Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Mourning a machine: My wife just completed her Ph.D. program after almost eight years. I’m so proud of her, and she is really happy to have finished and defended her dissertation. She’s used the same laptop since at least a year before her program started. In that time it’s gotten a new battery and a new hard drive because she couldn’t afford a brand-new computer. My wife has said for the past year or so that it seems to be on its last legs and that she’ll be sad to throw it out. Well, the time came, and it stopped functioning. The thing is she’s gotten increasingly upset about her laptop’s “death.” When she wiped the hard drive, she cried a little. We took it to a tech store for recycling, and as the guy took it behind the desk, she watched it like it was a dog about to be euthanized. When the guy disappeared with it and we heard a “clunk,” she turned to me and said, “I know I sound like a lunatic, but I feel like it’s hurting,” and sobbed in my arms. She’s usually so calm and collected. I know transitioning out of her program has been a big change, but I don’t know what to do about her feelings about this laptop. She already sees a counselor. What’s going on, and how can I help?
A: Oh, this is sweet and endearing! I think you should ask this exact question (“How can I help?”) of your wife. She knows that she’s anthropomorphizing this laptop and that there’s something a little absurd about the situation, so I don’t think you have to worry that you’ll be encouraging any sort of reality-denying tendencies if you engage with her feelings on the subject. This was a very loyal companion during a huge, consequential, likely stressful part of her life. Millions of people saw Wall-E and cried over a drawing of a robot (see also The Brave Little Toaster), so I don’t think there’s anything especially unusual about your wife forming an emotional attachment to a laptop. People like to imbue objects with emotional significance! It’s a big part of being human! And it’s right and proper to try to engage someone on that front!
I think it’s lovely that you want to help, just be sure to stress first that she doesn’t have to try to downplay her own feelings: “I know you know that a laptop’s an inanimate object, so please don’t feel like you have to call yourself a ‘lunatic’ or beat yourself up for having an emotional response to losing it. I want to help support you in this. Do you want to talk at all about what that last recycling appointment felt like for you? What you loved about the laptop, and what you’ll miss?” Make her a cup of tea, listen, talk her through it. I don’t think you’re going to have to do anything more challenging than smiling sympathetically and nodding when she talks about saying goodbye to something that helped her get through grad school.
Q. When they were “much bigger”: I’m a 31-year-old obese woman who works in outreach at a public institution in a smallish Midwestern town. I’m often at community events and around town, interacting with the public. It’s a job I’m good at and that I enjoy very much. However, I’ve encountered a strange thing that makes me uncomfortable, and I’m looking for advice on how to prevent it from happening or, barring that, how to respond.
I think because of my size, I tend to be a person that other people feel comfortable talking about their “weight loss journeys” to. They assume that I’m going through something similar—I’m not—and don’t realize they’re making me intensely uncomfortable, and I can’t really ask them to stop as my job is literally to be talking to them. On more than one occasion, these conversations have either begun with or culminated in these women offering me their clothing from when they were “much bigger.”
I think they’re generally well-meaning, but it hurts quite a bit. I know I’m fat, but I put effort into my appearance and on most days think I look nice. I don’t have a ton of money, but my clothes are professional, well-kept, and clean. I try to keep in mind that I’m sure these ladies are trying to be nice. Thus far I’ve been able to wiggle out of actually taking clothing, but I don’t think I’ll be able to with this most recent offer. I moved to a new town about six months ago, and while I’m doing the same thing I was previously, I am working for a new system. I was very close to my previous supervisor who made sure to take me out of those situations when I felt uncomfortable. I think my new supervisor would probably do the same, but with the way the work is split up here, it would mean my co-worker would have to take on this particular outreach alone even though it falls under my job description and not hers. (She does children’s, and I work primarily with adults and seniors.)
Is there a way I should be presenting myself that would prevent ladies from talking to me about weight loss and offering me their now “way too big” clothes? Or is there a way I can turn them down without it negatively affecting the outreach I’m being paid to do? Or is my only answer to lose weight, something I probably should be doing but don’t really care to? I don’t understand why this keeps happening to me.
A: Oh, good Lord, how frustrating for you and how deeply embarrassing and thoughtless of these women. (Who raised them? Who taught them it was appropriate to ask a nicely dressed woman at work if she wants a lot of your old clothes because she’s the last size you dieted away from?) I don’t think there’s a way you could dress or comport yourself that would preempt these awful, cringeworthy conversations, because I think as soon as these women see your size, they decide they can say whatever they like to you, no matter how unsolicited, off-topic, inappropriate, or obviously hurtful-while-disguised-as-well-meaning. I imagine that your new supervisor, like your last one, does not think putting up with unsolicited offers of someone else’s old clothes is part of your job description. Saying “No thanks, I don’t need any new clothes” does not undermine your public outreach work. Regardless of how much weight you lose or gain, you deserve to be treated professionally when you are at work; you do not “deserve” to be offered stranger’s castoffs simply because you’re fat.
Please give yourself permission to politely but firmly interrupt anyone who starts saying things like “I used to be your size” or “Want any of my old T-shirts?” or “I started such-and-such diet last March, and … ” with “Sorry, but I’m not here to discuss that. Let’s get back to [relevant subject].” If they don’t give up, remove yourself from the conversation: “Like I said, I’m not here to discuss food/clothes/my weight. Please excuse me.”
I’m so sorry that this keeps happening to you. I hope it stops soon. I don’t think these women are generally well-meaning. It’s not customary to interrupt a near-stranger wearing clean, pressed, work-appropriate attire and say, “Do you want my old wardrobe?” right after you’ve heard them give a talk about the museum/library/archive they work for. I think they do it because they’re still so full of anxiety and self-loathing about their own relationship to fatness, their own fatness in the past and the possibility of fatness in the future. They want to be cruel/condescending/”helpful” to any fat people they encounter, no matter how inappropriate the setting or obviously not-in-need the fat person, in order to remind themselves, It’s OK. I’m safe. I’m not like this person. I’m good and thin and safe and worthy now. It is a deeply damaged mindset that has very little to do with improving one’s health or treating other people with respect and dignity, and I wish them freedom from this mindset as soon as possible, both for their sake as well as the sake of any fat people they might encounter and try to insult or bewilder or demean.
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Q. Supervising a worrywart: I work at a litigation law firm. The essence of litigation, especially the kind we specialize in, is that it’s unpredictable. You have to be able to fly by the seat of your pants. About a year ago, we hired an experienced lawyer who is smart and for the most part good at her job. I have always supervised her, and she’s definitely been anxious, but it’s gotten worse in the past few months, and she’s driving myself and our team crazy.
If she gets assigned a case months out, she wants to predict how it will go now, and you just can’t do that. She needs to be able to take a file the day before a case and figure it out. Instead she will incessantly email and text me and our staff with questions that can’t be answered. Our legal assistant got a new number, and I won’t give it to her. When she wants something done, she wants it immediately. I am quickly losing patience with her. It’s hard for me to empathize because I am the other extreme and have little to no anxiety and feel it’s a waste of my time. I know this, so I am trying hard to understand and be more empathetic. I know that anxious people feel more comfortable with predictability, but we can only give that to her to some extent. I have found myself once a day saying “Chill.” I don’t know if she takes meds or is in counseling, and it’s not my place to ask. She has strong points, like she is very attentive to detail, but I fear our team and I are going to implode if she can’t calm down. I’m looking for advice on how to handle her and this situation. Do we just tell her she’s not cut out for litigation, or can we help her? She’s been a lawyer for 15 years.
A: I wonder if this is your first time supervising others, or if you’ve ever been given much direction in how to be an effective supervisor, because it doesn’t sound like you’ve ever had a single big-picture conversation with your employee about a chronic issue that’s hindering her ability to do her job. You tell her to “chill out” on a daily basis, but that clearly isn’t working, and it’s way past time for you to schedule a meeting and clarify what exactly her job description requires of her. You definitely don’t need to ask her about medication or seeing a counselor—there are loads of reasons someone might develop maladaptive coping strategies or be ill-equipped for a particular job. That doesn’t necessarily mean they have an anxiety disorder! What you need to say to her is this: “This is a long-overdue conversation, and I’m sorry for not initiating it sooner. You’ve likely noticed that I have to tell you to relax your expectations on a daily basis. I’ve been trying to stress the importance of dealing with ambiguity and sudden change as a matter of course because that’s the nature of this job—of all the jobs at this firm, as a matter of fact. That means, among other things, that you can’t suddenly demand answers to a bunch of last-minute, impossible-to-answer questions from the rest of the team when you’re assigned a new case.”
If you get the sense that she doesn’t actually realize just how much that’s part of the nature of your work, make that clear to her. If you think (or she thinks) she’s not suited for this kind of work, it’s better to get that out in the open now; if she’s committed to trying to make it work, figure out what behaviors of hers need to change immediately and how you’re going to effectively monitor those changes without either micromanaging her or going back to pretending the problem doesn’t exist just because you feel guilty you’re not an anxious person. This isn’t a question of being sufficiently empathetic about her internal emotional experience; it’s a question of making sure that your other team members aren’t being hounded 24/7 because one of your employees doesn’t realize, or can’t accept, that last-minute assignments are a matter of course in your office. Be prepared to have more than one follow-up conversation about this issue, and get ready to let her go if she doesn’t improve. Better to lose one employee than have a whole team “implode” over her.
Q. Extra parents: My ex and I ended our nine-year relationship 10 months ago. Since then my ex has gone out every weekend to party. She leaves our kids with her mom and disappears to get drunk and dance. We have fought over her bringing strange men over when she has custody of our kids. She loves to throw out words like jealous and controlling and stalking (since I could see all the pictures she put up online). I am struggling with two jobs now. I have my kids every other weekend and Wednesday now. My parents want me to move back in and try to get full custody of the kids. I don’t want to put my kids through more stress, but my last conversation with my daughter put me through the roof. She wanted to tell me she was sorry because of the “other daddies.” Her mom has been pressuring her to call her new boyfriends Dad. I haven’t dated since the breakup. Whatever my ex and I put ourselves through, I thought of her as a good mom. I don’t know now. Do I need to listen to my parents?
A: You may ultimately decide to pursue primary legal custody, but before you go back to the courts, have you considered custody mediation? This link is California-specific, but it should give you a broad sense of what mediation might be able to do for the two of you and how you might be able to raise and express grievances, resolve differences, and commit to a mutually agreeable parenting plan without having to go after one another in the court system. If that option fails, and your kids continue to show signs of distress from being forced to bond too quickly with men who show up one week and disappear the next, and you truly believe you’d be able to provide the kids with a more stable environment, then filing for primary custody might be your best and only choice. But give mediation a good-faith effort first.
Q. Get out or get in? I have dated “Judy” for a year. She is a single mom, and I have met her kids, but our relationship has come to a standstill. Judy will often spring a need for money on me without warning—she needs to pay the babysitter, the electricity bill, gas, groceries, etc. The problem is that I want to discuss these costs together—did she get shorted for hours at work, did her ex not pay child support, etc. Judy is proud and will tell me it isn’t my business, but I think at this point, if we are going to continue our relationship, it should be. I love her and am willing to put my cards on the table. Is it so impossible for her to do the same? I like her kids, and I think I will love them given enough time, but Judy keeps holding back. I am looking for an honest conversation. If Judy is looking for a life together, we need to be together in every sense of the word. I have been treated like a checkbook before, and it left some scars. Am I out of line for asking this?
A: You are very much in line for asking this, and I’m glad you’re insisting on having these conversations before committing to something long-term with Judy. If you feel like you have sufficient information to decide you’re not interested in pursuing this relationship any further, I certainly think you’re entitled to end the relationship on the strength of her response to your attempts to talk about money over the past year. If you want to give that conversation one last push, I think that’s fine too; I’d encourage you to approach it like this, to make sure there’s no room for misunderstanding:
“I want to be able to talk about money together if we’re going to share expenses. If I’ve brought this up in ways that made you feel like I was demanding you explain yourself to me in the past, I’m really sorry—I don’t want to make you feel put on the spot or like I’m judging you for being in a difficult position. But when you ask me to share your financial responsibilities without also offering me a sense of what your budget is, what your upcoming expenses are, what the child support situation looks like, I feel shut out of a conversation I want to have together. I’m no longer comfortable with this situation. I’m not looking to dictate your budget or start making these decisions for you. But if you want me to be your partner in this, I need to know the things you know.”
If she balks at that, I think you have a pretty clear answer that she’s not willing to give you what you’re asking for. And what you’re asking for is a pretty normal, necessary part of any adult relationship.
Q. Re: Mourning a machine: After I finished my Ph.D., it took me about three years to get my personality back. We had a Ph.D. support group at my university, but trust this is not anything to worry about.
A: I wonder if the letter writer’s girlfriend’s university has a similar support group? Not that I think that’s a necessary replacement for talking to her about it—I don’t want to suggest to letter writer that they should feel freaked out or avoidant when it comes to talking about this—but it does seem like many people who have finished their Ph.D.s tend to feel like they’ve just been through the mill, and it’s possible that she’ll continue to find herself experiencing periodic bouts of extreme emotions for the near future.
Q. Re: When they were “much bigger”: Have your boss implement or make up a rule that forbids you from accepting personal gifts from people you meet through work events. “Oh, I’m not allowed to accept personal gifts—organization rules.” Done.
A: That’s a great side step in case the letter writer needs an especially diplomatic response, although I do hope she’ll allow herself to just say no on her own behalf. Always great to be able to use bureaucracy as a cover, though! “Sorry, I just work here, otherwise I’d love to wear all your old band T-shirts.”
Q. Sister vs. sister: My sister and I are 14 months apart in age and were raised like fraternal twins. We are very close but very different; we frequently joke that we balance each other out so much that together we are a complete adult. This August, I got married after a two-year engagement and registered for a honeymoon. Our honeymoon has been planned for almost two years for just after our one-year anniversary in Italy and Croatia. My sister has known all of this and been a vocal supporter. My sister got engaged this past May and just today told me that her and her fiancé would like to get married in South Africa. She told me they were planning on getting married six weeks after our very known honeymoon. We cannot make this work with our paid time off, and I feel pretty upset that she would put me in this position. She knows that we didn’t take more than a few days off after our wedding and that our honeymoon has been a very publicly planned thing for a long time now.
I know, logically, that she’s not trying to set me up or put me in a weird position. However, I feel like I’m facing an awful choice. My husband and I cannot make both work, and I feel like I’m either an awful person for taking my honeymoon (additionally, since we registered for it, I don’t want our guests to feel like we just took their money and ran with it) or I’m an awful person for putting our honeymoon off and using all of our spare PTO to go to my sister’s wedding when we should have been finally honeymooning. Selfishly, after a difficult year with no vacation leading up to our wedding, I’ve really been looking forward to finally having our honeymoon. I also feel very guilty and torn about the whole situation. How do I handle this?
A: Talk to your sister about this! You two are typically close, and it doesn’t sound like anything’s happened between the two of you lately that would cause her to want to pull away. I wonder if she’s aware of just how conflicted and distressed you are over this. It’s possible that, since she’s so different from you, she’s been thinking about the situation in a wholly alien way. Perhaps she’s been careless with the details, or hasn’t realized what a difficult position you’re in, or thinks you’ll just be able to easily decide to miss her wedding and take her out for dinner afterward without a second thought. You’ve had this honeymoon on the books and made it public knowledge for a while now; I think it’s fair to go to your sister and present your dilemma to her, telling her about the difficult position she’s put you in and asking her if she’d be willing to come up with an alternate date as a compromise. Since she’s only just told you her intentions of getting married in South Africa six weeks after your honeymoon (it doesn’t sound like they’ve sent out invitations or booked a venue or bought tickets), there’s still room for their plans to change.
If they’re not willing or able to budge, then you and your husband will have to decide whether you want to reschedule your honeymoon and attend your sister’s wedding or stick to your original plans and take the happy couple out for a smaller celebration later in the year. Neither decision comes without a downside. If she won’t reschedule and you do decide to attend her wedding, I think once you’ve expressed your frustration with how her slapdash planning has affected you, you should set it aside and attend with an enthusiastic, wholly present attitude, rather than spend the whole trip comparing it to your postponed honeymoon and giving your time and attention begrudgingly. Good luck! This sounds frustrating and challenging, to be sure, but the good news is that it sounds like you’ll be able to postpone the honeymoon without losing a deposit or having to give it up forever. Five years from now, you will have taken a honeymoon; this is not a permanent loss you have to contemplate.
Q. Very proud of my brother-in-law’s wife: My brother-in-law recently married a great woman. She has worked very hard for her education because her family was not in a position to financially support her. She is now going on to a great professional program with strong career prospects. She is taking out loans to finance her education (my brother-in-law isn’t in a position to pay either). My husband and I can help out some. We gave them a generous check to celebrate their marriage, and I would gladly pay for some of her course credits. Would it be presumptuous of us to offer? I understand how it can offend someone, but I also want her to know we are cheering for her and want her to succeed.
A: This is such a lovely idea. Since their marriage was a recent one, I don’t know if you’ve gotten the chance yet to spend a lot of time with your brother-in-law’s new wife and gotten a firmer sense of her temperament. You and your husband should reflect together on what he knows of his brother and what you two know of them as a couple before proceeding. If they happily and graciously accepted your generous check at the wedding, and they’re typically pretty open and nondefensive when it comes to talking about money (I suspect they might be, which is why you already know about how she’s paying for school), I think you can take that as a green light and make your offer.
If you’d like to be extra cautious, your husband might approach his brother first, since theirs is a relationship of such long standing, and ask whether as a couple they’d consider such an offer presumptuous or offensive before proceeding. But as long as you make it clear that you’re prepared to back off and not mention it again if they want to go it alone, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with offering this gift, and I think they’ll be delighted to accept it.
Q. Re: Mourning a machine: Nobody destroyed the laptop. It has been taken to a nice farm upstate where it can run and play with all the other laptops.
A: This is slightly goofy, but one of the ways I’ve dealt with losing my dog earlier this year is pretending that every dog that looks like him is actually Murphy in a slightly altered guise. “Oh, I saw Murphy today. He was visiting a nice-looking family.” It’s a mildly goofy way of acknowledging my loss, telling a hopeful story, looking for connections with other people, etc., and I totally recommend coming up with a sort-of-playful, sort-of-straightforward afterlife saga for your broken laptop. Maybe she serves doctoral candidates in Valhalla.
Q. Re: When they were “much bigger”: These people are not well-meaning or trying to help you; they are being condescending jerks. They want to give you their old clothes to do themselves a favor (Marie Kondo their house, suppress the knowledge that over 90 percent of dieters gain the weight back, whatever) while also getting to pat themselves on the back for being so generous and giving.
A bland “no thank you” repeated ad nauseum and a redirection to what you need to discuss with them for your job is all that is necessary. At first you may find yourself saying “no thank you” 10 or 20 times a conversation, but as they see they can get no headway or purchase with you, they will (hopefully eventually) back off. Don’t fall into the trap of justifying yourself to them; you owe them nothing.
A: Discernment is a pretty important component of gift-giving! “Do I know this person? Have they communicated any of their needs and desires to me? Do I know their tastes, their habits, their preferences? Do we have any sort of a relationship? Does offering this gift benefit me more than it does them?” Nothing about this behavior passes the test of discernment; these people are asking letter writer to help them clean out their house because they assume she’ll be grateful for free clothes due to her size. That’s not a useful gift! Do not do this!
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks for your help, everyone! See you next week. RIP to all the little devices that got you through grad school and then gave up the ghost.
From How to Do It
Q. I found something truly disturbing on my boyfriend’s computer: I’m a guy in a relationship with another guy. I’m late 20s; he’s pushing 40. It’s been about nine months. We get along well, and our sex life is totally normal from my perspective—maybe not off the charts, but loving and frequent. We’ve shared fantasies and desires, and I thought we were roughly on the same page. The other day, with his permission, I was working on his computer at his apartment while he was at work, and I noticed an image on his desktop that looked like porn (he has a machine where image icons display with previews). I clicked on it. It featured what looked to me like two preteen boys having sex. The lighting looked professional, so I’m wondering if it was a scene designed to simulate underage boys having sex that actually depicted adults, but I have no way to be sure. I’m very disturbed by this. The boys in the image looked very, very young. If he had that on his desktop, I can only imagine what I’d find if I looked further, which I haven’t. Should I ask him about it? If so, what should I look for in his response? I’m worried I discovered something very dark about my partner, and I don’t know how to proceed. Read what Rich Juzwiak had to say.
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