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Security Versus “Story-worthy” Risk: A Father’s Look at Tomorrow

Posted by Ben Weaver on Oct 19, 2015 in Fatherhood, Musings, 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.

 
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The Culture of No One’s to Blame…Except You, Of Course

Posted by Deborah Huso on Oct 12, 2015 in Motherhood, Mothers and Daughters, Musings, Relationships

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….

 
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Where Are the Men? A Culture of Emasculation

Posted by Deborah Huso on Oct 2, 2015 in Fathers and Daughters, Men, Musings, Relationships

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?

Well, no….

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.

 

 
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Even the Dog Has Anxiety: The Newest American Epidemic

Posted by Deborah Huso on Sep 1, 2015 in Motherhood, Musings, Relationships

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.

 

 
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Rim to River and Back…and Why You Need to Say YES

Posted by Deborah Huso on Aug 20, 2015 in Fathers and Daughters, Musings, Travel Archives
The beginning of the Bright Angel Trail

The beginning of the Bright Angel Trail

When I hiked to the base of the Grand Canyon and back up to the South Rim in April at age 39, it wasn’t supposed to be about me. It was about my dad, recently turned 74, and his lifelong dream to descend to the Colorado River and back up again before he died…and while he was still physically able to do it.  Against my mother’s protests, I took it upon myself to make sure he got his wish.

While my mother remained convinced the 20+ mile arduous overnight hike would set off the heart attack that would finally kill him, my whole attitude was “well, damn it, let him die happy.”

Don’t think me callous. I adore my dad, always have. He has been the sole, relentless, indefatigable cheerleader of every outrageous and stupid life plan I’ve ever had. And I have always believed he deserved better than to end his life suffering in a hospital bed.

Live large, die large. That is what he taught me.

However, if you’ve never entered a landscape (figurative, literal, or both) that has brought you in the closest possible proximity to the depth of your weaknesses and the heights of your strengths, you might find this entire blog post a little hard to grasp….

The strange lushness of Indian Garden

The strange lushness of Indian Garden

Here’s the thing: I started that two-day trek to the canyon’s base and up again about 9 a.m. on a cold spring morning, exhilarated and a little bit hesitant.  Had I trained enough?  I knew I could do a two- dozen-mile hike but with a pack weighing over 30 pounds while descending and then ascending over 4,400 feet?  Carrying all my stuff and a good chunk of Dad’s?  In an environment that I knew would range from close to freezing to possibly into the 90s in the span of a single day?

Dad and I spent the first six or seven miles walking together.  By late afternoon, I was well ahead (but within sight distance of him), nursing screaming knees from hours and hours of relentless downhill, creeping down the unforgiving red rock of Devil’s Corkscrew, tears forming in my eyes, first from the pain in my knees…then from the pain in my heart.

Devil's Corkscrew

Devil’s Corkscrew

Because this wonder of the world landscape doesn’t just pull at your heartstrings; it rips them.  Rips them till you’re stuck in your own head, limping down a steep trail, your eyes riveted by the ever shifting rugged and unforgiving beauty of the surrounding canyon walls, the sheer marvel of a tree and grass laden oasis bisected by a cool stream, rock formations squatting like compressed biscuits cradling Indian Creek, then the vista opening again to views of miles and miles across rusty red mountains with cascading waterfalls, sun-catching desert blooms, and the promise of a first look at the mighty Colorado River that helped shape this canyon over the course of millennia.

You just have to see it.

Like life.

You have to see it, live it, endure it.

And by the time I’d finally traversed Devil’s Corkscrew onto relatively flat ground, given half my water to an idiot, dehydrated hiker who thought she could go rim-to-rim in a single day with no food and one water bottle, I was deep inside my head, at least a quarter mile ahead of Dad, my brain marauding into the no man’s land of life’s relentless disappointments, lost loves, unwillingly discarded dreams, and then those brief and fleeting moments of joy.

I had laughed when park rangers said this hike would change me.

They knew their shit.

It did.

Because there were points along the hike, my clothes soaked with sweat, hiking shoes disintegrating at the seams, and filling my toes with dry sand, that I wondered why I had thought this was a good idea.  Wouldn’t I rather, especially when in the midst of that final four-mile push up a near vertical trail at the end of day two, be nursing a Manhattan while watching Mad Men?

And damn it, yes, I would!

But then I remembered the oft-repeated words of friend and fellow contributor Susannah Herrada, who says, “life isn’t supposed to be fun,” and “true love does not exist without sacrifice.”

Desert blooms at the top of Devil's Corkscrew

Desert blooms at the top of Devil’s Corkscrew

Before you go and get all bummed out, think for a moment how much of human grief, particularly in Western culture, comes from the misguided belief that life is about the pursuit of happiness, that love is supposed to bring us happily ever after and eternal joy.

I didn’t initiate this Grand Canyon hike hoping for fun or for joy. I initiated it to make my father’s life richer…and my own as well.

It was, like so many things I have done, part of my relentless effort to say “yes” as much as possible. And to try to inspire others to do the same. Plenty of my life’s “yeses” have resulted in suffering, anxiety, fear…but also in walking through pain, surviving panic, and facing terror head-on.

Rest assured, I do not believe that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger; in fact, it can often make you weaker—less prone to take future risks, less likely to give in to vulnerability, less inclined to sacrifice for love.

There were many instances on that hike that I would have liked to just quit.  But, as all the T-shirts in the Grand Canyon gift shops say, “going in is optional; coming out isn’t.”

So really the only decision you have to make in this life is “yes, I’ll go in.”  And that’s the decision over which so many of us (myself included) waver.

Dad taking a break on our final ascent up the canyon

Dad taking a break on our final ascent up the canyon

I remember as the sun approached its setting when Dad and I made our final ascent on day two to the top of the South Rim, 24 miles of hiking behind us, tired to the bone and thinking of nothing but hot showers and sleep in real beds, I definitely said to myself, “Well, I’m glad I did it, but I’ll never do that again.”

But the fact is, four months later, when I returned to the Grand Canyon, this time on the North Rim, with my seven-year-old daughter, and stood with hundreds of other tourists looking down from Bright Angel Point to the squarish cliff behind which the interpretive sign told us was Bright Angel Campground (where Dad and I had pitched a tent just north of the Colorado River), I regretted I was standing there, nothing more than an observer of a vast landscape.  An observer, not a doer.

And suddenly, my mind was filled with ideas of heading down into the depths of that brutal and marvelous landscape again, for days, to wander the trails not yet taken, to see all the places one can only see on foot, with courage, with endurance, with a willingness not necessarily to find happiness, or joy…but grace.

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The Ironic Joy of Suffering…and the Path to True Bliss

Posted by Deborah Huso on May 11, 2015 in Motherhood, Musings, Relationships

Originally published May 28, 2014.

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” –Viktor Frankel

A perfect day with my late grandfather

A perfect day with my late grandfather

Tonight I am sick with the flu, sitting near my sleeping daughter, who has been asking questions all evening about the MRI she will get tomorrow. “Will it hurt? Will I be scared? Can I take Shaky Bear with me? Will you sing to me, Mommy, while I’m in the machine?”

I am looking at my online calendar, rife with deadlines on complicated feature articles, thinking how this is the worst possible time to be sick, the worst possible time for me to successfully navigate the waters of motherhood when my little girl is frightened.

But a couple hundred miles away, the step-sister of my childhood best friend lies in a hospital bed, much of her body riddled with cancer. Tomorrow she will undergo a long and frightening surgery. She is younger than I—a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister.

And I wonder if she is scared, scared her happy young life will be cut short by life’s cruel unfairness?

Is she asking questions? Did I take enough risks? Did I live hard enough? Did I tell everyone who is important to me I love them in a thousand ways a thousand times and then some? What if this is all, and tomorrow I am no more?

These are questions we should all be asking every day. My father taught me to ask them, to live by them, and I have tried.

But who does not have regrets? Dreams not yet lived? Because life is not a Norman Rockwell painting, much though I often wish it was and wish I had a place in it. As my friend Sarah says, “Life is relentless.”

And short.

And there is no time for waffling on the big stuff. There is no time not to take a risk, not to bare your soul, not to embrace it all, pain and joy, and live it with wild abandon.

Sometimes we err in living too much for joy, forgetting that pain provides, as Viktor Frankel so eloquently noted in Man’s Search for Meaning, “no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.”

Because that suffering makes the perfect days more perfect. Like the afternoon I spent sipping wine in a vineyard with the man to whom I had not yet spoken my love, watching two small boys play catch with their father, a small white church with delicate steeple rising softly in the distance beyond green hills. Or the day I curled up on the floor under sunny windows with my daughter, snuggled under blankets reading books by Richard Scarry and Jan Brett.

I would not have experienced the full bliss of these moments had I not walked through fire for love and failed, had I not wept rivers over death, had I not known abandonment and fear.

As that sweet young mother drifts off to sleep tonight, may her mind be filled with the “soothing thoughts that spring out of human suffering, in the faith that looks through death,” as William Wordsworth noted in one of his most famous poems.

He also said, “Thanks to the human heart by which we live, / Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears, / To me the meanest flower that blows can give / Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”

For that is the only way to live—fully, openly, courageously, vulnerably.

 
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True Love…and Why I Think Mark Twain Never Knew It

Posted by Deborah Huso on Jan 2, 2015 in Men, Musings, Relationships

Originally published January 23, 2013.

One of Mark Twain’s most famous and often quoted lines is “Familiarity breeds contempt…and children.” How well many of us identify with this quip, especially the first part, which actually isn’t exactly funny. Only last week, I was chatting with a colleague who said, “I’ve been married 40 years, and I’m just grateful my wife still speaks to me.”

I suspect many of us who are married (or have been) have asked ourselves if this is just the way things are. We marry, as a friend of mine says he did, as a result of drinking too much alcohol (wife no.1) or “a momentary lapse of reason” (wife no. 2) and hope for the best, thinking if we get lucky our lives might look a little something like a fairytale.

Cautionary fable might be more like it, however.

A friend of mine told me the other night after I found my brain rattled by yet another run-in with love gone awry, “Your life reads like a movie.”  The comment was uttered partly in admiration and partly in an “it’s entertaining to hear about, but I sure wouldn’t want to live it” manner of speaking. You see, I’ve been proposed to six times. That I turned down four of those offers would make me appear wise. The problem is I accepted two. I only wish I had the excuse that I was drunk at the time.

I’m not sure marriage is the problem though.  My friends and I often talk about the poisonous metals present in wedding rings that make the wearer turn into a creature no longer recognizable—a beast who has become demanding, critical, resentful, and likely to take advantage of all his or her partner’s weaknesses. I do not necessarily excuse myself from having been poisoned by 14 karat gold rings. Maybe next time I’ll try platinum.

My ex-husband says marriage sets up expectations where there were none before, and that’s the downfall of us all.

I have to disagree (no surprise there—the poisonous wedding band metals are likely still in my system).

I’m not exactly a hopeless romantic either. I’ve never subscribed to the idea of “soul mates.” I remain unconvinced there is one man out there destined to fulfill all of my romantic desires. That being said, however, I do believe in true love.

What is true love?

Well, I’ll tell you…it’s certainly not what you think.  It’s not love at first sight.  It’s not the passion you feel when the devastatingly handsome man with the sparkly brown eyes kisses you for the first time. It’s not the chest flutters you get when you think of him.  All of that, my dears, is infatuation. And infatuation is fleeting.  Even love is fleeting.

But true love: that is something else entirely, and I guarantee it is not something the father of American colloquial letters ever experienced.

How do I know?

I know because familiarity makes true love grow.  Whereas the love most of us experience and marry into begins as a bright flame that gradually sputters and often even goes out completely, true love can begin tentatively (though not always) and then widens and deepens with time and familiarity.

It does not retreat over time. It builds.

I’ve heard psychologists say the average person experiences true love only once a lifetime, twice if he or she is lucky.  Those statistics are pretty sad. It means when you find it (if you’re smart enough to recognize it and, even more importantly, nurture it) you better damn well hang onto it.

Unfortunately, most of us never find it, or, if we do, we kill it as promptly as we can or maybe even deter it from growing in the first place. That’s because true love is scary as hell.

I should know. I’ve experienced it at least once, a fact which terrifies me to no small degree at the tender age of 37 given that true love experience number one didn’t work out so well. If psychologists are to be believed, I’m on my last chance at this gig.

I had my first experience of true love quite accidentally.  It was one of those “I have nothing to lose” relationships I thought would never last that makes one go full out on vulnerability, risk, and “reckless honesty,” as fellow contributor Susannah Herrada likes to call it. The interesting side effect of throwing all caution to wind is that it connects you with another human being on levels the average romantic relationship never experiences.

I have frequently tried to explain this to people who have never experienced it, and usually, at best, I receive blank looks.  Other times, I find my sanity questioned.  So I’ll make an effort here to tell you what I’m talking about, to tell you what true love looks like.  Maybe you’ve seen it, experienced it. Maybe it’s right there in front of you waiting to happen if only you will let go of all your inhibitions, fears, and resentments.

You know you have a case of true love on your hands, friends, when you not only experience all the usual characteristics of love (or infatuation) like persistent thinking about that beautiful man with the sky blue eyes and persistent longing for him but also the ability to feel that persistent longing (and find it deepening) with time.  And I don’t mean the growth of infatuation over a few months. I mean that two or three years into the relationship you love that person more than you did after six months’ acquaintance, and you find that love deepening with each passing day.  It’s that rare kind of love you might see once in a blue moon when a couple who has been married 50 years is still holding hands and kissing on the front porch at sunset.

Where true love is concerned, you not only love your beloved’s finest qualities but you love his weaknesses, too.  You don’t just accept those weaknesses, you love them.  And you long to protect them, not use them to manipulate and harm.  This is a person whose eyes you can gaze into for hours, maybe days, without boredom.  And again, you still feel this desire after years and years.  There is nothing he can do to deter you from loving him. You may feel anger against him, but it does not diminish your love, no matter how much you may wish it would.

You see, true love is not all wine and roses. In fact, it can hurt to the core, even when it is good. Because when you love someone to the depth that you reveal all of yourself, every last shred of your vulnerability, you make that person a part of you. It’s not living on tenterhooks, mind you. True love is a deeply secure feeling, but it is deeply painful when the beloved is outside your reach. It is the kind of love Pablo Neruda describes in Sonnet XVII when he says it is a love “where I does not exist, nor you / so close that your hand on my chest is my hand, / so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.”

True love is the kind of love that risks all without hesitation.  It says, “I trust you. Take all that I have, and I lose nothing.”

But before you jump up and raise your hand, and say, “Yes! Yes! I’ve seen that! I’ve known that!” examine your love.  I once loved a man so deeply and fully and accepted and adored all that he was, even the qualities others saw as liabilities, that I offered, if need be, to sacrifice all that I knew to occupy a space beside him till death.  I waited for him “like a lonely house,” windows aching, and when he would not come of his own volition, I gave him a hard shove, an ultimatum.

And still he would not take that final leap into space that says, “I will expend the last full measure of my devotion for love of you.”

I found myself facing the hard reality that I felt true love for him, but he did not feel it for me. As a friend of mine once said to me, “Real love does not need shoving.”

The object of my affection, you see, had given doubt a foothold and allowed it to fester until he was overcome with fear, as most of us are, of giving way to full-on vulnerability, the vulnerability that says “be willing to give up all that you know to get something better.”

It’s the same kind of fear, you see, that makes people miserable in their jobs fail to leave them to start the business they’ve always dreamed of owning or that prevents a grand move to another continent when a delightfully tantalizing (if frightening) opportunity beckons.

You have to give up to get. It is a law of nature. Death of one thing is necessary to create life in another.

You may be wondering how I have fared in this grand scheme of true love gone awry.  Well, I can say I have fared better than the man who let me go.  At least I will never need ask “what if?”  I threw my heart into the ring and risked its pulverization, found it pulverized, in fact.  And when the dust had settled, I picked up the pieces, poured them into my pocket, and set about the long, slow process of putting them all back together for round two.

Because yes, there will be a round 2.

That is how life goes.  The lessons keep coming until we learn them.

I often wonder if the man I believed to be the love of my life will ever learn his own. In the aftermath of the end of that relationship, he said to me, “I am a fool.  I will regret this all my life.”

It may be so.

But only if when his round 2 comes, he commits the same error a second time.

I wish I knew the secret to finding true love. I still am not certain if it requires a certain mix of two people.  I am not certain if you can have it with one person but not another. I do know, however, that it’s worth trying on for size.  That person who is in your life right now, that sometimes makes your heart skip a beat, consider taking the frightening risk of being real with him and see where it leads.

Because one thing I do know is that you will never find true love by being anything other than who you are and loving someone else for any other reason than that he is being exactly the same—the person he is and wants to be.

 
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Internet Privacy: Um, No Such Thing….

Posted by Claire Vath on Dec 16, 2014 in Mothers and Daughters, Musings

Physical safety is something we talk a lot about. All too often there are the Hannah Grahams of the world that flash across our news screens. That physical safety—walking through a parking lot alone at night, accepting drinks from a stranger at a bar—those are things we know to be unsafe, unwise.

A more uncharted area is Internet safety.

Do a Google search on yourself. What pops up?

Do a Google search on your children. Or a Facebook search. Now what comes up?

I grew up in an age where scrawled-on cassette tapes were stacked near my boom box. An age where phones had actual dials. And where, if you wanted to record a song, you sat, waiting for it to play on the radio so you could press a button.

But technology has come a long way from see-through phones. It’s zipped past us more than we might ever have imagined.

Forget remembering when cell phones first became widely used. My children will never remember a time when there weren’t iPads and iPhones.

And all these invasions of privacy are right at your fingertips.

Everything is there, in big brother, in the cloud—wherever.

Love letters, passive aggressive Facebook statuses, “sexts,” embarrassing photos, major life announcements—all of these play out in the broader arena of a very powerful technology.

And the ramifications will be huge. If you don’t believe that—if you don’t accept that the technology has gotten away from us, leaving even the policy makers to scratch their heads—look at the hacking, constantly—of naked photos, of classified FBI information, of credit cards at Target, Home Depot, etc., etc. It’s slipping through our grasp faster than we’re able to hold on.

We carry cameras in our pockets. Super powered cameras that, with the click of a button, can broadcast a picture to millions of people. Most of those people are good people. Some aren’t. It’s a powerful weapon we yield, and we often yield it without much thought. We’ve become a society that craves recognition. Through likes. Through shares. The more people who “like” or star something, the more we feel a strange sort of validation, whether conscious or not.

But when it comes to our children, we haven’t asked them what’s OK to post. Haven’t consulted with them as to whether the picture we posted of them sitting on the potty for the first time or going to their first dance with their first high school boyfriend is acceptable. A cute picture of a child splashing in the tub? On Facebook. A child-shaming picture with a kid whose bad behavior is showcased to garner likes? We create a Tumblr about it. We add pictures of our kids, with their school logos emblazoned on their sweatshirts, with our location in our profile. Mommy bloggers pimp out their apple-cheeked kids posing for selfies in a pumpkin patch and garner ad clicks and fan girls.

We don’t feel we need their consent. They’re our children, after all—our creation—so, naturally, we know what’s best. But we leave a trail of breadcrumbs—digital files in our wake. Files that can be shared over and over for ours and others’ purposes—good or bad. We have yet to fully realize the effects of how a life exposed online can shape a person.

The Internet is still a relatively new frontier—a Wild West where things that you’d never let happen in reality may play out virtually.

You wouldn’t let your 6-year-old walk down a road alone at night. Or publicly share the location of your kids’  school with a convicted sex offender you meet in the mall.

But the reality is we live in a world of virtual reality, unwilling to fully realize the effects beyond our computer screen. So before you hit the “post” button, think about how far that information can be shared. It may mean the difference between safe or unsafe, life or death.

 

 
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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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