I dropped out of college after my junior year and now work in a kennel picking up dog shit five days a week. I have made tentative plans to take the Foreign Service exam in March. Should I do this, or go back to school and finish my degree in political science?
—Patrick in Philadelphia
It sounds like you’re using each option as a hedge against the other—which suggests that you’re excited about neither. If you return to school, you’ll only be a couple of semesters away from earning a credential that might be kinda, sorta useful. Maybe it’s worth abiding for another year. On the other hand, you knew where you stood when you dropped out to pick up beagle turds, so maybe the experience was singularly unbearable. Maybe you should consider what you want in the bigger picture. Perhaps there’s a third option, something that, for whatever reason, you’re not allowing yourself to consider. Don’t dismiss it so easily.
Honestly, you’re not making a fatal commitment either way. But if you’ve truly gone existentially limp, I will actually flip a coin for you. Do not read the results unless you feel you must. Here I go: heads, exam; tails, college …
It’s tails. You must return to college immediately and earn the degree that will ensure you a satisfying, secure future as well as renowned sexual stamina and immortality. Besides, everyone knows that people in the Foreign Service are drug-addled, puppy-stomping deviants with crooked teeth and the mark of the beast on their palms.
What’s in my stomach?
—Scott in Toronto
Animal crackers and not a damned thing else. I only know this because your stomach and I just happen to have a mutual friend. Ordinarily, I couldn’t possibly have that information. After all, this is just an advice column, not a doctor’s office. Imagine if your oncologist proposed that you and your tumor talk out your problems instead of letting them fester, or if your neurologist told you that you need to love yourself before you can ever love your Alzheimer’s. I know my place.
I am in my mid-30s, female, and single. I am often asked, “How come you’ve never been married?” What is a good way to answer the question without physically harming the asker or coming across as a bitter spinster?
—Christine in Los Angeles
Imagine a large painted canvas. Two observers ask the artist questions:
OBSERVER NO. 1: I’ve never painted landscapes. Where exactly do you start with one?
OBSERVER NO. 2: Why’d you hang this on the wall? Was it too heavy for the refrigerator magnets?
The first is a question; the second is a judgment that rented interrogative punctuation. And that’s what “How come you’ve never been married?” is. Don’t forget that. Respectful grownups will not ask a blind person “Who stole your eyes?” and will not ask you why you’re not married. I’m not suggesting that people who ask you that are on a mission to wound you (necessarily), but I do think they hope to elevate themselves at your expense. Maybe they just can’t imagine someone approaching life milestones at a pace different from their own, or maybe eliciting bitterness from you restores, in their minds, a molecule of cachet to their own frail marriages—they want you to covet what they’re stuck with. Whatever the case, it’s a question more about them than about you. It’s a question posed with zero empathy, so what else could it be?
OK, OK, but what about your response? Outright bitchiness might not be a good idea. It’s a megadose of the negativity they want and, as a bonus, makes you seem like the aggressor. But if it’s a casual acquaintance asking you the question, I say you’re entitled to your own passive-aggressive retort, something like “Well, I hope to soon, but the worst thing to do would be to, you know, settle,” or “All the best gambling addicts seem to be taken,”1 depending on that person’s particular circumstances. More congenially, “I just haven’t found the right fella” might be enough to end the exchange quickly. But be warned that anyone impertinent enough to ask you why you’ve never been married will probably move swiftly to fix you up with a nephew with preternatural sweat issues.
Of course, no one frets more about matrimonial status than parents. They love you, but now their friends’ children have babies and strangers at the mall have babies and chimpanzees on the Discovery Channel have babies, and your uterus needs to step up. Your singleness may also raise questions in your folks’ minds about your upbringing. Did they set you up for spinsterhood? Should they have forced a Ken doll on you instead of giving in and getting you Barbie’s Dream Cats? But you have the right to tell your parents that the question bothers you, that it actually makes you want to talk to them less. They can ask all they want, but they should know that you simply won’t be around as often to hear it. It’s their choice.
1 If you don’t think that’s passive-aggressive, you haven’t heard my aggressive.