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Growing up white in Apartheid South Africa

Adele-Gould1-230x172The death of Nelson Mandela — my hero and the world’s icon — brings to the surface the deep shame I have carried with me for all of my adult life. I was once a typical white South African — privileged and spoiled — who learned by example to treat with disregard the needs and feelings of black people.

Having spent 29 years living under the apartheid regime before immigrating to Canada almost 40 years ago, it is with pain and penetrating regret that I reflect upon my experience and transgressions.

Our typical South African household employed two servants whose salaries were shamefully low, as was the practice at the time. One of our servants was a lady named Nancy Sampson, a “colored” (mixed race) woman who spent 22 years of her life taking care of our family with the utmost love and devotion before she passed away in her 50s.

In my family — your garden-variety white South African family of yesteryear —  there was never any discussion about the meaning or impact of racial discrimination in South Africa. Apartheid was neither discussed nor questioned. As a child and as a teenager, I did not possess the insight to remove the ‘blinkers’ from my eyes, and it was only in my 20s that I began to awaken from the slumber so ingeniously instilled in my family and me by the apartheid regime.

I try hard not to think how many times during my teenage years that Nancy asked me to stop what I was doing for a moment in order to help her with something. But how could I have helped?  I was far too busy luxuriating in the pleasures reserved for white South Africans. The South Africa in which I grew up did not teach me to look beyond my own self-serving needs when interacting with ‘non-white’ people. I would never have dared to refuse to help a white adult.

I cringe when I think about the 10-foot-square room in which my beloved Nancy (like millions of other servants) spent so much of her life. It was a tiny, dark, cluttered room with a tiny window and no bathroom. The room served as her bedroom, living room, kitchen and dining room, and it was located in the backyard of our lovely home — the one with the swimming pool on the half-acre property.

The vivid picture of these appalling living quarters remains indelibly imprinted in my mind’s eye, and leaves me feeling heart-sore and ashamed.

Miraculously, in my early 20s, I began to emerge from my stupor and began to see and feel, at the very deepest level, the horrors perpetrated in the name of “apartheid laws.” I began to see the self-indulgent carelessness I displayed and the blatant cruelty with which black people in South Africa were treated on a daily basis.

Like most non-white South Africans with live-in positions, Nancy had a home to which she returned on her days off (of which there were so few, as was typical at that time). One day I offered to give her a ride since it was raining. When we were almost there, she asked me to drop her off a little distance away. Not wanting her to have to walk in the rain, I ignored her request, but instantly regretted this when I realized that I had taken away what little dignity she could salvage. Her home was a small, corrugated iron shanty inhabited by who-knows-how-many of her family members.

I remember how, in earlier years, Nancy used to tell me (if I took the time to listen) that they were “waiting for a council house,” whatever that meant. How would I know? I never stopped to ask! Of course, they never got this council house.

Why, oh why, didn’t I hear the plea behind that piece of information? Why didn’t I listen? Why didn’t I try to help?

By acknowledging and openly sharing my lack of moral consciousness and my blatant disregard for the needs and feelings of the black people in South Africa, I try to sooth my own inner wounds of sorrow and regret. I have learned to forgive myself, but the memories of my failure to challenge the glaring injustices of the apartheid laws still elicit feelings of shame.

I know that for our family, leaving South Africa was the right decision. My biggest reward came in a strange package many years later. My daughter, who was attending graduate school in Buffalo, N.Y., talked frequently about her close friend and fellow student, Sharon. I met Sharon for the first time at their graduation ceremony. Sharon is a black woman. Her color was of such irrelevance to my daughter that she had never even thought to mention it to me.

My children are indeed “color blind,” and I will never take this for granted.

— Adele Gould

Originally from South Africa, Adele Gould is a retired social worker who’s passionate about writing. Her blog includes several pieces that have been published in the Globe and Mail in Canada. Adele and her second husband, together 27 years, have eight children and four grandchildren between them. Besides a writer, she’s a woodcarver, avid photographer and volunteer.

Re-gifting to myself

Jan-Marshall-199x300Christmas morning I was awakened from my deep slumber by the blast of my combo iPod/lawn mower/alarm clock playing of all things, “Silent Night.”

I sprang out of bed … well, sprang is the wrong word since it is obvious my spring has sprung.

I crawled out of bed because my head was filled with so much good cheer from the night’s festivities. Eggnog has calcium, and that’s good for the bones, you know.

I struggled to the living room to retrieve my gift, which I knew I would be getting because I had been very good, frankly against every attempt to change that condition. I really like to be bad, but there seems to be less opportunity recently.

How Old Nick even sneaks through our gated senior community or down my non-existent chimney is a mystery anyway.

I opened the box gingerly and, lo and behold, I encountered the most exquisite peignoir set this side of Jean Harlow. The primrose nightgown was trimmed with a scarlet boa.

The voices on the couch urged me to try it on. I remember when shouts from a crowd usually said, “Take it off.  Take it off.” Now I am always hearing “ICK! Put it on for God’s sake.”

I changed into the lovely outfit and immediately felt a draft.

“Aw, you shouldn’t have,” I exclaimed, while internally thinking, “^%*(@#,” all the while exhibiting my Liberace smile.

So, this is what I did the minute they were out of sight.

I ran to the Goodwill bag where my criminally guilty family members had once again stuffed my wonderful, soft, faithful remnant of a bathrobe. They had tried this ploy for years thinking maybe if they bought me something nice, I’d get rid of this schmateaux (French for rag!).

The sleeves are frayed, the flowers have blown away and the sun-kissed yellow has become a nasty shade of puce. The quilting has matted in big clumps, looking like Joan Crawford or Peyton Manning’s shoulder pads

Constant washings caused fading and shrinkage. I often get chapped hips.

Still, I love it.

Everyone has something they are attached to. Some men have old sweaters or girlfriends.

How many of you insist on wearing the same tacky shirt, chicken outfit or onesies? You know you do.

I’ve never been caught wearing my formerly quilted frock except by my immediate family and the dog who recently disappeared.

Let’s face it, I could keep the more attractive peignoir set, but that would only create problems. Word would get out that I look spiffy and then rich; handsome men would, once again, hound me.

When I was younger and cuter, that created terrible ankle problems because I had to keep kicking throngs of gorgeous guys out of my way. Thankfully, it is no longer an issue. Even at my yearly checkup, the doctor insists that I not disrobe. Just yesterday one said, “For goodness sakes, Miss, please keep your clothes on. I am your dentist.” 

As long as there is thread of material or a button hanging in there, so shall I. That is what friends do. After all, my big heart can embrace being both a friend of this robe and all of Canada, the United States, Europe, etc., plus all the ships at sea.

So, Santa, you might as well stop this yearly stunt.

Stay out of Victoria’s Secret, or I will be forced to actually reveal her secret, which happens to concern you and Mrs. Claus’s sister.

To the rest of you: Step away from the robe!

— Jan Marshall

Jan Marshall has devoted her life’s work to humor and healing through books, columns and motivational speaking. As founder of the International Humor & Healing Institute, she worked with board members Norman Cousins, Steve Allen and other physicians and entertainers, including John Cleese. Her newest satirical survival book, Dancin’ Schmancin’ with the Scars: Finding the Humor No Matter What! is dedicated to Wounded Warriors, Gabrielle Giffords and Grieving Parents. She donates a percentage of the profits to these organization as well as to the American Cancer Society and the American Brain Tumor Association.

Confessions of a promiscuous shopper

Barreca-Gina(This piece first appeared in the Hartford Courant on Dec. 26, 2013. Reposted by permission of Gina Barreca.)

“Will this make me happy every day?” I have a friend who asks herself that question every time she considers buying something.

I’m not talking about purchasing a house or a car. I’m talking about a woman who spent 31/2 years searching for the perfect shower curtain.

Me, I once spent $2.99 on a shower curtain after looking around for two minutes, total, at a discount store. It was festooned with apples and oranges. When I stood in front of it, I felt as if I should belt out, “I’m Chiquita Banana and I’ve come to say, Bananas have to ripen in a certain way.”

For 3 1/2 years it didn’t bother me — not until I saw that my friend had found the Aristotelian ideal of a shower curtain.

Hers had elegance and elan. Mine had fruit. (I could never figure out why exactly. Who thought it was a good idea to turn a piece of fabric with fruit on it into bathroom accessory? Was it designed to invoke roughage? Was it simply bad taste?)

These questions started keeping me up at night.

Was my friend wiser to summon up patience and select her items carefully instead of employing my method, which was to swoop down on the sale bin like a seagull hovering over a landfill and plucking up whatever seemed shiny?

She was cautious in her choices whereas I was promiscuous. I’d give the time of day to whatever sale was winking at me; I’d be tugged in the direction of a cute promotional gimmick. She’d keep her eyes straight ahead and be faithful to her list.

I’d been known to unashamedly grab something if I knew it would make me happy for a few months, a few weeks, even — dare I admit it? — a few days. That’s the kind of loose shopper I’ve always been.

You’re selling a cheerful and cheap rayon scarf that matches earrings I own? Gimme that schmatte before somebody else grabs it.

Handmade soap scented with fennel and wrapped in organic papyrus? I guess so. It’s made locally? Sold. My friend laughs at me, but I point out that it’s nicely packaged. I only experience disappointment when, upon unwrapping it at home, the cat immediately attempts to push it into her litter box.

My friend would never have bought the soap. She has focus. She has a mission. She wants only what will make her happy every day. Impulse buys, reckless spending on frivolous items and point-of-sale transactions are an anathema to her.

You can imagine what a sucker I am for the stuff next to the register, right? I’m the kind of person who only has to see “ChapStick” while I’m waiting in line to decide that my lips are actually now so dry they are falling off of my face and that I must immediately get three balms (not a word used without causing confusion these days; insist to the guy next to you “Hand over the balm” and he’ll alert security). Usually I rip open the package before I reach the cashier; I am unable to contain myself.

I’m just retail-incontinent.

At least I’m not one of those poor souls addicted to shopping, the sorts who roam through malls with predatory if undefined tendencies and often travels in packs. I do believe that shopping can be an addiction, but since I also believe that checking Twitter, watching “Mob Wives” and talking incessantly about the benefits of kale can be addictions, perhaps I’m not a good judge.

Yes, it’s true that my friend and I have fundamental differences. I believe tomorrow is promised to no one and that we should all make hay while the sun shines, even if the hay is not quite the right texture or color. She believes life’s too short to surround one’s self with the ersatz, the makeshift or the slapdash — and that the sun will come out tomorrow.

We’re both right, of course.

The luxury of being able to make choices is not lost on us. And we know, too, that enjoying our friendship — despite our differences (or perhaps because of them) — is really what makes us happy every day.

— Gina Barreca

Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut and a feminist scholar who has written eight books. She regularly writes columns for the Hartford Courant, The Huffington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education and Psychology Today. In 2012, she served as a keynoter at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop and is returning to be part of the faculty in 2014. Learn more about Gina here.

My mom’s fur coat

Mindy-Trotta-e1352144016434-223x300 (1)My mom’s fur coat had been hanging in my front closet ever since I moved her out to California — six months before she died. When we wanted to get our very seldom used cold-weather coats out, we’d push it to the right, and when we wanted to get our luggage out from the crawl space in the back of the closet, we’d push it to the left. We’d been pushing that coat back and forth for 10 years, without even noticing it, without me ever wearing it.

When the time came for us to relocate to the East coast, and for me to start purging, I finally had to take the muskrat by the tail, so to speak, and deal with the fur coat. My husband thought I might take it with me; after all, winters in Boston are mighty cold, and “lots of people there wear fur.”

“No way,” I said.

Even though I had nothing against wearing vintage, that black Persian lamb coat with the wide gray and black beaver cuffs was too big, too old-fashioned and too REAL FUR!

It would be very hypocritical of me to claim I was bent on making an ethical statement since I have no compunction about wearing leather shoes and jackets. And I would never scoff at a gift of the latest Miu Miu tote, but I would never be caught wearing a fur coat in public — well, aside from that time during a winter vacation in New York City. I had borrowed a friend’s beautiful parka, never thinking that the “fur” around the hood was real until a group of PETA members surrounded me on Fifth Avenue and followed me down the street yelling, “Bimbo in fur, bimbo in fur!”

(Boy, did my kids and my niece get a kick out of that one. Thank goodness none of them was old enough to have iPhones at the time, as I’m sure the video would have been an overnight sensation on YouTube.)

My mom’s coat represented so many things to me. So much of her personality and my childhood were wrapped up in that coat. I can remember the feel of the curly fur as I would sink my face into it. And the fur cuffs made me laugh as I would brush them across my nose when Mom wasn’t looking. The black-and-white paisley silk lining was chosen specifically for her. She had a matching scarf that she draped around her neck and tucked in, just so. So valuable was the coat, I believed, that her name was hand-embroidered on the lining in a fabulous scrolled font, “Blanch.” It was hers and only hers — and in case some mistaken soul should try to abscond with it from any of the various coat check rooms she hung it in, her personal ID was there for all to see.

Back in those days it was de rigueur for my mother’s friends to own a fur. In fact, many of them had many such coats. Their furriers were treated as members of the family (what 5-year-old even knows the word “furrier” these days?!?) My mother had her own furrier, and he treated her almost as regally as he treated her coat. And when the weather grew warmer, Mom’s coat, like all good fur coats, went on a paid vacation to “summer camp,” otherwise known as cold storage. (Didn’t everyone’s?)

The coat for Mom was not just something that kept her incredibly warm, it was also a symbol of prosperity and stature. A grand statement and a fierce slap in the face of those shadowy, haunting bogeymen and women who tried to vanquish her flame during the Holocaust. She had made it to Hell and back, and now she had the fur coat as proof of that emergence. The ethical aspect of wearing fur did not hold a candle to the ethical dilemma I dealt with when deciding what to do with the darn coat. How could I get rid of something that represented my mother’s battle cry of defiance?

I’ve come across quite a few letters written by daughters who have wrestled with similar predicaments as my own. One woman had her mother’s coat made into a jacket so she could keep her mom’s embroidered name intact. Another mentioned that she found an animal preserve that uses old fur coats as bedding for rescued weasels and beavers. And one theater lover donated her coat to be used on stage during period plays.

I like all those ideas (although I can’t say Mom would be too thrilled to know some old beaver was sleeping on Blanch’s pelt). But I have to admit when push came to shove, the coat went into a storage facility with the rest of our things. And there it hangs, once again, its future in question. Knowing someone on “Mad Men” was wearing her coat would probably make her happy, but I know my mother would rather I just keep it as a memento.  And I just might. But really, I don’t need the actual coat to remember. The memories I have of her are already embedded in my mind.

— Mindy Trotta

Mindy Trotta spent many years as an editor behind a desk, and then switched to working behind the oven as a pastry chef. She’s now back at her first love, working as an editor and social media manager at

Going commando at the holiday work party?

IMG_1042Let’s face it.  Ladies’ undergarments were not designed with comfort in mind.  Not much has changed since the invention of the corset that was meant to give a woman an 18-inch waist.

But the undergarment I am going to rant about is Spanx or shape wear, like the old fashioned girdle.  They tout the motto, “No matter the occasion or season, we’ve got a shape to keep you looking great from all angles!”

But at what price?

I heard of a case where the mother of the bride was stuck inside a full body Spanx for five hours.  If Spanx’s motto is, “Spanx is here on your big day,” where were they?  It slims and lifts, but is it worth it?

Holiday Party

My big moment came to prove the claims made by Spanx.  My husband’s company was hosting a New Year’s Eve party and I needed a little tightening in some places, especially the tummy.  At the mall, I purchased a pair of  “Trust Your Thinstincts Mid-Thigh Control Panel Shapers” for $58.  Size:  Large.  Slimming level:  medium.  Unfortunately, I did not try them on in the dressing room before purchase.

Dress ironed, shoes polished, hair coiffed, face painted, it was time to get on the undies.  Unwrapping the package, I realized I had made a terrible mistake.  Straight out of the envelope, the pair dropped into my palm as small as a mustard seed.  Were these for children?

The instructions or “warnings” stated that putting on Spanx was “moderately challenging.” An understatement.    Don’t use after a shower.  Use with baby powder.  When all else fails, go up a size.  Take your time.  For additional assistance, call the Spanx hotline.  Yeesh.

I stepped into the panties right foot first, trying to pull up to the waistline on the first try.  Major mistake.  I was knocked to the ground.

Next, I entered the left foot.  Starting from my ankle, I rolled a tiny bit upward.  A combination of yanking, jumping and holding my breath got the panties past my knees.

At mid-thigh, like a tourniquet, it was constricting and compressing my extremities.  As the panties climbed higher, I felt light headed and sweaty.  I panicked.  Losing circulation fast.

It was time to call in the reinforcements.  Or 911.

“Mike, help!  I can’t get up.”

Rushing into the bathroom, he took one look at me on the ground, undies half on, legs askew, and blanched.

“Avert your eyes,” I said.

“Grab my arm.  I’ll try not to look.”

I reached for his hand with a clammy palm.  I realized as he pulled me upright that he may never look at me in the same light again.

“I’ll be waiting downstairs,” he said, blasting down the staircase.

Ping!  One final yank moved the Spanx into place. But Spanx couldn’t contain my fat any longer.  It started to roll out the bottom and my knees grew as huge as my butt.  Fat bulged above my waistline, yet not high enough to enhance the bust line.  What do I do now Spanx?  Huh.

I threw on my clothes after molding the fat into the right places and then headed down the steps.  Dear God, if this wrap-around dress comes undone, my husband will be lucky to keep his job.

It’s Show Time

At dinner, my stomach was compressed so tightly that I could only eat tiny portions of food.  And drinking?  Forget about that.

After three hours, I was eager to use the restroom.  Twisting and turning in the confines of a bathroom stall, I made as much ruckus as a rugby player.  I could dislocate a shoulder pulling my Spanx down.

“Are you okay?” asked the lady in the next stall.

“Just a little out of breath.  I’ll be fine.”

After we left the restaurant before midnight, my husband said, “You seem happy.  Did you have a good time?”

“Yep, it was fun.”

Bottom line, stuffing Spanx into my purse and going commando was the only option.  I value breathing and eating over beauty. My advice, save the money and do sit ups.

— Stacey Gustafson

Stacey Gustafson is a freelance writer, humor columnist for Midlife Boulevard, artist, blogger and stay-at-home mother. Her blog, “Are You Kidding Me?” is based on her suburban family and everyday life. Her short stories have appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul and Not Your Mother’s Books.  Her work appears in Generation Fabulous, ZestNow, Pleasanton Patch, corporate newsletters and even a commencement speech.  She lives in California with her husband and two teenagers who provide an endless supply of inspiration. She writes about parenting and daily frustrations like her dislike of laundry, the DMV and being middle-aged. Visit her blog and Twitter @mepaint.

No iPhone for you this Christmas,
Mr. President

Unknown-3I have a very simple solution to all the brouhaha surrounding President Obama’s questionable decision to partake in a “selfie” cellphone photo during Nelson Mandela’s funeral.

Place him, at least for this year, on the “naughty” list.

Before leaving for South Africa, the president admitted during a public appearance that he REALLY wanted an iPhone under his Christmas tree. But, for “security reasons,” (White House speak for, “What if Edward Snowden gets a hold of it?”) he must tap away on the same clunky Blackberry he owned upon entering the White House nearly five years ago.

No offense to Research in Motion, makers of Obama’s mobile device, but this is akin to Bill Gates continuing to store information on five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy disks while the rest of us use “the cloud,” whatever that is.

If the FBI, the CIA and Apple CEO Tim Cook put their thinking caps on, I’m sure they could figure out a way to let the president experience all the joys of a device purchased by more than 30 million individuals in 2013 alone. Imagine Obama placing an iPhone to his lips and querying, “Siri, what’s the fastest way to fix the website?” Who knows? Millions of Americans might be visiting doctors this week with their newly-acquired health insurance.

But then came that photo of “Bad President,” mugging with Denmark Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and British Prime Minister David Cameron as the world bid farewell to a human rights icon. While I don’t buy the widely-held theory that a stern-looking Michelle Obama was ticked at the president — I’ve taken candid photos of my wife where she looks ready to make me sleep on the couch — I do think Obama should have acted a bit more presidential during the proceedings.

That being said, maybe he’s just not ready to own an iPhone.

Maybe he needs to hear a talk similar to the one I had with my oldest daughter prior to purchasing one for her.

“You’re not going to take any inappropriate photos with it, right?”

“No, Dad.”

“You won’t give your iPhone to anybody, right?”

“No, Dad.”

“You know that I WILL take it away if I see you using it somewhere you shouldn’t be?”

“Yes, Dad.”

Not surprisingly, I have had to remove the iPhone from her clutches on a few occasions, most recently after catching her reviewing texts at church. She got the phone back but learned a valuable lesson and probably lost a few friends, incensed that their messages hadn’t been returned within eight seconds.

Incidentally, my 11-year-old has requested an iPhone for Christmas but already knows she isn’t getting one.

“Why?” she asked in her best “I’ve-been-extra-good-all-year” voice.

“At your age, your phone should be for staying in touch with us. That’s fine.”

“But what about Facebook?”

“You’re too young.”


“Too young.”

“Candy Crush?”

“Too addicting. Take it from your Dad.”

Obviously nobody ever sat the president down and told him actions have consequences when it comes to phone etiquette. True, it was Thorning-Schmidt’s phone, but had Obama declined her invitation to join the selfie shot, Santa might see a way to get an iPhone to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on the 24th. Instead, it appears the naysayers were correct; the president might use his new toy inappropriately and that could be a problem.

So Mr. President, while your transgression may not merit a lump of coal in your stocking, please know that a man with your connections need not resort to selfies. Just raise your hand and a credentialed photographer would be more than happy to snap your picture, wherever you are and whoever you’re with. Michelle could even join the shot if she desires.

Remember, the jolly red-suited man sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake. And, thanks to the Internet, so does everybody else. Have you learned your lesson? If so, text me via your Blackberry.

I’ll reply with my shiny new iPhone.

— Greg Schwem

Greg Schwem is a corporate stand-up comedian and author of Text Me If You’re Breathing: Observations, Frustrations and Life Lessons From a Low-Tech Dad. He writes a weekly nationally syndicated humor column for Tribune Media Services. Many of his columns appear in The Huffington Post.

Keeping up with the times

Dad_SamMy 23-year-old daughter is extremely fashion-conscious of herself and, much to my chagrin, me. On a recent visit, she pointed out that I was wearing a flannel shirt that I had donned since 1995. Not constantly, mind you, but often enough that she pointed out the frayed collar. I objected — not to the fraying that gives it character —  but to “wearing it since 1995.” It was actually 1991, a year after she was born; it had just gotten comfy in 1995.

My penchant for clinging to possessions isn’t relegated to clothing; for instance, no matter how many times a lightning strike takes out my tube television, I keep buying new ones despite the flat-screen revolution. I first knew this was a status-quo issue when the Best Buy guy ushered me to a back room like I was asking for pornographic material.

Not one to go into debt over a television, I asked the man in blue, “Just where are the tube TVs?” Hustling me away from other credit-paying customers, he sucked wind in wide-eyed disbelief that I uttered “tube” and “TV” in the same breath. For lack of a meaningful sales commission, I was left to hoist my 200-pound choice onto a cart, purchase it and load it into my 1999 mini van.

My old seven-seater is another sign that my buying habits tempered over time. It had a few rust spots here and there and 194,000 miles of spills, muddy feet and dry leaves that I hauled to the city compost. The dashboard lights up like a Christmas tree. I have owned the van so long that when the rear hatch opened after being fixed, I felt like I had a swanky option.

In fact, if you consider that once upon a time automobiles never had intermittent wipers, power windows and doors, key-less entry, cruise control or horns, it became irrelevant that each failed on my vehicle over the past couple years. Who knew that when Consumer Reports placed a big black dot under the “Electronics” rating, it meant that anything that required voltage would eventually fall into a cavernous black abyss?

I’m not entirely averse to keeping up with the times, however. This Christmas, my daughter bought a bright red flannel shirt for me, and her act of kindness seems to have started a chain reaction. Just last weekend, I replaced my holey socks with new ones, and I have plans to visit Eddie Bauer’s clearance rack. I am even contemplating a newer vehicle.

My daughter will be thrilled, no doubt. I’ll tell her this simply signifies the beginning of a fine second act of my life. Knowing me as my daughter does, she will be certain that 15 years from now, I’ll still be driving the very vehicle I am now considering. She will surely imagine me driving down the road in my future rust-bucket, looking quite at home in my faded red flannel.

And, yes, she’ll be on the mark, right down to the frayed collar, which is a benchmark of true comfort.

— Doug Clough

Doug Clough writes a column for the Ida County Courier in Ida Grove, Iowa, called “From our backyard…”  His work has appeared in Farm News, The Iowan and Boating World, and he served as a travel scout for Midwest Living. “I am a father of a salad bowl family (aka ‘blended’), a customer service manager, the possession of my Labradoodle and — in a former life — an English teacher. Someone has to enjoy that mix; it may as well be me,” he says.

End-of-year letters, a psychoanalysis

Ann_GreenThey arrive every year, as inevitable as bad weather and school vacation: those end-of-year letters, the annual tributes to TMI.  They come from people you haven’t spoken to in 20 years and from those you see all the time.  That is, people you’re no longer in touch with and those who have already told you everything.

There must be a reason these things keep coming, even though their reputation for promoting holiday cheer is up there with fruitcakes and office parties.  These endless epistles and their writers have been crying for a clinical review, which I humbly offer.  I have peer reviewed this study myself.

From the letter writer’s viewpoint, the unstoppable urge to unload information comes from the belief that They can’t wait for this letter every year.  This psychosocial perspective is indicated by a narcissistic urge manifesting itself in such delusional thoughts as:  People should take notes if they want to become fabulous.  And, Everything in my life is coming up roses, 24/7/365, except on leap years when it has a chance to be even better.  In the letters such urges result in detailed descriptions of visits to family and friends whom you, the reader, have never heard of, analyses of high school and college reunions and plans for window treatments and upholstery.

An added dimension, known as Who Wouldn’t Want to Be Me Disorder, comes from a deeper region of the writer’s psyche.  This is illustrated by travelogues of fabulous vacations; a compendium of accomplishments of  ideal children, including election to the Honor Roll or Dean’s List, record-breaking SAT scores, prestigious college acceptances, team captaincies; and junior years abroad making the world a better place in a remote Third-World nation.  Sometimes the disorder results in descriptions of the writer and spouse’s dream jobs and (if you’re lucky) tales of the hilarious hijinks of their perfect pets.  Closely related is the section on plans for the fantastic future featuring more trips, a sports car, a million-dollar kitchen and fantasies about retirement in a gated community.

The TMI level in each letter varies with regard to the intimacy intensity of descriptions of symptoms and surgeries (human, canine and feline), relationship issues between spouses and shopping habits of in-laws.

In conclusion, your humble researcher can only surmise that such letters will continue to plague the nation.  Recipients have two options.  One can read them and take them seriously, thus risking one’s own psychological disorders.  Another tactic is to read them and have a few laughs, but not share this activity with the sender, assuming this is someone with whom you actually have an affiliation.

I realize that there are people who enjoy these letters.  People like reality TV, too, and that’s okay.  However, these missives should be kept out of the hands of children, whose self-esteem might suffer from exposure.

So, happy holidays everyone.  If you receive end-of-year letters, there’s hope.  A hotline will be up in time for the New Year.  Dial 1-800-Allaboutme.

— Ann Green

Ann Green is a freelance writer, editor, PR consultant and tutor.

Reflections of Erma