The Agony Antagonist

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Thanks for answering, now shut up

A few weeks ago, Amy Dickinson asked her readers what their thoughts were on kids’ sports teams’ busy schedules, after one of her readers complained that her kids missed out on family outings, holidays, summer vacations, and general “being a kid” time. Amy wrote, “The message this sends to kids is that the family revolves around their interests and that they need to be busy and hyper-scheduled in order to have full and successful lives. Unfortunately, kids from families who can't or won't adhere to these rigorous schedules are shut out of participating in sports activities that are healthy and life-enhancing,” before issuing her invitation for parents and kids to comment on the matter.

Considering the shrill, unreasonable letters she normally prints, Amy must have been shocked to hear from a rational, level-headed 12-year-old, who wrote, “When you play at a competitive level, you may have two games on the weekend, practice all year and have tournaments on three-day weekends. If you don't want to have games on the holiday weekends, then you can join a recreational team that doesn't have practice and games year-round. On an intense team, you should know this stuff and be prepared for it.”Amy kindly thanks the kid for his thoughtful answer, and then goes on to, well, treat him like an idiot. Amy’s full response follows, with my notes in boldface.

“What some parents object to (because the kid clearly doesn’t understand) is the idea that to compete at a competitive level (Amy shows her misunderstanding of the meaning of competitive) kids have to miss parts of their childhoods that we (The Adults?) value very much, such as time with family and friends (kind of a non-issue, assuming that the sport-kid’s friends are on the team with him or her, and the family attends games), as well as time spent in the community (and what child doesn’t love, um, that?).

“You are very articulate about the trade-offs you've had to make, but maybe you shouldn't have to choose between family experiences and success on the sports field. (Or maybe everyone who wants to excel at a particular activity does have to make those kinds of commitments. After all, as the kid writes, if a student wants to achieve the balance that Amy speaks of, he may join a recreational team.)

“You should have both.”

Did she even read the kid’s letter? Or did she just dismiss it out of hand because it didn’t mirror the same unchecked outrage that seethes from her pores? I fear we shall never know for certain, and yet—and yet—I suspect dismissal, of the out-of-hand variety.

But Amy Dickinson not really giving a crap is old news. Moving on to a new theme in the Agony Antagonist, I’d like to address a problem I’ve noticed in the advice columns lately: Namely, that it’s all fine and good for an advice columnist to say what would be proper in a certain situation—that one should feel morally justified in telling one’s friend to leave the baby at home sometimes, or that the proper way to deal with a cougher in a movie theater is to alert the usher—but in many cases, the advice given, if followed, would simply lead to ever-more-uncomfortable situations.

Case in point: Prudie’s latest column answers a letter from a girl who writes in to complain that her boyfriend did not buy her a birthday gift, but only got her a card. She complains further that, before her birthday, her boyfriend mentioned getting her a gift, so she had every right to expect one, and that her friends now are going so far as to say that she should dump him. The advice-seeker claims to have an imagination that sometimes “runs wild,” and to only want to know from Prudie whether she is being unreasonable.

Prudie, not unreasonably it seems to me, allows that in relationships, one may address hurt feelings. “Don't be accusatory or melodramatic,” she says. “Just tell him the way you told me—you know money is tight, but you were a little hurt when he didn't give you the gift he'd mentioned, and then ask him if something's up.”

Like I said, I’m not one to advocate not speaking up when something’s wrong. But perhaps Prudie might consider that the girl who admits her imagination runs wild—to the point where she believes that the absent gift is illustrative of something larger—and who’s spent the last several weeks since her birthday mulling over her friends’ bad advice may not be in a position to do what Prudie asks her to do: Not be accusatory or melodramatic.

In fact, what I suspect will happen, is “Giftless” will start off with every intention of not being accusatory or melodramatic. She will remind her boyfriend of the previously mentioned gift that he never gave her. Her lower lip will tremble. Her eyes will well with tears, which she will valiantly blink back. She will think, as she discusses this, as non-melodramatically as she can, about how her boyfriend probably forgot to buy the afore-promised gift because he was off flirting with his chemistry lab partner, just like he always does, even though he never admits it.

Her boyfriend is probably kind of embarrassed by the whole thing. I’m guessing that he thought he’d have the money to buy the gift, but at the last minute realized he didn’t. Giftless says she and her boyfriend are both students with part-time jobs, so it seems likely that finances were an issue.

Also likely: That the boyfriend worked a long time on writing something on the inside of the card to show Giftless how much he cares. Now, it’s true. We’re not five years old anymore, and anyway, boyfriends should not treat their girlfriends like they treated their mothers back in kindergarten. But the point remains that Boyfriend, if he is already feeling embarrassed about the situation, will probably not react well to Giftless’ tactless handling of the subject.

Giftless: Listen, I have something I need to talk to you about. As soul mates, we really need to be able to discuss when one of us is hurt by the other one, don’t you think?

Boyfriend: Ummm ...

Giftless: So, I know money’s tight, but I was a little hurt when you didn’t give me that gift you mentioned buying me for my birthday. Is anything up?

Boyfriend: You scrounging little money grubber. You know I’ve been eating ramen for the last three months, and you have the nerve to ask me why I didn’t get you a “real” present? And you obviously didn’t appreciate the card I gave you! I spent all night trying to put into words how I feel about you, and you don’t care because all that matters to you is money—things! Well, forget it. Find a new soul mate. We’re through.

I suppose that if you read into this that the Agony Antagonist has a lot of pent-up frustration about men and relationships and speaking one’s mind, you’d be right. But enough people—men and women both—exist who are very very touchy about things like money, responsibility, and emotions, that one would expect a seasoned advice professional like Prudie to keep this in mind when answering a question posed by an obviously very emotional, touchy, and irresponsible girl.

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