After a year in which I advised a teenager to purchase a secret sex toy, encouraged a father to call his children hamster killers, and urged a husband to lay off the masturbation, I've found that sometimes I just can't anticipate which piece of advice will drive readers berserk.
I never would have expected that the letter in 2009 that would leave me feeling droopiest at the lack of reader support would be about a dirty bra. This was the one in which a young man wrote that he was alarmed that his girlfriend had worn the same bra every day for two weeks. He wondered whether she was just repugnant or also mentally disturbed. On his behalf, I polled many lovely women of my acquaintance about their bra-washing habits and found they ranged from weekly to "you don't want to know," so I assured him that his girlfriend was perfectly normal. Few found this uplifting; my cup runneth over with denunciations.
Many readers assured me that they were daily bra washers and that anything less was revolting. A reader who should definitely get a job with the Gallup Organization wrote: "I spent the day calling 92 women, ranging in age from 16 to 85, co-workers, relatives, neighbors, strangers, and found none who wore their bra more than once before washing it. None! Most were shocked that anyone would ask such a question." I can absolutely believe that many of the 92 women were shocked to be asked this question. Another reader, a newly married man who assured me his wife never wore an unwashed bra twice, wrote, "If a man wears a t-shirt one day, he puts it in the hamper. A woman should do the same with a bra. I have brought up your article to not only my wife, but also many women in my office, and we all found it to be completely disgusting." Oh, to be in the lunchroom when the guy from sales starts polling his female co-workers about their bra-laundering schedule!
People were happier with my answer to the 14-year-old girl who felt she was getting too old to sleep with her stuffed dog but just couldn't give him up. I told her to hang onto her puppy and that her own children might need him someday. I received many delightful stories about the stuffed bears, dogs, donkeys, ducks, penguins, and even pieces of blankie that not only got readers through their childhoods but have remained treasured sources of support in adulthood. "When I visited my son and his wife a few years after their marriage, in a place of honor on the marital bed was my son's old teddy bear." "Barbara Bear was such a significant part of my life that she slept under the bed when I got married, and my mother even brought her to the hospital when I had my son." "For our first anniversary, my fiance had my duck, Dilly, who still has a place on the bed, professionally cleaned and repaired from his many years of love."
The most amazing story of devotion between woman and stuffed animal was from reader Elizabeth Mesa. She wrote: "All during my military career, I carried Tigger with me. He's been to Korea, Kuwait, Iraq, Qatar. During my tour in Iraq, I was hit with a bomb and airlifted to the hospital. When I came to, I found that my darling roommate had ensured that Tigger was right on top of my rucksack. It was the best feeling ever. Never give up a treasured toy. You never know when you will really need the comfort." Thank you, Elizabeth Mesa, and Tigger, for your service.
Also unexpected was the outpouring of condemnation I received for my sarcastic answer to the conundrum posed by the woman in a "polyamorous" relationship with a couple. The three adults were blissfully happy, but the couple's teenagers were rude and obnoxious to the letter writer, which was making her reconsider her desire to move in. I told her the rights of consenting adults to do what they like end when those adults have children and she should look for a nice couple who don't have minors in the home.
Sure, I'd heard of threesomes before, but naive and sheltered as I am, I didn't realize there was a whole movement (is it run by a troika?) to go along with it. I know now, because many adherents denounced my narrow-minded, ill-informed response. I was told, "Polyamory is a real lifestyle choice, with serious emotional benefits, and is not about sex." And, "If you did a little research you would have discovered the differences between polyamory, polyfidelity, polygamy, swinging, open, and other nonmonogamous relationship styles." I actually don't care if three or 12 people want to, say, smear each other with cashew butter each evening in the most loving, emotionally supportive way possible. I'm concerned about what happens when this "lifestyle" involves kids.
In response to the letter from "Not a Prom Queen," I heard from so many people who are happy they skipped their proms that I began to worry for the solvency of the blue tuxedo manufacturers of America. This high-school letter writer said the whole prom frenzy consuming her classmates left her cold, and she was thinking of not going to her prom. I said I had missed mine (helped by the fact that I wasn't asked) and regret now that I was so alienated that I didn't participate in this ritual. Other prom skippers berated me for my bad advice. "Save your money and your sanity. Find a similarly inclined friend, go to a movie, and forget about your peers and the expensive and forgettable night they'll be having," wrote one. "You are so, so wrong. Prom, like many dictated social occasions, is absurd. If you yearn for prom all these years later—geez Louise, a little self examination might be in order."
Let me make clear that I am not sitting here, 36 years later, with a mummified corsage on my wrist, wondering where the limo is. Many rites of passage are ridiculous, and not taking prom seriously might be the way to enjoy it best. The point I was trying to make was made for me by this correspondent: "I, too, didn't get the whole prom thing. The week before prom, my good friend told me to quit being such a dork. She loaned me a dress and shoes (a half-size too small, so I wound up dancing barefoot). I danced with teachers, friends, girls, boys. It was one of the most fun high-school events I was involved in. I encourage this young woman to go with friends and be a kid one last time before high school is over and everyone goes their separate ways."
Everyone hated my response to "Utterly Confused," the young woman in the college dorm who was disturbed by the atmosphere of fear created by a dorm mate who loudly and obsessively monitored everyone else for infractions of the code (drinking, taking drugs) and reported them—including calling the police about a kid down the hall who was selling drugs. I said the girl sounded like "a sad case with an emotional disorder" and suggested the letter writer talk to the resident director about the situation. Readers wanted to know whether I was on drugs, because my answer was so wacked out. They wondered whether I was seriously defending having a dormitory become a decadent den of illegal activity, while condemning the one student who wanted a decent atmosphere.
I agree I did a terrible job of not making clear that no one should have to put up with illegal activity in the dorm (even if I think a drinking age of 21 is probably counterproductive and leads to more binge behavior). I should have answered by saying that the whole place sounded out of control, and that the dorm needed responsible adult supervision to make sure the campus rules of conduct were being respected and that all students felt safe and secure. Maybe, as some readers suggested, the hall monitor was so angry, in part, because of cruel treatment by her debauched classmates. But in editing the letter for space, I left off the information that the unhappy girl liked to go through the dorm's garbage cans looking for bottles of alcohol and roam the halls sniffing for pot so she could report her classmates. This doesn't excuse my lousy answer, but I still feel that even if the young woman was in the right, she also sounds a little off.
Finally, readers sometimes ask whether I hear back from people who have written to me for advice.
I do, rarely, and wish it were more often. Two years ago, a woman who signed herself Weighed Down wrote that she had met a fantastic man with whom she had an incredible connection, but he was overweight, and she wasn't sure she would ever be physically attracted to him. She wondered whether she should break it off before it went further and she hurt him. I advised her not to think about the future but just continue to enjoy his company and see what happened. I said instant lust is wonderful but doesn't always last, and she may be surprised by how things develop with her lovely, large man.
I recently got an update. She took my advice and wanted me to know the two of them had just gotten engaged. "I couldn't imagine my life without him in it," she wrote, and this time she signed herself, "Light as a Feather."
That made me feel light as a feather. And so, dear readers, to you best wishes for 2010, and thank you for your delightful, insightful, and provocative letters.