Posted by Deborah Huso on Dec 31, 2016 in Musings
, Travel Archives
Christmas 2012 at the so-called Magic Kingdom.
Desperation is a curious thing. It makes you act out of character, leap the bounds of reason, and throw yourself, sometimes, into downright painful situations—like Disney World at Christmas, for example.
I make no secret of my abhorrence of all things Disney, from its theme parks to its silly princess movies (though I give some exception to its more recent princesses of Frozen and Brave fame because the heroines had the chutzpah–thank God, finally–to rescue themselves instead of waiting for aid from men and mice).
In fact, I loathe Disney so much that when I watched Saving Mr. Banks, I was probably the only viewer of the film who wished P.L. Travers had NOT succumbed to the Disney spell and given the world Mary Poppins on the big screen.
But I digress…sort of….
Four years ago, I took my then five-year-old daughter to Orlando over the holiday for the sole purpose of escaping Christmas. Or rather, escaping the sadly “un-Rockwellian” and dysfunctional sort of Christmas that has become the norm in my familial experience.
Don’t get me wrong. I am no Mr. Scrooge.
Okay, maybe I am….
There was a time when I, like the young Scrooge, loved Christmas. I could not get enough of it. I wanted to go to every light show, ride around in the backseat of my parents’ car and watch gaudy, neon yard displays, and wrap gifts with the kind of gusto that inspired me to create custom bows for every package and plow through double-stick tape as if it was the elixir of the Gods.
That was when I was too young to fully appreciate the steely silences at grown-up dinner tables where half the adults didn’t speak to one another. That was before I understood that marriage and children did not constitute happily ever after, and also before I realized you don’t have to give misery your company.
But enlightenment comes to most of us eventually. And when it came to me, I started to find I didn’t like Christmas anymore. I didn’t like the guilt trips that accompanied it, the expectations, the busyness of it all, the obligations, the proximity to unhappy and disappointed relatives, the spending time with people I really didn’t want to spend time with….
The best Thanksgiving ever…in Venice, Italy.
And so I went to Disney World, and, over the years and over many other family-oriented holidays, to many other places ranging from Venice to Budapest. And if I can’t find a way to get out of the state or the country for whatever pesky family holiday is trying to turn me bipolar, I will lock myself in my house with a bowl of homemade Swedish meatballs, binge-watch Netflix, and refuse to answer the phone.
In fact, I’ve made quite a habit of running away from Christmas, and Thanksgiving, and Easter, and Independence Day, and New Year’s…. You name the holiday, and I’ll tell you where I’ve gone to get away from it.
Because it’s pretty hard to feel “Christmassy” when it’s 80 degrees and you’re sitting poolside sipping a cocktail.
This most recent Christmas, I had dinner with people I’d met only days earlier, drank far too much wine, laughed till my sides ached, and happily forgot it was the 25th of December at all. And when polled, everyone at this table in Vienna, Austria, had similar stories–they were running away from home, too–from 20 years of cooking holiday dinners for ungrateful relatives, from houses empty of children or grandchildren, from piles of wrapping paper discarded from toys and gadgets forgotten within days….
Spending Christmas with these strangers was bliss, and it made me realize something–I have a problem, and, even worse, it’s not really one I want to eliminate.
I’m addicted to escapism. And not the kind of escapism that comes in a glass bottle and is topped off with a maraschino cherry.
I’m a literal escape addict.
And I don’t limit it to holidays. It’s even infiltrated my professional life. If there’s an assignment with an opportunity to get me out of Dodge, I’m always game, even if it means sitting on the ocean floor in a wetsuit with an electric eel circling me or sticking my camera lens up against the nose of a brown bear.
I realize there are those among my friends and acquaintances who just presume I love to travel, that I’m a classic Type T with a scary bit of A mixed in, and that I’m brave, lucky, a go-getter, and all that shit.
Christmas night with my daughter at an opera house in Vienna, Austria.
But I’m increasingly suspicious that all my running around the planet, hopping into kayaks and climbing Medieval towers is more about getting out of my life than into it.
It’s a coping strategy, not so terribly far removed from alcoholism, drug addiction, sex addiction, gambling…you name it.
Once I started to realize this, I wondered if maybe I shouldn’t just take up smoking or some similarly less expensive survival mechanism.
But then comes the self-justifying—all of you addicts out there know how this works, right?
Life is hard. (And believe me when I read those words on the first page of Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled, I almost didn’t want to read any more of it because I didn’t want to know that I already knew the answer—that life was hard and that I was just going to have to learn how to “keep on keeping on,” as my dad always says.)
I decided that if life was going to be hard and was going to keep throwing me curve balls, the least I could do was come up with a coping strategy (i.e. addiction) that might have some useful side effects.
Rather than suffer the hangovers and increasing tendency to do nothing that comes of addictions like sipping whiskey every night in front of the TV or endlessly trawling Facebook for some distraction from my personal reality, I thought perhaps an addiction to adventure, to travel might teach me a few things, that I might increase my knowledge, grow my curiosity, step up my courage…at the very least, become a more interesting person.
Because the only thing worse than an addict is a boring addict, right?
In the interest of continued self-justification, I’m going to say RIGHT.
Because there are a lot of ways to “keep on keeping on.” You can stop by that little country store every day after work and get a pack of cigarettes and six-pack of beer to stem your frustration and unwind from a reality that doesn’t fit that vision of life you maybe had long ago. That is indeed one way of coping, and it will likely get you through till your appointed end. As will chasing the jackpot, chasing women, chasing some pills with a shot of tequila….
But heck, wouldn’t you like to escape with a little more bang, a little more pizazz, a little more life?
I would…and I’m hoping that somewhere along this journey of running away to everywhere I may find an answer that will keep me home for Christmas one day. And if I don’t find that, I will at least find, I think, more understanding, more tolerance, and more reason to keep on keeping on….
Posted by Deborah Huso on Sep 18, 2016 in Musings
, Success Guide
My maternal grandmother was born in 1922. A Midwestern farm girl, she lived through the Great Depression and World War II. She was part of that revered group known as “the greatest generation.” She married at 18, had my mother two years later, then my uncle.
She could whip together a massive and tasty meal for a group of farmhands while my curly-haired uncle sat nearby in his highchair and my mother clung to her leg. She baked bread while her family slept, could drive a tractor, worked in a lawnmower factory many years alongside her husband, then came home in the evenings to work the farm, trying to pull together the money to send their two children to college—quite the dream for a woman who was the first in her Norwegian-American family to graduate high school.
She took life by the horns, but, in “greatest generation” fashion, she did it with grace. Too poor to buy suits from a department store, she made her own clothes, modeling her Sunday attire on the suits she saw Jackie Kennedy wearing on TV. She paired them with white gloves, high heels, and pillbox hats set atop her dark red curls. She had steely blue eyes, but she rarely smiled—she was ashamed of her less than perfect teeth.
My dad (her son-in-law) remembers her as a force to be reckoned with—one who would turn heads the moment she entered the high school theater to watch her daughter in a play. Never mind that she worked hard and had rough hands. She radiated an aura of dignity and strength.
She wore high heels to church on Sunday until she was nearly 90. She put on pretty blouses, jewelry, and lipstick to go to the grocery store.
She was… is…my model of what a woman should be—resilient, courageous, and willing to do what needs to be done.
Her husband, my grandfather, like her, was not perfect. But he aspired to great things; he was ambitious and entrepreneurial. Some said he had the best farmland in Cottonwood County, Minnesota, and he worked hard, played hard, was as stubborn as he was small and skinny. He was a voracious reader—in the attic of my grandparent’s house are boxes and boxes of his books, mostly history. Saturdays would find him playing baseball—lanky and quick, he could run like the wind. He lived on strong coffee and Lucky Strikes, adored his four granddaughters, wanted them all to have red hair just like his wife, paid off his farm before he died—young, at age 63.
Seven miles north of my maternal grandparents’ farm, my dad’s parents lived. My paternal grandfather, only a second generation American, was president of the local bank and a member of the schoolboard. He wore suits to work every day, accompanied by a fashionable hat, which he removed whenever he entered a building. He was distant but carried within him a deep desire to do good, to change his little corner of the world. When local farmers couldn’t qualify for loans at the bank he oversaw, he provided them “character” loans out of his own pocket.
These were the potent models of my youth—their strength of character emblazoned on my memory….
I remember reading a book in college by Michael C. C. Adams, The Best War Ever, in which, to a degree, he debunked the American myth of World War II as a time of prosperity, equality, and national unity. But he couldn’t debunk the greatest generation. There was no undoing the fact that the cultural norm (or at least aspiration) of that period included a phenomenal sense of doing the right thing (even if history would prove it wasn’t always right), being a man (or woman) of character, eschewing the self-absorption so common to our modern world, and giving one’s all.
I was at a conference this last week in Berkeley, California, where life is a bit more lax than in the East. In my typical nod to the manner of conduct my grandmother taught me, I dressed in a suit and heels. Always, she advised me, one’s dress should reflect how one feels about what one is doing or whom one is with. (Perhaps I owe to her my discontent with a man who wears flip-flops and shorts to dinner.)
Let’s just say I was severely outnumbered by much more careless attire at this Pacific Coast event, and one of the conference attendees even came over to me and said, a bit snippily, “So I guess you are one of those women who can do everything and can do it in heels!”
A little miffed, I replied, “Well, yes, this is how I roll.”
And, to a large degree it is. Because I can’t really get the “greatest generation” out of my soul. Or maybe it’s ancestor guilt—being the great-granddaughter of Scandinavian immigrants who came to the U.S. with little but were soon landowners, had banker sons, doctor grandchildren.
Lift the next generation a little higher.
Recognize your individual responsibility. Don’t blame others for your failures.
Be honest about who you are and what you stand for.
Know how to take care of yourself and your family.
Don’t be pitiful. Don’t whine.
Care about the welfare of your friends and neighbors.
Don’t pretend. Actually be the person you envision in your soul.
I won’t claim my grandparents were infallible. By today’s standards, many of the greatest generation’s cultural norms would be considered downright dysfunctional—like staying in an abusive marriage, hiding one’s pain from family and friends, maintaining stoicism (and stubbornness) in the face of trouble or the revelation of personal fault.
I am a student of history, and I look at my grandparents’ generation through the lens of history, through the cultural standards of their time.
My maternal grandmother met my grandfather at a dance. Those were the days when, unless you were Baptist, knowing how to dance was a social requirement. I am sure she danced backwards beautifully in heels. Because that was just how she rolled….
Finding women and men of that ilk today is no small feat, and grace is a largely lost art. Grace of conduct, grace of soul.
Back to Berkeley: When I sidled up to the bar at the hotel where I was staying, I was soon joined by a man to my left, who asked, “Is this seat taken?”
“No,” I replied. “Help yourself.”
Given his camaraderie with the bar and restaurant staff, I knew he must be a local and began asking him about the restaurant scene. He obliged, all the while wearing a baseball cap…indoors…when it would have taken half a second to remove it.
These are the things my grandparents taught me to notice, and my mother contends it has all made me a very fussy woman who is overly selective in her intimate friends and romantic interests.
But, if the greatest generation has taught me anything, it has taught me to hold myself (as well as others) to high standards and to aspire to and inspire in others a striving toward what the Buddhists call Nirvana but which is merely learning to feel divinity and exercise grace regardless of one’s outside circumstances.
I prefer to call it skill in dancing backwards in high heels.
Posted by Deborah Huso on Jun 6, 2016 in Musings
“Grief can destroy you—or focus you.” –Dean Koontz
I was never a Girl Scout.
Portrait of “Daisy” at her home in Savannah
So I don’t know what the average Girl Scout learns about the founder of this more than century-old organization that evolved alongside women’s suffrage.
I just know I found myself standing in a little bit of awe when I learned on a trip to Savannah not so many years ago that “Daisy,” as Juliette Gordon Lowe was fondly known, had founded this organization that today has nearly 3 million members, out of a broken heart.
Betrayed by the man she believed to be her one true love, plagued ironically by deafness due to an accident on her wedding, and then broken by her husband’s early death and a last will and testament that endeavored to leave his estate to his lover rather than his wife, Daisy traveled the world for a time, something of an early 20th century Elizabeth Gilbert, had a chance meeting with the founder of the Boy Scouts of America, and set out to found a similar organization for young women to promote self-reliance and self-esteem.
Out of her mourning, she built a movement, using her deafness to “pretend not to hear” the voices of naysayers.
Lowe is hardly an anomaly. The world is rich with stories of mothers, fathers, husbands, and wives who have had hearts broken by tragedy, death, deceit, terminal illness, conflict, and plague and have risen to become activists for change—to give purpose to their pain.
Frankly, however, the vast majority of us run from it, letting it, as Dean Koontz suggests, “destroy” rather than “focus” us. We numb, we block out, we shut down, and often we resolve to never give access to vulnerability again.
Doing so, frankly, goes against nature. When children lose something they love, they wail, they pound their fists, they feel, and then, strangely at times, they are fine again, all the pain released, equanimity returned.
With Grandpa the summer before he died
I remember when, at just under six years of age, I experienced the death of my maternal grandfather—a skinny, relentless smoker who moved as lithely and quickly as a fox, talked fast, lived large, and pulled me into his lap when he had his afternoon coffee, sending curls of smoke before my eyes as he fed me cookies and termed me his “little cocklebur.” I adored him with the fullness of my soul.
And then he died of a heart attack, and I never got to say good-by.
In the stiff Scandinavian way of my family, there was not much in the way of tears the night of his wake. I had been taught from a young age to eschew any displays of emotion. But as the evening of convening around his casket wore on and the night grew long, my great aunt and uncle gathered me and my three cousins into their car to take us home while the rest of the adults stayed behind.
Sitting like sad little sardines in the back seat of Great Uncle Ross’ car, the four of us girls were quiet until my youngest cousin, Chrissy, began to wail. As clearly as if it was yesterday, I hear my own little voice rising into the darkness: “Why is Chrissy crying?”
And then soon, the whole backseat was a flood of tears, all four of us girls weeping for the man who had hiked us onto his shoulders, given us rides in the combine, and settled onto the floor with us to put together doll carriages and Lincoln logs. The release….
By the time we arrived back at my grandparents’ house, we had settled into a state of tentative calm, playing Barbies on the living room floor.
That night was not the last time I cried for my grandfather. Sometimes I will cry for him to this day.
What I learned that night so many long years ago, however, yet forgot in young adulthood, and had to learn all over again, was that grief is not a thing to fight.
Fighting it only pushes it forward another day, and then another, until soon, you’ll find yourself years after the fact still a mess of only subtly covered bones, and fear, and regret, prone to stupid decisions, denial, and sometimes…resistance…to ever being in a place where grief could possibly take hold.
Trust me. I have done it. And lived to tell the tale of what it is like to be so cut off from feeling that not only did I feel no pain but felt no joy, cared not if the house fell apart all around me or if laundry was piled to the ceiling. That coveted nothingness…that is really nothing to covet.
My grandfather has been gone more than 35 years. Since then, I’ve experienced loss, abandonment, rejection on a far grander scale. I’ve buried dreams, given up the love of my life, and known alienation from those who perhaps should have held me closest to their hearts. I have lived through feelings I never imagined I could live through. And when I dug in, faced it all head on, “embracing the suck,” as they say, instead of burrowing into blankness, life acquired a kind of richness that I think Juliette Gordon Lowe must have seen.
The world looked kind of like the glistening mirror of green and blue you’ll see after rising out of a dark cave or the sharpness of putting on a pair of glasses in the morning light. And there it was–gratitude for what remained–old friends, new love, the innocent laughter of children.
Most of us will never turn our pain into culture- or world-changing movements, but we can use it to change ourselves—to love and nurture what is before us for as long as we may enjoy it, to give space to our passions, and kindness to our vulnerabilities–to take the knife of suffering and part the sea to find dry land.
Posted by Deborah Huso on May 17, 2016 in Musings
, Success Guide
“No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.”
― Gautama Buddha
It’s a primal fear—being alone.
There are good reasons for this. Belonging means survival. Not just in nature. Even in civilized life. It’s such a deep, primal fear that many of us choose being miserable in a group, in a relationship, in a family, merely to avoid that dark chasm known as being alone.
But is it really so bad?
Some might argue I come to this “alone” business from a decidedly prejudiced angle. After all, I grew up an only child in a rural community 30 miles away from my closest friend. It wasn’t like I could run down the street to find someone with whom to play. My parents both worked, often long hours. I learned, from very young, to be comfortable spending time unto myself. As I grew older, there were plenty of times I preferred it even. After all, a 24-year-old single woman does not move to the least populated and most isolated county in Virginia because she is fond of lots of regular company.
But here’s the thing: I actually didn’t learn to be alone until quite recently.
Because learning to be alone isn’t about being able to pay the bills all by yourself, taking care of a household, a farm, a child, whatever it is one has to do in life…all by yourself. No….
It’s about being enough, as you are, where you are, whether you’re with someone or not.
And frankly, most of us are not very good at this.
Sometimes we say it’s because we just don’t have time to be alone with ourselves. That requires some self-knowledge and some self-nurturing, you know. And I get it. There have been times in my life where the most self-nurturing I could muster was locking the bathroom door, so a toddler and a dog wouldn’t stand there staring at me as I sat on the commode. And the most self-knowledge I had was doing something stupid, like walking down the aisle, with the knowledge it was stupid…but doing it anyway.
And when you fail to know yourself and nurture yourself, strangely, you have a tendency to want others to fill the gap, the void, the big empty room in your mind.
The result of that you have likely witnessed if not experienced yourself:
The couple that marries, well, because everyone else is doing it, and they don’t want to be left out.
The guy that tries to start a relationship with a new girlfriend before he ends the one with the girlfriend he’s got because he’s scared of that empty space of “having no one.”
The woman who stays in a miserable marriage because she’s scared she can’t handle life “alone.”
The person who hangs out with people she’s really not all that fond of or doesn’t relate to just because it’s less scary than sitting at home by herself on a Saturday night.
The man who spends every evening glued to the television or maybe the iPad because he doesn’t really feel connected to his wife but can’t bear sitting alone with his “loneliness.”
The woman who hops from one relationship to the next, failure after failure, because the idea of being alone terrifies her, even though she knows (perhaps) that being alone might just stop the painful cycle….
I exercise no judgment on the above. Who has not done these things or things very like them?
Heck, it wasn’t so long ago that I was dating, ultimately (when I really decided to think about it), because it seemed like a divorced, relatively young, intelligent, not terribly bad-looking woman should be dating, not sitting home alone.
And then one day it just kind of hit me that dating was mentally exhausting me, not enriching me. I’d cringe when I’d hear the bleep of a text or the ringing of my cell phone. I’d respond out of obligation, not desire. I’d sit across a dinner table smiling brightly because I was polite and gracious, not because I was actually happy to be there. I’d wince at the thought of another kiss from a middle-aged man who ought to be better at this stuff after three or four supposed decades of practice….
I found myself longing for my girl and guy friends, my daughter, a quiet night alone with a book and a glass of wine or cup of tea. I craved the nurturance of the people who already knew and loved me, not strangers. And sometimes, I just craved taking a nap alone in the sunshine.
I discovered I was enough, that my life was enough, that those I already loved were enough, and that everything was full, and rich, and good, whether I was sitting home alone in front of the fire, cloud watching with my daughter on a picnic blanket, or pulled up to a dinner table with my most intimate friends.
Likely, at some point in your life, you have heard a friend or acquaintance say something like “It was only once I became comfortable with being alone that I met the love of my life.” This is not some hokey adage that says love will only come to you when you stop looking. No. It’s really about being comfortable in your own skin and, by extension, enabling others to feel comfortable in theirs.
That is the careful art of being alone. When you relish your own company and generate your own joy, others will not only be drawn to your seemingly easy bliss, they may even begin to emulate it.
Posted by Deborah Huso on Mar 22, 2016 in Musings
, Success Guide
, Travel Archives
“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” –Neale Donald Walsch
The weekend I learned archery AND how not to fall out of an ATV while driving sideways down a creekbed.
There was a time when piano recitals were one of the most dreaded things in my life.
I hated them, hated everything about them. First of all, preparation for them involved learning the most difficult composition of the year—some piece of classical music designed to show off all I had learned through 50-some weeks of lessons. And it was rarely a song I enjoyed playing…in no small part because I didn’t enjoy playing things that didn’t come easily.
Kind of the way I didn’t like Calculus. Or physics. Or football.
None of it came easily, you see.
And my parents, teachers, and coaches were so good at noticing all the things I did well that they really didn’t worry themselves about the areas where I struggled and then, usually, quit. Like piano. My mom said if I really hated piano lessons, I could stop when I turned 13, and I did.
In retrospect, it was one of a host of stupid decisions I made in my life out of laziness, boredom, self-consciousness, and an unwillingness to expose myself to the possibility of failure. Today I sit down at my piano and stare longingly at sheet music I wish I had the depth of skill to play.
Looking back, I can easily say I have lived more than half my life in fear.
Fear of how stupid I might look in trying something new.
Fear of being judged.
Fear of being ridiculed.
Fear of not being understood.
Fear of suffering.
Fear of being alone.
Fear of being abandoned.
Fear of not being smart enough, strong enough, good enough….
Fear of being KNOWN.
I couldn’t tell you when I finally snapped out of this. I don’t believe it happened in an instant. It was a process, a long and sometimes painful one.
I just know I was hiking one of the steepest trails I’d ever hiked (yes, this was before the Grand Canyon) with a friend and his son, the uber fit youngster looking like he was out for a Sunday stroll while outpacing us by several hundred yards. My friend turned to me and asked if I needed to rest.
“Nope,” I replied, though the sweat was pouring down my temples, “I’m good.”
And he grinned a little at me and said, “You know, you’re a really good sport. You’ll do just about anything, and you don’t complain about it either.”
I’m sure I looked at him a little sideways. I’d certainly never thought of myself as a good sport even though it’s one of those phrases parents bandy about, perhaps out of some obligation they feel to at least attempt to instill values of adventurousness, courage, and comfort with struggle or failure in their children.
But when I thought about it, my friend was right. Somewhere along the way, I had indeed become a good sport. And more than that, I’d gotten pretty fearless.
Mountain bike racer Jon Brickner: In all fairness to myself, do you see how tiny and wiry this guy is??
Sitting in a front row pew at church, anxiously waiting my turn to race through my dreaded recital piece on a clunky church piano as quickly as possible, I’m pretty sure I never dreamed in a million years I’d have the chutzpah to go mountain biking with one of the nation’s top racers (and yeah, it almost killed me) or to sit on the ocean floor, removing and replacing my dive mask at 60 ft. below the surface without launching into a full panic (and yes, I laid awake the entire previous night with anxiety about it).
I also never imagined I could love so deeply and be battered so wickedly and have the guts to go in for another round, and another. Or that I would be the kind of person who could pick up stakes and move every couple years, switch jobs every few months, and then finally throw up my hands and go out on my own without the slightest idea if I could really make it work. And I still haven’t proved if I can….
Somewhere along the way, I’d started trying to be like the famous Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger. I just did not give a shit.
Heck yeah, I sang a few lines of “Crazy” at the Ryman!
I did not care if friends or relatives thought I had lost my mind. I did not care if it was dangerous to walk the streets of South American cities alone. I did not care if a piranha might eat my arm off. I did not care if I toppled off my standup paddleboard into the freezing Tennessee River. I did not care if anyone else was watching me dance or hearing me sing. I was learning to push my own envelope and in the process learning that it was outside my comfort zone that real life begins.
While you’ve undoubtedly watched the viral honey badger YouTube video and snorted laughter, how deeply have you considered the honey badger’s philosophy on life? Yeah, I’m being serious. Don’t forget that National Geographic has called the critter “the most fearless animal on the planet.” It will do, chase, eat anything.
And while it’s doing all this wild living, scavenging birds and foxes follow it around, too lazy (suggests the narrator) to go fight for their own meals, waiting to get the leftovers from this badass rodent. “The honey badger does all the work while the other animals just pick up the scraps,” notes the narrator.
I start thinking about these scraps. And people I know who survive on them. Getting by. Marking time. Watching life from a safe distance. Going in only when they’re absolutely certain the coast is clear.
And, of course, when you wait too long, curry safety over experience and security over destiny, scraps are what you will get.
If you ever thought “being a good sport” was about “settling,” reconsider. It’s really about getting out there, being willing to go for the biggest prize, and being able to feel good about yourself even when you don’t land it…because you know you tried, you know you lived, you know you pushed through fear.
What’s pushing through fear worth? Well, you certainly aren’t going to know until you’ve done it. But I will say the other side of fear is pretty euphoric…and worth giving a try.
A close girlfriend of mine once said to me, “You’re the bravest female friend I have who isn’t a lesbian.”
Well, she didn’t call me the “honey badger.” But close enough. I’ll take it.
Posted by Deborah Huso on Feb 28, 2016 in Girlfriends
, Travel Archives
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
–John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”
Who doesn’t look hot sporting an oxygen tank and a buoyancy control device?
They are among the most recognizable lines in English literature—taught in every twelfth grade English class, recited with little cognizance by millions of students, and something of a mystery even to scholars. Just what did John Keats mean?
And lest you think this blog has devolved into the realm of the esoteric, let me remark that it was just days ago I started to really get these lines supposedly spoken by Keats’ Grecian urn: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”
It hit me when I was gazing at the cover of Sports Illustrated’s latest swimsuit issue with so-called “plus size” model Ashley Graham crawling toward the camera in an alluring pose on the beach. When Cheryl Tiegs tweeted that Graham was a poor role model because of her weight, public outrage (at Tiegs) was instantaneous.
As it should have been.
Because beauty isn’t just in the eye of the beholder; it’s also a lot deeper and more complicated than a dress size…or even a pretty face. Like truth, it’s multi-faceted, complex, open to interpretation, and rarely absolute. And it’s also way more than skin deep.
But I can say all these things until I’m blue in the face, and it won’t keep the vast majority of American women (and girls, too) from looking at themselves in the mirror and launching into a litany of self- criticism:
My nose is too big.
My breasts are too small.
My hips are too wide.
My feet are too big.
I’m too short.
I’m too tall.
I look fat.
I hate my muffin top.
Ugh, look at that back fat.
I need to go on a diet.
And on and on it goes. I’ll admit it. I’ve done it, too. After all, in the 40 years I’ve been alive, the ideal woman, physically speaking, has been tall and waif-like (except for the breasts—the breasts remain Barbie-doll size; and I’m talking Barbie from the 1980s, not the C-cup version of modern times). In short, she has been, well, freakish.
Now here’s my idea of a cover shot; the chunky gals in the back are Galapagos sea lions….
But I have, like most other women, nevertheless longed, at times, to exist a little closer to that ideal, even though I was, fortunately, raised by parents who never put a lot of stock in popular notions of beauty. In fact, I don’t think they could have cared less what I looked like. I was raised to place value in intelligence, hard work, good character, and, thanks to my dreamer father, risk-taking and adventure-seeking.
This is not to say I have been immune to the desire to look tantalizingly beautiful. Heck, I admit it, I put on mascara and lipstick to go to the gym. Nevermind that I’m wearing yoga pants and a tank top. I am determined to put myself a step above the Walmart variety woman running around in her flannel PJ bottoms and crocks with socks that don’t match. (Though there is something in me that admires her “fuck it, I just came here to get Doritoes and a box of wine” attitude….)
I do take a little pride in the fact that I stop at lipstick when it comes to gym and grocery store runs. There’s a limit to the absurdity of obsession with appearance in which I will engage. I know women who will do their 20-minute makeup routine before starting a workout that’s going to sweat it all off within 10 minutes. I also know women who primp in front of the mirror, trying on one outfit after another, redoing their hair half a dozen times, wasting precious hours of their lives in an effort to be stunning every single day, physically stunning at least.
And these are not women who have nothing else to offer the world. They are wildly intelligent, witty, successful, worldly. Why the hell are they standing in front of a mirror in Rome fussing with their flat iron instead of just putting a hat over the bad hair day and exploring the perhaps once-in-a-lifetime world on the streets outside?
I think it’s because they don’t really understand what beauty is. Someone somewhere has taught them to define themselves by their face, their breasts, the curve of their hips, the shape of their legs in three-inch heels. Meanwhile I’m lying on a beach with stinky sea lions in the Galapagos or squeezing my body into the most unflattering wetsuit ever and turning my feet into fins. (If you want to test the depth of your self-confidence, put on a snorkel mask and stuff a regulator in your mouth, and let someone take a picture of you.)
A gentleman I dated recently asked me why I was so committed to exercise. “Do you have a goal you’re trying to reach?” he asked. I’m sure he expected me to say something like I wanted to lose 15 pounds, or I wanted to be able to bench press a sofa. But I replied, not the least bit tongue in cheek, “I exercise because I don’t want to deprive myself of wine and cheese and because I still want to be able to hike the Grand Canyon when I’m 80.”
Beauty is truth.
Do you get it yet?
If you’re running five miles at 5 a.m. every morning, and your sole motivation is that you believe in the depths of your soul that your ass is the size of a picnic table, then it’s time for a reality check. If you’re running at 5 a.m. every morning, I don’t care what size your ass is, you’re awesome. You’re strong. You’re motivated. You’re beautiful.
In Puerto Rico with the next generation of beautiful women.
Rest assured, this wasn’t something that came to me overnight. I’ve spent plenty of time lamenting the fact that my eyes aren’t as lovely as Elizabeth Taylor’s or that my rear isn’t as shapely as J-Lo’s. But chances are good, I won’t be lamenting it while teaching my daughter how to ride a bike, while kayaking on a glacial lake, or while sharing cocktails with my best girlfriends on a Friday night.
I find my beauty in strength, courage, and aliveness.
Where do you find yours?
Because if you can’t wipe off the eye shadow and the lipstick, pull off the flattering cocktail dress, the beautiful heels, let down that perfect hair, and stand in front of your bedroom mirror in all the nakedness of your body and soul and feel beautiful, then it’s time to start being kinder to yourself.
No one’s asking you to crawl on a beach in a bikini while photographers take pictures of you and plaster them all over the covers of magazines. In fact, no one’s asking you to do anything…other than be you.
And it’s in that critical truth—your own naked authenticity—that you’ll find your beauty.
Posted by Claire Vath on Dec 19, 2015 in Motherhood
I went for a bike ride today.
Not the sort of bike ride one expects a grownup to take. My bike lacks the pretension of those slim competitive bicycles custom-outfitted with clip-on pedals and special seats.
No, my bike may as well have had rainbow-colored streamers that blow in the breeze and a wicker basket affixed with plastic daisies. Because me on a bike is less a studied grace and more of a frenetic race with the breeze. I had on old paint-splattered sweatpants (iPhone tucked into the waistband) and pedaled as though my very existence depended upon it.
My neighborhood is a continuous slope of hill. It appears gentle until you hike up on foot or strain against your bike gears. So I took my bike to the park around the corner, which was blessedly empty of people but flooded with sunlight.
I set out across the park on my $150 bike, pedaling until my knees turned weak and my leg muscles grew weary. The dizzying blue sky accentuated the green of the little manmade lake I rode beside and a flock of sitting geese eyed me with disinterest.
My 30-something-year-old self’s most fervent biking efforts don’t touch my 10-year-old self’s cycling endeavors, but as I whizzed through the woods, the sort of unburdened joy I felt as a child infused me.
I was a kid.
I have two kids. Someone, somewhere tasked me with keeping two small beings alive that, collectively, weigh less than 70 pounds. Kids can be exhausting, but you have to give them credit: they don’t look back toward the past often; nor do they peer into the future.
That’s partially because they don’t have to, but mostly because they’re kids who are unburdened by all that life will eventually throw at them as they age.
We’re told that aging is graceful–the laugh lines, the gray hair, the stretch marks. “Embrace them!” shout the masses. And then, in the same breath—or more often, on the same magazine cover—”Look young by trying these 3 tricks! Regain your energy! Cover up those crow’s feet!”
If I’ve earned those stripes, it also means I’ve born the heartache, the worry, the anxiety, the fear, the sadness that goes with them. Growing up means I don’t have the luxury of being unburdened.
As a kid, I climbed trees, rolled down grassy hills until I couldn’t stand, and ran as far as I could, never really getting out of breath. I lived on the wind, stretched out in the snow even when my hands froze, and jumped into bodies of water not worrying about where I’d land.
These days are mostly clogged with bills, a barrage of emails, school events, a sick kid, job stressors, what to make for dinner, dying grandparents and the like.
Can I ever regain the freedom of being a child? I don’t think so. Not fully, at least.
But there on my bike in the park, I pedaled and pedaled, and the world flew by at breakneck speed as the wind whistled in my ears. And for a moment or two, I felt that peace. Then I headed back home—back to the deadlines, the heaps of laundry, the schedules—and pulled on a respectable pair of pants. If I’m going to accept the burdens, I’ll need to do it without the frumpiness of sweatpants … and maybe with a hint of lipstick–to pretend at least, I’ve got his grownup thing down pat….
Posted by Deborah Huso on Oct 22, 2015 in Men
Perhaps this will seem an odd subject matter for a divorced woman who has failed to turn at least three non-married, long-term relationships into marriage; nevermind all the two- and three-month dating scenarios that ultimately went nowhere…or the first dates that made me want to run into the restroom and try and crawl out of a window…(and yeah, I actually know a man who did this on a first date with a woman; he is now happily married to a dear friend of mine).
But given my experience with “endings,” I’d say there is no one more qualified to comment on what makes the “honeymoon” phase of a romantic relationship die. I am an expert in relationship death. In fact, more often than not, I’ve been the one calling for the coffin lid to close. (There is, after all, nothing more grotesque than an open coffin following death by train wreck.)
After 24 years of romantic interaction with the opposite sex (yes, folks, I have thus far bucked the current trend of changing my gender and/or sexual orientation for the sake of publicity), I actually do know a few things about what inspires romantic attachment in the first place and why even the best of relationships frequently die.
It’s all about expectation.
A friend of mine said his latest divorce occurred when his wife proclaimed their marriage “wasn’t fun anymore.”
News flash: love isn’t fun.
In fact, it can be downright painful at times. What’s the best way to avoid pain? Avoid vulnerability, of course. But if you avoid vulnerability, you will also avoid love…the kind of love that lasts anyway.
So plenty of us try to avoid vulnerability (and the potential for pain) altogether by settling into the traditional American marriage stalemate: Okay, so we’re married, and damn it, we’re going to stay married, even if it means we have sex only twice a year and relish every waking moment we don’t have to be anywhere near each other. Let’s suck it up and survive…for the kids.
Trust me, I’ve been there.
I’ve also been in the fuck this relationship crap—I’m done with men (or women) phase where I feel like life would be a whole lot easier without romance. And yes, it would be. But easy gets, well, boring. I’ve never been able to successfully replace a good-looking, intelligent man with a Manhattan or a gin and tonic.
So what’s the secret? How do you get love to last past the proverbial “honeymoon phase?”
You’re probably not going to like the answer. Because it’s be yourself. Be yourself in all your annoying, beautiful, vulnerable, terrifying, hopeless, wonderful, imperfect way.
Sure, authenticity has become the buzz word of content marketers everywhere, but there’s a reason for that. Nothing beats it. If you want your marriage to last past the honeymoon in Aruba or you want your romance to transcend those first few months of furious sex and exhilarating uncertainty, then you’ve got to be real.
Women tend to be a lot better at this authenticity thing than guys. Most of us grow up sharing secrets with one another, crying in each other’s arms, calling on one another for help in times of need. But plenty of us will lock all that stuff up when it comes to the guys in our lives. We’ve heard all the horror stories—men run from women who cry, share their problems, or show interest in anything other than sex. So, more often than not, we’ll be just as locked up and cut off as the man we’re trying to woo or who is trying to woo us.
The excitement of new love will carry a relationship like that for awhile…but eventually you’ve got nothing. There’s nothing more to talk about without getting into why you hate your mother or why he finds it hard to say “I love you.” So you’re bored, frustrated, and empty…. You break up. Or…if you foolishly got married before you hit that phase, you enter into a grumpy truce to stick it out as long as you can stand it.
Once upon a time, I got uber brave with a man, decided I had nothing to lose and determined to be my authentic self. I cried in front of him when I was sad. I told him my core fears. I admitted I suffered from anxiety. I told him I loved him, and I said it first. And then something started to happen. He started doing the same. He admitted all the guilt he suffered in his life, the way his mother had unintentionally shut down his soul, the fact that he had never really believed in love and thought the sonnets of Shakespeare and Neruda were BS…until he met me.
And let me tell you. The sparks in that relationship kept on flying…for years. There was no end to what we could talk about, no end to the learning we acquired from one another. In fact, had circumstances beyond my control not tragically intervened, we might easily have kept that honeymoon phase going till death.
That’s how I know there is love beyond the butterflies. And if you feel some of your truest bliss when your arms are wrapped around the woman you married, then you may be one of the fortunate few who learned the secret to making “in love” last.
And if you’ve never felt that kind of deep safety and joy with another human being…and you want it, then you might have to consider unbuttoning your soul a little bit and setting the example for the one you love to do the same. The glue that binds two people together isn’t love per se; it’s emotional intimacy. And the only way to have it is to be brave…before the honeymoon is over.
Posted by Ben Weaver on Oct 19, 2015 in Fatherhood
, Success Guide
There exists some conventional wisdom that the average person changes careers seven times over the course of his or her life. Though I doubt the veracity of the claim, it stews in my current state of mind, “Four more? Is that what the back 40 of my life is going to be like?” As I ponder my future prospects, I wonder if I even have it in me.
See, I was one of those people who thought he could do the one thing he did (in my case, teaching) until he was ready to retire on a modest pension with his house and student loans paid off. Fresh out of college and a year of AmeriCorps doing volunteer teaching, I was going into my first teaching job like most other liberal saps, sure that I was going to “make a difference.” Even after a couple of years of teaching in a decades-old trailer with mouse holes in the floor, walls, and ceiling in Orange County, Va., I was undeterred. Oh, those little fuckers were going to undergo some serious transformation under my watch! Like so many other young and idealistic morons, I was going to CHANGE THE WORLD.
Yeah, okay. After a decade or so of teaching mixed classes of special ed, I had few illusions left to shatter. Sometimes little Norman just wasn’t going to pass his standardized tests no matter how many times you tried to get him to compose a five-paragraph essay on the social impacts of our First Amendment freedoms, especially if he hasn’t developed a full grasp of the alphabet by the time he’s in 8th grade. If Walter hasn’t learned by 17 that it isn’t appropriate to masturbate under his desk, he’s probably going to be beating it in a cubicle until they fire him from increasingly low level jobs for the rest of his life.
I was at peace with that. No, not changing the world…but have you heard that little parable about the little girl throwing the starfish back in the ocean? It is dumb, and I hate it, but yes, sometimes you just need to make a difference to one to make it all seem worthwhile.
Somewhere around year number 13 into teaching, something went terribly wrong. Many, many teachers got laid off, and the special education staff was slashed almost in half. One summer, after six comfy, complacent years teaching 8th grade civics, I got called to the principal’s office and asked if I wanted to take over the school’s program for the emotionally disturbed.
Say, when you put it like that, it sounds like you’re moving up in the world! I just knew getting that ED designation in grad school would make me an attractive candidate for a management position! Then I found out that meant everyone else who was doing it quit, and I would be the only one teaching three grade levels of bat shit crazy, potentially volatile kids all in the same room and be responsible for all their casework plus four SOL subjects per grade level.
I laughed in that man’s face. “I’d rather work construction” were my exact words.
So that’s what I did, starting my own business doing home improvements. I really didn’t know shit, but I’m a quick study. I’ve often said I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere in life if not for a ready willingness to get in over my head. By and by, work and opportunity came my way, and I did my best to take advantage of it. By year number three, I had two regular employees and was subbing out lots of work. Things were great, and money was flowing but….
I was terrified. Shit, what if I lose this contract? (I did) What if I can’t pay the mortgage on the house? (thankfully never happened) What if the wife leaves, and I’m the only income? (she did, and I am) What if I accidentally shoot myself with a nail gun, and it lodges into the part of my brain that controls my ability to get erections? (somehow dodged that one) These are the things that keep men up at night and wear on their souls!
It all wasn’t without its merits, however. Having had a chip on my shoulder toward authority since gestation, I am well-suited to being my own boss. I don’t like taking other people’s shit or suffering their mistakes, and for the most part, I didn’t have to…with regard to work, at least. Want to take the day off to do paperwork and send the crew out to work? Want to have a beer with lunch? Want to be able to fire people who get on your nerves? Verily, I say, it is good to be the boss.
As much as I loved the freedom and self-satisfaction, when a job offer came my way with the promise of a big steady paycheck and the accompanying security for Henry and me, I jumped right on it. Daily travel? Oh, yeah, I love travel. Thirteen-hour work days? No problem, I hate sleep anyway!
In the heat of demonstrating that can-do, positive attitude and holding faith that things will work themselves out, one can easily look past the detriments of a life of hard labor on the road: maintaining a 50/50 custody arrangement is exceedingly difficult, as is maintaining relationships.
– Time to yourself? Good luck with that! You’ll feel guilty that you didn’t spend time with the friends you never see anymore.
– Want to see your kid at least once during the work week? You’ll hear about it because you can only work a 10-hour day in order to pick him up from preschool before it closes, never mind that you worked through lunch.
– Certainly don’t get caught up about knowing where you’ll be next week or the week after or trying to plan a life around work because it isn’t going to happen.
Not to say that I don’t enjoy certain aspects of life on the road. Visiting corners of the world I haven’t yet seen, finding holes in the wall serving up the local specialty, spending time outside through the beautiful Virginia seasons… all of these things are easy to find pleasure in. As well, like a Siberian husky, I need and crave the physical exhaustion that accompanies a long day of labor, when the persistence of thought abates and my mind can be empty. Some people do yoga; I prefer shoveling gravel and tossing 80-pound bags of concrete. I swear, it makes me a better person on so many levels.
But life on the road sucks when all you really want to do is be there for your kid as he grows up. I’m over leaving tears on the pillowcases in shitty hotel rooms at this point, but I do wonder how I’ll make it work in the long-term. I know I only have about eight more years until he hates my guts, then another five to eight before he figures I’m less worthy of contempt again, if I’m lucky. The knowledge that these days of endless hugs and unbridled enthusiasm will not last forever is unsettling… but, then again, so is the prospect of homelessness.
Every once in a while I’m put in a position to make a decision between security and the gambit of potential greatness versus utter failure. While I’ve certainly done things for the sake of security, none of them are story worthy. The times I have said “fuck it” have always been my defining moments, for better or for worse. While I still don’t know for sure what the resolution to my current situation will be, I remain certain of this much: a life without risk is a life unfulfilled.
Last school year, as my daughter navigated first grade in a new elementary school at least six to seven times the size of the one she had attended since preschool, she encountered, for the first time, a bully. This angry little boy, whom I’ll call Robert, was a pestilence to her happiness on a regular basis, pushing her in the schoolyard, calling her names, all the usual stuff.
And while I frequently encouraged Heidi to clock the kid (noting I would stand fully behind her when she’d undoubtedly go to the principal’s office for defending her right to exist without persistent harassment), she declined to settle the drama in this way after being inculcated at school with the idea that hitting someone else, no matter what, is always wrong.
Those among you who are my age or older know this is false wisdom.
One day my daughter got off the bus and mentioned she’d had a session with the school guidance counselor that afternoon. I paused on our daily trek up the driveway and asked, “Whatever for?”
“I’ve been going every week to learn how to cope with Robert’s bullying,” Heidi replied.
Rage is not a normal feature of my character, but I must admit feeling it at that moment. How was it that a little boy who pushed and hit his fellow classmates, teased and insulted them relentlessly, and proclaimed almost daily that he hated his parents had somehow become “the victim,” while my daughter was being advised to assume the role of caterer to his victimization and adjust her behavior to accommodate his youthful rage against the world?
The tale gets better, however. A few days after this revelation from within the walls of modern public education came a phone call from Heidi’s teacher, advising me my seven-year-old had used the “F word” in the school lunch line that day. My minor relief that my daughter had admitted to picking up this new addition to her vocabulary from her father quickly dissipated when she came home and explained the circumstances in response to my questions about why she was cursing at school.
“Robert told me I was stupid and ugly,” Heidi remarked.
Now with things in context, I could not help but concede that her apparent response of “fuck you” was entirely appropriate. But again, it was my daughter who bore all the punishment while the bully received no reprimand because apparently it is far worse to curse at someone who is trying to make your life miserable than it is to shake the foundations of another human being’s self-worth.
Robert, you see, was not to blame for his awful behavior toward his fellow humans. Rather, he was to be pitied—no doubt the victim of bad parents, degraded socioeconomic status, a poor gene pool, mental illness, or some other and perhaps multiple maladies.
Needless to say, for this and other reasons, I have pulled my daughter out of the public education system.
But the situation with Robert is reflective of a larger social ill—the idea that abnormal, malfunctioning, or just downright wrong behavior in our culture now comes with a litany of “excuses” ranging from borderline personality disorder to sexual addiction (though I recognize the latter has not yet been coded in the DSM-5; Tiger Woods found it useful nevertheless).
Don’t get me wrong. You will find few people as respectful of the wisdom of modern psychology as myself. Apart from having had a number of friends educated in and working in the field, one cannot help but see and exercise its usefulness in the art of journalism.
But let popular culture get a hold of a good thing…and watch it promptly twisted into something it wasn’t meant to be….
Remember the days when it was wrong to hurt the feelings of others, whether done deliberately or unintentionally? Remember when it was okay to say to another human being: You make me sad or you make me angry?
Not so anymore. Today the individual committing the wrong is actually not responsible for the pain of others. Rather, the one suffering is.
How deeply has this idea permeated our culture? Well, apart from the very obvious sense of entitlement that a not insignificant portion of the American population now feels, get a load of what I heard the other day…from a friend I never would have dreamed would say such a thing….
I’d had my feelings hurt, and I said so, expecting, at the very least, some kind of apology. Nope. In response to “you make me sad,” I received, “I don’t make you sad; you choose your reaction to what I say.”
Um, yeah, okay, I get it. I did indeed choose to feel sadness. Had I a different personality, I might have chosen to say, as Heidi did in the lunch line, “fuck you.” The bottom line, however, is that whatever my feeling or reaction to a hurtful statement by my friend, the fact remains he made a hurtful statement. Since when did it become okay to say or do anything with the full protection of “it’s not my fault; it’s your reaction” backing it all up?
Once upon a time, we didn’t have all these layers of excuses. If you stole, it was wrong; if you cheated, it was wrong; if you treated others poorly, it was wrong.
Now, however, the victims of pain, theft, lies, whatever are frequently asked to consider the degraded socioeconomic status of the thief before rushing to judgment or charges. If your partner cheats, then you may be encouraged to understanding and forgiveness because there are just way too many outlets in the modern world for him to possibly resist stepping out, nevermind his need to feel admired universally because of some developmental lack in his childhood. If someone fails to show empathy to those who suffer, then it’s because she has an avoidant attachment style from having had a bad mother.
And yes, all these things may be true to some degree…but there’s another truth called self-responsibility.
But perhaps in this age of Facebook and selfie sticks, we are all far too narcissistic to notice our own failings much less take responsibility for them. It is far easier, I suppose, to say, “It’s my mother’s fault,” and end the sentence there. We follow pop psychology instead of the fully Monty, which requires you to not only see the root of what has set you on the wrong path but to right the wrong, transcend the destiny of your genes, your upbringing, your circumstances or life experiences…to stand in your own two shoes and take ownership of your actions and how they may impact others.
Because, as William Shakespeare, wrote, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
Yet how far we have strayed from that recognition….