Advice November 2009

What’s Your Problem?

Jason Ford/Heart Agency

I spend a good part of the day in my woods, planting trees. I’m usually far from the house, so I often relieve myself in the privacy of nature. But if I go several times in the same place, I notice that eventually all the vegetation in that spot dies. I thought I was making a healthy contribution to nature, but no, I am killing it! What’s up? What’s the toxic ingredient in urine?

H. I., Ogden, Quebec

Dear H. I.,

We at The Atlantic look to Henry David Thoreau, a frequent contributor to our pages (though, really, what has he done for us lately?), for guidance on all matters natural, metaphysical, and urinal. Thoreau, of course, spent much useful time in the woods, and he explains in Walden that, like you, he selflessly sacrificed at least one of his bodily fluids for nature’s good:

I have watered the red huckleberry, the sand cherry and the nettle tree, the red pine and the black ash, the white grape and the yellow violet, which might have withered else in dry seasons.

Thoreau’s special friend, the French-Canadian woodcutter Alex Therien, found other uses for urine. Thoreau:

I sometimes found the name of his native parish handsomely written in the snow by the highway, with the proper French accent, and knew that he had passed.

Your urine helps trees grow, as long as you water each one in moderation—urine’s high nitrogen content makes it dangerous when applied too liberally to a single plant. As a bonus, if you can write your name in urine, you may be eligible to join the wholesome high jinks at Bohemian Grove.

I would like to take Ambien, the sleep aid, during long airplane flights, but I’m afraid that I won’t wake up in case of an emergency. Am I right to be worried?

P. W., Seattle, Wash.

Dear P. W.,

You may be asking the wrong person. I would fly in the “brace for impact” position from takeoff until well after landing if I could. Each time I board a plane, I believe that I am going to die. This is why I’m an inordinately happy person—because so far I have not died. But enough about me. Although you may need to be woken by a flight attendant, the adrenaline that will surge through your system should counteract the lingering effects of an appropriate dose of Ambien. It would not be responsible of me to recommend that, depending on the likely outcome of the in-flight emergency, you consider swallowing several more Ambien during this adrenalin-induced period of hyper-awareness.

Have you noticed that food stores—delis and the like—have started subtly asking for tips for their employees? I went to a deli the other day, ordered a sandwich at the counter, and handed over my credit card. When the receipt came back, it had a space for a tip. I always thought that tips were supposed to be given only to waiters at sit-down restaurants. These new demands are creating anxiety for me. Are the employees behind the counter now working for tips as well?

J. H., Philadelphia, Pa.

Dear J. H.,

This is indeed a disturbing trend, but not one that should cause you anxiety. If it’s anxiety you want, I will provide you with a list of more-substantial worries (the national debt, Ebola-infected burritos, the Washington Nationals). Food-service workers who are not waiters must be paid at least the minimum wage, so they do not, in fact, work for tips. (Waiters are paid a base salary less than the minimum wage, and are expected to report their tips as income. “Expected” as in “not expected.”) If you are a kind and appreciative person, you could ask the clerk serving you at the counter if he does, indeed, work mainly for tips. If he answers yes, leave him a generous gratuity and report his employer to your local tax authority.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. Author of the book Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror, Goldberg also writes the magazine's advice column. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. Previously, he served as a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward, and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

His book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. Goldberg rthe recipient of the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism. He is also the recipient of 2005's Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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