Doing Things the Hard Way, Made Simple

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No Take-Backs

Dear Zoe,

Is it ever okay to ask for a gift back after you’ve broken up with someone or after they’ve broken up with you?


I Want My Stuff Back!

Dear I Want My Stuff Back,

Oh Jeez.

On principle, this makes me cringe a little bit. When you give a gift, you’re (hopefully) giving it to the person because you think they’ll enjoy it, right? Isn’t the whole point of giving them something that you want to make them happy? So I don’t entirely understand why you’d want to ask for it back.

The only exception I can think of is if you’ve given them something that’s really valuable to you, like, let’s say, your great grandmother’s antique brooch or your autographed copy of the original Iron Man comic. Even then, it’s kind of awkward. I’d advise you to ask only once, and if they say no, let it go.

As a general rule, no, it’s not. You really liked this person at one point. Let him or her enjoy their present, or not, as they choose.

And I’m sorry about the break up.




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“Psychedelic as a bruise”

I recently finished Mark Slouka’s heartbreaking novel, Brewster. The second half was a slowly unspooling nightmare, the kind you wouldn’t wake from even if you could, because you are so engrossed in the story, even as you want to wail “no!” It’s one of those books that gets into your bones. Beautiful.

* the title phrase is from this review

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Dog Days

Dear Zoe,

How does one politely tell their neighbor not to let their dog run in the street for fear that the dog will get hit by a car?


A Concerned Neighbor

Dear Concerned Neighbor,

Oh, my!

My first reaction was, like yours seems to be, deep concern for the dog, but it was tempered with a dollop of judgment. I have two dogs and I inwardly cringe at the thought of them frolicking in our busy street. I had to remind myself of two things:

Firstly, my dogs are often to be found in places they shouldn’t be, and, as little as I like to admit it, I often have only moderate control over their activities. They humor our 6 foot fences, but they’ve demonstrated on several occasions that they can both clear the fence with several inches to spare, and seem to stay confined in our yard merely out of respect for us.

My Olympic champion-like dogs aside, I had to remind myself to reign in the judgy feelings a little bit; I know next to nothing about your neighbors or their dog.

This is not to say that your concern is misplaced or invalid. I’m just suggesting that if/when you approach them, you don’t do it from a place of judgment, because they will pick up on it and your kindhearted worry will probably go un-dealt with.

Are the owners standing by supervising when their dog dashes into the street, or are they elsewhere, like inside?

Let’s assume they’re outside watching:

Head over to them, greet them, and then say something like, “Jeez, when I see Sparky running in the street I get so worried! Cars go so fast on this road, and I would hate for something to happen to him….” Hopefully, they will respond in agreement, or at least with an explanation for their allowance of his roaming. You could suggest some dog parks or fields for them to take him to stretch his legs. However, even if they are resistant, there isn’t much else you can do. It is, after all, their dog. Shrug, smile, and say to yourself (or out loud if you’re feeling sassy) “Well, at least I tried.”

If they’re inside or out of sight when he’s in the road, I would suggest heading over to their property and knocking on the door. Depending on your comfort level with the dog, you could take him with you back to his home, or leave him in the street for them to deal with. When they answer the door, give them your spiel.

If they aren’t home when the dog goes gallivanting, (and you’re comfortable with him,) you could scoop him up and deposit him into your own (fenced)  back yard. But please, make sure to leave a note for them so that they know where he is.

As always, if you’re seriously concerned about the dog’s well being, you can call the Montgomery County Humane Society at (240)-773-5960.

Best of luck.



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Advice for Aspiring Mermaids

Michelle Tea’s young adult novel, Mermaid in Chelsea Creek, about a gritty, tattered mermaid, thirteen-year-old best friends who play the pass-out game, and a community of talking pigeons is totally worth the read. I came across this interview with Michelle Tea by Carolyn Turgeon, self-described mermaid expert.

This is Tea’s advice for aspiring mermaids:

Make your own mermaid mythology. Remember that history gets written by the winners, and what we know about mermaids comes from people who probably didn’t understand them properly. They’re not just pretty, long haired seductresses. They’re fierce and intelligent and full of wisdom and experience, just like you.

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“Everyone gets smashed to bits: it’s your best opportunity to grow.”

I loved Caleb Powell’s interview of Poe Ballantine in The Sun. 

Some bits of wisdom:

If you want to make a difference and stand out, you’re obliged to sound the depths.

on the role of morality in writing:

We all have moral choices to make. We can go out into the world with reckless disregard for anyone but ourselves as we struggle to get what I want, or we can help and teach one another.

hard learned lessons:

Little in the way of wisdom and enlightenment came for Jonah until he was swallowed by that fish, and it was the same for me until I was swallowed by reality. Getting smashed to bits gave me humility, gratitude, and the ability to love and appreciate my fellow humans. Everyone gets smashed to bits: it’s your best opportunity to grow.

to young writers:

Stay open to experience, and realize that most of your years of effort will look like failure. You won’t be alone in your failure, but it will feel like it.

I can’t wait to read Ballantine’s new book, Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowherea true-crime story/memoir about his new marriage and family and his Nebraska small town.