Tuesday, August 31, 2010

This LW should not appear on "You Can't Do That On Television"

From today's Dear Prudence live chat transcript:
I'm a 23-year-old female, and I was at a party this weekend with my 26-year-old best friend/roommate. She can be kind of zany sometimes, and for some reason when I came up to her on the dance floor, she poured an entire glass of whiskey all over my head! I was obviously mortified, upset, confused, and angry; I left the party immediately in tears. She wasn't drunk, and I know she just meant it as a funny joke. Needless to say, I didn't find it especially funny. I spent the night toweling off at another close friend's house because I just couldn't stand to deal with her. My problem is that I'm really upset about the fact that she hasn't made any effort to apologize, explain, or offer to pay for dry-cleaning of my soaked clothes or the blowout that I had just gotten that day at the salon. I know she doesn't think it was a big deal, and I'm sure if I ask her, she won't think it necessary to pay for anything. I hate confrontation, but I know that I can't just let this go! Do you have any advice on how I can talk to her and feel reciprocated?
Prudence finds the zany friend's behavior equally appalling.
I'm wondering if your roommate is the grown-up version of the girl who pees on her aunt's wedding dress. There is zany, then there is deranged. Are you sure your roommate doesn't have a smoldering mental problem? In any case, it would be crazy on your part to let someone dump a drink on your head and not call her on it. You have to tell her what she did to you was deeply disturbing, and your living arrangements and friendship are in jeopardy if she ever does something like that again.

Ashley: I guess I don't see the big deal. It was dumb, but that's what you get when you go to a party with drunk people. Although she did say the friend was sober.

Lulu: The thing is, if your friend is the kind of friend who thinks, "I will dump whiskey on her head!" and then does it, and she is sober, at what point is she going to think "I will apologize and offer to pay dry cleaning"? It is clearly an unreasonable expectation of this person.

Ashley: Because a person who would apologize for that behavior is not a person who would conduct it.

Lulu: Precisely. I don't understand how you can think "It is proper protocol to apologize and make amends after that sort of behavior!" because there is no proper protocol for that sort of behavior because it is not proper protocol!

Ashley: Is it bad that I think dumping whiskey on someone's head is kind of funny? Even if it's my head.

Lulu: That too. I definitely wouldn't call it "deeply disturbing." I can see, in the moment, being like, okay, that's weird. Like, what the fuck, dude. And I can see how this incident might cause you to be on your guard because it's an indication that she doesn't think before she acts, and that could be a problem if you intend to tell her a secret or lend her something or be near her when she is holding a steak knife. But, I mean, it's not like a betrayal. It clearly wasn't planned. It is clearly a crime of passion from a person with poor impulse control.

Ashley: And of ways poor impulse control can manifest, this seems fairly benign.

Lulu: It could have been acid. Or spiders. Or fifty-ton weights.

Ashley: I guess if the measure of friendship is whether or not they drop fifty-ton weights on your head, we're being pretty lax.

Lulu: To some extent, though, it's kind of on you to choose not to be friends with the fifty-ton weight-dropping person. People don't owe it to you to behave the way you want them to, even if all you want is what you think is within the bounds of common decency. Not everyone is commonly decent.

Ashley: I'm back to "it wasn't that bad." Running off in tears? It seems like an overreaction.

Lulu: My interpretation of that is that the girl is upset because she thought her friend was one way, but really she is another way? It's not about the drink, it's about trust: when you think someone is predictable (to you) but they aren't. That can be painful.

Ashley: But she does say that her roommate tends to be "zany."

Lulu: Right, I would assume that, as her best friend and roommate, the LW has had indications of this kind of behavior in the past. Although, as noted, she does seem to persist in assuming that this person will act like a normal person against all evidence to the contrary.

Ashley: It's a theory of mind problem. It's about being aware that other people are different from you.

Lulu: I think so too. Though, rereading her question, she does seem very much concerned about the financial aspects. Her clothes, her blowout.

Ashley: If she's concerned with the money, she should ask for it - the friend isn't going to offer.

Lulu: I agree, it's standard friend and/or roommate business transaction.

Ashley: "When you go to do your dry cleaning, just add this shirt to your stuff, since you did dump whiskey on it." I mean, if the roommate had borrowed it and spilled whiskey on herself, she'd clean it. Presumably.

Lulu: I think that has the best chance of working--preserving the friendship and possibly getting the money. If the roommate refuses a request like that, then it's a bigger problem. But the LW seems like she is angry and she wants to have it out on principle, to show that her roommate's actions have consequence and that she finds it unacceptable to be treated this way.

Ashley: She "hates confrontation," so her roommate probably doesn't even know that this is a problem!

Lulu: Well, now is as good a time as any to let her know. And that's a way to go--I don't think it's a way to go that will result in them continuing to be friends, and she should be prepared to stop partying with her and possibly move out, but it may worth it to her for her money and her dignity.

Ashley: Sure, but this is her best friend! You would think they would have enough history that something this minor wouldn't destroy the friendship.

Lulu: Maybe they have plenty of history. Bad history. Maybe this is the last straw. Sounds like they might be a bad fit, and maybe they'd like each other better in small doses.

Ashley: Are you trying to tell me something?

Lulu: To be honest, though, I don't know if I really believe the roommate is financially culpable for paying for her blowout.

Ashley: Can I just mention that blowout is a silly term? Bloooowout. Blowout?

Lulu: She should contribute some reasonable amount toward dry-cleaning the clothes because more-than-usually messed-up clothes are a reasonable consequence of dumping whiskey on someone's head, but is it the roommate's fault the girl has expensive taste in hairstyles? Maybe when you ruin someone's hair/clothes, you take your chances with it being expensive, but hairstyles are so transitory anyway... I don't know why I am weirdly pro-dumping liquid on people.

Ashley: Likewise. It's not something I do, but I'm not opposed.

Lulu: I mean, I have never had it happen to me, so maybe I would feel different, but I take showers and stuff... voluntarily!

Having looked at the problem two ways, we're going to cop out and offer two possible pieces of advice. The LW, who will never look at this, can take her pick.

1. Decide the friendship is worth the hassle but recognize that this friend requires some special handling (wear old clothes and be prepared for anything). Go ahead and ask for money to repair her wake of destruction, but don't expect much and don't take it personally.

2. Decide your values are too different, the friendship cannot continue as-was, and it's time to transition into just roommates. Nobody's fault, just begin hanging out more with other friends. Either way, she is who she is and it seems like it's not personal.

The other takeaway I suppose is that you can feel free to dump your drink on our heads.

Vindication part II

On today's Savage Love podcast, Dan Savage made an exception to his rule against questioning other columnists' advice (hey) to take issue with the same Annie's Mailbox letter that made my eyes explode last week.
"'Also there is the possibility that he is gay'? Where did that come from? Gay isn't a melange of alternative sex acts. A man doesn't reach some kind of kinky tipping point and fall facefirst into another man's lap."
The whole rant is worth listening to.

We couldn't get excited about any of yesterday's advice, but there may or may not be a real post later today, if Ashley ever comes online. (Yes, she is a robot.)

Friday, August 27, 2010

Two semesters from retirement

Today's Dear Abby finds another question from a parent worried about their irresponsible child, college, and how much to pay for.

DEAR ABBY: Our son, "Jason," has decided to leave college with only two semesters left. He says he's doing so in order to pursue his love of river guiding and outdoor programs.

While he was in school, his father and I paid for his cell phone, health and car insurance, and his rent because we wanted his focus to be on his studies. We also paid his tuition. Jason has a part-time job. Now that he has decided to leave school, our view is that he should find another job and assume these expenses.

My husband and I disagree about who should pay for any future education that Jason wants. If he goes back to school, his tuition will be paid for, says Dad. I think we would be enabling him if he thought we were always standing by to foot the bill.

We are heartsick that Jason has made this decision, but his mind is made up. Any advice from you would be appreciated.

- Unhappy Mom in Mississippi

We don't really disagree with Abby's advice, but as usual, we find t a little short and unsatisfying. In its entirety:

I agree that Jason should shoulder the responsibility for his living expenses. However, do not make any hard and fast decisions about his tuition while you are still angry at him. This situation will surely play out. If and when Jason decides to complete his education, that would be the time to discuss the matter of tuition.

Lulu: It's like with our Frivolous Wastes of Money column: the parents are considering withholding something they want the son to have as a punishment for the son. They're only hurting themselves.

Ashley: It's two lousy semesters. He should just finish the degree. At the same time, it's two lousy semesters' worth of money; a lot, but not compared to what they've already spent.

Lulu: I suppose they think he will make the calculation and realize he should stay in school for free (to him) rather than put it off and have to pay for it himself later. But if he were making decisions according to the calculations, he would just wait the eight measly months to become a forest ranger.

This is why I do think that kids should help pay for college, if their parents do (ie. if they don't get a full scholarship): so they have some personal investment in the cost-benefit analysis. But in this case, I don't think it's just that he's being selfish with the money because he thinks it's infinite. He doesn't seem to want the degree at all. Even if it were his own money, he wouldn't necessarily consider it worth his time and attention.

Ashley: I mean, at some level, if you know you won't use it, it's best not to proceed: sunk costs and all that. But does that really apply to a college degree? It seems like it'll never hurt to have one. A lot of jobs require a bachelor's in anything.

Lulu: Because of classism!

Ashley: For him specifically, it seems like he could use, for example, a BS in Environmental Science.

Lulu: I guess he just feels he doesn't need it. He can do what he wants without it.

Ashley: I can respect the choice not to go to college in the first place, but what I don't respect is if you go, almost complete it, and then drop out. A big waste of time and money, just because you can't make up your mind or you let people push you around.

Lulu: A lot of teenagers don't know their own mind. Maybe he didn't know he would hate college until he got there. It would be nice if you could make that decision snappily, for the sake of your parents' bank accounts, but I can see how it would go wrong. Kid says he wants to drop out to save the parents money, parents say, no, no, don't worry about the money, I just want you to get the degree. Repeat. I respect this kid more because he has a plan - half-baked as his parents may find it.

Ashley: Sure. But what he's doing is not time sensitive. He can't do river guiding next year?

Lulu: I kind of find his impatience charming because it shows he's enthusiastic about this.

Ashley: I don't find it endearing when people drop stuff that will help for sure in order to do something they're "passionate about". I find it boring and immature.

Lulu: Well, there's levels. You can't do it all the time.

Ashley: There are definite points at which it makes sense to change stuff, and if you want to change stuff between those points, there better be a damn good reason, especially when the next point is very close.

Lulu: You don't understand! He's suffocating in this ivory tower of academia!

Ashley: Yeah, and soon he will be suffocating under the pressure of rent payments. How's he going to get out of that one?

Lulu: We'll see. I think he'll be okay. Fly free, little river guide. Either way, his motives are irrelvant. He's made his choice. The parents are asking what they should do.

Ashley: It seems that the husband wants to extend the offer of free tuition if he ever decides to go back and the wife doesn't. So split the difference? Half-tuition? I think it's a moot point because I don't think he'll go back.

Lulu: That's what Abby was saying, too. Address that if and when he decides to go back.

Ashley: Yeah, but a lot of people don't want a possible fight hanging over their heads. She wanted to have it settled now. You can always review your decision.

Lulu: So, sure. Half tuition. But it's probably moot.

Ashley: Moot!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

We'll all burn soon enough

Dr. Lovemonkey, relationship columnist from the Providence Phoenix, printed a letter in yesterday's column from a 14-year-old girl who is being harrassed by a religious popular girl. She writes:
Dear Dr. Lovemonkey,

I am a 14-year-old girl with a big problem. There's a popular girl in my class who tells me that everything I like is evil, and that I shouldn't like this or that because when I die I will go to hell. She thinks liking rock and roll and reading fantasy books is sinful. She goes on and on about what the Bible says and that the music, books, and people I like are all "evil." I respect what she likes, and I think she should respect what I like, too. I think that I'm okay but her constant put-downs sometimes cause me to feel depressed and wonder if I am okay. What do you think?

--A Little Confused
The reply is amazingly bland:
Dear A Little Confused,

Don't be confused. You are okay and this girl in your class is obviously only able to boost her own self-confidence by putting someone else down. Avoid her, pay no attention to her, and hope that she will grow up. You sound like you have a pretty good sense of balance.
Ashley: Wow. This response is so blah that I couldn't even muster an opinion.

Lulu: I know!

Ashley: Even though the exact same thing happened to me in high school. I think my interaction went:
Girl: You know, you'll go to hell for reading those books!
Me: Will you be there?
Girl: No!
Me: Sweet.
That does tend to end the conversation rather permanently, though.

Lulu: That might not be a bad thing. She doesn't say if she wants to be friends with this person. If she does, why? They don't seem to have anything in common. She may just be a nice girl who wants to live and let live, with neither of them judging each other, but I don't think that's realistic. You can only control your own (outward, anyway) judging, not someone else's. The best she can do is to be polite and cheerful about refusing to discuss eternal damnation.
Girl: You know, you'll go to hell for reading those books!
LW: Sorry, I'm not interested in discussing it. What are you guys doing in fifth-period gym, volleyball?
Ashley: The best thing is probably just to say no, firmly but politely. It's unclear if she's tried that. Just a basic, "I don't share your beliefs, so we'll have to agree to disagree" repeated ad nauseum. Any actual engagement is just going to prolong the conversation.

Lulu: Right, like you'd turn down anyone. Engaging with a proselytizer is like talking to someone who wants to go on a date with you, but who you would never go out with. It may be counterintuitively kinder to be brusque. She doesn't want to give the other girl false hope that she could be talked into converting. Eventually, the other girl will get tired of bringing it up, but only if the letter-writer doesn't give her anything to go on, ever.

Ashley: Although I still don't see a reason to be nice.

Lulu: Burn that bridge!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Bonus post: Is that what the repressed adults are calling it?

This is not at all related to younger letter-writers, since I'm certain everyone involved was born before 1899, but yesterday's Annie's Mailbox must be read to be believed.

Lulu: A woman says her husband only enjoys "alternative" forms of sex - not "normal intercourse" - and Annie says he might be gay! And needs to see a doctor!

Ashley: What? ... Wait, what?

Lulu: What on earth does "alternative" mean? BSDM? Anal? Oral?

Ashley: It's totally anal. If she jumped to "gay"? It's got to be. I can't imagine anyone considers oral "alternative" anymore, do they?

Lulu: Either way, I can't imagine any form of sex a man would enjoy having with a woman that makes him gay. Wtf Annie.

Ashley: For reals.

In which Lulu monologues about how tattoos are equal to husbands

I know we said we wouldn't do wedding questions, but today's Dear Abby is maybe also a tattoo question?
I'm a 36-year-old woman who has a 25-year-old friend I love like a little sister. Because of that connection, I felt compelled to ask her to be a bridesmaid in my upcoming wedding. After she agreed, I overheard her mention that she would be getting a large tattoo on her arm. Because she knows how I feel about visible tattoos, I asked her if she'd wait six months until after the wedding. She and the matron of honor are scheduled to wear strapless, knee-length gowns.

She proceeded with the tattoo and now has half an arm of full-color design. I don't want her to ruin my wedding or the photographs. I would feel guilty if I had to force a jacket or sweater on her or my matron of honor, especially if the day is unseasonably hot. What should I do?
Abby is mostly sympathetic.
If your "little sister" cared as much about your feelings as you seem to about hers, she would have postponed getting the tattoo as you requested. Too bad she didn't.

However, weddings are more than the procession and the picture album. They are about loving friends and family and the joining of two people who intend to build a life together. If you're worried about the pictures, pose "Sis" so her "canvas" can't be seen by the camera.

Lulu: I don't understand how a bridesmaid having a tattoo would ruin the wedding pictures. Wedding pictures are a record of who was there, right? She was there, and she has a tattoo.

Ashley: I was at a wedding recently where several bridesmaids had large green tattoos which did not go well with the purple strapless dresses. It was more a color coordination issue, not a tattoo-specific issue.

Lulu: There will always be color coordination issues. What if one of the bridesmaids has the wrong color hair? Or an unsightly rash? Or their body type is wrong for the dress? You can't dictate that people themselves must go perfectly with the wedding d├ęcor. I know the tattoo is optional, but I reject the idea that guests, even wedding party members, have a responsibility to make all their personal appearance choices revolve around the wedding for six months or more. Having a wedding is optional, too. It's a major, life-changing, deeply personal option, but so is getting a tattoo. I don't see why one takes precedence over the other.

Ashley: I mean, I probably wouldn't have gotten the tattoo. If you're close enough to someone that they want you to be in their wedding, presumably you'd do them other favors as well, such as waiting a few months to get a tattoo, even if you think it's an irrational request.

Lulu: That's true. Friends honor friends' irrational requests within reason, but you should also not get bent out of shape about perfect wedding pictures. If the bridesmaid loves the friend, she should do her a favor, but if the friend loves the bridesmaid, she should accept her as she is--which is now a person with a tattoo.

Ashley: That said, I can see several circumstances where the tattoo itself is the problem. If it's a swastika, for example.

Lulu: Point.

Ashley: Especially in a non-coordinating color. Nothing worse than a non-coordinating swastika.

Lulu: How could you get a red swastika when you know my wedding colors are maroon?

Ashley: All of them?

Lulu: Yes. Maroon and pale maroon.

It turns out that after all that discussion, we basically agree with Abby. Huh.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Go fish

From today's Dear Abby:
DEAR ABBY: How do you respond to an overweight person who says she's fat? Or a short person who says she's short? Or to anyone else who points out a true physical flaw that goes against today's ridiculous standard of beauty? I am in a sorority and this happens all the time.

Please don't tell me to say that their personalities are beautiful -- even if it's true -- because what these girls want to hear is that they are physically beautiful. -- THE UGLY TRUTH FAIRY
Abby's advice to her was to find some other praiseworthy physical qualities in these girls:
The girl with the weight problem may have beautiful skin or a fabulous head of hair. And the short girl may have such beautiful posture that people regard her as graceful. Get it?
This earned some snorts and eye-rolls from us but as you will see, our own advice is much, much worse.

Lulu: The classic problem of the self-put-down-er. It's a tight spot, because you can't agree, but you also can't contradict them, because it's not true and they won't believe you. But it would feel so false to me if I was like "I'm fat" and someone were like "But you have a fabulous head of hair!"

Ashley: Yeah, there's no way I could say that. And it just encourages that behavior--putting yourself down to fish for compliments. That's bad! Don't train that! I understand why she says that, but I don't think it's helpful in the long-term, not if you don't want to keep that up forever and ever.

Lulu: I wouldn't either, but of course, my instinct, to say, "Yeah," or "We all have our cross to bear," or "Anyway how bout them Knicks" can make people be mad at me.

Ashley: My response is to look as if they've interrupted something important, and be like, "okaaaay?" But again, then they stop talking to me forever. Which, if they want to talk about how fat or short they are, I'm okay with.

Lulu: I guess this girl needs to get along with her sorority sisters.

Ashley: True. I guess she could offer simple solutions that they must have considered already? "I'm fat." "Try a diet." "I'm short." "Wear heels."

Lulu: That feels like agreeing to me.

Ashley: No, no, it's not making a judgment. It's just acknowledging their perception, and offering solutions. Like I sometimes do with you. "I'm hungry." "Have a cookie." "Oooh."

Lulu: I don't really think straight when I'm hungry.

Ashley: That is part of the truth. I mean, really, you can just be like, "It doesn't matter" because it doesn't. Who cares if you're short?

Lulu: Another tactic is to contradict by making unnecessarily effusive compliments. "You're not too fat! I think you're beautiful. I wouldn't kick you out of bed."

Ashley: Brilliant. How about "I wouldn't kick you out of bed" as an answer to every comment?

Lulu: I am not sure this will help her get along with her sorority. On the other hand, Sappho was Greek.

Ashley: Make them uncomfortable to talk about their body around you!

Lulu: She might have to have sex with some women. But that is just the price you pay when you listen to our advice, and I am okay with that.

Ashley: She can do it in a jokey way. It's still impossible to respond. What can they say?

Lulu: I think context is important, too. She could be oversensitive on what she is counting as fishing for compliments. It's annoying when someone just complains, "I'm fat!", and I kind of feel like if they're doing that it's okay to be mean. But I can see also see the letter-writer getting uncomfortable if they're saying it in reference to something else, like an explanation: "Oh, no, I'll stay over here, I'm too fat to pose in the wet t-shirt contest." In that case, I would be annoyed if someone used an obvious counter-fishing tactic, because I wasn't fishing; I was just trying to communicate.

Ashley: That makes it easier, though. Just take what they say at face value, and address the actual situation. "Of course, no one HAS to do the wet t-shirt contest."

Lulu: Right. It doesn't matter what the reason is.

Ashley: I wouldn't do one cause my boobs aren't big enough, for instance.

Lulu: I choose not to comment.

Ashley: Say, "I wouldn't kick you out of bed." SAY IT!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Like, um, things just, you know, suck.

Ashley: I am on a boat!

Lulu: You are on a boat!

Ashley: It's weird chatting from a boat.

Lulu: Do we have any advice today?

Ashley: There's that person in Carolyn Hax's most recent live chat who was upset that her coworker used "like" all the time.

Like, wherever: I have a coworker who talks like a valley girl. I have to sit very close to her in the office and she talks...a lot. Every sentence usually contains at least 3 "likes" and 2 "you knows," and she talks very fast. It is starting to drive me crazy.

I am also a young, female professional. (we are about the same age.) I like this girl. She is very nice, and as far as I can tell, good at her job, as long as she is not talking. I would even like to be friends with her, possibly outside of work, but despite the fact that I find her stories/life/company interesting, I cannot stand to listen to her for more than 30 seconds. I don't catch any other words that come out of her mouth because my brain unconsciously goes to the repetitive "likes." It's very distracting in meetings. Sometimes I miss the jist of what she is saying completely.

Ladies of the world, give up the teeny bopper speak!!!

On the one hand, I am VERY conscious of my own speech these days, and I have almost completely eliminated the extraneous "likes" and "you knows." But I still have to sit near her and listen all day. Any advice on how I can 1) learn to hear what she is actually trying to say through the fog of poor word choice or 2) kindly and tactfully suggest she notice her bad habit? (is there a way to tap into her subconscious?)

Lulu: Ohmigod. At dinner on Sunday, my family were all spontaneously complaining about the young people today saying "like" too much! And casual swearing.

Ashley: Oh no. I do both!

Lulu: So do I! My dad was like, "If you drop the f-bomb all the time, you rob it of its power."

Ashley: Why do you want it to have power?

Lulu: I know, right? I was going to casually swear to make a point, but my eight-year-old cousin was there, and even I'm not that uncouth.

Ashley: Young people today!

Lulu: Young people today! Actually, this reminds me of that The Vine column recently, where a schoolteacher asked for parent-friendly alternatives to "sucks." Sars suggested "eats a bowl of bees."

Ashley: Ha.

Lulu: Also, I argued that "like" has a different shade of meaning than "said" when you say "I was like... he was like..." I was like, "It's not what you SAID, it's what you were LIKE."

Ashley: Right, it's more how you said it than what you said.

Lulu: Yeah, it's a paraphrase, or an attitude, e.g. "I was like, wtf", describes your manner and facial expresion!

Ashley: You can use it that way deliberately. That isn't the case here, though. It's the space-filler "like." "It was, like, thirty degrees out, so we, like..."

Lulu: Like "um." Right you are. What did Carolyn say?

Carolyn Hax: My inclination for helping you understand her better would be to make overtures toward friendship, but I can't advise that knowing she drives you nuts. In most cases, liking a person will help you get past (or at least regard with more forgiveness) the traits that drive you nuts, but this is a next-door colleague; if it doesn't work, you'll have to back out of a friendship with the person sitting next to you. Too much at stake there.

And, unless you're her boss and responsible for the way she represents the company, I don't think it's your place to coach her out of who she is. [...]

But maybe just posting this will be a PSA to anyone who, like, uses "like" in lieu of commas.

Lulu: Well, I basically agree with that. Although I'm not sure I agree that it's inherently a problem. I mean, a lot of people that I know use "like" that way, and so do I. It's basically transparent to me now.

Ashley: If you're actually using "like" every third word, that's a bit much, but everyone has verbal tics.

Lulu: Some people seem to place a lot of premium on speaking without hedges or "ums" or "likes", but those people? Speak so slooooowly. At least "like" is like "loading..." It lets you know there is more to come.

Ashley:: In the letter, the person mentioned that one of the problems was that the girl talked really fast.

Lulu: When you talk fast you need verbal pauses! Your brain can't keep up.

Ashley: My boyfriend, Galahad, can do it. He doesn't use "um" or "like," and still talks quickly.

Lulu: Truly, he is blessed.

Ashley: He trained himself to do it.

Lulu: So did the letter-writer. I think that's part of what bothers her so much; you hate what you see in yourself, or your former self. When she asks for "any advice on how to try to understand her," I don't think she actually wants it. I think she wants to find this woman difficult to understand because that makes her grown up! and mature!

Ashley: I do find that if I don't like someone, I find it more difficult to filter out their verbal tics, because i'm so focused on disliking them. It's just one more annoying thing. Whereas if i want to understand what someone is saying, verbal tics don't prevent me from doing so.

Lulu: Yeah. I guess I question the idea that everyone needs to speak perfectly. The judgement of any verbal tic as good or bad, mature or immature, educated or stupid is arbitrary, right? I mean there are good and bad speakers -- I'd rather listen to Patrick Stewart give a speech than a Real Housewife of Jersey or what have you -- but unless speaking to clients is a component of your job, the way you speak is irrelevant.

Ashley: Yep. If she had a stutter, all this would be unconscionable to say.

Lulu: I guess the idea is that you can't control a stutter.

Ashley: Some people really can't control the like-insertion though.

Lulu: Totally. A stutter is viewed as a speech impediment, and "like" is viewed as a lazy choice. I think people who have eradicated "like" from their vocabulary may be overestimating how easy it is for others, the same way parents with easy, quiet kids judge parents of hyperactive kids.

Ashley: Before "like" there was "um" and "er". Some people place different levels of importance on the like-business.

Lulu: Somebody later in the chat suggested they go to Toastmasters and learn public speaking together.

Ashley: Can you imagine how that conversation would go?

Lulu: Oh, this reminds me of something. Do you remember the Notmydesk about stuttering? He was critiquing an advice column!

Ashley: I don't remember it!

Lulu: Oh, it was a twitch. Still, I think it highlights an important point for both discussions. Learn about it and talk about it are both overreactions in this situation. Carolyn's right--let it go.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Don't tell your parents, Part II

An Annie's Mailbox column from 8/15/10 advises a teenage girl who wrote in about her depressed boyfriend:
Dear Annie: My boyfriend, "Tyler," and I are both 15. He suffers from depression, and lately it has gotten much worse. He told me he takes many doses of Benadryl each night to help him sleep. He promised he would stop once school was finished, but I can't be sure he did.

A few nights ago, Tyler admitted he had been stealing alcohol from his parents' liquor cabinet. He also mentioned that he wanted to try OxyContin and weed to reduce his misery. When I pleaded with him not to do these things, he said he could do whatever he wished and I could not control him.
I know he could feel better in other ways (seeing a therapist, using antidepressants, etc.), and I have mentioned this to him, but he won't listen. His parents are aware that he is depressed, but don't know about the alcohol and drug abuse. Should I say something? I am sure they would lock the liquor cabinet and make him see a doctor, but I know Tyler will never speak to me again if I tell them.

I feel overwhelmed and burdened with this knowledge. I want to help Tyler get better in a healthy way, but I don't feel comfortable going to my parents about this, and it's stressing me out. Please help. — Scared
The response is as expected: tell your parents!
Dear Scared: You are smart to see that Tyler is in trouble. His inability to sleep, plus the liquor abuse and hints about OxyContin and pot indicate that Tyler is depressed, stressed and desperate for someone to notice. It would be best if you would talk to your own parents, but if you cannot, then please say something to Tyler's parents about his increased level of depression. If they do nothing, talk to your school counselor in more detail when school resumes. Tyler may become angry, but you will never forgive yourself if you don't step in.
Lulu: It would be best to talk to her parents? What can they do?

Ashley: I can just see being the parent:
Girl: "Mom, my boyfriend is depressed"
Me: "erm. okay?"

Lulu: I guess "tell your parents" is cookie cutter kid advice that they universally apply even when it doesn't make sense. I'd give her the same advice for everyone who wants their partner to change: She can't make him do what she wants, so she either has to deal with what he's doing or break up with him.

Ashley: Yeah. The thing about advice to teenagers re:relationships is, either you give them the same advice as adults or, they're not mature enough to be in a relationship, in which case you tell them to break up.

Lulu: It is relevant that they're teenagers if only because he would probably have to tell his parents if he wanted to get, for example, a counselor using their insurance, but he still needs to want this. You wouldn't tell an adult to tell her boyfriend's parents about his depression even if he was, for whatever reason, on their insurance, because he's the one you need to convince.

Ashley: She should tell him to talk to the counselor at school or his parents or what have you, and if he doesn't make any effort, she's out.

Lulu: Right, it seems like she has done that.

Ashley: She didn't give the ultimatum. I.e. it's not about him, it's about her. She'll give him every chance to deal with his depression, but he has to be the one to do it.

Lulu: It's always unclear how much help you should give someone who is depressed, since it is an illness that effectively prevents the person from doing the things they need to do to fix it. But curing a depressed person is too much to ask of yourself as a girlfriend. She may sort of like the role of Concerned Handwringing Girlfriend to Troubled Boy, but it is on her to change the dynamic if she doesn't want it to continue forever.

Ashley: Yeah--when he doesn't address his depression, then she should actually break up with him (it should not be an empty threat).

Lulu: So that's the same advice we would give to an adult.

Ashley: It is. Telling her parents won't do anything besides show them that she's not mature enough to deal with relationship problems and therefore shouldn't be in a relationship. I'm actually surprised they didn't even suggest breaking up to this girl.

Lulu: Right, the advice to an adult would have been to break up, I think, but the advice for a teenager is, stay in the relationship, but involve lots of adults.

Ashley: How many adults could you possibly want involved in your romantic relationships? Poly people notwithstanding...

Friday, August 13, 2010

Does a jerk brother count as a verbal abuser?

Dear Imprudence is another online advice column deconstruction (we're so unoriginal), with a particular focus on feminism and disability. Recently they posted a review of this July 19 Ask Amy column which interested us, too, since the writer is a high school student:
I feel like I am being verbally abused by my brother, who constantly tells me that I don't do things right...

Whenever he criticizes me, he says things like, "You're lazy." Or he'll say, "If you continue to make these choices then you probably won't have the greatest path you can have in life." His words hurt me and my self-esteem suffers, even if I know he doesn't really mean it. I do believe he loves me for who I am, but this bothers me.
Amy told the writer, essentially, to buck up:
Words do hurt. But they hurt less if you make a healthy choice to let the stuff roll off you that you know isn't true. Your parents should nip this in the bud, but you shouldn't leave your brother in charge of your self-esteem.
Dear Imprudence pointed out an inconsistency: Amy generally agrees with readers' assessments of abuse (as in this recent example), and suggests that Amy has a bias against young people.

Lulu: I was kind of surprised Amy blew her off. She usually errs on the side of calling abuse abuse.

Ashley: Right! Actually, I was impressed. Amy was encouraging the writer to stand up to the bully and not embrace victimhood.

Lulu: Yeah, I like the bit about not giving other people the power to hurt you. But I wouldn't be surprised if she wasn't taking the writer seriously only because she's young, and so is the purported abuser.

Ashley: Well, age does make a difference! We don't really know the extent of what the brother is doing, but I definitely made my sister cry a lot when we were younger. Now we get along great. I got over needing to be Always Right--

Lulu: You sure did.

Ashley: --shush!--and she got over Crying At The Drop Of A Hat. I think we're both better off for the experience. I should check in with her about that...

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Frivolous wastes of money

In today's Ask Amy, a parents frets about her daughter's use of money.

Dear Amy: My daughter recently graduated from college.

My husband and I paid for all of her expenses, though she held a part-time job.

We opened a bank account for her when she was a child. We added about $10,000 to this account when she started college.

Our daughter has spent all of her savings and paychecks throughout these four years on clothes and going out with friends.

I have berated her countless times on her spending habits.

Right before she graduated, she said she'd found an apartment to live in with her two friends.

I told her NOT to sign a lease because she couldn't afford it.

She moved home and now has a full-time job ($14 an hour) and another side job while she looks for work in her field.

Her friends took the apartment and she goes there on weekends.

She assured me that she was not on the lease.

Of course, now I find out that she is. I am livid.

I told her she needs to either get someone to sublet the apartment or go ahead and move into it, but she will not be able to keep our car or have us pay any of her expenses.

She found a bus that can get her close to work but I am worried for her safety when she gets out of work at 10 p.m. and is waiting for a bus in a dangerous neighborhood.

She wants to buy our car, but with her track record I know she will not keep up with payments.

I think she needs to see what real life is all about but if something happened to her as she waited for a bus I would never forgive myself.

Any suggestions?

Amy says the girl needs to get out on her own--which we agree with--but she seems to concur with the parents' assessment that she's by nature a wasteful drain on society:

Her spending habits will get her into trouble unless she makes the connection necessary to be a good steward to her own finances. Until then I suggest it's time she learned to eat ramen noodles over the sink.

We don't agree. It looks to us like she wants to get out on her own (she works two jobs! she's willing to take a bus! she signed a lease! which apparently she can afford after all?) but she's just a doormat (why all the secrecy with the lease?) But her parents are oddly standing in the way of the steps they claim to want her to take.

Ashley: Those parents are very strange.

Lulu: Right?

Ashley: They want the daughter to be responsible for herself but also they're very controlling. Can't wait for a bus at 10pm?

Lulu: Yeah, they want it both ways.

Ashley: And Amy's response: take a cab?

Lulu: If you need to you take a cab every time you get out of work, you might as well not have a job.

Ashley: I'm not sure these people know how much things cost.

Lulu: It looks like the girl is not unwilling to meet the terms of living on her own, but the mom doesn't find her solutions acceptable. It's like, they sheltered her too long and now they're mad at her because she's unprepared for the world. But the way to help someone be independent isn't to micromanage them so they don't make any unsafe or expensive choices.

Ashley: According to the parents, some things are Worth The Money and some things are Frivolous Wastes. So not taking a bus at 10pm is Worth The Money, but eating out with friends is a Frivolous Waste. But for me, it's opposite. It's all the person's preference.

Lulu: As a parent, if you think things are worth it that the child doesn't, you can provide them as a present, but you can't demand that the child spend her own money on the things you think are worth it.

Ashley: It kind of seemed like she offered to buy out their car to make them feel better, and now they're all, "she won't pay us!"

Lulu: I bet if she found a cheaper car they would be like, "she bought this UNSAFE CAR."

Ashley: The thing is, she can't immediately get an awesome job out of college. For a while, she'll have to live in an unsafe neighborhood or whatever.

Lulu: Yeah, I think that is what Amy is getting at in her ramen answer, although she frames it as if the girl is the one who'll object to that. Parents who are well off and raise their child to be well off are sometimes appalled by the lower standard of living they have when they are on their own, but that's what it's LIKE when you're starting out.

But ramen is very unhealthy. She should at least get pasta. Come on.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Here, have some feelings

In yesterday's column, Carolyn Hax answers a daughter who asks for advice after overhearing her parents fight. The original letter states,

My parents are fighting more and more, and now in front of my brother and me (we're in our teens). When they are alone and fighting we can hear them, and I see my mom afterward and see that she has cried. I don't know what to say or do.

I believe my parents won't end up splitting because it has been a tough year for us, with my dad losing his job and then finding another. What can I do to help them, and what can I say to my parents after I have heard them fight?

 And the reply:
What you've said here is important for your parents to know... You don't have to launch into a big statement -- just "Mom, I hear you and dad fight, and I'm worried about you. I'm worried about us." If she's not ready to talk -- say, if she brushes you off with "Everything's fine" -- wait for a better opportunity, and say then that you'd like to talk to her. Approach your dad the same way. [...]

Sometimes you will have to do more for your family during tumultuous times -- tidying up, laundry -- and sometimes you will have to ask less of them. As tempting as it may be to try to help your parents, though, do watch carefully for the line between being transparent with them and disappearing into their mess. [...]

You (and your brother) are on the seam between childhood and adulthood. You can't stomp your feet and expect to be made whole, and you can't shoulder the kind of responsibility an adult can. [...]

In a way, this intensely personal strain you're feeling has a universal remedy: Be loving to others, be flexible in your expectations, be good to yourself. No matter what form the outcome takes, you will get through this, and so will they.
Usually, we agree with Carolyn, or at least see merit in her advice, but this is so completely alien to both of us that we have trouble even beginning to understand. Carolyn advises the girl to do more chores and altogether focus on making her life perfect so that she's not a burden on anyone in any way? How is this a good life lesson?

Lulu: I think putting pressure on yourself to help - even by doing extra chores and downplaying your own problems - is just the way to make yourself miserable. It won't help the situation in any appreciable way. If anything, it's enabling.

Ashley: Yeah, positively reinforcing the parents' negative behavior! If you really want them to stop fighting, you say, "If I can hear you fight, I do no chores that day. Kthxbye."

Lulu: Parenting the parents!

Ashley: Behavioral psychology, now for adults!

There is also an odd vacillation, frequently within the same paragraph, between treating the writer as a child and as an adult (and never, really, as a teenager). For example, Carolyn goes from:
When you're both ready, don't speak your mind so much as your feelings: "When you guys fight, I feel ... " sad/helpless/scared, whatever describes where you are.
Ashley: Because clearly the LW can't have an opinion about what's going on; she can only have feelings!
As tempting as it may be to try to help your parents, though, do watch carefully for the line between being transparent with them and disappearing into their mess.
Lulu: She's both talking down to teenagers and using emotional language I'm not sure they would understand.

Ashley: And Carolyn just drops that in as if it's intuitive (and to her, maybe it is, but I certainly don't expect a teenager to be able to do this with no guidance).

The feelings bit is another problem; there is little indication in the letter that the girl is actually distressed about the fighting. Mostly, she states that she doesn't know what to say/do, and this seems to be the source of the distress. As in, she's uncomfortable being in the situation, but she doesn't necessarily worry about the possible consequences or What It All Means. Carolyn reads a lot into those few lines; obviously, she probably has more information than we do, but from that letter, we would not necessarily assume the girl had so many feelings.

Ashley: I have trouble dealing with people who are fighting or otherwise having emotions in my presence. I can't deal with my mom crying at all! But it's not because I have particular feelings about it, it's because I'm socially inept. I'd love a script to follow beyond the, "You know I don't do this! Call your other daughter!" that I do right now...

The last problem may just sum up our overall concerns; Carolyn seems to be projecting a lot of her own personality into the response. That can't necessarily be helped (and we're undoubtedly doing the same), but usually she takes much better care not to assume other people react as she would.

So, what should the letter writer do?

Lulu: Basically, there IS nothing she can do, because you can't fix someone else's relationship. It will only hurt her if she lives and dies by how well the relationship is going.

Ashley: Yeah. I don't see why she should get involved at all. At some point, you have to realize that your parents are people in addition to being parents, and that people occasionally fight and do stupid things and make things unpleasant for people around them. And you have no control over their actions and decisions; whether they are your parents or not.

Lulu: I think I'd spend a lot of time at my friends' houses. Or pick up some school activities. Make the home situation just one part of her life.

Ashley: Yeah, less time being involved in family life is probably a good call, if only for college applications.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Not all who game are addicts

Hi. My name is Ashley, and I am a gamer.

This post is brought to you by my raid sucking utterly and giving me lots of time between attempts to write up a rant.

Ashley: Dude if my raid can't get its act together, I'm never getting the Unwelcome Mat! It's such an easy fight; all you have to do is not screw up for fifteen minutes. That's all! DO NOT LET THE DRAGON EAT YOU. DO NOT KILL PEOPLE WITH THE PURPLE EYE.

Lulu: I like cake and string!

Ashley: Delicious string...

The thing about advice columnists is that they're mostly women; the thing about women is that most of them hate video games. I don't know what it is about this particular pastime that inspires such disdain, but columnists (and the women* who write to them) are quick to label gamers as "addicts" and dismiss any other potential issues that may be at play.

Before we get to some examples, in the interest of full disclosure, I spend an average of twenty hours per week playing video games. My boyfriend plays more than that (25? Maybe 30). It's not an unreasonable amount of time to spend on a hobby, and it tends to, at least in my experience, replace other "useless" hobbies such as watching tv.

In addition to actual time-sink elements, there are also qualitatively different ways to play video games. A lot of the letter writers are most concerned about multiplayer online games (usually World of Warcraft); I don't play that particular game but I have, for years, played very similar ones. With multiplayer games, one can play them, effectively, as a single-player game, or as a social event where the game is a background activity and the primary goal is to socialize with others. Why one plays a game is just as important as how much time one spends on it.

So, example the first: in an Annie's Mailbox letter, a woman writes in about her husband:
Dear Annie: Over the last couple of years, I have come to realize that I am married to an 80-year-old man, even though he is only 31 and I am 29.

On a typical day, "Jeremy" leaves for work at 4:30 a.m. and gets home 12 hours later. I know he works hard and is stressed, but he never does anything except eat dinner and then log onto the computer. He isn't looking at porn or stuff like that, but he does play an online game called World of Warcraft. He even plays during dinner. He logs on the moment he gets home and doesn't get off until 9 p.m. Of course, by then, he's too tired to do anything except crawl into bed.

We have two children, 8 and 5, and Jeremy never does anything with them. I'm also feeling the big chill. We never go anywhere or do anything. On the rare occasion I can get him to go out, he sulks like a 2-year-old. I won't go into our sex life, but we average about twice a month. The lack of intimacy is a real problem. We tried counseling a few years ago, but Jeremy refuses to go again. Any thoughts would be nice. -- Warcraft Widow
The reply is,
Dear Widow: Jeremy is addicted to his online game. It's not uncommon, particularly with World of Warcraft, and you won't be able to wean him off it without his cooperation. It's become his alternate reality, and he likes it there. (There is actually a website for people who have found reasons to quit at wowdetox.com, or try On-Line Gamers Anonymous at olganon.org.)

We suggest you remind Jeremy of the "Ring of Protection" he put on your finger. Now that you have his attention, talk to him about what else is important in his life and where the monthly subscription fee could be better used. Then find interesting things to distract him from the game and take a vacation away from the computer.
First of all, let's consider what would have happened if she'd written "doesn't pay attention to me or the children" instead of "plays World of Warcraft." That is her main complaint, right? Then, we'd require some clarification:
  1. is this recent, or was he always uninterested in socializing or activities that you enjoy?
    • if he's always been like this, why did you marry him and have two children with him?
    • if this is recent, does his anti-social behavior coincide with gaming specifically or with, for instance, his stressful job? or any other event?
  2. what happens on weekends?
  3. have you taken an interest in the game? do you know how he tends to play it?
What I'm getting at here is that the gaming may be a symptom of a larger issue, and it does not have to be addiction. By blaming the game, we're ignoring the root cause(s). It's possible he was a perfect husband before World of Warcraft, and the game has destroyed his personality and good nature, but it seems... unlikely.

The reason for the last question is this; I can see three possibilities here, based on his style of play:

1) He plays mostly solo. This I think would be an indicator that he wants alone time, and doesn't want to speak to anyone (so it's not just you). I would talk to him about other stressors in his life.

Lulu: Like watching TV. It's probably a work thing then, right? Seems like he could be depressed.

Ashley: Right, or he has to spend so much time with people at work that he can't handle any more interaction at all.

2) He plays mostly with a large group of people (raiding, for example). This I would take to mean that he's socializing in the game, and doesn't need any "real life" socializing on top of that (yes, those are real people and real interactions. They're not less real just because they live far away and you don't see their faces).

Lulu: So like spending all his time at the bar with his buddies. But how do you solve that?

Ashley: I think the solution in this case is really weekends; there's no work to recover from, and he should be able to schedule in family time or chores or whatever it is she needs on Saturday/Sunday.

Lulu: So now they have to figure out a schedule? He's allowed x hours of game time and has to do these x family activities? She's going to be the one who has to enforce that, and that sounds boring. You know? The only thing you can tell her to do is try to manage him in some weird momlike way. The problem is she wants him to want to hang out with her.

Ashley: So much of it depends on existing family dynamics. What are these family activities? It's entirely possible he just doesn't want to do the stuff she picks out, but he'd be OK if he were the one to plan it.

Lulu: I see what you're saying. It's the scientific method, to rule out the possibility that the fun family activities he FOR SOME REASON sulks about are like, going to see the world's largest ball of twine for the fifth time.

Ashley: Yeah, after the first four times, maybe it's more fun to do the chessboard raid! It would also take some responsibility off her shoulders. So the kids eat peanut butter for all three meals on the weekend... it won't kill em. Probably.

Lulu: As long as she doesn't make it seem like she's punishing him with child care. She has to actually let him be the one responsible, no matter what he chooses to do.

Ashley: Although, it might be a weekend of "let's all play our favorite game!"

Lulu: "...Alone."

3) He plays with mostly one person. I'd assume this person is (or pretends to be) female. That would be an area of concern.

Lulu: And affair questions are out of our jurisdiction.

Ashley: Yes, let's not get into that. The real advice columnists have too much of a head start.

My point is that although he could very well be addicted to the video game, it's important to find out if he actually is, and in what way, and why. I would look at why he doesn't want to spend time with the wife/kids rather than why he wants to play a video game.

The letter-writer needs to be open to the idea that there's something she could do which would make it more hospitable for him in the real world. But if he doesn't want to change, or is just too fragile to exist in the real world without specific unreasonable requirements, then she needs to decide if she can live with it or not. It's not particularly relevant if he is an addict; you can't make someone shake an addiction if they don't want to try.

The video game itself is a symptom, not a problem. It's not weird to want to play a video game, any more than it is to want to spend hours zoned out in front of soap operas (what does the wife do for a hobby, by the way? Is it "read advice columns for an hour every day?" Cause that's my other hobby...).

Another example: From Dear Amy this time, but I can't seem to find the original, so linking to another discussion of the post that cites it in its entirety.

Dear Amy: I have been a happily married wife for almost three months. My husband and I have been together for eight years. Naturally, we have changed over time.

He is a very loving, attentive man, and I feel confident that he will be a superb father.

While I am working toward my master's degree in nursing, he continues to dabble in actuarial studies. I have been in school for more than a year and have a set career path. He has failed his first actuary test three times. This is strange because he graduated with stellar scholastic achievements and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. He says his dream is being an actuary.

Unfortunately, he spends massive amounts of time playing "World of Warcraft" instead of studying. He is upset that I don't support him in his endeavors. I told him I don't want to measure his successes as a person based on his salary, but many of the things we want in life, such as a house, will be based on our incomes.

I am interested in knowing if my frustrations are typical for any transitioning couple, or if my husband's "carefree attitude" is a phase and he will be more dedicated in getting settled in life.

—Concerned Wife

First off: nothing quite like saying "I don't want to measure successes based on salary" and then proceeding to do so. Road to Hell, Concerned Wife.

And the response:

Dear Concerned: By your description, your husband's current occupation is not that of a dedicated future actuary, but of an overgrown boy spending hours playing "WOW" while you advance your studies and plan for your shared future.

You are giving your guy way too much credit. I'll have to take your word for it, for instance, that this couch potato would make a "superb father." (Having opposable thumbs doesn't count.)

Your husband's online game-playing and possible addiction are what you and he should focus on.

Actuaries are students of risk. Your husband seems to have embraced that concept, but little else.
On the actuarial forum that I pulled the letter from, the response is tongue-in-cheek: "So who's getting heat at home for playing WOW and not studying for P?"

The thing is, this isn't even a good advice columnist response! To me, the guy sounds depressed; he's giving up on something he really loves because he can't seem to pass an exam. Have you never thought you were going to fail, and so didn't study so that you'd have an "excuse"? If he were avoiding studying in any other way, "get him screened for depression" is the standard response. The thing about video games (as opposed to say, retreating into tv-watching), is that they're a spectacular way to avoid real life, because it feels like you're accomplishing something. What a great way to get away from your failure and your depression! Playing video games does  not make someone a bad person; it does not mean he'll be a bad father (I'd be a bad mother, but it has very little to do with my video game "addiction").

Lulu: In one sense, I think it's a valid coping mechanism, because it's great to have something you're good at if you feel like there are things you're bad at but as the wife/Amy point out, if he isn't studying, he won't pass.

Ashley: hah! I was so incensed I didn't actually give any advice. I was all YOU ARE A HYPOCRITICAL ADVICE COLUMNIST SIR.

Lulu: I think he needs to make a serious commitment to passing or else decide it's not going to happen and come up with a new career goal. He can't keep going halfway. He doesn't have to stop playing, but he needs to find some way to make it a study break and not a study replacement, and she needs to be open to hearing that he doesn't really want to be an actuary, if that's how it turns out.

Ashley: Right. It kind of seems like she's ready for the Next Stage with House and Kids, and he maybe isn't. Especially if he's getting ready to admit that he has to change careers. But they got married, so he should communicate this to her.

Lulu: It seems like he's using the game to avoid (1) studying and (2) having a tough conversation where he disabuses her of various notions she has about him.

Ashley: He's no saint. But the game isn't to blame.

Lulu: Right, if it weren't the game, he'd be finding some other way to procrastinate and avoid. Watching TV, reading books, daydreaming. I'm guessing his gaming habits would change if he found a career or educational goal that made him feel good because he was good at it, but finding that would probably require them to put off the house and kids stuff while he got it figured out. Also, it would require him to get off his ass and do it.

Ashley: Details.

Lulu: Maybe he can farm gold in WoW!

Ashley: Can't compete with the Chinese in gold farming. It's a sad sad world.

*When men write to advice columnists about their wives/girlfriends who may be addicted, they usually legitimately seem to be. See, for instance: Wife Addicted to Warcraft, a Dear Amy submission.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


Today, Dan Savage posted on teens and vibrators.

Ashley: He said the same thing we did.

Lulu: "Kids, buy vibrators online!"

Cheating vs tutoring

Yesterday, Dear Abby posted reader responses to a May 29 letter from a girl who was helping her boyfriend with his classwork.
DEAR ABBY: I'm an "A" student, but my boyfriend, "Rory," has a difficult time in school, so he often comes over for help. [...]

I don't give Rory the answers to questions, but I do give him "hints" and tell him where he's likely to find the answers in the textbooks. I always check that the answers are correct. With his math homework, I tell him each step he needs to take, but he actually does the math himself and then I check for accuracy. If he needs to write an essay, I suggest what he might want to write and help him with some of the edits.

My sister thinks what I do goes far beyond help, and that I'm enabling him to cheat. She feels that while it may help his grades now, I am doing him no favors in the long run.
Lulu: Cheating! We love cheating issues.

Ashley: I know!

Dear Abby doesn't give a firm ruling on the cheating issue, but she does tell the letter writer to back off ("When you suggest topics for your boyfriend's essays, then edit them... the teacher won't see where he needs to strengthen his English skills"). Yesterday, readers pointed out that an easy way to tell if he's actually being benefited is to find out if his test grades improved; presumably, she can't do those for him (and I feel that if she could and did, it would have been mentioned in the "am I cheating?" question.)

Lulu: It's sort of weird that people seem to be reserving their "is it cheating?" judgment until they know if his test grades improved. Like, it's tutoring if it's effective, and cheating if it's not?

Ashley: But if his paper grades and homeworks are improving, then it matters whether his tests are as well, because the skills should be transferable.

Lulu: Right, but--

Ashley: Some people are bad at tests.

Lulu (tragically, like a wounded bat): Yeah.

Ashley: But it's not a bad assumption, at least in math.

Lulu: But she could just be a bad tutor. He forgets as soon as he leaves her house.

Ashley: Then she should stop, because it's ineffective. Ask the teacher for help.

Lulu: Or she could learn tutoring techniques. Google it, get a book, join a tutoring group if they have one at her school. I guess I'm wondering what her goal is. Does she want to help him learn, or help him pass? She doesn't really say. If she just wants to help him pass, she might as well just cheat.

Ashley: True.

Lulu: Not that--

Ashley: We're not advocating cheating.

Lulu: Cheating is wrong.

Ashley: Wrong!

Lulu: Wrong, and bad. Anyway, as the A-student, she's got more to lose if they get caught.

Ashley: Teachers always suspect the girlfriend.**

Lulu: Maybe she wants to help him learn, and he just wants to pass.

Ashley: Ha ha. That does seem likely.

I know from trying to tutor kids myself that students have a vast arsenal of ways to get out of actually doing any work when you're there to help them--even when they theoretically want to learn. Staring at you blankly until you provide an answer for them, for example. The writer needs to either commit to helping him learn, in which case she's doing too much of the work herself and needs to get him more engaged; or she needs to admit to herself that she's okay with cheating and do the work herself, since it would be easier (this is not the recommended avenue); or she needs to wash her hands of Rory's grades. It just seems like her current methods are a lot of work and inefficient no matter what she wants to do.

* again, it could be a boy! we don't know! but since s/he shares a room with a sister, I'm assuming female.

** One of the reader responses from yesterday:
I used to teach at the university level. For 20 years I watched this happen. Never once was it the boyfriend "helping" the girlfriend. If we got two essays on the same topic, it was always the girlfriend who had written it, while the boyfriend who "studied with her" or "used it as a model" ended up handing in a distorted version of the same paper -- same quotes, same structure, reworded sentences. The boyfriends were slacking off; their girlfriends were doing the work.

I have talked about this with other professors; only one could cite a single exception to this rule. Thank you for telling that young woman to stop doing his homework and please, Abby, let your readers know the issue is systemic.
Ashley: I CALL FOUL: it's a liberal arts prof.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Choosing the college that's right for you

Today Ashley and I address a topic of unnecessarily overarching importance to many young advice seekers: choosing the Right College For You.

From Annie's Mailbox, May 22, 2007:
Dear Annie: I am 17 years old and going to be a senior in high school in the fall. Pretty soon, I will be making some very important decisions about my future and choosing where I want to go to college. I get nearly straight A's and could probably get into most of the places I plan to apply to. Here's my dilemma:

My boyfriend of almost two years is already in college and wants me to go to the same school he does. His college is an OK school, but nothing spectacular, and I feel I could do a lot better. I looked at several of the colleges near his, but frankly, none of them appeals to me.

I want to be with my boyfriend because we've already been apart for the past year and I miss him. What should I do?
Annie, of course, tells the writer to forget the boyfriend and pursue the very highest level of education possible. And while we understand Annie's point--the relationship is not likely to make it past Thanksgiving of freshman year whether she goes to his school or not, and What College You Went To is forever--we question the givens (i.e., that What College You Went To really matters.)

Ashley: Look, I went to a school to be with my boyfriend, and even though we broke up in the first year, it was still the best choice for me.

Lulu: You met me!

Ashley: Aside from that. Sometimes the worse school is the better choice.

Lulu: You get out of classes what you put into them--whether it's Harvard or Community College of Bumblefuck. You can have a great or a terrible academic experience anywhere.

Ashley: Right, and the instructors at smaller/less prestigious schools are often more engaged than the hardcore academic professors.

Lulu: On the other hand, it seems kind of like she's made up her mind that, for whatever reason, she doesn't want to go to her boyfriend's school, and she just wants validation. After all, she wrote into Annie.

Ashley: Her reasons for not wanting to may go away when it's a difference between "free college education" and "$100k in debt." Look, if you want to study engineering, and you get into MIT, Stanford, or CalTech, you go, no questions asked. But other than that, it just doesn't matter.

Lulu: Right, or RISD for art.

Ashley: Suuure. Art.

Lulu: I think leaving it up to money is honestly the best strategy, because it's emotionally neutral. It's hard to regret saving thousands of dollars. The school doesn't have to be so wonderful that it beats the joy of being near the boyfriend, and the boyfriend doesn't have to be so wonderful he's worth turning down Brown--wherever she ends up, the relationship or the reputation of the school are bonuses, not Reasons She Changed Her Life. She should apply everywhere, and go to whichever school ends up being cheapest.

Ashley: Or whichever one accepts her. "Almost" straight As isn't that great.

Lulu: I hate you.

Parents can also complicate the college choice, and as this letter writer found out in a Dear Abby column of December 13, 2008, advice columnist side with the parents.
DEAR ABBY: I am a senior in high school, and my friends and I are all looking at different colleges. I have one friend whose parents are all about deciding what is right for him and won't let him make the final decision as to where he should go. They believe that choosing a college is all about connections and what careers make the most money.

Shouldn't my friend be able to pursue his dream of becoming a writer and attend the college of his choice? Should his parents be able to make the decision about where he should go?
Lulu: The question is, do the parents have the right to choose the school, if they are the ones paying for it?

Ashley: Yes. Yes they do.

Lulu: Okay, yeah, I mean, it's their money, but don't they have some kind of a responsibility to let the kid start to make his own, adult choices?

Ashley: Not if his adult choice means I'm paying $100k for art history.

Lulu: It's going to be a waste of money anyway if they pack a kid off to LSE if he hates math, you know? You can refuse to pay for Sarah Lawrence, but you can't make him be motivated to become a manager.

Ashley: I'd offer less money for certain majors.

Lulu: So complicated. You'd have to come up with a whole system.

Ashley: I'd do it. $100k for engineering, $20k for English.

Lulu: Yeah, I mean, that's rational. I'm not saying I'm against it. I just think he needs to go to hell his own way.

Ashley: That's your answer to everything, isn't it?

Lulu: It is my generalized parenting philosophy, yes. Didn't you feel bad for those kids in college who were always arguing with their parents about why they didn't want to study finance? Half the time their parents were misinformed about what majors would be useful by the time they graduated, anyway. They can't be micromanaging his adult life.

Ashley: In that case, they shouldn't give him any money.

Lulu: Right, but lots of parents, if they can afford it, want their kids to go to college. I mean, I bet they'd also be pissed if he chose not to go to college because he wouldn't accept money on their terms. I see Abby's point, but if it were the parents writing in, I feel like I'd want to tell them not to intervene in what the kid studies.

Ashley: But they didn't write in.

Lulu: True. I still don't think the parents are right, but in the end, it really doesn't matter. You can't make people give you money when they don't want to.

Ashley: I don't think the parents are right, but I don't think expecting them to pay in the first place is a good idea. It's great if they do, but it's your life.

Lulu: Right. Whether or not the parents are right is ultimately academic. Even if they were denying you something you really believed was your right--food or going to high school or something--the best thing to do isn't to whine that it's unfair, but to say "fuck em" and find some way to do without them.

Ashley: You can really see paying $100k for your kid to get an English degree?

Lulu: Oh hell no. My kids are getting scholarships or going to state.

Ashley: $100k is what state costs, these days.

Lulu: My kids are getting scholarships or apprenticing with a plumber.

Ashley: Oh, a plumber? What on eaaaaaaarth is that?

College is great, but if what you want out of college (as most people do) is to learn some things and meet some people, then you can be happy anywhere there's students and teachers together in one place. Most high school students are unsure about what they want to ultimately study, so the only rational way to make the decision is based on (a) what you can best afford, taking into account scholarships and parents' willingness to pay, and (b) "irrational" reasons, such as the location of your boyfriend/friends/favorite city/favorite climate/where your whimsy takes you. So don't stress out: wherever you go, there you are.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

When not to talk to your parents

We'll admit it: the main reason Ashley and I thought we'd be good at an advice column is that we play the "How would you answer this question?" game with existing advice columns. Sure, when we do that, we get to pick and choose which questions we answer. But, let's face it, advice columnists do tend to drop the ball sometimes on younger readers' questions.

Ask Amy, for example, has a tendency to side against teenagers or to always, by default, tell them to come clean to their parents, even when it isn't relevant and we don't think it would help. Take the second letter in this column from her archives. Basically, a 17-year-old girl flirted with her 24-year-old stylist during a hair appointment.
I loved the attention, so I wrote my phone number on his tip.When he actually called that night and asked me to meet him at a party in the city, I was totally taken aback and told him I was busy. He asked me to call him this weekend to set something else up.I'm freaking out because I have absolutely no desire to ever go out with a man six years older who seems to think it's fine for a high school girl to meet up with him on a Thursday night in the city! I can't tell my mom because he does her hair. I can never go back there. What if he calls again?
Amy, of course, advises her to tell her mom:
Of course you can tell your mom — and you should. We moms really don't like it when trusted adults hit on our daughters. I realize that many women absolutely love their hair stylists, but we love our daughters more. You can assume your mother will deal with him directly. [...]If this guy calls, tell him, "I'm sorry, I don't know what I was thinking. You're way too old for me. I only go out with guys my age."The "you're way too old for me" line will give this obnoxious guy something to think about.
We don't think it would. (This is an old column, but for the sake of argument, we'll pretend the drama is current.)

Ashley: She needs to learn how to deal with this situation, because it will come up again. It doesn't matter if you're 17 or 24.

Lulu: Right. She gave her number to a guy and then regretted it; it happens. Her mom doesn't need to be involved. The sooner she learns to do this on her own, the better.

Ashley: And there's nothing "obnoxious" about a guy asking out a girl who gave him her number. The age thing isn't so bad. In a year, she'll be 18. 18 and 25 is okay, I've seen that work. The age is a red herring. She just needs to turn him down.

Lulu: Not calling back is a tried and true way to make it clear you're not really interested.

Ashley: So is telling him.

Lulu: Sure. But given that he's put the ball in her court, I don't think she needs to go out of her way to turn him down.

Ashley: If she does talk to him again, she shouldn't give age as a reason. It would come off as weird.

Lulu: Right, and I feel like referencing her age would give him a foothold to make an argument, because it doesn't sound like a real answer. It feels like a line she's being fed by an adult. There are better, easier ways to blow someone off. "Sorry, I can't." "No thanks."

Ashley: "I really enjoyed talking to you the other day, but I'm actually seeing someone."

Lulu: I like that one. Even if she isn't, he can't disprove it. Even if she mentioned she was single when they flirted, she could have met someone since then. It happens! And it saves face for both of them.

Other times, columnists may give sound advice, but overlook glaring issues that would be relevant for teenagers. For example, we like that Dear Prudence once advised a 16-year-old not to tell her mother she was buying a vibrator. (Do you sense a theme?)
Masturbation is perfectly normal, and a teenager doesn't need to check in with her mother before engaging in it. It's wonderful that you and your mother are so close that you feel you can talk to her about this—but just because you can doesn't mean you should. Part of your job as a teenager is to start separating from your mother, and masturbation may be a good place for you to establish a zone of privacy.
We agree with this, but--while it's not stated directly--we suspect the letter writer may have been considering telling her mother because she couldn't think of any other way to acquire a vibrator. Some sex shops have minimum age requirements, and most people don't have access to a local sex shop--just the Internet. And while the Internet is a great resource, you need your own debit card to buy anything, and you need an address where people aren't likely to be too inquisitive about what packages you're receiving. Many sixteen-year-olds might not have this. The unasked question is, "Should I tell my mother, or if not, HOW do I get a vibrator?"

We think we would need more specifics about her situation to give her a good answer, but our advice, generally: since the mom in question is unlikely to freak out about the vibrator if she finds out about it, you don't have to go into super-stealth mode, just be evasive enough to give her plausible deniability. If you need to borrow her debit card, say you want to buy a bunch of stuff from drugstore.com, and throw a vibrator in with lots of little cheap things that add up. Makeup, in particular, can vary so much in price, that it can really mask an additional purchase. You heard it here first.

We do like the advice columns, and we think they do a lot of things well. Marriage and divorce questions, for example, are not really in our wheelhouse, and are often handled well. But younger writers are often dismissed because of their age or inexperience. Their time in life does affect some very important practical elements of their lives, but such as it's possible, it's appropriate for them to start handling their own drama.