Friday, March 30, 2007

HTT, my hot female coworkers think I'm gay.

Dear HTT,

I just started a new job that I like very much. Everyone at work thinks I'm gay. I'm not gay--not that there's anything wrong with that--but I'm not sure what if anything to do about it. You see, I have a history of getting in trouble because I tend to... well... "fish in the company pond" if you know what I mean. (Basically, it's really hard to work with someone you didn't enjoy sleeping with the night before.) Anyway, this new job has me working with some absolute hotties! But they think I'm gay.

Why? Well, I think it might be because I have lots of friends and some are flaming. I care about my clothes. I am clean. I don't wear shirts that say things like "What would my penis do?" I like to cook. I know something about wine. I don't drive a pickup truck or a muscle car. And I am exceedingly polite. Friends in the know describe me as "Metro," but they might as well say I'm gay because "Metro" sounds rather "Queer Eye," to me.

So all these incredibly beautiful women think I'm gay and at first I thought I would set them straight, but I quickly realized that as a "gay man," I am not a threat to these women. They WANT to hang out with me. Maybe it's chic to hang out with a gay man? I go out with "the girls" and after they've had two glasses of Pinot Grigio (Yack!) the next thing I know they're asking me for my opinion on orgasms and blow jobs and the size of their breasts and hair styles and clothes and shoes and anal sex and honestly I want to F*** every one of them before the night is over. But I can't because I realize I've got a good thing going here, but what should I do?

Painfully Erect

Dear PE,

Well, this is certainly the steamiest HTT letter yet! No wonder you’re all bunched up. Most guys would have to rent “Sex and the City” even to hear a group of women converse that way. Never mind being asked to participate. In the conversation, I mean.

My first thought upon reading your letter was that the women you work with must know a lot of Neanderthals. A guy has to be gay just because he can distinguish between his Cabs and his Rieslings, says “please” and “thank you,” and eschews mustard-stained muscle tees? Yikes! If those are the kind of straight men in their circles, of COURSE your colleagues would rather hang out with a guy like you, gay or not.

But to get to your question, yes, I think you should clue them in about your orientation. You don’t have to make a proclamation. Such an announcement could come across as homophobic, and it might also trigger a “me thinks he doth protest too much” kind of reaction.

Once, a friend of mine developed an interest in a guy she worked with. She didn’t know if he was single, and to ask, she thought, would be too bold. He described his life in “I” terms: I did such and such over the weekend; I want to paint my house green; I’m going to visit my family over the holiday, etc. Well, after weeks of hopeful flirting, my friend learned from another colleague that Mr. I was actually married. Now, I’m not saying that married people can’t have any autonomy or that they have no right to use a singular pronoun. But my friend and I decided that if this guy were honest, or at least not completely obtuse, he should have dropped a courtesy “we.”

Despite your alleged homosexual traits, you’re bound to be outed sooner or later. In order to avoid appearing dishonest, you, my friend, need to drop a courtesy “she.” From what I know about your dating life, it shouldn’t be difficult to casually slip a few feminine pronouns into a conversation about your weekend.

You sound worried about your new friends’ reaction to your straight status. I wouldn’t sweat it. By now, they’re comfortable around you, so I doubt they’ll suddenly stop inviting you out or clam up about their sex lives. They’ll probably be delighted! Maybe all this sex talk was their way of testing just where, exactly, you fell on the Kinsey scale. Like, if the conversation got hot enough, maybe, just maybe, you’d give women a try?

Now, about your other issue. I’m not totally opposed to fishing in the company pond. Most of us spend at least eight hours a day at work, so the office can be a good place to get to know someone. But, depending on lots of factors---like the size of the company, the proximity of the couple to one another on the org chart, and psycho tendencies or lack thereof among the people involved---an office romance can be fine or fraught with problems. But you say that you’ve gotten in trouble fishing at the office, so maybe you need only to enjoy drinks with your colleagues but cast your pole in different waters.

Have fun!

Monday, March 26, 2007

HTT, do I have to chip in on expensive gifts?

Dear HTT,

Ok, here's the thing.....I am blessed by having a lot of friends, and several different circles of friends. This is great, don't get me wrong, but one particular circle of friends is large, quite large, and growing larger. Also not necessarily a bad thing. Here's the rub, though. This circle has gotten big enough to where I'm really not friends, per se, with everyone, and I barely see them due to the demands on my time. This circle of friends loves to celebrate everyone's birthday. Sweet, I know. But instead of just getting together for brunch or drinks or whatever, they also kick in for elaborate gifts. I'm talking Coach bags and jewelry from Tiffany's. I'm not making this up. Just ask our mutual Dream Weaver-loving friend---she knows of them.

Now, this is a fun-loving bunch of ladies, true. And incidentally, I love to get people presents, especially when I don't feel obligated. I love spontaneously seeing something and thinking, "oh, so-and-so would get a kick out of that" and picking it up for no reason. I should also make it clear that I'm a Target and Marshall's kind of gal, and my handbags do not EVER cost me even a fraction of a utility bill. Not only is it against my religion to pay retail, but I have a child and a house and therefore a budget---imagine that. Incidentally, we usually do not do this for my birthday, mainly because I don't like a big fuss, and when we have done it, people have just brought cute little presents like lotions and candles, that kind of thing, which I love! I would be mortified to get a Tiffany necklace from any one other than my hubby, and that ain't gonna happen!

The other problem with this gift-giving circle is that I'm very close to some of the women and not close at all with others. Read, I would love to give gifts to some, have no interest in it for the others. But it's become too difficult to give to some and not others. Help!!! How do I gracefully get off this carousel?

A Friend by 1 degree of Separation

Dear 1 Degree,

My most beloved “purse” is a vinyl messenger bag, and my taste in jewelry skews toward the “look what I made at the bead store” variety. So, I had literally no idea how much a Coach bag or Tiffany necklace could set a person back.

After a quick trip to, I discovered that the least expensive bag was the Hamptons Signature Swing Pack at $118. Now, I wouldn’t call $118 ridiculous for a good handbag, although it's more than I'd usually spend. However, I would expect my 118-dollar bag to hold more than a lipstick, one tampon (OB only), a Chicklet, and a driver’s license. And that’s about all one could tote about in the Hamptons Swing Pack. I guess “Hamptons” should have clued me in. It’s not the Myrtle Beach Swing Pack or even the Southport Swing Pack. Near the other end of the spectrum was the vintage leather “Hobo” at $498. How the word “hobo” and the price $498 can possibly be affixed to the same accessory is beyond me.

So, yeah, yikes. Depending on how many people are splitting the cost, buying lots of these sorts of gifts could really send a person to the poorhouse. Here’s what I suggest: Before the next birthday rolls around, simply say, “I’m trying to put aside money for my kid’s braces (or college education, or a family vacation, or you know, groceries!), and I need to start following a more stringent budget. I want to continue celebrating birthdays with all of you, but I’m going to need to bow out of the group gift.” There’s nothing shameful in that. But if it feels awkward to attend these celebrations empty handed, you might decide to pick out a small, thoughtful present that doesn’t cost as much as your January PSNC bill, or simply buy a card.

And if you want to continue buying gifts for the women you’re closest to, can you do so and just give them their presents outside of the big-group get-togethers? Surely these good friends will be discreet about it and not announce to the rest, “look at the wonderful earrings 1 Degree gave me for my birthday.”

You might even find that others in the group feel similarly and will be relieved to jump off that carousel with you!

Hope it all works out.


Saturday, March 24, 2007

HTT, should I abandon all hope?


Before you rant about mustards, be sure to investigate the Mt. Horeb Mustard Museum in Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin: The Arran Scottish herb whole-seed mustard is like vegetarian caviar.

Here's a question for you:

My long-term significant other and I get along great except for one thing that bugs me to no end: I'm punctual, he isn't. It drove me so nuts when we were first dating that I created a conversion chart for him so we could calculate how much time to add on to his estimates (e.g. if he said "15 minutes," the chart showed he really meant "25 minutes.")

Over the past few years, we've enjoyed a lull in his habitual tardiness, but it's getting worse again and the chart isn't helping. The other week, I needed him to be home for parenting duty in time for me to get to a meeting. I told him I could make other kidcare arrangements if he couldn't manage it, but he swore up and down he'd be home in time. He wasn't. We left for a short family getaway the next day and I spent the whole weekend continuing to be pissed off at him, which wasn't exactly romantic.

I obviously can't change his behavior. What can I change in mine? I've thought about simply abandoning hope that he'll ever reliably be on time for anything, but that doesn't seem like a healthy way to foster trust. Other suggestions?

--Frustrated in NC

Dear Frustrated,

Thanks for the mustard tip! I’m always happy to expand my pantry of condiments.

As for your question: I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but in my experience you cannot expect lasting, reliable change from the habitually late. I have a good friend for whom punctuality is an on-going challenge. I’m not talking 5, 10 minutes late. I mean more in the vicinity of 30 minutes. I’ve seethed about how she doesn’t value my time, how rude it is to show up late, how any reasonably organized adult ought to be able to show up on schedule (or close to it---I’m not completely anal retentive) unless there are legitimate extenuating circumstances. I’ve gotten beyond tetchy sitting alone in a restaurant or standing in line at a movie theater waiting for her to show. I’ve laid on guilt trips and given her the silent treatment when she’d finally blow in, hastily explaining all the reasons she’d been held up and apologizing profusely.

But guess what I discovered? These tactics don’t work. In fact, they’re often counterproductive. For one, as you pointed out, they tend to ruin the time you do spend together. For another, this approach causes the tardy, in an attempt not to displease you, to provide overly optimistic estimates in the future about when they’ll be able to meet you, or how long it will take them pack up at work and be on their way home. And, finally, I often ended up feeling badly about my own (over?)reaction. The thing is, most late people don’t LIKE to be late. They don’t enjoy pissing off their friends and family. My friend, whom I suspect is representative of many late types, gets panicked and guilty when she starts running late, which probably just exacerbates the problem.

So I think you’re right when you say you can’t change your SO’s behavior. I recommend a three-pronged approach to dealing with it.

(1) Zen-like acceptance: If you agree with the premise that he truly doesn’t enjoy being late, that his tardiness does not reflect a casual disregard for your time, you might just have to accept that this trait is part of who he is and that all the anger and recriminations in the world aren’t going to change that. At the risk of sounding too Oprah-ish, I suggest you try to change how you feel about his tardiness. Hey, if it helps, try imagining that lateness is a mild form of mental illness for which we have yet to find a cure!

(2) Humility: I remind myself that I have my own unappealing traits. I’m opinionated (obviously), I’m not always reliable about returning phone calls, and I tend to hunker down at home when I get depressed without giving her a heads-up. I’m sure there are more, but these come immediately to mind. And yet, my friend remains my friend, so she must have reached her own zen-like acceptance and decided I’m worth it in spite of these factors. And I’m grateful for that.

(3) Small, practical changes: Now, when my friend suggests a time she’ll be ready to hit the town, I ask if that’s her optimistic estimate or realistic estimate. Sometimes she adjusts accordingly. I try, although not always successfully, not to get impatient if her realistic estimate is much later than I was hoping to get a move on. To give her a hard time would only encourage optimistic estimates, which she likely won’t be able to meet. Also, rather than setting a time to meet somewhere, I often suggest that she just call me from the car when she’s on her way, and then I, too, hit the road. I know some people recommend telling the habitually tardy that they’re needed 30 minutes or so before the actual time you need them to show up, but this seems sneaky. Plus, it doesn’t take them long to wise up.

Bottom line, I wouldn’t abandon all hope that he’ll be on time, but I’d abandon most of it. Try to think of this abandonment as a form of acceptance and forgiveness and maybe it won’t feel so bad.

Usually-punctually yours,

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Good questions

It's an embarrassment of riches. I had THREE questions in my in-box this morning, which is an HTT record. Had I known that rambling about condiments would bring such great letters out of the woodwork, I might have started working my way from ancho chili paste to wasabi before now.

Stay tuned!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

More on peanut butter

My quest for the perfect peanut butter might be over.

When last we touched upon this topic, I was upset that my favorite brand (Peter Pan Honey Roasted) had been recalled thanks to some pesky salmonella poisoning. I thought I'd discovered an adequate replacement in Jiff, also supposedly honey roasted. However, Jiff, while disease-free, tastes bland.

Turns out, if you shop very early in the morning, you have much more time to scrutinize the peanut butter selection. (Insomnia is good for something!) During my barely-post-dawn expedition, I found this brand:

Now you smooth peanut butter purists will scoff. But this brand boasts a hint of cinnamon and has raisins mixed right in! Yum! Granted, you're probably not going to want to use it in your spicy peanut noodles or satay sauce, but on a whole wheat English Muffin, it's heaven.

(Send questions, please, or next I start rating mustards.)

Sunday, March 18, 2007


So, last night, I went out to meet a friend and a bunch of her coworkers at The Federal. The place was packed, between St. Patrick's Day and the NCAA tournament. One reveler we were with came back to our table from a trip to the bar where she'd taken a picure of a guy wearing this t-shirt:

(What up with this guy, above, wearing a cross AND a t-shirt about his penis?)

Anyway, her picture was a close-up, so you could only see the words, and I was curious about what kind of man would wear such a shirt. So, she promptly went off to find him and brought him back to our table. In fairness to him, I will say he looked a little sheepish (although not, to my mind, sheepish enough). I told him the shirt begged the question, "Well, what would it do?" and he mumbled, "it depends on the situation."

He told us his girlfriend gave him the shirt. None of us believed him. I mean, really. His girlfriend?

Saturday, March 17, 2007

HTT, should I tell my friend to can it?

Dear HTT,

I have a friend who won’t stop talking about an ex-boyfriend. “Karl” is mentioned in just about every conversation. She and Karl dated off and on for a rocky five years or so—he was possessive, jealous, had a serious drinking problem, plus her kids didn’t like him and she didn’t like his family. The only positive thing she has said about him was that he was drop-dead gorgeous.

Their relationship ended badly after a particularly bad alcohol-induced argument. That was fifteen years ago. Since then, they’ve had no contact. She discovered about a year ago that he died in 2004. My friend was understandably very upset, but said she wasn’t really surprised at his passing given the extent of his drinking problem. Nevertheless, she claims the happiest time of her life was spent on the beach with Karl.

But here’s the kicker: She’s been happily (according to her) married for the past ten years to an intelligent, attractive, caring man who isn’t possessive, is a great father to her children and doesn’t have a drinking problem. My friend has no complaints about her husband, yet she still talks longingly about Karl--she watches TV shows which feature actors who remind her of him, she listens to music from the time they spent together. As her friend I know more about the significant details of her relationship with Karl than I do about her relationship with her husband. Recently she and her husband attended a romantic, black tie and champagne event at a historic hotel as part of a romantic weekend getaway. While dancing with her husband under the crystal chandelier, she said the music reminded her of dancing with Karl.

I’ve been trying to break my friend of talking to me so much about Karl, especially in front of her husband, as it makes me uncomfortable. I asked her to consider whether all the talk of Karl might be hurtful to her husband. She claims it never bothers him. I worry that by thinking so much about the past, my friend will create problems with the guy she has now and miss out on good times with him. Besides, the old boyfriend is not only long gone, it sounds like he was bad news best left in the past.

Should I say something more to my friend, or keep my big damn opinionated mouth shut?

Enough Already

Dear Enough Already,

You should say something more to your friend.

That might be the fastest I’ve ever gotten around to giving my opinion!

But now, two quick stories. And you thought you were getting off easy.

I have a very good friend, whom I love dearly. She is warm, kind, smart, funny, supportive…basically, everything you could ever hope for in a friend. But her cell phone, which she uses frequently because of the nature of her work, plays Gary Wright's “Dream Weaver” when it rings. And it rings often. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been stuck humming “Dreammmmmmmweaver” for hours after she gets a phone call. Anyway, she and I and another friend were about to embark on vacation, and when we got to the airport I said, “I hope you’re not planning to bring your cell phone with you, because the first time I hear ‘Dream Weaver’ in Ireland, I’m tossing that thing out the window.” I heard nary a 70s chestnut the entire vacation.

On the same trip, I commented more than a few times that a certain cow or sheep or pig reminded me of my dog, Samson. (There is no rational explanation, really. I missed him, and cows have kind, brown eyes like he does and are often similarly spotted. Whatever.) One day, in Northern Ireland, standing on a wall overlooking the town of Derry, my Dream-Weaver-loving friend pointed wistfully to a border collie that brought to mind her own. To which I replied, “This dog doesn’t look like yours. This one’s got a lot more white on her.” My friend gave me an incredulous stare and said, with an even, but clearly displeased voice, “Oh. Sure. You can be reminded of your dog by FARM animals, but I look at a DOG of the same BREED, and can’t be reminded of my dog?” I laughed at how ridiculous I’d been and shut up about dogs after that.

(I’m getting back round to you, so bear with me.)

You say you’ve already tried to break your friend of her dead ex-boyfriend habit. You likely did so with tact and grace. Unsuccessfully. As such, it might be time to say less-than-half-jokingly, “I’m going to lose my mind if I have to hear about Karl one more time.” I know this doesn’t jibe with my usual advice, which tends occupy the “be honest but gentle” territory. But what I tried to get across with my Ireland stories is that sometimes it takes a direct, straightforward, and possibly even jarring comment to get through to people. A strong friendship can take it, and anyone with a sense of humor should be able to laugh at herself and recognize her foibles.

I think you need to risk it. This is a quality of life issue for you and a mental health issue for her. How much you should be concerned about the latter depends on how close you two are, but you have every right to want to improve the former.

Best of luck!


Tuesday, March 13, 2007

HTT, I'm fit to be tied!

Dear HTT,

I'm sick of people equating thin with fit! Just because you're a size 4 does not mean you are a triathlete! It means your measurements are such that a size 4 fits you.

I am far from a size 4, but that doesn't mean that I'm not fit. I would pit myself against many punier gals in an arm wrestling challenge, a long uphill hike, or a 20-lap free-style swim race.

But, when a man says he is looking for a "fit" "fun" date on one of those online dating sites -- he doesn't mean my brand of "fit". He means size 4 -- and he's imagining some less ummmm rotund "fun".

How in the world do us fuller-figured gals compete in this thin-centric world?

Not Size 4 in NC

Dear Not a Size 4 (NS4),

Let me be blunt, NS4. If your potential date were really concerned about your “fitness,” he’d bring a blood pressure cuff to y’all’s first meeting at Starbucks.

Actually, according to the Mayo Clinic’s web site, you need the following tools to assess your fitness levels:

• A stopwatch
• A cloth measuring tape
• A yardstick
• Heavy-duty tape
• Someone to assist you with a flexibility test

Granted, it would be extremely creepy if a guy pulled out this bag of tricks mid-latte. And any first-date offers to test my flexibility are likely to be met with a frown and a raised eyebrow. Unless he’s cute and funny, wears cool glasses, and has an above-average vocabulary (a foreign accent couldn’t hurt).

So that’s just silly. But the point is that size (or BMI) is just one of the four fitness tests, the others being aerobic fitness, muscular strength, and flexibility. And I personally have never had a potential date ask me about my pulse or the number of push-ups I’m able to do. What this all comes down to is that yes, I believe you are correct in assuming that when a man says he’s looking for a “fit” woman, he probably means “thin.” Or trim, or petite, or shapely, or height/weight proportionate…you get the picture.

So why do people use the word “fit,” when plenty of other adjectives are more accurate? I think they fear that they sound shallow for being driven by aesthetics. And I used to think they were shallow. But here’s the thing (oh, I love when I can throw that around!), we like what we like. I like what I like. I’m not sure that we can drastically change what we’re attracted to. To an extent, our attractions are shaped by society, and the media, and our upbringing, and our culture, but even if attraction isn’t written into our DNA, it’s pretty hard to buck all that other stuff that shapes our desires.

As a big gal myself, I’ve often wished I were born into a time when the beauty standard leaned a little bit more in my direction. Maybe the pendulum will swing closer to us one of these days. But, in the meantime, how do you compete with your size 4 sisters? Honestly? You don’t. Why beat your head against the wall? If you’re going to try on-line dating, search for the guys who aren’t looking for someone “fit,” no matter how many people you can take in an arm wrestling contest. Look for the men who like a beautiful, active, full-bodied woman! They might make up a smaller slice of the pie, but it's a slice all the same.

Good luck, NS4.


Monday, March 12, 2007

HTT: Do I tell my friend that her head looks like an eggplant?

Dear HTT,

Several months ago, after complaining for years about not liking her hair, a friend of mine got a drastic new hair-do. She had many inches cut off and she colored it with a shade that sported odd undertones. Really, when the sun hit it at just the right angle, it gave off an eggplanty glow. She came to my house straight from the salon looking for affirmation and support. And I gave it to her. As much as I hated her new look, I just didn’t want to crush her when clearly she wasn’t feeling great about it herself. (She’s had a lot of real trouble of late and bad hair was the last thing she needed.) So, I might have gone overboard. Instead of saying something like, “Well, it’s not bad” or “The change is kind of overwhelming but I’m sure I’ll get used to it,” I practically raved.

So now after about four months, her hair has grown out some and the color has faded enough that she no longer has an aura around her head. But she’s making plans to go back to the same salon and ask for a repeat! What should I do? I really think the look wasn’t very flattering, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. And I feel a little responsible since I praised it so highly the first time. Am I going to hell for my big white lie? Should I fess up? Or is it possible she really likes the hair do, and does that mean I should just keep my mouth shut?

A hairy problem

Dear Hairy Problem,

First, I don’t really believe in hell, so no, I don’t think you’re headed there. But let me pretend, for a second, that I am worried about eternal damnation, and maybe I should be! Even then I can’t help but feel that the intention of your white lie---to keep from hurting your friend’s feelings---will get you off the hook and out of the handbasket.

But I doubt a theological discussion was really what you were after, so let’s move on to an issue about which I have much more authority: hair and all its related problems. I, myself, have suffered for years with a hair inferiority complex. Mine is big and unruly. It’s rarely professional and often looks as if I’ve just ended a 200-mile road trip taken at full speed with the windows down. It cannot be forced into any hip, kicky style. As often as not I pull my hair back into a ponytail, which is not exactly the height of fashion but which keeps its frizzy curls out of my way. My bathroom cabinet is, at this very moment, overflowing with potions, lotions, waxes, salves, serums, gels, mousses, sprays, putties, infusions, moisturizers, and balms that I’ve used in millions of combinations in an attempt to achieve good hair.

So I can empathize with your friend’s frustration over the hair status quo and I can see why went she for broke with a brand new do. I applaud her for trying something radical. And you for not hurting her feelings. You did what you thought was right in the moment. But now I think your chance to tell her you don’t like her hair has passed. After all, no matter how much she needed your encouragement at first, it sounds like she’s grown to like her hair style. Maybe she enjoys the attention that a purple aura attracts.

On the other hand, if she’s less decisive than I’m imagining, if she’s hemming and hawing, if she flat out asks you what you think, be gentle but honest. Apologize for misleading her last time. I think she’ll understand.

Good luck!

Sexing it up

Well, that might get someone's attention.

So, most of you know that I'm an editor and writer. And not just of this column, I mean. (Good thing I have an actual job, because HTT does not, as of yet, pay the bills.) Today, I was working on a short piece about a service my organization offers to researchers who study infectious diseases like TB, malaria, dengue fever, and others. This service essentially involves training scientists in developing countries how to conduct research according to various international standards. (Turns out international standards-setters are picky about the conduct of research.) We teach them things like biostatistics, good clinical practice, scientific writing, data management, and protocol development. I think this is interesting work. I've even participated in some of these trainings, and had the opportunity to travel as a result, so I'm all for it. All this is to say that I'm not minimizing the importance of this service.

However, when I turned in my draft, someone asked me to "sex it up" a little bit. it up. Right. Let me give you a picture of what this training actually looks like. It looks like a couple of people giving PowerPoint presentations while a bunch of others watch and take notes. It looks like people hunched over manuscripts for hours. At its sexiest, it looks like someone walking around a lab with a clipboard. Hot!

So, I'm not sure how to revise my piece based on this suggestion, but it did give me a chuckle anyway.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

HTT, can pirate advice help land-lubbers?

Before I answer my next question, I need to provide a little background. I’m not quite sure how, but my step-mother, Faith, began correspondence several years ago with a fellow named Cap’n Slappy, who founded Talk Like a Pirate Day ( If you’re even mildly dubious about the whole pirate thing, and I hope you’re not, you should know that the Cap’n has received all kinds of coverage, including mention in Dave Barry’s blog. And the Glasgow Daily Record. And the Sacramento Bee. (Press coverage of Here’s the Thing
to date…mmmm…zero.) This pirate business is hot stuff! I’m ready to buy an eye patch and learn the Talk Like a Pirate theme song.

At any rate, to help me publicize my new advice column, Faith wrote to the Cap’n, who gives sage advice of the pirate variety to his readers. Not only was Cap’n Slappy kind enough to allow this cross-promotion, but he also submitted the following question.

Dear HTT,

Okay, here’s the thing! I’m a pirate-themed advice columnist whose advice can typically be described as “misguided” at best and “legally indefensible” at worst. For example, it is my firm belief that most of Life’s little dilemmas can be resolved if one drinks enough rum and/or finds someone worthy and administers a savage beating with one’s fists and forehead. Common sense stuff for a pirate, really!

Still, I can’t help but wonder …

Am I really helping? Sure, my sponsor, Captain Morgan’s Rum is keen on my “Jigger a day” campaign. And I just received an honorary doctorate from the Center for Advanced Studies of Pre-Frontal Blunt-Force Impact Head Injuries – but even so, I can’t escape the nagging feeling that I’m simply perpetuating a stereotype of a much misunderstood cultural sub-set.

Also, your step-mum pimped your site pretty hard in my column – and because I have nothing but respect for her – I let her! Do you think the other pirates will think I’ve gone soft? And how many savage beatings with my fists and forehead do you think it will take to remedy that perception?

Just call me Cap’n Slappy,

Cap’n Slappy
P.S. We sell our book from our web site – it’s very funny and everyone should buy at least twelve copies.

Dear Cap’n Slappy,

First, it’s an honor to receive a letter from someone as experienced in advice-giving as you. Second, I would like to express my gratitude for allowing Faith to pimp my column on your site and for your kind words about my nascent avocation.

I fear that our approach to advising is so different that I’m not qualified to comment on rum and beatings (at least not in a public forum that my mother and several coworkers have been known to visit). However, I would like to address the broader question you asked, which is if you [or any advice columnist] can really help your readers.

I’ve actually mulled this over quite a bit. Where do I get the nerve offering advice to anyone? I’m not exactly issue-free myself, and I’ve often felt that I could benefit from my own personal advice columnist to help navigate my relationships and moral dilemmas. (Pirates are supposed to be good at navigation, no?)

But I’ve decided that the advice we give is really only half the point. I believe that the very act of writing the letter gets advice seekers to think about their problems in a new light. Putting words to paper and making ourselves understood by others demands a certain focus, a certain remove from the emotional tangle our problems become in our head.

But here’s where the advice columnists’ half of the equation comes in. Everyone wants to be heard. And sometimes it helps to be heard by someone who doesn’t already have a dog in the fight. (O.K., so all my questions thus far have come from friends, but still.) You know that exercise that therapists recommend…the one about writing letters to express your feelings, and then trashing these blistering missives instead of sending them to the person who caused you all the angst in the first place? No offense intended to any therapists out there, but I’ve never gotten ANY satisfaction out of that activity. I want someone to recognize that I’m hurt or to feel bad that my problem is waking me up at 3:00 a.m. And it would be nice, too, if that person actively thought about my problem for a few minutes, offered some sympathy, expressed an opinion, and then asked a few pointed questions to get me thinking about my own solutions.

Whether I agree with the opinion isn’t of utmost importance. Either way, I’ve purged, I’ve been heard, and maybe I can more clearly see some options for a way forward.

So, the person purged to doesn’t have to have all the answers, and neither do you or I (thank God). The best we can do is make an honest effort to address a reader’s concern and offer a well-considered opinion, but of course our own experiences—be it success with rum in your case or a penchant for talking things out in mine—will color our reply. What people do with the advice is up to them. To get to the crux of your question—are you
helping?—probably, in some fashion, or people wouldn’t keep reading. Personally, at this early stage of my column, I’d be happy just to amuse and do no harm.

Best wishes, matey.

Friday, March 2, 2007

HTT, what's in a name?

Dear HTT,

I'm pregnant with my second child, and if it's a girl, my mother wants my husband and I to name the baby after her. The back-story is that my parents are from Greece and very traditional, and of course expect us to follow their long-lived Greek naming traditions. Now I'm all for preserving my heritage, which my parents consider to be under siege, and there are a number of Greek names that I love. But not my mother's.

Her name is Hariklia. The English pronunciation sounds like a cross between Hercules and Caligula. The Greek pronunciation is no better -- it sounds like you're trying to dislodge a Kalamata olive pit from your throat. Here's a testimony to its unpronouncability --- my mother came to live in North Carolina in 1968 and ever since she's been called Harriet. I know old lady names are in vogue these days, but I'll believe a Harriet comeback after I see Hortense top the charts first.

My parents have also alluded to cutting off our inheritance if we don't take their names. They once said to my brother, who had two girls and for better or worse chose to ignore their plea: "Ah, you do not like our names for your children, then maybe we do not like your names in our will." Given that I'm a lowly non-profit liege and my husband a seemingly interminable grad student, we don't want that to happen -- assuming we get more than a trunk of doilies, a statue of Aphrodite, and a rusty automatic lamb spit, that is.

Other than praying to the gods for a boy (thankfully my father's name is Nickolas), what do I do?

Nominally Challenged in North Carolina

Dear NC in NC,

I feel strongly that as parents, your first obligation is to do your best to ensure that your kid won’t get pounded on the playground. Or, at the very least, that she won’t be unintentionally showered with saliva by people who are trying in earnest to pronounce Hariklia. Your child is going to be saddled with whatever name you bestow upon her for her entire life. Or at least until she turns 18 and changes it to Hortense just to tick you off.

I respect your desire to honor your parents and preserve your heritage. I wish there had been a bit more of that in my family. My only connection to my German heritage is a love of bratwurst and a preference for saying "Gesundheit" over "God bless you." But I don’t wish my parents had named me Brunhild, which is German for "armored warrior woman." Or even that they’d named me Shirley, which was the name of my grandmother, whom I loved more than almost anyone else in the entire world. Not even to honor her would I want that name to be my own. (Sorry to any of you Shirleys out there.)

Now this is all very easy for me to say, I realize, because Hariklia isn’t my mother and I don’t have any children. And I don’t know what kind of inheritance we’re talking about. For the sake of family harmony and your chance to own a lamb spit, could you satisfy your mother by using Hariklia as your daughter’s middle name? Remind her that she's been called Harriet for the last 40 years because no one could pronounce Hariklia. The name "Harriet" doesn’t do much to trumpet anyone’s Greekness, does it?

I think you need to stand firm on this, NCNC. Or pray for a boy.

Good luck!