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Agony Aunt

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I. Dear Prudence (with Daniel Mallory Ortberg and Guest)

DMO: Our first letter begins, “Dear Prudie, my friend is an idiot.”

Guest: Very promising!

DMO: Very promising indeed. “Dear Prudie, my friend is an idiot. For the past five months I’ve been trying to woo--” ‘Woo!’ I love it!! “--my friend/co-worker but I don’t think he’s getting the picture.

“We’re both scientists, but he’s behind-the-scenes and I’m in the spotlight. I am very direct. He is very evasive. I don’t want to scare him since he has a lifelong habit of fleeing to other countries rather than form emotional bonds. At the same time, I think--I hope--that he’s gotten enough of a foothold on stability over the past few years that he won’t hop the next flight to Kolkata or Myanmar as soon as someone expresses feelings for him, but it’s a looming possibility.”

Guest: What.

DMO: “We spend many hours in the lab together so sometimes I try to sneak in some romance, like a candlelit dinner in the lab--” oh my God “--or leaving collections of Neruda around his workstation--” OH MY GOD.  

Guest: Oh my God. And he hasn’t run off to Myanmar yet?!

DMO: “They are blatant, unmissable, almost tongue-in-cheek gestures intended to get the conversation started. But he seems to be completely oblivious to the implications of candlelight. Sometimes he’ll reciprocate by cooking dinner for me or buying me flowers—“

Guest: Well, that’s just what bros do.

DMO: Yeah, that’s STEM culture. “—but he does so in the manner of returning a favor. Now, before you tell me, ‘He’s not into you, take the hint,’ I have reason to believe he is into me.”

Guest: The flowers and the dinners?

DMO: “One: I am very handsome. Two: I am very charming. Three: I have only seen my friend flirt--or do anything remotely resembling flirting--with one person. That person is me. Because of a medical condition, he can’t drink, so he isn’t flirting out of drunken stupidity. (I should mention that I don’t have a medical condition that keeps me from drinking so this letter is drunken stupidity.) Four: We have amazing chemistry. Five: He’s a weird, quiet little guy who wouldn’t say anything if he were attracted to anyone, and he hasn’t said he’s attracted to me, logic is infallible. It’s just a feeling I have, you know?

“Anyway, I’m not sure how to proceed from here, or if I should just fold.” Thoughts?

Guest: So much going on here.

DMO: So much.

Guest: Well, it sounds like they’re dating...

DMO: [laughs] You do think it’s mutual, right? That it’s not one-sided?

Guest: Yeah, I mean, I certainly hope so.

DMO: Best case scenario.

Guest: Letter-writer certainly doesn’t help his case with Point Five.

DMO: I think he was just being facetious.

Guest: Fair.

DMO: Let’s just assume it’s reciprocated. The flowers, and the fact that the guy hasn’t run away to Myanmar…

Guest: I love that the stakes are so high in this.

DMO: Yeah. It’s not, “If I confess my love to this guy, things might get awkward for a while,” it’s, “If I’m explicit with my feelings, he might disappear across the ocean and I’ll never hear from him again.”

Guest: “If he knows someone likes him, he might vanish into the aether.”

DMO: But he has not yet been scared off. Not even by letter-writer’s subtle finesse.

Guest: I feel like letter-writer can’t have it both ways, you know? Like, you don’t want to be direct and scare him but you’re sneak-attacking him with candlelit dinners? And leaving Neruda?

DMO: Yeah. Just casually dropping Twenty Love Poems and bending over to pick it up…

Guest: That’s more direct than direct.

DMO: And like all rom-commy behavior, it’s either very cute or very creepy and it depends completely on the other person’s reaction to it. And the other person’s reaction to it seems to be receptive.

Guest: He’s brought you flowers!

DMO: Yeah, that’s a compelling glimmer of hope that letter-writer isn’t a stalker.

Guest: But then you say your gestures are tongue-in-cheek so maybe he thinks you’re joking.

DMO: Yeah.

Guest: And if he actually does have feelings for you, and he thinks you’re joking, he might think you’re mocking him.

DMO: Good point. I hadn’t even thought of that. Yeah, this is…this is all sorts of things going on. I think you should take it down a couple of notches and just say, “Hey, listen, I’ve been sending some signals the past few months and I just want to clarify what’s going on.”

Guest: Yeah. Like, “Sorry for being weird…”

DMO: “Would you like to go on a date some time? An official date that we would call a date.”

Guest: “A date that all parties heretofore acknowledge as a date.”

DMO: I wonder what their date would be.

Guest: It sounds like it would be the same exact thing they’ve been doing. I also want to know what the objet d’amour’s flirting looks like.

DMO: Lying naked on a bed of rose petals, probably.

Guest: No, no, he’s shy so it’s probably—

DMO: Personalized Bunsen burners.

Guest: News clippings about scientific breakthroughs.

DMO: I’m really hoping it’s reciprocated.

Guest: God, yes.

DMO: For...everyone’s sake.

Guest: I hope you don’t get a follow-up letter. “Dear Prudie, you encouraged my persistent co-worker after I tried to let him down gently…”

DMO: Oh God.

Guest: “Do you have any advice on getting a restraining order?”

DMO: Let’s pretend that this is going to be a beautiful, romantic, gay love story between two scientists.

Guest: It will star Matt Bomer and--

DMO: Matt Bomer and John Barrowman.

Guest: Nice.

II. Captain Awkward

Dear Captain Awkward,

My friend/co-worker has been subtly hinting that he’s attracted to me. I am also attracted to him. However, I have a very rare and very specific medical disorder that makes relationships ill-advised. This hasn’t been an issue for me in a long time because I haven’t desired one, until now.  He is bright and brilliant and brings out whatever good in me can be found. I am so grateful for his companionship and company that I did not even dream that we could both, mutually, want more.

He is fully aware of my medical condition and, unlike most people, does not treat me like a freak or a time-bomb. That is one of the reasons I fell for him in the first place. But the emotional strain of a relationship might exacerbate my condition and make me a burden, and if a romantic relationship falls apart I’m not sure our original friendship will be salvageable.

Furthermore, I am in my late 40’s and have only been in one serious relationship, which was disastrous. He is also in his late 40’s and has had many, many partners. Compared to his previous romantic partners, I am inadequate in every way (except intellectually, which might be a tie-breaker, but certainly not a sole deciding factor). If he is interested in me, whatever allure I have might fall apart upon closer inspection.

Next, privacy is very important to me, but he is a public figure. There are steps we could take to mitigate my exposure, but I would need to be prepared for any tabloid leaks, as they can happen regardless of painstaking discretion. I would think, logically, that anyone who is not comfortable with publicity would be automatically disqualified from being his romantic partner, but if I am reading his signals correctly, I am still in the running.

Finally, I am worried that my condition, my inexperience, my single past relationship, my privacy--that none of that matters, because ultimately I like him so much that I would be willing to take the risk. I could be happy with our friendship, but when he cracks the door open for the possibility of More, I want to open it, but every time I come close, the questions and the doubts flood into my brain and I’m paralyzed. I just need a jolt to action but I don’t have anyone to talk to about this--not to the full extent-- because all of my friends are his friends. Anyway, what do I do?


Dear Letter-Writer,

To quote the musical Company, “You have so many reasons to not be with someone, but you haven’t got one good reason for being alone.” And I think you know that.

First, you know that he’s into you. In your laundry list of questions, you don’t doubt that. You use some uncertain language (“If he’s into me…” “...subtly hinting…”), but you seem pretty sure.

You know this relationship will have some hurdles. This is true of all relationships. In your mind, the hurdles seem insurmountable, but you do not know how big they actually are. Your aversion to publicity, your lack of experience, your medical condition and all the other things you’ve built up in your head are clearly not dealbreakers to the other person. Why should they be for you?

My advice: ask him out. Take it one day at a time. Don’t catastrophize. In the end, you know that the reasons are just excuses. You know what you want.

III. My Brother, My Brother, and Me with Justin McElroy, Travis McElroy, and Griffin McElroy

I’ve resorted to the lowest of the low. Yahoo Answers.

Long story short: I’ve been trying to ask this my friend/coworker out for MONTHS. It’s usually not an issue for me but he’s timid, I’m a brash guy, blah blah blah. I’ve been dropping hints and writing to advice columns and blah blah blah until, at the end of my rope, I am here.

Recently I decided to be more direct and asked if he’d like to get coffee. He said “Like from the kitchen?” And I stupidly said “Yes.” I meant “coffee” euphemistically because, due to a medical condition, he avoids caffeine. He took this to mean that I was asking him to fetch me coffee from the kitchen so I had no choice but to drink it in front of him.

After I finished, I asked  if he wanted to go outside and get some coffee (or tea in his case but I assume that any place that sells coffee would also sell tea). (I am normally very smooth but his awkwardness is so overpowering that it rubbed off on me). He pointed out that I’d just had coffee. I said, “Some other time, then?” He said, “Sure,” then asked if I’d be interested in co-authoring a paper on the Higgs-Boson particle. I can’t tell if that’s his way of telling me he wants to keep things professional, or the opposite, or neither.

Yahoo Answers, my friend is brilliant. I don’t throw that word around lightly. But he can be obtuse. The question I am left with is, can he be this obtuse? Can anyone be this obtuse? He’s either stupid or he’s tormenting me and yet neither option is a dealbreaker.

JM:  He should just kiss him. Just walk into the room and--

T M: The bold one should kiss the shy one or...?

JM: I was thinking the bold one at first, but the shy one...Hm…

T M: I think it should be the shy one. Because you expect it from the bold one, and it’s gearing up to be the bold one, but BAM! Subversion. If this were a romcom, the audience would hoot and holler.

GM: I also think it should be the shy one. The bold one’s been putting in all this work, writing to all these advice columns, sinking so low as to Yahoo Answers—

T M: Yahoo fucking Answers.

GM: Yeah, all this, about to give up, and then the shy one kisses him, proves it was requited all along.

JM: What if the shy is making a big speech about why they shouldn’t be together, and then the other one cuts him off by kissing him?

T M: Then that would be rude.

JM: It’s not rude. One of them’s listing the reasons they’re afraid to be together and then BAM! Kiss! What reasons? There are no reasons. The other one forgets what he was saying. They’re perfect together, and now they both see it.

T M: I don’t know, I just think it’s rude to interrupt for any rea—

GM: Shut up for a sec. One word: skywriting.

JM: Skywriting?

GM: Before anything major happens, they need to keep escalating.

JM: It’s been escalating for so long! They’re gonna explode!

T M: Yeah, they wanna speed things up.

GM: It can’t end until one of them writes something in the sky.

J M: If they’re gonna keep escalating, then it can’t just end with skywriting. Skywriting’s just the next step. Then a marching band.

GM: Nah, marching band first, then skywriting. Skywriting’s grander.

JM: Skywriting’s not grander.

GM: In terms of Grand Romantic Gestures, it goes marching band, skywriting, fireworks display, hot air balloon ride—

JM:  In what planet does skywriting rank higher than a marching band?

T M: Wait wait wait.

JM & GM: What?

T M: Flash mob. Flash mob is the final boss. Whoever does the flash mob wins.

JM: Unless…

T M & GM: ...Unless…

JM: All those things...happen at once.

T M: Like a parade?

All: A parade!

JM: Which one is throwing the parade?

GM: They throw rival parades, starting at opposite sides of town, and meet in the middle—

T M: One mega parade union—

JM: A gay pride parade for two people.

GM: Wait. If they’re each throwing a parade to ask each other out at the same time, wouldn’t they need to know what the other one was planning beforehand?

T M: They both independently arrive at the idea. That’s what makes it so magical.

JM: Eh...

GM: Okay, so I think we all agree that the bold one needs to arrange a coded scavenger hunt across the country with the final prize being an engagement ring.


IV. Judge John Hodgman with John Hodgman and Jesse Thorn

JT: Virginia “Ginny” Vessels writes, “I have two friends, Edward and Robert. A few years ago, they met on business, and they instantly hit it off. That’s saying a lot—Edward lets few people into his confidence, and Robert allows even fewer.” Edward, Robert, is that fair to say?

BB: ...yeah.

JT: “Over the years, their friendship has blossomed into something wonderful—“

TS: Your Honor, let the record reflect that I am rolling my eyes.

JJH: So noted.

JT: “—but over the past few months, it has intensified even more. They’ve been asking their mutual friends for advice; they’ve been writing to advice podcasts; they’ve been doing everything, it seems, except talk to each other about their feelings. I am worried that they will keep going forever.”

JJH: Now, if I rule in your favor, what do you want?

PP: I want them to plan a date, right here and right now, so that I can put it in Edward’s calendar and ensure they follow through.

JT: Now, due to the high-profile nature of our guests, we must alter some personal details, and we ask for the utmost discretion from our thousands of listeners.

JJH: Ah, yes, I am all too familiar with the demands of celebrity. I was, after all, the star of a memorable ad campaign for a well-known computer company. Now, Robert, tell us a little about yourself.

BB: Uh, yeah, my name is Robert Halldren, a theoretical astrophysicist from Olympia, Wisconsin. My mother was a public school teacher, and my father was the head of the Philosophy Department at a local community college. I went to college in Boston, and then I moved to D.C for—

TS: Woah, hold on, can we cut this for a sec?

JJH: Of course.

TS: Did you have this planned already?

BB: An alias and fake backstory? Of course. I have several.

TS: Why?

BB: Well, situations have come up where I needed to change my identity.

TS: That’s…

PP: OK, can we get back to the topic at hand?

JJH: Right. Edward, what do you do?

TS: I’m mogul.

JT: Now, Edward, how sexy do you find Robert’s man of mystery routine?

PP: Oooh, very.

TS: What?!

PP: What? It’s hot.

BB: Er…

[gavel sounds]

JJH: Order! We are arranging a date between Edward and Robert, not Ginny and Robert.

JT: Well, Judge, we have yet to sufficiently establish that Robert and Edward are even interested in each other. Their friend could just be “shipping” them, as the kids say.

JJH: An excellent point! Virginia, what makes you think there’s something there?

PP: Well, other than the aforementioned advice-seeking, when given the choice, they will spend days together.

JT: When given the choice?

PP: Edward and Robert are very busy people—

BB: Edward moreso.

PP: —but when they have any free time, they will opt to spend it in the lab until they crash on the fainting couch together.

JJH: Fainting couch?

PP: They have a couch in the lab for when they overwork themselves and forget to sleep.

JT: So they’re already sleeping together?

JJH: My feelings about bed-sharing are well known—I advise against it in all cases, even marriage. Couch-sharing sounds even worse. But I will allow it in this instance because these two seem cute and repressed.

BB: Thanks?

JJH: But how do you know they just don’t like sleeping and science?

PP: Because they’ve been asking…

BB: Virginia…

TS: Let the record show that my poor, put-upon friend is covering his face with his hand and hunched over, nose to knees--

JT: Sounds flexible.

PP: They’ve been asking about what the other would like in terms of…

BB: Please.

TS: He’s turning beet red.

PP: terms of romance.

JJH: And what have you been telling them?


PP: I’d rather not say.

JJH: And you have some testimony from friends?

PP: Yes. The first one is from one of Edward’s interns, Peter.

TS: Low blow, Gin.

PP: “I think it would be really cool if Edward and Robert got together. Do they know that they like each other yet? If not, you should tell them. Alan Turing was also gay, but that part of his identity is often erased. It’s important for scientists to be gay. I mean, it would be nice if  a wider variety of LGBT role models were readily available to the public consciousness. That’s important.”

BB: Okay…

PP: Next is from a mutual co-worker. “Friends! The love and lust that is evident in your eyes should be embraced, not shunned! You are valiant warriors who deserve happiness! You have vanquished mightier foes than your own fears! I look forward to the day you embrace openly instead of denying your true desires!”

BB: I wonder who that is.

PP: Next: “C’mon, guys, just fucking go for it. The longing looks are too much already and I wanna win a bet.”

JJH: Edward, Robert, is there something between you?

[long silence]

JT: Are we to take that silence as an emphatic yes?

[long silence]

JJH: It’s like a prisoner’s dilemma.

JT: Prisoners...of love.

JJH: For my listeners who aren’t familiar, a prisoner’s dilemma is when—

TS: I like him, OK? I like him a lot, and I’ve been trying to make something happen for the past six months.

JT: Are you just saying that because you don’t want to listen to a bastardized explanation of game theory?

TS: No. I mean, mostly no.

BB: Well, in that case, I...also like Edward.

JT: Woah, things are getting steamy in here.

JJH: Need I remind you that this is a family podcast, not some depraved ASMR kink fest.

JT: For the record, though: do you like each other, or do you like-like each other?

BB: Do I have to use the phrase “like-like?”

PP: Yes.

JJH: It is so ordered. You have to say like-like.

BB: Jesus Christ. I guess I like-like him.

JT and JJH: Oooooooh .

JJH: And do you, Edward, take this fellow highly-educated adult man, in lawfully-mutual like-like?

TS: [groans]

PP: You're the ones who let it get to this point.

TS: Fine. I like-like him.

JJH: Good. So we have two grown-ups who are willing to admit that they like-like each other. Now this is the first time you’re saying it out loud to each other?

TS: In so many words.

JJH: How does it feel?

TS: Coerced.

BB (at the same time): It feels...good.

TS (quickly agreeing): Great, though. It feels like freedom. Coerced freedom.

JJH: Robert, what do you like-like about Edward?

BB: I like that he...makes me feel like home, even though I’ve never had one.

JJH, JT, PP: Awwww!

JJH: End of session.

[gavel sounds]

JT: You can’t beat that.

JJH: Edward, try to beat that.


JT: Edward?

JJH: I hope we didn’t embarrass them to death.

TS (panting): Mission accomplished, guys. I’d say that’s a--that’s a wrap, yeah?

JT: Oh, it looks like his audio cut out. Both of theirs…

[awkward silence]

JT: So, uh, are you pleased with the outcome?

PP: I think so.

JT: Good. Good. Now, clearing the docket...


RS: Now it’s time for Duarte’s Corner where my cat, Duarte, gives his opinions.

Duarte: Meow.

RS: I agree. I’m glad Bruce and Tony received help from both friends and Internet strangers to overcome their issues and ask each other out.

Duarte: Mew.

RS: Yes, in some ways it was a little invasive, but it all worked out in the end.