I work in an office that I share with two other people. The desks are in a triangle with short partitions between us, but it is possible to see one another through the gaps. One co-worker is part-time, so I am frequently alone with the third. Lately, I have been hearing and then seeing him participating in a solo activity usually done in the bedroom. Once I figured out for sure what he was doing, I went to human resources. The manager told me that as she has only my word about this, I should go find her when he does it again so she can know for herself. The problem is, she is never around when it happens. He stops if I get up to go out the door and starts when I sit down again. I feel violated, abused, and totally grossed out. What should I do?
This HR manager says she wants you to tell your co-worker while he's in flagrante, "Hold that thought!" as you scurry off to get her, so she can return and catch him, uh, red-handed. So now you have two problems: You sit next to a pervert, and your head of HR is an incompetent lunatic. I spoke to Philip Gordon, an employment law attorney in Boston, about your predicament. He was more astounded that HR put the onus of proving onanism on you than that there's a masturbator lurking in cubicle-land. You are not required to don latex gloves and do a forensic search through the guy's wastebasket for incriminating Kleenex. Once you reported this gross violation, HR's obligation was to investigate and act to address it. Gordon says the company can check the guy's computer to see if he's been downloading pornography while he's been unloading—that's enough to get him fired. If he doesn't confess and there's no evidence, then at the very least the company has an obligation to take your complaint seriously enough to relocate him to a desk far away from you—preferably one with a 360-degree view, so they can keep an eye on him. If it's just for internal investigative purposes, the company might also be entitled to secretly videotape your pod. Since your HR department is a joke, you must take this complaint up the chain of command and explain the situation you find yourself in. Surely one of the bosses will be interested that the jerk-off you sit next to is creating a hostile work environment (and that the HR department is run by a dope). No one wants to get into a lawsuit, but a company that won't address a problem like this is one that really wants to end up in court.
I have been hit hard by the recession. I was laid off, my unemployment has run out, and I've had a difficult time finding another job. While I have no problem with scrimping, saving, and freezing my spending until things pick up, my girlfriend of five years, whom I love very much, has started to become very anxious about it. In more lucrative times, when we both had good jobs, we did a lot together. However, in the absence of funds on my part, her general demeanor toward me has become more acerbic and distant. Whenever she suggests we go out and do something, I calmly explain that I'm broke and can't afford any discretionary spending. She says I have a credit card and could use it if I really wanted to. I respond that that would be completely irresponsible. Then she gets mad and sulks about being bored. Now I'm worried our relationship was only good in proportion to our respective incomes. I'm also starting to worry she's spending way more than she should, but when I bring it up, she tells me not to "parent" her. I would rather lose a job than lose the girl I love, but it seems being poor is easier when you're alone. How do I convince her to settle down without seeming like I'm lecturing her?
No, it's not easier being poor alone; it's only easier if your partner wants you to spend yourself into the poor house. Negotiating the stresses of this deepening recession is going to be an ever-more-important issue for romantic relationships, and many aren't going to make it. The unemployed person has lost both income and identity, and the still-employed person feels the pressure of being an emotional and financial support. And everyone is longing for things to quickly go back to the way they were. (Note: if you want to hang onto that hope, do not read anything by Nouriel Roubini.) But you two need to recognize that the end of discretionary income doesn't mean nights of darning socks by candlelight. Find free or bargain ways to enjoy life. Join or start a book club (first selection: The Grapes of Wrath). Have potluck dinner and rental movie nights with friends. Go to museums during free or discounted hours. Check out speakers at the nearest college. Cook vats of soup together. Take hikes. Hey, being broke sounds so productive, maybe darning socks by candlelight is fun after all. If your girlfriend insists that having a good time requires offerings to the gods of APR, then, sadly, she may not be the woman for you. And since she's not your wife, and your finances are separate, if she wants to get herself into debt, you can rightly enter this into your calculation about your future together, but she's also right that you can't stop her.
For years, my older sister and I have been at each other's throats. She was my father's favorite, and he spent a great deal of time with her. He barely even spoke to me from the time I was about 12 years old. Of course, I was jealous. My sister and I are in our 50s now, and she recently revealed a secret she has kept for all these years. In a letter, she told me that she was a victim of sexual molestation by my father from early childhood until she was in her teens. When she told me this, I couldn't even speak because I was too hurt and shocked by the whole thing. My father has been dead for almost four years, so I can't confront him, and I feel too horrified and hurt to say anything further to my sister. What can I do?
—The Younger of Two Traumatized Sisters
Life rarely offers the kind of revelatory psychological key that novels and movies are so good at ("She's my sister and my daughter"). You've just been given one, and you must feel you're standing on quicksand. You now know what it really meant that your sister was your father's favorite. You were a victim, too—it's hard to imagine the damage of having a father act as if you don't exist. But now you have the guilt of knowing his neglect was a form of salvation, and you were jealous of the attentions of a rapist. This is a lot to process, but you must start by becoming unfrozen and reaching out to your sister. It has taken her all this time, and your father's death, to be able to tell you about her life—and she couldn't even bring herself to speak the words. You must pick up the phone or get on a plane and reach out to her. How painful your silence must be now that she has finally broken through her silence of so many decades. Tell her you're so sorry about what she suffered, how you misunderstood her, about what you both went through. You both should look into support groups for victims of abuse and incest, and I hope you and your sister each find therapists who specialize in family trauma. You two can start trying to create for each other the bonds of love and trust that never existed during your childhood. Fortunately, your monstrous father is dead, but you don't mention your mother. She either knew or didn't want to know about the sickness that was happening around her. If she's alive, your relationship with her is never going to be the same.
I am part of a very close-knit group at my college. My friends hug and kiss all the time, occasionally sleep in one another's beds, share food and drink, and entertain a general disregard for conventional personal boundaries. I appreciate our intimate culture, and while I am all for spreading the love, I am not so keen on spreading the germs. Last year, despite taking pretty good care of myself, I was frequently ill. (The gang came and visited me while I had the flu. A few of them attempted to climb into bed with me to cheer me up.) This year, I've made some changes in my daily routines, such as more hand washing and more sleep. I try to explain my health concerns when I recoil from the stuffed-up "Sylvia" or when I refuse a bite of the wheezing "Leonard's" sandwich. They don't take offense at what they call my germaphobia, but my social life has gotten awkward as a result of my precautions. What should I do?
—Head Health Honcho
You must be matriculating at Bonobo University, or maybe Bonobo Nursery School, because the "let's all roll around in a mess of mucus" sounds more like pre-K than premed. As I've noted before, I admire your generation's ability to create intense, cross-gender, noncoupled gangs. But, folks, at least adopt the basic rules of personal hygiene posted at any decent day care center. If you're going to continue to hang out with your sneezing, wheezing pals, invest in some basic protection: Check with your doctor about the meningococcal vaccines, and get an annual flu shot. And I will continue to assume that your generation's social life will start to get awkward if by the time you're in your 30s, you all haven't started to limit your intimate germ swapping to that one special host.
Photograph of Prudie by Teresa Castracane.