Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Giving Spree

Amy Alkon ("The Advice Goddess") and I see eye to eye on this dude...but I don't think she was hard enough on him (and Amy is no softie).

Here's the letter. Discussion to follow:

I always tell my wife I love her and buy her gifts I can't afford. I know she loves me. She works so hard at school, and works to pay her tuition, and still washes my clothes, cooks, and cleans. And I never ask her to. When I buy her things, I don't expect anything in return; I just like to see her happy. I buy her roses for no reason. Recently, because her friends wear so much jewelry, and I know she wished she had some, I bought her a second diamond ring. For our four anniversaries, I've given her a gold bracelet, an iPod, a laptop, and most recently, a cell phone she really wanted. In return, she gave me a card with a letter promising to go to the gym and get back in shape. (She's not fat, but knows it means a lot to me when she's looking good.) I loved the commitment, but this is something she owes herself, not a real gift. I'm not materialistic, but it hurt that she didn't take the time to get me something...I don't care what...a couple T-shirts.
— Let Down

I made it poo-brown to express my real feelings about this guy. To summarize Amy's answer:
not everyone shows love the same way, don't take for granted the deal you've got, and the fact that you're so desperate to buy the love of your wife for pete's sake, doesn't say a whole lot about your own self-confidence, and by overcompensating inappropriately, you're probably eroding hers.

Point, point, point, point, and point. To which I would like to add, when you're married, "buy her gifts I can't afford" really means "buy her gifts WE can't afford." Even if your particular partnership functions best by keeping bank accounts separate, if one of you goes into debt, won't that affect the other's credit rating? Not to mention day-to-day standard of living? Again, even if you shop seperately, you live and eat together, right? So if your extravagant gifts are keeping you on bologna and milk crates, that negatively impacts both of your lives.

Consider this: for every $500 dollars you don't spend on ridiculous presents, she can cut back on her work hours and enjoy her life with you, right? Or you could hire a cleaning service to do a magic number on the house every few months? Or take a trip? Or pay off her "just because" Columbus Day bracelet. So many options.

Buying your wife gifts you can't afford is not an act of loving devotion. It's irresponsible to yourself, your wife, and the life you share. And it is probably this sense of making up for your irresponsibility that keeps your wife from responding in kind. People don't give letters of commitment to their significant others in lieu of gifts unless they are really concerned about over spending. If you shopped more carefully, maybe there'd be something left in the kitty for her to treat you.

My favorite Holiday Hootenanny Event

This was my favorite, non-traumatic moment from Carolyn Hax's Holiday Hootenanny. I hope that one day I can be this kind of parent to my children:

The Breakfast Stocking: This isn't really a holiday horror story, but just a testiment to my parents' cleverness.
When I was a kid, my family would have big blow out parties on X-mas eve (all the family and extended family would be there). Naturally the adults would get drunk and send the kids off to bed before the raunchy caroling became too raunchy for our ears.
When we (the kids) would wake up on X-mas morning, there would always be a stocking on the pillow next to each of us -- filled with breakfast pastries, cereal, fruit and a little note that basically said Santa wasn't going to stop by the house until noon-ish, and until then, we were to watch TV VERY quietly and feed ourselves from our X-mas stockings. If we woke our parents up, then Santa wouldn't stop by the house.
Needless to say - we were very quiet... and all of our parents and guests had time to nurse their hangover in peace.
It wasn't until I was married, and spent my first X-mas with my husband's family that I realized that the X-mas stocking wasn't supposed to be filled with breakfast foods...

Carolyn Hax: Brilliant.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

And your question would be....?

Often people who write in to advice columnists seem to just want a chance to vent, receive justification for their feelings, or confirmation for a choice they've already made. Too many of their letters end with "Was I right?" (How least give the columnist more wiggle room than "yes" or "no")

But sometimes I really have to wonder. Did you need help with this one? This is from "Annie's Mailbox," an advice column maintained by the women who were Ann Landers' editors. And they were more patient and generous with this chica than I would have been.

Dear Annie: I'm a sophomore in college and live far away from my hometown, so I rarely see my friends or family. I wouldn't mind so much except that I'm in a long-distance relationship with "Rob," whom I have known since I was very young.
I know such relationships can be difficult, but this one is completely over the top. Rob has always been emotionally and verbally abusive, but now he has gotten so bad I'm afraid he's becoming mentally unstable. Schizophrenia runs in his family, but he refuses to seek counseling.
Here's the real problem. I've met another guy. "Alex" is funny, sweet and kind, and he loves me a lot. The feeling is mutual. What do I do now? Should I dump Rob and risk making him angry? Should I ditch Alex and be miserable? Should I throw away my life for the wrong guy?

— Didn't Mean To Two-Time

I'm sorry. The "real problem" begins with the fact that you've met an apparently normal human? "Should I throw away my life for the wrong guy?" Yes. Yes, that sounds like an excellent plan! What???

Marcie and Kathy picked up on the fact that this girl is likely afraid of her scary boyfriend, and mostly talked to that issue. Wise and kind of them, as I mentioned:

Dear Didn't Mean: So you've outgrown Rob, who is unstable and abusive, but you don't want to make him angry because he's a little scary. You can talk this over with one of the university counselors. Then tell your parents that you want to break up with Rob, but you are worried about his potential for being abusive.
It would be best if you could find a way to separate yourself gradually and naturally. Be nice on the phone and in your e-mails, but not too friendly or romantic, and don't contact him too often. Don't say you miss him or love him. Talk about class to the point where he's bored. Your aim is to convince Rob he'd like to move on, too.

But I sort of feel like a potentially schizofrenic, undiagnosed, untreated, manipulative person is not going to get bored and move on if she turns cool, cordial, and really really academic. He'll just get mad about how little attention she pays to him and freak out that she doesn't love him anymore. Which is true. She should just make a clean break, as soon as possible. (Also, it's weird that she's known him since SHE was very, very young, not since WE were very very young. Sounds like there's potential for a creepy age discrepancy here.)

Also: do not jump right into a relationship with Alex! If he's macking on you when you're clearly already in a relationship, and one that is unhealthy, there's something weird going on. Is he drawn to your neediness? Sadness? His ability to comfort you and make you laugh when you're being made miserable? What's he going to do when you're no longer in misery? You want to be with someone who wants you when you're healthy and happy. And even if Alex turns out to be cool, and not into suffering, stifled girls, you're not going to get healthy and happy jumping right into something else. Be single for awhile.

A little bit louder no-ow

I like when smart people take a boring cliche (actions speak louder than words...blah di blah blah blah...zzzz) and remind us how it applies to our ACTUAL LIVES.

People who talk big and act little are no good for us, or the people we love. Period.

(This was part of the transcript of Carolyn's weekly live chat, which is SO MUCH BETTER than a plain old advice column, because she addresses bajillions of issues and people get to respond as well. Not that Carolyn is not a person. But, you know.)


Recently I've been caught off guard by a few relationships that have dissolved that have really surprised me and other friends. How can you tell if your relationship is going to work out for the long haul? I know that you're not a psychic and I'm not looking for a crystal ball answer. I'm just wondering if there are certain (and pretty consistent or predictable) signs that I can look for that might indicate one way or another.

Carolyn Hax: The only answer that doesn't get into crystal-ball territory is to pay attention to actions. If you're building hopes and impressions on what people say, then you're likely to treat lukewarm actions as a "mixed message," when in fact they're a clear message. The actions are everything.

That's true even when the actions aren't lukewarm at all, but at a full boil. Too much too soon is just as suspect as someone who fawns over you only when s/he happens to want something from you, and disappears in between.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year: Kill Time, Not Family

I love, love, love, love and want to be Carolyn Hax. Her "holiday hootenanny," as anticipated, brought me much joy and muffled snorting during at work.

Enjoy! (better with eggnog).

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Sue me, sue me, what can you do me...

1) The Tribune co. files for bankruptcy (apparently the Cubs and Wrigley not included)...."Tribune Media Services" web page that was still offering a smattering of old Cheryl Lavin columns now returns at 404 error.

2) How not to do law school:

Dear Miss Manners — I have just started law school, where professionalism is part of the education. At this point, I would be grateful just for respect and common courtesy.

The trouble arises in one class where there are no assigned seats. One of my classmates saves a seat for her friend. The first time, I acquiesced. The second time, I put my hands on the chair before sitting down and said I was going to sit there, whereupon she snatched it away, saying I wasn’t. The third time, when I announced my intention to sit next to her she piled all of her possessions onto it. I am at a loss as to how to respond to such immature behavior.

As an aside, the first two times her friend could have just as easily sat on her other side. The friend suggested that we consult our professor, but he declined to become involved other than as a last resort.

Seriously? SERIOUSLY??

Miss Manners questioned what on earth "you two" are doing in law school--I'm thinking she and I are still awaiting the answer together with bated (or not) breath. I want to comment on this situation, but can't find anything to say but, "seriously???"

I do like how the writer put her (or his!) hand on the chair and stated explicitly, "I am going to sit here." Definitely the best possible solution.

I'm sure this is about getting the best spot in class in order to be noticed by the professor in a cuthroat (really...) environment, or something. But now they've been noticed by the professor anyway--and hardly in a positive light. Jeez.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

We wish you a Merry Christmas!

One of my family's extra special holiday traditions is listening Kathy and Judy's "Merry Medical Christmas" show (on WGN, radio 720, the voice of Chicago, obviously) on our drive out to the grandparents on Christmas Eve (which is a merry medical Christmas in and of itself). In this annual special, Kathy and Judy read out loud "real" (some of them are fairly dubious) Christmas letters that listeners have received and submitted, relating in horrific detail a year's worth of medical procedures. Extra points for the use of words like "drainage," and anything related to the gastrointestical tract.

I treasure this tradition, and so was delighted to learn today that Carolyn Hax has her very own version, the Holiday Horrors Hootenanny, which this year is scheduled on Dec. 12 ( I discovered it today when I stumbled onto today's transcript of Carolyn's live chat (yes, I'm slowly venturing out of the obsolete world of the daily column). I'm assuming the event will be part of her chat session? Or perhaps a digest will run in her column? Alas, I was unclear on the details.

Here's a sample.....more holiday horrors to come!:

iPods: Man, I'd trade my sister-in-law for that one [me here...this refers to an earlier contributor who complained about his sister-in-law walking around with her ipod cord strung up her shirt, through her cleavage, to her ears. Ok, over and out]. Mine is so completely New Agey, it's painful to watch. Last Thanksgiving, she communed with the spirit of the turkey that was sitting, cooked, on our table. She told us that the turkey was happy to have given its life for our meal; that it was satisfied that its sacrifice made our holiday more special.

More special, indeed.

Carolyn Hax: Wait wait wait--we need to save these for the Holiday Horrors Hootenanny. Which, as it happens, Elizabeth and I just scheduled for Dec. 12. Mark your Advent calendars.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

There were never such devoted sisters....

Yesterday Carolyn Hax (one of my new favorites) addressed an issue that, unfortunately, is more common than most of us realize: what happens to friendly and familial in-law relations in the wake of divorce? Everyone gets up in arms about the feelings of the children, when the real victims here are the ever-loving "I always wanted a sister"s-in-law torn asunder by the broken bond.

I shouldn't be sarcastic--it's a real, and potentially painful issue, if the intermediary spouse (sibling to one, ex to the other) chooses to make it one. Here's what I mean:

Dear Carolyn: My husband says that since my two brothers divorced, their exes are out of our family. I am nice to my brothers’ new girlfriends, but they were both married for 20 years, and I think of the exes as my sisters.

Also I’ve known my husband’s brother’s ex-wife since junior high school — longer than I’ve known my brother-in-law. We still hang out, and I consider her a good friend.

My husband says my loyalty should be with the new women and none of the exes.

I don’t want to be thought of as disloyal, but I have a very hard time with this situation. I don’t want to have to pick one side.

— Troubled

Carolyn gives a good answer, as usual: I don’t want to take sides, either, so I’m going to have to figure out a nonpartisan way to point out that your husband is being a complete tool.

In short, she says, unless the divorce was caused by "inexcusable" behavior on the part of the ex-in-law, the middlespouse (or middlespousal sibling) has the responsibility to be mature, polite, and respectful of the other parties' continued affection for one another. In Carolyn's more succinct words, "Memo to your husband: Where one spouse shows integrity [by treating friends with the same affection and respect, regardless of their familial status], it's on the other spouse to show some respect"

Things get especially thorny when it's the middlespouses themselves who caused the breakup of the marriage. I know someone for whom this is an issue: her brother was unfaithful to his wife (beloved by the extended family), leading to a divorce , and is now married to the other woman, whom none of them enjoy. She refers to both women as her sister-in-law, sometimes qualifying the ex as an ex, sometimes qualifying the current with a scowl. An ever-thickening plot...

How do you handle anger at a sibling, whom you love, for breaking the ties that bind you to the sister you never had? Worse, how do you forgive your brother for being the jerk that cheated on your friend? Is blood thicker than water even when it seems to be just messing with everyone?

Possible solution: brother and new wife move out of state, returning for occasional visits, while ex-sister-in-law remains nearby, coming over often for visits and graciously and lovingly accomodating niece and nephew sleepovers.

Almost everyone kind of sort of wins!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

This is more like it!

The crazies are back! Just in time for the holiday:

DEAR ABBY: A few months ago I discovered that my partner of 14 years, "Curt," had been sleeping with my 20-year-old son, "Troy's," girlfriend, "Jenna." Our family is crushed at the betrayal; Curt crossed so many boundaries. We have a daughter together, and she considered Jenna her sister.

I hurt for myself as well as my son, who can't believe that the man who helped raise him would do this to him.

Jenna admits that the affair is half her fault. She had been sending Curt provocative photos of herself. Troy has forgiven her. When he told her he was still willing to work on their relationship, she ended it with Curt.

I have kicked my former partner out of the house. No one wants anything to do with him or Jenna. However, I told Troy I would support his desire to repair his relationship with her. I feel I owe it to him after what his "stepfather" did. My problem is, I'm having trouble actually doing it.

I am so conflicted! The holidays are nearly here and so is Troy's birthday. While I would like to accept Jenna for my son's sake, I hate her for having so little respect for me and my feelings that she'd have sex with the man I loved. -- TORN AND HURT IN ILLINOIS

Abby is disappointingly calm, and just tells everyone to get a lot of therapy (probably not bad advice, but bo-ring!)

Tricks and Treats

I haven't been keeping up so well with the seems all the crazies who were writing to the columnists this summer have gone into hibernation, not to mention the fact that I'm wearing out my typing fingers wandering the Internet in search of my columns (yes, I'm still bitter, Tribune).

As I suspected before, the only real casualty has been Tales from the Front....I can get to a Cheryl Lavin page through Tribune Media Services that offers "sample" columns, but they're not up to date, just selections from her illustrious career (not that it makes THAT much of a difference...she does cover a lot of the same ground over and over again. As they all do).

Anyway, enough with the administrivia.....on to the columns.

It's Halloween time, and the scariest aspect of all is the annual emergence of the militant anti-Halloween army, proclaiming that Halloween is pagan (anyone care to describe to them the history of Christmas? Or Easter?) and forbidding their children from attending satanic parties where, no doubt, the same music and games that pervade every non-pagan Friday night would rear their ugly heads. Amy's supplicant writes thus:

Dear Amy: I am 13 years old. One of my good friends is having a Halloween party this year. My parents aren't letting me go, because they say Halloween is "pagan." All my friends are going to this party. I really don't want to be the odd-girl out, but my parents won't even listen to me! When I asked if they had ever been "trick-or-treating," they said to drop the subject or I'd be grounded! I am really upset about this, and I am not sure what to tell my friend. — Not Tricked or Treated

Amy consistently maintains that, in general, it's parents' job to do their best by their kids, and kids' job to accept and respect their parents' authority. It's a good thing, I think, that she maintains her stance even when she's probably rolling her eyes at the parents--and she doesn't even let it show in a conspiratorial wink to the girl. She remains totally neutral, responding as she would to any other angsty teen letter: sorry you feel you're missing out on the fun, you have to do what your parents say, no you shouldn't defy them over this, and you're probably not as alone and outcast as you think you are. The end.

I basically agree with the advice, but wouldn't be able to be so neutral....I'd probably say something like, "yes, your parents are nutters, but since you live with them and they're your parents, you have to do what they say anyway." And thus would probably inadvertently give the girl the pluck to sneak out.

Sometimes, it seems, the best advice is to say very little and remain as calm and neutral as possible. Amy often does not do this so well with adults, but she does it very well with kids--probably because with kids, she can always just refer them to their parents, who have to do the real work. Adults she has the freedom to tell what she really thinks.

Oh man, I'm out of practice and rambling on and on. Have to stop now, and hopefully write more consistently, and coherently, in the future.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Times, They Are A'Changin'

If you are one of the three people in the universe who use the links on this page to get to your advice columns, you may have noticed that many of them have, of late, become defunct.

This is because the Chicago Tribune has basically dropped its advice columns in the free online edition. You can still get Amy and Abby (though they're usually updated earlier elsewhere), but Miss Manners and Cheryl Lavin are GONE. Or rather, you have to pay to read them.

I've been looking for stable links to regularly updated publications of my columns, and am still making my selection. Abby is still available at the UExpress address linked on this blog (that's also where you have to go to write to her). I've been getting Ask Amy through the Denver Post, for the very carefully assessed reason that it's the second Google hit on Ask Amy (after, you guessed it, the Trib).

I'm thinking of switching over entirely to, which has Amy and Miss Manners, as well as Carolyn Hax, a new favorite (well, new to me). I'll update the broken links soon, fear not!

My real concern is Tales from the Front, my favorite bizarre love column. So far, folks even more devoted than I am have been sneaking it out through Tribune Media Services and posting it to various open forums so readers can still get it for free. My hat is off to you! I did locate Cheryl on another site that now, of course, I can't remember.

Anyway, let's be patient and persistent and power through. And boycott Um....only kidding. Sort of.

Miss Manners and Masters of Ceremonies

I wrote in to Miss Manners today in response to her Wednesday column , which addressed a reader's question about the purpose of a master of ceremonies at a wedding. The person wanted to know when, and in God's name, why, this had become standard practice.

Miss Manners was brief and appropriately miffed that such a thing would ever occur: They narrate the event, giving fanfare introductions, public instructions and calls for applause. Why people will pay to have a formal party with their relatives and friends turned into something between an awards ceremony and a reality-TV show, Miss Manners cannot imagine.

(Yes, Miss Manners does write in the third person, in case you gentle readers had not yet picked up that convention).

Anyway...have many weddings become circuses? Of course they have. In fact, I think Miss Manners' description (damn, now I sound like I'm HER talking about mySELF) is rather apt. And yet, I think she has a tendency to inaccurately idealize the olden days, when weddings were simple and sane warm family affairs. So I wrote in to point out another perspective. My letter follows:

Dear Miss Manners,

A reader recently wrote in to ask you about the function of a master of ceremonies at a wedding. While think your response, which expressed perplexity and a bit of annoyance at the "cross between an awards ceremony and a reality show" that many weddings have become was correct, I think there may be room for flexibility here.

Surely when wedding receptions more often featured live music, there would have been a bandleader or wedding singer to set the mood, ease transitions, etc. In recent years, that has increasingly been the role of the DJ (some of whom, of course, are more irritating than others).

Even more recently, though, many couples have opted to forgo both bands and DJs, opting instead to create a playlist of their own and pipe it through thespeakers directly from a laptop. When this is the case, and when the party is above 150 people, I think it's acceptable, even desirable, to have someone with a microphone help guide the direction of the party--if anything, it keeps the host from screaming and pointing, and limits (to a certain extent) the impatient clinking of glasses with forks.

If this person is not leading a band or playing music, I suppose he or she is effectively a master of ceremonies.For the record, I agree that having an MC in addition to a DJ, wedding singer, or bandleader seems excessive.


Miss Manners will probably be horrified that I would suggest it's OK for a wedding to be so large that a host cannot herd all of his or her own guests without the aid of a loudspeaker. But if she wants to address THAT problem, she's going to have to back a lot farther than the 21st century. Weddings, not all weddings, but weddings, have been monstrous since the beginning of time.

It's not etiquette--it's tradition.

Friday, October 10, 2008

A whole new meaning to Breaking the Glass....

Here's some bizarre advice I encountered this morning while browsing, which is what I always wind up doing when I should be doing homework. In a helpful article for wedding guests (not sure if that link will work, or try to make you sign in), the author reminds guests that, no matter how clever or insightful they think they are, it's probably better to go ahead and buy a present off of the registry, rather than striking out on their own. OK, fair enough. But then, this:

For a personal touch, pick an item that has some significance for you and the couple (like buying them stemware to replace the glass you broke at their last dinner party), and include a letter that lets them know you put some thought into their wedding gift and got them something they really wanted.

Um.....what? I'm not even really sure how to respond to, is the author of this article bitter because this happened to her? Or could she really not think of a better example of how a registry gift might tie in with your friendship (in which case....this is not a persuasive argument for why you should stick to the registry!) Or was she trying to be sassy?

Well....she failed. This is just....weird.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Tough Broad Ties the Knot?!?

So Amy Dickinson.....she's had a colorful and successful career as a writer (and radio contributor), often in large part due to the challenges and triumphs she's had as a single mother to her only daughter, now in college.

She was always up front about her "status," relating to other single parents, discouraged spouses, and frustrated singles just looking for a date. And now....unbeknownst to me (how COULD she???) Amy went ahead and got married about a month ago! Now, it's not like she was secretive about it...there's a giant NYT feature. Although I never would have found it if I hadn't been googling her, certain that was not keeping her columns up-to-date (they weren't).

So....congrats Amy! (Or, as Miss Manners would insist, best wishes for a lifetime of happiness, Amy, and congrats to your groom). And I mean that with all sincerity. She has worked hard, come far, and done it pretty much all on her own....she (well, and everyone!) certainly deserves to have happiness and companionship.

I guess I just feel a little disconcerted because she didn't let me, and her thousands of other readers, know. No "Oh, I'm getting married, so we'll be running 'classic Ann Landers' for a few weeks until I get back from my honeymoon," nothing.

One could argue that it's no one's business.....but when you're an advice columnist, and people turn to you for guidance and, well, advice, it does matter. Especially in this day and age. There was a time when the advice columnist's persona was just a name and a writing style (indeed, the original "Dear Prudence" was a man), and "the advice columnist whose real life is totally counter to his/her trusted column" trope has certainly succeeded in plenty of novels and movies.

But that doesn't really fly anymore. People don't trust who they're reading without a bio and a resume--readers wanted a picture with two heads in it when both Pauline and Jeanne were writing Dear Abby, and only one head when Jeanne took over for good.

Amy's entrance to the Tribune was marked by a column titled, "She's here to help" (um, I only remember that because it was linked on her advice page for years, and now of course it is gone...true to Trib form these days), which was basically nothing more than a reference and letter of recommendation, from a trusted figure (naturally now I can't remember who) to the Trib readership, describing exactly why Amy was qualified to replace Ann Landers.

Advice columnists can't get away with anonymity any longer, and I'm not sure how far they can get with privacy--ok a certain show of privacy--around their major life choices. Does Amy's marriage undo the fact that she was an ambitious and successful single mother for 17 years, who can sympathize with and guide her readers as she always has? Of course not.

But, as I learned from the New York Times feature, it does mean that she's just gained four stepdaughters, two of them adopted from foreign countries.

It seems she had also moved from Chicago back to upstate New York, where she was born (this is how she reconnected with her now-husband, who was a friend from her childhood), to care for her elderly mother.

All of these major changes make her a richer, wiser, and more complex person--and probably a better advice columnist. I hope she intends to incorporate them into the body of experiences she's willing to draw upon and share for her columns. And that she'll do that by telling the readers what's up, and not just mentioning, five years down the road, that her youngest stepdaughter and she have disagreed about dorm furniture.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Update on Linkage

I have received the following helpful response re: my concern about the unlinked advice colums:

Dear Ms. Welzenbach,

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interest and readership.

Thank you for bringing to our attention. We apologize for any
inconvenience we may have caused you. We will forward your message on to
the Manager of Projects and Quality of Chicago Tribune Interactive. We
appreciate your feedback.

Please keep in mind that you have the option of enrolling in the Chicago
Tribune Electronic Edition, an online replica of our newspaper, this
alternative is available seven (7) days a week, easy to access,
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Chicago Tribune

Update on Passive Aggressivity:

It doesn't go away. Ever.

Kitty Kustody Kalamity!

Today has been a day for taking action. I wrote to the Tribune at large re: the unlinked advice columns, and also to Amy for some very (VERY) poor advice she gave to a fellow whose happy home and family of a girlfriend and 2 cats had just been shattered

First, his letter and her response. Then, my letter back to Amy. I've written to her before--only when her advice gets me really steamed, which isn't that often--and she has yet to print a response. So here's the issue:

Dear Amy: My live-in girlfriend of two years dumped me a couple of weeks ago, saying that she had never loved me.

Since the breakup I haven't been doing well. We had two cats, one that I had adopted and one that we adopted together. I finally found an apartment. I had been under the impression that I would be taking both cats.

The two cats are very close, and I've always been the primary caretaker for them. I have been the one who cleaned the litter box and took them to the vet.

When I went to the apartment to pack, my ex told me that she wouldn't let me take both cats.
She told me that if I took our cat she would feel bitter toward me and that we would never be able to have a relationship of any sort.

I was furious and upset. I cried and screamed, and my anger really scared me.

To be honest, I am still in love with her, and I don't want to do anything that I know will cause me to lose her forever.

But I'm also horrified at giving up my cat, and horrified to think of my other cat crying all day and all night and refusing to eat, the way he did the only other time I separated them and took him to a new place.

Now I'm incredibly sad and lonely.

It seems like a lot to lose. Should I give up? And how can I deal with my anger, frustration and sense of loss when I do?


And Amy's totally lame response:

Dear Lonely: Your ex sounds like a prize jerk who is holding your cats hostage while she emotionally blackmails you.

I hope that you recover from your hurt soon and that you are able to see how mean this is. It might help you to move on.

In terms of the cat you acquired together, you could take your ex to court and make a claim for custody—even though doing this would prolong this drama, which I don't think is a good idea for you.

I agree that splitting up this feline pair is also probably not a good idea, but you should visit the cats to let them see you and curl around your ankles.

Your best bet at this point is to head to your local shelter to find a new pet (or two) to add to your family. Visit a shelter a few times to spend time with and play with all the cats. You might also consider volunteering at a shelter—homeless kitties need food and affection at all hours; volunteers make sure these animals are well cared for, and this could help you through your loneliest times.

OK, just reading that made me mad all over again. "Your ex is a jerk who is manipulating you by holding your cats. So you better let her keep both of them and go volunteer at the animal shelter." What???? Plus, ahem...if SHE was the live-in girlfriend, why is HE the one who moved out? Anyway--I'll let the letter speak for itself. Normally Amy is a huge advocate for pets and the people who love them. I feel like she really dropped the ball here.

Dear Amy,

I have to say I totally disagree with your advice to Lonely, who was heartbroken over the fact that his girlfriend, who unexpectedly dumped him, refused to give up the cat they had adopted together. (And based on the comments posted on, I don't think I'm alone)

You imply that Lonely's only options are 1) "prolonging the drama" by taking the girlfriend to court to sue for custody of the cat and 2) letting her keep both cats, but visiting them regularly. (How does option 2 NOT prolong the drama of interacting with this woman?)

This really surprised me--the girlfriend never said "If you take the cat, I'll take you to court." She said, according to her ex, that if he took the cat she would be "bitter" and unable to have a relationship with him. How convenient, since HE is already bitter, and she has in fact ENDED their relationship!

I couldn't believe you didn't say he should just take both cats and run, out of concern for the kitties, and for his own sanity. Cutting off the relationship with his ex would probably be the best thing he could do for himself and, as you state quite correctly, recognizing the manipulative trick she tried to put over on him should help him get over her.

Why, in this situation, should the thoughtless girlfriend who doesn't take care of the cats get everything SHE wants, while the guy who's had his world shaken loses it all?

Loyal Reader in Ann Arbor

And for you enraged cat lovers out there, here's a little something to put some joy back into your Sunday. Check out Ninja Cat!

The Bare Necessities....

I just sent the following to the Chicago Tribune online customer service folks. The columns have been de-linked from the homepage AGAIN. This happens every once in awhile and is usually fixed within a couple of days, but that hasn't been the case this time.

Dear Tribune (Again),

The economy is falling down around our ears. Paul Newman is dead. The world is a scary and confusing place. The least you can do is keep the advice columns linked from your homepage (Please! Please! Please!) and keep Dear Abby up to date (Please! Please! Please!).

You should know that it's the advice columns that bring me to the trib at all --only after reading them do I read the rest of the news. That being said, if I can't get Abby (TODAY'S Abby, please) from you, I"ll go elsewhere.

It's not like you've filled the space with anything else...there's a big empty hole at the bottom of the page where the advice column links used to be.


Longtime Reader

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

I worship at the altar of the Advice Goddess

I seriously enjoy the advice stylings of Amy Alkon, aka the Advice Goddess. It takes a lot of the right kind of sass to make yourself a deity, and she's got it.

She successfully fulfills one of the major advice columnists functions, namely, calling writers on their bullshit and seeing straight through their justifications, rationalizations, descriptivations, and all their other ations.

We need advice columnists for this sort of thing, because our friends too often love us too much to call us on this stuff, or they do it in such a gentle way we don't recognize it, or they do it clearly, and we get mad at them for interfering (usually when we've asked for their help).

So three cheers, Amy Alkon. Not to mention her awesome, puntastic column titles.

If I were an advice columnist (someday....) I'd want to be this kind. Think I'd have to dye my hair red and wear a bad ass high-collared jacket?

I hope so.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Sassy Abby Speaks

Sassy Abby Speaks (which conveniently abbreviates to the acronym "SAS") could be a regular feature in this thing.....

DEAR ABBY: Is it me, or do others agree that it's tacky to announce to anyone within earshot how much money someone has spent on an item? I have a friend who brags constantly about the amount she spends on clothing and other things. I also suspect that she inflates the actual figures most of the time. How would you respond to a statement such as, "This new shirt I bought cost me $200"? -- NOT A SPENDTHRIFT IN BALTIMORE

DEAR NOT A SPENDTHRIFT: It depends upon how I wanted her to feel. If I wanted to make her feel guilty, I'd say, "Gee, that's the amount I just donated to the food bank." If I wanted her to feel envious, I'd tell her, "Really? I just put that amount in high-yield CDs." And if I wanted to make her miserable, I'd say, "It just went on sale at 70 percent off."

Or I could tell her the shirt is beautiful -- but that wouldn't be as much fun.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Miss Manners 2.0

Today's problem, I imagine, is one Miss Manners never expected she'd have to handle. And she does it rather well, I must say. She maintains her staid, self-consciously old-fashioned tone while talking about (possibly scandalous) facebook pics, which reads a bit funny at first but ultimately is a credit to her versatility, I think. I guess good manners really never go out of style!

Here's the letter:

Dear Miss Manners: A long-term boyfriend and I loved taking pictures together and putting them up online on our Facebook profiles for everyone to see. However, we have been broken up for almost a year now, and I have been dating another guy for a while.

I have not taken down the pictures of us (there are hundreds of them) because I consider them a part of my history. People have to search pretty far back in my photos to find them. I am also afraid that it would offend him, as we are attempting to remain friends. However, it leads to some awkwardness when friends of my current boyfriend ask me about "that other guy" in some of my old pictures.

This is a fairly new problem for me, technology-wise, and I'm not sure how to approach it. Is it more appropriate for me to take the pictures down or leave them up?

The mind boggles a bit at the thought of HUNDREDS of pictures that might need removing (Miss Manners does not enter into discussion on the pros and cons of de-tagging pictures that remain online--is it ok to de-tag someone ELSE in your own picture?), though I admit I have a couple people in mind for whom this might be a problem someday.

But the fact that the writer says you have to "search back pretty far" to find the pictures indicates to me that she is doing just that (probably at work). And honestly, she's probably the only one. No, nothing online ever really goes away, and she is wise to realize that out of sight does NOT equal out of the computer's mind...but if they've been broken up for over a year, and the photos are buried under hundreds of new ones (the writer does not indicate whether or not the same pattern is recurring with the new boyfriend) I imagine that no one else is really interested enough in this person's life to go digging for them. Until she runs for public office.

My favorite excerpt from Miss Manners' response follows, and, although grammatically awkward, is a useful lesson for all of us today:
Online postings should contain only what you might freely show new acquaintances without embarrassing others or (as an astonishing number of people need to be told) themselves.

You ARE the Weakest Link....

Hey Trib,

There's something wrong with your Dear Abby first glace, it appears that she hasn't posted anything new since, like, Monday. But we both know that's not true. I found her Wednesday column, even though it wasn't listed in the Abby section! But others, including the shy teenager whose social skills Abby gently guided that day, might not. So for the sake of humanity, please! Link it up. Thank you.


Sunday, September 14, 2008

Day of Rest=Classic Abby

For your Sunday evening reading enjoyment, I direct you to one of my favorite Dear Abby columns of all time. I love it because it reminds me of my fiance, Sam, and how very easily this letter could have been written by him (thankfully, there was no need!). This letter was published last winter, many months before we got engaged, so I couldn't really pass it around to people laughing and saying, "this reminds me of Sam!" because I didn't want to incur any bad relationship/engagement voodoo. But now all's well, and here it is, in all its glory:

DEAR ABBY: I admit it: I am scatterbrained. I'm forgetful when it comes to events and information that affect me personally, although I have the odd ability to remember facts and trivia. It is a source of frustration and amusement to others that I can remember details about the Battle of Actium, but can also lose my car for several days because I forgot where I had it parked.

Now things have gone from comical to critical. I had been planning to propose to my girlfriend of three years, and I have lost the engagement ring. I bought the stone some months ago. It's a rare green sapphire that she helped select. I had it set without her knowledge a few weeks later. When the ring was completed, I hid it in a small space behind a drawer in my desk.

This month I planned to pop the question. But today, when I looked behind the drawer, the ring was gone. The worst part is I don't know if I moved it myself. Did I hide it somewhere else because I was afraid she might discover it? Or did I take it out to look at it and forgot where I set it down?

My forgetfulness has caused friction between us before. I want to propose, but I don't want our engagement to be forever associated with another irresponsible mistake on my part. What should I do? -- FORGETFUL IN CHICAGO

Dear Forgetful,

I hope everything turned out all right. There is a special little place in my heart for guys like you, and a special big place for one of them in particular.

Right. This blog is no place for schmoop, so away I go.

Oh, P.S. Abby told him to 1) fess up 2) look harder and then fess up 3) buy a new stone, which would probably entail fessing up at some point anyway, unless it wasn't as rare as he claimed. Then she told him to go get his head, and the rest of him, examined. Poor guy....I hope he found it!

Meanwhile, I hope the girl didn't get too pissed off waiting for the big moment.

Friday, September 12, 2008

"The Odd Couple" wouldn't be funny if Oscar and Felix were girls....

Today's issue strikes close to home for me, since in some ways I recognize myself in the person the writer is complaining about. I also recognize one of my friend's crazy roommates...and have to wonder...are we all truly nuts? Or do the people who think we are just not understand us?

Let's take a look.....

Today's writer has this to say:

DEAR ABBY: I'm a 25-year-old woman who moved in with a friend, "Natasha," who is also 25, after her boyfriend of seven years kicked her out three months ago.

One of the conditions of my moving in was that I'd get to use her car for work and errands because I'd be moving out of my mother's house and had shared Mom's car.

Well, I accidentally spilled a drink in Natasha's car while I was using it, and she revoked my privilege to drive it. I'm looking for a car of my own, but I have already spent a great deal of money to move in with Natasha and help her in her time of need.

I understand that the car is Natasha's property, and she can do with it as she pleases. But I'm concerned that she went back on her word so quickly into our living situation. She has now started leaving me nasty, belittling little notes and is scathing with her choice of words. She refuses to talk to me and will communicate with me now only through writing. I'd like to take the high road, but I'm having a hard time finding it.

Until now, I enjoyed living with her, and I don't want to end our arrangement. How can I have backbone but still be a good friend and roommate? -- STRANDED IN A SMALL TOWN IN ILLINOIS

I'll be honest, I'd probably be pretty pissed if a roommate was using my car, for free, on a daily basis, and then spilled something in it (esp. in the driver's seat). And, as Abby wisely suggests, I'd probably stay annoyed unless or until it was cleaned "properly"--no smell, no dampness, no stickiness, and as little stain as possible. I'd probably also expect that the person wouldn't drink in the car anymore, or at least that she'd make a show of promising not to drink in the car anymore until an appropriate period of mourning for the upholstery had elapsed (it really is the thought that counts) and we'd both sort of forgotten.

I know, this is evidence that I'm a bit obsessively obsessive but, as the writer points out--it's Natasha's car. She can set her own expectations and rules, and just because the friend moved in, "in her [natasha's] time of need," doesn't mean use of the car doesn't come with strings attached. (I wonder how she's been getting to work since Natasha revoked car privileges....clearly she's been managing somehow).

Of course, things get more complicated when you move from the personal car to the shared living space, which is now aflutter wtih "scathing" notes. I'm familiar with the scathing note from both sides. My best friend (a proud Oscar in the Odd Couple scenario...) has been on the receiving end of many a note like this from her former roommate--and is usually totally bewildered, hurt, or later, amused, by it.

(This friend, admittedly, loves to push buttons. Almost a month ago she wrapped her gum in a scrap of paper and placed it in my car cupholder, mocking me when I protested. She claims it's all part of her philanthropic effort to prevent me from turning into her crazy grandma. Of course, I think her crazy grandma, who keeps her linens in labeled ziplock bags containing a matching bottom sheet, top sheet, and pillowcase, is a genius!

Our friendship has thrived only because in 6th grade, with wisdom beyond our years, we realized we could never live together. Or room together on trips.)

In this situation (or in any situation, I guess) these notes do not seem to effectively communicate whatever it is that the roommate wants to get across--just makes her look like a crazy.

And yet, I'm not so blind to my own faults that I don't recognize my tendency to leave roomie-do notes that are often passive aggressive, and sometimes verge on scathing. And I know it's not particularly nice or mature, and probably not effective. It wouldn't surprise me to hear that my roommates think I'm crazy at these times--because I only write the notes when I feel like I'm GOING crazy. When last week's tuna-encrusted-bowl is sitting next to (or worse, IN) the sink instead of easily tossed in the freely available dishwasher....when I return from a weekend away and have to do the dishes from a party I didn't attend...when the dishwasher is overflowing with stuff but hasn't been run....then I morph into silent, seething, note-leaving Natasha.

I know it would be better to be light hearted and open and just say, outright, why I'm so cranky....but a big part of why I'm cranky is that it's not obvious why I'm cranky. To me, it's second nature that we should all clean up after ourselves ASAP--so part of the frustration is that not everyone in the universe sees things exactly this way.

This is something I'll have to get used to, and quick: my fiance, who lives in another state, admittedly requires a week to prepare his apartment for my visits. (And really, I'm not white glove testing every surface. My own room would not pass that test. I just can't stand to use the sink if all his plates are IN it, and can't put them in the dishwasher, if the dishwasher is half-full of clean stuff from last time it was run...but I digress)

So in short, dear drink spiller, take a good look around your shared apartment. Was the drink you spilled in the car truly a one off (because it honestly can and does happen to everyone) and did you do your best to make amends? Or was it an accident waiting to happen? Does Natasha clean up after you without you realizing it, and become resentful as a result? Do you also resent the fact that Natasha cleans up after you and then gets bitter about it, rather than just leaving your stuff for you to deal with?

Or are you easygoing and cool to live with, and Natasha is truly holding a grudge over something insignificant, and punishing you unfairly?

Both are entirely possible. In fact, both are probably true. It's most likely that Natasha's resentment over one thing is seeping over into the rest of her interactions, and that's not fair to Spillsky McSoda. But Natasha also probably spends a lot of time screaming to herself, "not fair, not fair not fair!" So they (and we) have to meet somewhere in the middle of all this injustice.

The voyage through mysterious roommate crankiness can be a long and treacherous one. You may want to bring a snack. But please, for the love of God....rinse your plate!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Every Dog has Its Day...or Lifetime Commitment

Here's a treat (a milkbone, to be specific):

DEAR ABBY: I love dogs, but they're ruining my marriage. "Ivan" and I have been together 12 years, married for five. Six years ago, he had to put his aged, sickly pointer, "Sergeant," to sleep.

Two years ago, I began suggesting that we get another dog. I felt Ivan had mourned Sergeant long enough, and it was time for another. We found a lovely King Charles spaniel that we named Lili. We spent a lot of fun time with her that spring and summer, then thought a playmate might be good company for her during the day while we were at work. We found Branford, another spaniel.

At night we'd put both dogs in the kitchen, tell them goodnight, put up a gate and go to bed. But Branford would cry. I told Ivan he'd stop eventually, but Ivan couldn't just leave him, so he began bringing the two dogs into our bedroom and allowing them to sleep at the foot of our bed. I have pleaded with Ivan to return them downstairs, but he won't consider it.

Guess where they're sleeping today? IN the bed. Guess where I'm sleeping? On the couch downstairs.

We haven't been out on a date since the dogs arrived. We don't go out with friends because we must be back by 10 p.m. -- the dogs' bedtime, and Ivan's, too, of course. He is oblivious to me from the time he goes to bed with the dogs. We haven't had sex in a year.

Everything is about the dogs. He even prepares their meals from scratch each day -- boiled chicken with rice, peas and carrots. He says: "I told you I get attached to dogs. You said you wanted them; this is what you have to deal with." I am at my breaking point. Help! -- ONLY HIS WIFE IN WILMINGTON

Yikes. I know people like this, but they aren't married....
It makes me feel bad for the dogs. Don't they just want to be left alone? I mean, loved and played with, but not, like, tucked into their silken sheets at 10 p.m. each night?

My question does this state come about? Is it likely that people who are like this with their dogs were alone (with their dogs) for many years? Are they lonely? Are they using the dogs as child-replacement? Did a dog save their life once? Have they witnessed more than the usual amount of animal mistreatment and abuse, and want to make up for it (all on their own two dogs)?

My parents' dog sleeps on their bed...but only because they're both OK with it--sure, there's the unpleasant moment when you wake up at 5 a.m. and the dog's foot is in your stomach and butt is in your face. But neither of them has moved to the couch yet...if they did, you can bet that the dog would be booted in an instant. Rather, he'd be booted before it came to that.

If this guy doesn't step up and re-train these dogs (which he doesn't seem apt to do), they'll get the wrong idea about whose head of the house (probably have already) and turn against Wife if she tries to re-kindle the marriage. I'm not real optimistic for these folks.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Jumping to Drunklusions?

Today one of Abby's writers had an important, but not uncommon problem: what to do when you leave your kids with a relative (usually a grandparent) and you learn the guardian has been drinking/smoking pot/going at the furniture with a chainsaw while in charge of the kids.

Rightfully, the advice columnists typically point out that parents' FIRST responsibility is to their children's safety, not to keeping the peace among extended family, and that they must speak up and set boundaries, or not leave the children unattended in a place where they aren't being, well, properly attended to. Today's writer, though, didn't give much evidence for her parents' apparent indiscretion. Frankly, I'm surprised she didn't do a little more investigating herself before writing to a major newspaper columnist. Here's her letter:

DEAR ABBY: My parents recently took my kids for a "day with Grandma and Grandpa." My children are 5 and 3. When they returned home, they were driven by one of my siblings with Grandma in tow. My sibling stated that he was the "designated driver."

My husband and I are extremely upset that my parents chose to drink when they had our children in their care, and so extensively that they needed someone else to get the children home safely. We'd like to discuss this with them and ask them not to consume alcohol when our children are with them. However, we are hesitant because of the conflict this may cause, and are concerned that they will feel that we're attacking them.

How should we approach this -- or is it best not to express our concern? -- VACILLATING IN ARIZONA

So...the only evidence that her parents were drinking was the brother's statement that he was the "designated driver." The term carries implications, sure. But the mom witnessed her mother at the scene. Did she seem intoxicated? What else did the brother have to say? Was he with them all day? Or called in at the last minute to do chauffeur duty? Do her parents have a history of making poor choices regarding drinking, or caring for small children?

To be honest, my first instinct was that the brother was trying to indicate that the grandparents are not comfortable driving at night, or at all, and that they asked him to step in and take the wheel. If the grandparents were with it enough to realize they were both too drunk to drive and call for help, it doesn't jive that they would have also gotten that drunk while watching the kids--it would have made more sense (though been much more frightening) if they'd driven the kids back themselves, in no condition to do so.

Of course there's no way to know for sure from this letter, and that's precisely the point. I think the writer is too quick to assume that her parents were making inappropriate and dangerous choices. Unless she has other reasons to believe this that she doesn't state, I think she should try to find out more from her brother, or even from her mother ("I was surprised to see Joe with you on Friday night...does he drive you and dad often?") before accusing them of sitting sloshed.

What do you think? Am I closing my eyes to obvious alcoholism and potential child endangerment, or does the writer need to take a crash course in Hints and Figurative Language 101?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Gender Bender?

Just realized that in my last post, I assumed the irate subway rider was a woman when, in fact, there was nothing in the letter--no name, no signature, no contextual clues--to confirm that assumption.

To me, it usually feels pretty obvious whether the writer is a woman or a man, even if he or she doesn't give any explicit indication--I wonder if it really is as unambiguous as it seems, or if I'm guessing wrong as often as right?

If I were the columnist, I think I'd have a hard time keeping those assumptions out of my answer in cases where the writer has chosen not to specify.

It's so easy (it's so easy it's so easy it's so easy)

In most cases, we know, it's practically impossible for an advice columnist to speak both specifically to a writer's own situation, and also give insights for the masses. They can't get all the information they need to lead the writer in the right direction based on three sentences in a letter.

That's why so often they fall back on "seek counseling" or, if the writer is a minor, "talk to a trusted adult." These answers aren't particularly helpful, but neither are they harmful. They're not particularly satisfying to readers (nor to the writers, I imagine), but at least it's an answer.

But there's (at least) one area where columnists can be specific, while also broadly helpful to readers across all types of columns: giving people the words to bring up difficult, contentious, or embarrassing subjects with colleagues, partners, and, in today's case, strangers on the subway.

Today Miss Manners printed a letter from a woman frustrated with fellow commuters who take whole subway poles for themselves by leaning on them, preventing others from holding on:

Is there a polite way to confront these violators? After all, it is another breach of subway etiquette to speak to strangers (unless there is an unusual event, of course). On the occasions when I have tried a gentle request not to lean, I have usually been met with hostility.

Miss Manners assures her that there is, and it goes a little something like this: "Excuse me, may I hold on here please?"

So simple...yet so effective. For the rider who has been seething for years over this breach of transportetiquette and assault against her safety and personal rights, plotting in her bubbling brain the poster of subway rules she is going to passive aggressively and surreptitiously post throughout the city, such a simple, neutral request probably seems to come out of the blue.

If she's anything like me, she practiced it in her head over and over and over again. And tried it. And it worked. And, hopefully, it made her day.

Miss Manners is great at these--turning potential confrontations of the offenders by the offended into simple, gracious interactions. Undermining the lecture in manners they want to give by reminding them to simply use their own.

Amy is also great at this. Her forte is less in reminding people not to be crazy, and more in helping them approach potentially embarrassing conversations--the co-worker who is unaware of their fatally bad breath/obnoxious and interfering habit, the partner who gives lame gifts (at Christmas or in bed...), the neighbor who has overstepped their picket fence.

When we feel like we're being put upon, we tend to seethe until the issue seems too huge for us to approach, and we don't know what to say, because we'd rather just never face the person again than address what is bothering us. This is the niche where advice columnists have real power and the good ones have real skill--they have the objectivity and distance to see the situation for what it is and spell out in simple, non-confrontational but efficient terms, a script for handling these difficult conversations.

They make it look so damn easy.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Nooooooooo! Update

Several hours later: the advice columns are once again present on the Trib home page. Don't know if this is the direct result of the email I sent to the Public Editor at about 7 a.m. (6 central), or if there was simply a techiglitch that has since been resolved. I prefer to think the former....


Dear Chicago Tribune,

Every year, at least once a year, you seem to make some kind of effort to streamline your home page by removing the conveniently grouped links to the advice columnists. (Or perhaps simply something goes wrong and this little chunk of code gets blocked out?). They always reappear within in the week. So. Could you bring them back, like, right now?



Monday, September 1, 2008

In Media Res-ume

For reasons unknown to me, many writers (OK, I need some help standardizing my vocabulary here...when you see "writer," do you think, the person with the question, or the columnist? How should I differentiate between them in a concise and consistent way?)...

Anyway. For reasons unknown to me, before they even ask their question, many advice seekers feel the need to qualify themselves, proving that they deserve an answer, a better lot in life than they've got, and a shot at being printed (albeit under alias) in a syndicated column, by summarizing their perceived best qualities and major accomplishments.

I see this most often in the love columns, especially Tales from the Front. People griping about their horrific romantic experiences want to know why they, intelligent, solvent, reliable, honest, affectionate, hilarious, well-traveled, loving dog-owners and community leaders, etc., can't find a decent date. This litany has the opposite effect on me than the seeker intends for it to have. I grow immediately suspicious and contemptuous, and can't help but feel that the seeker doth protest too much. I sometimes write a critical letter about him or her to the columnist. But at least I understand why they've chosen to include their resume--it's part of their question: "Given this, why not this?"

But today Amy featured a writer (oops, there I go again) who did the exact same thing, for no apparent reason. The advice seeker (there MUST be a better term out there) here is a middle-aged gay man in a long-term committed relationship. He has come out to everyone in his life except his elderly mother, and wonders whether or not he should, how he should approach the subject, and even wonders why his mother has never brought it up with him first.

Inexplicably, his letter started like this:

Dear Amy: I am a 45-year-old man, own my own business, sit on the boards of several charities, and enjoy sports and travel.

I am also gay, and I have been in a committed relationship for more than seven years.

Um...congratulations on managing to be both gay, an athlete, and an entrepreneur? Are we to assume that your active lifestyle has made you too busy to arrange this heart to heart with your mother?

I don't see the connection here.

"Out, But Not Out" could have started his letter in its third paragraph (with his actual problem) and gotten right down to business. Considering that these letters are edited, I'm surprised Amy's people, or the Trib's people, didn't do it for him.

That he began his letter with a list of his accomplishments makes me wonder what he's trying to make up for. His dishonesty toward his mother? His homosexuality?

Would his question be treated differently if he were not on the boards of several charities, or if he were not in a long-term relationship? Or does he just fear that it would be?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Never Ending Baby Story

Today's letter is a sad one. It's from a woman writing in response to another woman, who wrote to Amy seeking advice about how to get her husband to want children. They had married agreeing that they did not want to have any, and she had since changed her mind. So the responder writes:

Dear Amy: I'm responding to the letter from "Anonymous," who said she and her husband did not want children. Now, all of a sudden, she doubts her decision not to have kids.

Let me tell her: "Don't do it!" I didn't want any children, and after just one exposure I had a baby.

It doesn't end there, because they just keep coming. I raised my child. I raised the grandchild, and now I'm raising my great-grandchild.

How many times a day do I say to myself, "We should have used a condom."

––Also Anonymous

This letter, to me, is so sad--sad that the writer never managed to live the life she wanted, sad that she's so bitter and blames the children for this, sad that through four generations, no one in this family seems to have made a different choice for themselves and sad that the writer accepted the consequences of her own actions....and then became responsible for those of her child and grandchild as well. Not much happy going on here. And I can't help feeling that, with so much unhappiness going on, Amy is a bit harsh in her response:

Dear Also: Your letter illustrates the unfortunate consequence of raising an unwanted child, who in your case evidently stayed unwanted.

I take the fact that you raised a grandchild and are now raising a great-grandchild as evidence that your attitude toward children filtered down to your own child––and your grandchild, as well.

When you found yourself pregnant after one "exposure," you could have placed your baby for adoption and at least given it a chance of growing up with motivated and loving parents. Two generations later, it seems unfortunate that you didn't make this choice.

Unlike you, "Anonymous" wants to have a baby, though she says her husband doesn't. One can only hope that if she chooses to have a baby, it will be cherished.

What good does it do to tell this woman, 30-40 years after the fact, that she should have placed her child for adoption? Who knows why she didn't, but it seems like that thought, as well as her regret over not using a condom, must have occurred to her over the years.

Again, I guess this is another case of the columnist respecting the contributor's purpose--this woman didn't ask for advice, she wanted to share the wisdom of her experience. So Amy offered her no help, but instead took her to task for her choices, as well as for spreading her toxic parenting attitudes to other hopeful would-be parents.

You can't undo the doesn't do any good for this woman to dwell on, for a lifetime, her single act of unprotected sex. It also doesn't do any good for Amy to criticize a choice made several decades, and several generations of kids, ago.

If this woman had written in saying, "I don't know what to do, I can't feel the affection and devotion for my children that I know I should feel, and now they keep having kids and the kids keep having kids, and money is tight and I'm doing all the work alone." Amy would have sympathized with her for feeling trapped, overwhelmed, and unloving (I've seen her do it before) and told her to seek counseling (which she probably can't afford) and maybe recommended a book (Amy does this a lot, and I think it's a cool idea...if she actually checks out the major titles on a certain topic and selects the best one, and doesn't just do an Amazon search when a certain issue comes up).

This woman may not have directly asked for help--but, like Cheryl Lavin's contributor a couple weeks ago, needs it. She contacted an advice columnist, and it's the columnist's role to give it.
The fact that this woman has lived out four generations of mistakes, regrets, and apparent abandonment of the children by their mothers doesn't mean she deserves less support--it means she needs more.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Getting Personal with Prudence

Dear Prudence is new to me, recommended by a friend who knew I was starting this blog. I love her already (Prudence, I mean, though no hard feelings to my recommending friend) for many reasons, including the fact that her weekly column features a decadent FOUR letters, PLUS a video, featuring face time with Prudence, aka Emily Yoffe (coming soon: advisors and their aliases--what's the deal?).

The video is fun and simple, with silly animation, and lets us see Prudence face to face and hear her soothing voice. Take a look at this week's example (and try not to be too disturbed by the Holiday Inn commercial featuring a man who is very much enjoying his shower).

Two comments: the person who reads the letter does it a bit too quickly. It's hard to understand what she's saying! And this could be a great chance for Prudence to make easy conversation (well, give an easy, one-sided answer) with her's too bad it sounds so much like she's reading her own answer out of the magazine (or off a cue card, as the case may be). You don't have to be an actress, Emily....just talk to us. In fact, since the video answers aren't published in print form, why write them in column form at all? Keep it chatty, keep it fun, and tone down the meaningful eyebrow aerobics and emphatic enunciation.

That said, I think it's a clever, fun way to mix up the column. I look forward to reading--and watching--Prudence regularly!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Get the Picture Update

OK....I just revisited and was gratified to see that in their latest top story, an actual photograph was used....

But I was distressed to learn that the Tribune now links to youtube, just for fun. A new feature called "The Lighter Side," or, "comedy we didn't write ourselves."

It's like...the trib is now its own facebook page...or something?

Get the Picture? Hm....maybe not.

Every morning, before I rise from my cozy bed, I drag my laptop close for a snuggle and click my way to Here, I spend most of my time reading the advice (naturally), and then devote a few minutes to skimming headlines and browsing reader comments (making the odd contribution myself). It is vital that I start my day strong in the knowledge that I am up to date on important developments in the Drew Peterson investigation, and that I have seen all the latest baby animal photos from zoos around the world.

The Trib has done well with its online presence over the years, taking advantage of tools like commenting, videos, reader contributions of photos and stories. You could tell they'd made the full transition from a web-i-fied print publication to a truly interactive digital news resource when they changed their logo from the traditional

to their current, sans-serif, facebook-blue banner:

But there is one aspect of the that I must dispute, and that is the gradual decrease of photography on the home page. It is increasingly common for the paper's daily front page graphic to be a screen shot, map, or diagram, rather than an arresting action shot of something major going on.

Today's front page features an interactive Google map of the locations of stoplight police cameras throughout the Chicagoland area. OK, OK, three cheers for javascript, etc. It's nifty that my newspaper will now help me more carefully evade the police in my own hometown. But it's a lame image. What about a view from one of these cameras down at traffic? Or police reviewing the images? Or a violator in court, disputing the photographic evidence captured at one of these cameras? Or even a picture of a professional showing us what the camera looks like? Come on, Trib! Put your shoulder into it!

( 8/18/2008)

I no longer live in Illinois and my parents cancelled their subscription, so I don't see the newspaper in print--ever. This is probably the case for many readers scattered around the world. Hey, Trib, we have no idea if the web home page corresponds to your physical front page, but I have to say....I hope not.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Blame the editor? I sure hope so....

Either all of Abby's contributors are sitting at the window seat in their parents' Martha's Vineyard homes,writing with navy blue fountain pens, or Abby has a very awkward crew of editors, who are enforcing a very awkward means of creating consistency across her letters.

The vast majority of Abby letters, in their publicly printed state, make reference to the writer's own parents as "Mother" and "Daddy." Rarely "Mom," and never simply "my mother." This is a pretty old school thing, and my grandmother actually speaks about her parents this way--always Mother and Daddy. But it sounds strange in a newpaper--is it too familiar? or too pretentious? I can't decide....can one be both?--and it sounds even stranger out of the mouths of babes, as in today's column:

DEAR ABBY: I am 14 years old and the daughter of a successful businessman. Daddy recently announced that we have been invited to the bat mitzvah of the daughter of one of his co-workers. I don't want to go.

The girl's not anti-Semitic, it turns out, just a bit shy, a bit Catholic, and feeling uncomfortable and out of her element at a large Jewish celebration. Abby actually gives her some good advice about turning her discomfort into an advantage--seeking out someone friendly at the party to talk her through the traditions, etc.

But that intro. "Daddy?" "A successful businessman?" Yikes!

This kind of stuff makes me wonder if Abby's editors are significantly shaping these letters--no matter the age or geographical location of the writer, they're all in the same "voice"--or whether, instead, people write to Abby in a certain tone because of what they read. Are they adopting the speech conventions traditionally used in her column, hoping to make it into print?

Hmm...doubtful. Hey team Abby, back off, and let the people speak for themselves!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Cheryl Lavin: Remissing in Action?

I've mentioned before that Cheryl tends to let her readers do the talking, often building whole columns out of the excerpts of her letters and e-mails. This works--sometimes. After all, her column is called "Tales from the Front," and sometimes that's just what it is--tales, rather than questions.

But when the story reveals that the teller is making a huge mistake--one that she doesn't even seem to be aware of, or want help with--should the advice columnist step in and help open her eyes?

It's true that unsolicited advice is often ignored....but I think by virtue of the fact that she's an advice columnist, she has the privilege to freely advise anyone who writes to her--and this woman needs it.

Today, Cheryl did what she so often does: picks a theme, and prints reader stories related to it. The column focuses on romances rekindled through a Google search. The first one is a lovely Cinderalla story, though it has sort of a bizarre "I have a friend who...." format. The second one cries out for help. It starts out as a typical tale of "the one who got away."

I've been married for more than 20 years, although the last eight have been a struggle. Mainly I'm staying for the sake of the kids, who will soon be out of the nest. Three years ago, I decided to search out Rod, the last boyfriend I had before I met my husband. Although I'd had several boyfriends prior to him, we shared a connection that was exciting, unique and unforgettable.

GASP--would you believe it--the woman googles "Rod," with some difficulty because of his common name (which means we know Cheryl must be using an alias. Rod?):

Undeterred, I narrowed my search, adding key terms that pertained to his career choice at the time. Bingo! I found his home address and wrote, just a friendly how-ya-doing? kind of letter, filling him in on some general details about my life (marriage, kids, job, etc.)

Twice, Rod cut off their communication, saying that he treasured the memory of their relationship, but refused to become involved with her while she was still married. But!

I protested that I wasn't looking for involvement—I just wanted to have lunch!

Mmmmhmm. When she persisted in emailing him (apparently to this reader a 6 month delay seemed sufficient for Rod to forget a) that she was married or b) that he had a problem with this), he really put his foot down. Though he packed his email with loving memories and kind words, the crux of it was this:

This is it, Rose. Please do not write me again or search for me on the Internet.

And yet, Rose says, a year later she is

much closer now to making a decision about my marriage.

and further,

when the dust settles, even at the risk of being disappointed with the outcome, I know who will get the first e-mail.

Cheryl--this woman needs help, and you gave her nothing! Unless you sent her a personal response advising her to quit harrassing and obsessing over Rod, you did her no favors by printing this letter. You're an advice columnist. Advise!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Wedding Columns Gone Wild

Not even Dan Savage can avoid vital reader questions about wedding etiquette...

Note: when I created this blog, they (um, asked me to indicate whether it should be identified as containing "adult" content....I didn't even think about this until I realized that Dan Savage will probably be making occasional appearances. So I decided, I'll link to him, and talk around him, or maybe use code words when necessary....but I probably won't copy and paste excerpts from his columns here, except for the very tame bits. And then, what's the point really?

This actually works out well because Dan Savage has such a nicely maintained Web site. I'm posting extended quotes from my other columnists, when relevant, because I'm not sure if the links to their columns will go bad as time goes by--but that's no problem with the extensive Savage Love archives at our fingertips. Thank God.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Name Game?

Today's post is about an issue that is lately near and dear to my heart. I got engaged this summer (biiig family party this weekend, the highlight of which will be the rented port-o-potty. Or so I keep telling everyone), and rare is the social event that raises more questions (and eyebrows) over etiquette, dress, correspondence, family matters and major moral quandaries than a simple, homey wedding.

Every magazine I've seen (and I may have gathered more than my fair share...just ask the roommates) is loaded with questions ranging from "can I just put out a bucket and ask people to throw cash in it?" to "Can I wear white even if I'm....impure?"

(The picture is of me in a salon on my friend Sarah's wedding day--you can recognize her by the headgear--consulting a bridal magazine for advice on vital matters like these.)

Mostly, the questions ask what one can get away with, while the columnists instead reply, pointedly, one what one perhaps ought to do (no to cash buckets, yes to white!). When the world gets all springy and Juney, these columns spill over like so much champagne from their rightful domain in bridal magazines into mainstream advice columns.

Which brings us to my issue today (yes, I have one, and I'm getting to it!), which is less about the wedding, and more about the rest of my (our!) life:

Amy's writer today is a 58-year-old bride planning her second wedding. After 24 years of marriage and 12 since her divorce, during which time she used her married name, she's wondering whether to take on her new husband's last name.

If you had to pick a columnist to answer this question, I'd say Amy's your best bet. She's been married, she's been divorced, she has a college-age daughter, and a thriving career, which is heavily dependent on recognition of her name...she can basically see the issue from all sides. And here's sum of her angles, which I appreciated:

Dear Bride: My own vote is for you to keep the name you've been using for more than two decades—especially if you have children with whom you share the name.

I ran your question past Arlene Dubin, a matrimonial lawyer, who says there are few negative ramifications for using one name on all legal documents and professionally and another surname for personal and social occasions. In fact, Dubin says that's what she has done for many years.

(I've decided from now on I'll use colors to distinguish among questions, answers, and columnists. I'm a color coder by nature.)

I'm comforted by this idea that you could use one name on legal documents and another personally...ideally, I think that's what I'd be most comfortable doing all around, but it seems to invite confusion (what happens when a personal friend or personal relative writes you a personal check using your personal name and you try to cash it at a bank that doesn't have that personal touch?).

What do you think? Does taking the name of a prospective husband start your brand new united family off the the right, dyeable pump-clad foot? Or in today's world is it an antiquated tradition? Or is there a happy medium? Did Amy find it, or do we need to keep looking?

Of course...this is a personal choice and everyone will have a different answer...but that's true of anything you could write to a columnist about. So no beating around the bush--if you were the columnist and this was your question, what would you say? How would you guide the greatest number of potential brides while still answering the single question set before you?

Oh the challenge. Oh the power.