Stalked in Silicon Valley

Dear Sensible Midwesterner:

I’m not sure whether this fits in your purview or not, but I’m in an uncomfortable situation where I don’t know what to do – so I thought you might be able to help!

I’m a small business owner in Silicon Valley, and I have a stalker.

I have no hard, fast evidence, but I am certain (from context and intuition) that the stalker is a former employee. The person, let me call her Ms. Stalker, left my employment (voluntarily) two years ago, a few months after she quit I started receiving hostile, anonymous emails criticizing how I run my business.

Since then, I’ve continued to receive the emails intermittently, but lately Ms. Stalker has also started sending snail mail to my home and, creepiest, posting anonymous letters on the dashboard of my car, parked in front of my house. The messages have moved from being about my business to being about me, and they are mean: (e.g. your car is dirty, you should take etiquette lessons, your latest Facebook post was dumb). Most unsettlingly, lately they have started criticizing my child (e.g. Your child is ADHD and needs better discipline.)

I haven’t ever responded to Ms. Stalker. She scares me (obviously, she is angry and unpredictable) and she knows a lot about my personal and business life. She lives a few blocks away from my house. I’ve wracked my memory for specific incidents that caused this level of ongoing hostility from Ms. Stalker and come up with nothing; there were some (perceived) social slights involving coworkers that I wasn’t even involved in. I’m guessing that Ms. Stalker felt she wasn’t celebrated enough as an employee (she only worked a few hours a week, on an irregular schedule).

But this is making me unhappy; my tactic of waiting it out hasn’t worked, as the messages have gotten more frequent lately. Being silent about it makes me feel more the victim.

I’ve thought of going to the police, though that seems melodramatic. I’ve thought of confronting Ms. Stalker or talking to her husband. I’ve blocked her from my Facebook account but she still has access to my public-facing business.

Does a Sensible Midwesterner have any insight on what I should do?

Thanks for your help.


Stalked in Silicon Valley

Dear Stalked in Silicon Valley,

How terribly unsettling. The Sensible Midwesterner understands your reluctance to involve the authorities. It does seem melodramatic.

And yet….

Waiting it out and ignoring her, the classic sensible Midwestern response, hasn’t worked. The Sensible Midwesterner’s mother (and life experience) taught her that no good comes from trying to reason with crazy people, so approaching Ms. Stalker directly will lead, I’m afraid, to no good. What response is likely? I doubt very much, no matter how you put it to her, that she would say, “Oh yes, I have been leaving creepy, threatening notes on your car, but I didn’t realize that wasn’t pleasing to you and shall stop forthwith!”

The Sensible Midwesterner has also observed that people tend to stick up for their spouse. To a fault, if necessary. It is difficult to imagine approaching the husband would lead to a better result.

It sounds like this woman isn’t simply being creepy, but is committing civil harassment according to California law under which harass means “engages in a knowing and willful course of conduct directed at a specific person that seriously alarms, annoys, torments, or terrorizes the person, and that serves no legitimate purpose.”

The first and absolute essential step: Log these events and save these creepy communiqués. Your position in Silicon Valley immediately brings to mind the possibility of using of technology to catch a creep. A webcam on the car, for example, comes to mind. But the main thing is to document what has happened and, importantly, your reaction. Fear? Annoyance? These elements, as noted in the definition above, are important in defining “harassment.”

One step the Sensible Midwesterner might be tempted to take before going to the police is public confusion. Draft an email as if you do not know who is doing this or why. In as cool and collected and neutral language as you can muster, explain that someone has been sending you anonymous notes (no need to go into specifics) and that because of their content you can only assume it is someone who once worked for you. Express complete bafflement and confusion at who could be doing this or why and ask the recipients for their help in getting this to stop if they happen to know who might be doing it because if it doesn’t stop you’re going to be forced to go to the police, and you really don’t want anyone who once worked for you to experience that hassle and shame. Send it (bcc, of course) to current and former employees.

There are many reasons you may not want to do that. In that case you need to go to your local police station and report your case. It pains the Sensible Midwesterner to give that advice. It seems that civilized people should be able to work out their differences without involving the authorities, but, alas, not everyone is sensible nor capable of respectful, civilized behavior, which is why we have authorities to turn to. Best of luck.

Closet Conundrum

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

We are a family of four living in a very small house in San Francisco. I am constantly going through the closets and getting rid of clothes. If anything is stained or torn or too small, out it goes. But still, our closets are stuffed. As someone who enjoys clothes and fashion, I am not looking to go all Yankee austere, but I’m wondering what you think is a reasonable amount of t-shirts, jeans, sweaters, etc. for each person to have. I want to have a ballpark figure to aim for to keep things from getting out of control (you should see my children’s t-shirt drawers, for example). So, if you were starting from zero for each person, how would you stock up?


Closet Conundrum

Dear Closet Conundrum,

Let it be known that as a city dweller in an old house, the Sensible Midwesterner feels your pain. Quarterly clean outs and an absolute intolerance of stained, torn, or ill-fitting items are the order of the day; I’m happy to hear you are already on that train.

Contemporary practice, from my anecdotal observation, is to take whatever space one has for clothes and fill it to bursting. Live in a gracious suburban ranch with room-long closets? Fill ’em up! Is your abode a century old with closets barely a foot deep and do you live with someone with a yen for funky old dressers with drawers too shallow to properly house a chunky wool sweater? You’re going to be a tad more picky.

It appears you need to be more picky (and one assumes enforce it throughout your family) and think absolute numbers are the answer. Any sensible Midwesterner would have to agree. I have been called in to help friends clean out their closets on many occasions, but always with more of an eye to style and fit, rather than absolute number. This is, I must say, a real treat and I’m pleased to have an answer for you. Assuming you or someone in your home is willing to do laundry once a week, the answer is ten.

Some things you need about ten of; for other things ten is an outside limit to provide non-austere variety but keep your closets from exploding.

With children it is relatively easy. Rather, it is easy to imagine and impose such limits. Ten days worth of outfits suffices quite nicely. For things where choice is less important – i.e. underwear, pajamas, socks – keep it to ten maximum*, that gives you a nice buffer for that weekly laundry (an extra day to get things put away, etc.) without overloading your storage system. Even for bottoms (jeans, shorts, skirts), keeping the total number to ten at the most will ensure things get worn before they get outgrown or need a seasonal (summer-to-winter-to-summer) change. Since tops tend to get layered more, stretching the number a bit makes sense, but only a bit. Younger children will need sweatshirts or sweaters that get washed after every wearing during cooler months, but as they get older having just two or three will become possible. One or two (again, depending on how dirty your kids get) seasonally appropriate jackets is sensible.

For adults the same guideline can apply. The closer to ten outfits, the better, but one can make a sensible argument for up to fourteen. When I’m feeling particularly sensible, I dream of owning a uniform (I’ve made a drawing) that would include a few layers for seasonality and would look stylish, be flattering, and be appropriate for (most) activities I engage in. In that sensible fantasy, I have seven of them and my closet is a gloriously spare thing. In any case, it is far better to have fewer outfits one is really excited about, wear the life out of them while they look great, and move along to something new than to have a stuffed closet you feel you are constantly cleaning out.

Choose your ten favorite outfits from your wardrobe. Put the rest in boxes or otherwise out of sight. See how that goes.

For people who need truly different work clothes and home clothes, ten work outfits and ten home outfits, fewer, though, if you only wear them on weekends. Note that a pair of jeans or a flattering skirt (why would one own any other kind?) may count as a component of more than one outfit.

Of course modern life means we have a fair amount of specialized clothing. Most of us need exercise or work-out clothes. You get seven, max (although if you only work out four days a week, you only get four). Formal wear or party dresses? That number depends on your social life, but for most people having more than half a dozen to choose from seems overdoing it.

As far as the children’s t-shirt drawers go, one can only wish you luck. The critters seem to track them in like mud, don’t they? Every camp, team, birthday party, and trip down the block seems to generate a new specimen.

* Lest you think the Sensible Midwesterner doesn’t walk the talk, when my son went to camp for two weeks, we needed to buy him more underwear and socks since he needed the full two weeks worth. We instructed him to wear his shorts more than once.

Exhausted Middle-Aged Mom Making Dinner

Dear ASM,

Being the 21st-century mom that I am, I’m finding it difficult to balance motherhood, housewifery, and working. One of my main challenges is exhaustion. Mental exhaustion. By the end of the day, I often wish someone would just tell me what to cook each evening. Could you create a simple weekly calendar meal schedule with recipes? It’s official: my brain is getting smaller and smaller as I age.

Thank you,

Exhausted Middle-Aged Mom Making Dinner

Dear Exhausted Middle-Aged Mom Making Dinner,

To be clear, you have too much on your plate. My sense is that you know this and that’s part of why you’re asking for help on a specific front that you sense could be improved even if your overall duties cannot immediately be lessened. Given that….

There is a reason housewives of yore had set weekly menus – it makes shopping, preparing, and even serving dinner much easier. You (and your family) may not be up for a “chicken on Monday, pork chops on Tuesday, etc.” approach, but I’m going to suggest something somewhere between that and the approach so many of us take today which involves getting home and scrounging through cupboards before ordering pizza.

Sensible Midwesterners know that it is best to teach someone to fish, because fishing is such a wholesome, relaxing, and noble activity. (In fact, Midwesterners believe so firmly in the improving properties of fishing that they have entire charities dedicated to keeping folks fishing.) So, instead of giving you a set menu I’m going to gently suggest that you and your family take 10 minutes each week to sit down together and decide on the meals for the coming week. One plan you could consider:

Monday: your choice
Tuesday: kid #1 choice
Wednesday: super easy option*
Thursday: kid # 2 choice
Friday: take out
Saturday: spouse’s choice
Sunday: leftovers**

Put the results on a chalkboard or paper on the fridge for easy reference. Sit down a week later and change it, tweak it, or keep it for the following week. Repeat weekly. The person who chooses the meal might even help make it. This could prove a way not only to get everyone invested in what’s for dinner but also to get the whole gang to take on some kitchen duties, lessening your feelings of exhaustion. And who knows, maybe a kid or two will get into cooking and before you know it someone else is making dinner.

* A few ideas: boiled eggs, toast, and salad; scrambled eggs with rice and spinach; grilled cheese sandwiches.

** Don’t have enough leftover of any one meal to make a full meal? Put everything in a pot with some broth; use tidbits to make fried rice; chop everything up, toss it with an egg and some bread crumbs and even a bit of cheese, stuff it into peppers or hollowed out zucchini or tomatoes, and bake until hot and yummy.

Giftless in Durham

Dear Sensible Midwestern,

I have been happily married for seven years, and first started dating my husband 13 years ago. My husband is a great guy – he is funny, and loyal, and emotionally there, and a good provider, and not hard on the eyes. HOWEVER, my husband is terrible – I mean really a total disaster – in the area of gift-giving. And his deficits in gift-giving skills have been apparent from the beginning of the relationship, but my resentment has grown over time about this (in my view) ridiculous situation.

He procrastinates until the last minute, and then produces some incredibly lame offering from (literally) whatever store he happens to walk by the day the gift is due. Last year, no lie, my main Christmas gift from him was a Christmas ornament. I did not receive a Valentine’s Day, birthday, anniversary or Mother’s Day gift from him in 2013.

I have tried everything a sensible midwesterner, in my mind, would try, such as telling him that it bothers me, giving him concrete suggestions a month in advance, and just buying myself stuff at holidays. I have found no relief yet.

As you know, Sensible Midwesterner, it is challenging to sustain “romance” in long-term partnerships and marriages, and while I consider myself mostly immune to the shallower notions of love and courtship and romance, I have to confess my melancholy at knowing my Christmas gifts next week will be scant and randomly chosen. It just doesn’t make a lady feel all that special.

I am wondering if you have words of advice or solace for me, O Sensible Midwesterner?

Best to you,
Giftless in Durham

Dear Giftless in Durham,

I’ve been thinking about you and how your Christmas went. I was sorry to receive your question too late to publish before the big day, but perhaps it’s best. We can focus on the future.

Much like the neatnik and the slob, the gift-averse and the gift-loving seem to have a perennial opposites-attract thing going on. While some movement can be made in either direction, it does seem, from my anecdotal observation of those around me, that adults have a bit of a set-point that’s tricky to move much in either direction.

Gifts are a form of social currency. We use them to express, in a physically manifest way, that we were thinking about the person to whom we give them. The more thought and effort (in time, money, connections, etc.) they entail, the more they mean to the savvy receiver. Because of this, the lack of a gift or the lack of a thoughtful gift can quite reasonably feel like a lack of thought or feeling from the giver.

The flip side of this, as far as this Sensible Midwesterner can parse, is that mandated gift-giving isn’t really all that thoughtful. “It’s December 25, you need to get your wife a present” doesn’t exactly equal romance. That’s why the thought counts. The giver needs to go past the prescription of the holiday or event into the realm of showing that they know the person – what they need, what they may like, what could delight them – to truly succeed at gift-giving.

Since buying gifts for yourself hasn’t offered you any relief, you seem to know all this already. You know that it really is the thought that counts. That’s the problem. The thought counts and you aren’t seeing any. That stings.

While plenty of sensible midwesterners would fully take your side and say convention and tradition should win the day, that your husband should simply get on-board the gifting train like all the other grown-ups, that approach doesn’t help much. He’s not the one writing in, so I can’t give him advice (for the record, it would be “It seems that it would mean a great deal to your lovely wife if you bothered to buy her presents; it’s a fairly easy thing to do for marital accord; you may find it silly or unnecessary, but who cares? Don’t know what to get? Ask one of her friends.”).

This Sensible Midwesterner is willing to consider the fact that your husband (who sounds delightful in so many ways!) may find the practice of gift-giving onerous, unsatisfying, or it may even dredge up seriously negative feelings. Perhaps he came from a family that didn’t put much stock in it and never learned how important it can be to people. Perhaps the idea of trying to put his thoughts about you in a gift form is ludicrous or overwhelming. Perhaps he’s so worried about getting it wrong that he skips it entirely.

I’m glad to hear you’ve tried talking about it directly. Since you put it in the form of “that it bothers me,” I’m a bit concerned that it’s been a fairly negative conversation. The word nagging comes to mind.

After the new year hits, try sitting down and talking about how you each see and understand gift-giving. Instead of approaching it as something he’s doing wrong, try thinking and talking about it as something that as a couple you haven’t gotten quite right yet. The two of you clearly have wildly different expectations on this subject and it’s time to lay them out. Gifts are all about reciprocity, so if your practices are different, it’s surely adding to the problem (both his reluctance to give gifts and your bitterness about it).

Without knowing what his take on gifts is and why he’s essentially backed out of giving them at all this year, it’s difficult to suggest a specific solution, but various possibilities come to mind: scaling back the number of gifting occasions (nothing says couples have to exchange gifts on Valentine’s Day or anniversaries, for example), joint gifts for shared holidays, more experiential gifts (this approach would also work with joint gifts – fancy dinner out, tickets to a performance, a trip), both adding cash to a savings jar (or account) on gifting occasions towards a bigger item you both want, setting up a conversation a week or month before a holiday about “what we’re doing about gifts this year,” giving up on gifts on set occasions entirely but perhaps exchanging tokens in a more random way. These solutions all address different issues of pressure or resentment that are often in play for the gift-averse.

I would also keep all conversation about and reaction to gifts extremely positive. Gift-giving should be fun – at its best it is even more fun for the giver; you may need to demonstrate that.

With all that said, I can’t imagine a solution that doesn’t involve, to some degree, a shift in your expectations. I can see why your resentment has built, why the entire subject might make you feel bitter. Midwesterners of yore may have told you to stamp those feelings way down deep, keep them down with a shot of whiskey or a big piece of cake, and hit the hay. A better solution may be to acknowledge your own feelings about gifts, accept them, and then let go of them as quickly as possible. I would be more concerned if this seemed to be the symptom of something deeper or symbolic of some discord between the two of you. It doesn’t sound like you think it is.

And that leads us to the solace you ask for: For all the delight a well chosen gift can bring, it pales in comparison to being able to honestly write the words “happily married.”

GMO-Free in DC

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

I have always lived on the East coast, I’m a fresh food freak, a lover of all things handmade and homemade, a green juice drinker, only eat meat if its local kinda gal and I’m about to spend a week in NE Minneapolis with my Mountain Dew-addicted, overweight, and cranky in-laws. I’m not going to gift all of them a collection of Michael Pollan’s books, lord knows I’ve thought about it though.

How do I keep cool, and talk about my job and interests (market manager, food stamp matching dollars fundraiser, femivore) without sounding snobby and condescending? The impact and importance of fresh and local foods goes so far beyond my job, it’s a part of my everyday life. Do I forgo my daily morning lemon water routine when I’m out there? I don’t want to look like a freak for bringing my own bag of organic lemons around with me but I want to keep my digestive fire going for all the cookies, deep fried cheese curds and pierogies that are sure to be eaten when I’m out there. So here is my question for you, how does a locavore keep the peace with in-laws who aren’t on board with a healthy and sustainable lifestyle this holiday season?

GMO-Free in DC

Dear GMO-Free in DC,

Since the Sensible Midwesterner abhors geographic stereotypes, it bears pointing out that there is plenty of very fine food in Minneapolis and many Mountain Dew addicts on the East Coast. That is not, however, your issue.

Your issue is as old as time: For the love of all that is holy, how on earth do I get along with my in-laws?

The answer is simple: With some difficulty and a certain subjugation of self.

It is clear that you set yourself above your in-laws in habit, mindset, and values. I urge you to step down from your seasonal, local, organic pedestal – if just for the week – and, as their guest, follow their lead. You married into the family; try and focus on something of value they offer. It may not be dietary and it may not be something you’ve ever considered before, but it’s there and you need to find it. The sooner you move to a place of honest appreciation (of something, anything!) about them, the better.

I should think you would be able to discuss your work as a market manager and fundraiser without sounding “snobby and condescending” without too much difficulty. First step: don’t be snobby or condescending. You like your work, it’s important to you, simply talk about it as such. Don’t lecture, don’t explain how important it is, just talk about what you like about it on a personal – not a political or ideological – level.

I have one little but important caveat to add: When asked.

That’s right. When asked. It’s really a basic getting-along-with-people and having-adult-conversations rule. Don’t assume the other party is all that interested in you, especially with Midwesterners. Sensible Midwesterners know that no one really cares what anyone has to say. When they ask how you are, the answer is “Fine, and how are you?” If they ask “How is work,” the answer is “It’s going great” or maybe “It’s been a really busy season” if you want to hint that you’d like to discuss it more. If they ask follow-up questions to that, which I’m guessing they won’t, respond with one-sentence answers and wait for more questions or encouragement. A tendency to natter on about themselves is a (quite negative) stereotype many Midwesterners have of East Coasters; don’t feed that beast. Find subjects of mutual interest: what their child, who you married, was like as a kid is a good bet. The weather is a classic stand-by, of course. How various family members are doing can also eat up some significant conversation time.

In terms of your diet, let me be clear: No one cares. What people do and do not eat is super duper boring for everyone except themselves. Eat what you like of what they serve or don’t eat it, but do not talk about it either way except to say “thank you” and “this is delicious” or any other sincere compliment that comes to mind. “This is such a treat” is a good one too, especially if they’re serving pierogies.

Since you are from the East Coast and thus bizarre anyway, I will give you one pass. You can choose one thing you’re going to be all weird about, but only if you make it clear that you know it’s crazy and beg everyone to please indulge you. The “morning lemon water routine,” for example. Sure, bring organic lemons and have some whole “routine” that involves them. But know that you will look crazy and try to embrace it in a good-humored way. They will, I assure you, “dine out” on stories about it for months, if not years to come, with their cranky, Mountain Dew-drinking friends.

Aging on the East Coast

Dear Ask a Sensible Midwesterner,

Why do I have a double chin?

Aging on the East Coast

Dear Aging on the East Coast,

I sympathize. Every morning I see a bit more of my grandmother’s turkey waddle developing under my own chin. It’s not my favorite part of aging, although I do always try to remember what she had to say on the subject: “You look better now than you will!” And then I try to appreciate how awesome my 80-year-old self is going to think I look right this minute.

Several factors come into play in creating a double chin. First, genetics. Look around your blood relations. How do their chins look? Doubled up? There may not be much more to yours than that.

Second, age. Losing muscle tone and skin elasticity leads to sagging in all sorts of places, including chins.

Third, fat. Could it be that you’re eating too much pie? You can find people who will suggest you chew gum to exercise muscles around the double chin, but a plan of more exercise and less food is a better bet for healthful weight loss.

Or just do what generations have done before you: Invest in turtlenecks and colorful scarves.

Sensitive Californian

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

My parents rarely visit, which means we have to drive several hours away in order for our two young children to spend time with their grandparents. I often ask them to come and they usually decline and come for a visit maybe once every one or two years. We don’t have a guest room so they have to stay elsewhere, but money isn’t a big problem for them as they often stay in hotels in other nearby places.

Luckily they live in a place that we love to visit, and otherwise we have a good relationship. But how can I tell them that their lack of visits and seeming lack of interest in our lives, not to mention the kids’ soccer games and dance performances, bothers me?

-Sensitive Californian

Dear Sensitive Californian,

First things first, let’s all take a moment to relish the phrase “we have a good relationship.”

That is an excellent starting point.

Second, I’m sure many readers will read this with great envy, wondering how they can get their all-up-in-their-diapers parents to back off and stop coming to every single event, trip to the park, and sneeze the grandkids have.

The problem, of course, is that knowing other people would like our situation doesn’t help us like it much better. The other problem is that while the relationship is good, it isn’t quite good enough for you.

It sounds like you’ve taken some solid initiative and actively and pointedly invited them for specific occasions and events. To be clear, “You should come visit sometime” isn’t an invitation; “Petunia has a dance recital on April 20 in the late afternoon, we’d love it if you two could come visit that weekend and see her dance” is an invitation. If you’ve been general, get specific. See if that works better.

If, indeed, you have issued specific invitations for specific dates and/or events and those have been declined, I can see why that bothers you.

You ask “How can I tell them their lack of visits… bothers me?”

Most Sensible Midwesterners would say “You don’t.”

But I have a soft spot for sensitive Californians, and I understand that sometimes you can’t help yourselves and simply have to share your feelings.

First, make sure you’ve done the tough work of being honest with yourself about what really bothers you about the situation. Is it something that more frequent visits will actually address, or is their failure to drive to you more often merely part of a more systemic problem? Are visits the crux of the matter, or are there other ways you feel neglected? Having a solid understanding of where, exactly, you’re coming from is key here.

Ideally you initiate this conversation in person, in a relaxed state, and, dare I specify, when sober. In other words, don’t bring it up over the phone when facial expressions won’t help convey meaning. Don’t bring it up after a wine-filled holiday meal – even if everything seems jolly and the good will seems like it could take everyone along for your happy “let’s see each other more” ride. This Sensible Midwesterner find walks or car rides perfect times to bring up these emotionally tough topics – the possibility of avoiding eye contact, if necessary, can make one a bolder speaker and a better listener, two skills you may need. Sitting on a deck drinking coffee and looking at a view works well too.

The trick with this conversation is to make yourself understood while not making your parents defensive. Avoid the phrase “hurt feelings” or anything in that family. “We have such a good time with you when we visit, but the drive is a long one and I really wish you would come visit us more often.” Something along the lines of “I know you love us, but it bothers me that it seems like I have to make so much of the effort for us to see each other” might be uttered as well.

The more specific you can be, the better. Is there a recent event they missed despite an invitation? That could be a good starting point: “Otto’s basketball tournament was really fun. I was disappointed you couldn’t join us that weekend. It’s been awhile [or be specific here – over a year? since spring?] since you two came to visit – let’s set something up before we leave this time.”

Then listen to what they say. You may or may not like the answer. (This is why most Sensible Midwesterners would tell you not to open this can of worms.)

If the response you get is vague – claiming an unsure schedule or generalized busy-ness, I can only say that it sounds like they’re not that into you.

Harsh? Perhaps.

I’m sure they love you and your children. It sounds like you see them, through your own effort, with some regularity and enjoyment all around. And that may be how they like it: on their turf, at their convenience.

Our stereotype of doting grandparents who will do anything to spend a few precious moments with their beloved grandchildren is a powerful one. Like all stereotypes, it tells us nothing about any individual. Plenty of people thoroughly enjoy seeing their children and grandchildren – and love them all to pieces – without being completely devoted to them or, dare I say, willing to do much driving.

Good luck.