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?

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.

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.


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.