DEAR HARRIETTE: I am a high school student, and I have been playing the piano for 10 years. It is something that I enjoy. I got a new piano teacher this year. She is a smoker, and her breath is the worst smoker's breath I have ever smelled before. It never used to be this bad!
She sits next to me while I play, and when she talks the smell is nauseating. I try to hold my breath but this makes me mess up. When I mess up, she yells.
How do I tell her that her breath smells so much that it is impacting my piano playing without hurting her feelings? -- Nauseous Pianist, Seattle
DEAR NAUSEOUS PIANIST: This is a tough one. I can imagine how awkward you feel about having to deal with this situation. But I do think that there is a diplomatic way to handle it.
Drum up the courage to speak to your teacher before you sit down at the piano. Apologize for having difficulty playing properly sometimes. Tell her that you want to share something with her that makes you uncomfortable. With her blessing, tell her that you have noticed that she is a smoker, and that, unfortunately, the strong smell of smoke on her breath distracts you when you are playing.
She will likely be embarrassed. Hopefully, she will either brush her teeth before you come for class or not smoke close to your arrival. That may not help enough. You should also tell your mother about your challenge. As good as this teacher may be, you may need to look for someone else to teach you who is a nonsmoker.
DEAR HARRIETTE: A book that might help your readers with the one part of writing that always stumps me -- grammar -- is "Eats, Shoots & Leaves" by Lynne Truss. I am the queen of run-on (and on) sentences, and this book is a great help! Punctuation is a part of grammar many of us are less acquainted with, and reading this book will help you write sentences that are more readable. -- Compassionate, Chicago
DEAR COMPASSIONATE: Thank you for this recommendation. So many people identify with the challenge that some face when it comes to putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).
Not everyone is a naturally gifted writer, but all of us have something to say. The general sentiment from everyone who has written in to support the reader who lacks grammar skills is that he should not give up on his desire to write. Go for it, even if there may be errors. For novice writers, it's often true that sentences may come out clumsily or flat. It doesn't matter. Just write. As many Mamas have said, "Practice makes perfect." And with a bit of help from grammar books, writing workshops and honest support from others, virtually any novice writer can become proficient at expressing him or herself.