Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Mallory Ortberg: Come, now, let us reason together.
Q. Daughter’s date: My heterosexual 28-year-old daughter told me that she recently started a relationship with a trans man. I’ve always been supportive of LGBT issues, but I feel a little wary. I didn’t know if “trans man” meant a man that used to be a woman, a man transitioning to a woman, or something else. Whenever I asked my daughter any questions, she acted like they were rude and out of bounds. When I met her partner, they (their preferred pronoun) were distinctly male with long hair. But their behavior really confused me. They looked and acted extremely, flamboyantly, and shallowly like a gay man. It seemed like attention-getting behavior to me.
I feel like my daughter is being used as a testing ground. Her partner doesn’t have a job, a stable lifestyle, or seem grounded in any way. I don’t know what my expectations should be. Do I keep my mouth shut? Do I ask gently probing questions? I’m really more concerned about the quality of their relationship than the nature, but I don’t understand the social parameters around these issues.
A: The important question here is “What do I do when my 28-year-old daughter dates someone I’m not wild about?” And the answer, I’m afraid, is “Not much.” Your daughter knows she’s dating an unemployed person with a somewhat “unstable” lifestyle, and for now at least, that’s not a problem for her. Absent signs of abuse, there’s not a lot for you to do other than be polite and friendly when spending time with your daughter’s partner, and to privately heave a sigh of relief afterward that at least you don’t have to date them. This is a general rule for anyone your adult child may date: Be polite, be friendly, be open-minded within reason, remember that your ability to influence who your kid dates wanes with every year past about 13. Let them make their own mistakes, enjoy things you find baffling, and generally wend their own way through life.
When it comes to matters of gender, I think there are two issues here. One is your genuine lack of familiarity with terms, identities, and what’s within the limits of polite discussion. That’s fine—everyone starts somewhere—and if your daughter isn’t available to help you learn the basics, I’d encourage you to visit PFLAG’s glossary page for a primer.
The other issue is your deep-seated discomfort with someone whose interpretation of “maleness” is playful and flamboyant. I’m not sure what you think acting “shallowly” like a gay man is, but it clearly unsettled you, and the idea of someone behaving that way while also dating your daughter made you anxious, defensive, and unhappy. That’s really interesting! I think the person you should be asking “gently probing questions” of in this case is you—“Why do I interpret flamboyant behavior as inherently attention-seeking? Why do I assume stereotypically heterosexual behavior is not attention-seeking? Is attention-seeking always a bad thing? Why do I assume my daughter is being ‘used as a testing ground’—testing ground for what? In what ways am I attempting to draw a distinction between my heterosexual daughter and her partner, whose gender expression is hard for me to locate and contextualize? What am I really afraid of here, what do I want to control that I can’t, and how will I maintain inner peace and calm if my daughter continues to date someone who makes me feel so off-guard?”
Q. What do we owe inherited feral cats?: We just moved into our first home. It has everything, including a yard and a washer/dryer, and after 13 years of apartment living it feels like heaven. The yard came with a whole clowder of adorable cats. I’ve seen as many as five at a time chilling on our deck. Some of them wandered off when they realized we weren’t going to feed them, but three beautiful cats are still hanging around every day. We’re unsure if the previous tenants were feeding them, but this trio acts like they expect to be let inside at any moment.
I feel like a marvelous witch, attracting all the black cats in the neighborhood, but I’m not sure what to do. Last night, one of them smelled our dinner cooking and started meowing at the door. My heart is breaking. If we didn’t already have three indoor cats of our own, it would be a total no-brainer to start feeding them and making new friends. But we’re worried about them transmitting diseases to our pets, and having strange cats hanging out at the front and back doors all day is stressing our cats out. The strays appear to be well-fed and in good health, and their ears are all clipped, which indicates that they have been spayed or neutered. Chasing them away feels wrong, but so does ignoring them completely.
A: If the cats appear well-fed, in good health, and have already been spayed, then you don’t owe them much. It may tear at your heart to hear a cat meowing while you’re cooking, but they’re clearly getting plenty to eat (and I’ve heard my cat beg heartrendingly for a second or third dinner too many times to fall for that act). You can shoo them from your back door or ignore them to your heart’s content.
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Q. Office dog: I am in a pretty low-key 10-person office, and the owners both have dogs. One dog barks at everyone who comes in—clients, employees, delivery people. The noise is very startling, and the problem is just getting worse. How do I tell my boss she needs to train her dog better?
A: “I’m sure you’ve noticed this, but Gorlois barks at everyone who enters the office, which can get pretty distracting. I’m also worried it doesn’t make new clients feel welcome when they visit, and I’m sure it can’t be fun for the dog to be on such high alert all the time. It seems to be getting worse lately. Do you have a strategy for addressing this?”
If you’re worried your boss will be dismissive or defensive, you might talk with a few of your co-workers first and bring this to your boss’ attention as a group (in your customary low-key fashion, of course). I’m afraid that if your boss has already heard the incessant barking and decided to do nothing about it, your reminding her might not result in an improvement. That doesn’t mean it’s not still worth bringing up, but be prepared to invest in some noise-canceling headphones as a backup.
Q. Accidental peeping Tom: I’m a single guy in my mid-40s who lives alone. My apartment complex is U-shaped, with a courtyard on the inside and one end open. I can see directly into the apartment across from me if the shades are kept open and the light’s on. About two months ago, new tenants moved in, and the bedroom I can see into is occupied by a girl in her teens. More than once, I have realized that I (and presumably, others on my side of the courtyard) can see her changing. I would like to warn the apartment’s tenants of this, but I want to do it in the least intimidating way possible. Ideally I’d leave a note, but I think an anonymous one would be frightening given the subject matter, and one identifying me could provoke anger at my accidental breach of privacy, or fear due to my demographic. Do you have any tips?
A: I think the best thing for you to do is to close the shades, turn the light off, and/or look elsewhere whenever you find yourself able to see into your neighbor’s room.
Q. Office bathroom: I work in a small office (around 10 people) in a converted house. There are two bathrooms: one upstairs, one downstairs. Over the past months, someone has started opening the window in the downstairs bathroom. This happens even when it is below freezing outside and results in a frigid, very uncomfortable toilet seat. I assume this is done for fresh air after something smelly. How do I stop this annoying practice without calling out my co-workers?
A: I think the customary thing is to place a box of matches in the bathroom. I’m generally not in favor of sending officewide bathroom updates via email, but this seems harmless enough—just mention that it’s been too cold out to leave the bathroom window open and that a box of matches has been provided as an alternative. Try to write in the passive voice; it’s a clunky but useful way of avoiding any direct personal statements, and it allows all of your colleagues to carry on with the polite fiction that none of you have ever used a bathroom before in your lives.
Q. Re: Daughter dating a trans man: I agree that you can’t do much about who your 28-year-old daughter dates, but I don’t understand why it is out of bounds to ask what “trans man” means?
A: I didn’t tell the letter writer that asking what “trans man” means is out of bounds. I told them to seek information elsewhere once their daughter had refrained from answering the question; it was clear from the letter (“I didn’t know”) that the letter writer has subsequently learned a working definition of what a trans man is and did not need one from me.
Q. MLM-in-law: My sister-in-law is involved in a multilevel marketing business where she sells diet drinks, cleanses, probiotics, and the like. She often posts on social media about all the wonderful positives of these (not FDA-approved) products. A recent post stated that her products can help with anxiety, constipation, inflammation, migraines, poor memory, food allergies, food cravings, skin issues, thyroid problems, poor gut health, and blood-sugar issues.
I’m pretty sure she believes in the products. I’m also pretty sure that it is illegal to advertise these products as medicine. Should I ask her to be careful when promoting these?
A: An enthusiastic amateur saleswoman posting gushing reviews of diet drinks on social media is not illegal, although it is annoying. If she’s not trying to sell to you directly and you’re not otherwise close, I think the best choice is to mute her posts and move on.
Q. Re: What do we owe inherited feral cats?: I would check with your neighbors and ask if they know whether any of these cats belong to someone who lives nearby. If you haven’t had time to introduce yourself to your neighbors yet, this is also an opportunity for that.
A: That’s a good way to discharge two errands at once!
Q. Lost and found: In the past month, we have been fortunate to find two lost pets. These were separate incidences, both posted on a local “lost pets” Facebook page. Both of the posts offered cash rewards for finding the pets. The kids and I had planned to donate any reward we received to the local animal shelter, but neither party gave or offered any money after being reunited with their pets, nor did I ask.
Should we have asked for the reward? Several close friends told me that, in the past few years, they have also helped find lost pets, wallets, or cellphones, all advertised with corresponding fliers or Facebook posts promising rewards. None of my friends were ever offered rewards, either.
A: If you weren’t interested in the reward, and weren’t planning on keeping it if you received one, then no, I don’t think you should have asked for one. In the future, if you’re able to return another pet to its worried owner, you can pre-empt any ambiguity by saying, “Please don’t worry about the reward; we’re not interested.”
Q. Re: Close to home: My wife and I recently went through a similar situation. We had a house in mind that we wanted to purchase, which happened to be very close to my parents. Everything went off without a hitch, and it’s been great so far. I can’t really speak to the legal or financial issues, but if you set conditions regarding personal space (coming over unannounced, letting themselves in, etc.), it might be a nice situation. We frequently have dinner at each other’s houses, and it makes child care easy. I realize you mentioned some different issues, but this is just to say that living in close proximity can be a positive thing.
A: That’s fantastic! I hear so often from people with nightmarish in-law situations, so it’s nice to be reminded that there are families who treat one another with respect and have mutually agreed-upon boundaries. I don’t know if the letter writer’s in-laws are as great as yours, but it’s certainly worth talking about expectations and seeing if something’s possible.
Q. Update II—Cat at the rager: Some good news about the cat at the rager: His owner is no longer taking him to raves (I think). She does still take him to restaurants on a leash and allow him to sit on the table while she and other customers eat. She and her EDM DJ boyfriend are now in a throuple with a woman who owns a dog; the last Facebook picture I saw was of the cat and dog wearing matching purple sweatshirts, riding in a car together. Life is a rich tapestry.
A: This cannot possibly be true, or else it is the only true thing I have ever read. (What restaurants allow patrons to sit a cat on top of the table?) Thank you for this update. Please continue sending them every six months for the rest of the cat’s life—or mine.
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