Thursday, December 24, 2009

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

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

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

Washington, DC: Carolyn

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

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

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

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Pick a card, any card...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

On Customized and Pre-Fab Answers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amy Speaks Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 7, 2009

Two Thumbs Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ask Amy vs. Ask Amy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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