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 AskJune@Cleavermagazine.com
For the past few months I have been working full-time on a national political campaign with a group of intelligent, committed, interesting people. One of these people—whom I’ll call Christine—lives just down the street from me. I had seen her around and chatted with her a few times when we walked our dogs, and had thought more than once that it might be nice to get to know her better, so I was pleased when I saw that we would be working together and hoped that we might become friends (and nothing else: we are both straight women).
But it looks like she wants nothing to do with me. She’s never unpleasant or rude, but she seems to go out of her way to keep me at a distance. People at headquarters are always going out to grab lunch together, and I have asked her to do so three times, twice as part of a small group and once just with me. She said no every time, saying she wanted to eat in. But she almost never eats in otherwise. I’ve also offered her a ride home several times, and she has always refused that, too, although twice I saw her getting into an Uber just as I was leaving. When I try to strike up a conversation with her about anything, even our jobs, she talks in monosyllables and extricates herself as soon as possible. With other people at the office she tends to be warm and vivacious, even outgoing.
Can you give me any idea what might be wrong with me, or what I should do to turn this situation around? Other than the way she treats me, I really like this woman.
—Rejected in Riverdale
You haven’t said anything to make me think there’s anything wrong with you—except, maybe, for the insecurity that makes you ask what’s wrong with you.
There are several possible explanations, other than some real or perceived defect of yours, for Christine’s not accepting your overtures. It could just be a matter of a series of coincidences: she may have been swamped, or already spoken for, or in the middle of a riveting book, on the days you happened to ask her to have lunch. She may not have been going directly home on the days she ordered those Ubers. As for her apparent brusqueness with you, it may simply be that she takes a while to warm up to new people. Or that you have been catching her at busy hectic times.
Or she may in fact be putting you off, but not because of any quality of yours. Maybe she prefers to keep her work life separate from her personal life, in which case your living right down the street may actually create a barrier for her. Some people go to great lengths to leave office pressures and office gossip at the office, and the pressures and concerns of their home life at home. As for not accepting your offer of a ride, Christine may just like to unwind alone. I used to work at a stressful job with a long solitary commute—just me and music and something hot or carbonated—which I took pains to protect. In my experience, political campaigns do tend to be more intense and all-encompassing than most jobs, and the lines between work friends and all-purpose friends—or, as my non-work buddy Linda calls them, real friends—are more likely to blur. Christine may be trying to buck this trend. And, of course, she may just not want any new friends at all right now, even work friends. You say that she is friendlier to her other coworkers, but this may just be because she already knows them.
Of course, there’s always the possibility that it really is personal—that Christine just doesn’t like the cut of your jib. If something happens that forces you to believe this, try to remember that even the most worthy and delightful of us aren’t liked by everybody.
I know how much it can hurt to be rebuffed, if that is in fact what’s happening. But please don’t assume that there is anything wrong with you, and try hard not to dwell on the matter.
Besides, she may not be a prize herself. You say that you like everything about her except the way she treats you. But it doesn’t sound as if you know her that well; and even if she does turn out to have all sorts of other sterling qualities, the way she treats you is pretty much the whole show as far as you’re concerned. You don’t want to fall into the role of the pursuer, which can be terrible for the ego and take up lots of time and emotional energy.
You ask me what you should do to “turn the situation around.” My short answer is: do nothing. Stop going out of your way to invite her to lunch, or offer a ride home, at least for the time being. Maybe she’ll start being friendlier after getting to know you better over the course of your both working together and living in the same neighborhood. Or maybe not, but your quite-reasonable friendly overtures haven’t worked so far, and persisting in them might have the effect of making her think you are needy, or bossy, or the sort of person who can’t take a hint.
I hope some blizzard or campaign trip throws you together and gives her a chance to know and like you, or that she warms to you over time. If not, her loss.
Carry on, and get out the vote!
LA WALLY SAYS:
I’ve had that happen. You could ask her what the deal is, but that might be awkward. Or you could just accept that she doesn’t seem to want to be friends. Not everyone will like you.
Last Christmas my least-favorite aunt gave my parents matching DNA/ancestry tests, and they duly sent in their swabs. Although neither of my parents found any new close relatives or anything, my mother got some surprising results. Her case was sort of like the one they used to show on TV, where some guy always thought he was German and found out he was “really” Scottish, except that for my mom it was Italian vs. Spanish (or maybe Portuguese): she had an Italian surname and, when she thought about the matter at all, believed that most or all of her family was of Italian extraction, but according to the DNA test she was 80% “Iberian Peninsula.”
The TV guy went right out and changed his lederhosen for a kilt. Unlike him, my mom did not see any reason to alter anything about her life. She had been raised in a tradition that was “basically unhyphenated,” as she puts it, and Italian-American only in the sense that they ate a lot of Italian food and went to the occasional opera. Mom is a fourth- and fifth-generation American, as far as she call tell, and figures that it would be silly to suddenly start revising her sense of ethnic identity now, since nobody in her family’s living memory spoke Spanish or Portuguese, or otherwise showed ties to Spanish or Portuguese culture. She plans to continue cooking and eating Italian food and listening to opera because, as she says, she always has—and because she liked them, and neither activity requires a license.
My dad, who is of mixed Northern European WASP origin and whose test told him nothing new, can’t understand my mom’s lack of interest in her test and what he calls its “startling” and “exciting” results. He keeps urging her to get a fuller genealogy done and find out more about these long-dead ancestors so that he can take her out to flamenco or fado—or, if some of these supposed forbears took a detour on the way to the USA, possibly mariachi—concerts, as appropriate, and maybe pay a visit to her place(s) of origin after a few language classes. She says no to any more research. As for concerts and trips, she says that she is up for most concerts and trips, but not because of any alleged blood ties she never even knew about until last Christmas.
Much to my amazement, this ancestry thing is causing real tension in my family. He tells her that she shouldn’t deny who she is. She tells him that she’s not denying anything, she just thinks her distant ancestry has very little to do with who she is. He says she should embrace her heritage. She asks him why he hell he won’t just let it go, and why he is acting as if she is a different person now, and as if he’d found out she and her family had been deceiving themselves or something. The other day when I was in their driveway loading up my car to go home I could hear them ratcheting up their disagreement, complete with name-calling: Coward! Creep! Totally lacking in curiosity! Un-American!
Do you agree with me that my dad is about 90% in the wrong here? Can you think of anything to do to calm things down? Why do people even take these tests???
—Had It in Haddonfield
P.S. In case this matters, I don’t think anybody in my family favors any of these cultures over the others. My dad loves Verdi and worships cannoli, and both my parents encouraged me to minor in Spanish in college and spend my junior year in Madrid.
Dear Had It,
I agree with you about your dad. In fact, I would up the percentage to, say, 96, and he only gets that 4% because your mother—it is your mother, right?– called him a creep, which is hardly ever a good idea.
From what I’ve seen, people—I am speaking here of individuals with a purely personal interest, not academics or scientists or amateur historians—get involved with genealogy and genetic testing for all sorts of reasons. Some of these reasons are clearly unexceptionable or even compelling, like health-related concerns, or the desire to learn more about the lives of recent ancestors and maybe find some precious photos or a long-lost cousin. Some reasons can be downright inspiring, as in the case of quests to uncover the past of enslaved forbears or victims of genocide. At the other extreme you have the snobs and bigots hoping to establish their superiority to the rest of us by proving that they come from what a repellant ex-acquaintance of mine called “good stock,” thanks to a family tree they can trace back to people nobody in ten generations would recognize if they walked up and played the fife at them.
But I suspect that most searches are somewhere in the middle, and are motivated by idle curiosity, with the hope of discovering something flattering or at least mildly interesting about one’s forbears. It sounds to me as if your unfavorite aunt sent the tests, and your parents took them, for reasons of that sort. (Actually, in your mother’s case, the chief reason may have been more on the order of: “Better just take the stupid test, but I would have preferred a scarf.”) All in the spirit of harmless fun.
What a shame that your father is leaching away whatever scant amusement the test may have afforded your mother by making a big deal out of a report—which, by the way, could be inaccurate or misleading for any number of reasons you can read about in stupefying detail online—purporting to show that her remote European ancestors lived a few hundred miles west of where she used to think they had, if she thought about it at all.
If, upon reading her test results, your mom had squealed with delight, said “You know, I’ve always felt drawn to Spanish [and/or Portuguese] culture,” and run off to sign up for language lessons and amass travel brochures, that would have been just fine—as long as she didn’t go overboard and start thinking of herself as an instant minority or calling you “mija.” But she didn’t, which is also fine, and it baffles me that your father thinks he has anything to say now that she has made her wishes known. She does not see herself as having any meaningful “Iberian” heritage to reclaim. This is totally her call.
I did entertain (for about three seconds) the idea that, given the appalling way our government and some of our citizens are treating immigrants from the south and Latinx people in general, your mom should proclaim her new DNA status as an act of solidarity and stand with them. But this idea totally misses the point. All of us, including your mom, should stand with them—but I don’t see why your mom has any special right, or duty, to ally herself with Spanish, Portuguese, and/or Latinx people as if everybody with “Iberian” DNA is part of some kind of monolith, no matter where and how they have lived down the generations, what languages they speak, and what culture they see as their own.
Cultural heritage is a living, experiential thing, not something you get from a bunch of molecules. I’m reminded of a story I kept hearing years ago, when we were adopting a child and trading horror stories, about how a passerby walked up to the American adoptive mother of a Korean infant and asked how the family was going to handle the language barrier. Of course, that adoptive mom (if she really existed) probably went out of her way to expose her child to Korean culture and perhaps the Korean language, which makes perfect sense. Learning where they came from can foster a sense of pride and a feeling of connection for kids who have been adopted away from their country of birth—especially when their being ethnically different is obvious and will draw comments from curious kids and clueless adults. But your mom’s ties to Spanish or Portuguese culture appear so tenuous that laying any special claim to that identity almost seems phony, like posing. (I do not use the freighted term “cultural appropriation” because this letter is plenty long already and, given your mom’s attitude, why go there?)
So yeah, your dad has absolutely no right to pressure your mom or to question her attitudes about her own identity. But my saying that—and its’ being true – will not help you much with your question about how to “calm things down.” It’s hard for me to imagine his maintaining his current level of concern for much longer; but, then again, it’s hard for me to imagine his having gotten so worked up in the first place.
You might try sitting your folks, or just your dad, down and explaining how you hate to see them disagreeing and arguing. Say that you see those test results as the mother of all non-issues, and really hope that your dad can move on. Add that you are grateful for your parents’ having exposed you many rich cultures, and especially for helping you spend a year in Spain.
One last note: from the tone of your letter, I assumed that you are as uninterested in your supposed Iberian-peninsula DNA as your mother. But was I wrong? Unlike your mom, you were already a serious student of Spanish language and culture, and had chosen to spend a year in Spain, before she got tested. I can see how you might like the idea of ancestors from Spain and/or Portugal, and might even want to explore your mother’s family tree a little further. And as long as your research is basically recreational, or part of a history project or something, and not a quest for a new sense of identity, why not? Just don’t tell your parents, at least not quite yet.
LA WALLY SAYS:
I agree that your dad is being ridiculous. You should tell him to lay off. If it doesn’t mean anything to your mom, it shouldn’t to him. I do think they should take an extra (not substitute!) vacation to Spain and Portugal, though. Because why not?
Assuming good health, is it ever too late to write a novel? I am asking not for a friend but for myself, a woman in her late sixties.
—Geriatric in Germantown
Absolutely not. If you think you have the stamina—and why wouldn’t you, in your sixties?—go for it. I know from experience as an editor that first novels by older people aren’t any worse, or better, stylistically than first novels by young people. And you probably have more to write about than all those whippersnappers whose experience is limited to summer jobs, M.F.A. programs, sex, and what’s left of academia.
I should warn you, though, that publishing your novel may pose special challenges, at least if you are hoping to work with a traditional house. I have only anecdotal evidence for this but, from what several of my friends tell me, it is harder to get an agent, much less land a publisher, as you get older. One novelist-professor I know is convinced that her first name, which was the third most popular baby-girl name in 1955, keeps all those twenty-something first readers at magazines and publishing houses from giving her work serious consideration.
She is considering a nom de plume—or, rather, a nom that nobody out there knows is de plume, but believes to be the name she was born with—one that’s younger-sounding and, while she’s at it, androgynous. I think she may be onto something here. If you’re just starting out as a writer, or just getting back to writing after a long time away, I’d definitely consider changing a name that might peg you as older. I’d go with a choice from the popular baby names lists of the late 90s or, maybe better, a name that’s young-sounding but also just plain weird. You could even change your email and, if you’ve got a friend or child who’ll help, your physical address while you’re at it: Fox Ambrose (firstname.lastname@example.org, #2B, 100 Polk Street, Somewhere in Brooklyn) will probably get taken more seriously than Linda White (Linda1956@aol.com, Villa #5 Bayview Independent Living, Tampa Exurbs).
I am only half-joking about this gambit. But I know that, like most people, you probably have plenty of good reasons not to try it—like fear of discovery, preferring not to behave like a character in a silly movie, and liking your actual name and contact information. And you may have a well-developed sense of pride and personal integrity.
In any case, as I am sure you’ve heard, even the young and charismatic have a hard time securing good agents or traditional publishers. I hope and trust that, much as every writer would love to find a power agent and get picked up by a traditional house, fame and fortune (or, to add a hint of realism, midlist status and a small advance) are not what motivate you. Your letter doesn’t tell me much—for all I know, you are shivering in a garret somewhere, desperately hoping to write yourself out of desperate straits—but I like to think that you have enough money for essentials, and that you can make time for writing.
If you do have the time and money, write for the joy of it —the joy of the process, and the joy of accomplishment. Getting lost writing long fiction can be one of life’s great pleasures, sort of like an ongoing lucid dream. And this is true even if your novel is not a commercial success—indeed, even if it never gets published at all, or doesn’t turn out to be especially good, or never actually gets finished.
Do finish your book, though, and make some revisions, and maybe find or hire one or more people to look it over, and make some more revisions—and then get it out there, with or without a traditional publisher. These days it is quite honorable, and fairly affordable, to self-publish. I know people who, thanks mostly to the Internet, have done very well publicizing their book, getting online reviews, finding readers, and sometimes even earning real money.
Try not to waste time on self-doubt or regret. As George Eliot said: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” Well, actually it is, if you are talking about childbearing or climbing Everest or playing the Queen of the Night. But I think she’s got it right where fiction writing is concerned. And she should know: she published the great Middlemarch in her fifties, which is like being about 85 in 21st– Century years. So pick up that quill and get started.
LA WALLY SAYS:
No, it is never too late to do anything, except maybe have a baby. Always try any new thing that makes you happy!
My longtime (almost seven years now) partner and I are both women in our late 20s. Both of us are overweight, but Trudy, as I will call my partner, is heavier than I am. She is much more comfortable with her weight, perhaps because she has been big for most of her life, while I have only really struggled with my weight since I gave up competitive sports after college.
When I went for a physical this past July, my doctor suggested that I lose about thirty pounds. She said it might help me cope with the aftereffects of a knee injury. She also pointed out that my weight had been creeping up steadily for years and that this was something I should try to turn around sooner rather than later.
So I joined a support group and started tracking the food I ate. Also counting calories and measuring portions, which is kind of a drag, and working out three or four times a week, which to my surprise feels really good. So far I have been losing almost a pound a week and have gone down a size and a half. I get horrible food cravings sometimes, but most of the time I am happy with my plan and thrilled with my progress. I have more energy and my knee feels a little better.
But my relationship with Trudy is suffering. I never realized how much of what we do revolves around either eating or drinking or sitting around. Eating out and going to bars is basically how we socialize with most of our friends. At home, we cook for each other—I make great soups and casseroles, and Trudy is a wonderful baker. Then we veg out in front of the TV, usually with beer or wine and all sorts of munchies.
I can still do most of these things, but I am trying to cook much lighter meals (which I often make in two versions to accommodate her and which she is of course is free to augment in any way she pleases). And I really can’t eat more than a token bite of Trudy’s baked goods. When we go out, I drink seltzer and eat mostly salads. Lately I have been suggesting more movies and concerts and fewer big dinners out, because they are a bit of a trial for me. But Trudy acts as if my not eating fattening food along with her, and my not wanting our social life to center on food and drink quite as much as it used to, is insensitive or even hostile. She also resents it when I go to the gym.
Lately she has been going out of her way to bake my favorite breads and cakes and buy my favorite wines. One night about a week ago, when presented with a rich chocolate torte, I asked her not to do this so much and she started to cry, as if I had been ungracious about a gift, which I guess maybe I had. Then the other night when we were eating out with friends and I ordered just an appetizer she kept trying to get me to “do the restaurant justice” and not be such a stickler.
Last night we kind of had it out. She told me that she didn’t recognize me, that I was becoming an uptight person and denying myself—and therefore her—life’s small pleasures out of a desire to conform to some societal idea of female beauty. That most people who try to take weight off gain it all back again in a few years, so why bother? That she loves me just the way I am, and she hopes I feel the same way about her, but now she is starting to wonder. She said that I used to understand that fat was beautiful until I started counting calories and trying to be something I’m not.
What am I supposed to do? I really love Trudy, but I also want to get healthier and, I admit, maybe look and move a little better. Do you think she’s right that I am sabotaging our relationship?
—Losing It in Lafayette
Dear Losing It,
No, but I do think she is sabotaging your diet—or, as we should probably call it if you want to maintain it, your “lifestyle change.”
What surprises me about Trudy’s conduct is how up-front she is. Most people who try to sabotage a dieter are a lot more subtle about it, and may not even know what they are doing until they get called out. But Trudy is quite clear that she does not want you to succeed with your current plan of eating less and moving more, and that she does not want your body to change, either.
Trudy’s behavior is terrible. She is tearing you down, disrespecting your choice, trying to make you feel guilty, predicting that you will fail, and trying her best to see that you do. If your new eating and exercise regimen were really self-destructive or unhealthy or doomed to failure, there might be some justification for her strategy, if not her tactics. But it is not as if you are starving yourself —I say this based on your steady but not startling weight loss—or hurting yourself in any way. You are acting on doctor’s orders, and your diet and exercise program sound reasonable—better for your body, in fact, than your previous lifestyle with Trudy. Nor do you seem to be trying to turn into a Barbie doll: you started out thinking primarily about your knee and your future health and well-being. If you end up looking “better” in terms of social norms, that is just fine, as long as you continue to accept and appreciate people who don’t look that way.
Trudy is right about one thing: most dieters regain the weight they’ve lost. Weight gain is a complex issue and often an intractable problem. And that’s a good reason to be vigilant, seek support or expert help if you need it, keep exercising (there is some evidence that exercise can help maintain weight loss, and anyway it is good for you), and go easy on yourself if you backslide. But it’s a very bad reason to give up in the middle of a successful diet and exercise plan, especially a slow, steady, reasonable one like yours that actually has a good shot at becoming a way of life.
I can see how it would be hard for Trudy to cope with the loss of your comfortable daily routines; but it sounds as if you are willing to compromise, and she should be willing to do the same.
Whether she is emotionally capable of his kind of compromise is another matter. Trudy sounds cripplingly insecure and terrified of rejection. Based on your history together, you might be able to reassure her that you will still love her body, no matter how your own body changes: after all, it sounds as if you were considerably thinner when you started dating her, and her size was not an issue then. She may also be worried that you will leave her for somebody thinner if you become more conventionally attractive to other women and they pursue you—an attitude which, when you stop and think about it, is fairly insulting to both of you: Does she think you are only staying with a fat woman because you are a fat woman, too, and can do no “better”? You two need to discuss this.
The facet of her insecurity that worries me the most is her apparent belief that your losing weight, and living in a way that makes this possible, is in itself a rejection of her body and her lifestyle. If she can’t accept that you need to live and look in ways you quite reasonably think are best for you, I do not hold out much hope for your relationship. You two really need to discuss this.
I strongly suggest couples counseling. I am sure it would help Trudy to give her side of the story. She may want a neutral party to listen when she says that it’s hard to drink alone; hard to enjoy ribs and blackout cake when her ever-more-svelte partner orders baby arugula, dressing on the side, and six raspberries; hard to watch as the woman she loves puts on strange Spandex clothes and heads off to the gym on mornings that used to be for books and Danish and cuddling in sweatpants. And it is hard. But it’s necessary, and a healthy relationship can survive it.
Good luck. And may I suggest angel food cake, Vita Tops, and spaghetti squash with marinara sauce and shaved Parmesan? All under 150 calories.
LA WALLY SAYS:
No, Trudy is wrong. People grow and change. If this makes you happier and healthier you should do it. Everyone is beautiful, but Trudy needs to understand that you have to be the person you want to be. Don’t let her get in the way of your happiness.
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 AskJune@Cleavermagazine.com. Find more columns by June in her attic.
La Wally is the nom de June of June Cleaver‘s adult daughter. In real life, she’s an artist and entrepreneur. What’s up with her name? In choosing a pseudonym, the two of them considered the names of the original Cleaver family offspring, both boys, but rejected “Beaver” for obvious reasons. “Wally” alone seemed too masculine and generally hideous. But “La Wally” brings to mind Catalani’s wonderful opera. Speaking of which, have you seen the movie Diva? You should.