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Nashville Scene Potty Mouthed

A do-wah ditty

By Margaret Renkl

OCTOBER 20, 1997:  "I wonder why bugs eat poop," my son mused aloud one morning not long ago. He was standing at our sliding-glass door, popping raisins into his mouth.

This was just another installment in an ongoing examination of excrement he's been conducting since he first let a floater loose in the bathtub at age 2. ("Look, Mom, a snake!" he exclaimed as it sailed past him through the suds.) At the very least, I like to feign a regard for what fascinates my curious son, even if it's scatology, but whether it was the resemblance of those raisins to rabbit pellets or to dead beetles that most revolted me, something in me finally snapped.

"Can't you think of anything else to talk about?" I barked at my son, whose jaw dropped in astonishment. "I am sick to death of hearing that word."

"What word, Mommy?" Complete innocence. Genuine curiosity.

"Poop!" I shrieked. "Poop! I can't bear to hear anyone else around here talking about poop!"

"But, Mom, poop is not a bad word. The bad word is sh..."

"Don't you say it! Don't you say another word." I was ranting.

Meanwhile, over the static of the baby monitor, we heard my husband cooing to our younger son, "This little baby needs a new diaper. This little baby's got poop in the boot."

"Don't say poop, Dad," my son yelled down the hall, leaning past me. "Mom's going crazy in here."

I don't know how to explain my son's complete fascination with dung, my own newfound disgust with what is only (as my husband and I explained again and again to our once potty-reluctant child) a very natural process, or why my life seems suddenly overtaken by piles and piles of this stuff.

Maybe it all started last fall, when our normally timid yard dog suddenly decided to explore the world. We live on a quiet street, and many of our neighbors allow their own pets to roam, so we didn't worry too much when Scout first started venturing out. Problems arose, however, though she wasn't turning over garbage cans. She wasn't trouncing flowerbeds or chasing geriatric cats either. What Scout was doing was rolling in other dogs' poop.

Now this, too, is a natural process as I understand it, but natural processes have their place, and a suburban family room is not really one of them. Nevertheless, Scout would come home from her adventures and flop down on the den rug. While I scrubbed the carpet, my husband scrubbed Scout, and our son danced back and forth between us with his magnifying glass, trying to discern just what kind of poop the dog had actually rolled in.

The third time my husband bathed her in three days, he announced that we were getting a fence. But any sort of fence for a half-acre lot was bound to be expensive, and those fall days were moving closer and closer to the budget-busting holiday season. Luckily, the cold weather set in soon after that, and Scout expressed less interest in going outside. When she did go out, it was only to do her business and come right back in.

We made it through both Thanksgiving and Christmas without giving our dog a single de-pooping. But then, in early January, an unseasonable warm spell blew in from the South and lingered for over a week. Scout was off.

One afternoon, as the whole family was outdoors enjoying the weather, my ever-vigilant son, his eyes turned always to the ground, noticed that Scout had thrown up. "Look, Dad," he pointed out, tugging his father over for a closer look. "Isn't this interesting? It's vomit, but it smells kind of like poop."

My husband squatted beside his child and studied the pile. Then he stood up and looked at me. It was an odd look--a mixture of surprise and bewilderment and loathing, with just a tinge of resignation. "I'm going to the hardware store," he told me as he trudged into the house for his keys. "I now know why Scout stopped rolling in dog-mess. It turns out she's eating it."

He started laying down an invisible fence that very afternoon. It took him nine trips to the hardware store to get it right, but he was determined, even though the warm spell broke and the ground froze harder than asphalt.

We put the radio collar on Scout and took her outside to explain the significance of those little white flags circling the yard. Just as the video in the invisible-fence kit had shown, we led her to each flag, shaking it vigorously and saying sternly, "No, Scout." But leaning down to one flag we were assaulted by the smell of a great heap of dung draping over the plastic.

"What in the name of God made that?" my husband muttered.

"A deer, Dad," volunteered the family scatologist.

Exhausted by digging and our son's ceaseless chatter, my husband looked down at him, repeating incredulously, "A deer."

"Yes, a deer. With antlers. I saw him."

"This is Green Hills, son. No deer live around here."

"Dad, I'm telling you that's deer poop. I've been studying it. Look--it belongs to him." He pointed to an eight-point buck standing near a drainage ditch at the end of our street.

Before either of us could respond, Scout's floppy ears stood out from her head, and her whole body tensed. In one bound and with scarcely a yelp when she hit the invisible fence and experienced electroshock therapy for the first time, our yard dog was sailing down the street, hot on the trail of Bambi.

With patience and ingenuity, we learned, it is possible to contain a 30-pound dog in a suburban yard, but not to prevent her from lapping up a deep pile of deer droppings left there at dawn by a 300-pound buck. That's the moral of the pet-ownership story. In the end, much is beyond human sway.

Wise parents know that child-ownership is not much different. Psychologists call potty-training the ultimate control issue in a young child's life, but I'm coming to see it as only one of them, and we parents are on the losing end of virtually every one. You can't control when the kids give up diapers, or whether deposits made there come from nutritious meals, or what children enjoy discussing at breakfast. You can throw a fit in the kitchen one morning, but at some point you just have to give up the illusion of authority, accept the limitations of your rule, and make do. So to speak.

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