Thursday, December 24, 2009

Ho, Ho, Ho, Merrrry.....wait, we missed it!

After a couple of weeks of lots of holiday horror stories and "shocking" breaches of Christmas etiquette, I was a bit surprised to see that on Christmas Eve, most of the columnists didn't even touch Christmas. (Maybe they figured any train wrecks are now far beyond stopping....).

  • Abby revisited the issue of reading or not reading collections of private letters between deceased relatives (I responded to this one after the original October column)
  • Kathy and Marcy of Annie's Mailbox counseled a high school student who's being buillied about her Jolie-like "duck lips"
  • Dan Savage, whom I read weekly, but rarely write about here (partly because most of his answers are a bit out of my range of expertise, and partly because when I started this blog I checked the "no adult content" box, and generally try to avoid profanity, etc.) gives a slight nod to "last minute Christmas gifts," but mostly covers the standard Savage Love grab bag of spanking, smelliness, and electro-stimulation.
  • Miss Manners hits on foreclosure and telecommunications
  • And Carolyn wrote about HPV, of all things!
Golly gee whillikers, where can a girl get a little holiday spirit, or at least a little festive forehead slapping?
  • Amy hits the spot, featuring a woman (I'm guessing) who is obsessed with the fact that her relative cannot send Christmas gifts on time. The gifts always arrive eventually, but she'd apparently do away with gifts altogether rather than have them show up late. How old is she, 9? Unless there are kids thinking Santa's been run over (by a reindeer?) because the presents aren't there, what's the big friggin' deal? Amy conveys basically the same sentiment, though not in so many words.
  • Prudence devotes all four of her weekly featured letters (plus the video!) to Christmas conundrums (conundra? help me, Latin speakers!). Get ready for simmering sibling entitlement, multicultural mishaps, mysterious gifts from married men, and my two favorites: absurdly political Christmas cards and prank gift wrapping that would give Wile E. Coyote a run for his money.
  • Carolyn's last pre-holiday live chat also had a few doozies: gourmet cooks griping about lame holiday food, obnoxious custody arrangements, and this, my favorite one (scroll all the way down to the bottom):

Washington, DC: Carolyn

Any tips for surviving driving my sister from one parent's house to the other this weekend? It's a three hour trip and she commandeers my radio, criticizes my driving, and generally drives me nuts every time we're in the car. Plus, she'll be ready late and want to stop at every Starbucks we pass, which will make her have to pee. I'm anticipating the three hour drive will take roughly 4.5 with her in the car. How do I do it so we arrive at parent no. 2's house with me still in the holiday spirit?

Carolyn says: Read this, see how funny this is, and treat yourself to a foofy hot somethingorother on one if not all of the stops.

Gentle readers (to snag a phrase from Miss Manners), thanks for sticking around for year two of A Little Help Please?! Happy holidays, and see you in the new year! (unless things are boring at home, in which case I'll see you, like, tomorrow).

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Pick a card, any card...

This complaint to Amy Dickinson is amusingly timely, since it was published over the weekend, as I was having this exact experience myself:

Dear Amy: I found out that my husband's side of the family is yet again having a "gift exchange" in which we give a gift to the person whose name we've picked out of a hat.

There is one rule — no gift cards. I am not fond of this idea, but in past years I've exchanged a gift despite my objections, and kept quiet.

All relatives are adults, and I can't see the purpose of giving a gift to a person whom I do not really even know and see only once a year.

I would much rather pool our money or donate it to someone in need. I've made this suggestion, but no one wants to mess with their tradition. I understand that the grandparents get joy out of seeing all of us open our gifts and then pass them around, but we are adults. Isn't this a bit childish, or am I just being selfish? How can I get out of this silly tradition?— Bothered

Dear Bothered:Not only do I approve of your in-law family's gift exchange tradition (especially the "no gift cards" rule), I am tempted to try to marry into the family myself in order to participate in it.

Drawing names is a great way to cut down on the number of gifts exchanged; it also gives you an opportunity to get to know the person whose name you've drawn.

When you draw "Aunt Myrtle's" name before Christmas, you have an incentive to do a little research with other family members to try to figure out what she would like to receive. When Aunt Myrtle opens her gift in front of others and expresses her delight at your thoughtfulness, this forms a connection between the two of you that will last beyond Christmas Day.

Bothered's wish to donate the money to an organization or people in need is certainly in the right place. It's a worthwhile thought at a Christmas (and any time of course) where every person is buying for every person, the floor is covered wrapping paper, the bellies bloated with pie, and the excess of it all starts to get a little nauseating. But I agree with Amy that drawing names so that each person buys only for one other person is a great way to drastically decrease the madness, while keeping the "silly tradition" (that goes WAY beyond Bothered's husband's family) of placing gifts under the tree and opening them together. Indeed, often the idea of such a name draw is to ease the financial strain on each family member--leaving enough in their pockets to make a charitable contribution that season, if they choose to.
Bothered seems to be missing the point that, typically, a name draw gift exchange isn't an add-on to a gifts-free Christmas, but a welcome relief from every person bringing a present for every other person. Would she find buying gifts for 17 people she doesn't know well and sees only once a year preferable to buying for one?
If even a single gift seems wasteful to Bothered, certainly she could mention to the person who has her name, "I think the efforts of the ASPCA are so important and underfunded, and I would be honored if you'd make a contribution to their organization as a gift to me." She could even find out what causes are important to her assigned recipient, and make a contribution to that group (though in this case it's important to honor the recipient's cause, not the giver's pet project).
I spent this weekend in Ohio with SK's family, where they have virtually the same tradition. They, too, have only one rule, but it's a different one: there's a $35 limit on each gift. Unlike in Bothered's family, in SK's, gift cards are allowed--though I wish they weren't. Basically, everyone winds up trading $35 gift cards (another explicit rule of the game is that you don't have to spend $35--or anything--on your gift, but when all you're giving is a piece of plastic that required no thought or effort, it seems cheap to go under the limit, and no one does. SK's brother received a $25 gift card and a $10 bill.)
I'm not excusing myself in this case--I wound up with the name of SK's uncle, to whom I've barely spoken before. At his wife's suggestion, I got him a Home Depot gift card. Were gift cards "outlawed," I really have no idea what I would have gotten him instead--but it would have been neat to learn more about him: what teams does he cheer for? what does he do in his spare time? What projects is he working on around the house? Having spent just a day with him and his family, I have several ideas of things that might have made funny or useful gifts--what might I have come with if I'd actually tried, instead of taking the easy way out?
Then again, of course, the reason many givers turn to gift cards in the first place is that recipients are hard-to-please, and letting them shop for themselves turns out to be the best gift. How sad, though!
There were enough creative, thoughtful, and reasonable gifts in our mix (most of them rule-breaking, going above and beyond the name draw) to make opening gifts a lovely and festive occasion: homemade soaps, adorable sweaters craftily plucked from the thrift store, a book of wedding photos, a pine cone Christmas ornament put out by the national wildlife foundation--for every ornament purchased, a tree is planted, etc. I rather wish they'd ALL been that way. Shopping can be overwhelming and exhausting--not to mention a huge financial burden!--but when you're only buying for one, I think it's worth taking the time and making the effort to get to know something about that person, and trying to come up with a gift that will show you, um, care.
And to get back to Bothered's doubt, Christmases can get way out of hand--but her husband's family sounds like they're doing a decent job of keeping things reined in, and focusing on being thoughtful and family-minded at the holiday. (Bothered doesn't mention what her own family's tradition is re: gifts).
Claiming silliness and overkill when the tradition is to give and receive a single gift once a year seems excessively self-righteous and Scrooge-like to me.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

On Customized and Pre-Fab Answers

One of the biggest tensions in the columns, it seems, is the challenge to treat each question as a new, unique situation--each person's story as worthy of individual consideration and response--when in fact, so much of what comes up has been seen, time and time again.

Today, Dear Abby addresses a woman whose husband, after 50 years of marriage, is suddenly extremely interested in her premarital sexual history. Abby had this to say:

DEAR CAUGHT: I'd be fascinated to know why, after more than 50 years, your husband is suddenly pumping you for the information. Could he find the idea of you and another man titillating? To me, "family history" begins when a couple forms a family, not before.

If discussing the subject of your premarital sexual experiences makes you uncomfortable, then don't take the bait because if you do, I have a hunch your husband will never stop fishing.

I was startled that she didn't suggest that the husband may need a mental and physical examination, because any sudden, unprecedented change in behavior--especially in later years, and especially with regard to sex, it seems--can indicate early stages of dementia or other problems.

Why did I expect her to include this? Not because I know anything about geriatrics or about mental degeneration, but because I've read it in dozens of other advice columns--including Abby's. So on the one hand, it seemed like a glaring omission....on the other, how much of a column should be made up of pat disclaimers like "see a doctor" and "seek counseling"?

Amy Richards, "the other" Ask Amy, handles this by posting commonly asked questions and encouraging readers to start there--but I don't like this way of discouraging folks from writing in because someone else, for example, already has a friend with bulimia.

Maybe a way to handle it would be to have links to resources or tips for gathering more information on common problems. Or a flow chart! This way, the columnist could respond to individual letters in specific ways that seem appropriate, but the writer would still wind up at: "insist on a thorough mental and physical examination for any loved one who suddenly exhibits drastic behavioral changes."

What would you do, if you were asked the same question, in different contexts, hundreds of times each week? In the limited space of a newspaper column, how would you include all the necessary "disclaimers" and tips, while still saying something unique that addresses the specifics of the situation and, let's face it, keeps the readers from getting bored?

Amy Speaks Out

I've tried to differentiate between what I thought Amy meant, and how many readers took her advice to Victim? In Virginia, but I think she does it pretty well herself in today's column:

Amy printed the letter of an outraged reader, who accused her of not caring what happened to the victim, suggesting that the victim may have been drugged. Amy then responded this way:

Dear Disgusted: To recap, "Victim" asked a very serious question in a very thoughtful way. She said she had gotten drunk at a frat party and went to a bedroom with a guy.

After saying in advance that she didn't want to have sex, she did have sex.

The letter writer didn't lose consciousness and she didn't indicate she thought she had been drugged. She was intoxicated.

She was wondering if what happened to her qualified as rape and she was wondering what she should do next.

In my answer, I told her that "no means no" -- before or during sex, sober or drunk (I assume the guy had also been drinking).

I told her that she had been raped, and I included information from the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network ( to further educate her about this.

I told her to go to her student health center and seek medical and emotional support and counseling and to get advice from professionals at school.

I told her that the perpetrator should be confronted by authorities at school because he might have done this before and might do it again unless he is stopped.

Unfortunately, I started my answer by expressing frustration at her judgment to get drunk at a frat house, calling it "awful." This is the part of my answer that has enraged readers, who have accused me of "blaming the victim."

As a mother (and stepmother) to five daughters -- four in college -- I have counseled (and worry about) all of my many daughters because of how vulnerable they are if they choose to drink. Drinking to intoxication poses very serious security issues for our daughters and sons, because being drunk impairs judgment and the ability to discern risk.

Because "Victim" wondered where the line was, I tried to draw it for her. My intent was to urge her (as I often urge readers) to take responsibility for the only thing she could control -- her own choices and actions -- but I regret how harshly I expressed this.

I certainly didn't intend to offend or blame her for what happened, and I hope she will do everything possible to stay safe in the future.

I'm grateful that she chose to share her question with all of us, because talking about it will help others.

In her original answer, I don't think Amy explicitly said, "yes you were raped," and I don't think she was clear that "authorities"--not the victim herself--should contact the guy--two points that bothered a lot of readers. Personally (maybe because I've been reading Amy as long as shes's been around and am generally sympathetic to her), I felt that she meant both of those things--as she clarifies here. But I think her original column was probably too ambiguous on both of these points.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Two Thumbs Down

Things have been heavy 'round these parts lately, so here's something to lighten the mood--from Margo, of course!

Dear Margo: I am a high-school senior. There's a girl named "May" who I thoroughly dislike, but she persists in trying to be my best friend. We became friends in freshman year because we were both hyper and our bus ride was long. She was, and is, cheerful, kind and friendly. However, over the past three years, I have realized that we have nothing in common anymore, if we ever did, and I am very tired of having things that are important to me shot down as stupid or boring. Sometimes I talk about things I find interesting, like current events or books — never with her, but in groups of which she is a part. If it has even a vague whiff of intellectual activity (except "Pride and Prejudice"), May shoots me down in the most contemptuous tone I have ever heard, saying, "That's boring. Let's talk about (pick one: her love life or movies, though, to give her some credit, more often movies)." I don't know what to say to someone who thinks that "The Time Traveler's Wife" was a brilliant movie. — Please Go Away, from Virginia

Dear Please: This sounds like one for my pal Roger Ebert, but the underlying problem is actually not about movies. The basis for your friendship — that you were both hyper and it was a long bus ride — does not sound like a rock-solid foundation for closeness. This girl may be cheerful, but she sounds neither kind nor friendly. If you have nothing in common anymore, just keep some distance between you and know that you have moved on. — Margo, developmentally

It doesn't sound like these girls have much in common--but if they liked and respected each other, that wouldn't matter os much--friendships and marriages have thrived between people with totally opposite interests, skills, beliefs, IQs, and political affiliations. Not that these girls need to be friends--like Margo says, it's find to just move on if you don't enjoy each other's company.

What seems to draw them together, though, is that neither of them sounds very confident or secure in just being who she is--the one needs to show off how smart she is, and how contemptuous she is of.....romantic dramas? The other focuses on her love life (and Eric Bana's). They're growing, learning, carving out space for themselves--and can't seem to help stabbing at each other with their chisels in the process. With any luck, they'll both grow out of it and into themselves.

Unlike Margo, who feels compelled to drop the name of her "pal" Roger Ebert, seemingly out of the blue. Why, Margo? Why?

Ask Amy vs. Ask Amy

This is a brief follow-up to last night's very long post concerning the blogger backlash to Amy Dickinson's column about a college student who wanted to know if what happened to her at a frat party was rape. At the end of a post in The Sexist criticizing this column, Amanda Hess writes,

"As this column makes clear, we should all probably refrain from consulting Ask Amy, as well.

* Note: Amy Dickinson’s “Ask Amy,” a syndicated advice column out of the Chicago Tribune, is not to be confused with the “Ask Amy” advice column penned by Amy Richards, published at"

I've read Amy Richards...and here are some excerpts of what she's written to women with questions and uncertainties about rape and sexual harrassment:

To a woman who had been abused as a child and is now unable to maintain a healthy sexual relationship:

"Unfortunately, I'm not a "doctor" and, therefore, can't professionally answer your question. However, through my work with women's issues, I am familiar with many resources in response to sexual abuse. I also personally know many people who have had similar experiences." (Amy then recommends a number of books)

To a woman who is receiving uncomfortable comments from her (female) apartment manager:

"Sexual harassment is a fine line and I'm not an expert . . . it sounds like a good first step would be to simply tell your apartment manager that although she may mean for her comments to be flattering, they make you feel uncomfortable. If that doesn't work, maybe try subtle threats and if that doesn't work....maybe look for a new apartment. "

And finally, to a woman describing an upsetting sexual encounter with her boyfriend:

"Your question is not unlike many others that I have received over the years — not necessarily the exact details, but the fuzziness when it comes to rape. For some people it's very clear when it is/was rape — they felt violated and felt that rape is/was the most accurate description of what happened to them. However, most people are less clear about how to describe what happened to them — and even less clear about what they want to do about it. Even if people are describing "it" as rape - they are resistant to entirely labeling it in that way because they then think they have to act upon it and they don't always want to. Rape is also very personal — what one person experiences as rape, another person wouldn't necessarily and so in that way it becomes harder to talk about universally since we aren't always having the same conversation.

I say this all by way of comfort — your mixed, confused feelings seem entirely natural and in sync with most people that I interact with. In terms of what you should do...of course, only you can answer that."

I'm not quoting these to respond to or comment on Amy's advice (in fact, in these quotes I haven't always included her advice). Just pointing out that, even for a woman who writes at, and who is endorsed by the very bloggers who blasted Amy, things get a lot more tentative when you're advising a specific person who needs medical attention, therapy, legal advice, or possibly all three. The question of "what exactly happened here, and what can I do?" isn't much clearer to this Ask Amy than to the other one--and both of them seem to recognize that it's rarely as black and white as the bloggers want it to be.

I'll agree, of course, that this Amy Richards is softer and friendlier than Amy Dickinson--each of her responses seems to start with "thanks for writing and I'm sorry for what you're going through." But niceties aside--the meat of it is largely the same:

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Pragmatic vs. the Political

I've been sitting on this post for awhile, ruffling and unruffling my feathers and trying to think about what I want to say. The right "moment" has probably already passed--but I'll give it a shot anyway.

It's been a season of feminist blogger backlash against the advice columns. It started with restless rumbling against Lucinda Rosenfeld's harsh critique of a young woman left in the street, drunk, by her so-called friends. Right on the stilettos of this one came Hess vs. Garner regarding Eva, who had been raped (but was reconsidering calling it that) by her boss, was raising the child that resulted from that assault, and wanted help winning back her ex-husband, who left her when she chose not to terminate the pregnancy.

But the bs really hit the fan, so to speak, the day after Thanksgiving, when Amy Dickinson advised a college student who was sexually assaulted at a frat party.

The key points of Amy's response were:
1) Making the decision to drink to the point where judgement and inhibitions are impaired is never wise--and that's something you can choose to control
2) According to Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, no matter what state either of you were in, if you did not consent to have sex, and it happened anyway, that's rape
3) You must seek physical treatment and emotional support immediately through the resources available at your university.
4) Find a way to tell this dude that someone is onto him, and that whether his behavior is deliberately, violently malicious or terrifyingly, alcoholically ignorant, it's not going to fly under the radar anymore.

The bloggers went to town on this one (among them, Hortense at, meloukhia of This Ain't Livin', Amanda Hess at The Sexist, and ginmar at A View From a Broad, henceforth, "the bloggers"), all of them generally re-stating Amy's response this way:

Yeah. That’s right. You stupid slut, you made your bed, now go lie in it. Everyone knows that going to parties at frat houses will result in rape, or sex that you will regret, and no self-respecting lady would ever attend such a party, for this very reason." (that's meloukhia)

Arrrrrrrrrgh. OK.

I think the advice columns are a fantastic source for social activists of any kind to identify the problems that burden our society. And rape on college campuses is certainly one one of them. I'm all for re-purposing these columns, pushing them out there to raise awareness, to be sure that men, women, parents, and children know that this is happening, and must change. There's a social and political cause here, for sure.

But I maintain that for the advice columnists, the pragmatic comes before the political.

Amy is pretty cutthroat, no doubt. I agree with the bloggers that her first line, "Were you a victim? Yes. First, you were a victim of your own awful judgment," probably did not make "Victim(?) in Virginia" feel much better. That's her style--she's not a coddler. Carolyn Hax might have started the column with, "I'm so sorry for what you've been through, and the pain and uncertainty you're struggling with." But guess what? I suspect she would have followed it up with very similar advice.

Frankly, I'm not sure Amy is in a position to say, "yes, you were raped. " In any case, it's clear she didn't feel she was in a position to say it. She's not a doctor, a lawyer, or a psychologist. She's never met or spoken to Victim, or heard more about what happened than,
"he quickly proceeded to go against what he 'promised,'" which doesn't give a lot of medical or legal information. It doesn't help that the whole thing is clouded by (possibly illegal) consumption of alcohol (possibly by both parties).

This is so often the case, and I think must be the hardest part of being an advice columnist: rarely, if ever, can they safely diagnose. They can't confirm that your spouse is cheating, they can't tell you to definitely have that baby, they can't help you get a girlfriend, and they don't know whether you were raped. What they can do, and what most of them are quite good at (in different ways) is break down an overwhelming event into comprehensible chunks, and make recommendations for moving forward.

Another harsh truth of advice columns is that they can only advise the person who wrote to them. It does no good to say "Your mother-in-law sounds like a real bitch, she shouldn't treat you that way" or "This criminal needs to stop raping people." The mother-in-law and the criminal don't care. All the columnist can offer is perspective and choices for the person who wrote.

So bloggers, use these columns to your heart's content! Please draw notice to the fact that even in this day and age, a young woman can be sexually assualted, and the only place she can think to turn is a stranger, a face she's seen in the newspaper. People need to know that. And we need to fix it. But keep in mind when you do that that face in the newspaper is trying to provide useful, accurate, honest guidance to an unknown person, on a terrible, delicate situation about which she has only 2 paragraphs of vague information--and about the same amount of space to respond.

You can expand upon, repurpose, and even totally disagree with what the columnist says, while respecting the fact that your audiences and purposes are very different ones. You can take a different tack, make something more of a column that you thought was fundamentally weak, without calling the original writer "one part incredible bitch and one part cover-your-ass scold" (that was ginmar).

For the record--I think Amanda Hess does that really well this time. She's clearly disgusted by Amy's response, but her commentary is nevertheless precise, logical and nuanced.

The trouble is, when you get so worked up about criminalizing the columnist, you force yourself to make everything black and white, to disparage everything she says for the sake of being right. For example, meloukhia is affronted that Amy didn't "provide [the victim] with any resources beyond a tepid recommendation to go to the college health clinic." Ok...the college health clinic is free, it's on campus, they're trained in dealing with students, and they could refer her to local doctors, hospitals, or rape crisis centers with much greater expertise than Amy could. What's wrong with this recommendation, and how is a directive to go there "tepid"? I don't get it.

And finally.....(drumroll).....I admit it: I don't think Amy's reinforcing rape culture by agreeing with Victim that her choices weren't good ones. I believe (subtlety again, look out!) that there's a difference between, "this probably could have been avoided" and "you deserved what you got, you hussy."

I don't believe that anything you do or don't do, say or don't say, wear or don't wear, means you deserve or are asking to be assualted. I do believe that there are choices that make it more likely to happen.

Let me be clear: I am not saying women should wear habits, keep a 9 p.m. curfew, and avoid direct eye contact with men, lest the men be aroused beyond their control. I am saying that everything we do, and everywhere we go, falls somewhere on the spectrum of risk to our well-being: we could be hit by a car, we could get food poisoning in the cafeteria, we could meet a stranger in a dark alley--or an untrustworthy charmer at a party. The answer, of course, is not to cower under our beds (after all, the roof could cave in). But the responsibility to calculate those risks, and choose to take them on, or not, with a clear mind, lies with each of us alone.

Women have fought for autonomy, on college campuses and off, for years. Female college students have insisted, rightfully of course, that parents, house moms, dates, RAs, and older brothers have no place dictating, or even knowing, where we go, what we do, and when, even though just a few decades ago that wasn't the case. But the corollary is that the responsibility for those choices is ours and ours alone. Being the victim of sexual assault is absolutely not any woman's fault or rightful punishment. But choosing whether to isolate herself, while incapacitated, with a stranger in a strange place is in her hands, and no one else's.

The trick of the advice column is that it has practical merit only if it's directed specifically at what Victim can control. Unfortunately, that inevitably puts the focus on her choices and options, not his unacceptable behavior. Whoever this guy is, he obviously should never have lied to Victim, and then attacked her as soon as he got her alone. But Victim wasn't able to stop him from doing it, and Amy certainly can't do anything about it now, from her column. Victim just wants permission to call herself, well, a victim. Amy could give it to her--but what good would that do? What would she do next? Instead, she focuses on a plan of action, encouraging Victim to seek treatment, help, and closure, to reclaim the agency and control that she lost in this terrible episode.

To a wide audience of parents, students, feminists, voters, etc., "This should never have happened! Our society is broken!" is a powerful rallying cry. But to one woman to whom it already did happen...well, it's not so helpful. We need both the political and the pragmatic, the activist and the advice columnist. What we don't need is the ranting and the name calling.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Grandma on Guard

Dear Annie:

I had the same problem as "Not So Rich Mom," whose grown, well-off children expect her to treat them to dinner all the time.

Here's how I handle it: If someone says, "Let's go out for dinner," I say, "Are we splitting the bill, or are you treating everyone?" If I make the invitation, I offer to pay and will choose the restaurant, but I inform my kids that they will have a separate bar tab because I don't drink and they love expensive bottles of wine. If they want to pick the restaurant, the deal is off. I also announce that I am not paying for a week's worth of doggie bags, so they should order only what they plan to eat.

This discussion must happen before getting into the car. Too many older folks get suckered into picking up expensive tabs out of habit or because no one else offers to pull out their credit card. A clear conversation can solve the awkwardness and unpleasant feelings. — California Nana

Dear Nana: Laying all the cards out on the table in advance certainly makes life much simpler.

Sure does....but at this point, who wants to go out to eat with you? (and who are you going out to eat with, that this is necessary for every outing?) Yikes. It's certainly no fun if every time you see your family and friends you wind up spending a fortune, but this "the deal is off!" approach sure doesn't seem to make this nana very, um, approachable.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

When bad neighbors mean no fences

Prudence (whose Thursday column must have come out early because of the holiday--more reasons to be thankful!) responds to a query that, sadly, comes up in the columns more often than any of us would like: a reader who is almost certainly a witness to domestic abuse wants to know if/how to intervene, without further endangering the victim, or themselves.

Prudie's response is right, I think, giving the writer, who is clearly disturbed by what's going on, an extra kick in the pants to make the necessary phone call. But there's one thing in her response that stands out as odd to me. See if you can find it:

Dear Prudence,
I am concerned about an ongoing situation involving my next-door neighbors. My wife and I moved into our apartment about six months ago. Not long after moving in, we were alarmed to hear our next-door neighbors, a married couple with whom we share a wall, shouting very loudly at each other during a heated fight. Since then, the arguments have continued with great frequency, and the language from him is so loud and abusive that we are now starting to feel as if we should call the police, especially because they have a baby, and we sometimes hear crashing sounds. But if we call the police, they will know that it was either we who called or their other next-door neighbors (there are only a few apartments in the building), and I don't want that lunatic coming after us. When is it time to call in help?

—Next-Door Nightmare

Dear Next-Door,
Now is the time to call. Once, years ago, I lived below a similarly abusive husband, who regularly screamed vile things. One day, I heard the wife come home, cry out, and fall to the floor, which was followed by her hysterical sobs. I feared she had been attacked by an intruder, so I called the police. They came and left, and when I called the station to find out what happened, I was told: "It was nothing. Just a domestic." The couple went on to have a baby and move away, and I've sometimes wondered about that miserable little family. Fortunately, today there's a different attitude about "Just a domestic." Your call doesn't mean he'll stop, or that she'll leave him, but it does put them in the system and him on notice. You can call anonymously. And if you later feel in any way threatened by him, immediately make a follow-up call to the police.


Do you see it? "I feared she had been attacked by an intruder, so I called the police." Really, Prudence? After hearing this going on above you for weeks, months, whatever, when the screaming escalated to violence, your first thought was, "Must be a robber"? I don't buy it. Which makes me wonder why she felt compelled to say that. It sounds like she's trying to justify her decision to call the police (if she'd known there was no intruder, she wouldn't have called?), which is odd, since the point of her response is to convince the ambivalent writer to make the call, not let it go. Weird.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

You're Kidding, Right?

Oh come ON!

Dear Prudence,
Every year my fiance's family takes a portrait together and mails it out as their holiday card. His parents included their new son-in-law when their daughter got married. This is the first holiday since my fiance and I got engaged, and they have already commented on needing a bigger lens to fit everyone in this year. However, I have no interest in being in their picture this year or any year. They sign the card "The Smiths," but I have no plans to change my name and don't feel this last name would be mine. I plan to decline to be in the photo since I have always looked forward to having my own family and sending our own pictures to family and friends. How can I gently say to my husband's family, "Time to cut the umbilical cord" and let your children start their own holiday family traditions? The thought of the upcoming family photo is making me sick and filling me with anger.

—Won't Say "Cheese"

Dear Won't,
It used to be said that when certain hunter-gatherer tribes were first exposed to photography, they believed that if a picture was taken of them, it would steal their soul. You're probably aware, however, that a photograph of you with your future in-laws will not forever capture your image and make it impossible for you to send a photograph of yourself for your own holiday card. Speaking of which, your fiance's family is going to conclude that you're quite the card when you tell them you're not going to be in their picture, you will never consider yourself to be part of the "Smith" family, and that you believe your future mother- and father-in-law are infantilizing their grown children. Everyone will be filled with seasonal joy that you'll be around for the holidays for the rest of their lives. There are two approaches you could take here. One would be to vent the rage you are feeling over your fiance's family wanting to include you in their tradition. That might solve everyone's long-term problem by making you a short-timer. (However, if your fiance hasn't figured out by now that you have some issues, he must have issues of his own.) Or you could spend some time figuring out why a gracious and inclusive gesture from your in-laws-to-be makes you act like a petulant baby and work on growing up yourself.


For real??

I'm newly married, on the fence about really-officially-for-realsies changing my name, and also looking forward to establishing my own family traditions with my husband and cat-children. I also don't like large group photos and making everyone gather around and pose. I tend to think it takes way longer than it should and get annoyed.

So if anyone can see where this woman is coming from, it's probably me. And I think she's flippin' crazy.

As Prudence points out, absolutely none of her protestations is actually affected in any way by the fact that her in-laws want to take a picture and send it out. This doesn't prevent her from going by her own name, nor does it prevent her from sending out her own card. Their card doesn't supercede hers, especially since there probably won't even be very much overlap between the recipients of these cards. They sign the card "The Smiths" because the card is FROM the Smiths--not because it is the official, legal, sole holiday mail to be sent out by everyone in the photo, who must by extension be a Smith. The fact that she's in the photo doesn't make her a Smith any more than a photo featuring the kids with Mickey Mouse suggests that Mickey is their dad.

No, being in the holiday photo doesn't bind her to these people, something she seems to dread. But, um, marrying their son does. Why does she fear the commitment of a photograph more than the commitment of a lifetime?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Blogger Blasts British in Cultural, Contextual Clash

Sorry for being totally absent's been a busy few weeks: I started a new job full time at the library, just in time to help out with the logistics of a conference hosted there. To make up for it, this will be more-than-just-your-average post. Indeed, it's perhaps my most "meta" post yet, featuring my response to an email about a blog post about an advice column (whew!)

It all started last Friday, when I got a message from AR over at the Undomestic Goddess asking, "What do you think of this?"

This turned out to be a blog post by Amanda Hess of The Sexist: Sex and Gender in the District. The post was a scathing indictment (to take a phrase from my undergraduate English department) of Daily Telegraph advice columnist Lesley Garner. The post's title tells you basically all you need to know about Hess's take on the column, if not what Garner actually said: "Advice Columnist Tells Victim She Wasn’t Actually Raped, And Should Have Aborted Her Not-Rape Baby."

What do I think? I guess I think it's too bad that
Hess felt the need to trash--and misrepresent--Garner, because in the end, they're on the same side. They want the same result, but they're just focusing on different things. But I'm getting ahead of myself. We need to start with the original letter:

Dear Lesley,

I am going to write down some facts about my situation but I'm not sure if I will have a question to ask at the end. I was with my husband for four years. I came home from a work trip abroad and told him that I had been raped but that I didn't want to report the incident because of the disruption it would bring into our lives. I liked my job, and my husband was in the middle of building a business. I wasn't going to tell him at all, but he noticed my strange mood.

After a difficult two months of medical tests and all-night talks, I told him I was pregnant from the rape and wanted an abortion. He drove me to a clinic for a consultation and waited outside in the car because he "didn't want to hear me talk about conception dates". Then we had to wait a couple more weeks for my appointment for surgery. During that time I changed my mind, and my whole world fell apart.

My baby was born healthy despite all the stress, and my decree nisi came through a few months later. That was seven years ago, and now I have a beautiful boy who surprises me every day with his curiosity and intelligence. But I am so lonely. I have changed jobs many times and I miss my ex-husband terribly. His business finished, and I know he is alone like me. I text him occasionally and he always replies. We've talked about meeting, and we almost did in January this year.

He has kept the same mobile number all these years. Is there a chance, even a small chance, that we could get back together? I know my boy would melt his heart if they met but could so much hurt ever be completely healed?

It seems like it all happened in a previous life, but we were so good together. I've never been happier than I was with him. My boy needs a father, and I have dated a few guys but none has worked out.

Why is my ex still alone? Is he waiting for me to make the first move? I'm sure we could be happy again. He and my son have so much in common. They are both geeks who like sports. They could watch rugby and Dr Who together. He can play chess – my ex would love that.

If we do meet, and if he wants to talk about what happened, should I keep to my old story or should I tell him the truth? What happened on that trip wasn't quite rape but I wasn't exactly willing either. The man was my boss and he was very drunk and forceful. I tried to push him away without upsetting him, but he was too strong and I didn't fight him. Maybe it is too late and too complicated.


Oy. There's a lot here for anyone to wrap their head around, and it doesn't help that "Eva" isn't being particularly consistent or straightforward.

Hess, as is her right (perhaps even her duty, as a politically minded gender blogger), wants to focus on Eva's inability to admit that what happened to her was rape. That is a serious problem, one worthy of discussion, and indeed perhaps indicative of unacceptable cultural norms at work. This is a legitimate issue to for Hess to bring to the attention of her audience: look, this problem is still not solved! Look what happens when we aren't able to call a spade a spade and a rape a rape!

But she (unnecessarily, in my opinion) absolutely blasts Garner for not taking the exact same approach--and I think that in doing so, she misreads what Garner is trying to say. Sigh...I'm trying to make this not too wordy and she-said, she-saidy, and I just can't. So bear with me.

Hess accuses Garner of saying that Eva's story about being raped "wasn't even true" and that by choosing not to have an abortion, she wasn't considering her husband's feelings.

But I don't read this as Garner's comment on the rape itself, or on what Eva should or shouldn't have done seven years ago. Garner is instead addressing the question Eva asked, which is, essentially, how can I get back together with my ex-husband--the one who left me after I was raped and impregnated by my boss?

Garner isn't saying, as Hess suggests, "this wasn't a rape, but a 'situation' that was entirely your own fault" She's saying, "Listen to yourself. Wake up. You think that if you tell your ex, who left you when he thought you were raped, that in fact you weren't raped after all, and that you want him to come back and raise your boss's cute child, he will. You're crazy for believing this, and you're wrong for making this your goal."

To be fair, I don't think Garner wrote this very clearly. She does (as Hess points out) say that Eva isn't considering her husband's feelings, and that she's focusing only on her own needs. But in fact, this is true--we just first have to strip the terms "feelings" and "needs" of the baggage we often assign to them.

What I mean is, Hess (understandably) reads this as Garner sympathizing with the husband and accusing Eva of being selfish. But, in fact, we know that the ex has feelings about this situation: he wants nothing to do with it. And, indeed, Eva's need for companionship is clouding her ability to consider these feelings. It's not about Garner being sympathetic to the ex, it's about Eva being oblivious to reality.

Garner is not saying that Eva should have had an abortion to keep her husband. She's saying, this guy already proved that he can't and won't be at your side through this, and that he does not want to raise this child. You're deluding yourself and asking for heartbreak to expect otherwise.

Hess writes, "Perhaps we just gently tell Eva that, really, the problem is not in her decision to carry a pregnancy to term, but rather the decision to continue to allow this fucking guy to have any sway over her child, her happiness, or her life."

Correct if I'm wrong but in a (perhaps roundabout, very English) way, that's precisely what Garner did.

I wonder how much of this is about subtle cultural differences. The British advice columnist says, basically, this guy can never make you or your son happy. Focus on moving forward and seeking stability and happiness on your own terms, rather than rationalizing and fantasizing about the past. The American blogger won't be satisfied until the rape--and don't get me wrong, I agree that it was--has been acknowledged, announced, processed, and named as such.

The British columnist suggests that any normal man would find it incredibly difficult to lovingly raise the child of his wife's rapist as his own. The American blogger insists that this makes such a man a "dickwad." As a hot-blooded American woman, my gut reaction is to agree with her....but I also think that Garner's rational and realistic admission is probably pretty accurate.

In the end, Hess and Garner agree that Eva needs to let go of this guy and focus on her own health, and on providing a stable and loving environment for her son. The rest of what they have to say depends on their goals and audience (giving one woman concrete advice, or rallying a generation of feminists?) and their respective personal and cultural values (charismatic activist, or stiff upper lip?)

In any case, I think it's too bad that Hess felt the need to paint Garner as her enemy...since in general women hating on women is the last thing we need more of.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Out of the Mouths of Babes

Wandering around the other day, I noticed a new advice link (ok, maybe not since I'd spent any time at the trib). It appeared to read "Ask Me!!" which seemed excessively exclamatory, but I clicked anyway. Turned out it was actually "Ask Mel." Mel is a 16-year-old blogger for Chicago Now, who handles questions that "only a teen can answer." Curious, I took a peek at a few of her columns. I began skeptical, and then became horrified. For example, in response to a writer who can't stay awake at school, Mel offered the following sugguestions:

Dear Tired Eyes,
I feel your pain.
Every morning, my alarm goes off at 6:30, and I hit the snooze button 6, 7, 8 times. I end up getting up around 7:15, frantic because I don't have enough time to do my hair and makeup, etc. So I fall asleep in class a lot. (Trick: When teachers yell at me, I just tell them I was "resting my eyes". Not sleeping.)
Alright. Here are some tips.
-Put your cell phone across the room so you have to get out of bed to turn the alarm off. (I do this, but somehow I always find myself back in my warm, cozy bed. Weird.)
-Take a freezing cold shower. That will definitely wake you up.
-Drink coffee! I have a cup o' joe every single morning, loaded with sugar, of course. Yeah, it makes me feel more mature.
-Wear uncomfortable clothes to school. Whenever I wear sweats and a t-shirt, I doze off. But, when I wear jeans and a nice top, I somehow stay awake. Go figure.
-Chew energy gum! Do they still make that stuff? When I was a freshman, I think I OD'd on it.
-Eat sugary snacks. Cookies and candy.

If all else fails, just start bringing a video camera to class. That way, you can nap while your teacher rambles about the Cold War and pronouns. Good idea, right?

Coffee? Sugary snacks? Uncomfortable clothes? And then more sugar?? But these kids need rest, exercise, nutritious meals, and less pressure to perform well on standardized tests! Not junk food, tomfoolery, and sass!

But then I realized....they already know that. Of course they do. If they wanted boring, old person advice (which apparently is what I would give), they'd write to Dear Abby, or, um, ask their moms. They WANT the opinion of a peer. A smart, thoughtful teenager, to be sure, as her blog reveals, but a teenager nonetheless.

One of my favorite posts of hers is a list of ways to deal with boredom while grounded. She just seems like a regular kid, who gets into regular trouble. She's not making a big fuss about establishing trust and respect between parents and kids, nor about defying them and sneaking out. Just how to get through the boring weekend at home that you know you probably deserved:

Dear Trapped Inside,
You know, I happen to be an expert on this stuff. Here's a list of non-school related things that you can do this weekend to fill your time:
-Learn to juggle
-Count how many stairs there are in your house
-Pretend to be a dog and spend your day crawling on your hands and knees
-Annoy your siblings/parents
-Put a fly on a leash. Click here for detailed instructions.
-Play DDR nonstop
-Write a song and then sing it
-Organize your closet
-Watch some good movies (Breakfast Club, anyone?)
-Bake a cake
-Eat the cake
-Plot to escape your house when your parents are sleeping [well, Ok, i missed that one]
-Style your hair differently
-Speak Spanish
-Learn the entire "Thriller" dance
-Dress up your dog


And she finally won me over with her latest post, responding to a writer who's sick of doing chores at home:

Dear Annoyed,
Um, do what they want you to do? How hard is it to keep your room tidy and help out in the kitchen once in a while? No offense, but you need to be less lazy. The answer is simple, hence this short response. Sorry, no shortcuts here.

Mel gets my vote. She's a good writer and seems like a smart kid. She's 16 all right--she's into Gossip Girl, Jamba Juice, boys, and occasionally picking a fight with the parents if it's about something "really important" like TV. But she seems like someone other kids her age would like and trust, and turn to for a specific kind of answer. We've got lots of moms in the world--including most of the major syndicated advice columnists. Mel is a welcome breath of (smoothie-scented) fresh air, for her own demographic at least.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Advice Columnists in the news!

Thanks to ML for this! Commentary to come.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Another Professional Opinion on "Professional Women"

Earlier this summer, I (along with many other readers) objected to Kathy and Marcy's (of Annie's Mailbox) use of the term "professional woman" to denote "sex worker." Originally, a female lawyer wrote in to protest, and M&K insisted the term was a "common" way to refer to sex work. I had never heard it that way, and a Google search revealed no connection between the two. Today, another professional woman--this one a scholar--weighs in:

Dear Annie: Your reply to "Professional Woman," who complained about your use of the term to refer to a stripper, was way off base. Sure, most people probably knew that you were referring to some sort of sex worker, but how sexist is that?

In the 19th and even 20th centuries, the phrase "public woman" was used to refer to prostitutes on the assumption that any woman who would occupy public space without a proper male escort must be a prostitute. It provided a handy way to exclude middle- and upper-class women from public spaces, stigmatize working-class women (who appeared regularly in public spaces), and render as sexual prey all women who went out in public.

The double entendre implicit in the phrase "professional woman" undoubtedly serves a similar purpose, insinuating that sex work can be a profession for women and also that "professional women" are sexually available. It's sexist and discriminatory. — Leigh Ann Wheeler, Associate Professor of History, Binghamton University (SUNY)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

On Curing Cabin Fever

OK, OK, it's been a lot of Dear Abby lately...but her column seems to be the one that's raising the most questions in my mind these days. Today, I'd like to know what you think. (Well, I always want to know what you think, and usually intend to close with a question--but then start ranting and forget. This time I intend to stick to my plan!)

DEAR ABBY: Since my daughter left home several years ago, I have become extremely anxious on Sundays. In the afternoons it feels like the walls are closing in on me. I feel so depressed I have to leave the house.
If I go someplace that is open and unconfined, with lots of people around, I feel fine. When I return to my house in the early evening and dote on my pets, I get back to feeling normal.
Abby, some people have said I suffer from "empty nest syndrome." Others say it's "cabin fever." Any thoughts on what I can do about this? -- PHIL IN PHOENIX

DEAR PHIL: If your daughter left on a Sunday, that may be the reason you become depressed and anxious on that particular day of the week. Or because you are less busy and distracted on Sundays, you become more aware of the fact you are alone. Whether you're experiencing "empty nest syndrome" or "cabin fever" is irrelevant. Discuss your feelings of depression and claustrophobia with a licensed mental health professional so you can be properly diagnosed and receive help for your problem.

Since the writer specifically mentioned the words "anxious" and "depression," I see why Abby probably felt compelled to recommend seeking a doctor's intervention. But I can't help but wonder if she's not jumping the gun a little bit.

This man's description of Sunday evenings is actually remarkably similar to how I feel at the same time of the week. I hate Sundays. For me, I think it has to do with the end of the weekend, and the feeling, held over from my recent student days, that I'm forgetting to do some pile of work that's due tomorrow. Lately it's also often meant that I have a long, boring, drive ahead of me. I tend to feel restless, irritable, and yes, a bit trapped. But the feeling passes, and Monday morning all is back to normal.

If once a week his body and mind are craving something that's easy to provide, and not damaging (in this case, an open, crowded, public place), and he can do that thing, and feel better afterwards, I guess I don't see what's wrong with that. Sometimes we have to feel bad so that we know we're supposed to do something different.

If we're hungry, we eat. If we're sleepy, we sleep. If we're jumpy and antsy, we go for a walk. If we're sad or angry, we seek comfort in whatever way we can (and of course some ways are better than others). To me, it follows that if you feel trapped, and going out for a few hours makes you feel better--you should just do that! "I feel so depressed I have to leave the house" doesn't sound that unreasonable to me. What's wrong with leaving the house? This, to me, suggests he hasn't left the house all weekend, that he considers being in the house "the norm," and leaving, an aberration. If this is the case, that might explain precisely why he's feeling so trapped by his own four walls. His body and mind are craving to get out--so he should get out!

Do you think I'm being too glib about this? Was Abby right to recommend a mental health diagnosis? Or do you think that in today's society we're sometimes too eager to perceive any uncomfortable feeling as a symptom of mental illness, rather than a signal that, if followed intuitively, will lead us to a healthy change?

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Family Archives: Preservation AND Access. PLEASE!

DEAR ABBY: After we laid my mother-in-law to rest, my wife discovered a box of letters her parents had written to each other. Her father was stationed overseas during WWII.

My wife is agonizing over whether to read them or destroy them. Because her mother's passing was unexpected, no instructions were made. Should my wife read them as a way to share the experiences of my in-laws' love for each other or consider them so private they are inviolable? -- STUCK FOR AN ANSWER IN OHIO

DEAR STUCK: Reading them might give your wife new insight into her parents, the challenges they faced and an opportunity to view them in the bloom of their youth. They could also be historically significant. That said, however, if she thinks her mother would have preferred that the letters be destroyed, she should follow her conscience.

Wow, it seems like this woman either has an overwhelming sense of privacy (not to mention self-control), or a secret fear of what she might find if she reads the letters. Almost anyone else I can think of, without explicit instructions not to read (or even with them), would have already flown through these.

A single letter can be a wonderful treasure--capturing the writer's language, sense of humor, priorities, handwriting, and perspective on her world. And if you're lucky, cool stamps and funny doodles. Having a whole collection of letters between two correspondents--especially if they shared a long and loving marriage--increases the value of such a single treasure by, I don't know, a million-fold.

The archivist--not to mention the granddaughter--in me, asks this woman, please please PLEASE don't destroy these in an attempt to honor your late parents' privacy. These are the only ones of their kind. If they're gone, they're GONE, and there's no way to ever get that history back.


After my grandfather's death, my mom found a collection of letters his father (her grandfather) had written during the first world war. He wasn't married or in a relationship at the time (or at least, these weren't those letters). These were his letters home, to his parents and siblings--so the element of privacy and intimacy wasn't such a concern in this case. But my mom, who's not necessarily a history buff, learned so much about her own family, and about the world at that time. She bought a scanner and digitized most of the letters, sending images of them to me at school and to her sisters on opposite coasts.


If both parents are now out of the picture (I'm assuming they are, otherwise, why wouldn't they just ask dad?), there's no one to be hurt or made uncomfortable by the letters except the living daughter--so really, it's up to her. I can imagine not wanting to share private, intimate things with my children while I'm alive, but nevertheless wouldn't mind them knowing, later, that I had those feelings and experiences--that I had been young, in love, and struggled and triumphed just like them.

If her parents' marriage was happy, this might be a wonderful experience. But even if it wasn't, it still might be a comforting, or at least an eye opening one. My mom remembers her parents' marriage as not a particularly happy one. There was a lot of tension, not a lot of joy in each other's company, and they divorced when she was in college. So when she recently found a big collection of pictures of them together in their early 20s, I think it brought her a lot of comfort to see how happy and in love they once were--to know that, even though they changed, and their relationship changed, it was at the start a good and happy thing.

But even if this woman is not comfortable reading them herself....


Take them to a local historical society or history museum to at least see if they want them.

I had the opportunity to comb through a vast collection of personal correspondence at the McLean County Museum of History in Bloomington Illinois. In 2007 I processed (though not very well, in archivist terms...I had no idea what I was doing) something like 8 boxes full of nothing but family correspondence--dating from the 1850s through the 1970s. The very best bunch in here were the letters between the woman who donated the letters and her husband, starting from when they were in high school and he spent his summers riding his bike around Illinois and sending postcards, to his being stationed at various posts in the U.S., to their marriage, and her letters to her parents about making their family budget and living far away from home. I came to care deeply about these people, and cheered for their triumphs. I'd go home from my internship each day and tell my roommates what each of them was up to that month in 1932.

There was nothing particularly graphic or alarming in them, though there were plenty of private and intimate thoughts--but since they weren't my family, it didn't make me uncomfortable.

If the museum doesn't have the space or the staff to take care of the collection, she shouldn't be offended--but she shouldn't turn around and toss them, either. She should consider herself a custodian of this inheritance, and even if she can't or won't make use of it, save it for a relative, friend, or cultural institution who will.


As technology changes, archives of handwritten letters like this one are going to be fewer and farther between. I've already begun to fret about how I'll preserve the email collections that chronicle some of my closest friendships. These are the kinds of things that I'd love for my grandchildren to have one day, to see what it was like being a young woman at the turn of the millennium. But for that to happen, I'll have to take active, careful steps to ....I don't even know what...but to do something to pull these stories and thoughts out of inboxes and into some kind of archive. The days of correspondence that survives on its own, under a bed, just by virtue of being ignored, are numbered. To willfully destroy these, when so much family and personal correspondence of the 20th and 21st century will almost certainly be lost just by virtue of its electronic medium, seems almost sacreligious.

So please....PLEASE.....dont. destroy. the. letters.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Who's the Boss?

This letter to Annie's Mailbox really hit home for me:

Dear Annie: I work for a family company and am grateful to have a job in this economy. But while we employees have had benefits drastically cut, the owners have bought new luxury homes and cars and just returned from an overseas vacation that included a safari.
I am a loyal employee, but it seems we are the only ones making sacrifices for the good of the company. Morale is low, and I can no longer be the cheerleader I once was.
I want my employer to know that, despite how they have treated us, I will continue to do my best, but there are other employees who don't feel this way. How can we get the boss to take a closer look at the message he is sending before everyone walks out? I still love this company and want it to succeed. — Unappreciated

Dear Unappreciated: The problem is, your boss knows that no matter how he treats his employees, it will be difficult for them to find another job in this economy. He takes advantage of the fact that, despite the grumbling, they are not likely to leave. This is a terrible way to treat the people who work for you.
Since you care about the health of the company, appoint yourself the spokesperson for the staff and see if you can get a few people together to speak to the boss privately. (There is safety in numbers.) Tell him he deserves to enjoy the fruits of his labor, but you've noticed it lowers morale when he appears to be flaunting his wealth at the expense of his struggling employees. Say that you want his company to be successful and a great place to work, and consequently, you worry when your fellow employees don't feel valued and appreciated. Then ask how you can help.

While I understand why this person would feel frustrated and resentful, I see this situation from the other side, as well. My dad owns a small business and over the years has had many tough decisions to make about providing benefits for his staff, supporting branches in one, two, or three locations, all while keeping the company afloat.

At the end of the day, does he take home more than his employees? Yes he does. He also assumes all the risk, all the responsibility for keeping the company's head above water. It's his name on the lease, or the deed. It's his catastrophe if the building floods or burns down (he's been through both).

This writer's situation is not the same as that of a bitter middle manager not caring to support the luxurious lifestyle of a high-powered exec. making 10-times his salary when they work at the same publicly traded mega-corporation. The rules are different.

This writer mentions a drastic cut in benefits--my dad personally feels the weight of trying to fairly provide benefits for his employees and their families. For small businesses, this is not easy, and it's not cheap. He negotiates the best plan the company can afford, and no, it's not great. And, yes, I'm biased, but to me that doesn't mean he should put his personal investments and family savings--whether they be for the mortgage payment or for a vacation--into providing a cheaper insurance policy for 15-20 other people. (Not to mention that the cost of one personal vacation hardly equates to covering such business expenses over any ongoing period of time).

The business owner is not your parent, personally responsible for your expenses. He or she is your boss, and their first responsibility in that role is to the company. The line between a small business and its owner is a tough one to define. The owner takes on a great deal of personal investment and risk, and hopefully has a personal and personable relationship with his or her employees--but the owner's number one job--at the risk of everyone's unemployment--is keeping the business afloat.

Benefits have not been cut so the owner can pocket the extra cash and take a safari vacation. The fact that he took a vacation and has a nice car does not mean he's "flaunting his wealth" at the "expense" of anyone. Almost certainly, benefits have been cut in order to make rent, utilities, and payroll. In other words, benefits have probably been cut so that jobs won't be cut. And by the way, if the business owner is on the company plan, HIS benefits have been slashed, too.

In the end, it's not the employees' place to tell the owner how to spend his own money--just as it's not the owner's place to tell the employees how to spend theirs.

If the pay and benefits offered at this position aren't enough to get by on, or are no longer worth the work, then it's time to start looking for a new job. Yes, times are bad. But if your job is unworkable, that's what you do. But if you like the job, the company, and the boss, you might try losing some of the bitterness.

K&M's advice to ask the boss how to help boost up fellow employees and make sure that everyone feels valued is good, but it comes on the tail of stating, without any evidence, that the owner is Mr. Potter-like, sneering ironically from his wheelchair about his employees' job-paralysis--it's misleading (not to mention just made up), and certainly doesn't give the writer the right attitude to take back to work.

Personal rant aside, what really bothers me about this is the way the employees seem to have turned on their boss. The boss has almost certainly always made more than the employees, so it's not fair to be upset that that's still the case. If he or she was fair-minded, honest, and treated employees well in good times, it's also not fair to suddenly grow bitter and suspicious when things get rocky. If, on the other hand, the boss was a tightwad and a jerk all along (and that could be the case), they would have known that already, too--it's not the vacation that makes that relevant.

The only specific change in the workplace that these disheartened employees have noted is the cut in benefits--which affects the boss just as much as the employees. Things are bad, but that's not their boss's fault. They seem to be looking for a scapegoat, someone to take the fall for the fact that things are rough all over. And unfortunately, that's yet another common downside to being the boss.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Nothing is Certain but Death and.....Taxidermy

People are always writing to the columnists for validation of their excuses not to go to relatives' homes--they drink, they smell, they're slobs, they're packrats, the pool isn't fenced in, they post controversial political and/or religious propaganda, their dogs are overly affectionate and/or overly aggressive....the list goes on and on, but here's one I've never seen before:

DEAR ABBY: My oldest sister has just married a very nice man. (It's her second marriage.) My only problem is that "Norman" is a taxidermist. Going to their home frightens my daughter and makes me feel, frankly, a bit nauseous. I have avoided going there since the first time, but have been getting questions from family about why I keep turning down invitations.

How do I answer these questions without hurting my sister's feelings? She's a great sister, and I really like Norman. But their house gives me and my animal-loving daughter nightmares. Please help. -- CREEPED OUT IN ARIZONA

DEAR CREEPED OUT: Be honest, but be gentle. Tell your sister that you love her and think her new husband is terrific, but the stuffed animals (etc.) make you uncomfortable. Make sure she knows that when she's having a barbecue or a swimming party (thank God you live in a state with a mild climate), you'd love to come over. But you're not up to another trip through the gallery of the living dead because it gave your daughter nightmares.

I think this is a cop out. I understand that a child might be a little creeped out by a house full of preserved animals. I've felt that way myself. And I think it's ok for the mom to say to her sister, in grown-up-to-grown-up kind of way, "Please don't mind Susie...the animals make her a little nervous."

But I don't think this is grounds to reject wholesale her sister's homestead (p.s. why bother noting that this is her second marriage? Trying to justify that the new husband isn't really family perhaps?)

The mom needs to be a grown up here, and use her daughter's nerves as a learning opportunity, not an excuse for herself. Susie gets a pass, for now--but her mom needs to explain to her, and then exemplify with her behavior, there there are all kinds of people (and careers) in the world, and that they need to be gracious to all of them--especially to "very nice" people, and to family!--even if they're not completely comfortable.

Animal lovers or no, the only legitimate way to make an honest stand about this is if they're also vegetarians, and avoid the butcher counter at the grocery store because it upsets them. In fact, many an animal lover has had taxidermy done on the bodies of their beloved pets. It's not something I'd choose to do myself, but it's it important to note that taxidermy and love or at least respect for animals are not mutually exclusive.

As long as "Norman" isn't engaging in graphic shop talk, after a few visits the "decorations" will hopefully fade into the background.

Speaking of which--don't know if the writer or Abby's editors picked out the pseudonym but "Norman"? Really? That's out of line--just because Hitchcock gave taxidermy a bad name with Norman Bates doesn't mean that Abby should encourage the stereotype. Come on, Abby, stand up for taxidermists everywhere!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Are you serious? (Because you should be)

Margo's got me scratching my head again...her perspective on online affairs seems to be straight from 1998:

Dear Margo: My wife and I regularly play an online video game. Since I work full time and she doesn't, she plays more than I do. A few weeks ago, she asked me if I had a problem with her spending a lot of time playing the game with an online friend, who happens to be male. I said that as long as he was "just a friend," it was no problem. Over the past few weeks, however, I noticed behavioral changes in her that made me think something was amiss, so I read her game logs on her computer to assure myself that their relationship was "just friends."
Long story short, I found enough in the logs to become very upset. I confronted her, and she admitted that she is in love with the online guy! She says she also loves me, is confused and doesn't want to hurt either one of us. I love her, and the thought of her leaving makes me ill, but I want her to be happy. I also want her to hurry and make a decision because the stress of not knowing if she will leave me for him is killing me. But she doesn't want to be rushed into making a decision. — Nice Guy Who Doesn't Want To Finish Last

Dear Nice: I am having trouble with this. Your wife is playing an online game and thinks she's fallen in love with Online Gamer Guy? Sheesh, it doesn't take much, does it? The Internet being, well, the Internet, for all she knows, her game-boy could be an elderly lady who writes romance novels. No offense, but your mate doesn't sound as though she's wrapped real tight. Either that, or there's not much going on in your marriage. It just seems addled to me that anyone could think she's fallen in love with an unseen partner playing a computer game ... and she's telling you to hang on until she decides. I think if this happened to me, I would begin a new game called "Let's Separate." But in your case, I would suggest you both stop with the video games and instead go to a couples counselor to see what is wrong and what can be salvaged.
— Margo, amazedly

Amazedly? Frankly, I'm amazed that she's amazed. Although of course it's true that people can embrace imaginary identities online, and some do, that's no longer the majority of folk. Most people, it seems, no longer have a clear divide between their real and virtual lives, but rather find their online presence--on blogs, social networking sites, gaming communities, message boards, etc.--to be more or less integrated, and indeed a major facet of, their "real" lives.

Child molesters posing as teens trying to pick up other minors? Yes, still (and always) a legitimate danger. Extrapolating that to predict that a longtime gamer is in fact an elderly woman pretending to be a man playing a game....? Come on, Margo. Get real. The situation this writer is in is hardly uncommon. In fact, these days, marriages wrecked by very real virtual affairs are probably far more common than affairs wrecked by false identities.

"It just seems addled to me that anyone could think she's fallen in love with an unseen partner playing a computer game ... " shows a total ignorance of the changing social world in which she lives....which I can only imagine will leave her readers wondering why she has any business advising about it.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Disgrace period?

As my own student loan grace period draws to a close, and as SK and I keep vague tabs on, but don't interfere with, each other's loans (we both have them, though we don't carry any other kind of debt) I was interested in Abby's response to a woman who questioned her boyfriend's refusal to marry her while she's paying hers off:

DEAR ABBY: My boyfriend of several years has just told me he won't marry me as long as I have student loan debt to pay off. I have always been upfront with him about the amount of money I owe. It's a sizable sum, but my credit is good.
He says he loves me but cannot, in good faith, start a life with me owing that much money. Abby, am I wrong to think that student loans should not stop two people who love each other from getting married? -- LOANED OUT IN NORTH CAROLINA

DEAR LOANED OUT: No, you are not. And furthermore, I suspect that rather than the money being the issue, it's that your boyfriend has had a change of heart.

I'm inclined to agree with Abby and the writer here, in thinking that the boyfriend sounds less than ideal. However, I also wonder if she couldn't have done a better, more informative job with her response.

I always like when the columnists call in an expert--I wish she had called a bank, or a lawyer, to confirm whether the guy has anything to fear, before assuming that he's just looking for an excuse to leave.

Based on my quick-n-dirty google searching, he wouldn't be responsible for her loans, since they were incurred before their marriage (interestingly, I couldn't find any reliable answer to this on the directloans website). In fact, he would only become responsible for them if she consolidated or refinanced (which constitutes taking out a new loan) after they were married. But if he didn't understand this, marrying someone with tens of thousands of dollars of debt (or more) might seem like a scary thing.

If I were her, I'd point out to him that student loans are a very particular kind of debt. Credit card debt, for example, still might not become the spouse's responsibility, if they keep their finances separate (debt incurred after their marriage would). But even if you won't be held responsible, your partner's debt gives you insight into how they live and manage their assets. I could see choosing on principle not to be with someone who has tons of credit card debt, because it suggests they can't live within their means. Student loans, however, seem to be in a different category: almost everyone has them, and they suggest a desire to learn, improve, and (one would hope) pursue gainful employment.

Which raises another question. Did her loans allow her to complete schooling that led to a job that allows her to support herself while making regular loan payments? Or did she rack up debt pursuing a string of graduate-level degrees, in order to defer both her loans and reality?

Does he, or has he, had loans of his own?

Is the problem simply that he doesn't want her contributions to their hypothetical household to be limited because her first priority is to pay down her debt?

In the end, it seems that all of this moot, because of one key factor: that he didn't seem interested in asking any of these questions. If he doesn't even want to find out what their circumstances would be, or discuss how they'd handle responsibly handling her debt, then why bother trying to explain it to him? I guess that's what Abby's trying to get at.

I think what bugs me a bit is the writer's argument that people who love each other shouldn't be seprated by the cruel drama of student loan debt. Something about her argument that love and money have nothing to do with each other needs revision--and if that's how she truly feels, maybe her bf is wise to step back. Abby may have been right to suggest that this pair is doomed, but I wish she'd given the writer some tools to make that decision herself (such as questions to ask of herself and the guy about their debts and their attitudes), rather than just writing him (and the relationship) off as a bad investment.