Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Do We Have To Go?

Dear Grace,
We have a standing tradition to visit friends in another city every spring. The last few years have been rather strained. They have not planned any outings or activities, and when we suggest something they are usually opposed. We have been friends since childhood, but these visits are making it hard to maintain the friendship. We don't expect them to treat us--in fact, we would like to take them out since they are putting us up at their place, but any restaurant we suggest is "no dice." Ditto movies, museums, and other ideas.

We end up bored out of our minds for 48 hours, resentful that we've spent the money and energy to make the trip, and exhausted upon our return home from the strain of it all. I'm starting to dread spring.

Grace Says:

Given the description of the previous years, I can't imagine why you'd sign up again, but I understand that these long standing obligations can be complicated. That said, you are certainly well within your rights (and Graciousness) to back out this year. You don't have to be completely honest; avoid telling them that your last visit felt like the longest weekend of your life, longer even than the one during which you contracted food poisoning from bad oysters and suffered the consequences for two full days, even if it is absolutely true.

Little white lies are important tools in these awkward situations. Simply say, "we aren't going to be able to make the trip this year." If you must elaborate, plead pressures of work, overbooked weekends, family obligations, or nothing at all.

If you want to give it another shot, my first suggestion is to do some advance research on the goings on in your friends' town. Well in advance of your scheduled visit, like now, contact your hosts and say, "One of our fave bands has a show at a venue near your house! We have been dying to see them live for ages. We would love to get four tickets and take everyone as our treat. What do you think?" If they decline, say, "Well, Grace and I really want to go; we are going to get tix to the show and we'll treat you to dinner before/drinks afterward. This band hasn't played in our town in years and we really want to hear them."

If you know they are not music buffs, choose something that might interest them more--a golf course that you are eager to try, an art exhibit that is on display a a local gallery, a hiking trail that you read about, competitive eating tournament, or slug race. Pitch it strong.

If they are truly homebodies, or perhaps finances are a concern, suggest something that is more in their budget/comfort zone but still fun for you. "We just love Indian food and I read there is a good take out near your house. How 'bout we order some curry and watch 'Slumdog Millionaire'?" Or, "I have a great new recipe for mac and cheese. I'd love to make a batch for dinner on Saturday night and play Scrabble. How does that sound to you?"

If you meet with utter opposition to any and all ideas, you may want to rethink this annual pilgrimage.

Good luck!

Monday, February 21, 2011

When Friends Break Up.....

When friends go through breakups--whether they be from a summer fling or a 10 year marriage, we are navigating rocky terrain. No one wants to see a friend in pain. And after a point, no one wants to hear lamentations about how beautiful their children would have been had they remained together and bred, how she was his one true love, how she can't bear to consider life without him. I mean, sympathy for a broken-hearted friend is one thing, but months of maudlin moping is quite another.

In situations like these, it is quite tempting to trash the other party. You have observed, either up close or from afar, the pain he/she has inflicted on your pal. You can see that your pal is suffering. Your duty as a friend is to provide a sympathetic ear, offer chocolate and/or ice cream, pour drinks and give reassurance that your pal will not shrivel up old and alone and be discovered long dead by a meter reader. It is not your duty to trash the other party. I realize it is on the tip of your tongue to say things like:

--"I've always hated her. She's never been nice to you, even in the beginning when all girlfriends are on their best behavior."

--"Of course you are doing the right thing. Short of having a lobotomy, there is nothing he can do that will change him for the better."

--"Even if the survival of the human species depending on a reunion between the two of you, you should think long and hard before teaming up with that beast."

In the near term, these feel good, and may make your despondent friend feel marginally better. But there may be long term consequences. Consider:

--Your friend is down and out. Will it do him/her any good to learn that you thought the relationship was a mistake all along? There's nothing like an "I told you so"-even an unspoken, unintended one--to make someone feel rotten. They're already feeling low, so don't make it worse by inflicting self doubt about their judgment.

--There's always a chance that they will reconcile. Then you are the odd man out who called the bf all those terrible (though probably justified) names. Your friend is now in the horrible position of knowing that you hate her bf, that you think she is foolish to take him back, and wondering how you will manage to be in the same room with him going forward.

--She might even feel inclined to share your sentiments with him. This could be a misguided demonstration of her staunch, undivided loyalty to him in an attempt to solidify the reunion: "Grace called you an arrogant, bullying blowhard, but I defended you!". Or a weapon to use against him in a heated argument: "Grace always hated you--she called it way back when that you were a #%@&*!" Either way, you're in a bad spot.

--When the inevitable next breakup occurs, she may be wary of seeking your support, knowing that you disapproved of the reunion. And that's when friends are needed most.

--Phrases like "There are lots of fish in the sea" and "You need to move on" fall on deaf ears to broken hearts. Let them mourn the relationship--and do your part (the ice cream, the sympathetic ear--see above) to help ease the pain.

So steer clear of the assessments and advice. Stock up on the necessary comfort items--but don't overdose--if the poor sad friend gains 20 lbs from overindulging in Ben & Jerry's her chances of future romantic success may decrease.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Who Pays?

Dear Grace,
I was recently invited to lunch with a business contact. I called her since I was going to be near her office and suggested meeting for coffee. She responded, "Can you make it a bit earlier so I can take you to lunch?". Those were her exact words, so I assumed that she was treating (was I correct?). We ate, and when the server left the check on the table, my companion ignored it. She did not reach for it, or indicate that she was even aware of its existence, but just kept on with her conversation. I was uncomfortable--and after what seemed like ages--coffee drunk, server having asked twice if we needed anything else, and once if the bill was ready, I reached for my wallet. At that point, my "host" said, "No, lunch is on me." and picked up the tab. All's well that ends well, I guess, but I felt really awkward. What do you think of this scenario and how do I avoid it in the future?

Grace says:

Ah, the bill. It certainly can be a landmine.

I'll tackle your questions in order: First, yes, you were correct in assuming that "take you to lunch" implies that the speaker is paying. It is not an offer to shuttle you to a deli but rather to cover the cost of both of your meals. Conversely, if the quote was "let's meet for lunch" "get together for lunch" or "have lunch" then the presumption is that you will split the bill. If, however, the bill arrives and your companion insists on treating, then it is Gracious to let her. (This assumes no underlying complications, like the companion is a compulsive spender, or she is trying to butter you up so you will lend her your Prada shoes, and also assumes that a prompt and sincere thank you and reciprocation will be implemented pronto.)

Secondly, what I think of the scenario quote you (and Shakespeare) "all's well that ends well." Maybe the speaker is incapable of multi-tasking and your conversation was so engrossing that she couldn't focus on anything else. Maybe she was raised with a ban on transactions during mealtime and forbidden to conduct commerce until the meal and its accompanying social interaction was concluded. Maybe she wanted to make you sweat a bit. But ultimately, she did the right thing.

Finally, in terms of future prevention you have a few options:
  • Wait it out. While you suffered some awkwardness in this situation, ultimately you are no worse for the wear. Admittedly, though, as lunch becomes afternoon tea, you may want to take steps to expedite the payment and curtail your discomfort around it.
  • If so, reach for the check when it arrives. This will certainly clarify things. Do note, however, that if you pick it up, you might be stuck with it. You may wish to comment, "Shall we split this?" as you reach to prevent a chunk of your cash being dropped on the table.
  • By far the most Gracious conduct is for the person who issued the invite and therefore is expected to pay to reach for the check and slide it towards her as soon as it arrives. Even if she has no intention of sorting it out at that very moment, it conveys to the other diners that she will be paying and prevents the confusion and discomfort that you suffered.
Check this clip, poor guy got snookered into paying......again.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Facebook, Again

Facebook, on balance, I guess, is a good thing. It helps us keep in touch with friends and family near and distant. It is great for tracking down classmates or other farflung groups for reunions and events. But like all swords, it is double edged. I have discussed this lively topic before--here, and here. I've even talked about it on tv. But recent events have prompted me to revisit this can of digital worms.

On Sunday, I happened to open my FB page and was greeted by the following status post from my babysitter: "Heading out to do my court-mandated community service. Litter on the highway, here I come!". Needless to say, I was rather curious and desirous of further particulars. This lovely, responsible, and thoroughly pleasant young woman frequently drives my kids around in my car, often uses my credit card for household purchases, and has my house keys and alarm codes. Her revelation of criminal conduct was rather worrisome.

Hubby and I discussed what possible crimes she might have committed, finding it hard to visualize this wholesome and likeable gal doing dastardly deeds. We tried to decide which, if any form of malfeasance required her swift termination--embezzlement? drug-dealing? over-familiarity with a goat? Dark, disastrous visions reeled. We planned to have a serious face to face discussion with her the following day when she reported to work. Within minutes, we knew this was impossible; we were not even sure we wanted her to report given her potentially felonious status and knew that we would be up all night fretting about it. So I called her. No response. Texted her: "Why are you doing community service?". She called back immediately, somewhere between sheepish and amused: "It was a joke. I left my FB page logged into my sister's computer by accident, and she was annoyed so she posted the community service thing to get back at me. Sorry you were worried."

So apparently, this has become the new 'gotcha'--a cyber-wedgie, if you will. Woe to thee who has the ill luck or bad memory to neglect to log out. Adulterous affairs, membership in the Justin Beiber fan club, or owning the complete vintage Dungeons and Dragons game collection may well be posted as your status without your knowledge.

Now, Graces are all for good clean fun, the occasional practical joke, even those of dubious taste if they are funny enough. But posting a fake criminal record? Graceless at best, villainous and vicious at worst. Remember, folks, FB is forever. It's admissible in a court of law, it can be used by potential employers to screen candidates, and schools may check personal pages to decide whether to accept applicants as members of an incoming class. I don't like this whole idea of posting false information as the new 'punk'd' fad, but if you must do so, choose something silly, amusing, and harmless. Don't go for the serious, reputation damaging slander that caused momentary havoc in my household this week.

So, safety first, Graces. Always log out. Better yet, don't use another's computer for your FB check ins--particularly if the owner has the bad taste and ill-will to portray you in ways that compromise you in in public. As Iago said, 'He who steals my purse steals trash....but he who filches me of my good name.....makes me poor indeed." Don't let this happen to you!

And in terms of the slanderous scenario described above, well, with sisters like that, who needs....well, never mind.

Speaking of convicts, check out this riotous clip from the days of yore....Elvis makes jail look downright fun.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Here Comes Valentine's Day

Few people are indifferent to Valentine's Day. I have friends who plan it for months--the hearts, the flowers, the reservation, the lingerie, the seduction. Others adamantly refuse to celebrate it at all, declaring it a Hallmark Holiday. Some even consider V-Day contrary to true love, believing that you should be romantic all year long, not just on February 14. (Of course, that cohort was a group of guys who were notoriously cheap and skilled at spin, so their credibility is suspect even if the argument has merit....)

I recently read that February 13 has become one of the busiest nights for restaurants. If this doesn't kill the romantic spirit, nothing will: Cheating spouses go out with their extracurricular activity that night, saving V-Day for their husbands or wives. Ick.

But adulterers aside....In order to navigate this potential minefield with minimal casualties, I offer you some Valentine Guidelines.....

1. Gentlemen: Don't give a ring unless it is THE RING. Do not even give a gift in a box of a size and diminsion that could potentially contain a ring unless it is THE RING. No amount of smooth talk, backrubbing or chick flick attendance can restore the mood after she expectantly opens a small square box and finds a chocolate truffle, guitar pick, or ITunes gift card.

2. Know Your Valentine. I once saw a gentleman fill a Godiva box with sushi for Valentine's Day. He actually dumped the chocolates in the trash (whether I pulled a George Costanza and dug some out is really no one's concern) and gave the box to the sushi chef to fill with unagi, ebi, and maguro. I hope the love of his life was happy when she opened the box. If that had been me, (and I eat sushi at least once a week with pleasure and gusto) my Valentine would have made a colassal boo-boo. So think about your significant other before you buy tickets/make a reservation/arrange a hike and picnic. If he or she is a homebody, don't plan a party. If your valentine loves rom-coms and you don't, she'll be thrilled when you offer to take her to see No Strings Attached and don't require a future commitment to see The Mechanic in return.

3. Know Your Valentine, Part II. If he/she is not the romantic type and never has been, don't expect a sudden influx of roses, truffles and heartfelt verses expressing his/her eternal devotion to you in iambic pentameter. Either let it go or summon up the trimmings for the both of you: "Honey, Saturday is Valentine's Day. I'd really like to have a special evening with you." Plan the dinner/drinks/ movie/bubble bath and make sure s/he is on board. Who knows, s/he might even show up with some overpriced roses or at least a mushy card. But if s/he doesn't, and this is catastrophic for you, you may want to reconsider your choice of Valentine. (Or, s/he may do it for you; no one likes histrionics over what they think is silly.)

4. In the quest for good, cheap and quick Valentine gifts, you can generally only have two of the three. I know, this adage normally applies to the building trade, but it is equally apt for Valentine's gifts. Quick and good is easy, but not cheap. Head to the jewelers, his/her fave boutique, spa, gourmet shop or liquor store and prepare to pony up. If you want good and cheap, you will not get quick (at least not without the help of Grace, see below). This duo usually involves some long-term planning and/or something you make yourself. If you want quick and cheap, it probably won't be very good--no one really wants one of those grab and go stuffed animals or kitchy statuettes. And cheap chocolate ranks right up there with pleated pants on my Things That Should Not Exist List.

As promised, here are some Gracious suggestions for Valentine's gifts, whatever your budget.....

--Personal Coupon Book. These can be as naughty/nice as you like, or a combination thereof. For the naughty you will have to use your imagination; what happens in the bedroom (or living room, kitchen table, backseat, jacuzzi.....) stays there. Graces do not share details. For the nice, offer vouchers for tedious errands, cooking dinner, backrubs, laundry, bearer's choice groan-free movie rental, "get out of 'X' free" (fill in abhorrent social obligation).
--Burn a CD with all of your Valentine's favorite songs (or songs that are meaningful to the two of you--the first song you danced to, the song that was playing when you met, the first argument you had over song lyrics, etc.)
--Make a Valentine's Day Dinner for the two of you. This Romantic Menu Planner will help. If you don't cook, order takeout and have some sparkling wine.

---Jewelry. If you have been dating for more than 2 months, stay away from jewelry because of the dilemma described in #1 above. If you have been dating less than 2 months, stay away from jewelry because it's too soon to start bestowing such extravagant gifts. If you don't fit into either of these categories (i.e. everyone who is engaged, married, or in a relationship in which marriage is irrelevant) then jewelry is ideal. I am not a fan of hearts, but Elsa Peretti has some interesting designs that manage to avoid the preteen girl look. A more moderate but equally appealing choice: Janna Connor Designs. They are fun, stylish, and definitely appropriate for V-day. Not a heart person? Embrace the Valentine's Day color scheme. For the extravagant, consider a John Hardy red leather and sterling bracelet. Not so flush? Go with a more economical Kenneth Jay Lane Red or Pink Bamboo Bangle

---Spa. If you have the ability to send your beloved for a day of pampering at a grand spa, then by all means do so. If not, provide a home-grown version. Purchase some trial size lotions, bath salts, and oils. Accompany them with handwritten gift certificates for shoulder rubs, uninterrupted baths, and body massages. Who knows, the tip you get might be just the best V-Day gift there is.

--Fashion. On the high end, go for a red cashmere shawl. It's elegant, versatile, lightweight and warm as toast. Everytime she wraps it around her, she'll think of you. How romantic. Economical option: heart socks; they're fun, fanciful, very V-Day, and who doesn't run short of socks occasionally? Pair this with some foot cream and a foot massage and you've got a fabulous theme gift--a bit fetishy, but that's ok, it's V-Day after all.

Whatever you do, Graces, do it right. Despite being the shortest month, February can feel mighty long and cold if you blow it on the 14th.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

What to Wear to Meet the Parents

Dear Graces,
Help! I have been invited to dinner at the home of my beloved's parents. I have never met them before and I really want to make a great impression. I can see myself growing old with their son and would hate to jeopardize that with an ill chosen outfit. In short, what do I wear?

Grace Says:

Ain't love grand? First of all, enjoy that glow. If he is taking you home, the feeling must be mutual. Couldn't help but think of Ben Stiller when I read your question....

But let's face it, what you wear can be critical. Nothing will overcome the first impression that the beloved son and heir is paying you by the hour. Dressing to meet the parents can be more nerve-wracking than dressing for an interview. You want to dress to impress, but you want to avoid that shade of impressive that will make you the butt of family jokes for the next six Thanksgivings. It is a sartorial minefield. You want to look polished without screaming "This is Gucci. Admire me!". You want to look warm and friendly, but not so friendly that Dad keeps dropping his fork and Grandpa strokes out over the lobster bisque. You want to fit in, but you don't want to pretend to be someone you're not (although I rather suspect most of us have been on extra, extra good behavior in those early days with a new love).

I offer you an illustrative and cautionary anecdote: About 16 years ago, my cousin Logan brought his intended, a lovely girl named Renee, to a family gathering. The young lady worked for Ralph Lauren at the time. Unfortunately for Renee, who availed herself of the very latest fashion (not to mention her generous employee discount), she overdid it. This was the early 90s when Ralph made a brief and ill-advised foray into "school-girl chic".

Poor Renee embraced the look from head to toe: A micro-mini plaid skirt (strike 1) with a cleavage busting blouse (strike 2)and knee socks (strike 3). Finally, the high heeled mary janes (as if mattered, strike 4). Despite a 10-year marriage, 3 kids, hundreds of tasteful, attractive outfits, and a house in Bryn Mawr later, Renee is still known as "Fetish Girl" to our entire family.

But on to your advice, first and foremost on attire is to choose something that you are comfortable wearing. Not yoga comfortable, but something that won't require constant adjustment, tugging, and twisting throughout the visit, or frequent surveillance to ensure that it has not dipped below or hiked above the parts of you that you don't want to share with your bf's parents, at least not yet.

I am a skirt girl--this time of year with tights, boots, and a cashmere sweater. I am also and a big fan of anthropologie--they will doubtless have something fab.

If you are not a skirt girl, that's ok--pants work, even jeans, as long as they are not shredded, or so low that they barely clear your pelvic floor. Pair them with a crisp blouse--solid, or striped; (paisley prints are the devil's work). Or go with a sweater. Stay away from political tees, belly-baring tops, and anything with an off-color message: no matter how funny (or true) it may be.

Even if your bf is wearing sweats and proclaims authoritatively that his entire clan will be identically clad, ignore him. (Whatever he "thinks" his mother and sisters wear is wrong. Trust me. Nine out of ten times, the item of clothing a man attributes to his female family members will be the single item you do not want to replicate, like the plaid taffeta dress or the angora sweater with kittens on it.) When I traveled in Australia some time ago, I came across the term 'tidy casual' to describe the dress code at most restaurants. That is what you are after.

Wear undies that you can't see--neither thru the clothing nor above the waistband (no no no peekaboo thongs, ever). I was in the grocery store the other day and a young woman bent over to grab a box of Cheerios, exposing an undergarment that resembled nothing so much as a clothesline around her waist, and another bit of clothesline looped around it heading south. I was mystified, saw no point in the arrangement, and put it into the category of "views I could have done without."

Wear a bra. My mother-in-law still rants about an unfortunate girl her son (now my husband) brought home many years ago--"with her bosoms bobbing everywhere and more hairspray than a 1950s prom. I had to take a chisel to the bathroom vanity when she left." Poor girl. Well, it was the 80s.

Knock 'em dead. I hope they love you. Even more importantly, I hope you love them!

Monday, February 07, 2011

Another Shower Question

Recent talk of showers seems to have turned on the faucet.....

One of my friends, grateful that she didn't have to throw me a shower in advance of my wedding (they make me cringe and I avoid them whenever possible), was complaining to me about her BFF, who was being more than just Bridezilla at the time. They were of differing opinions about the type of gifts to be given at a shower, so, my question to you is: are gifts given at showers intended to be for the lady to use, or for the couple/baby to benefit from? For instance, if my friend wanted to give the bride a gift certificate for a spa for her use in advance of the big day, is that more or less appropriate than giving the bride-to-be something off of the couple's registry?

And, why are men not subjected to these events more frequently?

Many thanks!

Dear K,
As to why men are not subjected to these events more frequently, I imagine there are many theories. Like childbirth, mammograms, and showers, men do seem to have dodged several bullets. On the other hand, they have to shave daily, undergo prostate checks, and are generally less intelligent than we, so maybe it's not as skewed as we think.

But on to your question:

Traditionally, showers were designed to help the couple furnish a home, hence the practice of giving pots and pans, linens, and other household goods. These types of items are always a safe bet, particularly if they are off the registry. As a person who almost always sends regrets, I am delighted when I can simply go online, select an item off a registry and click 'send'.

These days, many showers have a theme--this would be indicated on the invite--things like "kitchen" or "indulgence" or "round the clock"--in which guests are assigned a time and are charged with buying a gift that corresponds with that hour, e.g. 7am: a coffee pot, midnight: lingerie, etc.. If the shower is set up with a specific theme, then guests should adhere to the hostess's format. But if it's left open-ended, tailor the gift to the bride. If she is a spa nut, then a GC for a massage is ideal. Throw in a a scented candle or jar of bath salts so she has something to open at the shower.

So the answer to your original question is, like many things, "It depends." If the bride, her family, and the wedding are all very traditional, then a household item off the gift registry is the safest route. If they are a bit offbeat, then choose your present accordingly.

Hope that helps!

As much as I gripe about showers and studiously avoid them, I guess there are worse possibilities than the jello salad-silly games-endless gift display variety. Just ask Norman Bates.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Because Nice Matters

The other night at around 10pm I was rousted from viewing the The American by a frantic pounding on my front door. This was rather unnerving at that hour of the night, so off I went to investigate. Turns out it was the gas company; a leak had been reported on our block and they were urgently checking all the houses in the area. (Incidentally, despite George Clooney's presence, the movie was less than enjoyable. And, yes, this pic does actually come from the film, it is not a mere gratuitous display of GC's topless form.)

Fortunately, we were not in immediate danger, but the work crews spent the next 48 hours on my street probing the asphalt to find the problem, and then repairing it. Need I remind you that the temperature in this region hovered between 25-35 degrees, and some snow and freezing rain fell during the nights?

What's a Grace to do?

Well, of course, I made friends with the crew. First and foremost, I was grateful for their efforts on behalf of the safety of my home and those of my neighbors. Their toil in uncomfortable circumstance stood between us and disaster as far as I could tell. Since they were slogging it out in the frigid air, it seemed only decent to provide them with a warming drink. I made them some hot chocolate and delivered it to them right around the time that afternoon tea would be served in other environments. They were delighted.

They remained on the job well into the evening. As luck would have it, I had just made a vat of beef noodle soup, owing to the fact that my Grant of a hubby, who has taken to cooking on Sundays, made a rib roast that would have fed a high school football team and I needed to do something with the leftovers. As the dinner hour approached, and there seemed to be no end in sight for the gasmen, I ladeled out 6 mugs of soup, placed them on a tray, and shuttled them up the street for a curbside picnic. Again, the crewmen were delighted.

My husband then forbade me from feeding them any more, lest they begin to delay the repair on behalf of the catering. But my thinking was this--in addition to the sincere and genuine expression of gratitude for people doing a hard and dangerous job in the freezing cold, I am also a pragmatic Grace. If, the universe forbid, the pipe situation were to be come dangerous, who do you think the crew would rescue first, the neighbors who ignored them, complained to them, or fed them warm and delicious things throughout the afternoon? Exactly.

When they finished their soup, one of the chaps returned the mugs. I mentioned something about their attempt to finish the repair before the snow was expected to fall. The chap said, "You know, it doesn't really matter to me. I'm just glad to have a job." Well, Graces, I was truly humbled. And really, really glad that I had done right by these guys.