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 past....it 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 audience....it'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 chicagotribune.com 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 http://www.chicagotribune.com. 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 allonewordlightbluelowercasechicagotribune.com 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!

(http://www.chicagotribune.com/ 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, blogger.com) 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.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Already off the wagon?

Well....my first day trying to be a blogger AND work, and I totally failed. Oops. Tomorrow I'll try to post at least a little something in the morning before I go to work, since that's when I read my columns. Or, alternatively, I'll be less productive at work than I was today--less productive at my job, I should say, and more productive spreading the advice gospel.

Dear Amy,

How can I focus on the advice column as an element of society and popular culture without losing my job?


Sunday, August 3, 2008

Sassy Abby Speaks Again.

This morning, Abby wasn't bitter--just funny. A middle aged woman wrote in saying that she was uncomfortable driving at night, because she couldn't see well enough and felt not only disoriented, but that she was a danger to others on the road. The woman's daughter was insisting that her mom just needed to bolster up her confidence (how hard it is for us to recognize our parents' physical ailments). At the end of her letter the woman asked, "Is this all in my head?"

Abby, comfortingly, replied thusly:

"DEAR GAIL: Yes and no. Because your eyes are located in your head -- on that score you are correct. However, your problem is your vision, not an overactive imagination...."

And it goes on from there.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Dog Days of Summer: the Readers are Restless

Sigh. Throughout the spring and summer (and probably before) Amy has been running occasional letters from folks distressed by the fact that someone in their family has named a dog or cat after another family member, and it "hurts" them to hear the precious, precious name of their loved one applied to a lowly beast. ("Jack, stop eating your vomit! Bad Jack! Bad Jack!")

Before we begin, I should reveal that I am not entirely objective in this issue. I once named a goldfish "Mary," at which point I learned that that was also my grandmother's first name (not Grammie?)

As a result, I've been pleased and grateful to learn that it's rarely the "victims" themselves who are upset by this--people who actually share a name with a family pet seem to recognize that this is usually 1) a tribute made by a loving (or ignorant) child with good intentions 2) um....a coincidence.

Instead, it's the parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents of the victims (in other words, those who probably don't have to hear about Jack-the-dog's personal habits on a daily basis) who perceive this catastrophe as a deliberate slight to their loved ones. Today's contributor, though, really takes it to the next level. In fact, I think I'd like to award him the newly established Crank Of (the) Week (COW) Award.

This honor will be awarded based upon a rigorous evaluation consisting of my personal judgment. Taking into account my own tendency to "vent" (whine) about completely inane issues, it should be considered a highly prestigious award in this field.

But--back to our winner! Here's his letter:

Dear Amy:
I have been following the letters in your column about dogs that are named after people. There are two dogs in my neighborhood, one with my granddaughter's name and one with my nephew's name.

Dogs are not the same as people. I can't bear to hear these dogs being called by names of my family members.


Amy takes these folks with a grain of salt and a handful of brevity: "Dear Upset: You're right. Dogs are not the same as people, and that is precisely why you should not take this personally."

But certainly "Upset" is within his/her rights? I would have advised Upset to become active in neighborhood, even city (!) government, taking legislative action against this heinous situation.

Perhaps by petition, s/he could institute a mandatory poll of anyone who at any time might come into hearing range of any local family-dog interactions to ensure no duplicate names. (Naturally, the logistics for determining "hearing range" would have to account for folks on their porches with ear trumpets, listening carefully for the offensive name)

Failing this, "Upset" might prefer to simply pass a law prohibiting crossover between animal and human names. We could take this thing back to Beethoven. There could be a sliding fee system, where both parents AND pet owners could be charged based on their use of ambiguous names, such as "Kitty."

Right. In short, I agree with Amy completely on this one--except with her decision to print this letter.

"Upset" does not have a question. S/he is not seeking guidance. S/he wants to weigh in on the ongoing conversation--a valid thing to do, if you have a new idea or suggestion to contribute. But instead Upset just takes the issue to a new level of crazy. Why keep printing these, unless to mock your loyal readers?

So congratulations to you, "Upset," on your two-fold victory. Be forewarned that, as a winner of the COW award, you cannot win again for at least 6 months--although with an alias, I'd never know the difference. So keep on keeping on!

Friday, August 1, 2008

Ms. Mentor--Love it!

If you work in a university setting, think you might want to one day, or, for that matter, attended college in recent memory, I bet you'll get a kick out of--and maybe learn something from--Ms. Mentor.

Who I'm sure would have a real problem with the length of the sentence I just posted. But I can't help it...when I'm enthusiastic, I add clauses.

Abby is a Sassy Pants!

As you may or may not know, "Dear Abby" is written by Jeanne Phillips, the daughter of the original "Abby," Pauline Phillips (twin sister of Esther Lederer, aka Ann Landers...it's an inbred field!)

That's Pauline on the left, and Jeanne on the right. (Borrowed this picture from http://www.mayoclinic.org/news2005-rst/2718.html, which borrowed it from somewhere else, with more permission than I have.)

Jeanne has been the voice behind Abby for a number of years, but lately, something has changed. I wish I could dig out the column that first triggered this thought in my mind (MUST figure out how to access column archives on the Trib website). In April, I swear something snapped in Jeanne, and since then she's been sassy to the point of snarkiness...even bordering on bitter. It's a flavor I'd never picked up before in her column, but for the last few months it's been particularly evident. Today's column is a good example.

The writer has a pretty major dilemma: a friend has admitted that she's being sexually harrassed at work, but is afraid to report it, because the perpetrator is a major client, and turning him in could jeopardize her employment.

Abby gives the expected, and I thnk we'd all agree, the politically correct, answer: "It is important that Millie report what has been happening to her boss. It is her employer's responsibility to see that she is not bothered...Whatever is driving your friend's harasser, it is vital for Millie's emotional well-being that the person is stopped. Laws protect people in the workplace, but only if the harassment is reported."

But look what comes in the middle, the "..." part: "I have long thought that people who use their position of power to sexually harass are either so pathologically narcissistic they can't believe everyone isn't bowled over by their charm (which, of course, is delusional thinking), or so pitifully unattractive and insecure they must bully their target into submission."

WHOA! Abby, tell us what you really think! I sort of like her new 'tude, but it does throw me off. As I mentioned before, we expect a certain level of consistency from our advisors. Even if I like the change, it makes me wonder....what's going on with Abby? Is she cracking down, or just cracking up?

Advice For Amy

Here's an entertaining article I found this morning. It was written for USA Today five long years ago (ok, so it's not exactly news) when Amy Dickinson ("Ask Amy") joined the Trib to fill the hole left by Ann Landers' death. The author, Emily Toth, gives a bit of insight into Amy's colorful background (reporter? lounge singer? single mother?) and also offers a devoted and affectionate tribute to AL, explaining just why she was so darn good.

In the last 5 years, Amy has definitely held her own--she's still not so "pithy," as the article points out, but she doesn't beat around the bush. She's fresh and entertaining but consistent, which I think is vital--you don't want every answer to sound the same, but you do want to understand and be able to anticipate your advisor's values and attitudes toward various issues--you need to know it's the same person, the one you trust, writing back each morning. I love her, though I don't always agree with her. (She's never printed any of my argumentative responses, alas).

Toth pokes fun at Amy's apparent WASP-ishness--the best advice-givers have always been Jewish, she claims, and it's hard to argue with her. But you can't deny that it takes a certain amount of chutzpah to say, "Sure, I'll pull up a chair to Ann Landers' 56-year-old desk and give it a whirl."

I speak figuratively of course--Ann Landers' real desk is owned and used by Dan Savage--true story.

And, what? The Chronicle of Higher Education has a column called "Miss Mentor"?? I've got to check this out.

Ah, Love

There's no better way to introduce you to Cheryl Lavin (image from www.chicagotribune.com), author of "Tales from the Front," than by giving you a peek at Thursday's column. Her long-running feature on the challenges of finding and keeping love caters both to couples, who typically complain about each other's altered physical appearance after years of marriage, and singles, inevitably bitter, who list their "nice" qualities and ask why they can't find a date.

In fact, my one (to date) successful (as in, printed) advice column submission was related to this very issue. I gave a particularly obnoxious "nice guy" what-for and she printed it(!), thoughtfully providing me with a secure alias ("Beth") to protect me from...the niceness he would surely inflict on me, if he knew where to find me.

Since then, I've always felt a little bond with Cheryl (may I call her Cheryl?)--a bond that was solidified this morning when I read her headline:

"Unending discussions about nice guys and overweight wives"

...and snorted. As long as she's aware of it, I'll go with it! I also admire her boldness (apathy?) in throwing together these two topics that have nothing to do with one another except that they create the most sheer volume in her virtual mailbag.

I have to believe that this is really annoying for columnists....for the most part, they get asked the same questions, over and over and over and over again. Usually I (or anyone!) can guess how the columnist is going to respond without even reading the answer...unfortunately, that response is never "Look at yesterday's column, dumbass."

Instead, columnists exhibit a number of different approaches to this issue, from mocking the readers with a wry-but-weary headline, as Cheryl did, to abbreviating their answers with a handy, versatile acronym. This technique was made famous by Ann Landers (MYOB/mind your own business) and perfected by Dan Savage (DTMFA/dump the motherfucker already).

One final note on Cheryl: she is notorious for printing whole columns made up of readers' anecdotes, with little to no actual advice or even, um, writing, of her own. She did it with mine over a year ago, and she did it this morning. Does this even count as a column anymore?

And could this blog be any drier? I haven't written for an audience in awhile...it might take some time to refine my, um, voice. Please bear with me!

Anxious in Ann Arbor

I've been plotting this blog in my mind for months now, and I'm excited to finally get started! Although I have lots of retroactive posts in my head (posts that, no doubt, would wow you with my credentials to do exactly what I'm doing here!), I am disappointed to report that I can no longer access many of the relevant columns. Hmmm....now that I think about it, this will be a major problem later on, as links to new columns wither and die. I'll think about that tomorrow, as Scarlett would say.

For now, let me assure you, about the only thing I'm qualified to advise anyone on, is advice columns. Since I know I'll be overeager at the beginning--and since I don't have to work tomorrow--I'll try to post something about each of my key columnists. Hopefully this will introduce you to them (if you're not already old friends) and also give me a chance to work out what this blog is going to be.

Carry on, gentle readers!