Category Archives: personal experience

F is for Effort…and Friendship

On Sunday, Amy posted a letter from someone with a common problem: a long, old friendship has felt one-sided for years, and the letter writer is getting burned out.  She wants to know why her friend can’t step it up, just a little.  Should she give up?  Confront?  Accept?  Drop the friend?:

Dear Amy: I have been best friends with “Laura” since kindergarten.

She got married and then got pregnant without telling me. I rarely hear from her and when I contact her, I get short, simple answers to any of the questions I ask. She never asks about what’s going on in my life.

She is having her second child, and I just received an invitation to her baby shower.  Am I obligated to go because I have known her so long?

Or is there a polite way to say, “You don’t make an effort to even be a friend, so I don’t want to make the effort”?

Or can I just send a present and say, “Best of luck and congratulations”? — Confused

Dear Confused: You could send a card (or say in person), “I feel like I only hear from you when you have these big events going on! Congratulations on your pregnancy. I’m so sorry I can’t make it to the shower but I hope you have a wonderful party.”

This is a polite, opaque statement, in keeping with the lack of intimacy in your friendship.

It would be very generous to also send a gift.

It’s really hard to know what to do in these situations.  Part of it is that you never know, really, what the other person is going through.  Are they really just flaky?  In the case above it seems like it could be anything from a (hasty?) marriage and baby, (postpartum?) depression, an abusive relationship that’s isolated her, frazzled new-mom exhaustion, or just plain old not wanting to be friends anymore–in which case, the shower invite may have been the doing of “Laura’s” mom, sister, friend, or someone else who assumed the LW was still part of her life.

In other words, the LW can’t tell if “Laura” could care less, would like to pick up the friendship–in a year or two when she’s done with newborns–desperately needs a friend right now but is afraid or otherwise incapable of reaching out, or, feels like she’s doing a perfectly fine job of being a friend as it is.  And it’s hard to make a decision about how to respond when the only person who can tell you what’s going on is totally unreachable.

In these cases, Carolyn’s advice is usually to assume that what the person is bringing to the relationship now is all they’ll ever be able to offer.  That’s who they are, what they have time for, etc. Based on this, measure out your own time, effort, and emotional involvement accordingly.  Be as involved as you can or want to be, to the extent that the relationship is still a positive force in your life, and be open to the fact that other people’s time, effort, and emotional investment a) is out of your hands, and b) may not be measured the same way yours is.  That is, just because they give less time or energy, doesn’t necessarily mean they care less.  This particular flavor of this sticky situation came up in the Friday chat:

Washington, DC: Hi Carolyn –

I’m a female that’s known her best friend (male) for about 15 years, although we haven’t always been best friends, and at times even lost touch for months or even a couple of years. However, we’ve been constant best friends for the last few years. About a year ago, when he began to get serious with his then-gf/now-fiancee, I gave them as much space as possible to both avoid any jealousy issues as well as just to let him enjoy the relationship (he hasn’t had many of them). Now he’s getting married at the end of this month, and I’ve been told several times that I’ll be in the wedding party in some capacity. Come to find out that I’m not an official part of it, but they’ll “find something for me to do.”

I’m happy for him, but I can’t help feeling a little sad that this is what I’ve been reduced to. I know that perhaps the bride may not be interested highlighting our relationship, but as far as I can tell it’s not really her anyway. I think he just didn’t care enough. We used to joke (before he met this girl) that I would be a groomsman in his wedding (I’ve actually been a groomsman at another wedding so he knew it was a role I would completely embrace). Now I’m just feeling down about the whole thing and would like some perspective, so I can go to the wedding with complete enthusiasm and let the rest of this stuff go. I do understand it is their day and all that, I just want some help in adjusting my thoughts.

Carolyn Hax: He might care, but be feeling awkward (he hasn’t had many relationships, you say …). Or, that “space” you started giving him about a year ago, out of love and respect, may have come across to him as your losing interest in him. There are many possibilities here.

That’s why the important thing to think about is not the fact of your not being in the wedding, but instead the fact of your friendship. Remind yourself that there’s often an explanation for things that you haven’t considered, reserve judgment, and keep being his friend.

The friendship may be done, even if he cares about you; some people just aren’t good at carrying people over from one phase of their lives to another. If the friendship is meant to last, though, then your patience and flexibility will carry it through this awkward wedding phase.

What Carolyn?: “The friendship may be done, even if he cares about you; some people just aren’t good at carrying people over from one phase of their lives to another.”

I’ve been staring at this for five minutes. What does this even mean? I don’t think I get it.

I care about you, and if I were the old me, you’d still have a place in my life, but I have a new person in my life and even though they don’t replace you, my quota is full so you’ve been lifted out?


Carolyn Hax: See, that’s how a good manager of people would see it.

I may be speaking only of introverts, but I don’t think so. There are some people for whom it takes everything they’ve got to manage the relationships in their day-to-day life–a spouse, co-workers, neighbors, people with whom interacting isn’t optional.

Where some people would have no trouble placing an “optional” call a day to a best friend who lives across town, a call a week to out-of-state Mom, etc., there are others for whom a call every month, three months, etc., constitutes caring and keeping in touch. People who get it might not think twice about that.

But people who manage daily contact just fine might think, “I can’t believe you supposedly care about me and then go months without calling.”

That’s what I’m saying. He might be in the I-care-but-I’m-immersed-in-all-I-can-handle” camp, in which case he’ll call this friend of 15 years far less without caring even a bit less about her than he used to.

There’s a connection between the two letters above: both are reporting problems with their “best friend.”  This complicates things even more, because with this label, you’re not only asserting friendship, you’re asserting that your friendship should come above all others.  You’re declaring yourself the primary friend.  So this sets you up to be disappointed, not only when your friendship isn’t blooming as you’d like–but also when your best friend’s friendship with anyone else but you is.  (Cue flashback to lots of middle school tears based on expectations that it took me years after middle school to shed).

I appreciate Carolyn’s point that what constitutes “staying in touch” for one person, is tantamount to “neglecting the friendship” for another.  I know this is true, because I can see myself on both sides of this line with different friends.

To one set, I’m the only person who moved out of state, and I hate talking on the phone.  So I basically keep up on facebook, and through one person, from whom I get news about the others and, I guess, vice versa.  I do my best to get into town for big events–and yet there are times when I come home for some other reason and forget or don’t manage to let anyone know I’m there (or don’t until the very last minute), and then everyone feels bad that we didn’t get together when we had the chance (and I’m acutely aware that I couldn’t, ahem, put forth the effort, to get together).  Not to mention I always forget birthdays.  I love these friends dearly and I’m grateful that when we are together, it feels (to me) like no time has passed.  But I know in this crew I’m a bit of a drifter.

With others, months go by when I feel like all the effort comes from me.  I feel sad and hurt to not hear back for weeks, and it becomes a matter of pride to not post things like “call me!” “callll meeeee!!!!” “calllll meeeeeee pleeeeeeeze!” publicly online.  I chant to myself: “this is what our friendship is…I would never have it any other way….I accept and embrace what we have”….and I still sometimes wind up feeling sad and martyr-y and thinking angry, impatient thoughts, only to find out later that they were entirely misplaced.

This is all just hard.  It’s hard not to be hurt, it’s hard not to be defensive, it’s hard not to keep score, it’s hard to feel guilty every time you do talk to a friend who you know you’ve neglected.

The only thing to do seems to be, love your friends as much as you can, as best as you know how, and choose to believe that they feel the same.

This, too, is hard.


A little yelp, please?

In an era where means and modes of communication and socialization seem to multiply every week, I’ve generally been impressed with the way Miss Manners has adapted her typically staid approach to etiquette to accommodate questions about facebook, texting, etc.  So I was particularly interested to read the following letter which (though names are mentioned only indirectly) refers to, the community reviewing site (where, as it happens, I’m also fairly active):

Dear Miss Manners: It is in desperation I turn to you to teach proper etiquette to the 20-plus crowd for dealing with problems they have with businesses they patronize. I refer to the all-too-common practice of leaving the place in a huff, rushing to the computer, and yelping about the experience over the Internet. The resulting scathing reviews sharply cut into the business’ customers and revenues. The damage can be severe. Loyal and appreciative customers can do nothing to repair the victim’s reputation.

One extremely popular Web site makes all its money by charging businesses $300 a month both to select which reviews come first on its site and to answer the charges of the negative reviewer. There are reports that businesses who refuse to pay find the good reviews vanishing from their sites and bad reviews taking their place.

I, personally, am horrified by the bad reviews I see. The highly respected ob-gyn who successfully steered me through an extremely difficult twin pregnancy was given a one-star review by someone who visited his office once.

She announced to him she had decided not to have children. He engaged her in what he thought was harmless banter. She flounced out and gave him a scathing review. He lost patients. I just related this story to strangers at a coffee shop, and they immediately knew who the doctor was and were amazed that he had a bad review from anyone!

Professional restaurant critics visit restaurants several times with friends before they write their review. While not every review is glowing, all reviews give credit to the business for knowing its trade.

People who expect and deserve good service from the business they patronize politely bring any shortcomings to the attention of the owner/manager and give them a chance to rectify the situation.

Gentle Reader: Since your one example is on behalf of your doctor, Miss Manners will assume that you do not have a professional interest in suppressing complaints. But is she mistaken in detecting an edge against all who use this method of making their grievances heard?

She does agree that dissatisfied customers and clients should first complain calmly to the person or business itself. Reputable people have thanked her for doing so, always saying how much they prefer the chance to make amends instead of losing patronage without knowing why.

But not every person or company is conscientious— or even reachable. Reviews have been a much-needed outlet for those who have been given the Your-Call-Is- Important-to-Us runaround.

Besides, such sites contain recommendations as well as complaints. Why don’t you write one for your doctor? Although Miss Manners considers it injudicious, at best, to banter with a patient over an important issue, she might be swayed by strong evidence of professional competence.

Those of us who use these sites have all seen this–restaurants with mostly 4-star reviews, whose averages are dragged down by one or two one-star-but-I-would-give-no-stars-if-I-could rants.  But the beauty of these sites is that the reviews don’t just give a score–they tell a story.  When I’m cruising through in search of a hotel, restaurant, or salon, I don’t just look at the score.  I read the reviews to find out where the strengths and weaknesses were, and decide if that’s something I’m worried about, or not.

Further…one bad review in a slew of average-to-good ones isn’t going to impact my decision much.  Reading and comparing makes it pretty easy to tell when a bad experience was a one-off, or even if the reviewer’s just a nutjob.  Five or more poor reviews–well, at that point I don’t even care too much what the place does to rectify problems, because it’s apparent that they’re just not doing that hot of a job in the first place.

This writer declares, basically, that there’s extortion going on between victimized businesses and slanderous review sites.  You never know what’s going on behind the scenes, I guess, but I wasn’t scandalized, or even really surprised, by anything I read on Yelp’s guide for business owners.  In my own experience, positive and thoughtful reviews are encouraged, while rants without basis or direction are unlikely to earn the coveted “Review of the Day,” or help their writers toward “Elite” status.  This is supported by a chart illustrating the distribution of reviews at the link above.

The writer also claims there’s “nothing” loyal customers can do to reverse the damage of bad reviews, a complaint Miss Manners deftly dispatches–write your own good review!

To return to the original question, though, what do you think?  I agree that if there are problems with service, the healthy and mature thing to do is bring it to the attention of management, and allow them to try to fix it.  On the other hand, if a review accurately reflects what a disappointed customer experienced, well, why shouldn’t they post it?

A Few of My Favorite Things, February Edition

Names and advice columns!

Since I was quite young, I’ve loved names.  What do they mean?  Why do we choose them?  How close did I come to being “someone else?”  And, as Regan, Rachel, or Gretchen (all candidates put forth by my parents), would I really have been someone else?

When I was in elementary school, I’d buy baby name books from the drugstore and painstakingly go through them, using an elaborate ranking system to identify my favorites (the more possible variants and nicknames, the better).  While my dolls all had permanent names (don’t even get me started on the pre-ordained names of Cabbage Patch kids.  Mine was Quincy Marcella.  Shudder.  Makes me think of quince, which is some kind of obscure fruit, right?), my Barbies were blank slates. (I mean, who really persists in using Barbie, Skipper, and Midge? Especially when you have four of each?) Each new storyline meant an opportunity to re-christen each of them.  Naming was most of the fun.  And usually what I spent the most time on.

Part of it is tied to my interest in etymology–this explains why I love sites like Behind the Name, which gives the history, meaning, and connections with other names of pretty much any name I’ve ever been able to come up with.  My other favorite is the NameVoyager, a simple (but elegant!) (and powerful!)  graph charting the popularity of names in the United States, over the last 100 years or so.  There was a time in college when I kept such a close eye on this kind of thing that you could give me a name (Lydia, Frank, Todd) and I’d be able to accurately report the decade in which its popularity peaked.  (My only party trick, besides rolling a napkin into a chicken.)

I confess that I am an unfairly harsh critic of the names other people choose for their offspring.  Not that this surprises you.

So imagine my delight when today, passing by the name voyager, I saw a link to Ask the Name Lady, an advice column for those choosing names for their babies! I mean, besides the dismay I felt that this should have been my job…..the Name Lady got there first, and I respect her for that.  And look forward to many hours of entertaining reading!

For a sample, here’s today’s column:

Every day I receive naming questions of all kinds, and I can only answer a small fraction in print. Believe me though, it’s “all kinds.” Here’s an inside peek at some of the more unusual questions and comments from the Name Lady’s Inbox.

“My daughter named her son Emmet. I told her I liked Jake and she had a fit when I sent him a birthday card with a check addressed to Jake….What do you think?”

“Do you think to name your child Rada is weird especially if there is a show called Chowder which features a character named Rada that only ever says rada rada rada rada?

“I named my baby girl Teuslauna (tyoos lawna). I made it up when we couldn’t decide a name. A week later someone asked about the name, and my wife goes ‘What was it again?’ I said ‘What?’ She said, ‘the one you made up?’ Took me a week to remember it exactly how it was.”

“Would it be odd if all of my kids had the same name like Taylor but just change the middle name?”

“We’re having a boy and we have a first and middle name chosen, but my husband is now suggesting we add a second middle name — Eponymous. Any advice? Is Eponymous a crazy name?”

“My mother named me Mark. I am a girl. What’s with that?”

“I chose my daughter’s name when I saw it graffitied on a truck when I was pregnant with her so I don’t know it’s history. What can you share about this name?”

“What would you say to a name that is only rolling your tongue?”

Oy…..entertaining reading indeed.

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know….

Today I received a very special delivery from my friend A.E., R.N. We were in band together in high school, so when she said she found something that reminded her of me and she wanted to send it, I assumed it would be some piece of ancient band paraphernalia (those black socks we decorated with puff paint? The little action figure we found in the parking lot and adopted as our mascot?)–in any case, something of real but fleeting entertainment value.

So imagine my surprise when instead, I opened up the gift that keeps on giving. Forever. That’s right, it’s:

The Ann Landers Encyclopedia, A to Z: Improve Your Life Emotionally, Medically, Sexually, Socially, Spiritually. (Doubleday, 1988).

Wow. That is a lot of -llys. Thank you, A.E., R.N.!

To give you a better sense of the scope of this master work of the master columnist, here’s a snippet from the inside flap of the front cover. And I quote:

“How do you feel about abortion? Adultery? Sex after sixty? Masturbation? Oral sex? Interfaith marriage? Pornography?”

hooked yet? No? Well there’s more.

“What do you know about snoring? Smoking? Alcoholism? Drug abuse? Suicide? Dreams? Shoplifting? V.D.? Obesity? Hypsnosis? Acne? Arthiritis? High blood pressure? Cancer? Breast enlargement surgery? Teenage sex?”

Still not convinced? Just hold on.

“Are you ashamed to ask–but would like more information on orgasm? Face lifts? Rape? Contraceptives? Bashful kidneys? Homosexuality? Constipation? Frigidity? Shyness?”

With bashful kidneys and frigidity on the menu, who could pass? But just in case….

“Are you struggling with anger? Loneliness? Boredom? Depression? Nervous habits? Allergies? Headaches? Impotence? Widowhood? Insomnia? Menopause?”


“These are just a few of the topics you will find here.”

Also, it comes with the Ann Landers guarantee:

“I am utterly shameless when it comes to tapping the best brains in the country for my answers. No one is too important or too busy for me to bother.”

In fact, the encyclopedia contains more the 400 essays on ALL of the topics above, and more. They’re written by experts in the field, with commentary from A.L. She also covers some of the topics herself. And of course, “Generously sprinkled throughout are some of Ann’s most memorable columns.”

According to the dust jacket (O, wise dust jacket!), Ann Landers once said, “If I can shed a little light in some darkened corner, plant hope where there is dispair, replace anxiety with courage, ignorance with useful information, and open a door to self-understanding, the time and effort that went into this enormous undertaking will have been well spent.”

Oh Ann, we aren’t fooled. We can tell you took equal inspiration from St. Francis (“where there is hatred, let me sow love”) and Lena Lamont of Singin’ in the Rain (“If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives….all our hard work ain’t been in vain for nothin'”). But we are still impressed.

P.S. Great hair.

Mr. Clean: Man or Myth?

Amy answered a letter a couple months ago (which means I can’t find it any more…sigh) from a woman who spent the weekends at her boyfriend’s apartment, and bemoaned how messy it was. She was at her wits’ end, reduced to spilling things on purpose so she could clean them up…and also wipe down all surrounding surfaces while she was at it. The guy seemed to want and prefer things cleaner, but never seemed to get around to doing it.

This letter led to a flood of mail from men and women with all kinds of advice–she should hire a cleaning service, she should butt out, she should say she can’t come there unless he cleans it up, she has no right to make changes to his place, etc.

Today’s insight
is one of the more extreme ones I’ve seen:
Dear Amy: I’m responding to “T in D.C.,” whose boyfriend was a slob. She should check into what else her boyfriend may be messy about in his life. If his house is that messy, his credit may be that messy too. I know all about this. I married one of those “messy housekeepers” and quickly had creditors calling me on his delinquent bills and loans.

If this guy’s house is that messy, his checkbook probably is too. — Been There, Done That

But it’s Amy’s response that really interests me:

Dear Been there: The response to “T in D.C.” has split completely along gender lines. Men responding feel that clubbiness might be next to godliness, while women seem to feel that an unclean house reveals deeper truths about a person’s psyche.

The odd thing is….I know men who are neatniks and women who are slobs. So the ability (even….compulsion?) to have things neat and clean is not in and of itself a gender issue. But whether or not you feel like you SHOULD, or that it says something about you if you don’t, definitely seems to be.

Hmm, I was going to argue that women care more about what people think when they walk into the place, and so perhaps try harder to keep it presentable, but when I honestly reflect, that’s not the case either. I know men who can get messy on their own but clean up when they know company is coming. I know women who don’t, because they just don’t care or think it’s a very important use of time.

But I do think that Amy’s right in saying that women read more into cleanliness or messiness than men do–that it’s more a reflection of character and personality. I could even take as an example what I just said about guys cleaning up for company….for (most) guys, the state of the house (most of the time) seems utterly disconnected from their individual selves. It can get messy if there’s no one around to see it, or maybe it won’t, or if it does they can just pick it up when someone else is coming over.

For women, I think there’s a much more powerful link. (Ironically?) most women that I know do less cleaning up “for company” than most men I know (the obvious exception being preparing the house for a visit from mom). I think it’s because–whether they’re neat or messy–women maintain their surroundings in a way that they think is appropriate most of the time. Either they want it clean, so they keep it clean, so they don’t need to pick up for company, or they don’t care about the mess, so they leave it whether people are coming over or not. For men cleaning up or not seems to be largely circumstantial–who else is there, and what is the situation, is it worth doing right now? For women it seems to be deeply personal–doing it or not depends more on their own preferences than on outside circumstances.

This seems important to keep in mind when dealing with the opposite sex. Actual conversations from my life:

M: Don’t worry, I’m a lot neater when I live with someone else.

W: I don’t know, why would you be? I mean, you like to think you would be, but ultimately you live how you live and you like it how you like it. Why would it suddenly change because you’re sharing the space with someone else?

M: Because. I’m sharing the space with someone else.

W: I don’t see why that makes a difference.


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.