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Danny is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Inappropriate food: My son, “Chris,” is 9. A few weeks ago, we decided to open our bubble to include the family of “Neil,” Chris’ best friend. Both of Neil’s parents are doctors, so this seemed like a safe decision. Both parents were born and raised in India. We let Chris have dinner at their place the other night since both boys were having a great time together. When we came to pick up Chris, Neil’s mom recounted to me how much chicken curry and lentils and vegetables Chris ate. I couldn’t believe that they served my son spicy curries without even calling to ask us if that would be OK! I was taken aback and gently mentioned that spicy foods can be hard on small tummies, but it didn’t seem to register. Thankfully Chris didn’t get sick. My wife says to drop it because any conversation will look racial in nature and to only let the boys play at our place. Please help.
A: At the risk of taking the bait, you must realize that millions of people (presumably both of Neil’s parents, not to mention Neil himself) regularly eat lentils and vegetables as children in perfect safety. There’s something so grotesque about the infantilizing language of “gently informing someone”—especially when that someone is “two doctors”—about “small tummies,” coupled with the racist horror that your 9-year-old ate and enjoyed a few servings of chicken curry, one of the world’s most popular and adaptable dishes. Not all curries are spicy, and not all spices pack heat; your son ate a meal he enjoyed (one you didn’t have to prepare or clean up after ) and continued to enjoy good health for the rest of the evening. Neil’s parents didn’t take him to a ghost pepper festival and turn him loose. Your kid was not endangered by chicken curry, and your problem is not one that Neil’s parents can fix for you. Take your wife’s advice and let this go.
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Q. Is it unethical to date an influencer? I’ve been on several dates with a wonderful woman whom I really like. We are somewhat talking about exclusivity, but there’s one catch: She’s an Instagram influencer of sorts. It’s not for anything bad. (She lives a minimal-to-zero-waste lifestyle and shares techniques on how others can do this; she also models outfits she made herself from recycled materials.) In fact, I really love how intentional she is about her lifestyle. But it makes me a little squeamish to hear the word influencer associated with someone I’m thinking of seriously dating. Should I care more about how this would show up in our everyday life—for example, the time she has to spend on photo shoots? Should I be worried about our future—what happens if she gets blocked from Instagram, or loses popularity and no longer has an income stream? Or should I be most concerned about the ethics of this? I’ve heard a lot of unsettling things about the Instagram algorithm, and I don’t know that I’d want to be with someone who actively takes advantage of that.
A: I’ll cheerfully confess to relative ignorance about the unsettling specifics of the “Instagram algorithm,” so I won’t pretend to have any expertise there. Search for detail within yourself: Are you “squeamish” because you have particular ethical objections to her social media photo shoots, and if so, what are they? Or are you “squeamish” because you think social media is embarrassing or frivolous, or you think her job (I don’t know if this is her only form of income or not) is unimportant? You’ve only been on several dates, so you’re getting way ahead of yourself by worrying about “our” financial future; let her worry about her job for now and focus on learning more about her likes and dislikes, basic values and personality traits, favorite meals, etc. You’re free to have ethical reservations about her work and decide not to ask her on another date if you decide it’s an insurmountable disagreement, but I can’t generate them for you. As to whether it’s a “lapse in values” to make a living modeling homemade fashion and DIY strategies online, I once again have to put the question back to you: whose values, and which ones?
Q. Voice frustration: I’ve been with my partner for a little over eight years. She’s always had a strong, sometimes-piercing voice that I occasionally find irritating for short periods but then go back to not noticing again. I never gave much thought to whether these times came about because she sounded different than usual or I was more sensitive for some reason. Overall, I like her voice as a part of her character; it’s just that when certain characteristics of it come to the fore it can be jarring. I would say I’m quite sensitive to certain sounds and the reasons why I’m hearing them (e.g., I can’t help but relate a hoarse voice with the damaged vocal cords I imagine are causing it, and it can sometimes trigger a sympathetic reflex to clear my own throat), although not abnormally so. Admittedly I have had phases of irritation with different specific characteristics of two or three other loved ones’ voices over the years, but never anything anywhere near this pronounced or enduring, and never really anything problematic.
The thing is that over the past year or so I’ve noticed her voice has changed, and some of these vocal traits seem to have become more or less a permanent fixture. I would characterize them as all being the kind of effects you hear in people’s voices when they are hoarse for whatever reason, or even just need to clear their throat: tight, constricted, thick, low, abrasive, or broken. Unfortunately I can’t help but find this really quite unpleasant, and at its worst (and when my mood is not sufficiently buoyant) it can really put me in a funk. It’s a different reaction to if it were just the result of a sore throat or whatever, because I know it isn’t temporary. It’s affecting my happiness and the way I relate to her, and I get almost angry because I can’t help but feel like it’s because of the way she is choosing to use her voice, even though rationally I know that is almost certainly not the case and that it isn’t her fault at all. It’s made worse because I can’t share the way I’m feeling, because she would no doubt be very hurt. Part of me wonders if talking about it with her would somehow reassure the subconscious part of my brain that seems to think it is a choice, and I would then be able to stop fixating on it, but that seems like a huge risk given that it might not work and would almost certainly deeply hurt her feelings. I have even considered suggesting she see a doctor, as I have read that a persistently hoarse voice is worth getting checked out, but honestly I don’t really think her case is severe enough to be a medical issue requiring attention (she has never commented on it), and so I’m aware that my motivation for making such a suggestion is all wrong.
I’ve reached the point where I have to accept that this is a problem that isn’t going away on its own, that I cannot simply overcome through sheer willpower, and that has too big of an impact on both our qualities of life to just keep trying to ignore. Prudie, do you have any suggestions?
A: The slight change you’ve described in your partner’s speaking voice doesn’t sound especially odd—it’s not that unusual for someone’s voice to sound a bit deeper or raspier with age—but the increased sense of irritation, anger, and inability to feel happiness you’ve noticed within yourself is cause for concern, and I think you should bring it up to your own doctor. Share the details you’ve shared with me: that you’ve historically experienced heightened aural sensitivity that’s recently increased, that it often makes you frustrated and even angry, and that it sometimes triggers a sense of reflexive physical discomfort. You can ask your wife to accompany you or even just share some of your distress with her so she knows what you’re dealing with on a daily basis. That doesn’t mean you should say, “Your voice has started sounding awful, and I can’t stand it,” but you can certainly share that you’ve found yourself distracted and frustrated by sounds that you once experienced as neutral or even pleasant. Your doctor may want to test for possible auditory or sensory processing disorders to see if there’s an underlying medical or psychological cause that responds to treatment. I hope this doesn’t seem dismissive or fault-finding; your distress sounds very real, and I don’t think you need to just buck up and shake it off. But I think your doctor might be able to help you better than her doctor can.
Q. My husband wants me to be a nag: My husband is handsome and strong, and pretty tall. He also struggles with his weight. He exercises a decent amount, a lot more than I do. But for whatever reason, it’s hard for him to lose weight. I don’t care if he’s on the bigger side; to be honest I don’t even really see it. He looks like my sexy and beloved husband. But I care that he’s unhappy about it. He feels bad. He wants me to help control his eating. He’s now asked me many times. He does the vast majority of the cooking, and he cooks healthy food. So it’s portion control and snacking that he wants help with, and he said that I should suggest that he not eat so much of unhealthy favorites when we do have them. But I do NOT want to be a food nag, making little comments like “Should you be eating that?” or “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?” He says it would be loving of me to help him, but I think it would be really cruel. I can’t think of many things that would be less loving or more unkind than telling someone on a regular basis that I notice they are fat and would like them to control themselves.
When we were first together he transferred some of his feelings about food onto me, and he would say those things, and I absolutely hated it. Any time I went to get some candy or ice cream, he would say things like, “Didn’t you have dessert yesterday?” I felt like he was insulting my body and trying to control me in ways he shouldn’t be. It took a little while, but I got him to stop. But I am not him, and I do have an easier time eating a little bit of candy or a little bit of ice cream and being satisfied. What do you think? Should I give in to his repeated requests for me to tell him he’s eating too much? Is there a kinder and more loving way to help him? I hate that he’s suffering, but I don’t want to do what he’s asking!
A: That sounds exhausting, and I don’t wonder that you decline to play Bad Food Cop at your husband’s request. You should continue to decline! Your husband’s problems don’t stem from the fact that you’ve been insufficiently kind or supportive. It’s merely a continuation of his previous attempts to transfer his issues with control and food onto you, first by trying to get you to second-guess your decision to have ice cream two days in a row and then, when that didn’t take, by claiming a really loving wife would monitor her husband’s diet and nitpick him whenever he opened a bag of chips. What a joyless, thankless task that would be for you, and what a waste of your time and energy. You might suggest he consider taking some of these issues to a therapist, but I don’t want you to get drawn into a slightly removed version of his original proposal where you take on full responsibility for handling his relationship to food and self-image. The best move available to you is to lovingly decline and to cut future requests off short until he gets the message that you’re really, really not going to do this for him.
Q. Sort-of friend: I got divorced two years ago and, at the time, assumed I’d never hear from friends who were primarily my ex-husband’s. I was pleasantly surprised when “Alex” reached out to me to catch up. (He was my ex’s roommate in college.) We chatted for a bit and started talking sporadically over a few weeks. I quickly got the sense that he was getting a little flirty and mentioned my boyfriend a few times, at which point he stopped. But now he seems to only reach out when he has an issue. He has very low self-esteem, can’t find a girlfriend, and is struggling with his job. I try my best to help, but honestly, we just don’t know each other that well. He was someone I saw only with my ex and we didn’t have a relationship outside of that. Now he seems to want to build one based on me helping him when he feels down. I really do feel for him, as I think he is a good guy who deserves happiness, but I just don’t know how to help. With everything else going on right now, it’s been hard enough to prioritize my own mental health. I want him to be OK and wish I could help, but none of my advice to him seems to take hold. Can I reach out to my ex (we don’t speak) and ask him to talk to his friend? Is there anything I can say to this guy to make it clear that I’m fine with a friendship but not like this?
A: I don’t think asking an ex you’re not on good terms with to do you a favor is likely to help much, so don’t waste your time there. This is not a long-standing friend of yours with a robust history of give and take. Alex is your ex’s college roommate who lightly hit on you after your divorce, then started hitting you up for advice; whether he’s a good person who deserves happiness isn’t the relevant issue. The issue is how to deal with someone you don’t know very well who makes regular demands you’re not always available or interested in fulfilling. You have plenty of options here. You can stop offering him hourslong advice sessions just because he has a problem and stick to more general topics and say “Good luck with that! I don’t have any suggestions, but I hope things work out” when you want to end a conversation. You can also be more direct and say, “I’m sorry, but I’m stretched pretty thin right now, so I can’t help you out with these questions.” You can even say, “I’ve noticed you only get in touch when you want advice—I hope you’re able to find someone in your own life you can talk to about this, but I don’t think we’re looking for the same things in a friendship.” All of these are perfectly polite and appropriate, and none of them make it impossible for him to seek support and help from either a therapist or any of his own friends.
Q. Stop eating during our video chats: I am part of a group of five friends who utilize a video communications app. It allows us to record messages that can be viewed live or watched later. I really enjoy it, as it has brought us all closer together and really strengthened our friendship during quarantine. The issue I’m having is this: I am repulsed by eating sounds. I can’t watch people eat food; it causes me to get nauseous and sometimes gag. This has been a newer experience for me, but I have always been repulsed by saliva. I have a history of eating disorders and feel really sensitive around food. There are particular people that produce a sound that triggers this intense reaction more than others. One of them being “M.” M is very active in the group chat, and I love interacting with her, but if I had to guess, 1 out of every 3 times she gets on, she’s eating. It drives me insane and I can’t watch. I end up not responding to anything she says during the video chats and I feel like it may be hurting her feelings. In the last video I sent, I told the group how people eating grossed me out, out of sheer desperation. She responded, but I have no idea what she said because she was EATING in her response. I had to turn it off immediately. Am I being unreasonable if I ask everyone in the group not to eat while they record? I understand that the issue lies with me, but is there any way for me to request this, or is it selfish of me? Should I let them know that I can’t watch their videos if they’re eating?
A: It is a reasonable request, especially since you’re talking about messages that can easily be planned and recorded ahead of time. I hope you’re able to access treatment for sensory issues that may be connected to your history of disordered eating—not in a curative sense so you can “get over it” and enjoy hearing other people eat and talk at the same time, but so you can develop a variety of coping strategies and an outlet for venting your frustrations in a judgment-free environment. But just because you’re aware that this issue is related with your own eating-disorder history and something not everyone else shares doesn’t mean you can’t ask for accommodations from your friends, especially accommodations that are relatively easy to honor, like this one is: “I know I mentioned last time that I have a hard time listening to people eat and talk, and I’d like to ask if you’d consider not eating when you’re recording or we’re chatting live. It’s really challenging for me, and sometimes sets off a physical reflex that’s hard for me to manage—it would mean a lot to me if you’d keep this in mind when we’re sharing videos, because I’ve realized I just can’t watch them if someone’s eating.” You don’t have to share details about your eating disorder(s) that may be painful or leave you feeling unnecessarily exposed; just letting them know it’s important to you is sufficient.
Q. Changing my will: After many months of trying to determine how I want my assets distributed, I landed on leaving everything to my sister and brother-in-law, who are doing fine financially and are upper-middle-class. (My two brothers and their families are also well-off.) Here’s the thing: My sister and her husband are diehard Trump supporters, which I find abhorrent. We generally stay away from political discussions, but they voted for Trump in 2016 and I suspect they are going to vote for Trump again in 2020. There is no way I can support this. I want to change my will, not to cut them out of it entirely, but to leave different percentages to charities I care about. My sister and her husband know that my current will leaves everything to them. I still want to change it. Any advice?
A: It’s your money to distribute as you see fit, in whatever proportions and to whichever people or organizations you like. It doesn’t sound like you anticipate dying in the near future (not that we can perfectly predict that sort of thing, but knock on wood that you have many years left), and none of your relatives are counting on an inheritance to make ends meet or stave off homelessness, so it’s neither urgent nor something they need to know immediately. I think it’s worth having political discussions that you’re avoiding out of fear of hearing the truth in a context that’s separate from your plans for your will. But you have every right to distribute your estate after your death according to your own values and preferences, and a right to change your will if its terms don’t suit you upon further reflection. I’d encourage you to inform your relatives at some point that your will has changed, but that’s not a conversation you have to have tomorrow; no one’s livelihood depends upon it.
Q. Name game: I have a very long and uncommon name, including a triple-hyphenate last name. I have been dealing with logistical issues related to this for my entire life. I’ve had to deal with countless clerical errors over the years because of this, and even picking up a package from the post office or making a reservation at a restaurant is exhausting. I’m getting married soon, and I’m seriously considering taking my spouse’s last name just so I don’t have to deal with this anymore. But at this point, my weird name has become such a huge part of my life that abandoning it completely feels wrong. Would it be unreasonable to change my name not to my partner’s but instead creating a brand-new, shorter name that still pays homage to both sides of my family? Should I just come to terms with the fact that this has been my name for 25 years and I’m pretty much locked into it at this point? Should I give in to heteronormativity and take my spouse’s name so I don’t have to deal with questions? Could changing my name dramatically cause problems with my career, where a recognizable name is important? Am I completely overthinking this?
A: My birth name was “my name” for 30 years, and then I changed it not once but twice, so I don’t think there’s much to the claim that turning 25 “locks you in” to anything. I just got my official name change approval after filing eight months ago, which means I get to start the process of submitting paperwork to have that name change reflected on my driver’s license, passport, voter registration, health insurance, bank account, online subscriptions, etc.—all of which is to say that changing your name legally can be great, but it also comes with its own set of new bureaucratic hoops to jump through, and it can take a while to update every credit card, streaming platform, or whatever other services are associated with your old name. That’s not an argument against doing it, but just a reminder that it might take a while to finalize. (And I think you can guess what my answer might be to “Should I just give in to heteronormativity so I don’t have to deal with questions?”)
Your idea to shorten or paraphrase your surname sounds like a lovely one, and like it would feel more meaningful than simply taking your husband’s one; I think you should do it. Lots of people change their last names when they get married, so even if you didn’t take your husband’s, I don’t think you’d confuse future employers or colleagues if you said “That work was done under my old last name, _____.” You can also make a note of it in your résumé.
Q. Re: Inappropriate food: You should drop it. For starters, not all curries, Indian or otherwise, are necessarily “spicy.” Some can be rather mild. But that’s not really the point. Absent specific religious or medically necessary food guidelines you gave to this family ahead of time (and it doesn’t sound like there are any, or that you did), they had no obligation to make sure they served your child food you approved of. You’re being a dick. Stop it.
A: I agree that it’s not really the point, and part of me doesn’t even want to engage with the “spicy-heat” question because it’s so clearly a smoke screen for suspicion and resentment of Indian food in general. Your kid enjoyed some new food and expanded his culinary horizons. That’s a good thing, not reason to fall into a spiral.
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks, everyone! If you haven’t had lunch yet, I recommend a curry. See you next week.
From Care and Feeding
Q. What do I say to a 13-year-old friend of the family who’s madly in love … with me? My partner and I are engaged to be married soon, and excitedly talking about our plans for married life—including, maybe, adopting children. I am horribly torn, because while I love the idea of having a child, I am also terrified that I will not be a fit mother. My own mother was abusive—mostly emotionally and mentally, but occasionally it got physical too. I can’t see myself ever physically hurting a child, but what if I’ve taken on her other behaviors and traits? My mom made it clear to me that people who aren’t smart aren’t lovable, and would punish me and withdraw affection if I ever did badly in school. My partner and I have already agreed that we would never let my mom near any child of ours—her behavior drove me to attempt suicide and I cannot bear the thought of her making another child feel that way. But what if I become the problem? I deeply value the idea of academic success and am terrified I would make my child feel unloved if they did badly, whether I meant to or not. How do I express these fears to my partner without making her think I’m an appalling person? Read what Carvell Wallace had to say.
Danny M. Lavery’s new book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You, is out now.