Danny M. Lavery is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. How to set boundaries with neighbor? My roommate and I have been having more backyard fires as a safer way to see friends during the pandemic. Our one neighbor “K” is in her 50s and keeps inviting herself over when we are having a fire. She usually dominates the conversation, complaining about her kids or work, and she won’t take the hint to leave when we are ready to pack it in. We’ve tolerated it up until now because she doesn’t seem to have any friends of her own and the pandemic has been difficult for everyone.
However, last night she crossed a line. A friend “B” was over for a socially distanced backyard fire, and B agreed to pee in a discreet corner of the yard by the shed because she wasn’t in our house bubble. Later, K walked up to our back door and peed where a welcome mat would normally be, in full view. We were shocked and didn’t say anything to her at the time, but her bathroom is literally next door. She was already making us feel uncomfortable, but this act was the final straw. How do we tell her that we don’t want her inviting herself over and peeing on our doorstep anymore?
A: Come, now! You know the answer to this question: “We didn’t say anything at the time because we were so taken aback, but please don’t pee on our porch again.” It might feel uncomfortable to say this out loud, but that’s because what happened was strange and uncomfortable, not because you’ve chosen the wrong script. “Please don’t step into our backyard without invitation.” “Sorry, this is a private get-together, so I can’t invite you to join us. Have a good night!” No more hints for K, no more hoping she reads the room, no more trading glances with your own housemate across the fire when you think she’s overstayed her welcome. All those hints and glances will ever do is waste your time; she’s not going to start picking up on them if they’ve never worked before. I realize I’ve incorporated an apology into one of these refusals, but deliver “Sorry, this is a private party” cheerfully and without regret—the sorry is ornamental in this case, rather than load-bearing.
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Q. I’ve been making the world a better place, and I’m sick of it: I’m one of four children. My parents raised us to believe we always had to make the world a better place, and I took it seriously—I’ve worked for nonprofits for the 10 years since I’ve graduated from college. I find the mission meaningful, but I’m burnt out. I work long hours for very little pay, and every nonprofit I’ve worked for has used guilt or emotion to extract even more out of their employees (instead of increasing salaries).
My three siblings all work in the private sector and make a ton of money. I’m jealous, envious, and bitter. I want to jump ship for the private sector, but I feel horrendously guilty and gross for even considering it. I’m also resentful because despite my parents’ song and dance about world peace, they shower praise and attention on my siblings (who have fancy vacations, nice houses, brand-new cars) and criticize me for living in a tiny place without any of the trappings of success. I feel like I got the raw end of the deal. I did everything right and have basically nothing to show for it. Am I justified in leaving the nonprofit world? Do you have ideas on how I can get over my hang-ups about doing this?
A: Nonprofits do not all/always make the world a better place—something you know firsthand after a decade’s experience! If your “mission” to make the world a better place is dependent on exploiting and underpaying your workers, you have already materially failed to make the world a better place for the people whose lives you most immediately affect. By that same token, I’m not sure you can say that you’ve “done everything right.” You have prioritized trying to please your parents and your employers by minimizing or disregarding your own self-interest, which is not the same thing as doing the right thing. Self-denial is not the same thing as goodness, and being taken advantage of is not the same thing as helping others. I don’t say that to blame you for your dysfunctional employers; you’re not personally responsible for an exploitative system that relies on guilt, exhaustion, and conflating the mission with the company (“If you don’t go along with X, Y, and Z policies at our institution, you must not really care about ending the housing crisis/saving the environment/helping people”). Wanting to exit such an environment is not a “hang-up,” and I encourage you to look for work somewhere with a reasonable, pre-agreed-upon number of weekly working hours, decent benefits, and a living wage. None of those things is incompatible with wanting to make the world a better place, and they don’t mean you have to start buying a brand-new fancy car every year either. I hope you find another job in a less unhealthy environment, and soon.
Q. Neurotic neighbor: This morning a firm knock on the door introduced me to a neighbor I never knew I had. She had come to admonish me for spying into her house from the top-floor room we have, in a family house I share with my parents. I am in this room frequently as I do my morning meditation and yoga in there, looking out over the trees in the distance. I also work up there because it provides me with natural light on all sides. As she offloaded a grievance she admitted she had been holding for weeks, I became even more aghast. She thinks I have been up there staring into her house, day and night, and threatened to call the police and “tell her husband” if it carried on. Ironically, the more she spoke, the more it became apparent she has clearly taken a lot of time to watch me up there, as she knew exactly what I do and when.
This is my space of Zen, built to afford me—someone who suffers from anxiety—a place to hear the birds and de-stress. I stayed calm and assured her I was not some neighborhood peeping Tom and she had nothing to worry about, but now I am nervous to even look out the window. Do I send round another reassuring note or just go about my same routine knowing I am not in the wrong?
A: You’re using one of the rooms in your own home to work, stretch, and relax; the view from that room includes, but is not exclusive to, your neighbor’s own home. It is reasonable to use a room in your own home; it’s reasonable to look out your own window from time to time. The fact that she has been observing you from some other corner of her house (apparently without your registering her doing so) makes it clear that you were not regularly in each other’s line of sight. She is projecting wildly, and you have not done anything untoward, nor even something that might mislead a reasonable observer into thinking you were contemplating something untoward.
Do share this experience with your parents, since they might very well be her next targets. Remain as neutral and non-anxious as possible with this neighbor, but don’t bend over backward trying to reassure her either. Your general line with her should be something like this: “You’re mistaken. I use the room upstairs to work, not to spy on you.” If she doesn’t back off, end the conversation politely but swiftly. Don’t try to antagonize her, of course, but if she chooses to take offense over something as inoffensive as “working near a window,” then it is not incumbent upon you to soothe her.
Q. Deadname resurrection: I’ve been out as trans for a while now, but had trouble figuring out a new name that felt right for myself, until recently. My friends have all started using my new name, and I love it! The issue is I recently realized that I’ve unintentionally adopted the deadname of someone in my friend group. “Will” and I aren’t very close but run in the same circles. I learned his deadname by accident some time ago, and I don’t think any of our mutual friends know it or realized that it’s the same as my new name. But I’ve noticed Will grimacing when people use my name and he seems to be avoiding our (online) meetups. I hate to think I’ve made him uncomfortable, but … well, I really like this name! I’m not sure what the etiquette is here, as I don’t want him to be hurt by having to hear his deadname constantly, but it feels awkward to bring up since I’m not sure he even knows that I know. Help?
A: I’m not quite sure what the etiquette is here either! I can certainly understand why it might be strange and painful for Will to unexpectedly hear his former name, and if he decides to scale back on some of your shared online meetups, either until he can hear your new name without flinching or indefinitely, that would strike me as a reasonable response. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that you must have done something wrong or should feel responsible for his discomfort, either. It was unintentional on your part, and besides, almost no name is wholly unique. If you know a lot of trans people and then change your own name, there’s a reasonable, random chance that your new name and someone else’s deadname might overlap.
Here’s my ruling: Since you and Will aren’t close, and since you two have never discussed his old name, it doesn’t make sense to broach the subject with him now, especially since you’ve already chosen this one and have asked others to use it in reference to you. It would not be reasonable to offer to change your own name simply because it might upset an acquaintance (besides, any other name you choose might raise the same problem with another acquaintance, so it’s not really a tenable solution), so there’s not really anything you can do on your end. His discomfort is understandable, but not your fault and not something you can solve for him; he may have to encounter other people with his deadname in the future and will have to come up with his own constellation of solutions for managing said discomfort. You might have to come up with your own solutions, too, depending on how you come to feel about your former name.
Years ago, and from a slightly different angle, I had a similar encounter with a distant acquaintance who planned on taking my old name as one of her middle names and mentioned it to me. I wasn’t the first person of that name she’d ever met, of course (plus there’s always the sister from Family Ties), so it’s not as if I’d given her the idea directly. While she wasn’t asking my permission, and neither of us believed that I had the right of first refusal or anything along those lines, she was aware there was a strange moment of simultaneous connection and disruption and wanted to acknowledge it. It was sweet and a little poignant; I was happy for her but also wanted some distance from that happiness. But it really wasn’t a decision I had any say in—nor should I have. All of this is just to say that it’s not uncommon among trans people, and that we’re all responsible for managing our own personal feelings about someone else’s name change. Congratulations on yours!
Q. Broke in grad school: I am a Ph.D. student at a small Midwestern university. While I am grateful to be funded, our stipends are … paltry. I, like many others, am trying to stay afloat financially. Here’s my problem: The group of students in my cohort often get expensive gifts for my adviser/chair. He’s a rather frail older man, but he and his husband do well for themselves. He is well loved and is almost everyone’s adviser.
But the gifts are a lot. The last gift was a subscription to six months of a cleaning service. The one before was an elaborate set of customized ties to cheer him up after a slight health scare. The gifts are random and never-ending. A huge bouquet of flowers for his 31st anniversary at our school, a generous gift card after finals were graded, an expensive set of high-end acrylic paints and brushes after his husband’s diagnosis. I feel like a jerk for not wanting to keep giving these gifts, but I don’t make much! Some of these gifts also feel inappropriate for us to give and for him to accept. The four students who coordinate them seem oddly invested in his likes and needs, but I am not. If I don’t pitch in, though, it will raise the price for everyone else. Any tips for what I can say? His gift is a week of groceries for me, but I don’t want to be selfish.
A: I’m so sorry you’ve been put in this situation, and even sorrier that your adviser hasn’t put a stop to it sooner. I’d encourage you not to think of your own budget as something that “will raise the price” for everyone else, because it will only raise the price for everyone else if they decide to continue buying expensive gifts for their adviser every couple of months. (A gift card to celebrate the fact that he graded your finals is really stunning, partly because there’s a decent chance that it was in fact a TA who graded those finals, but also because that’s just an ordinary part of the academic year. Surely a gift in such circumstances might look like bribery, and I’m surprised he continues to accept them.) Please do not sacrifice a week’s worth of groceries in order to give your adviser a present. This is ridiculous. Just tell them it’s not in your budget and you won’t be able to participate. There is nothing selfish about this! Hopefully you will inspire others to opt out too, but even if you don’t, it’s well worth it.
Q. Not sharing: My wife has a past. I’m 100 percent OK with anything she did, but she is very defensive about telling me anything about it. Last night she told me she loves that I share my past experiences with her. But she doesn’t share stories of her past, and her defensiveness isn’t part of what I want in my spouse. To me, it shows lack of confidence in me and makes me think that there’s something she feels so guilty about that she thinks it would hurt our marriage. I’m at a point where I’m asking myself if this is something I want for my future. Is it wrong for her to keep things from me, knowing that it can’t hurt our marriage but only make it better?
A: I’m afraid this is a little too vague for me to know how to answer effectively! I realize people often use the expression “has a past” to denote someone else’s sexual history, but it’s not exclusively sexual, and I’m not sure what “past experiences” you’ve shared with her, or under what conditions she asked you to do so. “She doesn’t share stories of her past” calls out for clarification. It seems unlikely that you mean she never talks about her life before she met you. I imagine you know something about her previous jobs, where she went to school, or who her friends were as a kid—general background details that provide you with a sense of her history. But I’m not sure what kind of stories you’re looking for here. Has she refused to even mention a single one of her past relationships? Do you know whether some of her romantic history is painful or abusive, and that she might want to stay circumspect to preserve her safety and well-being? What is it, exactly, that you want to know about her past, and how have you gone about asking her? I can understand, if she’s completely close-lipped about anything that happened to her before you two met, that would be curious, but I don’t think you can go so far as to say that she’s keeping things from you that can “only make [your] marriage better”—I don’t want to assume that “satisfying your curiosity” and “making your marriage better” are one and the same. Write back if you can with a few more details, and I’ll try to come up with a more specific answer.
Q. Bad parenting: My sister and her husband have three daughters and one son, “Andy,” who is 6. Andy is the youngest and is bullied relentlessly by his sisters. I’d say this is pretty typical behavior, except that Andy’s parents join in once he starts crying! Once Andy starts crying, his parents and his sisters all start calling him “Andrea” and talking about him like he’s a girl. Not only do I think misgendering a child as a punishment for being bullied is incredibly cruel, but it’s not even an effective punishment. Once they start doing it, Andy’s behavior degenerates even further and he goes into a rage. I’ve told my sister I object to this, and she says Andy needs to “man up,” and when I have my own kids, I can raise them how I want. I think at this rate my nephew is going to grow up to be a serial killer. Help.
A: I think at this rate your nephew is going to grow up feeling terrorized and unsafe by his family members. Let’s not add to his problems by treating it as a foregone conclusion that he’ll become a violent adult because the adults in his life are bullying him now. What your sister and her husband are doing is every bit as cruel as you think it is. What their daughters are doing is cruel too, although they’re a lot less culpable than either of their parents. It’s demeaning, it’s sexist, it’s homophobic—you name it.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think relentless three-on-one bullying is “pretty typical.” This would be troubling even without your sister’s gleeful participation, but her participation makes it endlessly worse. I’m glad you’ve objected to it, and I think you should continue to object to it whenever you can, if only so Andy knows there’s at least one adult in his life who doesn’t think this is OK. If you think your other relatives would be sympathetic—and I certainly hope they would be—share your concerns with them and ask them for help putting pressure on your sister and your husband to get them to stop. Mocking a 6-year-old for crying when his feelings are hurt is absolutely unconscionable—that they’re also making it clear that crying is “for girls” and that being a girl is an awful, embarrassing thing is even worse. Shine a bright light on this, make it clear that it’s wrong and that it needs to stop, and enlist anyone else you can who knows your sister and her husband to put their feet to the fire. And keep a weather eye open for other forms of scapegoating and abuse; if this is how they’re willing to treat Andy in front of you, I worry about how they treat him in private.
Q. Re: Deadname resurrection: It very well may be uncomfortable for Will to hear their deadname being used by someone else, but I’m not certain there is a way to navigate this short of changing your name. As you say, you inadvertently learned that it was their deadname, but you’re also not certain that anyone else in your group is aware of this fact, or even if Will knows that you know. It may be more embarrassing for Will to make these facts known than for them to put up with the mild discomfort of hearing what used to be their name applied to a different person. I think the best course of action is to allow Will to make his feelings on the matter known to you on his own, with the caveat that he very well may never decide to do so. Will may very well decide that dealing with the slight discomfort he feels is better than revealing personal information he does not care to share even with close friends.
A: I think that’s the right principle, too! If you learned of his old name inadvertently, and you don’t know whether he wants other people to learn of it, the most polite thing to do is act as if you do not know, so that he has the opportunity to decide for himself whether he wants to discuss it or not. It’s tricky when someone we don’t know well is uncomfortable and there’s no obvious, immediate solution, and no one to blame—but that doesn’t mean one has to rush to take action to dispel that discomfort either. He is not actually being deadnamed; he is simply (possibly) being reminded of his former name when it’s used in a wholly new context.
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks for your help, everyone! See you next week—and may you neither stare at your neighbors overlong nor be stared at in your turn.
From Care and Feeding
Q. Valentine drama: I’m looking for some advice about class valentines. My daughter is in kindergarten this year, and each student will be making a bag for collecting all their valentine cards, goodies, etc. I think the expectation is each child will bring in something for every other child—nothing unusual, and we’re used to it from her having been in day care the past four years as well.
But for the first time, she doesn’t want to give a valentine to one of her classmates, who she says calls her “annoying” all the time—to the point that she was crying about the possibility of having to give him one.
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