Why Can’t He Take Teasing?

I’m a lucky woman in many ways. I’ve been married for 12 years to a great guy who earns well, is a great dad to our two boys and is mostly fun to be around.Trouble is he can’t seem to tolerate any teasing from me. I always back it up, apologize honestly because I don’t want to cause pain but this is getting really old.Teasing and ribbing is supposed to be fun for each other. I welcome his jesting and laugh uproariously when he gets a good jab in but he can’t seem to accept it from me. We’ve talked about it in therapy but we don’t seem to get anywhere with it.How can we get past this?

– Bored in Baltimore

Dear Bored,

You want to get past this? Then stop. You’re bored, but he’s hurting.

Then, get different help from just couple’s therapy: He needs individual therapy to pull apart why he can dish it out, but he can’t take appropriate teasing and ribbing from his spouse (if that’s what’s going on). Or maybe you need individual therapy to pull apart why you confuse cruelty for humor (if that’s what’s going on). I’m guessing both would help.

There are so many reasons that a person might be too touchy to accept ribbing but might dish it out: he might have some childhood issues from having been emotionally abused by someone who was supposed to love him and he might hate teasing, and he might dish it out to you just because he thinks that’s what you want. Or he might not really understand that sort of humor at all.

Or he might be abusive himself and using his hurt feelings to prevent you from getting back at him when he says truly nasty things. (You said ‘when he gets in a good jab,’ which could mean something sinister or funny or neither or both.) Or, he might suffer from fragile masculinity and feel that a woman cutting him down is ‘ball busting’ but when he does it, it’s all in good fun. I dunno. But he needs to figure that shit out. HE does.

As for you, there’s something that jumped out at me in your letter that I want to address: you didn’t sign it ‘baffled’ or ‘hurt’ or ‘worried’ or any number of ways you could have signed it. You signed it ‘bored.’

Your description of him is astoundingly boring. He is a ‘great’ (very very vague modifier) guy who earns well, (yawn), is a ‘great’ (there’s that vague description again) dad to our two boys (yawn) and is mostly fun to be around. (mooooostly. yaaaawwwwwwwwwwwn.)

I don’t think you’re just bored with the lack of clever repartee. I think you’re bored with HIM, and possibly covering up resentment toward him for being so goddamned boring to you that your jabs have far more barb and venom in them than you realize, because you are feeling stifled and bored— and maybe even a little angry.

Did the two of you tease each other before you married, or before you had kids? Did you both enjoy it? Is this something that used to be there and no longer is? It sounds like this was never part of your relationship, but you have some idea that marriages are ‘supposed to’ contain this sort of humor.

Your marriage is not what you felt it was ‘supposed to’ be. Maybe you feel a little swindled, as you checked off everything you thought you wanted, but it’s not satisfying.

  • In our society, you’re ‘supposed to’ get married. Check.
  • You’re ‘supposed to’ have two kids. Check, check.
  • He’s ‘supposed to’ ‘earn well.’ Check.
  • “Teasing and ribbing is supposed to be fun for each other.” NOPE.

Perhaps being married to the same ‘great’ guy for 12 years is not satisfying to you. Perhaps parenting isn’t what you thought it would be. Perhaps the job he has that earns the paycheck you like keeps him away too much, or the money doesn’t satisfy you like you thought it would. But you are focusing on the lack of teasing and ribbing, because that seems like the most obvious issue.

I think you might be miserable, and I think your boredom might be part of that misery, and I think THAT is what you should focus on instead.

The letter originally ran in bitterempire.com on January 5, 2017.

How Do I Handle a Possibly Disabled Bicyclist After an Accident?

The other day in my van, when exiting a parking lot and joining traffic, I struck a cyclist whom I didn’t see because he was coming at me against traffic from behind a relatively blind corner. (Everybody is fine.) My issue is that the fellow, who was alone, seemed to have a disability of some kind, but which of course I was unfit to identify–perhaps it was only some deafness or a speech impediment, but perhaps he had a major developmental disability or past head trauma. Whatever it is, it seemed relevant to the accident in a couple of ways. First, it was a little difficult to communicate with him and understand him (ordinarily I would call that MY problem, but when collecting information and accounts of an incident, accuracy is critical). Second, I don’t know if his condition(s) was a factor in the accident itself, which seems like it could affect legal and insurance liability. And finally, I was unsure that he was even able to be a competent legal advocate for himself in that moment–for example, he wanted to leave the scene and forget about the incident, but was persuaded to stay.

With everything that needs to be coped with on the spot during such a stressful and confusing moment, how should one navigate these issues? Should I have inquired about his disability status either on the spot or later? Should I have asked whether he had a guardian or the ability to make legal decisions on his own? If he insisted on leaving the scene and I had sensed that he was unfit to make the decision or answer the question, should I have essentially DETAINED him until emergency help arrived? These scenarios are horrifying to imagine, potentially intrusive and insulting, and potentially VERY inflammatory if I ended up being mistaken. But I want to be a decent person and make sure I’m looking out for everybody involved, including protecting someone who may be vulnerable.

– Panic at the Citgo

Dear Panic,

First things first: you did the right thing. You did not physically restrain him, someone talked him into staying, and you did not ask intrusive questions regarding his competence.

In general, it’s probably best to assume that anyone who has just been in a terrifying accident (and regardless of fault, being hit by a van when you are on a bicycle is terrifying) that may or may not have included head trauma is not really competent to make the decision to leave the scene.

Beyond that, I am glad you didn’t ask him any questions about competence.

Those of us with obvious disabilities (whether it is an accent related to cerebral palsy or a hearing impairment, mobility equipment, or obvious limb differences, etc) so often have to deal with other people’s preconceived notions of what our brains must be like.

At best, people will do something like what they often do to be when they see my forearm crutches: Speak. Very. Slowly. And. Loudly. Using a ‘Special Voice’ generally reserved for children, and when I answer quickly and fluently they take a huge sigh of relief. At worst, people will do something like what a woman did to my friend Johanna a few years ago while she was trying to go holiday shopping alone: the manager of the store took one look at her and started SCREAMING about people who abandoned their charges and who left this poor girl alone and then she called the cops, so busy screaming and flailing at my friend’s clearly disabled aspect (Johanna has cerebral palsy) that she did not even notice the communication device or that my friend was trying to respond to her.

By the way, unlike me, Johanna is a Stanford graduate.

I understand that you were looking out for the man and that you had real concerns, but you have no idea what was going on with him. Maybe he was high. Maybe he was deaf. Maybe he had CP. Maybe he WAS cognitively disabled. Either way, all of those questions about being competent to represent himself legally can be worked out later if and when there are legal procedures — by himself if he does make his own life decisions in legal matters or by whomever is assigned this duty.

Your job is to do exactly what you did: look out for other people’s welfare, and try to talk them into staying until help arrives. regardless of his intellectual state, age, or possible brain damage. These are not things you needed to know; these are things that might have come out later if it were necessary for anyone to know. If he had left anyway, providing a detailed description of him to the police/ambulance when they arrived would have sufficed.

So: it’s good not to make all of these demands of information from him not just because it might be rude, but mainly because it’s not your business and it’s not actually particularly relevant to the situation for you to know this information.

This letter originally ran in bitterempire.com on December 15, 2016.

How Do I Cope After the Election?

The fallout from this election is causing personal emotions similar to those I felt when the family rallied to support a sexual predator and to turn me out. Any advice?

– Triggered

*

I have neighbors in my very rural, agricultural little neck of the woods, who work on farms and who are Hispanic. I’m not totally sure where they’re from. I’ve heard Guatemala, but not from any reliable source, and it’s not that relevant anyway.I’ve met one of the families. Mom doesn’t speak any English, but Dad does. They have a daughter my son’s age and a newborn son.

I have no idea what their status is, or what the status is of the other family on my street. I am worried that they may be undocumented. But I also don’t want to make any obnoxious assumptions. So I’m trying to figure out the best thing to do for/say to them. I want to see if they’re ok and let them know they have my support. But since there’s going to be a huge language barrier if I ever actually get the guts to talk to them, my chances of saying the exact wrong thing are multiplied. We live in a very Trumpy area. I just want them to know they have my family’s support.

So I guess my question is, what can I say that won’t make offensive assumptions (or, more accurately I suppose, belie my offensive suspicions) that will show them I am an ally?

– Wants to help

*

How do I explain these election results to my kids? I feel like the schoolyard bully has just been made principal.

– Worried Mom

*

How do I fix the world?

– Wondering

Dear Fellow Citizens,

For the majority of us who are not white supremacists eager to keep this country safe for the white man but absolutely no one else, this election has brought up a lot of old trauma.

Our country is rallying around a sexual predator, ‘Triggered.’ Of course this is going to remind you of that dynamic. And we DID elect (or, the electoral college system, engineered to protect slavery, is going to elect) a schoolyard bully to rule over us all.

His appointment of a white supremacist as his chief strategist as well as the rest of his horrifying cabinet of bullies, haters, hypocrites, fascists and liars quite rightly fills all of us with fear, as do many of his stated goals: which quite correctly put your neighbors in danger from him, ‘Wants to help,’ regardless of their status as documented or undocumented.

I’m sorry to state all of this so baldly, but I want to first tell you all that your worries and your trauma, your anxieties and your fears, are extremely well-founded. Let’s not all add the sneaking suspicion that your right-wing coworker is right when he says we’re all paranoid about what is likely to come.

We are right. A bully has won, and will continue to bully us. What we are facing is extremely distressing. For many of us it’s also completely shocking that nearly half of the voting populace didn’t find abject misogyny, repellent racism, horrifying xenophobia, and a complete disregard for the constitution a dealbreaker in voting for this man.

It is easy to feel that we are surrounded by bullies and monsters.

But we are not.

And the way we fix the world, ‘Wondering,’ and the way we help, ‘Wants to help,’ and the way we explain this inexplicable thing to our kids, ‘Worried Mom,’ and the way we handle the trauma, ‘Triggered,’ is all the same: honor yourself for who you are and what you need, and reach out.

Triggered, take some time to think about and discuss these parallels with a competent therapist (my therapist has been talking All Trump All The Time, she says), or find a support group for survivors of sexual assault to share stories and solidarity. After you have taken care of your own re-traumatization, perhaps you can move on to other things. Anyone else reading this, this goes for you, too: take the time you need to do what you need to do before you do anything else. Drink a little too much, or zonk out in front of the TV, or curl up into a ball under the covers and call in sick, or cry, or hug someone you love, or pet a dog, or have some hot tea. Spend some time taking care of yourself and do not feel bad about doing so. Do it. It matters. As Audre Lorde says: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” She spoke for herself as a black woman, but this applies to the rest of us Trump would have die or go away or simply be subjugated: Queers. Immigrants. Any People of Color. Women of all races. Trans people. Muslims. Jews. Care for yourself. Stick it to the man and take a long shower and take a deep breath and take some time and hug your kids.

At some point, though, it’s an act of will to get up and stretch and take a deep breath and ask your neighbor or coworker if they are doing okay. To do the dishes and go for a walk and make a donation to Planned Parenthood or the Anti-Defamation League or the Arab American Institute or your local Black Lives Matter branch or the ACLU or the Southern Poverty Law Center, Standing Rock Legal Defense Fund, or the Trans Lifeline.

If you have money, that is one way to help fix the world, ‘Wondering.’ If you have neighbors you know might feel targeted by others in your community, ‘Wanting to Help,’ reach out. Bring them some cookies and a smile. Whether they are documented or not means nothing to Trump and his supporters — tell them you are glad they are your neighbors and that you are always happy to see them.

But it’s always the same: reach out. Smile at someone who looks unhappy or alone on the bus. Step in when you see someone bullying someone else, no matter what the reason. Find people like you in support groups and political causes and advocacy groups and create solidarity for yourself to help yourself feel less alone and to help further your rights and acceptance in the community. Reach out to your elected officials and let them know how you feel about these things. (Phone calls are the best way to get counted.) Create art that Trump would hate, or support it. Dance. Enjoy life. Refuse to be cowed into stillness and silence.

And, Worried Mom, you tell your kids that sometimes the bullies win. Sometimes they hurt people. But that we will get together and we will get them out of there in four years. And then take steps to do it, show them what you are doing, and let them join you.

There are so many ways to fight the good fight, in our own hearts and homes and out in the greater world. This is a scary time, my friends. It is scary as fuck. But with each connection forged, I think you will feel less and less frightened, more and more powerful, and far more joyful — even in the face of bullies and assholes and clowns.

Take time for yourself. Fight. Connect. Be real. You are not alone.

This letter originally ran in bitterempire.com on November 17, 2016.

How Do I Handle Difficult Conversations No One Else Finds Difficult?

Things were rough for me as a teenager. I was going through some abuse and don’t think I went through developmental stages in the typical way. I stopped getting my hair cut because I couldn’t stand sitting in front of my reflection for so long. I had panic attacks when I tried to buy clothes. I was socially awkward and never had the chance to do sports. My therapist thinks I was a few years developmentally delayed.

This comes up a lot as I’m parenting my teen-aged daughter, or even chatting with other adult women about teen years. We’re having a normal conversation about something that’s generally a shared experience, like doing sports or learning about style, and suddenly I feel like a dork who grew up on another planet. I end up working my butt off to hold up my end of the conversation normally.

I don’t want make things “all about me” when it comes up with my growing daughter (which is all the time). I don’t want to turn a light conversations with friends into needy laments about my childhood. But doing a competent job of these conversations takes so much energy and makes me feel lonely, and it bothers me for a long time.

How would you handle this?

– Dork From Another Planet

Dear Fellow Dork From Another Planet,

When I read that you stopped getting your hair cut because you could not look at your reflection for so long, my heart ached for teenage you. For a child to be that miserable and self-hating is a terrible, terrible thing. And your friends have no idea that they’re making you look hard at this girl and at what she was being forced to endure every time they bring up these conversations. They are dragging you back to a miserable time in your life, in front of your child, (or your child doesn’t realize she is dragging you back there), and you do not want to go back there.

So don’t.

The way I would handle it is this: however you can to take care of yourself and get through it.

I’m going to say this again because it is very important: I want you to do whatever you need to to get through it.

Yes, this conversation is light for them. And so many people assume that certain experiences are universal. In fact, there may be many reasons someone—from this planet—might not be able to easily engage in this conversation: childhood poverty springs to mind. Hopeless nerdery. Or just a plain disinterest in fashion or looks in general. Many topics of conversation come up that other people can’t relate to, find boring, or just have nothing to contribute to. So they make up a polite line and move on.

Even if this topic weren’t bringing up old trauma for you (and make no mistake about it: when they bring this up it reminds you of being abused, which is FUCKING TRAUMATIC) it is not your responsibility to hold up your end of a limping conversation you are not enjoying. It is not your responsibility to make people feel comfortable who have (inadvertently, of course) just made you uncomfortable. The longer you politely keep your end of the conversation going, the longer the torture will continue, and the longer you will be facing that poor girl who could not face herself.

The fact that these fellow parents are making you feel so lonely and alienated and weird and awful with this topic combined with your not wanting it to be about you tells me that you need something quick, and you need something that you can memorize and spit out. It needs to be something you can throw out there and then STOP TALKING ABOUT: vague and broad enough to fit many different conversations like this, but very definite in the ‘I’m not going to have anything to say about this’ category. I would suggest something like: “Oh, I was so out of it; I never noticed/did anything like that,” and then refusing to expand on it. And then: I suggest that instead of trying to contribute to the conversation, you listen.

I am so, so glad that it not a universal experience to hate looking at your own reflection for so long. But you know what is nearly universal? Feeling stupid about style. Learning about hair and feeling dumb that you didn’t know before that OF COURSE everyone feathers/wedges/mermaid colors their hair and uses hair spray/angled cuts/vegetable dyes. Trying to do these things on your own and failing miserably. Feeling like you’re the only kid in junior high who doesn’t have on the right t-shirt. Suddenly realizing that you never cared about any of these things but everyone else around you did.

I think if you could listen to these experiences as THEIR experiences, not comparing them to your own, you might find some commonalities, and this might help you to feel less alone.

I feel like I can’t emphasize this enough: they are bringing up old trauma for you. Hitting them quickly with a vague response and refusing to engage any further outside of listening might not work for you; you could also quickly excuse yourself to use the bathroom, tell them you’re not feeling well and walk away, drift off and dissociate, looking out of the window until they are through: anything you need to do to take care of yourself in that moment. Obviously getting therapy and working on your past is also important, but nothing happens overnight and until you can talk about these things without distress, re-traumatizing yourself after all those years of having someone else hurt you is not worth saving your friends face or your child a bit of embarrassment.

Take it seriously. It is important to you. Take care of yourself. Please.

I think with friends you know better than others, later on you can talk with them about it so you don’t feel you are hijacking the conversation. Tell them how you are feeling about reliving those teenage years. Reach out and tell your story. Telling your story to someone who is listening and cares, even if she feathered her hair perfectly in 1984, helps us to feel less alone and more connected.

Protect yourself in the moment. Reach out when you can. And please, please — if you are at all able — tell your teenage self that she is beautiful, and she is strong, and she is someone who deserves to be SEEN.

This letter originally ran in bitterempire.com on November 3, 2016.

Should I Admit My Celebrity Crush?

I have a huge crush on a celebrity. He is simply the most beautiful man I’ve ever laid on eyes on. And I’d like to send him a fan e-mail/message, just saying I think he’s very attractive, nothing more, but there are two problems. First, he’s not a huge celebrity, so there’s a decent chance he’ll interact with my message and/or me online. Second, he’s straight and I’m gay. Let me be clear by saying there’s no chance we’d ever interact beyond a performer/fan context.

I wish I lived in a world where it was okay for a gay man to tell a straight man he’s good-looking without the straight man reading into it any further than that. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. And even though I suspect he wouldn’t take it the wrong way, or mock me for the observation, I also don’t want to make him uncomfortable.

Should I send my fanboy e-mail? Or am I breaching social protocol because of the orientation difference? Should I just swoon in silence when I see him online?

– Crushing on a Cutie

Dear Crushing,

I can see why you might be concerned. Certain straight men — especially more homophobic or more misogynistic men — cannot handle sexual admiration from gay guys.

Homophobic or misogynistic men (and homophobia is often the reverse of the same coin as misogyny) are unable to separate their own desires from fetishizing the objects of their desire or from dehumanizing the objects of their desire. To be desired, in this context, means to be less than human.

Which means if a gay man admires a homophobic/misogynist man’s butt? That somehow makes him an object. Makes him less than human. So men like this become enraged. They attack gay guys or trans women, whom they conflate. They freak out. They get “offended.” And you have maybe had reactions ranging from rage to quiet discomfort from men you appraised in the past.

That’s not the reason to hold off, though — if your celebrity crush is a homophobe or a misogynist, fuck it. Let him be uncomfortable or angry or offended.

But there is a reason to hold off, which I’d tell you no matter your orientation or gender: celebrities, especially minor ones, don’t need to know about your desires for them. They certainly don’t need a personal email that might make them feel pressured to respond when all you said was: “golly I think you’re hot.” How do you even respond to that, anyway? They don’t need someone to reach out to them in the position of interrupting their day to respond to mere ogling — or crushing, as you say, which can have some strange stalkerish undertones depending on the celebrity and what they have dealt with, rabid fan-wise.

If you adored his music/writing/juggling/macramé, you could write him a letter about that. Whatever it is that has made him famous, presumably he’d appreciate hearing about how much you admire his talent and hard work in that area. But a random drooling? I dunno. It seems beside the point and a little intrusive.

So, for completely different reasons from what you are worried about: beyond a tweet that says something like “@MarkRuffalo is soooooooo dreamy,” I’d leave it alone.

This letter originally appeared in bitterempire.com on October 6, 2016.

How Do I Thank Someone For an Offensive Gift?

This all happened decades ago, and so has long been resolved. But I’m asking on behalf of my teenaged self, and those disabled teenagers and their parents living in the present.

I have cerebral palsy, which is a “from infancy” condition. I was also mainstreamed in school, and the only disabled kid in my local public school which had several hundred students.

Fast forward a dozen or more years. I’d since left that school and was attending high school in a different city.

My mother went back to my elementary school, once, to attend a town meeting, when one of the staff (a secretary from the principal’s office, I think, maybe?) goes up to her and presses a book into her hands and tells her it’s a present for me — because I made such an impression on her, and she thinks of me all the time (when I was actually a student there, she’d never said more than three words to me).

So Mother gives me the book, and, frankly, it grossed me out. It was a Christian/Inspirational autobiography by a woman with polio, all about how turning her life over to Jesus helped her overcome her depression and the tragedy of her affliction.

Not only had I never thought of my cerebral palsy as a tragic affliction, at the time, I was a budding Neo-Pagan witch. Mostly, though, it hurt — because it was obvious that this woman wasn’t remembering me, at all — she’d never taken the time to know me in the first place. For a dozen years, she’d been obsessing over her own fears of disability and soaking them in pity. And that book just proved it.

Still, my mother insisted I write this woman a “Thank you” letter, because it was a gift, and the woman meant well, and that’s the gracious thing to do.  I think I did write a boilerplate letter of less than 20 words.

So here’s my question: How do you (do you?) thank someone for good intentions when the result makes you feel like Hell?

– This Old Grudge Still Stinks

Dear Old Grudge,

As you know, this is often the way disablism rears its ugly head: in horrible, dehumanizing, demeaning Good Intentions. Rarely do we hear people saying outright hateful things (although sometimes they do of course); it’s often all about reducing us to our impairment. It’s all about how we — with our crippled bodies and our persistent insistence on existing — make other people FEEEEEEEEEEEEL. It’s nearly always about how they can HELP us — even when we don’t want to be helped. Or about how they think they would feel in our chairs.

So often I find myself complaining about disablism of this type and I hear: “Oh, she was trying to be nice,” or “when he opened the door you were trying to open yourself and hit you in the shins he was trying to help” or something similar. I think may other groups experience this well-meaning but awful dehumanization: when white people say how cute little black babies are or when someone whispers: “Asian women are SOoooOOO sexy and submissive.”

But I don’t think that, in these cases, the intention of the person matters. I mean, not as far as mitigating what they have said or done. And I think that your mother did you a disservice, even though I do understand she felt that You Write Thank You Notes.

The thing is, this woman gave you a flaming bag of poo.

So what do you do with a flaming bag of poo?

You give it back. You literally return the book with a thank-you note, of sorts.

Dear Ms. Lady I Don’t Even Remember,

Enclosed is the book you gave me. I am unable to accept books that reduce disabled people to objects of pity, so I am returning it. Thank you for thinking of me.

— That cripple girl you never said a word to

Now. This is proper. It is always proper to return completely inappropriate gifts. Would your mother have made you write a thank-you note to a teacher who gave you lingerie because you were his only female student? Would she have made you write a thank-you note to someone who sent you a list of Assisted Suicide places to go, should you ever wish to end the the endless torment that is clearly your life?

I hope not.

Those of us who stick up for ourselves and push back against the dehumanizing effects of racism, sexism, disablism, or ageism have to pay a price, of course. We are nearly always the one who is seen as causing the problem. And so we wind up having to deal with people’s feelings anyway.

But how are we to  change things if we always meekly write thank-you letters to our tormentors? So she would have huffed and whined about this to her friends. Perhaps some of them would have learned something. Perhaps even she would have.

I don’t think the matter is actually ‘resolved’ for you, by the way. You are writing me about something that happened decades ago, and you write with enormous passion about how you felt about it.

I think you have something to resolve with your mother, and perhaps showing her this letter might be a starting point for talking it through.

For what it’s worth, if your mother raised a girl decades ago who was mainstreamed into regular ed before the Americans with Disabilities Act and who also raised her to value her life and to not feel bad about having CP, I’m guessing she is a pretty damn good mom who not only fought for you but who understood who you were. She didn’t, for instance, argue with you about how the book wasn’t so bad or that you should be ‘grateful.’ I’m guessing she’d be willing and able to discuss this with you and to apologize to you — affirming how right you were to be angered by the book.

Because I am sure that if she stops and thinks, she will agree with me that when we ask our children to participate in their own oppression so as not to rock the boat, we are not doing them any favors. When we value teaching a girl how to be gracious over teaching her how to advocate for herself, we are making a mistake.

Every parent makes mistakes and this was one of your mom’s. I hope you two can finally resolve this in a way so that her part, at least, no longer rankles.

Good luck.

This letter originally ran in bitterempire.com on September 15, 2016.

How Do I Let Him Down Gently Without Breaking His Heart?

I am newly single, and have just started playing the online dating game. So far, I’ve been having a blast. I love dating in my 40s, as I am older and wiser, and can weed out the drama so much better than when I was in my 20s.

I’ve been talking to several guys, and I’m actually making connections with some of them. Overall, it’s been a great experience. But I have one guy that I’m just not sure what to do with, and I’m looking for feedback.

Puppylove (my nickname for him) is completely infatuated with me. He’s 46, military, and from what I can tell, is the sweetest guy in the world. There is nothing that he says that I don’t think is genuine. But, he feels a chemistry that I don’t.He’s only had one sexual partner, who died from cancer a few years ago. I’m the only girl from the dating site he’s talked to. He flat out told me he’s never been hurt before, and asked me not to hurt his feelings. I know this isn’t my responsibility, but I really don’t want to be the first one to hurt him. On the second day of conversation (mostly me just answering his questions, which I answered honestly but in no way suggestively or affectionately), he asked me to let him give me his heart and delete my profile. I sent him a long, nice message saying that I was flattered, but I need to take things slowly, develop a friendship, that I’m enjoying dating and not ready for a commitment. I keep telling him that this is too much, too soon, but he just keeps asking what have I done to him, why does he feel this way.

The advice I’m looking for is how do I let him down gently without breaking his heart? Perhaps I should have tried shutting him down sooner, but I’m a) new enough to dating that I don’t have that experience behind me, b) a soft touch and don’t want to feel like I’m kicking a puppy (hence the nickname). I know it’s not my responsibility, and in looking through our conversations, I honestly can’t see anything that indicates there’s anything more than just back and forth conversation. I don’t want to lead him on, which may mean completely cutting him off, but I’m wondering if there are other ways before I have to resort to that?

– Hates Being a Puppy Kicker

Dear Hates Being a Puppy Kicker,

First of all: he is not a puppy. He’s a man.

A manipulative, manipulative, MANIPULATIVE man.

The line “what have you done to me; why do I feel this way?” Sounds like a romantic over-the-top bit of hyperbole, but it is blaming you (you, by your very nature, or by your words, or by your femaleness, have cast a SPELL on him. He is not responsible for his feelings. YOU have done something to HIM) for his totally inappropriate communication.

He’s blaming you for his deeply creepy infatuation. And make no mistake: this is creepy as FUCK. He hasn’t even met you in person, yet. He wants a person who has never met him to forgo all others for him. He has turned your non-sexual and non-romantic communication into luuuuuurve. He has no interest whatsoever in how you are feeling. All he cares about is how HE is feeling.

It is a very very short step from thinking someone else has controlled his feelings and actions to thinking that it’s YOUR fault he is driving across the country to your house. YOUR fault he’s pounding on the door in the middle of the night. YOUR fault he’s sobbing on your doorstep. YOUR fault he’s smashed through the window with a brick. What have you done to him?

Maybe, in addition to being a manipulative, manipulative, MANIPULATIVE man, he is also naive and honest and all that stuff. Maybe he truly doesn’t get how completely out-of-bounds his request is and how over-the-top his communication is and how DEEPLY non-consensual and disrespectful of your feelings and preferences this is.

But anyone who has reached 46 years old without learning these lessons is  NOT RELATIONSHIP MATERIAL. I don’t even mean romantic relationship material. I mean FRIEND material. I mean fleeting online flirting/chatting material. You need to back away from this person with such bad boundaries and who makes such bad decisions as fast as you can.

I think, to be honest, that YOU are a bit of a puppy. When you haven’t been on the dating scene in a while and you are so obviously open and kind and concerned about others, this makes you a huge target for guys like this who either think their intense feelings trump all of your words saying no (rape culture rape culture RED FLAG RED FLAG) or who are just lying assholes (again, RED FLAG RED FLAG).

I think whether this guy is honestly as naive and selfish as a 12-year-old or whether he’s a lying cheater who wants to manipulate and control you, the way to deal with him is the same: don’t worry about HIS feelings. Worry about YOUR safety. Do not give him your real name. Do not give him any information. Block that fucker and run run run.

This letter originally appeared in bitterempire.com on August 25, 2016.

How Do I Deal With My Crazy Bitch Ex?

I spent eight terrible years in a relationship with a crazy person. I mean she is certifiably batshit crazy. (I was in a bad place, what can I say?) We’ve been apart for four years now. I have a wonderful new partner who is perfectly sane. I often get threatening texts from the crazy ex-girlfriend. She even texted my new gal a few times. It’s very upsetting for me. I have a child with this crazy person, so I can’t make a total break from her, no matter how much I want to. Do you have any advice on how to deal with my crazy bitch ex?

– Baffled Boi

Dear Baffled Boi,

You don’t sound baffled to me.

You sound really, really, really angry.

In a 110-word paragraph, you used the word ‘crazy’ five times, and the utterly, helplessly dismissive phrase ‘crazy bitch.’ I have to admit that as a woman who hates the ‘b’ word and as a mentally ill person, I took a step back from you upon first reading.

But then I read again. You are using these words, I think, because you feel helpless in dealing with someone who is threatening you and your partner (and possibly your child?), furious that you can’t just cut ties with her, and probably terrified by how her unpredictable behavior will affect your kid.

So let’s break down this language and see what we can do.

I think that we, colloquially, use the word ‘crazy’ when someone is acting in unpleasant ways that we simply cannot fathom– that seem utterly illogical. If someone cuts you off in traffic because he’s in a hurry, he’s an asshole. If someone goes careening across traffic to cut you off and then slows down in front of you antagonistically, he’s ‘crazy.’

There is a certain level of helplessness we reach when dealing with someone who has a measure of power over us behaves in what seem to be irrational, hateful ways that often leads to name-calling like this.

And you are clearly there.

What you need to do is take back some power so you can feel calmer, more in control, and less helpless in dealing with her. And to recognize that some of her power over you is illusory.

To get started, I have a few questions for you.

You said she sends threatening texts. Is she threatening to hurt you? Your child? Your ex? Herself? If so, you probably need to get the police involved. I know that is a huge horrible pain in the ass and can lead to drama. But credible threats are illegal, and if she’s truly as illogical and nasty as you say, she perhaps is not in a good place to raise a child right now. You might be able to get more custody of your kid until she gets help or stops being an asshole, which is best for everyone. If she’s just threatening to tell people bad things or something, delete her texts. And for goodness sakes have your partner block her number! There is no reason why she has to ever have any contact with her whatsoever.

You also said she is ‘certifiable.’ Does this mean she is diagnosed with a mental illness or personality disorder? Which one? Researching this illness or disorder might help you to understand how to deal with this person. Stop Walking on Eggshells is a wonderful book that can help you deal with someone who has Borderline Personality Disorder. If she is bipolar there are resources for that. If she has PTSD. Narcissism. If she has substance abuse problems, Al-Anon can bring you a measure of peace. Looking closely at her issues instead of using the generic, frantic word ‘crazy’ will help you to understand her better and know better which techniques are best for dealing with whatever is going on with her.

How about yourself? It sounds like you may benefit from talking this through with a therapist of some kind. Someone who might know about what is going on and might help you to deal with your rage. I always share the bitter joke that there are two kinds of people: those who get therapy, and those who cause others to NEED therapy. Talking through this issue with someone knowledgeable in mental illness, anger management, and family dynamics could really help you to deal with your anger, which might be controlling you a bit right now.

Anger is an important emotion. It tells us there is something terribly wrong and something must change. It tells us when we are in danger. It tells us when we need to fight. It tells us when there has been injustice or harm and motivates us to do something about it.

But when anger sinks into helpless bitterness, which I’m afraid your letter just REEKS of, it can cloud our judgment, cause us to make bad decisions, and lead us into venting rather than changing what needs to be changed.

And I think that you have some serious rage right now for what sound like really good reasons, and sorting out how to control that emotion can really help you to see your ex with clearer eyes.

If there was no kid in the mix, you wouldn’t have to do all of this work. But there is, and as a parent you know that you need to do what is best for your kid. That means figuring out how to get hold of yourself and figure some shit out.

Regardless of what approach you take, I would suggest you minimize contact. Discuss only information regarding your child, not feelings or any other topic. Use email or text if possible, and make those points of contacts as brief as possible. Drain all emotion from these contacts. Do not reply to threatening messages (unless you need to call the cops, and then that’s reply enough) at all.

Google the phrase ‘parallel parenting’ for advice on how to have as little contact as humanly possible with her while still being a parent.

When you begin being able to control or even remove your emotions regarding her terrible treatment of you, you will probably see that she has a lot less control over you than you initially thought.

Good luck.

This letter first appeared in bitterempire.com on August 11, 2016.

What Can I Do About The Office Skeeve?

One of the senior executives at my workplace is a bit of a skeeze in that he showers women at our workplace with ambiguously inappropriate attention.From what I’ve seen, the attention ranges from overly friendly hugs, to hands at the small of the back when opening doors, to fairly frequent office visits with small presents like pieces of chocolate. You know the sort of attention I’m talking about, because, unfortunately, it is a fairly common occurrence.

My wife has a former boss who discriminated against her after we had kids, so I’m hyper-aware of how few good options my female coworkers have (which is why discrimination and harassment from a higher up is so awful). I suspect that some of my female coworkers feel like they should just tolerate these sorts of things because they don’t want to offend a guy who could makes their lives more difficult and, on the flip side, could be helpful to their careers if he is favorably inclined to them. Again, from what I’ve seen, the behavior is ambiguous enough that they might also feel weird complaining about it (which he likely knows and uses to his advantage); this is an example of why this sort of behavior is so pernicious.

So, with that background in mind, my question is as follows: What should I as a male colleague do about these sorts of things? I have several official reporting channels taht I could use from employee relations/HR to our ethics office, though we’re a small enough place that it is difficult to do that sort of thing anonymously.this may sound cowardly, but if I do report it, I don’t want it to come back to me, because this guy could hurt my career as well. What should I do?

– What to Do?

PS This guy is married and a social conservative, which isn’t relevant but makes him a hypocrite and ups the ick factor a bit as well.

Dear What to Do,

First: a married social conservative treating women like children or like they are on a perpetual date with him instead of in a work setting is not remotely hypocritical. I find this very consistent with a married socially conservative male outlook. I also think he is not doing this on purpose. I don’t think he realizes that he’s sexually harassing women nebulously. I don’t think he’s a cold and calculating predator. I think he’s a guy who truly thinks this is how you treat women, and acts accordingly. He probably thinks he’s a swell guy and pats himself on the back for how gallant he is with the ladies.

But as you said, that is neither here nor there. You need to know what to DO.

The short answer: nothing.

The long answer: everything.

Here’s what you do nothing about: you don’t file a complaint about him touching women on the small of their backs as they go through doorways. (And eeeew. I’ve put up with that in the past myself). You don’t report him for bringing women what amounts to dog treats and hugging them and generally treating them like pets.

While you outline very clearly what the problem with this behavior is — and it is definitely a problem — your female coworkers have dealt with worse. Trust me. It’s paternalistic to think that you should save them from this thoughtless creep, to be blunt. Women should not have to put up with crap like this simply to remain employed, but we do. Every day. That is the reality we live in. If there is a woman who has had enough of his shit, and she decides to tell him off or file a complaint, that’s up to her. That’s her job.Women are perfectly capable of deciding what is worth putting up with and what is worth fighting against, for themselves.

Here’s what you do everything about: all the rest. THAT, you can do something about.

All the rest is what you haven’t noticed. How all the men, including you, interrupt women in meetings whenever they try to speak or pick up what they started to say and take credit for it. (Multiple studies have shown that men dominate women in conversation endlessly, pretty much across the board, and feel women are dominating the conversation when they are speaking only 30 percent of the time.) Notice when men come to you for advice instead of to women who are more qualified to answer. Notice when women don’t get the chance to present their ideas, when men don’t even respond to their comments, when they are passed up for promotion or the chance to work on cool stuff.

And then change it. When a man interrupts a woman in a meeting, hold up your hand gently and say: “Sorry; I’m not sure Lori was finished,” and look at her expectantly. When a woman starts to present an idea and a man takes over and begins presenting it like it’s his, you can laugh and say: “Wait a minute. Isn’t that literally what Susan was just saying?” When people come to you for advice that you know would be better answered by a woman on your team, refer him. When a woman is looking for a raise or a promotion, be her cheerleader.

Use your privilege as a male. If a male colleague says: “That’s just what she was saying,” it sounds much different to our ears than the woman herself saying angrily: “That’s what I was just saying!” Ditto for the manterrupting.Women are socialized to patiently allow men to interrupt us constantly. It’s much harder for us to speak up for ourselves when men DO interrupt us.And, unfortunately, the unconsciously sexist men in your office will take what you say more seriously than what she was saying. It sucks, but it’s life.

And I’ll tell you this, too: if you start acting this way in the office? The women are going to see you as an ally, and when someone finally DOES get sick of this asshole’s bullshit and files something, she will know you have her back and can corroborate what she says.

And you will. Right? Even if you’re scared? You will.

This letter first appeared in bitterempire.com on July 21, 2016.

Can I Correct Misused Idioms at Work?

I just got an email from my supervisor that says, in part, “We need to flush out the agenda area with this additional content.”

I need guidance. Is it appropriate to point out that the phrase is “flesh out,” not “flush out?” Or should I ask if she wants me to hunt for the agenda hidden in some shrubbery that she needs me to flush it out by startling it with additional content?

I like my job and my coworkers, including the person who sent me this. But I’m also frustrated by incorrect usages like this. I’ve heard people use “flush out” a number of times in the past year, and I’m just not sure if I should be correcting them or not, because I don’t want to be an asshole — but I also want them to use the term correctly.

– Word Nerd

Dear Word Nerd,

The answer to your question is very simple. But before I answer that, I need to answer the scores of people who just read this and rolled their eyes at you.

Those of us who are in love with idioms do not yearn to run around lips pursed, buttocks clenched, demanding Absolute Linguistic Correctness. We are the people who visualize and celebrate idioms, and you are killing us when you use one that just sort of sounds like the original.

This idiom is lovely: to flesh something out is to take a skeleton of something and add flesh to it. We are filling it in, bringing it to life, making it fuller and more useful and more alive. When you flush something out, you either beat bushes to startle out animals, as Word Nerd described (and yes; asking her this is making fun of her and thus being an asshole, no matter how funny the image is — and it’s funny), or it’s to wash out something. Flush out an eye with a bug in it. Flush out an ear with impacted earwax. Flushing something out rids you of something unpleasant, in this usage. It is not the same as giving form and life to the skeleton of an idea. And to ‘flesh something out’ is a really cool idiom.

This is not an instance of how language has migrated from people playing with it. Verbing nouns. Contracting previously uncontracted. Throwing in slang. Using the opposite meaning of words for irony that eventually become the meaning of that word (‘literally,’ for instance). All of that can be glorious, or awful, depending on your preferences — but it’s often how language evolves. It’s how language is designed to work.

This? This is just an idiom someone misheard and repeated thoughtlessly without understanding the origination.

I fear Word Nerd and I have lost this battle; in workplaces especially. But I want to fight for the flesh, as it were, and so I’m going to tell you, Word Nerd, the following:

Do not correct people who are not your students or your children. Don’t don’t don’t. (Except for me; I love to know when I’ve screwed up and have a chance to fix it. But nobody else!) This gets you a reputation as a pedant, it makes people dislike you, it’s seen as trying to put yourself above others, and it makes people a little afraid to speak around you and feel defensive.

But also: Do not cave in to the temptation to then use it incorrectly yourself.There’s not seeming like an asshole and then there’s bending over backward too damn far and contributing to the misunderstanding. You know it. Use it back at them correctly.

When you’re in a meeting or receive an email like this, you respond: “Sure!I’ll flesh it out.”

If the person hears or sees the difference and wants to know what’s up, s/he can ask you. If they continue to hear no difference between flush and flesh and/or they don’t care, they won’t ask and they won’t learn. And a teeny bit of your soul will die, but you can at least know that you did not go gentle into that good night.

This letter originally appeared in bitterempire.com on June 23, 2016.