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Overthinking It

Dear Captain Awkward:

Well, not exactly. First, some background: I (she/her) am a member of a Face Book group for fan-fiction readers and writers. I’m a longtime writer of both original work and fan works, so I like to leave comments when people post questions about plotting, characterization, etc. Trouble is, I commented on one post a couple of weeks ago, and now the original poster won’t leave me alone.

It wasn’t so bad at first. She private messaged me within about an hour of me leaving the comment, specifically requesting elaboration on what I’d said. Sure, fine, not the first time this has happened. We kept chatting, about the fandoms we were in, that sort of thing. Hey, great, maybe I’m making a writer friend, I’ve been looking for that. And then she dug a little deeper into what I liked- did I read/write mostly G rated or X rated, was it mainstream stuff or fringe, etc. For the sake of the story, we’ll say that I ended up saying, well, I mostly like m/m, I sometimes like f/f, and I’ll only read m/f if it’s really special, and that I really like reading when men tie other men up and have sex with them. So she starts sending me bits and snippets of stories she’s been writing, and most of them turn out to be m/f, where the woman is being tied up to work through childhood trauma. And in between there are questions- “if her legs were tied like that, would she be able to stay in that position?” “would he check in with her at this point, or would he just keep tying knots?” I’ve tried to answer and respond in good faith, but it’s becoming draining. Worse, as all this has progressed, I’ve realized that the writer herself probably has childhood trauma surrounding being tied up, and she is using the writing, and by extension me, as free therapy.

I didn’t sign up for any of this! I was never even asked if I was up for (or even interested in) so much as being a beta reader, let alone this mish-mash of editor and therapist that I’ve been shoehorned into. I’m generally a big fan of “use your words” but this situation has me speechless. Can you recommend any scripts to disentangle from this boundary-challenged person before I say something I’ll regret?

Thanks for all you do!

Dragooned

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Hi there,

I’m hoping to find some scripts/strategies to employ when I run into someone I’m happy to chat with, like a friend or one of the super friendly baristas at a coffee shop I’m always in, and they ask “so what’s new with you?” or “what have you been up to this week?” when the honest answer is often something like “I managed to leave the house every day” or “Well my house is still messy but I did write 70 thousand words of erotic fanfiction in the past few months” or “I’m sorry but my depression seems to be leaning hard on my memory lately and I have no idea what I did yesterday, let alone last week.”

Sometimes I even have done something I could talk about; there might be a knitting or art project I picked up, I try to take small trips to see friends when I can, and of course plenty of my friends would be happy to talk about the weird fanfic I’ve been writing. But in the moment I rarely remember any of this.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been at a bar and forgotten the name of every cocktail you have ever enjoyed or even heard of the moment you get the bartender’s attention, but that’s what this feels like. I’m a deer in the headlights and can’t think of something that’s even vaguely interesting and not some form of “I’m super depressed so I can’t remember, sorry.” That’s fine to say sometimes, I know, but I don’t want that to be my response every time someone talks to me in person.

I am getting as much mental health support as I can; I have a good therapist and meds that seem to work as well as anything else could (I tried some new ones last year and it was a disaster), but I’m still struggling a bit; I don’t mind being honest about that, in many circumstances, but I feel so dull and boring when these questions come up and at times it impacts my confidence around other people. I’m trying hard right now to get out more and connect with people because I know that’s good for me but I keep hitting this awkward roadblock. Any thoughts?

Thanks,
I Promise I’m Not This Boring, For Real (he/him)

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Here is the second post in this week’s collaboration between Jennifer P. from CaptainAwkward.com and Alison Green from Ask A Manager.

Previously On: “Is it disloyal to leave a company who cut my pay and postponed my promotion?” (Nope! Cutting everyone’s pay is like the part in the horror movie where the house says “get ouuuuuut” and none of the cabinet doors will stay closed and suddenly there is a ghost boy with no irises (only pupils) staring at you while you shower, maybe the time to leave is right now?) and “Can I talk about my boyfriend’s other girlfriend at work?” (Sure, but maybe check with her first?)

Additionally, there was a question about ADHD and applying for jobs that we didn’t get to and that needed more space than this short format, I’ve answered it over on Patreon: (Part 1)(Part 2)

Now for today’s question batch:

1. Everyone in the office is hanging out without me and it feels like high school.

I work in a very clique-y office where I am just not in the main clique. I have a coworker who is sort of in the same boat and we have bonded over it, but she’s still more in than I. These people tend to organize outings outside of work to which I am not invited, but where as far as I can tell they include everyone I work with. I’ve sort of just been ignoring it, but now they keep talking about their plans, how much fun they have, etc while I’m in the room. Look, I understand if you don’t want to invite everyone (though it’s still quite hurtful frankly) but can’t they at least keep it a secret if they don’t want me involved instead of rubbing it in my face? I feel like I’m in high school again. (For the record I am in my mid-thirties). And I feel like crap. Look, I’m on the spectrum, and I know that means I will often have to deal with being the outsider, but this just seems unnecessarily cruel. Am I overreacting?

Jennifer (Captain Awkward): When social interactions among adults ping the old “OH NO, NOT HIGH SCHOOL, NOT AGAIN” radar, a good question is: Are people being mean or are they being lazy? Mean happens, certainly, but when in doubt, start with lazy. As in, maybe people are purposely excluding you (not everyone has to become free-time friends with coworkers) but it’s also incredibly likely that people assume that someone else already invited you and that if you don’t come to a particular thing it’s because you didn’t want to. 

And I’m talking about the merest blip of a thought, a second or two of wondering “Should I invite Fergusella?” “Eh, but they never come to stuff” and then moving on with their day. The longer this goes on, the easier it is to mirror these bad assumptions, and perversely this applies to people feeling comfortable talking about events in front of you. “Everyone’s invited, the more the merrier, I don’t have to make it explicit” or “Well, Fergusella would say something if they really wanted to come, right?” feel easier than changing anything. Your coworkers aren’t thinking about ableism, your history of being left out, or the very real worry that speaking up could expose and codify a probable afterthought (lazy) into an explicit (mean) choice probably because they aren’t thinking about you all that much in the first place. “They just forgot me” probably doesn’t feel less awkward than “They just don’t like me,” but it leaves more to work with in changing the situation.

Speaking of implicit vs. explicit: If literally every single person in your office is going across the street for after-work drinks and talking about it in front of you on the regular, there’s a 99.99% chance that you are and have always been invited and people assume you already know that. If you’d feel better knowing for sure, you won’t make it weird by asking, “Hey, is this invite only or can I join you?” If people are mean in response, it’s because they are mean people, not because you did anything wrong by trying to clarify it. (Now, if it’s a weekend and people are gathering at somebody’s house, that’s different: Like vampires, coworkers need to be invited in.) 

Before you do anything, an important question for yourself is: Do you want to get to know these specific people better and become friends with them? Do you want to not only be invited but to actually go to more of these things? If so, one strategy might be to choose one or two the kindest, friendliest people in the group and invite them to a very occasional solo lunch or coffee. Not from a “Why does nobody ever invite me?” angle but from a “I’m trying to be more social in 2020 and you always seem so nice and fun” angle. “I’m trying to be more social in 2020” is a useful script because it communicates that you want to hang out with them in a way that doesn’t blame them for leaving you out in the past. Once you know people better and have a one-on-one relationship, it’s less risky to have conversations like “Do you do bowling karaoke every weekend? It always sounds so fun, is it ok if I tag along once in a while?” Or even, “Hey I’m autistic, and have kind of a terror of poking myself in where I’m not wanted, so it really helps me when people turn ‘Anyone up for lunch?’ into ‘Would you like to get lunch?’ That way I know for sure I’m invited.” 

Is it less about these specific people and more about generally feeling left out and lonely? Then that’s probably a sign to work on your friendships and social life in general, inside and outside work. You’ll be able to let the chit-chat about what the office is up to go by much more easily if you’re having great weekends doing exactly what you like.

One thing I always want to tell fellow adults who may have a history of being bullied and left out: Hosting and event planning is a lot of work, and it’s not generally something the Popular Kids(™) we remember from school do as adults specifically to torment each other. Those dynamics certainly exist, I definitely believe any horror stories any of you might tell me about people in your office who think recreating school cafeteria seating hierarchies is the social pinnacle of achievement, but I think it’s good to remind ourselves that most extroverts/outgoing/social folks are doing what they do because they *want* to include and enjoy people.

Additionally, extroverts get social anxiety too.(Will people actually show up? Will they have fun? Will there be enough chairs? If I didn’t invite people, would anybody think to invite me?) They also get burnt out and feel unappreciated. If you’re trying to break into a social hub at work or outside it, it might help everybody leave high school behind to stop looking at the organizers as powerful gatekeepers who have it all figured out, and stop assuming that you have nothing to offer them. When you are invited to things, assume people want you there, enjoy yourself, offer to help if you can, and most of all, notice and appreciate people’s work in planning and hosting. It’s easy to dunk on Mandatory Office Fun, but going out of your way to say “Thank you for putting this together, that was the best sheet cake yet, need a hand cleaning up?” can win you allies on the Party Planning Committee for life.

Alison (Ask A Manager): And thus a perfect answer was written, and will be one I link people to for years to come.

I’m not trying to be lazy, I promise, but this is so comprehensive and wise and I feel I can do no better than joining in presenting it to the world.

Jennifer: Well, thank you. I obviously have a lot of feelings about this. 🙂 

2. People tell me how my name is pronounced (wrong).

I have a name that’s pretty common, but has multiple pronunciations. I pronounce my name the less common way, and usually when I meet new people they pronounce it the more common way. When I try to kindly correct them (“Oh, I actually pronounce it like Cahr-a, not Cair-a”), more often than not people push back. Everything from “Well, all the Caras I know pronounce it the other way” to “That’s weird” and “I wouldn’t spell it that way if I pronounced it like that.”

I try to be patient, but this annoys me to no end. Partly because I am 100% sure I am spelling and pronouncing my own name correctly, partly because I have had this conversation no less than once a month for 20+ years. I know people don’t love being corrected, but I do my best to clarify kindly with a smile, and struggle to keep that smile when the umpteenth person in my life tells me that my name is weird.

I don’t want coworkers’ first impression of me to be “Woman who has no sense of humor about her name,” so more often than not these days I just don’t correct it and skip the discussion. But then if a coworker I’ve worked with for a while does notice that I introduce myself differently than how they’re saying my name, they’re annoyed I didn’t correct them sooner. I feel like I can’t win!

Any advice for language I can use to correct mispronunciations and shut down pushback without getting defensive? It’s especially challenging when it’s someone like my grandboss or senior executives telling me how I should pronounce my name.

Jennifer: I’m a Jennifer who everybody wants to call Jen or Jenny the second they meet me, so, solidarity! I know that tension between “I do not want to ruin this friendly moment” and “But that’s not my naaaaaaaaaaaaaame arglebargle.” 

There has to be a path between the pompous guy I went on an extremely doomed date with who introduced himself by pre-correcting everyone (“Hi, I’m David, DaVID) and the time I was 22 and my 55-year-old boss kept calling me “Jenny” because his last assistant was Jenny and I asked him not to about 100 times and then I finally snapped in a meeting and called him “Tommy” instead of Tom in front of our grandboss and a client (“Oh Jenny will get that right over to you” “Sure thing, Tommy!”*), right? 

You are already doing the right thing by smiling and gently correcting people when they mess up and your best bet when they make it weird in a professional setting is to keep smiling but also keep insisting. “Oh, I get that all the time, but really, it’s Cah-ra, thank you so much” and then skip as quickly as possible to the work topic at hand. The vibe to aim for is “No worries, it’s an easy mistake to make, and I am going to do you the magnanimous kindness of forgetting all about it and pre-thanking you for doing the right thing.” Most good people will want to get it right from now on and people who don’t take the face-saving out you gave them are showing you something about who they are, ergo you won’t be the one making it weird if they keep doubling down on awkwardness and you get real humorless for a minute. The social contract insists that we call people what they want to be called no matter what our assumptions are, and if it means getting corrected sometimes, then it means accepting correction with kindness and grace. 

*You know what? I can’t recommend this strategy as the most professionally diplomatic one, but it only took being called “Tommy” once for a middle-aged cisgender guy to be reminded that names are important and it matters how we use them especially in professional settings. He could feel how disrespected I’d felt for himself, and he did take it to heart. After a very awkward moment in the meeting and a wee lecture on professionalism, he sincerely apologized, and my new work/Jellicle Cat name JennyohcrapI’msorry-iFER! became a running joke between us. 

Alison: Yep, matter-of-fact and breezy and moving on is what you want here. As if now that you have clarified that you do indeed know the correct pronunciation of your own name and it is not the one they want it to be, of course they will accept that and not make it into a whole big thing, because of course  they would not be so odd or boorish as to do that.

That’ll work with most people. Anyone who continues dwelling on it after that point is being rude and weird and you are allowed to say react accordingly, with a reaction that conveys half “how strange” and half “how embarrassing for you that are responding this way.” Like a puzzled look and/or a very dry “okay then” followed by an immediate pivot to a work-related topic. 

I think some of the frustration here is probably just having to go through this so many times with so many different people, even if most people aren’t all that rude about it. It’s just exhausting to have go through “wait, is it X?” / “no, it’s Y” every time you introduce yourself. 

3. Coworker won’t stop talking about her diet.

My small-ish office has monthly meetings that start with a personal check-in. It’s a time for people to share news about vacations, babies, etc. For the last few months, one of my coworkers has shared news about her diet. What she’s eating, whether she’s lost weight and, just today, how many pounds she’s lost! She talks about all this in other settings around the office as well.

Like many people, I struggle with disordered eating, and hearing her talk about losing weight constantly is unpleasant. Even if that wasn’t true, I think this is still really unprofessional. She hasn’t responded to me pointedly ignoring her or even (jokingly) saying that I didn’t want to hear about whatever she was eating. Can I address this with our supervisor? How should I phrase this? I’ve tried to let it roll off my back but it has been really difficult to cope with.

Jennifer: I wish more workplaces agreed that diet talk and obsession with weight is unprofessional, unfortunately the trend toward making employees wear fitness trackers and participate in humiliating (and discriminatory!) weight loss competitions makes me despair of getting a consensus around that any time soon. 

You’ve tried ignoring your coworker and jokingly saying you didn’t want to hear about her eating, which are good strategies to start with. Since it hasn’t stopped, before you make it a supervisor issue, what if you stopped joking? Could you pull her aside for a private direct conversation before the next scheduled meeting? A script could be “I can tell you are so excited about this diet and you had no way of knowing this, but hearing about weight and diets can be triggering and very distracting for people recovering from eating disorders. Can you update us about something else fun that’s going on with you at the next meeting? I would appreciate it so much.” 

If you focus on that specific meeting (vs. trying to monitor all her conversations in the office) and keep it personal (vs. “this is generally unprofessional”) it will help you figure out a few things before you take it to a supervisor level. Is she willing to listen to you? Does she try to curb herself at all? Or does she double down in the meetings and escalate in the office? National Eating Disorders Awareness Week is coming up February 24-March 1, and maybe your human resources team needs a timely reminder to spread the word about the importance of showing sensitivity by not talking about diets and weight loss in professional situations because we never know who is struggling. 

Alison: I love this advice. I co-sign it heartily.

So often people try delivering a message via joke, it doesn’t work, and then they feel stuck. There’s nothing wrong with starting that way — sometimes the other person does successfully receive the message that way, and framing it as a joke lets them save a little face and lets you both avoid a potentially awkward (or at least more serious) conversation. But if the joke doesn’t work, that’s a sign that you’ve got to move on to a more direct conversation if you want to solve the problem.

I can see why you’re unsure of how to do that here though! It feels weird to ask someone at work not to talk about a topic of personal interest to them, especially in a culture that seemingly loves talking about that topic. And you might worry she’ll feel you’re shooting down something that is a source of real pride/joy/satisfaction to her. That’s why I love Jennifer’s wording — it acknowledges that the topic is legitimately exciting and positive for the coworker, explains why it’s landing in a different and harmful way for you, and asks to enlist her help. It doesn’t tell her she’s doing anything wrong, which is really key. It’s just “this is affecting me differently than you realized.”

And yes, if that doesn’t solve it, at that point it’s reasonable to raise it with your manager (or, if your manager isn’t especially skilled at this kind of thing, then with HR). 

Jennifer/The Captain again:Thank you again, Alison, for letting me into your mailbox and your Secrets Of Being A Creative Sole Proprietor advice, let’s please do this again sometime. ❤

P.S. Bonus cat photo content.

 

 

I’ve gotten a bunch of letters about family weirdness and estrangement and boundaries (weird, almost like there was a series of events in the last month that forced a lot of family togetherness, can’t think would have caused all these old wounds to re-open at the same time? 😉 ) and I’m going to put up a series of them this week. This one is about the aftermath of cutting ties with a parent and the still-present worry that running into them will be awful.

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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.