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Overthinking It

Dear Captain,

I (34/she/her pronouns) have a new stepfather as of this summer. He has been with my mom off and on for the last 10+ years, and they finally married in July 2019. I think this man is a Garbage Human, but we have to let our parents make their own adult decisions.

A bit of background – my highly narcissistic mom and I have reached a detente after several years of fighting and NC (no contact). She knows what sort of leash she is on, she knows that access to her only granddaughter depends on her good behavior. We mostly get on ok.

SF seems to be of the opinion that he can smack talk my mother’s shopping habits to me when she is not there. I could use some scripts to help deflect him, because while I am very frequently in my first class compartment on the “My Mom is Awful” train, I do not want my stepfather as a seat mate.

Help?
This Train Has No More Room

Hello This Train Has No More Room:

Oh yeah, shut it down.

Your stepdad humorously venting or having “Hey, is this normal, or…?” or “Here’s what’s going on with me” conversations with a close friend or other trusted member of his personal council of advisors is within bounds, but you don’t have to join that advisory board.

He’s either trying to bond (badly), assuming y’all are much closer than you are, or sending out a triangulation advance scouting team to test things like “Will LW not repeat mean stuff to her Mom?” and “But will she repeat the stuff I strategically want her to, so it comes from her and not me?” but it doesn’t really matter what he’s after, you can still opt right out. He could be like “I’m just making conversation, your mom is what we have in common” and you could still decide “Nope!” He doesn’t have to be aware of the history of how much effort it’s costing you to even be around him and your mom for you to decide “I’d prefer not to,” and you don’t have to explain yourself.

You don’t have to explain yourself, but silence will only encourage him to continue, so the next time he tries this you’re going to have to say something. Possible scripts:

  • “Wow, what a weird thing to say to me about my mom.” + redirect your attention away from that topic. 
  • “Sounds like a good one to talk about with Mom, a therapist, and…nope, actually just those two.” + redirect your attention.
  • “I thought we covered this: Don’t say anything to me about my Mom or anyone in my family that you wouldn’t say when they’re in the room.” Then, redirect your attention.
  • “‘Ladies be shopping’? Whoa, save it for the comedy club!” There is a decent chance he is one of the legions of shame-proof straight, cisgender men who are convinced they could do stand-up professionally despite never once having made a person who wasn’t dependent on them for a salary, lunch tip, or lucrative sales contract authentically laugh. If he comes back with “Ha, I’ve always known I could do stand-up!” try “Sure. Pose as a time traveler from 1983, and let me know when it is so I can not be there.” Then redirect attention, etc.
  • Use your “Yikes.” “Wow.” “What.” “Nope!” “But jokes are funny.” as necessary and then redirect your attention.
  • You could ask him, “When you say mean stuff about my mom what is the reaction you are hoping for?” but do you actually want to know? If you think he’s looking for an excuse to expound, don’t use this one.

Redirecting your attention could mean:

  • Being very terse, flat, and boring in your reactions.
  • Changing the subject.
  • Leaving the room. Doesn’t have to be a dramatic exit to make a point, wandering away because you need a glass of water or to make a phone call or use the rest room does the job.
  • Ending a phone call, social media back-and-forth, or text conversation. Anything from “Ok, gotta go” to not replying to selective replying to using “mute” and other filters to best serve you.
  • Starting up a pleasant side conversation with someone else in the room.
  • If you are a person who tends to space out, harness it. Were we still talking about that thing? Who knows? You kinda spaced out there for a second. (Might as well make it work for us for once).
  • “Rudely” disappearing into your phone. Sometimes the people in the internet are much nicer than the ones we’re related to, sometimes “Oh, sorry, I’m getting distracted by this work message, I need to handle it, if you’ll excuse me” is what gets you out of the moment.
  • Over time, limiting contact with people who routinely stress you out. You know all about that, Letter Writer!

I know I’ve recommended all the above actions individually a whole bunch, but I started thinking of them as a unit to be filed under “redirecting your attention” during the holiday posts, some of the “reasons are for reasonable people” and “why do we spend so much time and energy on the worst people?” discussions, and definitely as part of a “do less” approach to fraught relationships. We spend so much time and energy worrying about communicating with people who don’t give a single shit about our feelings or our comfort. Can “do even less!” in 2020 be about changing that equation?

For example, politely changing the subject is useful, I’m a fan, I like to let people save face and de-escalate situations when I can. But how long do we have to knowingly walk into certain rooms with a list of safe, innocuous topics that we extensively strategized about beforehand, and then cheerfully toss them out like a gym teacher distributing tennis balls at the beginning of class and pretend this is normal, neutral thing to have to do?

Do we have to pull every mean and annoying person we know aside and earnestly and patiently discuss our boundaries, or spend all family gatherings navigating patiently around the people we don’t like and didn’t come to see? Or can we say a quick “hello” for routine politeness’ sake and because it would take more effort to freeze them out, and then go talk to the people we actually like?

When someone says something out of line, can it be enough to say “Jeez Louise! What a weird thing to say” and then skip right to “Oh hey, there’s Louise, I’m going to bring her a glass of water” and keep it moving right out of that conversation? Not as a way to “reinforce the boundary” or convince anybody of anything, more like, that’s done, now I’m reclaiming my attention and re-directing it where I want it to go, somebody else can change the subject for a change.

‘Cause sometimes what the person who is behaving badly wants most is more of your attention, by any means necessary, and if they don’t get the initial high-five or commiseration or invitation to expound they hoped for, they’re willing to be loud and wrong if it means they can suck you into a longer conversation where you discuss the subject by which they mean they get to talk more about it. 

If your stepdad is one of these people, being told “no” is just fine, he’ll promise he won’t say mean things about your mom anymore, but that doesn’t mean he’s gonna shut up, not when he’s just gotten started, can he interest you in a long, involved back-and-forth about why he is the Normal, Cool, Reasonable One Who Is Trying Here and you are the Touchy, Humorless One Who Can’t Take A Joke, Just Like Your Mom, now with extra bad faith? It’s entirely possible that the more you try to talk about stuff you don’t want him to share, the more opportunities he has to try to “discuss” your mom with you, which…is exactly what you don’t want.

Emotional sea-lioning is still sea-lioning, someone whose opinions you don’t care about being “very concerned” (or whatever) and wanting to “get to the bottom of things” or “work on our relationship” doesn’t mean you have to play along. “Ok, stop doing the behavior and the relationship will be fine” is your way out of that one. Resist the pressure and the urge to play the “what if” game. What if your mom’s shopping is excessive and causing financial problems or making him think dementia is happening and he’s worried about her? ‘kay, maybe, then he should talk to someone who is close to your mom (clearly not you) and someone who didn’t just get finished telling him “Hey don’t tell me stuff like that about my mom” i.e. Not You. What if your mom is mean to him and he’s regretting the marriage? He should talk to someone who likes him (Not You, again!), someone who cares about their marriage (this role will be played by…Not You!). Does he want someone to talk with about aging, wills, elder care, and the like? Simple, he can ask people he knows for recs or type those words into Google and click any results that do not contain your name. Is he trying to loop you in because that’s what would happen in other families? Cool, cool, somewhat understandable, but he’s known you for 10 years and he knows you don’t have that relationship. Does he think he can repair the relationship you and your parent have with each other? What an unusual hobby, he should get that looked at by (you guessed it) Someone Who Is Not You. Is your mom perhaps deputizing him to talk to you on her behalf? She knows where that game ends by now, it ends with You, Not talking to Her for extended periods of time. It doesn’t matter why. Hold fast to the safe, happy life you have created and don’t let either of these people make their problems into your problems. 

Letter Writer you are smart and realistic, you obviously have some hard-won boundary-defending skills, and correctly, you don’t want to change this dude, you just want to avoid this dude slightly more and slightly more skillfully than you already avoid him. So when your stepdad says weird stuff about your mom to you, tell him to stop in the quickest and most efficient way possible and then redirect your attention. Don’t worry about getting it perfect, if your stepdad thinks you don’t like him much or that you are unreceptive to his confidences, those things are true, so…:shrug emoji:?  If someone you don’t like, whom you see incredibly rarely, under highly-controlled circumstances decides you’re not exactly his cup of tea, I think you’ll manage to carry on somehow. 😉 If the train called “Mom is Terrible” and the train called “Both Of You Are Terrible” leave the same station at the same time, they will be necessarily be on parallel tracks that can’t meet without causing a serious accident. It doesn’t matter if they are headed in the same direction part of the way, or how long it takes to get where they’re going, or if they double back and cross each other’s paths sometimes, this isn’t the fucking SAT and you don’t have to show your work.

Let us close with a video montage. Is Miranda Priestley (antagonist of The Devil Wears Prada) a paragon of warmth and human kindness? No.

Is Miranda Priestley going to get three visits from three spirits one Christmas Eve to examine her past, present, and future? No, every rich mean person doesn’t get issued a personal redemption psychopomp, but I would watch the hell out of that movie, twice if there were Muppets.

Is Miranda Priestley extremely good at getting people to stop talking when she’s done listening and might you want to harness some of that “I said what I meant and I mean what I said kthxbye” energy when you talk to your stepdad? Oh yes.

 

I’m writing this from an inexpensive AirBnB not far from Awkward Apartment, where I took a few days to be in a blank slate, away from cats and laundry piles and human conversation, so I could sit in quiet and solitude and think about how to get my ambitious projects off the ground this year. I wasn’t going to blog but this question jumped out at me and I’d like to shoot it like a fiery arrow across the horizon for me and my fellow creatives who are trying to figure out how to go from the hard drive or the manuscript drawer to the world. Here is my 2020 Note to Self:

NO MORE SHITTY LIFE-HACKS OR PROCRASTINATORY MINUTIA AROUND FORMULATING “THE PERFECT MORNING ROUTINE FOR BEING AN ARTIST” OR WHATEVER

GET TOGETHER WITH OTHER PEOPLE WHO LIKE YOUR STUFF

AND MAKE YOUR STUFF

AND SEND IT OUT INTO THE WORLD

AND THEN DO IT AGAIN

THAT’S IT, THAT’S YOUR ONLY JOB

STAY ALIVE AND MAKE ART

And now, the first letter of the year:

My dear Captain,

I have been reading your blog for many years, since the early days. It’s been so exciting watching you grow! I’ve often been able to find something in the archives applicable to my general situation, or the forums have been a help. Now, though, I’m in a fix, and I don’t know what to do or whom to ask for help, and I’m hoping you might be able to provide some guidance. I’m desperately hoping you will, in fact. I feel like I’m about to have a baby and I’m looking for a hospital.

I’ve written a drag rock opera of Bible stories about the bad women in the Bible, whores, killers, and evil queens. It came out really good. Really good. The issue is that I did it as a self-taught nobody by myself in my bedroom, and now it’s just sitting here in my lap with nowhere to go. I have no money or connections, and no way to produce it. We (husband and two young daughters) moved to a very large city a couple of years ago, and while I would never have had the scope to fully form and finish my project as it is if we hadn’t come here, I’ve never really adapted to big city life. I’ve had trouble connecting with collaborators. They way people operate here just isn’t what I’m used to. People are just so insular.

While everyone I’ve played my material for loves it, I haven’t been able to connect with anyone who can make the whole project happen. The couple of people (one drag queen and one belly dancer) who I’ve connected with seemed really excited about working with me, but they wanted to do one or two pieces at a time in a small venue. No. Would you agree to viewings of only two minutes of one of your films?

This is a piece. It’s meant to be performed as one big thing, from one end to the other. The songs form a progression and tell a story about oppression of women and queer people. It’s a whole thing! It’s not just music.

This wouldn’t be a *problem* (hence this email) if I hadn’t lost my job in September. I’ve spent my entire marriage of 17 years supporting and following my husband as he got his career going, really never having any focus of my own. I had a short-lived local career as a singer-songwriter in my youth that fizzled as I never really liked that kind of music that much, or the kind of work it entailed going it alone. I always wanted to do something different as an artist. I piddled around in a series of jobs that didn’t really mean that much to me, spent an ill-fated year in law school, stayed at home with the kids for a few years, worked as a paralegal…and when I found myself looking for work, it felt so demoralizing to be digging through job listings when I have a masterpiece sitting in my lap. But what do I do with it?

I have some friends who advise me to get on Twitter and reach out to people, but I am a ghost on the internet and have zero social media presence. When I created a profile, it didn’t go well, and I’m worried my clumsiness will only sabotage me, so I hesitate to start contacting people. And let’s say I get it sorted out and do contact people, what direction do I take that? Social media just gives me all kinds of anxiety, way more than my regular social anxiety. I don’t even want to be out there under my own name. I have kids and I spend most nights at home, but even if I were to go out and start “pounding the pavement,” I don’t know where to go. Most drag shows start when my eyes are getting heavy these days. Do I start with drag shows? Or am I looking for theater? I have no idea anymore. I feel like this strange hermit living in a cave with a golden egg, polishing it and loving it, but having nowhere to take it.

I had a plan before I lost my job to use my Christmas bonus to buy equipment to produce tracks to perform to, but even the first step went bust before I could take it.

The material is ready. I’m ready. I feel like I’m about to have this baby. What do I do?

Please help.

Thank you

Bout to Pop (she/her)

Dear ‘Bout to Pop:

Your musical sounds AMAZING and I want it IN MY EYES AND EARS right NOW.

To get it there you are going to have to:

1. Copyright your stuff. It protects you legally, it forces you to record/document it in some kind of tangible way and send it out of your house. This is a good step for someone who is where you are.

2. Make a monthly budget called “Get my show made.” If it’s a small budget right now, that’s okay, but you need a line item in your budget & your family’s budget for this. This is a big deal. This is you. This is your work.

3. Make a sacred weekly time on your schedule called “Get my show made.” During this time, you are not Mommy or Honey, you don’t give a fuck what’s for dinner or whose turn it is to pick the music in the car today. You’re getting your show made. You are working. Treat it as seriously as any day job.

4. See shows and meet people. What theater company where you live does the best/most musicals? Their directors and producers might salivate to get their hands on new work. Would they workshop something for you – stage/light/costume design a few numbers? Howabout producers in your local drag scene? Could you jointly crowdfund a fringe festival pilot? Time to hire a babysitter and drink caffeine after 3:00 pm, ’cause once a month you have a date with THE STAGE.

5. CALL THOSE PEOPLE WHO WANTED TO DO A COUPLE SONGS A WHILE BACK, APOLOGIZE, AND LET THEM PERFORM SOME SONGS.

FYI this was the part of your letter that made me yell “NO!” and “OH MY GOD!” and HAVE TO answer it.

I will stop yelling but I needed to BIG FONT yell for a second. I understand wanting to be protective of work, but I would absolutely let someone screen a single episode from a web series or a short film or read the first 10 pages of a feature script before committing to the whole thing. Your work is “too big” right now, so make it smaller!

I believe you that your piece is great and best viewed in full, but a) workshopping parts of a larger show is a standard part of the creative process (Have you ever seen your work performed? Have you ever seen any of this piece performed with lights and costumes and an audience? You will learn so much omg do it just do it please just do it.) b) “Get a short digestible chunk that people can love in front of them so they’ll ask you for the whole piece” is one of the bedrocks of getting content seen by pros in the entertainment industry. If you continue to insist that people who don’t know you or your work have a choice between “all” or “nothing,” you may get lucky someday but you’re going to encounter a lot of “nothing, sorry” on the way.

Staged readings are a thing. Workshops are a thing. Showcases are a thing. “Viral” videos of works in progress are a thing. Make them your thing. You did the hard, lonely part of having an original idea and putting it on a page. To get it on a stage, you need other people. Their enthusiasm and love for your work is not a threat to you, it is the engine that will make it real. A short version or excerpt is not a threat to the whole, it is the “trailer” that builds anticipation and excitement and shows off what you can do. Big productions evolve out of small moments, ideas, sketches.

Furthermore, “This is a show that started as a few songs performed here and there in drag clubs” is the best damn origin story imaginable, not something that will ruin the eventual “Julie Taymor presents…” on the fancy marquee. Your idea about a show about the Bible’s bad girls intrigued me, the prospect of that show originating with and piloted by drag performers completely SOLD me. Collaborate with and harness and trust the enthusiasm of these people who love the work when you are a “nobody.” What you’re telling me in your letter is that your work is great and you’ve already made some strangers love what you do and want to be a part of it. THAT is a success and THAT IS where this starts. These people who fell in love first will invest their time and love now and make it happen with you and for you through the whole life of this project.

ACCEPT THEIR GIFTS. And take them with you when you “make it.” Opening night on Broadway I want to see you give an interview like, “Me & a bunch of drag performers started this together when they took a chance on me and performed some of my songs in clubs and laundromats and wherever people would listen, now we’re all on Broadway together, singing about the Bible’s Baddest Bitches, because they believed and made it possible.”

6. Hire/recruit the best audio & video people you can to document any and all performances, have them put together a polished cut of each song and a video of the whole showcase. I put audio first for a reason – if you can only afford 1 pro and 1 student/talented newbie helping out, make the pro the audio person. Make a website with a synopsis, photos, all your information before you push the videos online. When this hits you want people to be able to find you easily.

7. Figure out this social media thing so that those songs get seen and heard and loved and sung along to. Lots of awkward, shy people are on social media. Here’s a starting point: Friends-of-blog Julie & Jessica of King Is A Fink wrote a book called Social Media Charm School for social media neophytes who are trying to harness social media specifically to network and promote and make creative projects (in their case, films). There is an older, pre-social media resource about film-funding (movies are expensive and also more my wheelhouse than theater, apologies) but I really like Shaking The Money Tree: The Art of Getting Grants and Donations for Film and Video by Morrie Warshawski. He has lots of advice about raising money through overlooked and unexpected ways but probably the most valuable advice is about crafting your pitch and using your passion and skill in how you tell the story to connect with people who might give you money or want to work with you. You are the expert on you, you are the expert on your story, you can translate that passion even if you are nervous or shy. It’s okay to be a beginner at “Show Business.” Everyone in show business started as one.

Austin Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist and Show Your Work are both valuable and inform the ways I first approached social media for promoting and networking. Using Twitter as an example, the people who do what you do the way you want to do it are on Twitter. You could follow them and listen to them and get to know them. Fellow aspiring goddesses of musical theater are on Twitter. You could follow them and listen to them. You don’t have to say a thing for a while, never mind crafting and pushing the perfect pitch for your project. Just listen. Who inspires you? Who draws you in? Who makes you feel encouraged and excited? Where are they submitting and promoting their work? Those are the seeds of community and fellowship, interacting like a friendly human with other friendly humans who are doing the same work you are, cheerleading each other on. [Beeteedubs Chicago, I have a 60-90 min ‘sustainable, positive social media for indie creators’ talk/workshop I will happily bring to your school or organization, lmk if having a person who hates the term ‘personal branding’ and who found ‘selling Girl Scout Cookies, a thing people love and look forward to every year’ stressful but somehow makes a whole entire living by engaging with audiences online would be useful to you or your students/colleagues/members].

I repeat: Leverage the community you already have (beginning with the people who wanted to put on a short version of the piece), follow and listen to people who inspire you, and get going.

8. Research how new musicals get made. I don’t know how they get made and can’t tell you, that’s your research to do. Hadestown started with a concept album and a small performance. At least one reader submitted their amazing-sounding piece to a contest a producer runs every year. Seed and Spark (where the above-mentioned Julie worked for a while before getting her MBA in saving the world) is a good place to start researching crowdfunding options. Where you live, what theater companies routinely present new work? What fellowships, grants, mentorships, panels, etc. for new playwrights and composers exist? Who routinely directs and produces musical theater where you live? Meet them. And RESEARCH.

9. If you must get a day job, get one where you have a regular schedule, the lowest-intensity-to-highest-money ratio, steady Internet access, and a printer. Last time I had an office job with any regularity, I got my work done in about four hours every day and I also had at least four hours a day where I was trapped at my desk and had to “look busy” but really had nothing to do and that’s part of how I became a writer. Dress well, show up 5 min early every day, and do your paid work with so much competence and integrity and efficiency that nobody will notice when you have 20 browser tabs open and 19 of them are “fringe festival submissions” and “artist residencies for emerging playwrights.” You’ve got to put food on your table somehow and that might be the somehow until this thing breaks.

10. When you get discouraged or depressed, consider “Cats.” 

“Cats” is a real thing in the world. It was ridiculous poems. Then it was a ridiculous show. Now it is, for some reason, a ridiculous movie. If “Cats” can do it, YOU CAN FUCKING DO IT. Approach your creative endeavors with the audacity of every single person who thought “Yes, ‘Cats’ is a thing we will make with our time.” The next time I see the words “worryingly erotic” I want them to be about you and your show.

Let us know when there is video/audio to share so I can smash that “retweet” button, we at Awkward Dot Com Enterprises are rooting for you. ❤

Hello, Captain,

Quick aside: I really like your switch to allowing comments only on select posts. It makes the whole site somehow calmer and more inviting. Being able to read your writing without the distraction of subconsciously wondering what sharp poky things might turn up at the bottom is relaxing in a way I wouldn’t have predicted. So thanks!

Of course, now I’m going to ask a question that might benefit from commenter input. Or not?

One afternoon a year and one Christmas present a year are the entire extent of the contact I and most of the extended family have with a 10-year-old niece (an only child, daughter of my spouse’s sibling). What kind of present would be the most helpful and most grounding for a child whose parents are out of touch with reality even on their best days and who are now separating and using her as a pawn?

More frequent communication is impossible. Parents are paranoid and intelligent: giving their child a book called “Your Parents’ Booze and 420 Abuse Is Not Your Fault” or “You’re Not Wrong: Most People Don’t Actually Say Whatever Lie Comes into Their Head Just to Get What They Want Right This Second” or “We All Sure Hope the Dream Fairy Who Told Them Their Bipolar Meds Were Poison Changes Her Mind” will be seen for what it is and may sever all communication with them entirely. I don’t know that the child is a big reader anyway.

Despite the fact that their daughter’s emotional needs don’t seem to be of interest to either of them, they seem to love her to the extent that they can, and she seems to have food and ice skating lessons and clothes that fit, and I see no evidence of physical abuse. They don’t live near any of us, so who knows, really, but I don’t have anything to report to her school (if I even knew what school) or CPS.

The child is intelligent and relatively outgoing and wants to be a part of things. It is heartbreaking to hear her asking desperately confused questions and to hear them answer with baldfaced lies in front of us.

She is so young and so dependent on them, and we have no means of contacting her, even through her parents, 364 days out of the year. What can we do to support her from afar, through gifts that won’t set the parents off?

Auntie Out of State

Dear Auntie Out Of State,

Re: Your Quick Aside:  I am very relieved to hear this. Sometimes I really miss comments and the community culture, and I know others do, too, but it became absolutely unsustainable for me to read 10,000+ words every time I wanted to write any words or deal with the 1% of people who are A Problem (but who absorbed 99% of moderation time and energy). I’m still experimenting with the right mix of discussion vs. just writing, and I hope people who value in-depth discussions will take advantage of the reader-led forums at friendsofcaptainawkward.com and the subreddit. Thank you so much for reading and hanging in.

As to your question, I am not going to open comments on this because in my strong opinion gifts aimed at “fixing” or “helping” tend to suck unless they are specifically asked for by the recipient, there is no “right” Christmas gift that will fix or make up for or counteract your niece’s present home life, nor do I wish to curate a bunch of links to extremely specific toy and other gift suggestions, no matter how thoughtfully recommended. Your “Holiday Gift Guide For Possibly Sad 10-Year-Olds” Princess Is In Another Internet Castle.

Fortunately, I know from experience that good presents from a faraway aunt one never sees can actually foster a permanent “Aunt _____ LOVES ME and is AWESOME!” feeling in nieces and there is one method that works, namely:

Get your niece the MOST FUN stuff you can think of while she’s a child.

It’s okay to ask her parents for ideas as a courtesy even if you aren’t close, and to briefly check stuff like clothing sizes and favorite colors. If they’re forthcoming great, if not, no worries, you can also ask your friends who are parents of similarly-aged kids what their kids go apeshit for. Stuff like:

  • Art supplies! Craft kits! What is shiniest/glossiest/has the most colors? Glitter pens? Stickers? Beautiful notebooks? Do that!
  • Books! – BUT ONLY FUN, ADDICTIVE STORYBOOKS, NOT “HELPFUL” BOOKS!  If you’re stumped your local librarian will probably know what they can’t keep on the shelves in the children’s section, and they’ll also probably know what extremely fun stuff will fly under the radar of, say, strict conservative parents who are Terribly Concerned About Wizards. Graphic novels absolutely count as reading, Ms. Marvel and Squirrel Girl might be good places to start.
  • Toys! The prettiest dolls if she plays with dolls, the best Legos, Lincoln Logs, and other “building” sets (there’s this one that has magnetic balls and multi-colored rods that is like, my favorite thing ever though maybe it’s a better fit for littler kids and middle aged people like me, who knows), the niftiest action figures and spaceships or robots or dinosaurs or dragons or fancy horses.
  • Costumes/dress-up clothes in her size! The little girls I’m around most these days are in the 6-8YO demographic but they show zero signs of slowing down with questions like “can I be princess, a firefighter, a princess who is also a firefighter, a scientist (who secretly fights fires)(and is possibly the heiress to a mythical royal family/a unicorn)?” 2) I know the princess thing can get tedious and hella gendered, but honestly, who doesn’t need a sparkly floor-length purple velvet cloak and a tiara in their size? Not me! Wait, I mean me! (As in, I might need that).
  • Tech/Games/Videos – If you come across whatever the coolest 10-year-old you know can’t put down, and get inspired, do that.

Don’t overdo it, pick one or two special things every Christmas, and put a gift receipt inside to make exchanges easy. If it’s something that makes you squee inside because you would have loved it at her age? So much the better. That’s a genuine connection and pleasure you are handing down, even if it’s invisible, even if it’s not the exact thing she already thought of to want. You’ll probably have some misses but more hits, and over time your niece will notice and remember that you and your spouse love to give her presents.

Throughout the year you could also be the Aunt Who Sends Postcards  – silly ones, ones with beautiful art or from wonderful places – write a few innocuous greetings that communicate some version of “Hello there, we like you!” on the back and don’t worry about getting a reply. If you’re only allowed a few crumbs of interaction now and then, think of holiday gifts and the odd postcard as safe, no-pressure bread crumbs that might lead her to your door someday when she’s older and more in charge of her family relationships. If not, they won’t make anything worse than it already is. Sometimes “not making it worse” is all you can do.

Edited To Add: Reader Suggestion! In addition to fun gifts, you and other family members could quietly divert some $ from the toy budget into a savings account or savings bonds for your niece every year. Don’t put anything in her name now (the parents might not let you, and they would 100% have access to it while she’s still a child). It could be a lifesaver someday when she’s old enough to leave home.

How I Know That Fun Works: My dad’s sister, Aunt Mary, lived in Ohio most of my life and we rarely saw her in Massachusetts. But she sent the best Christmas presents every year, you cannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnottttttttttttttt imaginnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnne the anticipation with which we opened the annual package from her knowing that if there were clothes they would be cool, trendy, name-brand clothes that we would wear into rags alongside our hated Toughskins, and if there were toys they would be fancy toys that we’d want to go to bed with that night so as not to be parted from them even for a second.

Aunt Mary didn’t necessarily know us or our changing interests well, and she never bought anything from our lists painstakingly compiled out of The Sears Christmas WishBook complete with SKU# or based around whatever Star Wars movie was out at the time. Her daughters were much older than my brothers and me, so I think she asked our parents about our sizes and her friends who had children our age “What’s the coolest thing your kid wants for Christmas right now?” and then went with that.

She’d get enthusiastic Christmas Day thank-you phone calls from us when we were kids and hearing she was coming for a visit or we were going to Cleveland to see her was always incredibly exciting. She died in the early 2000s (fuck cancer) and I just have to say, all “blah blah gifts are soooooooooo commercial and distract from the real meaning of the season” aside, every memory I have of my aunt is based on a) 20% how funny and delightful she was when we did hang out (I’m so glad I got to see her one last time when she was pretty much on her deathbed, and she was still the life of the party cracking up the whole room) and b) 80% childhood memories of my siblings and I staring at the boxes with her return address on them in hungry anticipation all week, trying to ask “Can we open Aunt Mary’s presents first?” on Christmas morning without hurting our parents’* feelings, and then wearing or playing with the well-chosen things inside until they disintegrated.

Above all, I knew she loved me. She didn’t have to re-parent me from afar to get that across, her gifts weren’t competing with my parents, they were just chosen with obvious enthusiasm, and that’s why I wanted to tell you about her, my lovely Letter Writer. You are so limited in what you can do for your niece right now, but I think you absolutely can do this one thing well by following fun and joy and pleasure rather than concern.

Honestly, now that I think of it half the “holiday survival” stuff in my inbox for adult relationships boils down to “Can’t you just please like me and enjoy today with me without trying to fix me/my life” in some fashion, so here’s your chance to start young. 😉“I like you so much and want you to have fun on Christmas!” is a message that will go deeper and linger longer than any “I’m very worried about you and I pretty much hate your parents” “solution” or “message” could possibly hope to do.

*I should note, cursèd E.T. statues are outliers in my family (and the aunt who made that for me was a solid A+ present-giver every other year and obviously genuinely thought I would love it). My parents are great gift givers and definitely the “Aunt Mary” to their nieces and nephews, to such a degree that someday I should collect all the home videos of little cousins’ mouths dropping open in awe as they unwrapped whatever Uncle Frank and Aunt Anne brought them this year. It would be a joyful montage indeed.

 

Hi Captain,

Low-stakes question here.

I (she/her) have an old, dear friend (she/her) who has recently taken up a new art form. From my limited experience, it seems like she’s really good at it! But the subject matter hits on a relatively common phobia I have – let’s say she paints enormous, detailed portraits of spiders. Not offensive in any way, super cool for some people, but totally makes my skin crawl.

For now, I’ve muted her on social media and make some time every week when I’m feeling cozy and safe to scroll through and look for non-spider content. She’s an active poster about her art and her life and I like to catch up with the latter, plus she takes it pretty personally when her close friends don’t comment on heartfelt posts.

We live in different places so I haven’t had to see her art in person, but I’ll be visiting her city soon. How can I bow out of the personal exposition she’s offered while still making it clear that I love her and support her work? Likewise, should I say anything about my social media approach?

Sincerely,

Arachnophobic Friend

Hello and thanks for the question.

You sound like a wonderful, considerate friend who does a lot to cheer for and support your friend’s artwork, bravo!

I think it’s absolutely okay to disengage from art that scares you.

I think it’s okay to disengage from art you plain old don’t like, even if a friend made it.

Also, I think that you generally do not have to explain unfollows/filters that you use to make social media more pleasant and safe for you. It’s unlikely that your friend has even noticed your personal lack of response to SPIDER SPECTACULAR 2019, but if she has that’s the perfect opening for the conversation you need to have, not a reason to remove the safety net. Edited To Add: A Twitter friend suggests possibly asking artist to carefully tag all spider-related social posts so that you can easily filter the tag.

What if you told your friend something like, “Friend, you are so talented and I love your work, but [topic] freaks me out. I really want to see some of your pieces in person when I visit, but if you don’t want to have to peel me off the ceiling or split the difference between ‘aversion’ and ‘phobia’ in real time, I’d appreciate a) detailed warnings and b) being able to skip [topic]-related stuff. Can you work with me and curate all the non-[topic] pieces? I’d love to see those.”

This person likely knows what a great friend you are, how good you are at supporting and showing up for them, and that you wouldn’t bring this up if it weren’t serious, so it should be well-received. If you get a “Whoa, are you saying I shouldn’t make art about ____?” reaction, try “Oh no! You should make art about anything and everything you want to. It’s not you, it’s definitely the spiders, and how vividly you’ve rendered them is a testament both to your talent and my extremely specific terror, which you had no way of knowing about.” 

I hope it’s a good visit and you don’t have to put any spiders (etc.) in your eyes.

 

It’s time for the monthly feature where I answer the things people typed into their search engine before they wound up here as if they are questions. These come in completely anonymously and context-free.

A few links before we get started:

  1. Dear Mantis on Twitter: Great advice column or GREATEST ADVICE COLUMN?
  2. Our beloved Goat Lady has made some big changes and is chronicling them here.
  3. Podcast Listener People: I was a guest on the Fat Like Me Podcast, answering questions about how the holidays bring out everyone’s food & body weirdness. Come for the question from the woman whose boyfriend was suggesting she cook a holiday feast for his fatphobic parents (NOPE) and stay for questions like “Is it okay to show off arms/legs at company holiday party by wearing a cute minidress” (YES).  I don’t know if the story of The Last Time I Ever Wore Spanx made it into the final edit, but talking to Cass is always a great time.

Now, as traditional, a song to take us into the search terms:

Lyrics here.

Also bonus song sent by a reader, I’ve been listening to it basically nonstop because it is so pretty:

And now for the main event!

1) “When to leave an ex alone.”

If your ex has asked you to leave them alone, that’s easy: You leave them alone 100% of the time, forever, to the very best of your ability.

If an ex has asked you to leave them alone, but you share parenting of minor children, you can still respect their wishes. Good ways to do this: Follow the custody agreement to the letter, be pro-active about anything to do with time, paperwork, and money so it only has to be done once and nobody has to chase anybody down, and stick to the least-intrusive possible way of communicating about non-emergency child-topics as they come up. The rest of the time, you leave them alone.

If an ex has asked you to leave them alone, but you work at the same place and must interact sometimes, you direct all non-essential communications to fellow team members if at all possible, you give them space, and when you absolutely have to interact you keep it polite, brief, and 100% about work topics. Be professional, don’t make things harder than they have to be. Outside of work? Leave them alone!

If an ex has never specifically asked you to leave them alone but also, they never initiate contact with you, are slow to respond to communications from you (and respond tersely when they do), they do not invite you places, include you in social events, or seek your company, then it’s probably time to stop trying to forge a friendship (or whatever you’re after) here. “But they said they wanted to stay friends!” A lot of people say that, many of them mean it sincerely, and yet: Are they acting like they want to be friends? No? Then leave them alone.

If they’ve never asked you to leave them alone and seem quite happy to stay in touch, but being around them makes you feel bad because you’re not over the relationship and/or because things that happened during the relationship are still upsetting you, and you feel like you’re having to force yourself to stay in touch, maybe give yourself the gift of not hanging out with people who routinely make you feel bad, and leave your ex alone!

When in doubt, leave your ex alone! Unfollow their social media, disengage from keeping tabs on them, and spend that energy on people who actively want to enjoy your company in the present and the future. Your ex knows how to reach you if they’d like to reconsider.

Related Content: 

2) “Is it weird to want to reach out to an ex after years” and 3) “I want to get coffee with an ex.”

“Weird” is very subjective. It’s certainly not unusual to want to reconnect with an ex if how often this comes up in the search terms, the awkward mailbox, and the odd “hey I was just thinking about you” popping up in my dms a couple times a decade are indicators.

“Not weird”/”Not unusual” aren’t the same as “A Very Good Idea That I Endorse!,” so how’s this for a few guidelines for making it less weird?

  • Assume the other person has not been thinking about you as much as you have been thinking about them (as in, they might not think about you at all).
  • Be honest with yourself about your hopes and intentions.
  • If things ended relatively amicably and you think this person might be open to having coffee or catching up briefly online, then ask, once. 
  • Ask in a way that’s straightforward and easy to say “yes” or “no” about. “Hey, I’m going to be in town over the holidays, if you’ll be around can we meet for coffee?” “Hey, I found a bunch of old photos and recordings from that band we were in together, can I mail you copies?” 
  • If they say yes, then enjoy the coffee or the catch-up. If the person says “no thanks,” leave it there. You broke up for a reason, you made the one attempt, now you know!
  • Back to those intentions: Don’t be sketchy with yourself or others in your life, especially current romantic partners. Does “just catching up with an old friend” mean lying  to somebody about something? That’s a good sign to Just Not!
  • Speaking from experience both personal and forged in the fire of 1,000 Awkward Mailbox letters: If you’ve recently become single and you think your long-ago ex would be the best sympathetic, comforting sounding board for you as you process your feelings about life, love and loss, it’s possible The Highwomen wrote a song for you.
  • If any of this seems harsh please note: The search string wasn’t “how do I reconnect with a friend who is also an ex” –  if these people were friends, they’d already be friends.

:brief musical interlude:

(Lyrics)

4) “Fourth date and he hasn’t kissed me.”

There is exactly one person on earth who knows if “he” is not particularly attracted to you vs. he is into you but nervous about kissing you for the first time vs. he is not comfortable with taking the expected role where “he” = “common initiator of kissing stuff”  vs. he’s  asexual/demisexual and not particularly into kissing or needs a lot of time to know if he is into kissing you, specifically vs. he’s at home wondering why you haven’t made the first kissing-sort-of-move in his direction.

If you’ve been enjoying the dates so far and would like to see if Kissing Each Other is a thing that “he” is into, it’s probably time for you to ask him about it. “Would it be okay if I kissed you?” or “I’ve enjoyed going on these dates with you, would you be interested in some kissing?” are possible ways to do that, I hope you get a clear and mutually satisfying answer.

5) “He realized he cant handle a relationship right now.”

That’s a breakup. You are broken up. Grieve the possibility and move on,  he knows how to find you if he changes his mind. I’m so sorry.

6) “My friend told me I was obsessing over a guy.”

Are you obsessing over a guy?

If yes, is your friend trying to tell you:

a) The fixation is noticeable to others and your friend wants you to be aware so it doesn’t get embarrassingly out of hand (for instance, you all work together) or unhealthy for you (i.e. your friend is saying, ‘being this intense about someone is worrying them or unlike you, are you sure you’re ok?’).

b) Your friend wishes to hear much, much less about said guy.

c) Both a and b, i.e. a) “reign it in” and b) “find another sounding board, please. “

If no, why does your friend think that you are? (Plus, see (b) above). These are very good questions to ask yourself and your friend!

6) “Talking and treating your adult kids with baby voices.”

My entire body recoiled from this, but I’m back.

If you were to say, “[Parent], I’m [age]. I have a mortgage. I have a will. I have at least three distinct types of insurance. Can you please stop with the baby voice?” 

What would happen? Would they stop? Or would you get: “But I’m your [parent] and you’ll always be my liddle-widdle babykins!” 

Because to that you could try saying, “I understand that you remember when I was a baby very fondly, but I don’t remember that (’cause I was… a baby), and it’s very distracting to try to have an adult conversation when you use that [voice][nickname] with me. Can you just talk to Adult Me, A Grownup That You Successfully Raised, from now on?” 

They either will or they won’t. If that affects how you perceive your relationship and how much you want to spend time being baby-talked at, so be it, that’s a choice they are making and you have choices, too.

There are tactics that can help over time, like ignoring requests that are made in the baby voice and responding to ones that are made in a normal speaking voice (giving attention for good behavior and removing it for bad), reminders (“[Parent], we talked about this, you know I really hate the baby voice, so why are you still doing it?”). It will probably get worse before it gets better, and for that, I am sorry. Stay firm, this is worth fighting about.

7) “I am so tired of hearing my husband complain about his job.”

Periodic venting about work and asking for emotional support and advice about work and career stuff are pretty routine, reasonable partner-things to do with a spouse, but there are limits.

Signs it’s gone too far:

  • The partner spends their workday at Horrible Job and then your entire evening together is spent Reliving Horrible Job and the whole weekend is about Dreading Horrible Job.
  • You find yourself thinking, “But I don’t have to work there, so why do I feel like I do?”
  • Sharing the problem doesn’t seem to release tension or make the person feel better, the venting feeds on itself and the person gets more and more irritable as they go.
  • Bonus: Their irritability about work becomes irritability with you.
  • The venting is repetitive and unchangeable. Today’s bad work thing reminds them of every bad work thing that’s ever happened, and once a rant has started the person resists subject changes to the point it starts feeling (to you) like a ritual that cannot be interrupted once it’s begun. What is this for?
  • You’ve of course done the “Do you want advice or do you just want me to listen?” check-in before giving any advice, they choose “advice” sometimes, and now the nightly venting ritual includes arguing with you about why your advice is bad/impossible.
  • Nothing at work gets better, and you start to feel as stuck in the relationship dynamic as they do in the job.

I want to make it super-clear that both Mr. Awkward and I have been the “And ANOTHER THING about [adjuncting][customer service]!!!!!!” person and the “Babe, quit or don’t, but we can’t have this conversation even one more time” person in the last seven years and this is because capitalism sucks.

Some things that readers have suggested/Some things that have helped me, personally, ruin fewer evenings with endless workfeelingsdump are:

  • Create a structure for work-talk. Some people literally set a timer – you get 5 minutes, I get 5 minutes, we go back and forth for 10, then we try to stop talking about work for the day. Adapt that or find something else that works for you (I, personally, do not use the timer) with the caveats that setting limits or designing a structure doesn’t mean that work is never discussed at any other time, or that you have to make formal appointments, etc., with each other for support or venting, or that there’s never a reason to dig in for a good long discussion. When it works, it hopefully interrupts a daily, unsustainable cycle where one person auto-dumps and the other person dreads it/avoids it/tunes out of it/endures it, and replaces it with a predictable routine where everybody gets to vent some, everybody gets the expectation of being listened to with full attention some, and there is an agreement in place to fight, together on the same team, the notion that The Problem Of The No-Good Terrible Job always has to be the focus of the time you spend together.
  • Reclaim the time. If you try setting limits about how often work talk can be happening, reframe it away from “SHOULDn’t I be more supportive?”/”But isn’t it a partner’s JOB to listen?” and toward “Look, if we spend the whole day working and the whole evening talking about work, it’s like the job stole both your day and our night, too. We have to set limits on how much of our time and energy that place gets to have during unpaid hours!” You’re not a terrible spouse if you need to vent about your job, you’re not a bad, unsupportive, mean, selfish spouse if you do not want to mentally work four+ additional hours at your spouse’s job for every eight hateful hours they spend there. This dynamic is worth re-designing.
  • Practice opening the floodgates and closing them again, even if there is more to say. In film and theater we talk about “putting a button” on the end of a scene, which means finding an action or line (or lighting cue, cut, transition) that signifies that this beat is done for now, but still leaves the story open to continue. Maybe this concept can help with refiguring how you end difficult discussions, which is not a thing that comes naturally? As in, once discussion time is over, can you decide to physically move into a different room and purposely start a different, pleasurable activity together (put your feet up, watch a TV show, play with the pets) or separate for a little while and do solo self-care stuff (take a shower, practice piano, take a bike ride or walk, take some quiet time to read or play computer games)? There may be more to say, but honestly, you don’t have to rehash every work problem from the beginning or solve it all in one go every single time you talk about it, this is a hard but extremely worthwhile lesson to learn, plus I generally suck at task-switching and find that moving into a different room to end one thing and start something new makes it easier.
  • Give credit and acknowledgement and love often. Sometimes the least worst option (assuming everyone would like to keep eating and living indoors) is to keep going to a bad job with the knowledge that you’re not going to be able to change it or fix it or suddenly stumble on or invent a new one any time soon. In that case, validating oneself (“Everything sucks but I am doing my best I can in an unfixable situation”) and each other (“I know it sucks, and I can see how hard you work to keep your integrity in a difficult situation, I’m proud of you”) can go a long way.

Set some limits, redirect some conversations, offer what support you can, be gentle with yourselves and each other.

If you’re the serial venter with the bad job, here are some resources for getting out of it/enduring it until you can: 

And here’s my two-cents from having been that person:

Practice converting complaints into action, even silly action. Sometimes complaining is healthy and necessary to define problems, process emotions, and let my Team Me into what’s going on in my life. Other times, I get in anxiety loops where the more attention and words I give the problem without doing anything about it, the worse I feel. When I catch myself in an unhappy cycle where nothing is improving, I’m sick of the problem and myself, and I can feel the people who love me are maxing out on soothing noises, I write down my complaints, and then for each one I write down something I could do about it, including both realistic action steps and total absurdities.

Maybe today isn’t the day I can [take rational, reasonable, positive steps to further my career] but it’s also the day I successfully did NOT [quit without notice by yelling “Good luck, fuckers!” and rappelling dramatically down the building][Smuggle in a live goose as an offering to HONK, the God of Mayhem], go me! Sometimes having that snapshot of actionable vs. absurd helps me begin sorting out whether anything can be done and in what order. On the occasions it doesn’t, at least I amused myself momentarily and didn’t ruin another evening dumping it all in Mr. Awkward’s lap without preamble. Some days that’s the best we can do.

Create rituals around ending the workday and re-entering “home” or “relationship” space. Example: When I was teaching full-time, I’d sometimes have 12 hours in a row of teaching and meeting with students, with 20 minutes here and there to check emails, wolf down a food, and use the restroom before the next class. On good days, nobody followed me into the bathroom to try to pitch me their projects or ask about their grades through the stall door!

When I came home after a day like that, I needed to take the bra off, put on pajamas, wash my face, and be unavailable to every living being for 15-30 minutes of quiet. I couldn’t be a listener in that mode, and if I started talking, I might not ever stop. Once I figured that out, on days I gave myself permission to take that time and space, I would be a much better [human cat bed and servant][wife][dining companion][self-regulator of emotional workspew] then when I did not. If you and your spouse don’t have your own versions of coming inside and donning your snappy indoor cardigan and tennis shoes, think about making some. I think it helps with the whole “we are not on Work Time right now” project.

8) “My boyfriend keeps accusing me of still being married to my ex.” 

I am assuming a) you are NOT still married to your ex and b) you have told your boyfriend this with words? If so, what we have here is a boyfriend problem.

Feeling jealousy sometimes is human.

Making wild, untrue accusations, repeating these accusations even when they’ve been corrected, and using jealousy as a reason to question a partner’s integrity and control their behavior is what’s known as a red flag.

I don’t even know how to fashion a script for this, but I’ll try:

“I’m not still married to my ex, the fact that you still bring it up is incredibly weird and upsetting. 

If worrying about this is occupying your thoughts to the point that it’s affecting how you feel about our relationship, please seek counseling, but I’m not discussing it with you again. Stop.” 

If he brings it up after that? Someone who questions reality in a way designed to upset and blame you is unlikely to result in a safe or healthy long-term partnership. Abort!

9) “Should I tell my parents I’m gay before I get married.”

Methinks you were searching for this prior post on how to share news that 1) I’m gay 2) I’m married!.

tl;dr: Wedding announcements: So useful!

If that’s the case, it seems like a good time to talk to your fiancé(e) about coming out to family before the wedding, who (if anyone from the family) should get this information and be invited to the wedding, and who would be better off with a nice wedding announcement after the fact. Decide together with your future spouse how you want to handle everything for maximum safety and comfort, and then work from there.

If you are gay but you are about to marry a straight person who thinks you are also a straight person, BEFORE THE WEDDING is the time to have that conversation (even if that conversation is “I’m sorry, we need to cancel the wedding, this is a mistake“), whether or not you can safely come out or loop in your parents right away. I don’t know anyone who has done this specific thing before the wedding personally, but I have seen more than one marriage where the people in it learned the hard way that nothing painful gets LESS painful after “I do,” a breakup that needs expensive government paperwork, and a party with lots of photos to remind you how sad and scary and lonely it felt to go through with it even when you knew it was doomed. ❤ and courage.

10) “My professor is so hard to reach through email.”

Professors vary wildly in their preferences around email and what constitutes a reasonable timeframe for expecting a response. Some people will get right back to you, some people will write back within the week, some will wonder why you don’t just come to office hours, already, some really wanted to write back to you but they are adjuncts on a semester contract and their access to the system auto-locked them out the second the grades posted.

In ye olden days of the mid-1990s, I went through undergraduate study without ever emailing a professor that I can remember (I think my senior year is when they started issuing faculty email addresses that students could know about) and I’ve studied with and taught alongside some folks who act as if those days are still happening.

Here are my suggestions if you have a professor who is routinely non-responsive to email:

  1. Email them anyway. This spells out the question or request and documents that it was made in the first place.
  2. This seems like a good time to re-link the basic guide to emailing professors
  3. If your question is about the course subject matter, revisit: The syllabus, your notes & readings, talk to classmates and see if it’s in their notes. Give it your best shot. Best case you answer it yourself, the worst that happens here is you end up with a way more specific question when the prof does respond.
  4. If your question is about course logistics (due dates, something is unclear on syllabus, what’s going to be exams, etc.) double-check syllabus and course materials and check in with the [teaching assistants][the most diligent note-takers in the class, at least one of whom you should befriend if at all possible]. Maybe they can help you.
  5. #3 & #4, translated: Assume that due dates on the syllabus are still real, assignments as described are still the assignments, even if your professor doesn’t respond. A lot of students email their professors and then stop working on anything until they get an answer, which, I get why they do this, but professors working on the old “I talk to students in class and then during office hours, that should cover it!” model do not think this way, so I advise asking your question and then proceeding as best you can with the work based on the information you have. Revisions of imperfect work that was handed in as spelled out in the syllabus > opening negotiations around late work with someone who is bad at responding to questions.
  6. Go class and to office hours if you possibly can. If you can’t, make an appointment to meet face-to-face. If the problem is that you can’t physically be in class or attend office hours, and/or your question is time-sensitive try: calling the number on the syllabus and/or calling the department phone to leave a message for them, or asking a classmate who can attend to carry a note/question for you.
  7. Ask politely if they prefer another way of being contacted. “I sent an email about _____ and haven’t heard back yet, is it okay to send another email if I have more questions about ______, or do you prefer the phone for things like that?” “Making it to office hours is hard for me, it conflicts with another class, can I make an appointment to meet before our lecture to go through [my paper draft][review difficult material], or could we set up brief phone conference?”
  8. Sometimes department admins have the cheat codes, and speaking with them in person (do not put anything in writing that you wouldn’t want forwarded to the person you’re writing about) can unlock the secrets of the Eldritch Ways. Script: “I’ve been trying to email Professor ______, and I’m not hearing back, is there another good way to get in touch about [thing you need]?” Sometimes the admin will gently put a metaphoric boot in the person’s ass on your behalf, sometimes they’ll direct you to that person’s teaching assistant/minder and sometimes they’ll tell you stuff like “Oh, ____ is terrible at email, anything I want them to see I write on a piece of paper and shove under their office door. If you’re a student, include your name, what class and section it is, your phone number and a good time to call you back, it usually takes a day or two, but they will respond.” 
  9. Probably get someone else to write time-sensitive recommendation letters?
  10. There might be contact info for a “department coordinator” or “course coordinator” listed on the syllabus. If the above tactics aren’t getting it done, try a note to that person, as in: “Dear _____, I am a student in [course][section] with [professor]. I had a family emergency and will need to miss class on ____. I’ve emailed Professor ___ to arrange makeup work/handing in late work and have not heard back yet. Are you someone who can let him know that I won’t be there this week, and do you have suggestions for getting in touch by phone or some other way to sort out due dates?” 
  11. Be polite and professional, even if you’re frustrated, especially with anything that’s in writing. If this becomes a grade dispute or something where the department needs to be looped in, the more the emails you’ve sent read like “Hello, this is a polite, reasonable person who asks good questions in a timely manner,” the more it will go your way. If these people work with your bad-at-email professor all the time, trust me, they know how bad it sucks.

11) “Family member always canceling plans.”

In the absence of history, context, or reasons (disability/illness? small kids? money?transportation issues? family disputes/history? other logistics) here are some things I suggest for handling someone who routinely cancels plans:

  • Talk to ’em directly about it and ask questions. “I want to keep including you and trying to see you, but you keep cancelling. Is there some reason that’s happening that I don’t know about? Is there something we could do to make attending easier for you?” 
  • Change up the plans. Maybe you go to them instead of inviting them to you, maybe you try something last minute if advance-planning is hard to commit to, maybe a quick drink or coffee or running an errand together > a big family gathering.
  • Take a break from making plans for a while, at least, stop taking the lead on making plans, and put the ball in their court. “I’d love to see you, and I’m happy to work around your schedule, why don’t you let me know when you can definitely get together and we’ll work something out then.” “You’re always invited, if you know can’t make it for some reason, it helps a lot if you give me as much lead time as possible.”
  • Don’t plan things with this person that require advance tickets or deposits if you have a history of having to eat the cost of those things when they can’t come.
  • Plan things that don’t depend 100% on their attendance. One way to do this is to lock in reliable people and then include the frequent canceller in those plans once they’re set, i.e. “X, Y, and Z are going to see Knives Out at 3pm Sunday at [theater], with an early dinner at [place] right after. Feel free to join us, everyone’s just gonna snag their own ticket and meet up at the theater, so just grab yourself a ticket and text me on the day if you want us to save you a seat.” This gives the person the chance to opt in and you the chance to enjoy yourself without banking on them.
  • If it’s not okay with you when someone cancels, stop pretending that it is. Stop saying “no problem” when it is a problem. People can have very good reasons for needing to cancel, we can be accommodating and understanding of those reasons, and it can still hurt like hell when it happens routinely. If you find yourself saying “no problem” around this a lot (and then quietly seething), try replacing it with “Oh no! I was really looking forward to seeing you, so I hope you’ll reschedule when you’re able.” 

This question and its mirror (“I am the person who has to keep cancelling plans, for Reasons, and I’m afraid of losing all my relationships, but I just can’t guarantee that it will be different next time”) carry a lot of fear: fear of rejection, of losing connections, of looking bad, of being considered “too flaky” or “too rigid,” of imbalance/lack of reciprocity, of being the person who has to do all the work of maintaining relationships (“Would anyone even like me if I didn’t host/plan all the things?” is a variant I see a lot, as well as “Everyone stopped inviting me places and I’m pretty sure it’s my fault for saying no 100 times in a row, but how do fix it?” ), of shame around money (“I want to go but I can’t afford it”), of ableist messages (“They would be here if they really wanted to come”).

It sucks, and sometimes the best we can do is to speak honestly about what we want and need, find ways to convey affection and stay connected even when face-to-face hangouts aren’t working, set each other up to succeed as much as possible, enjoy relationships even if they aren’t perfectly balanced, take breaks from working on unworkable problems when we need to and leave the door open a little (even when it would be fair to shut it for a while) when we can.

No comments today. May upcoming holidays be restful and celebratory.

Hi Captain!

So… how do you quit something you’ve been a part of for a long time?

I’m currently in a long running dungeons and dragons campaign. We’ve been going now for a year and a half and I want out. Ultimately, I’m a different person than I was when the campaign started, and I just don’t enjoy DnD as much as I used to, especially the 4+ hour night sessions that tend to happen in this group. It’s just not for me.

Although my fellow adventurers are lovely, I’m not really friends with the other people in this group outside the campaign. However, we’ve been at this for a year and a half, so I don’t really know how to… broach the subject after all this time, I guess? I don’t know, the sunk cost fallacy is strong here. I want out and I don’t know the best way to get out.

Help!

Dungeons and Dragging my Feet

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aaamikkikendallbook

Image: Cover of Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists by Mikki Kendall and A. D’Amico

Good news, Mikki Kendall’s beautiful book, Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists: A Graphic History Of Women’s Fight For Their Rights, is finally out. The IndieBound link is above, Amazon is here, it’s illustrated by the amazing A. D’Amico and just breathtakingly wonderful and gorgeous.

Mr. Awkward is cataloging his year of ambitious projects with his blog/email newsletter, Too Early Old, Too Late Smart. Mental health, fighting perfectionism, the nitty gritty daily work of acquiring a new skill and flexing old ones, it’s good stuff.

Do you wish all the holiday + faaaaaaaamily advice from our site was re-fashioned as satire for Reductress or The Onion instead? Good news, my brain did, too:

“I had never really considered that my mother-in-law might want grandchildren or have anything to say about human reproduction,” explained Lucy*, 38, a graphic designer in Baltimore, Maryland. “But then we were saying the blessing before the meal at Thanksgiving and she locked eyes with me, reached over my plate, patted my stomach, and told me that she had asked God to send me a baby soon, and it was like this lightbulb went off. I grabbed my husband and we went to the guest room right then to get cracking on giving her the Christmas Present she wants most.”

Read on for how (not) to overcome political disagreements, find common ground on “healthy” eating, and get the most up-to-date employment advice from people who haven’t had to look for a job in 30 years. Free to read and share at Patreon.

Fourth! I have promised my therapist I will organize my thoughts in more posts and fewer long Twitter threads, so let’s discuss about a recent column from Ask A Manager: Where do you start when you inherit a bad employee? The Letter Writer’s colleague is about to be promoted and inherit a known problem employee, and wants advice for how to handle that, especially when previous managers have let a lot of things slide and things have festered. Alison advises [bolding mine]:

  

   

I heartily agree, and want to re-apply this advice both to work and interpersonal conflicts. Since the beginning of the site, I’ve tried to spell out the difference between “Hey, knock it off”/”Can you please do x?” conversations vs. “We need to talk” conversations and give script recommendations for both kinds so that Letter Writers have a range of options at their disposal.

Many, many people who write to me about a ongoing stressful situation are hoping for a guide to having One Uncomfortable Conversation To Rule Them All. What is the most efficient, honest, kind, direct way to sit down with someone, spell out the range of issues, head off uncomfortable moments and potential problems ahead of time, tell someone news they don’t want to hear “without upsetting them,” say “good talk everyone,” and then never have to worry about the problem behavior or irritating habit again? Why spend all this time with little check-ins and reminders when, surely, there is a way to just address to the root causes and handle the whole thing at once?

This is an admirable impulse and I love it, every time. (((((((((MY PEOPLE)))))))))

It is also incredibly hard to pull off in real life.

When everyone is acting in good faith and there is a lot of trust and goodwill in place, State Of The Relationship talks can be useful, clarifying, and bring everyone closer together with a greater understanding of each other’s needs and preferences.

However:

When something has been allowed to fester, unaddressed over time…

When hints and subtle requests have not worked, when the person is known to ‘not take criticism’ well…

When the other person does not act in good faith and/or is un-self-aware…

When the person is someone you don’t particularly like [like a ‘problem’ coworker or roommate vs. a close friend] and you just want to get what you want and not have to delve into their feelings or reasons…

…Having a “bigger picture” sit-down to lay out some overall things the person could do to make the relationship better is riddled with pitfalls.

I say this especially for the conflict-averse [MY PEOPLE!!!] folks who might be putting off a difficult discussion until they can find the one true perfect way to have it [MY PEOPLE!!!!!]:

One of the biggest constructive conflict-management life skills I have ever learned, after much trial and error, is that it is not in any way easier to wait and talk to people in terms of overall patterns and personality traits that bother you than it is to address very specific actions you want them to take (or stop taking) at the detail level.

It’s the difference between saying “Hey, roommate, did you eat my leftovers? Ok, can you stop?” the first or second time it happens vs. letting it happen for a year without saying anything to them, complaining constantly to your friends and everyone who is not your roommate, getting angrier and angrier until the whole living space is seething with unspoken hostility, and then eventually exploding at the person with a laundry list of stored grievances, which makes them feel (understandably) attacked and defensive.

There’s a fallacy that it’s not “worth” speaking up when a problem is small because we don’t want to appear “difficult” or “make trouble” and I don’t know what put it in so many of our heads that we are supposed to save up the words “no” and “stop” and “don’t” for Special Occasions, but one of my missions in life is to extract this extremely maladaptive training from myself and anyone else who needs it. It’s not helping us. It’s not helping anyone, when you consider that good people who would be happy to give us what we need if they knew what it was tend to be mortified when they find out how long they were secretly upsetting us, and the assholes basically got to buy more assholing time at our expense, now with more plausible deniability!

Plus, it turns out that extrapolating pattens from observing others’ individual behaviors and collapsing a general statement about human behavior and applying it to one’s own behaviors are very, very different activities.

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