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Q. Our house is for sale. As if the weak real-estate market weren't bad enough, our next-door neighbors' yard is overgrown with weeds and littered with old toys and tacky lawn statues. We'd be happy to clean it up ourselves, but how do we broach the subject?
A. These neighbors evidently lack the time, skills, means, or motivation to deal with their yard. You, presumably, have all of the above, especially the motivation. So why not knock on their door and say something like, "You know, our real-estate agent said we ought to mow our lawn more frequently now, and we'd be happy to do yours while we're at it." With luck they'll accept your offer and, in the process of mowing, you can clear out their trash and tidy up the pink flamingos.
Q. I can't bring myself to give blood and my family can't stop nagging me about it. It's not as if I don't know that I should donate -- my city currently has an acute blood shortage, and my blood type is the highly desirable O negative. Yet every time I have even a simple blood test I get squeamish and start to feel faint. I've made my peace with this; now how do I get my family to lay off?
A. You say you're at peace with your decision, but I think you're looking to silence not just your family but your inner critic. So I'm here to tell you it's okay to make a selfish choice once in a while. We all help others and perform charitable acts in the manner and at the times we choose. No one can do everything. As long as you're contributing to society in other ways, your relatives need to cut the guilt trip. Tell them they have made their case and you have heard them loud and clear, but that this is a private choice that doesn't require their input. Any further opinions they have on the matter should be voiced out of your earshot -- perhaps at the blood bank, where I assume they are all lined up right now.
Q. At a party recently I saw a very pregnant woman sipping a martini. I was appalled that she was drinking and wanted to say something but my husband talked me out of it. I still think I should have spoken up -- do you?
A. I'm with your husband. What the Surgeon General's warning on the bottle label can't do you need not take on yourself -- certainly not in this situation, with a total stranger, where you can't be sure you saw what you saw (how do you even know that was booze in her glass?). Yes, if the woman drank heavily throughout her pregnancy, she may have harmed her baby. But even then stomping over to confront her accomplishes nothing beyond embarrassing everyone present, including your husband. And consider this: When I was nine months pregnant with my second child and eager to get labor started, my midwife told me to drink some red wine and take a long walk. Maybe hers recommended a martini and a party.
Q. A close friend calls "just to chat" at least three times a week. Yet the minute we're on the phone, it's me listening to her help her kids with their homework, discuss dinner with her husband, and yell at the dog. She often ends the call by saying, "Gotta get off -- I have a million things to do." Hey, she called me! Can you help?
A. Do I know a nice way to tell someone she's rude, egotistical and has no respect for other people's time? Not really, but here's a semi-nice possibility: "Listen, Debbie, there's nothing I enjoy more than a good conversation with you, but you're obviously really busy right now. Can we schedule a time to talk when both of us aren't in the middle of 10 other things?" She almost certainly will be defensive at first, but stick to your guns. Once she experiences the luxurious pleasure of genuine conversation with her good friend, she'll understand.
If this approach is simply too scary, there's always caller ID. Just don't pick up. E-mail her later and say, "I saw you called. Wanna meet for coffee tomorrow?" She'll get it -- eventually.
Q. My 17-year-old daughter confided to me that she recently got a tattoo even though her father had absolutely forbidden it. I'm not thrilled myself, but I don't share my husband's zero-tolerance policy. The tattoo is in a place he'll never see. To tell or not to tell?
A. The fact that your daughter told you about her forbidden tattoo in the first place is good news. It means the lines of communication between you are still open and that she trusts you, even if she knows you won't necessarily like what you're hearing. If she gets into any kind of serious trouble in the future, she'll probably feel comfortable asking for your help.
Now, it's true that if you keep her secret, you're implicitly taking your daughter's side against her dad, which may feel like a betrayal in its own right. But if this news will send him into a rage that will end up alienating his own daughter, then staying silent is the way to go. If he can be trusted to keep his mouth absolutely, unequivocally shut, it's okay to tell him. But that's a judgment call that only you can make. (By the way, your husband and you would do well to remember that your daughter is almost 18, and "absolutely forbidding" anything won't be an option soon anyway.)
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, April 2009.
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