Since you asked: 2004

I check back with seekers of my advice to see how they're doing now. Was my counsel any help at all, or do you really wish you'd asked your mother instead?

Published December 31, 2004 3:17PM (EST)

As an advice columnist for three years now, I have been the regular recipient of amazingly intimate and often wrenching confessions from people around the globe whom I have never met but for whom I feel a warm kinship. Through this experience I have learned how very, very much I always want to know what happened next, and what after that, and then what, and what did he say when you said what you said, and what is the weather like now where you are, and what do the restaurants serve this time of year, and how does it feel to be alive and in love in Belgium, and what were your parents' names before they married, and what color car are you driving now, and does it have enough cup holders, and what will you do if your daughter follows through on her threat to become a dentist?

So I find it provident that as the end of this year approaches I was asked to inquire into the lives of those who have written for advice over the last year and ask, So how are you doing now, and, if I may be so bold, was my advice of any help at all, or do you really wish you'd asked your mother instead?

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Remember Drowning in the Law, the litigation attorney who was so stressed out she couldn't even put the clothes in the washer and take a nap because she was afraid she wouldn't wake up to put them in the dryer? She's kind of getting over it:

When I first read your response to my letter, I burst into tears in my office. I haven't had any epiphanies and I still eat dinner at my desk most nights, but I have had some small breakthroughs. Last weekend, I didn't work AT ALL and only felt mildly guilty.

P.S. This is true: In an O'Henry-like twist, just last night (actually early this morning), when I got home from work at 1:30 a.m., I put a load of laundry in the washer. Halfway through the cycle, I turned on the space heater in the bedroom and tripped a circuit ... leaving a load of half-washed laundry sitting in water. And, do you know what I did? Nothing! I went to bed. The clothes are still sitting in the water -- I haven't even reset the circuit breaker yet.

And the gal who had to make a hard choice between her Two Guys made her choice:

I followed your advice to the letter and chose the man I was falling for. It turns out he did have Hodgkin's lymphoma. He was treated successfully, and we were discussing one or both of us moving so we could live closer to each other -- 300 miles is just too inconvenient -- when the cancer recurred. So, now we have another six months of treatment to get through. But you know what? The advice you gave was spot on. I do love him, with all my heart. Six-hundred-mile round trips on the weekends and cancer can't change that at all.

And guess how things turned out for Dissertation Girl, "she whose husband pecked away at his 300-plus page beast of a dissertation for years and years, promising that every summer would be 'the one' during which it got finished":

Well, on Oct. 15 my husband successfully defended his work. We had dinner after with his advisors, who were clearly quite pleased with his project. One of them said that his was the most ambitious dissertation project that he had ever advised -- and he meant that in a good way.

But on to a better story. I was so excited when we came back from the trip for the defense that I decided to throw a party to celebrate the event. At first I thought it would just be a dinner with a handful of friends at a restaurant. But then I started wondering whether I could convince some of his old friends (people he's known for 25 years or more) from his hometown (Montreal) to come down to New York to celebrate with us. Four of them immediately replied that they wouldn't miss it for the world, and so it turned into a surprise party. So on Dec. 4, 20 people (including the four friends from Montreal and his brother from Toronto) all gathered at a restaurant in Manhattan. He thought we were going to have dinner with a friend in town on business. We walked up to the third floor of the restaurant (me a nervous wreck and him totally unsuspecting) and everyone stood up and started clapping. He almost fainted -- literally people thought he might have a heart attack or fall back down the steps. It was a great moment. He was so pleased and so touched that all those people had come to wish HIM their congratulations. He is very humble and so the whole night was very overwhelming. I was a delightful hostess, if I do say so myself, and feel like I pulled off the surprise of the century. Everyone had a great time. The Montrealers came back to our place after and spent the night, so we got to spend some time with them the next day too. Hubby was "high" for the whole weekend.

I was also pleased to hear that Feeling Alone discovered that the reason he didn't want to spend his every waking moment with his love wasn't that he didn't love her -- he was simply a normal introvert!

Hello, Mr. Tennis. I guess I never really knew what an introvert was, and never thought I was one, because I'm not shy, I like other people, etc. You said "Introverts can be drained of energy by constant interaction with others" and it stopped me cold; that is soooo me. I like people, but they make me so tired sometimes.

It's difficult -- it seems somehow wrong that sometimes I don't want to be with my love. The fact that I'm just more fun to be around if I'm "recharged" is the sort of positive feedback that I can use. We still live in our own space, but we keep taking more and more steps toward changing that. I'm a little scared, but I've talked with her about these issues and she is understanding and accommodating about everything. We both think it'll all work out fine.

The woman who let the guy from Burma touch her chest and feared that she'd been perhaps too easy found that she was probably better off without the guy:

I showed him my question and your response. He told me that he had planned to use me for sex and then dump me, but decided against it because he was too much of a gentleman. We haven't spoken since, and good riddance to him!

Some gentleman!

Remember the mother whose husband seemed to be recklessly feeding peanuts to their allergic son? Well, they seem to have sorted that out ... though she is still smarting from the treatment she received in Table Talk:

The short answer is I didn't take your advice: no shrink, no powwow with N's doctor. On the other hand, I did lay down the law with my husband and son, separately and together, and established absolutely bright-line rules. There have been no more episodes: no close calls, no narrowly avoided disasters, no uh-oh moments, and no, heaven forbid, actually ingested nuts. N doesn't eat anything offered to him by someone else that is not specifically cleared by me. We have a fistful of EpiPens, in my purse, car, medicine cabinet. (We always did, but there are more of them now.) Everyone in the family and at N's school knows how to use them, and when. Of course, all this is no guarantee that those EpiPens will always remain unused, but I'm pretty certain that if the worst happens, it won't be because of negligence on my husband's part. He is absolutely my partner in this now. Turns out he's not some kind of certifiable passive-aggressive monster who secretly wants his son to die to teach me a lesson.

And the postscript is that I never visit Table Talk. The savaging my family and I got there left wounds I still feel.

The new wife whose husband liked to spend too much time with his friends, leaving her alone to fend for herself, showed her letter to her husband and asked him to answer it as if he were me:

"Dear Dazed and Confused [speaking as Cary],

"What is normal? What we have seen over the years is that there is no such thing as 'normal' unless you define the word as the greatest percentage of an outcome over a distribution of events of the totality. Does the greatest number have to be over 50 percent? If the numbers were 30 percent, 25 percent, 20 percent, 15 percent and 10 percent; would the norm be 30 percent even though 70 percent of the outcomes were not within the 30 percent distribution?

"I frame this answer to the question with the above statement only to say that with multiple possible outcomes it would be difficult to state what normal is. It would be better to flesh out different outcomes and then you decide which is most comfortable for you.

"You should talk openly and honestly with your true love and together decide what expectations you have of each other and for each other. If he is truly as wonderful a person as you describe then I have no doubt you will find a harmonious balance in your newlywed life and beyond."

She continues:

Anyway, eight months later, we are happily adjusted, he always invites me to his "friendfests" because he says they're more fun when I'm around! I often abstain, simply because it's just an overwhelming experience of geekiness and testosterone, but your advice was very helpful and opened a channel for communication for us.

I often make guesses about whether the letter writer is a man or a woman, and, as in the case of the girlfriend who hit the snooze too many times, I am occasionally dead wrong:

This is the woman who you thought was a man.

My update:

I'm still a woman.
My girlfriend still hits the snooze button too many times.
I'm OK with that, almost always.
I am getting her a vibrating alarm for Christmas.

The Los Angeles wife and mother who had a bad case of the "Suburban Blues" took some serious action:

I'm happy to report that we're moving! We bought a 100-year-old tulip farm on two acres in a safe, liberal, artsy Northwest area (Bainbridge Island in Seattle) with good schools for our girls and beautiful parks to meander in. We have a pond and a stream on our property and the beautiful forest nearby.

We're a bit scared leaving our cushy entertainment paychecks but the change is what we have wanted for so long. I hope to rediscover my husband and all he has to offer and learn to live at a softer, more relaxed pace. We just cannot live the high stress lifestyle of L.A. anymore. It's unbearable.

Thank you again for your advice. It really helped my husband to see my words on a public forum and to see how much our lifestyle was hurting me/us.

We are looking forward to our adventure -- wish us luck! Have a wonderful holiday season.

What do you do when the innocent prisoner you have been writing to turns out to be guilty -- and not just of any crime, but one with a particular meaning to you?

Last year I wrote to you about the unpleasant surprise of finding that a man I had believed to be innocent of a crime was in fact guilty. Not only that, his crime was that of molesting his daughter, and I had myself been molested by my father. You gave me some very good advice, and I pondered it deeply, consulted my deepest feelings, and decided to do something differently. I told this man of my own experiences and how learning of his guilt had affected me. I didn't write to him again for a couple of months, then did write, explaining that I had dealt with my experiences and he had to deal with his own guilt. He has paid the legal sentences demanded by society, and is getting out of jail soon. He will be under scrutiny for the rest of his life, even though he will not be on parole. He is contrite and accepting of his crime and punishment, and only wants to get on with his life.

What can I say? Reading these letters, following these lives, I'm torn and elated. I just love hearing what happened next, whether it turned out well or poorly.

Best wishes for the new year.

By Cary Tennis

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