0

Blog Tour: Why I Write

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

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

The author in her “summer office”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Probably not.

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

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

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

It is luck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

 

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

Check out the Scary Mommy blog!

 
0

Why Mommy Travels Solo

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

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

The author, sans famille, in the Sea of Cortez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
0

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

Posted by Deborah Huso on May 28, 2014 in Musings, Relationships

“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 a dear friend, 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.

 
0

The Kindness of Strangers…and Yes, It Matters

Posted by Claire Vath on May 27, 2014 in Motherhood, Musings, Relationships

“What’s your name?” the man asked me. We were in the Publix parking lot. I was hugely pregnant, waddling across the cold pavement toward my car, a basket full of groceries.
When I told him my name, he broke out in a huge, gap-toothed grin and reached for his back pocket. He pulled out a worn brown wallet, the creases of which matched the smile lines around his eyes. Rifling through the billfold, he pulled out a crinkled yellow Post-It note and showed it to me.“ This is my e-mail address,” he said. “And this,” he pointed, “is my password.” Written in all capital letters was the name “CLARABELL,” as though it were some poignant, divine intervention (or as though that were my name).

I smiled politely and nodded as though I understood the nature of this revelation.

“I just wanted to know your name to let you know that I’ll be praying for you, Claire. Prayin’ that you deliver a healthy baby.”

I looked at the green nametag on his shirt. He knew mine, after all. His name was Jimmy, and he had just bagged my groceries, asked me about my pregnancy, and walked me to my car. I don’t like accepting help from anyone, but now with a protruding stomach, people insisted upon it, and I’d given up arguing with them. As he walked me to my car, Jimmy told me about all the February birthdays in his family (I was due in February) and the dates of each family members’ birth.

And when he told me he’d be saying prayers for me, I thanked him profusely. If nothing else, that’s the kind of help I can get behind, particularly when I’m treading the uncharted waters of new motherhood.

“Everything will be great,” he promised. And looking at him—the sincerity in his eyes, the age lines of his face and his lop-sided grin—I believed him wholeheartedly.
“I hope so,” I agreed, getting into my car.

“Hope,” he nodding, pushing my empty basket back toward the store. “Ya gotta have hope.”

Nine mornings later, I awoke with faint contractions. Things moved swiftly thereafter. I was ushered into the hospital, then into a gown. I was given needles and catheters and ice chips. And then the baby’s heart rate began to drop. And things moved even more quickly. “We need to get him out now,” my OB informed me as a nurse slapped an oxygen mask on my face.

Tears swam in my eyes as I looked up at my husband, who squeezed my hand and nodded it was going to be okay.
Six minutes later in a roomful of people working at breakneck pace, my baby was pulled from my stomach. He was swollen and pale, and his head was a bit conical, but he was perfect.

Two days after I left the hospital, I went to the grocery store, wincing a bit from my tightening C-section stitches as I strolled the aisles for provisions. As I passed shoppers, I wanted to call out: “Do you know who I am? I’m someone’s mom!”

I had ceased to be just me anymore. The frenetic birth of this baby inexplicably changed who I was.

I looked for Jimmy while I was there, but I didn’t see him. And I didn’t see him again for many months after.

And then one day, there he was. He passed me by, looking straight at me, but there was no light of recognition on his face. Just a placid nod, an impersonal smile as we passed.
I felt a pit form in my stomach. He doesn’t remember me. I’m just one of the hundreds of customers passing him by.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about that, that Jimmy clearly had no recollection of our moment months back.

Non-memorable, maybe.

Maybe he’d changed. I certainly had.

So when he passed me, I didn’t say anything either. Just smiled back, remembered that one cold February day and the kindness and reassurance given by a man in a grocery store parking lot.

 
0

Passion and Commitment: Why You Need Both

Posted by Deborah Huso on May 12, 2014 in Musings, Relationships, Success Guide

Originally published May 20, 2013.

There are wonderful times when life catches me completely off guard. Like a week ago when I attended my five-year-old’s first piano recital.  It was, initially, reminiscent of the recitals I’d played in as a child, where the first children to play were the youngest and least skilled, and the last were those who could show some mastery over their lessons. Needless to say, I never played last at a recital in any of my seven to eight years of piano lessons.  I liked playing the piano, still do, but I was never passionate about it.

However, last Sunday, I saw passion.  As I sat there in church watching one student succeed another, a few of them showing fine technical skill, I expected no great epiphanies at the keyboard. But then the last student to play, an 11-year-old boy who had been taking lessons only four years, sat down to regale the audience with five minutes or so of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” and I sat there dumbfounded. Not only did this boy demonstrate technical skill way beyond his years, but he played with the passion of a man who has found and lost love, watched a beloved die, walked through fire….

Where does feeling like that come from in an 11-year-old boy?

I have no idea.

But I do know that it was not passion alone that made that young man stroke the keys as if he was born to play. The piano teacher’s sister informed me after the recital that the boy’s parents could hardly keep him from the piano, that he played all the time.

That’s not just passion. That’s commitment.

And if you ever want to succeed at something, and I mean really succeed, you have to have both.

How often have I seen a person with passion for an art, skill, or subject fail to reach potential, not for lack of talent but for lack of commitment. And commitment, mind you, is more than hard work.  It comes with cost and sacrifice.

A friend of mine had to give a meditation recently at a wedding, and she was anxious about how to do it because she had been asked not to be too religious. “How can I talk about passion,” she asked, “and not draw an anomaly to the passion of Christ?”

I don’t know what she ultimately came up with, but even though I’m not religious, I know there is much to learn from what we refer to as “Christ’s passion.”  Jesus, whether mortal or God, was willing to take the cost, make the ultimate sacrifice, for what he believed. The result? His life and teachings form one of the world’s most influential religions. And that’s really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the influence of Jesus’ passion and commitment.

I suspect, knowing my friend, that she perhaps touched on the necessity of passion and commitment to a successful marriage. It is one thing to love another person, even deeply love him.  It is quite another to commit yourself to maintaining that love for life. That not only takes work, like the work of resolving minor disputes before they become big resentments, but the work of sacrifice–willingly and lovingly giving up to get more. And I don’t mean more in a greedy sense. I mean more fulfillment, more meaning, and, ultimately, more passion.

Because that’s the thing about commitment that is passion-inspired. It builds more passion.

I will not pretend to know about passion and commitment within the framework of a marriage.  I know I tried commitment without passion for a very long time, and it didn’t seem to do much other than take up valuable space in the short span of what we know as life.

But I do know about passion in other things. I have had a passion for writing since I was a small child, yet for a brief period while in college and grad school, I let a couple of mentors convince me to pursue a career as professor instead of as a writer. To my good fortune, poverty eventually drove me out of academe, and I began to see, after working as an ex parte brief writer, speech writer, and copywriter, that one could indeed earn a living writing.

For five years, I spent every waking hour I wasn’t at my salaried job working to build my own business as a writer. And once I cut the cord to the world of the regular paycheck and began freelancing full-time, I worked 80-hour weeks for a couple of years to build a client base. There was never a time that any of it felt exhausting. Why?  Because I was passionately committed to living my dream.

The same held true when I finally bought the farm I’d always dreamed of owning and built the house I’d always dreamed of building, working until the wee hours of the morning at times painting cathedral ceilings while lying on my back on a scaffold, hanging wallpaper, and sanding and varnishing cabinets, stair treads, and trim. Passion launched me. Commitment held me.

I have no doubt I will hear one day of that 11-year-old boy at my daughter’s piano recital rocking the world stage as a concert pianist. Because the boy is not just passionate; he is committed. He practices his passion daily.

That’s the key—daily commitment to passion.

As one of my favorite poets, Pablo Neruda, remarks, you should live “as if you were on fire from within.” Doing anything less is not really living; it is not really committing. If you believe in your passion, whether it is the passion you hold for your work or the passion you hold for your lover, then commit to it, live as if “the moon lives in the lining of your skin.”

 
0

My New Orleans

Posted by Claire Vath on Apr 29, 2014 in Musings, Travel Archives

IMG_7675If, after my latest trip to New Orleans, someone had told me we were actors in a carefully-concocted movie script, it wouldn’t have surprised me.

There was the cemetery, the grass still woven together with silvery dew. Camera-toting tourists ambled through row upon row, looking. My husband and I were there with a sense of purpose, my skirt dragging through the soggy grass as we traipsed, passing crumbling facades of unkempt graves. People stacked one atop the other. Hundreds of them. Because when you are gone, what better way to rest eternally than sandwiched among bone-laced cement?

But it’s not a place to lament the dead, no. Rather, those left behind. The woman who Scotch-taped a Father’s Day card to her husband’s grave, perhaps; that’s the stuff that makes your heart hurt. But it’s what separates the living from the dead: the capacity to go on living and loving, despite…everything.

The last time I drove through the Lakeview district with my husband, things were apocalyptically different. But that was 2005. We are here now; it is eight years later, and things are humming with activity. The last time my husband saw his grandparents’ house, it was a piece of collateral after the storm to end all storms. The porch screen, tattered then, drooped like loose skin off the house. River mud clouded the warped wood floors in the living room and bled into carpets, and shards of glass were scattered around the furniture.

But things look better, so we park our car to survey the progress. The house looks much the same structurally, but it seems to sag a little less, breathed back into existence by coats of fresh paint, new landscaping and cheerful inhabitants.

So, death, life … then lunch. Isn’t that always the way here?

We’re swiftly revived by a chilled corn broth with fresh crabmeat and even fresher avocado. A pulpy peach bellini. Gin shaken with green chartreuse—just enough to make for a dreamy lunch. Pork belly BLT. Seasoned-to-perfection kobe burger.

IMG_7657Lunch is punctuated by flashes of blue—a bit of spectacle passing outside the restaurant. A fallen cop, his hearse, his comrades processing down the street. A reminder that while life hums within, afterlife isn’t that far away.

We finish our lunch and move on to our hotel.

“Have you been here before?” the woman at the check-in desk asks.

It would take too long to explain.

My husband’s family is from here? I spent most of college back and forth from here? My grandmother lived a few blocks from here? My kids want to read “Goodnight Nola” every night?

“No,” I say, fumbling over my words. “Well, yes, I guess. But it was a very long time ago.”

 “Well, you sure knew where our secret entrance was,” she says. “So welcome to New Orleans.”

If the blisters on my feet from the not-quite-broken-in sandals are any indication, we’ve walked miles so far. But we have more ground to cover.

Bourbon Street is still as gross as ever. People wearing Drunk 1 and Drunk 2 T-shirts and smiling like they’re original. Leathery old women wearing feather boas and drinking hand grenades. Silver-haired men with goatees and football jerseys sloshing beer on the ground as the beads clink around their necks.

The bartender at the local dive bar we pop into is busy topping off drinks with sickly sweet ginger-ale and doling out beer.

On the other side of the silver-haired drunk, a mid-fifties couple is sipping frozen Irish coffees, the house specialty. They’re clearly out-of-towners (So are we, I guess), and are clearly on their second or third drinks at 5 p.m.

“We’re here from up north visiting our daughter,” the woman tells a patron beside her. “She moved here just before Katrina and her husband is in the military.”

And there it is. We’ve clocked less than 30 minutes before the “K” word surfaced.

We move on.  Another local watering hole. We’ve been here before. It’s been awhile.

IMG_7430We take a seat at the bar, order two drinks. We are thirsty and eagerly drink the city in, mixed with a little whiskey. All of a sudden the door bangs open—or at least that’s how I like to recall it—and a six-plus-foot-tall … person half walks, half stumbles in. He’s wearing a straw-yellow wig, slightly askew, an S&M-style cowboy hat with a fleur-de-lis badge on it (what else?), a leather studded bikini and combat boots. Between the bikini pieces, a massive gut hangs, and he tromps straight to the back of the bar, pulls some dollars out of his bra and feeds them into the video poker machine.

We suck down our drinks and move on, eager to cover more ground.

Another street, another bar.

Two old men enter the bar. This is not the start of a joke. Or maybe it is. They are both old, old. As in 80 was years ago. Their pants are hoisted well above their waists. And they’re both wearing Orville Redenbacher-style hats. Except, even old Orville didn’t wear a skimmer hat like that. The result is more Double Mint twins—geriatric style. The 50-something bleach blondes with too-tight clothes, in-your-face jewelry and obnoxiously large Louis Vuitton bags.

The old men tap their feet to the music as they perhaps reminisce of a long bygone era. Or perhaps they’re just tapping their feet because they’re happy to be alive and may just get laid tonight. No matter. One of the women is getting to her very high-heeled feet. She’s walking toward the stage. I grab my husband’s arm. She gets up on stage and commandeers a microphone.

“Oh God,” my husband and I whisper to one another.

But it’s OK. She clearly knows the band. And she belts out Summertime in a surprisingly soulful, throaty timbre.

We breathe a sigh of relief. It’s okay. The living is easy, after all, here in the Big Easy. It’s summertime.

We leave after a bit, gasping for some nonhumid air when we hit the streets. But it is not to be. What meets our eyes, our ears, is the band of brass musicians playing the hell out of dented trombones and trumpets. They’re kids and they’re good. Oh, they’re great actually.

Same street, another bar. We’re ushered in by the tattooed hostess, sucking in the clean, refrigerator-cold air. We grab a table, a drink. And the musical cacophony washes over us. We split a smoky duck confit pizza and buttery yellow bursts of egg yolk coat our mouths. It is beyond delicious.

We are tired and full, and, frankly, we’re out of money. It’s time to call it a night.

So we’re herded back to the streetcar with all the other hot, tired, out-of-money tourists, and we go … clanging and swaying down the avenue until we lurch to our stop and step out again into the humid night under the resplendent oaks.

New Orleans  means something different to everyone. But for me, when I’m there—even if for only a night—it is home. And it’s good to be here again.

 

 

 

 

 

 
0

I’m Not Scared. Are You???

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

Originally published November 6, 2011.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overcome fear.  No matter what.  Overcome it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hmmm.  I thought so, too.

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

 
0

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

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

Originally published December 30, 2011.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So let me confess….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Really? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
0

Did I Shave My Legs for This??

Posted by Claire Vath on Feb 4, 2014 in Men, Musings, Relationships
Courtesy of Kay Jewelers--What is this supposed to be? A heart? A serpent? Boobs and a butt?

Courtesy of Kay Jewelers–What is this supposed to be? A heart? A serpent? Boobs and a butt?

In 2008, one of my favorite authors, Jeffrey Eugenides (“Middlesex”) edited a compendium of love stories entitled “My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead.”

In promoting the then-upcoming book, Eugenides sat down with NPR’s Michelle Norris. I was on my way home at the time and tuned in. A snippet:

Norris: Wait a minute — an author who puts together a collection of love stories has total antipathy for Valentine’s Day?

Eugenides: Oh yeah. Don’t you think it’s the cheapening and commodification of something rare that we’d all like to celebrate in private and on our own time?

Norris: I personally like flowers and chocolate.

Eugenides: Well, your special person, I hope, is listening.

…Did I mention Eugenides is one of my favorite writers?

Last year on Valentine’s Day I was standing in line behind three work-weary men, each wielding tragically sad heart-shaped boxes of chocolate marked 20% off. (I was there for the aisle of more romantic cough syrups and Kleenexes.)

Why, oh why, February 14, you masochistic Hallmark holiday that all the consuming-loving masses hungrily devour?

What is it that makes normally intelligent people purchase a box of crappy chocolates that may or may not have a picture of the men from “Duck Dynasty” on the heart-shaped box? (I saw that one the other day.)

Why heart-shaped jewelry?

Why red roses with sprigs of trash flowers named after someone’s breath?

Why the tacky teddies slumped over warped hangers in the lingerie section of Sears?

Or ugly stuffed animals holding crushed red velvet heart pillows with horrific slogans like “Can’t Keep My Paws Off You.”

Why the need to tell the world—or just all your “friends”—via a Facebook wall how much your significant other means to you? And why on February 14?

Because we all know that nothing says love like telling your spouse who, I’m sure is available by phone, text or likely sitting right next to you, that you love him for all 550 of your friends to see … right? Who are you trying to persuade? But I digress.

Instead of overt calorie-laden or monetary gestures, here are the things I’d appreciate from my spouse on February 14 … or any other day:

The dishes get done.

  • Reading to the kids.
  • Having an actual conversation that doesn’t involve diapers or finances.
  • A trip to the bathroom without kids banging on the door.
  • A long, hot bath by myself.
  • Clothes folded.
  • Floors mopped.
  • Dinner cooked.
  • Diapers changed.

Something small but significant. I’m lucky. These are things he helps out with on a daily basis—things I desperately need and still appreciate. Chocolates may be sticky and delicious, but they don’t hold a relationship together. Neither do ambiguous-shaped pendants that Jane Seymour hawks at Kay Jewelers.

To the sad sack men in Rite Aid—and any guy over the age of 18—listen up: Heart-shaped anything is ugly. If you plan to go the jewelry route, might I suggest a more tasteful princess cut or oval?

And if you want to celebrate on a different day—you know, a day where flowers aren’t marked up 400%—February 9 is a nice day (nevermind that it’s my birthday).

And maybe, just maybe, if you want to send flowers, pick peonies.
Trust me on this.

 

 

 
0

Loss of Cabin Pressure: How I Cope When I’m About to Crash the Mother Plane

Posted by Claire Vath on Jan 13, 2014 in Motherhood, Musings, Relationships

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to flight XXX with nonstop service to XXXX.”

 As if flying weren’t panic-inducing enough these days, the laundry list the stewardess off-handedly ticks off is absolutely horrifying if you really listen. “Welcome aboard, here is a list of ways you could die.”

“Emergency exits are located here and here. Each exit is equipped with a safety slide.”

If there’s a fire, you’d better hope to God you’re close to an emergency exit. Have you SEEN how long it takes for everyone to exit the plane at the end of a routine flight?? Let’s hope you even get to the slide before you burn to a crisp inside this metal oven we call an airplane.

“In the event of a water landing, life jackets are located under your seats.”

But when’s the last time you heard of anyone using those things, really? Hope you at least filled up on our complimentary peanuts before sinking to your watery grave.

“In case there’s a loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will deploy from the ceiling above you. To secure, pull the mask toward you, secure the elastic strap to your head … Breathe normally. Even if the bag does not inflate, keep in mind that oxygen is flowing. Always secure your own mask before assisting others.”

And there it is. A laundry list of ways you could meet your maker non-stop from Denver to San Francisco, but it gets at some hard truths too: You have to help yourself before you help others.

“So, are your kids still at home with you all day?” my pediatrician asked as she shined a light into the eyes of my shrieking 15-month-old.

“Well,” I said in hushed tones, as though my words would absorb through the walls, “I don’t get all my fulfillment from my kids.” 

She nodded understandingly. But people aren’t supposed to admit that, right?

My children are not my whole life. Motherhood is not the ultimate fulfillment. Sure, it fills me up, but I need other things to help make me whole.

But that sounds selfish. Because it’s supposed to be enough. Two gorgeous, healthy children whom I have the privilege of nurturing, and nourishing, and rearing. What more could I possibly want?

Again and again, I find myself straddling this awkward fence of motherdom and … other-dom. I’m no great feminist, but quitting my office job was a no-brainer when I popped out two kids. I wanted the few short, precious years I’d have with them before they were forever schlepping to and from school. 

But just because I stay home, that didn’t mean I had to lose myself in the process. I am a mother, yes. Sometimes a good one. Sometimes a surviving one.

But first and most important—and perhaps most selfishly—I need other things too.

So I find things that fill me up and allow me the opportunity to flex the non-mom brain muscles.

I write and edit stories, sometimes slogging through tedious blocks of copy wondering why I accepted a job (money); other times writing story leads and rewriting story structures that I enjoy. I take leisure classes to learn things like calligraphy and photography. I have periodic dinner dates and drinks out with friends. I read at least one book a week. I read critical essays and political columns. I watch trash TV.

And I date my husband. Often, those dates consist of a microwaved dinner after the kids have gone to bed, maybe a glass of wine and a TV show on Netflix, but I never said those dates were perfect. Having children has changed us in ways we never imagined, but we work—sometimes hard, sometimes not as hard as we should—to keep our relationship strong.

And in the mornings, I often get up before the kids have begun stirring and put on a pot of coffee before I get them up. Sometimes I have a bowl of oatmeal before I fix their breakfast.

I spend nearly all their waking hours with them—lots of quantity, frankly, not all quality. With so much quantity, I’ve come to accept that it can’t be all quality all the time.

I need my me time: my outside interests that span beyond the confines of diapers and timeouts and story hours and playtimes.

I need friends and adult interaction and things that challenge my brain outside of the motherhood vortex. Because in the end, it’s all those outside things that allow me to be a better mother to the children who (most days) I’m profoundly privileged to call mine.

It is all those things that fill me up and allow me to feel fulfilled—including, but not limited to motherhood. So when my proverbial cabin loses pressure, I will secure my own yellow mask first, so I can then help my children. Because if I’m not breathing comfortably, they won’t be either….

 

 

Copyright © 2022 I Only Love You Because I Have To All rights reserved. Theme by Laptop Geek.