Monday, March 30, 2009

Paranoid, protective, or just private?

Does this mom seem unreasonably sensitive, either prudish about the human body herself, or paranoid about the perverts out there who are after her baby? Or is she reasonable to expect privacy in public and restraint from strangers?

Dear Miss Manners: I was changing my baby’s diaper in a public restroom the other day. The changing table had no privacy whatsoever, and anyone walking in or out of the restroom had full view of what was going on.

While most people seemed to avert their eyes, there was one woman who, while waiting for her children to wash their hands, kept looking over at my daughter while her diaper was off, and it made me very uncomfortable and upset. I don’t feel that staring at anyone, no matter how old, in that position is right.

What would be an appropriate way to say, “Would you please stop staring at my half-naked daughter, it’s quite rude”?

While I guess it's sort of odd that this woman was stealing glances at the baby--maybe fondly remembering her own children's younger days? Or waiting for the changing area to be cleared so she could make use of it for a not-yet-potty-trained child?--the mom seems too eager to read creepy invasiveness, even pedophilic voyeurism, into her actions, which to me seem relatively innocent. Most people, I think, especially moms who have pushed little humans out of their nether regions and then changed thousands of their diapers, don't see much difference between an infant with a diaper on and one with a diaper off.

The mom may have wanted some space, and if the woman were actually hovering over her, she could use Miss Manners's response ( Gentle Reader: “Would you like to help?”). Otherwise, I don't know, this seems overly sensitive to me. People look at babies all the time. Babies run around naked all the time. People look at the babies while they're running around naked. This mom seems unusually concerned about baby nudity and privacy, and the other woman (also a mom, it seems worth noting) has no way of knowing that.

Carolyn, and most other advice columnists, recommend taking gut feelings of fear or general "not-right-ness" very seriously....perhaps they would think I'm being careless in assuming that if a woman is out with small children in a public restroom, that she must 1) be their mom and 2) be sane, healthy, and have good intentions for her own children and all others.

Of course it's possible this is not the case, though, I admit, I think it's unlikely. (A related issue: the "find a mom" rule for kids who get lost. Is a woman with children always safer than a man by himself? Of course not. Some moms are crazy, some bad people probably pose as moms in public. But are the odds higher that a mom will be just a mom, and that she'll be sympathetic to and protective of a lost child? Probably).

Do you think this mom should have done something more active in response to her "uncomfortable and upset" feeling? Or if she doesn't want to see anyone in public while changing her daughter, should she seek out single-person/family restrooms where she can have privacy and lock the door?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Facebook: Turning the other [Virtual] Cheek

Facebook seems to come up a lot lately in the particular for those who are just coming to it this year (or last year, or what have you...). For many of us who have been on the 'book for four or five years already, it prevents the post-college (or for the next generation, post-high school) drift from ever happening. But for my parents' peers, or even my aunt's (she's 14 years older than me), there's a huge rush of reconnecting going on. And many people have questions about how best to approach "friending" those they know they hurt or were otherwise rude to, usually with the intention of making amends. (Equally common is the issue of being friended by someone who you hoped you'd never hear from or see again). Prudence addresses this issue in her column today but, unfortunately, it's fairly clear that she herself has never used Facebook:

Dear Prudie,I am the flip-side of your letter last week from Bliss in Exile. Many years ago, when I was in high school, I did something very cruel to a friend of mine: I took her boyfriend. Now we are both married to other men. I found her on Facebook and attempted to contact her to apologize for the cruel thing I had done. She took your advice and hit "ignore." I feel terrible that I was not even given the opportunity to admit to her that what I did was wrong and try to make amends. I also feel a little angry because I think it is immature to hold a grudge or resentment for so long over something that a teenager once did to you. Now that I have been ignored by the person I would like to apologize to, should I just let it go? Or should I take another avenue to try to contact her to tell her how sorry I am?

Dear Blocked,
In response to Bliss in Exile, I have heard from several people who were the miscreants in high school and have successfully used Facebook to contact their victims and make amends. But the problem with simply making a friend request to someone you've hurt is that the person on the other end has no idea about your intentions. In cases such as yours, it's a better idea to use your Facebook network to get an address for your former classmate and write a letter explaining that what you did has weighed on you all these years, you are asking for forgiveness, and that you want to reconnect. Give your phone number and e-mail address and add you'd also be happy to be contacted through Facebook. If you don't hear anything, just be glad you did the right thing now, and accept that there are some people for whom high-school graduation was one of the happiest days of their lives.

There are two major flaws with this response--first is that when sending a friend request, you DO have the option of including a personal message to explain who you are and why you're seeking a connection with the recipient. Second is that, for people who restrict their profiles to be visible only by their friends, or at least limit the information visible to non-friends in our network (which I think, and hope, is most of us) you can't just snag someone's address off of Facebook unless they've already accepted your friendship, even then only if they've chosen to post full address is not listed on my facebook profile. If you want their address, without feeling like you're creeping on them,

Ultimately, leaving this mistakes aside, I agree with Prudence. Reaching out might be a nice gesture. But jeez, people, learn to take a hint! This happens all the time in the columns, with facebook, with email, with voicemail..."Dear Prudence, I've sent twelve emails and left 8 messages and the person has not responded. Do you think it would be inappropriate of me to show up at their house?"

Also, for this woman in particular...SHE is the one continuing to make a big deal out of what happened so long ago, not her friend. My experience with high school boyfriend drama is that, 20 years later (or, um, five) nobody cares! Stealing her boyfriend may have been the best thing she could have done for this woman, in terms of removing the wrong guy, and a disloyal friend, from the circle of people she chose to associate with. People who think they are "owed" the opportunity to make amends--especially this many years later to people who probably don't care--need to get over themselves.

Just because you CAN find someone doesn't mean you SHOULD.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Inbox Overload

I'm always surprised at how common letters like this one are:

Dear Amy: I agree with "Curious in California," who doesn't understand why people flood others with forwarded e-mail.

Every day I have to wade through jokes, alerts, political diatribes and chain letters from people who copied their entire address book.

I have ceased giving my e-mail address to some family members to avoid the inevitable deluge. I wish my husband would adopt the same practice.

He spends most evenings reading these items because he doesn't have the heart to just delete them. Consequently, we hardly ever have a conversation beyond the dinner table. — Frustrated in Oregon

I don't know....I just don't really encounter this problem anymore....or if I do, I don't notice it. Five or seven years ago, I remember getting tons of chain letters and forwards and giant animated religious and political messages....but people don't forward this stuff to me anymore. Interestingly, I think it occurs more among my parents and people their age--my peers seem to have cooled off with this kind of thing.

Or, perhaps, they've just transferred their energies for mass distribution of jokes, pictures, etc. to Facebook, MySpace, etc.. That's probably true....and I guess that's not a bad thing, because it seems easier to ignore there. In the facebook world, it's less that you're sticking others with pictures, stories, jokes and messages they don't want, and more that you're posting it to your OWN's up to others to read if they want. That seems just, somehow, if only because when you post something really annoying, you have to look at it, too.

This is not to say that I get only personal emails directed specifically to me giving me information that I need/want. I delete 20+ emails a day, most of them from my school and sent to all students, containing information that doesn't apply to me, or that I simply don't have the time and energy to process.

It's tempting for me to say to these folks who get so fed up with pointless emails that it's just like junk mail! You don't have to read it. A response is not expected (why DO people want the same poem they just sent you to be sent back to them, anyway?). It's not personal--but that's probably hard to grasp when the email comes in from your brother, aunt, cousin, or colleague because it clearly SEEMS personal.

It just makes me a little crazy that these people write in as if they are the only ones dealing with this situation. To me it seems comparable to saying "Every time I commute to my job during rush hour, traffic is terrible! This is so annoying! How do you recommend that I tell others not to use the road during my time? What can I do?"

Information overload is annoying, but everyone is dealing with Start to pay attention to who sends you funny stuff and who sends you annoying stuff and read or delete accordingly. Or block certain addresses from your inbox. Or go through all new messages and delete anything with a [Fwd] in front of it before you even start reading. Or ask your friend to remove you from her list. Or respond with really rude, angry messages to the people who send you junk. There are as many ways to deal with annoying emails as there are people. This is just a part of life now. The information superhighway is as crowded as find a way to avoid it, accept it, or alter it.

Monday, March 23, 2009

On Getting Over Ourselves.....

Clearly it's a Carolyn love-fest! This letter/chat topic is old (from 2003) but too good, and too important, I think, to pass up. I sort of want to scorn this person for being so crazed, but I can't, because s/he is nothing more than an exaggerated version of myself. I'm not "disgusted" with my life, nor am I "berating" myself, but still...the shoe fits, kind of. Graduation is in 4 weeks and suddenly we're all sort of panicking about what comes next. What if I don't achieve all the things I thought I would? What if I fail everyone by living a perfectly pleasant, decent, mediocre life, belying my Illinois Wesleyan/University of Michigan/Welzenbach/English honor society heritage of excellence???? Oh the horrors!

Carolyn's advice makes me feel like it's ok to sit and take a breath and look around, be thankful, happy, and content--even if it means I (we all) stop trying so hard for five minutes. Ahhhh.

Somewhere in Northern Virginia: Hi Carolyn! I'm an avid reader of your column, but I've always been afraid to submit a question--until now--and only because I'm at such a total loss. Over the past six months, I've been feeling completely and utterly disgusted about my life. Essentially, I have always been very driven and ambitious, usually just to appear "together" and perfect. I'm almost 24. I've held a lot of glamour jobs, but I've yet to find something I'm truly passionate about. I keep berating myself for not having achieved enough. For instance, I promised myself I'd write my first novel by 21. Haven't done it. I think about this constantly and beat myself up over it. I have a job at a well-respected media outlet, which people always think is awesome, but I feel stuck in a rut and I'm not making the most of the experience. I've lost all motivation, and I feel totally confused. My friends are off applying to grad schools and getting promotions, and I feel stagnant. Moreover, lately I have been taking this out on my boyfriend: I've been trying to run his life (researching grad school options for him, etc.) instead of focusing on mine, which I feel is a total mess. I was always proud of myself up until recently, and I have no clue how to emerge from this. Sorry for the long post, but I do hope you can get to it today online. Thanks so much.

Carolyn Hax: Afraid I'll bite you? Just don't be completely self-absorbed, and I won't.

Actually, you're cutting the self-absorbed thing a little close with your quest for the -est (smartest, brightest, richest, successfulest), but we'll call it appearance absorption and give it a pass, since you're only hurting yourself. In fact, I think your disgust should be redirected toward that--your need to flog yourself for absolutely no reason. Repeat, absolutely no reason.

You are not even 24. Some people don't find their passions till they're 60. Some people never find them, and eke out pretty decent lives for themselves. They work hard, at whatever, as long as it's toward the greater good, and they pay their taxes, and they're nice to the people who love them, and they take pleasure in whatever small things they take pleasure in.

So my advice is to relax, work hard at whatever you work at, and love the people who love you, and seek out some pleasure in life.

And if you can't put yourself into that mold because you think you're too good for it, then I will bite you.

I'm not surprised that many of us find our way INTO these positions....17-20 years of pushing, pushing, pushing at school, sports, drama, part-time jobs, full-time jobs, etc. can lead us to believe that if we're not always striving to be faster, better, fastest, best, that we're somehow selling ourselves short and failing everyone who ever believed in us. But if we don't find a way OUT of this thinking, we're only punishing ourselves. A roof over the head? Food on the table? Loving relationships? A sunny day? A cat wending its way between your feet? A good book? Your health, that of your family? It's easy to forget how valuable these things are. Life is good. Life goes on. Thank God.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Readers Weigh In...

As I mentioned in my last post, Carolyn is on vacation this week and has left us with a series of columns of compiled reader responses either to old letters or perhaps to questions she's posed at large (it seems she's been stockpiling the answers for just this occasion....sneaky!)

Anyway, I've mentioned before that there are differing opinions on letting your readers write your column. I think it's annoying when columnists do it regularly, but I also think it's a lot hard than just pulling a few excerpts from your inbox and calling it done. Others--ahem, SK--disagree. (Hmm....just dug back in the archives to see where I mentioned it, and it looks like maybe I never actually wrote that post. Suffice it to say, SK and I wrote in to Carolyn to ask her this question, but she didn't respond).

Often when columnists go out of town, papers will just run old columns until they return, and I'd rather have fresh content--even if mostly from readers--than stuff I've seen before.

Anyway, I'm not sure if the examples Carolyn is publishing this week speak to the fact that she has the most thoughtful, eloquent readers ever (even if she didn't publish me....le sigh...) or if they are proof of the fact that she (or her editors) put a great deal of time and effort into combing her mail, identifying the most thoughtful and eloquent contributions. Either way--don't skip Carolyn this week just because she's out of town. There are good ideas and fresh perspectives from her smart and well-spoken readers on a number of different topics!

Also, I am finding it refreshing and inspiring to hear from people who have come out on the other side of problems and have something useful to say about it, rather than only from people in the midst of trouble. Even though, obviously, that is what the columns are there for.

Friday, March 20, 2009

On being second to last....

Carolyn is on vacation, so she posted a couple longer letters from readers (ones that didn't require answers) to fill the space. I thought this one was really sort of lovely, on why your ex married the next person he met after you......(the cartoon was published in the Washington Post next to the column--there is typically one for every column. It of course is the property of the artist and/or the Post, and not me, but I hope they won't mind me sharing it since I link back to where it's published).

Not that you ARE my husband's ex, but if you were:

1. He liked you a lot, but he had quirks you kept trying to change, quirks he didn't want to change. And I thought the same quirks were delightful. I really don't mind hearing his favorite anecdote over and over -- he and I have been together for seven years, I think I've heard it a million times now. I can recite it. I still think it's a great story.

2. You had quirks he didn't mind in a girlfriend, but made him want to kill himself when he considered marrying you. And they weren't bad things -- your obsession with making task lists, for example -- so he didn't feel like he had the right to ask you to change. His one attempt at asking you not to make lists for him didn't go well, and that wasn't your fault, but that didn't make him want to spend a lifetime looking at a fridge full of lists.

3. Your sex drives were different (yours was . . . higher). His and mine are compatible. 'Nuff said.

4. You thought his family was kind of tacky. They are. But I'm from an equally tacky family, and so I fit better from almost day one.

You are prettier than I am, sexier than I am, and a better person than I am, if I'm going to be honest. When I met you I went home and cried, because I could not fathom why he wanted to be with me, with someone like you in his past!

But he and I are two peas in a pod, with the same sense of humor, approach to life, attitude toward marriage and chores and money, the works. You had none of those things, just love and affection. That's not enough. The only way you could have married him was to resign you both to endless counseling and a nagging suspicion that a marriage shouldn't be so hard.

~It's Really Not You

Misunderstandings and Misnomers

Today Carolyn printed a letter from a man looking for a clear definition of "abuse" so he'd know more easily whether or not to leave his relationship. My first instinct is that if you have to ask, there's clearly something very wrong, and you should probably get out anyway. Carolyn offered similar advice: In his situation there were no physical attacks, and arguments were littered with sort of garden-variety name calling. Carolyn didn't send him to an abuse hotline, but said regardless of what you call it, clearly the relationship was not a productive or healthy one.

However, I think she misunderstood something that he said, which to me makes all the difference.

Dear Carolyn:

How do you know if your partner's behavior during a fight is abusive? I think that label would make breaking up easier. I wouldn't feel like there was still something we could do to save the relationship.

The fight was about her (in my opinion) overreaction to something I did, which I didn't think was that bad. There was name-calling, including accusations of being a liar and a cheater. She was out-of-control angry. The thing that causes me the most PTSD is that she pulled the emergency brake in the car while we were on a highway ramp. No harm done, thank God, but is that abusive?

Carolyn seemed to think that this guy was throwing around the term PTSD to describe how upset this guy got when his girlfriend did this. This, I think, ticked her off a little and colored her advice back to him. This is an excerpt from the middle of her response:

Certainly the brake-pulling, which could have sent your car out of control, was reckless and beyond the pale.

If her volatility is a pattern that leads you to alter your behavior, then that's a form of control.

But you don't need labels any more than you need the diagnosis (come on, PTSD?) on your horror. The tantrum tells you all you need to know about her: She's not mature enough for a serious relationship.

I read the letter differently, sounded to me like the writer actually HAS PTSD, and that pulling the emergency brake on the highway was a trigger known by both him and his girlfriend, that she used on purpose to upset him. Which, I think, I would consider abuse.

Hm, but now I'm reading it again, and I think Carolyn's right after all. He's using PTSD to describe his state after their fight, not after being in a war zone. So, never mind. Carry on.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

F-O-B knows best?

Carolyn's column from yesterday felt remarkably familiar to me.......:

Hi, Carolyn:

My brother's daughter is getting married. He called me last night to "get my thoughts" on whether my stepdaughters should be invited to the wedding, because he "didn't want them to feel obligated." I was stunned and my husband was incredulous.

Lots of history here, but I'm going to condense it. I have been happily married to their dad for almost 20 years, and while they didn't live with us, I love my stepdaughters as my own children. When the older daughter married, my brother and all of his adult children attended except one.

We live in a different state and are not close, but have a superficial "friendly" brother/sister relationship that has been contentious at times.

I totally get that wedding guest lists are maddening. But I feel my brother put me on the spot. His "obligation" reasoning sounds more like, "Will you give me permission to not invite them?"

Flustered, I told him I thought my stepdaughters' feelings would be hurt if they weren't invited.

I want to tell him that I thought he was insensitive. Or do I let it lie and not create more wedding stress? I can't help feeling that my brother doesn't see my stepdaughters as true family. Whew. I'm in paralysis here.


Clearly, there's history. But the surest way to keep half-century-old grudges alive is to make them the lens through which you view everything your brother says or does.

Guest lists for weddings are maddening: Inclusion costs are prohibitive; exclusion costs are wrenching. Exploring whether farther-flung relatives care about being invited is one logical, if not quite mannerly, approach. So, Brother calls Sister to feel out her family's interest.

This, at least, is how someone without your history views your brother's question. And flustered as you were, your response was exactly what the situation demanded: honest and clear. "They care." A successful transaction completed.

Your stepdaughters are your real family, regardless of what (you think) your brother thinks. It may not come naturally to drop your dukes and just take people's words at face value, but that kind of stress reduction is worth practicing until you've got it down.

I think Carolyn's right that this woman (though her reaction is certainly understandable), will save everyone (including herself) a lot of grief if she does her best NOT to see this as evidence that her brother doesn't and never has and never will truly consider her stepddaughters "real" family. I seriously doubt that's the case.

I'm working through the "maddening" experience of wedding guest lists myself, and recently went through this exact scenario. Both of my parents included their first cousins on the guest list. I know and love a couple of these folks, and certainly want to include them. Others, I can count the times I've met them in my life on one hand. One, in particular, I don't think I would know if I saw him on the street. When our guest list needed to be cut by 50+ people, I was hesitant to just make cuts and announce that I was making them. I sent the list and the numbers to my parents and sort of assumed they'd come to the same conclusions I came to.

Instead, my dad got on the phone, calling his aunt and uncle to see whether their son (the cousin I haven't seen in 15 years, and hadn't even seriously put on my list) and his girlfriend would be likely to make the trek from out of state to the wedding. They called HIM and he said he'd be DELIGHTED. So now what would have been an understandable decision on my part--I don't know this person from Adam--would now be a snub, and instead of reducing the guest list, we increased it. By two. Not to mention I was mortified that it would look like I sent my dad out to pre-un-invite obscure relatives.

In short, this isn't about the dad trying to exclude the stepdaughters. On the contrary, it's likely about him trying to INCLUDE them in a strange, too-logical-for-comfort-or-etiquette way (is this why women do most wedding and party planning?)

My guess is the bride doesn't feel close to her aunt's stepdaughters. If they never lived with her aunt, and the aunt and FOB aren't close anyway, they likely weren't raised as cousins. If they're adults, they're likely to have serious partners...depending on how many of them there are, this could mean inviting anywhere from 4 to 8 or more extra people. I've found the generational divide to be a fairly reasonable way of limiting the guest list (i.e., inviting my parents' friends, but not their children). Bride probably wanted to cut the stepdaughters not because they're steps, but because she doesn't know them well and because the generational boundary is a natural one. FOB probably didn't feel comfortable with that and wanted to feel it out.

Still uncomfortable for everyone, and the bride, if she knows about the phone call, is probably embarrassed. But I don't think it's a slight from the FOB--instead, it's probably an indicator that he cares and DOESN'T want to slight anyone. Although I don't think this is the best way to handle it, his intentions were most likely good. I agree with Carolyn: the sister gave a straightforward answer, and I think that's the best thing she could do in this situation. Bringing it up again as a bone to pick with the brother doesn't seem useful, and I think reads more into the phone call than was meant to be implied.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Entering a second childhood?

Today, a rather bitter and entitled grandfather is annoyed that his grandchildren aren't as email savvy as he would like:

Dear Amy: I have three grandchildren, ages 13, 9 and 7. I wrote each of them an e-mail, asking them various questions and telling them their grandmother and I love them.
After several days, I didn't hear any response, so I e-mailed my daughter-in-law asking if the kids had received my messages.
She replied that one child doesn't have an e-mail address, and the others don't check their e-mail. I asked her to pass my messages along.
More time went by with no response, so I e-mailed back and said I was very disappointed in them. I said I felt their lack of a reply was disrespectful.
My daughter-in-law said she was very busy and that the kids simply don't use e-mail. Amy, I'm not blaming the kids, but I feel that their mom should convey the contents of these communications with the children and ask them to respond, any way they wish. Your views?

— Upset Granddad

Although email is new to the equation, this is an ancient problem. Grandparents want to know their grandkids, and more often than not, the kids don't respond in the way they'd like--or not as often as they'd like. I love this book called The Holy Man, by Susan Trott. It consists of a number of short chapters about people who seek the wisdom of a holy man to help them with their problems--but in each case it's the experience of waiting in line, living simply and respectfully in community, that really helps them. One of the chapters is about a woman who is frustrated because her grandchildren never send her thank you notes...ultimately she learned that she'd only find satisfaction in loving when she didn't expect a quantifiable response.

Would the grandfather be satisfied if the daughter-in-law updated him on what the kids were doing? If she added a "the kids say hi and send their love" line to an email she wrote? If she read the emails to them and reported back to him that they were happy to hear from him? If they answered his emails but didn't address his questions, or express their love explicitly? When you limit the kind of response that will make you happy, the odds that someone else can achieve it reasonably is also limited.

Telling the grandchildren that he's disappointed and hurt that they didn't respond will only taint any future response--he'll feel that they're only doing it because they complained when he didn't, and won't "count" those responses--there's no good way out. Why is he the one acting like a child in this scenario?

I suspect this grandfather may have gone out of his way to learn to email for the explicit purpose of establishing a relationship with the tech-savvy younger generation and is particularly frustrated that it's not working the way he expected. (How did he even send an email to a child who has no email address?) It seems that even in today's world, kids younger than jr. high don't have much use for email, and the passwords and usernames are probably too much for little ones to keep track of. And there's no reason at all that a mom should also be her kids' secretary, checking three separate email accounts, taking their emails, conveying messages, and passing back responses. Email is like cell phones: until a child is old enough to use it responsibly on their own, there is no reason for them to HAVE their own.

Amy says:

Dear Upset: I agree that a parent should make sure the children receive your messages and respond — but I disagree with your choice to beat this to death via e-mail with your daughter-in-law.
Pick up the phone. Pay a visit. Focus on getting to know your grandchildren in person, if possible. Once you form a solid connection with them, it will be easier for you to establish a way to communicate.

I would also emphasize the importance of sending letters, cards, or small gifts in the mail. In this way, it's possible to send a direct, personal message that the child won't miss, and will be excited to receive. A word of warning: they probably won't write back through snail mail as often as he'd like anyway. But it will sink in all the same. My grandmother used to send long, rambling, nearly illegible letters, packed with exclamation points, smiley faces, and strings of unrelated the time I wasn't really sure what to do with them--I certainly didn't write back as much as I should have. Now she can't do it anymore, but I can, and I do.

And as a further note...why is it only the mom's responsibility to make sure the kids communicate with their granddad, and thus only her fault when they, as children will, don't respond in a timely way? Sounds like he's their father's father...maybe his son should be involved.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

~Margo, Uselessly

Margo's downward spiral continues: she's given up snarkiness and ill-advised advice (like reducing yourself to the level of the jerk who sex-texts his ex--say that five times fast-- or alerting your cousin to the fact that you dislike his fiancee through a petition) and now doesn't even bother trying to answer a perfectly legitimate question:

Dear Margo: I've read numerous advice columns over the years dealing with people overhearing neighbors who are noisy lovers. Well, I'm one of those noisy lovers and I don't know what to do. I live in a duplex with what I thought were relatively thick walls, but apparently they're not as thick as I thought! (Got a nice note from my neighbor, but I was still mortified.) I have a boyfriend with whom I have a phenomenal sex life, and unfortunately, we both are quite vocal during our lovemaking. I really don't know what to do about keeping the noise level down. Moving is not an option. Suggestions? — Princess

Dear Prin: Soundproof tiles on the common walls? Short of wearing muzzles, that's about all I can think of — and I'm not even sure there is such a thing for humans. Just thinking about this problem and mentioning muzzles, however, makes it a certainty that the next time I see a muzzled dog I will laugh. Good luck. — Margo, remedially

OK, ok, so the writer bragging about her "phenomenal" sex life and calling herself "Princess" don't exactly make me want to rush to her aid, either. But one advantage of the advice column is that all readers have the opportunity to benefit from the columnist's answer. For that reason (and to guard against giving dangerously inaccurate advice) when advice columnists don't have an answer, it is their responsibility (and to their benefit) to seek expert insight. The best columnists have a number of "guest experts" in their back pocket--often doctors, psychologists, and authors--to whom they turn when a tough question comes up.

In this case, a phone call to a landlord or property manager, or even an informal discussion with pretty much anyone who has ever lived in close quarters with others, would have been helpful.

At first glance it just seems like Margo was lazy, but her conclusion about muzzles and dogs implies either a total contempt for the issue at hand, or a total discomfort with it (possibly both)--she's snickering like a junior high boy. "I'm not even sure there is such a thing for humans"? You don't have to be into adventurous sex to know that of course there is. And even if you're not of the mindset to recommend the use of toys and tools that limit noise (who knows--for this couple that might be a perfect solution), it's unnecessary and inappropriate to compare everyone with intimate relationships and thin walls to dogs in need of muzzles, and to write off their concern for neighborly relations as a joke.

I myself have not checked in with an "expert" either, but just off the top of my head, I think any of the following, while not perfect solutions, would be more productive than Margo's non-answer:

-responding to the neighbor with a polite-but-funny note and a pair of earplugs
-playing music or turning on the TV while they're getting it on to mitigate the noise
-um, trying to be quieter, at least some of the time? They might find it adds to the thrill...
-experimenting with different areas of the duplex that might be better buffered or farther way from common walls
-hanging curtains or draperies in the bedroom to absorb some of the sound
-educating themselves about local or neighborhood noise ordinances--if the neighbor gets really pissed off, who is he likely to report to, and could actual consequences result (like the humiliation of being exposed--as it were--to the whole neighborhood at a condo association meeting)? Surely it's not the same as throwing a wild party that can be heard around the block, but if their neighbor has the power to bring the complaint to a higher authority, they should consider who and what that might be, and how they'd respond in that case.

Also, as a final note, Margo's sign-off makes no sense. "Margo, remedially." Remedially? What? I would have written, "Margo, abdicatingly," "Margo, blushingly," or as my title suggsts, "Margo, uselessly." But that's just me.

Monday, March 16, 2009

On tinterhooks (is that the right phase?) (Aha: it is TENTERhooks)

Oooooooooh, I'm excited! It's Monday, which means Carolyn's column is "adapted from online discussion." Often these are less than thrilling to me because I've already READ the online discussion. However, in the column Carolyn spends more time on her response than in the chat, which requires a certain amount of instantaneous response, often introducing new ideas and resources, as well as re-phrasing and bringing in comments from others who participated in the chat and--here's hoping--wrote in afterwards!

Here's why we're hoping: today's column addresses the twin boys who don't like baseball, whom I wrote about with a a great deal of energy earlier this winter here and here. I don't know if I mentioned that when I submitted my letter to Carolyn, she responded by saying she appreciated the story and that it suited the topic well.

In today's column, Carolyn alone responded to the woman who wrote in. BUT! It is "to be continued" maybe we'll get a mention! Fingers crossed.

**Update: sad day! The column is posted and I am not featured. Probably this is what I get for not being as concise and witty as those other chat participants. Oh well...maybe next time**

Pull up those bootstraps!

Today Abby printed a letter from a woman bemoaning that her bachelor's degree was useless, and I couldn't help but groan a little on the inside:

DEAR ABBY: I was a stay-at-home mom for many years and enrolled in college when my youngest entered kindergarten. I held various part-time (and later full-time) dead-end jobs to supplement my husband's income. It took 15 years, but I finally graduated with a B.A. in history, although I have since discovered there isn't much I can do with my degree.

After almost 30 years of marriage, my husband decided he wanted a divorce. I am now on my own and struggling to survive. I have no marketable skills, can't afford to attend school full-time because I must work in order to have benefits, and don't have the money to pay for more training without going into further debt. I don't know how I'll ever be self-supporting.

My current job pays $10 an hour, the benefits are good, but I don't really like my job or see myself ever earning a higher hourly wage. If it wasn't for alimony, I'd be even worse off, but that won't last forever. (I have three years left.)

I'm thankful that my kids are on their own and don't need my support, but they can't help me either. What options are there for someone in my situation? -- FRUSTRATED IN NORTH CAROLINA

Now, I feel a little bad taking her to task, because she's in a particularly difficult position: recently empty-nested and divorced, she was a non-traditional student and seems never to have had a very satisfying work experience. Add that to the current economic climate and we wind up with a very different beast than the 22 year old liberal arts major who stays in school just because they don't know what else to do and have convinced themselves they'll never get a job.

But......still. She's managed to finish her degree, work, and raise a family--she needs to give herself a little credit and put those skills to use! Maybe her past work experiences weren't exactly gateways to the corner office, but surely she did SOMETHING of value. Did she serve customers well? Was she a good listener? A creative problem solver? A mediator in conflict? Loyal and never missed a day of work? All of these things count! What on earth does she mean she has "no marketable skills"? Of course she does.

Abby was encouraging:

DEAR FRUSTRATED: You are an educated, literate, mature college graduate. You could make some executive an excellent, competent personal assistant. Depending upon what the requirements are in your state, you might also be able to be a teacher's assistant in one of the schools.

Contact an employment agency and ask if it can give you a skill assessment. I am sure you could find a job where your attributes would be appreciated if you start looking.

These are both great suggestions--substitute teaching might be another option that could potentially ease her into being a teaching assistant. But I think her options go way beyond these if she is open-minded. Yes, it's true that many jobs are looking for more specialized backgrounds than they used to. I've definitely noticed that more places want people who majored in business, communications, HR, etc. when previously the rule of thumb I always heard was that it didn't matter what your major was as long as you had a degree. (Or maybe that was just a line my liberal arts school tried to sell me...)

The college degree may not a golden ticket anymore, but work experience IS. This woman has a leg up on all the green graduates who will be excluded from jobs looking for "3-5 years" experience, if she can find a way to spin her myriad experiences as relevant. I agree she should seek help from an employment agency or, maybe even better, the career center at her university (many provide free support for all alumni) to see what suggestions they have.

As for her current job, why can't she see herself ever earning a higher hourly wage? Can she seek a raise (maybe not this year....) or is there some way to earn bonuses or other useful incentives?

A person with a college degree, a job, health insurance, additional financial support for three years to come, and independent adult children for whom she doesn't have to provide does not get to say she has no options.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

You Must [Not] Have Been a Beautiful Baby....

This week Prudence brings us another column featuring 21st-century concerns about hypothetical reproduction (See last week's, on being your own golden goose):

"A Face Not Even a Mother Could Love" (man, I can't even compete with her titles)

Dear Prudence,
My boyfriend and I are in a healthy and loving relationship, and we are beginning to talk about marriage. We both want the same number of kids at the same point in our lives. It is presumed that these will be our biological children. The issue is, I'm not sure that I would want to bear my boyfriend's children. While he is incredibly intelligent and has a great personality, he is markedly less physically attractive than I am. We get occasional lighthearted comments from friends and family about the discrepancy. Having biological children has never been important to me, and I think adoption is great. I believe that he will be an amazing father and that our children, biological or adopted, would be bright and well-behaved as a result of good parenting. Should I bring these thoughts up with him? I think he would be open to the idea of adoption but would also be hurt by my rationale. At what point should we discuss this more seriously, and how should I tell him how I feel?

—Skinny Bitch


**pause to regain powers of speech, and to lower eyebrows**

First of all (of many, I should say), why would you be in a relationship with someone whom you find so unattractive you couldn't bear to look at a baby ( your own child!) carrying only half of his ugly little genes? I mean, great brain, great personality, fine, but if you have no physical attraction to him, why are you even wasting his time? Perhaps a more important question is why is this "incredibly intelligent" person remaining in a relationship with someone who openly admits that they don't find them attractive? But he didn't write in, she did.

Second, what kind of family and friends (and whose family and friends?) make "lighthearted" comments on the discrepancy between their levels of attractiveness? Do they also make "lighthearted" comments on the discrepancy between their levels of intelligence? And their ability to be tolerated in social settings?

Third, if she wants pretty babies that badly, she should handpick a sperm donor because adoption makes no guarantees of attractiveness. Is she thinking she'll get to select the cutest one from an array of babies displayed neatly before her? Or that she can return it if it gets awkward and ugly when puberty hits? Does she know anything about how the process of adoption works? Or does she simply think her boyfriend is SO hideous that ANY child would be more attractive than one he would spawn?

Finally, I have to suggest that at least part of the reason S.B. isn't interested in giving birth is that it will mess up her hot bod (perhaps reducing her to the level of hideousness displayed by her guy). Why is she dating this guy anyway? Does it just make her feel better about herself to constantly be able to say "I deserve and could get someone so much hotter" without actually having to DO it? Shudder.

As an aside, clearly wanting the same number of kids at the same time in your life does NOT mean you are compatible and should marry and procreate! If all people who wanted 2 kids in their early 30s after they had a job and a house would be happy together for the rest of their lives, finding a mate would be much easier.

Prudie, as always, puts it well:

Dear Skinny,
You're wise to avoid the potential tragedy of reproducing with your boyfriend: Your children could get his looks and your personality. Perhaps your boyfriend's already got an inkling of how you feel because of the Leonardo DiCaprio mask you ask him to wear when you make love. And although Brad and Angelina are both fecund and support adoption, I'm not sure they're going to agree to place any of their future progeny with you just to help you avoid the embarrassment of having a child who looks like your boyfriend. I'm trying to imagine how you initiate this discussion with him. Something like: "I look forward to spending the rest of my life with you. But when it comes to having kids, I'm sure that if we adopt we'll have a better shot of having decent-looking ones than if I let you impregnate me with your hideous sperm." That should go over well! What's supposed to happen when you are in love with someone (who also happens to be intelligent and have a great personality) is that you discover, despite objective measures, that person is beautiful to you. Your boyfriend sounds like a catch, so maybe you should toss him back so that he has a chance to find someone who's not permanently stuck in the shallow end.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Mr. Clean: Man or Myth?

Amy answered a letter a couple months ago (which means I can't find it any more...sigh) from a woman who spent the weekends at her boyfriend's apartment, and bemoaned how messy it was. She was at her wits' end, reduced to spilling things on purpose so she could clean them up...and also wipe down all surrounding surfaces while she was at it. The guy seemed to want and prefer things cleaner, but never seemed to get around to doing it.

This letter led to a flood of mail from men and women with all kinds of advice--she should hire a cleaning service, she should butt out, she should say she can't come there unless he cleans it up, she has no right to make changes to his place, etc.

Today's insight
is one of the more extreme ones I've seen:

Dear Amy: I'm responding to "T in D.C.," whose boyfriend was a slob. She should check into what else her boyfriend may be messy about in his life. If his house is that messy, his credit may be that messy too. I know all about this. I married one of those "messy housekeepers" and quickly had creditors calling me on his delinquent bills and loans.

If this guy's house is that messy, his checkbook probably is too. — Been There, Done That

But it's Amy's response that really interests me:

Dear Been there: The response to "T in D.C." has split completely along gender lines. Men responding feel that clubbiness might be next to godliness, while women seem to feel that an unclean house reveals deeper truths about a person's psyche.

The odd thing is....I know men who are neatniks and women who are slobs. So the ability (even....compulsion?) to have things neat and clean is not in and of itself a gender issue. But whether or not you feel like you SHOULD, or that it says something about you if you don't, definitely seems to be.

Hmm, I was going to argue that women care more about what people think when they walk into the place, and so perhaps try harder to keep it presentable, but when I honestly reflect, that's not the case either. I know men who can get messy on their own but clean up when they know company is coming. I know women who don't, because they just don't care or think it's a very important use of time.

But I do think that Amy's right in saying that women read more into cleanliness or messiness than men do--that it's more a reflection of character and personality. I could even take as an example what I just said about guys cleaning up for company....for (most) guys, the state of the house (most of the time) seems utterly disconnected from their individual selves. It can get messy if there's no one around to see it, or maybe it won't, or if it does they can just pick it up when someone else is coming over.

For women, I think there's a much more powerful link. (Ironically?) most women that I know do less cleaning up "for company" than most men I know (the obvious exception being preparing the house for a visit from mom). I think it's because--whether they're neat or messy--women maintain their surroundings in a way that they think is appropriate most of the time. Either they want it clean, so they keep it clean, so they don't need to pick up for company, or they don't care about the mess, so they leave it whether people are coming over or not. For men cleaning up or not seems to be largely circumstantial--who else is there, and what is the situation, is it worth doing right now? For women it seems to be deeply personal--doing it or not depends more on their own preferences than on outside circumstances.

This seems important to keep in mind when dealing with the opposite sex. Actual conversations from my life:

M: Don't worry, I'm a lot neater when I live with someone else.

W: I don't know, why would you be? I mean, you like to think you would be, but ultimately you live how you live and you like it how you like it. Why would it suddenly change because you're sharing the space with someone else?

M: Because. I'm sharing the space with someone else.

W: I don't see why that makes a difference.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Show off and Tell

When I read this letter to Abby, I worried that I was guilty of the same thing as this sister:

DEAR ABBY: I am a 35-year-old recovering addict currently 23 months clean and sober. I have worked hard to get to where I am today.

My problem concerns my sister. She constantly brings my addiction up to other people around me. I almost feel like she's trying to make a spectacle of me. I know I'm an addict, and I am dealing with it. I work my steps, my program and my recovery every day. I have learned much about this terrible disease, and I am tired of feeling like a sideshow freak when my sister brings it up. Any suggestions on how to handle this? -- RECOVERING BIG SIS

The writer is right of course--this is her personal, private matter to deal with, and it is not the sister's place to make it public against her will. However, I think it's likely that the sister is not trying to make the writer uncomfortable or embarrassed--rather, it may be that she is thrilled about her recovery and proud of her hard work to overcome addition.

I have friends who have overcome immense personal challenges with great success, and when people ask what they're up to or how they're doing, I'm usually delighted to report all the great things they've accomplished. I don't make reference to ancient history, but usually the person asking the question was aware of it to begin with--which is why they're asking for an update. Sometimes, I guess, celebrating triumph can imply that previously there was a lack of it.

It never even occurred to me that I might be embarrassing my friends by violating their privacy, and this letter really brought that to my attention and made me think hard about it. It's something I will keep in mind in the future.

In this particular situation, an important difference seems to be that the sister is bringing it up to a third party with the writer present. In other words, in conversation the writer opts not to bring up her addiction when the opportunity presents itself, and then the sister jumps in and does it. That's definitely terribly inappropriate, and Abby said as much:

DEAR BIG SIS: First, ask your sister why she feels compelled to bring up such a private matter with others. Then explain that when she talks about it, it makes you uncomfortable, and ask her to please stop. If she doesn't comply, limit your time with her.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Good, The Bad, The Ethicist....

I'm sad to report that until this afternoon I was unaware of Randy Cohen, aka "The Ethicist," who writes for the New York Times Magazine. Or perhaps I had been made aware of him, and then promptly forgot? In any case, the first time I knowingly read him was today when a dean at my school sent a mass email alerting us all to the fact that today's column addressed libraries and librarianship. And, I was delighted to find, so much more!

Here's the pertinent question and answer:

I’m a librarian. A regular patron, a man in his late 40s or early 50s and virtually technologically illiterate, asked me to print a few e-mail attachments for him — photos of a young and attractive Russian woman. Many of the messages were titled “I Love You” or the like and included explicit requests for money. I believe he is being scammed. May I intervene, or does that violate his privacy and my professional boundaries? N.P., LAWRENCE, KAN.

The professional — and delicate — response is to give your patron excellent service without criticizing or embarrassing him. A skilled reference librarian often goes beyond a patron’s specific request, suggesting resources he has not even considered. You can provide this fellow with the information that he needs to protect himself from (or at least become aware of) possible fraud — and without using the words “You love-drunk old fool.”

Ann Thornton, a director of reference and research services at the New York Public Library, concurs via e-mail: “If the librarian handles the matter in a confidential, courteous manner and offers appropriate resources, he/she is providing a higher level of service. Therefore, it is well within the scope of his/her professional responsibility.”

Thornton suggests one such resource the patron might value: “He may want to take a look at some tips about protecting himself online; provide him with a handout of best practices from a reputable organization like the Internet Crime Complaint Center (” Her approach is tactful and practical, a thoroughly ethical combination.

This seems as good a place as any for some discussion about labels and rhetoric. (Isn't always?) I enjoyed today's column and afterward spent a bit of my afternoon reading through the Ethicist Archives to get a sense of the kind of issues and answers he deals with.

I noticed that the range of questions he published was much broader than in the typical advice column (Abby posted ANOTHER letter about someone wrestling with the fact that she met her S.O. through an online dating site. Really, people? Still??). Randy's columns often had to do with behavior on the job, but all KINDS of jobs. And not just "my co-worker hums too loudly and leaves candy out on her desk even though she KNOWS I'm trying to lose weight" (no, seriously, the other columnists get--and worse, print--this stuff).

There was nothing, or very little, about tangled up love lives or misbehaving children. Lots to do with employee-employer, customer-associate, neighbor-neighbor, or stranger-stranger relations. My sense is that this is because column explicitly has to do with ethics, as Miss Manners' does with etiquette. Most other columns claim no more than to offer general advice (Prudence advertises guidance on "manners and morals," which, though pleasantly alliterative, is not really any more specific.) In these cases, "what should I do?" is determined according to a set of values, the law of the land, Emily Post, psychology, "He's Just Not That Into You" or the columnist's own instinct or favorite acronym (MYOB, DTMFA).

There's nothing particularly different about the process of creating The Ethicist--in one place Randy says "ethics, by which I mean me." In another, he discusses how ethics and abiding by the law can (depending on the situation) move in the same or in opposite directions. In short, he does the same thing that all advice columnists do: draws on his personal experience, personal set of values, network of experts, and other sources of knowledge to give the best, most reasonable answer that he can. And yet nevertheless, the name of the column (and perhaps that the author is a man? Discuss.) leads to an entirely different (often less angst-ridden, and less redundant) sort of question. Exes are out, ethics are in.

Note: I wrote my title for this entry before I realized that Randy Cohen has written a book called The Good, The Bad, and the Difference.

Friday, March 6, 2009

(re)writing it in

For whatever reason, the letter to Abby that I posted about yesterday really touched a chord with me, and got me very riled up on behalf of the daughters. After conferring with a friend, who is herself the older sister of a boy with developmental challenges (and engaging in a lunch hour facebook chat debate with SK), I decided not just to blog about it, but to write in to Abby. (Vive la revolucion!)

I tried to condense my post from yesterday, and to be really specific and non-rambly. I think my letter's still on the long side, but we'll see what happens! So, sorry if this post seems redundant--it clearly is. Just want to track a submission so we can see if it goes anywhere!

Dear Abby,

I think you really missed the mark with your response to "Challenged Mom" (March 5), whose two daughters felt that she favored her son, who has "some social and developmental issues." Although the girls had been informed about the details of their brother's needs by a psychologist, they still felt "slighted."

Although I agree with the actions you suggested, I have a real problem with your reasoning. For example, you suggested that the daughters could be more involved in their brother's care, which I think is really important and valuable. But you didn't recommend this as a way to spend time with their mom or know their brother better, but instead to understand more fully how overwhelming and difficult their mother's life is.

Essentially, you advised that the mother convey to two of her children that if they only really understood what an exhausting burden the third one is, they wouldn't ask for more of her time and energy.

The mom asked you for advice on how to assure her children that they're all loved and valued equally. You gave her the tools and the permission to logically and rationally explain to her daughters why she simply doesn't have the energy or the time to love them equally.

You also implied that the daughters either don't fully understand or don't respect their brother's needs, or they wouldn't be raising this issue in the first place. The sisters have most likely been raised right alongside their brother, and witnessed his development their whole lives. Who could know his situation better?

I think it's entirely likely that they do both understand and appreciate his needs, and don' t begrudge him those--but are still hurt that he is always the center of attention.

I was surprised that you didn't at least suggest that when the daughters raise this issue, the mom respond to them with love (not by sending them to the brother's psychologist, though family therapy might indeed be useful). I think a lot could be gained by a loving response--reassuring the daughter of her value, and assessing when she feels most slighted, and making a fair attempt to adjust all of their lifestyles to lessen that.

The son may always need more hours of the mom's time and more intense attention and care than the daughters, but that doesn't mean that at every moment those needs must be prioritized above his sisters' equally valid ones.

A reassuring remark, an open mind, a listening ear and a flexible spirit might be what the daughters need more than anything, and if the mom is not able to hear them out and make some adjustments so that they feel loved and valued, then she IS favoring her son. Not by spending more hours of the day on his needs, which most likely all of them understand and accept, but by prioritizing him, as a whole person, above her daughters.

Finally, the idea that the mother seek some outside care for the brother in order to spend some alone time with each daughter each month is an excellent one, but only as a supplement to real lifestyle change. If the daughters don't feel valued and heard at home, every day, even with their brother, then the afternoon out will feel like it's all they get--that they're allotted 4 hours a month of mom's time, while the rest goes to the brother.

Both the letter from the mom and your response to it were fairly short but they had undertones that the daughters were automatically in the wrong for seeking more attention. While this mother is certainly in an overwhelming and challenging situation, well, her daughters are too. And she's still their mom. Attempting to divide her time equally among them would be an impossibility. But responding to "I feel that Billy gets all the attention in this house" with "Here's a list of all the reasons I can't focus on you," is not only cold, it reinforces that the daughter's complaint is completely justified.

Hmm...OK, yep, it is indeed really long. Oh well! That's what she has editors for. Hopefully it will annoy her enough to rise to the top of the virtual pile.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Mother's Bitter Little Helpers

Today's letter to Abby comes from a mother who has three children: two daughters and a son, who has "some social and developmental issues." The girls feel that the parents favor the son and that they've been generally slighted in family dynamics. The parents have had the son's psychologist explain to the girls that the "circumstances are different" and give them all the reasons why. Abby's reply struck me as particularly dangerous and highly unlikely to bring about the desired effect:

DEAR CHALLENGED MOM: One conversation with the psychologist obviously wasn't enough for at least one of your daughters, and my first suggestion is that you and your husband consider some ongoing family therapy for a while.

If your younger daughter is old enough, involve her while you are taking care of her brother. This will help her see for herself how time-consuming it really is, and what your responsibilities are as the mother of a child with special needs.

Equally important, if at all possible, arrange for respite care for your son once or twice a month to allow you to have some special one-on-one time with your daughters. Perhaps then they will feel less slighted.

Now, every family operates differently. Growing up, my brother and I were so close in age and so into different activities and things that there was very little sibling care back and forth--basically after about 5 years of age, anything I could do, he could do better, so doing daily care for each other was not part of our lifestyle. However, I know that in many families that is NOT the case--such separation may not be feasible or even desirable. Where there are more kids, or a wider age or developmental gap between the kids, many families expect and thrive on full engagement from all siblings in taking care of and raising each other. And that's a great and fulfilling way to be a family too--when everyone is into it, or can't imagine life any other way.

That being said, I think for that to work, it needs to be a part of the fabric of the family's values and attitudes all the way through, and it has to go both ways. The girls need to truly believe that they're benefiting in some way from engaged involvement in their brother's care. Whether it's in confident faith that the family would care for them the same way in dire circumstances, or treasuring a special bond with the brother that comes through knowing him better and more deeply, or simply acknowledging that their family life has made them capable and responsible at a young age, and turning that to their advantage in the world...there has to be something in it for them. It would be nice if it were love and altruistic, saint-like understanding. But anything would do. And I don't think that Abby's advice has much hope of leading to that end.

The daughter feels you set her on tending to the needs of the very person she feels slighted by? Although I understand the POINT behind Abby's strategy--to give the daughter a taste of the reality of caring for a developmentally challenged child--I don't think it's the right approach. First of all--since they all live together, who has a better idea of what it takes to care for the brother than the sisters? Whether they're visibly involved or not, they can probably rattle off his schedule, and the things he can and can't do, without thinking. After mom, they're the primary witnesses to his life. They're not oblivious to what's going on, and asking a psychologist (his) to tell them about what they see day in and day out seems almost patronizing.

It would be one thing if, for example, an aunt came in, baby-sat the challenged boy, and when the mother returned said, "I had no idea what you go through, I have so much respect for the way you manage your life." That's not the case here. The daughters know exactly what's going on, because they live it too. And odds are they don't hate or have it out for their brother because of his challenges. But that doesn't mean they don't have needs too. I'm not suggesting they shouldn't be involved with his care. Ideally they absolutely would be--most likely to some extent they already are. I just don't think that the way Abby presents it, and the reasons she presents, are the right ones.

Further, I don't think this is really a great attitude to convey to your children:

"Mom, I feel like you love Jimmy more and favor him."

"I don't love him more, he's just such a millstone around my neck. Try it, you'll see."

Trying to make yourself a martyr to your own daughters, and demonstrating to them that caring for their brother is a burden that eats all your time and energy, is not going to win their sympathy or their support. Even if it's true, and you're exhausted, I don't think it's appropriate to reveal that your children. That's not the right way to get them to understand what you're going through. And really, it's not their job to understand what you're going through. They're your KIDS. And until they're adults, it's YOUR responsibility to take care of THEM. It's absolutely not a partnership of equals, and no one ever said it was. Revealing to your kids that one of them makes your life more difficult than the others is possibly the only thing worse than revealing to them that one of them brings you more joy than the others.

Speaking of which, it really bothers me that mom and dad passed off to the psychologist what should be a part of living every day in their home. It would be one thing if the brother were suddenly stricken in an accident or medical crisis and his needs changed drastically and unexpectedly--then a psychologist exploring the imminent changes with the daughters would be very helpful. And I'm not suggesting that therapy in general wouldn't be useful for this family. But the understanding that meeting the brother's extra needs does not diminish the daughters' value should NOT be a one time conversation with an outsider. It should be woven through the parents' words and actions every day.

Rather than trying to prove to the girls how hard her life is, I think this mom would be better off expending that energy listening to them and working with them to adjust ALL of their lifestyles. Abby turns it into a stand off of who's right, and who has the harder time of it, rather than a conversation about what to do. The girls feel that she's putting her brother's needs above theirs--Abby's solution just puts the brother's AND mother's needs above theirs.

When the daughter says "You don't pay any attention to me," rather than having someone else give her a list of all the reasons why your life is too complicated to include her, say something like "I didn't mean to make you feel that way. How can I make sure I hear the things that are important to you?" or, "If you can help me get dinner ready, I'd love to hear about your day while we're in the kitchen together."

P.S. Where the heck is dad in all this? Mom writes in "we," so he must be around. And yet he's totally absent from the story.

I would love to hear from folks who have more experience with this than I do. What was it like in your family? Were there times when the needs of another family member seemed to always overshadow your own, and how did you deal with it? Or on the other hand, were you the one who needed a lot of extra help at home and in life? And how'd you turn out, in the end? Is there anything your siblings or parents did really right or really wrong?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Big Brothers, Big Sisters...

I just consecutively read two totally unrelated columns (Advice Goddess, which I love, and Single File, which I think is kind of lame) recommending that people volunteer with Big Brothers, Big Sisters. Obviously this is a sign, right?

Anyway, I'm planning to stay in the area for awhile and would like to be more involved in the community, so am seriously considering getting involved with this mentoring program. Anyone have any experience with it and want to share?

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Losing Jobs without Losing it All

I've noticed a trend lately in the columns that is a clear reflection of our troubled economy: lots and lots and LOTS of letters from folks who have lost their jobs, or whose friends and spouses have. Most of the writers simply want to know how they can best be helpful and supportive, without coming across as patronizing (in particular if they still have a job, especially at the place from which the person was terminated). These two samples juxtapose nicely, and give perspective from both sides. First, Miss Manners:

Dear Miss Manners: Several of my co-workers were recently laid off. Some of them are finishing up a few things for a week or two before they leave, and others left the same day.

What do you say to an acquaintance who was just laid off? It’s a painful time for them, and I want to say “I’m sorry” or “Are there things I can do to help?” but I don’t want to come across as pitying them, or as saying “Ha-ha—I’m still here, and you’re not, sucks to be you!”

I feel awful for these long-term coworkers, but I’m not a close enough friend to actually know what they would need or appreciate. I also feel guilty about still having my job, but this isn’t a time to whine about me, it’s a time to reach out to them.

A card seems stupid and pointless. A nonconversation sounds awkward and awful. Ignoring it seems worse. A gift certificate or some such seems to assume that they are in dire financial straits.

Gentle Reader: What about taking each one to lunch, your treat, and not bringing up the subject?

The gesture itself shows that you care, without any of the undertones that you fear. You will then be able to adjust your tone to the way each is handling it and offer practical help if it seems relevant. Miss Manners would consider this especially graceful if your invitation is made or repeated after they have left, to show that they are missed and not forgotten.

Then, Abby:
DEAR ABBY: In this day of massive cutbacks and layoffs, please remind your readers that people who have recently lost their jobs need their friends now more than ever.

Having found myself in this situation, I know firsthand that people I thought were my friends truly are not. The phone calls and e-mails stopped almost immediately when word got out that I was laid off. Being treated as if I have some sort of contagious disease has been as bad as losing my job. I know what happened to me is a sign of the times and no reflection on me.

So -- to all of you who have chosen to no longer communicate with me because of my employment status: I am fine. I have a positive attitude. This will not keep me down. I realize that my possibilities are endless. However badly you treat me now, when you are in the same situation, I will be there for you.

To the wonderful man in my life, thank you for standing by me and giving me daily encouragement. To my family, whom I worship beyond belief, thank you for your understanding and continued support. You have made me the person I am, and because of you, I will succeed. -- UNEMPLOYED ... NOT DOWN AND OUT

DEAR NOT DOWN AND OUT: Thank you for so eloquently pointing out that people who have lost their jobs should not be abandoned, and that the support of friends and family is crucial.

Although family relationships are our primary source of emotional support, the relationships we form at work and our work-related contacts can become like an extended second family.

If these relationships are treated as expendable, it can often be as traumatic as the death of a loved one. When a death occurs, there can be as many as five distinct stages of grief. These are anger, denial, bargaining, depression and acceptance. However, when it comes to job loss, there is also the added element of fear.

This is why I am appealing to you, my readers. No one can ignore the fact that times have grown uncertain. Millions of good, hardworking individuals have lost their jobs through no fault of their own. More bad news may be on the way.

Now is the time for all of us to reach out a hand to encourage and help one another. People who are unemployed should not be made to feel they have been discarded. There is strength in numbers. We will all be stronger if we stand together and observe the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. -- LOVE, ABBY

I would venture that it's unlikely that most people see termination as a contagious disease and hope to dodge it by avoiding contact. Rather, like the writer of the first letter, they probably just don't know how best to express their support without trivializing or coming off as superior--afraid of causing offense, they choose instead to do nothing.

Abby compares the trauma of losing a job to the grief of losing a loved one--I think the reactions of friends, relatives and former colleagues in both situations are comparable: when we don't know what to say or do, we too often do nothing at all. While I'm glad the writer of the second letter has such strength and confidence, its clear that her friends' passivity and distance has made her pretty bitter towards them--to the extent that she's written them off as not "real" friends. This abandonment has redoubled the pain of her termination, and she's not going to take it!

A good reminder to us all that thoughts and intentions don't do much--it is words and more importantly actions that tell others we care about them and haven't forgotten or abandoned them.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

On being your own golden goose

This letter to Prudence is truly 21st-century advice column stuff:

Dear Prudie,
My wife and I have been married for a thoroughly enjoyable three years, but we've recently fallen on hard times. At nearly 30, I now realize becoming a screenwriter should be Plan B, although I still have to find Plan A. My wife is a 24-year-old student. We'd like to start a family but can't for a few years. She has suggested egg donation. From the various listings, it sounds like we could make $6,000-8,000 per shot. As she sees it, we'd be helping a determined couple have a family, we could use the money, and she's just "flushing them down the toilet every month" anyway. Any child would be lucky to share her genes—she's smart and gorgeous. But I have concerns. First, I think these hopeful parents should consider adopting. Second, despite the technicalities, I have a hard time seeing her eggs merely as genetic material. Part of me feels that since any child that results from this would be half my wife, I would feel a sense of responsibility for it and its well-being. What should we do?

—Leggo My Eggo

This letter stood out to me because, at the risk of giving TMI (need that be a concern, on one's own blog?) this is something I considered briefly, about a year and a half ago. Some clever folks from a local fertility clinic advertised for egg donors in the graduate school building, where they knew plenty of fertile young women with great genes and not quite enough cash would be wandering around. I was intrigued enough that I actually looked seriously into it and read about what the process entails--and not just for the money (though I admit that's what first drew my eye to the flyer). I was legitimately interested in the thought of helping a couple (or a woman) who was unable to conceive go from fetus to family.

The whole process turned out to be way too intense for me--it's a much more invasive and long term medical undertaking than, say, sperm donation. Also, if it works and the recipient winds up with multiple fertilized eggs (octuplets, anyone?), she would be in a position to decide whether or not to reduce the number of fetuses for her own health or that of some of the babies. I can't really argue with her right to make that decision, and I'm certainly not saying that my hypothetical biological connection would give me some right to be involved--the whole point is that the donor is NOT in any way the parent. Nevertheless, I simply wasn't comfortable with the whole thing.

And while I was put off by the guy who wrote this letter saying that he thinks "these hopeful parents," whom he doesn't know, and doesn't know anything about, should choose to adopt instead, I must admit that I kind of agree with him. I'm not going to tell people that that's what they should do. But serious reflection led me to the conclusion that I also wasn't comfortable actively helping them do otherwise--even for cash.

Prudie pointed them to online resources to find out more about the process, and reminded them that if they chose to go ahead with this, there was a lot more to it than just a few thousand bucks to tide them over until one of them gets a full time job--and they should consider all aspects of the decision, not just the financial benefit.

P.S. Kudos to Prudie for addressing all interesting and somewhat fresh issues in this column. Facebook crises are becoming ever more common, but nevertheless--four letters and not a single "should I break up with him?" deserves a nod.

No Such Thing as Happily Ever After....

In reality, married life is fraught with pain and strife:

DEAR ABBY: Please help my husband and me settle an argument. He hates when I step out of the shower onto the bath mat to dry off, leaving it wet. I think that's what the bath mat is for. Who's right? -- LISA IN LEXINGTON, S.C.

DEAR LISA: You are. The alternative would be to step out of the shower onto a tile floor -- which could cause a slip and fall, or onto carpet, which would become moldy. After you have finished drying off, however, the bath mat should be hung up to dry.

Oh PUH-LEEEEZE. I am the queen of getting unreasonably upset about minor, ridiculous things, and even I think this is absurd. I wish Abby had said as much, rather than granting this woman the triumph of being "right," and thus validating that there is even something to argue about here.