Today in Polly

There is some shit I will not eat.

Beginning in 1996, Heather Havrilesky wrote a comic strip and eventually also an advice column at under the pen name “Polly Esther,” which over tours of duty at Salon, The Awl, and NY Mag among others became what is today her advice-column newsletter Ask Polly, the more marketable sibling to her non-advice “moody prose” newsletter Ask Molly, which is one of my favorite newsletters of any kind. There is no reason that had to be only one sentence, but here we are.

Today Heather joins me in a crossover Friday newsletter to tackle some reader advice questions, which I would like to emphasize once again is her long-time profession and something I am notoriously bad at. Am I trying to lower the bar for myself? Yes, I am. We each answered the questions without knowing what the other said first, because that seemed like it would be fun. So let’s go:

I have been a high school teacher for 15 years at a private school. This year, some kid noticed that I don't say the pledge of allegiance with the class. This has resulted in several parental hissy fits, and I've been told that next year it will be in my contract that I have to say the pledge. Should I finish out the school year in silence and dignity, or should I throw my own hissy fit, just to see who else jumps ship with me?

HH: If you’re quitting either way, throw the hissy fit. If parents of the world need to learn one thing, it’s that when you expect a young human being to exhibit blind obedience to a belief that doesn’t make sense to them, you’re recreating the conditions that turned you into such an angry punitive robot in the first place. No matter what complicated web of justifications you might have for wanting everyone to repeat the same beliefs in sync together, at the core of your rage at disobedience is a small, vulnerable version of you who wasn’t loved and appreciated as a unique individual with unique needs a long, long time ago. You want control over others because your control over yourself has stifled all of your joy. Stop trying to fix your kids and their teachers and start trying to accept who you really are underneath all of that rage.

Or I guess you could get a t-shirt made with these words on it and then just wear it to school in a quiet and dignified way.

RF: Every job includes a certain amount of shit that you’re forced to eat. Some more, some less. But never none, right? So the main question for you is really: “am I willing to give up this job over this or not?” If not, then I’m afraid this is some shit you’re willing to eat, so just eat it peacefully. Sign the paper, say the words, who cares, they don’t matter to you either way. 

If you are willing to give up this job though, I recommend you cast an eye over e e  cummings’s immortal classic “i sing of Olaf glad and big,” which is about this very quandary, albeit with somewhat higher stakes:

Olaf (being to all intents

a corpse and wanting any rag

upon what God unto him gave)

responds, without getting annoyed

"I will not kiss your fucking flag"…

Olaf (upon what were once knees)

does almost ceaselessly repeat

"there is some shit I will not eat"

Read that whole poem to them (especially your students), and flip them two extra birds for me on your way out.

My husband has turned into a TERF. (Well he has the Trans Exclusionary part down. Not sure about the Radical Feminist.) What do I do to convince him he's wrong?

RF: Ugh god, I don’t know, this is the kind of problem I would solve by cutting this person out of my life forever. But it’s your HUSBAND, that’s gonna be a whole thing. Obviously you saw enough good in him to marry him at some point, so I guess… appeal to that? Tell him that his opinions suck and why is he being weird about other people’s genders? I just have no access to the empathy required to try to talk someone around from ~~ views ~~ like this. Sounds exhausting! Let’s see what Heather said because that is literally all I’ve got.

HH: Sign him up for both Grace Lavery’s and Daniel Lavery’s newsletters and tell him that until he reads 10,000 words by each of them while imagining that they’re his children, you won’t have a conversation with him about this. 

Straight cis-het people who *debate* about trans rights sometimes just need to be foisted into a compassionate space and try on someone else’s life experience for size with an open heart. Other times, though, what they need is a swift kick in the shins. Use your discretion.

RF: Yeah, see that’s way more helpful than “Ugh blech what a pickle!” This is why she’s the pro.

The pandemic officially started a few weeks before my wife's maternity leave ended. The both of us were to work from home, without going out, in a tiny studio apartment with a one year old. We immediately booked a flight to Mexico so we could work out of my in-laws house while they help with the baby. This was April, 2020. Skip ahead to now: we bought a car, bought a house with space enough to make and furnish a home office, got local credit cards and phone plans, enrolled our now almost three year old in a school, and so on.

But with vaccination rates in Ontario, Canada reaching upwards of 90% in places, my wife's work is asking her to come back to the office in person for, and I cannot stress this enough, ONE day per week. What the hell do we do?

RF: Lmao wait so you are living a whole-ass life in Mexico right now, and your wife’s work wants her to come back to the office, in Ontario, Canada, for one (1) day a week? I mean the answer is no, we barely even have to think about that. You live in Mexico. Here’s her script for answering: “Hahaha no! I live in Mexico, silly!” Then they’re gonna do whatever they’re gonna do, either they value her labor and she remains remote and all is well, or they don’t and she says “Suck a dick, dumb shits!” and gets a job in Mexico (where you live) and all is still well, in a different way. In conclusion: you live in Mexico.

HH: She needs to explain the specifics of her circumstances and express firmly that she has worked very hard to have a full life and also become a good parent and remain a productive member of society under absurdly taxing and unprecedented world historical conditions. So now she’s being asked to sacrifice everything she’s built for one day a week in person? That’s just not rational. I wouldn’t frame it in an oppositional way, though. I would express trust and also suggest there’s probably a mutually agreeable solution: I love this job and I know you don’t want to be that type of rigid employer that would throw all of my pragmatic plans out the window just to gain one day in person in the middle of a still-raging pandemic. So let’s talk about how we can work together to meet your needs at an obviously challenging time for all of us. 

Figure out what they want and why they want it, then figure out how you can give it to them without MOVING BACK JUST FOR FOUR DAYS PER MONTH, HOLY GOD ALMIGHTY, WHAT THE FUCK?

Okay sorry for yelling. It’s just so ludicrous, I can’t handle it. But focus on solutions. Brainstorm and come up with a lot of ways to give them what they want. She should try to be cheerful and optimistic when she speaks with them, with the vibe of “I know we can figure this out!” When they reply with “If we do it for you, we’ll have to do it for everyone!” tell them “Look, if we can make this work well for both of us, you might *want* to do it for everyone.” And also “Everyone has to reinvent the workplace right now. It’s baked into our current picture. I can help you experiment with what might work because I’m enthusiastic about solving this problem for both of us.” 

I know that’s laying it on thick, but the stakes are high, here. Gotta rise up and be expansive and hopeful so you don’t turn it into a battle that ends badly. 

RF: She really tried but you can tell right in the middle Heather wanted to just say “Tell them ’suck a dick, dumb shits!’”

I'm burned out on my job, but since this is the 7th job in a row I've been burned out on, maybe I'm actually burned out on my career. I read "What Color Is Your Parachute" once upon a time but didn't find it helpful and I don't really want to jump out of a plane anyway. How do I figure out what to do next? And what if I do something different, but it turns out I'm actually burned out on LIFE ITSELF?

RF: Oh boy I’ve been there, many times. So deadly tired of what you do, but unable to imagine what other value you might have in this world, to keep feeding yourself and any other people who might depend on you. The good news is it’s not you! You’re not burned out on life itself:

Having the value of your labor extracted to enrich others sucks! It just feels bad. Some people are better at locking that bad feeling in a box at the end of the day and stuffing it down under the cushions in the back of the rest of a full life (which is represented by a couch in this metaphor for some reason, let’s just go with it) and some people are worse at it. I personally am terrible at it, and that’s why at age 45, my job is: “people pay me to send them at most one email per day.”

So your mission is to find your own version of people paying you to send them one email a day. It’s gonna be hard and scary! But the worst part is getting over the fear that there is no such thing out there for you. There is! If I knew you I’d tell you what it was, but I don’t know you so this is the best I can do. Just find the thing you’re happy doing and figure out how to arrange your life so that you can mostly do that. It’s just a bunch of straightforward problems to solve, but they’re hidden behind a big scary existential question about your essential value, which is a lie that capitalism told you to scare you into staying in its power.

HH: I get it. So many people are feeling burned out right now. And when you’re burned out, it’s extremely hard to imagine anything else you want to do. All you want is to fucking rest and eat donuts and have a strong drink or five.

It’s the worst possible time to figure out a new career path, in other words. So what I recommend is just living there for a minute. Say out loud, “I don’t want to do anything but eat donuts and nap.” Keep doing your dumb job, sure, but keep saying out loud: I DON’T LIKE WORKING. 

You know that good feeling you get when you admit how lazy and nihilistic you’re feeling? That’s what you want. You want some relief from the pressure of SOLVE THIS PUZZLE, YOU SPOILED PIECE OF SHIT WHO HATES LIFE ITSELF! You want to just exist. How will you ever feel passionate about anything if you don’t even have a little breathing room to be where you are? 

It’s likely that you’ll believe for a while that you don’t want any career at all, all you want is hot greasy sugar buns and bourbon and long naps. But the less you expect yourself to charge forward, the more space you’ll make for new ideas and options to spring up around you. I mean look, part of this is about coming to terms with who you are, isn’t it? And figuring out which kinds of experiences please you? And trying to locate some joy in this slop heap of a life? So don’t just FIX your burnout. Slow down and look for ways to feel good. String a few moments of feeling good together. Consider revisiting the stuff you once loved that you gave up.

This could end up being a moment of deep reckoning that rearranges your whole life and makes you a whole hell of a lot happier, so lean the fuck into it and see where it takes you. Don’t deny where you are, in other words. Don’t solve this. Live inside it and let it teach you some new ways to feel more alive. 

RF: Oh yeah, hers is better. Do hers first and when you start to find things that make you happy again, you can gradually ease your way into mine. There’s no rush, it took me… eight years to get here. And I don’t even know where here is, yet.

That’s it for today. We only took about half the questions I got so maybe we’ll do this again! I guess we’ll see how Heather feels about playing dueling banjos with an amateur first though. In the meantime, it’s an open thread, if you’re a subscriber please feel free to offer your own advice or support to our questioners, or talk amongst yourselves.

Join the conversation

or to participate.