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Building a Holiday-Free Zone: Struggling to Go Guilt and Family-Free

Posted by Deborah Huso on Nov 13, 2014 in Travel Archives

Originally published November 15, 2013.

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

A friend of mine whose had some pretty sad experiences over the holidays, ranging from ending her marriage one year to losing her mother to cancer another, told me recently she was making her home into a “holiday-free zone.” “No turkeys, Christmas trees, or mistletoe are getting into this house,” she proclaimed.

I regret to say I fully understand.  I haven’t exactly had the best run on Thanksgiving/Christmas seasons myself. Long married to a man who eschewed much celebration of Christmas because it reminded him too much of being tugged back and forth between divorced parents as a child and having long been a member of a dysfunctional family extraordinaire (i.e. relatives who can sit at the same dinner table for an hour or more and never make eye contact much less speak), the holidays often seem to me more like something to “get through” than to enjoy.

The last couple of years I’ve found creative ways to escape the holidays. I spent Thanksgiving 2011 in Venice, Italy, where there was not a sign anywhere that Americans across the Atlantic were gathering around extended dining room tables carving succulent birds and spooning cranberries onto the fine china that’s pulled out only twice a year. And Christmas 2012, I was so desperate to escape family drama, I opted for taking my daughter to Disney World as an excuse for not showing up to the holiday dinner table.

So far my daughter hasn’t minded…or at least hasn’t noticed.  But I wonder sometimes if that’s because she just hasn’t had much experience with the Norman Rockwell version of Christmas. And honestly, do any of us?  At least since passing the age of 12 when we started to notice that maybe our aunts and uncles really weren’t that fond of one another and that Grandma so-and-so hadn’t spoken to her son’s wife in five years?

Another friend has troubles at Christmas because her mother can’t bear to be in the same room with her father. They are divorced but can’t make nice even for a day.  And honestly, why should they have to? How is it the holidays have become this obligatory family-free-for-all, where if the relatives aren’t engaging in shouting matches over some 20-year-old spat, they are at least sitting there sullenly wishing they were home instead watching football or reading a good book?

I have some acquaintances who hold what they term “a dysfunctional Thanksgiving.” It’s a gathering of friends, not family, over a prodigious feast and is open to anyone who would rather be there than at a family dinner table. Not surprisingly, it draws quite a crowd.

Christmas at Disney World

Christmas at Disney World

I haven’t decided yet how I’m going to establish my own version of a “holiday-free zone” this year. Granted I’ve already started putting up a few Christmas wreaths here and there (though I’m truly debating whether or not to drag the 9 ft. tall artificial fir tree out of the basement and spend 6 hours decorating it while stepping precariously from step ladder to step ladder).

I might just send my daughter off to spend Thanksgiving with her father’s dysfunctional family and curl up in front of the fire with a cup of hot cocoa and a good book. As for Christmas, I found myself eyeing some winter trips to Austria and Germany that, as luck would have it, fall right over December 25.

And in an effort to avoid the over-the-top Christmas cheer already showing up in shopping malls and department stores, I think I’ve figured out a way to order all my gifts online and have them delivered to my doorstep…or someone else’s. Heck, with any luck, I might even be able to avoid wrapping paper, ribbons, and Scotch tape.

Though to be quite honest, it’s not the decorations that get to me so much or even the hours and hours of gift wrapping.  It’s the childhood memories of traditions that will never be again that often make my Christmas blue.

I know my grandmother, who now lives in a nursing home and is suffering from Alzheimer’s, will no longer oversee my creation of Lemon Cloud. Nor will I ever watch her and my mother roll out dough for flatbread and lefse anymore. Dad and I will never sit together competing over who can make the most elaborate bow to plunk on a gift, and I’ll never climb into bed with my giggling cousins and store contraband soda pop in frosted bedroom windows for midnight snack.

And in the midst of all that loss, I struggle with how to shape the holidays for my daughter, wondering if I would even be doing her any favors by trying to recreate the holidays I thought I knew as a child, holidays where my parents and grandparents may have felt just as displaced as I do now.

Perhaps, in the end, it’s better to scoop her off on a Christmas Caribbean vacation or to spend Thanksgiving reading books in front of the fire. These are traditions that can keep going and going, that don’t require loads of extended family, that don’t rely on rituals that will die when the grandparents die, and where the holiday décor and baking isn’t associated with a sense of loss.

Because I don’t want Heidi feeling one day, as I do now, that January 2 cannot get here fast enough. No, I want her to feel confident in celebrating the joys of the season without the guilt-ridden obligations of family or the sense that her life is somehow inadequate if it doesn’t include a spouse, two kids, and a dog.

 
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10 Signs You’re Dating a Man, Not a Boy

Posted by Deborah Huso on Nov 3, 2014 in Men, Relationships

Okay, so to fully appreciate this post, you must first read the semi-clueless hypotheses of EliteDaily.com writer Paul Hudson, who obviously has very little experience with women, as he actually freely admits at the beginning of his post, “10 Signs You’re Dating a Woman, Not a Girl.” I have to forgive Hudson his silliness, however, as I, and most of the men I date, have got at least 20 years on him.

Wisdom comes with experience, but the former does not necessarily follow from the latter, as there are plenty of clueless men out there who have 30+ years on Mr. Hudson. If you’re among their number (or one or more women have told you you are), listen up:

1) A real man makes an effort to continue to impress the woman he loves and shows he respects her even once they’ve been dating for months, even years, or (heaven forbid for Mr. Hudson’s audience!) are married. This means he still opens doors for her and for others. He still dresses up for dinner. He gets a decent haircut on a regular basis…and shaves! He takes care of himself, mentally and physically, knowing that he can’t expect her to maintain her interest in and affection for him if he turns into a hopeless couch potato once he’s won his prize.

A boy, on the other hand, wears gym shorts and flip-flops to dinner when his date is wearing a cocktail dress, regularly goes out with a bad case of bedhead, hasn’t shaved since the third date, and dulls his faculties with hours of video games and/or watching viral YouTube videos.

(Oh, and as an aside, Mr. Hudson, a woman who doesn’t care what she is wearing is one who has lost respect for herself. As a wise friend of mine says, “Just because you’re a mom doesn’t mean you wear sweatpants to the bus stop. For God’s sake, put on some mascara and lipstick!”)

2) A real man isn’t afraid of what a woman thinks or says. Yes, it’s true a real woman speaks her mind rather than expecting a man to know what she needs and wants, but, on the flipside, a real man isn’t intimidated by a woman who communicates. Her forthrightness might make him uncomfortable at times, but he doesn’t bolt for the nearest cave and disappear for two weeks.

A boy, however, is terrified by female expression, particularly if it involves any discussion of feelings. He will do anything and everything he can to make sure she knows serious talk is off limits, including punishing her with lack of contact if she dares to ask him why he’s still stringing along half a dozen old girlfriends.

A man can take the truth and maintain eye contact.

3) A man offers to pick up the check, even if he’s with a woman who is financially independent. This is simple good manners, guys. She may say, “No, that’s not necessary. Let me get it this time.” But a man always makes the offer. It’s a basic signal, ladies, that he was “raised right.”

4) A man doesn’t get a woman drunk in the hopes he’ll get laid. Likewise, a woman doesn’t drink to excess unless she’s with a man she deeply trusts. A real man isn’t trawling the streets for sex. He knows that good sex almost always follows intellectual and emotional sparks, and he’s looking for a woman who will fire his brain, make him laugh, and whose general attitude and outlook is just plain sexy…because it’s real.

A boy is basically just looking for sex, the more the better. Quality, which requires intimacy, isn’t even within his understanding.

(And another aside here for Mr. Hudson: “Women always stay in control?” Who wants to be with anyone who always stays in control? It’s in releasing control and our inhibitions that true intimacy between a man and a woman lives.)

5) Men don’t lead half their social lives on Facebook. A man has real social connections. You know, the ones where people actually physically get together and experience life with one another? A real man spends more time with you, his family, and his friends than he does living vicariously on social media or “chatting” with so-called “friends” online.

If your guy is addicted to the Internet, hands down, he’s a boy.

6) Real men have substance. I don’t care if they watch TV. And I don’t care what they watch on TV. But if a guy spends most of his evening leisure time in front of the boob tube, chances are he is not reading, he is not thinking, he is not engaging in any form of intellectual or personal development, which means that it’s easy for a 45-year-old man to have the same intellectual capacity (or lack thereof) as someone 20 years his junior. If the guy you’re dating doesn’t set your brain on fire, chances are, he’s actually a boy. And yes, I’ve seen boys in their 50s and 60s.

(My aside to Mr. Hudson: I was obsessed, for a time, with The Sopranos and Sex and the City, and I never once considered either a “guilty pleasure.” It was pure pleasure, and I own it, as any real woman would.)

7) A man can talk about virtually anything. He knows how to adjust his attitude, his manner, his outlook for any audience. He can talk trivia if trivia is called for, and he can talk about the origin of the universe or Machiavellian politics, too. A real man respects the people with whom he interacts, regardless of social position, educational level, or financial means. He does not show prejudice and embraces differences of opinion. He doesn’t necessarily agree with what he hears, but he respects it…with graciousness.

A boy dismisses opinions that don’t match his own and fails to appreciate the power of engagement (i.e. he is unwilling to let the diverse views of others influence his perspective on life).

8) A real man cooks and is proud of it. I can’t cook worth shit. And any man who can cook will garner my attention. Men do what they want to do, regardless of social expectations. If he is a wizard in the kitchen, then he assumes the role of family chef. He can probably sew a button on a shirt and change a diaper, too. Any man who has the confidence to perform traditionally “female” tasks and does it with aplomb is sexy as hell, in my opinion.

A boy shies from “gender-associated” tasks because he doesn’t have the balls to go outside either his comfort zone or societal expectation. A real man doesn’t give a shit.

9) A man puts himself out there. He’s not scared to try something new. He’s not intimidated by a woman who knows how to do something he doesn’t (in fact, he admires her for it). And he lives as if tomorrow is his last day on earth. There is nothing sexier than a human being who is eager and willing to experience life.

A boy is afraid of trying anything that might make him look stupid or clumsy. He cannot laugh at himself, and he lacks the courage to be less than perfect in front of the woman he loves.

10) Men admit they need women, in the same way a woman will acknowledge that, in the ideal universe, she needs and wants a man, a real man who doesn’t feel the need to demonstrate his independence from female influence. Instead, he honors the things his mother taught him and values the insights and intelligence of the woman he loves without feeling threatened. He may feel an innate and biological desire to protect her, but he never prevents her from doing what she loves or pursuing her dreams. Instead, he supports her, expecting nothing in return save her support of his visions and her deep kindness when setbacks arise.

A boy walks around saying he doesn’t need or want a woman in his life and pretty much treats women in accordance with those values, meaning he attracts the attention of girls only and girls who typically have low self-esteem and a host of other dependency issues. He’s never able to construct a relationship with a woman who has her shit together and actually likes it that way because he’s threatened by those kind of women. He prefers the company of women who don’t challenge him to grow or inspire him to lead the life he sees in his dreams.

 
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Who Are Your Friends? Unfortunately, Hannah Graham Can No Longer Tell Us Hers

Posted by Deborah Huso on Oct 20, 2014 in Girlfriends, Mothers and Daughters

I can’t say as I’ve ever really had the idea that Charlottesville is safe. When I was a child and my mom was attending evening classes at the University of Virginia, Dad always drove her to class and picked her up again. Neither of them believed walking around Charlottesville at night was safe then. And it’s not safe now. The recent abduction and likely murder of Hannah Graham is a case in point.

Charlottesville isn’t a big city, but it’s still a city with a transient university population that can easily attract predators.

Which is why it pays to be a little street smart.

I hope if any of you have adolescent and college-age daughters, you are having conversations with them about responsibility—responsibility for yourself and for others.  Graham’s case leads me to wonder if parents are failing (because it’s an uncomfortable subject) to say to their kids, “Look, if you’re going to get drunk, at least don’t do it in the company of strangers. There really aren’t that many people you can trust when you’re under the influence of controlled substances. Know who your friends are.”

I remember being on the Downtown Mall once with a large group of female “friends.”  They had asked me out following a devastating break-up of mine that had ended a four-year relationship.  After dinner at a restaurant a block from the Mall, we all walked to The Whiskey Barrel for drinks.

I was feeling like crud and not very sociable.  I wanted out of this scene.

I told one of my friends I really wasn’t up for socializing and was going to leave. I’d ridden with a group of friends and did not have my car. She basically said okay, and that was it.  No offer of a ride, no offer to walk me out to catch a cab.

I wasn’t drunk.  But I was distraught and pretty careless of my own welfare that night when the world seemed like it was going to end. Fortunately, a real friend called me on my cell phone, asked how I was, and when I told him what was up, he said, “Okay, get yourself a cab right now, and come to my house where it’s safe.”  He’s been my friend since I was a kid…for obvious reasons.

Thank goodness for good friends who look out for us when we don’t have our wits about us.

Where were Hannah Graham’s friends that night? Maybe the people she was with weren’t really those kind of friends.

Real friends look out for one another, and they certainly don’t abandon one of their number who is in a weakened state, in this case, probably not sober.

Learning who your real friends are is one of the hardest lessons of life, and most of us don’t really start getting it until we’re well into adulthood when we have that core group that has stood the test of time, maybe decades, and has rescued us when we could not rescue ourselves.

Friends like that could have saved Hannah Graham.

Friends like that have probably saved me countless times.

Do you know who your friends are?

More importantly, do you know who your daughter’s are?

 
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Dance Halls and Cat Calls: The Art(?) of Male Communication

Posted by Deborah Huso on Oct 16, 2014 in Travel Archives

Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville

Originally published December 8, 2011.

Being a good seven years removed from the dating scene, I am perhaps not the woman most suited to commenting on how men communicate with women. After all, once you are married, you’re lucky if you get a couple of grunts of affirmation at the dinner table or a passing glance if you walk through the living room with no clothes on. It’s not a lot to go on for figuring out what the man in your life is thinking…though he will claim, if asked directly, that he’s thinking nothing at all.

But that’s doubtful. While the figure has been thrown out there that men think about sex an average of every seven seconds, recent research has shown that’s just urban myth. Men only think about sex an average of 19 times per day. The rest of the time they’re thinking about food and sleep (but sex still tops the list).

So perhaps it’s true men are simpler creatures than we are when it comes to what’s going on with the gray matter, but still, do you ever wonder just what the heck they want? Because if it’s just to get between the sheets, they have an often complicated (and sometimes downright stupid) way of going about it.

A couple of recent trips seem to prove my point because there is nothing to put a woman in the crosshairs of male notice faster than traveling sans male escort. One gets winked at by waiters, kissed by cowboys, and cat called by British subjects at train stations. Is all of this some form of expressing a desire to take a roll in the hay, or is it just a ploy for bigger tips?

If you know, please weigh in…because I’m still trying to figure it out. And sometimes even more intriguing than trying to determine just what it is the guys are after is trying to figure out what it is they don’t understand about the very blunt art of female extrication.

Here’s a case in point: While a girlfriend and I were traveling in Venice, we experienced a fair share of “Mama Mia!” and “Hey baby!” while walking the streets after dark, but it was not until we sat down to enjoy some live music and gelato at a restaurant in St. Mark’s Square that things became really interesting. Just as we were about to leave, an overly jovial middle-aged Italian male came out of nowhere, and he and his more sober companion began begging us to stay for drinks. We politely declined and began gathering our coats.

“No, no, stay!” he says in remarkably good English.

“I’m married,” my friend says quickly.

“Me, too!” exclaims the accosting Italian as if he has just discovered, with delight, that the both of them play golf.

“I have to go,” she says. “I need to call my husband.”

“Let me call him for you!” he bellows undeterred, and then he grabs her around the shoulders, plants a kiss on her cheek, and my friend begins a disentanglement attempt that looks shockingly like Penelope Pussycat trying to escape the embrace of Pepé Le Pew.

“Check, please!” I cry to the waiter, slapping down a handful of Euros, grabbing my friend by the hand, and hurrying out into the streets, where we begin a brisk walk to the water taxi that will take us, along with a wide array of drunken consorts, back to our accommodations. As an American college student heaves over the side of the boat, my friend turns to me and says, “What was that all about? Did he really think that kind of aggressive behavior was attractive?”

I shake my head, “He was drunk.”

But that still doesn’t answer the question of what the man wanted ultimately—a drink with a pretty young American? A one-night stand? A few minutes of Tom-foolery? A shot in the arm of his deflated middle-aged ego?

Susannah makes a Texas oil man’s night

Some men are more subtle and, in some ways, even more difficult to decipher. While in one of Nashville’s honky tonks on assignment last week, I had no qualms about dancing with anyone who asked. After all, I love to two-step, and my husband is tone-deaf, has two left feet, and wouldn’t be caught on the dance floor if his life depended on it. A woman does what she has to do.

An older gentleman in a beige Stetson and camel-colored leather jacket approached me gallantly toward the end of the evening and said, “My dear, would you do me the honor of dancing with me? I have to go home to Oregon tomorrow, and it would make my night if you would dance with me.”

Well, that’s almost like making a last request before final unction, so, of course, I agreed. But I wasn’t in his arms more than a few seconds before he pulled me as close as if I was his dearest love and had been for years and years. There was no graceful extrication from this tight embrace, so I endured it, grateful there was no rousing in the gentleman’s nether regions, and let myself be twirled around the dance floor for the length of a gratefully short song.

When it was over, he hugged me close, kissed me hard on the cheek, took both my hands in his and thanked me profusely. Then away he went.

What was that?

And what did it mean when the tall and handsome cowboy from the Netherlands who stood near me and chatted on multiple different occasions only inches from the dance floor declined to ask me to dance? And then when I finally asked him if Dutch boys didn’t dance, he grudgingly obliged me on the dance floor with an anxious grin as I made a vain attempt to teach him the two-step. When it was all over, he gave me the obligatory “cowboy kiss” and never danced again with anyone the rest of the night, myself included. It was obvious dancing was not his forté, but did he really think there was any chance of picking up a girl in a Nashville honky tonk while standing on the sidelines with a beer?

All of this leads me to the question not just of what do men want (even though researchers claim it’s mainly sex, food, and sleep) to do they even know how to get it? And I’m afraid, ladies, the answer is a resounding “no.” They have not the slightest clue and are willing to stare opportunity smack in the face and screw it up or turn it down, leaving women struggling to understand.

Because we will struggle. Unlike men, we won’t walk away and shrug and figure it was never meant to be. No, as my oldest friend pointed out to me last night as we sat awake talking, “We decide to punish them for their infractions by not returning their calls or e-mails, and they think nothing of it. We lie awake stewing while they sleep peacefully and clueless.”

And then when we break up with them, they are surprised. They have no idea anything was wrong, oblivious to the mixed messages they have been sending—their expressions of desire and then their pulling back from it—intent only, apparently, on what’s for dinner, when they get to sleep, and whether or not they’ll get sex the next day.

And we envy their simple-mindedness at first, wishing we ourselves could be satisfied with so little. Until we remember, of course, how tragic it would be to stand on the sidelines of life with a beer for company, to never dance again, as many times as we possibly can, to every song the band is willing to play, before the dance hall closes for good.

 
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Circle the Wagons: The Powerful Love of Women

Posted by Deborah Huso on Oct 13, 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.

 

 
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Filthy Jokes for David Sedaris and How to Scandalize Your Husband

Posted by Claire Vath on Sep 25, 2014 in Musings, Travel Archives

Long ago, my husband and I learned that a good way to survive a long road trip is to consume large portions of the time with audio books, and some of our favorites are by David Sedaris. If you haven’t read him, you should.

He’s a writer, playwright, brother of Amy Sedaris, “This American Life” commentator, and frequent guest on Letterman. Up until now, all his books have been memoirs about the oddities of his life and familial nuances.

And right before one of his last books was published, we got the opportunity to see him. I did my research beforehand and read an article saying that he was looking for filthy jokes on this particular book tour—“the filthier the better,” he was quoted as saying.

I pride myself on being an excellent researcher/master Googler. So playing the good journalist, I scoured the Internet for some jokes worthy of David Sedaris. I found two—one incredibly raunchy, the other one just kind of. I scrawled them on slips of paper and folded them up. My husband made it clear that I was not to give them to David Sedaris, but then, I hadn’t even told him what was on the paper.

We got to the book signing and were seventh in line. When the first person went up to meet him, David informed the guy he was collecting jokes and asked the guy for some. The guy fumbled for words, clearly thrown off by the request.

“See?” I turned, triumphantly, to my husband. “I told you! I’m giving him these jokes. Do you want one of mine?” I offered.

“No,” he said flatly.

When we got to the front of the line, David Sedaris, in his high-pitched, lispy voice asked if we had any jokes.

“I heard you were looking for jokes,” I said, “and so I brought you a few.” I handed him the slips of paper, and was rewarded with his signature gap-toothed smile.

“How’d you hear that?”

“I did my research,” I said.

And then, David Sedaris, one of my most favorite authors, unfolded my slips of paper and roared with laughter.

“This is one of the filthiest jokes I’ve seen,” he said.

 I blushed furiously. “I know.”

And then he read it out loud. I’m glad he did because I don’t think I could have. And my husband, who had not seen the jokes, looked at me incredulously. At this point, I think my face was as red as the sweater I was wearing.

So I did what any self-respecting woman would do: I put my hands on my protruding stomach and said, “I’m going to be someone’s mother soon!”

Here’s the dirty joke (thanks, Internet! Sorry, Mom!):

Question: Why are women like Kentucky Fried Chicken?
Answer: After you’ve finished with the thigh and breasts, all you have left is a greasy box to put your bone in.

The inscription in my copy of Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk reads: “Thanks for that filthy joke. David Sedaris.”

“And years from now, when our child reads that, he’s going to ask what the filthy joke is,” my husband remarked.

David Sedaris laughed again and then proceeded to pull out a little green notebook—his personal joke book—and read us five or six jokes. He was every bit as droll as I’d hoped.

And then he, the great David Sedaris, inscribed a book to my husband, the proud—if not, at this point, a bit scandalized—father of the baby (now-3-year-old child) I was carrying at the time. The baby who, one day, will perhaps flip open a David Sedaris book and ask his mother what this unspeakable joke was…though if he is anything like his father, he will probably prefer not to know….

 
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Is Journalism Dead?

Posted by Deborah Huso on Aug 26, 2014 in Musings, Writer Rants

Originally published April 6, 2010.

About three years ago when I was on travel assignment in east Tennessee for Women’s Health magazine, I remember having dinner with the photographer assigned to my story and the two of us poking fun at our twenty-something assistants who were exchanging My Space addresses.  We earnestly and, as it turns out, foolishly believed social media was for people under 25.  Two years later, my twenty-something assistant is helping me get hooked up on Facebook and Twitter.  Not because I relish joining this new world of over-the-top online narcissism but because being linked in and socially networked has become essential for professional survival in the Information Age.

Plenty of people in my industry haven’t yet figured out how to jump on the mercenary digital bandwagon.  And I’m not just talking social media.  I’m talking the brave new world of online information in general.  If you’re not prepared to flesh out Hollywood’s latest fashion disasters on Yahoo! or provide a 400-word bullet point distillation on health care reform for MSN, you might find yourself out of work these days if you’re a journalist.

Why?  Because in case you haven’t noticed, long-form journalism and investigative reporting are dying a rather quick and ugly death in a culture addicted to tabloid-like news that can be scanned in 30 seconds or less.

In a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times, writer Sheelah Kolhatkar lamented, “While most people are worried about getting paid for their work, I’m more concerned that journalists might be the digital-age equivalent of monks illuminating manuscripts, a group whose skills will soon disappear.”

Kolhatkar is definitely on to something.  When I started out in this business more than a decade ago, I remember being tutored by editors to work hard to develop my narratives–fill them with local color, vivid descriptions, exclusive and meaningful commentary from sources based on intensive follow-up questioning.  Now the order of the day is catchy sound bites.  And a few quick bullet points because nobody wants to actually have to read an article.

Plenty of journalists like Kolhatkar are worried about their paychecks, yes, but they’re also worried about just what kind of information is getting passed around in this “Information Age.”  There will always be work for those of us who provide content (whether that content is good, bad, or just plain stupid), but how much of the content we produce is actually worth reading anymore?  Are you really gaining any insight into the world when you fire up your Internet browser in the evening and search the latest “headlines?”

In a recent review of The Death and Life of American Journalism, Chris Hedges contends Americans are being bombarded today with gossip and trivia.  “But news,” he says, “which costs money and takes talent to produce, is dying not only because citizens are migrating to the Internet and corporations are no longer using newsprint to advertise, but because in an age of profound culture decline the masses prefer to be entertained rather than informed. We no longer value the culture or journalism, as we no longer value classical theater or great books, and this devaluation means the general public is not inclined to pay for it.”

Dear reader, are you guilty?  Do you grumble over having to pay for an online newspaper subscription?  If so, you may be part of the problem here.  Because high quality information like high quality anything costs money.  If you want advertising to pay your ticket to information access, then expect the editorial you read to be closely linked to the advertisers who pay for it.

Is journalism dead?  Well, that depends on what and where you’re reading…and who’s paying for it.

 
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Blog Tour: Why I Write

Posted by Deborah Huso on Jul 28, 2014 in Musings, Success Guide, Travel Archives

This special post is part of a writer’s blog tour in which I was invited to participate by friend and fellow author Erin Casey. Check out why she writes, and then be sure to check out the blogs of a few other of my favorite bloggers at the end of this post!

The author in her “summer office”

More than a decade ago, when I was just beginning to launch my career as a full-time freelance writer, I remember driving through Goshen Pass in western Virginia, pulling off the road periodically to frame scarlet sugar maples and golden poplars in my camera lens for a fall getaway article I was writing.  Still giddy at the idea I was actually pursuing this crazy dream of mine to live by the written word, I turned to my travel companion, a friend who had accompanied me on so many of these writing journeys, and said, “You know what?  I’m a writer.  I’m actually a writer.”

He regarded me with understandable puzzlement and said, “Well, of course, you’re a writer.”

“No, really,” I insisted, as if daylight had suddenly shattered through the sodden tree limbs overhanging Route 42, “I’m a writer.  I’m actually making a living by writing.”

Of course, this was not news to my friend.  But somehow it was news to me.  Through late nights at the computer and endless prospecting for freelance work, I had somehow been so caught up in the business of making a living by my craft that I had failed to notice the point at which I actually became a professional writer.

But then the question remains, what exactly is a writer?  And have I, for the past 30 years, been selling myself short because I was not, for nearly 20 of those years, earning a living wage as a writer?  How many writers, after all, can earn a consistent living wage by their craft? After all, it took me two decades to figure it out.

You see, I was not suddenly a writer while photographing autumn foliage in Goshen Pass.  Nor was I suddenly a writer when I published my first newspaper article or my first short story.  If we want to talk about writing and what it means to be a writer, well then, I have to go back much farther, to a period that doesn’t appear on my resume.  Because I have been a writer almost since I could hold a pen, quite literally.

I wrote my first short story when I was six years old.  I was no child prodigy.  I had been reading biographies of famous Americans written for young children and had loved them so much I wanted to write my own.  So I wrote a story (though I probably considered the effort great enough at the time to be called a book) about a pioneer girl named Ellen Kay Brown.  And I illustrated it, too, with pencil sketches of girls in bonnets and fathers with grisly beards.

I handed the notebook-paper story to my mother, a high school English teacher, for my first critical review.  She didn’t paste it to the refrigerator with a magnet or smile and exclaim how proud she was of my effort.  She took it in her hands quite seriously, as she would a research paper on Hamletor Macbeth, and, red pen in hand, proceeded to critique my first attempt at literature, circling my childish “enuff” and changing it to “enough,” capitalizing proper nouns, inserting punctuation.

Was this some cruelty on her part?  I never for once thought so, but perhaps some more indulging parent might.  This was par for the course in a household where books lined shelves in rooms upstairs and down and where anyone of blood relation would know the difference between “can” and “may” as well as “lie” and “lay.”

I took my little manuscript back, absorbing her red corrections, recording their sense for the next effort, and thus began a ritual between us that lasted until I left home for college.  I wrote; she critiqued quietly with her red pen.  By the time I graduated from high school, I was one of only a select few in the world who knew, as if by second nature, when and when not to use commas as well as how to give stylistic flair to an exam essay (though my mother claims no responsibility for the latter skill).

Today my mother keeps all these carefully reviewed manuscripts—penciled short stories, illustrated poems, carefully typed essays—in a cabinet in the library.  They are small treasures to her, the woman who said, when I declared at six years of age that I was going to be a writer, “It’s never wise to count your chickens before they hatch.”

But I’ve always been counting chickens, hatched and unhatched, and I’ve never assumed anything other than success.  That has been my way.  It would have to be my way.  Only a dreamer could ever believe it possible to make a career out of language.

But still the question—when did I become a writer?  My first sense that I might be one actually came when I was a senior in college and my mentor and three-time history professor said upon reading my senior thesis, “There’s nothing I can tell you about writing.  I wouldn’t know how to critique you.”  My mother never said this, but on the infrequent occasions when I showed her a college or graduate research paper, she would read it, first page to last, hand it back, and say only, “Looks fine to me.”  Flipping through the paper, I scanned the pages for the familiar red ink—nothing.  Full circle at last, I thought.

Yet no writer who is a good writer ever thinks his or her work is good enough.  I read articles I wrote only months ago and think today they look horrible.  I have become my mother minus the red pen.  All things can be improved upon.

Yet all writers know this, and all writers know, deep down, that it is not so much the paycheck that justifies them as authors.  It is the constant development, the constant effort.  I have been a writer since I was six.  An editor might be intrigued to know that I have more than three decades of experience.  But would that intrigue persist if she knew the whole truth?

Probably not.

And that is the sad reality of the writing life.  Until you have a paycheck from a publisher, and preferably several, you are not a writer.  Your skill level, your decades of practice, your passion are irrelevant . . .  at least to most editors.

Did you ever notice that the editor who constantly sent you rejections of your pitches suddenly changed his tune when one of his colleagues took a chance and published your work . . . with success?   Yes, once you have a few publishing credits behind you, the rejections trickle to a minimum.  Which makes you wonder—does good writing count for anything?  Or are editors, like movie producers, tied to the tried and true?

Well, yes and no.  Good writing does count for something.  After all, it’s easier to publish good writing than bad.  But getting good writing noticed, in the end, is a matter of luck.  For myself, I ran into an overwhelmed newspaper editor willing to take a chance on me and the editor of a start-up lifestyle magazine with a dearth of authors.  After that, everything began to fall into place.  Just ask Nicholas Sparks how he became a best-selling author overnight.  His answer, like that of so many other wildly successful writers, will make you dream like the daily players of the lottery and gnash your teeth at the same time.

It is luck.

But it’s also persistence.  Beat the statistics by flooding the market.

I guess my mother, my original editor, knew a thing or two.  I kept passing her the notebook paper, and one day it came back without red ink.  Was it talent, or did I beat the odds?  Perhaps a little of both . . . but maybe it’s time I started playing the lottery.

Check out some more writer’s blogs on this tour. Below are three of my favorite writer ladies!

Susannah Herrada is an aspiring “Lady who Lunches” who spends most days trying to figure out how to avoid the mundane inherent in her role as ‘homemaker’ by preparing for or unpacking from an adventure.  Spending about a quarter of her life on the road these past few years, she’s anything but a ‘stay at home mom.’  For summer 2013, she’s on her third extended summer trip, this time to Central America, two kids in tow.

Check out her wanderings at Not At Home Mom. After each trip, she finds herself back in the Washington D.C. metro area with a new perspective on life, love, parenting, politics, and what really matters.

Before Susannah turned her sights to the open road (and writing about it), she taught eighth grade physical science in Arlington, Virginia.

 

 

 

Mollie Cox Bryan, contributorMollie Cox Bryan is a journalist and cookbook author turned novelist. After 20 years of writing nonfiction for nonprofits, corporations, museums, magazines like Grit, Taste of the South, and NPR’s Kitchen Window, and cookbooks, she turned to mystery.  Scrapbook of Secrets: A Cumberland Creek Mystery (Kensington, 2012) was her first mystery novel and was an Agatha Award finalist for best first novel in 2012.  Her second in this five-book series,Scrapped (Kensington, 2013), is a finalist for the Library of Virginia’s People’s Choice Literary Award.

The mother of two active daughters, Mollie lives in Waynesboro, Va., where her traveling consists of carting the girls back and forth to music and dance classes, the library, and shopping malls. Visit Mollie’s blog about the writing life.

 

 

 

Jill Smokler is New York Times bestselling author of Confessions of a Scary Mommy (Simon and Schuster, 2012) and Motherhood Comes Naturally (And Other Vicious Lies) (Simon and Schuster, 2013).  She runs The Scary Mommy web site, an online confessional of sorts about motherhood and oversees Scary Mommy Nation, a 501(c)3 organization devoted to helping Moms in a really scary situation–the inability to feed their families. 

Check out the Scary Mommy blog!

 
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Surviving a Hostage Crisis and How It Applies to Parenting

Posted by Claire Vath on Jul 16, 2014 in Motherhood

Should you ever need a handy guide for surviving as a hostage, rest assured, Wikipedia has you covered. Complete with ominous cartoons involving a masked man with murderous rage in his eyes and his hand clapped over the captive’s mouth, the web site offers 20 “simple” steps to make it through being taken against your will.

I’ve never even gotten the wind knocked out of me—much less being abducted by a cartoon villian—but as I scrolled through Wikipedia’s tips, I realized just how applicable hostage-surviving tactics are to surviving parenting. I’m not going to give you 20 tips based on Wikipedia. That would be too easy, but here are a few of the highlights.

1) Regain Your Composure

Calm down! says Wikipedia. “Your adrenaline will be pumping, your heart will be pounding, and you’ll be terrified.” 

I spend most of my time terrified of parenting. Whether it’s worrying about Internet-viral stories of unvaccinated children poisoning the herd or BPA in my sippy cups, I try not to let the fear creep in. But it does. From the Internet. From a car that follows me too closely while I’m driving (I have kids in the backseat, for God’s sake!). From the other kid in the waiting room who’s holding a vomit bag. There are a million disastrous scenarios I envision on a daily basis. And those I can’t even begin to envision usually end up as a Facebook story that gets shared over and over (I’m looking at you, secondary drowning story).

2) Be Observant 

“Never let your guard down.” 

As I type this, I’m sitting in one room while my children remain suspiciously quiet in the other. I would go in and check them, but I don’t want to know who’s coloring on the wall at the moment.

However, when I see a child about to vomit, I remain vigilant. If anyone gets near me, I quickly back away … to avoid the vomit spray.

3) Keep a Survival Attitude 

“Be positive … the odds are with you … That said, you should prepare yourself for a long captivity. Some hostages have been held for years, but they kept a positive attitude, played their cards right, and were eventually freed. Take it one day at a time.” 

This needs no explanation. It’s Parenting 101.

4) Put Your Captor at Ease 

“No needles aren’t scary.” “Yes, vegetables are so delicious!” “Yes, school is fun!” “I love going to the dentist. So will you.”

We tell our children little white lies to make them believe what they need to.

“Cooperate within reason with your captor.” 

I usually fall prey to bribery in the grocery store. (Yes, if you’re quiet the whole trip, you can have a cookie or snack when we get in the car.)

5) Keep Your Dignity

This is easier said than done. Wikipedia advises us to remain “human” in the captor’s eyes. “Do not grovel, beg, or become hysterical. Try even not to cry. Do not challenge your abductor, but show him/her that you are worthy of respect.” 

Sometimes, after a long day of fussing, after the kids are in bed and I’m holding a glass of wine, I look in the mirror and wonder when I turned into a parent.

6) Try to Communicate with Other Captives

Luckily, my co-captive and I have the advantage of time on our side. “If you look out for each other and have others to talk to, your captivity will be easier to handle.

“Depending on the situation, your communication may have to be covert, and if you’re held for a long time you may develop codes and signals.”

After 15 years together, we have the knowing looks down pat.

7) Stay Mentally Active

As much fun as it is to be home all day with my children, if I don’t have adult activities and conversation, my brain turns to mush and I feel like the walls of my house are closing in on me. There are only so many times I can answer my daughter when she asks me what sound a dragon makes.

8) Blend In

This is my greatest triumph. The article advises you not to stand out to your captors, particularly when you’re being held among a group of other captives. As someone’s mom, I do my best to blend into the walls, the woodwork, anything. This works really well when anyone has a dirty diaper, needs to use the potty or needs a nose wiped. If I’m extremely stealthy, sometimes they run past me … to their dad… to ask him for help.

And, finally …

9) Try to Escape Only If the Time is Right 

Since it’s apparently frowned upon to go shopping while you’re alone and have small children napping upstairs, as soon as my husband is home from work, I volunteer for errands. The grocery store? Great! Pick up dry cleaning? A pleasure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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Why Mommy Travels Solo

Posted by Deborah Huso on Jul 8, 2014 in Motherhood, Musings, Relationships, Travel Archives

Being a writer, I travel a lot, often averaging a week away from home a month. I don’t complain about it too much though.  In fact, I’ll let you in on a secret: I love it.  It doesn’t matter that I’m working.  Because let’s face it: while my days “on assignment” can be long and tiring, sometimes starting at 6:30 a.m. and not ending until 10 p.m. (and let’s not forget the couple of hours I then stay up catching up on e-mail at the hotel), they are not usually spent in arduous meetings watching the dullest PowerPoint presentations known to man.  Instead, I will frequently spend these days away from home doing everything from sea kayaking to stand-up paddle boarding.  It could be worse.  It could be a lot worse.

The author, sans famille, in the Sea of Cortez

And even if it were a lot worse, I still wouldn’t complain.  A friend of mine who travels around the world overseeing clinical research trials says she loves hotel rooms.  “When you leave them in the morning and come back in the evening, they look pretty much the way they did when you checked in,” she says. “Someone makes the bed, cleans the bathroom, leaves you cookies.”

An editor, wife, and new mother I ran into on my latest trip to Chattanooga, Tennessee, told me she, too, loves the travel that comes with the job: “I get a king bed all to myself, and I don’t wake up with any cats sleeping on my head.”  An added bonus: she can drink beer at the airport.

Unfortunately, I know far too many women who have not yet discovered the art of traveling solo, whether it’s for work or pleasure.  Guilt ties them to their husbands and children.  They are so guilt-ridden, in fact, that they would never admit to their friends (or even to themselves) that they actually want to get the heck out of Dodge, even if only for a day or two.  This is tragedy on a grand scale.  And I cannot help but wonder why otherwise sane and intelligent women chain themselves to motherhood and marriage as if it’s a life sentence, no probation allowed.

Men rarely do this.  How many men ask their wives if it’s okay to go out with the guys on the weekend or if it would be in bad form to go on a hunting trip to Alaska for a week?  Do men feel this level of bondage?  I don’t think so.  Call it socialization if you will, but even the most liberated women among us still feel they are less than women if they long for a night away from their toddlers or a week away from the company of their spouses.

I’ll admit it took me awhile to discover the blessings of solo travel.  I got my feet wet taking girlfriend getaways and discovered, at first to my horror, that vacationing with women friends was about ten times more fun than traveling with my husband.  You don’t have to waste time looking beautiful every day because your girlfriends really don’t care as long as you’re not embarrassingly sloppy, and you can laugh as loud as you want in the restaurant because women are not as hung up on propriety as men are (yes, it’s true, ladies).  Plus, your female friends won’t give you a guilt trip about going to a museum they’re not really interested in.  Women share and share alike.  Follow me around The Louvre, and I’ll support you in your search for the perfect stinky cheese.  Men will tell you it’s okay with them if all you want to do is shop for shoes in Rome, but they don’t mean it.  And they’ll give you more guilt than your mother when it’s all said and done.

But even better than the girlfriend getaway is the solo retreat.  And I don’t care if it’s an actual vacation or travel for work.  Few things beat sitting alone in a posh restaurant in a tropical garden in L.A. sipping California Riesling without having to carry a conversation or make someone else laugh.  It’s divine, in fact, about as divine as sinking into a king-size bed in a hotel suite you have all to yourself with no 6 a.m. “I’ts morning time, Mommy!” wake-up calls.

When I travel by myself, whether it’s on my own personal vacation or on assignment for a magazine, I retreat (without even being aware of it sometimes) into a life that is mine but isn’t.  All the anxiety of meeting deadlines, picking up the kid on time, being cheerful for a grumpy spouse coming home after 12 hours of work and a long commute, and suppressing my own “I just want to scream because I can’t take it anymore” tendencies so I don’t land my daughter in psychotherapy before age 12 dissipate into thin air.  I forget that crazy woman who lives at home and become entirely myself–the long lost adventurer of my youth out on a journey to see the world and live in the moment with no responsibility to my name but getting out of bed and living hard and blissfully all day long.

If you tell me you don’t need this, then I have to tell you: you are lying to yourself, whether out of guilt or societal pressure, I don’t know.  But you are lying.  Because we all need to be apart from our families.  We all need to stay in touch with the women that we were and still are beneath that stressed out surface of the world’s greatest multi-tasker.

I didn’t realize how much I needed it until returning from a trip one day and pausing across a long layover at O’Hare to have lunch and remembering for a moment that I was returning to my four-year-old’s birthday party–a potential mob of waist-high people in my house, the presence of my mother, my mother-in-law, and sundry relatives who all think I’m just a little bit too much to take.  The thought of that re-entry into my everyday life made me scan the menu for hard liquor.

But, in the end, while I’ll never be the mother my mother thinks I should be, I’m a damn good one just the same.  And that’s because my solo journeys strengthen my sanity and enable me to walk into my bedroom, where my daughter has just colored the ottoman on my favorite chair with an ink pen, and not turn into psycho-mommy.  Instead, I glance over at the stack of Italy travel books on my nightstand, smile a little to myself about my next escape, and engage in a strangely rational conversation with my child about why we don’t do pen and ink drawings on household furniture.

So next time you find yourself putting on a “mommy show” for your 10-year-old, who seems mildly amused that you can get so upset over the fact that he just locked his sister in the closet (a treatment she may well have deserved if she was chattering on the way she is known to chatter on), consider the fact that it may be time for you to do some solo traveling of your own.

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