Sheepish and Ashamed

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

I recently attended a large celebration with members of my extended family. During the event, two older friends of the celebrant were discussing her personal life in great detail, at length, and at full volume. I imagine they didn’t think anyone could hear them dissect her marriage, the state of her psychotherapy, and her feelings about other family members, but they were mistaken. Their words made me very uncomfortable, and I struggled with whether or not to tell them to cut it out. After all, if my children and I could hear them, others surely could, too.

Ultimately, I said nothing and simply let them continue their gossip.

Should I have spoken up? These women are 25 years my senior, for whatever that’s worth. The idea of reprimanding them, however gently, didn’t feel right, perhaps because of their age.

Sincerely,
Sheepish and Ashamed

Dear Sheepish and Ashamed,

My very Midwestern family defies all stereotypes of the quiet Midwesterner. We are loud. We are loud both in that we talk a lot and that when we talk we do so with booming (some may, unkindly, call them deafening) voices.

The one place we do know to tone it down a notch is when we’re at our extremely Midwestern Midwestern lake cabin. Noise, we know, travels remarkably efficiently over water.

When we have guests at this cabin, and we’re out in the boat and they feel the need to remark upon the remarkable pastel pink-and-white clapboard cabin on our lake (it is at once hideous and fabulous, standing out as it does among the log cabins; someday someone will paint it a different, I predict neutral, color, and we will all mourn the pink cabin’s passing), we inevitably say, in hushed tones, “Did you know sound really travels over water? It seems impossible that they could hear us, but I assure you, they can.”

A similar remark from you in the situation you describe seems apt.

You go over to speak with the ladies in question quite directly and say, “I’m sure you don’t realize it, but the acoustics in this room are amazing. My kids and I can hear every word you’re saying. I’m afraid that everyone at the tables around us probably can too.”

The trick in such situations is to frame what you’re saying as a helpful bit of information. You are not, in any way, shape, or form, reprimanding your seniors (as you are rightly reluctant to do), you are letting them in on a piece of knowledge that they would almost certainly like to know. Their voices are carrying through the room in which they speak. Is it because they’ve become hard of hearing and thus shout when they speak? Perhaps. But that detail isn’t important.

What is important is that when you’re 25 years your senior and shouting to your fellow seatmates at table #12 about the bride or the birthday boy or the graduate, you’re going to be extremely grateful when someone younger than yourself gently and kindly lets you know that your private gossiping isn’t private at all.

Happy to Host

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

I’m lucky enough to have a vacation house. I love this place. I go almost every weekend and love – truly love – hosting our friends and family. Like many rural homes I have a septic tank rather than a sewer system. Anything that isn’t either toilet paper or something that has come out of a human body can really mess things up, and once the tank is full I have to pay someone to come and pump it out. I’m wondering how to brooch the subject with our guests? Similarly, I have an off-the-grid power system of solar panels and batteries with a back-up generator. How can I remind guests not to leave computers plugged in all day or turn off lights when they leave a room without being a total nag?

Sincerely,
Happy to Host

If this sensible Midwesterner understands nothing else, it’s the importance of not flushing anything but what you’ve mentioned into a septic tank. Cabins (the sensible Midwestern version of a vacation house) are thick on the ground in the part of the Midwest in which I was raised.

You could do as my mother, herself a sensible Midwesterner, did at our cabin and place a Post-It note over the toilet that says “No Tampax.” Or you could do as my parents’ slightly less sensible friend did and have a plaque engraved with the same as a gag gift. (And no, to this day I don’t understand the branding on that one.) Such signs, usually in jokey iambic pentameter, are common sights above toilets in the woods and around the lakes of the Midwest.

But such signage, without any briefing on the why behind the reminder, won’t do much good.

Better, to my mind, to simply tell guests when they show up that there are a few house rules. Something like this should do the trick:
I’m so happy to have you! A few things you need to know, out here in the woods (mountains, beach, whatever) – I have a septic system, so everything you flush down the toilet goes into a tank [you could point out the location of the tank if you want to drive the point home]. Anything other than toilet paper just doesn’t break down fast enough and I end up having to pay to have the tank pumped, so please don’t flush anything else. That includes face tissue and tampons and wipes – nothing but actual toilet paper in the toilet.

Also, I’m lucky enough to have solar power, but I have to work with what I can harness with the panels, so please try and be aware of how much electricity you’re using. You can power up your phones and stuff, but please don’t leave anything plugged in that doesn’t need to be plugged in.

You may need to remind people, but as long as you do so with goo humor, I assure you they won’t mind. If they do, you’ll know to find some new people to invite to your own private Idaho. Also, depending on your electricity situation, I say it is completely reasonable to ask people not to bring tons of electronics with them, or to charge them back up at home.

One and Done

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

What to do when someone asks how many kids you have, you answer one, and then they berate you about not having more? Please advise. Fifteen years on and I still need a comeback that politely shuts down that line of questioning.

Sincerely,
One and Done

There are scads of reasons someone might have one child, from having had another child die to having always wanted a small family, with many, many possibilities in between. The thing is, hardly any of them are ones most people want to explain. And none of them deserve questioning, much less scolding.

The problem is once you’re dealing with someone who thinks it’s okay to question such personal decisions, it’s pretty tricky to get them to back off in a graceful way. Doing this when faced with someone who may have a cultural bias against small families adds to the frustration.

Midwesterners know that the best way to re-establish social boundaries is to refuse to cross them yourself. So when the questioning or berating begins, simply say “I can’t imagine discussing such a personal matter/private decision.” If someone tries to force you to discuss how being a single child is sad/damaging/detrimental/horrific for your child, simply say “Well, obviously, I don’t agree” or “Clearly, I don’t think so.”

Then change the topic. The weather is usually a good bet.

Struggling with a Friend

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

I have a problem with a friend. Normally I don’t have problems with boundaries, but boundaries have been crossed and I don’t know how to politely correct the situation. I don’t want to cut the relationship totally, but I find myself worrying and thinking of ways to lie about what I am doing to avoid too much contact.

We have known each other for many years. My friend has been good to my daughter and been interested in her life and mine. Additionally, she was very kind to my mother who has now passed away from ALS. The friend never, ever forgets a birthday or holiday and often smothers us with gifts and cards. Sometimes these gifts arrive weeks before the holiday and I have felt somewhat forced to reciprocate over the years, even though I do not send holiday gifts even to my closest friends and family.

To complicate matters, my friend has struggled with a debilitating disease which she has managed to keep at bay with treatments. I, as a friend, have tried to do my part with meal preparation and assisting with driving to medical appointments and trying to drop by to visit and to take her out for some fun now and then. She is in a remission state, but I believe that she likes the attention that she receives from being sick, and she never is positive or optimistic about her status even when she receives good news.

Most irritating is that she can be very negative about people, and she likes to diss and talk about people. If I share something with her, like the struggles someone is having with a bad boyfriend, she always want to know all the dirt and talk about it over and over.

Recently, I had some health struggles. Nothing significant or debilitating. I broke my foot and I had a cold. However, she descended on me with unwanted food (I can cook), and when she stops by my house and I am not home she calls and leaves messages wondering where could I be. She often says “I just don’t know where you are. I have food, but I did not leave it because I don’t know where you are!”  She calls me almost daily and she expects to be called daily. I don’t even call my sister or daughter that often.

I don’t really know how to handle the situation. It has developed over time and her negativity has increased. I don’t really want to exchange gifts anymore. I am trying to declutter and simplify my life and lifestyle. I also do not want to call daily, or even weekly. And above all, I want to be positive and try to create positivity in my life. I don’t want to feel like it is a labor to talk or see someone and I want privacy.

Please let me know what you think.

Signed,

Struggling with a friend

I think you need to set some boundaries. While you say you’re usually good with them, my guess is that you’re good at doing it as long as the other person picks up on your cues. It is much trickier to set them in cases where the other person is willing fully ignoring common social signs to back the hell off.

So let’s go through the various boundaries you’d like to set.

First off, about the gifts. You need to tell her directly that you no longer want to exchange gifts. Explain that you’re trying, as you say, to simplify and de-clutter your life, both of physical possessions and errands, that you don’t exchange gifts even with your family, and you’re not going to be doing so with her anymore either. Then don’t get her gifts. If she continues to give you gifts, thank her but remind her that you really prefer not to exchange gifts. Repeat as necessary.

In terms of how often you call and how much time you spend with her, you need to toughen up a bit. Don’t answer her calls unless you want to. If she leaves crazy voicemails demanding to know where you are, don’t answer them. Call back when you’re ready and in a calm and reasonable tone. If she pushes the point, you may need to say that you just don’t like to spend so much time on the phone.

Sadly, there is pretty much exactly nothing anyone can do about anyone else’s negative attitude. We can point out the bright side and be positive ourselves, but that’s about it.

It sounds like you feel a sense of guilt and obligation towards this person, and I can see how that developed. There is a big difference, however, between being kind and having some relationship with someone who has been kind to you and yours and being bullied into having more of a friendship than you want.

You are entirely within your right to pull back from this friendship, and I encourage you do to so calmly, firmly, and as kindly as is possible. You are going to have to accept, however, that kind as you may be about it, her feelings are almost guaranteed to be hurt.

Landlord Parking Woes

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

My husband and I rent a flat in a home in a residential neighborhood of a big city (that is NOT in the Midwest, you’ll likely gather from my story). My landlords also live in the building. We own one car, which gets daily use. My landlords own four cars, many of which do not get daily use, but act instead as placeholders to maximize my landlords’ on-street parking. For years they’ve been parking one car specifically so they can use a parking space in front of the driveway. This space is not for general use by the residents of our building but for their exclusive use. Their other vehicles reside in proximity, effectively rendering the immediate public street parking space also exclusively theirs.

We live in a friendly neighborhood and know the people who live in the nearby homes. Some of them have garages and don’t use street parking, so the cars on the street are easily identifiable. What’s more, we are all long-time residents and this situation has been tolerated for years.

Our city has a policy that no car can remain in place for more than 72 hours, and my landlords have called the city when others have parked cars in “their” area. It’s clear to me that if I were to call the city to report their vehicles, I (and my neighbors) would be subject to interrogation about this perceived betrayal. Such conversations, expressing outrage at the lack of courtesy “among neighbors” have happened here and there over the many years I have lived here. We all disregard the 72-hour policy, in what I feel is an appropriate use of neighborliness, when folks are known to be on vacations, but, to our detriment, we have also disregarded the policy for the sake of keeping peace with these monopolizing residents.

We love our apartment and we are otherwise on good terms with our landlords, even socializing here and there by way of house parties. Our rent is affordable and we have limited options for relocation since our city’s rents are otherwise very high and apartments few and far between. We don’t want to move.

I should add that the situation has recently been aggravated by the addition of my landlords’ relatives, who are not obligated to work (meaning their two cars do not get daily use) and are now also residing, in a semi-permanent way, in two more spots directly in front of our house.

So my question is this: Is it appropriate for me to request my landlords modify their parking practices? And if so, how might I go about doing this? It seems pointedly un-neighborly to monopolize public parking space, but (as you have mentioned in other columns) I understand that pointing out others’ poor manners is never good manners. My nightly search for a parking space as I drive past my landlords’ cars smugly tucked in the front of our house raises my blood pressure, and I am tired of holding my tongue. Or should I just start calling the city, which will result in due process (warnings left on vehicles, and subsequent “boots” placed on the cars if the warning is not heeded), and then claim innocence when the interrogations begin? I have not made a habit of lying so this would not be an easy proposition for me, but I would give it a go if the situation requires it.

Your advice is most welcome!

Thank you,
A Former Midwesterner

Yikes. I know how tough this is for a Midwesterner. On the one hand, you don’t want to tattle; on the other hand, it is killing you that someone else isn’t following the spirit and intent of the rules, especially in such a blatant, extremely non-Midwestern fashion.

The real question is what do you have to gain by reporting these cars? You seem to think that you’ll get an easier-to-find, closer-to-your-apartment parking space. I’m going to posit that this just isn’t true. My guess is that after that first warning is left on their car(s) your landlords will simply buckle down and adopt a strict car-moving schedule so they are not violating the letter of the 72-hour rule.

Part of me wants to call your landlord in on your behalf, but the sensible part of me – the part that knows even rules don’t make things fair or stop entitled people from behaving in an entitled fashion (I mean, did you read about this ass trying to steal a beach?) – knows that not much can be done to fix this problem.

My guess is your landlords have probably owned the building since long before parking was at quite the premium it is now and somehow feel, rightly or (as we know) wrongly, that those spaces near their building somehow “belong” to them. That’s the essence of entitlement, right? They are not acting from a place of reason, they are acting from the gut, from a feeling. So engaging them in a reasonable discussion is going to be… I’m going to guess pretty near impossible.

Long story short, I have a lot of trouble imaging how that conversation goes anywhere pleasant or effective.

The only tactic I can imagine possibly working would be if you’re a woman and arrive home after dark on a regular basis and you could, perhaps, approach them about getting access to that driveway space for safety reasons. You could offer to pay for the privilege.

Keep in mind that any other modification doesn’t guarantee you a better spot, since someone else could take any street spot, but does guarantee them a worse spot. That’s a tricky proposal to sell.

For an apartment you love with a rent you can afford and landlords with whom you otherwise get along, the sensible thing is to let this go. I would also gently suggest that you accept that the cars aren’t “smugly” parked, they are simply parked in the best space that was available at the time. The game is rigged against you because of your schedule, but you would grab the best spot if you could.

Nagging Neat Freak

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

I’ve been married to my husband for almost a year now and we’ve lived together in our tiny apartment for the past three years. We have a great relationship, he is the most loving, kind and supportive person I know but there is one thing that just drives me crazy – his cleaning habits, or should I say his lack of cleaning habits. It starts in the morning with the beard trimmings and toothpaste blobs in the bathroom sink and splatters all over the vanity mirror. He leaves his day(s)-old lunch tupperware in his messenger bag overnight and then tosses it in the sink before heading to work. He does not clean up as he cooks, leaving the kitchen a mess. He never cleans the toilet (just swishing the bowl with the toilet brush doesn’t count!), never refills the Brita water pitcher, never sweeps up the kitty litter crumbles outside the litter box, or wipes his crumbs off the counter — I feel like I’m constantly cleaning up after him (and the cat)! While we are living in such a small space it’s really hard to relax and enjoy being at home when things are scuzzy and dishes are piled up in the sink. How to I tell my husband to start cleaning up after himself without nagging?

-Nagging Neat Freak

Dear Nagging Neat Freak,

Oh my but do I hear you. I’m not just the sensible one in my house, I’m the neat one too, and there are now two slobs messing it up on a daily basis (my son is by nature a messy guy, although at least with children you can force them to fight it).

I’m going to give it to you straight: this is an uphill battle. You can make inroads, but it is a long process with lots of frustration along the way. In my experience, the messy will always be messy. They just don’t even see the mess the way the neat do.

That said, it is very sensible of you to want to avoid nagging. You’re not his mother, after all.

I suggest you pick one thing. Just one. Choose a time when that thing is not happening/you are not noticing it. Let’s say it’s the morning bathroom thing that’s getting you down. Perhaps at dinner you could bring up the fact that you are an insane crazy person and the beard trimmings really gross you out. Could he possibly remember to wipe the sink after he shaves? It would mean a lot to you to not have to deal with that anymore.

Then when he does it, you thank him. Profusely and sincerely.

And when he does it again, you thank him again.

And you keep doing that. And after awhile you can ask him to do something else.

It is annoying to the neat to realize that these completely reasonable and sensible requests we are making of fellow grown-ups to do what seem to us to be basic grown-up things are, in fact, requests to do things they do not care about. Taking a moral high ground doesn’t help. Acting like they “have” to do these things is counter-productive. And playing the “someone has to do it” card, while it seems true to us, is, in fact, patently false.

Along with getting the worst habits out of the way, at a certain point it does become a situation where you’re either living in what you experience as squalor or cleaning up after someone else, both of which can lead to bitterness. Don’t let that happen and don’t nag. Simply calmly and cheerfully ask that he help you out when you’re doing stuff. “Do you think you could do the dishes while I deal with this kitty litter and get dinner going?” is the kind of request I’m thinking of. The kind that’s difficult to beg off.

Some people find chore wheels or charts useful.

In the end, though, a sensible Midwesterner also knows that if you want a toilet cleaned properly, you’re probably going to have to do it yourself.

Moss & Cactus

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

My husband and I are contemplating a move from Portland, Oregon to Tucson, Arizona. I am drawn to the move out of a sense of adventure (the desert!), to be closer to both our families (cousins for my son to hang out with!), and cheap real estate. Mostly, though, the idea of moving came up because my husband is kind of miserable here. He grew up in Arizona and the rain is brutal on him. He’s always felt isolated here. He works remotely from home for a European company and doesn’t get out much to meet new people. The weather here exacerbates the feeling. We have a beautiful old house (that needs a ton of work) in a desirable neighborhood (restaurants, shops, bars, vibrant night scene! drunk people, trash, parking problems!). The issue is that our kid loves it here, our house (sick as we are of its issues) turned out to be a remarkably good investment (and I do kind of love it), I have a low-paying job that I actually love, and walking and riding my bike everywhere is really important to me. In short, while Portland hasn’t been great for my husband, it’s been pretty good for the rest of us. That said, what’s not good for him isn’t great for me. It’s hard to live with someone who struggles with depression. There’s no guarantee that moving will make him happier but I worry about him growing old in a place where he feels isolated and depressed. I also would like my son, an only child, to grow up with an extended family around him and that’s not something he’ll ever have here. So, what would a sensible Midwesterner do?

Thanks!

Moss & Cactus

Dear Moss & Cactus,

Full disclosure: I went to college in Portland. I love it and take every chance I can to visit. I also know it would not be a good place for me long term. Those six months of gray every winter were harsh on me and my psyche. I have real empathy for your husband on that front. It sounds like you do, too.

You don’t mention how old your child is, but assuming he’s pretty young, that he loves where he lives is as much a reflection of his happiness at home as anything. If he’s happy there, he will probably be happy with cousins in the desert, too. For that reason, a sensible Midwesterner wouldn’t factor the fact that he loves Portland into the decision too much.

So on the pro side we have your husband wanting to move, you being okay with moving, extended family in the area, a house you can sell and make money on, and cheaper housing on the other end. On the con side… you’d be giving up a house you love but that needs work, a job you love but pays poorly, and the ability to bike everywhere.* I assume you have some friends as well, so we’ll throw that in the mix. That’s not nothing. It’s also not everything.

The sensible thing to do, as you seem to know, is to look at the overall balance of satisfaction versus misery. Unless it seems reasonable to ask your husband to find a job that gets him out and about whether the weather cooperates or not, or you think there are other ways to address his misery that he hasn’t given the old college try, his desire to move seems much stronger than your sort-of desire to stay.

Lucky are those who are buoyant and manage to fall in love with another similarly jolly person. In my observation, however, most couplings involve at least a bit of opposites-attract, or, if nothing else, one person is simply more resilient and less easy to phase faze than the other. You, my dear reader, have more reserves to call on and seem, from your letter, to have a lovely zest for life, as evidenced by your ability to see moving to the desert as an adventure.

It’s a lot to uproot a family for one person’s mood. But depression, seasonal affective disorder, and misery are not moods, and the longer they go on the more intractable they are.

I can’t help but wonder if there is a way to give this whole “I’d be happier in the desert” theory of your husband’s a test run. A three- or six-month trial, perhaps? With rentals on both fronts?

In short, the tone of your letter reads like this to me: I know the best thing to do is move, but I’m not 100% it’s what I want to do. To which I say: You don’t have to be completely on board to jump in. How cold could the water be? My guess is that you’ll be fine wherever you land, which is how the sensible roll.

* I don’t know Tuscon at all (I was there once), but I imagine there are neighborhoods where one can construct a life that isn’t completely car-dependent. Why, the Sunnyside-Elvira neighborhood has even produced a map of its fine cycling routes [http://www.tucsonaz.gov/sites/default/files/bicycle/Sunnyside-Elvira%20bike%20map.pdf].

The (Mostly) Polite Artist

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

Is it okay to write a thank you note on a card that has my own artwork as the image on the front of the card? It feels a bit too much like a PR move, which, of course, it is. Does it make a difference if I’m writing to thank a gallery owner for a studio visit? What if I’m writing a friend to thank them for sending me a clipping? A condolence letter to a friend?

Sincerely,
The (mostly) polite artist

Dear Polite Artist,

First off, forgive me for changing your name – it goes against my policy of calling people by what they prefer to be called – but anyone actually sitting down to hand-write a thank-you note is just plain polite in this day and age.

So kudos for knowing that these various actions and occasions call for written communication.

For notes that fall under the rubric of “business” – to gallery owners, fellow artists, etc. – it strikes me as not just completely appropriate but smart to write them on such cards. (This might prove particularly true when writing people who may recognize your work more easily than your name.) In fact, the Sensible Midwesterner can’t quite imagine why else you’d bother to have such cards printed.

When writing friends and family, it depends a wee bit on the cards. Is there just a picture of your work on the front and perhaps a line in small print on the back that mentions that you’re the artist? That’s cool. I mean, I assume your got a sensible deal which means that you probably have quite a few and your friends and family who love to see your work.  This sensible Midwesterner, for one, would rather open up a thank-you note on a card like that then one with “thank you” pre-stamped on the front. (I’ve always found such cards a bit tacky. Is it asking so much for the writer to actually write out that thank you? And why a specific set of cards for thank-yous? It seems to hint at the fact that perhaps that’s the only kind of note the buyer writes. Based on the preponderance of such cards in stores and the difficulty in finding plain cards, however, I clearly stand alone in this view.)

Or are these cards you silkscreened one-by-one yourself or had a fellow artists letterpress? That’s a quality item people will likely be happy to receive. Or, are they more clearly business-y cards with your name stamped on the front or other contact info? Then I’d say better those cards than no note at all, but I’d more likely chose plain stationary instead.

When it comes to condolence letters, absolutely go with plain paper or a card that acknowledges the solemnity of the situation. Again, better one of your art-laden cards with a kind message written inside than nothing, but sensible adults keep a box of plain stationary in the house for just such occasions.