Walmart Supports Illegal Immigration, And So Do I: If You Eat Food, You Should, Too

Posted by Deborah Huso on Apr 16, 2014 in Writer Rants


Illegals at work? No one’s asking…

To be quite honest, I don’t know Walmart’s corporate stance on immigration. Heck, they may not even have one. That’s pretty irrelevant. As with people, I judge companies by their actions, not their words or mission statements.

And Walmart is the single largest purchaser of Driscoll’s Strawberries in the world. Who picks these strawberries? Illegal immigrants for the most part.

This is not to bad-mouth Walmart…or Driscoll’s for that matter. We all need to eat. And a recent trip to “the salad bowl of the world”—Monterey County, California—gave me yet another lesson (most likely not needed) in why politicians are stupid…and why some of their constituents are, too. 

Before I begin this rant on the ignorance of people and politicians (yes, I consider the latter separate entities), let me make a disclaimer: I am a contributing editor with The Progressive Farmer. That’s a big part of the reason why I came to California in the first place to look at food production.  But my work with this highly respected agricultural journal for the past 10 years has been focused on objective reporting. My rant here is completely separate from my contract work with any magazine, though I’m happy to rant for money on this issue if anyone wants to hire me….

I digress, however. Because some things wind me up to the degree that I will actually forego any type of remuneration in order to write about them. The issue of illegal immigration and American agricultural production is one of them.

Do you want to know where your food comes from? And no, I’m not talking about the level of ignorance where people think it magically appears in the grocery store.  That’s a whole other issue.  I’m talking about where it’s grown. Guess what? 80 percent of the produce we find on American supermarket shelves (and yes, that includes Whole Foods, my Birkenstock-wearing friends), is produced in Monterey County, California…where 70 to 80 percent of the agricultural workforce is made up of illegal immigrants.

It doesn’t matter if the produce is from a corporate farmer like Dole or Driscoll or a smaller family farm operation like that of fourth-generation organic producer Chris Bunn, owner of The Farm, who is quick to say, “The government is the biggest obstacle to farming today.”

This isn’t news to anyone in the agriculture industry, but it may be news to a lot of American consumers who believe illegal immigrants are stealing American jobs. Bunn wasn’t referring exclusively to federal and state governments’ stances on immigration (and it may be hard to believe, but if you’re an illegal, you’re a heck of a lot safer in regulation-heavy California than Arizona). 

He was also referring to the too often ridiculous legislation that keeps growers from making the money they need to make to stay in business. (And let me tell you, when the county says you have to plow under 15 acres of your strawberries because a domestic dog or a raccoon walked through your field and may have pooped there, something is seriously wrong with how we approach agriculture in this country.)

Bunn’s biggest concern, like that of his other farmer neighbors, however, isn’t even the absurdity of local and state regulations that make California the absolute worst state in which to do business…or farm.  It’s labor.

Bunn told me 70 percent of the farm laborers in Monterey County are illegals. When I asked another Salinas Valley farmer, Steve Church of Church Brothers Produce, if Bunn’s statement was true, he replied. “No, it’s 80.”

Don’t go assuming these farmers are “bad guys” hiring illegals and stealing jobs from Americans.  Far from it. Every one of them is complaining about labor shortages, and strawberry farmer Ken Lewis says even when he’s placed advertising on the side of the road offering employment with benefits, “I’ve never had a single Caucasian walk into my office and ask for a job.”

So California agriculture has become kind of like the military: don’t ask; don’t tell.

Plenty of producers would like to hire legal immigrants, but most say the government’s H2A program has become so cumbersome and expensive, they can’t afford to use it anymore. Instead, they hire Hispanic workers who come to them with documentation, probably plenty of it fake, and employers fill out I-9s for them.  Under California law (A.B. 263), producers can’t question the validity of workers’ documentation unless it is blatantly obvious it is forged.

At the same time, however, they can be fined up to $1,500 per person in Monterey County if they knowingly hire an illegal.

When Lewis once asked his foreman how many illegals he thought were on the payroll, the foreman replied, “Do you really want to know?” To which Lewis decided to answer, “no.”

And that’s because these farmers know that they’d have no one to plant, harvest, or package their crops were it not for illegals. For a variety of complex reasons related to everything from the back-breaking nature of the labor to unemployment benefits that make sitting at home a heck of a lot more attractive than working in the fields, there is no one else to do this work.

Illegal immigrants are keeping food on all of our tables.

And don’t presume this is some kind of John Steinbeck scenario where well-to-do landowners exploit the foreign masses (though one producer did remark, rather tongue-in-cheek, that “Hispanics are America’s new Negro”). Illegals are making decent money here, most of them receiving pay well above minimum wage. A fast picker can earn up to $22/hour in the fields if he’s working berries, for example. Many types of produce allow pickers to get a “piece rate” in addition to their hourly wage so they have an incentive to work harder.

Lewis says he doesn’t understand why the government wants to keep Hispanic immigrants out. He says most of them are hard workers who want to improve the lives of their families. As an incentive to do so, Lewis will pay for any of his employees to take English classes while they work for him. “Not knowing English is the critical barrier to advancing in employment,” he says. He would like to see a program that allows immigrants to work legally in the U.S. and be eligible to apply for citizenship so long as they can go for a period without any felonies on their records.

It seems a simple enough solution.

Why do politicians make it so hard?

I wish I had the answer.  Plenty of us who enjoy the benefits of American citizenship today do so because our ancestors came here, poor yet hopeful, wanting to improve their own lives and those of succeeding generations. My great- and great-great grandfathers were cotters in Norway—nothing but tenants farming fields they would never own. They came to America with the hope they could, through hard work, become landowners themselves. And they did, and each succeeding generation got along a little better than the one before. Today the descendants of those foreign tenant farmers are dentists and doctors. This is the American dream, is it not?

Apparently, only for those who already have it, many of whom are the same people decrying illegal immigration or fussing that the very people who supply the food on their dinner plates are trying to destroy the very environment they depend on for their livelihood.

If you want to keep eating, you might want to consider a little harder where your food comes from and what’s involved in bringing it to your dinner table.


The Cruise From You Know Where, Part II: You’re Not in Atlantis Anymore

Posted by Deborah Huso on Apr 6, 2014 in Girlfriends, Travel Archives

"I'll trade you an apple slice for a smoke."The first night of our journey on the “Fun” Ship we met our tablemates in the Main Dining Room.  I’ll call them Mutt and Jeff.  (Actually, I think one of them really was named “Mutt.” )  Anyway, Mutt and Jeff hailed from western Kentucky and were on this cruise as an anniversary present from their children.  On the surface, they seemed like an ordinary couple in their mid-60s, both feeling, as they admitted, a bit out of place amidst all this “luxury.”

We did our best to be sociable, even after they told us about the “coloreds” in their neck of the woods, and wondered later how seating arrangements on these cruise ships were arranged.  It obviously wasn’t by age and interest.  But Mutt and Jeff were equally concerned about us.  When I mentioned “my husband and daughter,” you could almost hear their sighs of relief.  Thank God, we weren’t a lesbian couple after all!

Of course, Mutt then had to ask about Sarah’s marital arrangements, and Sarah replied she was not married.  “Well, how old are you?” asked Mutt.

To which Sarah honestly replied she was 33.  “Oh, well, I’m sure you’ll find someone one day, dear,” Mutt added with great sympathy.

I think that was the point at which my very happily unwed friend decided she no longer wished to engage Mutt and Jeff in conversation.

It was just as well.  We had our waiter to amuse us with tales of all the muggings and murders that occur in Nassau, Bahamas, our next port of call.  We were sufficiently warned that winning a lot of money at the casino at Atlantis would make us particularly susceptible to being knifed in the back.

No matter.  Sarah had already been to Atlantis on a previous trip, and I was more interested in seeing the local color of Nassau.

Hey, where's the manor?

Hey, where’s the manor?

We bypassed the cruise ship’s overpriced excursions and planned a day of touring the city on our own, by bus and on foot.  And if you take no other advice from me with regard to touring the Caribbean, take this–bypass the taxis that are lined up right outside the cruise ship terminals.  Aside from being overpriced, they will isolate you from the culture you hopefully want to experience.  Yes, the islands of the Caribbean, in reality, are not the paradises the travel brochures make them out to be.  Aside from the resort areas (like Atlantis), they are, for the most part, hopelessly dirty, weather- beaten, rundown, and rife with poverty.

But if you’re reading this blog, you’re probably not the Atlantis type anyway.  Sarah and I hitched a ride on a local bus with the aim of first visiting Ardastra Gardens and its flock of reputedly trained pink flamingoes.  Riding a bus around Nassau is an experience in itself.  This is not your usual city bus.  Nope, for the small fee of $1, you have the privilege of riding around in an oversized van with fold-up seats that require you to stand up, fold up your seat, and practically sit in another passenger’s lap in order to let others on and off.  The buses are popular with the locals and always full.  It’s an experience that won’t disappoint, especially when a local missing a couple of front teeth asks in lilting Bahamian English, “So you girls want to get drunk?”

There’s not actually a bus stop at Ardastra Gardens, so we got off the bus (Bus 10A is the one you want to take) as close as we could to the place and walked along broken-up sidewalks strewn with garbage to this sad little tropical garden a few blocks from Arawak Cay.  While the books I’ve read make Ardastra sound like a delightful place, it really isn’t.  But then delight is not the attraction here–the flamingoes are.

Lory parrot in for a landing

Lory parrot in for a landing

Garden paths will take you through unkempt tropical undergrowth and alongside the cages and habitats of mournful little monkeys, meerkats, endangered Bahamian parrots, and giant tortoises.  None of the animals look particularly happy to be here, though they are perhaps better off here than outside the gates.  The one exception are the Lory parrots who enjoy daily feedings by zoo visitors.  Be careful if you engage in this activity, however, as the parrots will get into feathered fights on your hand, arm, or head over a succulent piece of fruit.

Sarah and I had read about the flock of marching pink flamingoes and were anxious to see what this was all about.  We gathered with other curious visitors at the appointed hour and were treated to what we have since declared the highlight of our trip.  There’s nothing particularly organized about this group of “marching” flamingoes, but there is something decidedly humorous in watching their trainer attempt to establish order among flocks of feathered fuschia chaos.  You’ll have to watch the video to see what I mean: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=q0LLPUrtX0U


The Cruise From You Know Where….

Posted by Deborah Huso on Apr 1, 2014 in Girlfriends, Travel Archives

Originally published May 23, 2009.

Our "Fun" Ship

Our “Fun” Ship

Last fall my childhood best friend and I decided to take a vacation together.  Though we’ve known each other pretty much since we were born (in the same hospital one day apart), we had never ever made time for a “girlfriend getaway.”  I’m almost ashamed to admit, in retrospect, the cruise was my idea.  I had taken a short cruise once before with my husband and found it to be a reasonably acceptable experience, though I have to admit one “at sea” day is about as much as I can handle.  I don’t care what the television ads say,  being stuck in the middle of the ocean with 2,000 people you’ve never seen before just isn’t that fun, no matter how many Bahama Mamas you drink.

But wait–this was a Carnival cruise.  You know the tag line: The Fun Ship.

Well, my dear friend Sarah and I really had no idea what we were in for, though perhaps we should have taken the kilted guys playing bagpipes outside our hotel the night prior to embarkation as a sign.  This was going to be a very unusual vacation.

It all started out decently enough.  We had reserved an ocean view balcony suite and, hence, earned ourselves the right to priority, escorted check-in.  But one cramped suite later, we discovered the meaning of the term “partially obstructed view.”  From our miniscule balcony that we could almost fit a chair on with room for our legs, we had a marvelous view of…a lifeboat.  Yep, a lifeboat.  Well, at least in the event of an emergency, we were covered.  All I had to do was swing one leg out of bed and into the lifeboat….no chance of drowning on this trip at least.

No matter.  We weren’t going to spend that much time in our suite anyway, right?

Time to take a tour of the ship and hit the buffet….

Check out the "stars" in the ceiling

Check out the “stars” in the ceiling

The particular Carnival cruise ship on which we were traveling was definitely showing some age and wear.  (I’ll refrain from giving the ship’s name or the embarkation port in an effort to protect the potentially innocent.)  Retro 70s was the going theme with no shortage of glitz (though the glitz could have used a little polishing).  Nevermind.  There’s that buffet, of course, one circuitous route past the water slide that was never operational the entire journey.

And that’s when we knew…this was going to be the cruise from hell.  Sarah and I do not make any pretensions to being slender beauties, but the clientele of the ongoing ship’s buffet made us both feel, well, a little out of place…or maybe underweight is a better word.

As we glumly gathered our fare and sat down among corpulent strangers, we both looked at one another across the table and realized we were next to tears.  These people were going to eat their way through the Caribbean, and we were stuck with them for the next five days.

“I think I’m going to cry,” I said to Sarah.

“Me, too,” she responded.

And I felt like the worst friend ever for even thinking a cruise was the way to go for our first annual girlfriend getaway.  Sarah was never going to want to get away again.

But it wasn’t long before a glimmer of hope appeared–the safety drill!  Pretty soon we were rounded up with our other suite mates, all the top deck, ocean, limited ocean, and partially obstructed ocean view balcony folks, and we saw svelte couples in tanks and trim retirees with glistening white dentures, all the comforting signs of normalcy.

“WHERE have these people been?” Sarah asked as we strapped on our life jackets.  “THESE people look normal.”

And yes, yes, they did.  And pretty soon a cruise attendant in white shorts and shirt advised us that in the event of a Titanic-like disaster, we would be the first ones off the boat.  So it turned out that our lifeboat-view balcony suite had at least earned us high rank in the disaster-at-sea pecking order.

But after the safety drill, all these comforting strangers disappeared again, probably, Sarah surmised later, hiding out in their suites.  That’s certainly what we felt like doing.

Ketchup and Mustard

Ketchup and Mustard just back from the bar

Thank goodness we didn’t, however, because we were about to have the most hilarious time of our lives.  Did I mention we accidentally took this cruise across Halloween?  Oh, yes, but even next to the stocky gentleman we were to see later attired as a Crown Royal bottle and a happily paired ketchup and mustard, FORMAL NIGHT was going to knock our socks off….stay tuned….


I’m Not Scared. Are You???

Posted by Deborah Huso on Mar 28, 2014 in Musings, Relationships, Success Guide

Originally published November 6, 2011.

My husband said to me recently, after a disagreement about how I operate my professional and personal life, “You know I really admire the way you fling yourself blindly into life. It’s one of the reasons I fell in love with you.  But it’s just not smart.”

You’ve probably heard statements like this dozens of times: “I love you, but….”  We all hear them.  They are the bane of happy relationships.  If you love somebody, but this or that, maybe you shouldn’t be with him or her…unless, of course, you have to be.  You have to look after your kids, your parents, that dog you adopted from the SPCA.

This post isn’t about loving some but not all of a person, however.  It’s about living, not blindly, but, as I prefer to argue, openly.

And I’m not talking about hopping out of the proverbial closet if you’re gay or letting your grown children know you’ve divorced…six months after it has happened.  I’m talking about being open to life, to the opportunities it offers at every turn, the opportunities we often miss because we’re afraid, afraid of trying something new, striking up a conversation with a stranger, saying “yes” when our self-protective instinct wants to say “no.”

Everything extraordinary that has ever happened in my life has happened because I took a massive leap of faith, defied the naysayers, hoped, believed, and closed my eyes and jumped. When I told an acquaintance of mine once that much as I enjoyed sea kayaking, I didn’t know if I was up for whitewater, he said, “Whitewater kayaking is all about fear management.”

So is life.  Conquer your fear, and the thing you thought you couldn’t do becomes possible, manageable, maybe even smart.

For those of you who have been reading my columns in newspapers and magazines for the past decade, you have heard all of this, to some degree or another, many times before. But I think it bears repeating.  It is probably why my dad, from the time I was a teenager until deep into my adult life, would tell me every time I left home to go on a date, return to college, go back to my apartment in the city, “Drive fast, and take chances.”  He wasn’t talking about how to drive my car (though I’ve been lead-footed, I’ll admit, since age 16); he was talking about how to live my life.

Overcome fear.  No matter what.  Overcome it.

As many a philosopher has pointed out over the centuries, it is beyond fear that we find the true meaning of our lives.

When I was a child, I was incredibly afraid.  Everything from piano recitals to going away for a weeklong church summer camp terrified me.  They pushed me outside my comfort zone.  It was one thing to play the piano in my parents’ living room, quite another to play it in front of an auditorium full of people.  And it was one thing to have a sleepover at a best friend’s house, but to bunk in a cabin in the woods with girls I hardly knew?  Now that was scary.

But as I grew older, I slowly began testing my own limits, learned to say “yes” to crazy, nerve-wracking things like singing the “Star Spangled Banner” at the opening of every high school basketball game and leading discussions on comparative religion in the college Humanities classes I started teaching at age 23, finding myself, on many occasions, younger than my students.

These small dares led to ever bigger ones because I had begun to discover that saying “yes” to things that terrified me taught me, little by little, to push through fear.  And the amazing thing about fear is that once you push through it, it disappears.  You’re not only never afraid of that particular thing again, you find yourself a little less afraid of the next scary thing because you’ve proved, after all, you can handle fear.

By the time I was in my mid-twenties, my fear management had grown to a whole new level.  I was willing to drop a full-time, good-paying job at an ad agency, give up my penthouse apartment, and take a wild risk becoming a freelance writer in the isolated mountain reaches of western Virginia.  Everyone, except my dad, told me I had lost my mind, and even my dad admitted, years later, that he thought I had lost my mind, too, but was smart enough to keep his mouth shut.

A lot of people will chastise themselves, when they are young anyway, for taking a risk and falling flat on their faces.  After all, it’s pretty darn embarrassing when a girl turns down your request for a dance, so why on earth would you ever risk yourself by asking a woman to marry you?  You see how this reasoning against risk-taking can get out of hand.  Pretty soon, you’ll be avoiding everything that makes life worth living.

Consider instead, if you’re feeling a little fearful, of twisting your thinking.  Learn to regret the risk not taken, and pretty soon it will become habit to put yourself out there.  So strong a habit, in fact, that you’ll kick yourself until you’re black and blue every time you fail to take an opportunity and see where it leads.

I’m still beating up on myself for failing to get the business card of a Belgian businessman I met on an airplane a couple of weeks ago who sought me out because he wanted to talk to an American who could speak French.  I was afraid he might think I was hitting on him.  When I told my husband about this failure on my part later, he said, ironically enough, after I had described the gentleman, “I bet he’s in the diamond trade.  You could have had a new client.  You’re an idiot.”

Hmmm.  I thought so, too.

I should have just flung myself blindly into the possible opportunity.  But then, I don’t really see staying open to possibilities as a blind leap of faith.  Rather, it is a calculated sense of foresight.  Life is too short for giving into fear.  Sure, you might embarrass yourself, offend someone, maybe even lose your shirt (metaphorically speaking).  But that’s the beauty of risk…and of life.  You really, truly never know what’s around that next corner.  And if you operate from a place of opportunity instead of a place of fear, chances are whatever is around the bend is pretty darn grand.


Why Our Household Has A Zombie Apocalypse Surival Guide, Defending Facebook, and Various Other Reasons Why I’m a Good Mom

Posted by Mollie Bryan on Mar 25, 2014 in Mothers and Daughters, Relationships
My daughter's Zombie Apocalypse Survival Guide

My daughter’s Zombie Apocalypse Survival Guide

We are a family of full obsessions. We get involved in them deeply and then one day wake up and find a new one. Just like that. My husband and I have managed to make our biggest ones into careers—his as a historian and mine as a writer.

These days, my younger daughter is obsessed with zombies, and I for one can’t wait until this particular interest of hers disappears. Some may argue that at almost 13, she should NOT be watching The Walking Dead. I would agree. I would prefer that she not watch it, period. But she became hooked at a friend’s house, and there’s no turning back. Now she watches it every Sunday night—and has even been inspired to write her own zombie apocalypse novel. It’s very good—and I don’t like zombies–but I’d read her book. Of course.

I know I probably should not let Tess watch The Walking Dead. But I also know that if I make an issue of it, this will become a bigger issue than I want. So I’m waiting it out. I’m waiting for the next obsession.

I took the same tack with my older daughter’s middle school donning of the “emo” or “goth” clothing. Emma wore dark eye make-up and as much black as humanly possible for several years. Then somewhere between middle school and high school, she started embracing color again. Just the other day she said neon pink is her favorite color. Not that I care for the color, but hey, it’s progress.

Sometimes letting our kids explore who they are is uncomfortable for parents. They may embrace things we’ve long given up respect for—like guns, which I’ve outlawed in my house—much to my daughter’s dismay—because, after all, the folks on The Walking Dead use them all the time for their survival (in fighting against the zombies‑-not something we will ever have to worry about). So this prompted some very important discussions in our house, conversations we may not have had if she had not become such a Walking Dead fan.

Ultimately, this is why I’ve let her watch the show—as uncomfortable as I am. Keeping open lines of communication is a number one goal in my parenting. I want to know if my daughter is thinking about guns, drugs, or sex. Or any other sticky life situation. Sorry, but I do. Then I find we can reasonably discuss these issues, rather than being shocked into them by a real situation where it’s much too late to handle it objectively.

The same daughter—Tess—is also fixated with all things Disney. I think it’s a good and healthy obsession. She practices drawing the characters, likes to research little-known facts about Disney, and has asked for a trip to Disney for her 13th birthday—coming right up. We celebrated her sister’s 13th birthday in New York City and told Tess then we’d take her where she wanted to go—within reason. So Disney it is. I’m hoping our trip will ignite that passion a little more—with The Walking Dead fading into the background. Where it belongs.

Sometimes it takes a shift in location to jar your perspective a bit and find something else to think about.

I’ve taken a lot of grief from some members of my family for my “lenient” attitude when it comes to things like goth attire on Emma or watching the Walking Dead in Tess’ case as well as the fact that I allow my kids to be on Facebook. But you know what? I am on Facebook and see what they are doing. I know their passwords. I know what they are up to—because I myself am on it—probably way too much, promoting my books.

One of my husband’s relatives was very upset about Emma’s possible exposure to foul language and sexy content on Facebook. This is someone who is not even close to our family. And I had to sort of laugh. It’s been years since her kids were in school—and even longer ago since she herself was in the pubic school system. And while our first inclinations as parents is to protect our kids from growing up too soon, there’s not much we can do when we send them off to school. I blush to think of the language my daughters hear on a daily basis—words that I never knew until I was in college. (I am not happy about it, but there it is.) So I’ve switched gears a bit from what I thought my efforts would be at this age.  I have to trust my daughters will communicate with me— so far, so good—and we can discuss things. We can disagree. We can argue. And we do. I think that’s okay.

I’m adamant in my struggle to let my children find themselves and be who they are. For example, I’m a vegetarian—yet I don’t impose it on them. Nor do I impose my religious (or lack of) feelings on my children. I firmly believe that these things only have meaning in your life if you come to your own realizations, and I also believe in not giving them much to rebel against. Even so, however, Emma went through a rebellious meat-eating stage that still makes me cringe and laugh at the same time. “Look at me, Mom, I’m eating meat,” she would often say. Sometimes I’d scowl—but then I’d turn from her, hiding my grin. That’s the spirit, I wanted to say but wisely kept to myself.

I think becoming parents later in life has given both my husband and me a much longer view. As the cliché puts it, we’ve learned not to sweat the small things. Some may argue that we shouldn’t let Tess see The Walking Dead or let Emma dress like a goth girl, or let either be on Facebook. But we like to think we’re giving them what they need to discover who they are, within limits, of course.  (We are carefully watching them, commenting on what they do, guiding them, as well).

I’d bet whatever money I have in the bank and then some that my sweet, thoughtful, smart Tess will never wield a gun to fight off zombies—or any other kind of creature. Tess, on the other hand, has a written a book of instructions on how to survive the zombie apocalypse. “You just never know, Mommy,” she says. Indeed, you don’t. But I’m hoping our mother-daughter discussions will help us be better prepared when that “unknown” happens.

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Feeling Fat? Join the Turkey, Bacon Sandwich and Cheesecake Club

Posted by Deborah Huso on Mar 19, 2014 in Girlfriends

Originally published February 19, 2012.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do: Eat pizza…and walk everywhere.

Thanks to all the hoopla surrounding the rising rate of obesity in America and First Lady Michelle Obama’s promise to make us all a little more fit, the media has, of late, been placing a good deal more emphasis on the concept of “emotional eating.”  It’s part of our cultural jargon now.  Though, truth be told, it’s always been part of my jargon and the jargon of a lot of people I know, women, in particular.

When we’re feeling emotionally cruddy, we have a tendency to do one of two things: eat or buy shoes.  I don’t really know where this response comes from.  I can trace it back at least to college, where Susannah and I often found ourselves showering ice cream in chocolate sprinkles at the Gettysburg Dairy Queen following boyfriend break-ups and the other traumas of young adulthood.  Something about sugar seemed to make it all better, at least so long as we kept eating it.

And how do women typically stage “interventions” when one of their number is in crisis?  That’s right.  We bring food or take the victim to the food with a dinner on the town.  Almost anything with a high caloric content will work—soft doughy pretzels made by the Mennonites and drenched in hot cheese, oozing turkey and cheese croissants pelted with crab dip, decadent raspberry chocolate cheesecake.  You name the problem, we’ve got the carb-loaded drug to treat it.

Susannah visits the Cupcake Bus in Nashville: Two Cupakes, Two Bucks

The problem is after we’ve visited the “Cupcake Bus” in Nashville or the “Chocolate Lounge” in Asheville, the thing that has caused the crisis is still there in addition to a couple of extra inches around our waistlines.  Then the food guilt kicks in.  You have one of two options for curing that: eat until you feel good (kind of like drinking until she looks pretty) or starve yourself for three weeks to regain the figure you somehow lost in one sitting at the really delicious bistro by the train station.

I realize I’m covering sensitive territory here.  When I once joked to a friend about her obsession with chocolate (and honestly, what woman with hormones does not have an obsession with chocolate?), she chided me for being a bit too open about “her problem.”  The problem isn’t so much the chocolate obsession…or even the two extra inches around the waistline that the chocolate obsession leads to.

The problem is all in our heads.  (Yes, men, if you are reading this, I really did say that: “it’s all in our heads.”)

Does anyone else take pictures of their food when on vacation? How to eat bread in Kotor…

It’s the food-guilt cycle that’s the problem: have crisis (sometimes about how overweight we are), eat to make it all feel better, then feel guilty for the emotional eating, go back into self-loathing over the crisis or the love handles we’re sure we will develop by the following morning.  In severe cases, women develop potentially fatal eating disorders because of this cycle.

What’s going on here?

I’ll tell you: Jillian Michaels is going on here.  Jackie Warner is going on here.  And countless other hot bods we see on the cover of everything from Women’s Health to Ladies’ Home Journal.  And let’s not even get into the Victoria’s Secret catalog that comes in the mail every week.  (Why I have no idea because heaven knows, there’s nothing in there that would look good on a woman who thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to eat pizza to cure stress.)

But as women, we are inundated daily with what we are supposed to look like, and rarely do our bodies fit the bill.  We chastise our thin and lovely friends who claim to have pot bellies underneath their clothes, but are somehow incapable of seeing our own hypocrisy.  It does not matter what our bodies look like; they are never good enough…at least not to us.  Small-chested friends of mine bemoan their lack of curves.  I bemoan having too many, longing to look like the lithe and thin models I see photographed on Paris runways.  Either that or wishing to myself that the cultural norm of today was that of the voluptuous movie stars of the 1950s—where breasts and hips and curving thighs were perfectly acceptable assets.

You may be smiling now, Dorothy, but you know that frozen cocktail is going straight to your hips, right?

Nothing made it all hit home like a weekend shopping trip with my dance instructor, Dorothy, to buy new costumes for the upcoming performance season.  She is thin as a rail (though, being a self-critical female, she denies it up and down).  I came along, I think, as the representative of the more curvaceous members of the dance team.  And it didn’t take too many outfit “try-ons” before I felt almost as down in the dumps as I do after the yearly quest to update my bathing suit.  I think the last number I tried on was a glitzy lavender and silver piece with sequins that accentuated my curves a little too much. Dorothy remarked on the prominence of my “upper half.”  I looked in the mirror and decided my curves made me look fat, definitely not lovely or desirable.   Yep, I was done and left in no small befuddlement over the weird irony that Dorothy found herself pleased with anything that gave what she claims is the “illusion” of curves, while I was enamored with anything that de-emphasized hips, breasts, and thighs.

We were like two teenagers, one with straight hair, the other with curly, each desiring the perceived better assets of what we ourselves did not possess.  The women in my dance class tend to divide themselves into two self-conscious camps: the “haves” and the “have- nots.”  The “haves” are constantly complaining over their womanly figures; the “have- nots” crack self-deprecating jokes about how they “ain’t got nothing.”

Nobody in the room is happy.  And, I daresay, this phenomenon is all too “normal,” insofar as hating one’s body is normal in our culture.

Curing the blues with a Mexican fried donut in San Antonio: note the powdered sugar, oozing caramel, and dripping chocolate sauce

Dorothy and I treated our onslaught of poor body image induced depression by eating, of course, even though it would have been healthier, if not cheaper, to buy shoes. I drowned my sorrows in a Dr. Pepper and a bag of Cadbury mini-eggs.  She chose a box of donut holes to assuage the pain (though she admitted that the purchase that day of a pair of pants she could actually fit into was making her feel a bit better).

Then we both vowed to start near starvation diets on Sunday and exercise three hours every day.  It’s not that we don’t see the absurdity of our psychology here.  We see it.  We hate Jillian Michaels, not just because she’s a bitch, but because she makes us feel less than adequate.  Nevermind that since our careers don’t involve pumping iron 12 hours a day at the gym, it’s really not possible for us to look like that anyway.  Logic left this equation with the consumption of the turkey, havarti, bacon, and tomato sandwich on foccacia at lunchtime (and it tasted really good, by the way—food orgasm of the highest degree).

But was it worth it?  Was it worth the self-loathing that would follow to eat that decadent sandwich?

Hard call.  There is one woman in our dance class who says she has been advised that the way to eliminate her pot belly is to give up potato chips, pizza, and wine.  She claimed, not without empathy and understanding from the rest of us, that life really wouldn’t be worth living if she had to give up those things.

Food is pleasurable after all, firing off the same areas of the brain that good sex and exercise do.  So one could logically conclude perhaps that we should treat crises with more sex and exercise and less food and shoes.  (And did I mention my closet is overflowing with shoes?  I think great shoes also fire the pleasure centers of the brain.)

But how often do you see a woman trying to comfort a friend who has just broken up with the love her life by saying, “Hey, how about we go for a hike?”  I remember once Susannah and I tried it.  She offered up a hike at Great Falls instead of shoe shopping and eating.  But somehow the shoes and the great chicken Caesar salads at Panera Bread seemed to call us harder.

Gelato in Venice: I’m in heaven…at least as long as my pants still button in the morning….

I wonder how we get this way.  My mother-in-law claims it’s Barbie dolls that inspire all our body image issues.  I think she’s off the scent though.  My four-year-old daughter loves Barbies, and she has the best body image of any female I know.  She loves to admire herself in the mirror, has no qualms about running through the house stark naked, and frequently says to herself, “Don’t I look pretty?”  Then she’ll pick up a Barbie doll, pull out a fantastic evening gown for her, and hand the doll to me with the request: “Will you dress her, Mommy?  I want her to look pretty like I do”

Wow.  Really?

When was the last time I felt sorry for a Victoria’s Secret model and wished she could be as pretty as I am?  Yeah…never.

So I’m guessing we, as humans, have some natural inclination to like ourselves, including the way we look.  And then somewhere around school age begins the slow process of inspired self-loathing.  My daughter tells me the boys at school make fun of her unruly curly hair.  I asked her how she responds to this.  “I take the ‘monster’ clip with the teeth on it out of my hair and pinch them with it,” she says matter-of-factly.  I can’t really argue with this solution, so I say nothing.

I begin to think she is onto something, that maybe the next time I find myself criticizing my body, I should treat my psyche like my daughter does the mean boys on the school bus and snap myself on the wrist with a rubber band or something.

Easier said than done, of course.

But whose standard are we trying to live up to anyway?  It’s certainly not that of our husbands and lovers, most of whom are just happy we’re willing to get naked with them occasionally and couldn’t care less about our love handles, if they even notice them.  And competitive though women tend to be with one another, we certainly don’t dump our female friends because they’re carrying around a few extra pounds.  So why do we ourselves believe we are unlovable unless we are perfect when we have so much evidence to the contrary?  Is it just because an air-brushed model seems to stare at us with condemnation from her place in the magazine rack in the grocery store checkout line?

We have to be careful of this condemnation of strangers, valuing too much the opinion of a culture that asks us to starve ourselves for happiness.

Dorothy said she was feeling particularly bad about herself when she noticed her dance partner was worn out from doing lifts in a song recently.  She suspected it was because she’d put on a few pounds and said to him, “I need to lose some weight, don’t I?”

Gallantly, he replied, “No, no, I just need to do more push-ups.”

This response is not so different from that of my daughter as she watches me curl my hair and put on lipstick in the morning.  “Mommy, you look beautiful,” she says with beaming admiration.  “Like a Cover Girl.”

And I smile a little, thinking she is full of childish misperception of what beauty is.  But then she has always been hopelessly honest, too, a trait she learned from me.  “Don’t wear that jacket, Mommy. It is ugly,” she has said of my choice in wardrobe.  And then sometimes, “Those shoes are great, Mommy.  Buy those.”  And I do.  Trusting somehow her gut reaction to aesthetics.

It is not unlike the reaction of a man to his wife.  He finds her beautiful, not because she looks like a Victoria’s Secret model, but because she loves him, admires him, and is willing to share that most secret part of herself with him—that vulnerable body she is scared to love.


Circle the Wagons: The Powerful Love of Women

Posted by Deborah Huso on Mar 18, 2014 in Girlfriends, Relationships

Originally published March 10, 2012.

Sarah and me–friends since birth

Sarah and I have been best friends on and off again for nearly four decades. So closely did we grow up together, our mothers trading back and forth sleepovers and marching band pick-ups, that we are perhaps as close as sisters, closer perhaps. When life separated us for several years and we fell out of touch, it was that sisterly, almost clairvoyant love that drew us back together again.

I had suffered a devastating break-up. Sarah e-mailed me the day after the split. Only, we had not been in touch for around five years. To this day, we both believe she had somehow, across time and space, sensed my need of her. And our lives have been thus for years, one of us walking in just as the other is about to break.

This is no ordinary connection.  That is not to say, however, that it is uncommon. Women, at least those among us brave enough to love fully, have an uncanny ability, so it would seem, for knowing just when to circle the wagons.

I have not always benefited from this love. Raised to be independent and distrusting of others, I was always reluctant as a girl and as a young woman to lead myself into vulnerability, particularly the vulnerability that comes of the deeply connected relationships that women often share.

It is no small surprise to me that men resist this kind of all-encompassing love. Some think it is smothering. And it can be. Women learn, over time, not to call on too many friends at once in times of crisis, or they will be overwhelmed with attention. How many nights have I found myself fielding phone calls and texts from half a dozen concerned females all at once after announcing to them some recent family tragedy?  Even worse though is when, in recognition of this, I share a crisis with only one or two to be chastised later by the others for not letting them in to offer succor.

Susannah and me: friends and troublemakers

Circling the wagons is something of a professional calling for us, and it transcends the intimate relationships of tried and true friends, those who have followed us through high school and college, through marriage and divorce, childbirth and death of parents.

I belong to a community dance troupe made up of girls and women ranging in age from six to 60. Every week we engage in what we refer to as “group therapy”—a couple of hours of pulse-pounding dance accompanied by excessive tom-foolery. This is where we (the adult women anyway) let go, beyond the eyes of spouses who may know nothing of this side of us—the practical jokes, the tongue-in-cheek commentary on marriage, sex, and child raising, the posturing in front of dance studio mirrors, the banter over who has the curviest figure, the thickest thighs, the most perfect hair. We are so wild at times that new members to the group often aren’t quite sure what to make of us at first, but we convert them eventually to this gathering of “footloose” women. Here we are girls again, more than girls…because most of us were never confident enough, brave enough to be so ridiculous and fun when we were younger.

But this is also a space of deep camaraderie. When one among us lost a foster child back to her biological mother, we circled her with embraces, then turned her tears to laughter. When we prep for performances, mothers and daughters gather to braid each other’s hair, mend dance shoes with duct tape, and coax one another out of nervousness. Here we find the space to be members of a family where expectations are much lower, where we all recognize the staggering responsibilities of work, marriage, and motherhood, and give one another leave to be silly, irresponsible, and mindless…if only for an hour or two.

My dancing friends on “weird sock day”

I do not know what I would do without these women…any of them…from my most intimate friends to the women with whom I dance each week. They fill my life with laughter, and they prop me up when I am too worn down to stand.

They have been there for me when my family has not been. And they have done all this unconditionally.

Sometimes I lie awake at night wondering why, what it is I have done to deserve the love and kindness of all these women, feeling the powerful blessing of knowing there is this invisible circle of support around me always.

When I feel I have erred foolishly in this life, I turn to my old college friend, Susannah, from whom I know I will always get a refreshingly honest and straightforward assessment of the situation…in addition to ice cream or cheesecake. Yet when I fail to take her sound advice and find myself in a fix, I never fear abandonment. “Friends are not the people who are there only when you do things right,” she tells me on a regular basis.

Retail therapy in Venice with Dorothy

Yet I often wonder how many of us know this, how many of us are brave enough to test the true depth of our friendships, to be who we are without fear among the people we love. It is no easy thing. We are all guilty of holding back, playing games, pretending all is well…even among those closest to us, fearful of the depth and vulnerability we might discover should we let go…and fearful, too, of finding nothing, no depth, no connection, no unconditional love.

Humans are social creatures, and abandonment is one of our greatest primal fears.

It is one reason we are so lucky to be women. It is easy for us to look at men and their easy friendships with other men, their perception of “depth” as an intense conversation about politics, and their ability to compartmentalize pain and fear and envy them. And it is so easy for us to be angry with them, too, for failing to connect with us as our women friends do.

A friend of mine said to me recently, “I cannot help being angry with my husband because he does not know me as well as my best friend does.”

This is not so much a failing in the guy. It’s a failing in expectation. He does not know how, most likely, to know that woman as her best friend does. It is outside his comfort zone to go so deep, as it is with most men. They don’t live in a world of women the way we do. They cannot count on their male friends to protect their weaknesses, honor their strengths, and be there for them no matter the errors they make. It is not the way men are socialized, and it is why they need us so much more than we need them. For most men, it is their wives who serve as their only emotional centers, the only place where they can freely be themselves.

Imagine having only one person who offers you safety. Imagine having none.

New partners in crime in Savannah

I made a new friend recently, as I often do on travels, and as we walked back to our lodgings one evening, discovering, after only a couple of days’ acquaintance that we had much in common, including a similar painful life experience, she said to me with a laugh, “Can I marry you?”

I understood the message behind the joke. Because it took me a long time to stop looking to romantic partners to provide the kind of emotional depth and support that female friends do. I will not over-generalize and say that men cannot provide it. But it is rare to find such a man. As a rule, they retreat into their caves when hurting, confused, or troubled; whereas, women sound the alarm, ask for aid, and let the wagons circle. And when those wagons lock around us in times of trouble, there is no getting through until the danger has passed, chased away by the arrows of shared and recognized grief and the awareness that, with friends, just about anything is survivable.


Let Me Act Like I Know What I’m Doing Here

Posted by Deborah Huso on Mar 13, 2014 in Musings, Relationships, Success Guide

Originally published December 30, 2011.

“Perfect isn’t that interesting to watch. In fact, it can be both boring and exhausting. What we like to see is human.” –Frances Cole Jones

In a book I had to review recently, the author wrote, and not necessarily with contempt, that social media has made us all exhibitionists and opened the way for everyone to make public confessionals.  There is truth in this.  And the result is a lot of noise in a world already overflowing with information.

When I asked some women friends and acquaintances to help contribute to this blog, they balked (even the two who are currently contributing).  The idea of flinging their personal lives onto the Internet for their parents, their friends, their neighbors to read…and judge…seemed a little bit scary.  “What if I offend someone?  What if I make someone mad?”  Of course, having been a journalist and columnist for many years, I know that stirring up the pot is often the whole point.  If you’re not offending someone or making someone mad at least some of the time, you probably don’t stand for much, and you’re probably not making much of a difference in anyone’s life either.

But is it all, in the end, just self-serving and self-magnifying noise?  Well, it depends.  There is a place for the public confessional.  I think of Brooke Shields’ book Down Came the Rain, where she talked about her own struggle with postpartum depression.  I think of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, which chronicled her trials with recovering from divorce, lost love, and daring to love again.  I think of Isabel Gillies’ It Happens Every Day, where she acknowledged her own responsibility in her ex-husband’s extramarital affair.  And I think of Youngme Moon’s Difference, where she talked about the day she decided to stop teaching the way everyone else was teaching and how it changed her life and the lives of her students.  These books fit the category of public confessional, and how glad am I these women confessed.

Their confessions have made me (and others, too, no doubt) feel less alone on this journey called life.  And they have taught me new ways of thinking about and approaching my own existence.  Knowing someone else has tried and failed and tried again…differently…gives me hope in moments when hope seems hard to come by.

Some of my friends and acquaintances will be surprised–those who think I limit myself to great, dead literary authors like William Faulkner, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, and Elizabeth Gaskell.  But all these books, literary fiction and popular memoir, have something critical in common.  Perhaps no one can set a scene like Thomas Hardy.  And perhaps no one can jar our senses with “hit that nail on the head” meaning like Faulkner.  But they are, in the end, all public confessionals–cutting open the writer’s view of the heart of life, whether achieved through fact or fiction.  And these confessionals change us.

So let me confess….

I started this blog because I realized I had it too good in some ways.

Trained by experience to establish rapport with sources by finding that rock of shared experience that would make them trust me, I have been the recipient of more than a few confessionals over the years.  And what I discovered from that and from the tools of journalism that I have transferred over to my relationships with friends and colleagues is that everyone has a story, many stories most likely, that they are dying to tell, need to tell.  They are just waiting for the audience…the audience that often never comes.  They want someone to walk into their lives who gives a damn, really, honestly gives a damn.  Because life is hard, and life is scary, and isolation is the surest path to eternal torment.

I have received confessionals on a scale far deeper than any Catholic priest’s.  And it has not, as you might imagine, given me a front row seat to the hidden melodrama of people’s lives. Rather, having that window into people’s souls has given me a window into my own.  It has given me the courage to acknowledge my own failures, learn from them, and pass the lessons on.

The assistant instructor at the dance studio where I take lessons twice a week often remarks when teaching choreography she has just learned herself, “Let me act like I know what I’m doing here.”  And we chuckle with some relief, glad perhaps to know that someone else is “winging it” besides ourselves.

I can recall having done the same as a young Humanities professor, teaching the history of early Western Culture, a subject well outside my area of expertise, a subject in which I struggled to stay a step ahead of my students.  They thought I was the expert.  How wrong they were.  Yet I never let on that I had about as much expertise in the origins of Islam as the Walmart greeter.

But I grew up, as many of us do, with the idea that perfection is the goal.  After all, the Bible (a centerpiece of western culture whether you are Christian or not) enjoins us to “be perfect as thy Father in heaven is perfect.”  I don’t know if anyone else has noticed this, but this world we live in is far from perfect, and if you think God created it, then I guess you also have to figure He wasn’t perfect or that He was intentionally imperfect.  So I think it’s probably perfectly okay and well within your rights if you are religious to perform imperfectly in this world.  It might even be you were meant to do so.

That’s not an easy idea to get used to, however.  Some of my most well-educated and seemingly level-headed friends still strive for perfection, still attempt to hide imperfection even from the people they love most in the world.  How many times have you watched yourself go through the motions of cheerfulness when you did not truly feel it?  How many times have you told your boss you can handle that project, no problem, when on the inside you’re terrified that you have no idea what you’re doing?

We all lie to each other…and sometimes to ourselves for the sake of civility.  But where does civility stop and honesty begin?  It is a difficult question.

I have a lifetime of experience in “acting like I know what I’m doing here.”  I write articles that people trust to be accurate and true even when I myself am sleep deprived and pulling through with the aid of caffeine alone.  I write columns that are supposed to inspire people to get off their rears and do something with their lives even when I haven’t the slightest idea what I’m doing with mine half the time.  A friend of mine remarked to me not long after I’d returned from three consecutive trips that had me zooming through seven different time zones in the course of a month, “I wish I could live your life for a day.”


Perhaps it looks grand from where she is sitting.  From where I am sitting, it often looks downright ridiculous.

There was a time, not too terribly long ago, when I felt some not entirely sane obligation to offer the appearance at least of the perfect life.  I thought that, by virtue of the fact I had followed a childhood dream to fruition, it was my duty to inspire others to do the same—to make it look rewarding and wonderful to follow one’s heart.  And it is.  But not all the time.  Not by a long stretch.  Sometimes I feel like I am hanging onto my dreams with a tiny piece of thread that is slowly fraying.

We all feel that way, of course, at one time or another.  But rarely will you find a person willing to admit it, unless you are interviewing her for an article on overcoming doubt.  Most of us, for the most part, still hide behind our carefully constructed and often ridiculously transparent veils of perfection.

An acquaintance of mine said this is necessary, that we cannot bare our souls to the world.  What an awkward place it would be.  He has a point.  You know those people on Facebook who announce to the world when they’re having a nervous breakdown?  Yep, that’s a little creepy, I have to acknowledge.  I’ve “unfriended” a few of those.  It can be uncomfortable, at times, to have a front row seat to imperfection.

But maybe that’s only because we are not used to it.  My jury is still out on that.

And though I’ve never given much heed to New Year’s resolutions, I might give it a go this year.  My new purpose in life will be to be an inspiration, not by being perfect, but by being human…and being very good at it.


So You Want to Be a Parent? Here’s a Test….

Posted by Claire Vath on Mar 11, 2014 in Motherhood

Spoiler alert: If you plan on eating today—or ever again—don’t read this … unless you’re a parent or plan to become one.

I opened a diaper the other day (one attached to a child), and a baseball-size ball of poop rolled out … into my hand. Like any normal human would do, I shrieked. And then, like any mother would do, I calmly threw it away.

There should be a test, I thought, to determine whether one is really able to handle parenthood. I mean really. Babysitting does not count. I babysat all the time growing up … and I had three siblings. None of that prepared me in the slightest for having my own kids. I wasn’t privy to the late-night feedings or early-morning vomits that I am now.

So I’ve devised a test instead. You’re welcome, world. And it doesn’t involve staying up all night listening to crying (that’s the easy part!).

  1. Procure a baseball-size hunk of feces—human, animal, whatever. Hold it in your hand for one minute.
  2. Have a friend or spouse fill his or her mouth with fake blood and run to you screaming. Put your hand in the mouth and try to determine the source of bleeding.
  3. Dip your hand into a jar of peanut butter, and rub your hands together like you’re spreading on lotion. Run your hands along every upholstered surface in your house.
  4. Fill a few sippy cups with milk, and hide them like you would Easter eggs around the house, except upside-down. Set a reminder for 10 days, and then try to determine where they all are … and how to remove the smell from your house.  It doesn’t matter whether the cups are “leak-proof” or not. A cup filled with milk sitting upside-down on your carpet for 10 days will leak–guaranteed.
  5. Buy a bunch of children’s books and marvel at how 99.99% of them have animals in them. Understand that every creature—rhinoceros, duck, porcupine—in those books is 99.9999% easier to care for than caring for a child. Many books have different ideas about how an animal should sound. “Ribbit” in one book and “croak” in another don’t jive. Talk to your spouse about consistency in animal noises. It will save for confusion later. Also, agree on animal noises for animals that you don’t know. We’ve told ours that giraffes say “Munch crunch” as they eat leaves from a tree (and we stole that from a book). Because your kids will want to know.
  6.   Find a college bar, and hang out there until someone looks like they need to vomit. Stand 5 inches away from their face when it happens.
  7. Scoop a hunk of mud out of your yard and throw it in the tub. Now, take a cup and try to scoop out every piece of that mud as it breaks apart. This is what happens when someone poops in the tub. Poop (and probably mud) is harder to corral than a goldfish.
  8. Learn silly sounding words like Boppy and Bumbo and Mamaroo, Desitin and Boudreaux’s. Those are serious things.
  9. Get a regular screwdriver, and try to fix a pair of loose glasses. Those tiny screws? They’re in all baby toys/implements.  Bonus points if you put a recording of a screaming toddler on while doing this.
  10. Study Baywatch-era photos of Pamela Anderson. If you want a mid-90s rack like that, don’t nurse or pump for 8 hours. And, voila! A chest of rocks.

If you got through my little test, congratulations!

You are definitely fit to be parent.You are also fit to be a serial killer.




The Guilt Diet: How and Why I Fell Off the Wagon

Posted by Deborah Huso on Mar 6, 2014 in Mothers and Daughters, Relationships

Originally published July 24, 2012

I know a lot about guilt, at least when you consider I’m not Catholic. In fact, I was raised Lutheran, and the great thing about being Lutheran, idealistically speaking anyway, is that not only do you not need intercessory prayer to wipe away your sins, your sins aren’t really anybody’s business anyway. At least that’s what Martin Luther said. All that muck is just between you and God.

Or between you and your mother.

If the Judeo-Christian Diaspora had need for a patron saint of guilt, my mother would be it. No improper action is unworthy of her note. Just the other day, in fact, as I sat across the kitchen table from her, to give her 20 minutes of painful and dutiful conversation, she remarked on my use of a four-letter word in referring to a less than ethical colleague. “Do you talk like that in front of Heidi? I just cannot believe the language you use.”

I am 37 years old, and I suddenly decided it was time to grab my four-year-old and hit the road before my mother began remarking on the unusual color of my toenails or advised me it was really not appropriate, given my age (nevermind I have great legs), for me to wear skirts with hems above the knee.

My mother comes by her guilt-inducing tendencies honestly enough. The great-granddaughter of Norwegian immigrants who managed to prosper through dedicated and pretty much non-stop labor in the rich soil of the American Midwest, she was raised on a solid diet of hard work, steel nerves, and eternal faith that anything that could go wrong would go wrong. Leisure time is the next best thing to a sin in this world view, and love is reserved for children who are under the age of back talking. Spouses, adult relatives, pets, and neighbors can fend for themselves unless, of course, they have reached drooling stage at which point you tend to them with a rough and exasperated sense of duty.

When you come of age under this kind of rearing, guilt becomes an everyday thing, hardly noted oftentimes.  You think being reminded for the 923rd time that it is all your fault your parents had to sell a quarter of the farm to send you to college is normal. And you really don’t think about the fact that the reason you haven’t told your mother you’re going on a European vacation is because you don’t want to feel bad for enjoying yourself and (God forbid) spending hard-earned money on something frivolous like seeing the palaces of the Russian czars or taking a gondola ride on the Grand Canal.

There is nothing healthy about consuming a steady diet of guilt, however. Guilt represses and controls, which is, of course, what it is designed to do, but most of us who have been raised on a guilt diet, whether it’s one of moderate or gargantuan proportions, end up leading lives where duty (however it is defined by the ones holding the guilt strings) holds sway over everything else…including happiness.

And if you think happiness is for the afterlife and not for the here and now, well, you might as well stop reading. I have no argument for the doggedly, miserably faithful. Ecclesiastes noted that “all is vanity,” and “all go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.” In other words, we’re all headed for the same destination whether we live lives burdened by guilt or not, so why waste time feeling bad for being who we are and for enjoying the life we have been given?

It is a question I have often asked my mother. She has never been able to come up with a satisfactory answer. Perhaps that’s because the answer is ultimately that she, like so many people, from priests to politicians, has found guilt to be a handy way of getting what she wants from other people. If you can make someone feel bad enough for pursuing his dreams, perhaps he won’t pursue them and leave you behind. If you can force someone to be devoted to you by reminding her all the time of all you have done for her, perhaps she won’t abandon you, no matter how horribly you treat her. It is the same thing churches and governments have used for millennia—do the “right” thing, and no harm will come to you; no one will judge you; and life will never be hard. You certainly won’t have to make tough choices.

And, in the end, isn’t that why most of us raised on guilt diets stick to them? Much though we may resent the steady ingestion of our unworthiness, it’s far preferable perhaps to having to put ourselves out on a limb and risk censure or ridicule (or maybe disinheritance) by doing our own thing.

I think perhaps it was watching my father that finally made me ditch the guilt regimen. Raised by a rigidly religious mother and a father who was eternally disappointed in him, my dad ingested guilt almost from the cradle. The result was that he was and still is always trying to please with some ragged hope that maybe one day he’ll be good enough. His parents are long since gone from this earth, but my mother has done a fairly good job of assuming their place and discouraging my dad from following his heart if it in any way leads him away from her…even if only for a day.

Guilt like this is everywhere, and sometimes it’s not other people who impose it on us.  Sometimes we impose it on ourselves.  How many women friends do I have who are reluctant to go out for the day with friends or to take a vacation without their kids?  Somehow they have ingested the idea that they are poor wives and mothers if they give any attention to themselves. So they doggedly devote themselves to their duties—taking care of their careers, their spouses, their children—to the exclusion of caring for themselves.  The result is a life of groundhog days.

Not too many weeks ago I was standing in the prettily landscaped backyard of a well-to-do friend who, like so many of us, on the surface has it all.  I could not help but remark, as I watched our children playing together and her husband grilling on the deck, “You have a good life.”

She literally guffawed, “Yeah, right.”

I knew what it meant, and I kind of chuckled, now admiring the new deck furniture she had purchased, pretty green cushions and a jauntily tilted patio umbrella.  “Well, at least you have great deck furniture,” I said.

We both fell into stitches of laughter. Because it was all too true. When we let duty rule our lives too much, we end up clinging to absurdities for our happiness. Maybe we resent our spouses or hate our jobs, but at least we have a really nice car. Or maybe we’re angry we have to work horrible hours, but at least we have a really beautiful house to sleep in. We cover our guilt with salves of pretense.

I’m not sure when exactly I gave up the ghost and decided to start eating life raw and real. Perhaps it was somewhere between my mother remarking, “well, it must be nice to be rich” and me replying, guilt-free, “yeah, it is,” and walking out at Christmas one year when she told me to “get out,” fully expecting I would never be so lacking in guilt as to actually do it. The funny thing about resisting the guilt diet is that the more you call the bluff of the guilt reapers, the more they back off…or at least keep their guilt-inducing opinions to themselves.

Plus, you’ll find out who really loves you. Trust me, it’s not the person who tries to make you feel bad for following your heart or doing your own thing. It’s the person who makes you feel good for being who you are.

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