Saturday, November 28, 2020

A Lecture on Commas

 “The time has come,” said Father, “to talk about you.” --Bullfrog Grows Up

“Today,” said Mother, “the time has come to talk about commas.” 

You may not be a grammar and punctuation nerd, but this is a serious matter that won't be resolved unless we all work together. If you can read and write, you can understand this.

Consider this fine sentence from a Facebook group called Forgotten Oregon, regarding animated GIFs in the comments.

They are distracting, annoying, and unnecessary.

One of the uses of commas is to streamline a series of similar words or phrases. Instead of repeating “and” all the time, we use commas instead and save the “and” for the final word or phrase.

Compare the above example with this: They are distracting and annoying and unnecessary.

See what I mean?

Another example:

Today I got up and I went on a walk and I lit the heater in the cabin and I made a pot of tea.


So we use commas to make a string of similar phrases.

Today I got up, went on a walk, lit the heater in the cabin, and made a pot of tea.

A series like this should be like a good round of hopscotch. You have a spot in front of the first square where you launch, then you smoothly hop hop hop, pick up the rock, and hop home.

In every sentence with a comma series, you need a launching word. You set your little tennie runners there and then take off into Square 1.

Also remember: every item that follows needs to be similar in shape, like the squares of a hopscotch game, and they all need to connect to that original launch word.

If you’re stepping off the hopscotch game, put an AND in there.

In the sentence about my morning, the place where you set your feet and begin is “I.” Every item connects back to “I.”

I got up

I went on a walk

I lit the heater in the cabin

I made a pot of tea.

Now, we take a deep breath before the bad news. A dreadful habit has entered our fair land. Writers begin a series properly, hop, hop--but then the last item veers to the left and goes wandering into the weeds.

Once you start seeing these, you find them everywhere, including the New York Times and Instagram posts from Queen Elizabeth. [Weep.] 


Very large surf is expected along the south Washington and Oregon beaches that could cause strong rip currents, dangerous sneaker waves, beach erosion, and move large logs.

We plant our feet on “could cause,” then we hop hop hop to:

Strong rip currents

Dangerous sneaker waves

Beach erosion

[so far so good]

Then we not only step on the line but stumble off the sidewalk and into the arborvitae bushes.

Move large logs? What?

“that could cause move large logs”??

The similar series ends with beach erosion, so you should put a comma and an “and” in front of it.

As I mentioned, even the New York Times messed this up.

He has spoken expansively of Beau’s example, military service, and his own grief over his eldest son’s death.

As it is, it would read, “. . . Beau’s . . . his own grief over his eldest son’s death.”

Stick an extra “and” in there, you fancy NYT editors. 

He has spoken expansively of Beau’s example AND military service and his own grief over his eldest son’s death.

Then we have a quilt magazine, on using Orvus paste to wash a quilt:

It’s inexpensive, safe, and lasts a long time.

You skipped some stitches there, quilt magazine. Try this: 

It’s inexpensive and safe and lasts a long time.

From, regarding asp caterpillars—

Use tape, tweezers, or scrape them off with the edge of a piece of cardboard.

You’re bouncing off of the word “use.” Use tape. Use tweezers. Use scrape them off with the edge. Arrrggg.

From, who ought to know better, describing classical homeschoolers--

“They are often memorizing speeches, dominating debates, and their parents hope to be raising the next generation of scholars, doctors, and lawyers.”

Please. There are only two items in the "are often" series. Put an "and" in between. Memorizing speeches and dominating debates. 

Then we have The Next Great Jane by K.L.Going, which is not some slapped-together self-published novel. Someone at Penguin should have caught this.

“True,” Kitty said, “but if that woman is going to compete with your mom’s fiancĂ©, then she’d have to be rich, sophisticated, and have a better job than a Hollywood film director.

“She’d have to be have a better job than a Hollywood film director.” No no no.

This stuff is everywhere.

From a sewing site on Instagram:

Ambrosia is a veteran, a nurse and is fairly new to IG but has hit the ground running with it.

Just take out the second “is.” Easy peasy.—

As kids, Laura taught me how to ride the swings, draw rolling hills, and the ‘right’ way to properly eat string cheese.

This one comes close. “The right way” links back to “taught me.” However. The beginning words are actually “taught me how to.” 

Laura taught me how to the right way to properly eat string cheese.


As I mentioned, sadly, Queen Elizabeth got it wrong when she posted on the death of His Highness Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmed Al Jaber Al Sabah of Kuwait.

He will be long remembered by all who work for regional stability, understanding between nations and between faiths, and for the humanitarian cause.

Oh dear Queen. All you had to do was omit that final “for.”

From a letter in Threads magazine—

I love your magazine, articles, podcast and have been reading Threads since the first issue.

All right, class. What is our beginning word?


What is in the series?

Magazine, articles, podcast.

NOT “have been reading . . .”

Pop an “and” in there before “podcast” and we’re good to go.

Marina.von.koenig on Instagram , writing about quarter scale blocks.

It saves time, paper, and is fun.

No, Marina. Try this:

It saves time and paper and is fun.

You wouldn't say, "It saves is fun."

Believe me, dear readers, there are many many more examples in my files. Surely you've caught the drift of this important lesson, and now you can be irritated every day along with me. 

We close today’s lesson with a text from our fine son Ben, who recently sent a link to an interesting article and who tries to let me know when he goes hiking and when he returns.

And who brought joy to his mother’s heart with this properly-done series:

Yes, I did make it back safely. I did not in fact send that article while lying in a ravine with a broken ankle, severe internal bleeding, and a coyote gnawing on my leg.

See? You can be like Ben, bringing joy to your grammar-nerd family and friends.

Said Mother hopefully. 

- * - *-

P.S.--A few corrections and clarifications from readers. I am always learning!
1. Mary Hake pointed out that properly-done [four paragraphs up] isn't properly done. "Adverbs (-ly) words cannot be hyphenated and form a compound adjective," she says.
2. Rebekah Nafziger says, ". . . it is called parallelism. You can't have two verbs in a series and then a noun or prepositional phrase. . . I was a copy editor and proofreader for Multnomah Publishers before they sold in 2007."
[I knew the concept but had forgotten the name.]
3. An anonymous commenter pointed out that this example: 
Ambrosia is a veteran, a nurse and is fairly new to IG but has hit the ground running with it violates the parallelism principle, even with my corrections. Noun, noun, adjective. Oops.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Ask Aunt Dorcas: The Teasing Boyfriend and the Mother's Fears

Both of today's questions touched a nerve and a bunch of memories in Aunt Dorcas, and you can see she went on at rather great length. Is there a relevant angle she missed? Feel free to add your respectful comments and perspectives.

Aunt Dorcas on Tire Mountain

Dear Aunt Dorcas,

My question is this: I really don’t like to be teased, but I don’t usually show it. I know most of it is my own insecurity about myself, but sometimes I also just want straightforwardness. This has caused some conflict with my boyfriend, who likes to tease me but doesn’t mean anything bad by it. I don’t want him to feel like he has to walk on eggshells because I’m insecure, but I also don’t want to feel like I have to just accept it if I feel annoyed at his teasing. We have talked about it a few times, but I’m not sure how we can find a good way to resolve it.

For example...I’m in grad school and if I get a test back and it’s a 97, he says “only?” My mom did the same thing when I was growing up and it always annoyed me, but when I talked to her about it, she stopped. I always have made good grades, but I just want to hear “nice job,” not “only?” Because my insecurity is “maybe I’m not actually that smart and everyone will find out eventually...” 

He says he’s not a “words” person (and I’m all about the words of affirmation), so I think it’s easier for him to tease than to say “good job” - although he does say that sometimes, too. 

All of this is much harder because we are long distance and this is on the phone. 

Maybe this is more information than you bargained for.  It just came up again today and I’m at a loss right now, so I thought I’d ask. 


Dear Hannah,

It so happens that Aunt Dorcas relates to this question deeply and personally, and so must take a deep breath before she speaks, and may not be entirely objective.

At first glance, this is a small thing. He teases—with one tiny word! You feel uncomfortable. No big deal. That’s life.

And yet, here you are, thinking about it, feeling persistent feelings, and writing to Aunt Dorcas.  You sit yourself down and pour a good dose of logic. “Listen, Self. He has a good heart. He doesn’t mean anything bad by it. Goodness, if you keep this up he’ll be too nervous to make any comments of any kind. You’re just overly sensitive because of your mom and because you always wonder if you have what it takes. So dumb, really. You just need to grow up and get over yourself.”

Do your thoughts and feelings meekly shut down and go away? No. They do not. They keep returning. So annoying.

Here’s the TL;DR: Your misgivings are telling you something. Listening to them doesn’t necessarily require something drastic like ending the relationship, but it will mean you understand yourself, your guy, and the relationship better.

Here’s one angle of your story: He’s a guy who is not a “word person.” You’re a woman who is. You’re in a long-distance relationship, talking on the phone. One of you is straightforward; the other is more jokey and subtle. This is a recipe for relational glitches.

Paul and I were in that exact situation, long ago. [Although in a different combination, as he was both straightforward and jokey.] It was hard, and, in looking back, not exactly healthy. Unless you already know each other really well before you spend time long-distance, you miss an enormous amount of context, nuance, and subtext when you communicate by phone and letter.

I recall one bump of many. I fancied myself a budding photographer. Living in Minnesota, I took pictures of snow. It was challenging to get those shots of snow to actually look white in the finished photos. I learned to fiddle with the camera to adjust f-stops and shutter speeds, but then my efforts would be derailed by the photo processor, who ran them through an automated process that adjusted everything to a middle gray.

I had talked to Paul about this, on the phone. He acted interested, bless his heart. Soon after, I got a set of pictures back in the mail, as we did back then, and they had actually turned out, I thought, at least kind of.

I mailed a few of my best shots to Paul.

The next time we talked, I asked if he’d received the photos. He laughed and said, “Oh, you mean those pictures of gray snow?”

I was so hurt and mad I wanted to break up right then or at least hang up on him. But that was before I had learned to be mad out loud, so I didn’t say anything and acted like things were ok. Then I cried and cogitated for three days, and then I finally wrote a letter explaining how hurtful that was and how could he be so insensitive and horrible?

What would have been a 15-minute conversation in person, between honest healthy adults, turned into a gnarled, agonized, weeks-long back and forth in letters and phone calls, since we could only afford one call a week, and letters took three or four days to get there.

I am getting hives, just thinking about it now.

Here’s the thing, though. Paul got it. He finally realized how important this was to me, and how it made me feel when he joked about it. He never did it again.

I learned that it was safe to be honest with him. Even though I was overly sensitive and a bit immature about my photography, he accepted that and was happy to work around it.

That is significant.

I hope it’s ok that our family had a dinner conversation about your situation one evening.

Paul, who related deeply to being a clueless boyfriend in a long-distance relationship, said, “If this is something the guy normally does, inadvertently, and he doesn’t get that it hurts her, then she needs to be clear about it. ‘If you do that, this is how I feel.’ Otherwise, how is he supposed to know?”

However, we all sensed that there’s a deeper and potentially more dangerous dynamic here. Teasing can be a precursor to abuse, a testing of the waters to see how far a person can go. If the teasee says, “I’d like you to stop saying that,” and the teaser says, “Hey, I was just joking. You take everything so personally,” warning signs ought to go off everywhere. Bullies by definition don’t stop when someone says Stop.

Jenny said, “She’s insecure about her grades, and that’s what he’s teasing her about. You can tease people about other things, but not their insecurities. The line is if you know it hurts them.”

Matt, who also has compassion for guys trying to figure out relationships, said, “Does he know this is about her insecurities and how it affects her? There’s a moment of ‘Getting It’ that he may not have had.”

Phoebe suggested saying, “I know you’re not a words person, but this is important to me.” She added, “I wonder if they’re a bit of an intellectual mismatch, and he’s insecure about her being in grad school, and her good grades.”

Ben said, “Framing it can be important. Maybe he assumes she knows he means, ‘Good job!’ Does she say he’s doing something wrong and frustrating, or does she give the context that it’s ok in some situations, but in this particular one, it hurts?”

Jenny added, “Like, ‘It’s not rational, but it makes me feel this way.’”

Paul said, “They need to figure this out before they talk about marriage.”

Amy said, “He can’t just say ‘Good job’? He can’t just learn that skill?”

Phoebe added, “If it bothers her this much, working it out doesn’t mean she just accepts it. This is significant to the relationship.”

Someone else said, “If he says, ‘I was only joking,’ and not, ‘I’m sorry,’ that’s a warning sign.”

We note that although the guys tended to have a bit more sympathy for the guy, and the girls for you, it’s not a contest. This is about the relationship. Can it work, or not?

So, Hannah, you’re not silly for being bothered by the teasing. Our emotions are activated for a reason. Your feelings about this situation are giving you important information. They might not be logical, but they’re picking up on things. So please don’t try to deny or minimize them.

My advice is to have a blunt and specific conversation. “When this happens, this is what you say. This is how it makes me feel.” [Please note that this is the time to state facts, not explain why or apologize for feeling this way.]

Offer a solution. “I would like you to root for me instead, and be happy for me, maybe by saying, ‘Wow, good job!’”

His responses will give you lots of insight into his character and your future together. Ideally, you can have this conversation, even over the phone!, and both of you will see it as bringing clarity and understanding rather than blame and shame.

Even if you are very different people, you can make it work with someone who listens, seeks to understand, and works at changing for the sake of you and the relationship. Engagement and marriage to someone who gets defensive and brushes off your feelings would not be a good idea.

Eventually, you’ll want to do some praying and searching about that sensitive area in your own heart, where you need reassurance that you have what it takes. This exploration is less likely to happen if you’re in a relationship where you don’t quite feel safe, or where this sensitivity is continually bumped and scraped.

In other words, if he can accept this part of you and treat it with care, it is more likely to heal.

You and he will both change as time passes, and his teasing about your grades may be as forgotten as our conversation about the photos, which I hadn't thought of in years. But the issues it raises will affect your future together in profound and significant ways.

I wish you much clarity, wisdom, and courage.

--Aunt Dorcas


Dear Aunt Dorcas,

How is a young mom to face the fearful predictions of persecutions, one world government, end times, tribulation, conspiracies etc. When I hear these things and then look into the faces of my beautiful babies, I am crippled with fear. It’s not that I disbelieve the possibilities. 



Dear Katie,

Let me bless you, first of all, for your fierce protectiveness of your babies.

One of the things that surprised me about motherhood was the mama bear that was unleashed inside of me when my babies were born. Nothing was going to hurt them on my watch. I would give my safety for them, my limbs, my possessions, my life.

That impulse was so strong that I really thought that if someone physically threatened my babies, my instincts would take over and I would probably lose all mental faculties, nonresistant beliefs, and restraint, and I would murder the dangerous person. I casually mentioned this at a family dinner. Paul thought it was not exactly necessary that that be said, out loud, in front of his two alarmed elderly aunts. He was probably right.

So I planned that if any evil person invaded our home to hurt my children, I would dump the diaper pail on his head instead of murdering him. To discourage him from sinning, you know. As long as I could think this clearly in the moment.

Seriously, the protective instinct is like a force that takes over us. Its sheer power is scary.

I never came close to testing the hypothesis that shocked the aunts, but I did have an occasion when I almost gave my life to protect my children. We hit a moose on a lonely road in Canada on a bitterly cold night, and our vehicle caught on fire. I pulled the children out of that flaming van and got them to safety with not the slightest thought for myself. Thankfully, we were rescued before I froze to death in my sweater and skirt on that below-zero night.

I found out that it’s true: a mom will give her life. I never deliberated. I just did what I needed to do. It never crossed my mind to do otherwise.

All that to say: Good moms are deeply, fiercely, down to the bone protective.

It’s no wonder we look at the world and think My Stars. How can I bring a child into this?

We have a tiny sense of control over our everyday territory. We keep the marbles and cleaning supplies out of reach, cook the most nutritious food, buy the best carseats, and tie up the strings for the blinds. We keep the preschoolers away from the unsavory relative at family reunions, refuse to schedule play dates with the friend’s bullying boys, hold everyone’s hands when crossing the street, and send our teens out the door with a litany of cautions.

But oh, sweet Jesus have mercy, the things we cannot control. 

The sweeping trends, the growing hostility toward our beliefs, the rank evil in every level of society. The economic woes, the conspiracies, the plagues of mental and physical illness. Pestilence, hunger, injustice, and persecution around the world.

We are helpless to fix or prevent the looming terribleness. That wicked world is right there, waiting to swallow up our children.

And yet, here we are, you and I, discussing this. Other mothers in other times faced those same fears. When I was four months old, the Cuban Missile Crisis paralyzed the Free World with dread and terror.  My mom used to tell us how she went to town, and, everywhere she went, people’s faces were drawn and worried. A nuclear war seemed imminent.

Was it right to bring children up in such a world?

My oldest was born only a day or two before Chernobyl, another nuclear crisis. My youngest was two when 9-11 happened. The fear we all felt was similar, I’m sure, to what my mom’s generation felt back in 1962.

Katie, I’m guessing you were born in that time frame as well. You’ve not only survived but created another generation.

Let’s talk a bit about predictions, young moms today, fear, and what I see as the Biblical view of your question.

Not to logic you out of your feelings, but you should know that most of today’s predictions will never come true, and no one predicted the truly awful things happening today.

In the 70s, another Ice Age was imminent, they said, as was a nuclear war. The Russians were going to take over the United States, or at least Communism was going to come here, spreading from within, and we would all be persecuted for our faith. California was going to break off and fall into the ocean. The exploding world population would require us all to have only one child or we’d all starve.

Well. We can all see how those predictions turned out.

No one ever told us to watch out for radical Islamic terrorism, Covid-19, riots in Portland, political correctness, the opioid crisis, AIDS, or Lyme disease.

So, if it helps, remind yourself you’re probably dreading all the wrong things. Of course the Biblical predictions will come true, but we don't know when or exactly how.

There’s a paradox with young mothers that’s a bit baffling. If our great-grandmothers could have looked ahead and seen your life, they would have thought you lived in paradise. Clean running water! Central heating! Shopping at your fingertips, and the funds to buy things! Most of all, I think they would have envied the medical advancements. No one in your generation, in North America, fears diseases that will send multiple family members to an early grave in a week’s time.

At the cemetery half a mile up the road, I sometimes look at the little gravestones, many from a local diphtheria epidemic that took Paul’s 4-year-old great-aunt and many others, and I think about what those mothers endured.

And yet, with all these luxuries, young moms seem to be swimming in anxiety. They agonize over nutrition, parenting methods, and whether or not to vaccinate. Like you, they fear the future.

Imagine how that would look to a woman from 1875 or so.

I’m not mocking you. I think your fears come out of your protectiveness and also your knowledge of the world.

As you know, fear has torment. It paralyzes. The best antidote to fear is not ignorance, although that helps, but a combination of faith, love, anger, and action.

Faith in God’s sovereignty and purpose. Love for Jesus and your children. Anger at what sin has done to our world. Bold action in defiance of visible realities.

Bold action, in your case, would be having babies when the future looks dark and raising them to serve God no matter what.

In Biblical history and later on, women gave birth under the most horrible circumstances. They married, got pregnant, and welcomed babies when their families were enslaved, when they were poor, when injustice flamed all around.

Childbearing wasn’t as optional back before today’s contraception methods, and babies kind of showed up, ready or not. This means you face questions Great-grandma probably didn’t—is it right for me to decide to have a baby and bring a child into this world? Yet there was still a deliberate courage, back then, in getting married, knowing that babies would likely follow, and in choosing to welcome each child.

Those historic women didn’t wait for hope before they had babies. Instead, it seems they saw the babies themselves as hope.

Moses, Samuel, Samson, Jesus. All born in hard and hopeless times, and bringing change. Martin Luther, Harriet Tubman, Ben Carson.

Our children might suffer someday. That truth is excruciating. But out of our fierce protection must come a recognition that suffering is not the worst thing that can happen. In our work to protect our children from encroaching evils and from eating mothballs, we must also teach them to stand alone, to speak truth, and to right wrongs. To sacrifice, to love, to live out the Gospel before a confused and frightened world. Then they’ll be able to face a future that none of us can predict, no matter what it holds.

Of course, not every child will be a difference-making hero. Some will not live to adulthood; others will survive but disappoint us. Both prospects are terrifying enough to make us not ever want to have children at all.

And yet, we give birth, driven by faith and hope. 

You are not helpless. Powerful instincts give you strength. Your babies are defiant hope in the face of the world’s darkness and despair. You have what it takes.

Watch, pray, buckle the carseats, latch the safety gate, and keep the medications out of reach. You’ve got this, fierce mama. Faith, love, anger, action, and hope.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

The Wedding--Post 3

Jenny welcomed everyone with her own composition: Love In the Time of Covid
"If the disease doesn't take you out, can I?
The cough takes your breath away, but you take mine.
The fever's got you hot, but to me you've always been.
This is love in the time of Covid-19."

The Smuckers
Amy, Ben, Jenny, Matt, Phoebe, Paul, Dorcas, Emily, Steven

The vows

Ben, Jenny, and Amy sang hymns

Bride and bridesmaids

Groom and groomsmen
Matt and Phoebe greeted guests while the parents gave everyone cookies
and the siblings handed out food.

After the wedding, a number of relatives came to our place.

We aren't sure what story Marcus was telling here.

Amanda was being emphatic. Laura looked to John for support.

Porch, cousins, kittens, blankets, and long discussions.
Rebecca and Anna

The final photo: Love you to Mars and back.

The Wedding—Post 2

More snapshots. I took all of these myself.

The cold, rainy weather ended our plans for a rehearsal dinner in our backyard.
We held it at the warehouse instead.

Photographers and dads.



The cars started arriving. 
It's so exciting when people actually show up.

Mom wasn't the only one who was a bit giddy.

I kept track of my hundreds of pre-wedding
to-dos with colored post-it notes.

My brother added this task to my list.
It was the last one off the wall.



The Wedding! Post 1

We had a wedding in the family.

The plan, of course, was to have a nice big wedding, then to recuperate from all the flurry and flutter, go through the pictures from the photographers, and then post a long description with lots of photos.

First, Covid upended all the plans.

When Paul was injured three weeks after the wedding, other priorities took precedence over sharing wedding pictures.

Ben was a helpful bro

Matt returns the favor.

 So here we are, five months later, having lots of fun clicking through the four CDs of picture that Phoebe left on the kitchen table, relishing the memories.

Because, oh my word, it was a fun day. Despite all the upended plans and dashed hopes, it was just a lovely, joy-filled day all around.

Matt and Phoebe both grew up in this area but met in Washington, DC. You can read that story here.

After their engagement, Covid hit, and the regulations changed almost weekly, whittling down the guest list and negating all their plans. The reserved venue closed down and canceled all events.

Despite their disappointment, Matt and Phoebe decided, for the sake of conscience and vulnerable family members, to follow all the regulations and recommendations regarding Covid. It meant the end of their plans for a wedding with lots of friends and relatives at a beautiful gardens venue in Eugene. But it also inspired ingenuity and creativity, not only in Matt and Phoebe, who possess both in abundance, but also in everyone around them.

They would keep the original date of June 14, they decided, but they'd have a drive-in wedding.

The parents of one of the bridesmaids offered a small, mowed field on their farm. The dad built a platform and ramp, and they offered the farm office as a preparation room for the bride and bridesmaids.

Emily the bridesmaid and friend prepares the path on
her family's farm.

Matt used his engineering skills to make a parking diagram. He and a bunch of others got together, mapped out the field, and pounded in numbered stakes.

I think Amy's taking the plastic bag off the cardboard number.
Because of course we had to work around the weather.

Each car received a number and parked in the designated spot, carefully lined up to not block the view of anyone around them.

Matt set up an FM radio station so everyone could hear the service from their cars.

They ordered hot food from a caterer, to be passed out after the ceremony. In lieu of a guest book, Amy took pictures of every carload when they arrived.

Rehearsal was cold and windy.

Despite nasty weather before and after, that day was just perfect.

Paul performed the ceremony. At that spot in the service, he said, "If anyone sees any reason why these two should not be wed, let them honk their horn three times."

No one honked.

They got married. 

When Paul presented them as husband and wife, then the horns honked in a joyful applause.

It was a very happy day.


Most of these photos were taken by Paul Carter and Randi Bjornstad, both of whom had worked for the same newspaper that Phoebe's dad and I worked for. They take journalist style photos at weddings, documenting rather than staging.

Last minute decorating.

Little Phoebe and Matt in the gift canopy.

Amy welcomes Uncle Marcus and Aunt Anna . . .

. . .and Phoebe's relatives, with her 100-year-old grandpa in back

The kids were so tolerant of their giddy mom.

Out of compassion for anyone with a slow internet connection, I'll post more pictures later in separate posts.

Friday, November 06, 2020

Ask Aunt Dorcas--Disparaging Our Husbands and Why We Procrastinate

 I hope to continue to post on Saturdays--a normal post one Saturday and an Ask Aunt Dorcas column the next.

Aunt Dorcas relies on a daily pot of tea.
Or two.

Dear Aunt Dorcas--

What should I do when I'm in a group of women and the conversation turns to husbands and the things they do wrong?  I'm always uncomfortable with that so I sit there quietly and say nothing. What could I say to change the negativity? Or should I simply get up and walk away?

--Mrs. Pepper

 Dear Mrs. Pepper--

Women’s conversations about husbands make for an intriguing study. Surprisingly often, the women with the most horrible husbands say only positive things in public about them, and the women with reasonably decent men say the most disparaging things.

Edit: I'm assuming here that you're talking about those conversations that are are so negative, hopeless, and contemptuous that your stomach tightens with anxiety and you just want to run. As you said, you're "always uncomfortable." However, there's another aspect to women discussing their marriages that I hadn't considered. At the end of this post, I'll add a few comments from others that give an important perspective. 

I hope to look at your questions eventually, but let’s think about a few topics that spiderweb out from this one. Telling, for instance. Is it ever right to discuss your husband's faults or the difficulties of your marriage with anyone? If so, with whom, and how? If not, how are you to find help?

Also: what might motivate a woman to go off to a whole group about her husband’s shortcomings?

Let’s talk about Telling. I have known women who endured the most vile treatment silently, for years. Their husbands hit them when they “misbehaved,” lied to and about them, and slept around.

These wives kept all the secrets for years, then finally Told. Usually they confided in one friend, and gradually a few more found out. Sometimes they found a better way to live, and sadly sometimes not.

On the other end of this very broad spectrum, I’ve known women who were married to men who were not anyone I’d want to be married to, for sure, but they still fit the term the Eggerichses came up with—“goodhearted.” These men were essentially honest, faithful, and well-meaning. They were not abusive, manipulative, evil, gaslighting people.

But their wives talked a hundred times more often and more negatively about them than the horribly abused wives talked about their husbands.

Here are a few conclusions I’ve come to:

1. My theory is that the safer you feel in the relationship, the more you open you are to talk about problems. Abuse victims often keep all the secrets. The kids with absent dads will defend them to their last breath—“Hey, he’s a good man. He’s just really busy with work and stuff.” And the teens with good solid dads will fuss and roll their eyes because he drives a dirty old car or doesn't trim his eyebrows and it’s SO EMBARRASSING. Women in solid marriages know they can fuss and fume, and the marriage will remain. This doesn’t justify whining to a group of women, but it might mean you're simply more frank and honest if you're in a secure relationship. 

2. A group of women busily husband-bashing pretty much always makes a toxic conversation. The only good thing that comes out of it is that hopefully you listen in appalled silence, then go home and hug your husband and say, “Thank you for being so amazing.” Then he says, “Ok, who were you talking to today?” Sometimes women get into other subjects that are equally uncomfortable, such as child-bashing or church-bashing. It isn’t helpful or healthy.

3. To your specific questions: I’ve found that one woman can set or shift the tone. You don’t have to be earnest, imploring, or preachy. Your suggestions of being quiet or walking away are both good. Or you can ask questions like, “Have you tried discussing it with him?” Or gently steer the conversation elsewhere, to menopause, maybe, or babies.

Some women are like me, easily carried away in the current of a lively conversation. But your comment or silence can give us enough of a poke to shut us up, clear our heads, and steer us out of the rapids.

4. When women vent about husbands, I think of a phrase my sister-in-law Bonnie says. “Figure it out!” You've probably sat there and thought, “You’re kidding me. Why is this even an issue? You’re both adults. Sit down and figure it out!”

Here’s the thing, though. Some people don’t have the skills to actually figure it out. The venting might be a cry for help, because they simply don’t know that two adults can sit down together and discuss this problem and figure out a solution. Or they might not realize that what’s going on is illegal and abusive.

I am not good at admitting I have a problem and stating what it is. There were times I vented in a group, and hearing those words come out of my mouth made me realize for the first time that something was wrong and we needed help.

5. Some women want solutions, and some don’t. Assume, first, that these women aren’t happy with how things are, don’t know how to express it appropriately, and actually want help.

I appreciated the women who spoke to me privately, asked good questions, and moved me toward solutions. You might want to try that.

On the other hand, I’ve known women whose many wounds seeped blood and pus over every friend and quilting and family gathering. Yet when anyone said, “Maybe you could. . .” or “Have you tried. . .?” they always brushed off the suggestions.

This is where you as the friend and listener have to draw some lines, especially if she’s venting to you one-on-one. After about 5 hours of compassionate listening, I’d say you’ve earned the right to speak into her life. Is she open to that? Have you seen her seek actual solutions or ask for professional help?

If the answers are No, then it’s time to back off, change the subject, or even say, “I find it really upsetting to hear this and not be able to do anything.” “This brings up too many bad memories for me. I have to avoid this subject for my own mental health.” “I don’t have the skills to help you. So we need to talk about something else. But I’m happy to help you find a good marriage counselor.”

Obviously, you can say that better in person than in a group. Often, the conversations overlap.

I am not talking here of women working through grief and trauma who need support rather than solutions. I’m speaking of the woman who has told all of you 25 times of her endless fury at Willard because he insists on buying more pigs or he won’t take his shoes off when he comes indoors or he won’t let her home school the kids.

Come on, lady. You’re grownups. Figure it out.

6. While venting to a random group is unhealthy, we do need safe and appropriate ways to talk about our lives and find clarity, comfort, and solutions. Keeping your husband’s abuse a secret isn’t a good strategy. Neither is telling it to everyone in the dentist’s office. Find a friend first, then a few people who can offer help and accountability. Also go read Shari Zook’s excellent post on this subject.

Use the same strategy to talk about the frustrations in a normal relationship. Look for wisdom, discretion, and care.

I’ve found it helpful to talk to sisters and sisters-in-law about the bumps in our marriage. My sisters and I all married men who take charge, work too hard, and aren’t naturally empathetic. We sisters are all deeply committed to our marriages, but we’ve navigated some really deep and rough waters. So we discuss our guys and ooze the fragrant, soothing balm of empathy all over one another. We laugh until we’re in tears. We pray for each other. It is healing, it gives perspective, and it stays strictly confidential.

At our Smucker ladies’ coffee times, we sometimes discuss husbands. The sisters-in-law know exactly whereof I speak. The sisters understand but offer a different perspective. They tell us what Smuckers think, and why and how. They help us make sense of things and remind us that these guys are good people. True, maybe they’ve never taken a hint in their lives, but then they’ve never spoken one phrase with a hidden knife behind it either.

Talking with family members in this way is very different from joining a random group of women in talking negatively about men. If you turn to contempt or bitterness, the sisters and in-laws will call you out.

So, Mrs. Pepper, the fact that you are uncomfortable in these conversations tells us a lot about your and your emotional/spiritual/marital health.  Whether you speak, stay quiet, or walk away, your life will convey a powerful message.

Edit: Here are two other perspectives to consider:

From Esta Doutrich via Facebook: A few years ago I heard someone talking about this on a podcast (? Can’t remember) and said from her experience she thought it was important to talk about marriage with close girl friend groups in honest, joking, and confessing ways (not just positive) because is that is one non dramatic way for wives to realize what is “normal” marriage conflict or issues and what is not and needs intervention or help.

I don’t know if I 100% agree but I have thought of that OFTEN since then. Many times I have shared something about Justin and I's conflicts etc and had girlfriends look relieved and say “oh we have that conflict too. Ours looks like this..... here’s what we do” Or I have been the one who looked relieved with what they shared or laughed about our common shared experience.

Obviously it can easily turn toxic in some instances, but here is what I KNOW... I would WAY rather sit with a group of women talking honestly and frankly about their husbands than a group of women talking honestly and frankly (I.e gossiping) about other friends/church members/etc. that’s when I walk away 

Miriam Iwashige shared this in the comments below: Decades ago I read somewhere that women often do "marriage work" by talking to other women. This makes sense to me now, as it did then. I think keeping the term in mind helps guide me in knowing what to share and helps me evaluate what others share. Whining and ridiculing are toxic, but "work" is not. I agree that sisters and sisters-in-law are a wonderful group with which to do "marriage work," but talking with an unrelated person has been good sometimes as well.

 --Aunt Dorcas


Dear Aunt Dorcas,

Is it ever good to procrastinate? I mean, I think part of the reason I procrastinate so much is I think I will get sort of a "right feel" for how to go about it if I think about it long enough. Legit? Or total lame excuse? 


Dear Lucinda—

Ok, this is a painful subject that has caused me much frustration, shame, guilt, and grief.

I wonder if it’s time to rethink it.

My daughter Amy, one of the most disciplined and methodical people I know, says we tend to think of procrastinators as “bad” when “different” might be better. Maybe it’s that Puritan work ethic, she says, where the good people are the ones with a plan in their heads that they follow dutifully every day.

My husband’s nephew's wife operates much like I do, committing to big projects and waiting until the last minute to whip them out in a complete frenzy.

She was berating herself one time when her husband said, “Babe. Look. What matters is that you always get it done. Maybe it’s not like everyone else does it, but you don’t need to beat yourself up. Maybe this is just how your brain operates, and it’s ok.

[This is a paraphrase, but we assume he said Babe because all the under-40 couples call each other that.]

I feel like my brain is like an Instant Pot, or a volcano. It can’t produce a creative product, especially an essay, unless it reaches a high temperature and pressure. The only way to reach that state is to put the project off to the last minute. As the deadline approaches, the anxiety increases, the ideas boil and swirl, and sudden new insights pop and ricochet in my head. The night before the due date, my dreams are full of wild plot lines—disaster looms, important people are disappointed, danger threatens at each window, I'm tugging at the hem of my way-too-short skirt in church.  I wake up. The deadline is before me. I sit down at the computer, tea in hand, hair uncombed. The pressure reaches its peak, and the volcano blows. I am utterly in the zone; all else is forgotten as the words pour forth. Hours later, I type the ending and come back to Earth, spent and exhausted. The steam has vented; the lava has cooled. And if I’m lucky, the heat and pressure produced a lovely pot of black bean chili or a vein of gold.

In my almost 19 years of writing for the newspaper, I vowed a zillion times I was going to plan ahead, start early, and skip the miserable stress.

The few times I actually did that, the end product was no better than the frantically produced pieces. In fact, those slowly-done pieces were often worse—colder, less emotional, producing less connection with readers.

But I still felt that if I could only get my act together like the good people, bluebirds would sing and we would all be happy.

Maybe, at age 58, I need to work with what I have, which is an irregular brain made more so by the asthma medications I take so I can keep breathing. God has not chosen to heal either the ADHD or the asthma. Maybe it's time to embrace them.

Lucinda, I’d say you also need to work with what you have, and not against it. Can you leverage the pressure to produce the best creative result?

However, you have to be aware that your procrastination sometimes affects others. I regret the times I caused my family hardship by my last-minute craziness. Both Amy and her sister Jenny, another super-disciplined person, agree that this is where the ethical line is drawn. It’s ok to procrastinate if only you are affected and you do what you promised to do. However, if others are inconvenienced and frustrated, that’s not ok. Maybe you make everyone late to church, or you bring down the grades of everyone in the group project.

Then, something needs to change.

I am trying to work with my brain as it is. I never thought I would miss having regular deadlines, but now that I’m not writing for the newspaper, I miss the creative results that they produced. So I'm trying to replicate the results with just enough pressure, but not too much, through having about a thousand words due twice a month for my writing group. One of these years I hope to have a publisher as well, with editors that tell me to have the first draft done by June. I will hate those deadlines, and then I will love them.

Surely our creative minds can come up with solutions for the problems we create.

That’s what I think.

--Aunt Dorcas