communication, controversies, expressions, family

“Why’d you have to go and make things so complicated?”

Yeah, sing it, Avril…

Apologies for the old hit from Avril Lavigne. I’m not even a big fan of Avril’s music, but this song seems appropriate for today’s topic, which comes courtesy of Carolyn Hax’s advice column in the Washington Post. I had other topics in mind to write about today, but it’s Sunday, and I figured it would be better to write about something less serious. And today’s post from Carolyn Hax is definitely lighter than my subject matter has been lately.

Here’s the letter in question, which was adapted from an online discussion:

Hi Carolyn! 

I’ve recently started to attend family functions with my boyfriend. He always says I don’t need to bring anything, but I never go anywhere empty-handed.

His mom is preparing the entire meal for the next event, including desserts. I’m a baker and usually bring desserts but Boyfriend says mom might be offended if I bring a dessert when she’s already taking care of that. This party is for his sister’s birthday, and I don’t know her well enough to choose a gift, and he won’t give me any ideas because he insists I don’t need to bring a gift. I asked if I could at least get a card, and he said he’ll add my name to his card — but he and his sister have been passing the same card back and forth for 12 years as a joke. This is their thing and I don’t want to impose.

But I just can’t fathom going empty-handed. Any ideas as to what I can bring?

— Never Empty-Handed

Carolyn’s advice to the letter writer was to try to call the boyfriend’s mom and ask her directly what she should bring for his sister, if the boyfriend won’t “work with her on this”. She also said that the letter writer should explain to him that telling her that she doesn’t need to bring anything is easy for him to say, and maybe even well-intentioned by letting her off the hook, but it actually puts her in an awkward position. Carolyn further writes:

He is seeing this through the family lens, but you are not family and you’re newish to everyone, so you don’t know how you’ll be judged.

You want to make a good impression. If he wants to set you up to succeed, then he either needs to give you a token way to contribute, or be more thoughtful in explaining his family culture to you, or connect you to his mom (or whoever’s hosting) to find out for yourself.

This advice makes sense to me, I guess. However, there is also hopefully a good chance that Boyfriend is telling the truth. It’s possible that his mom and/or his sister really don’t want her to bring anything. Moreover, I would expect him to tell me the truth. So my response, which so far is being well-received was this:

I would just take the boyfriend at his word. If it goes awry, then I’ll know I can’t trust what he says and move on.

She can always warn the guy that if he’s not being truthful, and she shows up with nothing and his mom or sister thinks it’s rude, that will mean that she can’t trust him to be honest, and that might mean they shouldn’t continue the relationship. There is a good chance, though, that the mom and/or his sister really are among those people who doesn’t want guests to bring things. My mom is one of those people. She’s at a point in her life that she’s trying to get rid of things she doesn’t need. I have been the recipient of many lovely gifts people have given her that she just didn’t want or weren’t her taste.

If you think about it, bringing something for the host/hostess actually can lead to embarrassing situations. Here’s an example from my personal history.

Recently, I wrote about how I have a phobia of mushrooms. I can’t eat them or touch them, and I prefer not to look at them or smell them. One time, years ago, a woman invited me to her house for dinner. She was a vegetarian. Because I wanted to be a good guest, I baked two loaves of bread and brought one of them with me. Guess what… hostess wasn’t a fan of bread. And guess what else? The dinner she made was LOADED with mushrooms. And yes, it was very embarrassing. I explained to her, honestly, why I couldn’t partake of the dinner. Fortunately, she had a good laugh at my expense, and even told some of her colleagues about it.

People love to leave comments on the Washington Post’s Facebook page about this post, when it’s clear that they didn’t read the article. It’s mainly because they don’t want to pay for a subscription. If they had read the article, they would see that other people offered reasons why bringing the usual go-to gifts of wine, flowers, and candy might not be the best idea. Here’s what a couple of people wrote:

Re: Guest: Yes, please arrive empty-handed. I find hosting people who are compelled to bring something, anything, very tiring. Fine to ask if you can contribute to the meal, for instance, but if the answer is no, then accept that.

— Tired

Tired: Yes, yes. When I tell my guests what (not) to bring, I want them to take me at my word, not send me looking for a vase for the lovely and well-meant flowers.

In the case of someone new being invited into the fold, though, the standards shift a bit. The balance of power is more precarious. The boyfriend can be more helpful here. That’s all.

I have a policy that when people say they want no gifts, I take them at their word. I assume they had a reason for making that statement. If they didn’t mean it, they shouldn’t have written or said it, and they shouldn’t be upset when people abide by it. If Mom is annoyed with the girlfriend for coming to visit the family empty-handed that early in the relationship, that’s another sign that the letter writer might want to consider, should things go further in that relationship. I would hope that the boyfriend’s mom and other family members would be just as eager to make a good impression on his girlfriend, especially if there is a chance she might one day marry him, or otherwise engage in a more serious relationship. Because– that could one day be her mother-in-law… and you want to pay attention to red flags. Divorce is expensive, and marriage can be challenging enough without a mother-in-law with whom you don’t mesh. Fortunately, my own mother-in-law is awesome, and my mom adores Bill.

A lot of commenters seem to think that the letter writer should just ignore what her boyfriend says, and go against his advice on dealing with his family. I don’t know about other people, but it would really annoy me if I told Bill about what to expect from my family– people that I’ve known my whole life– and he didn’t believe me. I can understand the letter writer’s dilemma in not wanting to be rude, but I would consider not trusting my boyfriend’s word as kind of rude, too. I’m big on trust, and I don’t like it when people don’t take me seriously, even though I joke around a lot. Joking around is one thing, but I’m not the kind of person who would deliberately set someone up to fail. If I care enough to bring you home to meet the family, that means I’m serious. And I would not tell you not to bring a gift if I knew that not bringing a gift would make my mom or sister think you were a jerk. I would hope for the same consideration.

I also noticed that the people commenting were suggesting gifts that could be problematic. That bottle of wine might not be appreciated by someone who is fundie Baptist or LDS, struggles with alcoholism or some other health issue, or someone who just doesn’t drink. Flowers might not be appreciated by someone who has severe allergies or, like Madonna, hates hydrangeas… or whatever other flower. Some people don’t like plants because they have a brown thumb, and kill everything they touch.


Or maybe it will be an awkward exchange, like when Melania Trump brought Michelle Obama a fancy Tiffany box on Inauguration Day…

Nice of Melania to bring a gift. Too bad the Trumps didn’t have enough class to show up to the 2021 Presidential Inauguration.

Someone who prides themselves on being a great cook or baker might not appreciate it if you take it upon yourself to bring dessert. A lot of people go to great lengths to plan when they have a party. If you show up with a cake from a bakery or even one you’ve made yourself, it may send a very embarrassing message that won’t be well received. Or, again, it could turn out that someone has diabetes and has to watch their sugar or carbs for health reasons. I had a friend, years ago, who had an allergy to chocolate. She loved chocolate, but couldn’t eat it, because it made her break out in hives. Imagine showing up at her house with a lovely, expensive chocolate cake that took hours to bake. Hopefully, other people can enjoy it.

Here’s what I think is a fairly foolproof gift– sincere gratitude for the invitation, and authentic, attentive, and appreciative company. That’s it. Maybe that gratitude could be augmented by a handwritten note expressing thanks, mailed a day or two after the gathering. One of the nicest “gifts” I have ever received from anyone was a lovely, handwritten note from Bill’s younger daughter, who was considerate enough to think of me when he went to visit her in March 2020. I will treasure it always, for there’s no other gift like it. It came from the heart and, best of all, it cost her almost nothing in money, but yet it’s priceless to me. I will keep and treasure it always, especially since it doesn’t take up any room or collect dust.

Now THIS is what I call a good– and very classy– gift. There’s not another like it.

There’s no reason to sweat the small stuff. There’s no reason to make things more complicated than it needs to be. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. While giving a small gift to a host or hostess is usually considered good etiquette, when it comes down to it, the best etiquette is considering what will make the other person feel most comfortable and at ease. I would expect that the boyfriend in this situation knows his family well enough to advise his girlfriend honestly. She should take what he says at face value. If it goes wrong, that will be a sign of things that could be coming in the future. At the very least, it could be a signal that he’s not going to be straightforward about other things.

Damned right.

Some of the comments on this remind me of the American attitude about tipping. So many people seem to think that everyone loves gifts. Not everyone does… just like not everyone expects or appreciates a tip. Seriously… in some cultures, tipping is actually considered rude or just isn’t a thing. American culture is not the end all, be all, and there’s a lot to consider in any relationship. If you don’t know the guy’s parents, I actually think it’s better to wait before you bring a gift, unless you’ve been assured that they would appreciate one. Gifts can go awry. Besides, meeting new people is a two-way street. I see no reason to complicate that meeting by adding in an unnecessary element, like what gift to bring. Especially when it’s been made clear, by someone who should be in the know, that gifts aren’t expected or even desired. I think it’s smart to learn about the culture in any new situation before assuming you know what should be done.

book reviews, politics

Repost: A review of First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies

This review appeared on my original blog on July 18, 2016. It’s posted here as/is.

I’ve never been one to follow politics too much.  They don’t interest me as much as they probably should. However, like most Americans, I’ve been exposed to politics despite my best efforts to avoid them.  Some time ago, I decided to read Kate Anderson Brower’s 2016 book, First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies.  I see on that this book was released in mid April, just a few weeks after Nancy Reagan’s death at age 94.  She was obviously still living at press time because Brower refers to Mrs. Reagan as if she’s not dead.  Nancy Reagan, along with several other first ladies, gets plenty of airtime in Brower’s book. 

I was surprised by how interested I was in reading about America’s modern first ladies.  Brower has an engaging writing style and includes a lot of information about Jacqueline Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, Patricia Nixon, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, and Michelle Obama.  She showed how important and stressful the job of First Lady can be and illuminates how each of the First Ladies highlighted in her book tackled the role. 

Brower also includes some fun tidbits about relationships between First Ladies.  Some of her descriptions are more flattering than others.  I was surprised by how much regard Brower seems to have for Lady Bird Johnson, a First Lady who served before I was born.  I was less surprised by how Nancy Reagan is described.  Brower paints her as a woman who was extremely devoted and overprotective of her husband, yet something of a bitch to most other people.  Barbara Bush was apparently much beloved among White House staffers, while Michelle Obama evidently can’t wait to move out of the White House.

While I did mostly enjoy Kate Anderson Brower’s book, I do have one major criticism.  This book is not written in a chronological manner, so the First Ladies’ stories are mostly presented in a hodge podge way.  Sometimes it felt like I was rereading passages I had already read.  I think that had she presented each First Lady in her own chapter, it would have been easier to keep everyone’s stories straight. 

I also felt like it took too long to get through the book.  I’m a fairly speedy reader, especially when I’m reading something interesting.  It took me a few weeks to finish First Women.  This book could have used another round or two with an editor for streamlining and clarifying. 

Overall, First Women is a somewhat entertaining read and I did learn some new things about life in the White House, as well as gained some insight into some of the women who have served as First Lady.  But, even though it took me awhile to get through the book, I was kind of surprised when I finally hit the end of it.  It didn’t seem like Brower really summarized anything, so when the end of the book finally came, I was left thinking “That’s it?”

This is the first book I’ve ever read by Kate Anderson Brower.  She is apparently a well-regarded author and previously published The Residence, which was a bestseller.  Others who have read The Residence claim that First Women includes too much repeated information from the first book.  Since I haven’t read The Residence, I can’t be sure if that’s true.  However, having read follow up books from other authors, my guess is that there’s truth in the claim that some information is recycled.  So I would recommend that anyone tempted to read First Women after having read The Residencegive it some time.  Although I know many authors rehash things in subsequent books on similar subjects, it can feel like a rip off when that happens.

For me personally, First Women was a decent read because I’m not a trivia geek when it comes to U.S. Presidents and their wives (thus far).  Those who already know a lot about First Ladies of the 20th and 21st centuries may find this book a little too pedestrian.  And again, I do think that this would have been a stronger book had the First Ladies been presented in a more linear way with less redundant information.  I think I’d give it 3.5 stars.

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divorce, Trump

Mrs. Obama makes an unfortunate comment about “divorced dads”…

This morning, I woke up to an article shared by a friend of mine. He recently divorced his wife and they have two young children. Without going into details about his personal situation, I’ll just say that like a lot of divorced fathers, my friend is dealing with the harmful stereotypes suffered by a lot of dads. It’s only natural that he’d take offense at Michelle Obama’s recent decision to compare Donald Trump’s presidency to that of a parenting style of a “divorced dad”. The implication is that divorced dads are irresponsible and inept. It’s all fun and games at Dad’s house until you get sick and need care. Then, apparently, you’re better off with your mom.

Those of you who have been reading my blog already know that I’m married to a man who was denied the right to parent his daughters. This wasn’t at all because Bill is “irresponsible” or in any way unfit. It was because his ex wife is a selfish narcissist who thinks of her children as extensions of herself, and she did her best to alienate the children from their dad(s). She has been married three times and has had a total of five children: one from her first ex, two by Bill, and two by her current husband.

Although he probably could have taken her to court and forced her to give him access to his children, Bill chose not to. It was mainly because he didn’t have the time or the money to devote to a court fight that might very well end badly. Instead of lawyering up and fighting his ex wife, Bill chose to rebuild the shambles his life was left in after their divorce. Although it was extremely painful for him to be kept away from his daughters, Bill has managed to thrive. Now, one of his daughters has finally reconnected with him.

I had a feeling that this would happen, although I didn’t think it would turn out as well as it has so far. It seems that despite everything, Bill’s younger daughter managed to develop good common sense. It’s gratifying to see that she wants to break the cycle of craziness in her family and raise her own children with the stability and access to family members that she didn’t have. But it still doesn’t erase all of those years when she refused to speak to Bill and made him out to be a person he’s not. And a large part of the reason his ex wife was so easily able to smear Bill is because divorced fathers get a terrible rap when it comes to their parenting skills.

Mrs. Obama, a very popular first lady, is not doing guys like Bill any favors when she compares Donald Trump’s presidency to a visit to divorced dad’s house. Plenty of dads are wonderful parents who take excellent care of their children. And there are also moms out there who are neglectful and abusive. They make the abuse worse by alienating their children from their healthier parent, who in some cases turns out to be the male half. Some of those dads are also taking to their blogs, writing about why Mrs. Obama’s comments are so “tone deaf”.

By the way, as an American, I don’t see Trump as the “fun” parent in a divorce situation. I see him as a demented, out-of-control, narcissistic despot, not unlike an abusive parent who lashes out the first time their kid smarts off at them. These last two years, while not personally horrible for Bill and me, have been very traumatic to watch as Trump’s decisions have had real life devastating consequences for thousands of innocent people. I worry about the future of my homeland because of Trump’s insistence on alienating everyone who doesn’t kiss his ass and because he’s just grossly incompetent. He’s also just plain gross… on so many levels.

Bill made this juice with green apples, pears, celery, spinach, and lemon juice. It was delicious! He also made the coffee. Yesterday, he made another juice with carrots, cucumbers, and other assorted produce.

I would have loved to have been able to have a child with my husband. He’s an excellent caretaker, very loving, kind, and nurturing. Case in point, this week, he’s been using our juicer to make me fresh juice in the mornings. He also made me fruit salad.

Does this look like the kind of thing an irresponsible “divorced dad” would serve? Yes, I’m his wife, but I would imagine that he would show at least as much love and regard for his daughters, given the chance.

A lot of people seem to assume all men are hopeless and act like children. A divorced dad has to deal with the stereotype that he eats take out pizza all the time and lives in a swinging bachelor pad reminiscent of a frat house. That’s definitely not necessarily so. When I visited Bill’s apartment for the first time, before we were married, I was surprised by how very spartan it was. He slept on a futon mattress placed on a wooden crate. He also had a futon couch, much like the one we have now that needs to be hauled to the dump. He had a bowl, a couple of pieces of silverware, and a wok to his name. I immediately insisted that we visit Target and get him some proper dishes. Then, I suggested he move the futon mattress that served as his bed to the futon mattress on his futon couch. That doubled the cushioning and immediately made him more comfortable. He had a TV and a table and two chairs that he bought at Bed, Bath, and Beyond… and maybe a cheap bookcase. That was it. In those days, most of his money went to paying child support and for the debt his ex wife left him in. He worked very hard and was very responsible. That’s one of many reasons why I found him so attractive.

Years later, I remember visiting a dentist when we lived in Georgia. I was getting my teeth cleaned and the hygienist asked me if I had any children. I said I didn’t, and her response was something along the lines of, “Oh, I guess your husband is enough of a child.” She’d said it in a sympathetic way, but I found her comment a bit offensive. As most thinking people know, there are any number of reasons why someone doesn’t have children. A lot of those reasons are personal and painful. I don’t mind talking about why I don’t have kids, although people who ask me such personal questions usually really regret it. Make no mistake about it. I would have been proud to have children with Bill, even if we eventually split up. He’s a wonderful person and a very caring, empathetic, and responsible father. And, sad to say it, but he’s a much better parent than his ex wife is. It’s really too bad he couldn’t have had primary custody of his daughters. I think their childhoods would have been much better if he had.

But, this mentality that dads are automatically the weaker parent also seems to go hand in hand with the idea that men are “weak”, especially when it comes to sex, and that subsequent spouses are the result of affairs. I remember a few years ago, telling our former landlady that I’m Bill’s second wife. Much to my shock, she asked me if I’d caused his divorce. The fact is, I hadn’t. Even if I had, I sure as hell wouldn’t tell her that.

I didn’t know Bill when he and his wife were married. I met him online when they were separated and we had a platonic friendship. I didn’t even know he had a wife until we’d been chatting consistently for about three months. He hadn’t mentioned it because I hadn’t asked… and the subject never came up, because we weren’t chatting about anything we couldn’t talk about to anyone else. Our early talks were mostly about military living, travel, my grad school courses, and his work in the Army.

One day, he sent me a long email explaining what was going on, sure I would “hate” him. He wanted me to know, because he’d become fond of me. I never thought we’d meet offline and I certainly never thought we’d marry. I was shocked by the email, but mainly because he seemed convinced that I’d look down on him because he was divorcing his wife. She had him thinking the whole thing was his fault and that he was “damaged goods”.

I told him I was sorry about his situation, and that I didn’t hate him. In fact, I didn’t think his marital status was my business, although I appreciated that he explained it to me. Months later, his divorce was final. By that time, I was delighted by the news, because in the months after that email, we’d gotten closer and I really wanted to date him. But we didn’t meet in person until a year later, almost a year after his divorce was official. Some people might assume I’m lying, but I’m not. That’s really how it happened. And we waited until after we were married to consummate the relationship. Does this sound like a man who is irresponsible, fixated on fun, and only thinking about himself? I think not.

Anyway… I think Mrs. Obama owes divorced dads an apology. She can do better than throwing all divorced men under the bus with her analogy, comparing them to Trump’s disastrous leadership. This time, she “went low”, and she should resolve to set a better example for everyone.