Category Archives: Annie's Mailbox

Summertime Blues

It’s that time of year again–the season when friends, relatives, and paid caretakers apparently contrive to tromp on the vacation fantasies of their friends, relatives, and employers.  The switchboard has been lighting up this week on this topic–read on!

Friends (Annie’s Mailbox, August 8 )

Dear Annie: For several summers, my family has overlapped vacation time with a nice couple we have known for many years. Now I’m not sure I want to keep seeing them.

They bring their two dogs, one of which is high strung and barks constantly. And last year, the husband questioned why we go to church. I like going to Mass with my family, especially in this beautiful small church on the harbor where we vacation. One evening, the four of us stayed up and talked, and I ended up having to defend my more traditional values against his anti-religious and very liberal views.

His first wife was a blonde, and his present wife is a brunette. My wife is a redhead. I’m beginning to think he has designs on her, and that his attempts to start arguments with me mask his true intentions. My wife thinks my suspicions are crazy and is willing to meet up with them regardless of whether I go or not.

The problem is, my opinion on this annual vacation scenario has me coming in a distant fourth. This is our time together, and I don’t want it used to please everyone else. What do you say? — Madness in Maine

Dear Maine: We say you are wildly overreacting. This man’s anti-religious and liberal viewpoints have nothing to do with your wife. And her hair color is irrelevant. Is he making a play for her? Does he try to get her alone? Does he call, text or visit her without your knowledge? If so, you have cause to worry. Otherwise, we don’t see it.

You don’t have to please everyone, but you should try to please your wife. If she likes to socialize with this couple, you might make the effort for her sake. Discussions on religion and politics can engender extreme reactions. We strongly recommend you pick other subjects and see whether you have more in common.

Relatives (Dear Prudence Live Chat, August 9)

Q. Vacation With the In-Laws: My husband and I have had a rough year—changes in my career, buying a new house—and had to cancel our plans for vacation earlier this summer. We decided that we’ll visit his parents down South the week of my birthday late next month. His parents are wonderful people, and staying at their home is like staying at a resort—private pool, three golf courses to choose from, and the beach nearby. About two months ago, his brother and his wife started visiting us every Sunday, for hours on end—sometimes leaving at midnight. While his brother is really funny and his wife is really sweet, I have nothing in common with these people other than a last name, entertaining them has become a chore (afternoon visits should never exceed the length of a typical workday), and my weekends have been hijacked because of their now-expected visits. Well, they caught wind of our vacation plans, and they want to join us. My husband told them, “We’ll see,” but now they have it in their heads that we are definitely driving together (12-plus-hour trip down), and told the parents. When I explained to my husband that we need alone time—we need this to reconnect and relax, he was completely with me, but he refuses to tell his brother that we want to go by ourselves because he thinks it’s a jerk move and it will anger his brother and their parents. Honestly, I can’t bring myself to go on this much-needed vacation. (I haven’t taken time off since last Christmas, and it was an entire week with the in-laws!) Do I make up an excuse to stay home? Was it really that horrible of me to ask my husband to tell his brother no? Do I suck it up and go?

A: Has anyone in your family heard of the hospitality industry? That’s where you pay other people to whom you aren’t related to provide you with rooms, food, and entertainment. It’s fine that your idea of a vacation is hanging with the in-laws, but that means you’re not really in a position to decide which in-laws are going to hang with you. If you don’t want to see your brother- and sister-in-law, then find the money to go somewhere else or have a staycation. And speaking of in-laws and hospitality, what’s up with your brother- and sister-in-law? They sound wacky, but you sound just as wacky in your inability to say, “We can’t do Sunday open house anymore. We love seeing you, but we’ll have to do it at a mutually convenient time, and I’m afraid we’re tied up for the rest of the summer.” If they show up anyway, greet them at the door and say, “I’m sorry, we were just on our way out. We’ll let you know next time we have a free weekend.”

…and paid caretakers (Ask Amy, August 9)

Dear Amy: My husband and I bought a vacation home in another part of the country.

A local couple very generously offered to visit the house periodically (they live a mile away) and let us know if anything needs to be fixed.

We paid the gentleman for necessary repairs. He’s very good at his craft.

We gave them permission to hang out at the house to enjoy the view, and at one time we let them have their son stay there with his family overnight.

It turns out that they have had at least one large party there. They set off lots of fireworks on our property.

The man painted our fountain a color of his choice, even though it didn’t need to be painted and we didn’t approve the color.

Throughout the past year, they invited additional family members to stay at our home without asking us, and some minor damage was incurred.

We requested that they clear it with us first if they wanted to have anyone stay there in the future.

We like this couple and want to keep them as friends, regardless of their actions.

However, they say that since we don’t trust them, they’ve returned the keys to the house.

They haven’t responded to a friendly message.

What is the appropriate action to take at this point?

— NM Bound

Dear Bound: After you change the locks and hire someone to serve as a caretaker of the property, and after you repaint the item you never wanted painted in the first place and repair the damage these people inflicted in your absence, you should sit down and examine the statement they made to you about trust.

You don’t trust them because they haven’t been trustworthy.

Your neighbors left you wide open to theft, damage and the liability you might face if someone was injured on your property. This is an extreme violation of the agreement you made with them.

Chalk this up to an error in judgment on both your parts.

If they are able to acknowledge their violation, then you might be able to move on. Otherwise, unlike the material damage to your property, the damage to your relationship might be irreparable

Question about open drawers opens a can of worms

Back on May 8, Kathy Mitchell and Marcy Sugar of Annie’s Mailbox published a short question from an frustrated wife:

Dear Annie: My husband has the bad habit of not closing doors — kitchen cabinets, file drawers, closets, etc. Do other women experience this? I try to ignore it, but I worry someone will get hurt. — Help

K & M recommended a training program that echoes what you hear at puppy obedience school, which gives me an odd feeling.  Surely one shouldn’t try to shape a spouse’s behavior the way one would a pet’s.  These techniques are used by dog whisperers and preschool teachers the world over because they work.  On an adult, though…I’m betting on backlash:

Dear Help: If you’re lucky, your husband will smack his head on one of those doors and remember to close it next time. Every person has at least one bad habit. Your husband can be “trained,” but it will take effort. You’ll have to sweetly call him every single time you see an open door and ask him to close it. Repetition and consistency are the keys, and progress won’t happen overnight. While you will be counting on him to shape up, he’ll be counting on you to give up.

Who would have guessed that this letter would strike a chord with so many readers?  Since the original letter on May 8, at least 5 Annie’s Mailbox columns have featured reader responses to this issue.  (While Abby and Amy tend to compile readers’ reactions in a single follow-up column, Marcy and Kathy, I learned tonight, spread theirs out over months.  Months. )

As we might expect, the responses were mostly from frustrated wives, though at least one husband weighed in.  Interestingly….not a single door-leaver-opener wrote in (notably, too, everyone was part of a married couple–no significant others, parents/kids, roommates, or any other arrangement) :

Dear Annie: I read the letter from “Help,” whose husband doesn’t close any cabinet doors.

My mother left her cabinet door open and stood up quickly, hitting her head smack into the corner. Nothing happened right away, but a month later, she bent over to pick up a book and felt nauseated and got a severe headache. Thankfully, my father was home and took her to the hospital.

The neurosurgeon said this blunt trauma to her head caused a cerebral hemorrhage that left her left side temporarily paralyzed. If she had been alone, it could have been fatal. Her rehab took more than a year. Thankfully, Mom has made a complete recovery, but should she bump her head in the same spot, she is at risk of dying.

I hope this helps someone else understand the seriousness of not closing cabinet doors. — Laurie B.

Dear Annie: I have a suggestion for “Help” on how to get her husband to close doors and drawers.

My wife had the same problem. After several conversations on the subject, I told her I would remove every door or drawer she left open. When that didn’t help, I took pictures of each open cabinet and then removed all the contents and placed them in the living room along with the picture. That worked. I suggest “Help” empty the drawers or cabinets and put the items on the counter or floor. — Deep South Reader

Dear Deep South: We suspect having cabinet items strewn all over the floor might bother women more than men, but thanks for the extreme suggestion.

Dear Annie: “Help” said her husband never closes cabinet doors and asked if anyone else had this problem. Yes. Big time.

Not only does my husband leave doors open, but he leaves the cap off the toothpaste and the top off the orange juice (so that it flies all over when I shake it), fails to close cheese packages, loaves of bread and cereal boxes, and leaves all the lights on. Last week, he even left the hot water running in the sink. I call this condition “failure to complete.” — Hamden, Conn.

Dear Annie: Like “Help,” I, too, have a husband who refuses to close things. He leaves the house and car doors wide open, and often, I find the refrigerator and freezer doors left ajar. Any bottle or package sits without the top on. Bagged lettuce spills all over the fridge, pills scatter all over the vanity, and more shampoo has fallen down the drain than you can imagine. He also refuses to hang up his clothes. Instead, his shirts are stuffed on shelves, and his pants hang on decorative hooks.

It doesn’t matter if it costs him money, injures him or forces him to clean up spills. My pleas fall on deaf ears, and if I say too much, he accuses me of being overly critical. I am open to all suggestions. — The Closer

Dear Annie: I read the letter from “Help,” whose husband leaves all the cabinets open. I can do her one better. My husband leaves the back door open — even in the winter at night. One time when he was making a new laundry room for me, I counted 13 times that he came and went, and he never once closed the back door. For good measure, he also leaves the dryer and microwave doors open with the interior lights burning.

This is my second marriage, and I keep telling myself that this one is so wonderful in every other way, the least I can do is close all the doors when he’s done building me a new room. — Canada

Yikes–I love Canada’s jolly attitude and broad perspective, but I could never keep it up myself.  This would drive me absolutely batty.  This seems like one of those issues that would never even occur to you–because why would someone not close something they just opened?–until you had to live with someone who did it.  And yet, apparently it’s alarmingly common.

This quirk was even featured in this spring’s Date Night, which I recently watched on a plane ride.  Tina Fey’s character crashes (repeatedly) into drawers left open by her husband, played by Steve Carell.  The bit is even mentioned in this entertaining interview, where Carell admits that the bit is inspired in part by his own life–he and Tina Fey’s husband both apparently don’t close doors or drawers.

We’ve heard from all of “the closers.”  Now, I’d love to hear from folks who do this.  If you leave things open, do you realize you’re doing it at the time?  Is there a rationale for it (like you’ll need to go back in there again soon), or do you just forget?  How do folks who share space with you react?

On being–and paying–upfront

If there are two things I’ve learned from the advice columns, they’re 1) Don’t date married dudes and 2) Don’t expect to be paid for work if you haven’t billed for it.

Both were featured in Annie’s Mailbox today.

LW1 is depressingly predictable:

Dear Annie: I am at a crossroads and need your advice. For the past two years, I have been dating an older married man who works at my office. I started seeing him after my husband and I split up.

Our time together is limited. He comes over to my house once or twice during the workweek and spends some time with me every other weekend when my kids are with their father. We are in contact by cell phone, and I text him throughout the day and evening. We are never together in public unless it is out of town.

My problem is, he has told me he will leave his wife, but he hasn’t yet. When I don’t see him on a night he is supposed to come over, I get angry. He later apologizes, and I forgive him. This has gotten to be our regular routine.

I feel like I have wasted these past two years, but for some reason I keep coming back for more. Should I give up? — P.H.

Le sigh.

LW2, while perhaps less cliche than the “other woman,” is just as common.  Year after year, bitter doctors, lawyers, plumbers, roofers, and interior decorators write letters, complaining that their friends and family are taking advantage of their services in (what’s supposed to be) their off-time.

Thing is, though, most times the person complaining hasn’t made it clear what their services cost them–in time, expertise, or supplies–and therefore how much compensation they require.  For example:

Dear Annie: I respect and love my ex-brother-in-law, “Joe,” like my own kin.

I am a carpenter’s apprentice with excellent skills. Joe, along with several family members, called and asked for my help with some repairs on his home so that he could receive family and friends after his second wife died last year.

I agreed, for a fee, but didn’t specify the price. I told him I’d leave that up to him. The repairs were extensive. I fixed two roofs and the interior ceiling, replaced shingles, patched many holes throughout the house, put up window coverings and painted most of the interior.

Knowing that this is my livelihood and I am currently out of work, I expected to hear from Joe when I finished.

// //
//

I gave him a two-month grace period before I mentioned the money. He responded as if I were being disrespectful of the dead. He yelled at me and hung up the phone.

Now I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. Do I sue him for the repairs or let it go? — Sick and Tired in Connecticut

Should the XBIL have yelled and hung up the phone?  Of course not.  But clearly the arrangements had never been clear from the start.  How do you agree “for a fee,” without saying what the fee is?  How do you sue, when there was no agreed upon payment?  How is it a grace period, if the person you’re gracing isn’t aware that you’re counting down the days until you lower the hammer?

S&T and the XBIL should have reviewed the repairs, and S&T should have given an estimate.  It doesn’t have to be what he would charge a regular customer–of course he’s free to cut friends and family as good a deal as he wants.  But it’s asking for trouble to expect unspoken, unwritten, undecided payment.

Further, as an expert in the field, it’s not fair to ask non-experts to determine how much to pay.  Say the XBIL gave S&T $1,000.  No doubt that’s far less than the value of the repairs.  And yet it also seems like a pretty large sum to pay to a relative and friend doing some fashion of a favor.  Would S&T be affronted to be paid so little, or embarrassed to take so much?

Plus, how should the bereaved XBIL know what the going rate is for window repair and roofing, or when S&T expects to receive a check? Nobody wants to be taken advantage of, but most people don’t want to stiff their loved ones, either.  They just don’t know what’s appropriate.  I expect even if LW2′s phone call had gone well, and XBIL was eager to pay, he still would have asked, “how much do I owe you?”

It’s easy to think that with friends and family, talking about money will be awkward and unpleasant–so it should go unmentioned.  But the awkwardness of telling your buddy how much you’ll charge him to repair his roof is nothing compared to the awkwardness of attempting to sue him for not paying you the fee you didn’t ask for.

Another Professional Opinion on "Professional Women"

Earlier this summer, I (along with many other readers) objected to Kathy and Marcy’s (of Annie’s Mailbox) use of the term “professional woman” to denote “sex worker.” Originally, a female lawyer wrote in to protest, and M&K insisted the term was a “common” way to refer to sex work. I had never heard it that way, and a Google search revealed no connection between the two. Today, another professional woman–this one a scholar–weighs in:

Dear Annie: Your reply to “Professional Woman,” who complained about your use of the term to refer to a stripper, was way off base. Sure, most people probably knew that you were referring to some sort of sex worker, but how sexist is that?

In the 19th and even 20th centuries, the phrase “public woman” was used to refer to prostitutes on the assumption that any woman who would occupy public space without a proper male escort must be a prostitute. It provided a handy way to exclude middle- and upper-class women from public spaces, stigmatize working-class women (who appeared regularly in public spaces), and render as sexual prey all women who went out in public.

The double entendre implicit in the phrase “professional woman” undoubtedly serves a similar purpose, insinuating that sex work can be a profession for women and also that “professional women” are sexually available. It’s sexist and discriminatory. — Leigh Ann Wheeler, Associate Professor of History, Binghamton University (SUNY)

Who’s the Boss?

This letter to Annie’s Mailbox really hit home for me:

Dear Annie: I work for a family company and am grateful to have a job in this economy. But while we employees have had benefits drastically cut, the owners have bought new luxury homes and cars and just returned from an overseas vacation that included a safari.
I am a loyal employee, but it seems we are the only ones making sacrifices for the good of the company. Morale is low, and I can no longer be the cheerleader I once was.
I want my employer to know that, despite how they have treated us, I will continue to do my best, but there are other employees who don’t feel this way. How can we get the boss to take a closer look at the message he is sending before everyone walks out? I still love this company and want it to succeed. — Unappreciated

Dear Unappreciated: The problem is, your boss knows that no matter how he treats his employees, it will be difficult for them to find another job in this economy. He takes advantage of the fact that, despite the grumbling, they are not likely to leave. This is a terrible way to treat the people who work for you.
Since you care about the health of the company, appoint yourself the spokesperson for the staff and see if you can get a few people together to speak to the boss privately. (There is safety in numbers.) Tell him he deserves to enjoy the fruits of his labor, but you’ve noticed it lowers morale when he appears to be flaunting his wealth at the expense of his struggling employees. Say that you want his company to be successful and a great place to work, and consequently, you worry when your fellow employees don’t feel valued and appreciated. Then ask how you can help.

While I understand why this person would feel frustrated and resentful, I see this situation from the other side, as well. My dad owns a small business and over the years has had many tough decisions to make about providing benefits for his staff, supporting branches in one, two, or three locations, all while keeping the company afloat.

At the end of the day, does he take home more than his employees? Yes he does. He also assumes all the risk, all the responsibility for keeping the company’s head above water. It’s his name on the lease, or the deed. It’s his catastrophe if the building floods or burns down (he’s been through both).

This writer’s situation is not the same as that of a bitter middle manager not caring to support the luxurious lifestyle of a high-powered exec. making 10-times his salary when they work at the same publicly traded mega-corporation. The rules are different.

This writer mentions a drastic cut in benefits–my dad personally feels the weight of trying to fairly provide benefits for his employees and their families. For small businesses, this is not easy, and it’s not cheap. He negotiates the best plan the company can afford, and no, it’s not great. And, yes, I’m biased, but to me that doesn’t mean he should put his personal investments and family savings–whether they be for the mortgage payment or for a vacation–into providing a cheaper insurance policy for 15-20 other people. (Not to mention that the cost of one personal vacation hardly equates to covering such business expenses over any ongoing period of time).

The business owner is not your parent, personally responsible for your expenses. He or she is your boss, and their first responsibility in that role is to the company. The line between a small business and its owner is a tough one to define. The owner takes on a great deal of personal investment and risk, and hopefully has a personal and personable relationship with his or her employees–but the owner’s number one job–at the risk of everyone’s unemployment–is keeping the business afloat.

Benefits have not been cut so the owner can pocket the extra cash and take a safari vacation. The fact that he took a vacation and has a nice car does not mean he’s “flaunting his wealth” at the “expense” of anyone. Almost certainly, benefits have been cut in order to make rent, utilities, and payroll. In other words, benefits have probably been cut so that jobs won’t be cut. And by the way, if the business owner is on the company plan, HIS benefits have been slashed, too.

In the end, it’s not the employees’ place to tell the owner how to spend his own money–just as it’s not the owner’s place to tell the employees how to spend theirs.

If the pay and benefits offered at this position aren’t enough to get by on, or are no longer worth the work, then it’s time to start looking for a new job. Yes, times are bad. But if your job is unworkable, that’s what you do. But if you like the job, the company, and the boss, you might try losing some of the bitterness.

K&M’s advice to ask the boss how to help boost up fellow employees and make sure that everyone feels valued is good, but it comes on the tail of stating, without any evidence, that the owner is Mr. Potter-like, sneering ironically from his wheelchair about his employees’ job-paralysis–it’s misleading (not to mention just made up), and certainly doesn’t give the writer the right attitude to take back to work.

Personal rant aside, what really bothers me about this is the way the employees seem to have turned on their boss. The boss has almost certainly always made more than the employees, so it’s not fair to be upset that that’s still the case. If he or she was fair-minded, honest, and treated employees well in good times, it’s also not fair to suddenly grow bitter and suspicious when things get rocky. If, on the other hand, the boss was a tightwad and a jerk all along (and that could be the case), they would have known that already, too–it’s not the vacation that makes that relevant.

The only specific change in the workplace that these disheartened employees have noted is the cut in benefits–which affects the boss just as much as the employees. Things are bad, but that’s not their boss’s fault. They seem to be looking for a scapegoat, someone to take the fall for the fact that things are rough all over. And unfortunately, that’s yet another common downside to being the boss.

Word to the Wise

I usually am pretty satisfied with the column written by Kathy and Marcy (former editors of Ann Landers’ column), but lately they’ve been slipping up with language, then printing the letters of readers who call them on it and defending themselves. Not sure if they’re short on “real” letters or what, but these just make them look foolish.

For example, a week or so ago, a reader took them to task for mixing up “e.g.” and “i.e.
The reader was correct, and polite and clear about it, and Marcie and Kathy recognized this. But they should have stopped there. Instead, they went on to say, “We often see and hear “i.e.” applied to mean “for example” and had no idea it was incorrect. “

You spent decades editing a newspaper column syndicated around the world, and you had no idea it was incorrect? It’s an easy mistake to use the wrong one here and there–we all do it. But it’s frustrating to learn that professional writers and almost-journalists-by-proxy haven’t heard of the difference between the two.

In another example, today they totally blew off a reader who wrote in to protest their use of the term “professional woman:”

Dear Annie: “Patrick in Stockton, Calif.,” said men enjoy strip clubs because they aren’t getting what they need from their wives at home. You said, “Insecure men often prefer professional women because they don’t care what the guy is like as long as he has money.”

As a practicing attorney, I consider myself a professional woman, and I most certainly DO care what a guy is like. I finally concluded you must have used the term “professional women” in reference to females who work in the sex trade. That’s certainly an unconventional use of the word “professional.”

My dictionary says a profession is “a calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation.” Strip clubs and lap dances? I don’t think so. — Professional Woman

Dear Woman: Please tell us you are joking. “Professional woman” is a common term used to denote a female who is paid for sex-related work. A reference to “professional women” in a letter about strip clubs should not bring to mind an attorney, unless you have talents of which we are unaware.

Wait, a common term? Really? I’ve never heard the phrase used in that way, so I did a quick Google search. I was sure that if “professional woman” was code for “sex worker,” the Internet would be kind enough to show me–probably graphically.

Top 10 results of my search?

1) Professional Woman Magazine Summer 2009. Featuring: Kimora Lee Simmons The Sassy and Savvy Business Woman

2) The Professional Woman Network is an international training organization designed to assist individuals in starting a consulting and seminar business

3) A collection of the best women’s career networking and professional associations — a guide for job-seekers.

4) The Professional Woman Speakers Bureau is a private, international network of independent consultants and trainers who are available to present workshops,

5) Professional Women’s Network, Inc. is a professional organization of dynamic business and professional women in the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, area.

Ok, I think 5 is enough to make my point.

The most “colorful” things I saw were links to an association for professional women wrestlers, and one to a professional womens’ rodeo association.

I scrolled through the first 5 pages of results, and nary a mention of sex workers. I think Marcy and Kathy are way off here, and it bothers me that they didn’t even bother to LOOK before responding–and bashing their reader. “It’s common” and “we hear it all the time” aren’t explanations that inspire much confidence. Come on, ladies, get it together!

As a side note, the term professional woman is kind of an awkward one, suggesting that you’ve been trained as, and are being paid to act as, a woman (Hm, what would that look like?) as opposed to a professional lawyer, professional doctor, professional dancer, etc. It seems to me that “female professional” or “woman professional” would be the correct way to indicate that you’re a professional [something], and also a woman.

Double Your Flavor, Double your Fun

It’s a great day when the same question shows up in two different columns, I can remember the first when reading the second, and I can find both!

Printed by Carolyn (April 22) and Annie’s Mailbox (June 3), the question is:

Dear Annie: Recently, an e-mail correspondence between my mother and sister somehow ended up in my inbox. I can only assume it got there by mistake because it was full of criticism and hurtful comments about my family. The saddest part is that I had no idea either of them had issues with my wife or the way we raise our kids. My wife has been the only saving grace. She was able to calm me down and help me deal with the pain. She read the e-mail, deleted it and made sure I said nothing about it to my mother or sister to avoid damaging the relationship permanently.

We are supposed to celebrate July 4th with my extended family. [Carolyn's column printed"We are supposed to see these family members soon" instead] I’d like to go and enjoy the day, but fear I might slip and say something about the e-mail or engage in a conversation that might not be appropriate for a family gathering. What should I do? — Stressed-Out Son

Kathy and Marcie’s brief, pragmatic response:

Dear Stressed: It is not unusual for family members to criticize each other, especially in-laws, in private. (You and your wife have probably done the same.) No one is looking for trouble, which is why Mom and Sis would never dream of saying these things to your face. We know your wife was trying to spare you, but it might be better to discuss this openly. Tell your mother and sister that you saw the e-mail and are disappointed they harbor such negative feelings, but you hope you can all get past it. In order to salvage the relationship, you must find a way to forgive them.

And Carolyn’s longer, more pondering one:

You’re right; your wife made an elegant save. Unleashing the raw emotions of your discovery would likely have made things worse.

Now that you’ve had time to collect yourself, though, you can figure out your next move by gauging whether you’ll be able to get past this. No doubt you are hurt; that’s a given. The question is whether this pain is out of proportion to your other feelings about your sister and mom.

One way to approach it is to consider things you’ve said to your mom about your sister, to your sister about your mom, and to your wife about both of them. Imagine what would happen if these conversations ever fell into the wrong hands.

In other words, if you’ve had conversations similar to the one you intercepted, and you’ve just never been busted, then I would use that to remind yourself that exchanges intended to be in confidence aren’t always pretty. As long as they aren’t motivated by spite, they can help friends and family understand each other, work through grievances, and even warn each other when something is amiss. If the e-mail could be considered well-meaning, by even the most elastic of stretches, then you have grounds for a conscious decision to let go.

If, on the other hand, there’s no room to interpret the message as anything but mean-spirited, then you might reasonably expect the injuries won’t heal on their own. If so, you owe it to yourself to say, calmly, to your mom (or sister, if you’re closer to her) that you received the e-mail. Let her know, and then let her speak her piece.

That represents your best chance at eliciting context and remorse, the two most healing quantities they can supply at this point. You obviously aren’t planning to estrange yourself from the family, so that leaves you with two plain if difficult choices: Make peace with them, or with yourself.

Arrrrgh, the only thing worse than accidentally sending an email specifically to the very person you didn’t want it to go to is being the person who receives it (discussion for another time: the merits and challenges of the emergency follow up email featuring “PLEASE DELETE EARLIER MESSAGE IT WAS NOT MEANT FOR YOU” in the subject line).

Carolyn, as usual, advocated taking a long look at oneself, and making a fair effort to understand the other person’s perspective before acting–she’s often more reflective than Annie’s Mailbox. But, even after all that reflection (which I’m not trying to devalue) her advice was, in the end, virtually the same as theirs.

And I pretty much agree with it, too. It’s too bad the first double printed letter I’ve found since I’ve been actively paying attention wasn’t a more controversial one!

Also: it makes me giggle that Carolyn’s editors replaced “the 4th of July” with “soon.” At the time that this guy wrote to Carolyn, his bile was rising even as he looked toward an event 3 months (possibly more) in the future, with no intention of seeking any resolution in the interim.

Given that, and given that he clearly wrote to multiple columnists, I think Carolyn at least (maybe too late for Kathy and Marcie) could have just told him to drop the issue for a week or two or even more, and carry on with life as usual. If it’s still eating at him, and the deleted words are still burned on his brain, and he can’t communicate normally with mother and sister, THEN follow through on clearing the air with them.

Also, it seems impossible that the sister/mother didn’t put 2 and 2 together and realize their mistake. They, too, are probably just waiting for the storm.

On Thrifty Gifting….

A disgruntled woman (I think) wrote in to Marcie and Kathy Sugar of Annie’s Mailbox, “irritated” that her cousin, whose wedding she recently attended, had commented to her parents (Disgruntled’s aunt and uncle) that she (bride) and hubby had not received gifts from Disgruntled (alias assigned by me) or Disgruntled’s sister. (Her letter here).

Disgruntled hadn’t sent/brought a gift, because she “couldn’t afford it,” and wants to know, “should I have just stayed home because I couldn’t afford a gift?”

Marcie and Kathy suggest that while of course, a gift can never be “mandatory,” and that often young adults in transition expect to be included in their parents’ “family” gift, bringing a gift to a wedding is “customary and appropriate,” and if Disgruntled truly couldn’t manage it, perhaps she ought to have sent a card instead.

I think it’s unfortunate that all the wedding brouhaha that’s been brewing the last couple of decades has put everything and everyone so off-kilter that no one can seem to find the right path through a situation that doesn’t need to be that difficult.

First of all, it wasn’t great form of the bride to mention to her parents that she hadn’t received a gift. Unless it was truly under the guise of wondering if it got lost or disconnected from the card, etc., which I doubt.

But it wasn’t great form of the cousin to just show up empty-handed, either. I agree with Kathy and Marcie on the “custom” of bringing gifts to a wedding…I’d compare it to Christmas (if, in your family, gifts are traditional at Christmas). At both occasions, gifts are not and can’t be technically required, but if you don’t give them, there will likely be hurt feelings and misunderstandings.

I think the real problem here is the cousin’s perception that she can’t “afford” a gift. And that’s where the wedding industry, the above mentioned “brouhaha” comes into play. When things get tight at Christmas, we knit scarves, we make scrapbooks, we frame pictures, we provide services for each other, etc. The problem here is that wedding gifts have been portrayed as needing to be so expensive that this woman actually thought it would be better to bring NOTHING than something as a token of goodwill and good wishes.

With some thought and effort, Digruntled could have brought something perfectly lovely and meaningful without spending much money (a throw embroidered with the names of the couple and date of the wedding? ingredients for a relaxing night in? a photo album in the wedding color and style and a promise–with follow-through–to fill with with pictures snapped on the big day?).

And then we have to keep our fingers crossed that the cousin bride would see it that way–though given her raising the gift issue with her parents, perhaps we shouldn’t be too optimistic.

If the cousin truly truly truly could afford NOTHING, perhaps she should have talked it over with her parents or sister, planning to go in together, or at least “signing the card” on her parents gift (if they sympathized with her situation and were cool with it) so there would be a some indication of her thought and participation.

And the wedding was only 4 months ago, so while it would have been ideal to handle this before, it’s not too late to send a gift with a card wishing them the best.

“I can’t afford it” is reasonable justification for many, many things….but in some cases, where part of the event is sharing a spirit of love and generosity for the new couple it really sa cop-out.

Of course, this doesn’t apply if the couple has already run any generosity family and friends were feeling into the ground months before the wedding. If the bride has temporarily lost her mind or is actually crazy, evil, and tallying up material and cash gifts at the wedding door, Disgruntled would have been better off not going at all, and not just because she couldn’t afford it.

Taking it personally?

I was recently informed by a former reader that he’d ditched this blog when he was offended by something I’d written earlier this fall.

Of course, pissing people off is a major sign that you’ve “made it” as a writer (and for such glory, I’m willing to accept a readership of 3 people rather than 4! Maybe).

Nevertheless, I wanted to address the issue, since this is the first time I’ve been boycotted, and that seems worth marking in some way.

On December 16, I posted a response to a letter from Annie’s Mailbox, written by Ann Landers’ former editors. The letter was from a young woman in college who was unhappy in her relationship with her back-home boyfriend, who sounded like less than a treat. He had a history of emotionally and verbally abusing her, she said, as well as a history of mental illness in his family that seemed to be manifesting itself in his behavior. He was, at the very least, unstable and easily angered. And yet her question was whether she should break up with him, or if instead she should “throw her life away with the wrong guy.”

My main beef with her letter was the way she phrased her question. Not “I’m afraid of my boyfriend and don’t know how to end the relationship” but “Should I throw my life away on the wrong guy?”

Seriously, those were her words. And I commended Marcie and Kathy for looking past what she said, and getting to the heart of what she seemed to mean: that the bf was scary and unstable, and she wasn’t sure how to end it.

However, I also felt that their advice might not be so helpful. The writer (not me, but the writer) described the boyfriend as abusive, unstable, and potentially mentally ill. As a result, I didn’t think that Kathy and Marcie’s advice, to become so obsessed with her studies that he wants to break up with her out of boredom, would be very effective. If he is all the things that the writer (again, not me) says he is, than I think he’ll be more focused on controlling her and the state of their relationship than rationally considering whether or not they still have anything in common.

My former reader was put off by the fact that I described the boyfriend as potentially schizofrenic–but that came from the writer herself, not from me. More personally offensive to him, though, was my parenthetical sidenote wondering whether there was a “creepy age discrepancy” between the two.

“As the product of a ‘creepy age difference,’” he said, “I was offended.”

However, this post was hardly about age difference in relationships on the whole. I caught a whiff of what sounded like it might be an age gap, and pointed it out. When a relationship is already abusive and unbalanced, a discrepancy in age that gives the abuser an even more unbalanced amount of power and authority over the other person becomes creepy, whether it’s a difference of 3, 9, or 20 years.

In contrast, I truly believe that relationships between people of compatible and balanced emotional, social, and intellectual levels can and often do thrive, no matter the numbers involved.

To sum up–my problem wasn’t with the age difference, which I inferred (it was never confirmed in the letter). I simply felt that if there was such a difference, it would only compound the unfortunate situation in which this young woman found herself, and make it more difficult for her to get out of the relationship.

I stand by my original answer, though this episode was a good reminder to me that the odd phrase can put people off so much that they totally stop reading.

“That’s what you would do if a columnist did something like that, right?” the former reader asked me.

Nope. I’d write in to them and voice my opinion. That’s what I’ve done for years, and I’d encourage readers here to do the same! Conversation is what keeps this interesting. I don’t have all the answers, and whether or not we agree, I’d like to hear what others think.

And your question would be….?

Often people who write in to advice columnists seem to just want a chance to vent, receive justification for their feelings, or confirmation for a choice they’ve already made. Too many of their letters end with “Was I right?” (How boring…at least give the columnist more wiggle room than “yes” or “no”)

But sometimes I really have to wonder. Did you need help with this one? This is from “Annie’s Mailbox,” an advice column maintained by the women who were Ann Landers’ editors. And they were more patient and generous with this chica than I would have been.

Dear Annie: I’m a sophomore in college and live far away from my hometown, so I rarely see my friends or family. I wouldn’t mind so much except that I’m in a long-distance relationship with “Rob,” whom I have known since I was very young.
I know such relationships can be difficult, but this one is completely over the top. Rob has always been emotionally and verbally abusive, but now he has gotten so bad I’m afraid he’s becoming mentally unstable. Schizophrenia runs in his family, but he refuses to seek counseling.
Here’s the real problem. I’ve met another guy. “Alex” is funny, sweet and kind, and he loves me a lot. The feeling is mutual. What do I do now? Should I dump Rob and risk making him angry? Should I ditch Alex and be miserable? Should I throw away my life for the wrong guy?

— Didn’t Mean To Two-Time

I’m sorry. The “real problem” begins with the fact that you’ve met an apparently normal human? “Should I throw away my life for the wrong guy?” Yes. Yes, that sounds like an excellent plan! What???

Marcie and Kathy picked up on the fact that this girl is likely afraid of her scary boyfriend, and mostly talked to that issue. Wise and kind of them, as I mentioned:

Dear Didn’t Mean: So you’ve outgrown Rob, who is unstable and abusive, but you don’t want to make him angry because he’s a little scary. You can talk this over with one of the university counselors. Then tell your parents that you want to break up with Rob, but you are worried about his potential for being abusive.
It would be best if you could find a way to separate yourself gradually and naturally. Be nice on the phone and in your e-mails, but not too friendly or romantic, and don’t contact him too often. Don’t say you miss him or love him. Talk about class to the point where he’s bored. Your aim is to convince Rob he’d like to move on, too.

But I sort of feel like a potentially schizofrenic, undiagnosed, untreated, manipulative person is not going to get bored and move on if she turns cool, cordial, and really really academic. He’ll just get mad about how little attention she pays to him and freak out that she doesn’t love him anymore. Which is true. She should just make a clean break, as soon as possible. (Also, it’s weird that she’s known him since SHE was very, very young, not since WE were very very young. Sounds like there’s potential for a creepy age discrepancy here.)

Also: do not jump right into a relationship with Alex! If he’s macking on you when you’re clearly already in a relationship, and one that is unhealthy, there’s something weird going on. Is he drawn to your neediness? Sadness? His ability to comfort you and make you laugh when you’re being made miserable? What’s he going to do when you’re no longer in misery? You want to be with someone who wants you when you’re healthy and happy. And even if Alex turns out to be cool, and not into suffering, stifled girls, you’re not going to get healthy and happy jumping right into something else. Be single for awhile.