Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Good morning, everybody. Let’s chat!
Q. I just love dogs: I live in the downtown area of a gentrifying city. I have worked intentionally to become part of the community I joined, while respecting its roots—supporting local business, volunteering, etc. I know I have lots of unconscious racial biases, but I try hard to listen and not cause harm. I also really love dogs. I have an awesome dog. He is cute and friendly, and we know lots of people in our neighborhood who I wouldn’t otherwise have any reason to interact with. Having a cute, friendly dog, I am very used to people paying attention to him and not talking to me. Not only do I not mind this, it brings me joy to see people dote on him. I also talk a lot at my job and can sometimes feel burned out from any more conversation than I’m professionally obligated to engage in. I am friendly with some fellow dog parents, and dogs being the focal point of our interaction often seems like a global inside joke.
About a month ago, a woman somewhere in my age range moved immediately next door to me. She is black. I am, if it isn’t obvious by now, white. I was bringing my dog in when she was moving in, and she said she knew someone would want to say hello. She opened her door, and her own adorable dog ran out. The dogs happily greeted each other. I was happy and even harbored visions in the moment of exchanging keys with my new neighbor and helping each other with dog walks on occasion. A few weeks passed, I had some travel, and then after I returned, I saw them on the street when I was racing off somewhere, and I cheerily said hello to the dog. Later that day I saw them again and, again, said hello to the dog. My neighbor yanked the dog away from me and my dog and yelled, “Don’t say hi to my dog if you aren’t going to say hi to me.” I was extremely surprised and faintly called after her, “I just really love dogs.”
Prudie, she clearly thinks I’m racist, when I really just love dogs. I have seen her since then and gotten a similar aggressive ignoring response, though no more comments. What can I do? Should I put a note under her door? What should it say? “I’m not racist, I just love dogs” seems a bit reductive, but it is the truth. I usually operate with a fairly high level of emotional intelligence, and I am completely stumped by the appropriate move here. I no longer harbor happy ideas of us becoming neighbor friends. Am I racist and clueless? Help me.
A: I think you are spiraling a little! If you were to run after her and say, “I’m not racist, I just love dogs,” you would not make things better, but you would freak her out. A note would also be overbearing. It’s clear that the possibility that she might think you are a racist is sending you into a panic and your primary goal right now is to get her to reassure you that she doesn’t think you’re racist. I don’t think that’s an appropriate thing to try to extract from her! Even if you are a conscientious and well-intentioned neighbor, there may still be people in your neighborhood who don’t like you or aren’t excited by your presence. You have to accept that, even if part of your soul rebels at the thought of not being able to make someone think well of you. Either way, the best response to what she said would have been, “I’m sorry I was rude. I’ll say hello next time we run into each other.” Not “I just really love dogs.” From now on, if you see her out and about, offer her a quick smile or a brief hello, but take your cues from her. If she seems inclined to be distant, don’t try to force a connection.
Q. Paranoid about my priceless legacy: My beloved father died this year. Most of his estate passed to his second wife, which is good; she’s in poor health and could use it. My legacy was my favorite family item: a beautiful photograph purchased from his college roommate. This man went on to become one of the world’s most renowned photographers. My father left no instructions about what to do with it. I assume he meant for me to keep it.
On the advice of a colleague, I called an auction house to have it appraised for insurance. Their head of photography called me back in an hour—the photo is worth a mint. I have deep sentimental attachment to this picture, but its safety is making me paranoid. Nothing else in my home is valuable, and all I’ve got is a simple door lock. Do I have to install massive security, hide it in the basement, and pay a fortune in insurance? If I hold a party, do I have to watch it all night? What about light and humidity? If I donate it to a museum, will they just dump it in a storage vault? Will I get visitation rights? I’m not asking you to make this decision for me, but could use outside input: If this were your decision, what would you do with the photograph?
A: Get it insured and keep it somewhere you can look at and enjoy it. I do not believe that installing massive security in your home or staring obsessively at it every time you have a party would improve your quality of life. If you’ve never excessively worried about break-ins before, I don’t think you have to start now. Most people—potential burglars and party guests alike—will probably assume that it’s just a print. Ask the auction house if they can recommend anyone who can talk to you about how to best store and display the photograph, but other than that, I think you should treat it like what it is: a beloved family heirloom you enjoy looking at.
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Q. Cut off: I never quite measured up to my older brother: always slower, stupider, less “potential.” He was the shooting star who was going to become a big shot lawyer. I skipped college for trade school. He never passed the bar. I own my own business now. I have learned over a lifetime to let my parents’ words roll off my back.
I am engaged. My fiancée is smart, successful, and from an immigrant family. I love her like I’ve never loved anyone. Over the holidays, my parents started nitpicking her. I lost it when my mother negatively compared my fiancée to my brother’s ex, the one who slept with her married bosses (yes, plural—bosses). I stopped the conversation and told my parents flat-out that if they ever spoke like that about my fiancée again, they would never see us again. They tried to bluster, and we left.
Now they and my brother are complaining that I am “overreacting.” And while my fiancée is glad I defended her, she worries I am going to regret this. I have listened to my mother scream about my brother’s ex being a two-faced whore, but she is still better in their eyes than my beautiful fiancée. They can say what they want about me, but she is off-limits. How can I make myself clear to them, or should I just cut them off?
A: This is an especially heightened situation because I think what you call letting your parents’ words “roll off [your] back” has in fact been “storing a lot of furious resentment into a barely concealed corner of your mind.” Those words were not rolling off of your back at all, and you’ve been building toward a confrontation for a long time now. I don’t know exactly how your parents compared your fiancée to your brother’s ex, but my guess is the reason your family members think you overreacted to it is because you were in fact reacting not only to that comparison, but to every other slight you’ve taught yourself to swallow over the years. I think it’s smart to take a little time to continue cooling off and, when you do revisit the subject with your parents, to be completely honest: “I realize that my response took you by surprise, and the reason it seemed outsized to you in the moment is because I’ve felt like you’ve negatively compared me to my brother for years. It hurts, and it’s constant, and I haven’t said anything about it for a long time. This is part of a pattern, and it needs to change. It’s especially important to me that you don’t compare my fiancée to any exes—mine or my brother’s. Can we agree to that?”
Q. Cousin: My cousin “Fred” and I grew up together. High school was very rough for him, but college is even worse. Fred has always been overweight and struggled with the opposite sex. His high school girlfriend broke up with him when she got accepted to a different college than he did. Fred hasn’t had a date since. He dresses like a slob, doesn’t shave, and does nothing but play video games and watch porn.
He keeps pushing me to set him up with some of my girlfriend’s friends. The problem is Fred has made up some impossible dream that absolutely no girl could ever be, and he refuses to bring anything to the table himself. He won’t work out with me, go get drinks, or join in any group activities to meet any girls, he just keeps pushing for me to “get him a girl.” My girlfriend doesn’t like Fred and says he is “creepy” for talking about things like rating girls within her earshot. She refuses to set him up with her friends. I really don’t know how to help Fred. I feel an obligation to help my cousin, but I am clueless how.
A: You certainly don’t have an obligation to find Fred a girlfriend, no matter how unpleasant high school was for him. If you really want to help him, I think you should be frank: “I can’t set you up with any of my girlfriend’s friends because they don’t like the way you talk about women. If you ever want to come with me to [insert non-dating-related activity here], I’d love for you to join me, but you need to stop asking me to ‘get you a girl.’ ” If Fred isn’t interested in nonromantic socializing, declines to join you in any of your hobbies, and only cares about demanding the delivery of a particular woman to his creepy video games–and-masturbation fort, then you won’t be able to help him until he decides it’s time to change.
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Q. Re: I just love dogs: She may not be a racist, but I don’t care how you spin it, or how tired of talking to people you are, talking to and cooing over a dog and ignoring its owner is rude. Look up and say hello. It’s not that hard.
A: I agree that even leaving this particular incident out of it, you should say hello to a dog’s owner before interacting with their dog, especially because the owner might want to tell you that their dog isn’t friendly or startles easily and that you shouldn’t approach. It’s a good practice to adopt with everyone, and it doesn’t mean you have to love dogs any less.
Q. Forgiving a May-December marriage: A few years ago, one of my closest friends started dating an 18-year-old girl. The relationship creeped me out because even though nothing seemed “wrong,” he was not anywhere close to being 18. I couldn’t see past it, so I pulled away from our friendship. Now it’s several years later, the couple is still together, and they’re talking marriage. The girl is now an age I consider old enough and wise enough to take care of herself, despite the age gap. Was I wrong to judge? They’ve been reaching out for friendship more, and I do miss my friend. Was being creeped out not a good enough reason to pull away? Could things have been happy and healthy this whole time?
A: Being married for a long time does not mean that a relationship is happy and healthy! The mere passage of time does not mean that your friend behaved responsibly and kindly toward a scarcely legal teenager. Just because she is now in her early to mid-20s doesn’t change the fact that she was at a profoundly impressionable and inexperienced age when they met. Many people who have been groomed and preyed upon form long-term, often affectionate relationships with their predators. Nor would a presently happy relationship make what your friend did all those years ago OK. Happiness—or the appearance thereof—now doesn’t cancel out predatory behavior in the past.
Without knowing more about the exact age gap, the circumstances under which your former friend met and began dating this girl, or the current dynamic of their relationship, I’m reluctant to offer specific advice. (It’s also possible that they started dating before she turned 18.) I’ll just say this: You don’t have to do anything you’re not comfortable with; you don’t have to be hostile or condemnatory, especially toward this young woman; but it is healthy to ask questions and begin from a place of skepticism. It’s possible for this young woman to be capable, intelligent, self-sufficient, and in love with her partner, and it’s possible for him to have done something wrong in pursuing her all those years ago.
Q. My father keeps telling me to quit my job! I’m a year into my first job out of college. The job has pros and cons. I certainly wouldn’t say that I love it, but I have learned some valuable lessons. While I plan on leaving eventually, I’ve already decided to stay for at least another year. My father thinks the job is not making full use of my talents (neither do most entry-level positions) and is constantly telling me to quit my job and join the family business. I have complaints about work, as I think most people tend to, but I can’t ever vent to or get advice from him because his response is always: “Just quit.” Obviously, this isn’t helpful, and I’ve told him so. It’s a tense topic between the two of us.
I’ve basically stopped mentioning my job at all to my dad, which is unfortunate because it is the biggest part of my life at the moment. However, he still manages to bring it up in a negative way in almost every conversation we have. For example, I met up with an old classmate who just graduated from nursing school. Later, when talking to my dad about what I did that day, I brought up that my friend was now a nurse, and he said, “Oh, did you know that the starting salary for a nurse is [X amount]? Apparently, it’s higher for night shift nurses! Impressive, right?” To which he said, “She’s making a lot more than you are.” I tried to change the subject, but he kept comparing salaries in my profession to hers. I got annoyed and said, “Yes, I know my salary. You’re not telling me anything I don’t know. There’s no need to keep comparing my salary to my friend’s. That wasn’t the point of the conversation. Can we stop talking about this?” He demanded to know why I was being so sensitive and complained that we couldn’t even hold a conversation without me “purposely picking fights.”
I’m not ashamed of my job or salary, but I also don’t appreciate these constant put-downs and how we end up arguing half the time we talk. How do I deal with my dad?
A: Good for you for resisting the pressure to “join the family business,” where I have no doubt your dad would find a lot of new and exciting ways to pressure you as your boss and as your dad simultaneously. He’s making a pretty terrible pitch for working for him, frankly, if he won’t let the subject drop, hassles you constantly, then accuses you of being the problem. You’ve already explained yourself, heard him out, and asked politely for him to drop it, so I think the next step for you is just to cut conversations short when he pulls this nonsense again. “I’m not having this fight with you again, Dad; let’s talk later.” That probably won’t stop him from complaining, but you can at least decline to participate in these arguments. I’m also a fan of the cheerful nonresponse that offers no resistance for your father to take hold of: “Interesting” or “That’s a good point” or “Maybe you’re right” or “I’ll think about it,” repeated as often as necessary. But he seems like a pretty stubborn dude, and my guess is that he’s going to keep picking this fight until he realizes that it’s limiting the amount of time he gets to talk to you.
Q. Heathen with hurt feelings: One of my best friends, “George,” got married this past weekend. We’ve been friends for about five years. I love his wife, “Alice,” too, who is kind and fun. They are a great match. I was around for a lot of the wedding planning, and I was aware they were planning a traditional Catholic ceremony as this was incredibly important to Alice’s parents and, to a lesser extent, Alice, who is a progressive practicing Catholic. George was raised Catholic but is now not religious. He made it clear to me that the ceremony was for Alice and her family. He expressed often how ironic he found it to be getting married in a Catholic church after he had distanced himself so much from the religion. Though I was expecting a traditional ceremony, I was honestly blown away by how regressive, patriarchal, and homophobic it was. It contained multiple, overt references to marriage as a union for a man and a woman. The theme of the homily was marriage as not about one’s own happiness but about servitude and sacrifice. This not only felt deeply anti-feminist to me, but as someone who recently left a marriage because I was unhappy, it felt like a judgment on my personal choices. I’m still thinking about this ceremony days later. I understand this isn’t really about George—it’s about the views of the Catholic church—but I can’t help but feel some disappointment in George for greenlighting something that would make many of his friends feel uncomfortable.
Should I say something to George about how it made me feel? I feel some obligation to speak up and call out bigotry. But on the other hand, what would come of it besides making my friend feel bad about his wedding? It’s not like he is planning any other wedding ceremonies in the near future.
A: You have grounds to talk about a recent significant ritual you observed with a close friend that doesn’t rest either on being a whistleblower or making him feel bad about himself. You’re not asking him to take his wedding back or to take out an ad in the paper castigating himself. You just want to talk with someone you’ve known well for years about what the religious aspect of his wedding felt like for you. Ask him what it felt like for him and whether he and Alice talked about the explicitly anti-gay aspects of the homily either before or after the ceremony. Tell him about your experience as a member of the audience. Talking about your feelings and revisiting choices in the past is a big component of friendship! You sound thoughtful and like you care about doing the right thing; I doubt very much that you’re going to approach the conversation in such a way that makes George feel attacked. It might even be helpful for him as he thinks about the kind of relationship he wants to have with the Catholic church in the future.
Q. Re: Paranoid about my priceless legacy: You can have a photograph professionally copied. It will look like the original and could then be framed and given pride of place. If you are not in the income bracket to afford insurance (if they would even insure it, given where you live or what kind of place you live in), you could then sell the original. I think the emotions about the father’s legacy would still be there, but the recipient might feel better knowing the original is safe. Dad might even have liked the idea of their child getting a “mint” for the photo.
A: That’s a great option if the letter writer thinks they’ll just panic as long as the print is in the house. But give it a little time before deciding to sell! If you just learned this, you may feel some residual shock; don’t get rid of it hastily, because it has a lot of cherished family associations for you.
From Care and Feeding
Q. I Think My Mom’s New Husband Is Trying to Groom My Kid: My mom never took my fear seriously when I was a kid. How do I get her to pay attention?
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