Posted by Deborah Huso on Mar 22, 2016 in Musings
, Success Guide
, Travel Archives
“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” –Neale Donald Walsch
The weekend I learned archery AND how not to fall out of an ATV while driving sideways down a creekbed.
There was a time when piano recitals were one of the most dreaded things in my life.
I hated them, hated everything about them. First of all, preparation for them involved learning the most difficult composition of the year—some piece of classical music designed to show off all I had learned through 50-some weeks of lessons. And it was rarely a song I enjoyed playing…in no small part because I didn’t enjoy playing things that didn’t come easily.
Kind of the way I didn’t like Calculus. Or physics. Or football.
None of it came easily, you see.
And my parents, teachers, and coaches were so good at noticing all the things I did well that they really didn’t worry themselves about the areas where I struggled and then, usually, quit. Like piano. My mom said if I really hated piano lessons, I could stop when I turned 13, and I did.
In retrospect, it was one of a host of stupid decisions I made in my life out of laziness, boredom, self-consciousness, and an unwillingness to expose myself to the possibility of failure. Today I sit down at my piano and stare longingly at sheet music I wish I had the depth of skill to play.
Looking back, I can easily say I have lived more than half my life in fear.
Fear of how stupid I might look in trying something new.
Fear of being judged.
Fear of being ridiculed.
Fear of not being understood.
Fear of suffering.
Fear of being alone.
Fear of being abandoned.
Fear of not being smart enough, strong enough, good enough….
Fear of being KNOWN.
I couldn’t tell you when I finally snapped out of this. I don’t believe it happened in an instant. It was a process, a long and sometimes painful one.
I just know I was hiking one of the steepest trails I’d ever hiked (yes, this was before the Grand Canyon) with a friend and his son, the uber fit youngster looking like he was out for a Sunday stroll while outpacing us by several hundred yards. My friend turned to me and asked if I needed to rest.
“Nope,” I replied, though the sweat was pouring down my temples, “I’m good.”
And he grinned a little at me and said, “You know, you’re a really good sport. You’ll do just about anything, and you don’t complain about it either.”
I’m sure I looked at him a little sideways. I’d certainly never thought of myself as a good sport even though it’s one of those phrases parents bandy about, perhaps out of some obligation they feel to at least attempt to instill values of adventurousness, courage, and comfort with struggle or failure in their children.
But when I thought about it, my friend was right. Somewhere along the way, I had indeed become a good sport. And more than that, I’d gotten pretty fearless.
Mountain bike racer Jon Brickner: In all fairness to myself, do you see how tiny and wiry this guy is??
Sitting in a front row pew at church, anxiously waiting my turn to race through my dreaded recital piece on a clunky church piano as quickly as possible, I’m pretty sure I never dreamed in a million years I’d have the chutzpah to go mountain biking with one of the nation’s top racers (and yeah, it almost killed me) or to sit on the ocean floor, removing and replacing my dive mask at 60 ft. below the surface without launching into a full panic (and yes, I laid awake the entire previous night with anxiety about it).
I also never imagined I could love so deeply and be battered so wickedly and have the guts to go in for another round, and another. Or that I would be the kind of person who could pick up stakes and move every couple years, switch jobs every few months, and then finally throw up my hands and go out on my own without the slightest idea if I could really make it work. And I still haven’t proved if I can….
Somewhere along the way, I’d started trying to be like the famous Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger. I just did not give a shit.
Heck yeah, I sang a few lines of “Crazy” at the Ryman!
I did not care if friends or relatives thought I had lost my mind. I did not care if it was dangerous to walk the streets of South American cities alone. I did not care if a piranha might eat my arm off. I did not care if I toppled off my standup paddleboard into the freezing Tennessee River. I did not care if anyone else was watching me dance or hearing me sing. I was learning to push my own envelope and in the process learning that it was outside my comfort zone that real life begins.
While you’ve undoubtedly watched the viral honey badger YouTube video and snorted laughter, how deeply have you considered the honey badger’s philosophy on life? Yeah, I’m being serious. Don’t forget that National Geographic has called the critter “the most fearless animal on the planet.” It will do, chase, eat anything.
And while it’s doing all this wild living, scavenging birds and foxes follow it around, too lazy (suggests the narrator) to go fight for their own meals, waiting to get the leftovers from this badass rodent. “The honey badger does all the work while the other animals just pick up the scraps,” notes the narrator.
I start thinking about these scraps. And people I know who survive on them. Getting by. Marking time. Watching life from a safe distance. Going in only when they’re absolutely certain the coast is clear.
And, of course, when you wait too long, curry safety over experience and security over destiny, scraps are what you will get.
If you ever thought “being a good sport” was about “settling,” reconsider. It’s really about getting out there, being willing to go for the biggest prize, and being able to feel good about yourself even when you don’t land it…because you know you tried, you know you lived, you know you pushed through fear.
What’s pushing through fear worth? Well, you certainly aren’t going to know until you’ve done it. But I will say the other side of fear is pretty euphoric…and worth giving a try.
A close girlfriend of mine once said to me, “You’re the bravest female friend I have who isn’t a lesbian.”
Well, she didn’t call me the “honey badger.” But close enough. I’ll take it.
Posted by Deborah Huso on Feb 28, 2016 in Girlfriends
, Travel Archives
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
–John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”
Who doesn’t look hot sporting an oxygen tank and a buoyancy control device?
They are among the most recognizable lines in English literature—taught in every twelfth grade English class, recited with little cognizance by millions of students, and something of a mystery even to scholars. Just what did John Keats mean?
And lest you think this blog has devolved into the realm of the esoteric, let me remark that it was just days ago I started to really get these lines supposedly spoken by Keats’ Grecian urn: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”
It hit me when I was gazing at the cover of Sports Illustrated’s latest swimsuit issue with so-called “plus size” model Ashley Graham crawling toward the camera in an alluring pose on the beach. When Cheryl Tiegs tweeted that Graham was a poor role model because of her weight, public outrage (at Tiegs) was instantaneous.
As it should have been.
Because beauty isn’t just in the eye of the beholder; it’s also a lot deeper and more complicated than a dress size…or even a pretty face. Like truth, it’s multi-faceted, complex, open to interpretation, and rarely absolute. And it’s also way more than skin deep.
But I can say all these things until I’m blue in the face, and it won’t keep the vast majority of American women (and girls, too) from looking at themselves in the mirror and launching into a litany of self- criticism:
My nose is too big.
My breasts are too small.
My hips are too wide.
My feet are too big.
I’m too short.
I’m too tall.
I look fat.
I hate my muffin top.
Ugh, look at that back fat.
I need to go on a diet.
And on and on it goes. I’ll admit it. I’ve done it, too. After all, in the 40 years I’ve been alive, the ideal woman, physically speaking, has been tall and waif-like (except for the breasts—the breasts remain Barbie-doll size; and I’m talking Barbie from the 1980s, not the C-cup version of modern times). In short, she has been, well, freakish.
Now here’s my idea of a cover shot; the chunky gals in the back are Galapagos sea lions….
But I have, like most other women, nevertheless longed, at times, to exist a little closer to that ideal, even though I was, fortunately, raised by parents who never put a lot of stock in popular notions of beauty. In fact, I don’t think they could have cared less what I looked like. I was raised to place value in intelligence, hard work, good character, and, thanks to my dreamer father, risk-taking and adventure-seeking.
This is not to say I have been immune to the desire to look tantalizingly beautiful. Heck, I admit it, I put on mascara and lipstick to go to the gym. Nevermind that I’m wearing yoga pants and a tank top. I am determined to put myself a step above the Walmart variety woman running around in her flannel PJ bottoms and crocks with socks that don’t match. (Though there is something in me that admires her “fuck it, I just came here to get Doritoes and a box of wine” attitude….)
I do take a little pride in the fact that I stop at lipstick when it comes to gym and grocery store runs. There’s a limit to the absurdity of obsession with appearance in which I will engage. I know women who will do their 20-minute makeup routine before starting a workout that’s going to sweat it all off within 10 minutes. I also know women who primp in front of the mirror, trying on one outfit after another, redoing their hair half a dozen times, wasting precious hours of their lives in an effort to be stunning every single day, physically stunning at least.
And these are not women who have nothing else to offer the world. They are wildly intelligent, witty, successful, worldly. Why the hell are they standing in front of a mirror in Rome fussing with their flat iron instead of just putting a hat over the bad hair day and exploring the perhaps once-in-a-lifetime world on the streets outside?
I think it’s because they don’t really understand what beauty is. Someone somewhere has taught them to define themselves by their face, their breasts, the curve of their hips, the shape of their legs in three-inch heels. Meanwhile I’m lying on a beach with stinky sea lions in the Galapagos or squeezing my body into the most unflattering wetsuit ever and turning my feet into fins. (If you want to test the depth of your self-confidence, put on a snorkel mask and stuff a regulator in your mouth, and let someone take a picture of you.)
A gentleman I dated recently asked me why I was so committed to exercise. “Do you have a goal you’re trying to reach?” he asked. I’m sure he expected me to say something like I wanted to lose 15 pounds, or I wanted to be able to bench press a sofa. But I replied, not the least bit tongue in cheek, “I exercise because I don’t want to deprive myself of wine and cheese and because I still want to be able to hike the Grand Canyon when I’m 80.”
Beauty is truth.
Do you get it yet?
If you’re running five miles at 5 a.m. every morning, and your sole motivation is that you believe in the depths of your soul that your ass is the size of a picnic table, then it’s time for a reality check. If you’re running at 5 a.m. every morning, I don’t care what size your ass is, you’re awesome. You’re strong. You’re motivated. You’re beautiful.
In Puerto Rico with the next generation of beautiful women.
Rest assured, this wasn’t something that came to me overnight. I’ve spent plenty of time lamenting the fact that my eyes aren’t as lovely as Elizabeth Taylor’s or that my rear isn’t as shapely as J-Lo’s. But chances are good, I won’t be lamenting it while teaching my daughter how to ride a bike, while kayaking on a glacial lake, or while sharing cocktails with my best girlfriends on a Friday night.
I find my beauty in strength, courage, and aliveness.
Where do you find yours?
Because if you can’t wipe off the eye shadow and the lipstick, pull off the flattering cocktail dress, the beautiful heels, let down that perfect hair, and stand in front of your bedroom mirror in all the nakedness of your body and soul and feel beautiful, then it’s time to start being kinder to yourself.
No one’s asking you to crawl on a beach in a bikini while photographers take pictures of you and plaster them all over the covers of magazines. In fact, no one’s asking you to do anything…other than be you.
And it’s in that critical truth—your own naked authenticity—that you’ll find your beauty.
Posted by Claire Vath on Dec 19, 2015 in Motherhood
I went for a bike ride today.
Not the sort of bike ride one expects a grownup to take. My bike lacks the pretension of those slim competitive bicycles custom-outfitted with clip-on pedals and special seats.
No, my bike may as well have had rainbow-colored streamers that blow in the breeze and a wicker basket affixed with plastic daisies. Because me on a bike is less a studied grace and more of a frenetic race with the breeze. I had on old paint-splattered sweatpants (iPhone tucked into the waistband) and pedaled as though my very existence depended upon it.
My neighborhood is a continuous slope of hill. It appears gentle until you hike up on foot or strain against your bike gears. So I took my bike to the park around the corner, which was blessedly empty of people but flooded with sunlight.
I set out across the park on my $150 bike, pedaling until my knees turned weak and my leg muscles grew weary. The dizzying blue sky accentuated the green of the little manmade lake I rode beside and a flock of sitting geese eyed me with disinterest.
My 30-something-year-old self’s most fervent biking efforts don’t touch my 10-year-old self’s cycling endeavors, but as I whizzed through the woods, the sort of unburdened joy I felt as a child infused me.
I was a kid.
I have two kids. Someone, somewhere tasked me with keeping two small beings alive that, collectively, weigh less than 70 pounds. Kids can be exhausting, but you have to give them credit: they don’t look back toward the past often; nor do they peer into the future.
That’s partially because they don’t have to, but mostly because they’re kids who are unburdened by all that life will eventually throw at them as they age.
We’re told that aging is graceful–the laugh lines, the gray hair, the stretch marks. “Embrace them!” shout the masses. And then, in the same breath—or more often, on the same magazine cover—”Look young by trying these 3 tricks! Regain your energy! Cover up those crow’s feet!”
If I’ve earned those stripes, it also means I’ve born the heartache, the worry, the anxiety, the fear, the sadness that goes with them. Growing up means I don’t have the luxury of being unburdened.
As a kid, I climbed trees, rolled down grassy hills until I couldn’t stand, and ran as far as I could, never really getting out of breath. I lived on the wind, stretched out in the snow even when my hands froze, and jumped into bodies of water not worrying about where I’d land.
These days are mostly clogged with bills, a barrage of emails, school events, a sick kid, job stressors, what to make for dinner, dying grandparents and the like.
Can I ever regain the freedom of being a child? I don’t think so. Not fully, at least.
But there on my bike in the park, I pedaled and pedaled, and the world flew by at breakneck speed as the wind whistled in my ears. And for a moment or two, I felt that peace. Then I headed back home—back to the deadlines, the heaps of laundry, the schedules—and pulled on a respectable pair of pants. If I’m going to accept the burdens, I’ll need to do it without the frumpiness of sweatpants … and maybe with a hint of lipstick–to pretend at least, I’ve got his grownup thing down pat….
Posted by Deborah Huso on Oct 22, 2015 in Men
Perhaps this will seem an odd subject matter for a divorced woman who has failed to turn at least three non-married, long-term relationships into marriage; nevermind all the two- and three-month dating scenarios that ultimately went nowhere…or the first dates that made me want to run into the restroom and try and crawl out of a window…(and yeah, I actually know a man who did this on a first date with a woman; he is now happily married to a dear friend of mine).
But given my experience with “endings,” I’d say there is no one more qualified to comment on what makes the “honeymoon” phase of a romantic relationship die. I am an expert in relationship death. In fact, more often than not, I’ve been the one calling for the coffin lid to close. (There is, after all, nothing more grotesque than an open coffin following death by train wreck.)
After 24 years of romantic interaction with the opposite sex (yes, folks, I have thus far bucked the current trend of changing my gender and/or sexual orientation for the sake of publicity), I actually do know a few things about what inspires romantic attachment in the first place and why even the best of relationships frequently die.
It’s all about expectation.
A friend of mine said his latest divorce occurred when his wife proclaimed their marriage “wasn’t fun anymore.”
News flash: love isn’t fun.
In fact, it can be downright painful at times. What’s the best way to avoid pain? Avoid vulnerability, of course. But if you avoid vulnerability, you will also avoid love…the kind of love that lasts anyway.
So plenty of us try to avoid vulnerability (and the potential for pain) altogether by settling into the traditional American marriage stalemate: Okay, so we’re married, and damn it, we’re going to stay married, even if it means we have sex only twice a year and relish every waking moment we don’t have to be anywhere near each other. Let’s suck it up and survive…for the kids.
Trust me, I’ve been there.
I’ve also been in the fuck this relationship crap—I’m done with men (or women) phase where I feel like life would be a whole lot easier without romance. And yes, it would be. But easy gets, well, boring. I’ve never been able to successfully replace a good-looking, intelligent man with a Manhattan or a gin and tonic.
So what’s the secret? How do you get love to last past the proverbial “honeymoon phase?”
You’re probably not going to like the answer. Because it’s be yourself. Be yourself in all your annoying, beautiful, vulnerable, terrifying, hopeless, wonderful, imperfect way.
Sure, authenticity has become the buzz word of content marketers everywhere, but there’s a reason for that. Nothing beats it. If you want your marriage to last past the honeymoon in Aruba or you want your romance to transcend those first few months of furious sex and exhilarating uncertainty, then you’ve got to be real.
Women tend to be a lot better at this authenticity thing than guys. Most of us grow up sharing secrets with one another, crying in each other’s arms, calling on one another for help in times of need. But plenty of us will lock all that stuff up when it comes to the guys in our lives. We’ve heard all the horror stories—men run from women who cry, share their problems, or show interest in anything other than sex. So, more often than not, we’ll be just as locked up and cut off as the man we’re trying to woo or who is trying to woo us.
The excitement of new love will carry a relationship like that for awhile…but eventually you’ve got nothing. There’s nothing more to talk about without getting into why you hate your mother or why he finds it hard to say “I love you.” So you’re bored, frustrated, and empty…. You break up. Or…if you foolishly got married before you hit that phase, you enter into a grumpy truce to stick it out as long as you can stand it.
Once upon a time, I got uber brave with a man, decided I had nothing to lose and determined to be my authentic self. I cried in front of him when I was sad. I told him my core fears. I admitted I suffered from anxiety. I told him I loved him, and I said it first. And then something started to happen. He started doing the same. He admitted all the guilt he suffered in his life, the way his mother had unintentionally shut down his soul, the fact that he had never really believed in love and thought the sonnets of Shakespeare and Neruda were BS…until he met me.
And let me tell you. The sparks in that relationship kept on flying…for years. There was no end to what we could talk about, no end to the learning we acquired from one another. In fact, had circumstances beyond my control not tragically intervened, we might easily have kept that honeymoon phase going till death.
That’s how I know there is love beyond the butterflies. And if you feel some of your truest bliss when your arms are wrapped around the woman you married, then you may be one of the fortunate few who learned the secret to making “in love” last.
And if you’ve never felt that kind of deep safety and joy with another human being…and you want it, then you might have to consider unbuttoning your soul a little bit and setting the example for the one you love to do the same. The glue that binds two people together isn’t love per se; it’s emotional intimacy. And the only way to have it is to be brave…before the honeymoon is over.
Posted by Ben Weaver on Oct 19, 2015 in Fatherhood
, Success Guide
There exists some conventional wisdom that the average person changes careers seven times over the course of his or her life. Though I doubt the veracity of the claim, it stews in my current state of mind, “Four more? Is that what the back 40 of my life is going to be like?” As I ponder my future prospects, I wonder if I even have it in me.
See, I was one of those people who thought he could do the one thing he did (in my case, teaching) until he was ready to retire on a modest pension with his house and student loans paid off. Fresh out of college and a year of AmeriCorps doing volunteer teaching, I was going into my first teaching job like most other liberal saps, sure that I was going to “make a difference.” Even after a couple of years of teaching in a decades-old trailer with mouse holes in the floor, walls, and ceiling in Orange County, Va., I was undeterred. Oh, those little fuckers were going to undergo some serious transformation under my watch! Like so many other young and idealistic morons, I was going to CHANGE THE WORLD.
Yeah, okay. After a decade or so of teaching mixed classes of special ed, I had few illusions left to shatter. Sometimes little Norman just wasn’t going to pass his standardized tests no matter how many times you tried to get him to compose a five-paragraph essay on the social impacts of our First Amendment freedoms, especially if he hasn’t developed a full grasp of the alphabet by the time he’s in 8th grade. If Walter hasn’t learned by 17 that it isn’t appropriate to masturbate under his desk, he’s probably going to be beating it in a cubicle until they fire him from increasingly low level jobs for the rest of his life.
I was at peace with that. No, not changing the world…but have you heard that little parable about the little girl throwing the starfish back in the ocean? It is dumb, and I hate it, but yes, sometimes you just need to make a difference to one to make it all seem worthwhile.
Somewhere around year number 13 into teaching, something went terribly wrong. Many, many teachers got laid off, and the special education staff was slashed almost in half. One summer, after six comfy, complacent years teaching 8th grade civics, I got called to the principal’s office and asked if I wanted to take over the school’s program for the emotionally disturbed.
Say, when you put it like that, it sounds like you’re moving up in the world! I just knew getting that ED designation in grad school would make me an attractive candidate for a management position! Then I found out that meant everyone else who was doing it quit, and I would be the only one teaching three grade levels of bat shit crazy, potentially volatile kids all in the same room and be responsible for all their casework plus four SOL subjects per grade level.
I laughed in that man’s face. “I’d rather work construction” were my exact words.
So that’s what I did, starting my own business doing home improvements. I really didn’t know shit, but I’m a quick study. I’ve often said I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere in life if not for a ready willingness to get in over my head. By and by, work and opportunity came my way, and I did my best to take advantage of it. By year number three, I had two regular employees and was subbing out lots of work. Things were great, and money was flowing but….
I was terrified. Shit, what if I lose this contract? (I did) What if I can’t pay the mortgage on the house? (thankfully never happened) What if the wife leaves, and I’m the only income? (she did, and I am) What if I accidentally shoot myself with a nail gun, and it lodges into the part of my brain that controls my ability to get erections? (somehow dodged that one) These are the things that keep men up at night and wear on their souls!
It all wasn’t without its merits, however. Having had a chip on my shoulder toward authority since gestation, I am well-suited to being my own boss. I don’t like taking other people’s shit or suffering their mistakes, and for the most part, I didn’t have to…with regard to work, at least. Want to take the day off to do paperwork and send the crew out to work? Want to have a beer with lunch? Want to be able to fire people who get on your nerves? Verily, I say, it is good to be the boss.
As much as I loved the freedom and self-satisfaction, when a job offer came my way with the promise of a big steady paycheck and the accompanying security for Henry and me, I jumped right on it. Daily travel? Oh, yeah, I love travel. Thirteen-hour work days? No problem, I hate sleep anyway!
In the heat of demonstrating that can-do, positive attitude and holding faith that things will work themselves out, one can easily look past the detriments of a life of hard labor on the road: maintaining a 50/50 custody arrangement is exceedingly difficult, as is maintaining relationships.
– Time to yourself? Good luck with that! You’ll feel guilty that you didn’t spend time with the friends you never see anymore.
– Want to see your kid at least once during the work week? You’ll hear about it because you can only work a 10-hour day in order to pick him up from preschool before it closes, never mind that you worked through lunch.
– Certainly don’t get caught up about knowing where you’ll be next week or the week after or trying to plan a life around work because it isn’t going to happen.
Not to say that I don’t enjoy certain aspects of life on the road. Visiting corners of the world I haven’t yet seen, finding holes in the wall serving up the local specialty, spending time outside through the beautiful Virginia seasons… all of these things are easy to find pleasure in. As well, like a Siberian husky, I need and crave the physical exhaustion that accompanies a long day of labor, when the persistence of thought abates and my mind can be empty. Some people do yoga; I prefer shoveling gravel and tossing 80-pound bags of concrete. I swear, it makes me a better person on so many levels.
But life on the road sucks when all you really want to do is be there for your kid as he grows up. I’m over leaving tears on the pillowcases in shitty hotel rooms at this point, but I do wonder how I’ll make it work in the long-term. I know I only have about eight more years until he hates my guts, then another five to eight before he figures I’m less worthy of contempt again, if I’m lucky. The knowledge that these days of endless hugs and unbridled enthusiasm will not last forever is unsettling… but, then again, so is the prospect of homelessness.
Every once in a while I’m put in a position to make a decision between security and the gambit of potential greatness versus utter failure. While I’ve certainly done things for the sake of security, none of them are story worthy. The times I have said “fuck it” have always been my defining moments, for better or for worse. While I still don’t know for sure what the resolution to my current situation will be, I remain certain of this much: a life without risk is a life unfulfilled.
Last school year, as my daughter navigated first grade in a new elementary school at least six to seven times the size of the one she had attended since preschool, she encountered, for the first time, a bully. This angry little boy, whom I’ll call Robert, was a pestilence to her happiness on a regular basis, pushing her in the schoolyard, calling her names, all the usual stuff.
And while I frequently encouraged Heidi to clock the kid (noting I would stand fully behind her when she’d undoubtedly go to the principal’s office for defending her right to exist without persistent harassment), she declined to settle the drama in this way after being inculcated at school with the idea that hitting someone else, no matter what, is always wrong.
Those among you who are my age or older know this is false wisdom.
One day my daughter got off the bus and mentioned she’d had a session with the school guidance counselor that afternoon. I paused on our daily trek up the driveway and asked, “Whatever for?”
“I’ve been going every week to learn how to cope with Robert’s bullying,” Heidi replied.
Rage is not a normal feature of my character, but I must admit feeling it at that moment. How was it that a little boy who pushed and hit his fellow classmates, teased and insulted them relentlessly, and proclaimed almost daily that he hated his parents had somehow become “the victim,” while my daughter was being advised to assume the role of caterer to his victimization and adjust her behavior to accommodate his youthful rage against the world?
The tale gets better, however. A few days after this revelation from within the walls of modern public education came a phone call from Heidi’s teacher, advising me my seven-year-old had used the “F word” in the school lunch line that day. My minor relief that my daughter had admitted to picking up this new addition to her vocabulary from her father quickly dissipated when she came home and explained the circumstances in response to my questions about why she was cursing at school.
“Robert told me I was stupid and ugly,” Heidi remarked.
Now with things in context, I could not help but concede that her apparent response of “fuck you” was entirely appropriate. But again, it was my daughter who bore all the punishment while the bully received no reprimand because apparently it is far worse to curse at someone who is trying to make your life miserable than it is to shake the foundations of another human being’s self-worth.
Robert, you see, was not to blame for his awful behavior toward his fellow humans. Rather, he was to be pitied—no doubt the victim of bad parents, degraded socioeconomic status, a poor gene pool, mental illness, or some other and perhaps multiple maladies.
Needless to say, for this and other reasons, I have pulled my daughter out of the public education system.
But the situation with Robert is reflective of a larger social ill—the idea that abnormal, malfunctioning, or just downright wrong behavior in our culture now comes with a litany of “excuses” ranging from borderline personality disorder to sexual addiction (though I recognize the latter has not yet been coded in the DSM-5; Tiger Woods found it useful nevertheless).
Don’t get me wrong. You will find few people as respectful of the wisdom of modern psychology as myself. Apart from having had a number of friends educated in and working in the field, one cannot help but see and exercise its usefulness in the art of journalism.
But let popular culture get a hold of a good thing…and watch it promptly twisted into something it wasn’t meant to be….
Remember the days when it was wrong to hurt the feelings of others, whether done deliberately or unintentionally? Remember when it was okay to say to another human being: You make me sad or you make me angry?
Not so anymore. Today the individual committing the wrong is actually not responsible for the pain of others. Rather, the one suffering is.
How deeply has this idea permeated our culture? Well, apart from the very obvious sense of entitlement that a not insignificant portion of the American population now feels, get a load of what I heard the other day…from a friend I never would have dreamed would say such a thing….
I’d had my feelings hurt, and I said so, expecting, at the very least, some kind of apology. Nope. In response to “you make me sad,” I received, “I don’t make you sad; you choose your reaction to what I say.”
Um, yeah, okay, I get it. I did indeed choose to feel sadness. Had I a different personality, I might have chosen to say, as Heidi did in the lunch line, “fuck you.” The bottom line, however, is that whatever my feeling or reaction to a hurtful statement by my friend, the fact remains he made a hurtful statement. Since when did it become okay to say or do anything with the full protection of “it’s not my fault; it’s your reaction” backing it all up?
Once upon a time, we didn’t have all these layers of excuses. If you stole, it was wrong; if you cheated, it was wrong; if you treated others poorly, it was wrong.
Now, however, the victims of pain, theft, lies, whatever are frequently asked to consider the degraded socioeconomic status of the thief before rushing to judgment or charges. If your partner cheats, then you may be encouraged to understanding and forgiveness because there are just way too many outlets in the modern world for him to possibly resist stepping out, nevermind his need to feel admired universally because of some developmental lack in his childhood. If someone fails to show empathy to those who suffer, then it’s because she has an avoidant attachment style from having had a bad mother.
And yes, all these things may be true to some degree…but there’s another truth called self-responsibility.
But perhaps in this age of Facebook and selfie sticks, we are all far too narcissistic to notice our own failings much less take responsibility for them. It is far easier, I suppose, to say, “It’s my mother’s fault,” and end the sentence there. We follow pop psychology instead of the fully Monty, which requires you to not only see the root of what has set you on the wrong path but to right the wrong, transcend the destiny of your genes, your upbringing, your circumstances or life experiences…to stand in your own two shoes and take ownership of your actions and how they may impact others.
Because, as William Shakespeare, wrote, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
Yet how far we have strayed from that recognition….
Posted by Deborah Huso on Oct 2, 2015 in Fathers and Daughters
Last winter I started dating a gentleman who had been in his chosen profession about two decades, was quite successful, financially solid, well-educated and well-spoken, courteous to a fault. He refused to permit me to pay for a single dinner out, not even once we’d gone on a few dates. Perfect, right?
I guess the first thing that struck me was when he gave me a tour of the new home he had purchased. When I inquired as to the residence’s heating and cooling system, he presented a blank look. “Is it a heat pump?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he replied.
“How efficient? This is a pretty big house,” I continued.
He smiled a little nervously. “I’m not sure.”
Before I embarrassed him further, I declined to ask about SEER ratings. I mean, what was the point? He wouldn’t know the answer.
Granted, I’m a builder’s daughter and a sometime home and commercial construction writer as well as being an only child raised with all the practical skills one might typically think of a father bestowing on a son. And yes, I grew up outside a small southern mountain town where…you know…men were men. There was no such thing as a man who didn’t know how to drive a stick shift or a tractor (and plenty of women, myself included, counted these among our skills as well).
I could dismiss the above as a case of encountering a city-bred gentlemen of means who had grown up in a family of means where men’s hands remained soft and delicate as a painter’s or a pianist’s.
Only…my dad was a bank president’s son who grew up in town. And I honestly can’t think of anyone on the planet with a more practical set of skills and problem-solving ability than my father. He can repair a backhoe, build a house, and split firewood with gusto in the company of men less than half his age. He can also do trigonometry with a pencil on a block of wood and multiply fractions in his head.
I knew a lot of men like this growing up—my maternal grandfather, my great uncles, neighbors, friends’ fathers. You wouldn’t catch any of them not knowing how to change a flat tire or fix a broken fence…or apologizing for their outlook on the world. So I grew up with the idea that men should be strong, brave, practical, and smart… because I came of age surrounded by men who were teachers, mentors, fixers, and servants to others.
I know I’m going to get serious flak for saying this, but heck, I’m going to say it anyway—the emasculation of men is becoming the norm in our culture (and not just because there are a fair number now who not only wouldn’t deign to change a tire but don’t really know how anyway). And, well-educated, tolerant, capable feminist that I am, I don’t like it, not one bit.
Forgive me, but I think men should behave like men—they should know how to handle life’s basic troubles without blinking or blushing, have a sense of duty toward those they love, be capable of rationally defending themselves and their views, exhibit some emotional courage, and avoid being wishy-washy in the face of conflict or discomfort.
My mother calls my taste in men “fussy.” Fine, whatever. She’s married to my dad after all. She has it pretty good.
What I don’t like is a fussy man. Yeah, so I also recently dated a guy who spent more time styling his hair in the morning than I did, and along with that perfect coif came the most finely pressed and expensive clothes—clothes you’d never dream of wearing while changing a flat tire or having a spontaneous picnic on the grass. And while we regularly received compliments while about town on what a handsome pair we made, I couldn’t help but find something problematic in dating a man I could not possibly imagine ever setting foot in the woods or starting a campfire.
I’ll take the “post-kegger” look any day over activity-inhibiting wardrobe drama.
Perhaps even worse are the men who are so polite and agreeable, fearful of ruffling anyone’s feathers, that they’ll smile and nod at anything, no matter how inane, just to prevent anything remotely looking like conflict…or remotely looking like lively repartee either. And so I order a Manhattan in hopes that doing so will enliven the far too pleasant conversation and then get a look like I’ve just fallen off the moon.
Did I mention a man also ought to know how to drink a frigging cocktail that doesn’t contain pomegranate?
But if I am to be completely frank, these complaints only scratch the surface because modern life seems, if not to favor, at least to tolerate men who fail to support the children they helped bring into the world (does anyone remember the days when such a man would have been shamed into doing his duty?), who feel no particular obligation to do the things they said they were going to do (hence, why I don’t follow politics), and who don’t mean, or regularly deny, the words they speak (though this becomes increasingly harder to do in the age of instant-recording smartphones).
I’m not sure when parental responsibility, keeping one’s word, and telling the truth became optional, but it must have been sometime about 20 or so years ago. Either that or I grew up in a time warp where a kid wouldn’t be able to sit comfortably for a week if he was caught lying. Or maybe, as was the case with me, he or she would just hide in the woods for hours until Dad hopefully “forgot” the lie or the lack of follow-through on a commitment.
There was no shirking responsibility, hard work, or honesty in the world where I was raised, and men were expected to toe that line particularly hard. And to know how to fix shit (by which I mean tangible shit, not the tears of women). And to stand up for themselves. And to sacrifice when the need arose for family, for friends, and for principles.
These days “sacrifice” is no longer part of the language of love, and we fling the word “hero” around so much, it has become virtually meaningless.
Before you suggest I was raised on a steady diet of fairytales, let me point out a few things: Winston Churchill was known to walk the streets of London during the Blitz; the Little Rock Nine endured confrontation by National Guardsmen, taunts and spitting by angry whites, and death threats in their commitment to attend Arkansas’ all-white Central High School in 1957; over 400 emergency services personnel sacrificed their lives trying to rescue victims of the World Trade Center collapse on Sept. 11, 2001.
These people were heroes who also knew a thing or two about sacrifice. People who undergo a sex change are not heroes; they are just people undergoing a sex change. NFL players are not heroes; they are just guys who play ball really well and make a lot of money.
But as a culture, we are so quick to make everyone feel good that we toss the word “hero” and “winner” around into a million situations where it’s unwarranted.
And then we demand apologies from anyone who says anything another person or segment of society might find offensive, as if we as a culture no longer honor diversity of viewpoint or freedom of speech. Our insistence that everyone is a hero and that we all pretend to get along by at least talking the same talk not only emasculates men (who tend to be the ones doing most of the apologizing); it emasculates American culture; it castrates the ideals of individuality and freedom of expression upon which our country was founded.
Is it any wonder so many boys today never grow into men? They are coming of age in a culture of low expectations, of minimal hardship. In this context, it should be no surprise young combat soldiers come back from Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD. What’s it like to watch your friends blown to bits by IEDs and then return home to a place where young men are so glued to their smartphones they can’t even make sure their kids are safe and sound on the playground much less have any concept of what it’s like to save someone’s life or watch someone die.
Courage, conviction, and commitment are in short supply because we lack the outlets to exercise them. This is particularly the case for men, many of whom are no longer raised to see themselves as future providers and protectors. (And I’m not saying women can’t be providers and protectors, too, but mainstream American culture isn’t interfering with the social imperatives that encourage female valor.)
A few years ago, when a friend of mine was considering marriage to her then boyfriend, a second friend of mine asked her pointedly, “Do you feel womanly in his arms?” And in case you’re a man reading this and wondering what that means, it basically translates into, “Do you trust him? Do you feel safe and cared for? Do you feel like he’d protect you?”
It’s a valid question for women to ask before they tie themselves to a man in this brave new world. Because who wants an untrustworthy, unmotivated coward for a mate? A solid bank account and soft hands don’t cut it in the grand scheme of things. Life is hard, and one shouldn’t make it harder by dragging someone into it who requires a lot of take and has very little give other than cash.
And in this country, we’re supposed to give. We have historically been the nation that steps in when no one else will. Our men (and women, beginning in World War II) have repeatedly answered the call to arms on behalf of beleaguered republics and social democracies as well as on behalf of the disenfranchised and tormented.
But it’s easy to let the disenfranchised here at home carry the burden of sacrifice. Service is no longer a rite of passage in this country; it is less and less a value passed from parent to child, teacher to student. Fewer and fewer of us will know men who keep old uniforms tucked in the backs of closets, who will carry the groceries of old women, or give up the materialism of American holidays to work in a soup kitchen.
In our uber prosperous American culture, too many young men come of age without any awareness that everything could change in an instant…and zero practical preparation for it, much less any preparation for being good fathers, husbands, and citizens.
Posted by Ben Weaver on Sep 27, 2015 in Men
I’ve never been a person who valued conventional beauty. I never had a crush on a cheerleader or anyone who was a candidate for homecoming queen. In my dating history, I’ve demonstrated tolerance for poochy bellies and big asses; it’s true. I’ve been much more keen on ladies with good taste in music and bad taste in jokes than ones with the “right” dress size or perfect hair and nails.
This proclivity has not escaped the attention of my friends; by the time I hit my mid-twenties, I had earned the nickname “Buffalo Soldier” among certain circles. As one of my (female) friends said, “The girls Ben dates are nice and have pretty faces, but they do tend to have, well, uh, you know…” (as she makes the universal gesture for “big in the ass”). Guilty as charged. I guess it’s just never mattered that much to me. Hell, maybe I even like it that way.
Speaking only for myself, though, I have a pretty high self-monitor when it comes to my body, borne from a childhood of shopping in the husky section and having a father who weighed around 400 pounds at his biggest.
When one summer I was turned down for participation in not one but TWO games of spin-the-bottle, I vowed to shape up and keep myself in check, an endeavor I’ve honored with varying degrees of success (not always easy when your two favorite digestible items in the world are fried chicken and beer). Like many people, I have some neurotic thinking about food and body image, but I don’t generally let that stop me from eating what I want and still mowing the lawn without a shirt on.
I propose to you a couple of admittedly leading questions: Ladies, have you ever dated someone who was shorter than you? Conversely, gentlemen, have you ever gone out with someone taller?
I can personally speak to the latter. As a guy who hits 5’8” in shoes and has dated plenty of ladies bigger than myself in most regards, I can tell you, people will give you looks. Your “friends” will comment. My former wife had standard retorts for the number of times she was asked, “Isn’t it weird being with a guy who’s shorter than you? Can you not wear heels when you go out?” (A: “Short guys are better in the sack” & “He likes it when I wear heels. He calls me his Amazon bride!”)
How about a man dating a woman who is taller and weighs more ? Lord knows that I’ve taken my fair share of ribbing . When I was younger, my friends made up names for my girlfriends like Brawny, ‘Squatch, and The Original Tatonka. Not cool, guys.
Here’s my point of contention: there exists an odd duality in society’s rules concerning size, weight, and relationships.
On one hand, love is supposed to be blind; it is considered shallow to be preoccupied with external characteristics of others, and we romanticize sapiosexual relationships in books and film. On the other hand, these epic love interests are portrayed in the modern media by people with bodies so sculpted that one has to wonder how they salvage time for a relationship in the first place, given their gym and protein smoothie schedules.
We all know reality rarely looks like a glistening Fabio on the cover of a novel with a title like The Gentle Rogue or an airbrushed Amy Adams in some role requiring her to don a princess get-up. Reality, more often, resembles a film about the infiltration of a bondage and domination resort starring Rosie O’Donnell and Dan Aykroyd.
Each and every one of us is destined for a future of saggy asses and arm flaps if we’re lucky enough to live that long. Have you seen a picture of Keith Richards lately? He’s not even doing that bad for a chain smoking 71-year-old. Might as well get over it already: you’re heading for the realm of people nobody wants to see naked.
(If you’re reading this, Amy Adams, I don’t think you need the airbrush. I was just trying to be funny. You are beautiful just the way you are. Call me.)
Age really is the great equalizer. The older I get, the less physical characteristics matter compared to, say, the way they treat people who work in the service industry or their propensity to laugh at a fart. I see these attitudes more in the friends I keep, too, as life rolls on. What good is it spending time with someone who’s “model hot” if you can’t stand her half the time or she treats you like shit?
Even worse, what if her taste in music sucks? The absurdity of imposing those kinds of concessions on one’s intimate personal life confounds me. People who want to make them can have their spoils. As for myself, as I enter the back half of my lifespan, it seems as important as ever that I round it out with people whose beauty I may still be able to recognize as I squint upward through my bifocals at their wrinkled, bejowled faces.
Kayaking in the Tetons
Every once in awhile my “aloneness” in the world hits me. Okay, so I’ll be honest—it’s not every once in awhile; it’s pretty much every other day.
The last hit occurred when I was on assignment in the Grand Tetons, working my way through a three-day kayaking, rafting, and camping trip on Jackson Lake and then the Snake River. Joining me on this journey were two couples—one fairly young and recently wed, transplants to the west who had moved from Chicago; the other was a couple in their 70s from West Virginia who had shared a long and adventurous life together.
As we were unloading our camping gear that last night of the trip to set up camp on a desolate but beautiful peninsula beneath the gray shadow of Mt. Moran, I happened to notice the male half of the young couple carrying the bulk of his and his new bride’s gear up from the bouldered beach to a camp site at the edge of the woods. When he was finished, pitying me a little apparently, as I hoisted a heavy dry bag onto my back and then prepared to follow it with a sleeping pad on my head, he came to my aid without speaking, taking the heaviest items from me.
I was astounded. Most of the time, I can’t even entice a man to help me get a large suitcase out of the overhead compartment on an airplane even when wearing a wrist brace, trying to hang onto a small child, and obviously struggling. Yet this young man helped me without being asked and obviously with no expectation of the reward he might receive for carrying out such labor for his young wife.
Camping on Spaulding Bay
After thanking him profusely, I began to set up my tent for the evening. I wasn’t struggling really. The task was relatively easy, just a bit awkward for two hands as opposed to four. The 70-year-old gentlemen camped near me soon came over to help and even directed me as if I was a an untried Girl Scout, which was fine. It was rather sweet actually. When he was done, he returned to his own campsite to exchange relaxing foot rubs with his wife—a phenomenon rarely seen among newlyweds much less among partners who have lived together for decades.
Once my campsite was in order, I settled down to rest behind the tent, staring off into the now glass-smooth surface of the lake, granite mountains with glaciers tucked into their crevices facing me across Spaulding Bay.
And I began to feel the aching absence I have known so much of my life.
“What is it like to have someone carry your bags for you?”
My women friends are all married, the smallest handful happily, a few miserably, and most of them in a stalemate of resigned acceptance. So far as I have seen, however, their husbands all carry their bags. Some may groan and gripe over the task, but they do it, dutifully, sometimes robotically, but sure enough, the bags end up properly placed in the trunk, in the overhead compartment, locked safely away from bears in a steel box, whatever.
I watch from the sidelines, envious at times….
You see, I have rarely had a man carry my bags. Even when I was married, my husband was in the U.S. Navy and more away from me than near, so I lived the life of a single woman, seeing him on occasional weekends or sometimes not at all for months on end.
Wandering the Malecon in Guayaquil, Ecuador
I carried my own bags, mowed my own grass, fixed my own fence, and repaired my own plumbing. I flattened myself into narrow, dirty crawlspaces to troubleshoot furnace issues, test drove and purchased my own cars, carried heavy children in my arms through amusement parks, and found my way alone through foreign airports in strange cities.
I was (and am) the mistress of self-sufficiency…just as my parents intended me to be. All my life they prepared me for a cruel world where I should “trust no one.”
Under this hardline, Scandinavian tutelage, I grew into a woman who could pretty much do anything necessary to handle the basics (and the mishaps) of everyday living. I taught single girlfriends how to change rusty and clogged water filters, repaired my own crotchety lawn equipment, and figured out how to grease stubborn, tight windows so I could close and open them with ease.
I’ve had no need for a man in my life. I am my immensely practical builder father’s daughter….
This last week, however, my seven-year-old daughter has been working on a curious project at school involving trust and team building. I can recall, in school and college, how I dreaded group projects because I knew I would not only always be the lead, but I would also always be the one carrying the bulk of the workload. I trusted, generally with reason, no one.
But Heidi’s project encouraged these things called trust and teamwork. Her class spent a morning at her teacher’s farm, learning to trust one another—closing their eyes and falling off picnic tables with the solid belief classmates would catch them.
And I could not stifle the doubtful Midwesterner in me who wondered, “Should Heidi be learning this? Won’t it harm her in the long run to believe others will be there for her? Besides me, of course? Would it not be better to prepare her, as I have long tried, for solid self-sufficiency?”
For I have, perhaps even more doggedly than my parents before me, adopted a hard line with my daughter, refusing to carry her luggage in airports, encouraging her to find bravery within her soul, nurturing her fearlessness—all in preparation for the day when she will have no mommy to carry her bags, wipe her tears, hold her close in the dark hours of the night when the whole world seems stacked against her.
It is no cruelty on my part. It is an act of love.
I don’t want tears welling in her eyes when she watches a man carry his wife’s luggage, kiss away her tears, or hold her when tragedy strikes. I want her to know she can carry her own burdens and survive.
As I have carried mine…across two decades, across four continents.
Camping at the base of the Grand Canyon along Bright Angel Creek
People often ask me why I take these journeys—backcountry treks into the Tetons, the Grand Canyon, the Smokies. Less than prudent rambles through dicey South American cities, into dusty and hardscrabble Mexican towns, into sad shops populated more by stray dogs than people in Puerto Rico.
It is partly about character building but mostly about facing fear and uncertainty. Walking through it…alone…and knowing I can do it and come out the other side. And sure, life should be about more than survival and fear facing, but those are two things you must conquer first…before you can conquer anything else.
Would that I did not have to conquer these things alone.
But there is ample reason for why I carry my own bags. It is not just my upbringing. It is not just my independent nature. Part of it is an unwillingness to settle for just any Sherpa.
I want someone who will lie on his back in the woods and name the stars for me, who will race me in his kayak across Glacier Bay and laugh and paddle backwards as icebergs crash into water. Such men are few and far between…. Men of my age have been too burned by the demands of young and foolish women, and most have retreated into a safe sort of nothingness far removed from the rambling of Grizzly bears in the woods and the pressing crowds of St. Petersburg in summer.
They do not seek the land of the midnight sun.
So instead of settling, I carry my own bags, bear my own baggage, and venture into the wilds of life alone, choosing experience over safety, and hardship (at times) over comfort. Because this is life, lived only once, with or without love, with or without someone to carry my bags, with or without the safety of someone’s arms to collapse into in the darkest hours of the night…but never without living and never without the sometimes hard to summon courage that drives one steadily to an existence without the base ugliness of regret.
I may die holding the baggage of my life in two arthritic hands, but I will not die without knowing I have lived.
Posted by Deborah Huso on Sep 1, 2015 in Motherhood
The very first time I had an anxiety attack, I didn’t know what was happening. It was early morning, my newborn daughter had just woken up crying, I knew I had deadlines demanding attention in the office, I’d had no sleep (having lain awake all night waiting for her cry), and all of the sudden my heart was pounding as if it would burst right out of my chest, and I felt cold sweats racing up and down my spine, my arms, my hands.
“Am I having a heart attack?” I wondered.
And no small part of me almost hoped I was: visions of a hospital bed where I could lie and do nothing all day while people brought me bland food I would not want to eat. Relaxation and weight loss coming right up!
And then I wondered, is this really what my life has come to? Having a heart attack is now a vacation plan?
But it wasn’t a heart attack, though in the years since that first incident, I have more than once wished I was experiencing some real physical calamity as opposed to anxiety. As a friend of mine, also a sufferer from anxiety, told me recently, “Physical pain is so much easier to bear.”
I agree. Doctors can fix a heart attack, or you die…either way, the trauma ends.
Anxiety has no endpoint, no pacemaker, no magic bullet to knock it out, so you can go home a new and improved person who can breathe again without hyperventilating.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 40 million American adults suffer from anxiety. That’s about 18 percent of the population. Most of them are women.
I’d wager the degree of suffering is much greater. Way more than half of my female friends and acquaintances suffer from it, and those are just the ones who admit it. Or maybe I just hang out with really high-strung, Type A folks who don’t know how to tramp down stress and trauma with a shot of bourbon and Netflix.
I sure as hell don’t.
I prefer to lie awake in bed, not wanting to get out, while my heart races at the speed of light and I’m encompassed by a pressing sense of dread. Eek, is that a laundry basket over there filled with dirty clothes? Damn it. Cold sweats. iPhone bleeps at me. I hunker down a little lower.
The anxiety in this house is so pervasive, even the dog has it. Though I acknowledge, he’s a pound puppy, so I have to forgive him for howling every time I leave the house and then hiding under the dining room table whenever I lose my shit with my daughter, which is more frequent than I’d like to admit. Pooping in my walk-in closet? Um no, not excused.
They make anxiety meds for dogs, you know.
I remain skeptical. I am not giving my dog Xanax.
But the fact that I could is a little alarming. The fact that nearly 30 percent of Americans will suffer anxiety at some point in their lives is also alarming, especially given that is the highest rate of anxiety disorder in the developed world. Again, I expect it’s more.
From where I’m sitting, it looks like an epidemic. And I have to wonder why….
I once believed anxiety was the body’s physical response to a situation that isn’t right. Do you get anxiety every time your husband walks in the door? Time to get a divorce. Do you have panic attacks in the bathroom at work? Time to get a new job.
But it’s really not that simple. As the mother of one of my best friends (who was a practicing psychologist for 30+ years told me once), “anxiety is fear that you cannot handle what life throws at you.”
Or rather what we throw at ourselves….
I admit I am a culprit in my own suffering. In the course of the last year alone, I moved my entire household from a community where I had spent the vast majority of my adult life, put my daughter in a new school, then put her in another new school this fall, fell in love and got serious about a man who couldn’t commit, attempted to paint an entire house all by myself in the wee hours of the morning for weeks on end, expanded my business times three, garnered nearly 20 new clients as a result, and then decided it would be a good idea to bring an anxiety-ridden dog into my life because, you know, a single working mother could always use another dependent to look after….
Did I mention I’m about to give up on having a clean house, folded laundry, and weed-free flowerbeds?
I cannot do it.
And that is the hardest thing for us anxiety sufferers to admit.
A few years ago, one of my best friends and I were riding a trolley in a historic southern city when a young woman seated across from us leaned over and said to me, “I’m having an anxiety attack. Can you help me? I need to get off this thing.”
Well, heck yeah. I’m old hat at this shit. My girlfriend got the trolley driver to stop, and the three of us got off and walked at least a couple dozen blocks back to our inn, where we poured our new friend lots of complimentary sherry while talking about this phenomenon called anxiety. Our new friend was in her late 20s, newly married, a successful writer, and well, should she not be in seventh heaven?
And there it is—the dreaded “should” word with which anxiety sufferers pelt themselves daily as if in penance for not having sharp, ironed curtains and cats that religiously use the litterbox.
Almost all my anxiety attacks, which I regret to report have worsened with age (or perhaps with the additional “I should do” duties that come with age), are the result of “I shoulds”:
- I should not be “overdue” on so many projects at work
- I should empty my inbox and be more on top of things
- I should delete the 40 “unheard” voice mail messages on my cell phone
- I should be a more involved and present mom
- I should play with my daughter more
- I should help my parents more
- I should be in an emotionally mature relationship with a man who has his shit together
- I should exercise more
- I should actually eat breakfast
- I should have a cleaner house
- I should not let laundry sit in the basket for so long
- I should weed my flowerbeds more frequently
- I should get new tires on the car
- I should clean out the garage
- I should call my friends more
And the “shoulds” wear on me until I can do no more than hit “snooze” on the alarm, crawl deeper under the covers, and avoid this thing called life for 10 minutes more. “Snooze” again. So 20 minutes more.
What’s even worse? Sometimes I will try to stay up all night just so I don’t have to wake up and feel anxious as soon as I open my eyes in the morning. I’m sure you can imagine how much sleep deprivation helps with the anxiety business.
I long ago gave up on thinking I will ever outrun anxiety. I really have tried everything—even had a couple of doctors try to kill me (unintentionally, of course) with drugs that made me want to climb the walls. The result is I’m now terrified to take any medication short of aspirin.
And try deep breathing and meditating right after someone has given you what feels like, at that moment, the most devastating news of your life. Sorry, panic coaches, my brain is far too sophisticated for your tricks. It can and will have an anxiety attack anywhere anytime just from hearing “that song” on the radio in the grocery store.
Yet supposedly anxiety sufferers are truly awesome people—hard workers with higher than average IQs, deeply analytical minds; they are more empathic, good team players. In fact, if you want a high-achieving employee who will go the extra mile, break the EOE rules and ask that interviewee if she suffers from anxiety. If the answer is “yes,” you can be sure she’ll do a bang-up job!
That’s just how we roll.
And maybe that’s the problem.
Why do we care so much?
You have no idea how we stand like dejected animals in a cage looking out at all those people who don’t have anxiety, have never known it in their lives. You know the ones. They’re totally okay with a sink full of dirty dishes. Fuck it. I’m going to have a beer and go watch TV, they say without a moment’s guilt. Meanwhile I can’t sit still in a chair unless I know everything is done, and how often do you suppose everything is done in the life of a writer always on deadline?
I get tired of being told that I should embrace my anxiety, that I should be grateful I feel deeply, that I’m capable of the great depths of love, joy, pain…all those things that make us human and make life rich…if far from easy. Heck, if you read my blog posts with any regularity, you know I spout out all these things myself. In my heart, I know their truth. In the here and now, heart racing, I just want to feel like I’m not losing my mind. And I understand how addictions start, why people run from risk, why the emotionally wounded will often close the door on human connection, why people lose themselves in TV, on social media, in emotional eating.
I get it.
But that’s just my extra special compassion because I have anxiety, right?
What I don’t have, however, is an answer, a way to tie this all up neatly with a bow, and say something pithy you can carry with you to call upon the next time anxiety hits you in your gut. It’s epidemic, and I am among the walking survivors.