Saturday, February 28, 2009

How to burn your kids out before high school:

Lest my loyal readers think that I just have it out for overcompetitive, time consuming organized sports, let me take this opportunity to show my frustration with ALL overscheduling of kids. Check out this girl, who wrote to Dear Abby for help:

DEAR ABBY: I'm a 13-year-old girl -- a straight-A student in the eighth grade. Most of my teachers like me, but I am overscheduled.

I do swimming five times a week. To prepare for the Advanced Placement test, I have German lessons every Wednesday. I have orchestra rehearsal every Saturday morning and sailing class every Sunday. I also take private violin lessons that I must practice for.

I love swimming, but if I go less often, I will be kicked off the team. The German class is something my mom insists on, and I don't mind it too much. I like being musical, and my violin teacher insists I play in the orchestra. Sailing is my passion. I am nationally ranked, and it keeps me going.

I manage this schedule, but some time for myself would be much appreciated. Any ideas, Abby? -- STRESSED IN NORTHERN CALIFORNIA

Oh MAN. The thing in this list that really makes me mad is the German lessons. Now, far be it from me to discourage American students from picking up foreign language...this is drastically underemphasized in our education system, I think, and it's great that this girl has a head start. But....preparing for the AP test? At 13? Whaaaaa?

That, to me, is the tip-off that she's got a crazy mom who is (unnecessarily, it seems, given the girl's skills, time management and otherwise) freaked out about her daughter failing at life. Give her a chance before you rehabilitate her into the "perfect" daughter you never knew you didn't have or want. (That makes sense....right?)

She "loves" swimming and sailing, and seems to enjoy the music, too. Since she's clearly doing well in school...why not let the German go already? Holy cow.

Of course, unfortunately, that's the one thing the mother insists on, so Abby can only respond to the girl, who wrote to her, by suggesting that she seek a school counselor's guidance about prioritizing. Sometimes I wish we could reach through the newspaper/computer screen and give these parents a little slap on the back of the head, Gibbs-style (I'm referring to Jethro Gibbs of NCIS, a badass navy crime investigator known for, well, slapping his underlings in the back of the head when they do stupid stuff).


Thanks, person, for embracing your non-knowledge of SATC!

Alexandria, Va.: Who are Mr. Big and Carrie??? I missed last week's chat. Is he the one with the mother-in-law????? Does this help? -- Elizabeth

Carolyn Hax: It helped me wish I were watching a movie, if not necessarily this one.

I'm also perversely pleased that someone doesn't know who M.B. and C are.

If you want to be happy for the rest of your life....

Alexandria, Va.: Dear Carolyn,

People always say that you have to make yourself happy. What goes into that? How does one make themself happy?

Thanks! Love your chats!

Carolyn Hax: Short description of a long process: Figure out the things that make you feel confident/fulfilled/energized; that give you a sense of purpose or accomplishment; that tap into your natural abilities and strengths; and that -don't- put you at the mercy of any one person, and orient your life around those.

Often, this requires another step--concurrently or as a precursor--of reducing the role in your life of things that make you feel worthless/empty/exhausted; that require skills that don't come naturally; that feel like a waste of time; or that put you routinely at the mercy of others.

Carolyn's not pretending this is an easy, linear thing to do....but I like the way she put it and the words she uses to describe why certain things make us feel good, and why others exhaust us. Existing largely at the mercy of others and using most or all skills that don't come naturally to us can chip away at satisfaction over time. When I (and she) say "skills that don't come naturally", we don't mean (if I can presume to speak for her) that we don't want challenges in our lives, but there are some things that will always be more grating/exhausting than others, tasks that require constant energy, effort, or even restrataint, and when they make up the majority of our daily tasks, it can really eat away at your confidence and security that there are other things you are just good at.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Dry-eyed and bushy tailed

Advice Goddess! Huzzah! This (second letter down) is one of her less snarky, more encouraging columns. I've included the punny title, because that's usually one of the best parts. Also this column receives extra points for the Sound of Music reference.

Asleep On The Sob

I just broke up with my boyfriend. He was self-centered, and we had our share of problems. Still, we dated almost six months, and I feel nothing — no sadness, no anxiety; just a little relief. What's with me? I've always been so depressed when I've broken up with somebody (mainly guys I cared for who cheated on me). — Comfortably Numb

No, it never plays out this way in movies and songs. As Elton John put it, "Love lies bleeding," not "Apathy sits around yawning, then contemplates turning off the lights, crawling under the covers, and hoping the gloom will descend." It is pretty unglamorous to go through a breakup and be all ho-hum about it. But, it isn't like you can't cry; you just don't feel like it this time, probably because the guy never did anything more egregious than being self-centered and tiresome. While feeling nothing probably makes you worry that the relationship didn't mean much of anything, it could become very meaningful if you use it as a reminder to choose better and get out of bad relationships faster. And, if you can do that, you shouldn't be feeling nothing; in fact, it's cause to do as they did in a famous movie: Make a dress out of the drapes and skip through the Alps singing.

I guess I don't really understand why this woman is concerned that she's not torn up about this break up. Shouldn't she just be relieved? Wait...she is relieved, and she's concerned that she's relieved....yikes. It must have taken a lot of messy break ups to put her in the mind set that this new feeling (or non-feeling) is somehow wrong. That, or just a lifetime of magazines on how to recover from the trauma involved in any parting of ways. If none of the multiple choices from the Cosmo break up quiz describe her (because it would be way too boring), is she a freak???

I'm not going to lie, I think if I made a pie chart of emotions after each break up that I've had, relief would be the dominant emotion in almost every case. I was more often really torn up in the month or so before it ended, when trying to wrangle with whether to stay or go, work it out or not, address the problems or ignore them. It's understandable that this woman would have been hurt, angry and betrayed by previous guys who had cheated on her--and presumably if the relationship ended when she found out, she hadn't had time to process this pain and anger until after the break up--thus a painful recovery period and perhaps much seeking of "closure." But in this case, it's just "I'm no longer dating someone I don't want to be dating." Yay!

I think sometimes you've just put in all the energy and emotion that a relationship is worth to you before it ends, and when it's done, well it just is. There's nothing left. And not because you're so drained and exhausted from the pain of it all, but because you're simply Over It. And isn't that the goal, anyway?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Idle hands...don't belong to kinesthetic learners?

This column is getting a bit old, but since the topic came up a social event (weekly happy hour) recently, I thought I'd post it.

The issue raised by my peers was that of knitting in class. Knitting, as many of you will realize, has made comeback in recent years and more young people than ever are making scarves--and the more ambitious are on to hats, bags, legwarmers, and socks. But is knitting in a public setting--one where you're assumed to be paying attention and even taking notes--blatantly rude? Let's find out....

Dear Miss Manners: At a condo association meeting consisting of about 60 people, there was a head table with six people, facing about six rows of tables, about five feet away. In the front row were two ladies — not sitting next to each other — doing their needlework.
Is it proper to do needlework while at an event such as this? I noticed that the speakers were distracted (and so was I) by their movements. Between reading the directions and rearranging their work, one couldn’t help but turn their way to see what was going on. I say it is rude.

Gentle Reader: But what if they don’t have hand-held devices that enable them to check their e-mail, text message and play games while the committee is droning on?
Not that Miss Manners condones failing to pay attention at meetings, or rather, failing to look as if one is paying attention. She merely wants to make the point that there are worse distractions available. Needlework at least has precedent behind it. For centuries, ladies sat quietly doing needlework while gentlemen conversed around them, and didn’t miss a thing of what was going on.

I agree that in this day and age there are plenty of things you can do that are more distracting that knit in class....I would be lying if I said I hadn't participated in facebook messaging, even live chatting, during class--often with other folks in the same class. At least part of the issue seems to be appearances--if you're facebooking, MAYBE it looks like you're taking notes (though most professors would probably argue they can tell the difference). If you're knitting, there's no disguise, and no sense of needing one.

But I also disagree with Miss Manners' deference to precedent on this matter. I would contend that the needlework women engaged in while sitting in on gentlemen's conversation was acceptable because they were not considered part of the conversation, and not distracting because they literally were not seen. Indeed, in that period the guise of being busy with something else may have allowed many a woman to listen in where otherwise she would not have been welcome.

The problem that this person is complaining about is the opposite: people who are expected to be actively engaged, actively engaging themselves in a different activity. I won't argue that you can't knit and listen, becuase it would be pointless. You can, and many people do.. But it does convey a certain level of apartness. You can knit and listen, sure, but you can't, for example, knit and raise your hand, or knit and take notes, or knit and keep your eyes on the speaker. And these women, it seems, were doing needlework that entailed reviewing and following directions--so that surely required the majority of their attention.

So I guess I don't really know if it's "rude" or not. Knitting in unorthodox settings doesn't bother me as much as it does some of my colleagues. But I don't think Miss Manners' explanation is particularly helpful--or even relevant, so much have settings changed.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Roll out the Red Carpet!

Haven't posted in a couple of days...I'm embracing "spring" break (Spring is a relative concept in Michigan anyway), my new cat, and Oscars day--and nothing in the columns has been SO inspiring that it's been able to tear me away from these pursuits. Rest assured that I'll be back the meantime I expect to be updating my facebook status (maybe even my Twitter??) fanatically about everything Oscars related. For the next ten hours.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Higher Education

I haven't written much (anything?) about Dan Savage since, like, July, which I think is just a scheduling issue more than it is anything else: his new columns come out on Thursdays, and Thursday is when I'm really tired and lazy, and have to be at work earlier than any other day. So I end up skipping over him. And I by skipping, I mean never-getting-around-to-writing-about. Because I still read every week.

Anyway, this week's column seems as good as any to link back to--it's a summary of his latest speaking tour around several universities "out East." This is particularly appropriate because I knew nothing about Dan Savage until he came to speak at MY university several years ago, which led to my reading his entire online archive, and following the weekly updates on The Stranger's website.

At these events, students submit anonymous questions on 3x5 cards, and Dan selects the most entertaining/useful/horrifying/enlightening ones, and reads them and answers them aloud. The column features questions that he didn't get to in his speaking engagement, such as:

When did you first realize you were LGBTQ, and how did people react to that? Did you struggle to find support?

I didn't realize I was L, B, T, and Q until I arrived in Albany. And I'm not sure how friends and family are going to react to my recently discovered lesbianism, bisexuality, impending transition, and questioning status—question: now that I'm LGB and T, what outstanding Qs could there be?—but I expect they will be supportive. Just as confused as I am, but nevertheless supportive.

When I was at IWU, I didn't really have any basis of comparison for what other schools were like. Now that I go to a school 20 times its size, when I see entertainers on TV or in print that I heard speak there, I wonder what they thought of our tiny little stage in the Hansen Student Center, and if we were completely ridiculous. Ah well, how much better can a columnist or comedian do than wind up with an intelligent-yet-ridiculous audience? Seems ideal to me.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Inside Tip?

Abby published a letter on tipping this morning--I always read these with great interest, because I am an awkward and unsure tipper and am afraid of doing it wrong and offending someone. The one place I thought I had tipping down was in restaurants, where the rules are (as in Legally Blonde) "simple and finite." Right? Hmmm...maybe not. Can someone let me know if you agree with Abby or not? If so, I've unwittingly wronged hundreds of servers in my life....

DEAR ABBY: When dining out at an establishment where you order your food at the counter and then they bring your food to the table, is a tip necessary?

Also, when going to coffee shops, tip jars frequently sit on the counter. How obligated should I feel to tip the people behind the counter? -- JAMI IN NASHUA, N.H.

DEAR JAMI: Food servers often earn minimum wage, which they supplement with the tips they receive. If your server is efficient and pleasant, you should leave a tip. The usual amount is between 10 and 20 percent.

At a coffee shop where there is a tip jar, assuming that you did not sit down to be served, you should put your spare change into the jar.

Coffee shops I'm fairly comfortable with and often drop my change in the cup. But these counter restaurants--I'm picturing Culver's, Noodles and Co., or some Paneras (rare--they usually use pagers for pickup), where you order and pay at the register, get your own drink, bus your own mess, but sometimes take a number to your table and your food gets dropped off. I don't usually (OK, ever) tip in these don't have the face time to tell if your server is "efficient and pleasant" because they don't actually interact with you--just drop the food (I'm not complaining about this--just suggesting that their job is not the same as "serving").

I also don't typically think of them as "my server," but as someone who works the register, answers the phones, mans the drive-through, mops the floor--and sometimes brings trays over to tables. For example, if there was a problem with my order, I would not go looking for the person who brought my food to me, but would probably go back to the cashier, or whoever was immediately available. If I wanted something additional, I wouldn't ask the person who brought my food, but would go up to the counter and order it--at which point an entirely different person might bring it out a few minutes later.

Of course Abby is right that SERVERS depend on tips because they receive such a low wage. But am I right in distinguishing this kind of broad, hourly service-industry work from that of a person whose ONLY job is waiting tables, and who is only paid (a low hourly wage) to do that task, and therefore expects to make ends meet from tips? Or am I in the wrong here?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Flipping the Margo

Ever since Margo's whiny "open letter to Amy Dickinson" a few weeks ago, I've had less and less patience with her. Especially when she's neither sympathetic nor helpful. Like today:

Dear Margo: After 29 years together, 26 of them married, my parents are getting divorced. My father has always been a functioning alcoholic who a few years ago ceased to function. His life was down to watching TV and drinking. My mother eventually tired of his refusal to do anything and his constant complaining when he actually had to leave the house. She moved in with me while looking for a new home and has never been happier in her life. She laughs, goes out, has a few drinks two nights a week with friends, and has even started dating. My father is devastated. He drinks more, calls my mother "to make sure she's OK" and calls me repeatedly if she doesn't answer the phone. He lies to my younger brother (who is away at school) and tells him she drinks too much and is never home. My brother is angry and resentful with my mother and me. My father is a train wreck — he has admitted he was unhappy before she left, but doesn't understand why they shouldn't be miserable together. I've begged him to talk to someone, but he "doesn't want to air their dirty laundry." My mother tries to keep me out of the middle, but my father is determined to put me right there. In the process, he's destroying our usually close family. I don't know what to do. I love them both, but I'm being pulled in three directions!
— Tugged Too Far

Dear Tug: First, hurray for your mother. After 29 years with Jim Beam, she can at last have a life. Second, your brother, unless he was anesthetized while living at home, should know enough family history to take your word over your father's, and if you've not set him straight, you should. About all you can do for your father is to tell him your mom is doing well, and now that his life is essentially ruined, he might want to consider getting some help of the AA variety.
The "dirty laundry" excuse won't wash, pardon the pun. I believe you can end being the bird in a badminton game if you are firm in what you say. — Margo, perseveringly

Really Margo? The friggin' birdie? What does that even mean? And in what way is getting smacked from all sides is better than getting tugged three directions? Her response is useless on multiple levels: it doesn't make the writer feel better, it doesn't give any concrete help and her metaphor totally falls apart (boooo!). Tell off/ignore everyone in the family? That will work well, especially since mom is living-in and dad won't stop calling. And no suggestion of any support (friends? family? neighbors? clergy? counseling? Al-Anon?Journaling? Kick-boxing?) for this person who is clearly trying to remain the (only) stable hub in this family?

The evidence suggests this person is about my age, give or take a year or tow. Now, I don't know much, but I know that if my parents suddenly split, my mom moved in with me, my dad was a wreck and my brother was abdicating all supportive duties by kicking and screaming in denial, I would need a LOT more guidance and a LOT more solace than Margo gives here. As Mr. Knightley says.....Badly done.

It's not what you say....

Abby's column this morning and the Classic Ann Landers posting for the week treated two very similar situations, and gave advice that was, for all practical purposes, identical. And yet, though I agreed with them in both cases, I found Abby's response really off-putting. Here's the letter, and her response:

DEAR ABBY: I am 19 and have been with my girlfriend for the last four years. I want to take a break and see what else is out there, but I don't know how to tell her without freaking her out and making her cry. Abby, how do I tell a girl who loves me that I want to take a break and see other people? -- TEEN IN MINNESOTA

DEAR TEEN: Do it in person and in plain English before you waste one more minute of her time. When you do, be sure to tell her that the reason has nothing to do with her and everything to do with you. Be prepared for the fact there may be tears. However, not every relationship is permanent, and breaking up is part of dating.

So...I don't know. Abby is right, of course--honesty, straightforwardness, and promptness are key here. But not even a nod to the fact that they've been together since they were 15? And that splitting up could be--in fact almost certainly is--the best thing for both of them? She's right to emphasize the need to just suck it up--fear of hurting the other person is a terrible reason to stay together, and I can say from personal experience that it undercuts the very honesty, straightforwardness, and promptness that would make the break as respectful, if not painless, as as possible. And I suppose that in that painful moment, it's MORE important to emphasize the honesty and respect than to try to convince the angry and hurt party that really "this is all for your own good, too."

But I get the feeling that Abby thinks this guy is just a jerk who's been keeping the girl around until something better comes along, and that's unlikely. (If it were the case, why would he be writing at all?) Dating through high school, and finding that college (or work, or travel) opens up a vast new world is an old, old story. It doesn't have "nothing to do with her and everything to do with him." It's growing up and growing apart.

Ann Landers gave virtually the same advice, but with less of a slap to the face:

Dear Ann Landers: My girlfriend and I have been dating for more than a year, and we've been having sex for the past 10 months. We are both 18. She seems certain I will marry her, although I never actually have proposed. I guess after we had sex, she assumed we would marry.

The problem is I don't want to continue this relationship any longer. Our personalities don't seem to mesh the way they used to, and she is beginning to get on my nerves. But I am afraid to break it off because it would be awfully hard on her. She has no idea that my feelings have cooled.

How can I end this relationship before it's too late? I do love my girlfriend but don't want to spend the rest of my life with her. What's the best way to do this without hurting her? — Hopelessly Entangled in New York

Dear New York: There are times in life when we have to be cruel to be kind. This is one of those times. Tell your girlfriend as soon as possible that you have come to the conclusion that you are both too young to be making any lifelong plans and that you want her to date other guys because you'd like to date other girls. Say, "We might end up together, but we both need to explore other options." AND NO MORE SEX. Period.

I like that Ann acknowledges that if a person who has made no lifetime commitments wants to end a relationship because they think there are better options out there, he or she has every right to do so (without being judged--please!). And that these people are really young! "Cruel to be kind" is cliche, but it fits the bill here. Carolyn Hax always puts it in terms that I like--everyone deserves the opportunity to find someone who loves and appreciates and wants to be with them more than anything--by staying in a relationship with someone you feel mediocre (or less) about, you're taking that opportunity away from them.

The only thing I take issue with is the "We might wind up together...." I don't think there's ever really any point in delivering this in the middle of a breakup, even if you really really do mean it, and in this case I don't think the guy wanted to give that impression at all. "Our personalities don't mesh," "she is beginning to get on my nerves," and "don't want to spend the rest of my life with her." Doesn't sound to me like he has any interest in maybe winding up together, and to suggest that he does, and then hope she'll forget or change her mind, does NOT soften the blow.

At 18, I ended a fairly serious relationship because I knew it just wasn't a good match for the long term and didn't want things to get any more serious than they already were. However, I did it clumsily, awkwardly, and out-of-the-bluishly, despite the fact that I'd been pondering and pondering and pondering it for a very long time. I think both Abby and Ann would tell me I should have been more careful with and respectful of a person who had always treated me well, and whom I, well, cared about and respected, and I should have been. I have a friend who at 21 was on the receiving end of a very painful, convoluted break up--they'd been together almost 5 years and it totally overturned her "life plan." But now, 3 years later, she wouldn't go back to where she was then.

Honesty and promptess are key. And there's often no way to avoid hurt feelings. But I think that for 18, 19, 20, etc.-year-olds to wriggle out of their high school relationships is a liberation, not an irresponsible failure to commit. I didn't do it well, and I wish I had done it better. But in terms of shaping the direction of my college experience--the people I met and the things I chose to do--it was probably one of the most important steps I took.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Happy "Out-of-line's" Day! (pt. II): in which we hear from actual columns, not just Becky's ranting

OK, I guess I'll just proceed....chronologically? Which means with Amy, since she jumped the gun by publishing a V-day question yesterday. Actually not a bad idea, since it gave the person some time to adjust their plans/attitudes. This first letter is exactly the kind of Valentwhiner that drives me nuts.

Dear Amy: Well, Valentine's Day is approaching once again, and I find myself alone. Once again.

I am a woman in my mid-30s, was briefly married many years ago and have had few relationships ever since. I feel as if I've tried absolutely everything to find a mate, and the results are, well, not great. Lots of dates, lots of duds.

I can't believe I have to suffer through another Valentine's Day with this feeling of loneliness deep in my heart.

Do you have any ideas? — Sad Single

Oh come on! This woman has this problem 365 days a year, and that's what makes me nuts. If you're sad about being single and desperately seeking a mate, that's an issue of its own. It takes what really might be a sad and depressing thing (I'm trying to give her some leeway, although people who fear singleness would be happier all around if they worked to get beyond that) to the level of ridiculousness when your reasoning behind wanting a mate is "I can't believe I have to suffer through another Valentine's Day with this feeling of loneliness deep in my heart." Let's not forget that the reason we celebrate is because St. Valentine suffered through St. Valentine's Day with feelings of horrific pain deep in his entire body. Amy wisely ignores the fact that it's Valentine's Day, and just treats the woman's real issue, her desire to make herself desirable.

This is a long one, and I might have enjoyed it more if I weren't so anti-schmoop. Basically this person advocates doing Valentine's Day just how I think it should be done, and most enjoy it myself. But they're just so....well, schmoopy about it. Again, I like the attitude they're advocating. I just can't stomach the bitterness topped with schmoop and nostalgia with which they're advocating it.

DEAR ABBY: I clearly remember my first Valentine's Day. I was in first grade. A few days before, my mom asked how many kids were in my class, and we went to a store and bought large packages of valentines -- one for every child in the class. The cards were all the same size and said, basically, the same thing.

When I arrived at school, each classmate had a small box on his or her desk. At some point during the day, I went around the room and gave each child a valentine. [So did're not like the magic fairy of Valentine's Day...] There was one for the quiet one in the back, the most popular girl in class, the prettiest and even the boys. This was long before society taught me that such a show of affection had to exclude people of the same gender as me. By the end of the day, everyone had a full box of valentines to take home.

One desk, one box ... the love of a child.

As I grew older, society taught me to narrow my offering of affection, picking only those I chose to be special or worthy. Eventually, I was taught to limit my valentines to only one person. More time went on, and then a card was not enough. To show that really special person what she meant to you, you needed to send flowers, candy and jewelry. [You don't! You don't!]

Apparently, as we grew older it took more and more to fill those boxes. Now we absolutely could not give to more than one person. People hire detectives to make sure that the person isn't filling anyone else's. [Yes, Valentine's Day means flowers, candy, jewelry AND FIDELITY. Society is asking too much!] And if you had no one to send you anything, you were saddened by your big, empty box filled only with sadness and despair. [empty box of sadness and despair? Jeebus.]

Today, I am taking back from society what it has taken from me. [You go!] I'm counting how many people play a role in my life, and I am buying "virtual" packages of cards. I have one for every single one of you -- man or woman, young or old, straight or gay, married or single. Each card is the same size, they all say the same thing -- that I appreciate who you are and what you have to contribute to each other. [You could buy a pack of NON-VIRTUAL valentines and ACTUALLY SEND THEM to the people you care about....]

I invite each and every one to do the same, so that no box is empty and the shy ones, the pretty ones, the popular ones and those who are less so go home tonight with a full box of valentines.

One virtual desk, one virtual box, and the love of a child at heart. I wish you all a happy Valentine's Day. -- ERIC IN LOS ALAMITOS, CALIF.


And on to Carolyn's live chat (my link-maker isn't working right now, so I'll try to link it up later), which has a number of delightful and less delightful bits and pieces from all types.

Washington, D.C.: Dear Carolyn,

My fiance (of three months) threw a lamp at me. It missed me and hit the wall leaving a big hole in it. I don't know if he was aiming specifically for me. (He would say he wasn't trying to hit me, and that he was just mad. We'd been fighting a little that night and he was trying to go to bed when I interrupted him.) He told me to sleep on the couch, which I did. I packed up my things and left his house the next morning. It's been seven days now, and he has not called me to apologize, or anything. I'm almost 40, he's 46, and I really wanted to marry this man who I still love very much. Should I forgive him, should he eventually call me to apologize profusely?

Please, what do you think I should do? It's Valentines's tomorrow, and I wonder if he'll send me flowers. Pathetic, I know.

-- Still holding my breath.

Oh no! Oh no! Just so you know, Carolyn puts this woman straight in touch with the appropriate services to get her safe, and help her realize that she DOES NOT WANT FLOWERS FROM THIS GUY. If Valentine's Day can twist our minds around this much, THAT is a problem for sure.

Not as bad as a lamp, but...: My fiance and I had a big, yelling (non-violent) fight yesterday and have been cooling off, so to speak, since then. I haven't called him and he hasn't called me either, by mutual agreement. With Valentine's Day tomorrow, though, I'm wondering whether I should suck up my anger and drop by with the gifts I had bought him. I don't want to intrude on his healing space before he's ready, what do you think?

Another one--no violence, but letting valentine's day affect the course of the relationship--Carolyn advises her to focus on her own healing and health, and then the fiance's, and not obsess about the stupid gifts.

And less traumatic:

Valentine's Day: With all of these very serious issues coming up regarding Valentine's Day, I'll share a not-so-serious one. I work at a museum. Someone called yesterday and asked, "Are you open this Saturday, even though it's Valentine's Day?"


Hypertension City : My boyfriend is on a diet and trying to drop 50 pounds. For V-Day, I want to cook him a big, delicious dinner to celebrate all the progress he's made--and also just because the dish I'm making is one of his favorite dinners. I don't mean it as sabotage, just a nice thing to do for him. Is this sort of morally wrong of me?

Carolyn suggests it is at least unsupportive, and that gifts of food should support the new lifestyle change that losing 50 pounds involves.

and again with the Valentwhiners:

Getting a Grip on Valentine's Day: Any advice for how the single with no prospects 30-something can get through this weekend without silently going postal?

Carolyn Hax: Welllll ... you can remind yourself that it's silly, and that it's celebrated with the most gusto by people under 7 years old ... which actually makes it very not silly, but you get what I mean.

And, if that doesn't stick, then I would suggest using tonight and tomorrow to reach out to people who could really use the attention you want so badly to receive. A local hospital, senior center, homeless shelter, food bank--place a few calls to see who'd be happy for a couple of extra hands. Even if tomorrow is too soon to plan for a visit, you can spend the day making/gathering/buying something to deliver next weekend.

Thank you Carolyn!!!!!! And this guy :

New York, NY: Why not make a few valentines cards for veterans at a local VA hospital? Most of the guys that live there are widowers or don't have a lot of family/friends left. A card (or a visit, even better) makes a huge difference in their week.

And another:

30-something with no prospects: I understand the advice to look outside yourself when you are feeling lonely, but please don't dismiss the 30-something question as a matter of seeking attention. It's more anxiety than that -- it's worrying whether you will ever meet the right person, whether you will ever have the children you want, whether you'll be able to afford a home on a single income, etc. It can be a hopeless feeling (I was 30-something with no prospects once too). And Valentine's Day just makes it more in-your-face.

Carolyn Hax: I know. I do understand. But I think you misread my answer--I wasn't referring to attention-seeking of the look-at-me variety, I was referring to the loving attention of an Other. It's an ache for something you can't just go out and get. The best I can suggest, in those cases, is to give, which is something you can control. That's all I meant by it.

That, and to try to detach it from the holiday.

Exactly! All of these problems are real, but have nothing to do with Feb. 14.

And to wrap up:

Single and V-Day: I've always been single on Valentines Day. I've come to think of it like a Jewish holiday. I'm Catholic so I don't celebrate them but I think those who do should celebrate with gusto.


Oh---probably should explain the title. Carolyn coined "Out of line's Day" because so many of the issues that came up in her chat (most of them unrelated to V-Day actually) involved people being totally, unreasonably, irrationally out of line.

And with that--enjoy (or don't) your day in the manner to which you are accustomed!

Happy "Out-of-line's" Day! (courtesy of Carolyn)

Valentine's Day is here which, along with Christmas and wedding season, seems to be for advice columnists what tax season is to accountants. (Hm...I thought it was a clever analogy but I didn't express it very efficiently. Alas.) Today's post will feature a selection of Valentine's Day questions and concerns published in the last couple of days. The issues's a real hodgepodge.

Before we begin, I'd like to lay out my Valentine's Day perspective (even though most people reading this blog have already heard it 100 times...). I really like that Valentine's Day exists, and choose to celebrate it mostly like second grader: giving out lots of cards and consuming lots of candy. My favorite part of Valentine's Day each year is when I get a Valentine from my grandma with $1 in it. It's completely inexplicable, the amount has never been adjusted for age or inflation, and I love love love it every year. This year my $1 will support the purchase of a pitcher of beer at "Bad Decision Thursday" happy hour. The picture is me celebrating uber-classy Valentine's Day 2007 at the Pub II in Bloomington Illinois. With my friend's husband, Adam. Which isn't as sketchy as it sounds.

I've spent Valentine's Days with SOs and without and like the platonic, widespread cards'n'candy part the best no matter my status (more on this later from an Abby contributor). That being said, I have nothing against people who choose to do hearts and flowers and jewelry (although I admit escalating it to a day of "hard" gifts--metal and jewels--is a bit excessive). If that's what you like, do it.

What drives me NUTS around V-Day are the aggressive, bitter folk who 1) "don't know how they're supposed to get through ANOTHER Valentine's Day in this state of lonely singleness" and 2) Bitch and moan that they hate Valentine's Day and think it's a stupid overcommercialized holiday in which they're pressured to spend too much money and express their love in artificial ways. Because really? You're not. If you want to do it, do it. If not--don't, and enjoy the half-off candy the next day (more on this attitude later from Carolyn's live chat).

So that's the view from where I'm standing...on to the remaining perspectives! Hm, this post got a little long, so maybe I'll post the contributors separately. Yes, I will.

Friday, February 13, 2009

(Not) Kissing Cousins

This delightful person was published in Ask Amy this morning:

Dear Amy: Please help me think generous thoughts regarding an invitation to a wedding "reception" I just received from a cousin in another state. All my siblings got an invitation, even the one who lives 1,000 miles away.
We cousins rarely meet up. We all have little kids, and it's a no-kids evening reception, a three-hour drive from our homes, with no indication that a baby-sitter will be provided, though a motel's business card was included with the invitation.
This couple is not young. They've been married for a few months now, so it's just a reception at a VFW, and at that late hour, dinner is probably not even included.
If she really wanted more distant relatives to attend, she would have planned a more hospitable event, right? Or she could have sent an announcement — to let us off the hook.
I probably will send something out of a sense of obligation, but my heart's not in it. At least no registry junk was in the envelope. But honestly, isn't this invitation just a grasp for gifts?

— Hunting for Good Will

JEEBUS! Really? I guess this means I can cut from my list all those people our parents want us to invite--I mean God knows I don't want them to feel obligated. This person is a real pill. "If she really wanted more distant relatives to attend, she would have planned amore hospitable event, right?" Yes. Because the wedding reception is actually designed to be dinner and a show, a free date for you with babysitting for your children. Given the attitude this person is displaying, I find it hard to believe the couple would even want them there. Likely they invited them NOT for the gifts, but to placate either their own parents or the cousins' parents (B&G's aunts and uncles). And most likely they invited the most distant one because they felt it would be rude to include some but not all of one group of cousins.

I have to say the whole thing is even MORE distasteful precisely the because B&G seem to be having a reasonable, well-contained event. This letter doesn't say anything about their personalities or tastes, but for an older (well, not overly young) couple to have a late evening reception at the VFW several months after their wedding (elopment? Destination wedding?) suggests a low-key, informal, fun and festive celebration with friends. They didn't include their registration stuff with the invitation because they're NOT tacky and trolling for gifts. And because you're never ever supposed to. Just because you get together "rarely" doesn't mean you shouldn't make the effort at major events like weddings and funerals...though if I were the B I would be praying this sourpuss didn't show. Or even send a gift, because I know my thank you note would be misconstrued and judged.

Also, this is the second condescending mention of a "VFW wedding" I've come across in less than 24 hours (the other one was in a Carolyn Hax chat transcript from 1999, but still). I didn't know there was such a rage against holding the reception in a VFW. I mean, if you've had lifelong dreams of your princess wedding, it might not be ideal--but then no one's FORCING you to do it there--you could be at a park, a restaurant, someone's home--work it out. If you're a GUEST commenting on the lameness of a VFW have no soul.

The cousin has kids and speaks in the royal/married "we," so likely has been through a wedding of her own--perhaps she's harboring bitter memories about it? The gift she didn't get from this cousin? Or the fact that she cut this cousin because she couldn't afford to host her, and now feels like she's being shown up and judged because she HAS been invited to this one? Who knows??

Thanks, Amy, for telling this person off:

Dear Hunting: Please forgive this couple for having the nerve to invite you to a party to celebrate their wedding. Evidently this event is not to your liking, but I have been to many rollicking good parties at the VFW, featuring beer, chicken wings, music and dancing. This modest party might be all the couple can afford, and if so, then they should be commended for adhering to a reasonable budget.
If you don't want to attend this reception, then don't. If you don't want to send a gift, then don't. But don't blame this couple for throwing a party and inviting you to it. That's just rude.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Lunch Crowd

From Miss Manners:

Dear Miss Manners: I am appalled that on more than several occasions, I have had friends, family or employers assume that since they don’t have lunch (during an entire day when I’m helping them), neither do I.

At the very least, I would like them to state, “I don’t have lunch, but you’re welcome to do so at this time, if you chose.” I don’t think it’s my place to bring it up, since I’m on their turf.
I end up very starving and very angry. In my opinion, it’s highly disrespectful to assume that someone who is helping you has no interest in lunch. I would never let a friend, relative or employee go without lunch, and I am amazed that people even consider conducting themselves in this manner.

Gentle Reader: Feeling grouchy, are we? Have a sandwich; you’ll feel better.
Miss Manners cannot offer you one at the moment, but she can offer you the means to get one. Simply ask, “When are we breaking for lunch?” While your hosts certainly should have offered, it is not odd for you to ask because, you point out, lunch is part of the normal routine.
Should the answer be “Oh, I never have lunch,” you can cheerfully reply, “Well, I do, so I think I’ll take a break and go get some.” In cases where you are doing a favor, you might add,
“So maybe we should break for the day.”

I can definitely see this from both sides of the (lunch) table. I get cranky when I don't eat and need to if I'm to maintain my sanity and to keep working through the day. But I'm also known for not breaking for official meals. I'll snack or graze, or decide to take lunch at 4:30 or something, and tend to feel constricted by folk who need to stop and sit down with a sandwich, a milk carton, an apple, and a cookie at precisely noon for Lunch. Nevertheless, the folks who do are smarter than I am: they know they need the break and the fuel, and take it. Everyone's different and runs on a different schedule.

I have to say though, that as a sporadic eater who half the time forgets to feed herself, it can be exhausting to keep track of which people you're working/socializing with need to eat specific meals at specific times and make plans to meet all of their needs. As Miss Manners suggests, if this is you, I think you should just say so and take care of it yourself. (This is different when you're a guest somewhere and your host has the responsibility for making sure you have the things you need--this can still wear me out as hostess because I forget--not because I'm evil and sadistic--but it's still my job and one I took on).

When you're working on a project together (at work or with friends or relatives) it's your own job to stand up for yourself and eat when you need to--don't expect others to take care of it for you. Especially "during an entire day when [you're] helping them"--these kind of help-days are more common, I think, with older relatives. They may not feel the need to eat as much, or may not have the means to treat you to lunch. Alternatively, workaholics may get so into what they're doing they have no idea how much time has passed.

Just as you shouldn't have to skip lunch to accommodate them, they shouldn't have to stop working and eat because you want to. Just eat (or don't) as you choose!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Bedside Manners?

I feel like I've been pushing Abby a lot the last few weeks--her columns have just been more interesting, featuring issues slightly more outside the norm (from "my neighbors think my son is my secret lover!" to "my friend may be harming her child by keeping her booze in his line of sight!"), funny writers, sassy answers, or all of the above.

There's nothing too wild about this one, but it's the second most entertaining issue of the day (after the son/lover issue linked above).

A woman has a question about etiquette. Or does she?

DEAR ABBY: My husband and I are having a "debate," and I hope you can help. When dining out in a restaurant, is it proper etiquette to ask for a taste from another person's plate? -- WHAT'S MINE IS MINE IN MAINE

Of course, she doesn't clarify if the food-sharing is going on between herself and her husband, or if others are involved, but I can't help but think that "etiquette" doesn't really apply within a marriage. And I don't think that to say that is the same as suggesting that married folk shouldn't treat each other with as much respect and politeness as they would others. They should--but there's also a level of comfort and intimacy there, or should be, since it's, um, a marriage (sorry for the excessive commas...)

If this woman doesn't want her husband to eat off her plate, she shouldn't choose (or need) to recourse to dining etiquette. She should be able to say, "please don't do that," and he should respect her request. No mediation necessary! (Actually, I feel like you should be able to do that in any social need to say "You have broken rule 142.A.62 of dining out at a mid-scale chain restaurant on Tuesdays." Personal preference can have just as much weight, and in many cases deserves as much respect, as etiquette.)

Abby, like me, made a speculative stab at what the real heart of the issue was:

DEAR W.M.I.M.: I have never heard of any rule of etiquette that forbids asking for a bite. If you're afraid your husband will take too much, place a small portion on your bread plate and pass it to him.

Why Must You Be Such a Secret Young Man?

From Abby, 2/11/2009:

DEAR ABBY: I have tried to have cordial relations with my neighbors, but do not have particularly close friendships with any of them.

A little over a year ago, a young man started coming to my home on a regular basis whenever my wife was out of town. After a while, he began spending the night with me when she was away.

Evidently, some of my neighbors noticed these visits and started gossiping about it, spreading the rumor that I am gay and that this young guy is my lover. More recently, however, he has spent the night when my wife is present, so now my neighbors think something kinky is going on.

At times I am puzzled by this. At other times I am angry at their arrogance and gall. The explanation is simple: The young man is my son from a previous relationship. Because we were prevented from having contact when he was a child, we are now trying to establish a relationship -- and we are making progress. My wife and other children have been wonderfully supportive in all this.

I really don't want to tell my neighbors what's going on because it will inevitably lead to a disclosure of some things that are really none of their business. But I am troubled by the rumor that I have a young male lover. What do you think I should do? -- I'M HIS DAD IN VIRGINIA

I love the way this guy structures his narrative so that Abby, and presumably us as well, will be tricked into making the same incorrect assumption that his neighbors did. Rather than explaining his problem and asking for help, he throws in the son as a surprise twist at the end. Ha!

I wonder how he knows what they think, or where he heard the rumor...and how he reacted to that information. A simple "What? No, Josh is family!" to whomever he heard it from might have ended things without requiring full disclosure.

Also, I mean, of course this guy has a right to meet up with his son on any terms he deems appropriate, and his neighbors shouldn't be spying out the windows...BUT...doesn't seem a little odd to develop your relationship with your adult son in your home in the middle of the night while your wife's away? Why not meet for coffee or lunch? Or come over for dinner and, um....not stay the night? Yes, his neighbors are in the wrong for making presumptions, and more so for spreading rumors. But they probably wouldn't all be coming to the same conclusion if this guys' comings and goings didn't come off as clandestine. Do they assume all guests to the home are secret lovers? There's probably something generally secretive--perhaps demonstrably so--about this. This guy seems to like toying with his neighbors as much as he likes toying with Abby and her readership.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Eloquent Amy: Wordsmith of the Awkward Moment

I've written before about how one concrete and vital way that advice columnists can give real help to people they don't know, and don't know much about, is to use their knack for the vernacular to provide a script--a neutral, polite, and effective one--for the painful and awkward moments that leave many of us speechless. Amy had a great one today.

The issue is a grandmother who obviously favors her biological grandchildren over her step-grandchilren and shows it with the number and type of gifts she gives. This is an issue that Carolyn encounters all the time. I've seen it addressed less by Amy, but the words she gives today for explaining to the kids are, I think, resonant and just right. (I should note that this issue may be of particular importance to Amy these days: this summer she re-married, building a fairly large blended family with her daughter and her husband's several children).

Amy's response also speaks to another issue Carolyn has addressed a lot lately: what to do when a grandparent shows their imperfections, to the detriment of children or family? Carolyn recommends that, except in situations of abuse, it is valuable for children to know even their most "difficult" family members, to appreciate people as complex, multi-faceted beings, and to be loved by as many people as possible--even those who may clash with mom and dad or show their love in atypical ways. I appreciate that Amy doesn't say "tell Grandma to treat the kids equally or she'll never see them again because you can't trust her to respect your family's rules."

Rather, she gives the mom the tools to equip her kids to recognize and adjust to unfairness in the world, without losing their sense of self and self confidence:

Dear Disappointed: You and your husband have already tried to deal with this in a straightforward and honest way by talking directly to his mother about this. That's the best response to her behavior.

Your kids are old enough to discuss this with you, so, in advance of the next gift-giving occasion your husband should take the lead by saying, "Grandma seems to enjoy giving lopsided gifts. I'm sure you've noticed this. I am not happy that she doesn't treat you all the same and have asked her to change, but she refuses. I guess she's really set in her ways. This embarrasses me, but it shouldn't embarrass you. Please try not to feel bad about what you do — or don't — receive, and always remember that we love you equally.

Grandma just can't seem to adjust to our new family as well as you all have."

To the point, neutral, supportive of the kids, and acknowledging grandma's bad behavior without criminalizing her. Go Amy!

**Reading again....I guess it does criminalize Grandma a bit: she "enjoys" giving lopsided gifts and "refuses" to change. I think it's right to let your kids know that you're aware of and don't agree with or support the disparity--but what do you think about the tone? Is something like "Grandma can't seem to understand" or "Grandma doesn't get why this is so important to us..." just as functional, or do we go with the blunter but harsher "grandma refuses to do anything about it"?

Play It Again Sports

I typically haven't extended one issue beyond a single blog post with (at most) an update in light of new information. But clearly I had a lot to say about sports, quitting them, and the effect this has on the participants, and the topic just won't go away! Yesterday a single dad wrote in to Abby expressing concern that his son has totally lost touch with reality due to his success in sports and the way this has shaped his perception of himself:

DEAR ABBY: My youngest son, "Trent," is 17. At a very early age it became apparent that he was a gifted athlete. Years of stellar performance in baseball and other sports have elevated him to a high social status -- and it has created a rift between us.

Trent has become unmanageable. He regards my influence, direction and discipline to be nothing more than a daily hindrance. Somewhere in the sports mania, I lost control as a father.

As his only parent (and support), I wonder how many other parents are really aware of the crushing burden and peer pressure these young people experience in the quest for athletic perfection. I have and always will support my son's goals, but I see a disassociation with reality while he revels in his status. A college scholarship is a given.

Is my issue unique? Do you have any advice for me? -- SPORTS DAD DOWN SOUTH

My question is, back to the issue I was addressing the other day, who got "Trent" into sports in the first place? Who made sure he was on the right teams and had the right specialized training to always give a "stellar" performance? Has "Trent" really changed, or have the circumstances simply changed, and now he's calling the shots (as it were) instead of Dad, while baseball (and other sports) remain the core of the family as they always have? Has Trent really been shaped by "peer pressure"? Or parental pressure? As a parent you can't argue that a child has "somehow" been intensely and obsessively involved in any activity without considering who paid for the lessons, who did the driving, and who set the tone for wins, losses, success and failure in the household.

Abby's response focuses on the dad's need to gradually trust and let go--as any parent must of any child leaving the nest--and hope that the values and skills he imparted to his son will serve him well as an adult:

...There comes a point when parents have to start trusting that the values they have instilled in their offspring are deeply rooted enough to guide them in the right direction in the coming years. You cannot supervise and influence your son much more than you already have. So my advice is to keep the lines of communication open and to start letting go. Life will teach him lessons that will bring him back down to earth eventually...

She avoids the sports issue completely, which is probably more objective and more to the point, addressing the real crux of his trouble. I just can't help but feel that the dad wants to be screaming, "I've created a monster!"...only he's unwilling to take the responsibility for it. You can't blame athletic prowess for creating a rift between you and your son--plenty of gifted athletes love and respect and are close to their parents. Intense sports may add pressure for both of you--but that means you can't just blame him, or the sports and not examine your own role. This didn't just "happen." Everyone has a part to play.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Looking for Trouble?

Today's totally random post of the day comes from Dear Abby:

DEAR ABBY: I have a friend who leaves full bottles of liquor on her kitchen table for days at a time. She has an 8-year-old son who eats at the table. Is this good for the boy, or can it affect him in any way? I need to know if I should say something. -- RUTH IN DAYTONA BEACH

and Abby says:

DEAR RUTH: Unless you have reason to think that your friend's son is sampling the booze, I see no reason for you to interfere. You did say they were FULL bottles of liquor, didn't you?

What? What is this? Is she concerned about the image, that the child will come to associate booze with breakfast cereal? Or that the toxic liquor will leach through the glass, through the table, and into his undeveloped bones? Or that he's being invited/encouraged/tempted to sample? Or perhaps that he's learning it's OK not to put groceries away promptly? I don't understand the aim of her question. And since Abby doesn't seem to either, I'm not really sure why she opted to publish this one out of the thousands of letters written to her each week by people who actually have problems.

**Upon reflection and discussion** I have decided that if you keep alcohol in your house and are concerned that your child may get into it, the kitchen table is the BEST place to keep it. It's much harder for them to snitch it in broad daylight/the middle of the house than it would be from a cupboard under the sink or above the fridge. And locking it up? That only makes it more "forbidden." When you eat your cereal and read the label of the vodka bottle, the mystery and romance is gone. And you also see the surgeon general's warnings.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

More thoughts: Quitters never Win?

I realize that my last post was from the perspective of a decided non-athlete, and I wanted to look at it more from the angle of people who DO like and ARE good at sports. (Of course, it's still filtered through my attitudes, but I can't help that....)

For example, SWK played soccer his whole life, and left the team before his senior year of high school. He was never getting played, and he wanted to spend his senior year not putting in all those hours for practice and workouts, and then sitting on the bench every game. It wasn't a self-righteous tantrum about not getting to play--the payoff was just no longer worth what he was putting into it, so he stopped and focused on other things (he was also first chair in his section in band, for example). He still loves soccer and plays with his friends and family every chance he gets.

For some--especially raised in team sport mentality--that would definitely seem like a bad-quit. He couldn't "stick it out" one more year to say that he finished? But what if he had--what would he have achieved? The right to say "I played soccer for four years in high school" instead of three years? A felt letter that would sit in a drawer, because he didn't have a jacket it sew it to? Wooo!

His brother, PWK, stayed with soccer through high school, and selected his college based on his plan to play on their soccer team. He ended up leaving the team his freshman year, but staying at that school. Turns out they don't offer the field he wants to study--now, he's about to graduate, and is considering starting over with another bachelor's at a new school to get into the field he wants.

Tunnel vision about any activity, and not placing into the larger context of your life, can sap your time (years of it) and energy, and paint you into a corner. This is absolutely not exclusive to sports, but it does seem to happen more often there than elsewhere.

I'm not suggesting you should only play sports if you know you're going to want to stick with it all the way and have a shot at going pro. On the contrary...I think you should play sports, as well as participate in any hobby or activity, as long as you're getting out of it at least as much as you're putting in, and it's enhancing, not hindering, the rest of your life. It's important to maintain the distance and objectivity to be able to step away from it when you cross that line.

O Brother, What Art Thou?

I started my Saturday by reading the transcript of Carolyn's live chat from yesterday. (Is there any other way to start the weekend than with a cup of coffee and an advice columnist chat transcript?)

The situation of a woman who wrote in really struck a chord with me. She had 10-year-old twin sons and it's time to decide whether or not to sign them up for baseball. They don't really like to play, she says, and show no interest in getting better. They'd rather not sign up, but their dad (who she admitted was not available to take an active role in getting them to practices, games, etc.) was insistent. The mom had mixed feelings...her biggest concern seemed to be that they'd be missing a lesson about "sticking with" things. She also said they like biking, swimming, kung fu, basketball...just not baseball.

This makes me nuts! If we had to "stick with" everything we ever tried indefinitely, I would be a dancer, baseball/softball player, gymnast, potter/artist, horseback rider, pianist, floor hockey player, black belt in karate, actress, choir member, badminton player, clarinetist AND saxophonist....etc.

Wait, scratch that. I would only be a dancer and a softball player, because those were the first two organized activities I ever tried, and there wouldn't have been room for anything else. A DANCER and a SOFTBALL PLAYER. Me. I would be miserable and not good at the activities that consumed my life--which is why I stopped doing them in the first place. Childhood and adolescence should be a time to try out a number of different skills, seeing what you're good at and what you like, and shaping yourself from there. You have to stick with it, sure...but it also has to stick a bit on its own. My brother and I always, always finished the season/session, but were never required to sign up again the next year.

(P.S., looking back at that list, it seems that I was quite a spaz. But it's not that I was signing up at random for particularly exclusive/expensive training in any of these things--horseback riding was probably the only one, and I'm grateful I had a shot to try it. Mostly they were park district things or school-sponsored activities I just wanted to find out more about, and enjoyed--but had no reason to commit to)

I did stick with band, writing, and major involvement in my church youth group and choir, and had a part-time job practically from the day I turned 16 (and stuck with the same one until I went to college, even working while home on break until the store where I worked closed). But enough about me--this issue resonated with me so much that I wanted to write in to Carolyn about it. I think my parents' flexibility in letting my brother and I choose our activities, experiment, and move in new directions was incredibly valuable. We learned self-discipline--we also learned to value our time and prioritize our passions, interests, obligations and choices because our schedules were not predetermined. So I wrote to Carolyn, in what ended up being an Ode to my Cool Brother. I think he and I did a lot of the same kind of things in terms of trying (and yes, quitting) different activities. But since the original chatter was asking about boys and about baseball, his life seemed to fit the situation better. So here's what I wrote to Carolyn:

Hi Carolyn and team,

The baseball twins from yesterday's chat remind me of my brother. When he was little he was in park district soccer and baseball and played on a church basketball team. He didn't really take to any of these things--never wanted go to practice, didn't show or develop much skill, and worst, just didn't enjoy the atmosphere of being on the team and playing the game. He was an anomaly among his friends because of this. [Forgot to include this to Carolyn, but he was also often frustrated and embarrassed. I have this really painful memory of his end-of-the-year soccer dinner where the coach played "we are the champions" on a boombox and each kid had to stand on a chair to be gazed upon, talked about by the coach, and receive a trophy. BJW either pouted through it, or hammed it up inappropriately, and got a "talking to" afterwards. Really he was just incredibly uncomfortable with the whole thing]. He got through the sports for a few years, and when he said he wanted to quit, my parents, despite possible reservations, let him make the call.

He, like the twins in the chat, took up karate and excelled at it for a number of years. He got involved in drama in junior high, and was basically the head of the tech department by his senior year of high school. He was still an anomaly, in that his individuality and creativity made him the rock star of his high school. He performed a killer Jimi Hendrix-style national anthem at the homecoming pep rally his senior year, and was voted prom king, despite (because of?) attending prom dressed as a pirate. He took up guitar lessons in third grade, with much discussion from my parents about the need to practice and stick with it. [another addendum: in 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade, he performed Beatles songs with three other kids in the elementary school talent show. They were always one of the few groups to actually play and sing, not just choreograph a kickline to the pop music of their choice]. Now at 22 he's a music composition major, teaches guitar to kids and adults (works 20+ hours a week while in school full time), and runs an amateur recording studio out of his living room.

If the issue is getting exercise, he doesn't "work out" or play sports, but he does walk several miles a day from the train station to his university (he commutes). If the issue is learning to work with a team, he did that with the tech crew, and still does with his job, where they all contribute to running a small, family-owned music shop (not our family, though he's become basically part of theirs). By nature he's more of an individual worker--so am I--but he's not incapable of working with others. There are many ways to achieve the ends of physical fitness and teamwork mindset.

It drives me nuts when parents define abandoning any sport or activity as "quitting." I think making it through the season and then opting not to do it again the next year is perfectly legitimate. Of course getting to the end of the season is important for all kinds of reasons--not letting down the team and coach by disappearing, not wasting money, and simply practicing self-discipline. But if signing up for something and giving it a fair shot isn't enough for us to make a decision about whether or not to continue, how will we ever find the time to try new things?

I think the worst possible consequence would be to teach your children to hang back from trying new sports, activities, clubs, etc. because they fear they won't be able to get out of it if they don't like it or don't have the skill.

Becky in Ann Arbor

Friday, February 6, 2009

A Message from the Great Beyond....

A gentleman wrote in to Amy today to ask a question on behalf of himself and his 85-year-old mother. They were finding that many of the older widows they knew were not re-recording the outgoing message on their answering machines, but rather leaving their husbands' voice as the greeting. The writer found this "disconcerting" and wondered, "Does hearing the voice when screening calls offer some form of solace?"

I highly doubt it's anywhere near that complicated. My first thought, keeping my own grandma--and her rather flustered outgoing answering machine message--in mind, was that these women simply couldn't figure out how to re-record the message. Amy suggested the same:

I can think of two explanations — either hearing their husband's voice from time to time brings solace, or they can't quite figure out how to rerecord an outgoing message (I would join them in this frustration).

To me, it also seems likely that the ladies forget that they "need" to change the message (if they do in fact want to.) It may be almost as much a surprise to them to hear their husband's voice on the machine each time it plays as to anyone else. Likely they make a mental note to change it, or ask someone to help them change it, but in the long run, it's not so important, or it's not part of the daily routine, and it gets dropped, only to resurface the next time it happens.

I'm not trying to be age-ist, or assume that every woman in her eighties is in her dotage, as that's certainly not the case. But, like I said, I have a grandma, and that grandma has an answering machine....I'm speaking from a certain amount of personal experience.

Another odd twist in the letter....I'm not really sure that many older ladies "screen" their calls. Again, maybe I'm just narrowing my perspective to my own grandparent experiences, and maybe it would be a good idea if they DID screen more often, rather than rushing to pick up the phone, or getting caught by solicitors or even scam artists. But from what I've seen of this generation, they are unlikely to use the machine to distance themselves from interaction with others. To me it seems sort of suspicious to assume that they're sitting there screening...but maybe I associate a stigma with call screening that no longer exists.

The original writer wrote in mainly because he and his 85-year-old mother found the situation "disconcerting." My guess is that when she calls her friends or family and gets a voice from beyond, she is either upset by it, or confused and can't remember a) that the person has died or b) the opposite--how they could possibly be speaking to her.

This is just sucky all's very hard to watch your parents or grandparents lose their confidence and their sense of security and awareness about their environment. This sort of thing really could throw a person, and either be quite upsetting, or in the passing of time and activity, get jumbled to the extent that she believes she really did speak with the person who owns the voice. Unfortunately, I don't know that there's much to do about it. If the other ladies are close friends or relatives (or at least know the son), he might ask them if they would like or need some help re-recording their message to "keep current." They might be pleased and grateful, they might wonder why he's asking, or they might not want to change it at all, and that's all fine.

More internally, if it is his mother who is having trouble calling her friends and getting the voice of a dead husband, perhaps he could create a list and post it near her emergency numbers, to remind her that Fred's voice is still on Ethel's answering machine message, and not to be alarmed. It sounds odd, and might look odd to others (would those numbers hang neatly inside a kitchen cabinet door?) but might be helpful, and prevent one more episode of disconcertedness in the march towards aging (and, sorry, this is morbid for a Friday morning) that disconcerts us all.

Links: Weak!

I just realized, to my chagrin, that more often than not when linking to columns on this blog, I link to the columnists main page, not to the specific column I want (with the date or ID number specifying it in the URL). This happens because I'm usually writing about a column on the same day it was posted, so it shows up on the main page. Also I'm usually either writing early in the morning or late at night and I'm not really with it.

Anyway, it's unfortunate because (obviously) those links don't work after 24 hours, or a week at most. I tried to go back and fix, but most papers don't let you browse back more than a couple of weeks (I do think that correctly linked columns will take you back to older content, I just can't seem to get to it without the link).

I apologize for my poor blogging/archiving technique! And resolve to do better in the future.

Thursday, February 5, 2009


It seems Amy's been getting a great deal of publicity for her new book, and perhaps (according to some) riding the coattails of her predecessor, Ann Landers, a little too closely. Ann Landers' daughter, Margo, has plenty to say about it, and she did so in today's column. HOLY COW! The Etta James/Beyonce @** whooping scandal is nothing compared to this. It's too late at night to dissect and analyze, so for now I'll just link and post. But whoa--right down to the icy "dear" in the last line.

Dear Amy: I have a problem. My distress has actually been going on since 2002, the year my mother died. As many people know, my mother was Ann Landers, and she was Ann Landers for 47 years. That's a long time to build a brand … and build a brand she did.

Because the name "Ann Landers" was iconic in the second half of the 20th century, people often tell me whenever they hear or see the name now — seven years after her death. Alas, mostly they are hearing it from you. And therein lies my problem.

Most recently you did some television promotion on "Good Morning, America," "The View" and God knows where else. You allowed people, if not encouraged them, to consider you "the new Ann Landers." Well, you are not the "new" Ann Landers because there is no "new" Ann Landers. It is a copyrighted name and trademark, and what that means is that no one else can use it — not to write under, and not to promote themselves.

Before they had fired most everyone at the Tribune (your home paper), a few top editors were informed that introducing you as "the new Ann Landers" was skating close to copyright infringement.They backed off — for a while. But then (because the newspaper business is in trouble and you are flogging a book?) there began yet another round of publicity touting you as the new, well … you know.

In short, when the Tribune hired and syndicated you, that made you their new advice columnist, period. You are no more "the new Ann Landers" than Carolyn Hax, Dan Savage or any of the dozens of advice columnists who were bought by newspapers to fill the space previously occupied by my mother.

By law, the only person who would have been able to become "the new Ann Landers" was me. And that was nothing I chose to do. You see, dear, even I knew that there could only be one Ann Landers. — Margo Howard

Ok, I do have to add just one thing. I looked up the Trib's bio of Amy, to see what they really said about her. Most of the bio lists Amy's many experiences and accomplishments as a journalist, writer, and radio contributor. They mentioned Ann Landers once, as a segue--to say that Amy's column replaced hers is simply fact, not promotion, and I think they were nothing less than respectful and accurate in how they stated it. The potentially offensive paragraph is:

Amy Dickinson joined Chicago Tribune in July 2003 as the newspaper's signature general advice columnist, following in the tradition of the legendary Ann Landers.

I smell a copyright suit! Oh wait, that's just some burning plastic....

**Days later: burning plastic? What? What did I mean by that? Oh well.**

SASA: Sassy Abby Strikes Again

After a calm fall, Abby has snapped once again, and has been getting a little abrupt and snippy the last couple of days. Snark must be applied with a delicate hand, I've learned....I rarely feel attacked by Carolyn, only rarely by Amy, and more and more often by Abby.

This may also have to do with the way I perceive the columnists: Carolyn as a friend, Amy as my mom, and Abby as in her own special world. Actually, that probably has a great deal to do with it, and could be a whole separate post. So for now I'll just stick with Abby's one-liners of the week.


A grandma wrote in, concerned that her grandson was becoming an "exhibitionist." He works out a lot, and likes to show it off, always finding a reason to remove his shirt at family affairs and walk around with low-slung pants and shorts "almost showing places we do not wish to see." He does this it his own home, and at his grandmother's at holidays, etc. and she wants to know if this is normal and acceptable and, more immediately, how to get him to just tone it down.

Abby was reasonable enough, saying she could ask him to keep his shirt on at her house, but not at his own. But here's the real kicker: while you would prefer that your grandson polish other aspects of his persona, perhaps it's time to consider that this may be the most distinct achievement he's capable of. It isn't the end of the world. It has led to more than one career in show business -- and even politics.

Yikes! Whether your not your pecs are your "most distinct achievement," there is still value in cultivating a sense of modesty and social skill. Professional tuba players and trapeze artists don't whip out their moves in the middle of dinner; geniuses and dramatists who do without a disciplined sense of what's socially acceptable and appropriate are annoying and often not liked. I feel like Abby wrote this kid off--and let him off the hook--a little too quickly, and with unnecessary harshness.

Neeext! A man complains that his brother, a rookie policeman at 38, also inappropriately demonstrates his distinctive skill set--subduing someone resisting arrest. He has apparently used his skillz both on the brother and on the brothers' small children--great! Bullying the defenseless, AND teaching them to fear the police!

Abby said to tell him if it occurs again, they'll file a report with the police chief. And then do it, because "
he's sadistic and not very bright" and "It is officers like your brother who give law enforcement a bad name."

I agree with her on this one. There's not much wiggle room and there's no point in mincing words. Frankly I'm surprised someone prone to physically dominating children (their relatives no less) passed the psychological evaluations necessary to get on a police force.


A woman wrote in complaining that her mother had a strange habit of going out of her way to keep in touch with all her exes--starting when she was a teenager and continuing through to the present day. She was pretty much "over it" (well, kind of) until the mother (now a grandmother) did the same thing to her adult granddaughter--going out of her way to maintain relations with a guy after his three-year relationship with the granddaughter ended. Writer wants to know if they should just not introduce anyone to grandma until a wedding. I'm printing all of Abby's answer because it fits in the short and sweet category, but is perplexingly useless. She gives commentary, but no advice.

DEAR SICK OF THE EX-FACTOR: You're within your rights to do that. However, I find it odd that not only does your mother have such a hard time letting go of these men, but also that all of them seem to have a hard time letting go of her. I could see this happening once -- but that it's happening with all of them seems peculiar.

Peculiar indeed. But other than slightly turning the tables and casting suspicion on the men as well, what good is this answer?

And just one more doozy: an older gentleman jogs regularly in a park or other public area, and is distressed that his nods, smiles, and greetings go generally unreturned by other joggers. His logic led him to believe that women (especially young attractive ones) were right to ignore him, because they naturally thought he might be a rapist/killer, but everyone else was rude not to respond. He found this logic defied by the fact that in fact, the "prettiest" women DO greet him in return, and everyone else ignores him.

Abby's insight?

DEAR FRIENDLY: Maybe the less "pretty" ones are so winded they can't respond. So keep jogging and don't let it get you down.