Friday, July 31, 2009

The Family Budget

This column wins for "random fact" of the week. Just when I thought Margo was being, um, normal, she tosses this in!:

Dear Margo: I am 20 and have been lucky in life ... growing up in nice neighborhoods, going to good schools, having parents who were successful financially. I am about to get my B.A. and then work full time at a good job. My wonderful boyfriend is 22 and has been less fortunate. He was raised by an amazing single mother who worked two jobs to support four children. They are from a low-income, mostly Latino community, where the schools were poor. As a result, life has been harder for him. Unlike my parents, who have given me money to save, he's had to work full time, living paycheck to paycheck. Because of this, he'd been out of school for a short while, but has started working on his degree again. The problem is my parents. They say he's riding my coattails and taking advantage of me, and that once we've been cohabiting long enough, he's going to take half of what I have. The things they say come off as classist and even racist, and they both know that their remarks offend and hurt me deeply. Should I tell my parents to take a hike? I want to maintain a good relationship with them and my boyfriend, but they're making it difficult. In some ways, I feel that they should have a say in what I do because much of the money I have saved came from them. What can I do?

— Head Over Heels in Phoenix

Dear Head: I, too, think parents should have a say in a child's life (and not because they have supplied money), but any child who is a reasonably mature 20 should be allowed to evaluate what it is the parents have to say. I suspect you have things pegged right. Your beau sounds as though he was well, if not lavishly, raised, and your relationship sounds like perfection. I suspect your parents are using stereotypical prejudices to deduce that your young man will never amount to anything. I don't have to look very far to counter their thinking.

My own father had to work from the age of 13 and dropped out of school in the 10th grade. With smarts and drive and no higher education, his life worked out; he was the founder of Budget Rent A Car. So go with your gut and stick with your fella. — Margo, intuitively

Yes, yes, yes, yes, um.....what?

Ann Landers and Mr. Budget: America's top 1950s power couple?

SK adds, with great contempt for Margo:
"[snort] Speaking of riding on coattails...."

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Can't-Win Wedding

Here be yet another example of how weddings transform fun ideas into scarring, never-to-be-forgotten family rifts:

Dear Miss Manners: My husband and I attended a wedding with a 1920s theme, where the guests were encouraged to dress in period costume if they felt so moved.

Many of the gentlemen who arrived in the suggested costume wore hats, to better convey the theme, and we all by unspoken accord wore them the entire evening (perhaps, subconsciously, in imitation of the groom, who did the same).

Later, it developed that the bride’s grandmothers and aunts had been much dismayed by all the gentlemen wearing hats indoors. Obviously, there’s nothing to be done about that now, but for the future what’s correct?

Gentle Reader: Gentlemen who lived during the ’20s were normally great wearers of hats, so they were sure about what to do. If you really want to be in character, you would therefore remove the hat indoors.

Arrrrrrrrrrgh.....of course Miss Manners and the grandmas are technically correct that hats shouldn't be worn indoors, and of course gentlemen of the day would have known this and never worn their hats indoors. But their hats weren't part of a carefully contrived costume, and these were. And if the whole wedding was indoors, they never would have gotten to wear their hats at all.

I think following the groom's example was the right thing to do in this case (the real point of etiquette, after all, is to prevent embarrassment and confusion among as many people as possible). Had he removed his hat, others should have as well--and they most likely would have.

Assuming the guys had the good sense not to wear their hats in the church, I think allowing your memory of your granddaughter's wedding to be overshadowed by your memory of uncouth young men in fedoras is a shame. Let it go.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Earth: that funny green place between Mars and Venus

John Gray, Ph.d., author of the now-iconic Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, writes an advice column based on on this theme. Naturally, he dispenses mostly relationship advice, and while he tends to be a bit more schmoopy than the badass women I typically follow (you'll see what I mean in a minute), he's usually readable and, it seems, reliable.

Today, though, I think he's totally missed the point. His advice isn't necessarily terrible--I just don't think he's gotten to the heart of what the writer is worried about. And I have to admit, my first instinct was that it's because he's a man--in other words, that his response to this question demonstrates that, despite his planetary philosophizing, there are things about women that he just doesn't get. Here's the question:

Dear John: This is the first time I've ever lived with a man. I'd always promised myself that I would never move in with a guy, but instead be self-sufficient. In other words, I would have my own house pay, my own bills and take care of myself. But I love my boyfriend very much, so I broke this promise. Unfortunately, now I am very uptight about everything. Quite honestly, I'm scared that we aren't going to make it as a couple. We've been fighting too much lately, and we've only lived together for about a week! What should I do before things get worse? — Regretful, in Mendocino, Calif.

Dear Regretful: You made the decision to move in before you had convinced yourself that this was truly what you wanted to do. Your fear of being abandoned possibly rises from another experience in your childhood or your family.

Consider this: Your current relationship is unique to any you've had in the past, or will have in the future. You owe it to your mate and yourself to get beyond your fears. Explain your fear to your mate. Because he loves you, he will do his best to allay your fears. Strong relationships are built on love, trust and compromise. For you to demonstrate these traits, you need to take his assurances to heart. Don't make big issues out of little concerns. We all have weaknesses, foibles and issues. Remember what attracted you to him in the first place, and appreciate those traits. Live the relationship one day at a time.

At the end of each day, tell him three things that you appreciate about him, and ask that he do the same. By doing so, you'll soon realize you had nothing to fear after all.

John goes straight to the end of the question--"I'm scared that we aren't going to make it as a couple," blowing right by the first three sentences, which is where I think the heart of the issue is.

Yes, this woman is worried things won't work out in her new situation. But it's not because she has abandonment issues from a mysterious incident in her childhood. It's because she's made a big sacrifice in moving in with this guy--yes, they're taking the same risk financially and logistically, but emotionally she's not just afraid of heartbreak--she's altering her expectations of and standards for success, independence, adulthood--the list goes on.

Her promise to never live with a man doesn't necessarily have to do with fear of abandonment, but simply with an intention to be self-sufficient and independent--not to depend on or be accountable to anyone.

It's possible that choosing to live with her boyfriend means she's no longer living up to the standard she thought she expected of herself--she's happy and excited, but also probably feels a sense of sadness or dented pride: women who have been fiercely independent often have a difficult time believing it's OK to want to depend on someone (and have them depend on you). She's not just reevaluating their relationship--she's reevaluating what it means to be a (successful) woman and a (successful) partner.

John's advice isn't necessarily a bad thing, though the three-things-affirmation moment could start to feel pretty forced and repetitive after a couple of days. But I think a more helpful approach would be for this woman and her boyfriend to work through their budget and responsibilities, finding ways for each to maintain a level of independence (separate discretionary checking accounts? Separate social commitments? "Alone time?") while building a life together. This woman's nerves are not going to be soothed by canned compliments, but by developing a new, reasonable standard to live by.

Monday, July 27, 2009

That's not really my area....but.....

Many advice columnists attempt to carve out a niche for themselves (saving money, love, raising children, race relations...even Carolyn used to cater to the 30-and-under set), but the most famous boutique advice columnist is, no doubt, Miss Manners. She's also the only one whose readers seem to understand and obey her emphasis on polite society rather than internal anguish and family dilemmas (or maybe she just has highly attentive editors). Nevertheless, even she can't escape the occasional query about (young) (forbidden) love:

Dear Miss Manners: I love science. The year before I made sure that those were the only kinds of classes that I was going to get and I did get my classes, only to end up falling for the teacher teaching one of my classes, Biology 2.

He is six years older than me, and he seems to be the ideal man for any girl. I fall in deeper as the days go by, but I understand that there can be nothing between us, that it is impossible because he and I have our separate lives and goals, we are going in opposite directions. I know that what I feel is fake, I know that it’s a crush, but I doubt it because crushes don’t last a whole year, and when I am with him I’m really happy.

Is it really OK for me to feel this way about my teacher? I would like to have your opinion.

Gentle Reader: This letter is one that Miss Manners should not consider. From the etiquette point of view, how you feel is your business as long as you behave yourself.

But heck, lovelorn advisers often presume to dispense etiquette advice. No doubt Miss Manners’ advice to the lovelorn will be of the same quality.

You cannot, of course, embarrass your teacher—and probably endanger his job—by flirting with him. But as you love science, it would seem reasonable of you to become a biologist. If you work really hard at it and win the Nobel Prize and return to campus to tell this teacher that you owe it all to him, Miss Manners promises that he will find you irresistible. Presuming that by that time, he has not acquired a wife and six children.

(snarfle). Thanks Miss Manners!

P.S. FWIW, I can't help but think this this crush started long before this semester's Bio 2 course...the letter's tone and vocabulary (teacher vs. professor) make me think it was written by a high schooler. And in what high school can you take ONLY science classes? That's certainly not typical, and while it perhaps can be finagled, such a feat would take the blind persistence of unrequited love, not just a fondness for the subject (which would, no doubt, be tempered by an understanding that higher level math education is also necessary in this field). I'm not sure the writer of this letter is being entirely honest about his/her predicament. Then again, when it comes to sticky predicaments, who is?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Pity Party Poopers

This week Amy Alkon, the Advice Goddess, revisits a common problem: staying with someone you don't really love/like/want/mesh with, because you recognize that they're a good person and you don't want to hurt them. Perhaps they're "perfect on paper," or you've been together awhile so you think you "should" stick it out and make it work, because that's what people in relationships do, or worst of all, you feel bad for them. As in this letter:

Dude writes: You helped me exit a bad relationship with an extremely sexy but not-so-nice woman. I've started dating a very nice woman, but she's about 40 pounds overweight, and I'm not getting aroused. We've tried sleeping together several times, but I cannot stay...well, you know, serviceable. Where do I go from here? — Limp

Advice Goddess replies: Your body is trying to tell you something: "I don't care how sweet she is compared to the last girl, we're not going in there." And don't think you're doing her any favors, either. There are those men who are hot for the meatier ladies. She might be in the company of one of them if she wasn't waiting around for your limp biscuit to rise. What is this, penance for dating a woman you actually found attractive, at least on the outside? We all have minimum standards for looks, personality, and character, and it's kindest to refrain from getting involved with anyone who doesn't meet yours. As much as you might want to want fat and sassy, if you're hot for "welcome to the dark side" with a figure like a paper cut, all you're ever going to be screaming in bed is "I swear this never happens."

This is a more, erm, primal version of the tale than we usually see in Amy, Abby, or Carolyn. Nevertheless, the issue is the same: the answer is always that they're "just not that into" (hate the phrase, but it works here...) their partner, but they can't or don't want to admit it.

The interesting thing about this is that the people inevitably think they're being nice or good or dutiful, sticking with someone through hell, highwater, cool feelings, resentment, and repulsion (recall the SATC movie: "Did you just compare your relationship to cancer?"). Instead, though (as Carolyn always points out and Amy echoes here), to stay with someone because you feel bad about breaking up with them is both cruel and incredibly narcissistic:

It both denies that person the opportunity to be with someone who loves, likes, and is attracted and committed to them ("this, that, and the other," as in Seinfeld), and worse, suggests that you think you're the best they'll ever have--that if you don't love them, no one else could, so your pity and tolerance are the best they should expect out of life. Yuck!

"It's not you, it's me," and "I don't deserve you" both sound like empty excuses, and there's probably no way around that--but better a pathetic line than a pathetic life. Get it over with and move on!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Can You hear me Now? Good. I Doooooo!

One of Carolyn's peanuts wants to know about the chances she has at making a long distance marriage work. While relationships have survived and even occasionally thrived in this unusual circumstance (usually by necessity, more rarely by choice), I'm afraid that everything this woman hopes to build in her new marriage despite the distance, will actually be prevented specifically by it:

Dear Carolyn:

What are your thoughts on a long-distance marriage? I've been dating a man for five years total -- with a 20-year break between years 3 and 4. During those 20 years, we moved to different states, each got married, had two kids and then divorced. There are joint-custody situations and young children on both sides that make it nearly impossible to live less than a five-hour drive apart. We see each other at least every other week and we have a wonderful relationship (easy when you see each other every other week, I suppose). I really do see him as my life partner.

We could continue this long-distance dating thing for the next 12 years (when the youngest turns 18), but I'd really like to be married. Difficult to quantify, but goes something along the lines of: We'd be a family. Our family would always come first and invitations would be easier as would the holidays -- no questions that our "family" should be together -- even if it means not seeing one set of relatives one holiday.

But having been through a divorce and not wanting to relive that experience in this lifetime, it seems the deck is stacked against long-term success.


Several things strike me about her letter that suggest...well, not that she's oblivious to the challenges this kind of relationship will pose, but that she wants license to ignore them.

-I don't think that "I've been dating a man for five years total -- with a 20-year break between years 3 and 4" is really a realistic description of a relationship (though it makes for a clever surprise reveal in her letter!). It sounds like she's trying to use those three years long ago, which I would consider a different relationship altogether, between practically different people, as the "first" three years of this one.

-"we have a wonderful relationship (easy when you see each other every other week, I suppose)" so she knows that they haven't had to deal with the day-to-day realities that most couples would have to deal with in a 2 year relationship, but doesn't seems concerned about how that will impact them in the long term when and if they move to the same place. Nor does she talk about the difficulties of maintaining communication and intimacy in a long distance relationship. Reality is going to hit in some way, at some point. That doesn't need to be a bad thing (reality is good!), but she has to recognize it coming.

-"I'd really like to be married...We'd be a family. Our family would always come first and invitations would be easier as would the holidays -- no questions that our "family" should be together"
I'm not really sure what she means by "invitations," or why that's so important, but it seems to me like the "family always comes first" and "family should be together"--the most powerful reasons she wants to marry this guy--are totally cancelled out by being 5 hours apart.

An excerpt from Carolyn's response says:
What you're regarding as family, as you know, isn't a legal unit, but an emotional one. To work as an emotional unit you need his full contribution and commitment. Once you have that, married or not, the other stuff will follow, including invitations and divvying up family visits, etc. You may have to insist on it, and repeat yourselves, and persist through others' resistance, but that's all secondary stuff.

I agree: if she wants to build a family with this man, she needs to start with day-to-day actions, not with ceremonies. And my impression so far is that she uses the word "family" pretty freely without any specifics about her children or his--and that's a bit suspicious.

She doesn't seem to be considering how their children will react to this arrangement, or how they will be a part of this family. If the reason neither of them can move is a joint-custody situation, and they see each other every other weekend, presumably their visits are when the kids are with their other parent. So how well do the kids know their potential stepparent and stepsiblings? And when the marriage happens, will they be expected to spend 10 hours in the car on 25-50% of their weekends? I've done a lot of that myself recently and it's a big pain. What about sports? Part-time jobs, down the road? What will they have to give up to serve their mom's vision of their family?

Although at first blush her plan seems to favor the kids over her own desires (waiting to be together until the youngest turns 18), in fact it serves the requirements of her custody arrangement--not the actual best interest of the children. This long distance family will lead to them spending more of their lives in the car than at any home. What about living somewhere in the middle? Unless the mom doesn't actually WANT to deal with the reality of living together and blending their families for real. From the perspective of the kids, this arrangement sounds pretty awful to me.

Friday, July 17, 2009

And now a word from our sponsors....

So clearly my blogging has been spotty lately, but as it turns out, my readers (or at least my people who know I keep this thing) have been doing my work for me! Win!

There's all kinds of good advice-columny-stuff going on out there this week, most of which I failed to post. But here's a sample:

From ALS: Amy admits to a faux pas!

Dear Amy: When responding to the letter from "Just Friendship," from a woman who wasn't romantically interested in her morbidly obese friend, what led you to use the "elephant in the room" analogy in your answer?

It seems insensitive and really adds to this nation's already unbelievable bias toward overweight people. I'm disappointed that you could not have come up with something better than that to make your point.

Did you realize that the headline over your column would read, "He's the 'elephant in the room,' but she's not interested"?

Shame on you.

-- Disappointed

Dear Disappointed: I don't know what I was thinking.

Well, I do know what I was thinking, but that's still no excuse. I apologize for an unfortunate pun. Individual newspapers decide on the headline over the column. I agree that it was also in poor taste.

I read this column in the Denver Post, which left out the bit about the headline (probably because it was a Chicago Trib headline and the comment wouldn't have made sense in their paper). Thanks for pointing this out to me! I, too, have been guilty of sacrificing sensitivity for a pun when it comes to headline writing.

From AMR:
The pioneer woman adds advice to her already illustrious resume of blogging, photography, cooking, home schooling and ranching, and poetry! And she's not bad! Of course, she has the advantage of not actually BEING an advice columnist, which gives her the freedom to give five pontential answers and then say, "but what do I know?" Ironically, this approach makes her seem more like a friend and, perhaps, more worth listening to. And it works in her blog, quite well. But it's not concise or direct enough to fly in a newspaper column. What do you folks with problems want direct, authoritative advice, or chatty, friendly meandering?

Either way...thanks friends, for doing my job for me!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

On irrational abstractitude....

Dear Amy: I am 44, and my daughter is 23.
She is gay, and I have treated her and her partner the same way I treat my son and daughter-in-law. Everyone acknowledges this. I respect their commitment to each other and am joyful that they are very happy.
However, I cannot accept the fact that she just got "married." She has now told me that she needs to terminate her relationship with me because I will not accept her marriage.
She is aware of my position on gay marriage. The suggestion to agree to disagree is not an option. What say you?

— Wondering

Dear Wondering: Many parents would be delighted for their kids to choose marriage. A wise parent knows that forcing offspring to choose between them and a romantic relationship often results in the younger person choosing the latter. Your daughter knew the risks she was running with you when she and her partner chose to marry. She did it. You may assume that she is as stubborn as you are.
Because you rule out the option of "agreeing to disagree," you really left your daughter no option but to terminate the relationship. I can only urge you to try harder to find a way to reconcile.

What I don't understand is how you can simultaneously "respect their commitment" and be "joyful that they are very happy" while also maintaining an abstract and apparently compartmentalized "position on gay marriage." I know many people DO hold their family and loved ones to a different standard than they do the rest of the world. And others (as in this case), allow an arbitrary rule to cause pain and even estrangement in a relationship that is otherwise (apparently) respectful, joyful, and loving. What I don't understand is why--or how they justify it.

If this person's stance on this issue is of paramount importance to her (a religious conviction, etc.), she can't claim to be against the marriage but supportive, respectful, and joyful about the relationship. If it's not, I don't see why she's clinging to a position that is hurtful to the daughter (and others), damaging to their family, and not actually benefiting her in any way.

When your life reveals that a rule no longer makes sense, you drop the rule, not your life.