The Agony Antagonist

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Children hump and dogs urinating, everyone's got to make a living

Emily Yoffe is Dear Prudence, hostess and chief towel-snapper at online journal Slate’s entrée into the world of advicery, and like most of Slate’s offerings, Dear Prudence earns about a 7 (out of 10) on the imaginary scale in my head that measures good, entertaining, and cutting-edge writing. Most newspapers—the ones that I read anyway (I read exactly one newspaper)—consistently rate about a 6, and when you turn to all online writing outlets (this page included, bien sûr), the rating drops alarmingly; so even though 7 seems pretty stingy, I mean it as a compliment. Really I do.

In her most recent column (March 22), Prudence tackles a few interesting issues, one of which presents the disturbing image of a four-year-old girl, flush-faced, in almost a trancelike state, humping an ottoman. Yes, I said it: Humping an ottoman. The girl’s mother, Puzzled, says she has “generally been tolerant of” the behavior (which she calls “doing that thing,” and goddamn if that isn’t the best euphemism I’ve heard in a while) but realizes that it can be off-putting in certain situations, such as when sitting around the dinner table with the in-laws, shopping at the grocery store, or just being in any situation that involves you, your hump-happy daughter, someone else, and an inanimate object of a certain height (coffee table, stairs, chairs).

Prudie gives the only advice that anyone could give, really, which is that the girl is at an age where she should realize that there are some things that are appropriate only in certain places (like making peepee potty, for example), and that anytime that old familiar feeling should arise, she should abscond to the bathroom in order to make sweet love to the toilet. Now, that’s all fine and good, mind you—walking the line between absolute permissiveness and early-instilled bodily shame—but it got me thinking: How, exactly, does one have that conversation with a four-year-old? I’ve known a few four-year-olds in my life, and I can say with absolute certainty that there are four-year-olds and there are four-year-olds. A friend of mine, in fact, just the other day was recounting a story about his four-year-old daughter, in which he was feeding his girl dinner and the cat jumped on the table. “Fucking cat,” he said, knocking it onto the floor. “Daddy, you don’t like fucking cats very much, do you?” At which point he realized that he needed to explain that although “fucking” was a word that he used, and that she was welcome to use it around him, it wasn’t a word to be used around, say, grandparents, teachers, other kids, etc. So that’s a smart kid, I guess: one who can listen to and respond to logic. I know not all kids can do this, though. My niece, for example, at that age would have listened to the explanation dull-eyed and slack-jawed, and as soon as it was over started running away from her lecturer, shouting “Fucking fucking fucking fucking!” until someone yanked her into her time-out chair and started talking about taking things away from her if she didn’t stop that infernal cursing.

I guess what I’m saying is, it’s an online article. There shouldn’t be any word-count issues, and if there were, why not simply run the one letter this week, with an expanded explanation of how Dear Prudie plans on getting the four-year-old child to understand and apply appropriate behavior in circumstances in which everyone around the child is talking about boring, boring things and “doing that thing” just feels so good. (I’m reminded suddenly of two of my own childhood friends who used to hump the floor—they called it “doing the bumps.” This was long before I did my own bumps, in college, and it was a completely different thing. I think my mom got me to refrain from doing the bumps by telling me such behavior was beneath me. Which was true: I chose the more sophisticated route of getting myself off by inching up and down a banister in our basement staircase. Oh, how I loved that banister. But I digress.)

Another thing: The tone of Puzzled’s letter implies an absolute lack of boundaries. Take a look at the first sentences: “I am the mother of a beautiful, clever, generally well-behaved 4-year-old girl. I adore her, and she's a delight to be with in public and sweet as pie with other adults.” Just a guess, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Puzzled is the mother who looks admiringly at her child as the little beast runs into your shins with her tiny shopping cart at the Fred Meyer. Oh, wouldn’t want to stifle little snookums’ creativity, would we? Little snookums wanna be all full up wit Fwee Will! Ugh. One hopes that Puzzled somehow figures out how to implement Prudie’s plan, seeing as how she so clearly has never spoken to her child before except to slather her with the most opulent praise.

Letter #4 is from Well-Mannered Doggie Owner, and indeed she does sound to live up to her name. WMDO was out walking her dog, she says (on leash, one hopes), when she met up with a man she’d never seen before, just as her dog was making peepee potty on someone’s lawn. “You know I live here,” he says, shaking his head. “Genius.” WMDO does not feel she was in the wrong in this situation. Does Prudie?

You bet your sweet ass she does, WMDO. Me? Not so much. Look, here’s the deal: From her answer, it appears that Prudie lives either on a 700-acre ranch or in the middle of downtown Manhattan, where there are no yards and everything is concrete or public property. Because honestly? Really? Truly? There is no way that anyone who owns a dog and doesn’t live in one of those two locations could possibly follow her advice, which is—for anyone who wants a good laugh—to only let your dog pee on your land or on public property. For the rest of us—anyone who lives in an apartment building in a mixed-residential area or in a house on a smaller lot—forget about it. Even if you have a yard that’s large enough for purposes of everyday excretion but you’d like to take your dog on a walk around the block every now and then—in fact, even if you’ve made sure that your dog just peed before you take him on said walk—you’re going to run into trouble. Dogs pee a lot, frankly. And dogs are unpredictable, too. Some dogs like to pee in the same spot day after day; with others, you’ll take them to last week’s favorite spot and … nuthin.

Prudie’s right, of course, in that once a dog pees somewhere all dogs will pee there. No property owner is going to be happy to see a dog peeing on his lawn; but on the other hand, there are a lot of unforeseen consequences of property ownership. In my parent’s neighborhood, near the high school, there’s a lot of garbage from fast-food restaurants and ashtray detritus. If you own property near a body of water, you’ll likely face accretion or deletion of your land. Maybe the house next door to yours always has the loudest, more abrasive Christmas light display. These are all known exceptions to private property ownership, and every buyer takes them on. You want a yard that’s totally free of dog piss? Fence it in. Buy a condo. Buy a houseboat. You have options. (Some of them are stupid, apparently.)

Back to the issue of being a well-mannered dog owner (and Lord knows I’m not one) or a well-mannered anything, for that matter, listen: My rule of thumb? Just be better-mannered than most other people and no one will have the right to take you to task. In the case of dog ownership, this means (1) keep your dog on a leash, (2) don’t let your dog bark uncontrollably, (3) pick up poop, (4) don’t let your dog jump on people unless they’ve indicated that they like it, (5) if your dog is mean, keep it away from other people. Another example: At a restaurant recently, I told my boyfriend that we were entitled to sit at a four-top for lunch because it adjoined a four-top that one lady had claimed for herself. “We’re not the biggest assholes here, she is, and that’s what matters.” Unfortunately, the lady heard me, which actually did make me the biggest asshole there. But you know what I mean.


Monday, March 26, 2007

Or maybe don’t tell me about it; frankly, I can scarcely see that it matters

So, Carolyn Hax, eh? Her column is adorably titled “Tell Me About It,” which upon reading I always enter a state of daydream in which teen girls in cheerleader outfits clap rhythmically and chant “Tell me [clap] about it [clap clap], Carolyn [clap] Hax [clap clap]!” I know, I know … it’s weird. I had a Toni Basil obsession as a child, too.

But enough of that. March 25th’s column contains three letters. Let’s see if I can sum them up here. Letter #1 is from Maryland, who writes to say that she’s a divorced adult woman with no interest in a serious relationship. She’s been emailing a divorced adult man, and she would like to meet him and play out in person the sexual fantasy that’s been developing in their heads. Is that okay, she wonders?

Letter #2 concerns a woman who’s at that age when all her friends seem to be having children, and now their lives are changed … for the worse! They don’t have time for her, they can’t go out and party like they used to, and she just can’t relate to them in the same way. “Is this normal?” she asks.

And finally, in Letter #3, Washington writes to say that after a long period of separation, dealing with attorneys, etc., she and her husband are talking about getting back together. But, she queries, what about their friends? What will they say?

Oh wow. If only my problems were so mundane, or my job so fricking easy. Presumably, Carolyn Hax gets numerous letters (or emails, most likely) asking for her advice every week. I assume that she picked these three letters on purpose, leading me to the further assumption that, sometime last week, after partying a great deal, or catching up on the Jericho reruns she’s been Tivoing, she suddenly remembered that she had a deadline to meet, picked the three least-demanding emails from the pile, and spewed forth the meekest form of commonsense advice she could muster. Oh, you know: Two consenting adults, that’s fine, but remember that fantasies are exactly that and it may be or become something else once it leaves the electronic medium you’ve been using! Yes, it’s normal for new parents to act or be forced to act differently than they used to as childless adults (moron). And who cares about what the friends say, but don’t use what they said in support of you (and against your spouse), back when you thought you were getting a divorce, against them now.

I have no problem with Carolyn giving the lamest, most obvious advice here, since the advice-seekers in this case were obviously so stupid as to not be able to figure out even the simplest, clearest paths themselves. Next in “Tell Me About It”: A 50-year-old man in Boston wonders if he might consider abandoning the practice of inviting the preteens he meets in online chat rooms to have sex with him, and another guy, in Houston, writes to say: “I’m thirsty. Should I drink some liquid?”

Reading these kinds of exchanges is boring. I say, if you are telling me that you have multiple friends who all have new babies and all have changed in the same few basic ways—staying home with baby, say, instead of going to a smoky bar with you to get drunk and go home with random men at the end of the night—and you can’t figure out that that is normal? Then you, my dearest amiga, do not deserve any friends. In fact, perhaps your friends are using the baby as a convenient excuse to get rid of someone whose stupidity-as-comedy appeal got old years ago.


Sunday, March 25, 2007

Girl, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt it's true

In Amy Dickinson’s March 24 column, Troubled asks Amy about his relationship with his wonderful, intelligent, and way-too-honest fiancée. “Recently, a silly question came up,” he says, and continues to whine that the future Mrs. Troubled won’t say for certain that she absolutely would never get back together with her ex-husband, even though she has no feelings for him and no plans to rekindle that old, burnt-out pile of tires. Troubled is hurt by her inability to make such a statement, and turns to Amy for a bit of sanity. Amy says—correctly, I think—yes, there’s no such thing as absolutes in human relationships, and we all know that, and still we find it in ourselves to ignore that fact when trying to reassure our loved ones that we really do love them.

What she neglects to say is this: Now that you know this thing about the future Mrs. Troubled—that she cannot speak in absolutes, even in an effort to make you feel loved—and this other thing about yourself—that you have a need, however small, to feel that your wife loves you—either make sure that in the future these types of “silly questions” don’t “come up,” or break it off. I’m putting in my vote for option number two, personally. Being married to the kind of person who constantly says things like, “Well, if we had kids, I probably wouldn’t kill them all and frame you for their murders, but I can’t say for sure,” sounds like a real drag to me. I probably wouldn’t cry all the time and wish for my death, but you never can tell.

Also, Emily in NYC writes to critique advice Amy gave in an earlier column, saying that prying questions about personal subjects are best treated as rhetorical, impersonal statements. Thus, in the example she gives, in response to “How can you afford law school?” one would say, “I know! Law school is so expensive!”

Amy’s response? “In television, this is called a ‘toss.’ You just toss the comment back, without really saying anything. What works for news anchors can work for the rest of us.”

I imagine this strategy would work in the given example, though I also wonder how wide its applications are.

“Oh, are you pregnant again?” / “I know! I’m so fat, right?”

“Any new beaux we should know about?” / “I know, right! It’s almost like I’m a lesbian or something!”

“So, how’s your PhD thesis coming along?” / “I know! It’s like I start something and then I never finish it! It’s either like I’m just a big procrastinator or like I overestimated my abilities in the first place!”

(Or maybe #2 could be “I know! Cute, single, straight men are extinct in this town!” and #3 is “I know! Research and analysis is so hard!” Number 1 still has to be “I’m so fat!”)

As for what works for the news anchors working for the rest of us, I say, um, no. Not at all, really. See: hairstyles, makeup, fashion, awkward segways, and fake gigantic smiles.