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?

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.

Exhausted While Dining

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,
Our 2 year old son has been dining out with us since he was very small. He usually devours his food and is well behaved for a certain amount of time, at which point my husband will take him out for a stroll while I finish my food and wine (I am a slow eater). We have a rhythm and tend to go to the same places. It’s always pleasant and we look forward to these meals together. People comment on how adapted he is to restaurants and I attribute it to this ritual.
Recently, we invited some friends with a child the same age to dine with us and my husband and I both found it exhausting. This family is much less used to dining out with their child, and though there were no disasters, our son seemed confused at the presence of another family at our dinner and the constant trying to keep them both calm and entertained kind of ruined it for us.
Of course, at the end of the meal, the couple said they had so much fun (probably because they never go out) that they want to do it again. I’d like our kids to play together more, but my husband and I won’t be ready to attempt another dinner like that for a year, it was that tiring. How do I suggest a get together, but avoid the dining issue?
Exhausted While Dining
Dear Exhausted While Dining,
First off, kudos for teaching your kid how to eat out while not forcing the rest of us to suffer. Plenty of Midwesterners would say a restaurant is no place for children, and that may have at one time been true, but it’s not realistic for most families anyway. I’m all for taking kids to casual restaurants as long as they are actively being taught how to behave and one of the parents removes them the second they start acting in a way that distracts fellow diners.
My sister-in-law likes to recount the time she and my brother were eating with my non-Midwestern husband, me, and our son who was two at the time. Our son was starting to fidget a bit or lie down on the banquette or something when my husband said, “Why can’t you just sit and act like a grown-up?” Our standards were, perhaps, a bit high. I still maintain, however, that it is sensible to expect children to follow the rules, not a modified version of the rules, but the rules. It is extremely Midwestern of me, for sure.
All that said, I can think of nothing less relaxing than dining out with another family and their kid(s). Even if all the kids are at the same we’re-cool-at-restaurants stage and comport themselves appropriately, it’s just not much fun for them. Kids like to play together, not sit and chat, so eating at a restaurant isn’t the same social activity for them that it is for most adults. This holds true even as kids get quite a bit older. It also holds true for kids who otherwise like eating in restaurants.
So how do you get-together and avoid another restaurant outing? Invite them over instead. If they suggest a restaurant, simply say that you find that your kid does better at restaurants when it’s just your family and you want the kids to have a chance to play, not just sit at a table. All true. Don’t want to cook? Order a pizza. Keep it simple, get the kids fed, then let them play. Before you know it they’ll be running off to play by themselves and you’ll find yourself with entire evenings to sit around the table and enjoy adult conversation.

Flustered Friend

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

What is an appropriate, civil response that also makes it clear that no follow-up questions will be entertained to use when people ask about the romantic status of a man and a woman who prefer to keep their private life private (and who don’t care for the flippant-yet-intriguing “It’s complicated”)? The friends in question are about to launch a joint professional project and such queries from the curious are being fielded by yours truly on a daily basis. Help! Please.


Flustered Friend

Dear Flustered Friend,

If I understand you correctly, these two people are, in fact, more than just friends or business partners, but aren’t ready to go public with that fact or aren’t sure exactly where they stand and prefer to figure that out in private. So, in fact, the answer “It’s complicated” is an honest one, but you’re absolutely correct in avoiding it because 1) it confirms that there is something beyond friendship and professional alliance going on and 2) it pretty much begs to be asked for details. In short, it fails on both counts of keeping the information private and ending the conversation topic.

This situation seems like an excellent time for a little white lie. Don’t lie about them; lie about what you know. “I have no idea,” said in a tone that conveys a complete lack of interest – and even a sense that someone being interested is perplexing – should do the trick.

There is, sadly, no answer that guarantees no follow-up questions will spring forth. Just stick with the same lack of knowledge, bafflement at the interest, and complete lack of curiosity. Even a sensible Midwesterner might be tempted to chide the enquirer on their nosy ways, but we’re assuming that you’re not looking to make enemies or piss people off while putting them off the scent of the potentially budding couple.

How to Say No

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

How do you kindly, yet firmly, attempt to say that no, you can’t even spare one hour to meet to talk about anything beyond what you’ve already committed to? I’m an artist and a teacher and I want to help everyone on their thing but even the commitments I already have are flagging. How can I let people know that I want to help, but I can’t? Give me specific words and sentences that I could say. The old adage of “I’m busy” sounds so generic and also really not firm enough to explain the extent of why it’s not because I don’t like him/her, but I’m seriously suffering on my own stuff already and can’t help them.

Helpful but Can’t Help

Dear Helpful but Can’t Help,

In an age when everyone is “busy” all the time, it is difficult to stand out. Luckily, you don’t need to stand out or impress upon people how busy you are or explain anything, you simply need to say no.

The truth here is on your side, so use it. You ask for specific words. They are: “Unfortunately, I’m already booked that day/week/month/for the semester” or “Unfortunately, I’m not taking on anything new right now.”* If you want to, you could start with “I wish I could help, you know how much I respect your work/believe in this cause/enjoy your company,” but only say that if it’s true. Otherwise, just the polite but firm “no” will suffice.

The key after you’ve delivered the above is to stick with it. If the request isn’t for a specific time and the person insists it would “only be an hour,” your response is “I understand that, but I’m simply not taking on any new commitments right now, of any size.” Repeat as necessary.

If there is some direction, feedback, or resources that could be useful to them that you can provide off the top of your head, go ahead and offer it up. Perhaps you have colleagues or friends who would be interested and available and can direct requests their way.

What you do not need to do is explain your schedule or lay out the commitments you already have. To do so communicates guilt, and people know that guilt is a crack in the armor of “no.”

This sensible Midwesterner senses that you do, in fact, feel guilty about not being able to find 29 hours in a day in order to do more. It’s a common ailment, particularly among women. Don’t fall for it. Your schedule is yours to make, and you’re making appointments and commitments as you see fit, that work for you, your like, and your career; do not feel guilty about that.

* I suppose many people, Midwesterners in particular, would start off with “I’m sorry.” I greatly prefer “Unfortunately” because it is less specific. It acknowledges that the answer isn’t what the person wants to hear, without being an outright apology. Of course, there may be situations in which you are truly sorry – requests from close friends or favorite students, for example – but be careful the thin edge of the wedge that any sense of guilt creates!

Knee-length Sister

Dear ASM,

How do I politely ask my (smart, accomplished, much-loved) sister to dress appropriately for a family wedding celebration (mine)? I am 46, my sister is almost 50. She runs marathons, works out constantly, and keeps herself very thin, fit, and attractive. So, she looks great, but she also leaves next to nothing to the imagination in how she dresses, wearing super-short, very skimpy dresses, tight low rise jeans, short-shorts, high heels, etc. Basically, she still dresses as she did as a hot 20-something. I’m having a small family wedding (my first) and I’m trying to figure out how to tell her, gently, that I’d like her to wear something pretty that’s neither skin-tight or panty-revealing. The last time I brought this up (for a holiday dinner with my fiancé’s family) she took it very personally and said my request hurt her feelings. But I’m afraid if I don’t say anything, she’ll show up in five-inch heels and six inches of black lace at the post-wedding dinner. What to do? I’d like family discussions of the wedding to be happy, not focused on what my sister was wearing.

Knee-length Sister

Dear Knee-length Sister,

First off, best wishes on your impending nuptials! That is happy news indeed.

To your question…. While I like your use of words like “politely” and “gently” – they betray a non-bridezilla quality often missing in today’s weddings – I’m sorry to say that the way you do this is that you don’t. There is no polite way to tell someone to dress differently than they do. Imagine if the tables were turned and instead of what I’m sure is a flattering and age-appropriate outfit you wanted to wear, your sister politely and gently asked you to tart it up and show off the goods a bit more. How we dress communicates something to the world. Your sister has had many decades to figure out the message she wants to send; unless she asks for your opinion or expresses a desire to change, you need to butt out.

One sensible run-around you could try is to make an event of buying her wedding outfit together if you think there is a chance you could influence her decision a bit without hurting her feelings. If shopping and lunch or drinks or tea is a sisterly-type day you might enjoy together, give it a try. To pull this option off, though, you’re going to need to get on board the revealing train, gently nudging towards a bit less tight or a bit longer or less lace, not a wholesale change.

Keep top in mind, though, that you’ve already gone down this road and she let you know that your request hurt her feelings. To bring it up again is unlikely to work, is guaranteed to cause more hurt feelings, and is likely to cause bad blood between the two of you – hardly what weddings are about.

Comfort yourself with this knowledge: you have a serious misunderstanding of human nature if you think discussion of your sister’s revealing outfit won’t be happy. A highlight of my extremely sensible Midwestern family’s Christmas is the arrival of a card from old family friends who dress younger and trashier (with her showing off an ever-increasing cup size) as each year passes. Their atrocious taste brings us no end of joy and merriment.

After all, what’s better after a wedding than dishing on everyone there? I, for one, would rather have cousins and in-laws making catty remarks about a happy sister’s Forever 21 attire than conjecturing about why a Talbots-clad sibling seemed so glum.

Manner Matters

Some of you may have already heard, but The Sensible Midwesterner is also dishing out advice over at Serious Eats. Every Wednesday I sensibly answer questions related to dining – from table manners to hosting etiquette to how to split a check to fending off a dessert stealer – in a column called Manner Matters. When a question and answer over there seem to have a particularly sensible air about them, like the ones above, I’ll be sure to post a link here. It won’t interfere with my Thursday column here, though, where Midwestern sensibility can be more widely applied to life’s varied vexing problems. Let me know what’s eating you at askasensiblemidwesterner (at) gmail (dot) com.

Feeling Attacked

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

What is the most effective way to handle a passive-aggressive coworker? Politely, of course.


Feeling Attacked

Dear Feeling Attacked,

Gold star for you for knowing you must do this politely. It’s the only sensible course since you don’t want to create a situation in which you’re the one being aggressive (passively or otherwise) at work.

The best was to handle this person? Avoid them as much as possible.

Since it’s a co-worker, however, you obviously can’t avoid them completely. In that case, there are a few things you can do to minimize their impact on you.

First things first, no matter what, do not take their actions personally. Even if (especially if) you suspect they are intended personally. Your buttons, this person will not push; the more reaction they get, the more satisfaction the passive-aggressive person takes. The more their missed deadline is their problem and not yours, the better. If their actions are impeding your ability to do your job, be sure to keep a record of all communications with them so they can’t passive-aggressively throw you under the bus when projects stall. (Keep emails, take notes at meetings.)

Second, recognize that passive-aggression comes from a place of anger, and most often from a place of being angry about feeling powerless. Pre-empt their sad sack stabs and give them some power. Solicit their opinion, ask for their take on a solution, give them a voice. In short, throw the dog a bone.

Third, communicate with them in as neutral and measured and observational tone as possible. Don’t accuse them, simple observe your take on the situation and give them a chance to correct themselves and add value by tossing the ball back in their court: “I was under the understanding that you were supposed to get me those files by Tuesday – was I wrong about that?” “I thought the agenda we’d set covered all our clients, did you have more issues you wanted to raise?” “I remember at the last office party people seemed pretty happy with the cheese and wine, did you have a different menu in mind?”

Much like dealing with a toddler, it’s all about consistency and repetition. And for that very reason, I suggest you avoid them as much as possible.

Stressed About Real Estate

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

After years of saving and pinching pennies, my husband and I are trying to buy our first house. I am what one would describe as a magical thinker about money. “The money will come from somewhere,” is how I tend to think. My husband, on the other hand, is what one would describe as conservative about money. His approach to money involves hard numbers and never spending what one does not have. (He is also a sensible Midwesterner.)

During the past few weeks we have gone into escrow on a house and these weeks have possibly been the most stressful in our 13-year relationship. The nice savings account we accrued will be completely gone, and because we live in a highly desirable city, the house we can afford is a real fixer-upper. Plus we will be leaving a comfortable, spacious, inexpensive rental apartment.

My question for you: is it worth the stress on ourselves and our relationship to buy a house? I still feel it is the best move, even though the next couple of years will be tight to say the least, and our standard of living will go down in every aspect of our lives. My husband is not sure buying makes sense, and would be happiest with the status quo. Any advice on how to make this process easier on both of us?

Warm regards,

Stressed About Real Estate

Dear Stressed About Real Estate,

The Sensible Midwesterner takes great comfort in how clearly you understand the differences – both in terms of financial thinking and in terms of desire to move – between your and your husband. This sets her mind at ease because the answer is to communicate, listen, see things from each others’ points of view, compromise, and come the decision together.

As the Sensible Midwesterner looks at the 102-year-old plaster ceiling in her living room crumble (plaster walls are excellent, they last about 100 years) as the plumber once again works on the downstairs toilet that won’t seems to top running, she cannot, in good conscience and with her whole heart, recommend home ownership.

Yet we want what we want and you’re in escrow, so I’m guessing the stress will be yours. And there are many fine arguments – some of them even financial (mortgage interest is tax deductible! your home costs are an investment!) – in favor of buying over renting, particularly in hot markets where you can imagine the value of the home will increase even as you lock in your monthly payments and you won’t face scary rent increases. These reasons all involve some amount of hard numbers and some magical thinking, and thus should appeal to and comfort both of you.

You ask how to make the process easier on you both. Tough request. Buying a home is inherently stressful since it is both a large financial decision that also involves lots of issues of taste and emotion and expectation. Moving – after death and divorce – is supposedly one of the most stressful things we ever do. Even some of the good things about moving, like excitement and anticipation, we often experience, on a physical level, as stress.

Hopefully you’ve figured out how much talking about stressful things you both need and found a way to balance that in your marriage. Give each other all the benefit of the doubt you can scrape together during this trying time. You both want your family to have a nice place to live where you can all flourish, that you may disagree on the exact specifics of how best to achieve that is fine and you should be able to discuss them as long as you keep that bigger picture in view.

I would also recommend really playing to each others’ strengths as much as possible. Hard numbers-man can look into home values in different neighborhoods, figure out the costs of necessary repairs, etc. Magical thinking-lady can compare lifestyle impacts from different locations, imaging for everyone how your lives will be improved or changed. Have the organized person do the organizing. Divide and conquer as much as possible. Clear duties and expectations, whether it’s looking into schools or boxing the dishes, should also keep unnecessary stress at bay.

Finally, prepare to fight. If you really don’t agree, coming to a decision and then following through on that decision will likely involve a fight or two. I’m guessing you’ll feel like you both decided to do this and you now want everyone to be enthusiastic about it. He may feel like he was a bit railroaded into a move that he doubted was best. You both have your points. As with most issues married folks fight over, both people are right. Fight fair. Don’t bring up old fights during a new one. Try to remember the big picture even as you may feel like cracking a picture right over his sensible head.

Bedazzled in California

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

My dilemma concerns jewelry. I have a diamond ring – actually two rings, one real and the other its doppelganger, identical by all appearances but fake – of my grandmother’s. Not just any ring, either. It is a 4-carat behemoth that was valued in the mid five figures, and that was 30 years ago. (I’m getting it appraised right now to get a current value.) My grandma’s style was over the top, and mine isn’t so much, but I do like to wear it from time to time. But I do as my grandma did before me: I wear the fake one and keep the real one in the safe deposit box.

I think my grandmother got a charge out of knowing she owned the real deal; I, however, feel conflicted about it. On the one hand, the real ring was special to my beloved grandma and also is super fabulous.  On the other hand, the fake is also super fabulous and that money could do a hell of a lot of good in the world *and*, you know, beef up my kids’ college fund or whatever, and how much good is the super fabulousness doing in my safe deposit box?

If I were to sell the ring, which I’m tempted to do, I would split the proceeds among me, my brother, and my cousin (my grandparents’ only surviving descendants); I ended up with the ring by default, not by a clause in the will or anything, and I don’t think any of us realized its outsized value when I did. I’d also donate at least part of my share of the proceeds (maybe to an organization that helps people affected by wars funded by blood diamonds). But I still feel kind of strange and cold about selling what is, after all, a family heirloom. Yet I’d keep and wear the fake, a simulacrum family heirloom that actually sees the light of day. Honestly, we’re not short on family heirlooms, though this is the most valuable.

What should I do?

Bedazzled in California

Dear Bedazzled in California,

You need to talk to the other heirs. You say you ended up with it without anyone truly realizing its value. Get the appraisal, make a plan you think is sensible, and present it to your brother and cousin.

That plan? Sell the ring.

Plain and simple. Sell it. Unless one of the other heirs is willing to buy the others out in order to own it, that is. In either case, do with your proceeds as you like (donations are lovely, college funds are sensible, a new piece of jewelry you’d actually wear is perfectly reasonable). What any sensible Midwesterner would agree with is that keeping something that never sees the light of day is absurd. Heirlooms are treasures only because we treasure them. As much as your grandmother loved the real ring, you, clearly, do not. This is fine and you should feel no guilt about it. The Sensible Midwesterner has never understood the notion that not attaching feelings to things is “cold.” Things are things and they don’t feel back. And if the ring did have feelings, how do you think it’s enjoying that vault?

The one sensible argument that occurs to the Sensible Midwesterner is that the ring could further appreciate in value. One could maintain the position that the diamond is an investment, similar to a stock portfolio or piece of real estate, that should be kept in trust for future generations since its value will increase.

And yet…. There are no sure things in this life. Diamonds could, theoretically, dramatically decline in value. The bank and its safety deposit boxes could be destroyed in an earthquake/fire one-two punch. George Clooney and his cronies could rob the place in Oceans 14. And all this could go down as the insurance company (you sounds sensible, so one can only assume this valuable gem is properly insured) goes belly-up in some Ponzi scheme. The world economy could collapse and the market for 4-carat diamonds completely dry up. All things are possible even as they are unlikely. The Sensible Midwesterner merely mentions these scenarios to make the point that the ring is not doing anyone any good sitting in a box somewhere. The answer might be different if you said you took it out once or twice a year to wear to… the Oscars? The opening at the Met? But you specifically say you never wear it.

The odd brilliance of a woman who had a copy made of a real diamond in order to be able to wear it without worrying about it impresses the Sensible Midwesterner in an odd way. I suggest you think of the fake as the real family heirloom, one that reminds you of a woman blessed with both crazy blinged-out taste and extraordinarily sly cunning. Get a kick out of knowing its story, and pass that along to your heirs. You could even use your proceeds from the sale to have copies made for any other descendants who might enjoy the tale.