She Said, She Said: Advice on Yappy Coworkers and Being Poorer Than You Want

Suddenly_SusanPrevious installments of The Toast’s advice column from two disparate and imperfect persons can be found here. Last time: Advice on Crisis Pregnancy Centers and Abusive Family Members.

I was wondering what the polite response is in a work environment for “I like you, work-friend, but please do not come into my office and sit down to chat about your diet / our crazy clients at this particular juncture because my door was closed and I have a deadline.” I do not want to come off as rude and condescending or “too important,” but I also want to be on good terms with the other women in the office, as the current environment is patriarchal and depressing.

Nicole: OH, GOD. The sanctity of the closed door! I used to work at a place where you could swivel a little knob on your door to reveal a red circle, and that meant “do not knock, do not call me to ask when I will be free, email me or NOTHING,” and it was a wonderful, wonderful system.

This is one of those situations in which I recommend being 80% honest, with the 20% deceit being merely by omission. “Vicki, I’m so slammed right now, let’s start doing a coffee run together at 3pm so we have a chance to gossip [bc it annoys the crap out of me when you come into my office randomly].” But, seriously, I think you are a human being and have the right to say “oh, hey, I use the door as a way to signal when it’s a good time for people to come in,” and if you say it in a conspiratorial, smiling fashion, only a total hosebeast will resent you for it. Just be polite and clear about your expectations.

Mallory: I am not a good person to ask about this, because I am always happy to ignore a deadline in favor of chatting with someone who’s come over to talk to me. (She came all this way to talk to me! I have friends!) At the last long-term office job I had, I was willing to drop whatever I was doing at any moment in order to take a walk around the office park (sometimes we saw deer!) or go get coffee or donuts or early lunch or early happy hour or walk over to the photocopier together with pretty much anyone who asked me. And I never regretted that. But it also wasn’t a very high-stress job — I was a low-level editor at a publishing company that was slowly deflating into crazed obsolescence like a mad soufflé, so I had the time to really cultivate my office friendships in between requesting ISBNs and updating instructor manuals. We were also friendly enough that we could say things like “I need you to leave now because I’m working” and no feelings were hurt.

I don’t know, let her come in and then as soon as you get bored pretend to notice a super-urgent email and start typing officiously. “Ahh, it’s one of those crazy clients! Gotta answer this right away.”

This is a bad and passive-aggressive answer. I can feel it in my bones. I am not serving you well, and I am sorry. But I wish people would come over to my house and knock on my door and talk to me about things. No one ever does, except yesterday this guy who was a representative of my landlord to tell me I’ve accidentally been paying $5 less than I’m supposed to on rent every month for the last year.

“Did you see that your rent was $735? On the lease you signed? Like…it always has been, since you moved in, but you’ve just been paying us less?”

“Oh. I…I don’t know. I haven’t really looked at the lease since I signed it.”

“Well, if you look, you’ll see that it says $735.”

“Oh, shoot, I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. We’re waiving the fee.”

“Well, that’s nice of you.”

“But here’s another notice that we’re raising your rent to $750 at the end of the lease agreement.”

“That still seems enormously fair. I really am sorry about stiffing you guys the extra 50 bucks, or whatever it added up to.”

“I have to go now.”

“Okay.”

Anyhow, come over.

I married a guy who grew up a little poorer than me, who will never make much money, and I knew that going in. He’s good at what he does, loves it, but it’s not lucrative. I promised him, and I meant it, that I would never try to pressure him to give up his music career (the way his miserable old grump of a father did.) He works insanely hard at his music; he’s not a loafer or a sponger. He networks, he schmoozes, he takes whatever pays, he works with talented people, he does an exhausting variety of things to try to get paid. But reality is what it is. He barely makes enough to cover his meagre expenses. The rest is all on me, who makes a decent living, but not an outrageous one, doing semi-creative work that isn’t all that challenging but pays pretty well. He was so miserable when he was working a day job and doing music too, I thought we’d have to divorce. And now we have a kiddo, and having a parent at home is so great after school. So by all appearances it’s a sensible setup. 

And most of the time, I’m fine with that. I always knew I’d need a day job, I’m a small-c creative type, I don’t want the angst of a writer/artist career. I don’t have a novel waiting to be born, or a painting or a play in me. Maybe a music video, I like doing those for our musician friends, but again; it doesn’t pay. I consume and love all kinds of art, and work my day job, and we raise our kid, and it’s mostly fine. 

But I have this habit of cruising the rental ads (of course we rent, it’s post-2008 America and we have just enough to get by but not enough for a down payment, don’t make me laugh) and getting really excited about moving, even though the place we are is ok. I mean, I get REALLY excited, even though what we can afford to rent is pretty close to what we already have; fine, not upscale, but quiet and working-class. It’s like I think moving to a different neighborhood is going to make such a huge difference in my life. But we’ve moved many times, and the high always wears off. 

But what I really think is that I’m depressed because I’m used to better surroundings. Growing up, we did move a lot, but to nice houses. New houses, or houses my parents refurbished to new; they had the money and the time to do that, and the drive to do it. (The husband is of the “if it’s not a shack, I’m good” mindset.) None of which I have.  I associate home with clean and new carpets and good furniture and matching dishes and a dining room for company and plenty of closet space, none of which happen on a rent-house budget. 

I’m ashamed, when I think of how we live, when I think of having company over. I see the crumbling floorboards and the way-outdated decor and the donated couch and the yard I can’t afford to fix up, and the old-house way it never feels really clean, and I feel shame. This is not what I’m used to, this is not how I feel like things should be. I miss living in a place that’s pretty and clean, even though it’s been years.

I feel so bourgeois, so petty. I have comforts and we go out now and then and I have friends, my kid has what he needs, we don’t suffer. We just can’t afford to live the way I once did. And I miss it. I hate coming home to a cluttered house that doesn’t even look that clean once you clean it; the landlord can never quite get the toilet in the second bathroom fixed right, the yard is just mowed weeds, the carpet and linoleum are ancient and need replacing. But I can’t do much about any of that. And if I did take on the cost and time of improvement projects, it’d be all on me; the husband is not handy or crafty, like my dad and mom were. I’m trapped in this dingy little ugly house and I’m starting to realize that’s all I’ll ever have. 

I don’t know how to make that ok, so I guess that’s why I’m writing to you. 

Nicole: Hey, I’m really sorry. There’s some heavy stuff here. I’m just going to tease out one or two things you’re saying, I think, because obviously there’s no way you can magically either become middle-class OR magically become completely accepting of your financial circumstances (lottery tickets and lobotomies aside, neither of which are great bets.)

You mention that you go out occasionally and that you have friends, but you do sound a little isolated to me. The idea that you feel trapped in your house, and don’t ever want to have people over, etc., makes me wonder if your friends live nearby, or if you worry that they’re fancier than you. I can honestly say that as long as I’m not stepping over Collyer Brothers-esque layers of junk, the nature of my friends’ houses is not even remotely on my radar, and I would encourage you to start having them over with more regularity (or at all!) It sounds like some of your friends are musicians, and to make a SWEEPING STATEMENT about musicians, if you have a six pack or two of cheap beer, they’re pretty happy, and I think you might develop more of a fondness for your house if it’s a place where you have good times with people you enjoy. Having a small kid makes these things tough, too. I know plenty of people who felt pretty good about their living situations until they had a child, and then every exposed nail was like an alarm bell of I AM RAISING A HUMAN IN SQUALOR THIS IS NOT THE ADULTHOOD I PLANNED FOR. Hang in there.

The other thing I want to talk about: there’s a little tension in how you describe your husband, at least the way I’m reading this. It seems like you think he’s definitely doing his best to hustle in his profession, and that you value his contributions as a stay-at-home parent, and that’s great, but you also wish he was handy/crafty, maybe wish he was more bothered by the things that bother you, and (and I could be TOTALLY off-base here), you might feel like you’ve boxed yourself in a bit by promising you’d never make him give up his music. And for this, I have no advice, really! Other than that pretending something doesn’t bother you when it does is a mug’s game.

Which is different, I think, than saying “HEY, I really wish you were more of a handyman/magically wanted to work a normal job and just not care about music but also could stay home with our kid.” I just want you to be really honest and probing with YOURSELF about that. You can find some peace with frustration, I think, when you have a partner, just by saying to yourself, “well, yes, this bugs me.” And that’s for the things he can’t fix, or that you’ve negotiated already, like his lack of a day job or not being bothered by the fact your house isn’t as nice as you would like. I absolutely think that you could make a small list of cheap possible home improvements, starting with the easiest and cheapest, and say: “Hey, is this something you think you could do?” It’s not going to turn your place into a magazine showpiece, but maybe having a towel rack is going to make you feel .5% better about your life. Let us know how things are going for you in a few months, okay?

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Mallory: Oh, God, I have nothing kind or charitable to say about your husband at all, but he is your husband and the father of your child and you presumably love him and it’s probably REVERSE SEXIST OF ME to criticize me for his stay-at-home daddery and you read the Toast so I have to love you and by the transitive property I have to at least hold my tongue and spare him the weight of my full ire. (“The weight of my full ire” = “some jerk he doesn’t know judging him on the Internet.”)

There are two premises in your letter I would like to reject entirely before we begin. May I?

Premise the first: “I always knew I’d need a day job, I’m a small-c creative type, I don’t want the angst of a writer/artist career. I don’t have a novel waiting to be born, or a painting or a play in me. Maybe a music video, I like doing those for our musician friends, but again; it doesn’t pay. I consume and love all kinds of art, and work my day job, and we raise our kid, and it’s mostly fine.”

I reject wholly and out of hand the idea that his creativity is bigger and better and more important than yours simply because it consumes more of your family’s emotional and financial resources. He is not more creative than you because he won’t work. (He may or may not be more creative than you; I haven’t heard him RAWKIN’ THE FUCK OUT, but if he is it certainly isn’t because he refuses to contribute in a substantial way to his family’s well-being.) You do not have to make your creativity literally smaller than his so that he can take up more space than you. Reading this letter made my lungs constrict; I can feel you wanting to be breadwinner and cheerleader at the same time and being very careful not to ever loom too large or inhabit the shoes of his Mean Buzzkill Dad, a specter that neatly prohibits you from ever criticizing or challenging his joblessness. Consuming and loving art and doing a job well and raising a child and making music videos with your friends — there is nothing small about that, there is nothing less than about that. Man oh man, if you don’t take away any of my advice but this, I hope that you will feel comfortable calling yourself an artist and a creative person, because you are. You don’t need to live in a Gulfstream or off the grid or in a booze shanty in order to prove your artistry to anyone else. Fuck that false dichotomy right in its ear.

Right now, I’m lucky. I work my creative job full-time. Before that, I had a day job and a few paying side gigs for a few years, and I was very busy and fairly happy. Before that, I had to support myself and wrote very little. I was a creative person, and a writer, that whole time. Someday my luck will change or run out or look different, and I’ll still be creative then. I might have to go back to a different day job. But even Bukowski worked at the post office. And I refuse to concede there is a goddamn thing in the world Bukowski could do that I can’t.

Your creativity does not change in size or scope in comparison to his. You two are partners and parents together, sure, but some things are completely and wholly your own, and only you can carry them with you, and creativity is one of them. That’s yours. It’s the size of you. He can’t diminish it or add to it. It’s yours.

GETTING ALL HET UP AND I HAVEN’T EVEN GOTTEN TO THE SECOND PREMISE.

Premise the second: The only way to be a Real Musician is to play Real Music 24/7 and all desk jobs are slavery.

Like, what is your dude’s plan for the rest of his professional life? “ROCK OUT TIL I DIE” isn’t really a retirement plan. I respect the hustle, I really do, but nothing in your letter tells me what kind of a stay-at-home parent he is. I know motherfucker can’t fix a sconce. And just being in the house while having fathered children does not a stay-at-home father make. So, if I’m wrong, and he’s the president of the PTA and cooking wholesome dinners and constantly doing community service or teaching your baby Mozart Daddy-and-Me yoga or whatever, feel free to ignore this part.

I have dated two musicians in my time, a lady guitarist and a gentleman…I want to say bassist? (Oh my God, I am so awful, I never went to see his band play, even though he was like a pretty good musician by all accounts, and I think that band did pretty well, and at least one of the members went on to be a relatively famous dubsteppist?? Anyhow, I am 80% sure he played the bass. No, definitely the guitar, because he had those long fingernails people who play classical guitar have, and I was not cool with that. Maybe he played classical bass. IDK. He was a good dude. He still is.)

They are both still musicians, and they both live in LA, and they both make reasonable livings. The lady worked at a Guitar Center, and then at a record label, and has since been promoted at said record label, and just finished recording a new album. The dude plays in several fairly successful bands and also (I think??) is like a SOUND TECHNICIAN GUY of some expertise, because he’s always going on tour to Europe. Oh my God, I don’t know anything about this guy. Anyhow. They both have their bands, sure, but they also work in music-related fields and they’re not putting on ties every day and working in a cubicle farm. Somehow they also manage to do their own laundry, pay an assortment of bills, complete modest DIY projects, and get their oil changed too.

I am biased, because I am a petty, bourgeois hobbit who enjoys comfort and cleanliness and open windows and having extra towels, but like, Hi, motherfucker, “not a shack” might be chill as heck for you but it might not be the best you can do for your wife and child; you are not too special to work a part-time job to pay for your guitar strings. The point isn’t “are your dreams of a really nice house unrealistic” and the point isn’t “shouldn’t he put on a tie tomorrow and become a financier immediately;” the point is that you’re not contributing equally. The problem isn’t “he could do a few more chores around the house and if he were to build a DVD rack and scrub the stovetop a little more often, we’d have a pretty good situation here.”

You’re trying to make yourself smaller and smaller, and he’s letting you shoulder a burden that’s getting bigger and bigger, and it’s going to crush you.

You don’t have to both make the same amount of money. He doesn’t have to work the same amount of hours at a paying job that you do; maybe it’s great that he gets to spend more time with your kid and maybe he does a great job being a parent. But you have to talk about it. You have to be honest about what you want. You have to tell him what you need. You have to tell him what you can’t do by yourself anymore. And you can’t say “I’m fine” when you’re shrinking.

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