Dear Abby
April 17, 2008, 6:39 pm
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The New York Times has this article today, discussing the winners of a contest for the best advice from parents. This was inspired by Pittsburgh’s own Randy Pausch, the CMU professor who is dying from pancreatic cancer. His “Last Lecture” is a love letter to his babies, and advice to them for living the lives that he is going to miss.

I was reading through the original submissions here (and there are a lot of them), and I started thinking about the nuggets of advice my parents left me.

1. A man is not a home improvement project. You can’t change someone. If you find yourself thinking, “Oh, I can change that!” you’re wrong, and this person is telling you something about themselves that you don’t like. People rarely lie if you listen and watch closely.

2. If you have a headache, you probably need to sleep, eat, drink water, or poop. Try those, and then come back and ask me for tylenol. Why take drugs for something that is caused by something so simple?

3. No matter what you do with your life, always make sure that you have the skills and qualifications that you need in order to always be able to support yourself and your family alone. You never know if you’re going to be divorced, widowed, or supporting a disabled husband, so you should never count on his income to support your babies. Your salary must be enough, and anything else should be saved religiously for a rainy day. They always happen eventually.

4. You can tell a person’s character by the strength of their handshake, their ability to look you in the eye, the way they treat wait staff, and how they speak to their mothers. If someone has a weak handshake, they are shady and squirrelly. If they can’t look you in the eye, they are lying to you about something. If they treat wait staff badly, they are arrogant and unkind, which are both unacceptable. If a man treats his mother poorly, he thinks poorly of all women, and will treat you badly, too. You should make sure you avoid these things, too.

5. Wash your hands often and well. It will keep you from getting sick.

6. Don’t eat when you aren’t hungry. Eat when you are hungry. Doing the first will keep you thin. Doing the 2nd will keep you happy.

What advice did your parents give to you? What advice would you give your children?


April 7, 2008, 12:58 pm
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So, I was blog surfing just now. I won’t link to the blog, because I want to protect the innocent. But, really, this rant has a basis. I promise

I have a much older half-brother. Obviously, that means we share one parent (dad) but not the other. He’s 13 years older than me. My parents got married when he was 11, and started dating when he was 9. We get along, but I wouldn’t say we’re close by any stretch of the imagination. We’re two only children who happen to be siblings, and I got the healthy, two-parent, happy-household childhood that he didn’t. Not a whole lot I can do about that, but it makes for an awkward family dynamic. So be it.

A lot of the awful stuff that creates an awful family dynamic on my mom’s extended family is the act of comparing. This one is like this, but this one does that. This one is so successful! This one lives in new york! But that one is going through a nasty divorce. This one, that one, this one, that one. This one is out going, but she doesn’t ever read. This one is really shy, but look how smart she is. BLAH BLAH BLAH. They like to pride themselves on not doing that. BUT THEY DO IT. ALL THE TIME. VOMIT.

My parents compare my brother and I. To our faces. I’m much more comfortable in my own skin, with social graces. He’s not. He’s incredibly brilliant, particularly at math and science: hello, nuclear engineer! I’m far more verbal, but I can hold my own in sciences that don’t relay entirely on math: hello, bio and english major. I need people; he shuns human contact. I like dogs; he likes cats. I have straight hair; he has curly hair. I have to fight to gain weight; he has to fight to lose weight. I am usually very happy, but make it evident to everyone when I’m not; figuring out the difference between him happy and him unhappy is like telling the difference between “beige” and “oatmeal”.  We’re siblings, not carbon copies. Hell, we don’t even have the same mother, what makes you think we’re going to be alike? What does comparison accomplish?

Let’s talk about what we have in common: same eye color, same fair skin that burns easily and gets eczema, same nose and forehead, same tendency to read voraciously, same sense of humor. We both like pie. We both drink milk with pie. We both have musical inclinations, but are uneasy about performing by ourselves. We’re both smart, successful people who have actively pursued our own interests and hobbies. We are both good people, even if we’ve come about it from different angles.

So, please: if you have a stepson, don’t pick out one of his “bad” traits, pick it apart, and then say “but hey look! MY son is the opposite of that. AND I AM SO HAPPY. My kid came out better!” And don’t do it on the internet. Are you crazy? You’re setting yourself up to seriously hurt a kid, just because he has a different temperament than you and your kids. Unkind, uncouth, and bordering on cruel. More importantly, your stepson is your son’s brother. That will never change. Don’t mess with that.

Parenting For Dummies
February 15, 2008, 1:27 pm
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My grandfather’s family owned a successful candy business in my hometown through most of the 20th century. He was expected to take it over eventually. He was not allowed to go to college or become a pilot, his dream.  He was expected to live out of his daddy’s pocket for the rest of his life. This mostly served him well. He had a steady job, where he was given a lot of money. They built him a very large house out in the country. He had 4 children and a beautiful wife. He also had no freedom or respect from his own father: he was ordered around, forced to do his father’s bidding. He had the head for business, but then constantly butt heads with his father and brother who didn’t. When my mom was 16, he walked away from the business, and was disowned. The bottom dropped out. It was rough for them. My mom paid her way through college, even though her grandfather paid for her older brother to go to college, because girls weren’t supposed to go to college. They fought tooth and nail to keep that big house until I was about 11 when the upkeep became too much. Nobody talks about it, but everybody knows my grandfather regrets not being able to stand up for himself and become a pilot like he wanted. He was too worried about having the approval of his father, and it has dictated the course of his life even now, at 83, some 30 years after his father died. It genuinely makes me sad to think about that.

Because of this, my parents have been absolutely vigilant about giving me space to become the person that I want to be. Going to college was never doubted: I had the talent for it, and their only expectation was that I do my best in everything, especially school. However, what I wanted to do at college was up to me. My mom told me when I was a senior in high school, “Whatever you do, I want you to have the ability to support yourself and your family, no matter what happens.By that she meant that I need to acquire the education and skills to be able to have a decent job and earn the money to support my family if something should happen to my husband/marriage and I am the only breadwinner. I think it is the most important advice anyone can give a young person, particularly young women. You don’t have to “be” anything per se. The greatest prize of the feminist revolution isn’t women being high powered businesswomen; the greatest prize is that women have the choice to do what they want, no matter what that is. They have the power to support themselves and their families if they want to, or if they have to. At no point in this day and age should a woman EVER wake up and find herself divorced/widowed/caring for an incapacitated husband and think, “How will I take care of my children? How will I pay the bills? I can’t get anything but a minimum wage job!” If a woman wants to be a stay-at-home mom, she has every right to be. However, if the bottom drops out, she needs to be able to deal with that.

That requirement that my parents gave me leaves me with a lot of room. I have their support, no matter what I do. Once I graduate, and I am off the family dole, my mom will be done making decisions about what I can and can not do. That is why I can live with my boyfriend out of wedlock: she might not be happy about it, but from now on, those are my decisions and she won’t try to interfere. I am grateful to her for this amount of trust and support. I believe that this is why we have such a good relationship. She does not control me. When I lived at home, I was a minor and I had to abide by her rules. When I went to college, and she was paying the rent and food, she was unwilling to pay for me to live in sin. Once I’m paying for things, what I say goes, and she respects that. I respected her rules, and she respects my right to make my own now. She saw what happened to her father when he lived under the thumb of his father, who wouldn’t allow him to do what he wanted. She saw what happened when her father waited till he was in his 40’s to walk away, and the financial fallout that resulted in such a long wait. She’s not willing to stunt my life or my development in order to fit me in a box she picked out, nor is she willing to lose a relationship with me by fighting over it.

Because of that, it makes me see red when I see ROOMMATE! dealing with his father trying to force his hand in making life decisions. It infuriates me that he worries every time he checks his email or his voicemail, for fear of what cruel and vitriolic words he will have to swallow from his own father. I am SO mad that my roommate has a father who does not respect him as a person or an adult, who is trying to bribe him with money to stay attached to his strings, and then calling him an idiot for not taking “free money.” Money isn’t free when it takes away your personal freedom. Money isn’t free when it comes with strings, nay ropes and chains to tie him down to a life HE DOES NOT WANT. Money isn’t free when the cost is his self-respect.

That is why I am so proud of him that he choosing to walk away now, at 21 almost 22, forcing his father to respect him and his choices. I am so proud that we signed the lease that his father called idiotic. I am so proud that he is making this decision, even though it might be one of the hardest paths to walk. The only harder path is sacrificing himself to his father.  I am so very proud. It will all turn out for the best, that I can guarantee.