Carolyn Hax responds to a letter writer whose boyfriend thinks she should work on being closer to her somewhat estranged family.

If he were “very into self-improvement,” he’d be trying to get closer to your family, or his own. Pushing you to do this (or anything else) means he’s very into other-improvement.

Be very, very wary of that.

New boyfriend! So sensitive and helpful! So very helpful. Halpful. Helpy.

I like the Dear Businesslady series at The Toast and enjoyed this one, on how much it sucks to be a working parent in our barbarian country and on what to do when your work colleague aggressively wants to be your work friend.

Here’s the thing: some people just aren’t meant to be friends. And some people don’t realize that they’re not meant to be friends with certain other people. I’ve been in your position before, where I start to establish a rapport with a coworker only to realize “yikes, we need to dial this thing back into colleague territory”; I’ve also been in a version of Helena’s position, where my efforts to become buddies with someone are clearly being rebuffed. It hurts to feel rejected, but putting someone on the spot with any version of “why don’t you like me?” is a bad way to handle it. It’s like asking a partner to explain—really explain—why they’re breaking up with you: any useful intel you’ll get out of it won’t be worth the salt you’re pouring into your own open wound.

This personal essay on hunger, family, and memory is really good. Hard to read. Really good.

Edited to Add: Breaking! Friend Jess White’s essay Living in Laramie: After Matthew Shepard is up at The Toast. It’s about landscape and being haunted and the stories we grow up knowing in our bones. Read it.

What’s the single best thing you’ve read online this week?

I don’t have a Tumblr or a pensieve, so, here you go. I HAVE TOO MANY THOUGHTS SOMETIMES. This is my very first piece of fanfic writing for your amusement.

Contains mild S3 Hannibal spoilers through E7, “Digestivo.” Comments may contain spoilers for entire show, and commenters are invited to link their own ficlets about this or any show if they like.

If you don’t watch Hannibal, it’s super-murder-y and gross, so read with caution for cannibalism references and terrible jokes.

Read More

My sweetheart gets out of the hospital today after a 10-day stay. He has bipolar disorder and had been cycling quite a bit for the past few months, and it just could not wait until the only psych appointment he could schedule with someone who takes our insurance and was also taking new patients…in April. He stopped sleeping, started getting more and more irritable and agitated (alternated with deep sads), and despite trying like hell to keep it all together until Spring his brain chemistry needed some major tinkering to keep him well and in this world.

The conversation about whether to go, how to go, when to go was one of the hardest and most necessary of my life. I’m forever grateful for this guest post, which let me know what to expect from hospitalization (he’d been through it all before).

I talked about it a bit on Twitter, but I’m still in the middle of FEELINGSTOWN and not fully able to write about all of it yet. My anxiety has been acting up, to say the least, and I may have freaked out crying on his (excellent) doctors on Monday when they told me he was out of the woods. They were like, are you okay, and also, here are tissues, you don’t have to wipe your face on your shirt and I was like DON’T YOU KNOW RELIEF-CRYING WHEN YOU SEE IT?

(They did)

My thoughts, in no particular order: He had the very best care and he’s got a good after-care and support system in place, I locked in a new therapist for myself, and our friends and family and community have poured out of the woodwork to support us. I can’t wait to see and kiss his giant face in 2.5 of the longest and shortest hours in human history, and I am going to ignore all y’all for a few days.

Jeremy at medieval times wearing a crown smiling

Behold: My favorite face.

Jeremy holding a tiny black & white cat

Favorite person holding second-favorite face.

If you’re feeling down, I hope you can reach out and find some help. If you love someone who is feeling down, I hope you can remind them that they are loved and steer them toward some help. Let’s let Margaret Atwood take us all out of The Februaries together and listen to a pretty song.

A mailbox and a church are covered with snow on a Chicago street.

Blizzard holy shit

The spam trap is eating almost every single comment, yaaaaaay! I’ve got a support ticket in with WordPress, and Goat Lady and I have been freeing them as quickly as we can. There’s no need to notify us of an eaten comment.

In other news, questions are open for submissions again.

In other other news, snow.

JenniferP + Cat + Tweedy Hat

“Are you there, God? It’s me, Cat Furniture.”

A nice person emailed me to wish me a happy new year and also to ask: “What kind of self-care stuff are you doing these days, if you don’t mind me asking?

I don’t mind. Probably the biggest thing I’ve been doing is updating my professional CV, working on my professional portfolio and reel, and applying for some fellowships, conferences, and job opportunities in my field. I want a tenure-track job in teaching screenwriting and film/video production. As part of a local grant program, I’m also putting together a 12-week documentary course for high school students who have dropped out and returned to school, and will be piloting that this semester. I’ve also been compiling a lot of resources for my courses: clips, how-to guides, curated lists of tutorials, etc. Good for my students, good for my teaching portfolio. I guess that’s more “work care” than “self care” but I’d like to get paid more and have more stability and institutional support to do what I do, so updating and fancying-up the materials is in order.

The other big project/change is getting in a pool or on a treadmill regularly. I read Hanne Blank’s book about exercise in November/December, I joined the YMCA with my boyfriend a couple of weeks back, and together we’ve been going 4-5 times a week. It’s been weird – my brain can remember being an athlete and knowing how to do certain things once upon a time, but my sedentary, recovering-from-a-knee-injury body has been very much “ummmm…what?” about the whole thing until just this week when it’s been more like “Okay, I guess this is going to be a thing now (sigh).” Fingers crossed that the whole “Yaaaay! Exercise!” thing kicks in before March.

Over Christmas I marathoned all of Twin Peaks. I’m also watching movies. Recently:

  • Wild – Liked it very much, loved every minute with Laura Dern.
  • Ida – It was amazing. Heavy subject matter. Amazing.
  • A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night – If you like The Toast’s Misandrist Lullabies or want a Male Tears mug, this is the Iranian noir vampire western for you.
  • Dear White People – loved it. I thought it was so clever, funny, smart, and loving/forgiving of its characters while also being a reference-feast for film nerds.
  • Calvary – beautifully made and thoughtful.

Soon I will see: The Imitation Game, Selma, Two Days, One Night, Goodbye to Language, Big Eyes, Almost There 

Also I’ve been watching a ton of Werner Herzog, Les Blank, and Albert Maysles films on Netflix/Hulu/Amazon in preparation for some documentary courses I’m teaching. I’m especially interested in films like Little Dieter Needs to Fly vs. Rescue Dawn, Grey Gardens vs. Grey Gardens – films where a documentary was adapted into a fiction piece.

Other recent/winter/holiday projects:

  • Reading for pleasure
  • Seeing friends
  • Dealing with some mental health stuff (like, actually dealing with it, not just enduring it)
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Writing longhand in a journal every morning and making lists and then checking things off lists and sticking sparkly star stickers to the checked-off items
  • Planning a wedding
  • Pulling out all the art I need framed/hung up and getting it on the walls, among other habitat unfucking measures.
  • Culling the wardrobe of ill-fitting pants (not a metaphor), stained shirts, hole-y underwear, etc.
  • Misc. writing projects for the page & the screen.

What self-care kinds of things or new adventures do y’all have going on?



I’m sorry to be saying this, but I think Elodie owes the first letter writer on 12/19 an apology. I have a parent with a chronic pain condition, and it’s wrenching. (Eventually most of us will, as our parents age and suffer, and it’s one of the hardest things that will happen in our lives). Carrying a disabled parent up and down flights of stairs is terrible and unsafe practice, not an able-bodied daughter’s duty. Asking someone who is obviously not in a position of terrific affluence to buy a house or even a new sofa based on one dreaded yearly visit from a relative they have rocky boundaries with is … surprising, at the least. The letter writer was clearly asking for help setting a different boundary with her dad around visiting, under the clear understanding that she couldn’t meet his physical needs and was exhausted with the emotions of the situation. Instead Elodie straight-up insinuated that she didn’t love her father and then assigned her homework to examine her feelings for prejudice against all disabled people, when she was clearly already suffering terrific pain and guilt. I can’t imagine how I would have felt if someone had said those things to me when I was still freshly dealing with how my mother’s changing health was impacting her needs and my ability to meet those needs. (And yes, I had to change how available I was to her, because it was affecting my own health and ability to work, and I too would have referred to myself as a terrible daughter during that time). To be perfectly frank, I think it would have provoked a crisis. It was terrifically unkind. I appreciate that your website provides a free service, but I also think that as it is a trusted resource for a lot of people, you need to do better in the future.

Best and kind regards, and thank you for all the good stuff,


Dear C, #649, and Others:

C., thanks for writing, I hear you and the others who were very unhappy with the answer to #649, and I appreciate you emailing me directly.

First, ground rules: We have a comment section partly so that people can disagree with the advice offered and offer alternate perspectives. “I think you got this wrong, this is my experience, and here is what I think the LW should do” = always within bounds. This space would not function without that sort of healthy disagreement. The LW may totally disagree with the “column” part of the advice, but if they get something good from the comments we’ve done our job.

Comments that start with “You are a terrible person, here is my analysis of the terribleness of your personality and I poop on all of your life choices, I hate your Tumblr and everything about you, oh, btw you got this wrong” = not within bounds. If you hate-read my site, or you personally dislike Elodie or any of the posters, you do you, but we aren’t obligated to host your thoughts about that here in the interest of “fairness.” Which means that the valid critiques people may have placed among the insults went away when I deleted that shit. In addition, we had people selectively skipping over large parts of the answer and then yelling that certain things were not addressed, skipping over large parts of each other’s comments, arguing with straw version of what was actually said, extrapolating madly, and dropping personal insults to a troubling degree the other day, which doesn’t mean there isn’t room to disagree with Elodie’s take on the post, but it does make moderation into a mess. Closing the thread means some egregious points might go unanswered or un-debated, or some unkind or against-the-rules comments are allowed to stand without answer, or your point might be lost to the spam filter. That doesn’t mean every un-deleted thing is okay and endorsed by the site. It just means “stop now.”

Elodie would post a follow-up of some kind if I asked her to, but some of the comments have become about her, personally this week to a point that I don’t want to put any more of her blood in the water. Please allow me to offer my own take on Letter #649 after reading Elodie’s post and others’ comments and emails:

Dear LW #649:

We’re probably too close to Christmas to make a difference, but of you don’t want your dad to come visit, ask him not to visit. There is no way to do this without hurting his feelings and resetting a lot of unspoken expectations about how your family works, which is uncomfortable.

The script is “Dad, I can’t host you for Christmas this year.

Why? “Because I can’t.” Why? “I just can’t.” Sorry, I can’t. Nope, I can’t. No, that won’t work. Repeat it until he believes you. Get off the phone and go do something self-care-ish.

Lots of us have to deliver that kind of news to disappointed family. “I can’t make it home this year.” “We’re doing something else this year.” “Husband and I want to fly solo this year.” Reasons, if you must give them: “I’m exhausted and not up to it.” “I’d rather make a plan to visit you another time.” We’re going to have to make other arrangements for now.” 

He will be sad. He will be lonely on Christmas. You will probably feel really guilty. He may get quite testy and argue with you about it and you may leave that conversation in a very uncomfortable place, where you have to say “But I didn’t invite you, you invited yourself.”  But it can be done, and it sounds like it has to be done. If we didn’t get to you in time this year, you have a year to think about and plan for next Christmas.

Now, let’s address the question of disability. One problem, LW #649, is that to me as well as Elodie, your letter over-justifed not wanting your dad to visit in terms of his disability.People who have walked in the caregiver shoes, like C., recognized this as exhaustion and frustration. Many other people saw that and read one more horrible message about What A Giant Burden People Like Us Are On Our Grudging, Long-Suffering Relatives (fueled by the part where you said while you feel guilty, you see him as a burden). People argued both viewpoints as if they were the ONLY possible read, with NO elements of the other position, which is one of the reasons the comments got so fucked up so fast. Looking at it again today, it looks to me like the over-justifying that is a common thing when people don’t feel like they are really allowed to say no. Whatever it is, “I want to, but it’s just too hard to take care of you right now” is probably not the way to sell your Dad on this decision. He probably can’t be sold on the decision anyway, but for your own sake it’s worth framing it in terms of your needs, and owning the decision. “We can’t because I can’t” > “We can’t because you can’t.”

The big point that I think that Elodie was making in tying this to Letter #650 was that inviting disabled people to activities that you know are inaccessible and impossible for them over time is the same as disinviting them. It makes people feel like they are being gaslighted, like, I told you I can’t climb stairs, so why do you keep inviting me to House of Stairs? (Especially when there’s been a year since last Christmas to talk about a different plan?) It’s a trap where the disabled person is put in the position of declining the invitation for their own self-care, and the non-disabled person can sort of say “Okay, if that’s your decision! We’ll miss you!” and pat themselves on the back because hey, we invited you, it’s your problem if you don’t want to come! Your exclusion is a self-selection thing and not us excluding you at all! It’s a horrible double-bind which is definitely at play in Letter #650.

Back to Letter #649: I think that this part of Elodie’s point is worth holding onto. Your dad has told you that your house is a painful and impossible place for him to stay, and one solution (arguably the best solution) is for him to not invite himself there (for sure) and for you to not invite him there (for the forseeable future). The problem is that nobody is being honest about that as a solution. He thinks he’s telling you what he needs by criticizing you for having stairs, and he’s not taking the “But it’s the House of Stairs and Lumpy Sofas!” condition as the “Maybe…don’t come?” message that it is. His plan is to martyr himself in order to spend Christmas with you and hope you’ll silently martyr yourself in return because that’s the deal you have right now, because faaaaaamily, because Christmas! It takes clarity and honesty to break out of those assumptions and renegotiate something else, but sadly, as long as the prospect of having that honest conversation is scarier than the prospect of actually hosting your dad, you will keep “enjoying” your annual grudging horrible painful visits from Dad. He’s not gonna get there on his own. You’re gonna have to say “Don’t come,” and you’re going to have to say it explicitly.

You aren’t a bad person if you don’t spend Christmas with your dad, this year or any other year. I don’t spend Christmas with my family anymore because traveling at this time of the year is too expensive and too stressful and I need my one little bit of down time the same as you, LW. When I did travel between Chicago and New England, I was bankrupting myself and spending half my break in airports as I waited out Ice Planet Hoth-related weather delays. My family hated it and gave me a lot of guilt about it for a long time but I knew they’d gotten it when I invited them for Thanksgiving last year and they said “Oh, but it’s so expensive and stressful to travel at that time of year” (O RLY?) and now we visit at other mutually convenient times. The first time you change up the family tradition is the hardest time, but it gets easier. Not being a bad person vs. Not hurting anyone’s feelings, there’s a different kettle of fish. Not going home hurt my family’s feelings. Not hosting your dad will hurt his. We’re breaking the meta-narrative of Home For The Holidays and Dutiful Daughters. Of course it hurts. But the alternative hurts, too. Traditions can be lovely, but breaking the “We will do x on the holidays because we have always done x” cycle as an adult can be powerful and taste like delicious freedom.

You are also not a bad person if you keep living in your house that suits you (BTW: NO ONE SAID BUY A DIFFERENT HOUSE, just that the house you bought was a choice, and hosting your dad is a choice, and hosting your dad in such an uncomfortable way is not a good choice, so an honest reexamination of priorities is at hand). You are not a bad person if you don’t spend money that you don’t have, if you don’t rearrange your furniture and your life to accommodate a once-a-year visit from a relative you’re not sure you want to see anyway. I think your Dad had a secret plan to move in with you or stay longer-term someday, and your choice of house messed with that plan (that he never talked about and you never agreed to), and that’s tied up in his reaction to the house. There are so many unasked and unanswered questions between the two of you that are coming out as “goddamn stairs!”

However, if you want your dad to ever visit you, something would have to change, because no real invitation is even possible at the current status quo. I think that’s the point that Elodie was seeking to make re: ableism: Make a real invitation (and invest somehow in his comfort, whether that’s a ramp or a new sofa or a hotel down the road, and don’t treat it like a burden), or make no invitation (which is okay if that’s what you need to do – emotionally, financially, etc). And if you don’t want your dad to come, tell him, because the unspoken “Okay, sure (not really, because it’s physically impossible for you, can’t you see that?)!” half-measure isn’t working for anyone. You kinda want him to disinvite himself from Christmas because of your stairs and his disability, but you don’t want to have to be the bad guy or make the choice or communicate the choice. You say “But he’s got it in his head that I should be adjusting my life to accommodate for him more.” He thinks he’s asking you for accommodations by complaining about the discomfort, and he thinks he’s showing love by visiting you despite the discomfort, and you think that telling him “nothing’s changed, tho!” should make it obvious that it’s not workable. You’re both wrong; you aren’t asking or telling, you are hinting, and as we know, hinting doesn’t work. Then you are super-mad at him for imposing and not getting it, but he can’t read your mind. As much as you are not a bad person for wanting to change it up this year, or for living in your house, he is not a bad person for assuming that “Christmas is something I spend with my kid,” since you’ve done it literally every year of your life. Inviting himself was not the answer, but if you want to change his assumption, you have to actually change his assumption. With words. There’s also a difference between “being a good person” and “never hurting anyone’s feelings, ever.” You don’t have to be a bad person to have incompatible wants with someone, or to disappoint their expectations. There is no great solution here that makes both of you 100% happy.

Good luck having the “Dad, I realize that this sucks and it was not what you planned, but Christmas together isn’t going to work this year” conversation. Above all, I hope you get some rest this week.

Admin Notes:

1. Comments are turned off on this entry. I don’t have the bandwidth or time to moderate further discussion, but I certainly did not want to end the year with the last thread as the last word.

2. Questions are still closed and will stay that way for a while. This next month I have some self-care and other creative projects going on. I have plans to get back to it sometime in January. If you have something time-sensitive or that’s really weighing on you in the inbox, please, please find another outlet: a hotline, a therapist or counselor, the forums, other advice bloggers/givers. If you sent a question and the situation has resolved since then, a quick “Hey, actually, we solved this” would help us prioritize things when we come back to it. Thank you and happy holidays.

3. There’s been some interest in having an open-thread for caregivers, especially of aging parents. I think that’s a great idea. If someone wants to volunteer to take point on moderating that thread, email me and I’ll make a guest-login for you, and we’ll do this sometime in the New Year.


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