What would you think if someone presented you with a “gift” that turned out to be an exercise and weight-loss book titled Look Great Naked? What if it were your mother? And what if it came on the heels of a conversation that started something like this: “I think your husband might be having an affair”? I can’t fire or dump my mother, so I did the next best thing. I called my sister and asked, “What would you do if Mom gave you a book called Look Great Naked?” “She did not!” screeched my sister, who was two weeks post-partum with twins. And then she did what I, the perfect oldest child, could never do. When Mom showed up to help with the twins, she gave her hell and kicked her out of the house. Then she called me, sobbing. Three minutes later, her husband called me, worried out of his mind. “She’s alone with the babies and hysterical.” I raced over to my sister’s to help diaper, feed, and rock the twins, and then I drove to Mom’s to apologize. I hadn’t done anything to anyone, so why was I cleaning up the messes and feeling guilty? Probably because that was easier than acknowledging the two elephants in the room that my mother had pointed out. My husband’s infidelity was the first one. And apparently, I was the second one. Yet if I’d had any sense, I would have realized that my meddling mother was telling me the same thing my dachshunds had been trying to say for a while. I’m the proud mother of two dachshunds, sisters named Laverne and Shirley. They’re nosy little buggers who took the “guard the yard” oath as puppies and are sworn to keep squirrels, chipmunks, and UPS guys away. Several years ago, I got a ”Sorry We Missed You” note from the mailman. He wanted me to drive fifteen miles to pick up the Harry & David pears my in-laws had sent. I called the post office to ask why the mailman couldn’t leave them on my doorstep. The woman who answered at our local post office put me on hold. After a few moments, she came back on the line, cleared her throat, and with the full authority of the United States Postal Service backing her, said sternly, “Ma’am, your dog was hanging from his shorts.” “Excuse me?” “The carrier got out of the mail truck to walk the package to your doorstep. Your dog tried to bite him and ended up hanging off the hem of his shorts.” That gave me pause. So I said, “You know what? I’ll come pick up the pears.” I apologized profusely to the mailman. Then, I offered this solution: He would slow to fifteen miles per hour, throw the packages in the general direction of the mailbox, and hope not to bruise or break anything. In return, I wouldn’t complain if the package got rained on or stolen by the neighborhood recluse who went around sorting through people’s trash. Naturally, I couldn’t blame the UPS man when the dachshunds tore into the package containing the beautiful wine-colored cashmere sweater I’d ordered from Talbot’s. It was a chilly afternoon, and I found them curled up on my now-holey cashmere sweater taking a nap. But I wasn’t expecting any packages the day I pulled into my driveway to find approximately twenty pairs of my husband’s underwear strewn around the yard. And the dogs weren’t curled up napping on it. They were engaged in a vicious game of tug-of-war. I called my husband at work. “Babe, you might want to come home early. You have several pairs of underwear in the yard.” He paused. Then, “Can you go pick it up for me?” This was not the first time his underwear had been in places it didn’t belong. I didn’t hesitate before saying, “No.” It didn’t take me long to figure out what had happened. My husband kept a gym bag or two in the trunk of his car. He would change for football games after work and stuff his dirty clothes into the gym bag. But rather than bring the bags into the house when he got home, he would leave them in the trunk and pack a new bag the next time. When the trunk got too full, he lazily threw the bags into the garage rather than taking the dirty clothes to the laundry room. Dachshunds, I’ve come to learn, will eat anything. Raisins, ornamental lettuce, grapefruit, even dog poop – I’ve seen a dachshund eat it all. Laverne and Shirley once opened a package of sweet potato pancake mix and ate the entire thing. I found them both lying in the yard, bloated and unable to move. They once intercepted the FedEx guy and polished off the overnight letter containing an employment contract for my husband’s new job. My husband actually had to call the company and tell them the dogs ate his paperwork. So I suppose it naturally follows that dachshunds like underwear. They sniffed around those stinky gym bags and found a way to get into them. They then proceeded to pull out every pair they could find and had a tighty-whitey orgy in my front yard. Looking back, I believe they were trying to tell me something. Something like: Hey, girl, you know we love you. You’re the one who actually feeds us and knows that, although we probably suffer from the insatiable appetite caused by Prader-Willi Syndrome and are capable of eating cardboard until we die, our absolute favorite food on the planet is fried eggs. But hell, we’re dogs, and we can’t just come out and say, “Your husband’s cheating on you.” So maybe if we literally air his dirty laundry in the front yard, you’ll catch the metaphor. But I didn’t catch the message of the scattered skivvies. At least not until my mom started saying basically the same thing. People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, right?Personally, I believe that people who live in glass houses should look great naked. Of course, the not throwing stones thing is old but good advice. I should know because I grew up in a glass house, and the family business involved a modified form of stone throwing.My father was, for the first thirty-five years of my life, a minister. He pastored a very large non-denominational church in the suburbs of Atlanta, and his sermons were even broadcast on television. Our family was often in the public eye, and we lived in that proverbial glass house. Mom took her job as pastor’s wife very seriously. She made a career out of running the perfect family, and she was good at what she did. We were perfectly fed, groomed, and on time for every church service. Mom believed that a hot, hearty breakfast is the best way to start the school day. That belief, plus the fact it was my dad’s favorite breakfast, meant she cooked a large meal of fresh scrambled eggs from my grandmother’s hens plus bacon or sausage, grits, and homemade biscuits Monday through Friday. Saturdays, we were on our own for breakfast, and that meant we were allowed a bowl of cold cereal – Cheerios or Raisin Bran, though, because refined sugar and flour were “not fit for human consumption.” Every Sunday, my dad rose at 4:30 to prepare for the morning services. He showered, dressed, and left the house by five to go to the Waffle House for breakfast so that he could be at church by six – “cramming” for the morning message, we always teased. So Mom was left with getting us three children ready on Sunday mornings. Our breakfast on those days was cheese toast – a slice of wheat bread topped with a piece of real cheese (none of that processed mess!) broiled in the oven until the cheese bubbled. It’s cheap, quick, and, in my opinion, a little slice of Heaven before church. One particular Sunday morning, the church was having a guest speaker. Guest speakers usually stayed in a hotel, but this man, an English gentleman in his seventies, always insisted upon staying in the preacher’s home at the churches he visited. The man was a former Major in the British military, and he carried himself with an imperious demeanor. Mom called everyone to the breakfast table. When she set that slice of cheese toast in front of Major Thomas, he looked at it the way we Americans look at the pork and beans the British favor for breakfast. And then he watched us kids pick up our cheese toast with our fingers and eat it much like an Italian folds a slice of pizza. He attempted to pick his slice up, but it drooped over his fingers, and the cheese began sliding off the bread. He said to my mother, “I wonder, might one properly eat this with a knife and fork?” Rising from her seat at the table to grab the utensils he’d requested, she said impatiently, “One might. And one might also want to eat quickly because he’s about to make us late for church.” To Mom, it didn’t matter if you were a nine-year-old girl who couldn’t find her black patent Mary Janes or formerly in the Queen’s service: Making her late to church was an unpardonable sin. In fact, whenever I hear the phrase “Get me to the church on time,” I don’t picture a wedding. I picture my childhood. Sundays at nine o’clock sharp, Mom was gunning the engine of our powder-blue 1977 AMC Pacer. Once at church, if we children weren’t in Sunday School or Children’s Church, we sat with her on the front row while my father preached. She unfailingly stared up at him in rapt attention. After each service, they strode down the aisle arm in arm, stopping at the back door to greet each exiting attendee, always with a big smile. And after every last person had exited the building, she would gently pat my dad’s cheek, then kiss him, and say, “That was great.” People adored my mother. “She’s so sweet,” they would exclaim. “And how does she stay so tiny?”She was so tiny because she ate like a hummingbird. For years, she spent one day every week fasting and praying. The fasting was not just for her health or for weight control. She also believed that, since eating diverts blood flow to the stomach, not eating allows for greater concentration and clarity. For as long as I can remember, my mom spent every Wednesday in prayer in her little “office” that doubled as a laundry room. It was her version, I imagine, of the Bible’s suggestion that prayer should be conducted in a closet, meaning that it’s a personal matter and not something to be flagrantly broadcast in an attempt to showcase one’s spirituality. Mom was, and still is, a saint. A very tiny one.Dad was never a hellfire-and-brimstone sort of preacher. His sermons were more about living a good life out of a love for God rather than a fear of God. He didn’t stand up on Sundays and moralize, but he did preach the Ten Commandments. So the old adage about glass houses and throwing stones applied to our family. He couldn’t very well tell people how God expected them to live and then go live his life differently. We had to set the example. In other words, what people saw inside the proverbial walls of our house needed to look great. And to my parents’ credit, they managed to thrive in the ministry with never a hint of scandal. It would turn out to be my marital debacle that finally marred the pretty picture. Their ministry also included marital counseling. Therapy wasn’t so common in the South back in the 1970s, and it carried with it a sort of stigma. You were pretty messed up if you needed to pay for counseling. So the preacher counseled the men, and his wife counseled the women. Somewhere along the way, perhaps as a result of all that counseling, Mom decided that the worst thing that could ever happen to a woman was for her husband to cheat on her. And I suppose that’s not so surprising. We always fear the unknown, and for a woman in the paternalistic Deep South whose life revolved around her husband and family, an affair would be both marriage-ending and world-destroying. She also developed a theory on what led husbands to have affairs. According to Mom, there were two main causes: being controlling and being fat. In Mom’s world, if you were a fat bitch, you were screwed. When I was engaged, two pieces of advice she gave me were, “Don’t ever get fat,” and “If you ever refuse to have sex with your husband, he’ll go find it somewhere else,” implying that his fidelity depended upon my sexual availability. Oddly, it never occurred to her (or to me) back then that the underlying premise of her advice – using sex to manage a man’s behavior – contradicted her advice against being controlling. And that’s how I found myself out for a walk with my mother one chilly December morning, discussing world affairs, Diane Sawyer’s new haircut, and my crazy Uncle Pork’s latest attempts to open his own winery. (He’d recently sent a bottle of homemade port – “Pork’s Port” – to my parents, and the bottle had exploded in their kitchen, permanently staining the pickled-wood cabinets). After a long and thoughtful pause, she casually mentioned that she had met my husband’s new assistant. Turning sideways to face me, Mom grabbed my arm and said, “She’s cute, and she’s very thin.” Her brow wrinkled in concern, she then warned, “You’d better watch that!” And when we finished the walk, she ran inside her house to grab a “present” she had for me – the Look Great Naked diet and exercise book. • • • • • What she couldn’t have known at that point was that I had been “watching that” for a while. Almost two months earlier, my husband had casually mentioned to me that he thought we might “need” a divorce. Now I realize that “casual” and “divorce” are two words not meant for the same sentence, but that’s literally how the man said it. We were getting dressed for church one Sunday morning. As I simultaneously stepped into my shoes and jabbed my earrings into my ears, he said from the bedroom, “I’ve been thinking that we need to take a break.”“Yeah, I could use a vacation,” I answered, turning off the light in the bathroom and stepping into the bedroom, where he was sitting on the bed. He was a former college football player and still very fit. He was dressed in a custom-made olive green suit, off-white dress shirt, and an expensive silk tie in black and burgundy. Handsome, I thought, as I continued the conversation. “Where should we go?” “Do you have to wear all that jewelry?” he asked abruptly. “Huh?”“One or two pieces is enough. You don’t have to do the full PowerPoint presentation every time you leave the house, you know.” I was wearing amethyst earrings, an amethyst pendant, and two bracelets. I bristled. “You don’t want me to wear all the jewelry that you bought me?” I asked. My pitch got higher, and I got louder as I continued, “The jewelry you buy every time we go on a trip? Let’s go on another trip so you can buy me more jewelry so I can embarrass you by wearing it!” I retreated into the closet and came out with my $2,500 watch, making sure he saw me snap it into place on my left wrist. He looked down at his hands. “I didn’t mean we should go on a trip when I said we should take a break. I, uh, just think, that maybe we’re unhappy together and . . . .” Here he paused and shifted, crossing one leg over the other. “I just think we should maybe, um, get a divorce.”The idea was so out of the realm of possibility for me that my first thought was that he was joking. You see, when I say I’m going to do something, I do it. Going to write a book? It’s done. Going to bake six dozen strawberry mini-cupcakes for my daughter’s class on her birthday? Done. Going to teach English as a Second Language on a volunteer basis? It almost killed me, but I finished the course. Going to run a marathon? I’ve never said I intend to do that. So when I said, “I do promise to love, honor, and cherish you until death do us part,” I meant it. Divorce was not in my vocabulary as it pertained to my marriage. But he was obviously not joking.I said, simply, “No.” He hung his head. “We’re obviously miserable in this marriage, and I think it would be better if we just ended the charade right now.”“Who said we’re miserable? We have everything we want, more money in the bank than we can spend in this lifetime, three smart, terrific, healthy kids, and as far as I know, we love each other.” But even as I said those words, I began to panic. I cocked my head to the side and said, “Wait a minute. Am I missing something here? Are you having an affair?” He spread his hand out, palms up, as if to signify he had nothing to hide. Then he looked me straight in the eye, shook his head, and calmly said, “No. Of course not.”I hadn’t suspected anything, so I felt a wave of relief. Of course he wasn’t having an affair. “Then, no. We’re not getting a divorce. Let’s go back to counseling. But no, divorce is not an option. We can’t do that to our kids.” I looked at my watch. “We’re going to be late for church.”My childhood kicked in. In my family, because of my dad’s job, Sunday mornings at church were, well, sacred. Any emotional or physical conflicts were literally put on hold until after the last hymn was sung on Sunday. So this morning, I reverted to what I had always known. The marital turmoil could wait. It was time to leave for church. My husband had a Sunday School class to teach. He reluctantly stood, automatically smoothing out his suit pants with his hands. “Guys, let’s get in the car,” I hollered down the basement stairs. Daniel came up first, wearing the outfit I’d laid out for him the night before, khaki pants and a navy knit sweater with a dinosaur on the front. “Did you brush your teeth?” I asked.“Yes, ma’am.” Mackenzie and Lyla, his two older sisters, came running up the stairs laughing, followed by one of the dachshunds, Laverne, who was wearing an American Girls doll dress and was not happy about it. I got the sideways dachshund looks that means if I didn’t quickly make amends for the humiliation of being dressed like Kit, she was going to punish me by peeing on the floor. I laughed and picked up Laverne, took the dress off her, and put her in the backyard to play with her sister, Shirley. The kids jumped in the car and began asking their dad if we could have brunch at the country club after church. “If it’s okay with Mom, we can,” my husband answered. “What do you think, Mom?”I looked back at my three children. They were happy kids. I couldn’t even imagine the possibility of messing up their happiness by splitting up our family. I looked at my husband, and I imagined the man who had trouble ever saying no to those kids, who always let me be the heavy hand when it came to discipline, was thinking the exact same thing. He smiled at me and grabbed my hand. “The brunch sounds good to me,” I answered.Despite the serious conversation we’d had that morning, we plastered on big smiles for the children and for everyone at church and put on a beautiful performance. In fact, it was so good that I dismissed the conversation as his angst over the recent sale of our company resulting in a mini-midlife crisis at the age of thirty-three. I never said another word about it, and he didn’t bring it up again. Huge mistake. Huge. Huge. Enormous, gigantic mistake. Dear readers, if your spouse casually mentions that the marriage might need to end, your first and only immediate response should be, “I’ll file first thing tomorrow morning.” In case you didn’t know (and back then, I didn’t), suggesting a divorce is often code for “I am having an affair.” My failure to give such a response made him think that he could carry on an affair under my nose. That he could get away with it for the time being. He could have a little extra fun on the side, and his wife would never suspect. Now, suppose I had said, “I do believe we need to part ways, and I’ll start the parting.” I’ve known ladies who responded correctly to the gentle suggestion of a divorce. (Even a simple, “I think that’s a great idea,” works beautifully). That does one of two things. First, in the extremely rare instance that he’s not actually having an affair, it brings him back to the firm reality that you are not a doormat and he had better appreciate what he has. Men can be very simple creatures, really, and most don’t do too well alone. So unless he’s got your backup in place, the realization that he will soon be buying his own peanut butter may terrify him. Now, let’s say you’re among the other 99.9% of wives, and your husband’s casual mention of divorce is a not-so-slick way of telling you he’s having an affair. Your successor has already put in her order at Tiffany’s. In that case, do you really want to stick around? Be honest. He’s sleeping with someone else -- most likely a younger, tighter, stupider version of you. He thinks he’s in love. Your groveling and begging him to stay only demeans you and reinforces his decision. And he’s probably not going to participate in attempts to save the marriage anyway. Have some dignity, ladies! March yourself down to the nastiest lawyer in your town, or better yet, the one who’s best friends with the judge, and file, file, file. At the very least, you’re the plaintiff, and that brings a slight advantage if the divorce goes to trial. I’m getting a little ahead of myself. At that point, I only suspected my husband was cheating. I’d asked, and he’d vociferously denied it. The next time I saw my mother, I reported my findings. “Mom, I asked. He’s not cheating.” I even hinted that she could stop throwing stones.But the whole thing about my not looking great naked was still a little unsettling, and if Mom was right about that being the impetus for infidelity, I could stand to lose a few pounds. I wondered: if my mom was able to work up the nerve to tell me I needed to drop a few pounds, then what did everyone else think? Was I the opposite of an anorexic, someone who is literally starving yet looks in the mirror and sees a fat person? Was I looking into the mirror and thinking, yeah, it’s not perfection, but I’m not Jabba the Hut, either, while the rest of the world was whispering behind my back: “Does Jabba the Hut not know she looks like she’s smuggling a tub of ricotta in the seat of that bikini?” I was 5’ 4” tall and 137 pounds, with gusts up to 141, especially on the mornings after a three-way with Ben and Jerry. It wasn’t physical perfection, but I was a happily married mother still carrying an extra five pounds from each of my three kids. So I cut back on the venti mochas at Starbuck’s, and I incorporated some of the exercises covered in Look Great Naked into my exercise routine. After all, the much-hated book did promise I would “slim down, shape up and tone trouble zones in just 15 minutes a day.” Printed across the back of the book was this promise: “Now, any woman can . . . look great naked.”If Mom was right, and being skinny was the key to a happy marriage, and this book could make any woman skinny, then Look Great Naked was potentially the best marital self-help book since the one claiming that women are descended from Venus and men have their heads in Uranus. Some of the exercises, however, made me wonder whether saving my marriage was worth sacrificing my dignity.Take, for instance, walking lunges. The person who invented them should be given a spiky durian fruit enema and sent to live with orangutans. Why would I want to “hold a dumbbell in each hand and, keeping my shoulders back and chin up, make long strides, descending into each step so that the back knee almost touches the floor?” That hurts. It hurts not only while I’m doing it but also for a good seventy-two hours afterwards. It is also completely self-contradicting; how is it possible to keep my shoulders back and chin up when I look like I’m attempting an inebriated version of an armless Electric Slide?And I’m sorry, but the kneeling abduction, in which one “assumes an ‘all-fours’ position, raising a bent leg as high in the air as possible” just looks like a dog marking its territory. I remember doing those in junior high gym class and being embarrassed because the high school boys would inevitably be walking by and laughing. And sissy squats? According to the pictures and description in Look Great Naked, that exercise is just the limbo minus the limbo stick and frozen fruity beverage. No thanks. I’d rather do the limbo while holding a Mango Tango.I settled on a routine of squats, leg presses, and a zillion crunches supplemented with long sessions on the elliptical (because I can read about Brangelina’s most recent adoption while operating that machine). And I actually kind of started to like exercising because it meant I could do one thing I really, really enjoy. I love to eat. A few weeks after she gave me the book, Mom brought up the topic of cheating again. This time, though, she was telling me about a friend of hers, a gorgeous woman named JoAnne, who was on a new diet. JoAnne had lost so much weight that my mother was beginning to fear for the lady’s health. Then Mom said something strange. She said, “I think she’s cheating on her diet.” “Wait, Mom. I’m confused. If someone’s cheating on a diet, doesn’t that mean they’re eating stuff they shouldn’t eat and not losing weight?” No, that wasn’t what Mom meant. According to my mother, JoAnne was “cheating” by exercising more and eating less than the new diet recommended. The proof? Mom had been on the same diet herself and hadn’t lost an ounce. What I should have said was, “Mom, you haven’t lost an ounce because you don’t need to lose weight.” Instead, I opened up a giant can of whup-ass on myself by sarcastically saying, “I don’t remember a pitcher of margaritas every evening being on that diet.” We both knew I was grossly exaggerating, but let me just say that hell hath no fury like a preacher’s wife accused of being a lush. Right then and there, she pointed out my obvious stone throwing and then hurled one of her own: she asked if I had read the book she gave me and if I’d lost any weight yet. JoAnne, by the way, got so thin that it threatened her health. She had to have a pacemaker installed in her chest. The upside is that she’ll look great in her coffin.When I did eventually find out my husband was cheating, I quickly lost all the weight I’d wanted to and more. At that point, Mom said I was too thin and it was my husband’s fault. I’m just glad she didn’t accuse me of cheating.