Monthly Archives: February 2009

How to burn your kids out before high school:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Alexandria, Va.: Dear Carolyn,

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

Thanks! Love your chats!

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

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

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

Dry-eyed and bushy tailed

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

Asleep On The Sob

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

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

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

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

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

Idle hands…don’t belong to kinesthetic learners?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roll out the Red Carpet!

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

Higher Education

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

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

At these events, students submit anonymous questions on 3×5 cards, and Dan selects the most entertaining/useful/horrifying/enlightening ones, and reads them and answers them aloud. The column features questions that he didn’t get to in his speaking engagement, such as:

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

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

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

Inside Tip?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flipping the bird…at Margo

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not what you say….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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