Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Evolving Advice

For generations of newspaper readers, Dear Abby and Ann Landers were synonymous with advice columns.  Like Kleenex and Coke, they were the brand names that represented the entire industry.  They were also highly competitive twin sisters who for large parts of their lives were estranged from each other.  But I've already written about that fascinating feud.

They may have been the voices of several generations, but I'm realizing that those generations were way before my time.  The Dear Abby I knew growing up wasn't even the original Abby, but her daughter.  The Friedman twins who would become Ann and Abby were born almost 100 years ago.  By 1965, Ann Landers was a grandmother in her mid-40's who had been writing her column for a decade.  Both twins were already huge media sensations. 

I learned all this because I've finally got around to reading their twinography, Dear Ann, Dear Abby: The Unauthorized Biography of Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren.

Despite its titillating title that makes it sound like a trashy expose, and the fact that it was written 25 years ago, there is some interesting stuff in it.

But what I'd like to focus on, and what this blog is about, is how dated these women's lives seem.  It's kind of like reading science fiction from the 1950's:  you know they meant well, and in their time they were progressive, but every once in a while something happens to shock you into the realization of how different times were back then.

Here's a horrible little story of how Abby ("Popo") met her husband, Mort Phillips:

Henry Ginsburg, a young man from Sioux City, invited Eppie [Ann Landers] to a Sigma Alpha Mu dance at the University of Minnesota.  Obviously, one twin wasn't going to an out-of-state dance without the other, so Ginsburg asked a frat brother, Mort Phillips, to escort Popo.  According to Popo, when she got to Minneapolis, "Morton had decided he didn't want to take me.  He said, 'I want to see the girl first.' " Ginsburg got another friend to take Popo to the dance.  "Anyway, I went to this dance," Popo continues, "and Morton cut in on me, and I... was... in... heaven. I don't usually do this, but I made a late date with Morton that night."  

So she finds it not rude and arrogant, but charming that this man, 1.) refused to be her date until he got a look at her gams, and 2.) cut in on her date when he saw what a doll she was.  I have to hope that this is a generational thing, because I truly can't see how that's the meet-cute she makes it out to be.

Many years later, when both twins are blowing up as advice columnists, Abby gets interviewed on national TV by none other than Edward R. Murrow himself:

Murrow asks Popo why she puts her typewriter away at six o'clock each night.

Perched on the edge of a metal swivel chair, knees pressed primly together, Popo demurely replies, "Are you kidding?  I never work in the evenings, Ed. I never work on my family's time."

"You mean you don't let being Dear Abby interfere with being Mrs. Morton Phillips, wife and mother?" Murrow asks in mock wonder.

"No, Ed," says Popo, repeating in singsong cadences her well-rehearsed credo.  "What you might call my career is actually my hobby.  My number-one career is my family, and I never let my hobby interfere with my career.  That's how I keep my career and hobby apart, and both successful."  

While I can admire Abby's commitment to her family, and I'm pleased to see that she appeared to be genuinely in love with her husband for their entire lives, it's striking to me how little regard was given to women's careers at the time.  In the climate of the 1950's, even a national media figure like Dear Abby had make it clear that her career was always secondary to her husband's.   

Perhaps it is a credit to their progressive nature that both columnists changed their positions on many social issues.  In the beginning, Ann Landers "maintained a hard line on interfaith and interracial dating and marriage, and still disapproved of premarital sex and divorce."  But she would change her mind on all of those issues eventually.

Maybe that's not so much progressive as adapting to the times.  After all, these popular media figures couldn't have stayed so successful for so long if they hadn't been able to gauge their audience and adjust to prevailing attitudes. The book also suggests that as Ann gained more personal experience with these issues, and heard more first-person accounts from her readers, she realized it was more complicated than she'd thought.  In essence, the less ignorant you become, the more you're open to social issues


Ann and Abby were pioneers of advice writing, so I don't want to bash them too much for the attitudes of the age that produced them.  Advice columns have come a long way since then.  When Ann Landers died, her writing desk was bought at auction by Dan Savage, one of my favorite current advice columnists.

To show how far that desk has come, Savage is a gay man who writes a sex advice column that routinely uses acronyms like DTMFA (Dump The Motherfucker Already) and concepts like "pegging" (a woman using a dildo to penetrate her straight male partner.)  Savage's column would surely shock the pantaloons off of 1938's Friedman twins.

Margo Howard is Ann Lander's daughter, who had her own advice column.
And even Savage gets attacked nowadays for being too conservative.  So I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Or something like that.


Incidentally, what I consider to be the pinnacle of advice giving these days is Carolyn Hax of the Washington Post.  In Dan Savage's book, The Commitment-- about whether he and his boyfriend Terry should get gay married-- he writes about doing his own un-scientific comparison of current advice columns.  He writes to three popular columnists, laying out the issues and everyone involved, and asks them, "Should we get married?"  Here's his analysis: 

Like all good advice columnists, Amy and Margo [Margo Howard, incidentally the real-life daughter of Ann Landers]  instinctively side with the author of the letter, me, in my dispute with my mother, boyfriend, and son.  This is as it should be. So long as the person who asks the question doesn't come across as crazy or self-destructive, an advice columnist's job is usually to divine what it is the reader wants and to do and advice him or her to do just that....

Carolyn, however, doesn't bite.  Instead of telling us to do what we want, instead of offering us any advice at all, Carolyn puts a pair of questions to us.  And while her words are less comforting, she does manage to get to a little closer to the heart of the matter: "Do you believe in marriage, or don't you?  Do your values demand it, or not?"  

So it's official: Carolyn won Dan Savage's advice columnist throw down.  That's why she's my favorite.

And I've never even seen her gams.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Same School, Different Worlds

Here's a fascinating story from the mountains of West Virginia:

A Charleston high school brought in an abstinence-only speaker to tell the students how dangerous premarital sex is. Among the many factually wrong and inflammatory things she said was that condoms don't work and that every time you have unprotected sex, you'll get an STD.  Fliers for the event said it would focus on "God's plan for sexual purity."  This was in a public high school. 

A senior at the school refused to attend the event.  She contacted the ACLU and spoke out publicly against the speech, saying that it was inaccurate, offensive, and nothing but an attempt at "slut shaming." 

The principal then had a private meeting with the student, wherein he tried to intimidate her by threatening to call the college she was going to and tell them she was a "backstabber" with "bad character."

The student then filed an injunction against the principal.  (I'm not sure exactly what that means, and none of the news stories explain it, but I assume it means she wants him reprimanded or fired or something.)  


The funniest thing about this whole situation?

The student is going to is Wellesley College.

If you're not familiar with Wellesley, it's a famous all-women's college outside of Boston with a very strong reputation for feminist education.  It's one of the Seven Sisters schools.

Lisa Simpson dreams of going to a Seven Sisters school.

Wellesley's most famous alumna is Hillary Clinton.  (A less famous one, but equally important, is my Betrothed.)

A high school principal threatening to call Wellesley because his female student is speaking out against abstinence-only education is kinda like tattling to a young boy's mom that he won't stop eating all his vegetables.

It would actually be a really entertaining conversation to hear, kind of like Who's On First.

Principal: She has bad character.  I brought in a speaker to tell the students that God's plan is for them to remain celibate until marriage, and she was mean and called the ACLU on me.
Wellesley:  Who has bad character?  The abstinence-only speaker?
Principal: No, the student.  She's a backstabber!  She can't be trusted!
Wellesley:  Because she was spreading misinformation to other students about sexual health?  She wasn't slut shaming, was she? 
Principal: No, she wouldn't listen to God's Word!  And she wouldn't behave. 
Wellesley:  Um, we're fine with that.  We like independent and strong women who fight for equality.
Principal:  ??    

Frankly, it boggles my mind how a high school principal can be that ignorant.  It reminds me of the time I gave a ride to a vice president at my college, and during the conversation it came out that she didn't know the difference between Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr.  How can any educator be THAT ignorant?

"I Have a Dream" or "95 Theses"?   

In such situations, I try to figure out the thought process of the baffling person.  This high school administrator clearly inhabits a different world than I do.  A world where an authority figure in a public school can coerce a student with threats.  A world where ANY respected university (much less a liberal arts feminist college) would take seriously a principal who uses words like "backstabber" to describe a student.  A world where a college would reject a student after they've been admitted because a school administrator tattled on them.

Or maybe I have this principal all wrong, and he's just a naive yokel who sincerely had his feelings hurt.   He never meant to call the college, but he doesn't understand why this young lady has to be such a troublemaker.  He's trying to appeal to her sense of fair play.   "You called the ACLU on me, how would you like it if I called your college on you?"

Whatever the case, he doesn't come across as very smart, mature, or knowledgeable.  And I'm pretty sure he doesn't discuss issues of "slut shaming" in a feminist deconstruction group.  But then, what would you expect from a principal who hires an abstinence-only speaker?                 

Sunday, April 14, 2013


While I've never been above a good gloat, schadenfreude in and of itself has never appealed to me.

Schadenfreude, the German word that translates literally as "HarmJoy", describes the state of being happy at someone else's misfortune.

I don't enjoy watching other people suffer.  When someone falls down on the ice or walks into a door, I don't think it's funny.  I cringe.

But when there's some sort of poetic justice in it, when karma bites someone on the ass, I'm not above gloating.  For example, when a homophobe discovers he has a gay son or when a selfish rich prick loses all their wealth, I enjoy it not because I inherently enjoy other people's pain, but because I like justice.


I've been feeling something like schadenfreude this week as the saga with our Buyer From Hell (BFH) comes to a close. This was the woman who for four weeks kept Betrothed's condo off the market while making our life hell.  We gave her two deadlines to finally pay the balance of her earnest money, and BFH continued to stall and make demands. I was feeling the need to jam a pencil into this woman's neck.

When she ignored our last deadline and sent a nasty message to our lawyer, Betrothed told the lawyer, "I'm through with this buyer."  We had the lawyer terminate the contract and put the condo back on the market.  We decided that the stress of having to try to sell the condo was less than the stress of dealing with this woman for another 6-8 weeks (until the closing.) 

The horror is over.  She can't hurt us anymore.  Now the healing can begin...

Even BFH's realtor apologized to us for her behavior, which made it clear that we're not the only people who thought she was a pain in the ass. Four days later her lawyer sent a message saying the contract had been canceled.  She ended with, "I am very sorry for all of the work that everyone has done on behalf of this matter.  I hardly think that an apology suffices."

So now both her realtor and her lawyer had apologized for her.  Maybe next it will be her dog?


Here's where the schadenfreude comes in. We heard from our realtor that BFH's realtor was so exasperated by her that she dumped her.  I didn't know you could be fired by your realtor, but, wow, she must have really been terrible if her own realtor didn't even want her business any more.

But it gets better.  Betrothed's condo was only on the market for two days when another buyer came along.  Not only did the buyer offer $5K more than BFH had offered, but she paid all of her earnest money immediately, and even moved the closing date to one that was more convenient for us.  Squee!!  We're keeping our fingers crossed, but if this buyer doesn't flake out (like so many have), all the troubles with BFH may have been worth it.

And here's the icing on the whole HarmJoy cake.  A few days later, we got an email from BFH's realtor.  She received a voicemail from BFH saying that now that now she had some time think about it, she realized that the place was perfect for her and would like to try again to buy it.  The subject line that her realtor wrote was: "OMG - [BFH] is back and wants the property..."

Sorry, we've found a new buyer who treats us much better than you did. 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Lies, Damn Lies, and Real Estate

A Den of Lies: The Sequel

Our real estate adventure is way short on sex, but it makes up for it in lies.

Two more lies I've learned about real estate this week:

1. When a realtor says an issue will be settled in the next day or two, it's a lie.  (In this case, it's been 11 days and it's still not settled.)

2. Earnest money is a lie.  A buyer can back out of a deal for no reason and still get their earnest money back. They can jerk you around, stall, keep trying to change the agreement, and if the deal falls through, you still have to sue them for the earnest money.  This lie makes me so mad I could spit.  What's the point of this "deposit" if it has no teeth?

The nutjob who's trying to buy Betrothed's condo tried to back out this week.  Her reason?  She doesn't think her tiny 7-pound dog can get up the stairs.

She's been stalling for weeks about paying the balance of her earnest money, while at the same time hounding us about getting all of her contractors into the place so she can renovate before she moves in.  After one contractor found what he thought were a bunch of electrical issues (the official home inspector found none), we put a stop to that and said she would not have any more access to the place until she paid her earnest money.  We've offered her $2000 to fix all this stuff, way more than it will cost or she deserves.  Yet she keeps asking for all these niggling little things that have nothing to do with us.  (E.g. She says the "intercom" is broken.  Um, there is no intercom.  There's a buzzer to let people in.  That's all.)  You're not ordering a custom-built unit.  You're buying a home.  Why won't someone explain to this woman how this works? And we shouldn't even be having this conversation until you PAY YOUR EARNEST MONEY!!!! Argh.       

Give me da fuckin money!!!  Goodfellas know how to get results. 

The inspection and earnest money should have been taken care of a week after the deal was made.  It's been almost four weeks. 


But back to the 7-pound dog.  Communicating between me and Betrothed, her realtor, her lawyer, her loan officer, and the buyer, her realtor, her lawyer, her loan officer, and her 17 contractors has been a huge game of telephone.  By the time I hear something, it's been through 9 people.

It turns out the issue isn't that the dog can't get up the stairs, it's that the condo policy is that dogs are not allowed to walk up and down the front steps of the building (but the back steps are fine.)  So to get her dog in and out the front door (but not the back), the buyer would have to carry the dog to the second floor.  From the buyer's lawyer: "Having to carry the 7 lb dog down the front stairs is a deal breaker for the Buyer." To which our lawyer commented, "UGH. cannot believe it comes down to this.. carrying a dog down stairs is a deal breaker."

See how easy it is?  (Not our actual buyer.)

Which is also when we learned that even if the buyer pulls out for this stupid reason, she could still get her earnest money back.  That just made me livid.  She's wasted four weeks of our time during prime real estate season, and we don't get anything for our inconvenience?  

Argh, UGH, and WTF? 


What I'm learning is real estate is fluid and situations change on an hourly basis. Here's how the situation stands right now:  Last night the condo board voted out the rule prohibiting dogs to walk in the front steps.  So Miss Hissyfit got her way.   

I'll bet our buyer is the kind of woman who carries her dog around in her purse

We are giving her exactly one day to pay the rest of the earnest money.  If she doesn't, we're walking away and putting the house back on the market.  Frankly, I think I'd rather do that than deal with this woman for the next 4-6 weeks.  Because I guarantee you some other issue is going to come up and she'll threaten to walk again.  

But we are firmly decided that she will NOT see the inside of the condo again until the closing.  She has no right to come in and demand things-- to act like she owns the place-- until she actually owns the place.

Monday, April 1, 2013

A Den of Lies

Between the two of us, my betrothed and I are selling two homes and buying one.  That's a lot of real estate moving around at the same time.  (We're also planning a wedding and honeymoon and I'm trying to find a job.  There are a lot of moving parts here.)

After two+ months of swimming in the real estate pool, here's what I've learned:

Real estate is a den of lies.

As a stickler who values truth, forthrightness, and rules, this stuff drives me crazy.  Let's start with the realtors who go incommunicado on me.  Even my new realtor, who I really like, is kinda flaky.  I don't know how many times he's said he was going to do something and then not done it.  It's mostly little stuff, and I'm hoping he turns out to be the harmless kind of flaky.  When he does show up, he does a great job.  But it remains to be seen whether his confidence about selling my house translates into him actually selling my house.

No trickery please, just sell my house.

And then there's the buyer for my betrothed's condo.  She's been eight different kinds of crazy and annoying.  I won't go into all the details, but let's just say that three weeks after her offer was accepted, she still hasn't signed off on the inspection or put the rest of her earnest money down.  (This was supposed to be done five days after the acceptance.)  And yet she's still hounding us about letting her contractor in to the place, and her windows guy, and her electrician, her accountant, her florist, her medium, her hairdresser.  (Okay, those last few are made up, but that's what it feels like.)  Hey, you want access to our condo?  Sign the fucking papers already!  Pay your earnest money!  These are The Rules.  She doesn't seem to understand that unfettered access to a house before she's bought it is a favor, not a right.  Oh, and get this: she's received mail at the place!

I'm not good at this.

And there there are the flaky buyers we're competing with to find a place of our own.  We've seen several houses that we were interested in go "under contract."  This means that an offer has been accepted, and pending the inspection and financing, the house is off-limits to all other buyers. But in three (3!) cases, a house that went under contract was quickly not under contract anymore.  Somehow, the deal fell through almost immediately.  In each case, it happened too quickly for there to have been an inspection or financing issue come up.  How does that happen?  I asked our realtor about it, and she said that it seems like buyers are making a quick offer on something that they don't really want or can't afford.  Then they get Buyer's Remorse and back out of it.  Really?  WTF is wrong with people?

Here's an idea:  Don't make an offer worth hundreds of thousands of dollars unless you're serious.

Which is how we came to buy the same house twice in one week.  After a week of haggling on a house we really wanted, the sellers accepted our highest possible offer.  I went to the tennis workout Saturday morning telling people, "Sorry I'm late.  I bought a house this morning!"  That afternoon I got a call from my betrothed:  Before we'd been able to sign any papers, someone else had swooped in and offered $15K more than our highest offer.  WTF?     

We went back to the drawing board and made an offer on our backup choice.  (Another case in which it was under contract then went off it.)  But then we had to deal with another annoying buyer. On the same day we made that offer, the sellers told us that they had another offer, and asked what our absolute top offer would be.  They wanted us to engage in a bidding war.

Our bidding war was not quite this sleazy.

When we provided our highest number, we didn't hear from them for two days.  Then we got a vague rejection that sounded fishy.

I'm sorry if I sound paranoid, but there's been too much weird shit going on.  I don't trust people anymore.  Although we were supposed to be in a bidding war, House #2 remains, 8 days later, active with no indication that it's under contract or contingency or anything.  Was there really a second buyer?

Meanwhile, as we were planning to look at another round of houses, and even consider apartments to rent, House #1 was suddenly available again.  Those buyers who swooped in at the last minute and offered way more than we did?  They disappeared.  So we made the same offer we'd made five days earlier.  The sellers accepted.

We wanted to lock it down quickly, so we scheduled the inspection real quick-like.  Before the inspection I asked Betrothed, "What would we have to discover that would be a dealbreaker?  Termites?  Mold?  Dead bodies?"

Betrothed: "Well, dead bodies wouldn't really affect the house."

Me: "Seriously? You would still buy a house with fresh dead bodies in the crawlspace?"

Betrothed: "They could be removed.  They don't affect the structure."

That's what I love about her:  logical and practical.

Luckily, the inspection didn't turn up anything more sinister than an aging roof that will need to be replaced in the next year.  We can handle that.  Otherwise, the house is in great shape.  It's a great deal in a great location.  I can't wait to move in and make it ours.  But we're scared about getting too excited.

So we're cautiously optimistic that we'll have a place to live by this summer.