• On Hold

    My mom didn’t do book club. She didn’t work outside the home. She didn’t volunteer. She didn’t play tennis or golf. She talked on the phone. All day, every day. The long cord wrapped around her legs, head tilted towards her shoulder to hold the phone in place while she peeled carrots and ironed my dad’s shirts. Chatting with friends was her life’s work. Never did the phone go unanswered. It was the other person living with us. Live conversation was consistently interrupted by the shrill ring that vibrated through the house. Inevitably, once the receiver was lifted, she performed a two hour disappearing act. 

    My mom thought call waiting was rude. Instead, she installed another phone line so I could talk to my friends and she would not be interrupted for hours on end. My teenage pastime became the phone as well. It’s what the women in our house did. As an only child, my mom referred to her friends as her sisters. So my friends became my sisters, too. My mom and I dropped everything for our friends. Simultaneously, we lost sight of who we were apart from them. 

    Parting, even briefly, was made easier with the invention of the answering machine as we could leave the house while keeping tabs on incoming inquiries. The pilgrimage to the second floor office (aka the voicemail room) was immediate upon arrival back home. Press play, take notes. Response time was prompt. Never keep a friend waiting. 

    The landline telephones were plugged into just about every room of the house to alleviate any risk of the call being literally out of reach. Every phone had a display screen with handwritten first names and a button next to each one so my mom’s friends were always just one touch away. Jeanie, Jane, Joyce, Janie – the list of J names was rather uncanny. Helen, Gracie, and Sheri provided some diversity. Almost all of these women dated back decades in my mother’s life. If you got your name on my mom’s speed dial, your inner circle status granted you immediate around the clock access, extravagant gifts, party invitations, and all the gossip. 

    Hosting a dinner party at our house meant a definitive three week lockdown. Two weeks prior to plan, prepare, and clean, and one week for postmortem sessions on the phone to rehash said event. Getting anywhere near my mom’s orbit in the days leading up to the soiree would set off an invisible, yet intricate radar system stemming from her core. I was chased out of the powder room. I don’t recall eating much as the kitchen was for party prep only. Crumbs were a serious trigger. A glass on the counter without a coaster was the death of us. So my father and I stopped hydrating, too. 

    Once the evening kicked off, the energy sparked like wildfire. Drinks flowed freely, the food was impeccable, the house looked immaculate, and laughter boomed deep into the night. Everyone who walked through that front door practically posed for the paparazzi as they were made to feel like rock stars on the red carpet.

    Yet a layer of formalization draped over these relationships like a heavy blanket. I learned that you always catered to your friends’ needs first, at whatever cost. She would say her friends were her sisters, but that always nagged me. Putting friendships on pedestals isn’t how real sisters – those tied by blood – actually treated each other. But what did I know? 

    As an only child, my mother’s mini-me as she always liked to believe, my high school, college, and grad school groups became big familial units to me. Just like siblings, some friends ruffled my feathers, others totally got me. I embraced it all as we were members of these crazy, chaotic families I so desperately craved to be a part of. Yet for as much as I believed my friends were my sisters, I had no ability to actually deal with normal sibling conflict. I was quick to apologize, no matter where the fault lay. I shrank in the presence of anger, asynchronicity, or acidity with a friend. I made myself small and just disappeared for a bit, only to reemerge once the waters had calmed and my feelings were pushed down until no longer visible. 

    Now in the depths of middle age, I tread water in the turbulence of everyday life – aging and ailing parents, multiple growing kids, deeper career commitments and ambitions. I crave authentic friendships that hold a mutual understanding, ones that give each other the benefit of the doubt – a deep belief that we are all just trying our best and loving each other through the messiness of life. I look to friends to help carry me through the heaviness, not to be the heaviness. 

    My most recent friendship heartache took me by surprise. Through a text. She wrote, “I don’t know how to be your friend if I can’t be your best friend.” It all goes back to the phone. While no longer tethered to the visible cords, we are more glued to our phones than ever. Moving from the flip phone to the smartphone, from email to texting, from speakerphone to FaceTime, communication lines are constantly open, but does that mean we have to be, too? 

    My texting response times weren’t as speedy as in the past which led to hurt feelings. Messages sent were misread in the speed of life and false narratives were created. The phone literally lost its voice. Typing versus talking led to gross misinterpretations. From there, it all unraveled. Looking back, it’s because I quietly put down the phone to focus on my family and the major crises that were erupting within it. 

    I shared this recent turmoil with a dear friend who has known me since I was twelve. Her response – “This happens to you more than most people. You have a unique ability to make people feel special but when you have other things going on in your life that reshift your focus, I think your friends get hurt by that.” 

    Then it struck me. I have carried my mother’s torch of putting my friends above all else and created expectations I can’t live up to. The times that I tended to my family’s needs or my own desires are the times that my major friendship breakups occurred. They can practically be charted on a timeline simultaneous with any personal upheaval. What I’ve ultimately realized is that I don’t have the capability to be anyone’s best friend if I don’t give myself the same attention and grace I give to others.

    So now I drift, just a bit, not tied to any one friendship or pseudo-sibling as I unearth my own aspirations. Releasing myself from the tight expectations I created has sent me into a tailspin at times. But unwinding has anchored me to a more authentic sense of self than ever expected. Funny enough, beautiful, balanced friendships have bubbled to the top. The truth is, real friendships can be put on hold when needed. And a true receiver will always pick up.

    A former public relations professional, Lindsay now focuses on writing personal stories with her beloved Modernwell Writing Studio members.  Cooking, community volunteering, travel and nature continue to feed her soul.  She lives in Minneapolis with her three teens and husband of 22 years.  

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  • Palindrome

    I forgot the word “palindrome” yesterday. 

    It slipped out of my vocabulary for a couple of hours, as if to go get a coffee or take a nap. I was on a hike with a friend, marching through the woods, talking about the gifts and betrayals of aging, catching glimpses of grouse and bunnies and garter snakes, and I wanted to say something about palindromes, but I couldn’t. 

    Actually, that’s not quite accurate: I could say many things about palindromes; I could define them and give examples of them. I just couldn’t remember the word for them.

    This particular phenomenon is not new to me; it started a good 10 years ago, if not more. Usually, though, the words that go missing are proper nouns—names of people, cities, book titles, movies and the actors in them. I will call for a word, and it will not come, or at least not immediately. Long ago, I started imagining my body as a multi-storey research library of sorts, with me as its sole patron. I request a word, a name, a title, from my brain, situated at the top floor of the library. And, sometimes, my brain needs to send a page down several levels—to around my heart, say, or my gallbladder—in order to retrieve my order. In these situations, there’s nothing to do but wait, moments or hours or weeks, smiling politely and awkwardly at the head librarian and making small talk—“It has an A and a P, I think but I’m not sure in what order ha ha”—until the page returns.

    “Palindrome,” I said, only apparently apropos of nothing, in the middle of our hike, and my friend nodded.

    * * *

    I am mildly obsessed with palindromes. I have been ever since I learned about them in sixth grade, when our art teacher introduced our class to them, some project that must have folded back on itself, mirror image. Step on no pets, we learned; Madam, I’m Adam. I came up with a Toyota on my own and have since searched, unsuccessfully, for a longer, palindromic, sentence in which to embed it. I remember that it seemed portentous when, later that year, a new girl named Anna transferred to our school. 

    When I journal, I am happier than should reasonably be expected when the date at the top of the page reads the same way back and forth (November 11, 2011—11.11.11—was a particularly good day, as was November 2 of that year: 11 02 2011; I haven’t had as many good days since 2013 ended). In my car, I watch the odometer, perhaps more than might strictly be considered safe, for palindromes—89,598 kilometres, 86,268. I have been known to plan driving routes around significant palindromic events, like 99,999. I habitually scan the world for texts and patterns that read the same back and forth, beginning and ending in apparently the same place.

    In university I took precisely one science class: biology for arts majors. I remember being astonished to learn that palindromes—those quirky little plays on words from my elementary school days—signalled the beginnings and ends of genetic code, buried amidst the sea of random nucleotides: ACCTAGGT / TGGATCCA at either end, bracketing the instructions that dictate our inner workings, our very selves. 

    Palindromes, it dawned on me, weren’t simply fun patterns; they were in our DNA. They were, quite literally, the stuff of life.

    * * *

    The stuff of life was, as usual, the guiding principle of our conversation that day in the woods. This particular friend and I aren’t capable of, or at least don’t seem particularly interested in, small talk. We met—more than a decade ago now—through a mutual, public disclosure of secrets: I heard her, a radio producer, being interviewed on public radio about a documentary she had made, chronicling the process of taking her father to court for sexually assaulting her as a child (he was convicted). Inspired, I pitched my own story to the broadcaster: I wanted to document the process of interrogating my own DNA. My mother had died a few years earlier from metastasized breast cancer. She, and I, had been part of the scientific studies that had identified the genetic mutations—BRCA1 and 2—that had caused her disease, as well as the ovarian cancer she had ostensibly “beaten” 20 years earlier. Ovarian cancer, we were learning, never really goes away, at least not permanently; it gives you a break for a decade or so, and then resurfaces as something else—a lump in a breast, “spots” on lungs, liver, bones, brain. I had a 50% chance of inheriting the mutation from my mother, and I had been looking for a way into the process of finding out whether, in fact, I had. What secrets lurked in my DNA? Telling the story—in real time, on national radio—seemed, paradoxically, like the safest route, at least emotionally: I wouldn’t be going for blood draws and meeting with genetic counsellors; I wouldn’t be facing down decisions about prophylactic mastectomy and oopherectomy, or whether it was safe to have another baby—I’d be making art.

    The radio station assigned my friend (not yet my friend, although I think I had some inkling) to be my producer. I took that as a good omen, relieved to be paired with someone whom—I assumed—understood the vulnerabilities of revealing intimate details to the public. “What if the news is bad?” I asked her early on in the process. “What if I find out that I have the mutation and I don’t want to tell the whole country?”

    “Then we can stop,” she said. “We can shelve it. It’s your call.”

    * * *

    We had wanted to go on this particular hike for a while, now. The trail ran along the Pigeon River, which acts as part of the international border between Northwestern Ontario, where we live, and Minnesota. We had hiked the Canadian side of the river several times together, usually once a season, making our way up to the top of the waterfall and marvelling at its power and the way it changed throughout the year. In the winter, the mist froze over itself in layer upon thin layer, creating a protective ice cover for the water rushing underneath. In the spring, that cover began to crack and melt, creating windows through which we could see the water underneath, always moving, pouring over the precipice. If it wasn’t too icy, we’d climb onto the rocks at the top of the falls, amazed at our own daring and the lack of protective barriers; on the US side of the border, hikers were prevented from such risks by fences and guardrails. We would make our way to the shore of the river and look across to the other side, imagine how easy, or not, it would be to smuggle ourselves across, but then wonder out loud why we would bother: even before the pandemic, the United States, so close, so seemingly similar to us in Canada, felt increasingly dangerous, frightening, unfamiliar.

    But we had crossed the border by legitimate channels that morning, showing our passports to the armed US Customs and Border Security guard. Somewhere along the drive, my odometer did something interesting, and I noticed it. 

    And now we were here, walking, and I couldn’t remember the word for that phenomenon when things fold back on themselves, repeat in mirror image.

    * * *

    Ever the intrepid reporter, I carried a voice recorder into my final appointment with the genetic counsellor, the one where she would tell me whether I carried the mutation. In the recording, she has barely launched into her prepared speech about the process of testing, the odds and the disclaimers, before I interrupt her, my voice catching and slightly exasperated: 

    “Do we have to go through all this?” 

    “Yes,” she replies, almost playfully, “I always do. Not just for you, for everyone.”

    “Okay,” I say, doubtful.

    “You’re anxious.”

    “I just want to know.”

    “You want to know.”


    “Okay.” She pauses. “We didn’t find it.”

    And the tape dissolves into pure sound, no words: a long gasp; a sharp, sucking, intake of air; and then sobbing. “You didn’t find it. You didn’t find it.”

    That moment, obviously, is the apex, the very top of the story arc, in the radio documentary that my friend and I ultimately created, the one released on national public radio, the one that cemented our friendship. They’d run my blood and cells through a scanner, isolating the chromosome, the allele. They had searched for a certain subsection of DNA, signalled at either end with palindromic tags, and they hadn’t found anything. As an Ashkenazi Jewish woman, my odds of carrying the mutation had been about one in 40, as opposed to the one in 400 of the general population. As the biological daughter of a known mutation carrier, my odds had shrunk to one in two, yes or no. 

    And now, we knew: no. 

    A collective exhale. I would die, yes, one day. But now the spectre of dying like my mother, like my grandmother, wasted and hollowed out in a hospital bed in my 40s, faded. Not entirely gone, but now not the only possible narrative. 

    * * *

    And now let’s cut to 10 years after that moment in the geneticist’s office, 10 years after the documentary played on national radio, to, say, a restaurant where two women, fast friends, meet every few months. They are firmly in their 40s now, middle-aged and midcareer; one is recently separated, kids in middle school; one has a daughter just graduating university. They have perfected their dining routine: they arrive at 5:30 PM, right when the restaurant opens, and secure a prime table. They drink wine, but only one glass, because tomorrow and middle age. They meander over good food and good conversation, and they can be home and reading in bed by 9 PM, because tomorrow and middle age.

    Except that this dinner, the radio producer says to her writer friend, her voice threatening to spill over: “I have some medical news for you.”

    And the present moment folds back over into the past, to our first meeting, and we are both, once again, waiting to find out.

    * * *

    We walk through the woods on the other side of the border. The trail here is steeper, more rugged than on the Canadian side, and I watch my friend for signs of flagging energy. It’s been a year, more, since that early-bird dinner, since she drove herself to the emergency room, puking from the pain, since the surgeries and the chemo, since the disastrous, depressing “Look Good Feel Better” workshop where we felt so bad for being so ungrateful and yet so snarky. (Drag queens, we thought: drag queens are really the only people who should teach this workshop.) Her hair has grown back. We have been out for dinner, although wine now tastes like metal to her. She seems okay. And so I follow her lead.

    We are talking, as I said, about the stuff of life: the Codex of tiny moments that add up to our happiness, the way they shift and morph. Whether and how and when she should go back to work; our children and how they simultaneously break us apart and heal us, how we have learned to weather the breaking; the stories we want to tell and how best to tell them in the limited time we have left. Because ovarian cancer, the science tells us, never really goes away, at least not permanently; it gives you a break for a decade or so, and then resurfaces as something else. This is especially true when you are, as my friend is, one of the one in 400 members of the general population who carry the BRCA mutation.

    And this is the dénouement, the surprise ending that neither of us expected, even considered, when we made that radio documentary together all those years ago: that she, the producer, the woman behind the microphone, was always actually the one in danger. Look at our family trees and they are nearly identical, mirror images of each other: a grandmother, a mother, a cousin with breast or ovarian cancer—it’s just that the pattern stopped with me and continued with her. It’s just that someone noticed on my side and not on hers. It’s a story so stupidly overwhelming, a coincidence so unlikely, that we are barely able to talk about it. We shake our heads; the words don’t come.

    Except, sometimes, in the woods, walking.

    Why not go back to work for 10 more years, I ask, spitballing at least one possible future, and collect your full pension?

    “There’s no point,” she says, as the falls come into view: “I’ll be dead by then.”

    Around us, we can see only trees and more trees, and the falls, roaring with spring runoff, no ice to shield them. Maybe it’s the landscape, just expansive enough for me to hear those words and not argue, not point out, say, that my mother lived 23 years post diagnosis, or suggest the possibilities of medical advances, prophylactic mastectomy. I want so many possible futures for her, want to control the narrative, to speed through the unknown in the same way I could make the genetic counsellor get to the point already. 

    But the woods are big enough, right now, to hold space for the words we can’t remember, the narratives we can’t control, the things we can’t know, the stories we can’t stop telling and just shelve when they turn out to be tragedies rather than comedies. 

    Are the woods big enough, though, for how angry I am? At how nature tricked both of us, but betrayed her while sparing me? At myself, for continually inserting myself into a story that is no longer mine, never was? At her father for his crimes, at the president and the administration of this country we have crossed into, at every single predator who has targeted someone smaller, weaker, less powerful, more in need? At the ways in which those predators take up so much space, eating into our bedrooms, our narratives, our very cells, and how it feels like the only defence too much of the time is to cut off and poison the parts of ourselves they’ve touched, hope we live to tell the tale, hope that the cycle isn’t repeated, mirror image, in our daughters’ and our granddaughters’ lives? 

    Is it any wonder I don’t have words for so much of it? That my aging body—and I am so, so grateful for the privilege of aging—has manufactured a stopgap between impulse and word, forcing me to sit in the wordless essence of unknowing, to accept at least temporarily how little I know or can control?

    We have seen the falls, mirror image, on either side of the border now. We retrace our steps back along the path. Gasoline is cheaper here, and I fill the car, reset the trip odometer to zero. We’ll be back to see the falls, most likely, in a season or two. Until we aren’t. 

    We begin the drive home, my eyes scanning the road for deer, glancing regularly at the dash for significant palindromic events.

    Susan Goldberg’s work has appeared in, among other places, the New York Times, Ms., Toronto Life, Catapult, Full Grown People, LilithStealing Time, and The Manifest Station, as well as on the CBC and in several anthologies, including HerStories’ Mothering through Darkness: Women Open up about the Postpartum Experience. She is coeditor of the anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families. She lives with her sons in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where she can’t/won’t stop collecting and refinishing midcentury modern furniture. Find more at, and @susan_l_goldberg, and @milk.n.bread on Instagram.

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  • Don’t Hang Up

    I’m thinking of my friend. I see her every so often when I scroll through Instagram and the algorithms put her on the map again. It’s been decades since we’ve lived in the same city and shared secrets, and yet there is still something between us. I’m thinking of this friend. The one who saved me once. When I was at my lowest low. The one who reminded me that I would be okay. But also, the one who let me cry and didn’t tell me to stop. Not once. 

    Back then I would wish for time to speed up. For us to be twenty years on, the heartbreak of my early adulthood a thing of the past. Middle age sounded so much more stable and secure. 

    I’m thinking of her now because I see her family pictures. They are on holiday in France, on an empty beach, laughing and jumping over sand dunes, chasing and taunting the waves.

    She’s across the world. With a life, and three boys. Six if you count the three she lost. There could have been more, I don’t know. And a partner she never married (at least that I’m aware of) because she never believed in it. He was the guy who looked like he was 16 when he was 26. A scrawny, scrappy kid with the little boy face. Now he’s in his forties and he almost looks grown up. 

    They seem mostly happy, at least that I can gather from what she chooses to share. Apart from the positive covid test that upended their holiday season. She posted a picture of the white plastic test, not unlike the way we used to post positive pregnancy tests, until it hurt too much to share the sad news that would inevitably follow for both of us. 

    But I’m thinking of her now because I see her pictures and her hair is short. Like she’s taken a razor to her head. And I have no idea why. Don’t get me wrong, she looks beautiful. But it’s the kind of cut that makes you wonder. Is it a cancer cut? A gender fluid cut? A I’ve-moved-to-the-countryside-and-don’t-give-a-fuck-anymore cut? I heard through the grapevine that one of her sons might have learning difficulties, so perhaps a year of homeschooling was all just too much and she lopped it off. 

    I don’t know any of these answers because we’ve lost connection. 

    I try every so often. I send her a message on WhatsApp. 

    “We should catch up,” I say. 

    “I’d love that,” she replies. 

    But neither of us set a date. The last time I texted I even added, We don’t have to catch up on all the years we missed, we could just start with where we’re at today.” But even that feels hard to know where to begin. 

    If someone asks me who my best friend is, she will still appear in my mind. But no one asks that question anymore. It seems our later years are for partners, and children, and soul-searching in solitude. Friends, yes, even good friends, yes. But best friends?  

    If you had asked me twenty years ago whether we would still be friends, I would have gently scoffed at you for even asking. Of course we will. But if you would have told either of us the tragedies and joys that would befall us in the decades ahead, it’s likely we’d have also laughed. But mostly out of a naive innocence that presumed neither of us would have been able to survive such devastating blows in one lifetime. 

    And yet, here we are. 

    I’m thinking of my friend and her short hair. Are you okay? I want to ask her. And I wonder if she knows that I would fly to her in a heartbeat if she still needed me. Of course, she doesn’t. But if she did. And I wonder if that means the connection is not lost. 

    I’m thinking of my friend and wondering if it’s like we are still on the phone (and in my head it’s the old school landline, and we’re twiddling the cord around our fingers while we each sit on the floor, our backs against the wall. Like if it were a movie, they’d split the screen and show us back-to-back. That’s how I’m picturing it). And I’m wondering if one of us said,

    “Hold on, I’ll be right back.” 

    Only there might just be thirty years before either of us comes “right back.” 

    And maybe that’s okay. Maybe this is what happens. It’s not a lost connection, but a connection on hold. I just can’t hang up the receiver, and neither can she.

    Meagan Schultz is a writer, podcaster, e-course creator, retreat facilitator, soon-to-be-hospice volunteer, and mother of three. When she’s not asleep by 7:30, she can be found writing at Her work has been published on Brain, Child, Literary Mama, HerStories Project, Sunlight Press, WUWM NPR’s Lake Effect, and in several anthologies. She can be found at and @MeaganSchultzWrites on Instagram.

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  • Embracing Being the Odd (Wo)Man Out

    by Jennifer McCue


    “Oh look, the commie has arrived.” “Hey, let me introduce you to my one lefty buddy.” “Here comes the snowflake, we have to watch what we say now!” These are just a few of the comments that have been directed at me from some of my more—how shall I put it?—slightly-right-of-the-Kaiser family, friends, and acquaintances. Most of the time, I take the ribbing with a grin and let it roll off my back, but occasionally it strikes a nerve; that’s when inner-Jenn—the rebel, the actual social justice warrior, the little girl inside me who still wants to change the world—flares to life like a Molotov cocktail exploding in an alcohol-soaked bar.

    Sometimes I wonder how I find myself being friends with people whose beliefs are so fundamentally different from my own, and who are so unaccepting of the beliefs I hold dear.

    And to be clear, I’m not talking about differences of opinion on, say, the deficit, or the electoral college process. I’m talking about humanism, the very embodiment of the Three Musketeers’ rallying cry “all for one and one for all,” and how we treat the least among us, regardless of how they got that way. This leads me to wondering if and/or why any of these differences of opinion matter, but also wondering how I got to be the way I am, and why I think and feel the way I do.

    In the current era of President Trump, political affiliation does seem to matter, even among the closest of friends and family, with supporters and opponents arguing virulently and sometimes violently, with relationships ending or being fraught with tension. In part, this seems exceptionally foolish to me – a relationship should be based on more than politics, no? On the other hand, if the people you’re closest to do not accept, or worse, intentionally insult your values and the way you live your life, why on earth would one continue in such an unhealthy relationship?

    Emotionally, it feels like we are living in the most polarized generation ever.

    I don’t know if that’s true, but it surely feels that way.

    From my earliest days, I can remember learning the lesson that there will always be somebody worse off than us, somebody who needs our help, and that it’s our duty—as Catholics, and as humans—to do what was in our power to help these people. I grew up poor, but my mom still found money to put in our church envelopes each week, and we still donated our gently used clothing and linens and such, first to a group of nuns who lived in a “bad” neighborhood and worked with the residents therein, and later to an agency which operated halfway houses and a shelter that aided the homeless, recovering addicts, and domestic violence survivors.

    I can recall driving there to the agency with my mom on countless occasions. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, their headquarters were in an old building in a run-down neighborhood not far from where we lived, and it was always dark and dank and intimidating. My mom would tell me not to be nervous, that these people were grateful for the help and would not harm me. I mean, she was right, but when you’re a kid? It’s still a little overwhelming.

    Always though, when we would pull up, we’d have our minivan loaded with boxes or bags, and a few grizzled, scraggly-looking men would come over to help us carry our donation inside. I was the picture of naiveté, and was always a bit wide-eyed during these excursions, but looking back on them now, I’m so grateful for having had these lessons driven home. In hindsight, I can see how integral these experiences were toward creating my worldview.

    Add in decades of living and working in some seriously depressed neighborhoods, seeing some of the truly awful things humans can do to each other, losing my faith, finding it again, going to church, abandoning organized religion, and reading extensively about the human condition and the history of “civilized” man as an adult with life experience behind me, and you get present-day me: wanting to feed all the world’s hungry, and house the homeless, and save the addicted, and educate and rehabilitate those behind bars, and provide an education to anyone who wants one, and  give people who need it the medicine they need at no cost, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

    Because my desire to help includes people around the world, I have been called a communist, a socialist, a globalist, a libtard, un-American, a dirty hippie, and many, many other meant-to-be-unflattering terms, both online and to my face.

    For the most part, I grin and bear it. If such remarks come online, that’s pretty much an instant “unfollow” or “unfriend,” meriting no further response from me, with a “block” if it comes from someone aggressive and threatening. In real life though? There is virtually no point in arguing—it makes me upset, and in very few of these cases do I care enough about the other person to want to bother attempting to change their mind. Do I let these differences come between family and myself? Not intentionally, no, but I do tend to gravitate towards people who aren’t going to insult me.

    As Ghandi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” so I do my best to live each day in a way that betters someone other than myself. It’s a small act in most cases, but it’s what I can do, my contribution to improving this earth we all share. Imagine if everyone who could did just one small thing for someone else, with no strings attached?

    Can you imagine the positivity and progress that might bring about? I’ll do what I can, and continue to be the best example I can for my children, and hope that those who disagree with me someday see me with love and not disdain.


    A Staten Island girl living in a suburban New Jersey world, Jennifer is a stay at home mom to two young boys, but she is also a historian, a wife, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a friend, a genealogist, and the ringmaster of the circus she calls her life. She survives, without a doubt, on coffee and laughter.

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  • What To Do When Friends Have Inconsistent Birthday Traditions

    This month Nina addresses inconsistencies in birthday “traditions” between friends. Do you give gifts if you’re also taking friends out for a meal? What if some friends in a group get taken out for a meal and others don’t? And in the case of this month’s letter writer, what if the group does gifts for some friends, but not others?

    Nina is always taking anonymous questions here. And catch up on all the other letters Nina has answered here.

    birthday traditions

    Dear Nina,

    My birthday was in July and a small group of my friends took me out to dinner. It’s the first time they have ever done this. I missed someone’s birthday from the group in August and then in September. I took those two women out separately, since I couldn’t make it to the group dinner.

    However, the next birthday was in October, so I showed up at the restaurant and everyone else had a gift. I was so embarrassed because I was empty handed. I didn’t get the memo that gifts were now included in these outings. Isn’t taking the birthday girl out for dinner enough? Apparently at the one birthday dinner in August, gifts were given, but at the September dinner—no gifts. Why one and not the other?

    Recently there were two more birthdays. I refused to show up empty-handed, so I got both women some cute, fun jewelry—nothing too expensive, around $20 each.

    But why must we give gifts? How do we stop the gift giving without hurting others’ feelings? I didn’t get gifts at my birthday dinner, so I never thought to buy a gift for anyone else. I told my friend who sort of arranges these dinners that after our friend’s birthday in Dec, we should say no more gifts unless it’s a big birthday ending in zero or five. Not all the women in this group are super close, so it’s all awkward. I don’t know what the right thing to do is.  Any advice you can lend would be appreciated.


    Let’s Knock It Off With All These Gifts

    Dear Let’s Knock It Off With All These Gifts,

    You’ve come to the right person. Some may find this particular issue ridiculous to consider a friendship “dilemma” since it means you’ve mastered a question often asked here: How to make and keep a solid group of friends in the first place or at least a few friends close enough for birthday celebrations.

    Friends who take you out! Friends who give gifts! What’s to complain about?

    Let’s call this advanced friendship advice then. These etiquette conundrums and inner drives for practical living fascinate me endlessly. How can any sane and functioning crew of friends give gifts off the zero and five years with such randomness? You are absolutely right that this madness must end.

    Not everyone will agree with me on this, but I think a meal can be gift enough in the off years. Now, if the birthday girl is throwing her own party and you’re attending as her guest, then a gift is proper. If she says no gifts, however, I try to respect that except in cases when I truly can’t help myself.

    I asked my mom what people in her social life do for birthdays, and she said it’s a gift or a meal, not both, even for the big birthdays. Of course each person gets to make her own decision and just because a group of friends has decided not to do gifts, that doesn’t mean closer friends within the group or those for whom gift gifting is their go-to way of expressing closeness cannot privately hand over a present. Maybe those friends can consider not bringing the present to dinner in front of everyone else.

    As for expressing closeness to friends, we each have our methods, whether we’re aware of them or not. Your letter made me think about how my friends know that I love them. I’m not the best about bringing a gift in the non-zero years or even initiating the birthday outings, but I make old-fashioned phone calls and leave all kinds of voice memos, too. I also answer calls, ask for advice, and give advice when asked. I also introduce my friends to everyone I know both to help them professionally and socially. So yes, my gift giving could stand to improve, yet I’ve managed to keep most of my friends.

    My point is, I’m with you that gifts, while nice, are not the only way to “give” to a friend. And I agree that it’s immensely awkward the way your group of friends is giving gifts for some of the birthdays and not others with no discernible pattern. I like your idea of getting the woman who arranges these outings to announce before the January get together that it’s a new year and from now on, people should only bring gifts to dinner for the zero and five years. If she won’t bring up the topic, then you will have to decide if you’re up for doing it yourself. I noted you said this is the first year they’ve taken you out for your birthday. I’m not sure how long this group has been getting together and whether you feel it’s the right time to step in that way. Only you know!

    Or, and this is advice I probably couldn’t take myself, you can also get comfortable with doing things your way (no gift) even when others bring gifts for a friend’s 43rd birthday dinner.

    Good luck! Let us know what happens in 2019!



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  • Talking to Friends About Money

    This month’s topic is MONEY MONEY MONEY. Does it bother you when friends ask what you spent on something? Does it bother you when a friend avoids answering a financial question? Please read the situation described in the letter below and help Nina guide this month’s letter writer past all the awkwardness.

    Nina is always accepting anonymous questions here. See the questions she’s already covered, here.

    hertake nina badzin


    Dear Nina,

    I would love some advice about navigating the subject of money among friends for the midlife set, whether those friends have more OR less, to minimize awkwardness on both sides.

    Here’s what prompts my request. The other day a neighbor (someone we’re fairly close with, e.g. we help each other with dog walking needs, vacation mail, etc.) was asking me about a recent stay we had in a local beach community. We’d rented a house for the week and she asked, “Do you mind if I ask if it was expensive?” That was her exact phrasing, not “Do you mind if I ask how much it costs?”

    Now, I happen to know from previous conversations a hint of her financial situation that we are in a much, much stronger financial position than she is right now. Which is to say, to *her* I knew this would be expensive, and, like any vacation travel, there are ways to do it cheaper. I also knew that the pricing is available online if she were to ever ask where we stayed, so I didn’t want to lie either. My answer to her was “Well, I don’t like characterizing anything as expensive or not because I think that’s relative, but it cost $XXX.” And, as I expected, her eyes widened. And then I felt guilty, finding myself qualifying my response with things like “but this is the only vacation we take . . . we rented a bigger house so we could have more privacy . . . etc.” I guess I felt I had to justify the amount we spent to make it sound less…fancy? After she left I felt badly, almost guilty.

    I know never to assume anyone’s financial status, and yet these kinds of things come up once in a while, on either side of the coin, for all of us. And when socializing in mixed financial circles it can get awkward. For me, what I want to minimize most is resentment or any whiff of “showing off” or “missing out” for anyone. Like if we go out with a group of friends . . . sometimes some are happy splitting the bill evenly, and others you can sense it’s not what they wanted to do. Or how for many of us, family size (big or small) directly impacts ability to pay in some situations. You get the gist. Any pointers for our midlife generation who have things like college, parent care, mortgages, retirement plans, etc. that we all might be better or less equipped to finance than our peers? How do we talk about these things honestly without hurt feelings?

    Thank you!

    Need Help With The Money Talk

    Dear Need Help With The Money Talk,

    First, I’m taking the “midlife” angle out of the question because awkwardness about money is an ageless concern. Second, I want to assure you that you’re not alone in finding this subject tricky.

    I use Facebook occasionally to get a feel for which friendship topics piling up in my “HerTake” inbox will interest readers. When I brought up a more general version of your question, the post attracted more conversation than any other I’d attempted in four years of writing this column. Do I say that because everyone who responded agreed that friends shouldn’t ask what things cost or whether they’re expensive? No. I say it because the comments varied widely:

    “It’s tacky to ask what someone spent.”

    “It doesn’t matter if someone asks. Friends should be able to talk about it openly.”

    “We can look anything up these days so no reason to be private.”

    “It’s nobody’s business.”

    Yikes! What to do?

    Many agreed they didn’t mind discussing what things cost as long as they felt the person asking wasn’t judging the answer. There was also consensus, which doesn’t make it scientific, but I’m mentioning it anyway, that women over-explain and apologize for their purchases more than men do. “It was a deal.” “It was a gift.” “I bought it at a resale shop.” You reacted this way, too when your friend’s eyes got wide at the price of your beach vacation. There was also agreement that context matters. If someone is looking for a similar deal on a similar item, that is entirely different from outright nosiness.

    One Facebook friend, Kate, summarized the issue well: “I do think it can be awkward when there are differences in economics among friends. But then, the truth is the truth, and neither bragging about it nor lying about spending money seems to be a modern approach. If someone resents a person for how much they spend on something, whatever it is, well then that’s on the resent-er. We must all be able to be ourselves among friends!”

    I agree with Kate’s point, especially the part about being ourselves. And you’re right, too, that we can never count someone else’s dollars. Maybe one person cares about the car she drives more than going on a certain kind of a vacation. Maybe another friend is spending her extra money on childcare during the week, which means she can’t afford to go out as much on the weekend. Maybe another friend seemingly has everything—new clothes all the time, a new car every few years, fancy vacations, three kids in private colleges—but she’s in debt. Maybe another friend never seems to stress about money, but she panics privately about saving for retirement, helping her parents, or dealing with medical bills.

    And as you said, what’s expensive to one person may not be to another. I would just stick to the facts. It’s presumptuous anyway to think you know how anyone will react to the information you provide. And as Kate said, the reaction is on the other person, not on you.

    That said, I think there is still nuance to every situation involving money and it all depends on the relationship. But even with my closest friends, I’d find it unusual for anyone to expect me to provide exact numbers on hotels, clothes, or anything for that matter.

    Now to be fair, my view comes directly from my childhood as evidenced by my mother’s reaction. “Because your grandmother was a stickler for manners and appropriate behavior in various situations, I learned at a young age it is gauche to discuss money in a social situation. This means you never ask someone what they paid for something, and you do not volunteer the cost of things you purchased. Clearly there are nuances to this rule. For example, you might tell a friend you hired a great computer person. Obviously your friend will want to know what the computer expert charges. That is a different question from asking what you paid for your vacation. The latter is an intrusive question and no one else’s business.”

    (I enjoyed my mom’s use of the word gauche.)

    I wish I could give you one specific rule to follow, but my mom is right that helping a friend make sure she’s not overpaying (or underpaying) for a service is quite different from providing dollar amounts about more personal purchases. And as my mom says, “There are some topics that are fine to talk about with some friends and other issues to avoid.” It depends on the relationship.

    In the case with your neighbor, I might have said, “We stayed at [name of place], but the prices depend on the availability or deals going on. Take a look.” This removes any opinion on your part about what she can afford and helps you avoid feeling defensive about how you spend your money. You’re not lying about where you stayed, but the exact price you paid for the place is truly not her business. Sure, she will see a ballpark of what you spent, but that will happen on her own time, which means you don’t have to get into an uncomfortable conversation about it. Perhaps this type of approach will help you the next time she asks a similar question. Does that mean you should never reveal the price of something? No. Like I said, nuance.

    The question you asked at the end about the bill at the restaurant is a good one, too. But the idea that you can sense some of your friends didn’t want to split the bill. . . I don’t know. I think you put too much pressure on yourself to know others’ financial issues and desires. You’re obviously a sensitive and caring friend, but you can’t single-handedly eliminate these uncomfortable moments. These fellow adults can speak up. Someone who does not want to split should ask the server from the get-go for separate checks. Sure, it would be a considerate gesture to offer to ask the server for separate checks yourself if you spent significantly more, but for a typical meal where people spent around the same amount, I think it’s fine to assume you’re all splitting unless the person who doesn’t want to says otherwise.

    I know this doesn’t cover every instance, but hopefully reading about the topic here (and in the comments below) will help you see you’re not alone and also encourages you to give yourself a break from having to mitigate everyone else’s money issues. That’s not your responsibility!

    Best of luck,


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