When we got back to our campsite late in the afternoon we couldn’t hear the ocean. Instead, the air was full of the sound of helicopters. My friend is a reporter, and a news hound to the core. She followed the sounds back to the beach to see what was happening. I took kid patrol, continuing my mantra, “Stop, Don’t Do That, Watch Out!”

After a half-hour my friend came back, sadness on her face. No one official was on the beach, but the talk among the crowd was that two pre-teens had been swimming in the ocean and a sneaker wave pulled them out to sea. The helicopters were searching for them. As she told me this, another helicopter joined the search, flying low over our heads on its way to the beach.

We followed our camp schedule for the rest of the night, burgers on the grill, campfire, s’mores, scooter time, tree climbing, tooth brushing, but no story. That night the story was still in process.

Three hours after the search started, the helicopters still circled. Four hours after the search started, the helicopters still circled. I climbed into my sleeping bag, my children on either side of me in their bags. They grabbed my hands and put their heads on my shoulders. I listened to the helicopters and thought about the mother of those children.

Everyone warned us not to swim in the ocean. Had anyone warned her? Did she even know her kids had gone in the water? Was this the result of one moment of inattention? Did she see it happen? Was she listening to the helicopters, too?

I wrapped my arms around my kids and pulled them in tight. I prayed for the other mother whose children were alone in the ocean. I wished for them to have a benevolent whale, a miraculous salvation.

I tried to get over the injustice of it all.

Beach walkers found the body of Lindsey Mustread, 11, floating in the surf of Bolstad Beach  on Saturday morning. The search was called off for her body Thursday night after she was presumed drowned.

Lindsey Mustread, 11, and her brother, Kenneth, 9, were caught by surprise in a riptide off the shore of Long Beach, Wash.

2014 Top 10: #4 The Reality Of Fantasy

My son was four years old before he asked me, “Mom, do you have parents?” I said, “I do, but they died before you were born.” Thus began The Day Of Big Questions.

From morning till late afternoon, in between PBS shows and over PB&J, I fielded, “Why did they die?”, “How did they die?”, “Did they know they were dying?”, “Who else dies?”, “Does it hurt?”, “Do we HAVE to die?”, and repeatedly, “HOW do you die? I mean, what happens?”. I gave him as simple an answer to each one as I possibly could – but I’m not so good at simple answers. Inevitably, my responses would wander into philosophical possibilities, or a survey of world religions, or scientific explanations.

Finally, as the setting sun bathed the living room in a golden light, he said, “But, if all we do is die in the end, then why even live in the first place?!?” I told him, “That’s a question almost every human has asked. But, the real answer is up to you. Why do you think we live?”

He thought for a minute, “Well… I think it’s to… swim… and to laugh… and to love. Yeah, I think that’s why we live. How about you, mom?”

I thought for a minute. Swimming, laughing, and loving all sounded like great reasons. I said, “I’m going with your answer. That’s real good one.”

He said, “I love this game! Let’s play “Why Do We Live” again!!” And so we spent the next half-hour naming off all the experiences that make life worth living.

Within a few days, my son was on to another obsession. I think it was Thomas the Tank Engine. I, however, continue to play the “Why Do We Live” game to this day. It’s a wonderful meditation when melancholy pays me a visit.

I thought of that day when I wrote the post that occupies the #4 spot on my 2014 Top 10. Kids need lots of guidance and supervision, but as often as not, I find raising them ends up teaching me more about myself.


originally published on March 7, 2014


9 year old's drawing of a dragon on a pile of bones

The worksheet asked third graders to determine whether creatures and characters were “real” or “fantasy”. My son made aggressive air quotes around the words as he told me about the assignment. His voice trembled with outrage, “There were pictures of dragons and fairies and unicorns and the whole thing was about how those things weren’t really real!”

The assignment was light-hearted busy work during his weekly academic enrichment class. It was supposed to fill time before lunch, but my son took it as a personal affront.

“I walked up to my teacher’s desk and told her I couldn’t do the worksheet because of my beliefs.”

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I braced myself for the rest of his story, wondering if I would soon receive a call from his teacher. Growing up in a small Southern town, there was a distinct line between what was acceptable and what was devil worship. I learned early on to demarcate imagination from faith, never talking about my fascination with unicorns and magic in church or in school.

When I was in third grade, we had a special guest come into our class to tell us how to identify Satanists and to be aware how they were trying to snatch us from our loving families. It was 1982. Parents worried about the mental  and moral damage caused by Ozzy Osbourne, Procter& Gamble and games like Dungeon & Dragons. This was the same year that the made-for-TV movie “Mazes and Monsters” aired. The boundary between reality and fantasy had to be firm, or else we would all end up trapped in our imaginary worlds, like poor Tom Hanks.

As careful as I had to be in public arenas, at home my mother welcomed conversations about the nature of reality. I could ask her all the questions that made my Sunday School teacher go pale. And if I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t accept something, she made it clear that I had to develop my own understanding of the world, that my faith could be my own.

My mother identified as a Christian without reservation, but she loved to probe the greater mysteries. She read Edgar Cayce. She talked about the possibility of multiple planes of existence, “A train could be rushing through this room right now in another dimension.” She would pose provocative questions.

In one Bible study she posited that Jesus was reincarnated, “The Bible says that Jesus knew what it was to be human in every way, but he didn’t do everything that humans do in his life. He didn’t kill, he didn’t steal, he didn’t marry. How could he know? What if,” she would get a twinkle in her eye when she asked ‘what if’, “What if Jesus lived before? What if Jesus had been Adam, Noah, Abraham, David? He would have had all those very human experiences, so when he came back as Savior, he could truly know what it meant to be human.”  The members of her group shifted uncomfortably and let her question hang in the air without response. My mother told me about it with a sense of a humor, “I guess they hadn’t thought of that before.”

In 1984 “The Neverending Story” came out. My mom and I watched it together. We got it on Beta tape (my mother was insistent that Betamax was superior to VHS and that she would only get the best technology) and watched it over and over, especially the saddest part.

“It’s the Swamp of Despair!” She told me about “Pilgrim’s Progress”, the 17th century Christian allegory that included a swamp where the hero sinks under the weight of his fears and guilt. She bought me my own copy of the book so we could discuss the significance of the image in relation to our real lives. “That’s what depression is, Megan. It will pull you under, but you have to have faith that you will be rescued, even when it all seems hopeless. That swamp isn’t reality, it’s not more powerful than God’s love.”

For years afterward, we would talk about our challenges in terms of the fantastic characters and situations of “The Neverending Story”, especially the idea that wishes, our hopes for the world, are the things that make that the future. All of my mother’s words carried more weight because she talked to me from her electric cart, unable to walk or work due to Multiple Sclerosis. She knew what it was to be immobilized, to lose the ability to meet the rest of the world, to feel stuck and alone due to circumstances beyond her control.

Reality for her was often full of pain and limitations, so she fiercely protected the freedom to think what she wanted, to believe in the ideas that kept her going through her own Swamp of Despair. Even though she couldn’t take me out to parks or on long trips, she helped me travel the galaxy and explore alternate dimensions through imagination. And she always made clear, “We don’t really know what’s real and what isn’t. With God, anything is possible.” It’s a gift I treasure, a lesson that shaped how I see the world.

Still, I have struggled with my son’s vivid fantasy world. When he was in kindergarten, I’d interrupt his flights of fancy to make sure he wasn’t hallucinating or expecting an actual dragon to be hiding behind the tree. He’d look at me with disappointment and concern, “I know Mom. It’s IMAGINATION.” I can’t shake that early warning about Tom Hanks, I guess.

My instinct is to tell him to hide his “beliefs”, downplay its importance to him, couch it in terms that won’t upset people. I imagine the judgment of my upbringing and don’t want him to get labeled or outcast. Perhaps even more, I don’t want to be accused of being a bad mother. That’s why I’ve been trying to remember my own mother, to reach back to the years before she died, before she got so sick that even fantasy couldn’t break through the pain and disability. What would she say to my nine-year-old son?

I didn’t take detailed notes of her words, I didn’t get a hard drive of her brain, I don’t yet have a phone that makes calls to the afterlife (iSeance, anyone?). If I want my son to learn from the woman who taught so much to me, to know her as more than just a picture in a frame, I have to conjure her from my memories. To have her wisdom and presence in the present, I can’t worry about what fits societal norms for “reality”. The only way to keep her real in my life is through fantasy.

When my son told me about protesting his assignment, he wasn’t looking for approval or advice. He felt confident about his actions, firm in standing up for his right to maintain his “beliefs”.

I tried to remain neutral, allowing the incident to be his own, “How did your teacher respond?”

He said, “She said she knows plenty of people who can see things that aren’t supposed to be real. She said she has friends who say they can see angels, and she believes them. Then she gave me a math problem that was so hard it took me till lunch to figure it out!”

That was it. He ran into the other room to play Minecraft. Even though I was prepared to tell him all about what my mother told me, he didn’t need it. He was fine in his “beliefs”. I was the one who was having a problem. I was the one who needed advice on how to handle being woo-woo without apology.

So I asked myself, “What would my mother say to me?”

03-07-14 Mommy Fantasy


2014 Top 10: #5 A Lousy Labor For A Great Kid

12-23-14 Vivian Lost Tooth-3 12-26-14 BW Quinn's Lost Tooth-1

My six-year-old lost her first tooth on Christmas Eve. Two days later my nine-year-old son lost a tooth as well.

Sibling rivalry exists even below the gum line.

Waiting for those teeth to break free, I found myself repeating the kind of advice I got when I was giving birth.

“It will happen in its own time.”

“Don’t try to rush it or it will just hurt more.”

“Yes, there is pain, but it will pass.”

“You’re not dying. This is a natural part of living.”

“The waiting is the hardest part.”

“Don’t panic. Just breathe.”

“Something new wants to be born, that’s why your body is changing.”

“You did it! Bravo!”

No one required an epidural, luckily. Even so, I remembered why I wrote the #5 most-viewed post of 2014.

Whether it’s losing a tooth, remodeling the kitchen, going to slay a dragon, or starting a new career, the pain, concentration and screaming reward of any new journey has a lot in common with having a baby. For years, I’ve wanted to write the stories that talk to me in my head, but I just couldn’t push them out. Finally, last February I decided the only way to get over the first, big step was to revisit an experience that I wanted to forget.


originally published February 2, 2014


My son turned nine yesterday and I’ve never written down his birth story.

I hoped I could give him a tale of more courage and less pride,

but I hate lying to kids.

A painted sky moments after his birth
Sunset, moments after his birth


By the time this photo was taken, I was surprised either one of us was alive. It wasn’t the most traumatic birth, but my midwife repeatedly told me that it was “the lousiest labor I’ve seen in a while”.

It started at 8:00 am on January 31, 2005 with a small white pill.

Having been diagnosed with gestational diabetes, I was lucky that my care providers were willing to let me go forty-one weeks, one week past my due date. Even though I had no other complications, statistics showed that my risk of having a baby too large to birth vaginally got significantly higher the longer the pregnancy went. I fought to postpone intervention since my 38th week, but finally agreed to try inducing labor by taking the drug Cytotec. It’s no longer approved for labor induction, but at the time it was considered a less extreme method than Pitocin.

My older sister flew out from North Carolina to be with me, my husband was by my side and my doula was on call as I sat in the Labor & Delivery Suite of St. Joe’s Hospital in Tacoma. They watched me swallow the pill. Then, we were free to leave and wait for the magic to happen.

On the way out of the hospital we saw another couple in the elevator. The mom-to-be looked discouraged. She had also tried Cytotec, but her labor didn’t start. She was probably going to get even more intervention. I prayed that I wouldn’t. All I wanted was a beautiful, transcendent birth where everything went exactly according to my plan.

My husband and I had taken Bradley Method classes to prepare and I was determined to do the whole thing without any medication. My older sister recommended I take Bradley classes because they had helped her deliver her second two kids naturally after an emergency C-section with her first.

A few weeks earlier I told my midwife I was only worried about the pain, whether I could handle it. She looked at me with a blank face and said, “Well, it’s gonna hurt.” I couldn’t believe her callousness.

My doula, who had four kids of her own, told me to moderate my expectations. She pointed to her own difficult labors, each with complications that required intervention. Only on her fourth birth was she able to deliver according to her wishes, and her description of that one was nothing like the calm, spiritual water birth I felt was necessary to bring my first child into the world. I wondered why my doula was so discouraging, whether she doubted I was strong enough to handle it.

Up until this point in my life, I had been able to will my way through most every challenge. Perhaps because I’m an Aries I found that putting my head down, setting my jaw and plowing forward was an excellent method for getting anything done. I saw no reason that giving birth would be any different. So, when I started getting contractions about 5:00 pm while we walked the neighborhood, I thought, “Bring it on.”

Back in my living room we put Jill Scott’s “Golden” on the stereo.

Feel free to take the time to listen to that song and imagine a kid emerging to his first breath with a voice like that singing about living life like it’s golden.
I did.
I felt the first waves of labor and could see the radiant miracle.

If you’d like to keep that image, stop reading here.

Within a couple of hours the contractions got more intense, piling one on top of another. I ended up sitting on the stairs of our house, moaning and rocking. The pain was intense enough that I couldn’t talk or smile or focus on anything except breathing. That’s usually a good indicator that labor is at its peak, the baby’s coming soon.

We packed up and went to the hospital about 10:00 pm. The general agreement was that I’d have the baby by midnight. As we checked in at the front desk, I was doubled over in a wheelchair, moaning loudly. The attendant felt certain I might give birth in the hallway. I only remember the process by people’s voices, I held my face in my hands.

The staff got me into a delivery room, one with a large tub just like I hoped. It seemed like I would get that water birth after all.

Based on my physical state, my midwife said, “I see you’re in pain and I can offer you this comfort, it looks like you’re about to be over with this soon.” But when they got my clothes off and my midwife checked my cervix, I had only dilated 2 centimeters.

The magic number in birth is 10 centimeters. When the cervix is dilated 10 centimeters, the uterus is ready for the baby to be pushed out. Before I got pregnant I didn’t realize that the real hard work and the worst pain of having a baby comes from that dilation. To find out that I was only twenty percent of the way, that everything so far had yielded so little progress, I collapsed onto the bed.

When the staff hooked me up to the labor monitor, the green lines on the black screen showed that my contractions were irregular, random and ineffective. This is the first time I heard my midwife use the term “lousy” with my labor. No one ever said the use of Cyctotec could have been the problem, although it might have contributed. It was used off-label at the time and was known to occasionally induce very hard labors. Instead, I heard “lousy” and thought she was describing me, my efforts at laboring.

I reached deep into my head and screwed down my intention as far as it would go. I told myself I’d make it through the birth without any more medication or I would die. I would not accept that my first act as a mother was “lousy”.

The next ten hours sucked for everyone on that floor of the hospital. I was on the birthing ball, on my knees, in the tub, on the toilet, in the shower, on the bed, never in any clothes. I cried and moaned my way through rounds of contractions that didn’t get me any closer to the magic 10. My body wasn’t following a standard trajectory.

The pain was the worst in my back. My midwife came to the conclusion that the baby wasn’t in the best position. My uterus was spinning him around to get him into the right place. I had the dreaded BACK LABOR.

When I was preparing for natural childbirth, I often tried to imagine the pain. I thought that as long as it wasn’t like getting cut in half with a chainsaw I could probably handle it. For me, back labor was *exactly* like getting cut in half with a chainsaw. I knew I had brought it on myself, like the Ghostbusters getting the Stay-Puft marshmallow man as their destructor.

That night is a blur of faces and voices in my memory, but I do remember wondering if they’d let me leave it all for a few minutes. I thought someone had the authority to let me press pause, put on a coat, go home for a little, especially if I could promise, promise, promise to come back and pick up right where I left off in a day or two. In truth, there was no relief.

My sister got a break and went out to the nurses station in the center of the floor. My moaning echoed off the concrete floors. One of the nurses shivered and said, “I hate hearing that.” My sister found out it wasn’t because of the labor, but because people claim that floor is haunted and I sounded just like a ghost.

I kept thinking, “Surely this is almost over. Surely if I hold on a little longer it will be done. I have to be strong enough, I have to be. I can’t give up. If I’m not dying, then I can  and will do this.” Finally, the sun started to rise and the sky outside the window got brighter. My sister politely closed the blinds, knowing the dawn of a second day would discourage me.

At 8:30 am my midwife said the hospital clock was ticking on my labor. My cervix had only dilated to 3 centimeters. She advised that my bag of waters should be broken to help speed labor. She also wanted to start Pitocin, to push the dilation along. For me, speeding labor and pushing dilation would mean increasing the pain.

I’d been laboring intensely for twelve hours by that time. I had been up all night. I was exhausted by pain and crying and that screw down deep in my head was failing. I knew I had to keep going, that to ask for medication, for relief, was to admit complete failure.

The midwife, the doula, my sister and my husband all sat around me, looking at me intently. It was ultimately my decision. I could say no to anything. They just needed to know what I wanted.

I wanted to be in control. I wanted to show them all I was strong enough to withstand the trial of childbirth. I wanted to be better than “lousy”.

My doula said, “Remember Megan when I said you had to check your expectations? You have worked hard and you still have work to do. This isn’t what you wanted, and you need to make a decision based on what IS happening.” My doula said this as she nursed a migraine that came on during the night, probably due to all my screaming.

I looked at my husband and he just cried. He had been holding my hand, my head, my entire weight at various points the whole night. He had gray hairs that weren’t there the morning before.

I looked at my sister. More than anything, I wanted to do it for her. I wanted to make my sister proud that I could do it just like she did. If I asked for help, if I took pain medication, I felt like I’d let her down. I whispered to her, “I’m sorry. I can’t do any more.”

My sister smiled, “There’s a reason there are pain medications, Megan. You’ve done a lot. No one can say you didn’t work, you didn’t put everything into doing what you could. But, you don’t have to keep doing it this way. What do you need?”

I didn’t want to say it. I had hoped at one point that I’d black out or go into a coma and then they’d have no choice but to drug me and take over.  Regardless, I stayed conscious and alert and responsible for my medical decisions. If I was going to get relief, I had to say that I wanted it. For me, asking for help is just about the most painful thing. Labor, as it turned out, was the only thing more painful.

I hung my head in shame and said, “I need something to help me with this pain. If I can have help, something, I would like it now.”

The whole room exhaled, the staff sprang into action. Having admitted the pain was too much, it felt worse than ever. I curled up on my side and didn’t care who poked what or where on me. The screw in my mind, the one that held in place the promise that I would “make it through the birth without medication or I would die”, busted loose. As far as I could reason at that moment, I was dying.

One nurse hooked my IV up to fentanyl. A nurse promised the anesthesiologist would arrive in less than twenty minutes and she counted down every minute until he got there. He made it in less than fifteen. As he prepped my back for the epidural, he muttered, “I don’t know why anyone would want to put up with this pain.” My sister glared at him. I accepted his judgment. It sounded to me like, “Sheesh, why would such a lousy woman put everyone else through this when she clearly couldn’t handle it?”

Then the medication took hold and I passed out, feeling like the next few hours would be my last.

Silence returned. My husband crawled into the birthing tub and took a nap. Everyone else tried to get sleep.

My husband asleep in the birth tub


My body and the Pitocin worked together for the next eight hours while I slept.

At 4:00 pm on February 1, 2005, my midwife came back to check on me. I was finally dilated to 10 centimeters. The epidural had worn off enough that I was feeling contractions and could move my legs a little. It was the perfect time to push. But, I had no will.

The hard part of me, the part of me that pushed through everything, that knew how to make things happen no matter the odds, was broken. I said, “I don’t feel like doing anything.” I thought for sure that whatever I did I was going to end up with a C-section.

Then, a new nurse came in to the room. Her name was Kevin. She also happened to be a midwife, but was working as a nurse. She was calm and casually tucked in the sheet on the bed.

She said, “Do you mind if I check and see if you are even able to push? Since you had the epidural, you might not be able to push on your own right now. So, if you can just give it a try, I’ll know if it’s even a good idea to ask you to push.” She reminded me of an elementary school teacher, kind of like my mother. She clearly expected very little of me and very little was exactly what I felt like I could do.

So, I gave a little effort. She said, “Hey! That was a better push than I thought. It may have just been lucky, though. Can you do it a second time?”  I took the bait. I pushed a second time to show her what was lucky and what wasn’t.

She said, “You know, you don’t have to push now, your body will get around to it anyway. So, what do you say we take another tiny practice here while you’re rested?” Again, it was so non-committal, the stakes were so low, I figured I could give it a try.

In a few minutes, the tiny practice pushes became bona fide baby pushing and I was surrounded by my husband, my doula, my sister, my midwife and two nurses, all yelling at me, “PUSH!” The shift from low pressure to high pressure was so sudden I felt tricked, but I knew deep down that I needed every one of them giving me as much encouragement as they could.

There was a moment when my son’s heartbeat dropped and the crisis team rolled in with more monitors and oxygen. Kevin had me get on my hands and knees. I was scared. When I’m scared, I make jokes – even if I’m in pain. I made a “Blue Velvet”  reference through the oxygen mask to see if anyone would laugh.

Everything about birth seems to hold the specter of death. At any moment, it could all go to shit. And, with all the tubes and the machines and the loved ones around me I kept thinking that the last time I’d been in a hospital, I watched my mother die. I watched my father die four months before that. But, I had never seen life begin. My initial expectations had been for a soft-lit, ecstatic delivery. By that time I just hoped we’d both be alive.

Changing positions worked. My baby’s heartbeat came back strong. The pushing got stronger as my body seemed to get the idea and the contractions worked with me. A nurse wheeled in a giant mirror and asked if I wanted to watch the progress as I pushed the baby out. I said, “OH GOD NO!! I’m barely doing this as it is. No WAY I want to SEE IT!”

My midwife sat between my legs, giving me the play by play. “I see the head! Nope, it’s back in. Push a little further. There’s the top of his head again. Dang, if he just had more hair I’d grab it and pull from this end. One of these pushes should work eventually.”

My sister asked if they had a ‘squat bar’. They did. With my legs propped up by my ears, my husband held my shoulders, my doula looked me in the face and said, “PUSH!!” I cried, “Why are you all so mean to me??” I only kept pushing because I didn’t know what everyone would do to me if I stopped.

At 5:16 pm, when I was sure the midwife was going to call it all off, tell me I was “lousy” at pushing, when I felt like my heart was going to pop out of my chest and it would be the end of me, my son emerged from my body, eyes wide open. He had his left hand against his chin, like a Jack Benny reaction shot. As his shoulders emerged, he took a huge poop. For me, it was the creepiest slippery fish feeling as the rest of his body slid into the open air.

When they put him on my chest, I recognized my eyes. Through all that time, I forgot that he would be a real human being. I had forgotten everything except trying to survive. And yet, there he was. He was clearly my son. And, despite the whole lousy circumstances of his arrival, I was undeniably his mother.

Mother and Son, seeing each other for the first time

It was another hour before they wheeled me out of the delivery room, but I must have still had a lot of narcotics in my system. I held my infant son and said to my husband, “Ok, so NEXT time I have a baby…”

2014 Top 10: #7 It’s All About Tone: Listening To David Candow

On Christmas Eve, 2002, a group of six Magellanic penguins arrived at the San Francisco Zoo. Rather than settling into their new burrows, they began the annual winter migration they take in the wild, two-thousand miles, from Argentina to Brazil and back.

The transplanted penguins swam, circling in laps, in the tiny pool of their new home. They even convinced the other forty-six penguin residents of the zoo to join them. It wasn’t until Valentine’s Day that the birds finally completed their mock journey. The penguins sparked a media frenzy at the time, but never repeated their epic swim.

When I saw the penguin story back in ’03, I felt so sad for their futile effort to obey an instinct rendered meaningless by captivity. This past Fall, I thought of them again, this time with sincere sympathy. Two years after quitting public radio, I realized I was still following the same calendar, the same routines, as when I worked as a host and producer – my own futile attempt to hold on to an old way of life.

It wasn’t until I wrote about my first job in radio for our September “Take This Job And Shove It” Drunken Telegraph show that I recognized how much I was still operating out of an old paradigm. Then, the day after I drafted my story, a friend called to tell me David Candow died. A former CBC trainer, he’s the man who taught me the art of interviewing, the discipline of great stories, and the power of child-like curiosity. The shock and sadness of losing a dear teacher woke me up to the new life that is waiting for me.

The critical tone of my remembrance of David Candow, my #7 most-viewed post of 2014, is another break from my past. As a Southern woman, I would rather die that say something unkind. But, just like working in radio, being a Southerner no longer defines me. It’s time I spoke my mind.


originally published September 23, 2014




October 9th is the two year anniversary of the day I quit public radio. I wasn’t happy about walking away from a fifteen-year career in broadcast. It hurt to look at anything from my old job. I boxed up the eleven spiral-bound steno pads that hold more than a decade of to-do lists, pre-interview details, aircheck feedback, and notes from training sessions. I didn’t want to look at them again.

Last Thursday, though, I decided it was time to sift through the detritus of my years as a host, producer and editor. On top of the stack was a piece of paper, “Writing for Radio”. David Candow gave it to me during one of his annual training sessions at my station.

David was a former CBC producer and trainer who became a circuit riding consultant at public radio stations around the country. His list of yellow flags for writing hung by my computer for years. Looking at it last week, I thought, “I’ll never need this again.” I crumpled it up and threw it away.

The next day a friend who still works at my old station called me. She said, “Megan, I wanted to be sure you heard it from me. David  Candow died.”

I sat in silence, which is rare for me. I started crying. David inspired me and encouraged me. His message about the power of oral storytelling made me feel like I belonged in public radio. Losing him severed the last emotional tie to my past life.


David started at the CBC back when the network still produced radio theatre. Like me, his first love was the stage and performance. Unlike me, he became a major documentary producer, a trainer for CBC Radio, and he traveled the world teaching journalism. I knew there would be tributes to him all over the place. He touched so many lives.

Right after I hung up the phone, and stopped crying, I started searching the Internet. I wanted to find something that went deeper than 140 characters, something to tell me what I didn’t know about him.  I couldn’t find anything.

It wasn’t until late Saturday afternoon when I found Scott Simon’s remembrance on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday. I purposely avoided reading the transcript and listened to the audio instead. David Candow’s gospel was that the tone of your voice tells more than words on a page ever could. Voice conveys true emotion.

I was disappointed. Scott Simon used pretty words, but his script and delivery defied all of David’s teaching. It sounded like Scott was just reading the page, not speaking from the heart. He used the auto-voice of a seasoned broadcaster. With each sentence, I could hear David calling out, “Words don’t carry a message! Only TONE tells the listener what it means. Words by themselves mean nothing!”

Rather than a warm memory of a man who shaped a generation of public radio voices, I remembered what David Candow railed against in his trainings. I looked at the transcript of Scott’s commentary. It was exactly what he read on the air. To the eye, the tribute was fine. But, having spent days analyzing scripts with David Candow over my shoulder, prodding me to make it better, I saw yellow flags all over the place.

Since I already had the Pandora’s box of steno pads open, I took the time to go through each one and mark the pages of notes I made during David’s training. Then I transcribed the notes into a spreadsheet. It was something I meant to do since February 2010 – the post-it note reminding me to do it was still on top of the notebook. His words jumped off the page. I could hear his voice in my head again. And I saw exactly what David would say about his radio tribute, if he edited it.




“David Candow was 74. He was a slightly tubby man from Newfoundland with a sly smile and a soft voice.”

Scott described David using adjectives. From a February 2010 training, I found this note:

“Bad Radio Habit #7: Using adjectives rather than verbs. Adjectives are paint by number. Verbs allow the listener to paint their own picture. Describing someone as a “plain woman with a brown sweater and simple shoes” tells me nothing about her as a person. Instead, recount the action of her character, “she would blush when spoken to and shuffle around the corner”. 

Tubby reduces David to a caricature. David had the physique of a man who traveled thousands of miles of year, squeaking out a living on consulting fees. He didn’t think twice about eating tinned meat from a drugstore to save money. He built a house with his own hands. I never saw him sitting and relaxing.

“People who make their living on the air often distrust consultants.” 

Scott assigned his attitude to all broadcasters. From a May 2004 training, I found this note:

“It’s wimpy to use “Those who say” or “Some people” or attribute statements to the masses. Stand up to being the devil’s advocate. Wear what you say as your own.”

When the Washington Post wrote an article about David Candow in 2008, they quoted Scott Simon. Candow led a training at my station six weeks after the story ran. He was humble about it, and laughed that Scott said anything. He said he spent very little time with him, and confirmed that Scott didn’t want to talk to him. David said their meeting had been years and years earlier, and that he didn’t hear that he made any difference in Scott’s delivery.

The yellow flags continue through the whole script.

“David had a few rules for writing, which he called “good ideas,” because he knew journalists balk at rules. Over the years, I’ve found David Candow’s advice as valuable as George Orwell’s, with which it had a lot in common.” 

A  “good idea” from David’s “Writing for Radio”:

“The words which or that are strong indicators that you are about to write a subordinate clause. Put a full stop in front of them, and begin a new sentence.”

David’s advice came out of the knowledge that listening is linear and contextual. The ear can’t process information the same way the eye can. So, he advised us to only deliver one thought per sentence, in order, leading to a conclusion.

“Avoid corporate and technical cliches, and if you begin to hear a word too much — bandwidth, curate, eclectic and robust are my current least-favorites — it’s become a cliche; don’t use it.” 

“The use of a conjunction in the middle of a sentence indicates you are linking two thoughts.”

“And like Orwell, David said, “Break any of these rules if it will help people remember what you say.” 

The second reference to George Orwell, without telling me what George Orwell’s advice was. It reminded of something David said in May 2004,

“Don’t be stingy with knowledge. Don’t be exclusionary.”

I had to search online to find George Orwell’s Rules of Effective Writing to know what the comparison meant. I’ve read Orwell’s books, but I’m not an expert. As a listener, the reference made me feel like I didn’t do my homework rather than illustrating the subject of the tribute. I couldn’t remember what Scott said because I was too busy trying to figure out what he was saying.

Scott closed by saying,

David Candow used to remind us, “One of the most compelling sounds for the human ear is the sound of another human voice talking about something they care about.”

If you’re reading this post rather than listening to the audio version, you’re missing my point. You’re also making it.

Radio is all about tone, something the written word can never provide. From May 2004,

“Tone is as important as script.”

It’s simply not compelling to hear someone read an article written for the eye.

In my indignation after hearing Scott, I e-mailed all my old radio friends, asking if they heard it. None of them did. They saw the written version, read it, and were touched by it. They even shared it on Facebook. Indeed, it’s a fine piece of writing for the eye. But, none of them listened to it.

In the era of the Internet, no one has time to listen. Not even radio professionals. Twitter was awash in mentions. I eventually found a tumblr site with heartfelt remembrances and personal photos that made me smile. A web producer shared an e-mail exchange about applying David’s work to the web – prophetic about the shift of media.

Lots of writing. No audio, except Scott Simon. It looked to me like David took radio – and the authentic tone of the human voice – with him.


Scott Simon flouted David Candow’s lessons, but he did me a favor. Had I heard a passionate, sincere and informative remembrance of the man who gave me my most valuable storytelling tools, I might not have gone back and combed through all those notes. David sprang to life again in my mind as I read them. My memories came back as vivid as when I struggled to make daily deadlines and produce radio that touched people’s lives.

Scott still has the deadlines. He still faces the pressures that I quit two years ago. He managed to turn around his piece and have it ready for national broadcast in twenty-four hours. It’s taken me four days to pull this together. I admit I’m not being fair in dissecting his work. We all express grief in different ways.


When David and I last met, back in October 2011, I asked him if he was archiving all his workshop information. He said he tried to write a book with his daughter. He said she’s an excellent writer. But, he found he couldn’t convey the importance of tone through writing.

David and I often talked about the tension between the oral tradition and the written tradition. The spoken word is transient and malleable while the written word is permanent and authoritative. He told me this as we discussed why it was so hard to get journalists to tear themselves away from the page, to let their natural way of speaking lead their delivery.

I grew up awash in oral storytelling. I admired Carl Kasell, Charlie Rose, David Brinkley, and Charles Kuralt – all fellow North Carolina natives. Their straightforward style and honest connection inspired me. David once asked me, “You know why so many radio people came from North Carolina?”

He said, like Newfoundland, it was a place of Irish immigrants and not much money. Oral tradition dominates where formal education is unavailable. As a result, the oral tradition was often connected with poverty and ignorance, people who didn’t have the benefit of learning from the higher form of the written word. But, David pointed out, radio is an oral medium.

I suggested recording a series of interviews where he could share all his experience and insight. Like music, you can’t learn radio from a book. David wasn’t interested. He hustled to make a living. He was an itinerant preacher of a dying art form. I suspected he didn’t want to compete with himself. Why would anyone fly him in for a week of workshops if they could just buy a packet of audio files?

I don’t know the real reason he didn’t want to preserve his oral wisdom. But I do know I couldn’t cajole him into even one interview. When we parted I implored him to consider recording something. I hope he found a way to preserve the real magic of his teaching, if only the melody of his Newfoundland accent. I’ll keep listening for him.

Megan Candow 2007-1



I’m a story consultant and an independent producer now. Last week I threw away David’s “Writing for Radio” because I thought it no longer applied to me. But, that’s not the case. As I unearthed all my notes, I found that his teaching still applies.

So long as people talk to one another, mastering direct language and authentic tone pays off. Even if radio as an industry becomes simply a reading service for online articles, there will always be places where people want to hear humans sounding like humans.

You can’t replace sitting in a room with him, but for the sake of passing on the wisdom he gave me, I’ve created a spreadsheet of all my notes from Candow’s trainings, by date and topic. Feel free to download it and see if any gems help you in your work.

I finally completed my post-it note task from 2010.

**UPDATE: 10/2/14, I found one more notebook from a January 2009 training and added 75 more entries to the spreadsheet.**

Download (XLS, 25KB)

I also scanned pdf’s of all the handouts he gave me. He told me a producer helped him pull those together. He was reticent about documenting even that much. When he passed them out, he kept asking if they made sense, if they were helpful at all. They are. My thanks to the nameless producer who wrangled him into that much documentation.

Download (PDF, Unknown)

Download (PDF, Unknown)

Download (PDF, Unknown)

Download (PDF, Unknown)

Download (PDF, Unknown)