S1: There’s so much going on in the world and she’s outraged about a fern and, yeah, you know, it’s just you all you can do is pity her at this point and start planting ferns.
S2: You’re listening to How to I’m Charles Dugit. Each week on the show, we hear from listeners who write us with a problem and we try and find a creative solution. And this week, we got some help from a freshly minted podcast.
S3: My name is Tig Notaro. I’m a comedian. I also host a podcast called Don’t Ask.
S2: Tig Don’t Ask To is an advice podcast in which you probably should not ask, but you still will ask Tig for advice.
S3: Yeah, it’s like I’m good at this. I, I don’t want to keep anyone from my talents here and I really enjoy the ability to unravel nonsense around a topic, which is exactly why we asked you to join us, because as you’ll hear, there is a lot of nonsense to help this week’s listener unravel.
S4: My name is Sarah and I’m a college counselor. I work with high school students who are low income, and I just bought a condo this year. This is the first time I’ve ever owned a house or anything. So that was pretty exciting. It’s a small building there, just three units in it. So it’s me living on the first floor and then a guy who lives behind me and then a family who lives upstairs.
S1: It sounds very familiar to me. And I know these people you’re talking about, they’re very dear to me. But what what happened? Yeah.
S4: So one day I got this note in my mailbox from the wife who lives upstairs and it said, I am done trying to communicate with you. It is clear that you are just going to disregard my feelings and you don’t care about anybody but yourself. So from now on, I am only going to communicate with you through condo meetings. Did you have any idea what she was talking like? This is? No. First, no. So this is what was so wild about it was that I just got this letter and I had no idea what it was about and it just said, I’m a.. Power trips don’t involve my family in this. If you have any frustrations, you need to bring it up in the condo meeting.
S1: First of all, when somebody says I’m a.. Power trips, the translation is I am all about power trips.
S5: Sarah was dumbfounded by this letter because the only thing she’d ever really discussed with her neighbor was the garden where the neighborhood pointed to this little patch and said Sarah was free to plant whatever she wanted.
S6: So after that, I get my mail and I reach into my mailbox and I realize that there’s this small piece of paper stuck to the bottom of my mailbox and it’s a note from her.
S1: But it’s like written on like a library card checkout thing that you find it behind a book, you know, mean. Sure, of course. And so uses all the time. Yeah. That’s how you communicate with people.
S4: Right. So it’s this tiny note and it’s it seems like it was stuck in the bottom of my mailbox for a while.
S6: And it says Sarah loves the garden. It looks great. Just I’m not too sure about the fern on the front porch. You know, it’s your front porch, but it’s mine, too. And I really think we should communicate better about our common space. Just a thought for the future.
S4: OK, so then I realized the week before I got the first letter, I did get a fern and I thought, oh, this will be nice to hang on the porch wrong.
S1: Yeah, it was a big mistake. You’re asking for trouble, Sarah, but it’s not like Jurassic Park, Fern. It’s no, it’s a normal hanging. And it’s not a guy named Fern, you know.
S4: And the week of the fern, I had to put my cat to sleep. Oh. So I was feeling pretty fragile and just like, really not great that week, understandably me. And so what do you do next? Also then I was just like I wrote her a note and I just said, you know what?
S7: I just you know, I said I just saw this note about the fern. I am so sorry. I did not intend to disregard your feelings, you know, and I got a note back, like, very quickly, I know back that just said thank you for the kind words that was very thoughtful. I just think it’s so good for all of us to recognize our boundaries.
S1: OK, so this is good. So we have problems resolved. Like, yeah, I was like, OK, has been overcome. Fern Gate is overcome and I felt like, OK, now I know how to deal with this neighbor, Sarah. I’m getting the feeling that there’s more coming. Don’t worry.
S8: There is on today’s show it’s Fern Gates can take help. Sarah, learn how to live with a crazy neighbor. Stay with us.
S9: Sarah, let me ask you this, is this been. Has this been bothering you a lot? Like is this something that that you’ve been thinking about?
S4: I mean, at the beginning, it was horrible because, like, I wasn’t eating, I wasn’t sleeping well, I was just worrying about it all the time.
S7: Like when I first got the letter, I cried. I was just sobbing because I was just like, I just don’t understand why this you know, this is somebody who lives upstairs for me.
S4: And it’s not a rental. This is like I saved up money and I worked hard to buy this condo. This was like a dream for me. And now it just this place of stress.
S9: Sarah eventually decided to write just one more note to her neighbor, saying, again, I’m really sorry. If you have any other concerns, please just let me know almost immediately.
S4: I get another note like I mean, I think within like an hour I hear like something and I go outside and there’s a note waiting for me and it’s really short. And it just says, you know, I got your note about concerns about your garden. Why would I have any concerns? I really do not want to be involved in these little dramas of yours. If you have concerns, bring them up at the condo meeting. But I really do not care what you do.
S7: So Sarah convened a condo meeting for everyone in the building and it was just like in our backyard and she just ignored me the entire time. So any time, like we’re talking about an issue or something, she would just like turn to the other condo owner and be like, oh, Joe, what do you think? And like, what didn’t even look at me.
S1: Listen, I have not ever been part of a condo association, but I would say that you are now in the lucky zone, that she is ignoring you, because if somebody was treating me like that and it had gone that long, I would respond with a library card holder and say, I need you to leave me alone from here on out.
S9: Well, let me ask. And this might not be the right thing to do, but but let me just throw it out there. What if you were to write her a letter and you were to say to her, look, I just want to let you know, when you sent me that note, it made me feel really sad. It made me feel really worried. It made it hard for me to eat. My cat had just died. And it was a really hard time in my life. And I would like to be a good neighbor to you. And and I’d like us to have a relationship where we can be honest with each other and we can really speak her mind. Would that make you feel better to write that letter?
S10: Yeah, I think being able to get it out would really feel good. Saying it to her face would make me feel better, you know, just just being able to say it just so she can’t write a letter back. Yeah, right. She she has to respond right away.
S1: Yeah. And there’s also times that one of the examples that I use all the time is when I worked years ago at a coffee shop. I and I, I have failed three grades dropped out of high school, I’m very insecure around numbers and I was working at the cash register and I I fumbled with returning, you know, the change. And the woman that I was waiting on said, you know, it’s still not too late to go to college. And it was so humiliating. And when she walked off, I told my boss, I said, oh, you know, she came up and said this. And I just wanted to to say, oh, thanks, because of you, I’m going to college and I’m quitting my job right now. And and my boss said, you know, I fully support you. If you want to go up to that woman’s table and say, I just want to let you know, what you said to me was really inappropriate and hurtful. And I just wanted to let you know that. And my boss said, however, I would not support you fighting fire with fire. And it really stopped me in my tracks. And although I didn’t go up to that woman. They were sitting in the cafe with their friends, all laughing. It did change me. That was like twenty two years ago. There’s so much garbage you can cut out of your life if you just say, hey, that really offended me.
S2: Here’s our first rule, when you’re experiencing conflict with someone like a neighbor, it’s natural to try and pretend like the conflict doesn’t exist or to revert to sarcasm or or try to make peace by apologizing for something you don’t really think you should have to apologize for. And sometimes that’s a good idea. But it’s also good to be honest with the person to tell them how the situation makes you feel. Let them know that there’s a human being they’re talking to who’s worried or hurt.
S7: I mean, I think that would be an ideal situation and where I could just say that because there’s just it it gets so absurd. So I mean, I go down to the basement and I’ll be doing my laundry and she’ll be there. And it’s like we’re four feet away from each other and she won’t look at me.
S10: Right. She’ll pretend I’m not there. And it’s just so silly.
S9: Sarah, let me ask. It sounds to me like part of what’s bothering you is, is that. Is that there’s this question of how do you handle your neighbor, but also this question of how do you handle your own emotions? Like how do you how do you get to a place where this doesn’t bother you?
S10: Now, like, when I go out to garden, like, I, I get nervous because I think, well, what if I’m doing something wrong that’s going to get her wrath again? What’s going to happen? Is it going to. Is it going to escalate? Is it going to be to a point where I can no longer live here happily?
S1: OK, here is another thing I want to say. I’m sorry to interrupt. I am so fired up about this person interfering with their life. I want you to imagine yourself in. Have you seen fried green tomatoes? I hate to be totally gay, but have you seen fried green tomatoes? Yes. You know, when Kathy Bates is character really gets in touch with herself and she starts becoming empowered and she Towanda, you know, speaks up to that person in the parking lot and.
S3: Oh, yeah. You know, that that that journey that she’s on, I feel like you need to get into that headspace of, you know what, no more. Do not mess around with me. And I’m not talking about, you know, go off the edge here, Sarah. I’m just saying picture yourself in a movie and following the storyline of somebody that is taking charge of their life driving crazy girls.
S11: I’m older and I have more.
S12: This technique, it turns out, is actually a great tactic in our next rule when you’re not sure what to do next, picture your life as a movie. We all have this intuitive sense of how to apply the stories we’ve heard to our own lives. And those stories can really help us take a step back and see things in a different light, figure out what it is that we actually want. So if you’re struggling with a situation, ask yourself. If this was a movie, what would the main character do next that would make the audience cheer for?
S7: Yeah, like part of me thinks like I think really what I think is she’s not going to change, so how can I how can I just get my own power back and just not worry about it anymore?
S1: You got to get a punching bag in your apartment. You got to you know, you got to totally do that. That transformative movie where everyone is like I said, oh, my God, she transformed. And that day that the music shifts and you walk out of your door just like no one’s going to mess with you. You should make sure that you have headphones on and garden with headphones on and make sure they’re very clearly big headphones on your head, and this woman should not infiltrate any of your joy because, like you said, you’ve worked very hard to create this space. Yeah, and she can not. And does not have the right to have her toxicity bleed over into your joy.
S9: Let me ask you this because because I think you’re exactly right.
S1: Well, that’s why I have my own advice show. But go ahead. I am just so irritated. I want to come over to Sarah’s house and I want to like, you know, hide behind that ferne and just be like, how dare you treat our Sarah this way?
S7: I actually think the headphones are a great idea because I feel like that would really help me feel like, OK, I’m in my world like I feel like if I had, like, the rocky theme going on or something, I have the tiger.
S1: OK, yeah. Yeah. Like just something like that. It’s like, yeah. And then it goes all by myself.
S2: So here’s the next rule, if you’ve tried talking with your crazy neighbor in person and in writing and you’re still not getting anywhere, then maybe you just have to ignore them and focus on your fern and listen to your gardening soundtrack.
S12: But what if you do all of that and you’re still feeling anxious and stressed? How do you master those negative emotions?
S9: It turns out Tiggs down an entire comedy routine about exactly this, so don’t go anywhere.
S8: Hello, listeners, welcome back.
S2: If you like this episode, you might like another episode named How to Talk to Strangers, where professional introvert gives tips on turning shyness into a superpower. You can find that in all of our past episodes in our podcast Feed.
S13: Hello. Back in 2012, Tig Notaro got up on a stage in a small L.A. comedy club. Good evening. Hello. And she started off this way. I have cancer. How are you? Hi, how are you?
S14: Is everybody having a good time? I have cancer. How are you? It’s a good time.
S9: Just a few days earlier, Tig had been diagnosed with stage two cancer in both her breasts. It was the latest blow in this terrible run of bad luck.
S1: It was a series of things. And for months I had pneumonia. I had an intestinal disease that was eating my insides and essentially killing me. And I broke up with my girlfriend. I was diagnosed with invasive cancer and then my mother tripped and died. And it was all in four months. And I didn’t feel like. First of all, that I was going to live and I also was emotionally destroyed and the last thing I thought I would do was get on stage and do stand up. But that night before the show, I was taking a shower and it just came over me that I would start my show with the line. Hello. Good evening. I have cancer. How’s everybody doing with a delivery like, hey, are there any birthdays tonight? And it just made me laugh maniacally in my own home and and I just felt like. You know, I love stand up so much and maybe I’ll never get to do it again and I don’t feel like I can make the typical jokes I’ve always made. And I’m I’m going to take a chance. Let’s try and shift this. Let’s see if we can get a different story going.
S14: Oh, I think she might really have cancer. Who’s taking this really bad? Oh, it’s OK. It’s OK, it’s going to be OK. It might not be OK, but I’m just saying it’s OK. You’re going to be OK. I don’t know what’s going on with me, Sarah.
S9: I know that what you’re dealing with right now is is different. But all the same, when we’re going through something hard, it still can feel like a huge issue. It can be something that keeps us up and in your case, makes it hard to sleep at night, makes it hard to eat. If you were to just say, like, screw this, like I am going to do the thing. That seems scary and seems hard, but that makes me feel like I am taking control and that I am I’m changing this story in my head, what would that be?
S10: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I think really starting to focus on not worrying about what are the people think about me. Or worrying about upsetting people as much. I think that would be a big change for me. Yeah, and I think would be a good change. You know, I think it would really help.
S5: This is the next rule to change the story of your life. Sometimes you have to do something kind of radical, like tell a roomful of strangers expecting a comedy routine that you have cancer or like deciding to ignore your neighbor when you’re not the ignoring type. BTIG says that’s how she got through all the awfulness, but by doing something unexpected that made it feel like she was taking charge of what she could.
S1: I have no doubt allowed myself an opportunity to swim around in pain and loss and fear, but then there also comes a point when I have to take charge.
S15: And one of the things that I’ve done is get serious about my health. And I changed my diet. I started exercising every day. I’m concentrating on my sleep and nobody else is going to do it for me. So I have to be the star of my own story. And and it feels really incredible.
S9: You know, what I love about that is that there’s this concept in psychology known as the the locus of control, and that some people, some people have a strong internal locus of control, which means that they believe that they can make choices that change their lives. And other people have a strong external locus of control, which means if they think that things happen to them. Right. And and the amazing thing is that, like, we can actually change this locus of control. We can change it from external. It’s a problem that’s being forced on me. It’s it’s a disease that I got that runs in my family or I have a terrible neighbor to an internal locus of control where people in the same situation will wake up one day and say, I can make choices as to whether this bothers me or not. I can make choices about how much to care about whether this nutjob living next to me is going to send me letters or just like laugh or the letters and be like, whatever. That’s your craziness.
S1: Yeah. You should start a collage on your wall of the lunacy. Yeah. Maybe put a picture of her in the middle of the collage and then each letter have it be like a little thought bubble that comes out of her insane head and turn it into some sort of amusement or joy because you do not deserve this.
S10: Sarah, where do you feel like your locus of control is when it comes to. In our personal relationships, I’m often worrying that I did something wrong, that it was something about me. So I like the change of perspective, of thinking, no, this is just this nutcase neighbor who’s always going to be in that case and just looking at it more as like this absurd situation and not this awful thing that’s happening to me.
S1: Yeah, that it’s like, of course, she sent me this letter. And if she thinks there’s a problem with the fern and of course she I mean, of course. Of course.
S10: Yeah. Right. Yeah.
S9: And what I love about that is that it’s actually changing, like we were talking before about like sort of seeing your life as a movie and asking yourself what’s the next scene that I would write to to make myself into a hero. But this is also sort of the same thing about changing the narrative where it’s not a narrative about conflict. It’s a narrative of like this, like crazy, funny neighbor you have that you can have all these funny stories about.
S1: Yeah, you should start writing about this, turned into a book deal or a blog or short stories. Yeah. And this is very dark. This is very dark. But I was I was face timing with my stepfather and and he had never faced time before. And both of my parents died within a couple of years of each other. And so my stepfather’s my he is my parent. And when we were face timing, the camera only caught his nose up to his forehead. He just didn’t know how to face time. And I was talking to him and then I noticed he stopped talking. He wasn’t responding. I was I was sick. Rick. Rick. And he wasn’t answering. I immediately was thinking, oh, my God, my stepfather died on face time with me and then my very next thought was, oh my gosh, I have the greatest story to tell now. Whenever the pandemic is over, I cannot wait to talk about how my stepfather died on his first face time attempt and just to confirm he did not die, right? No, he did. He did die. I know. But I know he’ll be so obvious. And I tell him that I couldn’t wait to tell this in my stand up.
S9: This is the final rule shift, the locus of control from external to internal. And the way you do that is by looking for the upside, but by taking something terrible and turning it into a funny story that you tell on your terms. Take back control by telling yourself and everyone else a story of what you did rather than what happened to you.
S7: You know, there is a group of friends where, you know, when I got the first letter, I told them and then I was updating them, you know, and then I screenshot of the next letter and then the next letter. And so did become like this little drama. And it did get to a point where I was just entertaining.
S1: Yeah. And now it’s time to start an Instagram account of her notes. There’s so much you can do to turn this into joy and empower yourself. And even if you don’t share the stories and you don’t find humor in them right now, yeah, it’ll be something where in five years you look back and you’re like, oh, my gosh. Oh, my gosh, sit down, love of my life that Tig helped me find on that podcast. And if none of that works, go set her trash on fire.
S16: Thank you to Sarah for sharing her story with us and to Tig Notaro for her great advice, if you want more of that kind of self-help, you should definitely listen to the podcast, which is called Don’t Ask To.
S12: Do you have a problem that you wish you could make into a funny story? We can help send us a note at how to it’s slate dotcom or leave us a voicemail at six four six four nine five four zero zero one. And we might have you on the show. And before we go, I wanted to say it’s been a year now since how to first started trying to help people solve their problems. And so to mark the occasion, we called up a few of our past guests to see how our advice made a difference. And we got some pretty interesting answers.
S17: I have not experienced any anxiety attacks since I talked with you guys. It’s really been like changing.
S6: It seems like a weird thing to say, but a little podcast and the wisdom that was shared by that, partly as a result of that, is a new person in the world.
S12: And that’s pretty cool to want to know more. Go to sleep, Dotcom, and look for the companion article we put together with even more stories of inspiration. You’ll find the link to it in our show notes. And thank you for making our first year so great. How TOS executive producer is Derek John. Rachel Allen is a production assistant and Marc Jacobs, our engineer. Our theme music is by Hannas Brown. June Thomas is senior managing producer and Alicia Montgomery is executive producer of Slate podcasts. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director of audio special. Thanks to Bill Carey and Maggie Taylor. I’m Charles Duhigg. Watch where you put your ferns.