A few weeks ago my friend Mallory asked me if I would walk her dog Luther for a week while she went on vacation. Luther is a tiny Yorkie who can’t weigh more than five pounds, and Mallory is a good friend who lives in my building, so I figured that it would be a kind thing to do, and not all that difficult, especially since I am a freelancer and can easily go upstairs to get him times a day.
But yesterday a group of us were eating lunch together and I heard her say that Luther is a real escape artist and can get out of every leash or harness she has put on him. She even told a “funny” story about how he slipped out of his harness and ran off, crossed several busy streets, and was finally corralled in the local liquor store parking lot.
After lunch I told Mallory that I could not take care of him after all—that I would come by and keep him company if she wanted, but that I was not going to be responsible for walking a dog who might run away on my watch and maybe get lost or even killed.
Mallory is furious. She says that she will have to put Luther in a kennel because of me, that it will cost a fortune, and that she would never have taken this vacation if she knew she would have to board her dog. Then she said that even though she hoped I would reconsider and walk Luther, she was willing to compromise by sharing the cost of the kennel with me —but that she hoped I appreciated that doing so would practically break her financially.
What do you think I should do? Was it wrong of me to renege?
—Hesitant in Holmesburg
I do not see what you did as reneging. I see it as a case where your friend failed to disclose a material fact about what she was asking you to do—namely, that there is no way to walk Luther safely. Since nobody in their right mind would agree to walk a friend’s dog if they could not do so without risking the dog’s life, I do not think it was wrong of you to refuse to walk Luther given your new knowledge. In fact, it may have been morally obligatory to say no. Nor do I think you have any obligation, legal or moral, to pay for any part of Luther’s boarding. You had agreed to do something for free—for “no consideration,” as lawyers say—and would have followed through if you had not discovered Mallory’s deception. Her expecting you to subsidize the consequences strikes me as world-class chutzpah.
But there seems to be something off about this situation. From what you overheard it sounds as if Mallory herself can’t keep Luther from wriggling away. Has she really found no way to resolve this—double harness or leash, carrying him to a fenced-in park, anything? If so, can’t she share this information with you? If not, is she willing to risk his running away every time she goes out?
Of course, she may have been exaggerating for effect at lunch. But it sounds as if she has not explained the situation this way to you—and, even if she did try to dismiss what she said as comic exaggeration, could you believe her, given how self-serving it would be for her to change her story?
I see that Mallory is not just a friend but also a very near neighbor, and that you and she are part of a lunch group, so I assume that you still want to maintain cordial relations, maybe even a real friendship, with Mallory, even if the disagreement over Luther might otherwise have soured the relationship to the point that you never wanted to set eyes on each other again. For the sake of your relationship, and because it is the kind thing to do for Mallory and the pooch, I suggest that you and Mallory try to work together towards some kind of creative compromise. Tell her that—unless, perhaps, she can find Luther some better leash/harness system, get a third party expert to attest to its effectiveness, and take you and Luther on some test runs—you must still insist that you cannot walk him and be responsible for putting him in danger. Nor will you pay for any part of boarding (unless you have lots of discretionary money and actually would prefer to do so, to make life easier for yourself.) But say that you will do whatever you can to find an alternative solution. Does your building have an enclosed yard? Is there a fenced-in park nearby where you could take this five-pound dog in a carrier?
Or, since Luther is such a teeny dog, could you just leave paper out for him—or have Mallory get one of those or one of those apartment-sized grass-patch outdoors-simulation thingies —and hang out with him in the apartment? If Mallory thinks Luther can’t be counted on to use the papers or patch, perhaps he could be confined (along with some aspirational newspapers) in the kitchen or some other place with an easy-to-wash floor. To a small Yorkie, a good-sized kitchen must feel like a city block in terms of number of steps needed to navigate, points of interest, separate and discrete territories, and so on, so I don’t think this confinement would be a real hardship. And if Mallory objects that leaving Luther in the kitchen may foster bad post-vacay elimination habits, I would point out that, for most people, the risk of their dog’s running away or getting hit by a car would outweigh the risks of some confusion about house-training. Say you will be more than happy to keep Luther company at least three times a day, give him food and water, and clean up after him, and that you will even carry him to doggy day-care if it is not too far away and she agrees to pay for it. These all sound like great deals to me.
If Mallory accepts none of these proposals, I reckon that she will just have to suck it up and pay for the kennel. (If you are so inclined, you might be able to save her one or more days’ kennel costs by agreeing to drop Luther off and pick him up, since kennel hours often make it hard to leave or retrieve animals on the day the owners are traveling, especially weekends and evenings.) If Luther does end up in a kennel, I hope he makes some dog friends while he is there and enjoys his time away from Mallory. I know I would.
La Wally’s response:
That is way too much pressure for Mallory to put on Hez. Hez should not feel that she has to walk the dog if she feels uncomfortable. As for asking Hez to share the costs of a kennel, that is just crazy.
My little brother Ned–he’s twelve years younger than I am–has had a girlfriend for the last ten months and my family is trying to figure out how we can keep her in the family. Our elderly mother is in love with this girl and says that she feels like a daughter. I think if Ned did something to ruin the relationship with this girl our mother would curl up and die.
You see Ned has had many lost loves. He tells his family that he has met the love of his life, and then a few months later, when we ask him how the woman is, he makes all sorts of statements about what’s wrong with her. We all know that part of the problem is that he drinks a lot, especially on weekends, and can get very angry or silly. He’s gotten his way though life because he is very handsome, bright, and articulate, and gets away with things that my sister and I never could. We are all afraid that this won’t last.
What can we do to make sure it does?
—Sister in Springfield
I’m afraid that there is nothing you can do to “make sure” this relationship lasts. I assume that, since Ned has been around long enough to have garnered so many lost loves, he is a grown man, at least chronologically. If he is still incapable of maintaining a stable relationship without significant outside help from his extended family, you should prepare yourself for the strong possibility that his relationship with this girl –- I think she needs a name: shall we say “Catelyn”? —will also fall apart, despite everyone’s best efforts.
Nor is that necessarily a bad thing. If Ned can’t learn to control his anger, alcohol abuse, and fault-finding, I like to think that even your elderly mother would not want her beloved Catelyn to be bound to him by ties she would find hard to break.
Does Ned recognize that he has problems? Has he sought any help—therapy, anger management, AA, or substance-abuse counseling? You say that you “all” know that “part of the problem is that he drinks a lot.” Does he also know this? And are you sure that the rest of you understand how serious and intractable his problems are likely to be? Your writing that he gets “angry” and “silly” makes me concerned that, even in your letter, you are trying to paper over some fairly alarming behavior.
Although it can be almost impossible to restrain oneself when a loved one persists in self-destructive conduct, you and your family need to accept that the motivation for change has to come from Ned, not you or Catelyn or anyone else —and that even then he and Catelyn may face many obstacles. Also bear in mind that attempting to sugarcoat, downplay, put a brave face on, etc., Ned’s history and tendencies in order to preserve his relationship with Catelyn is a generally bad idea. I suppose that you are all to be forgiven, maybe even commended, for doing what you can to salvage Thanksgiving dinner, or prevent some specific public scene—but don’t make a rule of indulging him or deceiving her. Doing so will just make life harder for everyone in the long run, with deeper disappointments and increased emotional and practical entanglements by the time the situation almost inevitably deteriorates.
Having said all this, there may be some hope! Alcoholics can recover, spoiled sons can finally grow up, and charming players can decide to settle down. There are a few steps you can take to help Ned and Catelyn help themselves, and to improve things for yourself and the rest of the family.
The obvious first step is to steer Ned towards help—which, from the tone of your letter, it sounds as if he is not currently receiving. Decide which of you would be the best emissary—or, if you think doing so would make take the matter more seriously, stage an intervention. If you know any therapists or counselors with relevant expertise, or anybody who has problems like Ned’s and does not mind discussing them, ask for assistance in how to proceed. The federal government (start with samhsa.gov) and almost every state and local government in the US also have agencies and even hotlines you can call—unfortunately, every state also has a Springfield, so I cannot be more specific.
For your own sake and if you want personal local help finding resources for Ned, I also suggest consulting a counselor yourself, at least for a single session. And check out your local Al-Anon.
How close are you to Catelyn? It sounds as if you like her. Unless you think it would be awkward to become her friend in your own right, or to stay friends if she and Ned break up, I’d consider creating or deepening an independent relationship with her. The same is true of other family members and of the extended family as a group. As long as nobody misleads her, there is nothing wrong with creating a situation where Ned’s family becomes an added reason for Catelyn to stay with him. Besides, making friends is a good thing, and many friendships outlive marriage and romance. (I count some of my own or other family member’s exes among my dearest friends.) Invite Catelyn on family and one-on-one outings. Send her news stories that made you think of her, old family photos she might like, and so on. Share confidences—but only if you feel that you can be fully honest and trust your own motives.
Is Catelyn aware of Ned’s issues? Has she already borne the brunt of them, or is he still in the earlier, rosier stage of this particular relationship? Talk to Catelyn –sympathize, join forces —if and when the time seems right. Take care not to jump the gun, though. It’s just possible that Ned may clean up his act this time, at least if he gets some help, and you certainly don’t want to scare Catelyn off when there is nothing to be scared about.
As for your elderly mother, who seems to be a large part of your reason for writing, I think you would agree that she should not figure too heavily in the Ned-Catelyn equation. Although I love and admire many elderly mothers, and hope to become one myself some day, saving their elders from (even literal) heartbreak is a terrible reason for a couple to stay together. Your efforts will be more likely to succeed, and more worthy of success, if you all think in terms of what’s best for your brother and for Catelyn.
I probably don’t need to tell you this but, just to be on the safe side: say what you like to Catelyn about how much Elderly Ma and the rest of you love her, but never tell her that you don’t think Ma would survive a breakup! Saying things like that creates a claustral feeling, a sense that you are being ganged up on, as if you were some heiress in a Victorian melodrama and your moldering noble trustees were trying to marry you off to their idiot son.
I hope that Ned and Catelyn can work it out or, at least, that this situation leaves you with a wiser brother, a worthy new friend, and a healthy mother who has reconciled herself to reality and and enjoys regular visits from that nice ex of her darling but star-crossed son.
La Wally’s response: This situation does not sound promising. All the family can really do is talk to Ned and try to get him to see what a good thing Catelyn is and how he will lose her if he does not clean up his act this time. If Ned won’t listen and you care about Catelyn, stop encouraging the relationship.
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.