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 chicagotribune.com 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,

Thank you for contacting the Chicago Tribune. We appreciate your
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,
environmentally friendly, and searchable for only $2.50 per week. To
sign up for the Electronic Edition please visit the link below:


Another weekday option is to visit www.chicagotribune.com for breaking
news, video, weather and business updates.

Please contact us at consumerservices@tribune.com if you have any
additional comments or questions.

Thank you and have a great day!


Interactive Services Team/w061
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 chicagotribune.com, 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 linkage....at 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 is...how 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?