Monthly Archives: March 2009

Paranoid, protective, or just private?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Facebook: Turning the other [Virtual] Cheek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inbox Overload

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Information overload is annoying, but everyone is dealing with it….so just….deal. Start to pay attention to who sends you funny stuff and who sends you annoying stuff and read or delete accordingly. Or block certain addresses from your inbox. Or go through all new messages and delete anything with a [Fwd] in front of it before you even start reading. Or ask your friend to remove you from her list. Or respond with really rude, angry messages to the people who send you junk. There are as many ways to deal with annoying emails as there are people. This is just a part of life now. The information superhighway is as crowded as I-90….so find a way to avoid it, accept it, or alter it.

On Getting Over Ourselves…..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Readers Weigh In…

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

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

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

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

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

On being second to last….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~It’s Really Not You

Misunderstandings and Misnomers

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

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

Dear Carolyn:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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