Posts Tagged ‘advice


holiday gift ideas for the hopeful BF

Reader M. B. writes:

The holidays are fast approaching and I am at a complete loss about what to get my girlfriend this year. We’ve been together for a while and I want to really get her something special. I’m not really good at getting gifts, and I really don’t want to mess up. So what do you suggest?

Dear M.B.:

I’m so glad you asked! You might remember this piece once upon a time, wherein I spent several hundred words consoling a lady to be glad her husband got her any gift at all for their anniversary, and telling her that it was her job to let her husband know what to get her if she didn’t like his gifts.

That still goes — it’s your girlfriend’s job to let you know if your gifts are terrible. But the fact that you know you’re a terrible gift-giver to begin with and are asking for advice means maybe you don’t want her to have to have that conversation with you. Good job!

Gift-giving around the holidays can be a pretty stressful event, but there are a few things I can say for sure about what you should look for. It all depends on your girlfriend, of course. You’ve got to know what she likes, However, most of the ladies I know have the following rules for gift giving on “major” occasions (aka anniversaries, winter solstice holidays, and birthdays):

  1. Give me something I wouldn’t just buy for myself (either because it’s too expensive, or it’s impractical, or any other number of reasons).
  2. Give me something that I will actually like or use (i.e. not something you’re getting because you actually want it).
  3. Give me something whimsical and romantic.

Now, let’s be honest: there are girls out there who don’t care about gifts. These girls are actually angels, and as we all know, angels are sexless, so be careful with them.

If your girl does care about gifts, then you’re going to have to figure out what she likes for yourself and go from there. If she has said over and over again how much she loves X, get it for her. She’s making life easy for you.

Low on money? Services count, too, but not IOUs for services. Don’t give her a promise that you’re going to clean the house; actually clean the house. It’s a much better surprise if you just do it without promising beforehand than if you say you’re going to and then never get around to it.

I decided to conduct one of my highly scientific surveys and ask my girlfriends what they want for Christmas this year. I told the girls to “dream big”. Here’s what I heard:

"Yay! Presents!" Image: photostock /

  • A massage and/or spa day (mani, pedi, facial, soak). This was definitely the one all my girlfriends could agree on. These can get expensive, but they’re extremely thoughtful and say “go on, pamper yourself”.
  • The house cleaned (not just “picked up” but seriously scrubbed). The laundry done. The dishes done. Not just now, but forever. In other words — buy her a year’s worth of a cleaning service. Even just one visit from a cleaning service can make everything better for a long time. It doesn’t sound really romantic, but it’s extremely thoughtful.
  • A trip somewhere (with you!). “A vacation” came up more than once (we must be a stressed out group — massages and vacations for all!) Of course, you can take her somewhere that isn’t too far away and isn’t too expensive. Even just cleaning up your apartment, lighting some candles, and turning off the phone for a night can be good. Your time can be your greatest gift.
  • A CSA or Co-op membership. If she’s a foodie, being able to get amazing ingredients at lower prices will matter immensely. Having them delivered to her door every other week? Amazing!
  • A wine club membership. So you can share a bottle or two together every month.
  • Extremely nice lingerie. Nope, not Victoria’s Secret — try La Perla or Aubade. Worth the price upgrade, plus you’re going to have to do a little detective work to get the size right. And, you know, it’s kind of great for you, too.
  • An iPad or Kindle pre-loaded with some of her favorite books or magazines, and a few new ones to boot. Technology + you’re thinking about what she likes to read.
  • All the work done on the car (oil change, tune-up, a fix for “that clicking sound” — this is stuff you can maybe do yourself!)… Followed by a nice little drive to a romantic dinner (food you made yourself counts!).
  • A piece of designer clothing (“boots” was a big response among my friends) that you know would look sexy on her and is maybe a bit out of her price range. Again, you’ve got to know the girl’s taste, and her size. When you get this one right, you get it exactly right. Also: consignment stores and good antique shops are excellent for this. And the women who run those shops will be tickled that you’re looking for your lady.
  • Tickets to a show — her favorite band, opera, or musical. Bonus points if you get them a few months in advance. Extra bonus points if she didn’t even know the show was coming through your town.
  • Jewelry. Girls love sparklies. BUT WATCH OUT. If she’s expecting “the ring” and you get her diamond studs, it’s going to be a really awkward moment. Furthermore, if she’s not sure how serious she wants to be and you get her a really expensive necklace, you’re heading for doom. Just put some thought into it and be smart. If you know a jewelry designer and can have something made for her, that’s pretty awesome.

Here are a few gifts I’d steer clear of:

  • Any pet. Yes, kittens and puppies are cute, but they’re also a huge responsibility. No one should ever be given a pet as a gift unless a lot of discussion has gone into it first. (Don’t even get me started on people giving bunnies as gifts. Oh man.)
  • Any exercise equipment or gym memberships unless she has specifically asked for it. Are you encouraging her new running habit, or inadvertently telling her that you think she’s fat? Careful!
  • Nothing. This is absolutely the worst thing you can get a girl for a holiday, even if she swears she doesn’t want anything. Get her a card, at least.

Now, again, I must stress that every girl is different, and my girlfriends are probably crazier/funnier/awesomer than most, so don’t just trust what I write. Listen to your girlfriend and take some time to think about what she likes. That’s the most important thing about gifts — the thought. If you really, really can’t think of anything, ask her for a list. It’s a bit lame, but you can’t go wrong that way. You already know you’re not great with gifts, and if she’s the right girl for you, she’ll be able to accept that, too.



Reader K. Z. writes:

I just found out that my wife had has her own apartment for two months. She has even taken half the pots and pans and tried to hide it by saying they were “put away”. I just found out about this apartment and now she wants to get rid of it. She wants me to help her pay three months rent in advance so she can get out of the lease. Should I kick the bitch to the curb (or her apartment), let her stay at the house as long as she wants, or what? And what about paying for her to get out of the lease?

Dear K.Z.:

weighing the options

Image: jscreationzs /

Wow, she’s been hiding her own apartment from you?

That’s my initial reaction.

Here’s the deal:

I can understand the need for “my own space”. This is why I think two bedroom apartments are a great idea even for couples who love each other. Sometimes ya’ just gotta’ have your own space, even after you’re married. Carrie Bradshaw kept her apartment in “Sex and the City”, and obviously she’s the ruler against which all women should be measured, so…

(I’m kidding.)

However, the fact that she got this apartment after you were married and without telling you about it kinda’ cues me in that you two have problems.

Basically, what I think is that when a couple starts having huge secrets from each other, it’s over. Sure, you’ve got your little secrets in the back of your brain (that time you made Jimmy eat a worm on the playground in second grade, the pencils you stole from your first job when you were 19; you know, little secrets) that you may never have shared. But once secrets start being current rather than past, and once they reach a certain level of magnitude, the relationship has taken a turn it will probably not recover from.

“Kicking the bitch to the curb” might be a bit strong of a verb, but I would definitely look into a good counselor, and possibly a good divorce lawyer. The fact is, your wife got caught in her lie (about the pots and pans), and instead of owning up to her reasons for doing what she did, she renounced the whole arrangement. Obviously if she signed a lease long enough that she’d have to buy out of it, she wasn’t planning on relinquishing it anytime soon. And if she wants to give it up since you found out about it, either the thrill is gone from keeping the secret or she was using it for nefarious purposes.

And you’re probably not going to trust her ever again.

As far as what to do… it all depends on certain factors.

Are you willing to work on the marriage and at not keeping secrets from each other? It’s going to be a long, soul-searching journey, and for her part, the fact that she got an apartment might be a hint that  she has already given up on things. (I’m not sure what her reasons for having a second apartment are, and I’m not sure if you two already have some history of not communicating.)

Do you have the money to buy her out of the lease? If she’s been paying rent on it with her own money (which she has, or you would have noticed the drain on the mutual bank account pretty quickly), I think the financial responsibility lies entirely with her. Perhaps it will be less expensive just to let her keep it, even if it’s not going to be her primary residence. In fact, if you’re going to work on your marriage, she might be willing to let you use it once in a while, which could be nice if you have a big work project, or just need a night alone with the TV, or if the apartment complex has a really sweet pool.

You’re obviously rather upset, and it might be good for her to have her own place for a while as you work through things. I’d say keep the apartment for the time being. If you’re still together when the lease runs out and you want her back home, by all means, drop the apartment then and start over.

But for now, it sounds like she needs a haven anyway.

And it sounds like she’s got a lot of ‘splaining to do.


getting him to like you

Reader N. R. asks:

I met a guy this weekend and I really think I like him. How can I make him like me back?

Dear N.R.:

I’m sure the advice “be yourself and have fun” won’t cut the mustard on this one, but they are good things to keep in mind. Getting someone to like you is actually a psychological game, regardless of how unromantic that sounds. Sometimes it just happens — good lighting, perfect conversation, the right band playing on the stereo. Other times, you actually have to watch your step. I’m going to tell you the tips I’ve learned from my kabillion years of experience in getting someone to like (or dislike) me. These tips work on getting a girl to like you, too; it’s all basic human psychology.

First off, don’t sleep with him right away. I know, sexual revolution, if you want sex you should have sex, blah blah blah. There are rare birds out there that are capable of handling a roll in the hay before you’ve established a personal relationship, but they are very rare birds. I have absolutely no evidence of this except personal experience, but there is something about the chase that tends to sustain a guy’s interest for longer. If you don’t want him relegated to the booty call (i.e. “imminently disposable”) segment right away, hold off. How long? That depends. Unless he’s saving himself for marriage (and in that case, you probably are too, and this advice doesn’t even matter), he may actually lose interest after a certain threshold. (And who knows, you might lose interest, too.) One month is probably a good line to draw in the sand. After two or three months, he may be looking for other outlets. (There are sex camels out there who can go for long periods without. They are amazing and they may just like you without you having to try.)


Everyone loves a puppy! Not everyone loves a person who's acting like a puppy, though. Image: graur razvan ionut /

Next up, make yourself slightly unavailable. It’s counter-intuitive, but it’s that whole “chase thing” again. If you’re always right there like a puppy, there’s no reason for him to try, and even less reason to try to like you. Do not, under any circumstances, drop plans you have already made to go out with him at the last minute. Also, you don’t have to invite him to every shindig your friends are holding. Have other plans. He’s wondering if you’re available for dinner tonight? Ah, too bad, you’re already having dinner with friend X, but you’ll take a rain check. Say no once in a while. Keep him on his toes. Again, there are those rare moments where the lighting is perfect and you both just want to spend all your time together and it’s inevitable and whatever, but again, we’re talking about making someone like you, not reveling in the fact that someone already likes you.

In the same vein, don’t over-communicate. Don’t call him all the time; don’t text him all the time; don’t IM him constantly. I’m not saying don’t call at all, but take a step back and see if he comes to you first. If you’re always the one initiating conversation, you’re too available. There should be an even split between the communication. I am a huge advocate of deleting his contact information and forcing yourself not to call or text. Keep yourself busy.

Which leads me to my next point: be interesting. This is more for your own sake, and if you’re not already interesting by the time you’ve met the guy, it’s probably too late. Like I said before, you want to be yourself and have fun. But this means you should already have hobbies and activities that you’re into. Not only will this give you something to focus on other than him when you’re trying to be slightly unavailable, but it’ll give him something to ask you about, too. Get onto and get going!

Finally, convince yourself that you don’t care if he likes you or not. Or at least throw that energy out into the universe. Maybe deep down you are roiling with desire for his very presence, but don’t let on about it. Desperation is, as I’ve mentioned before, anathema to getting someone to like you. The very idea that you might not even be interested at all is like throwing chum to the sharks. Keep a cool calm surface regardless of your interior monologue. Later, when you’re married, you can laugh about how calm you appeared when in actuality you wanted to jump his bones the whole time. But for now, play it cool.

And in fact, not caring is the best thing you can do for yourself. If it ends up he doesn’t like you in the end, you won’t have put all this effort and time into a failed project.

Oh, and did I mention “be yourself and have fun”? That’s the best advice I’ve got.



Reader M. J. asks:

I am convinced that I can stay home and work for myself as a freelancer. What tips do you have as a writer to help make this a reality?

Dear M. J.:

Conviction is the very first thing you definitely need to make a freelance career happen, especially in writing. I’m going to be totally frank here and not sugar-coat this: it is HARD to make a living off freelancing, particularly if you (like most Americans) have any debt whatsoever. Writers have it particularly bad, and I blame this on our high literacy rates in America. Everyone can read, and therefore, everyone thinks they can write, too. Obviously, we all know that 98% of the written content on the internet is particularly vile (not to mention the written content in newspapers, books, and even movies), but in our digital age, quantity will beat quality any day of the week. Especially if it’s cheap quantity.

Doubt you'll ever need these.

Freelance writing: not what it used to be. Image: Simon Howden /

The best advice I can give you is to find a gig with a past employer who wants to keep your services on-hand. If you can find a retainer, that is pure platinum. The reason a previous employer is a good idea is because they know your skill level and because you can trust that they’ll pay you. Striking it out in the wide world of self-employment can be a very difficult and unstructured move, and you may actually end up doing a lot of work that is either unpaid or underpaid.

That said, there are a lot of great ways to market yourself and get work. Here are a few things I’d definitely recommend:

– Get yourself a website.

Make it easy to remember. Your best options are your name, or a “catch-phrase” of sorts that people could come across easily. Buy the domain (they’re not too $$$ — is a good way to go) and find yourself a hosting biz. I recommend Word Press because it’s easy to use. Better yet, make a trade with someone who is actually a web designer. They’re always in need of content, and you write good content, so you can probably get them to make you a website in exchange for a bit of work on your end. Have examples of your work in PDF format available so people can see what you’re capable of. Make sure your website’s content is good, engaging, all that jazz.

– Print up some business cards.

You can get a good set for free at VistaPrint (you pay for shipping and/or to NOT have their name on your card somewhere). They don’t have to be fancy; in fact, while neat business cards are awesome, utilitarianism wins over form in this category. If they can’t find a way to contact you or remember why you gave them your card, the shiny hologram isn’t going to do anything for you. Put your name, specialties (“SEO”, “writing for web”, “music writer and jazz accordionist”), phone number, email address, and brand new website. I’d leave the address off, especially if you’re nomadic like a lot of us are. You can leave business cards all over the place, hand them to people who are talking about their new website, or give them to the hot number you meet at the bar. Everyone loves a business card.

– Decide on your pricing.

This is probably the hardest part for me. You’ve got to decide what your writing is worth, based on market research, your education level, and what you actually need to survive.  If you’ve worked a job as a copywriter in the past, consider charging hourly for what you used to make there. If not, figure out market rates by doing your research. It depends on what part of the world the content is going to, how big your client is, how much time and research it would take for you to complete it… It’s an ever-changing world. You’ll get an idea of what people are paying when you start to look for work, but you should at least have a general idea of an hourly rate for writing content (web vs. article vs. whatever else), editing content, consulting, etc.

Like I said before, it’s hard to find clients who are willing to pay for good quality when they can get quantity on the cheap. Remember that there are at least 100 computer-connected people in India or the Philippines who speak and write English and will do your $20/hr work for $0.10/hr. You’re going to have to be able to set yourself apart if you want to make the kind of money you probably need to make to afford living in the U.S. You could consider moving to India. I’m just saying.

– Scour the interwebs for work.

If you don’t have a generous former employer who wants to continue paying you in a freelance capacity, or friends who are starting their own websites, or any other contacts who can pay you for your work, you’re going to have to look for it.

Craigslist is actually a great place to find freelance work, especially if you dig around in the major metropolises (NYC, LA, DC, SanFran, Boston, etc). Of course, you have to be careful — there are a lot of scammers out there, and people who won’t pay you. This is why I say you should know your clients before you agree to work for them. If they don’t have a working agreement or contract of some sort available, don’t trust ’em.

I have also used,, and other sites that basically take random screen shots while you’re logged in/working so that you can prove to your client how long you’ve worked, and so your client can rest assured you’re charging them for actual time. I have some trouble with this because I’m a multitasker, especially when I’m writing. I get a whole bunch of things done at once, and it’s hard for me to concentrate on a single task at a time and get it done well. So while these sites are good for some folks (and will help you assure payment), they don’t work for everyone. Also, these sites take a cut off your final billing, so you have to charge more per hour than you normally would. Finally, the problem with these sites is that you have to bid for the work rather than talking with your client directly, and some of the sites charge you “credits” (aka money) to bid on the highest jobs.

Sites like are good to start with — they pay by the word, which is an interesting way to go about things. Of course, this work can be mindless and not worth it if you don’t type fast or can’t come up with content quickly.

Sites like and can work for you if you’re capable of really marketing yourself and snagging a topic that people will be interested in reading. You really have to keep that up every day in order to earn any cash at it at all, but if it’s a topic you like, it can basically be like blogging.

– Try the old-fashioned route.

You can always send proposals to your favorite magazines and see if anyone will publish your article. Print media isn’t dead (yet), although the group of people who get published in it are a pretty incestuous circle and it can be very difficult to break into, especially without some kind of academic backing or a name for yourself. But if you are really good at writing articles, with a great spin on them, and can write awesome cover letters, go for it. It’ll cost you postage and time. Well, and printing fees, probably. And dignity, if they turn you down. Just remember: the only time you fail is the last time you try.

– Market yourself.

This is another really hard part. You’ve got to use the resources available to you, and there are a ton of them. Set up a fan page on Facebook and ask your friends to join. Nag them if you must. Use LinkedIn to get your name out there and get as many contacts as you possibly can. Be a whore. You’ve got to be, or you’ll never make enough money to live. People have got to be able to say, “Oh, yes, I know a writer” if it ever comes up. You never know. Put your resume up at and hang your business card up at all the free bulletin boards in town. Be shameless. Just do it.

– Learn new skills.

You are probably not going to be able to make it just as a copywriter. People don’t want to have to hire a copywriter, editor, graphic designer, and web designer. They want a one-stop shop. So make yourself useful. While you may never be an amazing coder, you can probably figure out how to use Photoshop or how to do HTML mark-up. The more stuff you know, the more valuable you are. Add as much to your resume as you can.

These tips will probably work well for graphic designers and programmers, too, although I think they have a much easier time finding work. (Again, everyone thinks they can write; but I’m pretty sure most people will readily admit they can’t code well.) If you make it big, remember to let ’em know where you got your info from. Wink. Wink.


writing a blog

Ladies and gents, I have returned from the underworld!

And I’m back to write some more advice. So here goes.

Reader D. M. asks:

this is a ridiculous image.

I kinda' found this image ridiculous. But still. Image: Salvatore Vuono /

I’m thinking of starting a blog, but I’m not sure how to start. Here are my most urgent, pressing questions about it.

1. How long should a blog entry be? I would like to go a little longer than usual (like 500 to 1000 words). Is that too long?
2. How do you promote a blog?
3. I set up an e-mail specifically for blog feedback that I was going to publish on the blog. Is that a good or bad idea?
4. Here’s a big one: How often should I blog? Once a month seems like enough, but what is a good rate?
5. Do you have to be good at website design? I’m not.

Dear D. M.:

I love numbered lists. It means I can answer with a numbered list!

1. Thanks to the fact that we have all this digital technology, blogs can be as long as you want.  This is both a blessing and a curse. The thing about blogs is that people can get bored with them easily, and, just like with a book or magazine, quit reading them. The rules about writing for internet interests are a bit weirder than, say, the New Yorker. You’re supposed to break up blocks of text and keep paragraphs short so that the text appeals to the human eye. If people notice your blog is long, they’re going to be less likely to read it. Still, 500 – 1000 words isn’t necessarily too long, depending on your audience, and on how well you write.

2. There are dozens of ways to promote a blog, and many of them are not things I actually do (sadly). Social networks are basically free advertising. Post a link to your blog entries on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn — wherever you have a network. In fact, you should make a page on facebook  Make sure you have an RSS feed or a subscription service set up, too, so folks will get emails whenever you write something new. If you’re not averse to paying for advertising, Google Ads and Facebook Ads are both pretty solid and relatively inexpensive ways to go. They’re simple and easy to use, as well. Plus they provide metrics for you, so you can see how well they’re working.

3. An email for blog feedback is a wonderful idea. Just make sure you check it regularly. Most blogs provide a space for comments, but email can be a less public way for people to tell you what they think of your writing. Of course, you should be prepared for the spam that will come with having an email address published on a web site. Think about publishing it as something like “myblogatgmaildotcom” rather than the actual email address, just to avoid a bit more of the spam. Not that I find spam particularly harmful — it’s just annoying.

4. You should blog as often as you can, actually. Once a month isn’t really that much at all. I would say you should blog at least once a week to keep the readership interested in what you’re doing. Otherwise, people will completely forget your blog exists. Most of the really good, popular blogs I know actually do short updates three or four times a day. Content is king in this internet era. You’re not publishing a quarterly magazine, unfortunately. People will wonder why the updates are so infrequent.

5. You definitely don’t have to be good at website design to start a blog. Case in point: me! 🙂 Most blogging sites provide templates that do all the HTML coding for you. WordPress, for instance, does all the work for me. It helps to know a little bit of HTML, just in case your photos do something weird or your headings get out of whack, but really, all you need is a wysiwyg (what you see is what you get) editor, and you’re all set.

I’m sure you’ve got other questions, too. Keep ’em coming!


STFU during the movie. but in a nice way…

I was going to respond to a question a friend asked me over IM a few weeks ago as my first post under advice, but as I’ve already received a question from a reader via the comments in this blog, I think I’ll address it now.

Reader L.B. asks:

“How do I tell my husband that while I enjoy watching historical documentaries with him, sometimes I really wish he would just stfu so I can watch the show and we can talk about it later? In a nice way, of course.”

Dear L.B.,

He's judging you.

Shepherd Book is always right.

I’d like to start by quoting from a very important religious figure in my life:

Shepherd Book: [to Mal] If you take sexual advantage of her, you’re going to burn in a very special level of hell. A level they reserve for child molesters and people who talk at the theater. (Firefly, episode 1.3 “Our Mrs. Reynolds” 2002)

We’ve all sat through a movie with someone who just wouldn’t. shut. up. It sucks. You spend the whole time grinding your teeth, wincing whenever they speak, wanting to punch them in the arm.  It’s worse when they think they’re witty, but really they’re just sucking all the enjoyment out of the film/show/poetry reading for you by interrupting. It’s especially hard when the person is your date or significant other or new friend. How do you politely ask them to keep their effing mouths shut while you try to enjoy this film?  Book’s right: these people will probably go to hell. I like to expand his meaning from “people who talk at the [live] theater” to “people who talk [incessantly, during movies] at the theater” and even “people who come into the room in the middle of the TV show and ask you what’s going on or what something means during important plot moments”. Divine retribution will be mine. Someday.

Of course, I talk during movies. Sometimes. I try to keep it to a dull roar, and only with people I really know well. But sometimes I can’t help it. Sometimes I just have to say my witty retort to whatever the character just said. Or share an inside joke with my movie partner. So why is that okay in my head?

It ends up that talking during movies can be a bonding activity. Sharing your inner thoughts is a very intimate thing to do no matter where you are, and watching TV shows or movies or historical documentaries is a rare moment when you tend to be sharing a moment of entertainment with someone at exactly the same time. This doesn’t happen in other entertainment moments – reading a book or a blog article, say. There’s no way you’re reading the article at the exact same speed as the person looking over your shoulder, unless you’re reading out loud. I think it’s perfectly natural for people to want to share their inner thoughts when watching movies or TV shows, especially with someone they like, and if you think about it, the fact that he’s talking to you during this time means that he’s telling you he likes you, in a way.

So treasure that for a moment.

Then, after you’ve considered his feelings and that this may be a way he feels he’s sharing intimacy with you, plan how you’re going to ask him to knock it the fuck off.

I’d suggest a conversation that goes like this:

“Honey, I love you. I love that we can watch historical documentaries together. I love that you have things to say about them. However, I personally prefer to keep my comments to myself during the shows and then talk about them afterward. Can we try that? It would make it much more enjoyable for me.”

If you really want to do something awesome, get him a little notebook and pen so he can jot down his funny thoughts when he gets them while you’re watching the shows together. That way, he gets an outlet for those thoughts when they come up, and he has a way to show them to you later so he doesn’t forget. Plus, giving people gifts is always a cute way to show you’re thinking of them (bonus!).

Just remember: he probably sees his chit chat as intimacy, so don’t just flat-out tell him he’s wrong and you hate it. It’s going to be hard for him to stop, too. Try to look at the funny, cute, witty things he says and enjoy those, rather than just seething for the time you can tell him to shut up. Remember: you can probably watch the documentary again later. Live moments with loved ones are not TiVo-able.

And if all else fails, you can claim Shepherd Book as your religious mentor in this case:

“Shepherd Book says not to talk during movies. And I believe him. Shhhhhh.”

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